GOG Interview: in-depth conversation with legendary Ken and Roberta Williams for the Colossal Cave release!

Ken and Roberta Williams – while they do not need any introduction, it’s a pure pleasure to do so. They are a remarkable couple who have left an indelible mark on the world of computer gaming. Their passion, creativity, and dedication to the craft have earned them the respect and admiration of countless players, industry professionals, and fans around the world.
While best known for founding Sierra On-Line, a pioneering company that played a pivotal role in the development of the computer gaming industry, their vision, leadership, and entrepreneurial spirit helped to shape the landscape of gaming as we know it today.
Through Sierra On-Line, they created some of the most iconic and beloved adventure games of all time, including the King's Quest, Space Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series. These games set new standards for storytelling, gameplay, and graphics, and continue to inspire and entertain players of all ages to this day.
Now, their long-awaited comeback has come in the form of Colossal Cave – revival of the original 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure. It’s an amazing point-&-click, cave exploration puzzler taking you through a timeless exploration of a sprawling cave system filled with treasures, creatures, and brain-teasing riddles. And it's now available on GOG!
To celebrate this awesome news, we got the chance to talk to Ken and Roberta and asked them about their latest project, hardships of reviving such a piece of history, inspirations and more! Check out our in-depth interview and find out what the icons had to say.
Almost half of a century – that’s how long it has been since the release of the original Colossal Cave Adventure in 1976. It is now considered one of the most influential computer games and it also inspired your 1980’s Mystery House. Could you shed some light on what made you interested in reviving this classic?
Ken: I was bored during the Covid lockdown and looking for something to do. I decided to write a book and couldn't think of anything to write about, so I wrote about the Sierra days, and was surprised when the book became an instant bestseller. The process of writing the book and the realization that Sierra still meant so much to so many people got me thinking about games. It also made me curious about how modern games are built and I started researching game engines.
I discovered that the Unity game engine was free and there were great tutorials on the web and on YouTube. I spent several weeks learning to program in Unity, mostly sitting and watching YouTube videos of developers building games. Programming is a little like riding a bike, in that you don't forget how. I spun up to speed fairly quickly. But then what? I needed some game to program. My first thought was to do something like Sierra's old Dr. Brain games that would teach kids to program. I had started down that path when Roberta asked if I would consider making Colossal Cave. It was like I'd been struck by lightning. I knew immediately that it was a great idea and that I should do it.
Colossal Cave appealed on many levels:
It was a proven game design. Roberta was going to be involved in the project at the beginning. I'm more of an engineer and a business person than I am a game designer. Having a game that I knew was good, as a starting point, would give me a huge head start.
I liked the symmetry. Colossal Cave started Roberta and I into the business. It was the game that Roberta played that opened her eyes to the whole new world of gaming.
It's a game with an amazing history. We're working on a documentary now to share the story, but Colossal Cave is based on a real cave system, Mammoth Caves, and was designed by a real spelunker (caver). The original text game was written by Will Crowther, whose wife Patricia was instrumental in making Mammoth Caves the largest known cave system in the world.
Colossal Cave is unique in the world of games. Most games can be described by saying, "It's like [x]," but not Colossal Cave. We knew that it would be unlike anything out there and wanted to do something that would surprise players.
I felt it was a game that would have a broad appeal to players of all ages, and could be played by entire families together as a family project.
I thought it would be easy. It turns out I was wrong. Had I known what I was getting into Colossal Cave never would have happened.
Roberta: Ken already explained his need for a project during the Covid lockdowns, therefore I can bypass that part of the explanation and go straight to why I was interested in reviving the old text-game, Colossal Cave:
It’s a well-known case that I played Colossal Cave as a young mother in early 1980, which galvanized me to want to design my own adventure game. It was one of those light-bulb moments that come around only so often – and I was compelled obsessively to sit down at the proverbial ‘kitchen table’ and start…designing! But where or how does one start to ‘design’ something like a computer game when you’ve never done it before, and your only example was Colossal Cave? I won’t go into that, as that’s not your question, but suffice it to say that I did, and I called it Mystery House.
I mention the above so as to stress the importance of Colossal Cave – to me, personally, and for Ken and I as partners. I designed Mystery House and Ken programmed it. Together we figured out how to add graphics to this Apple II computer game and, as a result, our company, Sierra On-Line was born! Had I never played Colossal Cave, none of that would have happened. And we are not alone in the industry to have been extraordinarily influenced by this amazing game; other names you would know have confessed such to us. So I think that I don’t need to add more, as you can see the love and admiration that we have for this game. We desire to bring it back to today’s game players because of our belief that it has a lot to give; it gave so much to us…why not to a new generation? Not to mention that it’s a really great game!
Such a revival must have been quite a challenge, so many things have changed in the industry throughout all those years. But then again, who’s better for the task than veterans like you. What would you say was the hardest part in the development of Colossal Cave?
Ken: We went into the project trying to think of ourselves like museum curators who had been given a historic painting for preservation. Most gamers of our generation know, and have played, Colossal Cave, but we felt that there was a new generation who was never going to try a text game. We wanted to present it to a new generation in a way that they could relate to. A museum curator handed the Mona Lisa would know that it is important to showcase it properly, but not to change it.
From the beginning there was an aura around the project that we were doing something important. We kept versions of the source code around and referred to it often. Constantly, we would encounter a surprise in the source code, or some line of text that would trigger weeks of programming and art. For example, the end of the game happens with a paragraph of text. I'm trying to think how to say this without giving a spoiler and can't, but suffice it to say that one paragraph of text can easily trigger massive amounts of code. That one paragraph, even though nothing really happens with it, meant a month of an engineer's time, and several months of artists' time. I wanted to simply display the text and keep it simple, but Roberta wouldn't consider it. "That would be cheating," she said. Colossal Cave is a game that is known to millions. The text puts some image in their minds of every location in the game-world. We knew that if we didn't build something that matched their perceptions of the game we'd be in trouble. There is much more to the game than we ever realized. We were constantly being surprised by some nuance of play that we didn't realize was there and that caused huge amounts of code and art to be added.
Roberta: Indeed, reviving an old text-based game into a virtual reality 3D game is quite a challenge. But many of my games over the years have been challenges in their own right; the most formidable, probably “Phantasmagoria.” The first issue that we had to deal with – both Ken and I – was the issue of ‘getting back into the swing of things’ which, surprisingly, didn't take us very long! We were able to quickly hire really good people and once we started getting our team together, things just began to roll as it always had. But to answer your question as to the ‘hardest part’ of the development of Colossal Cave, I would say – for me – learning and understanding this game assiduously. Though I’m not the designer of this game (Will Crowther and Don Woods are the geniuses behind Colossal Cave), I had to take on the ‘designer’ role and figure it out – and it’s a complicated game! I had forgotten much of it over the years and had to re-acquaint myself with it. It was my job to make all of the decisions for how to bring it back to life in full 3D graphics, along with character design, animation, sound, and music, yet keep it the ‘same game’ (as much as possible). Quite a job! For me, that was the most challenging part.
As for the game itself, what are your favorite things about Colossal Cave and what makes it an exciting title for modern players?
Ken: My first reaction when I hear the word "exciting" is to say, "Well, it's not really exciting." Adjectives like: Beautiful, Challenging, Fun, Conversation Starting, Historic, Addictive, Funny all apply. But, Exciting? It's not an action game, and anyone going into the cave thinking they're playing some Half-Life spin off will be disappointed. Colossal Cave is beautiful and fun to explore. There is magic in the cave, and hidden surprises. Keep in mind that the game was designed by cavers and loosely derived from a real cave system. The original designers wanted the player to be able to explore the cave with the suspense that comes from wondering what is around the next corner. This is a game for players who want to be mentally challenged. I'd compare it to an Escape Room, or a thousand piece puzzle. Much of the game is meant to take place while you are sitting at the dinner table, laying in bed at night or talking to friends. It is best played in multiple sessions where you have time between sessions to think, and hope for that "Voila" moment where an idea comes to you and you can re-enter the cave to try out some new idea.
Anyway, to answer your question, Colossal Cave is an Adventure game, but it's quite different than other games. There are a couple of choke points (puzzles) that bar the player from exploring the play, but really there aren't many. Most of the cave is open to the player fairly quickly, and can be explored. We wanted to make the cave interesting to players, and just as in real caves you can turn a corner and see the cave take on a new look, Colossal Cave is like that. Will Crowther's descriptions of the cave were detailed and we studied his words to create a cave that would surprise and enchant players. Exploration and the feeling of discovery is a huge part of the game.
Roberta: Ken’s answer is so good that I don’t think I can top it! What I will do is to tell you my favorite things about Colossal Cave first, and then try to define what makes it ‘exciting’ for modern players.
The best thing about Colossal Cave is its ability to make you feel as if you’re really exploring a cave system. But not any old cave – a magical cave, a prankster cave, sometimes a dangerous cave, other times whimsical. But then, isn’t that the feelings that cavers generally experience? Ken and I have done some ‘spelunking’ in our past and we have pictures to prove it: Ken and I rappelling 150 feet down into a large chamber of a cave system in central California, of which I can’t remember the name of! But we then hiked and scooted and squeezed through various sections of this cave for five hours or so! I loved it…Ken not so much.
Also, Colossal Cave is a very deep game – (not merely in ‘depth’) – but in mystery, magic, strategy (a biggie, at first, you don’t notice the strategy, as it comes on slowly…but once you’ve explored maybe half of it and gathered a few things, you suddenly realize that there are multiple ways to play this game, and many things (like inventory) that you have to manage carefully, in order to get not only the full experience, but also figure out how to play ‘differently’ if you want to go for the maximum score of 350 points (and that’s your ultimate goal), or if you simply just want to see everything in the cave and try to do everything in the cave…and you don’t care about the score! It’s a multi-faceted game, replayable in different ways, and your goal in ‘winning’ can be adjusted to your own desires.
As far as "exciting", I noticed that Ken was equating "excitement" with "action". Whereas I can see comparing the idea of excitement with action: energy, tension, incitement, on the edge of your seat, exhilaration, there are other ways of feeling excitement. For instance: adventure, mystery (what’s around the next corner), perplexity, peril, awe, wonderment. Some people crave intense, heightened heart-beating action, others find excitement in discovery, solving an ornery puzzle, figuring out how to get around obstacles, or finding precious objects, using magic. It just all depends – but Colossal Cave has all of the elements of excitement with discovery.
Speaking of modern players, are there any present-day adventure titles that you enjoy? Maybe something that also inspired you during the creation of Colossal Cave?
Ken: When Sierra was sold, and then destroyed by the acquiring company, Roberta and I were incredibly saddened. We were locked out, as a result of the sale, from participating in the game industry. Instead, we decided to pursue real-world adventures and started traveling the world. I obtained a ship captain's license, we bought a small boat and explored 27 countries by water. Our explorations made us famous as world cruisers. We crossed the Bering Sea and the Atlantic. We visited places like Japan, Malta, Croatia and many more. We really didn't think about games or play games. We were too busy and having too much fun. When Colossal Cave started it drew us in and there was no time to play games. We worked for nearly two years seven days a week with virtually every waking moment. We were either talking about Colossal Cave, or building Colossal Cave. It consumed us. We played little bursts of modern games just to see what they looked like and whether or not we felt we could compete, but I can't say we spent a lot of time playing games.
Roberta: This will be a short answer from me as well for the reasons that Ken spelled out above. When we ‘retired’ (ahem!), we were in our early 40’s and not at all interested in sitting around. We went about creating and experiencing adventures of our own making! One thing that is a truism…and I’ve talked with other computer/video game developers about this: Once you create computer/video games yourself for a living, you sort of lose the craving for playing them. Both Ken and I did play games when we had Sierra, but mostly just to check out the competition. Once we were out ‘on our own,’ we just never did get back into it. That doesn’t mean that we don’t understand gaming or don’t love it, it’s just in a different ‘box’ for us than before we became ‘players’ in the industry.
As classic games enthusiasts, both we and our community are incredibly excited about the comeback of Ken and Roberta Williams. How does it feel to be back and what can we expect from Cygnus Entertainment?
Ken: I really do not know if this is the end of Cygnus Entertainment or the beginning. Your guess is probably as good as mine. Game development is incredibly fun and unbelievably addictive. Roberta's and my personality is to do anything we do to the absolute limits of how it can be done. You see this in how we ran Sierra or how we did our boating. It would never have occurred to us to take a boat across a lake when there was a whole world to explore. We leap into anything we do with both feet. During the creation of Colossal Cave we thought of nothing else. My guess is that we are going to shift gears for a bit. I need to stand up for a bit and go outside. Two years of sitting in a chair staring at a screen has unfortunate consequences on your body. I think we'll return to our life as boaters, see how this game does, and wait for some new idea to inspire us.
Colossal Cave was an awesome idea and a perfect project for us to do. Like everyone, I'd like to think of some "big idea" that can revolutionize gaming, but that inspiration hasn't hit me yet. Maybe Roberta will come up with something. We're fortunate to be in the position that we don't need to build games to pay the rent. We have the luxury of being able to wait to do something until we think of something to do that we think will be new and interesting for players. It's tough to put that kind of inspiration on a timetable. All I can say is "stay tuned." If we do something it will be something worth doing.
Roberta: I say, ditto! Couldn’t say it better myself. As I’ve been saying since the beginning of this project, it will depend on the success of our Colossal Cave (3D). If we see that lots of people are playing it and enjoying it, that would certainly go a long way toward encouraging us to keep going with another game. But if Colossal Cave can’t seem to win the hearts of people, then I would think we would be much more likely to pick up our ball and go home. Nothing would make me happier than to see Colossal Cave have a successful revival; I want people to recognize Will Crowther’s and Don Woods’ genius. I’d love to come back and create something of my own, but I guess you could say…I need the confidence and reassurance.
Is there anything you’d like to say to our community before they embark on their Colossal adventure?
Ken: Thank you for supporting GOG! I like that GOG means "Good Old Games" or at least I think it does. I do think that many of the best games ever invented are already out there and I wish more people would discover them. To me, many of the modern games seem overly complex and many were designed to get you to spend money. There are so many great games that have been built over the years that players need to discover, and I thank GOG for bringing them to modern players. When I see videos of some of Sierra's old games I'm reminded how great they were.
Anyway, I'd like to thank everyone for considering our game and wish them well. Also, I know many gamers dream of building their own games, and I'd like to encourage them to keep at it. Roberta and I are living proof that dreams can and do come true. In the Sierra days I always said that I thought the interactive entertainment industry would someday be bigger than movies, music and books combined. At the time they thought I was crazy, but I was right. Welcome to the new world. Even though game development is fun and addictive, building a game is incredibly hard work, but it's all worthwhile when you read that someone loved playing your game. When we see online reviews saying how someone enjoyed our game, that means way more to us than any check that might come in the mail. What could be better than bringing a smile to someone's face in today's crazy world?
Roberta: Doesn’t GOG mean ‘Good Old Games’? Colossal Cave certainly fits that moniker! It’s one of the oldest of computer games (if not ‘the’ oldest), and certainly, in my mind, among the oldest…and grandest! At least for adventure games, it’s the Granddaddy of them all! For the GOG community, if there was ever a game made for you, this would have to be IT. If only for recognition of its place in the gaming world and for preserving it. But mostly because…it’s just a GREAT ADVENTURE GAME! Please enjoy it!
We’d like to thank Ken and Roberta very, very much – for the ability to talk to them, their amazing, in depth answers and for releasing Colossal Cave on GOG! And while GOG was the acronym for Good Old Games at the beginning of our company’s activities, our love and passion for classic titles still remains as strong as ever.
We hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as we enjoyed talking to its lovely creators. Now it’s to go immerse yourself within Colossal Cave’s world and relive the golden age of adventure gaming – have a great one!