Sierra Entertainment, Inc. (formerly Sierra On-Line) was an American video game developer and publisher founded in 1979 as On-Line Systems by Ken and Roberta Williams. Based in Los Angeles, California, the company was last owned by Activision, a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard.
Sierra is best known today for its multiple lines of seminal graphic adventure games started in the 1980s, some of which proved influential in the history of video games. The Sierra label has been absorbed by its parent company. Some franchises which were published by Sierra will be published by Activision. Activision announced in 2008 that they may sell the Sierra brand.
Sierra Entertainment was founded in 1979 as On-Line Systems in Los Angeles, California by Ken and Roberta Williams after Ken Williams, a programmer for IBM, bought an Apple II microcomputer which he planned to use to develop a FORTRAN compiler for Apple computers. At the time, his wife Roberta Williams was playing text adventure games for the Apple II. Dissatisfied with the adventure games that existed at the time, she realized modern computers could display graphics and had the potential to do more than presenting text descriptions on the screen. By 1982, On-Line Systems was renamed Sierra On-line and moved to Oakhurst, California.
Mystery House Edit
- Main article: Mystery House
Roberta began to write a script for an adventure game. Three weeks later she presented to Ken the script of a computer game called Mystery House, an idea she had developed during the previous days. Roberta managed to talk Ken into helping her develop the game in the evenings after work. Roberta worked on the text and the graphics and told Ken how to put it all together to make it the game she wanted. They worked on it for about three months and on May 5, 1980, Mystery House was ready for shipment.
Mystery House was an instant hit. The graphics, although consisting only of crude line drawings, monochrome and motionless, were something previously unseen in a computer adventure game. Mystery House was the first computer adventure game to have graphics. It sold about 15,000 copies and earned $167,000.
King's Quest Edit
- Main article: King's Quest: Quest for the Crown
Sierra On-Line was contacted by IBM in 1983 to create a game for their new PCjr. IBM would fund the entire development of the game, pay royalties for it and advertise for the game. Ken and Roberta accepted and started on the project.
Roberta created a story featuring classic fairy-tale elements. Her game concept included animated color graphics, a pseudo 3D-perspective where the main character was visible on the screen, a more competent text parser that would understand advanced commands from the player and music playing in the background through the PCjr sound hardware. For the game, a complete development system, called Adventure Game Interpreter was developed.
In the summer of 1984, King's Quest was released to much acclaim.
Space Quest Edit
While working to finish The Black Cauldron, programmers Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy began to plan for an adventure game of their own. After a simple demonstration to Ken, he allowed them to start working on the full game. It was named Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter. The game, released in October 1986, was an instant success and would spawn many sequels in the following years.
Leisure Suit Larry Edit
Al Lowe, who had been working at Sierra On-Line for many years, was asked by Ken Williams to write a modern version of Chuck Benton's Softporn Adventure from 1981, the only pure text adventure that the company had ever released.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was a great hit (although not instantly), and won the Software Publishers Association's "Best Adventure Game" award of 1987. A long series of Leisure Suit Larry games would follow in the coming years and become the second best selling game series of Sierra On-Line after King's Quest.
In 1990, Sierra released King's Quest V , the first Sierra On-Line game ever to sell more than 500,000 copies and was the highest selling game of all time for the next five years. It won several awards as well, such as the Best Adventure Game of the Year from both the Software Publishers Association and Computer Gaming World Magazine.
Gabriel Knight Series Edit
In 1993 Gabriel Knight: Sins of the father was released. Generally considered to be a staple of the point and click adventure genre, Gabriel Knight and its sequels were critically acclaimed in the main stream press at the time. * 1994 Adventure Game of the Year - Computer Game Review, * 1994 Adventure Game of the Year - Computer Gaming World, * 1993 Best of Show - Consumer Electronics Show.
Move to Bellevue, Washington Edit
Sierra had grown enormously since its first years along with their facility. New buildings were needed to hold new resources needed to continue making games. A decision was made to move the headquarters north, to Bellevue, Washington. Sierra's original location in Oakhurst continued as an internal development studio for the company and was renamed Yosemite Entertainment in 1998.
The company was now made up of five separate, and largely autonomous development divisions: Sierra Publishing, Sierra Northwest, Dynamix, Bright Star Technologies and Coktel Vision, with each group working separately on product development but sharing manufacturing, distribution and sales resources.
1995 would prove to be an extremely successful year for the company. With $83.4 million in sales from its software-publishing business, earnings were improved by 19 percent, bringing a net income of $11.9 million to the company.
In June 1995, Sierra and Pioneer Electric Corp. signed an agreement to create a joint venture which would develop, publish, manufacture and market entertainment software for the Japanese software market. This joint venture created a new company called Sierra Venture. With Sierra and Pioneer investing over $12 million, Sierra Venture immediately manufactured and shipped over twenty of Sierra’s most popular products to Japan and created new titles for the Japanese market.
December 1996 saw the release of The Realm Online, a massively multiplayer online game. At its peak, it had over 25,000 players. Ken Williams acted as Executive Producer of The Realm from its release until late 1998.
- Main article: Phantasmagoria (computer game)
Phantasmagoria was by far the largest project ever undertaken by Sierra. At the time of its release in late 1995 the anticipation of the game was incredibly high. The game turned out to be a major disappointment to many people, but received mixed reviews from industry critics. Nevertheless, almost a million copies were sold when the game was first released in August 1995, making it the best-selling Sierra adventure game created.
Sold to CUC Edit
In 1996, CUC International, a membership-based consumer services conglomerate, aggressively sought to expand into interactive entertainment and in February 1996 offered to buy Sierra at a price of approximately $1.5 billion. The company was sold to CUC on July 24, 1996. Immediately after the sale closed, Ken Williams stepped down as CEO of Sierra. Ken stayed with the software division as a Vice President of CUC so that he could provide strategic guidance to Sierra and began to work on CUC's online product distributor, NetMarket. One year later, Ken and Roberta left CUC.
In September 1996, CUC announced plans to consolidate some of the functions of its game companies into a single company called CUC Software Inc., headquartered in Torrance, California. Davidson & Associates became the publisher for the studio. CUC Software would consolidate the manufacturing, distribution and sales resources of all of its divisions that would come to include Sierra, Davidson, Blizzard, Knowledge Adventure, and Gryphon Software.
On November 5, 1996, Sierra was restructured into three units.
Cendant Corporation Edit
In December of the 1997, CUC merged with HFS Incorporated. The two companies jointly formed the Cendant Corporation with more than 40,000 employees and operations in over 100 countries.
In 1998, Sierra split up its organization into five sub-brands and corporate divisions:
- Sierra Attractions
- Sierra Home
- Sierra Sports
- Sierra Studios
The Cendant Scandal Edit
In March 1998, Cendant had reported a 1997 net income of $55.4 million. However, the true 1997 result was a net loss of $217.2 million. As irregularities in the books of Cendant were discovered in early 1998, an audit committee set up by Cendant's Board of Directors launched an investigation and discovered that the former management team of CUC, including its top executives Walter Forbes and Kirk Shelton, had been fraudulently preparing false business statements for several years.
In March 2001, Forbes and Shelton were indicted by a federal grand jury and sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission, accused of directing the massive accounting fraud that ultimately cost the company and its investors billions of dollars. With the news of the accounting fraud, Cendant announced its intention to sell off its entire computer entertainment division.
On November 20, 1998, Cendant announced the sale of its entire consumer software division to Paris-based Havas S.A. With this sale, Sierra became a part of Havas Interactive, the interactive entertainment division of the company.
Major Layoffs Edit
On February 22, 1999, Sierra announced a major reorganization of the company, resulting in the shutdown of several of their development studios, cutbacks on others and the relocation of key projects and employees from those studios to Bellevue. About 250 people in total lost their jobs. Development groups within Sierra such as PyroTechnix and Books That Work Inc were shut down. Also shut down was Yosemite Entertainment, the division occupying the original headquarters of Sierra On-Line. They sold the rights of Headgate Studios back to the original owner. With the exception of the warehouse and distribution department, the entire studio was shut down. Game designers Al Lowe and Scott Murphy were laid off. Lowe had just started work on Leisure Suit Larry 8. Murphy was involved in a Space Quest 7 project at the time. Layoffs continued on March 1, when Sierra terminated 30 employees at the previously unaffected Dynamix, 15 percent of their workforce.
Despite the layoffs, Sierra continued to publish games for smaller development houses. In September 1999, they released Homeworld, a real-time space combat strategy game developed by Relic Entertainment. The game design was revolutionary for the genre and the game received great critical acclaim and many awards.
Gabriel Knight 3 was released on November 3, 1999. It was announced this would be the last game of the series.
Yosemite Entertainment LegacyEdit
UK-based games developer and publisher Codemasters, in an effort to establish themselves in the United States, announced that they would launch a new development studio in Oakhurst, using the abandoned Sierra facilities and hiring much of the Yosemite Entertainment's laid off staff in mid-September 1999. In early October they announced that they would take over management and maintenance of the online RPG The Realm and that they would pick up and complete the previously canceled Navy SEALs. They also reported that they had obtained the rights to continue using the name Yosemite Entertainment for the development house.
Meanwhile, Sierra announced another reorganization, this time into three business units: Core Games, Casual Entertainment, and Home Productivity. This reorganization resulted in even more layoffs, eliminating 105 additional jobs and a number of games in production. After 1999, Sierra almost entirely ceased to be a developer of games, and as time went on, instead became a publisher of games for independent developers.
1990s acquisitions Edit
- Coktel Vision
- The Pixellite Group
- Green Thumb Software
- Arion Software
- Impressions Games
- Papyrus Design Group
- Synergistic Software
- Headgate Studios
- Berkeley Systems
- Books That Work
At the end of June 2000, a strategic business alliance between Vivendi, Seagram and Canal+ was announced and Vivendi Universal, a leading global media and communications company, was formed after the merger with Seagram, (the parent company of Universal Studios). Havas S.A. was renamed Vivendi Universal Publishing and became the publishing division of the new group, divided into five groups: games, education, literature, health and information. The merge was followed by many more layoffs of Sierra employees
On February 19, 2002, Sierra On-Line officially announced the change of its name to Sierra Entertainment, Inc.
In 2002, Sierra, working with High Voltage Software, announced the development of a new chapter in the Leisure Suit Larry franchise, titled Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude. It was released to mostly negative reviews; Al Lowe was uninvolved with the project, despite being contacted on several occasions by Sierra Entertainment staff.
The newly rechristened Sierra Entertainment continued to develop mostly unsuccessful interactive entertainment products. However, its hit Homeworld 2 once again cemented Sierra’s reputation as a respectable publisher.
Cost-cutting measures were taken due to parent company Vivendi Universal Games (VU Games) financial troubles, and due to Sierra’s lack of profitability as a working developer. Impressions Games and the Papyrus Design Group were shut down in the spring of 2004, and about 50 people lost their jobs in those cuts; 180 Sierra-related positions were eliminated at Vivendi’s Los Angeles offices; and finally in June 2004, VU Games shut down Sierra's Bellevue location, which cost over 100 people their jobs, and dispersed Sierra’s work to other VU Games divisions. Other titles, such as Print Artist, were permanently discontinued. The Hoyle franchise was sold to an independent developer. In total, 350 people lost their jobs.
Several studios including Massive Entertainment, High Moon Studios, Radical Entertainment and Swordfish Studios, were acquired and integrated into Sierra throughout 2005 and 2006. Creative licenses from other Vivendi divisions and from companies partnered with Vivendi Universal Games were granted to Sierra, and copyright of several notable intellectual properties such as Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, 50 Cent: Bulletproof and Scarface went to Sierra.
In October 2007 Sierra released Timeshift.
In 2008, Sierra parent company Vivendi Games Universal, which had since been renamed Vivendi Games in 2006, merged with video game publisher Activision to form the Activision Blizzard holding company. Vivendi Games ceased to exist and ownership of Sierra was transferred over to Activision. Later that year, Sierra was closed down for possible future sale.
- Books That Work
- Bright Star Technology in Bellevue, Washington, founded 1980, acquired 1992.
- Green Thumb Software, acquired in 1995.
- Berkeley Systems in Berkeley, California, founded in 1987, acquired in 1997, closed 2000.
- Dynamix in Eugene, Oregon, founded 1984, acquired August 1990, closed August 14, 2001.
- Front Page Sports, closed Jan 28, 1998.
- Impressions Games in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded 1989, acquired 1995, closed April 2004.
- Papyrus Design Group in Watertown, MA, founded in 1987, acquired 1995, closed May 2004.
- PyroTechnix, founded as Computer Presentation, acquired February 1996, closed in 1999.
- Yosemite Entertainment in Oakhurst, CA, formed in 1998, closed in 1999 then sold to Codemasters that year.
Merged with ActivisionEdit
- High Moon Studios in San Diego, California, founded in 2001, acquired by Vivendi Games in January 2006.
- Radical Entertainment in Vancouver, Canada, founded in 1991, acquired by Vivendi Games in 2005.
- Coktel Vision in Paris, France, founded in 1985, acquired in 1993, sold to Mindscape in 2005.
- Headgate Studios in Bountiful, Utah, founded in 1992, acquired April 1996, sold to original owner in 1999.
- Massive Entertainment in Malmö, Sweden, founded in 1987, acquired by Vivendi Games in 2002, sold to Ubisoft on November 10, 2008.
- Swordfish Studios in Birmingham, England, founded in September 2002, acquired by Vivendi Games in June 2005, sold to Codemasters on November 14, 2008.
- Synergistic Studios, founded in 1978, acquired in 1996, studio closed in 1999. No longer involved in the video game industry.
- AGD Interactive
- Activision Blizzard
- Infamous Adventures
- The Silver Lining (game)
- List of Sierra Entertainment video games
- Sierra Online
- Vivendi Games
- Interview with Ken Williams, Gamasutra, October 2005
- An Interview With Russisk Laawson, Module And Graphics Designer: 10/12/06
- HACKERS, Heroes of the Computer revolution, Steven Levy, reprinted - Penguin Books 1994, ISBN 014 02.3269 9