If you’ve been around any sort of software development circles, you may have heard the term “killer app”. App is short for “application”, which is very simply defined as a program that does stuff for an end user. In this case, it murders you.
Okay, that last isn’t actually true. A killer app refers to “any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology, such as computer hardware, gaming console, software, or an operating system” (Wikipedia article here, if you be so inclined). There’s a short list of these apps throughout the history of electronics, such as VisiCalc for the Apple II, or HALO for the original Xbox… these are programs and games that sell the system they were designed for, rather than vice-versa, as the word gets around that this particular application is way too good to miss. So a $50 game sells a $400 system.
So let’s talk King’s Quest (now known as King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown to differentiate it from all of its sequels). Was King’s Quest a killer app? IBM desperately hoped it would be, validating the existence of its pet project of the time, the “home-friendly” PCjr. It did not manage to do so, but the sad saga of the Junior lays no blame for that at KQ’s door. In spite of its original platform’s failure, KQ made a tiny husband and wife business into a dynamo of graphical computer adventure gaming that would lead the field for at least the next decade.
That company was Sierra On-Line, founded by Ken and Roberta Williams in 1979. At first it was known simply as On-Line Systems and was a pet project of Ken’s where he was trying to develop a FORTRAN compiler for Apple II systems (Ken originally worked as a programmer for IBM). Roberta meanwhile used said Apple to play text adventure games, but alas 1979 was the year before Infocom brought Zork into the world, so she found them wanting and wanted to at least add pictures to the experience.
So with her husband’s programming assistance, she made her own adventure game with some goddamned pictures, thank you very much. 1980 gave the gaming world Zork, but also gave it Mystery House, the first ever graphical adventure game. It was an enormous success. So much so, in fact, that three years later IBM came calling, wanting the Williamses to make something special for their Junior and basically throwing tons of development money at them. $700,000 worth of development money, to be precise, and as far as I know that was in 1983 dollars when you could still get a pack of gum for a quarter. However much that works out to in adjusted dollars, Roberta, Ken, and at least six other full time programmers took eighteen months to get King’s Quest developed, in an era when most games were written by a single person in a matter of weeks. As Wikipedia notes, “King’s Quest was one of the most ambitious, risky, and costly projects of its time”.
What was the end result? Well, this:
But compare the above with Mystery House, and you may begin to see why this was mind-blowing:
I mean, for one thing, color. For another, a tree and castle that don’t look like Etch-A-Sketch scrawls. But no, the truly mind-blowing thing (that isn’t conveyed in the screenshot) was that King’s Quest had animated graphics.
Animated graphics for a home system were not an innovation in 1984. Hell, Pong had them. The Atari 2600 had them, as did computer games like 1982’s Miner 2049er. What had never happened before King’s Quest was having animated graphics in an adventure game. Penguin Software had their Transylvania series where still graphical images would change as you moved from location to location, and a still image of a vampire or werewolf might load in on you if you tarried too long in a bad place, or a coffin that was closed might be replaced by an image of it being open… but that was as fancy as it got. Infocom, of course, stuck to straight text (although oh, what wonderful text it was). King’s Quest smacked you right between the eyeballs with almost 3/4ths of a million dollars worth of development and said “Yeah bitches. See those banners? Yeah, those are moving. That gator in the moat? It’s moving too. Matter of fact, why don’t you hit one of those cursor keys on your keyboard and… why look at that… your little Sir Graham there is walking around under your control. That tree there? You can walk behind it. Now how about you go check out this Kingdom of Daventry and find those lost treasures?”
Big deal, you say? Well in 1984, this was mind-blowing stuff. You walked over the drawbridge, entered the castle, walked up the interior hall, turned the corner you’d seen in the distance in the previous screen, then you could walk up and bow to the King sitting on his throne (complete with a full, hat-doffing animation)… how can I even begin to describe what innovation that represented? Maybe the first time you played Metal Gear Solid and realized that the zoom view through your sniper scope was working like it would in reality, showing the guards walking around in real-time?
But Roberta and the gang weren’t satisfied with introducing the concept of 3 dimensional graphics and a contiguous realm into adventure gaming. No, they let you dive into a well. Swim a lake. Climb a tree. Hell, you even grew and then climbed a beanstalk to find a castle in the clouds. You caught a ride with a giant eagle. You lured a witch out of her gingerbread house, then hid in her back room until the right moment she returned and you could shove her into her own oven. You used a carrot to bribe a billy goat to follow you around, until you could bring him into a butt-head situation with a truculent troll. The whole game just raised the bar beyond anything that had been published until then. The story may have been simple, but the problem-solving required some serious thought, or at least a really good knowledge of fairy tales and a realization that the game was willing and able to reward you for that.
Was it also frustrating if you didn’t quite get how you were supposed to solve certain problems, or never thought (for instance) to climb that tree? Oh yes, absolutely. You got little to no help with all this, so there was a huge amount of trial-and-error involved, especially if you wanted to eke out a perfect game score. Said trial-and-error often involved Sir Graham’s untimely demise. The speed run video I’m linking at the end of this blog makes it all look easy, but just think of figuring this all out in a world before gamefaqs.com, “no-death” adventures, and limited, context-based interfaces.
To our modern gaming world, King’s Quest is hopelessly antiquated in both look and play, but it still stands as one of our most important relics of computer gaming. And back in the day, I was as mesmerized as anyone by the amazing magic it represented. King’s Quest was a true milestone, and launched Sierra On-Line into the big leagues, spilling over from the ill-fated PCjr into the PC, Amiga, Apple II, and all manner of other computing platforms of the day. Maybe hardly anyone wanted the PCjr, but everyone wanted King’s Quest. It was nothing less than revolutionary, and I don’t think it’s too much to say every graphical adventure game that followed owes it (and, I guess, IBM’s money) at least a nod of respect.