Colossal Cave – The Interview

When thinking about the pioneers of gaming, who comes to mind? What games can you think about that truly helped the games of today? Games always had to start with an idea before they can become a reality. But sometimes those ideas can become ahead of their time and have a following that one can only hope to have. So when I heard that the founders of Sierra-On-Line had started a new company and remaking one of their text-based games for a new generation with the immersion of VR, I had to learn more. So I reached out and the co-founder of Cygnus Entertainment, Ken Williams, was happy to talk about their latest game Colossal Cave as well as talking about Virtual Reality.

Interview co-founder of Cygnus Entertainment, Ken Williams

Welcome to THE VR DIMENSION. Would you please introduce yourself and what you do at Cygnus Entertainment?

“Greetings! I am Ken Williams. I founded Cygnus Entertainment together with my wife in order to publish a remake of the game Colossal Cave Adventure. Colossal Cave (CC3D) was launched nearly 50 years ago and we credit it with creating an entire category of games plus being the inspiration for our company Sierra On-Line. Both Roberta and I consider it one of the best-designed games ever created and wanted to bring the game to a new generation.”

What have been some of your fondest game memories?

“Our company, Sierra On-Line, was once considered the technological pioneers of the industry. We used to have a saying that “Leaders lead and followers follow”. Sierra perceived its role in the industry as, “It was our job to figure where the industry was going”. We took this responsibility very seriously and pioneered technologies like graphic cards, enhanced sound, multiplayer games, etc. My greatest moments were the times we’d do something no one had seen a computer do before. For example, I remember a time, many years before the Internet when Sierra wanted to see what would happen if we built a device called “The Constant Companion” which would be sold to seniors and allow them to pick up a card game, “7 days a week, 24 hours a day, against a real human”. We actually built the network and put the hardware into seniors’ homes, and the seniors loved it. How can that not be a moment to remember? It was amazing! “

You and Roberta Williams have been part of some milestone games under Sierra Entertainment such as Diablo, the King’s Quest series, Mickey’s Space Adventure, Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, and even Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Your newest game is a reimagining of a game, but in a fully immersive VR experience called Colossal Cave 3D Adventure. What can you tell us about the game?

“CC3D was a text adventure that is not at all a traditional adventure game. It had no role model and wasn’t a copy of anything anyone had seen before. And yet, the original authors (Will Crowther and Don Woods) built a game that has become a cultural phenomenon. It has been published by Microsoft, Apple, AND Atari. Phrases from the game, like “XYZZY” and “PLUGH” have entered our vocabulary. As Roberta and I have dug deep into the game, studying the original source code, we are seeing things that we never would have guessed were there. The game is huge! It isn’t an adventure game in the way that modern games might define it and it would be wrong to pigeonhole it as such. There is scoring and there is action. There are AI elements where the game is watching you play and adjusting the challenge to meet the player. This game was so far ahead of its time. We are being very careful as we go to preserve the original design. We see ourselves as preserving an important part of our industry’s history. This is not simply a remake of an old game. We would not have come out of retirement to do that.”

What can you tell us about the treasure?

“There is traditional treasure in this game (a Golden Egg, a Pearl, Coins, etc) but the real treasure are the characters you meet along the way and the journey itself. The real treasure in this game is the underground cave system. The original designers were spelunkers and it comes through as you dig deeper and deeper into the cave. We’ve studied every word of the original design and are trying to recreate the world as the original designers intended it to exist.”

What can you tell us about the different characters the player will come across and which one is your favorite?

“It will be interesting to see how players play the game. This game is so well known that anyone wanting to solve a puzzle can always go to the internet for a solution. We hope they don’t, although probably many will. They can also ask their friends. The characters you will encounter are well known to everyone and include a dragon, a bird, a pirate, dwarves, a snake, a troll, etc. My favorite is probably the dwarves because they have so many different personalities and behaviors. All of them are interesting in their own way.”

What did you find the most challenging in not only starting a new company but bringing a game like Colossal Cave 3D Adventure into VR?

“We started the game on PC only and hadn’t really thought about building it for VR. I knew Unity (the game engine we are using) supported VR but I hadn’t put on a VR headset in decades and wasn’t current with the technology. One of our artists was a big fan of Oculus and encouraged me to take a look. I bought a Quest 2 headset and was blown away. At first, I thought it would be easy to add support, but as we dug in we realized that code compatibility was one issue, but to really do VR right you have to design and build for it from the beginning. Roberta is compulsive about fine details. She played some other games, and early versions of our game, and didn’t like how it felt. She then spent almost a month thinking about how players move in the world and interact with the world. She made us start over with a complete new set of graphics, and a new movement system (Locomotion) that she created. Whereas I had originally thought VR would be a conversion from our PC game, the world changed when we started digging into VR. it became the tail that wagged the dog.”

Without giving away too much, can you give away at least one secret of the game?

“Beware the dwarves!”

Can you tell us about some of the different environments in the game and will there be any Easter Eggs that players will want to be on the lookout for from your games of the past?

“Sierra was known for dropping in easter eggs. We probably will put some into this game, but have been holding ourselves back. At Sierra, I always fought against easter eggs unless they were ones that weren’t “inside humor”. A lot of the jokes were about people working on the team and I didn’t think customers would get them.

As to the game environments, one of our challenges has been to make sure there is plenty in the cave’s terrain to keep the player interested. Given that 95% of the game takes place underground, and is a huge game, we were faced with the battle of how to keep the world fresh and interesting for the player. We’ve accomplished that by breaking the cave system into regions and spending a lot of time working with artists to give different personalities to each region of the cave system. We want players to constantly be surprised and enchanted as they dig deeper into the earth. 

When it comes to developing for VR, what have you found to be the most surprising?

“VR is more immersive than I first realized. Putting the sound so close to your ears and playing with the locations of where sounds come from in a 3d world is far more compelling and immersive than I had originally realized. I still don’t love having to wear the headset for hours. I’ll be happy when the headsets get lighter and less annoying, but the tradeoff is graphic horsepower. It really feels like we are at the beginning of another revolution for the industry.”

Have you found anything sound-wise that you are still trying to perfect?

“I wouldn’t say that we are trying to “perfect” the sound. We are trying to use it effectively and wisely. There can be a tendency to play too much music and too much sound, and it takes away from the immersion. We’re learning as we go what works and what doesn’t.”

What would be the top three pieces of advice you would give someone starting to create for VR?

“Fun question! My advice would be to not get too enamored with gimmickry. There is a lot of whiz-bang stuff, like grabbing things in the 3d world with your hands, that really do look cool, but don’t always play well for the player. I’d say experiment with all that stuff, and know what it is, but then focus on building a great game and employ all of those things if they fit the game and not just because you want to show that you know how. Pay attention to frame rates from day one. It isn’t easy to deliver a lot of action with a solid frame rate, and if you don’t design around what is possible from the beginning you will be in deep trouble (Don’t ask how I know).”

Colossal Cave 3D Adventure is coming to the Quest 2. Are there any plans to bring the game to other platforms such as PlayStation VR/2, Steam VR, or Viveport?

“I can’t comment beyond saying that you can bet we’d like everyone with every headset to be able to play the game.”

Out of all the games that you have created, what game or series would you like to receive the VR treatment?

“I wish we’d have had the capabilities of modern VR headsets back in the Sierra days. Our Dynamix Division made some very cool products like flight simulators (Pro Pilot, Red Baron, Aces Over the Pacific) that would have been incredible in VR. I also think some of their educational products, like The Incredible Machine, could have been amazing in VR. Also in education, we published software that taught players to drive a car. In VR it would have been so much more effective. And then there are games like Phantasmagoria where our mantra was, “Could a computer make you scared?” We pulled it off with Phantasmagoria, but when I think about how much creepier the whole game could have been in VR, wow! And then, there’s Leisure-Suit Larry .. but, I won’t go there…”

If you stepped through the door of THE VR DIMENSION, and could be any character from any game or franchise that you were responsible for, but had to be in the world of Colossal Cave 3D Adventure, who would it be and why?

“You’re asking the wrong guy. My skills are management, technology, marketing, selling, and finance. You’ll note creativity is not on the list. For that, I turn to Roberta and the creative people on our team. I do all I can to avoid getting involved in game design. That said, I’d probably want to be Roger Wilco (Space Quest) or Larry (Leisure-Suit Larry). As a player, I like games with a sense of humor. This game, CC3D, has plenty of humor and that’s one of the things players will like about it. It’s a very subtle humor but it’s there and part of the game’s charm.”

With the content for Virtual Reality continuing to grow, what would you say to someone as to why they should experience Colossal Cave 3D?

“Roberta says it is the best adventure game ever designed. Whereas back in the Sierra days Adventure Games were a well-respected genre and we pretty much owned the category, they haven’t seemed to dominate today’s market. I’d like to think that taking the best adventure game ever made and bringing it up to, and beyond, modern standards, would open player’s eyes to a very different and interesting kind of game.”

I really want to thank Ken for taking the time out of their day to give us a closer look into Colossal Cave as well as talking about Virtual Reality.

Colossal Cave is coming soon to the Quest 2.

To learn more about Colossal Cave, please visit the site, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, follow them on Instagram, follow them on Twitch, and subscribe to the YouTube channel.

In case you missed the trailer, please enjoy.

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