Ken Williams (game developer)

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Ken Williams
Williams at the Game Developers Conference in 2022
Born (1954-10-30) October 30, 1954 (age 69)
Occupation(s)Game programmer, entrepreneur
(m. 1972)

Kenneth A. Williams (born October 30, 1954) is an American game programmer who co-founded On-Line Systems together with his wife Roberta Williams. On-Line Systems eventually became Sierra On-Line and was ultimately renamed Sierra Entertainment. The couple were leading figures in the development of graphical adventure games. At its height, Sierra employed nearly 1,000 people prior to its acquisition in 1996.


Early years[edit]

Williams was born in October 30, 1954 in Evansville, Indiana[1] and later grew up in Simi Valley, California. Ken and Roberta's early contributions to the computer game industry were partially chronicled in the book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. He wrote the textbook Apple II Computer Graphics,[2] and articles for Softline.[3]

Sierra On-Line[edit]

Williams addressing a crowd at a celebration of the On-Line Systems' first anniversary in 1981.

Williams and wife Roberta co-founded On-Line Systems in 1979. Sierra's notable online service, the ImagiNation Network, was purchased by AT&T in 1994.[4] Williams was the president of Sierra until the company was sold to CUC International in July 1996, but he remained with the company leading its strategic direction until November 1997. Vivendi (now Activision Blizzard after the Vivendi Games and Activision merger) currently holds the Sierra name.[5]

In his role as Sierra's CEO, Williams focused on innovation: "I'm not sure how typical I am of other CEOs ...most of my time is spent looking at product ... To me, everything is about being able to build awesome product ... Any game which does not push the state of the art leaves an opportunity for a competitor's game to look better."[6]

In Sierra's later years, the company's focus had shifted to publishing many titles from other studios, including Valve's Half-Life. Commenting on first-person shooters, Williams recalls, "By the time I decided we wanted into the genre, we were too far behind. With 20/20 hindsight, I blew it when I had the chance to buy id and didn't ... Valve was the first group I had spoken with that could put Sierra in front of id."[7]

Williams has cited Microsoft and The Walt Disney Company as influencing Sierra's business model. "These two companies were our role models. I read every book written on both companies. I did everything to try to understand how they thought, and how they did business."[8]

Recent years[edit]

Ken Williams at a celebration of On-Line Systems' first anniversary, 1981

After a spell of being inactive in the computer game industry, in 2022, it was reported that he was currently working with his wife Roberta on a new VR and flatscreen version of Colossal Cave 3D Adventure, a redux of the text-adventure title from 1977.[9] Prior to this, he had focused on writing and managing a Web site construction tool called Talkspot,[10] which aims to redefine how small businesses communicate with their customers on the Internet. He has published three books on boating, talking about his worldwide cruising along with his wife Roberta on their 68-foot Nordhavn trawler. In addition, he publishes a blog about cruising, Ken's Blog,[11] and his years at Sierra, Sierra Gamers. His memoir, Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The Rise and Fall of Sierra On-Line, was released on July 24, 2020.[12]

In June 2021, Williams has announced he and Roberta have been working on the game The Secret, in collaboration with artist Marcus Maximus Mera.[13]


Williams's trademarks have been his mustache and hair. His appearance has inspired Sierra's designers for some sprites, honoring Williams with cameo appearances in some games. One of these "incarnations" is the chief Keneewauwau of the Nontoonyt natives and Williams, the annoying joke teller (both appearing in Leisure Suit Larry games), as well as a whipper of "ScumSoft" in Space Quest III, and Kenny the Kid in Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist.

Personal life[edit]

Ken married Roberta Williams at the age of 19. They have two children, D.J. (born 1973) and Chris (born 1979). The Williams family has homes in Seattle, France, and Mexico.[14]

Games programmed[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Williams, Ken (July 24, 2020). Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The rise and fall of Sierra On-Line. Lulu. p. 408. ISBN 979-1716727367.
  • Levy, Steven (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Anchor Press/Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-19195-2.


  1. ^ Williams, Ken; Kernaghan, Bob; Kernaghan, Lisa; Paul Steffen, Gregory (1983). Apple II Computer Graphics. Bowie, MD: R.J. Brady Co. ISBN 0893033154. OCLC 9465136.
  2. ^ Williams, Ken (September 1981). "Apple II Graphics: An Inside Look". Softline. p. 8. Retrieved July 13, 2014.
  3. ^ "AT&T Buys On-line Service, Opens New Communications Unit". Associated Press News. 1994. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  4. ^ IGN Staff (2008). "Vivendi and Activision Complete Transaction to Create Activision Blizzard". Retrieved July 10, 2008.
  5. ^ Morrissette, Jess (1999). "Ken Williams (1999 ACG Interview)". Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  6. ^ Keighley, Geoffrey (1999). "GameSpot's The Final Hours of Half-Life". Archived from the original on May 8, 1999. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  7. ^ Jong, Philip (2006). "Ken Williams (2006 ACG Interview)". Retrieved March 29, 2006.
  8. ^ Williams, Ken. "Roberta and Ken Williams are back after 25 years with 'Colossal Cave 3D Adventure'". Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  9. ^ TalkSpot
  10. ^ Ken's Blog
  11. ^ Williams, Ken. "Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings". Retrieved December 13, 2020.
  12. ^ Rousseau, Jeffrey (June 3, 2021). "Ken and Roberta Williams making first game together in over 20 years". Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  13. ^ Sierra gamers, Sierragamers.
  14. ^ Boudreau, Ian (January 20, 2023). "Why Colossal Cave matters and why Ken and Roberta Williams remade it". PCGamesN. Network N. Retrieved January 25, 2023.

External links[edit]