Roberta and Ken Williams are back. After 25 years out of the video game industry, the legendary founders of Sierra On-Line are working on a new project with an old twist: they’re rebuilding the classic text-based game Colossal Cave Adventure as a 3D experience with a VR component.
Maybe that’s an old project with a new twist, but anyway, Colossal Cave 3D Adventure is a complete reinvention of the original title and will be released this fall for PC and Quest 2 VR headsets. This new interpretation will not only add graphics to the text adventure, but it will also be in first-person 3D, with details filled in by the ghosts who brought us King’s Quest and phantasmagoria†
In traditional Williams fashion, Ken is responsible for the code as the lead engineer, while Roberta is the creative director, building the story and working across all aspects of the project. There are 16 people on their team at Cygnus Entertainment and they have all worked together remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had our stressful moments,” said Roberta. “There have been times when Ken and I have said, ‘What are we doing? Why did we do this? And other moments are just really exciting and exciting. I learned a lot, Ken learned a lot. We have a really good team and I’m so excited to have met them – not in person – but they have a lot of experience with 3D graphics and programming.”
The latter is especially important, as 3D development is a new arena for Roberta and Ken, who are best known for their 80s and 90s storytelling adventures and full-motion video titles. It’s been a quarter of a century since they last stepped into the world of game development and they jump straight into VR and Unity, a 3D development platform.
In her own words, Roberta has not even played any games in the past 25 years. She and Ken have been keeping an eye on the industry, but most of the time they are checked out.
“It was like, if we thought about it too much, we could be pulled back in,” Roberta said.
Instead of staring at computer screens and dreaming of digital worlds, Roberta and Ken traveled the planet on a 60-foot boat for 15 years. They would land where they pleased and spend a few months, half a year, in one place before jumping back on the trawler and sailing to a new location. During that time, Ken wrote four books about their travels, plus another one about Sierra On-Line; Roberta wrote a historical novel about the Great Famine in Ireland.
“Which didn’t sell as well as his book,” Roberta said with a laugh. “But anyway, after that we were looking for something to do and I noticed Ken was doing a lot of YouTube tutorials on some kind of 3D engine, some kind of 3D programming language.”
She didn’t mind at first. Ken outlined a game idea that he played with, where players gradually learned to code and built simple experiences within his digital ecosystem. Kind of like Robloxbut with more emphasis on learning real programming skills.
“He told me this and he had some ideas on how to do it and make it fun,” Roberta said. “And I said, well, will is it fun?”
Ken assured her it would, but she wasn’t convinced. That night as she lay in bed brooding over her husband’s dull-sounding idea, Colossal Cave Adventure shot into her head.
“I remember laying there and thinking, why did it do that?” she said. “You know, it’s like, is this a sign?” In the morning, Roberta brought her nocturnal epiphany to Ken.
“I actually didn’t want to go back into the industry, but I suddenly felt this urge, almost like when I sat down and did mystery house‘ said Roberta. “And I don’t know why, and I said it to him and I saw his eyes light up a little bit.”
mystery house was Sierra On-Line’s debut game, and when it came out in 1980, it was the first-ever graphical adventure. Roberta mapped out mystery house into a quiet frenzy after playing the original Colossal Cave Adventure, a text-only game, in the late 1970s – as an avid reader, she was inspired by its interactivity and narrative weight, and her imagination set to work. She bought a giant piece of paper from a local stationery store and started drawing parlors, connecting them together and finding creative ways to get from one area to another. This eventually became the flowchart for mystery houseand Ken, an avid programmer, brought it to digital life.
†Colossal Cave is the game Sierra On-Line started with,” said Roberta. “It started my career.”
Colossal Cave Adventure creators Don Woods and Will Crowther have never copyrighted their work, meaning anyone with the IP can do whatever they want, including the Williamses. Still, they’ve had Woods himself on the phone to ask for permission, and the original developer had one request: never try to copyright it. Keep the Colossal Cave franchise open, unowned and free for everyone to play with.
Roberta and Ken agreed and they got to work. In June 2021, they revealed that a new secret game was in development at their studio, Cygnus Entertainment. Colossal Cave 3D Adventure coming out this fall, ready to capture the imagination of a new generation of players.
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