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Sierra Entertainment

Sierra Entertainment, Inc. (formerly On-Line Systems and Sierra On-Line, Inc.) was an American video game developer and publisher based in Bellevue, Washington.

Sierra Entertainment, Inc.
  • On-Line Systems (1979–1982)
  • Sierra On-Line, Inc. (1982–2002)
IndustryVideo game industry
Founded1979; 39 years ago (1979) in Oakhurst, California, U.S.
DefunctAugust 27, 2004 (2004-08-27)[1]
ProductsList of games
ParentVivendi Universal Games (1996–2004)

Founded in 1979 as On-Line Systems, by Ken and Roberta Williams,[2] Sierra was known primarily for their graphic adventure game series such as King's Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Gabriel Knight, and Quest for Glory. They were also known for their PC racing games based on the NASCAR license, their Caesar simulation series, and their Hoyle line of licensed card game software.

Sierra On-Line was acquired by CUC International in February 1996 and became part of CUC International's newly established CUC Software (sold and renamed multiple times until becoming Vivendi Universal Games in 2001).

In June 2004, after months of significant downsizing and restructuring at the company, Sierra Entertainment as a company was downsized and eventually shut down, and were fully disestablished as a company on August 27, 2004.[1] The Sierra brand name was retained by Vivendi Universal Games (later Vivendi Games) as a publishing label until 2008, and was revived by Activision in 2014 for mainly re-releasing older titles.




Original On-Line Systems logo

Sierra Entertainment was founded in 1979[2] as On-Line Systems in Simi Valley, California, by Ken and Roberta Williams. Ken, 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 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.[3] By early 1984 InfoWorld estimated that Sierra was the world's 12th-largest microcomputer-software company, with $12.5 million in 1983 sales.[4]


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.[5] 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 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 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[6] 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.[7]


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,[8] began development in 1989.[citation needed] It was launched on May 6, 1991, as the Sierra Network.[8] 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.[8] The network failed to find a mass audience.[9]

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,[citation needed] the game and its sequels were critically acclaimed in the mainstream press at the time.

Sierra and Broderbund ended merger discussions in March 1991.[10]

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.[11] 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.[citation needed] 1995 also saw Sierra acquiring a number of development companies, both small home developers and larger companies.[12]

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.[13]

Sold to CUCEdit

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.[citation needed]. Walter Forbes, the CEO of CUC International, and a member of Sierra's own Board of Directors since 1991, surprised Ken with the deal after a board meeting. After negotiating terms which Ken felt would be in best interest for Sierra's future, the deal with CUC closed on July 24, 1996. Among the terms included that Ken would be named a Vice-Chairman of CUC International, a Member of the Office of the President of CUC, and would remain responsible for Sierra's R&D as well as remaining Sierra's CEO.[14] He also requested that a "software board" be created. The board would be comprised of himself, Michael Brochu (Sierra's President and COO), Bob Davidson (founder and CEO of Davidson & Associates and Forbes; the function of this board would be to act as a governing body of what would become CUC Software, regulating major decisions and product lines.

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. Bob Davidson, founder and CEO of Davidson & Associates became the CEO for the publishing body. 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.

CUC Software would utilize its various labels' market specialties; for example, in October 1996, Sierra published Stay Tooned!, an adventure game developed by Funnybone Interactive, a subsidiary of Davidson & Associates, as Sierra was more known as an adventure game publisher than Davidson.

In November 1996, Ken met with the founders of Valve and negotiated Sierra's exclusive rights to publish Half-Life,[15] which Ken debuted at E3 in May 1997. In December 1996, Sierra released The Realm Online, an online fantasy roleplaying game.

After the sale, Ken remained within the software division so that he could provide strategic guidance to Sierra, although he began to grow disillusioned as he soon found that his new titles at CUC meant very little and the software board met only once. He also began to have disputes with Davidson over Davidson's conservative management style and his disdain for Sierra's more risque product lines such as Phantasmagoria and Leisure Suit Larry.[16]

In January 1997, Davidson stepped down as CEO of CUC Software, and CUC Executive Chris MacLeod was named as his replacement.[17] After this, Ken shifted his focus work on CUC's online product distributor, NetMarket while remaining as CEO of Sierra in name only. In November, Ken departed from CUC International, while Roberta remained with Sierra until the release of King's Quest: Mask of Eternity in December 1998. Brochu, who had been hired in 1995 by Ken, to handle the day to day business affairs of Sierra, replaced Ken and remained as President of Sierra until October 1997, when he too would depart the company.

In April 1997, to further expand upon their role in the edutainment business, Sierra. purchased Books That Work and CUC International purchased Berkeley Systems and transferred management of the studio to Sierra as an internal developer.[18] In December 1997, in order to secure the rights to Return to Krondor, Sierra purchased PyroTechnix, who were developing the game.

On November 5, 1997, after the departure of Brochu in October, Sierra was split into three business units, all of which would report directly to MacLeod.[19]

Cendant CorporationEdit

In December 1997, CUC merged with HFS Incorporated. The two companies jointly formed the Cendant Corporation with more than 40,000 employees and operations in over 100 countries.

In 1998, Sierra split up its organization into 4 sub-brands and corporate divisions:[20]

  • Sierra Attractions (For casual games such as poker) - composed of Berkeley Systems
  • Sierra Home (For home/lifestyle software) - composed of Sierra's gardening, home design, and cooking software divisions
  • Sierra Sports (For sports games) - composed of Dynamix, Synergistic Software, and Papyrus
  • Sierra Studios (General publishing division) - Composed of Sierra Northwest/Bellevue, Pyrotechnix, and Impressions Software[21]
  • Sierra FX (Adventure Games and Online Multiplayer Games) - Based at Sierra's old headquarters in Oakhurst, which was publicly referred to as Yosemite Entertainment.

On November 24, 1997, Sierra published Diablo: Hellfire, the official expansion pack for the widely popular game Diablo. It was developed by Synergistic Software, a division of Sierra.

On November 19, 1998, Sierra published Half-Life for the PC, developed by Valve Corporation, widely considered to be one of the greatest games of all time.

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.

Major layoffsEdit

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.[22] 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 legacyEdit

UK-based game 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.

In August 2001, Sierra announced a major reorganization, which included the closure of Dynamix as well as the layoffs of 148 employees located at the company headquarters in Bellevue.[23]

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, 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.

In 2003, Sierra Entertainment released the second video game adaptation of The Hobbit, as well as NASCAR Racing 2003 Season.

2004–2008, Restructuring and useage as an in-name only publishing labelEdit

In the spring of 2004, Cost-cutting measures were taken at Sierra's parent company Vivendi Universal Games due to financial troubles and because of Sierra's lack of profitability as a working developer. Sierra's last owned studios Impressions Games and the Papyrus Design Group were both shut down in the spring of 2004, losing 50 jobs in the process; 180 Sierra-related positions were also eliminated at Vivendi's Los Angeles offices; and by June 2004, Vivendi had completely shut down Sierra's Bellevue location, which cost over 100 people their jobs and dispersed Sierra's work to other VU Games divisions, and re-locating the remains of Sierra's assets to Vivendi's corporate headquarters in Fresno, California. In total, 350 people lost their jobs. Various titles that were retired in the process included Print Artist and titles like the Hoyle franchise were sold to other publishers or developers. Sierra by this point was simply a publishing label and brand name for Vivendi titles, being used in tandom with their own name for publishing.

In late 2005, the Sierra brand was re-launched from Los Angeles. A new subsidiary called Sierra Online (no-relation to Sierra's former name Sierra On-Line) was also founded within this time, which would focus on download games and online-only titles.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, Vivendi 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 divisions and from companies partnered with Vivendi and the copyrights of several notable intellectual properties, such as Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, 50 Cent: Bulletproof and Scarface. Vivendi also ceased publishing under their own name by this point after their name change, with all major titles being released under the Sierra brand name.

Caesar IV was published September 26, 2006 in North America, in partnership with Tilted Mill Entertainment.

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 September 2007, Sierra released the real-time tactical video game World in Conflict.

In October 2007, Sierra released TimeShift.

In 2008, Sierra Entertainment's parent company Vivendi merged with video game publisher Activision to form the Activision Blizzard holding company. Vivendi 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.[24] 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.

2010s – brand name revivalEdit

The Sierra logo used by Activision as a publishing label and brand name.

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,[25] re-imagining their older franchises, as well as collaborate with indie studios to create new "innovative, edgy and graphically unique" projects.[26] Sierra will focus on publishing downloadable games through PlayStation Network, Steam for PC and Xbox Live.[27] "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 founder Ken in an official statement. "We look forward to seeing Sierra's independent spirit live on."[28] 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.[29]

On December 5, 2014, they were awarded with the "Industry Icon" award during the 2014 The Game Awards, and they also introduced the first footage from the reboot of King's Quest.[30]




  • Sierra Attractions; 1998–2001
  • Sierra FX; 1998
  • Sierra Home; 1996–2004
  • Sierra Sports; February 1998[39]–2000
  • Sierra Studios; 1998–2001

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Developer Lookback: Sierra Online". Retro Gamer. No. 31. Imagine Publishing. pp. 44–51.
  2. ^ a b Wolf, Mark J. P., ed. (2012). Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming, Volume 2. Greenwood. p. 573. ISBN 978-0313379369.
  3. ^ Levy, Stephen (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-19195-2.
  4. ^ Caruso, Denise (April 2, 1984). "Company Strategies Boomerang". InfoWorld. pp. 80–83. Archived from the original on March 16, 2015. Retrieved February 10, 2015.
  5. ^ Interaction Magazine, Fall 1994
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on November 2, 2015. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 20, 2016. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  8. ^ a b c "75 Power Players: The Next Generation?". Next Generation. Imagine Media (11): 75. November 1995.
  9. ^ "Traditional Online Services". Next Generation. No. 19. Imagine Media. July 1996. pp. 30–31.
  10. ^ "Inside the Industry". Computer Gaming World. June 1991. p. 62. Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved November 17, 2013.
  11. ^ "Sierra Merges with CUC". GamePro. No. 92. IDG. May 1996. p. 20.
  12. ^ Sherman, Christopher (February 1996). "Movers & Shakers". Next Generation. No. 14. Imagine Media. p. 25.
  13. ^ "Pantasmagoria (pc:1995)". Archived from the original on September 23, 2008.
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  22. ^ "Headgate Studios: About". Headgate Studios. Archived from the original on September 15, 2007. Retrieved August 25, 2009.
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  25. ^ Alexa Ray Corriea (August 12, 2014). "Geometry Wars and King's Quest return with revived Sierra label". Polygon. Archived from the original on August 15, 2014. Retrieved August 12, 2014.
  26. ^ Chris Pereira (August 17, 2014). "Geometry Wars 3, New King's Quest From Sierra Announced at Gamescom 2014". GameSpot. Archived from the original on August 15, 2014. Retrieved August 17, 2014.
  27. ^ Patrick Klepek (August 17, 2014). "Sierra's Coming Back With King's Quest, Geometry Wars". Giant Bomb. Archived from the original on August 28, 2014. Retrieved August 17, 2014.
  28. ^ Martin Robinson (August 17, 2014). "Sierra is back – and so are Geometry Wars and King's Quest". Eurogamer. Archived from the original on August 15, 2014. Retrieved August 17, 2014.
  29. ^ Hamza Aziz (August 17, 2014). "Sierra is back! New King's Quest and, uh, Geometry Wars coming". Destructoid. Archived from the original on August 15, 2014. Retrieved August 17, 2014.
  30. ^ Kevin Dunsmore (December 5, 2014). "The Game Awards 2014 Full List Of Winners Revealed". Hardcore Gamer. Archived from the original on January 6, 2015. Retrieved December 5, 2014.
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