January 31, 2023

Sierra On-Line founder Ken Williams clearly stayed busy during the pandemic. Earlier in October he released a new book, Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The rise and fall of Sierra On-Line, which tells Sierra On-Line’s complete story from his perspective for the first time.

In one Sierra story I’d never even heard hinted at before, Williams spent part of a chapter describing the process of clamping down on the company’s wild start-up culture—or trying to “bring discipline,” as he describes it—and pushing his team to a point that he admits became abusive.

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Under labor law at the time, salaried employees did not receive overtime pay. There were long stretches where developers were forced to work twelve-hour days and through weekends with no extra compensation. I can’t defend what we did other than to say that we did what we had to do. I would also add that I would handle the situation differently today.

Williams, K. Chapter 25: Managing Growth. In Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings: The rise and fall of Sierra On-Line (Kindle: p. 313).

Sierra’s developers didn’t take it lying down.

In what must have been one of the earliest instances in the emerging games industry, Williams wrote that the International Association of Machinists attempted to unionize Sierra’s software developers. This resulted in swift involvement of specialized lawyers and, according to Williams, a period leading up to a vote during which management had less ability than usual to change anything about the labor conditions at the company.

“Once the lawyers and the union were involved, my ability to deal directly with employees, or even change anything in how we dealt with employees, became limited,” Williams wrote. “Any change could be considered management interfering with the employees’ right to organize.”

According to Williams, Sierra management was not allowed to attend union organizing meetings, but several members of the company’s production group (mostly responsible for packaging and duplication) had previous union experience and argued against organization. At the eventual vote, the union lost, and the company continued with its previous production processes.

Williams describes the period as “a wake-up call for Sierra on employee relations,” and says it was good for the company overall. Had the union won the vote, he speculates, “history may have been very different.”

Not All Fairy Tales Have Happy Endings is available at Amazon.

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