Roberta & Ken Williams on remaking one of the oldest games

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As video game developers go, Roberta Williams is a legend. She founded Sierra On-Line alongside her husband Ken and spearheaded development on now-classic titles like the King’s Quest series, Phantasmagoria and the Laura Bow franchise. Now she and Ken are back in active game development working on their latest project: A full remake of Colossal Cave Adventure in VR.

Colossal Cave Adventure is the original text adventure game, the root from which all such titles have grown since it launched in 1976. While a major part of gaming history, it’s a struggle to translate that same kind of gameplay into something with broad audience appeal. The Williamses, however, have hit upon the idea of remaking the game as a VR exploration title.

Needless to say, translating the game across mediums is a monumental task. GamesBeat spoke with the Williamses about how they plan to bring this legendary title to modern gamers. Here is an edited transcript of our interview:

GamesBeat: What can you tell me about the Colossal Cave remake?

Roberta Williams: Adventure — sometimes called Colossal Cave — is an old game. In fact, it’s arguably the first actual computer game. It was the original text adventure game. It was a single-player adventure story through a fantasy cave. You’re not really sure what your goal is when you start playing it. But you find out that it’s to gather treasure, a certain amount of treasures, and bring them back to a safe place and get through this cave without dying, and just solve some other mysteries and puzzles along with it. It has beautiful descriptions of the cave that you’re in, which is loosely based upon the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.

Anyway, this game was written back in the early ’70s by two gentlemen by the name of Will Crowther and Don Woods. Will Crowther was a spelunker, he and his wife. They had explored this cave and decided to use it as the subject and backdrop of what Will Crowther was experimenting on with AI. He decided to experiment with the idea that if a person wanted to talk to a game, it would talk back. You could control the game, or the story I would say. That was in the early ’70s. At first that game was only played at MIT. Then it was squirreled out of MIT as people graduated and left. They took it with them to the various corporations and other universities that they worked in, all over the country. It sort of spread that way.

I started playing Adventure in early 1980, when my husband Ken was a programmer. I had loosely been in computers myself for the last few years as an IBM 360 computer operator. I’d recently had a baby. I was home and needed something to do. He was working at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles as a programmer. He saw that a game called Adventure was on their big corporate mainframe computer. He downloaded it and brought it home. I played it on our Apple II. I loved it. I totally got into this game. I’d never seen anything like it, where you could literally play a story. You go through the story and you talk to it, and it kind of talks back to you.

Colossal Cave Adventure debuted in 1976.

I played it for weeks. It’s based upon a points system, with maximum points of 350. Although you can win the game, get to the end of the game, without the maximum amount of points, if you’re a really serious player you want to get those maximum points — which I did. I wanted to, and I did. I was very proud of myself. When I got to the end of the game I wanted to play more like it, but there weren’t any more like it. It’s really one of a kind. That’s what really started my career designing adventure games. Soon after that I had an idea and started designing my first game, called Mystery House, that came out in May. I talked Ken into being the programmer for it. I was the designer. We did it together. That’s what really started our company, Sierra On-Line.

We sold Sierra about 20 or so years ago. We had other adventures between then and now. COVID came and lockdowns came. About a year and a half ago we were at home bored, wanting something to do, like many people. It just popped into my head, the game Colossal Cave, or Adventure. It was originally called just plain “Adventure,” but then it was also called, as I said, Colossal Cave. It just popped into my head and for some reason I remembered, way back at the beginning, being really struck by that game and loving it. It’s really what started my career. I don’t think Sierra On-Line would have existed. I don’t know that Laura Bow would have existed, or King’s Quest or anything else, if it wasn’t for this game.

Ken and I were talking about a potential new project we could do while we were home and couldn’t really go anywhere. I mentioned it to Ken, and before I knew it, he had actually called one of the original designers of the game, Don Woods, that day. Right after I mentioned it. Hours later I came in to see what he wanted to do for lunch, and he said, “You know, I just talked to Don Woods.” I said, “What? You did what? I just mentioned it this morning! You did that?” He said, “I did!” I said, “Well, what did he say? What did you say?” Ken said, “Well, I asked him if he would mind if we did our own version of Colossal Cave. Probably with pictures.” We didn’t know yet what kind of pictures or how we would do this. This was not well thought-out, as you can probably tell, at this point. Don Woods told Ken, “Well, other people have asked over the years, and in fact I think there’s been 180 different iterations of Colossal Cave done since the beginning of the 1970s.” He said, “Well, I’ve told other people that if they want to do it, that’s fine with us. We tell everybody else, ‘Just make sure that you never call it yours, and that other people always have the right to do whatever they want to with it.’” We said, “Fine, sure!”

We are working from the very, very beginning of it, the original 350-point game that I played. We’re keeping it as it is. We’re not changing it. We’re not adding puzzles. We’re not adding points. We’re not changing the game. It’s the exact same game it was. But what we’re doing is we’re adding beautiful 3D graphics, VR, music, sound effects, animation, characters — the original characters. It’s amazing. The more that I have gotten into it, I feel that my job now is to translate this old game, this wonderful game to the modern world, to current game players. Well, and older game players who maybe played it decades ago and loved it. Now they can have the ability to play it as a full cinematic Colossal Cave.

GB: I am a little hung up on the fact, Ken, that you just had Don Woods’ phone number and casually called him up on your lunch break.

RW: I still don’t know how he did it.

KW: Looking back at the correspondence, I kind of get the impression that if you were to take the value they created for companies like Infocom and Sierra and Adventure International — I don’t think they really ever made any money on any of it. I saw a comment by Crowther saying that the game is all anybody remembers them for. It’s the responsibility, I guess you would say, that we feel as we work on it, knowing that the game is historic. It’s a game that lived for 50 years, and we want it to live for another 50 years.

RW: The one thing I want to really get across to people, first of all, is that it’s a very, very well-designed game. It really is. As a person who has designed more than 20 games, I have a pretty good idea about how to design an adventure game. I can say with all truthfulness that this game is much better than anything I could ever design. I remember loving it, and I was addicted to it, but it was a long time since I played it. A lot of it was just in my memory. But now that I’m the translator of this game into modern times, I have had to get very deep into it to really understand it and get back into it … . I know that today it’s very popular to call parts of a game “levels.” But there is no sense of a level in this game.

I would say more that it’s layers of complexity, subplots and various strategies for getting through it. There are so many different strategies to how you can get through it and still win. Every time you go in to play it you can play it a different way. They were really ahead of their time in how you would do a proper adventure game with so many forks you can take, where you would go. You don’t have to go and meet the pirate. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do that.

The other thing about it that I discovered is, even to this day, you really cannot get through it just playing it once. Even if you’re the best speedrunner on earth. It’s so complex, yet it seems so easy. You had to take notes. You literally have to take notes. You have to map your way. You don’t have to map your way through the entire game, but there are areas where you do, especially a couple of very difficult mazes. There’s no way you’ll get through those without mapping it yourself, preferably with a piece of graph paper and a pen or a pencil.

GB: The game is coming to the Meta Quest 2. I’m curious about that, because it’s one thing to translate a game like Adventure from such a different medium to modern PC gaming. But to translate it to VR, that’s a step further.

KW: We weren’t going to do VR. Then one of my artists talked me into it. I thought at first that it would be no big deal. But then we got real. We discovered how much work it was, and basically had to restart the project and rethink a lot of stuff.

RW: And hire a lot of people.

KW: A lot of people. At the start it was going to be a two-person project. It’s now 26 people. It was going to be two people, me and her, and then I guess an artist. Originally it was planned as three people. Now it’s 26, 27, or 28 people, full time.

RW: It’s turned into a real live big game. I wouldn’t call this a typical indie game at all. It’s kind of funny, because we had Sierra On-Line, which was considered a very big company, a bleeding edge company back in the day. Had we stuck with it, it would probably be today another one of the huge companies. But we didn’t. We sold it.

KW: It wasn’t that small when we sold it. We had a thousand employees.

RW: There are a lot of very big companies now doing games, and they’ll pour millions in a game. Huge teams. Triple-A games, the big games coming out. And then you have all your indie games. We keep saying to ourselves, “Is this a triple-A game or a little indie game?” It’s not really a big game. But it’s not an indie game. It’s somewhere in there. We don’t know how to categorize it.

KW: There’s more than a couple million dollars into it. It’s not been a cheap project.

RW: Honestly, it’s its own thing. There’s nothing like it. Just nothing like it.

KW: And it’s going to get disproportionate attention, because Roberta and I are known to millions of fans, and the game is known to millions of fans, that puts it in a weird category. We’re trying to just make sure the game lives up to expectations. That’s the biggest pressure we feel every day, knowing that … .

RW: It has to be great.

KW: There are people who know this game.

RW: The other thing I was going to say is, the people we’re working with, they’re like your age. Maybe a couple that are nearer our age. But mostly your age or younger. [For reference, your author is 31.] And a lot of them started working with us because of our reputation. They wanted to work with us. We got some really good people. We were very lucky that way. But they were also a lot younger. We hadn’t been in the business for 20 years. They’re big game players, or they’re very highly skilled artists, 3D artists, programmers, engineers. They came into this because of our reputation. It sounded like something fun to do. They get to work at home and all of that. But they also are big gamers.

They all came with ideas about how games should be done. How games are done today, in today’s world. The standard way of doing this, the standard way of doing that, standard, standard, standard. I came at it from — this is a historical game. We cannot mess with it too much. Because if I had said, okay, let’s make this all different because of what a standard game does today or even a VR game today, it would not be Colossal Cave. There’s the standard expectations of how games should look today, how it should run today. But then there’s going to be the expectations of this being Colossal Cave. It has to be both.

I had so many conversations with various members of the team. We made some, obviously, considerations to make sure we’re bringing it up to certain standards of today’s gameplay. But we had a lot of them where I said, “No, no, no. We cannot. This is an old game, and we’re going to get pinged just as badly if we do these changes to this game to appeal to today’s game-playing world.” It’s been a very interesting project to try to do that. And that’s another reason why it’s going to be so different.

GB: Have there been any specific roadblocks when it comes to translating something like this, for the lack of a better way to put it, to modern sensibilities?

KW: We’ve had to overcome a couple of things. One is that everybody’s played the game, knows all the puzzles. How do you make this new enough that it’s worth paying for? They’ll be able to go to the internet and easily look up any solution to any puzzle. We’ve had to work on that. Even if you finished the text version yesterday and got all 350 points, you’ll not be able to blast through this version. It’s so huge.

RW: Not only that, but it’s like — if you read a book and you love the book, and then somebody makes a movie out of the book, would you go see the movie? Probably you would, if you love the book. We figured, well, if we put the old text game on our website and people play it, I don’t think it would keep them from wanting to play our game.

KW: A couple of other challenges we had to deal with–95 percent of the game, or 98%, takes place below ground in this cave system. If you went to the real Mammoth Cave and wandered around long enough, everything would look the same. Our game doesn’t look like that.

RW: [Woods and Crowther] they added some very interesting areas in the game that don’t sound at all like a cave. I’ve taken liberties with that. we didn’t want to have every place you go just be a cave. Cave, cave, rock, rock, stalagmites, stalactites. That would be very boring. We don’t want to be boring. We want to use our imaginations. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what we do.

KW: The other thing was that we started it by looking at other adventure games that are out there now. Looking to say what we thought they did right or wrong. We saw a lot more wrong than right. I think part of why the adventure game segment hasn’t really evolved the way some others did is that–maybe people ran out of ideas, or they got into some bad ideas. One problem with the adventure game category is that it seems to collect a lot of wannabe filmmakers. They get enamored with dialogue. The game was a series of cutscenes linked together by, click this button. In the Sierra days one of my top rules was the seven second rule: You can never take away control from the player for more than seven seconds. This is a game. You have to feel like you’re a master of the universe. You have to own that world. We wanted nonstop fun, especially in VR.

GB: You say you want to capture the soul of the original Adventure. In what ways do you think it’s still relevant for gamers today?

RW: I guess that’s the question. One thing that Ken and I are known for is experimenting and taking risks. We’re sort of known for getting out there and experiencing life — we not only like to play and design adventure games. We like to have adventures. I think adventure is in our blood. This is another risky little thing to do, to bring back an old game like this, and an excellent game. I have to stress that. Don’t take the words “old” or “historical” and think that means it’s boring. It’s not. It’s an excellently, beautifully, elegantly designed game. It truly is. In my opinion, it needs to be experienced by today’s players. It just needs to be. You’ve heard the old saying that everything old is new again. This is what that means, in my mind. What’s old is new again. We want to make this new for today’s players. They’ve never seen anything like this before.

KW: Just have fun! It’s okay sometimes in life to just do something because it’s a fun thing to do. It’s nice that it’s historic. But you can’t play historic. It’s cool that it’s historic. But I think people are just going to sit down and have a good time and play.

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