My Ken Williams story

Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings by Ken Williams

I picked up Ken Williams’s book Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings back in October and read it over my Thanksgiving break. I recommend it, especially if you’re interested in the history of video games or software. Even at 530 pages, it’s a very quick read, and I was able to get from start to finish in just a day. It’s a good complement to the Sierra chapters in Steven Levy’s book Hackers, which I also recommend for tech history buffs.

The house that Ken and Roberta built

For those unfamiliar, Ken Williams founded Sierra On-Line in 1979 with his wife Roberta. After Roberta conceived of the game Mystery House for the Apple ][ (marking the invention of the graphical adventure genre), Ken programmed the game’s “engine” while Roberta fleshed out the game’s world, doing both the writing and illustrations. The pair marketed the game by demonstrating it at local computer stores, where store owners would thereafter offer the game for sale. Sierra grew from a husband-and-wife team into a multimillion-dollar powerhouse by the mid-to-late 1990s.

I’ve never met either of the Williamses. But in 2017, I exchanged a few e-mails with Al Lowe, one of Sierra’s most prolific game designers.

This story is mentioned briefly in Ken’s book (on page 205), but the longer version goes like this: Leading up to its launch in January 1983, Apple was hip-deep in development of their first computer built around a graphical user interface. Steve Jobs wanted to call this new computer the “Lisa,” after his daughter, but the legal folks at Apple quickly discovered that Sierra was offering an assembler for the Apple ][ with the same name. Trademark law being what it is, Apple couldn’t easily go ahead and use the “Lisa” name in the computer field without risking infringing on the trademark Sierra already owned.

So one day between 1981-1982, Ken Williams got a call from Apple. In exchange for the rights to use the “Lisa” name on Apple’s newest computer, Ken would receive several brand-new Lisa computers—each worth $10,000 at launch in 1983—as well as a few prototypes of a top-secret new machine in the works at Apple (this turned out to be the Macintosh). The Lisas arrived, and a few months later came the promised Mac prototypes, which Sierra used to develop Frogger, among other early Mac games.

Along with four Mac prototypes came a Picasso-style “Macintosh” lamp, usually designated for Mac dealers. Ken was not exactly known for keeping a tidy office (I can relate), so the Macintosh lamp became one of many items scattered about his space. Several months later, Al was in Ken’s office, noticed the lamp on his floor, and inquired about it… only to receive the shock that Ken was just going to throw it away. Al was able to successfully begnegotiate for the lamp, which found a new home in his personal office, where it lived for almost 33 years.

Al offered up the lamp for sale in 2017, and given its history, I bought it. It was on my desk at work for a while but now lives in my office perched—appropriately—atop my Lisa.

It was always obvious which desk was mine.

I promised Al and myself that the lamp would stay in the games industry. So far I’ve kept my word, and I foresee no reason to break that promise any time soon.

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