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King’s Quest And Sierra: An Interview With Ken Williams

by Joe Juba on Jan 02, 2015 at 07:05 AM

When it comes to legendary figures in video gaming, Ken and Roberta Williams are among the elite. The duo co-founded Sierra and had a profound impact on the industry through story-driven, interactive adventures.

Sierra’s best-known franchise, King’s Quest, is getting an episodic revival this fall. In our upcoming February issue (which will be available digitally on Tuesday, January 6), we have six pages filled with exclusive new info, screens, and impressions for the new King’s Quest being developed by The Odd Gentlemen.

As we prepare to look toward the future of King’s Quest, we take a moment to reflect on its past with Ken Williams. In this Q&A, Williams talks about what lies at the core of King’s Quest, the meeting he and Roberta had with the team at The Odd Gentlemen, the perils of the term “point-and-click,” and more.

Game Informer: What do you think defines a game carrying the “King’s Quest” name? The original games changed from one entry to the next, but what do you see as the common principles or themes that tie them together?
Ken Williams: I used to say that Sierra had two role models: Microsoft and Disney. King's Quest was our attempt to replicate in an interactive medium what we liked most about the Disney features. Specific goals were:

  • Family oriented, with humor that works for all ages. We wanted adults and kids to play, and both have fun.
  • Based loosely on familiar themes (fairy tales, “save the princess,” good vs. evil). We took some arrows for what some felt were formulaic products, but that was fine with us. 
  • Cute, lovable characters. 
  • Clear, simple story. 
  • Reinforce positive ways to solve problems, not violence.

It’s been a long time since the last King’s Quest game released. Did you ever expect to see the series surface again?
I was convinced that sooner or later, whoever owned the rights would realize what they were sitting on and bring the series back. That said, we were always worried it would be brought back as some sort of action game or something that would totally miss the point. I’m surprised it has taken so long for someone to mine the gold (release another King's Quest game).

Ken and Roberta Williams (right) with The Odd Gentlemen's Lindsey Rostal and Matt Korba (left)

What has you the most excited about the new King’s Quest game?
We saw the game for the first time [in October], and only saw about 30 minutes of it, but what we saw excited us. It looked like the designers had either studied the old games to find out why they succeeded, or had similar goals to ours for the series. What we saw felt like a natural extension of the series, but brought up to today’s graphic and interactive standards. Most telling was that both Roberta and I wanted to play the game. At least from where we were standing, it looked like they had nailed it on making the game fun. It is easy to make a game pretty, or showcase new technology, but making something that is fun to play is the toughest challenge of them all.

Did you initially have any reservations about the idea of another studio taking KQ into the 21st century? If so, has that changed?
We just didn’t want someone to produce a crappy game, or produce something that had the Kings Quest name, but nothing else that was consistent with the series. The last King's Quest game that was produced under the Sierra label was done while Sierra was in transition (the company had been sold prior to release). Protocols that were in place to guarantee that King's Quest games followed a certain formula, and were of a certain quality, were not followed. The game that resulted was good enough that it wasn’t a disaster, but neither was it something that Roberta was proud of. She even thought about insisting her name be removed. A strong series can survive one clinker, but two in a row would kill the series for all time. It’s too soon to say if this new game will really be as good as we think it is. As I said, we only saw some of the game, but what we saw excited us. We are extremely optimistic!

When meeting to the team behind the new KQ project, what advice did you pass on?
We mostly listened. Roberta said a few things, but really we discovered quickly that creative people don’t typically take advice. Even at Sierra, I always knew that people either “have it” or “they don’t.” If someone is passionate about a project, and has good ideas, then the product will be fine. If they don’t, you can’t solve it with suggestions, money, or anything else. The best is to move on. So, Roberta and I listened, and the team said all the right things.

What’s your reaction to the fan-made KQ projects, like remakes and sequels?
The days of a great product being built in a garage are pretty much behind us. There might be some opportunity on mobile devices, which are gutless, but generally speaking, it takes many millions of dollars to build a world-class game. Anything less than that is a waste of time and effort. It is flattering, but … it is not likely to make anyone money. I always supported the fan products, and thought they were cool, but .. I also typically encouraged people to put their energy into something that had a chance to make money.

The original King's Quest

Point-and-click adventures may not be as popular as they once were, but they were the top-tier games in the '80s and '90s. What about the genre do you think audiences that made it so popular for so long?
Personally, I never liked being pigeon-holed as “point and click”. I like to think of Sierra’s products as interactive stories, and point/click was nothing more than the best we could do at the time to influence the story. The idea was to make you feel a part of the story, and neither text parsing or point/click were perfect answers. A perfect answer would probably be 3-d glasses and motion sensors in gloves. Then you are talking! And, that’s the right experience. It’s like a good book or a good movie. The goal is to immerse the audience in the story. A mouse or a keyboard pulls the player out of the game. I don’t know the magic solution but know that saying things like this is a “touch-game” or a “click-game” or a “parser-based-game” are all dead-ends. They lock in a point in time and miss the fact that interactive technologies are advancing faster than games are being built. The right answer is to say, “what new technologies will be around two years from now when this game releases, and how do we use it to immerse the player in a cool new universe?” Saying, “Point/Click games sold 3 million copies last year, and the market is growing 5 percent a year, so next year there will be 3.15 million point/click games sold” – that’s a sucker trap. Sure death.

King’s Quest has already left an incredible legacy, but looking back on the series, is there anything you wish you would have done differently?
I wish we had stuck with the company a bit longer. At the time, we had been making games for 20 years and were kind of burnt out (or, at least I was). However, we wound up sitting on the sidelines as the industry evolved. We would have loved to have the kinds of technical and financial resources that exist today to build games. It would be incredible! It’s like we were painting with crayons, retired, and then they came out with oil paints. Imagine what we could have done! Oh well…

Don’t forget: You can read the full feature on the upcoming King’s Quest when our February issue is released on Tuesday, January 6.