"I got a bowl! Good for me!"
          - Freakazoid

Roberta Heuer Williams, born February 16, 1953, is at once a respected pioneer in the computer games industry and one of its most hated figures. Many credit and blame both the creation and the destruction of the graphic adventure genre on her pioneering work and staggering complacency. She cofounded Sierra, oversaw and produced many of its notable graphic adventures (including the King's Quest series and the Leisure Suit Larry series). She would have been able to retire with the respect due a pioneer, were it not the notable decline in quality in Sierra's adventure titles, combined with her bitter (and somewhat clueless) comments about the computer industry as a whole.

Roberta Williams was first introduced to computer games in 1980, when her husband, Ken Williams, introduced her to Adventure (the text adventure created by Don Woods, not any of the later games to bear this title.) This was apparently to help justify the recent purchase of a new Apple II; he was forming a small team to develop a FORTRAN compiler for then-popular platform. The compiler would never get developed, because Roberta started in on what would turn out to be a much more interesting project; a new game called "Mystery House." This innovative game married the parser puzzles of traditional text adventures with actual pictures of the scenes, instead of text descriptions.

It would go on to be a sensation. After turning down a publishing offer from Programma (a then-large publisher of Apple II software), Ken and Roberta formed what would become one of the first successful game businesses: On-Line Systems. On-Line Systems, later Sierra Online, got started with success on Mystery House, and then released a true computer game classic: King's Quest. Over the next ten years, she lead Sierra to the success as one of the largest computer game developers and publishers in the industry. Each new King's Quest or Leisure Suit Larry title was pretty much a guaranteed seller for Sierra, year after year.

While Roberta holds most of the credit for bringing graphic adventures to success (shared primarily with Ron Gilbert, creator of Maniac Mansion and the SCUMM engine), she also shares in the blame for killing them. The seeds of what would eventually spell the end of her career can be seen as early as 1990 in King's Quest 5. While it was a financial success, it was typical post-1990 Williams work, with an insipid story, frustrating and illogical puzzles, and instant deaths galore. KQ5 had many seemingly harmless choices that would later result in unavoidable death (like eating a certain pie, or letting a certain cat run by), as well as an infamous trial-and-error puzzle in the desert to find a boot. King's Quest was by no means the only series to be affected by these problems; The Gabriel Knight series is infamously frustrating, and the later Space Quests were almost unplayable. (althorrat informs me that the Gabriel Knight series was primarily produced by Jane Jenson. Despite this, it was developed by Roberta Williams's team if not necessarily under her direct supervision, and as a result showed her influence.)

(Un)fortunately, these titles were still selling for Sierra, despite increasingly negative press. (Sierra would inject some new life into their games by hiring or acquiring talented writers and designers like Jeff Tunnell and Jane Jenson.) Sierra was slowly building up a bit of a poor reputation, especially given that other competitors had entered this arena, but this wouldn't be what would stop the Williams juggernaut. Instead, it would be the "next generation" in graphic adventures: the interactive movie.

In the mid-1990s, the game industry had an influx of would-be game-makers taking advantage of the storage space offered by the CD-ROM format. The philosophy of the day was, "I make games, but I'd really like to make movies." Game designers looked for ways to cram full-motion video into games, and graphic adventures often found themselves crammed full of heavily compressed digital video. (Other so-called interactive movies used Dragon's Lair-style timing/memorization puzzles, or used FMV as bumpers and exposition for more traditional gameplay, as in Final Fantasy VII.) For better or worse, Roberta Williams embraced these interactive movies as the wave of the future.

"Oh, we know he isn't Satan. That's because Roberta Williams is Satan."
          - Old Man Murray

She actually produced some of the few playable interactive movies, most notably the genuinely scary Phantasmagoria. (This is as much a comment on the low quality of the genre as a whole as on the quality of her work.) Unfortunately for her, not all of her work was able to rise above the morass of unplayable interactive movie garbage, and the worthwhile games would be buried under poorly-made games dumped into the market by the "Megacorporation Super-multi-interactive-media-games" development/publishing houses opened by companies with no real idea about what made video games worth playing. What's more, she was becoming known for her ego as much as for her game design, after moves like naming Phantasmagoria "Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria." (This is inevitably a curse; the only game designers who seem to be able to get away with this without ending his or her career are Sid Meier and Peter Molyneux.)

Then iD Software came along and released Doom and Quake, and flooded the market with clones and competitors, some of which were actually worth playing. Roberta Williams found her slow-paced, single-player graphic adventures failing, one after another. Her husband Ken left Sierra, after which it would change hands several times. (Eventually it was purchased by Vivendi Universal, and the last ex-Sierra development house was closed in July of 2004.) The new management, every time, favored successful efforts like Half-Life and Tribes franchises over Roberta's increasingly less relevant efforts. It was clear that she was growing increasingly more bitter at her perceived ill-treatment at the hands of both her company and the public.

After filling several interviews and several forums with increasingly vitriolic rants about adrenaline-addicted FPS-fan knuckleheads who didn't understand her "art," Roberta Williams retired indefinitely from developing games in 1997. She has made an occasional comment, and has been interviewed as recently as 2002, but it seems that she enjoys her retirement, and has no plans to come back to Sierra any time soon, especially given that Sierra is now only a publishing label for Vivendi Universal.

Roberta Williams cofounded On-Line Systems (later Sierra Online, and later simply Sierra) with her husband Ken Williams. She is credited in...

(Note that, should any additional games in the above series be developed after this noding, she may or may not be involved. As always, this list may not be complete...corrections or contributions are appreciated.)

Sources: althorrat, Freakazoid, Mobygames, the Wikipedia, Old Man Murray, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

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