Lately, I've been talking with some classic adventure game designers and interviewing them for various articles. The first one up is Al Lowe, who still maintans a large Internet presence thanks to his excellent web page. In addition to the humor database, there's tons upon tons of design documents, trivia, downloads, and links to other interviews that detail some of the inner workings of Sierra, both from a corporate and a technical level.
My questions mostly focused on a lot of small, specific inquiries I'd built up over time, and there's some interesting answers to all of those. But, as someone who spends way too much time analyzing design techniques, the biggest realization is that, when the time these games were made in the 80s, they really had no idea what they doing. That's not to say their products weren't fun, but nothing was set in stone for what were generally agreed on as "good" design. It was mostly just stuff they thought themselves and their friends would enjoy. There was practically no user feedback, and all they had were sales data. And even then, they still had no proper idea how to market them, so they just keep trying different stuff to see what worked.
All of this might seem obvious, but it's something that tends to get lost when criticizing something from a modern perspective. As a designer, Roberta Williams takes a lot of heat for crafting some incredibly difficult scenarios, hence the whole "Roberta Williams Dream Logic" thing, but her and her company were some of the first ones on the block to handle these games.
This obviously goes way beyond merely Sierra's history, of course, which makes some of the successes all the more fascinating, when you think about. The NES/FC version of Bionic Commando, developed more than 20 years ago in 1988, is still held to be the pinnacle of game design RE: grappling hook mechanics. Did they have any idea how brilliant that idea was, that people would still be gushing about it for two decades? Do they know now? There's so much that wasn't set in stone back then, leaving so much room to experiment, something that, by nature, is missing from a lot of games today. At this point, even the most brazen, innovative indie game is inspired by something from the past.
But enough with the heedless romanticism -- check out the interview itself. The Leisure Suit Larry article has also been slightly revised to make some updates, most notably a stupid mobile pinball game that had been recently discovered.