A Tale of Two CEOs: Digging the Sierra and Broderbund Archive Collections at the Strong Museum of Play
Please Note: All images were taken by me and are available courtesy The Strong Museum of Play. No images herein may not be copied, reposted, reblogged or transferred to another site without my notification and consent.
The first corporate sale Doug Carlston ever made was on March 7, 1980, in the amount of $299. He had worked as an attorney, an economist and a dog breeder, volunteered in the Peace Corps and written a book on Swahili. But this nominal sale would take Carlston on a truly life long career, as one of the world’s first independent home computer software moguls. The sale comprised 30 cassettes of Carlston’s TRS-80 space strategy game Galactic Revolution, 10 cassettes of his sequel Galactic Trader, and 10 copies of the trilogy capstone Galactic Empire (5 on cassette and 5 on disk), mailed to a purchaser merely documented on a sales record sheet as “Program Store.”
The games were sold under the company name Brøderbund, the Swedish word for “brotherhood.” It was an apt term: Brøderbund was founded by both Doug and his brother Gary (who’d been pried away from his job as a Swedish women’s basketball coach). Their first profit would come four months later, in the amount of $2023.97.
Within a year, the brothers would be joined by their sister Cathy, who worked as a buyer of “women’s moderate coordinates in larger sizes” at Lord and Taylor before taking over as head of marketing at Brøderbund. Together, this family built a company of “refugees from other professions,” and published a slew of historic games: Choplifter, Loderunner, The Print Shop, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and Myst. They were, as Steven Levy put it in Hackers, one of “the fastest risers of dozens of companies springing up to cater to new computer users,” alongside now canonical Sierra On-Line and the utterly forgotten Sirius Software (265).
The sales record sheet mentioned above is one of several “first” documents which were carefully, considerately saved by Doug Carlston, and are now formally preserved as part of the Brøderbund Software, Inc. Collection held at The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. This collection, comprised of 14 boxes of materials, encompasses over twenty years of corporate documentation from Carlston’s own business files.
I reviewed this collection during a 2-week research visit at The Strong this past January (this was my second visit, and this time I was the generous recipient of a Strong Research Fellowship). I consider The Strong, and its internal research repository, The Brian Sutton Smith Archive and Libraries of Play, to be the nation’s leader in video game archival practice. This is not just because they have a massive playable collection of original hardware and software, but because they understand games themselves as no more or less important than the people, processes and contexts that bore them.
This was a lesson powerfully driven home during my visit, as I sat in the Museum library and held Carlston’s sales record sheet in my hands. Doug Carlston was the kind of man who saved things. What he saved tells me nothing about the importance of Carmen Sandiego or Loderunner; it will fill no brightly colored book about the triumph of video games and their explosion across America. It’s a quiet fact that requires contemplation.
So Doug Carlston was the kind of man who saved things. Not everything—he was no hoarder—but there was a logic and a sensibility to this record keeping. Every filing cabinet contains the pattern of a history—not just in the documents stored within but through the nature of their organization. In the upper right hand corner of many of Carlston’s documents, I could find a handwritten note: “File,” sometimes with a directive for what content area folder the document should be dropped in or who else should see the document.
It suddenly gave me a glimpse on a habit of work that I have never, personally, had to engage: documents would come to Carlston’s desk, be reviewed and annotated. What then? Many needed to be saved, so Carlston wrote “File” and—it’s not a leap to fill in this blank--turned them over to his secretary for filing (if Carlston did his own filing, which a man of his position certainly would not, he would not have needed to note where he wanted the files placed). This tells me something about a man: not just that he saved things, but that he believe in the necessity of documentation, precedent, record-keeping, evidence. After a moment it’s the kind of detail that gels neatly with Carlston’s background as a Harvard trained lawyer.
The reason I’m so struck by Carlston’s file-keeping, as a historian, is because I spend much of my research time analyzing the behavior, impact and company structure of a man who could be imagined as Carlston’s opposite: Ken Williams, President and CEO of Sierra On-Line. It’s a pleasurable irony that The Strong holds collections on both companies—the first time I visited The Strong, it was to explore their newly acquired Ken and Roberta Williams Collection in 2011.
As a pair, the Williams collection and the Carlston collection offer the opportunity for a useful comparative study. Both companies began in 1980 producing games and other software for the Apple II, both presidents had no prior experience in business, and both companies became titans of the early microcomputer software world. Both would survive the economic shakeouts that took down most of their competition, both would produce some of the most significant, iconic software ever made for home computers, and both companies would last under the direction of their founding presidents for almost two decades (both companies were bought out and acquired by the late 90s, Sierra by CUC and later Havas, and Brøderbund by The Learning Company).
But Ken Williams is not Doug Carlston, and the powerful distinction of their personalities and companies is to some degree captured in their comparative Collections. The Ken and Roberta Williams Collection is almost entirely comprised of front-of-the-house materials and marketing items: copies of their consumer magazine Interaction, publicity headshots, newspaper clippings, annual reports, press releases. Another category of objects I would classify as personal mementos: awards, gifts, framed fan letters, even Ken Williams’ office doorplate.
The small sampling of design documents in the Collection is solely Roberta’s, and all documents she either personally produced or interacted with. The Collection is, on the one hand, very much about company image, and on the other, deeply personal. I can imagine Ken Williams unscrewing and sliding the nameplate off his door on that final day of his presidency, unclipping his name tag, lifting his pictures off the office wall, and saving these things for the same reason I still own my undergraduate ID from 2004: because these objects do some of my remembering for me.
By all accounts I’ve gathered, Ken Williams was not a manager or businessman in Doug Carlston’s sense—he was not a man to take a moment and neatly pencil “File” on top of a document. People remember his office as characteristically cluttered, his management style as occasionally unpredictable, and he was often gripped by an overwhelming drive and technological imagination. Williams was future-leaning, as one interviewee pointed out to me. Why nurse what just happened (as documentation does) when you could be running ahead?
And what all of this amounts to is a phenomenal gap in the archive expressive of character and illustrative of how an individual might imagine their relationship to history: The Ken and Roberta Williams contains no internal documentation. It is silent on the subject of how the sausage got made at Sierra. In contrast, the Brøderbund Collection is full of internal newsletters and memos, company profit and loss sheets, minutes from the Board of Directors, revised org charts—hundreds if not thousands of pieces of paper explaining how a company like Brøderbund actually functioned. I cannot, similarly, understand Sierra On-Line in such a way from materials left behind by its founders.
In fact, Carlston’s record keeping was so thorough, I found more internal documentation about Sierra On-Line in the Brøderbund Collection that I did in the Ken and Roberta Williams’! Case in point, a most magnificent find: Sierra On-Line’s October 1986 Company Profile and Business Plan, as well as a 1987 Company Profile related to their proposed IPO (which would fall through due to the 1988 stock market crash; the IPO finally happened a year later in 1989).
I confirmed the authenticity and context of these documents during a recent interview with Sierra’s 1980s Chief Financial Officer, Ed Heinbockel. The 50-some page 1986 Business Plan, in particular, was prepared by Heinbockel for a Board of Directors meeting, in an effort to aggressively restore the Board’s faith in Sierra’ profitability (and included some cute drawings by Space Quest's Mark Crowe!).
Why in the world did Doug Carlston have this document in his records? Carlston and Williams shared a respectful friendship since their early days in the Apple II computer software scene, and Carlston was sometimes invited to Sierra’s strategy retreats. It’s possible that Ken Williams wanted Carlston’s opinion. Alternatively, these documents could have made their way over to Carlston during the early conversations about a once-anticipated late 80s Sierra-Brøderbund merger, but the annotated date in the top corner, “12/1”, lacking a year, suggests Carlston received the document in December 1986—well before the merger was even an idea (at least as far as I know).
The first researcher to truly crack into Brøderbund Collection will have a dissertation-defining gold mine on their hands—this Collection will likely comprise the extent of our archivally-based knowledge of the economics and development of the home computer software industry. And it's significant that such documents have been saved, as personal memory and fan obsessionalism increasingly proves a poor foundation for our historical knowledge of the video game medium.
Brøderbund and Sierra On-Line are arguably comparable companies in terms of historical significance. Yet while Sierra fans have produced countless websites, a Facebook page, independent book projects and a twice-botched documentary, no citizen historians or fan communities have shown much interest in collecting and organizing the history of Brøderbund. Brøderbund never had the affable glossiness and friendly company demeanor that Sierra excelled at; Brøderbund’s public relations communications had the vibe of a corporate newsletter. It was also a point of business strategy that Brøderbund served most successfully as a publisher for the work of out-of-house programmers, whereas Sierra piloted a largely in-house business, and turned its programmers into software stars. Furthermore, much of Brøderbund’s significance has been overlooked because some of its best work was home productivity or education software, like Print Shop, rather than games.
But in the long turning of history’s screw, the “memorability” of Sierra is what has caused it to be better remembered, and consequentially, more discussed and emphasized within academic, professional and lay communities. What Doug Carlston’s meticulous, rich body of documents makes clear is something I’ve strained to point out before: that the history of games is much broader than “games,” and sometimes the game is the least important thing. What is disclosed within these boxes and folders is corporate history, economic history, technological history, labor history. It gives us, better than any “killer game,” a vision of what the world was like when the age of the microcomputer dawned—and should impress upon us all the more respect and appreciation for those sometimes sloppy, sometimes thorough individuals who shepherded it into being.
Back in May, Babycastles Gallery was generous enough to host a book launch I organized for Raiford Guins' Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. After a warm welcome from Babycastle co-founder Kunal Gupta, Raiford gave a short reading followed by a presentation of his experience on-site at the Atari Landfill excavation this past April. He really, really loved that hard hat.
Ray gave a great talk to a diverse audience of game designers, scholars, students and games enthusiasts. We enjoyed refreshments, music and an indie games installation in Babycastles gritty and beautiful DIY space.
I've also learned that many major life events can benefit from customized balloons.
Many thanks to the Babycastles team for pulling together (especially Syed and Kunal), and thank you to everyone who came! Props to the Stony Brook University Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory for funding the balloons. Enjoy these photos by Emi Spicer.
Perhaps we wouldn't have expected Indiecade East's closing keynote on history, inclusion and indie-ness to come from Bennett Foddy. As a designer, Foddy is known for crushingly absurdist creations that frequently leave players alienated and confused; gameplay cramps the hand, rather than holding it. Yet Foddy's Sunday afternoon “State of the Union,” which served as a capstone to the entire weekend, was a thoughtful, accessible piece of work that embraced the many fractures some might claim are otherwise splitting apart the indie game world.
Directly addressing Edmund McMillan's lament that “[the indie scene] use to feel very united but now feels very segregated,” Foddy argued that contemporary anxiety about the indie scene’s waning glory is largely a product of poor historical literacy on the part of the scene as a whole. In Foddy’s alternate timeline, the attributes we apply to “indie” production are nothing new—including accessible tools, self-distribution, superstar success narratives, and aesthetic or mechanic experimentation. These qualities didn't emerge fully-formed from the brains of the indie upper crust, like some digital Athena escaping from the head of Zeus. In most cases, they have existed within video game history since at least the early 1980s, if not earlier.
Having established that the “indie” has always been there, Foddy suggested that what is truly unique to the now isn’t the “newness” of indie games at all (which is the mythology of a few elite indie devs). Rather, it is the baffling diversity of indie games, the reality that indie creation is more mechanically, representationally, and developmentally expansive than in any prior moment in video game history. For Foddy, the dream of a unified scene is an elitist one; what McMillan framed as segregation, Foddy spun as proliferation. As Foddy told it, video games are always already indie, and a word shouldn't be getting in the way of celebrating everything the indie movement has to offer.
Foddy's larger cultural and inspirational goals are well taken. In gesturing for a historically-based notion of inclusivity, Foddy successfully countered the idea that the indie is a radical break in how we produce and experience games. By that logic, we should be much more open and accommodating of what McMillan experiences as “segregation.”
But the successes of Foddy's talk came at the cost of a different kind of historical “accuracy”—our capacity to make conceptual and historically meaningful distinctions between two separate but often conflated cultural phenomena within game production: the independent and the indie.
I borrow this handy distinction from scholars Maria B. Garda and Pawel Grabarczyk. In Garda and Grabarczyk's classification, independent may apply to work that is “financially” independent (non-AAA), or stylistically independent (non-mainstream). Indie, however, is a movement that emerged at the turn of the 21st century. Additionally, indie is also sometimes a genre or marketing tag tied to this movement. In the history Foddy wove, there was no distinction between these two very different categories. When Foddy cited the “indieness” of Commander Keen or Lemmings or the Scandinavian demoscene, he was often referring to their “independent” status.
While my point may seem like a ponderous subtlety, conflating these ideas actually produces different kinds of histories—which in turn, affects how we experience our emotional relationship to the past. To follow Foddy's argument, McMillan's lack of historical awareness in part produced his sense of entitlement and authority. Part of Foddy's work was to challenge the validity of that sensibility by offering a history-check of indie hubris. As someone interested in how we create safer spaces and more viable environments for all the bodies and persons who wish to participate in video game culture, I'm in sync with Foddy's intentions.
But as a historian, I am equally suspect of reading the past in the terms of the present—what we call historical anachronism. While I'd be foolish to think that the distinction between “independent” and “indie” wasn't implicit for Foddy, I've run into more than one person who thought the takeaway was found in the historical merit of a “true” history of indie development.
Case in point: Foddy began with the classic image of Spacewar!, and cleverly suggested that games have always sort of looked like crap—in other words, “been indie.” But this statement evaporates an enormously complex landscape of cultural, economic and technological factors. It should not go without notice that all of the ludo-computational experiments we absorb as part of “video game history” were produced by individuals with substantial means of income elsewhere: they were all men working in some form of military research or defense. This includes Steven “Slug” Russell's Spacewar!, as well as William Higinbotham's Tennis for Two, Will Crowther and Don Woods' Colossal Cave Adventure, the original PDP-10 instantiation of Zork produced by members of MIT's Dynamic Modeling Group, as well as countless games circulated through ARPANET and housed on research center and university mainframes. Were these games “indie?” Not at all. How could they be? They had nothing to be independent from.
Do not be fooled! These are not indie game designers. // Rafting trip group photo, circa 1981. Counterclockwise from left: Ken Williams, Gary Kofler of Sega, Doug Carlston, Judy Rabin, John Heuer (Roberta's father), the river guide, D.J. Williams (Ken and Roberta's son), Roberta Williams. Image from Sierra News Magazine, “An Excerpt From An Insider's Look at the Personal Computer Software Industry,” Spring 1990, 55. Image via Sierra Gamers, www.sierragamers.com.
And even once there was an “industry” of which to speak, how various companies or game designers understood themselves as “independent” is a fluctuating category. As I explored in my own Indiecade East talk on the early 1980s West Coast microcomputer software scene, when companies like Broderbund, Sirius and On-Line Systems/Sierra On-Line called themselves “independent,” they meant independent from other computer manufacturers. Their corollary to Activision or Rockstar wasn't other game companies—it was hardware producers like IBM, who had the money and manpower to crush the cottage industry companies overnight.
What I'd like to see, as someone deeply engaged by the pasts always playing out in our present, is a more exacting assessment of the past's historical character. There are historical specifics that unite the examples Foddy brought before us to the conditions of the present, but they are not the one's he mentioned. If we want powerful and precise lessons from game history, we might think of them this way:
But this is not the same as saying video games have always been indie. The circumstances by which a game emerges outside of mass production or certain forms of capitalist exchange are unique to the economic and industrial character of its time. No matter how much value we take in seeing a reflection of our own practices in the past, and how much we might learn through these comparisons I always want to insist: history is not there for us. When we believe it is, we commit the McMillan fallacy—whether that's investing faith in the newness of the indie, or validating our work by tying it to a (politically and representationally fraught) past.
And what of indie “as a movement”? As a subculture, reckoning with the gap between “the indie” and “the independent” can help those invested in the movement understand why there is so much strife around the term “indie” in the present: because we're all actually talking about different things. If there is anything remarkable about Indiecade, it is that it so clearly doesn't know where it is going, and thus, its net can still afford to be wide. What to make of a conference where witch poet gamecrafter Merritt Kopas performs Tarot, and Caspar Gray lectures on pitching games to the AAAs? We should think about Foddy's argument in the reverse: “indie” is the present-day coin of the realm, describing game production that meets the qualifications of the two historical conditions I outlined above.
Indie isn't something someone did or made or invented. “Indie” is a participant response, a mode of community organization and self-recognition, rather than a transhistorical schematic for understanding the history of games. “Indie” is a referent for a curious balancing act between art and business, commerce and creativity, one made possible by very specific technological affordances, the economic operations of late capitalism, varied aesthetic imperatives about the contours of “personal expression,” a kind of neoliberal hucksterism around the power of individual creativity, and the endlessly scalable conditions which drive our creative desires.
Indie is indie because it is now, because it is meaningful in the present, because through some strange confluence of economic, technological and cultural conditions, people became invested in identifying themselves in this way—this is what is unique to indie games today, a historically-specific truth not shared with any past example of marginal game production.
I'd like to thank Colin Snyder, Ida C. Benedetto and Bennett Foddy for being my mental scratchpad as I worked through these ideas.