Sierra's Queen Is Still On Top Of Her Game

Seventeen years ago Roberta Williams's computer-programmer husband, Ken, brought home one of the first PC ""adventure'' games. Roberta, then a 26-year-old homemaker, solved the all-text challenge in the next few days and, with Ken, decided to write her own, adding a novel innovation: pictures. The success of Mystery House led to the formation of Sierra On-Line, a multimillion-dollar company later purchased by CUC International in a transaction valued at more than $1 billion. But Sierra's best asset is still Roberta, now a renowned doyenne of gaming. She is best known for her King's Quest series, which has sold more than 7 million copies. Sierra has just released The Roberta Williams Anthology, a collection of 14 games that stands not only as entertainment but as a compact history of the form. NEWSWEEK Senior Editor Steven Levy, who first wrote about Roberta in his 1984 book ""Hackers,'' spoke to her recently about games, violence, gender and the future.

How did you get that first insight, to put pictures into a medium that had been solely text?

I just knew it was right. People are visual creatures. They really want to see.

In the anthology I was shocked to see how primitive your early games look. Do you think people still play them?

I don't think that terribly many people are playing the early ones. Those are in there more for historical purposes. When I first went back and looked at them, one of my kids was looking over my shoulder and said, ""Those are awful graphics.'' But back then they seemed really advanced and cutting-edge, and everybody was amazed. I remember us saying, ""Imagine when we'll have actual speech.'' That was a pipe dream back then.

What's different now from when you and Ken did the games yourself on your kitchen table?

Well, the most recent one, Phantasmagoria, involved almost 200 people and cost $4 million. But I still have just as much control over the product today as I did in those days. Even though there are lots of people you work with--animators, programmers, musicians, composers--it's ultimately the designer who lives or dies with a product.

That game has adult content, which surprised the people who thought of you as the gentle woman in a peasant blouse.

You know how it is when you get so typecast. Everybody thought of me as the fairy-tale, Mother Goose kind of person. It's fun to explore the other side. I've always been fascinated by the struggle behind good and evil. Even in all my King's Quest games, it's good and evil. Phantasmagoria is the same story but told in a different way.

I'll say--it has sex, violence. How did you defuse the criticism?

I think we were really smart in the way we approached it. Everybody was worried that kids would play it, so we put it big and bold on the box: ADULTS ONLY. I approve of the rating system. As an artist I like to have freedom to do the work I want to explore. At the same time, I'm a parent, and I want to know what my kids see.

But don't ""mature'' ratings only entice kids to get hold of a game?

They might. But I like to think that most people are good parents and watch what their kids are doing. To tell artists and entertainers that everything has to be rated PG--that's not fair either. We said our game was not for kids, and we were applauded for doing that. Now, you take games like Doom or Quake--there's a lot of violence, and they do target kids. I don't think it's right.

You were one of the first to use a female protagonist in an adventure game. How was it received?

When I was designing Perils of Rosella, I was told by all the guys at my company that no guy is going to want to play from a woman's point of view. I said, ""There's a lot of women out there who would play this, and I don't think that men will mind.'' The game did extremely well. Afterwards we did a survey asking our fans if they minded playing the other gender. Most of the male respondents said, ""I don't mind playing a female at all, as long as it's fun.'' But the women said, ""I would prefer to play a female.''

As a game player, which do you prefer?

When you have the option, I always choose to be a female. And I feel more comfortable writing a female character. I tend not to be macho enough with my male characters. I get heat from my programmers--they say, ""A guy wouldn't talk like that!''

You've been involved in so many adventure-game ""firsts''--first to use pictures, first to use a graphical interface, first to have a movie tie-in, with Dark Crystal. What do you think people will remember from your work?

I've always felt that the adventure-game genre was sort of mine. Other people have dealt with it and been very successful, but most times I was able to define where the genre would go next. With my next game, Mask of Eternity--we're trying to have it out by Christmas--I'm hoping that what I'm doing now is the beginning of the final answer.

Is this the next King's Quest?

Yes. In all the previous games we explored a script-oriented approach to telling people an interactive story. I always felt like every game I did would have a more intricate story, a richer feel, more characterization, more music. But I think I went as far as you can go with the story approach and still be a game. If you go any further, you go into moviedom. I hit a wall.

I'm totally backing off that. I think the true right answer is to give people the widest possible means of exploring that you can get. So in this new game I'm trying out 3-D worlds, new worlds where players can venture anywhere they want to go. But in order to accommodate this total freedom in exploration, I have to back off the story and go more free-form. It's the hardest project I've ever worked on.

Why is it so hard?

How can we do it and still keep somewhat of a semblance of a story going? What technology do we use? In Phantasmagoria I used almost 3,000 pictures, and each one was as pretty as I could possibly make it. But now we want people to explore, to see what's there all around them. I can do that, but the pictures won't be as pretty. Right now computers can't handle that. But my dream is that what we're working on now will be the kernel of what people will be playing 17 years from now.