The tale goes like this: As teenagers, he and Roberta meet, have a whirlwind romance, and get married. The determined Ken is drawn to the magic of computers and becomes a programmer. Not long after, Roberta gets sucked into the world of an early text adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure. She has the idea to add graphics to a game of that ilk, Ken’s programming prowess makes it happen, and thus, the game Mystery House (and On-Line Systems, later renamed Sierra On-Line) are born.
Over the next 15 years, there are ups and downs—but more ups than downs, and Sierra becomes one of the leading software publishers in the world. That is, until 1996, when the company is acquired by the conglomerate CUC (Comp-U-Card) International and things get real bad, real quick.
For me, memoirs are always a bit of a tough sell, as it is one person’s recollection of events, obviously tinged by their desire (conscious or not) to be the hero of their own story. And could this book be an attempt by Williams to shed his image as a gruff micromanager who only cared about the bottom line—especially in Sierra’s later days?
Sure. It could be. But, I’m not at all convinced that’s the deal here, as one of Williams’ oft repeated phrases in the book is: “I can’t say that I always did smart things, but I can say that I usually had a good sense of what we should do and would try to point the company that direction.” Not many CEOs of multimillion-dollar companies will ever utter words akin to that (let alone put them in print), even after they’ve left said companies. Hell, I’ve known crappy middle managers that wouldn’t even admit to a simple typo in an email, let alone that they could be flat-out wrong.
Regardless, Williams is the real deal, and this shines through in Not All Fairytales Have Happy Endings. Ever since reading David Kushner’s Masters of Doom in 2003, I’ve become something of an aficionado of this genre of books, having read any and all I can get my hands on. Some of the standouts of the genre being: Atari Inc.: Business Is Fun, by Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel; Console Wars, by Blake Harris; Dungeons & Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic, by Brad King and John Borland; and On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore, by Brian Bagnall. In my mind, Williams’ sincere memoir most definitely holds its own with these fantastic titles.
And it’s a shame that both Ken and Roberta Williams are retired, because I for one would love to see what they’d be doing in today’s interactive entertainment space.
Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?
Most graciously, Ken was willing to answer a few questions for WIRED about the book, his time as CEO of Sierra, and what he and Roberta are up to in their retirement.
WIRED: Early in your career, what were the biggest or best things that helped and guided you when Sierra really took off?
KW: I loved reading. I read every comic book and/or real book I could find. I was bullied in school and was living in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. I was miserable and wanted a new life but knew my parents would never be able to afford to send me to college. In my reading, I stumbled into books with heroes who had money, girls, airplanes, yachts, fancy cars, and could go anywhere they wanted. From as early as I can remember, I started telling people my goal in life was to be “rich by the time I was 30.” I made a conscious decision that I wanted all the work I could get and all the education I could get, as fast as I could get it. This led me to hanging out at the library and studying books on a wide variety of subjects. I read all I could on accounting, marketing, management books, science books, electronics, etc. I spent years selling newspapers door to door and later ran crews of kids selling papers. I was a top salesman and did sales trainings for the kids who worked for me. Basically, long before starting Sierra I was already well rounded. I was a classic computer geek but also had skills and training in other areas that became important.