|Industry||Video game industry|
|Fate||Dissolved by parent, "Sierra" brand name revived in 2014.|
|Founded||1979Oakhurst, California, U.S.in|
|Defunct||July 10, 2008|
|Headquarters||Bellevue, Washington, U.S.|
|Products||List of Sierra Entertainment video games|
|Parent||Vivendi Games (1996–2008)|
Founded in 1979 as On-Line Systems, by Ken and Roberta Williams. Sierra On-Line was acquired by CUC International in February 1998 and became part of CUC International's newly established CUC Software (renamed multiply until becoming Vivendi Games in 2003).
Vivendi Games was acquired by Activision and merged into Activision Blizzard in July 2010, after which the Sierra name was effectively disbanded alongside. The brand name was relaunched by Activision in 2014, and exists as a publishing label under which Sierra's legacy titles are re-released, as well as some independent titles.
Sierra Entertainment was founded in 1979 as On-Line Systems in Simi Valley, California, by Ken and Roberta Williams. Ken Williams, a programmer for IBM, bought an Apple II microcomputer which he planned to use to develop a Fortran compiler for the Apple II. At the time, his wife Roberta Williams was playing text adventure games on the Apple II. Dissatisfied with the text-only format, she realized that the graphics display capability of the Apple II could enhance the adventure gaming experience. After initial success, On-Line Systems was renamed Sierra On-Line in 1982, and the company moved to Oakhurst, California. By early 1984 InfoWorld estimated that Sierra was the world's 12th-largest microcomputer-software company, with $12.5 million in 1983 sales.
In 1980, On-Line Systems released their first game in the Hi-Res Adventure series, Mystery House. Roberta wrote the script for the adventure game in three weeks, then presented it to Ken. At this point, Roberta convinced Ken to help her develop the game in the evenings after work. She worked on the text and the graphics, and told Ken how to put it all together to make it the game she wanted. They worked on it for about three months and, on May 5, 1980, Mystery House was ready for shipment. Mystery House was an instant hit. It was the first computer adventure game to have graphics, although they were crude, monochrome, static line drawings. It sold about 15,000 copies and earned $167,000.
The Hi-Res Adventure series continued with Mission Asteroid, which was released as Hi-Res Adventure #0, despite being the second release. The next release, Wizard and the Princess, also known as Adventure in Serenia, is considered a prelude to the later King's Quest series in both story and concept. Through 1981 and 1982, more games were released in the series including Cranston Manor, Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, Time Zone, and The Dark Crystal. A simplified version of The Dark Crystal, intended for a younger audience, was written by Al Lowe and released as Gelfling Adventure.
Many of Sierra's most well known series began in the 1980s. In 1983, Sierra On-Line was contacted by IBM to create a game for its new PCjr. IBM would fund the entire development of the game, pay royalties for it, and advertise for the game. Ken and Roberta accepted and started on the project. Roberta created a story featuring classic fairy-tale elements. Her game concept included animated color graphics, a pseudo 3D-perspective where the main character was visible on the screen, a more competent text parser that would understand advanced commands from the player, and music playing in the background through the PCjr sound hardware. For the game, a complete development system called Adventure Game Interpreter was developed. In the summer of 1984, King's Quest was released to much acclaim, beginning the King's Quest series.
While working to finish The Black Cauldron, programmers Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy began to plan for an adventure game of their own. After a simple demonstration to Ken, he allowed them to start working on the full game, which was named Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter. The game, released in October 1986, was an instant success and would spawn many sequels in the following years as part of the Space Quest series.
Al Lowe, who had been working at Sierra On-Line for many years, was asked by Ken Williams to write a modern version of Chuck Benton's Softporn Adventure from 1981, the only pure text adventure that the company had ever released. Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was a great hit (although it first became famous as an early example of software piracy, as Sierra sold many more hintbooks than actual copies of the game) and won the Software Publishers Association's Best Adventure Game award of 1987. A long series of Leisure Suit Larry games would follow in the coming years.
Ken Williams befriended a retired highway patrol officer named Jim Walls, and asked him to produce an adventure series based on a police theme. Walls proceeded to create Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel, which was released in 1987. Several sequels followed, and series was touted for its adherence to police protocol (relevant parts of which were explained in the games' manuals), and presenting some real-life situations encountered by Walls during his career as an officer.
Quest for Glory is a series of hybrid adventure/role-playing video games designed by Corey and Lori Ann Cole. The first game in the series, Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero, was released in 1989. The series combined humor, puzzle elements, themes and characters borrowed from various legends, puns, and memorable characters, creating a 5-part series of the Sierra stable. Although the series was originally titled Hero's Quest, Sierra failed to trademark the name. Milton Bradley successfully trademarked an electronic version of their unrelated joint Games Workshop board game, HeroQuest, which forced Sierra to change the series' title to Quest for Glory. This decision caused all future games in the series (as well as newer releases of Hero's Quest I) to switch over to the new name.
In 1987, Sierra On-Line started to publish their own gaming magazine, where one could read about their upcoming games and interviews with the developers. The magazine was initially named The Sierra Newsletter, The Sierra News Magazine and The Sierra/Dynamix Newsmagazine. However, since Sierra Club already published a magazine called Sierra Magazine, the name of the magazine published by Sierra On-Line was changed to InterAction in 1991. The magazine InterAction was discontinued in 1999.
Sierra's Adventure Game Interpreter engine, introduced with King's Quest, was replaced in 1988 with Sierra's Creative Interpreter in King's Quest IV. The game was released under both engines, so those who had newer computers could use the new engine and its better rendering technology.
In 1990, Sierra released King's Quest V. It was the first Sierra On-Line game ever to sell more than 500,000 copies and was the highest selling game for the next five years. It won several awards as well, such as the Best Adventure Game of the Year from both the Software Publishers Association and Computer Gaming World magazine.
The ImagiNation Network, the first game-only online environment, began development in 1989. It was launched on May 6, 1991, as the Sierra Network. Providing a "land-based" precursor to MMORPGs and internet chat rooms, each land theme for the type of content provided multi-player gaming and category based bulletin boards and chat rooms throughout the continental United States. AT&T took sole possession of the network on November 15, 1994, and as a result the name was changed to the ImagiNation Network. The network failed to find a mass audience.
In 1991, Sierra released the first title in the Dr. Brain series, Castle of Dr. Brain, a hybrid puzzle adventure education game, which had several sequels. In 1993, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers was released, beginning the Gabriel Knight series. Generally considered to be a staple of the point-and-click adventure genre, the game and its sequels were critically acclaimed in the mainstream press at the time.
Sierra had grown enormously since its first years, and a new building would be needed to expand its operations to continue making games. A decision was made to move the headquarters north to Bellevue, Washington. Sierra's original location in Oakhurst continued as an internal development studio for the company, and was later renamed Yosemite Entertainment.
The company was now made up of five separate and largely autonomous development divisions: Sierra Publishing, Sierra Northwest, Dynamix, Bright Star Technology, and Coktel Vision, with each group working separately on product development but sharing manufacturing, distribution, and sales resources.
The year 1995 would prove to be an extremely successful year for the company. Sierra was the market-share leader in PC games for the year. With $83.4 million in sales from its software-publishing business, earnings improved by 19 percent, bringing a net income of $11.9 million to the company. In June 1995, Sierra and Pioneer Electric Corp. signed an agreement to create a joint venture that would develop, publish, manufacture, and market entertainment software for the Japanese software market. This joint venture created a new company called Sierra Venture. With Sierra and Pioneer investing over $12 million, the new company immediately manufactured and shipped over twenty of Sierra's most popular products to Japan and created new titles for the Japanese market. 1995 also saw Sierra acquiring a number of development companies, both small home developers and larger companies.
Phantasmagoria was by far the largest project ever undertaken by Sierra. At the time of its release in late 1995, the anticipation for the game was high. Although nearly one million copies were sold when the game was first released in August 1995, making it the bestselling Sierra adventure game created, the game received mixed reviews from industry critics.
Sold to CUC
In February 1996, early e-commerce pioneer CUC International, seeking to expand into interactive entertainment, offered to buy Sierra at a price of about $1.5 billion. The deal with CUC closed on July 24, 1996. Immediately after the sale, Ken Williams stepped down as CEO of Sierra. He stayed with the software division as a Vice-President of CUC so that he could provide strategic guidance to Sierra and began to work on CUC's online product distributor, NetMarket. One year later, Ken and Roberta left CUC.
In September 1996, CUC announced plans to consolidate some of the functions of its game companies into a single company called CUC Software Inc., headquartered in Torrance, California. Davidson & Associates became the publisher for the studio. CUC Software would consolidate the manufacturing, distribution, and sales resources of all of its divisions that would come to include Sierra, Davidson, Blizzard, Knowledge Adventure, and Gryphon Software.
On November 5, 1996, Sierra was restructured into three units.
In 1998, Sierra split up its organization into 4 sub-brands and corporate divisions:
- Sierra Attractions (For casual games such as poker)
- Sierra Home (For home/lifestyle software)
- Sierra Sports (For sports games)
- Sierra Studios (General publishing division)
In March 1998, massive accounting fraud at CUC was exposed. With the news, Cendant announced its intention to sell off its computer entertainment division, and on November 20, 1998, announced the sale of its entire consumer software division to Paris-based Havas S.A. Sierra became a part of Havas Interactive, the interactive entertainment division of the company.
On February 22, 1999, Sierra announced a major reorganization of the company, resulting in the shutdown of several of their development studios, cutbacks on others and the relocation of key projects, and employees from those studios, to Bellevue. About 250 people in total lost their jobs. Development groups within Sierra such as PyroTechnix were shut down. Others such as Books That Work were relocated to Bellevue. Also shut down was Yosemite Entertainment, the division occupying the original headquarters of Sierra On-Line. The company sold the rights of Headgate Studios back to the original owner. With the exception of the warehouse and distribution department, the entire studio was shut down. Game designers Al Lowe and Scott Murphy were laid off. Lowe had just started work on Leisure Suit Larry 8. Murphy was involved in a Space Quest 7 project at the time. Layoffs continued on March 1, when Sierra terminated 30 employees at the previously unaffected Dynamix, 15 percent of its workforce.
Despite the layoffs, Sierra continued to publish games for smaller development houses. In September 1999, they released Homeworld, a real-time space-combat strategy game developed by Relic Entertainment. The game design was revolutionary for the genre, and the game received great critical acclaim and many awards.
Yosemite Entertainment legacy
UK-based games developer and publisher Codemasters, in an effort to establish themselves in the United States, announced that it would launch a new development studio in Oakhurst, using the abandoned Sierra facilities and hiring much of the Yosemite Entertainment's laid-off staff in mid-September 1999. In early October the company announced that it would take over management and maintenance of the online RPG The Realm and that it would pick up and complete the previously canceled Navy SEALs. The company also reported that it had obtained the rights to continue using the name Yosemite Entertainment for the development house.
Meanwhile, Sierra announced another reorganization, this time into three business units: Core Games, Casual Entertainment, and Home Productivity. This reorganization resulted in even more layoffs, eliminating 105 additional jobs and a number of games in production. After 1999, Sierra almost entirely ceased to be a developer of games and, as time went on, instead became a publisher of games by independent developers.
At the end of June 2000, a strategic business alliance between Vivendi, Seagram, and Canal+ was announced, and Vivendi Universal, a leading global media and communications company, was formed after the merger with Seagram (the parent company of Universal Studios). Havas S.A. was renamed Vivendi Universal Publishing and became the publishing division of the new group, divided into five groups: games, education, literature, health, and information. The merger was followed by many more layoffs of Sierra employees.
On February 19, 2002, Sierra On-Line officially announced the change of its name to Sierra Entertainment, Inc.
In 2002, Sierra, working with High Voltage Software, announced the development of a new chapter in the Leisure Suit Larry franchise, titled Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude. It was released to mostly mixed to negative reviews; Larry's creator, Al Lowe, was not involved with the project.
The newly renamed Sierra Entertainment continued to develop mostly unsuccessful interactive entertainment products. However, its hit Homeworld 2 once again cemented Sierra's reputation as a respectable publisher.
Cost-cutting measures were taken because of parent company Vivendi Universal Games' (VU Games') financial troubles and because of Sierra's lack of profitability as a working developer. Impressions Games and the Papyrus Design Group were shut down in the spring of 2004, and about 50 people lost their jobs in those cuts; 180 Sierra-related positions were eliminated at Vivendi's Los Angeles offices; and finally in June 2004, VU Games shut down Sierra's Bellevue location, which cost over 100 people their jobs, dispersed Sierra's work to other VU Games divisions, and relocated the company to Vivendi Universal Games's corporate headquarters in Fresno, California. Other titles, such as Print Artist, were permanently discontinued. The Hoyle franchise was sold to an independent developer. In total, 350 people lost their jobs.
In late 2005, the Sierra brand was re-launched from Los Angeles, including the Sierra Online brand, which was to focus on online-only titles.
Throughout 2005 and 2006, Vivendi Universal Games acquired several game development studios including Massive Entertainment, High Moon Studios, Radical Entertainment, Secret Lair Studios / Studio Ch'in (based in Seattle and Shanghai) and Swordfish Studios and integrated them into Sierra, alongside the creative licenses from other Vivendi Universal divisions and from companies partnered with Vivendi Universal Games and the copyrights of several notable intellectual properties, such as Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, 50 Cent: Bulletproof and Scarface.
After Vivendi Universal Games was renamed to Vivendi Games in Mid 2006, all the games published by the company would all be branded under the Sierra Entertainment name.
In the summer of 2007, Sierra Online began launching Xbox Live Arcade titles for the Xbox 360. One of its first releases was the conversion of the successful "German-style" board game Carcassonne, which had been in development at Secret Lair Studios.
In October 2007, Sierra released TimeShift.
In 2008, Sierra Entertainment's parent company Vivendi Games merged with video game publisher Activision to form the Activision Blizzard holding company. Vivendi Games was absorbed into Activision after the merger and the ownership of Sierra and its properties went to Activision. Later that year, Sierra was closed down for possible future sale.
On July 29, 2008, Activision dropped several planned Sierra titles due for release that weren't a strong fit with their long-term strategy.  Upcoming titles like Crash: Mind Over Mutant, The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon and Prototype were retained by Activision. Many of the former planned Vivendi/Sierra published titles were sold on to other publishers. Ghostbusters: The Video Game and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena were sold to Atari, Inc., Brütal Legend was sold to Electronic Arts, WET was sold to Bethesda Softworks, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand was sold to THQ and World in Conflict: Soviet Assault was sold to Ubisoft, who also acquired Massive Entertainment. Swordfish Studios was sold to Codemasters.
On August 7, 2014, the website for Sierra, which previously redirected to Activision's website, was updated, showcasing a new logo, teasing: "More to be revealed at Gamescom 2014." The revived Sierra Entertainment will re-release some of their older games, re-imagining their older franchise, as well as collaborate with indie studios to create new "innovative, edgy and graphically unique" projects. Sierra will focus on publishing downloadable games through PlayStation Network, Steam for PC and Xbox Live. "We're very proud of what we created all those years ago with Sierra On-Line, and today's news about carrying Sierra forward as an indie-specific brand is very encouraging," said Sierra founder Ken Williams in an official statement. "We look forward to seeing Sierra's independent spirit live on." On the same day, King's Quest and Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions were announced; they were the first two games published under the revived Sierra brand.
- Books That Work
- Bright Star Technology in Bellevue, Washington, founded 1980, acquired 1992.
- Green Thumb Software, acquired in 1995.
- Dynamix in Eugene, Oregon, founded 1984, acquired August 1990, closed August 14, 2001.
- Front Page Sports, closed January 28, 1998.
- Impressions Games in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded 1989, acquired 1995, closed April 2004.
- Papyrus Design Group in Watertown, Massachusetts, founded in 1987, acquired 1995, closed May 2004.
- PyroTechnix, founded as Computer Presentation, acquired February 1996, closed in 1999.
- Yosemite Entertainment in Oakhurst, California, formed in 1998, closed in 1999 then sold to Codemasters that year.
- Headgate Studios in Bountiful, Utah, founded in 1992, acquired April 1996, sold to original owner in 1999.
- Synergistic Studios, founded in 1978, acquired in 1996, studio closed in 1999. No longer involved in the video game industry.
- List of video game companies
- List of video game publishers
- AGD Interactive
- Activision Blizzard
- Infamous Adventures
- Vivendi Games
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