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Impressions of “Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The Rise and Fall of Siera On-Line,” by Ken Williams

Impressions of “Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The Rise and Fall of Siera On-Line,” by Ken Williams

Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings is a well-written book by a protagonist of the PC revolution describing his early life, his company’s history, and the wise and foolish decisions he made along the way. It’s a tremendous window into the computer games and music that helped shape my imagination. It is well written. And it is incredibly, painfully disappointing.

I should say a few words about Sierra On-Line. The company was both a creator and publisher of computer game titles. My experience with Sierra is emotional in the way many have a passionate relationship with Apple.

  • Games like Betrayal at Antara, Caesar II, Civil War Generals 2, Earthsiege 2, Rama were not-so-much products to be purchased and reviewed but landmarks in the way famous novels are landmarks. They made me feel, “This is how wonderful computers are! These are the sorts of things out there!” I remember reading previews and reviews of these games in Computer Games Strategy Plus, Computer Gaming World, and PC Gamer in the ways others would read about literature in the New York Review of Books.
  • Gabriel Knight III was opened so much of reality to me. It’s serious consideration of spirituality, religion, geography, buried treasure, and frauds from a century ago
  • Many years later, I discovered how fund text-based adventures can be by watching live streams of Police Quest and Police Quest II I’d never seen imagination used so joyously combining drama and comedy in a game before, and I still have happy memories of watching those performances.
  • Likewise, the music Sierra produced is still with us. To give just one example, I’m listening to a remastered track by Robert Holmes while writing this

I loved Sierra On-Line because I loved the games.

Ken Williams, the founder of Sierra and author of this book, decidedly did not.

I must give Mr. Williams tremendous credit for his writing, memory, and honesty. Few founders and CEOs, I think, would describe their work so forthrightly. Ken Williams, who is generous about his time in online interviews and online conversations, is consistent and helpful in describing his history and motivation.

Money. He wanted money.

I don’t mean to say that money was just one of his motivations or even the most important one. He clearly admires Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and seems genuinely hurt by Stephen Levy’s depiction of him in Hackers. I don’t mean he is somehow bad or surprising or unromantic for building a business and personal success.

I mean Ken Williams presents himself as a sprocket salesman who found sprockets tedious, an oilman with no interest in oilwells or oilfields or oil rigs. Henry Ford if Ford was bored by the assembly line, Elon Musk if Musk was in the car-and-rocket business just by a quirk of fate.

Williams appears not to have cared at all about the creative field his business was in. He states he does not remember large numbers of releases and (while he was deeply concerned with marketing, customer service, and public relations) heavily delegated any work on games beyond budgeting. He describes attempting to move into hardware and wishing Sierra had come out with the iPod.

The effect is reading an autobiography of a car company and learning the CEO wasn’t into automobiles or a movie mogul indifferent to the cinema (whether classic, glamorous or even trashy) beyond ROI.

It’s this lack of a vision for a type of product, I think, that leads to the tragedy the title – Not All Fairy Tales have Happy Endings – alludes to: the disastrous selling of the company to CUC.

It is impossible to imagine Williams’ heroes doing to their companies what Williams did to his: sell his to a pyramid scheme. I cannot imagine – outside of severe economic hardship – Steve Jobs deciding the proper home of the Macintosh is in a direct-to-consumer timeshare company. But Williams inexplicably sold Sierra to a company with murky financials and murkier purpose, an inexplicable and criminal conglomerate whose business model and even desires were irrelevant to Williams.

The company was sold. New management was either clueless (At best) or felons (at worse). Nearly all of Sierra’s studios and locations were closed. Even the Bellevue, Washington headquarters (formed after abandoning the long-time headquarters near Yosemite National Park) folded. Nothing was left. And Williams cared little for the art of it all.

In another review, I noted After Steve (Which functions as a biography of Johnny Ive) feels like it was written by someone who does not like Mr. Ive. The Journey is the Reward is certainly a biography of Steve Jobs by someone who disliked Mr. Jobs. Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings reads as if it was written by someone who thinks little of Mr. Williams and his accomplishments.

This is surprising because Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings is well written. It’s honest. It’s informative. It’s one of the best corporate autobiographies I have ever read.

And easily the saddest.

I read Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The Rise and Fall of Siera On-Line in the Audible edition.

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