Right before her 20-plus year retirement, Roberta Williams could see how the video game industry was about to leave the adventure game genre behind.
Set in motion in the 1970s by a text adventure game called Colossal Cave Adventure, the genre would never be the same after Roberta and her husband, Ken Williams, entered the industry. They became video game royalty by forming Sierra On-Line, the studio behind games such as King’s Quest, Phantasmagoria, and Leisure Suit Larry. But during the development of King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity, Roberta’s final game before she retired from the game industry, she could see that even her adventure game development team was getting more interested in action than the slower-paced, story-driven games she had blessed the industry with.
The culprit behind this revelation? Duke Nukem 3D.
“I remember Duke Nukem was big when I was working on King’s Quest VIII. A lot of programmers and artists at Sierra at that time were all playing Duke Nukem,” Roberta recalled to Digital Trends in an interview. “I could see how excited they were by playing a game that was so different than what gaming had been up to this point. I could see a little bit of the writing on the wall that adventure games were going to stop being so interesting and popular, and that quick action was going to become more popular. Not that it would ever go away, but I could see it fading a little bit more into the background at the time. And then, indeed, that’s what happened.”
Roberta and Ken Williams would sell Sierra On-Line, with the rights to their classics eventually ending up at Activision Blizzard. Ken and Roberta have been quiet in their retirement, with their work fading into gaming history as developers like Amy Hennig, Neil Druckmann, and Sam Barlow innovated what a video game narrative could be. Everything Roberta thought would happen did, but Ken and Roberta Williams made it clear in an interview with Digital Trends that they’re now back to settle unfished business. They’ll do so with Colossal Cave, a 3D remake of the text-based adventure game that inspired the creation of Sierra On-Line.
The adventure ends
Ken and Roberta Williams’ retirement changed the course of the video game industry. If they had stayed, Ken tells Digital Trends that Sierra might have started marketing and selling its game engine, but that’s not what happened. Because of games like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Super Mario 64, and more, adventure games became less relevant. “Back when we were originally in the business, probably 80% of the bestsellers were adventure games, and now it’s like a quarter-of-a-percent,” Ken said.
Roberta can’t help but wonder if what happened to adventure games was their fault . “I think that when we exited the business, to a certain extent, the genre started to stagnate, maybe partially because we were no longer in it and we were the premier developers of adventure games … Had we stayed in the business and not sold Sierra, who knows where we might have evolved that genre, but we weren’t, so that’s that.”
Ken and Roberta left Sierra On-Line by the end of 1998. In turn, adventure games would become significantly more niche than in Sierra’s heyday. They eventually donated many old Sierra On-Line design documents and memorabilia to The Strong Museum of Play. Still, a lot of that original artwork and other game materials were thrown away by Sierra as preservation was not on the mind of developers at the time.
Sierra On-Line would shut down after Vivendi Games merged with Activision in 2008. After that, its name would only be revived once in the mid-2010s for a reboot of King’s Quest. Sierra would never again reach the heights of its 1980s and ’90s’success, and for the most part, the industry appeared to move on, preferring games that were more like Duke Nukem 3D and less like King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity. It would stay that way for a long time.
Adventure games have been on an upswing lately, though, in the indie gaming scene. Developers like Telltale helped redefine the genre and, in turn, opened the door for some more traditional point-and-clicks to come back and find success. Recently, Ron Gilbert returned with a new Monkey Island game last year, while the game Norco was critically acclaimed and is thought of as one of the best games of 2022.
Still, many of these titles are simply callbacks to an already well-established formula. With Colossal Cave, Roberta and Ken are returning to the game industry in a different era to create that next evolution of their classic adventure game they never made.
“In a certain sense, coming back with Colossal Cave and doing it the way we’re doing it is my chance to see what I would do,” Roberta says. “Now I can take this game, which is a proven game, and give it VR, immersiveness, 3D, beautiful art, gameplay, characters, music, and sound effects, and create this world, start to do what I might have done had we stuck with it. In other words, this might be that next iteration of the adventure game that never was done.”
Two of the most influential adventure game developers are now here to make sure the genre truly has gotten back on track and stays there in an industry that’s much different than it was in the 1990s. But it wasn’t always going to be that way.
The adventure begins again
Roberta Williams wasn’t planning to design a video game a couple of years ago. Just as the industry had moved on from the games Sierra On-Line had made, Ken and Roberta had found other interests and were content exploring them. They both admit to Digital Trends that they aren’t very avid gamers outside of the confines of game development, so years of industry changes and trends passed them by. Then, they were stuck inside due to the pandemic lockdowns.
During this time, Ken started to tinker around with Unity, a multi-purpose game engine behind games like Hollow Knight and Escape from Tarkov; it was like the very kind of game engine the couple might have released had they stayed at Sierra On-Line. Ken was tinkering around with a few little ideas as he was learning this 3D-programming software, and that’s when an idea popped into Roberta’s head out of nowhere: he could use Unity to recreate Colossal Cave, the text adventure game that started it all for the Williamses. She thought it’d be “fairly easy for Ken to do” without her involvement. She was wrong.
Making a fully 3D version of a text-adventure game on a modern game engine is quite a complex task. Even after obtaining the original source code for the 350-point version of Colossal Cave Adventure from original developer Don Woods, Ken realized how much Woods conveyed with such a small amount of code, signifying just how far the video game industry has come.
“I look at the old source code, and it’s so simplistic, but it accomplishes so much,” Ken said. “In a text game, one line of code can do an incredible amount. There’ll be one line that says, “You enter a large cave,” and suddenly, you’ve got to render a cave, make it look interesting, create lighting, and create sound effects. Somehow, what was originally fed on an 80K floppy [disk] wound up taking 30-plus people two years to reimplement.”
It wasn’t a full development team at first, though — it was just Ken and an artist friend from his. While Roberta intended to stay uninvolved, her name started to come up more and more in meetings with companies like Unity and Meta. Soon, she found that her contribution to this 3D version of Colossal Cave would be more than just the idea itself — she’d have to design it.
After making the call to reboot the project, it was clear that Colossal Cave would completely envelop Ken and Roberta’s lives for the next couple of years and force them to reenter the industry they thought they had left behind. While Ken and Roberta tell Digital Trends that making games is like riding a bike to them, they had now formed Cygnus Entertainment: a 35-person indie studio named after their boat.
The industry Cygnus Entertainment was created in was much different than the one Sierra On-Line was born into. Indie game publishers and video game studio investment funds are much more common than ever. Many people wanted to get behind Ken and Roberta’s grand return to the game industry. Outside of Unity and the team at Cygnus Entertainment, though, Ken and Roberta didn’t want much help.
“There were several publishers that wanted to talk with us early on,” Ken Williams explained. “Unity several times said that they were going to hook us up with this publisher or that publisher, and I was like, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that.’ We want to do what we want to do, and we didn’t take any money from anybody.”
Still, all that interest proved one thing: people found their return to the video game industry very valuable. The game industry and the adventure game genre did lose something when Ken and Roberta retired for the first time, and they understand the responsibility that comes with them coming back.
“The weird thing is a lot of the people that are now running these companies were Sierra fans when they were kids, so we, as a little one-product indie company, had every company you can imagine offering to help us,” Ken continued. “This is a project that a lot of people care about, and we’re trying to be really respectful of that and make it all worth that effort.”
The adventure continues
Ken and Roberta’s Colossal Cave is likely the biggest reiteration we’ve seen in some time, with Cygnus Entertainment fully visualizing the text adventure like a film crew does when making a book into a movie. Still, throughout development, Roberta never wanted to stray too far from the original, saying that her “bottom line is always that it has got to play like the original game.”
Taking a look at released gameplay footage, it’s clear that it’s incredibly faithful, with a narrator even voicing lines players would have read in the original game. It’s a simple but bold choice that makes Ken and Roberta’s reimaging stand out. And it’s also a reserved but refined take that likely couldn’t have come from anyone else. Even in remaking someone else’s game, creating something wholly distinct was just as important to Ken and Roberta nowadays as it was in their heyday.
“Part of Sierra’s claim to fame was that we did almost 100% internal development — Half-Life was the only project we really brought in from outside — and I refused to hire people that worked for a competitor,” Ken explained to Digital Trends. “We didn’t spend a lot of time studying other games; we went with our gut about what we think is entertaining. And it worked in that when people play this game, they do feel like they’re seeing something completely different.”
Unfortunately, Ken and Roberta can’t say the same about other games coming out in 2023.
Ken and Roberta Williams presented the Games for Impact award and showed off a new trailer for Colossal Cave at The Game Awards 2022. Before and after their on-stage appearance, they sat in the audience watching various trailers for games like Judas, Death Stranding 2, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, and more. To Ken and Roberta, it all spoke to a homogenization in the game industry that they have always tried to avoid.
“We were in the audience watching all of these other games come by, and we’d say to each other, ‘This kind of looks like all the same game’ because there is a little bit of inbreeding,” Ken stated.
While he avoided hiring people from Sierra On-Line’s direct competitors in the 1980s and ’90s, the pure size of the industry makes that nearly impossible nowadays. Couple that with the video game industry’s most prominent companies being hellbent on following successful trends and having the most realistic visuals, it can all start to blend together for the two developers who likely inspired many of the people working on those games. Ken Williams even laments that some of Colossal Cave’s marketing has focused on quick snippets of action despite the fact that it’s mostly a slower-paced adventure game.
Still, Ken and Roberta Williams understand that the best they can do with Colossal Cave is to stay wholly unique in their approach to developing it. Duke Nukem 3D might have symbolized the end of an era for the game industry to Roberta Williams in the late 1990s, but hopefully, Cygnus Entertainment’s Colossal Cave can play a part in the start of a new one.
“We’re out of the family, so we did our game our way, and it’s going to feel different to people,” Roberta tells Digital Trends. “I never wanted to do a ‘Me too!’ kind of game. I always wanted to be unique … If anybody’s going to copy, we’d rather they copy us than we copy them.”
Colossal Cave launches for PC, PS5, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch, and Meta Quest 2 on January 19.