Review: Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams

I'll preface this piece by saying that I haven't written a book review in nearly 20 years, so this might be rough.

I first heard about this book through Twitter. I had no idea that it was in development so I didn't follow its evolution. What's more, I really stopped following Sierra fandom after watching a lot of Kickstarters start, stop, fail and drag on forever, so I'm really not plugged into the larger Sierra fan community and how they feel about this book. I have very fond memories of both Sierra games and the company which I'll write about someday.

That said, when I saw that the book was available for purchase, I picked up a copy immediately. I ordered the paperback copy from Lulu it cost me $41.42 with tax and shipping and it took about 5 days to arrive. The book also has digital copies which are available in various places online. The book's website is https://kensbook.com/

The first thing I noticed about this book, aside that it's self-published, is that it has a busy design, and that it's not much more than a printed Word document. There's nothing wrong with this, mind you, but I don't know that it was worth the asking price for a book with color pictures, most of which are already available online. Part of me feels like this could have been a series of blog posts. In fact it reads that way. I don't fault the author for wanting to be paid for his time, but based on the story he tells, he isn't want for money.

The book is made up of 43 chapters that cover both events Sierra's timeline as well as small vignettes where the author offers opinions and antecdotes that don't seem to fit into the larger narrative. Some of these are fun and insightful, while others read like opinionated, outdated advice.

The first handful of chapters cover the author's upbringing, his first jobs, going to college, and meeting his future wife Roberta. There's a theme set here that carries thoughout the book. Ken Williams is a consumate salesman first, and a computer professional second. He talks in these chapters about always pushing for the bigger "prize", be it a higher paying job or a bigger house. And, although he doesn't come out and say it, as a reader I got the sense that the same held true in his pursuit of Roberta.

The next few chapters tell the story that any fan of Sierra, or reader of Steven Leavy's 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution could tell you. That the author discovered Colossal Cave Adventure, his wife loved it, and wanted to write a game of her own, the author figured out how to add graphics, Mystery House was released, and On-Line Systems transformed from a consulting company to a game development and publishing company. What I really enjoyed from these chapters was a first hand account of what's known as the "plastic bag" distrubition model of software. In those days a programmer could write a game or application, copy it to floppy disks on your home PC, Xerox a small card with information about your software, stick it in a ziploc bag, and sell it in computer shops. There's a really good story in chapter 10 told by the author's brother about distributing software in this way in Chicago.

Following up on initial success of the company, the book covers the move to Oakhurst California and the renaming of the company to Sierra On-Line. There's a good take on the now infamous Softporn Adventure and its equally infamous box cover (which also features the author's wife). This, in my opinon, is the icon that best captures the spirit of the early company as the author describes it.

What happens next is a combination of capitalism in motion, and having things fall just so. The book covers Sierra's first foray into venture capital, the collapse of the gaming market in 1983, the failure of the IBM PCjr and the success of the Tandy 1000. However, I found myself a little dissapointed about the book's lack of information about Sierra's relationship with Atari, and support for Atari computers which lasted from 1980 until 1993.

From here the author talks about the IPO of Sierra and spends a lot of time explaining the presures of running a public company. Here and in later chapters, he talks about his experiences meeting Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates & Jeff Bezos. The author also also tells the story of how Sierra nearly purchased id Software, and his role in publishing Half-Life.

There's a little news broken in chapter 25 where the book describes a time where Sierra employees nearly organized under the "Association of Machinists" (now the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers). Ken was against the move, fearing that it would have prevented him from meeting the goals of Sierra's shareholders. He goes on to admit to being a micro-manager, and that he was often conflicted between controlling the image of the company and its continued growth. This left a number of employees with the feeling of being exploited. An issue that still very much persists in the game development, and software industries.

Chapter 28 talks about working with Daryl F. Gates the former(and controversial) LAPD police chief. Ken defends working with Gates, and suggests that given the same opportunity today he may choose differently.

There are follow on chapters about the game Outpost , The Sierra Network, Interaction Magazine, and Phantasmagoria. The author does a good job describing what worked, what didn't, and some really detailed accounts of the success and failures of each.

The final chapters of the book cover the disasterous sale of Sierra to CUC International , its merger with HFS, and Ken's quiet explusion from the company. He spends some time detailing Roberta's experience developing Kings Quest VIII and how the game bears little resemblance to her initial vision.

The book ends with a little introspection into the author's motiviation for writing the book. The author also talks about the current state of of Sierra today, and his plans for the future.

All said, I enjoyed reading this book, but I can't say that I actually enjoyed the book. There were a few things that I strongly disagree with, like the author's approach to grading the quality of workers (the less of a life you have outside of work, the higher your grade). And his advice for being a good software engineer is a little misplaced. I give the author and his wife a lot of credit for pulling Sierra from the brink of failure in 1983. But it's fairly clear that his's future motivations were financial and not necesarily creative.

Missing from the book are the accounts of hiring, and leading some of the best game designers of the day. There are also no notes on game piracy, nor the steps Sierra took to thwart it. Maybe those are not the author's stories to tell. I also would also have liked to learned a little about the author's take on the revival of adventure games over the past ten years. But as the author notes, he's failry unplugged from the current video game industy.

If you, like me, were obsessed with Sierra Online's games, and the company's halcyon image, I'm sure you'll enjoy reading this book. I'll bet that if you're reading this now, you likely already have.

If you have any feedback on this article, feel free to send me an email at heyjosh@synthetica.org


This page was last updated on November 8, 2020
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