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 regardless, Colossal Cave 3D Adventure is a complete reimagining of the original title and it’s due to come out this fall for PC and Quest 2 VR headsets. Not only will this new interpretation add graphics to the text adventure, but it’ll be in first-person 3D, with details filled in by the minds that brought us King’s Quest and Phantasmagoria.
In traditional Williams fashion, Ken is in charge of the code as chief engineer, while Roberta is creative director, building the narrative and working across all aspects of the project. There are 16 people on their team at Cygnus Entertainment and they’ve all worked together remotely through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We've had our stressful moments,” Roberta said. “There have been moments that Ken and I have said, what are we doing? Why did we do this? And other moments are just really exhilarating and exciting. I've learned a lot, Ken has learned a lot. We have a really good team and I'm just so excited to have met them – not in person – but they're very experienced in 3D graphics and programming.”
That last bit is especially important, considering 3D development is a new arena for Roberta and Ken, who are best known for ’80s and ’90s narrative 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’re jumping straight into VR and Unity, a 3D development platform.
By her own admission, Roberta hasn’t even played games for the past 25 years. She and Ken have kept tabs on the industry, but mostly, they’ve been checked out.
“It was like, if we thought about it too much, we could be drawn back in,” Roberta said.
Instead of staring at computer screens and dreaming of digital worlds, Roberta and Ken spent 15 years traveling the planet on a 60-foot boat. They would land wherever they wanted and spend a few months, half a year, in one spot before hopping back on the trawler and sailing to a new location. Ken wrote four books about their travels during this time, 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, laughing. “But anyway, after that we were looking for something to do and I noticed that Ken was doing a lot of YouTube tutorials on some sort of 3D engine, some sort of 3D programming language.”
She didn’t think much of it at first. Ken outlined a game idea he was toying with, where players would learn programming as they went, building simple experiences within his digital ecosystem. Kind of like Roblox, but with more emphasis on learning real-world programming skills.
“He was telling me this and he had some ideas on how to do it and make it fun,” Roberta said. “And I said, well, will it be fun?”
Ken assured her it would be, but she wasn’t convinced. That night when she was in bed, mulling over her husband’s dull-sounding idea, Colossal Cave Adventure popped 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 late-night revelation to Ken.
“I hadn't really wanted to get back in the industry, but I just suddenly felt this urge, almost kind of like when I sat down and did Mystery House,” Roberta said. “And I don't know why, and I mentioned it to him and I saw his eyes kind of light up.”
Mystery House was Sierra On-Line’s debut game and when it landed in 1980, it was the first-ever graphic adventure. Roberta mapped out Mystery House in 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 heft, and her imagination got to work. She acquired a giant piece of paper from a local stationery store and started drawing rooms, connecting them and finding creative ways to get from one area to another. This ended up being the flowchart for Mystery House, and Ken, an avid programmer, brought it to digital life.
“Colossal Cave is the game that started Sierra On-Line,” Roberta said. “It started my career.”
Colossal Cave Adventure creators Don Woods and Will Crowther never copyrighted their work, which means anyone can do what they want with the IP, including the Williamses. Still, they got on the phone with Woods himself to ask permission, and the original developer had one request: Never try to copyright it. Keep the Colossal Cave franchise open, unowned and free for anyone to play with.
Roberta and Ken agreed, and they got to work. In June 2021, they revealed there was a new, secret game in development at their studio, Cygnus Entertainment. Colossal Cave 3D Adventure is due to come out this fall, primed to capture the imaginations of a new generation of players.