Ken Williams on Returning to Game Development After a 20-Year Break

Founder of the legendary Sierra Entertainment Ken Williams talks about re-entering the video game industry after a long pause and testing out the possibilities of modern game development tools. 

Assembling the Team

The project started with just me (Ken Williams), but then I quickly discovered that I needed a 3D artist and happened to meet (online) Marcus Mera who is an incredible 3D artist with an interest in games. Roberta had the idea for the game and is working with us on the design. Recently, we've added a fourth person, Cidney Hamilton, an engineer, who is 100% focused on VR (Oculus).

"The Secret" is just a temporary name. We want to keep secret what we're working on until we are farther along. 

Ken and Roberta Williams

Marcus Mera

Returning to Game Development After Sierra On-Line

When the pandemic happened I was bored and Roberta suggested I write a book. Initially, it was going to be a book about boating, but then some pages snuck into the manuscript about Sierra. I had Al Lowe, an ex-Sierra designer and friend, read the first draft and he strongly recommended I dump the boating focus and add more Sierra pages. Once I started focusing on Sierra the words seemed to just flow and the book came together incredibly fast. I had no idea how many Sierra fans there were and the book has sold beyond my wildest expectations. The book is titled: "Not all fairy tales have happy endings".

Writing the book became the genesis of my return to game development. Initially, it was nothing more than my being curious about current game development technologies. I saw that there were a couple of game engines called Unity, and Unreal Engine, that are the foundation of most games built today. I read a book on Unity and started writing some code, with no plans to ever do a game. I was just curious to see the 3D engine and how it worked. Most of Sierra's games were built on an engine we developed internally and I was curious what engine was powering today's games. I was impressed! 

I quickly decided that it might be fun to build "something" but wasn't sure what. My initial focus was on doing something targeting kids. There were two reasons for this. One: I wanted to avoid comparison to today's big-budget titles. One problem with being "Ken Williams" is that if I do something it will get noticed. This would be fine if I had a team of hundreds of engineers, artists, and musicians, fueled by millions of dollars. I have no doubt I could build something that would be worthy of all the attention. But, I don't want to work that hard. Roberta and I are quite happily retired and our first love these days is travel and adventure. Releasing a game that looks lame compared to the big-budget titles will tarnish my reputation. That said, I'm actually not concerned about my reputation. What really concerns me is that I am worried people will see Roberta's or my name and automatically buy the product and then be disappointed. Disappointing hundreds of thousands of Sierra fans would cause me to lose sleep for years to come. I seriously considered using a pseudonym for whatever I release.

And two: there's a side of me that loved Sierra's educational products. Our Dr. Brain series of games and products like "The Incredible Machine" were my favorite products. Profitably producing entertainment products is certainly a good thing, but the products I remember most are those that changed lives.  I still believe in the power of computers to influence kids in a good way. 

Just as when I started on my Fortran compiler in 1979, Roberta derailed me from my project and put me on a different path. She had an idea for a game that was the perfect game for me to be doing. I don't want to give any hints but when you hear what I'm working on you'll say, "Aha! I agree with Roberta. That really is the project that Ken should do." But I don't want to say too much. All we're saying at this point is: yes. It is an adventure game. Sierra fans will be happy. It's a true 3D adventure game. I'm coding in C# using the Unity engine. Marcus is using a wide range of different 3D tools including Blender. 

Re-Entering the Industry

I haven't focused yet on distribution. At this time I have no idea how we'll actually sell the game. I'm not doing this for the money. Marcus likes the idea of selling a boxed version of the game. Whatever we do, that will be part of the mix. I've seen a lot of projects ruined because the team took their eye off the ball. The priority now is to build a game that people would want to play. If we do that, distribution will be easy. If we don't, it was a waste of time to think about.

As for the development itself, I am loving it! I can't believe how good today's tools are. Imagine giving a caveman, who is used to chasing animals through the forest, and then clubbing them with a wooden stick, and then imagine how much more effective he could be if you gave him modern weaponry. Somehow, the pyramids were built without using a crane, but imagine how much simpler the project could have been? Imagine if you wanted to go to the moon before rockets had been invented. You could dream all you want, but you weren't going to get there. It's unbelievable that Sierra was able to produce games at all given our lack of tools and the limitations of the hardware. If Sierra were alive today, and if I had the incredible talent of Sierra's developers, with today's tools, it's scary to think about the amazing things that we could do. 

Getting Closer to Release Date

Our schedule is unknown. Both Marcus and I are enjoying the process and are in no hurry for it to end. That said, we're moving faster than either of us expected and already have something that we are quite proud of. We're within a month or so of having the first fully playable version of the game. Our plan is to spend several months polishing the game before showing it to beta testers. And then, take their feedback and spend several more months making the game better before showing it to the public.

I'd like to release the game sometime before the end of the year, but if it is next year, I won't be surprised. Ultimately, the game has to be great or we will have wasted a year of our lives. Neither of us is doing this "for the money." We're doing it because we want to produce a great game that people like playing. We'll keep at it until we reach that point.

Ken Williams, Game Developer

Interview conducted by Kseniya Serebrennikova

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