pervasive universes...
the ken williams interview

Ken Williams is the CEO of Sierra On-Line, the largest computer entertainment company in the business. Sierra has produced the prolific King's Quest, Space Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry series, as well as being behind such recent hits as Phantasmagoria.

verbosity: A lot of people may not be quite sure about the duties of the CEO of a computer-gaming company. Could you briefly describe what you job entails?

ken williams: I'm not sure how typical I am of other CEOs...most of my time is spent looking at product. Sierra has roughly 70+ games in development at any point in time. It is a full time job to review and comment on this much product. I have successfully been able to shovel most of the drudgery of running a large company off onto others so that I can focus on product.
We have a process at Sierra where every three months Jerry Bowerman (our head of R&D) and myself try to visit every division to see every product in the company. Believe it or not, this requires a FULL MONTH on the road! We spend from 8 a.m. 'til at least 9 p.m. every night going through product. Our goals include checking to see if the product looks like it will finish on time, and on budget, but what we are really looking for is to do anything we can to support the developers as they try to build "Sierra quality" product. It isnít staying on budget that causes a hit--it's having the greatest game.
Many products have been nuked during these quarterly visits. For example, Outpost II. When Jerry and I saw the project about six months ago, it looked wrong. I don't know how to describe it better than that. It just didn't look fun. When we shot the project there were some VERY unhappy campers. A couple of months later the project started over. Jerry and I just visited the team and were blown away. Outpost II will be one of the biggest hits this company has ever shipped.
To me, everything is about being able to build awesome product. Everything else is just garbage you have to do in business. Anything that allows us to built better product, or take better care of our customers, is good.

v: In recent years, your company, Sierra, has been constantly setting benchmarks in the gaming industry. Each new product seems to push the envelope of technology. Do you feel it's your duty to push along the hardware industry with your games, or is it a naturally proportional situation?

kw: Any game which does not push the state of the art leaves an opportunity for a competitor's game to look better. We are caught in a funny kind of Catch 22. Games which push the state of the art run horribly on the average computer. On the other hand, games which don't push the state of the art tend not to sell. I have been recently excited by the fact that some recent megahits have not been very impressive technologically-speaking or graphically (such as Duke3d or Warcraft). These games are selling because they play good. I'd much rather focus on producing an awesome game than worrying about whether or not we're showing what great art we can do--or, that we know how to program for a DVD drive.

v: In a recent article published in InterAction, you said, of the upcoming King's Quest VIII: The Mask of Eternity that, "It will be almost two years before computers will be powerful enough to run this game..." Do you think that the increase in realism is worth the sacrifice of users of high-end 486s and low-end Pentiums?

kw: Our current plan to is ship KQ8 optimized for 3D hardware acceleration, but also to include a way to drop to lo-res on machines without the hardware. I think the minimum, even in lo-res, will be a Pentium-90. KQ8 is going to be our showpiece for a whole new generation of technology. Not all users will be able to run it--and only those with hardware acceleration will be able to see it the right way.
My guess (and my goal) is that anyone who sees KQ8 will immediately buy a hardware accelerator just to play it.

v: You have expressed (and exhibited) a desire for Sierra to support Windows 95 as fully as possible. Can we expect Sierra to make the move to solely developing for Win95 in the near future?

kw: Sierra is developing 100% of our products for Win95. Sierra's customers tend to be on the cutting edge. Over 90% of our current product registrations are from Win95 customers. Unfortunately, though, this is domestically. Europe is lagging. For the U.S., we develop for Win95 and then have to produce a DOS or Win3.1 port of the game for the European market.

v: One of your hottest new games, Lighthouse has been referred to in print media as the "Myst-cutter." Is Sierra looking now to hop on a bandwagon or improve on a concept with this sort of theory?

kw: Lighthouse has elements in common with Myst as well as reflecting Sierra's 17-year history of producing adventure games. I wouldn't say we're jumping onto a bandwagon as much as saying that we're producing a really cool game that is within a huge genre.
In many ways, Lighthouse is the beginning of a whole new generation of games. Many (most) of the puzzles are mechanically-based, not logic-based. There are these "Jules Vern-esque" style contraptions which you learn to drive and manipulate. Half the fun is learning to drive flying machines, submarines, and even trains. Myst was simply a puzzle game...

v: What is your opinion of the "DOOM-fever" which has been sweeping the industry in the last few years? I notice that Sierra is one of the few companies not to join in so far with the craze by releasing an obligatory first-person action game.

kw: I thought people would get burned out on DOOM a year ago. Now that Sierra is finally jumping on the bandwagon (we're working on several games in this genre), the bottom will almost certainly fall out of the market. I think we're too late to the party--although we plan on coming at it from a fresh perspective. All of our games will include Internet play, and be based around worlds that survive and exist whether or not any particular user is signed in.

v: Speaking of DOOM, what do you think of the general "shareware explosion" we've witnessed in the last few years? Do you think the route the guys at id and Apogee are taking is the future of the industry, and is it a major threat to major companies like Sierra?

kw: The software industry needs something analogous to radio. No one buys an album without first hearing some of the tracks on the radio. $15 is too much for the average person to spend on an unknown quantity. For some reason, in our industry customers are asked many times to spend $50 on games they have never experienced. This is about to stop. I see the Internet as being the radio of the software industry. To succeed at retail there must be a "track" of the game which is broadcast over the Internet. If customers like what they hear/see/play they will rush to their retailer to buy the album/box. If not, then the album/box doesn't get bought.
I am not fond of printed advertisements for computer games. I just do not believe the excitement of a game can be conveyed on the printed page. Plus, I want to compete based on the quality of our games--not who can afford the best ad agency. If shareware succeeds the way I want it to, it will be a MAJOR win for customers. Companies like Sierra will be able to divert some of the money now being spent/wasted on advertising into building better product--and have a perfect way to let users try before they buy.

v: Do you currently use the Internet or the World Wide Web? If so, is it primarily in work-related issues or entertainment, or a combination of the two?

kw: I live on the Web. I'm not sure how to differentiate between work and entertainment. Both are hopelessly intertwined in my life.

v: How does Sierra hope to tailor its future products to compliment (or compete) with the increasing popularity of the Internet?

kw: 100 % of everything we do will have an Internet component. For Print Artist, users will be able to swap clip art through the Web. For Master Cook, users will swap recipes. Within King's Quest, they will swap magic items. By the end of this year, no one will doubt that they should buy only Sierra products if they are heavy Internet users.

v: Where do you think the Internet is going in terms of scope and technology?

kw: Forget the Internet and think about what happens to our games when you recognize that all our users can be linked together during play. The kinds of games you can design are so much more ambitious than what can be done on a single machine that it is staggering! Imagine participating in a global war where thousands of users are each driving a tank as others in flight sims drop bombs from above. This is possible today; we just need to get focused and write some code.

v: What can we expect from Sierra in the next year? Five years?

kw: Better games. I am a pessimist. I rarely ship a game that I am happy with. I drive our people crazy, saying, "That isn't good enough, make it better." I believe Sierra is the best company in the industry and I want each product we ship to be unequaled within its category.
Longer term, here's what I'm up to: my current guideline to our developers is to stop thinking in terms of shipping a game in a year and to start thinking in terms of pervasive universes. Using the Internet, we should be able to build worlds which get better over time. There should be no reason we have to start from scratch with each game. We should be able to build a version of Police Quest which spans a million households--and then add new weapons, buildings, and scenarios from year to year. This is hard to explain--but you have to change metaphor from thinking about games to thinking about fantasy universes--kind of a cyber-"Fantasy Island." We create it and make it better from year to year. Customers visit when they like. The days of shipping games which obsolete prior versions are over.

v: What can we expect from Ken Williams in the next five years?

kw: More of the same...

[back to verbosity]

This interview was conducted via e-mail between Jess Morrissette and Ken Williams. Special thanks to Ken for all his cooperation (and the nifty pic).