11.29.2011 - A very Sierra Thanksgiving: Meeting Ken Williams and Al Lowe
My great friend Eriq Chang (of Fable Foundry and Art of Sierra fame!) invited me to Seattle for Thanksgiving and my birthday (it’s today!). We thought it would be a great time to get together, have some fun, and work on some of the projects that we’ve been talking about for a while.
Seattle has a charm to it, a certain sort of magic to it that makes it easy to separate it from any other city in the world. As we drove from the airport in Eriq’s car, the mountains opened up to the vast sea, and I could see houses lining up on the hills everywhere. Seattle seems to be perpetually buried inside a forest. This was Sierra’s last home, and it seems so fitting that it can be so charming.
Eriq’s house is a gorgeous designer’s home pinned atop one of the highest points in the city. From where I’m writing now, I can clearly see the skyscrapers from downtown, looming over the snowy mountains in the distance, all surrounded by the blue sea. Weather tends to be flimsy. The first two days, it was sunny, and then Seattle showed me its grayness as it started to rain nonstop.
Climate changes my mood. A lot of rain makes me withdrawn, and inspires me like few things in nature can. Seattle’s torrential has buried me in my mind for quite a while, making me think of how near I was to some of the people that had made that magic at Sierra happen. And then, of course, the thought crossed my mind: Why not?
Eriq had Al Lowe’s number, so we gave him a call. Al has a fatherly voice to him and just by listening to him, you feel as if you’ve been friends for years. Thanksgiving was approaching, so we decided to get in touch again on Friday to decide where to meet. The place was the Flat Iron Grill, in Gillman Village outside of Seattle, a shopping mall that retained the flavor and history of the turn of the century, the home to some of the city’s earliest settlers.
We got lost on the way, and arrived 20 minutes later in a rush. Al was sitting by one of the tables at the entrance and immediately greeted us with a big smile. We shook hands, exchanged business cards, ordered some good food, and Eriq and I kicked back to relax and listen to the great storyteller and comedian Al Lowe.
He walked us through his whole career. From the early days and how he was bold enough to get into videogame developing, to the first games that he created, and how he put forth a whole month of salary to rent a booth in a videogame convention.
He went into more details of his time at the convention. Ken and Roberta were walking by, Ken on the front, Roberta staying behind–Al said Ken was very hard to pin down in one place for a long period of time, always wanting to move to the next thing. But Ken stopped by when he saw Al’s games, turned to Roberta and said “Hey Berta, these look like your games,” something Al was extremely proud of as a big fan of Sierra’s products. And that’s essentially how he got to work for them: A chance meeting, a chance encounter, a passion for doing videogames and the guts to jump into it and do what you love. My admiration for Al had just tripled. This is exactly what I’ve been fighting for, and exactly what I’ve been doing! I saw a mirrored story, a parallel there, and I should be so lucky if I ever get to be as half as great as he is.
Juicy stories came left and right. While it was Ken’s idea to always have one mind behind any game, we learned that it was Al’s idea to put Roberta’s picture and name in the next King’s Quest release –“I convinced him to do it because I wanted my name and my picture in my Larry games, and I knew that it would be the natural next step if I convinced him to do it with Roberta!” he joked while sipping from his cup of java.
Eriq told him the story of how when he was young, his family would always visit Yosemite during the summer, and Eriq would hate every minute of it because he didn’t do well with heights and got sick very quickly. Turned out that in one of those trips, Eriq decided to go to sleep to pass his motion sickness, and when he opened his eyes, awaken by his father, the big Sierra logo was in front of him. What better sight to wake up to, huh?
His father had brought 12-year-old Eriq to tour Sierra. Al had a laugh –“Yeah, that was also my idea” –referring to the open tours at Sierra.
He mentioned to us how Torin’s Passage came to be. “How on earth did you go from Larry to Torin’s Passage?” I asked. Turns out that since Roberta was working on Phantasmagoria, Ken chose Al to make their “family” game that year. Al wrote a five-game treatment that portrayed Torin’s life from the early years of his first game to the day he died. Alas, we only got to see one part of that story!
We finished dessert and the staff on the restaurant was looking at us funny over how late it was already. So we took care of the bill, and stood up for pictures, and then parted our ways. I had so much fun learning little secrets of Sierra from Al–-what the building was like and where they were located, what the people were like, how spoiled he was by having a full staff at his command, his move to Seattle, and how he hired everyone at the new studio. I could write pages and pages on everything Al talked to us about that afternoon, and I would have no room to fill each one of the anecdotes and great things he had to say about his coworkers and all the funny jokes!
I left the restaurant feeling like I knew a lot more about Sierra, more than I ever imagined I would. But more importantly, I felt like I had just made a great new friend.
But wait! The weekend was about to get even better!
I had gotten in touch with Ken Williams once I knew I was going to hit Seattle. I wasn’t expecting to find them in town since I knew they spend most of their time traveling around the world, but what the heck, I had to try. A few days later I got a response back: “I’m in town. What works for you?”
I have been in touch with Mr. Williams for quite some time. I had taken on the role of a producer in a short-lived project he was experimenting with back in 2004. The project didn’t really take off, and Ken wasn’t really interested in pushing it further, since to him, it was only a hobby–he wanted to know whether a team could really work online and make a game happen. It took me the next 6 years to show him, that yes, it could happen, so you can imagine my excitement to be there with him and show him all the work we had done.
Since then, Ken and I have been in touch every few months. He’s followed our development with The Silver Lining, always offering great advice. He’s given us great tips on how to build a business and how to approach investors and more. What a great opportunity this was to finally meet him in person!
We woke up Sunday morning and drove to downtown to meet for brunch. Unfortunately, Roberta Williams had family in town so she wasn’t able to join us. We met at the entrance of a Seattle hotel. As I stepped out of the car, my hands were shaking–it was way too surreal. “Finally great to meet you!” said Ken, and we headed inside to the restaurant.
I sat directly in front of Ken, and while we started our conversation, I could not help thinking of something Al had shared with us the previous day. Al told us that he considered himself a smart guy, but whenever he was next to Ken, he would feel dumb. The genius of Ken Williams was something very hard to match–this is a guy that brought so much technology into the first steps of computer games, and who, whenever Roberta wanted to do the “next thing,” he would find a way to make it happen that nobody had thought of before. He is also very humble, and didn’t really promote himself, which is probably why today many things that should be attributed to him simply aren’t.
I couldn’t help to feel very little next to Ken–I wanted to sound like a business guy, and probably sounded more like a fanboy.
But, as with anything in my life, I carry on and always try to be myself. We exchanged business cards–Ken’s business card has their boat on it! He looked at my business card and was surprised to see I lived in the Bay Area—he thought I lived in Europe!
I was quiet for the first 10 minutes, trying to find the words to say, while Eriq walked Ken through all the great stuff that Fable Foundry is doing with Warner Bros and the Nightmare on Elm Street license, and then showed him trinkets and pieces of his work from when he was young and wanted to make a Sierra game.
Unlike Al, Ken is no storyteller. Instead, you can sense the gears turning in his mind as he carefully listens to what you have to say. And then, he bombards you with questions. He’s the perfect example of a great business guy that goes straight to the point in seconds.
It was then my turn to talk. We discussed the Kickstarter campaign about our new game, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, and how it was a great idea for new indie developers, and he was interested to see the actual work we’ve been doing on Cognition. I showed him the trailer plus other material on the game, and he immediately related it to Gabriel Knight. He was pleased to know that we were working with Jane, and asked me that he’d like to see her and know how she is doing, so I showed him pictures of our visit to her farm. “She hasn’t aged a bit!” he said. He talked about how critically acclaimed the Gabriel Knight games were, and how Jane always interviewed very well, and had a great connection with her fans.
We then showed him another project we have under wraps, and he replied with “Wow, this is beautiful!” I wish I could tell you more about what exactly we were looking at, but you are going to have to wait a bit for that!
From there, we moved on to The Silver Lining, and this was when the questions really started. From our download numbers, to what was our relationship with Activision, to how our team was comprised, to how he loved our perseverance and how we deserved to make money for all the work we’ve put into this. As he was looking through The Silver Lining, he mentioned that he wished Sierra’s games looked and felt as good as ours back in their day. That completely floored me! I was sitting there, completely nervous about showing our work to the man who is the reason why it all had happened in the first place, and receiving praise like that is not something I ever imagined I would experience. Right there. Face to face, I was finally able to show him that it was possible, and that we have done it. He encouraged us to continue doing the great work that we’ve done and to continue working the miracles. We had gone way further than he ever thought we would, and that merited some good praise.
Ken stole the bill from us before we could reach it. I was disappointed because I wanted to invite him to that meal, but in retrospective I can say that Ken Williams invited me to brunch!
Time flew faster than I wanted it to. Ken had to return to his family as his son and in-laws were visiting, so we left the restaurant for pictures. Before we left, I handed him a copy of The Silver Lining Soundtrack. Some of his last words to us were “You guys have made me very nostalgic.”
It was raining outside. Eriq and I drove for what seemed hours while the rain fell over the grand Seattle sea, and the waves crashed violently against the bridge we were crossing. I felt small and big in the world at the same time. I looked up, and in the distance, I could once more see the snowy peaks.
While they were definitely not the ones from Oakhurst, I’m sure I saw the Sierra logo among them. Somewhere, the kid in me was playing through all Police Quests, King’s Quests, Space Quests, Larry Laffers, Gabriel Knights, Quests For Glory… and through all of the great Sierra games in quick flashes.
He was also having the greatest of all laughs.
“Happy Birthday, Cesar!” he said, before he scurried away to play yet another King’s Quest.
11.25.2011 - RPGFan Interview with Cesar & Katie
In this week’s episode of “Random Encounters,” the RPGFan podcast, Cesar & Katie were interviewed to talk about Phoenix Online, Cognition, Kickstarter, and gaming in general!
11.24.2011 - Episode 4 Reviews by Brutal Gamer and Just Adventure
A couple of Reviews for Episode 4. The episode is the highest scoring of all the episodes with Just Adventure, with a shiny “A”. Meanwhile Brutal Gamer gave us a 7/10 Read all about it here: