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.
To celebrate the submission of my dissertation to my committee, I am posting an excerpt from the first chapter. I hope those of you who have followed my progress on social media or IRL enjoy this teaser for the project. I look forward to sharing more of it in the future. -Laine
Chapter One: Emergences
“In some adventures you are limited by the number of objects you can carry at one time. When it comes to a decision as to whether you should keep carrying an object that you already used, or drop it so you can get a new one, I would be inclined to drop it in order to be able to carry a new one.”
“Winning Strategies for Adventures”
The On-Line Letter, June 1981
Late in the summer of 2013, I traveled to Coarsegold and Oakhurst, California, a pair of towns separated by a seven-mile band of asphalt marked State Route 41, tucked away in the foothills of Madera County along the southern border of Yosemite National Park. On the last day of my trip, I drove out to Oakhurst's Fresno Flats Historic Park, a community heritage site established in 1975 in homage to the area's nineteenth-century Gold Rush roots. In a landscape rife with salt-of-the-earth history, these sorts of regional memorials dot and fleck every one-stoplight town along the highway. Most of them were founded in the 1970s and '80s, the boom years of civic pride in Madera County, when the middle-aged grandchildren of gold panners and loggers began gathering oral histories and commemorating landmarks.
Yet, by 2013, these locales were mostly forgotten, the stuff of grade-school field trips and the occasional wedding reception. Those who had long served as the guardians of small-town memory, the founders of these dusty parks and ramshackle museums, were all thirty or forty years older now, their bodies too broken down to continue necessary repairs, their hands shaking and shivering as they leafed through archival documents, their memories shot through with forgetting. The Fresno Flats Historic Park's docents and guided tours had long since dried up; only a “caretaker” resided on premises during daylight hours, an old-timer sitting in an air-conditioned cabin who could hand you a pamphlet or give you directions. Mostly, I just saw people stop by to use the park's unlocked bathrooms.
But if there was no docent to play warder to this park, to ensure I wasn't trying to jimmy my way across every locked door and sagging chain-link fence (which I certainly was), I did have to confront a very different kind of gatekeeper. A centennial plaque held empty court on the central axis of the park's sunburnt grassy entrance—what I suspected was faux marble mounted on faux wood. Dedicated by E Clampus Vitus, a regional fraternal order once founded to care for miners' widows, the plaque iterated Oakhurst, California's most defining testaments to national significance over the past hundred years.
Most prominently, the town held a key location on the supply trails that once siphoned tools, liquor, and mules up to the northern gold mines and lumber sites leading in and out of Yosemite; second, Oakhurst was the founding location of Pizza Factory, a restaurant franchise boasting over one hundred establishments in five Western states; and lastly, the plaque dubbed Oakhurst “the birthplace of computer gaming.” Through the 1980s and '90s, Oakhurst and the smaller town Coarsegold had been home to Sierra On-Line, one of the most iconic and successful home computer entertainment software producers in the world. Co-founded by a curious husband-and-wife pair, Ken and Roberta Williams, Sierra found its fortune mostly in designing and distributing graphical adventure game software for the home computer market.
Sierra would become one of the town's largest employers, alongside the Sierra-Tel telephone company and the county government. Up until the early 1990s, every box, every disk, every package was printed, formatted, and shrink-wrapped right in Oakhurst by the hands of self-declared “mountain folk.” Sierra On-Line was the reason I had traveled three thousand miles from New York City to get sunburnt and dehydrated twenty-two hundred feet above sea level. I'd come to this countryside to ask a question: what is video game history?
Answers shift. In Coarsegold and Oakhurst, it seemed something best forgotten. There had been a soft promise, nearly thirty-five years ago, that a company like Sierra On-Line could turn the economic sinkhole of Madera County into a “Little Silicon Valley.”
When Sierra moved most of its corporate operations to Bellevue, Washington in 1993, it left behind disgruntled memory and boundless rumor: Sierra had left because corporate taxes were too high, because they couldn't get a T1 line strung into Oakhurst, because relations were amiss at the top of the company chain. Double damage came in the late 1990s when the company was shuttered for good, closing up its remaining Oakhurst offices. After that, Sierra On-Line was just someone’s last paycheck.
Yet, to the now-adult fans who teethed on Sierra's software in the 1980s and '90s, the company's material remnants—folded and boxed and sleeved by local labor but shipped to an audience worldwide—are objects to save, collect, cherish. These childhood memories are for sharing and endless reiteration. And there are other bodies, spaces, things. To the women of today's indie game scene, there's the hope of finding a history in Roberta Williams that reflects the history they lived but no one seems aware of—that, yes, women have always played games, and made them too. In the archives of the Strong Museum of Play, video game history is the mundane artefacts that clutter acid-free boxes: nameplates and buttons and broken awards. To the designers and employees I interview, it's a curiosity about why I care. It's a question of how long a floppy disk can hold its data before bit rot eradicates magnetic trace, and about how long Yosemite’s Half Dome will stand, a reminder of the thick temporality of stone. While the realm of armchair historians and amateur preservationists may swear to a video game history circumscribed by a heroic chronology of hacker heroes and coding wizards, “seminal games” and groundbreaking companies, tracking and tracing Sierra 'cross fields archival and literal has only confirmed to me the articulate queerness of our historical desires, of what we want history to do for us.
The question of “what game history is” finds its answer in the doing, as this project is one that will take shape in the cluttered valley between history and historiography. The writing of video game history, despite its many participants, has been a fairly narrow field of action landmarked by a handful of monuments: Pong and the Magnavox Odyssey, Mario and Pac-Man, the alien death romps of Doom, the mesmerizing landscapes of Myst. Goldeneye, Grand Theft Auto, Wii Tennis. The ruins are real, and their importance inestimable—but they also cast shadows. In marking the map, they make it, they become what game history has been organized to show us. No book of video game history ever told me that Oakhurst, California was the “birthplace of computer gaming.” It probably is not. But what does that physical memorial make available to me, which I otherwise might not notice?
I believe: Sierra On-Line is the case that makes a mess of video game history. It makes good on Foucault's promise that “what is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.” My work herein is a media archaeological pressuring of several historiographic devices governing the structure and arc of what is taken as video game history. Articulating sites of disparity is a critically overdue maneuver in the unfolding historiography of the video game, a gesture countering the obviously problematic teleologics of much writing in the field.
And it is a move that scales nicely beyond itself, to all the reasons video games are not just one component of a digital media landscape, but a condensation of digital media's most significant cultural and theoretical properties, from labor to materiality to transnationalist flows, global economics and mobile ubiquity to representation and virtual identity, down to design, distribution, the evils of e-waste. These are all part of a use-cycle of the global video game industry, a multiplicity which has no monolithic center, no representative feature, especially not once we formulate on planet-wide scales. Gaming is the first form of computational technology most of us ever handled—the first time, in many cases, a computer was ever “in our hands.” The level of convergence games enact with other media is a phenomena unto itself: games are constrained by no essential medium of transmission or reception, and can operate across digital and analog substrates. Games are neither experimental novelties nor thin amusements: they are definitive modes of mediation in the twenty-first century. The value of studying video game history should not be that it leads us back to games, but that it leads us somewhere else.
A while back, I shared a special archival find: the first ad ever printed for Sierra On-Line/On-Line System's Mystery House, from the May 1980 issue of MICRO 6502. While this ad has long been "findable" on the 'net, it required a special bit of diligence to go looking for this ad in particular and circulate it as a historical document.
The ad On-Line ran in June 1980 was the same as May. But in July 1980, the ad changed rather dramatically. The long, onerous text has been cut. Moreover, the ad moved far forward in the magazine, all the way to page 1. When eager readers flipped the cover on their July issue of MICRO 6502, they'd have been staring at the latest selection of software offerings from On-Line Systems.
Obviously, On-Line was doing quite well for themselves--they no doubt paid a considerable fee for "page 1" property. The blessedly improved layout and typography also speaks to a quickly refining profile. Gone is the home coupon style sales/shipping form crammed into a corner, although the Williamses were still receiving orders at their home and on their home phone line.
The cassette versions of Trapshoot and Skeetshoot (available in the previous two months' ads) have been jettisoned. Two new pieces of software are offered in this July ad: Paddle Graphics and Tablet Graphics, both graphics utilities for enterprising programmers ("Tools for Making Tools" as Steven Levy terms this kind of software in Hackers). For a talented programmer such as Ken, these programs were likely easy one-offs derived from his experience designing Mystery House's hi-res graphics and the new work he was doing developing a machine language system for Roberta's upcoming project at the time, The Wizard and the Princess (the first adventure game with color graphics). What was called Hi-Res Adventure ("Mystery House") in the May and June issues is now Hi-Res Adventure #1, an anticipatory numbering gesturing to a future series of hi-res adventure games.
The copy also gives a subtle clue to one of the more frustratingly unprompted puzzles in the game: you'll need to smash a wall. (Roberta Williams had a real kick for making her players deconstruct houses). My favorite part? The description for Hi-Res Adventure #1 mentions "French version available upon request." What I wouldn't give for a French copy of Mystery House! Who was doing your translation, On-Line?