King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride

Introduction

Despite not selling as many copies as its direct predecessor, King’s Quest VI was yet another success for Sierra’s flagship franchise upon its 1992 release. While King’s Quest V was a major step up from its own direct predecessor in terms of presentation and gameplay, King’s Quest VI ironed out a majority of its flaws. The untrained office employees were replaced by professional voice actors. Combined with more user-friendly design choices and sensible puzzle solutions, there was little question King’s Quest VI managed to be the pinnacle of the franchise as soon as it debuted. Even if making a sequel was the logical thing to do, series creator Roberta Williams had her work cut out for her.

During this time, Disney’s success after having fully recovered from a nearly fatal slump in the 1980s effected what is believed to be the studio’s renaissance. The film most commonly cited for starting this era was The Little Mermaid in 1989. This triumph was then followed up by Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin in 1992. All three of these films are beloved classics by anyone versed in the medium – and even those who aren’t. Realizing just how much life these films breathed into the medium, the Sierra staff sought to capture that energy and transplant it into the next King’s Quest installment.

With the rising popularity of the CD-ROM format, Ms. Williams had begun drafting ideas for a game featuring heavy amounts of full-motion video footage. Its name was to be Phantasmagoria. As a result of her busy schedule, she helmed the development of King’s Quest VII alongside two other new directors: Lorelei Shannon and Andy Hoyos. Even so, Ms. Williams was enthusiastic about the project, often bouncing ideas off of Ms. Shannon. It was to the point where they were sad when the planning process came to an end, for Ms. Shannon believed they could have devised new ideas for the next two years.

In order to make as good of an impression as possible, Sierra’s co-founder, Ken Williams, had the idea to contact an up-and-coming animation studio known as Pixar. They had made a favorable impression on animation enthusiasts with their collection of short films, and were in the process of creating their theatrical debut: Toy Story. To Mr. Williams’s surprise, he received a call from Pixar founder Steve Jobs almost immediately after proposing a possible collaboration. Unfortunately for Sierra, the plan fell through when it became clear the Pixar team was far too busy to entertain making a short film for them. To bring their vision of an interactive cartoon into reality, Sierra contracted four animation houses: Animation Magic Inc., Dungeon Ink & Paint, LA West Film Production, and Animotion.

Despite the fact that most of these animators had limited experience in computer gaming, the development cycle proceeded fairly smoothly. The project eventually saw its completion in November of 1994 under the name King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. Being the seventh installment of a long-running franchise, King’s Quest VII had no problems finding an audience, selling 3.8 million copies within the next eighteen months. However, while fans and critics alike were enthusiastic about the series’ previous entries, the seventh left them divided. Some disliked the Disney-inspired presentation while others had nothing but praise for it. Although many games to follow the franchise’s pinnacle gain a new lease on life with the power of hindsight, King’s Quest VII remains a divisive entry to this very day. Was it even possible for Sierra to successfully follow up a game as beloved as King’s Quest VI?

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King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

Introduction

Jane Jensen, the youngest of seven children, always had a fondness for computers. Attending Anderson University in Indiana, she received a BA in computer science, a quickly budding field at the time. Shortly thereafter, she found herself working for Hewlett-Packard as a systems programmer. She then felt inspired to enter the gaming industry after playing a classic adventure title called King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. As fate would have it, her passion for computers and creative writing, led to her finding a job at Sierra OnLine where she wrote the scenarios for Police Quest III: The Kindred and EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. Both games were successes for the prolific company, but she was about to receive a task of even greater and personal importance.

In the year 1990, company co-founder Roberta Williams placed the finishing touches on King’s Quest V. This fifth installment in the company’s flagship series became the single greatest-selling game in the franchise. The following year, Ms. Williams, impressed with Ms. Jensen’s work, had an interesting proposal for the then-newcomer. She had already begun preliminary work on the newest King’s Quest game, having conceived a rough outline for the plot. The two of them then began working alongside each other, brainstorming new design ideas in the process. Their goal was to retain the familiar tone of the series had established in previous installments while giving the game an identity of its own. Furthermore, Ms. Williams wanted players to connect with the game on an emotional level, deciding to fulfill this objective by penning a central love story between two characters.

With King’s Quest V having been a significant technical leap from its predecessor, Ms. Williams sought to set her sights even higher for its sequel. Co-director Bill Skirvin along with the artists began work on storyboards and character designs. One artist in particular, John Shroades, had sketched the eighty backgrounds that would end up in the final product. Taking advantage of the recent advent of motion capture technology, the team ended up transcribing the movement of live-action actors for the potential player decisions and subsequent character animations – of which there were over 2,000. Similarly, the game would feature over 6,000 lines of written messages. Handling this task was Ms. Jensen, who scripted the game, defining for programmers how it should respond to a given action.

Development of this game was completed by September of 1992. In an interview for The New York Times, Ms. Williams estimated the game’s budget was around $700,000 USD. The crew, led by her, Mr. Skirvin, and Ms. Jensen, consisted of twenty people and the project took fourteen months to complete. Although it was scheduled for a release in September of 1992, Sierra delayed it until the thirteenth of October. Entitled King’s Quest IV: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow, the fruit of their labor was originally released on nine floppy disks for DOS and Macintosh. It was rereleased upon an emerging format – the CD-ROM – in 1993 for DOS and Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows. Taking advantage of this new format, the team added a voiceover for every single line of dialogue and included a ballad named “Girl in the Tower”, which was composed by Mark Seibert. Sierra sent a CD containing the song to local radio stations and included a pamphlet listing them along with every copy of the game. In the pamphlet, they suggested fans request the song to be played. The owners of said radio stations were not impressed; they legally threatened Sierra as a result of the myriad requests with which they were bombarded. This prompted a bemused Ken Williams to label the stations the real criminals for ignoring their customers – “something [he believed] no business should ever do”.

Although King’s Quest VI didn’t sell as many copies as the series’ fifth installment, it ended up being the single best-received game in the series. Every single one of its five predecessors was similarly well-received, yet King’s Quest VI seemed to possess something they lacked: staying power. When parsing the first five installments in the series from a modern perspective, one is likely to conclude they don’t hold up so well. They were all, to some extent, trailblazers, yet any contemporary review will invariably include phrases such as “fair for its time” or “aged horribly”. This isn’t true of King’s Quest VI – even now, you can find it on lists compiling the greatest PC games ever made. Is this the installment that allowed the series to finally escape the genre’s early trappings and deliver an experience worthy of being called an all-time classic?

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King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!

Introduction

On the eve of the release of King’s Quest IV, series creator Roberta Williams had many reservations – many of which were shared by her company, Sierra. Their flagship series’ fourth installment was to cast a female character in the lead role in an era when the medium had a predominately male fanbase. Princesses were expected to get captured so they could be saved by the noble hero; giving one an adventure of her own was simply unheard of. On top of that, Sierra had just finished developing their new game engine: the Sierra’s Creative Interpreter. Having been specifically designed for 16-bit little-endian computers, they feared many longtime fans lacked the resources to play it. They could not have anticipated King’s Quest IV to sell 100,000 copies within two weeks of its launch. Many journalists had nothing but praise for the new female lead – a sentiment shared by fans of the series.

With this success, the series had a future after gaining a powerful rival in the form of LucasArts. It was therefore only natural for Sierra to keep up the momentum by developing a sequel. After the significant technological leap from King’s Quest III, the programmers were in the process of refining their newest engine. The second version of the SCI engine, SCI1, was to feature 256 colors. Ms. Williams once again found herself in the director’s chair for the game that was to showcase the engine’s new capabilities.

As was the case with King’s Quest IV, Sierra sought to make the game as accessible as they could. The original version would be released on a floppy disk while owners of top-end computers could utilize a format gaining popularity for its superior storage capabilities: the CD-ROM. Furthermore, it was during this time that PC game developers began taking note of the rapidly growing console market. Thanks to the successful launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the North American console market had recovered from its devastating 1983 crash, and it was soon outpacing the PC in terms of popularity. While PC gaming required a degree of expertise most people simply did not possess at the time, anyone could place a cartridge into NES and commence playing. By the end of the decade, anything released on the NES was guaranteed a significant return on investment for the developers. As a result, Sierra collaborated with the prolific, Tokyo-based developer Konami to create and release a port for the NES.

This installment, King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!, was released in November of 1990. Sierra spared no expense making King’s Quest V, giving Ms. Williams and her team a budget of one-million dollars. The company’s gambit paid off, for the game, like its predecessor, was a commercial success, moving 500,000 copies over the next few years. For a significant length of time, it had been the best-selling PC game of all time until 1995 when Cyan, Inc.’s Myst surpassed it. Many magazines praised it for its exemplary VGA graphics and sound card utilization with critics considering it the single greatest installment in the series thus far. Was King’s Quest V able ensure the popular series had a leg to stand on in the new decade?

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King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella

Introduction

Like the two installments before it, King’s Quest III was a great commercial and critical success upon its release. Fans were initially confused as to what its protagonist, Gywdion, had anything to do with the adventures of King Graham. After a few months passed, they answered the questions for themselves, and began seeing King’s Quest III as the best game in the series thus far. Whether or not a sequel would be made was never a question, for Roberta Williams and her team dropped many hints throughout their game that King’s Quest IV lurked just around the corner.

Though the visuals had improved in subtle ways since the inception of Sierra’s Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) engine, it was beginning to show its age. In 1987, LucasArts released Maniac Mansion. This unique take on the adventure game genre ended up being a grand success in its own right, impressing critics with its cast of characters and smart humor. Among those who praised it was acclaimed science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card. In the face of this fierce, new competitor, Sierra needed to step up their game to remain relevant. This led to the creation of the AGI engine’s successor, SCI. Interchangeably referred to as both the Script Code Interpreter and Sierra’s Creative Interpreter, this new engine was designed by programmer Jeff Stephenson

With the outdated engine ready to be replaced, there was no better game Sierra could have chosen to than the latest installment of their flagship King’s Quest series. However, as the engine was designed specifically for 16-bit little-endian computers, they realized longtime fans may not have the specifications required to run a game made with the SCI engine. On top of that, the engine had not yet been proven commercially. Therefore, Ms. Williams and her team opted to develop two versions of the game concurrently: one would be built using the AGI engine and the other upon the SCI engine. The former was intended as a fallback in the event the latter didn’t sell. Fortunately for Sierra, the series’ fourth installment, entitled King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella, ended up moving 100,000 copies within two weeks of its debut in August of 1988. Even better, the SCI version comprised a majority of those sales, eliminating the need for its AGI counterpart, which was discontinued mere months after its release. The commercial success of King’s Quest IV proved beyond any shadow of a doubt the sheer popularity of the series. Was the new SCI engine what the series needed to evolve?

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King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human

Introduction

With her successful series of adventure games that debuted on the Apple II computer, Roberta Williams proceeded to create King’s Quest in 1984. Once this game was ported to a greater variety of platforms, it became a bestseller. This paved the way for a sequel a year later: King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. It too became a hit with adventure game enthusiasts. While she was satisfied with her games from Mystery House to King’s Quest II, she relented that they were “essentially glorified treasure hunts”. The plots served no higher purpose than informing players of what their end goal was. This began to change by the mid-eighties. With computer platforms such as the IBM AT, Amiga, and Macintosh boasting a superior processing power compared to the previous generation, many new possibilities opened up.

Ms. Williams wished to take advantage of these machines to set her sights higher in the form of a brand-new installment in her popular King’s Quest series. She found herself leading a much larger team this time around, though it consisted of many of the same people who worked with her on her previous two games. The lead programmer was one Al Lowe, who made a living as a jazz musician before joining Sierra. He composed the music of King’s Quest II, and saw this as the perfect opportunity to learn the ins and outs of programming before creating something of his own while his wife, Margaret made the music. The game saw its release in October of 1986 under the name King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human. Like its two predecessors, King’s Quest III was highly popular among adventure game fans. It is common for retrospectives to cite this particular installment as the one in which the series began hitting its stride. Was Ms. Williams able to use the new technology to elevate her series to a new level?

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King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne

Introduction

After porting King’s Quest to a greater variety of platforms, it quickly became an overnight success for Roberta Williams and Sierra On-Line. It provided a novel take on the adventure game formula. Not only was it played from a third-person perspective, the protagonist had a name and backstory. This was quite a contrast from contemporaries, including Ms. Williams’s first efforts. In the oldest adventure games, protagonists were a little more than a stand-in for the player. In extreme cases, the two characters were one in the same. By going so far off the beaten path, Ms. Williams ensured her work shaped the genre in the coming years.

Shortly after the game’s release in 1984, Ms. Williams began thinking about where the story should go from there. Sir Graham, now King Graham, rules the land and is beloved by his subjects. She then realized he needed a queen to accompany him. Envisioning him starting a family, Ms. Williams would have Graham take the first step towards making it a reality. Joined by two up-and-coming designers named Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, who vowed to make the game an even greater hit than the original, she began work on a sequel. It was released in 1985 under the name King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne. Despite Sierra’s best efforts to make King’s Quest II a killer app for IBM’s PCjr platform alongside its predecessor, it was discontinued the very same year. Much like the original, it became a bestseller once it was ported to a greater variety of platforms such as the Apple IIe, Tandy 1000, and standard PCs. Does this sequel successfully take the series in a brave, new direction?

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King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown

Introduction

In 1980, Roberta Williams and her husband, Ken, founded a company named On-Line Systems. Shortly thereafter, they released their first product: Mystery House. This Apple II title stood out from the pioneering Colossal Cave Adventure and all of the adventure games spawned in the wake of its success by featuring graphics. Before that moment, adventure games were like interactive novels – they conveyed stories and plot developments exclusively through text. The idea that one could interact with the environment and see the changes their actions had on it was groundbreaking at the time. As a result, Mystery House ended up selling nearly 80,000 copies worldwide over the next two years. Fueled by her success, Ms. Williams created four more games in the following years for the Apple II platform: Wizard and the Princess, Mission Asteroid, Time Zone, and The Dark Crystal. The last of these was based on the 1982 high fantasy film of the same name directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

In the midst of these successes in late 1982, the famous computer company IBM contacted On-Line Systems, then known as Sierra On-Line, with an interesting proposal. They were putting the finishing touches on the PCjr home computer.

This new model was to retain the IBM PC’s central processing unit and BIOS Interface, but with an array of improvements, including enhanced graphics, slots for ROM cartridges, joystick ports, and an infrared wireless keyboard. With the opportunity to bring her work to a new platform, Ms. Williams accepted IBM’s proposal.

This new game was to be a departure from any of the ones she had developed for the Apple II computer. While her previous work consisted of static images presented from a first-person perspective, Ms. Williams sought to include animation. In her words, it was to be “the ultimate cartoon – a cartoon [the audience] can participate in”. To this end, programmer Arthur Abraham developed a prototype. Though he wouldn’t remain on the team by the end of the project, this prototype formed the basis for the game’s engine. Ms. Williams and her team of six full-time programmers worked on the game for eighteen months, official releasing it in May of 1984. Its name was King’s Quest.

IBM heavily promoted King’s Quest and their PCjr system, making sure to highlight its realistic animation and variety of sound effects. This made their ultimate decision to discontinue the product less than a year later all the more shocking to Sierra. As a result of the PCjr’s poor reception, King’s Quest itself didn’t sell well. However, Sierra wasn’t about to let their hard work go to waste. Using the development system, they were able to port the game to the Tandy 1000, the Apple IIe, and standard PCs. With King’s Quest widely accessible, it quickly became a bestseller. To historians, Mystery House provided the blueprints for the adventure game formula while King’s Quest perfected it. Does it still hold up as one of the greatest adventure games of all time?

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The Colonel’s Bequest

Laura Bow 1

Introduction

The Colonel’s Bequest is an adventure game originally released in 1989 for MS-DOS. It was made by Sierra co-founder Roberta Williams, who is most famous for being the creator of the King’s Quest series. Nine years prior, she created a game for Apple II computers named Mystery House. Both games drew inspiration from Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None, in that they feature the protagonist being introduced to a cast of characters who, one-by-one, end up murdered. Though practically unplayable by today’s standards, Mystery House has its rightful place in history for being the first adventure game to feature graphics. This fact coupled with the King’s Quest series experiencing much more commercial success have made The Colonel’s Bequest something of a forgotten game in Sierra’s lineup.

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