In the first part of the "From Monochrome to Monarchy: King's Quest History" series of articles by David Craddock, we've presented the beginnings of On-Line Systems. With a slight delay, it's time for the second part - "Quest for a Crown".
After the enthusiastic reception of both Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess, On-Line Systems continued to grow. Ken and Roberta Williams' family blossomed almost in parallel. In 1979, shortly before On-Line's Hi-Res Adventure series made its debut, Ken and Roberta welcomed another son, Chris, into their lives. Sales of Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess were great enough to allow the family to move out of Los Angeles and into their dream home: a rustic log cabin outside the gold-mining town of Coarsegold, California.
Quest for a Crown
by David Craddock
After the enthusiastic reception of both Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess, On-Line Systems continued to grow. Ken and Roberta Williams' family blossomed almost in parallel. In 1979, shortly before On-Line's Hi-Res Adventure series made its debut, Ken and Roberta welcomed another son, Chris, into their lives. Sales of Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess were great enough to allow the family to move out of Los Angeles and into their dream home: a rustic log cabin outside the gold-mining town of Coarsegold, California.1 For Ken and Roberta, the move from urban jungle to rustic wonderland was welcome indeed. "We didn't start Sierra to build a big company," Ken Williams told Just Adventure. "In fact, it was the opposite. We just wanted to make enough money to be able to move out of Los Angeles. We hated living in a big city and wanted to move to Yosemite. Sierra allowed this to occur."2
With two children, a successful company, a beautiful new home, and a chance for each to follow their respective passions--computers and programming for Ken; storytelling for Roberta--the creative duo seemed to be living a dream. Ironically, On-Line Systems' success could have been its downfall had its owners not been vigilant. "When Sierra became large enough to think about things like 'getting incorporated' we discovered that there was already a large company who owned the name 'On-Line Systems', so we needed a new name," Ken Williams explained in an interview with Adventure Classic Gaming. "The company was based at Yosemite (in the Sierra-Nevada mountains) at the time, so we decided on 'Sierra On-Line'."3 The company's first official office, located on the top floor of a two-story office complex in Oakhurst, opened on December 1, 1980.4
Ken and Roberta understood that Sierra's rapid success mandated a drastic change from writing code and dropping game disks into plastic baggies from the comfort of the living room. While both knew that Sierra needed to staff up, both felt compelled to seek out talent with ideologies and methodologies that matched their humble beginnings. "I had a rule in the early days of Sierra that if someone had worked for another company within the computer game business, we didn't want them," Ken said to Adventure Classic Gaming. "It was important to me that we do things our way, and our way alone. Sharing employees with other companies meant that roughly the same products could be bought from anybody. I wanted Sierra to produce products and technology that couldn't be found anywhere EXCEPT from Sierra. Even within Sierra I had rules about not allowing too many developers in one location. I wanted the independent thought that came from a small development group."5
Even before their move to Oakhurst, Ken and Roberta--with the help of their staff later on--continued to expand the Hi-Res Adventure line of Apple II games through 1983.6 Each uniquely themed title was built on the marriage of simplistic line-based graphics and text-based commands. Cranston Manor, also known as Hi-Res Adventure #3, thrust players in the role of a treasure hunter determined to find the valuables rumored to be hidden throughout the eponymous manor by the deceased "Old man Cranston."7 Hi-Res Adventure #4: Ulysses and the Golden Fleece contained a romp through ancient Greece that, providing players were acute enough, culminated in the discovery of the titular Golden Fleece. The fifth Hi-Res Adventure, Time Zone, is a time-hopping adventure that sends players far into the past and future to prevent a war. The final Hi-Res Adventure, The Dark Crystal, was set on a faraway world and provided Roberta the opportunity to collaborate with legendary Muppet creator Jim Henson.
With each new entry in the Hi-Res line-up, Sierra grew not only its employee roster, but the user base its stories reached. "There was a time when the idea of hiring programmers just for translation would have been unthinkable," Ken Williams told Creative Computing in a March 1983 interview. "Right now we're putting a big emphasis on program translation. We intend [for] Dark Crystal to be available for the Apple, Atari, IBM, and Commodore 64 machines. We are also translating many of our other popular games. The demand is there."8
No matter the scope of the project, one core aspect of Sierra's design methodology did not change. As was the case with Mystery House and Wizard and the Princess, Roberta Williams wrote and designed each subsequent installment in the Hi-Res Adventure series. Despite the ambition and uniqueness of each title, Roberta found that all her work up to a critical, industry-defining point in 1983 had been a warm-up for something much bigger.
A Quest, a Quest! My Kingdom for a Quest!
In 1983, IBM was hard at work developing a new desktop computer aimed at educational and home-use purposes. Targeting a release date in 1984, the IBM PCjr would different hardware options to appeal to different consumer bases9, but its most appealing features were its 4.77 megahertz processor, 128 kilobytes of memory, and staggering 16-color display.10 IBM, familiar with Sierra's success in the computer games arena, approached the Oakhurst-based developer with a request: design a game that would showcase the power and potential of its upcoming PCjr hardware11. Roberta Williams rose to the challenge.
Like Wizard and the Princess before it, Roberta's new game idea, King's Quest, would be heavily inspired by her favorite childhood fables and fairy tales. This game, however, would be larger in scope and size than any Sierra title that preceded it. Setting the stage for a grand adventure, Roberta penned the lore that would serve to spur players on in their quest: the kingdom of Daventry has fallen into decline due to the theft of its three most valuable treasures--a magic mirror that foretells the future; a shield that protects its bearer against all harm; and a bottomless treasure chest of gold--have been stolen. King Edward the Benevolent, without an heir and desperate for a savior, summons forth his bravest knight, Sir Graham. If Graham can find and return the three treasures, King Edward says, the kingdom will pass to Graham.
Rather than design a series of screens depicting vaguely connected backdrops, Roberta designed Daventry as an 8x8 grid. Every square would be populated with different elements--lush vegetation, a monster-infested moat, dank caverns, ramshackle huts, churning waterfalls, trolls, dragons, crafty gnomes--yet overt in its connection to adjacent tiles. Always a fan of brain teasers, most tiles were infused with items that, in typical adventure game fashion, could only be used in exact circumstances. What circumstances were those? That was up to the player to surmise, and in King's Quest, the process of deduction was more technologically advanced yet externally simple than ever before.
Realizing that the code base on which the Hi-Res Adventure series had been built was woefully inadequate for King's Quest's needs, Sierra's programmers began writing Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI), a game engine worthy of powering what was rapidly becoming the company's most ambitious project yet. Responsible for handling the game's interface along with all of its graphics and sounds12, AGI was the technological wand Roberta needed to once again revolutionize the adventure game genre as well as video and computer games as a whole.
Instead of displaying static screens that felt no more interactive or alive than paintings, King's Quest displayed its protagonist in third person. Using the arrow keys instead of typing commands, players marveled at the freedom of guiding Sir Graham virtually anywhere, even directly behind, over, and in front of objects, within the 2.5D, 64-square game world. King's Quest marked the first instance such a feat had ever been accomplished in a computer game13, and it was accomplished in dazzling 16-color, 160x200 EGA brilliance. Even more impressive was the extent to which players were able to interact with the game world. When Graham was directed into water, he would be shown wading through it.
With the freedom of movement came further reliance on a text-based parser, positioned at the very bottom of the screen in order to display as large a picture of the player's current location as possible. While the parser was still rather limited in terms of commands that could be correctly interpreted, many reviews admitted that the limitations forced them to more carefully study the game world and learn how to combine both visuals and text to solve puzzles. One particular square of Daventry featured what appeared to be a brown rock on the ground. Players were stymied when the game refused to allow them to "pick up rock," but by entering "look at the ground," the game reveals that the rock is not a rock at all, but a walnut.
As players progressed through the game, their actions netted them a certain number of points, which were tracked via the score counter in the upper corner of the game screen. To ensure the least amount of frustration possible, Roberta designed most puzzles in King's Quest with two possible solutions, one of which required a bit more cerebral activity but earned the player more points as a reward. Most puzzles were derived from fairy tales, giving players fluent in Once Upon a Time somewhat of an advantage over less fictionally erudite gamers.
In 1984, King's Quest was completed and released for player consumption on the IBM PCjr. The game had everything it needed to become a success, save one critical component: a successful hardware platform. The PCjr faded almost as quickly as it appeared, despite IBM's use of Charlie Chaplin14, who was hired to lend considerable promotional muscle to the machine. In March 1985, one year after its introduction into the market, the PCjr was canceled15. Because the hardware for which it had been created was dead, Sierra worried that King's Quest would fade away just as quickly. Never ones to sit idly by and wait for fate to dictate their lives, Ken and Roberta rallied their troops and created ports for various other personal computers such as the Tandy 1000 that was released in 198416. Later that same year, another version of the game--developed simultaneously for Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore computers, and a self-booting disk for the PC17--was released. Soon after, King's Quest became the hit it was meant to be.
With each release, more and more computer gamers became entranced by the kingdom of Daventry. It was only natural that Roberta Williams and Sierra serve a follow-up.
Holy Cameo, Batman!
For many, King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne was less a ground-breaking sequel to the commercially successful King's Quest, and more along the lines of a minor iteration designed to capitalize on the changes Sierra's AGI game engine had undergone during all of the original King's Quest's many re-releases18. Some have even insinuated that it would be more aptly titled King's Quest I: Part II19.
In designing King's Quest II, Roberta Williams readily admits that her focus was more on expanding the King Graham character than breaking new technological turf. "King's Quest II reminded me a little of Wizard and the Princess," said Roberta. "We saw how the previous games (Mystery House and King's Quest I) were received by the public, and I was anxious to try my hand at a bigger story right away. Graham would be king by now. What quest should a lonely king go on? What should he see through the magic mirror? A maiden in distress! I started to foresee a family for Graham in the future."20 The maiden in distress, Valanice, was not imprisoned in Daventry, but in another land called Kolyma. Should Graham be brave enough to venture there and work to unlock three magically locked doors, the fair Valanice will be his.
Featuring the same graphical fidelity as its predecessor, King's Quest II offered players a new game world to explore with the interactive backgrounds they had come to expect from the original King's Quest. Vistas ranging from thick forests and Dracula's haunting castle to the colorful underwater kingdom of Neptune were integrated into the game, making sure that players could never complain about repetitively exploring similar locales.
Skulking around the game world were many characters of note -- some from fairy tales, others, such as the Caped Crusader who could be seen peeling out of a cave in his Batmobile, were more than a little anachronistic. "I couldn't fit some ideas into King's Quest I, so I was happy to get a chance to include King Neptune, Dracula, everyone from Little Red Riding Hood, and that infamous rickety old bridge you could only cross so many times," Roberta enthused to Adventure Classic Gaming.21
Thanks to the platform-independent nature of the AGI engine, King's Quest II was simultaneously released for multiple platforms--specifically the Apple II22, Atari ST23, and a self-booting PC disk24--in 1985, and for various other platforms such as DOS25 in 1987. While still popular, reviews were mixed. Roberta Williams' attempt at furthering the plot of the series was generally considered a miss26, while others found the puzzles too elementary27. It was clear that, despite Roberta Williams' enthusiasm for her new world, Sierra's creative sorceress might be in need of a reprieve. Roberta couldn't have agreed more.
From Monochrome to Monarchy: The History of King's Quest - Part II
"Quest for a Crown"
Check out the first part of the KQ series story here.