The Beginnings of Sierra Part 1

With the impending demise of the iconic publisher Sierra, I figured it would fruitful to look around the office and see what items I could find that relate to the publisher/developer's beginnings.  It's interesting that once I decided to keep an eye out for a specific company, I realized that I had a lot of things I could relate to it. Makes me wonder how much I will regret not photographing absolutely everything I come across, since most of it ties directly to some potential theme. With that said, I'm going to dive into the first segment of a two-maybe-three part series on the beginnings of Sierra.  The first installment will look back on Sierra before it was Sierra, when it was a small company called On-Line Systems that started on the kitchen table of Roberta and Ken Williams.

Imagine if you will, a more innocent time, a time before first person shooters and violence debates, before the coming dominance of graphics over substance (not totally, but I'm trying to be dramatic here :P), when the most immersive, and narratively rich games were simply text based.  At this time, 1979 to be exact, a Fortran developer named Ken Williams had been bringing his TRS-80 home from work.  He had started a new company on the side, named On-Line Systems, and was working on a Fortran compiler for the Apple II.  The TRS-80, aside from being an inert hunk of metal and cathode, saw to it to draw his wife Roberta into the world of early text adventures, and as a result she decided to give it a go and make her own game.  Their resulting collaboration became the first graphical-text adventure game in history, "Mystery House: Hi-Res Adventures #1". It took cues from previous adventure games, notably Scott Adams' Adventure International series (I have a good deal of those too, so they will get a post shortly), but added something startlingly new.....really, really, simple black and white pictures.

The game managed to sell rather well, and the Williams produced two more adventure games for the Hi-Res line, "The Wizard and the Princess/Adventure in Serenia", and "Mission: Asteroid", along with at least eight other titles within the burgeoning company's first two years.  While I do not have any of those titles physically on hand (in fact the only one we do have in the collection is "Mission: Asteroid") I did recently find the first issue of the "On-Line Letter", a newsletter celebrating the first anniversary of On-Line Systems and providing close look at the beginnings of the Sierra behemoth.

On-Line Letter Cover: Note the Scary Knight and Kitty!On-Line Letter Cover: Note the Scary Knight and Kitty!

There are numerous things to discuss contained within, but instead of just typing about them (since I love making you read this so, so much) I figured I'd just take pictures of the interesting stuff.  First up is the back cover of the issue, featuring an ad for all three Hi-Res games, along with plot blurbs and cover illustrations. (A mild side-note, if you click on any picture here it will lead you to the image page for that picture, if you select "Original", you can get a much larger, and more readable version of each of these pages.)

On-Line Letter Back: Definitely Not ScreenshotsOn-Line Letter Back: Definitely Not Screenshots

And now the table of contents, just to give everyone a nice enumeration of what's inside. I'm impressed that whoever edited this managed to have two different interpretations of how to spell "strategy" present on a single page.

On-Line Letter TOC: Starkly Utilitarian DesignOn-Line Letter TOC: Starkly Utilitarian Design

The last picture relates to the article "Winning Stratagies[sic] for Adventures". Written by Roberta Williams, it introduces adventure games to those not in the know, and suggests various approaches for the successful completion of the now-introduced genre. I left the original image (in the gallery) rather large, so the article is completely readable if you click on it, and in my opinion very cute and humble.

On-Line Letter Roberta Williams Article: Stratagies With An "E"On-Line Letter Roberta Williams Article: Stratagies With An "E"

Sadly, when I first found this the other week I decided not to take a picture of the On-Line Systems anniversary party page.  It featured people from the early eighties (a theme of this blog if you haven't noticed) enjoying what looked like a California themed ho-down, and men who look like Ewoks wearing aviator sunglasses (though Ewoks didn't yet exist, so I guess they are proto-Ewoks).  I'm upset that I didn't take a picture of it, because I think it allows you to see (as these other pages do) the small and familial nature of a company that would balloon into one of PC gaming's most prominent companies. 

The next installment will feature lots of early "Sierra Vision" PC titles, and introduces the first incarnation of Sierra's famous mountain logo. So, from all of us here at the Cabrinety Blog to all you out there in Internetland, good night/morning/afternoon.


Eric those are awesome shots.

Eric those are awesome shots. :) Dated from June 1981 that is absolutely insane. I would never thought possible for those thing to exist at that time. I wasn't even born at that time, but I was already interested in gaming :)
Peter- the commercial ice machine expert.
Excellent post. Thank you very much!

I love it when you say "not

I love it when you say "not to be a..." and then follow it up with exactly It's too bad about Sierra, but I'm diggin the flashback to the 80s though. -- Dave