It was 20 years ago today, February 22nd, that Sierra On-line had officially shut down it’s doors in Oakhurst (California), laid off 150 of their employees, and those that were not laid off, and the other one third, were offered a position in the new Bellevue (Washington) office. This was all done by the new owners of Sierra On-line at the time, Havas, which had just purchase Sierra On-line from CUC software.
Ken Williams, former owner of Sierra On-Line had sent this letter to his (former) employees:
Dear former Sierra employees,
Roberta and I wish to express our deepest sympathies for the recent loss of your jobs. Hopefully, it will not be long before you resume work at Sierra in Seattle, or at some other company… in Oakhurst, or elsewhere. According to tradition, I’m supposed to say something uplifting and motivational to help everyone feel better. Unfortunately, I have failed at this task. There is really nothing good that can be said. This is a sad ending to Sierra’s twenty-year operating history in Oakhurst, which at one time, represented over 550 Oakhurst-based employees. This story should have had a happy ending, but instead has had a long string of bad news concluding with the shutdown yesterday of all of Sierra’s Oakhurst-based product development activities.
The problems began with the move of corporate to Seattle. The move to Seattle was mandated for several reasons, primarily due to the difficulty we were having recruiting senior management staff and software engineers. The relocation, although it was painful for Oakhurst, was instrumental in our tremendous growth from 1993 through 1996. I remain convinced that this relocation was the right decision for Sierra, and that we would not have prospered without it.
I can’t say the same about either the sale of The ImagiNation Network (INN) in 1993, or the sale of Sierra itself in 1996. When Sierra started INN in 1991, it was a decade ahead of its time. After investing millions in INN, Sierra found that it did not have the financial resources to support INN’s continued operations. In 1993, AT&T sought aggressively to acquire INN, promising to market the service and grow the company. Unfortunately, AT&T lost interest in INN and sold it to AOL, who to my great disappointment, shut INN down.
Sierra, as you know, was purchased by CUC International in 1996. Because CUC was offering to buy the company at a price roughly 90% higher than it was trading, the decision was out of management’s hands. At the time of the purchase, we did believe that through consolidation with several Sierra competitors (Blizzard, Knowledge Adventure, Davidson and others), Sierra would become a much stronger company. We had good reason to believe that the acquisition would cause us to grow faster, not shrink. Unfortunately, CUC elected to transfer control of the company to Davidson, and shut down several groups at Sierra. Later, as we all know, CUC was merged with another company, HFS, to form the Cendant corporation, with roughly 12,000 employees. A few months after this merger it was discovered that someone, or possibly some group of people, within the former CUC organization had been fraudulently preparing financial statements. The actions of this handful of people, who shall hopefully get their due, caused the plunge in Cendant’s stock price, and wiped out the net worth of many HFS and CUC employees, including many of you, as well as much of my own. Cendant was sued by its shareholders, CUC’s former management team was terminated and the decision was made to sell the software business. It should surprise no one that morale suffered through all of this anarchy, and although I have not seen Sierra’s financials for several years, my assumption is that the recent consolidation of operations is driven by a quest for restored profitability and stability. If this story were written as a book, the publisher might seek to classify it as “Fantasy”, “Science Fiction” or even “Horror”. It is much too outrageous to be true. But the bad news is that these events really did happen.
I console myself in the following way, and perhaps it will help you to cope with what has occurred. Let’s imagine that a stranger had walked up to any of us, on the street, in 1979, and said: “Would you like to move to one of the greatest cities on earth? While you are there, you can play a key role in creating a company that just about everyone will know and respect. Your grandchildren will be amazed when they learn that you once worked there. You will be the envy of your peers, because they will know that your team created the largest collection of hits ever to come from one company. There will even be years when you will have played a role in over half the products on the industries top ten lists! You will be surrounded by incredibly intelligent, hard working people, who will work 20+ hours per day when it takes it to get the job done. And, you will have more fun than you ever thought possible. There’s only one catch though. This will only last for twenty years.” Even knowing it wouldn’t last forever I would have followed that stranger anywhere. I’m disappointed that it didn’t last forever, but, a 20 year ride on the greatest roller coaster on earth beats the heck out of life in the slow lane any day. Life may never be the same, but it also isn’t over, and we all have some great memories we shall never forget. Good luck, and I miss you all.
On February 25th, 1999 – Josh Mandel also wrote a Sierra Eulogy…
On Monday, the last vestige of the original Sierra On-Line was laid to rest in Oakhurst, California. That branch, renamed “Yosemite Entertainment,” was shuttered on Monday, February 22nd, putting most of its 125+ employees out of work.
You may not care for what Sierra has become since the days when dozens of unpretentious parser-driven graphic adventures flowed, seemingly effortlessly, out of Oakhurst. But there’s no denying that, back then, Sierra On-Line was the life’s blood of the adventure game industry.
Maybe the games were a little more rough-hewn than those of its competitors–not that there were many competitors at that point. But Sierra kept adventure gamers happy and fed, gamers who would’ve otherwise starved to death on the arguably more polished, but frustratingly infrequent, releases of Lucasfilm Games (as they were once called).
Sierra alone grew the industry in other ways, too. It was Ken Williams who, almost single-handedly, created the market for PC sound hardware by vigorously educating the public to the AdLib card and, shortly thereafter, the breathtaking Roland MT-32. He supported those cards in style while other publishers wanted nothing to do with them. It was Corey and Lori Cole who invented the first true hybrid, replayable adventure/RPG. It was Christy Marx’s lump-in-the-throat ending to Conquest of Camelot that reminded us that not every computer game had to have a group hug at the end. It was Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy who made us want to kill off our onscreen alter ego, to see what inventive, gooey death had been anticipated for us. It was Roberta, before anyone else, who invented strong female heroines. It was Al Lowe, bringing up the rear (literally and figuratively) by creating Leisure Suit Larry, the most popular, pirated game of its decade. We knew this because we sold far more Larry hint books than we sold of the actual software.
It was the Sierra News Magazine (later InterAction) that let us feel like we knew the people making these games, that they were a family-run business, staffed by people who lived an isolated life, surrounding by idyllic, ageless beauty and creating games that were a labor of love. That was, at least for awhile, an accurate picture. This was a family we wanted to feel a part of, for good reason, and people came from thousands of miles away to take a tour and see how real it all was.
But what makes the closure of Sierra On-Line’s Oakhurst facility (recently renamed “Yosemite Entertainment”) a bigger, sadder event than most game company closures–including the far larger decimation of 500 Broderbund employees–is that this was not just a game company, this was a community.
Oakhurst is barely a dust mite on the mattress of America. It existed, for a long time, as a miniscule stopover for tourists on their way to and from Yosemite National Park. As recently as 1991, the mountain-bound town had not a single stoplight, just one grocery store, a single-screen movie theater, and one video rental store. There is no broadcast television (the mountains block it all). The nearest larger town is Fresno, 45 miles distant over the mountains. In severe snowstorms, the town is virtually cut off from the world. And the cable company there is still so provincial, so disdainful of outside influence, that there is no MTV offered, no Nickelodeon (or any MTV-owned stations), nothing to disturb the elderly farmer-types have been the chief population since the Gold Rush days.
Sierra was the second-largest employer in town (the phone company being the largest). Thus, the people of Sierra did not simply work together as they do in most of the country. These people are families, roommates, and neighbors. The person who works in the cubicle next to you may be your girl or boyfriend, your spouse, your landlord. He/she may well have been in your wedding party, and may have driven you 45 miles to the hospital when you were sick (how else could you have gotten there?). Secrets never stayed secret for long; divorces, trysts, and personal traumas all were public knowledge. People at Sierra weren’t just working together, they were living together. Now their lease has expired and the family will all at once be scattered.
The town has grown somewhat. The theater is now a multiplex, but Rusty still gives you his unabashed opinion of each film on the recording when you call for the movie times. There are several stoplights in town now. There are several supermarkets, more hotels, and the infamous “Talking Bear” has undergone a recent facelift. But the town still revolves around Sierra and tourism. And tourism may not be enough to support the town, at least in the winters when much of Yosemite (“the park” in local vernacular) is closed.
With Yosemite Entertainment gone, not only are more than a hundred people out of work (some of whom are fabulously talented), but an entire community has been wiped out with the stroke of a pen. It will be morbidly interesting to see whether or not Oakhurst’s economy can bear up under the mass exodus that will result.
Some may argue that Sierra lives on in Bellevue, Washington, where Al Lowe, Jane Jensen, Roberta Williams, Mark Seibert, and a handful of Oakhurst refugees still labor diligently on games side-by-side with scores of newer talent. But games like KQ:MoE and LSL7 have a distinctly different flavor than the seat-of-the-pants, funny, touching adventures that Oakhurst once produced. They are commercial.
Invariably, in a company that grows the way Sierra grew, innovation gives way to emulation. Whereas Sierra’s management once strove to make it solid, profitable, and yet fun, they now strive to dominate other companies, force annual growth in the double digits, and (like so many other companies) cut jobs mercilessly to improve the bottom line and thrill the stockholders. Yet the Ghost of Sierra Past still walked the halls in Oakhurst. The rooms were adorned with the art of glories past, the artists and programmers who helped to create those glories were, in fair measure, still living and working there. Now that spirit has been exorcised by scrubbed, glad-handing executives who don’t know, or don’t care, what those artists and programmers could do when they were motivated and well-managed.
People, living and working closely together in the pursuit of shared joy, were what made Sierra games great. Thank you, Ken, for creating something utterly unique, something warm, fun and beautiful. Damn you, Ken, for allowing others to tear it down.
Whether you were a Sierra fan or not, we are all diminished by the loss of history, talent, and continuity within the gaming industry. Rest in peace, Sierra On-Line.
Chainsaw Monday even made it onto the news…
It goes right up there, along the lines of The Hobbit and Star Wars in regards to how big of an impact it had on me. The same way The Hobbit opened my eyes to the world of fantasy (back in the 4th grade), the way Star Wars opened my eyes to science fiction on the big screen, Sierra On-Line opened my eyes to the story telling and the 3D adventures, that made me want to work at Sierra.
The video above goes into detail about most of those things…
The Death of Sierra On-Line is one I still mourn to this very day.
20 years later.
As evidenced by this Leisure Suit Larry fan page, and my activity (and co-admin) of the Sierra Help forums.
I want to thank Ken & Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Jim Walls, Lori & Corey Cole, Christy Marx, Bridget McKenna, Scott Murphy, Mark Crowe, Ken Allen, Jane Jensen, plus the assortment of other creators, employees in every regard who helped create, mold and shape my creativity and help become who I am – which I think, turned out all right.
All my love to you all.