Women at the Pinnacle

In the late ’80s and ’90s, Sierra Entertainment was practically synonymous with female designers, women who created some of the most beloved franchises in gaming history. With their vision, the company broke boundaries, reinventing several times over what a computer game could be.

Flash forward to 2006: One of the company’s most recent press releases heralded the hiring of “five of Hollywood’s sexiest actresses and models” to lend their … talents … to the upcoming Scarface: The World is Yours.

“Tony Montana said it best: ‘You gotta make the money first. Then, when you get the money, you get the power. Then, when you get the power, then you get the women,'” said Cindy Cook, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer for Vivendi Games. “Scarface: The World Is Yours will be a faithful recreation of living the life of Tony Montana, so we had to cast the hottest women in Hollywood.”

Somewhere, even Leisure Suit Larry is weeping.

Ken and Roberta Williams had been married for seven years when Ken founded On-Line Systems (soon to become Sierra Entertainment) in their Los Angeles home. While tending to a new baby at home, Roberta found a game Ken had been playing, called Colossal Cave. The game whetted her appetite for more adventure games, but she found there were few other titles that fit that description. Frustrated with her lack of choices, she began designing a game of her own at her kitchen table.

“I wanted something with a good story, but it also had to be a game,” Roberta was quoted as saying in 2002’s High Score!. “Stories tend to be linear – beginning, middle, climax – and I needed to expand into ‘What if they want to do this? Or that?'”

Roberta said her husband was skeptical of the scheme at first, but at a candlelit dinner she arranged, she managed to sway Ken with her idea, spellbinding him as she would so often in the coming years.

“I still remember the moment when he actually started listening,” Roberta said. “I could see it in his eyes. I’ll never forget it. It changed our lives.”

In 1980, On-Line Systems released Mystery House: Hi-Res Adventure #1, considered the first graphical adventure game. Their kitchen table product sold 10,000 copies at local computer stores, and the Williamses soon expanded their operation to their den and spare bedroom.

Crafting the first graphic adventure would just be the first milestone in the company’s illustrious history. In the coming years, they would be the first to use sound and video cards, first with a color-filled graphic adventure and the first to release a CD-ROM game. That’s not even counting The Sierra Network, one of the world’s first online gaming services.

Unlike the developers of today, who strive for record-setting gore or polygon counts just for the sake of flexing their technological muscles, Sierra’s innovation was born from necessity. The company was pushed to the cutting edge by the creativity of a few women, some of the first real storytellers in the emerging medium of computer entertainment.

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While Roberta Williams was creating King’s Quest, Lori Ann and Corey Cole were falling in love to the rattle of a 20-sided-die.

As the couple came together at the birth of the digital age, it was only natural that their love of D&D would find its way onto computers. After Corey got a job as a programmer with Sierra, she got the chance to pitch them on Hero’s Quest (later Quest for Glory when a HeroQuest board game beat them to the copyright.)

“I’m not a programmer, and it was very unlikely I could have gotten a design job anywhere else without experience. However, Sierra On-line was founded by a woman game designer who didn’t program,” Lori said. “Thus, the company was [structured] to work from non-programming designers.”

Not only was her pitch accepted, the Coles would go on to create five Quest for Glory titles for Sierra.

Ken Williams insists that even though the company was founded by him and his wife, hiring women and couples wasn’t necessarily intentional.

“It certainly wasn’t my plan,” Ken said. “I always just hired who seemed best for the job, regardless of whether they were male or female. A great writer is a great writer. I don’t know that it’s a sex-related issue.”

If Sierra had a holy triumvirate of female designers, Jane Jensen was its third pillar. Originally working as a systems programmer for Hewlett-Packard, Jensen’s affinity for storytelling and computers brought her to Sierra’s by then well-established doors in 1991.

Two years later, Sierra released the first title in Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series, which followed a New Orleans book store owner (voiced by Tim Curry) as he battled the forces of evil in this decidedly more gothic take on the adventure genre.

Over it’s six-year lifespan, the series would receive countless industry awards and engender the love of an online community still active today, seven years after the curtain fell on the series, which Jensen later novelized. The change in medium was appropriate, as the series had been one of the most story-intensive of its time.

“I think the bulk of games are made by guys, for guys,” Jensen told Adventure Classic Gaming in 2003. “Most women (and I say most with full knowledge of the fact that there are exceptions) do not like to play shooters or RPG games. If you don’t like to play something, you’re not going to end up designing it. Adventure games have always been an exception in the industry.”

Unfortunately for adventure game lovers everywhere, the end of the Gabriel Knight series would also herald the end of an era. In 1996, Ken Williams sold Sierra to a firm called CUC International, which would later be charged with billions in fraud.

In 1999, 135 Sierra employees were laid off on a single day, now known to many fans as “Black Monday.” A few months later, 105 more employees were let go, as Sierra shifted its focus from developing computer games to publishing.

That final title, Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned would be the last adventure title released by Sierra. Sierra now exists in name only, while most of its major properties sit idle. The women of Sierra are no longer under one roof, scattered by time and circumstance.

Lori and Corey Cole founded Transolar Games, mainly as a way to support fans of the Quest for Glory series. Lori said she and Corey have attempted to regain the license to their series over the years with little success. While Lori admits she doesn’t find much time for gaming, she does enjoy the occasional game of World of Warcraft, and still throws around the D20 now and then. Corey is now employed with game design company Visual Concepts.

Ken and Roberta have sworn off the industry completely, spending much of their time sailing. In 2005, Ken published Crossing an Ocean Under Power, the story of his and Roberta’s journey across the Atlantic.

In addition to continuing to write, Jane Jensen is more directly involved with the industry, creating casual games like Inspector Parker and BeTrapped for Oberon Media. She suggested that changing demographics in games could create a new audience for titles like the ones she, Cole and Williams created.

“I get a lot of letters from women and older people who want a great story, a beautiful environment to explore, and who hate shooters and ‘twitch’ games – this is the adventure game audience, and fortunately, the [size] of this demographic … has been growing steadily,” Jensen said.

While Vivendi Universal Games (which now owns Sierra) and the developers may have moved away from the games connected to the company’s former glory, the rabid Sierra fan base has not. Some are so desperate, they’ve begun creating their own unofficial entries into the series, like Hero6 or The Silver Lining.

Few of the fan projects share the same aesthetic as their inspirations; many have even changed the name. What remains are the same things that drove Sierra at its inception: The desire to delight, to transport and to entertain.

That is the legacy of Sierra, one that’s still synonymous with the name, no matter how the brand may be used. In the end, it’s largely the legacy of a handful of women, willing to look beyond, willing to see not only what games were, but what they could be.

Justin McElroy is the news editor of The Ironton Tribune and a freelance gaming writer. He lives in Huntington, W.Va. with his fiancee, Sydnee.

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