One of my current favorite Kickstarter projects is Heroes: The History of Sierra Online. What gamer could resist the story of the pioneering company that went from the kitchen table of Roberta and Ken Williams to eventually dominate the gaming industry with their wildly popular adventure games?
I had the good fortune to chat with Luke Yost and Patrick Clark, the ambitious dudes behind this project.
Ray: I’m a documentary freakazoid. I’ll be the first person in line to see this movie when it’s released! What led you to documentary work? What’s your background?
Luke: For as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be on TV or something like that. I was always making videos as a kid. When I got into high school, we had a local public access station. I joined up with a Boy Scout Explorers group and hosted and helped produce a show for all four years of high school. Following that, I never lost my passion for filmmaking.
Patrick: Almost the same thing! My parents bought me a video camera and I started making stupid movies. I also had a public access television show.
Luke: Pat and I share a love of movies and film and documentaries and we’ve always talked about starting our own company to make a film.
Ray: I generally don’t talk about age in interviews, but it does feel relevant to a project like this. Let me get to it this way: How long have you been playing games? Can you give me a bit of your history as a gamer?
Patrick: I have been playing Sierra games since I was a little kid. My father was a computer programmer for an insurance company in Connecticut. He’d take me into work after hours. The latest game that everyone at work was loving was the original Leisure Suit Larry. Of course I didn’t understand any of the innuendos but I still loved exploring that world. Ever since then I’ve loved those games: Space Quest, Quest For Glory, Legend of Zelda, Shadow Gate, Maniac Mansion, etc. I’ve basically been a gamer my whole life.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
Ray: Have you found that the principals you want to interview are eager to speak on camera?
Luke: Absolutely. By and large, everybody was eager to speak. When Patrick and I formed this company a year and a half ago, we started brainstorming ideas on what would be a great first project. There were a few ideas on the table. Patrick began doing some homework and started feeling out various people. I’ll never forget waking up one morning and finding a bunch of messages from various people we’d contacted saying, yes, I’d be interested in talking with you! It just became clear that this was the project to do, and we began pouring 100% of our efforts into it. We began researching the principals and behind the scenes people.
Of course we wanted Ken and Roberta [Williams]. We knew we didn’t have a documentary without them.
But the more we talked with people and the more they began warming to the idea, they began turning us on to other figures from that era. The Sierra alums were just so gracious.
Ray: I’m assuming you don’t have all the interviews in the can yet?
No, there’s still some more we’d like to do. We’re working through timing conflicts and some other logistical challenges. We really want to interview Scott Murphy [co-creator of the Space Quest series]. Guruka Singh Khalsa [Sierra game producer] is another big one we’d like to get. Also Jeff Stephenson [creator of the Sierra Creative Interpreter, the script language for many of the games], who is on a milk carton somewhere. We cannot find this man; nobody seems to know where he is. Other Sierra people have reached out to us through the Kickstarter campaign.
Ray: How about Jane Jensen?
Oh, yes, she was one of the first, she and her husband Robert Holmes.
Ray: Anyone seem to have any old scores to settle?
Luke: We were inspired by Hackers by Steve Levy. About a third of the book is about Sierra in the early days. This is a company which was created by two people in their late twenties. They were hiring people straight out of high school and bringing in people from all over the country. A group this diverse – and creatives, at that – will end up having drama. I think everyone had great respect for one another, though.
Patrick: There are some people who have never gotten over things.
Luke: But no one seemed to have regretted the Sierra experience whatsoever.
Ray: Did the Williamses discus the painful experience of King’s Quest VIII
Patrick: They did. Roberta wasn’t involved in that game much at all. Her name had basically been hijacked to sell that game.
Luke: The company, by 1996, had decided to sell out. I think Ken needed a rest and his understanding of how this buyout was going to take place was: He was going to stay on and be a consultant and be able to cherry pick his projects. Roberta had a similar understanding. But it didn’t work out.
Ray: Will the film deal with Phantasmagoria?
Patrick: Phantasmagoria was a huge hit. It was so over the top in its gore and its subject matter that it was shocking to a bunch of people when it first came out, including me! In the movie, we interview Andy Hoyos [director of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh] talks about how the experience nearly killed him! It was a life-altering experience for a lot of the Sierra people; it shook them to the core.
Ray: Do any of the people you talked with still work in gaming?
Patrick: Christy Marx [designer of Conquests of Camelot and Conquests of the Longbow] works for Zynga. Most of them are completely out of it.
Luke: A lot of them tried to stay in the business after Sierra closed their doors, but I would say the vast majority of them have moved on to different careers. Of course, there are the more famous examples – people like Josh Mandel, Al Lowe, Jane Jensen, the Coles, etc., who are still involved or who have returned. But most left the industry. I think that’s what’s fascinating about this story: These are people who came from all of these varied backgrounds. Laurie Cole [Quest For Glory] was a teacher. Al Lowe was a music teacher. Jane Jensen had been working for Hewlett-Packard when she joined Sierra. People came to Sierra from so many different backgrounds and it just somehow worked. It created a billion dollar company. And then one day it was as if somebody had switched out the lights. That’s what’s endlessly fascinating about this story to us.
Ray: Did you get the sense that the people who left the industry still miss it?
Luke: I think deep down inside of all of them, they’d all like to be back in the game.
Patrick: Including Ken.
Luke: Yes. Ken’s glad he has his life back, but he misses being a player. A lot of the Sierra folks have been inspired by the successful Kickstarter comebacks. I don’t think you can ever take the gamer out of these people.
Ray: How do you feel about the current state of adventure games? Do you think the Sierra legacy lives on in any way?
Patrick: Absolutely. Some people might disagree, but I see the same feelings in games like Skyrim. It’s not point-and-click, but it’s the same spirit.
Luke: I think if nothing else, what we learned from people like the Roberta Williams, the Coles, Jane Jensen, Christy Marx, Lorelei Shannon [King’s Quest VII, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh], people like that, was that they loved so many different kinds of subject matter. They sat down and did research. They went to the library. They bought books. I think the legacy that we see now is how in-depth and how authentic these elements look. Technology may have not been on their side in the old days, but the storytelling aspect was there, and you can be sure that the designers obsessed over the games to make them feel as authentic as possible.
King's Quest: Quest for the Crown
Ray: How much longer does the Kickstarter have to go?
Luke: Early August. And whether we reach our goal or not, Kickstarter has helped raise awareness of the project. It’s a great marketing tool. We’ve generated a lot of great awareness for the film. The film is going to get made. Our goal is next January. It’s going to happen. This story is going to be told, because it’s much too fascinating a story just to leave to the ether.
Ray: Anything else?
Luke: One of the most interesting things for us has been meeting the people behind the scenes. You might have seen their names in the credits, but they were not marquee names. They had some of the most interesting stories for us, to help us get a 360 degree picture of the company. We didn’t anticipate learning as much as we did. How open people were surprised us as well.
That’s why we titled this film Heroes. It’s a credit to those people, all the hard work that they did, to bring millions of people joy and excitement and adventure. One story we kept hearing was that they kept getting fan mail from behind the Iron Curtain. People were learning English from these games! The games gave people hope and escape.
We started off wanting to make a film about games. But as we delved into the subject and doing research and doing pre-interviews over the phone, there was just this much broader, more interesting story about these people and how they made this company come to be. Sierra wasn’t a game factory. These were real life personalities and interesting people and craziness going on behind the scenes. Against all odds, this company, which began on Ken and Roberta Williams’ kitchen table, rose to dominate the gaming industry. That’s how it’s evolved for us. I think what people will take away from this is, “I never knew that. Wow! How cool.”
Many thanks to Luke and Patrick. And here’s a link to their Kickstarter page if you’d like to participate!
Finally, here’s a link to their production company, Molotov Angel. Visit it to get updates on the film! http://www.molotovangel.com/index.html