Roberta Williams (born February 16, 1953) is an American video game designer, writer, and a co-founder of Sierra On-Line (later known as Sierra Entertainment), who developed her first game while living in Simi Valley, California. She is most famous for her work in the field of graphic adventure games with titles such as Mystery House, the King's Quest series, and Phantasmagoria. She is married to Ken Williams and retired in 1999. Roberta Williams is one of the most influential PC game designers of the 1980s and 1990s, and has been credited with creating the graphic adventure genre.
In 1979, Williams was a housewife with two kids and no experience or particular interest in computers. Meanwhile, her husband, Ken, worked for a computer company on huge IBM mainframe machines. It was around that time that the Apple computer was becoming a popular item in people's homes. Ken saw the potential home computing could have for the future and brought his enthusiasm home with him. That got Roberta interested in home computers.
She began playing video games, first a text-based adventure game called Colossal Cave. Before long she was hooked on video games—especially of the adventure-style genre.
When Roberta Williams began developing her first game in the late 1970s, she had no experience with gaming or computers – only in reading and storytelling. She did not know how to program computers, but her husband Ken did. Their first creation was Mystery House, an adventure game with black and white graphics for the Apple II computer that was the first computer game to include graphics – predecessors had been text-only. To create graphics the Williams used a machine called a Versawriter, which was basically a board of thick plexiglass that had an arm-like device with an electronic eye at the tip. To the Williams' surprise, the game was met with acclaim and they went on to become leading figures in the development of graphical adventure games throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1980, they founded the company On-Line Systems, which later became Sierra On-Line. Her second title, Wizard and the Princess (1980), added color graphics. But their biggest success was the King's Quest series, which featured a large expansive world that could be explored by players. King's Quest I (1984) was the first adventure game to have animation, and King's Quest V (1990) was the first to use an icon-based interface.
Roberta Williams also designed such titles as Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1987), The Colonel's Bequest (1989), and Phantasmagoria (1995), which was the first in her career to be developed in the full-motion video technology. Phantasmagoria featured extreme violence and rape scenes. The game has received mixed reviews. Though Sierra was sold in 1996, Williams' production credits date to 1999, when she retired from Sierra On-Line.
After retiring in 1999 (stated at the time to be a "sabbatical"), she stayed away from the public eye and rarely gave interviews to talk about her past with Sierra On-Line. However, in a 2006 interview, she admitted that her favorite game she created was Phantasmagoria and not King's Quest: "If I could only pick one game, I would pick Phantasmagoria, as I enjoyed working on it immensely and it was so very challenging (and I love to be challenged!). However, in my heart, I will always love the King's Quest series and, especially, King's Quest I, since it was the game that really 'made' Sierra On-Line". Williams also said that designing computer games was in the past for her then and that she intended to write a historical novel.
In 2011, the video game website Gamezebo reported that Roberta Williams had returned from her sabbatical, and was working as a design consultant on the social network game Odd Manor.
Williams is no longer active in the computer game industry. She and her husband Ken blog about their worldwide cruising adventures on their 68-foot (21 m) yacht Nordhavn trawler. They have another website about their time at Sierra for fans, Sierra Gamers.
Ars Technica stated that Roberta Williams was "one of the more iconic figures in adventure gaming". GameSpot named her as the number ten in their list of "the most influential people in computer gaming of all time" for "pushing the envelope of graphic adventures" and being "especially proactive in creating games from a woman's point of view, and titles that appealed to the mainstream market, all the while integrating the latest technologies in graphics and sound wherever possible." In 1997, Computer Gaming World ranked her as number 10 on the list of the most influential people of all time in computer gaming for adventure game design. In 2009, IGN placed the Williams at 23rd position on the list of top game creators of all time, expressing hope that "maybe one day, we'll see the Williams again as well."
Williams can be seen in games and on their covers. She posed for the cover of the game Softporn Adventure by Chuck Benton, published by On-Line Systems. She also posed much later with her children as Mother Goose for the cover photograph of Mixed-Up Mother Goose. The end sequence of Leisure Suit Larry 3 features her as an in-game character. She was also a source of inspiration for the character of Cameron Howe in the AMC television drama Halt and Catch Fire.
Williams was given the Pioneer Award at the 20th Game Developers Choice Awards in March 2020 for her work in the graphical adventure game genre and for co-founding Sierra On-line.
As a young, timid only child, Williams had a wild imagination. She would make up elaborate stories, which she called her "movies" and use them to entertain her family.
Later on in high school, she met her future husband, Ken Williams, at the age of 17. In Petter Holmberg's biography, he shares the couple's story about how Roberta and Ken met. Holmberg says: "She was dating a friend of his and two months after a double date where they had both met, Ken unexpectedly called her and asked her out. Roberta wasn't very impressed with him in the beginning. He was shy and insecure, like her, but also overly pushy at times. He asked her to go steady the first week. It took some time, but at one point Roberta suddenly realized that he was very intelligent and quite different from the other boys she had dated. Ken wanted them to have a permanent commitment and they got married when Roberta was only 19 years old", on November 4, 1972. They have two children: D.J. (born 1973) and Chris (born 1979).
The Williams family has homes in Seattle, France, and Mexico, and they spend most of their time traveling on their family-owned yacht.
- Mystery House (1980)
- Wizard and the Princess (1980)
- Mission Asteroid (1981)
- Time Zone (1982)
- The Dark Crystal (1983)
- King's Quest I: Quest for the Crown (1984)
- Mickey's Space Adventure (1984)
- King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne (1985)
- King's Quest III: To Heir Is Human (1986)
- King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988)
- Mixed-Up Mother Goose (1987)
- Laura Bow: The Colonel's Bequest (1989)
- King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! (1990)
- King's Quest 1: Quest for the Crown (Remake) (1990)
- Mixed-Up Mother Goose Multimedia (1990)
- Laura Bow in The Dagger of Amon Ra (1992)
- King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow (1992)
- King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride (1994)
- Mixed-Up Mother Goose Deluxe (1994)
- Phantasmagoria (1995)
- Shivers (1995)
- King's Quest: Mask of Eternity (1998)
- Odd Manor (2014)
- Industry Icon Award (2014)
- Pioneer Award - Game Developers Choice Awards (2020)