Game Designer Revels in Plots Rather Than Bytes : Profile: Roberta Williams isn’t a programming whiz, but she’s the creative force behind the ambitious Phantasmagoria.


At first blush, Roberta Williams seems miscast.

Her speech isn’t peppered with the references to video compression and microprocessor advances that one might expect of a high-tech pioneer. She doesn’t have the glazed-over look of someone who’s spent hours at a keyboard writing computer code.

Dressed in neat business attire and chatting over breakfast at a posh Manhattan hotel, Williams could easily pass for an attorney or a successful corporate executive.

Make no mistake, though. Roberta Williams, the woman behind the hit computer game Phantasmagoria, the King’s Quest game series and co-founder of Sierra On-Line, is a high-tech ground-breaker.


For Williams, one of the few well-known women in her field, designing games is more than just a job.

“At the end of a project I get very weird, you know, in my head because I’m not doing it” anymore, she said during a recent trip to New York. “It’s like an addiction. I have to do it.”

Completion of Phantasmagoria, then, must have been an epic letdown.

Involving more than 200 people, two years of work and $4 million in development costs, Phantasmagoria ranks as one of the most ambitious computer games attempted to date. It is played on seven CD-ROMs and brings real actors and actresses into a computer-generated world of terror.


Williams’ romance with computer games began after she and her husband, Ken, set up a new Apple computer bought for Christmas, 1979. Williams soon found herself playing one of the early text-only games.

“I have never been pulled into anything so hard in my life,” she said. “It’s like a light bulb went off.”

Williams and her husband, a programmer, decided to create a game of their own based on a murder mystery. She would write the story. He would program. The result: Mystery House, which the company touts as the first computer game to use graphics to provide pictures as well as text.

That first game, introduced in 1980, evolved into Sierra On-Line, one of the nation’s leading computer game companies, with revenue of $83.4 million for the fiscal year ended March 31. Ken runs the company. Roberta, who isn’t a programmer but instead works in the realm of characters and plots, designs games.

“She’s one of the best in the world, no arguing about that,” said David Farina, a securities analyst at William Blair & Co. “She’s just a good storyteller, and that’s the thing that’s been lacking in games.”

Others too point out that it’s tempting--and all too common--to create games with blazing graphics and ear-popping sound that don’t have much of a plot to keep a player’s interest.

That is one of the industry’s big challenges as it attempts to appeal to the general marketplace rather than remain of interest solely to hard-core gamers. Phantasmagoria was designed with the general computer user in mind.

“It’s paced well,” said Graeme Devine, chief executive of Trilobyte Inc., another computer game maker. “It’s definitely designed for a wider class of audience. I actually enjoy games like that.”

Williams’ story revolves around Adrienne Delaney, who with her husband, Donald Gordon, moves into a mansion on a small island. The couple are played by real actors, as are other characters, and as Delaney explores her new surroundings she uncovers a world of evil and horror that turns her life into a nightmare.

Players with the click of a mouse control her choices and actions, such as having Delaney pick up a key, unlock a door and walk into the world beyond. The cast of actors is presented in computer-rendered color and an eerie soundtrack helps build the mood.

Phantasmagoria’s violent moments--evil has a way of easily finding its female protagonist--have created some controversy. For example, the big computer chain CompUSA Inc. has refused to carry it.

Williams, who notes the game’s package is labeled to make clear it is not for children, argues that the terror is not gratuitous.

“You decide you’re going to do horror, then gosh darn it, do horror,” she said. “Do what’s expected. Don’t kind of do it. Don’t dilly-dally around, because people really enjoy the genre and they expect certain things.”

A horror game that’s not scary would hardly be worth the time, said Williams, 42 years old and the mother of two.

Controversy doesn’t appear to be scaring buyers away from Williams’ creation. Phantasmagoria ranked as the best-selling game by unit volume in September, said PC Data Inc., a software marketing firm.

Williams’ success as a game designer has not drawn her into management at Sierra, however, although she does hold a seat on the board.

“I love coming up with the stories and being creative and working with creative people and coming up with visuals and creating characters,” she said.

But, Williams said, she feared taking an administrative role would pull her away from the work she truly enjoys. So she leaves running the Bellevue, Wash., company to her husband, Sierra’s chairman and chief executive.

The approach seems to be working. Despite some recent rocky results, the company’s finances have improved, as has its stock price. Trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market, Sierra shares have more than doubled in value this year alone. Ken and Roberta Williams together own about 11%.

Profits for Sierra’s fiscal second quarter ended Sept. 30 totaled $3.3 million, compared with a loss of $850,000 a year ago.

“Sierra is a company that had a past that was less than stellar,” recalls Farina, the analyst. “They were very good at spending a lot of money and doing great games and not good at making a lot of money. That’s changed. It’s a company that’s focused on its mission now.”

Williams too seems to have a mission.

“If I weren’t doing this,” she said, “I’d probably still be bumbling around trying to figure out what to do with my life.”