Sierra History

In 1979 Roberta Williams after playing a text-only adventure game, Colossal Cave, decided she could do better. Roberta's husband, Ken a programmer, implemented her black and white graphic designs and on May 5, 1980, after months of hard-work, they finally release their first computer game - an adventure called Mystery House. The couple sold their game to the only four software stores in Los Angeles county and also place a small ad in the now defunct Micro Magazine . To their surprise, orders start pouring in. Their Simi Valley home turned into a two-person production company overnight.

Believing that their little venture will allow them to afford the simple life in the mountains they always wanted, the Williams launched their own startup company, On-line Systems On-line Systems in Coarsegold, California, a rural town in the Sierra Nevada foothills where Roberta's parents owned an apple farm. Their early games, up to Time Zone and Softporn Adventure, came in small square folders in zip-loc bags and were made under the On-Line Systems name.

In 1980, in keeping with their new location near Yosemite National Park, they adopted Half Dome as their logo and changed the company's name to Sierra On-line Sierra On-line. All the adventure games that were originally marketed under On-line Systems were re-released with new cover art, under the name SierraVenture, in 1982 and had much more professional-looking folders (approximately 8" X 11"). The action/arcade games were released under SierraVision for a while. Some of the earlier games like Mystery House, The Wizard and the Princess and Cranston Manor, have been released with several different cover art variations, all of them were published on the PC by IBM.

From 1980 to 1983 Sierra On-line grew steadily from having one employee (Ken's brother, John) to over 130. While Roberta continued designing adventure games, Ken focused his vision of the computer as entertainment. Programmer-designed arcade games like Jawbreaker and Frogger were very successful.

All the SierraVenture games were written using different frameworks. Starting with King's Quest, Sierra started using a common interpreter called AGI which made their games much more portable (to other platforms). In 1983 IBM gave Sierra On-line a PC one full year before releasing them to the business world. With this head start, Sierra On-line developed the first game for the new platform: Adventures in Serinia a re-release of The Wizard and The Princess.

Then IBM began development on a personal computer for the home called the PCjr (nicknamed "Peanut"). In order to showcase this new product, IBM asked Sierra On-line to come up with a game that would take advantage of the PCjr's 16-color palette, three-channel sound, and whopping (for the times) 128K of memory. With its release in the summer of 1984, King's Quest: Quest for the Crown becomes the first animated, three dimensional "interactive cartoon," a game in which the player would take on the persona of Sir Graham, a knight in the land of Daventry. The ailing King Edward sends Graham on a quest to recover three lost treasures. Should Graham succeed, he will become the heir to the throne.

Using the keyboard arrow keys, the player could now actually control the main character's movement, walking him around rocks and in front of buildings. Simple sentence commands input by way of the keyboard controlled the character's actions. Accompanying music and sound effects greatly enhanced the game. By 1985, the Tandy Corporation introduced the Tandy 1000, an MS-DOS (and PCjr) compatible. King's Quest sales skyrocketed as the Tandy 1000 became the leader in the home computer industry.

Redwood BuildingThe "classic" Sierra logo Sierra logo was created sometime between 1984 and 85, about the same time Sierra moved into their famous Redwood building.

Their "enhanced versions" and presumably later releases as well are written in their proprietary programming language called SCI. Click here for SCI Game Reference Card included with many early SCI games.

Sierra's most popular series, King's Quest, earned international recognition and numerous industry awards. To date the series has sold more than 3 million copies, making Roberta Williams one of the best-selling computer game designers in the industry.

In 1989, Sierra went public, and their first significant acquisition was Dynamix in 1990, when they added the phrase "Part of the Sierra Family" to their logo. The second acquisition Sierra made was BrightStar Technologies in 1992. Their lip-synching technology was included in the SCI 1 engine and was first used in the multimedia version of King's Quest 6. In 1993, Sierra bought Coktel Vision, a Paris-based software developer, to expand in the European market.

At this time, Sierra moved its HQ to Bellevue, as it had grown too hard to run such a big company from such a remote town as Oakhurst. This coinceded both with the 15th Anniversary and the new logo with the colored stripe at the bottom Stripe Logo. This relocation was accompanied by a restructruring of the company into four separate development and marketing divisions: Sierra Publishing, (which was the core gaming unit operating mostly in Oakhurst) Dynamix, (keeping their own brand) BrightStar Technologies (the lip-synching company) and Coktel Vision (based in Paris). Development was separate at these divisions, but manufacturing, distribution and sales was jointly managed from the Bellevue HQ.

By 1995, Sierra's revenues exceeded $80 million, it's staff grew to more than700 employees and was expanding into several areas outside the core of games (primarily adventure games). They bought Green Thumb Software (gardening and landscaping software), Green Thumb Software, (culinary software) and was acquired in September that year. They also acquired the rights to use a DTP program called Print Artist and made a joint venture with P.F. Collier to develop a multimedia encyclopedia.

Three major acquisitions were also made in the gaming area in 1995: Impressions Software with their strategy games, Papyrus Design Group with their acclaimed racing games and SubLogic, developers of the Pro Pilot flight simulator.

With the acquisitions of several software publishers and the opening of international offices in Japan and England, Sierra has become a major worldwide publisher with distribution in more than 50 countries. These acquisitions also resulted in great financial success, which was the incentive for CUC's offer to buy Sierra in 1996, along with Blizzard, Davidson, Gryphon Software and Knowledge Adventure. This was the decision that ultimately led to Sierra's demise, but at the time it looked good.

Sierra itself made additional acquisitions in 1997: Berkeley Systems (publishers of You Don't Know Jack and After Dark) and
Books That Work (a home productivity software company) were acquired in April, and later Headgate(a golf software company) and PyroTechnix (another game company) were added to the list. Their development section was spun off as Yosemite Entertainment.

But at this time CUC decided to shut down a number of groups within Sierra (although I'm not sure which) and transfered control of the company to Davidson. They also laid off almost 50% of the staff in Oakhurst.

1997 was also the year when CUC joined with HFS and became Cendant. Ken Williams had left Sierra, only staying for a while to help out with the transfer, and Ken left Sierra completely to create WorldStream Communications. Sierra

At the end of this turmoil, sometime in early 1998, Sierra was finally organized into the five sub-brands with their respective logos: Sierra Attractions Sierra Attractions (for casual gaming), Sierra Home Sierra Home (for home improvement), Sierra Sports Sierra Sports (for sports), Sierra Studios Sierra Studios (the original core of the company along with Impressions and PyroTechnix, and the publisher of independent developers, like Valve) and Dynamix (now with the new logo saying "Dynamix, a Sierra Company") Dynamix

Sierra Publishing, which now essentially meant the Oakhurst facility, became Yosemite Entertainment Yosemite Entertainment (also sub-labeled "a Sierra Company") in May 1998. They didn't release their games under that logo though, but under the logo of a sixth sub-brand: Sierra FX Sierra FX.

All of these brands and subsidiaries collectively operated under the Sierra umbrella with its newly designed logo, for the first time without the Half-Dome silhouette. However, the design of the S in the logo still pays homage to the mountain image, and the Yosemite Entertainment logo includes a new version of the Half-Dome silhouette.

At this time the Cendant fraud was under investigations (the irregularities found concerned their reported 1997 net income) and Havas bought the stock-plunging Cendant in Januuary 1999. On "Chainsaw Monday" Feb. 22, 1999, Sierra On-Line closed down their central division, Yosemite Entertainment, the event known as Black Monday, putting 125 people out of jobs and laying to rest a twenty-year legacy. Later, in mid-September, the Oakhurst facility (Yosemite Entertainment) was bought by Codemasters and is still in business. (Read this eulogy to Sierra byJosh Mandel Just Adventure).

The Havas Interactive name disappeared at a business alliance in the summer of 2000 between Vivendi, Seagram and Canal+ to form Vivendi Universal, when it was renamed Vivendi Universal Publishing.

The current Sierra logo was adapted in mid-November 2001, possibly because they wanted people to identify it with the original Sierra because it had more business potential, and the name-change to Sierra Entertainment followed only three months later to better reflect the company strategy ("On-Line" is mostly associated with on-line gaming these days, while Sierra considers itself an interactive entertainment company).

As a publishing house, Sierra is still very much in business, even though it has changed hands several times. It was originally privately owned underKen Williams, sold to Cendant, and then to Havas Interactive. The Havas name disappeared at a business alliance in the summer of 2000 between Vivendi, Seagram and Canal+ to form Vivendi Universal, when it was renamed Vivendi Universal Publishing.

On 14 August, 2001, Sierra closed Dynamix. By the end of 2001, Sierra On-Line changed its logo - adding the Half-Dome Sierra. Just a few months later it changed its name to "Sierra Entertainment". (Sixth logo)

Recently, Vivendi Univeral Games, of which Sierra is now considered a studio, has chosen to adapt their studio websites to the same design. The trend has been that Sierra games are more often viewed as Vivendi games today.

The list of Sierra Subsidiaries (some of which have dissappeared) is:

  • Dynamix (1990, games)
  • BrightStar Technologies (1992, lip-synch software)
  • Coktel Vision (1993, games, based in Paris)
  • Green Thumb Software (1995, gardening and landscaping)
  • Green Thumb Software (1995, culinary software)
  • Impressions Software (1995, strategy games)
  • Papyrus Design Group (1995, racing games)
  • SubLocic (1995, flight simulators)
  • Berkley Systems (1997, casual gaming)
  • Books That Work (1997, home productivity)
  • Headgate(1997, golf software)
  • PyroTechnix (1997, games)

Throughout the years, the core Sierra group has been known as:

  • "On-Line Systems" (79-81/82?)
  • "Sierra On-Line" (81/82?-88/89?)
  • "Sierra On-Line, Inc." (88/89?-02)
  • "Sierra Entertainment, Inc." (02-)

And the logos that have appeared on Sierra boxes are:

  • "On-Line Systems"
  • "Sierra On-Line (version 1)"
  • "SierraVenture"
  • "SierraVision"
  • "Sierra (version 2, classic)"
  • "Dynamix, part of the Sierra Family"
  • "Sierra (version 3)"
  • "Sierra (version 4, without Half-Dome)"
  • "Sierra Attractions"
  • "Sierra Home"
  • "Sierra Sports"
  • "Sierra Studios"
  • "Dynamix, a Sierra Company"
  • "Sierra FX"
  • "Sierra (version 5)"


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