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From King's Quest to Leisure Suit Larry: A Brief History of Sierra On-Line

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If you had a home computer in the 1980s, you probably played at least one adventure game from Sierra On-Line. Here’s a brief history of the company - and the games - that helped define a generation of computer geeks.

Hi-Res Adventures

In 1979, Roberta Williams’ husband, Ken, a programmer, bought an Apple II. When he wasn’t coding, she was playing early text-based computer games like Colossal Cave Adventure. These early games featured short bits of text to describe the environments the player encountered, and then used a simple verb-noun command system (i.e., “get rock”) to interact with the world. After playing through every game she could find, Roberta convinced Ken to help create Mystery House, a game she had written based on And Then There Were None, an Agatha Christie novel about ten people trapped inside a house with a killer.

But rather than make just another text adventure game, Roberta upped the ante by drawing simple digital pictures of 70 rooms inside the titular mansion. Now, when a player entered a new area, they saw a picture on the top half of the screen, with the normal description and command interface below. It sounds simple by today’s standards, but it was actually the first computer adventure game to have graphics.

The couple sold Mystery House in 1980 in Los Angeles computer stores and via mail order for $24.99. The packaging consisted of a Ziploc baggie containing a 5 1/4" floppy disk and a photocopied instruction manual. Surprisingly, the game became a blockbuster, selling 10,000 copies, a phenomenal amount at the time. So, under Ken's existing business name, On-Line Systems, the couple started creating more games for what they called the Hi-Res Adventure series.

Between 1980 and 1983, the company created six Hi-Res Adventures, including The Wizard and the Princess, the first computer game with color graphics, and their first licensed game based on Jim Henson’s film, The Dark Crystal. However, their most ambitious project was 1982’s Time Zone, consisting of 1,500 areas to explore, spanning over six double-sided floppy disks. Considering most games at the time didn’t even fill a single-sided floppy, Time Zone was a massive game; however, at $99, it wasn’t a massive success. The strong sales of the other Hi-Res games more than made up for it, though.

King’s Quest

http://youtu.be/90Z1wMloIEc

As their business grew, Ken and Roberta moved in 1982 from L.A. to Oakhurst, California, near Yosemite National Park. They also changed the company’s name to Sierra On-Line to reflect their new base of operations near the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

That same year, Sierra entered into a partnership with IBM, who wanted a game that would show off the capabilities of their forthcoming home computer. Inspired by her love of childhood fairy tales, Roberta wrote King’s Quest, which told the story of Sir Graham, a young knight who must go in search of three treasures that will save the kingdom of Daventry from destruction.

Although they could have used the same graphic-and-text formula of the Hi-Res series, Sierra went above and beyond and instead developed a semi-3-D graphic environment. Players moved the star of the game around the screen using the keyboard arrow keys, and then interacted with the environment with the same verb-noun commands used in text-based games.

Although the idea was revolutionary, it almost went by unnoticed. King’s Quest was written for the IBM PCjr, a computer that TIME called, “one of the biggest flops in the history of computing.” For a variety of reasons, including a high price, poor expandability, and an uncomfortable keyboard, it’s estimated that only 500,000 models were ever sold. And as the computer sunk, it threatened to take King’s Quest down with it. Thankfully, Sierra maintained the rights to the game and scrambled to port it to other systems, like Tandy, Apple II, Atari ST, Amiga, and Commodore, where it found a large and enthusiastic audience.

In all, there were seven sequels to King’s Quest, making it the longest-running and most-successful of Sierra’s game series.

Space Quest

http://youtu.be/WC6ApVOjrA8

After King’s Quest, Sierra created many “edutainment” games for kids, as well as a video game version of the new Disney animated fairy tale, The Black Cauldron. As they finished development on Black Cauldron, employees Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe wanted to get away from fantasy settings for a change, so they pitched the idea of a sci-fi spoof akin to The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy. The collaboration of the self-dubbed “Two Guys From Andromeda” became 1986’s Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter.

Space Quest follows Roger Wilco, a janitor aboard an interstellar spaceship (his name is borrowed from the abbreviation of the radio communication, “Roger, Will Comply”). When Roger stumbles out of the broom closet where he’d been napping, he discovers he’s the only surviving member of the crew – the rest were killed by the evil aliens, the Sariens. Now it’s up to him to prevent the destruction of his home planet of Xenon at the hands of Sarien leader, Sludge Vohaul.

http://youtu.be/QH-NmmPFWv0

The game was filled with humor, including sly references to famous sci-fi franchises, most of the puzzles had funny solutions, and even dying in the game was good for a laugh. Unfortunately, not everyone got the joke. For example, Sierra was sued by Toys R Us because a store in the game was called Droids R Us. Even the sharp dressed men of ZZ Top didn’t appreciate their pixelated likenesses as the house band at a saloon (the other band in the bar, the Blues Brothers, apparently didn’t mind). When Sierra remade Space Quest in 1991 with updated sound and graphics, they changed the store name to Droids B Us. However, despite the suit, ZZ Top was still in early versions of the remake, though they were later replaced with an alien band.

Space Quest became a huge hit, selling over 100,000 copies, and spawned five sequels. If you were one of the many who loved the series, you might be interested to know that The Two Guys have recently reunited and are working on another spoof sci-fi adventure game together.

Leisure Suit Larry

http://youtu.be/XqXpWJhsuaI

The comedy in Space Quest was clearly influenced by films like Blazing Saddles and Airplane!, but it never had any of the more adult humor that peppered those satires. That kind of crude-but-not-too-crude humor was reserved for 1987’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. The game starred loveable loser Larry Laffer, and the whole point of the game – and its five official sequels – was to help Larry get lucky.

For many people at the time, the idea of a video game for grown-ups was quite novel. However, LSL was actually inspired by an earlier Sierra game from 1981 called Softporn Adventure. The text-only game put the player on a similar quest as Larry and featured much of the same bathroom humor and none-too-subtle double-entendres. In fact, some of Softporn’s jokes and scenarios were recycled for LSL by series creator Al Lowe.

Sierra released Leisure Suit Larry in 1987 without fanfare in an effort to avoid any bad publicity. Still, many retailers refused to carry the game because of its subject matter. But thanks to good word of mouth, the game sold over 250,000 copies in its first year, and was named one of the best games of 1988 by the Software Publishers Association. Sierra noticed a strange anomaly in its sales figures – they’d sold more hint books for the game than they had copies of the game. This led Larry to receive the unofficial title of the Most Pirated Game Ever.

Proving you can’t keep a good man down, Larry is making a comeback thanks to Kickstarter. Al Lowe has teamed up with Replay Games to bring you Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards Reloaded, a remake of the original game for PC, Mac, and tablets.

Other Games

Police Quest debuted in 1987 and spawned two direct sequels. Created by former police officer Jim Walls, the game was a realistic crime drama with many puzzles that could only be solved if the player used proper police procedures. This reportedly led to the game’s use as a training tool in some police departments. The series later morphed into Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT after the former LAPD Chief signed on as a consultant, and moved away from puzzles to more action-oriented gameplay.

Author Jane Jensen cut her teeth on King’s Quest VI before taking the reins on Gabriel Knight. The game followed Knight, a demon hunter, investigating a series of murders in New Orleans with a paranormal element. The game won quite a few Best Of awards in 1994 and continued with two sequels in 1995 and 1999. Jensen has since started her own game studio and is very close to having a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a new series of adventure games in the same vein as Gabriel Knight.

Roberta Williams ventured into Gothic horror with 1995’s Phantasmagoria. The game used real actors performing over computer generated backgrounds, and included video cutscenes, some of which featured controversial moments of graphic violence and an implied rape. As a result, many retailers refused to sell the game and it was actually banned in Australia. Despite this, it sold over 1 million copies, making it the best-selling Sierra game ever, and inspired a sequel, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. Roberta has also called it the game she is most proud of in her career.

Quest for Glory was a five-game series that added role-playing elements to the signature Sierra adventure game, to offer clever takes on the tropes of the fantasy genre. The series gave the player the choice to be any one of three characters, whose style of play would have an impact on the final outcome of the game.

End of an Era

After 15 years creating influential games, Sierra On-Line was purchased by CUC International in 1996 for a reported $1.6 billion. By 1999, they were no longer creating games, but simply published them for small, independent studios. For about the next decade, the company would be bought and sold many times before finally landing with Activision, which shuttered Sierra in 2008, bringing an end to a truly remarkable era in computer games.
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Did you have a favorite Sierra On-Line game back in the day?

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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