John Romero recalls when Sierra almost bought id Software: “I was dumbfounded”
They say hindsight is 20/20, but I’d like to think that if I was a successful video game executive in the early 90s, I would have been pretty excited to see an early version of Wolfenstein 3D from id Software. According to John Romero, the groundbreaking first-person shooter didn’t ignite any sparks for Sierra Online co-founder Ken Williams in a meeting that nearly ended with him buying an ID Sierra.
Romero recounted the meeting in a GDC 2022 conference held today (as recounted by IGN). Id had scored a meeting with Sierra after sending Ken and Roberta Williams one of id’s Commander Keen games. The duo cared so much about Keen that Romero, along with id co-founder John Carmack, met with Ken Williams at Sierra’s swanky offices in Northern California to discuss a potential acquisition.
During the reunion, Romero showed an early version of Wolfenstein 3D, the game that would essentially create the FPS genre, to Williams. Romero was quite disappointed with Williams’ response.
“After about 30 seconds of watching it wanted to show me the new game they were working on, Red Baron Online,” Romero said. “I was stunned. Like, here comes the future, the start of a new genre: the first-person shooter. And Ken couldn’t pay attention to it.”
Romero was further discouraged by Sierra’s interest in the identity when price talks began. As noted in the 2003 book Masters of Doom, Williams offered to buy the company for $2.5 million in stock. Romero and Carmack worried that id’s corporate culture would clash with Sierra, but they were willing to accept the deal on one condition: an additional $100,000 in cash.
While Williams was impressed with how id was making $50,000 a month from his shareware business, he ultimately said no, which signaled to Romero that Sierra wasn’t serious about id and his potential. The deal fell through and id then published Wolfenstein 3D with Apogee Software as its publisher.
In a Wired interview published in 2021, Ken Williams reflected on his decision not to partner with id Software in its early days. “I wanted a balance between our income and one-third games, one-third education and one-third productivity,” he said. Williams added that at that time Sierra could have acquired “virtually any business” and games were only part of its business. “I was trying to make Sierra number one in consumer software, not just games.”
Sierra would later be acquired by services conglomerate CUC International and eventually shut down in 2008. In 2021, Microsoft bought Bethesda, which includes id Software, for $7.5 billion.
30 years later, it looks like the co-founders of Sierra have found their way back to gaming. After feeling bored during the pandemic, the pair decided to jump back into development, now leading a small team to make 3D colossal cave for PC and VR.
Update: PC Gamer’s Wes Fenlon caught up with Ken and Roberta Williams at GDC to ask what they thought of this acquisition that never was, looking back in hindsight.
“That I should have paid for it?” said Ken. “Well, no. See, there were four guys in a van. I mean they just didn’t seem stable and predictable.”
“Yeah,” Roberta added. “That’s what it was.”
“Because I was going to write this check to take them,” Ken continued, “but they weren’t very official at the time. If you’re going to acquire a business, you want to know that the guys are going to be working every days and they have an office. I mean, now that you think about it, that was kind of one of the dumbest moves.
Ken also mentioned that at that time he was prejudiced against violent and gory games and didn’t like the idea of Sierra releasing them. “I didn’t like the idea of kids running through a building with a gun,” he said, “shooting other humanoid figures and squirting blood.”
“Then we did Phantasmagoria,” Robert said, referencing his 1995 point-and-click horror game, which sparked its own controversy at the time.
For more on that and what Ken and Roberta Williams have been up to over the past few years, check back soon for the full interview.