Ken and Roberta Williams are the cofounders of Sierra Online, the company behind such classic computer games as King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Quest for Glory. Their latest project, Colossal Cave: Reimagined by Roberta Williams, is a remake of the genre-defining Colossal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther and Don Woods.
“It’s a wonderful game, and I would love to bring it back to the world,” Roberta says in Episode 523 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “We want people to see that an older game like this can be brought back, and brought back in a beautiful way—and in a fun way—for today’s audiences.”
The game features modern graphics and sound, and even support for virtual reality devices such as the Quest 2, but is otherwise unchanged from the original text adventure. “We’re trying to stay super faithful to the original version,” Ken says. “If you’re doing history, you don’t want to change it. The old game has survived for 50 years. There’s still probably more people that play that game each year than play a lot of the indie games that come out. It’s a good, solid, well-designed game.”
Since selling Sierra in 1996, Ken and Roberta have spent much of their time sailing the world, a lifestyle that doesn’t generally lend itself to running a game studio. But Ken says modern communications technology has allowed them to work on Colossal Cave from anywhere. “In some ways the pandemic saved the game, because suddenly everybody uses Teams and Slack and all of these screen-sharing apps, and it’s practical now to work remotely on a project,” he says. “What we’re doing on this game couldn’t have been done five years ago.”
Ken and Roberta have assembled a team of almost 30 artists and programmers, most of whom weren’t even born when the original Colossal Cave was released in 1976. “None of them really knew what Colossal Cave was, and we’ve had to educate them,” Roberta says. “And I have to say that as we’ve worked with them on this game, in various ways—programmers, animators, artists—they have come to have such respect for this game, and I’ve been told many times, ‘I had no idea that this game was this good, and this interesting, and this deep and complex.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it is.’ It’s a really good design. And they have come to have such respect for this game, which is a really good sign.”
Listen to the complete interview with Ken and Roberta Williams in Episode 523 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Roberta Williams on The Black Cauldron:
[The Disney executives] came into the room, and they basically sat down and said, “We decided to change a lot of your game because it wasn’t fitting our script. There’s too many places where you’re letting the player wander around and nothing is happening, and you realize this is a movie, right? You have to follow the script of the movie.” … I went into Ken’s office and I said, “I’m not going to do this game with them because they just took my game and they changed it all around, and back to—basically it’s almost like a script for a movie again, and so what’s the point?” I just said, “I’m done. I’m not going to do it.” And he called them into his office, and he basically said, “She’s not going to work on it unless you leave her alone and let her do it her way”—that they had to trust me. And they came back into the conference room and they said, “OK, you can do it however you want.” And I did.
Ken Williams on success:
There are a lot of people like me who were born with parents that couldn’t send them to a good school, that weren’t able to afford to go to college because they had to quit and get married early, and yet somehow I managed to go from the bottom of the heap to the top of the heap, and really it was just through hard work. I don’t claim to be a genius of any sort. I’m just kind of a good old boy who works really hard. Even on this game, I get up before the East Coast people and I’m there after the West Coast people. I don’t fart around a lot. I really work hard. And I think that almost anybody who’s really willing to dig in and work hard can succeed. And Roberta’s the same way. We’re both highly focused, hardworking people.
Ken Williams on Sierra Online:
I wanted to create a company that my grandkids would know about, and that would still be around for multiple generations. All decisions at Sierra were based on the long-term, not the short-term, and that’s why we did so well. But when we sold it, suddenly everybody was looking at it saying, “It’s inefficient to have an operation in Portland and an operation in Seattle and an operation in Paris, and have programmers in Boston. Why don’t we just fire all of those people and consolidate to one location, and quit developing our own software and just publish software [like] other people do?” That brought it all down.
Roberta Williams on Farewell to Tara:
I hired a professional genealogist in Ireland, and then I hired one in New York, and I hired one in Iowa—the three places where [my ancestors] were—and I was getting a ton of information. I just kept getting more and more information, and was doing a lot of my own research, and I just loved doing it, until I accumulated three huge, thick notebooks full of papers and research, and I said to myself, “You know, I should write a book.” Because the story was actually kind of interesting. … I wanted to write it as a historical novel, and turn this real-life story into an interesting read. I didn’t want to write it just for family members only. I wanted to write it in such a way that readers of historical novels might actually enjoy it, even if it’s not their own family.
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