The Truth About Sierra On-Line

As anyone who has read my computer game reviews is probably aware, in general, I have a negative opinion of many of Sierra On-Line's recent line of computer games. I generally feel that, as a whole, they lack artistic merit, and seemed to have been designed only for the purpose of making money. Well, via much thought and careful examination, I believe I have finally discovered why this is so.

Sierra was the first company to really move out of the mold established by Infocom. They had the first graphic adventure in Mystery House, the first color graphic adventure, and the first animated graphic adventure with King's Quest. After being at the forefront of technological development for a long time, it is often hard to give this up and instead concentrate on elements of the game beyond the graphics and the sound. This is something that Sierra has always had a problem with, but prior to their release of King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! in 1990, they had always been able to strike some sort of a balance. In general, prior to that release (especially in the period between then and 1988, with the release of the ground-breaking King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella), they had managed to design games that, in addition to being good to look at and listen to were also good to play and replay, usually with puzzles offering some degree of challenge, with each game requiring a fair amount of time and determination to complete.

Why did all of this change? And why did King's Quest V mark such a significant downward spiral in the quality of Sierra's games? Because they abandoned the formulas that had originally made their games popular. King's Quest V, with the exception of characters, bore almost no resemblance to the previous games in the series, in design or scope. The dismal Leisure Suit Larry V: Patti Does a Little Undercover Work also completely abandoned the philosophies of design and development that had made the previous games in the series (particularly Leisure Suit Larry 2: Looking for Love (in Several Wrong Places) and Leisure Suit Larry 3: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals) so good. Quest for Glory III: Wages of War was a complete and utter disaster in every respect, even though Hero's Quest I: So You Want to Be a Hero? and Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire had both been utterly brilliant. Sierra had decided, for whatever reason, to abandon what made these games good, the games that have come since have suffered. Yet, one sequel, released in 1996, managed to stand above these all, even though they all came from older and well-established series. Why did Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within succeed where so many other games had failed?

Even though the original Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Fathers was released after Sierra had switched to an icon-based interface, it still managed to be a substantial, interesting game. The characters were, in general, well fleshed-out, the story continuous and developing, and the puzzles were, more often than not, intimately related to the game. Even icon-based conversation limitations couldn't hold the game back--practically the entire game was conversation driven. The game had a story to tell, and it told it well. Its sequel still worked on nearly every level because the designer, Jane Jensen, decided to take what made the first game so good and put it into the second game. The two main characters, the dark tone and atmosphere, the emphasis on conversation--they had all been retained for The Beast Within. She succeeded brilliantly. Whereas games like Leisure Suit Larry V and Leisure Suit Larry VI: Shape Up or Slip Out!, were designed by leaving behind what worked in Leisure Suit Larry 2 and Leisure Suit Larry 3, and suffered much by the loss, Ms. Jensen understood why the first game was great, and took great pains to make the second one great for the same reason, without making the second game identical.

Why is she the only Sierra author who seems to still understand how to make good sequels? When Roberta Williams stuck with the original idea behind the King's Quest series--that of setting an entirely new story against familiar fairy tale backgrounds--the games worked well. When she moved away from this, and decided to start coming up with her own ideas, the games suffered in a big way. She simply was not a good enough author to do this (look at the dismal quality of the later King's Quests for proof of this, especially the valueless King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride). Jim Walls, designer of the Police Quest series fell into a similar trap with Police Quest III: The Kindred, and what Sierra was thinking by hiring Daryl Gates to design the true nadir of the series, the unbelievably awful Police Quest IV: Open Season, is anyone's guess. Why take such a step backwards? Why spend three games developing characters to the point we care about them only to dump them later? Even the Space Quest series fell victim to this. While Space Quest IV was very bad, it wasn't until the senseless Space Quest VI: Roger Wilco in the Spinal Frontier that it became obvious that the series had become nothing but a meaningless cartoon to them. When they treated it as such, that's what it became, and Space Quest VI was merely a poor shadow of the previous games in the series, which showed tremendous promise.

This senseless disregard for creativity and the production values that made these earlier games great leaves me with but one conclusion, a conclusion which I must have reached long ago, but never truly understood until now, and I am thankful to Jane Jensen for The Beast Within which made this so clear. Sierra no longer cares about making games. They care only about making money. If the company, as a whole, still cared about making good games, we would still see games with the brilliant design of Hero's Quest I, even though they had switched from a text-based parser to the icon system. Yet, instead of using it to its fullest ability to make good games, it became easier to instead make shallow, empty games, with some of the most breathtaking graphics and music, and the lowest production values, ever. Sierra is taking the easy way out.

Can Sierra still change? I believe it is possible. Though most of the people responsible for the great games of the past are no longer with the company, Sierra was once the conduit for good games, and I believe they can be again. Gabriel Knight 2 proved to me that it IS possible. There is at least one author at Sierra who still knows how to write, more than just design games, and knows how to design them so that, at the most fundamental level they "work" and are entertaining. On the most basic level, it is the author or designer of a game that makes it good. Yet, so many of Sierra's recent games seem so similar, it is impossible to believe that the authors or designers have as much control over their own games as they should. If Jane Jensen is the only one at Sierra who has figured out how to rise above the conformity and create good games even in such an environment, that is at least something.

Unfortunately, Sierra's success in the industry shows that, for them, it is perhaps enough. But for those out there who value their computer gaming dollar, and the wonderful games, text and graphics alike, that have been available since the earliest of the 1980s, it simply isn't. It is my sincere hope that Ms. Jensen's influence will spread, and Sierra will learn that, even with 640x480x256 graphics and wavetable synthesis, good, challenging games are still possible. When they relearn this lesson they spent over ten years teaching the rest of the industry, we may see some of the most spectacular games yet. Until that happens, with the exception of Gabriel Knight 2, most of the Sierra catalog released since 1990 just isn't worth anyone's time. Sierra has come so far in 16 years, and yet they have, in the overall picture, achieved so much less than other companies have in fewer years. Its very sad, but, if Sierra truly cares enough about the art of designing computer games, I firmly believe it is still possible. No one will be more happy to see that than I will.

The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author, Matthew A. Murray, and do not represent those of any other person or software company, nor were they intended to do so.

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