On May 25, 1993, The Seattle Times reports on computer-game company Sierra On-Line's upcoming move from California to Bellevue.

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 11/27/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20919
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The Seattle Times reports on May 25, 1993, that pioneering computer-game company Sierra On-Line, Inc., owned and operated by Roberta (b. 1953) and Kenneth (b. 1954) Williams, will soon move its corporate headquarters from Oakhurst, California, to the Seattle area. Sierra On-Line's move to the West Lake Hills neighborhood of Bellevue begins in August 1993 and continues into 1994. It brings the company from the rural Sierra Nevada foothills into the heart of the fast-growing high-technology hub on the Eastside of King County across Lake Washington from Seattle. The Williamses founded Sierra On-Line in 1980 to market Roberta Williams's ground-breaking computer adventure games, the first to combine graphics with text. In its new Bellevue location Sierra On-Line will continue growing to become the most popular video publisher and computer-game software company in the United States and internationally. The Williamses will operate the company until 1996.

From Kitchen Table to Sierra On-Line

In 1979, living in the Los Angeles area where she and her husband had grown up, Roberta Williams was at her rickety kitchen table playing Colossal Cave Adventure (also known ADVENT), a text-only game considered the first computer adventure game, which Kenneth, an experienced programmer, had introduced her to. Williams, although not a programmer, decided that she could tell her own story in a computer game; however, she was adamant that her adventure-game stories would need a graphical component.

Williams approached her husband with a game idea several times but he was not interested at first. Eventually, as they were dining at a local steakhouse, he listened while she described her vision of an old Victorian house in which your friends were being killed off one by one, with each room shown graphically on the computer. To support his wife's idea, Kenneth Williams devoted his time coding to produce the first graphic adventure game, Mystery House (originally titled Hi-Res Adventure). The Williamses approached Programma Software about distributing the game but walked away when offered only 25 percent royalties.

The couple had not intended to distribute and market the game themselves, but they decided to take on the task and move forward after several unsuccessful attempts with other companies. Mystery House was a stellar success, generating in the first six months almost four times their annual income and thus launching their company, initially named On-Line Systems. At first the game was only sold at four locations in Los Angeles and via ads in a magazine called MICRO -- The 6502 Journal.

Within a year the Williamses were able to move to the town of Coarsegold, located at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains outside Yosemite National Park. They opened their first company headquarters on the second floor of a building in the nearby town of Oakhurst. Three years later in 1983 the company moved into its own building, and its name was changed to Sierra On-Line to reflect the location near the Sierra mountains. Roberta Williams, a forward thinker with no formal programming experience, had a less-than-traditional method for writing and designing games visually, which included hand-written (and drawn) scripts, sketches, flow charts, and drawings. The graphic adventure games she completed using this method made her one of the first recognized female computer-game designers in the world.

Over the next decade Sierra On-Line would release many of Roberta Williams's pioneering games, including the King's Quest series, Wizard and the Princess, Mission: Asteroid, Time Zone, The Dark Crystal, Mixed-up Mother Goose, and dozens more titles by Williams and others.

From Small-town Oakhurst to High-tech Bellevue

On May 25, 1993, The Seattle Times reported that Sierra On-Line would be moving from its small-town California location to the Seattle area. The Puget Sound region was chosen because of its status as a high-tech hub: "The company wants to take advantage of this area's network of financial and legal companies specializing in high technology, said Ken Williams" ("Software Company to Move Here"). In addition, the company was having trouble finding new employees in the small and remote town of Oakhurst.

Sierra On-Line had been searching some time for a new location that would accommodate the fast-growing company, which in the preceding years had begun to acquire other firms, including Dynamix, Inc., a developer of video games based in Eugene, Oregon, in 1990; Bright Star Technology Inc., an educational-software company based in Bellevue, in 1992; and Coktel Vision, a French publisher of education and entertainment software, in 1992.

When the plan to relocate to the Seattle area was reported in May 1993, a specific location had not yet been chosen. Sierra selected an 82,000-square-foot, four-story office building at 3380 146th Pl SE in Bellevue's West Lake Hills neighborhood, not far from the headquarters of tech icons Microsoft and Nintendo of America, among others:

"The move, according to Ken, will allow him and the corporate staff of Sierra On-Line, Inc. to concentrate on the rapidly expanding interactive entertainment industry in an area that is already noted for its high-tech development. Microsoft and Nintendo are probably the most notable companies who call this area home" ("Sierra's Headquarters Moves ...").

The move to Bellevue began in August 1993. As many as 120 headquarters staff relocated from Oakhurst, including Roberta and Kenneth Williams; Executive Vice President for Finance and Operations Richard Gelhaus; and staff from the finance, accounting, customer-service, purchasing, research, and marketing departments, along with the company's inhouse magazine InterAction. Some 300 developers were to remain in the Oakhurst area, with additional employees located in Eugene, Oregon, at Dynamix; near Versailles, France, for Coktel Vision; and outside London, England.

By the fall of 1994, Sierra had 540 employees and $50 million in sales and was growing more rapidly than ever. The Williams family moved with the company headquarters to the Puget Sound region. In their new Mercer Island home Roberta was again at the kitchen table, now working on the seventh game in the King's Quest series, The Princeless Bride.

In 1996, Sierra On-Line was acquired by Comp-U-Card (CUC) International for a reported $1.5 billion. Roberta and Kenneth Williams retired from game development to travel the world and pursue other interests. Sierra On-Line is no longer an independent company but its legacy and origin story remain. To this day, fans and admirers still reminisce and mourn for the giant computer company that introduced graphic adventure gaming at its best.


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