Sierra Entertainment, Inc., more popularly known under their former name, Sierra On-Line, is an early game developer from Oakhurst, California. Founded by Ken and Roberta Williams in 1979, the company is credited with various milestones in video game history, such as creating the very first "graphic adventure game" (Mystery House, essentially Interactive Fiction with extremely crude line-art drawings), some of the earliest animated games (King's Quest), and implementing beyond PC-Speaker sound into a game (King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella). Sierra also was responsible for introducing the Japanese PC games Thexder, Fire Hawk, Silpheed, Zeliard and Sorcerian to Western audiences. Sierra's milk and honey days were the mid-80s to the mid-90s: this was the era of adventure gaming, when games focused more on testing the player's ingenuity than their reflexes.
Sierra's works are gaming classics and Sierra is now commonly associated with three things:
- Adventure Games, which made up the majority of its line.
- Text Parsers, where the player had to write out all commands, from "PICK UP BOWL" to "OPEN DOOR" (Sierra switched to a point-and-click interface in the '90s).
Sierra's games are notoriously difficult. Death is everywhere and springs up at random, and if you haven't saved your game in a while, too bad, you have to start everything all over. Trial-and-Error Gameplay is the rule rather than the exception. The games are riddled with situations made Unwinnable by Design, and since Unwinnable doesn't mean Unplayable, you often didn't realize the game was moot until you had been playing for hours. Or days. Sometimes weeks.
Sierra's infamous Copy Protection was a nuisance; their Guide Dang It! moments made you want to scream. Though often their puzzles were well thought-out, equally as often they ventured into Solve the Soup Cans territory. And it bears repeating: death and unwinnable situations are everywhere. It's possible that their games existed solely to keep you dialing their 1-900 hint line or shelling out for their hint books.
Yet, despite all its... quirks, Sierra produced some of the finest games of the 80s and 90s, and easily some of the best ever adventure games. Their work featured hand-crafted oil paintings for backgrounds, elaborate music, professional voice actors and composers, memorable (and loveable) characters, amazing worlds, enjoyable stories, and creative gameplay. Sierra never took itself too seriously; games were loaded with gags, puns and Easter Eggs. Although deaths were frequent, they were always friendly and most times featured a joke or pun; half the fun of a Sierra game is playing through to find all the unique ways to die.
Sierra began to fizzle out in the late 90s, with the decline of adventure gaming (which prompted Sierra to branch out into publishing games of other genres), plus being bought out by CUC International (which also bought out Davidson & Associates, the then-owner of Blizzard Entertainment, in 1996.note CUC itself was bought by a conglomerate named Cendant which had its mitts in hotels, real estate and car rentals - soon after the company was formed, it sold Sierra and other software companies after an accounting scandal occurred when Cendant discovered that CUC had committed what was, at the time, the largest case of accounting fraud in the history of the United States. It was bought by Vivendi Universal (although after Universal's merger with NBC, it became just Vivendi), who were cool enough to let amateur game makers create fan games of their series until 2009, when it was merged into Activision and subsequently closed down.
However, in more recent times, Tim Schafer's success with crowd funding on Kickstarter has inspired several of the old Sierra teams to reunite under new banners, and thanks to several successful funding campaigns, many of them have started to work on Spiritual Successor and Remake projects.
On August 7, 2014, Activision announced that they would revive the company at Gamescom 2014. At Gamescom, it was announced that Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions (developed by Lucid Games, a company formed by former Bizarre Creations staff) and a new King's Quest (developed by The Odd Gentlemen, the people behind The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom). Activision's plan for the label is for working with indie developers who have original projects under development or who are interested in tackling classic Sierra properties.
Its subsidiaries included Yosemite Entertainment.
Compare LucasArts, their main rival, whose games were decidedly more forgiving. Also compare with its eastern counterpart Atlus, which, like Sierra, was known for creating very difficult games and were defunct for years before being revived by its parent company.
Notable Games and Series include:
- 3-D Ultra Lionel Traintown
- 3-D Ultra Minigolf
- The 3-D Ultra Pinball series of Digital Pinball Tables
- The Aces series of flight sims (Aces Over Europe, Aces of the Pacific, Aces of the Deep; developed by Dynamix, published by Sierra)
- The Adventures of Willy Beamish
- B.C.'s Quest for Tires and its sequel Grog's Revenge
- Betrayal at Krondor and Betrayal in Antara
- The Black Cauldron (yes, based on the movie)
- Codename: ICEMAN
- Conquests of Camelot
- Conquests of the Longbow
- Crash Bandicoot (inherited from Universal Interactive)
- Crazy Nick's Software Picks series (a series of budget titles consisting of arcade sequences from other Sierra games)
- King Graham's Board Game Challenge (includes checkers and backgammon from Hoyle 3)
- Roger Wilco's Spaced Out Game Pack (includes Mrs. Astro Chicken and the Monolith Burger minigame from Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers and the sand skimmer chase from the Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter remake)
- Leisure Suit Larry's Casino (includes the casino games from the remake of LSL 1 and LSL 5)
- Parlor Games with Laura Bow (includes Yahtzee and dominoes from Hoyle 3)
- Robin Hood's Game of Skill and Chance (includes the archery minigame, Nine Men's Morris, and stick fighting from Conquests of the Longbow)
- Dr. Brain
- Empire Earth (developed by Stainless Steel Studios)
- First Encounter Assault Recon (original game developed by Monolith, expansions by TimeGate)
- Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist
- Gabriel Knight
- Geometry Wars (rights bought from Bizarre Creations)
- Gobliiins series (developed by Coktel Vision, published in the US by Sierra)
- Gold Rush!
- Half-Life (developed by Valve)
- Heart of China
- Hi-Res Adventures
- Mystery House (the first game released by Sierra)
- The Wizard and the Princess
- Mission Asteroid
- Cranston Manor
- Ulysses and the Golden Fleece
- Time Zone
- The Dark Crystal
- Hoyle: Official Book of Games series
- Hunter Hunted
- The Incredible Machine
- Impressions City Building Series (Caesar, Pharaoh and its expansion pack Cleopatra, and Emperor; developed by Impressions Games, published by Sierra)
- Jones in the Fast Lane
- King's Quest (the series that spawned other Quest games and launched Sierra into the mainstream)
- Laura Bow
- Leisure Suit Larry
- Lighthouse: The Dark Being (essentially Sierra's response to Myst)
- Lords of Magic
- Manhunter series (Manhunter: New York, Manhunter 2: San Fransisco)
- Mixed-Up Mother Goose (a rather popular Edutainment Game title, notably ironic since it came from a software house most famous for its Nintendo Hard games that are anything but for kids)
- Mixed Up Fairy Tales
- NASCAR Racing (developed by Papyrus Design Group)
- No One Lives Forever
- Pepper's Adventures In Time
- Police Quest
- Quest for Glory
- Rama: The Game of the Book Rendezvous with Rama (developed by Dynamix, published by Sierra)
- The Red Baron series (developed by Dynamix, published by Sierra)
- Shivers (1995)
- Space Quest
- Spyro the Dragon (inherited from Universal Interactive)
- Starsiege series from Metaltech: Earthsiege to Tribes 2 (developed by Dynamix)
- Stay Tooned! (developed by Funnybone Interactive)
- Torin's Passage
- You Don't Know Jack (up until 5th Dementia, developed by Berkeley Systems and Jellyvision)
Tropes associated with Sierra's work:
- Bleached Underpants: Zig-Zagged. They were known for being mostly family-friendly, and their flagship series was no worse than a Golden Age Disney flick. Their first big hit, however, was a text adventure game called Softporn Adventure. Where it zig-zagged? They tried to downplay or bury the original, but recycled most of the plotline and puzzles in a Played for Laughs way, and had an even bigger hit as Leisure Suit Larry. Ken Williams repeatedly pointed out that most of the people who bought and played computer games were adults. Williams asserted that the company was simply catering to that market by releasing games with mature content and that they were no different from movie studios that released R-rated movies.
- Brand Name Takeover: In Russia, point'n'click games are referred to as "Quests", due to popularity of Sierra games in Soviet Russia during the late 80s and in post-Soviet Russia. and the term "Quest" ("Квест") being much more comfortable to use than "Adventure Game" ("Приключенческая Игра").
- The Cameo: Ken Williams made lot of cameos in the games he sold, mostly the Leisure Suit Larry series. In an interview, he said he had no idea he was in them until he saw the finished products.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: While adventure games are Sierra's bread and butter, they also released many applications and office software in their early days. From programming software like LISA, money management software like Smart Money, word processing software like HomeWord, to a whole line of 3D house modeling software under their Sierra Home label, Sierra made almost everything a computer could do.
- Everything Trying to Kill You: We're not kidding, everything can and will kill you!
- Executive Meddling:
- What ultimately led to the company's virtual collapse after the 90s. After being purchased by Vivendi, the new executives closed Dynamix, (developer of the Aces series and other racing and combat simulations) and directed the company to abandon adventure game development entirely. Unfortunately, despite publishing a number non-adventure titles, this pretty much eliminated Sierra's main product as a developer, and the company never really recovered, until by the end of the 2000s Sierra effectively only existed as a label. Meddling immediately prior to the Vivendi buyout was also directly responsible for the utter mess that was King's Quest: Mask of Eternity, and the lukewarm reception for Quest for Glory V, among the last adventure titles produced by the company.
- A Babylon 5 space combat simulator was nearly completed, but was canceled much to the uproar of the fans. The CEO at the time argued that the game's development cost was so high that the game would have never turned a profit. It was very shortsighted decision: many old games have found a second life through online distribution such as Steam or GOG.com or modding.
- Guide Dang It!: Some fans have speculated that Sierra made some of their puzzles deliberately obtuse to sell more hint books. Even today, Sierra games are probably responsible for a lot of hits to GameFAQs.
- Have a Nice Death: Punny comment on your demise! Restore, Restart, Quit?
- They are proud of this feature.
- Later-Installment Weirdness: After the glory days ended and the subsequent sale of the company from Cendant to Vivendi Universal, the Sierra name was little more than a label, and they released titles from other developers. By 2005 it had been fully integrated with Vivendi Games and took on its IPs, including Crash and Spyro.
- Lemony Narrator: Especially if it's Neil Ross or Gary Owens.
- PC vs. Console: Was very far on the "PC" side at its height, though they did publish a few games for consoles late in its life. Its adventure games were also popular enough to port to consoles, though these were done by outside companies with varying results, which likely only reinforced the opinion of fans that the PC was the superior platform. Ken Williams did admit that he and his family owned and enjoyed console games. King's Quest: Mask of Eternity was inspired by Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. After the Cendant sale and acquisition by Vivendi, it switched to supporting consoles fully. Thankfully, we got The Legend of Spyro out of it.
- Permanently Missable Content
- Press Start to Game Over: Sierra games loved to kill you on the first screen. And gloat about it.
- Real Is Brown: As the graphics capabilities of computers improved, Sierra's adventure games had increasingly subdued or washed-out graphics. For example, compare the vibrant 16-color graphics of King's Quest IV to the subdued 256-color graphics of King's Quest V. The final Legend of Spyro game, Dawn of the Dragon, also heavily abused this.
- Running Gag: The stuffed moose head that first showed up in King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human. It crept his way in various Sierra games since and has become a Mythology Gag as it even showed up in fan-made adventure games.
- Sierra's Half Dome logo. If the game has mountains in the background, you can bet it's gonna be there.
- Save Scumming: Sierra actually encouraged the practice in its game manuals.
- Trial-and-Error Gameplay: In some circles, this is actually known as "Curse You Sierra" or as Steam Train put it, "Sierra: How the fuck was I supposed to know that?"
- Unwinnable: So bad that Sierra has its own section in both of the tropes:
- What Could Have Been:
- Al Lowe was working on a satire game called Capitol Punishment that took shots at American politicians. He canceled the game because of technical issues.
- Captives was a game advertised in Sierra's InterAction magazine, but never released. It was about the PC playing a mercenary rescuing hostages held captives by aliens. Saving different types of hostages would wield different benefits. Soldiers would give you extra firepower, scientists would research better weapons for you. There was also armed vehicles you could temporary use.
- World of Pun: Pretty much every adventure game they've made. The King's Quest series is probably better known for the puns in its death messages than anything.
- You Can't Get Ye Flask: The other reason early Sierra games could be so infuriating. The downside of the company's focus on graphics meant less memory for parsers, contrasted with Infocom's incredibly smart parsers. This is why Sierra ultimately abandoned text parsers altogether.