Dissecting the Downfall of Sierra Games

On this episode of Waypoint Radio, Rob Zacny sit downs with writer Duncan Fyfe to discuss his recent article on the decline and death of Sierra Games. They go over the tale of fraud and too good to be true deals, and also dig a bit deeper into some of the key players. You can read an excerpt and listen to the full episode below.

Rob: When we think about what Ken’s ambitions were for the company, they weren’t that wild. The plan he envisioned, the arc of where he saw commerce going and the way that a company could position itself if it had these assets and this kind of foresight, you could seize a commanding position in the new online economy. I don’t want to call this tragic as there’s no tragedy in Ken not getting to be Jeff Bezos, and is instead a everyday millionaire. But there is something I do find a little bit poignant in that he’s kind of treated like a Rube and a schmuck by the people at Cendant and CUC.

But in terms of overall vision for like, where is all  this headed,  what does it make sense for this company to try to be, Ken’s actually on the money for a lot of this. Fairly early on, he knows what’s going to happen in the digital economy and he just never gets a position to act on it.

Duncan Fyfe: Yeah it’s Interesting. I fully believe that, I think had he been left to run Sierra unfettered by corporate ownership. He was seeing trends accurately, he was reacting to them. He was sure that for as much as like adventure games connected with Sierra’s audience, more than anything else, he was also very aware those were not going to, you know, tastes were changing. You know  shooters were becoming very popular and were much cheaper to make. Everything was moving online. There were a lot of audiences that Sierra was not fulfilling and it could fulfill all those things.

And he wanted it to,  he wanted to evolve Sierra with the times. A Ken-Williams-run Sierra in the two thousands could have made zero adventure games, or adventure games that looked very much like an Uncharted in the way that Uncharted is an adventure game.  I think he saw what was coming and was not emotionally attached to the product. 

He was a tech guy. He was not an artistic guy. He didn’t play games even really, but he saw the way things were going. He sometimes saw trends emerging and he would position his company accordingly and enjoyed great success at that. I think one of the frustrations about the specific position that he was in is that, with something like the Sierra  network, which was just like so impractically ahead of its time, is that he had enough foresight and money to be able to make that, but not enough money to be able to sustain that to the point where he would become a certified genius off the back of having made that.

And the vision that Walter Forbes pitched him was also right.  All these companies did become acquired by Activision and Electronic Arts and Microsoft eventually. And probably from a business perspective, was not a bad idea to start getting in on that around the mid-nineties and being the first to a lot of those things.

Rob: And yet, I think one of the other things that I certainly feel from this piece is that it almost feels like Ken wanted to be two incompatible things. He wanted to be the dreamer and the visionary who sees, like, I see where things are going  I’m going to position myself  where I can take most advantage and sort of bring this reality into fruition.

But he also wanted to be the serious businessman. The first photo that runs in the article is one that you found from the old CUC corporate brochure, with Ken and the rest of the CUC management there in that ballroom and Ken looking very out of place. Already, even that scene, he’s a big man who is aware that he’s big and is trying not to loom over that picture. And you have the rest of these polished MBA types in the room and there’s Ken. And he badly wants to be in that room, he’s someone who badly wants to be a corporate board type, to be a big shop businessman

But those two things are often incompatible. To a degree the visionary can’t also be the person who is, um,  a movie I adore is this movie Margin Call. And there’s a scene where Jeremy Irons, who is the CEO of this massive investment bank on the eve of the ’08 financial collapse, basically is flown in at midnight to make the call about whether they tried to dump all these toxic assets on the market. But in this scene he asks “Why am I here?”

He asks a junior employee, do you care to know why I’m in this chair with you all? Why I earn the big bucks?” And his answer is “I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it.”

And to a degree, that is, that is what corporate officers are often there to do. They’re not paid to be visionaries they’re made to hopefully take simple decisions and make good ones, simple propositions and make good ones. And to some extent the portrait that emerges here is that if anyone has this capacity in the story at Sierra, it seems like it’s Roberta. That she is the person who looks at these situations and for whatever reason, just has a good instinct for “this is the right move. This makes sense, this does not. This is a good offer, this is not.

This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

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