We Are Makers Of The Modern Web
Sierra

Defining Moments

By: Mike McKinnon
| Category: Entrepreneurship
Alessandro Viaro

Do you remember moments in your life that made you who you are today?  Delimiting moments defined by tragedy and sorrow, or great joy and happiness.  The birth of a child, the death of a partner or parent.  These are the easy ones to remember, easy because they interrupt your life with all the importance and ceremony and make you stop and get perspective.  I’ve had a few of those moments in my life.  Thankfully many more happy than sad - so far.  The birth of my two children being what I remember best now.   But there is another kind of defining moment.  Something subtler, that maybe at the time didn’t seem so defining, but looking back with 20/20 hindsight you see how important they were.   This post is about a few snippets of a time and a place that formed my interests in computing and software engineering. 

The Dawn of the Personal Computer

I was born in the late 70’s.  So, my formative years were spent during the two decades that really defined of the dawn of personal computing, gaming, and the internet. 

Back in the mid 80’s when I was but a young lad.  I remember being in Grade 1 or 2 and I attended a small Catholic school in Pickering, Ontario.  We had a small computer room off to the side of the library filled with what I believe were Commodore computers.  They were on a token ring network. (look it up millennials) My buddy, let’s call him “Jasper”, sent up a message on his computer that broadcast to all the other computers in the room.  His message: “Attention K-Mart Shoppers!”. 

That was it.  Nothing else.  No follow up message.  We were too busy cracking up at that!  I spent many afternoons in that computer room playing a very weird game where I had to break into (or spy) on houses.  It was black and white, had minimal graphics (line art / ANSI stuff), and I can’t even remember the name of the game.   During this time Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego came out and we got that at our school.  I was a bit too young to know many of the answers (“What country uses the ruble?”) but through trial and error I built up my internal dictionary of answers and was acing that game.

Sidebar: Remember the TV Show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” -  Pop quiz hot shot? Who was the BAND in that TV Show?

Let’s fast forward a couple years.  This is really when I can put my finger on a formative moment that REALLY took me down the path of computers, programming, and gaming.   It was 1987 and after MUCH cajoling and promising my dad our PC could DEFINITELY handle the specs he bellied up to the counter at Radio Shack and put down his hard-earned money for a new video game title by a fledgling software startup called Sierra.  That game was called Police Quest 1.   

PQ1 Screen

Now this game was a departure! It was graphical, by the book and contained many puzzles that required proper police procedure.  I have some vivid memories of this game, one in particular on the first night I spent in the basement playing it.  I was in a small office my dad built off to the side of the rec room with the TV.  My character, Sonny Bonds had just finished getting his uniform on, attending a briefing, and getting some mail out of his pigeon hole (that’s a mailbox you disgusting person).  I had grabbed a “Squelchy, Noisy but workable extender.” and walked out to my police car.  I kept getting in the car, driving out and promptly crashing into a wall.  I must have crashed this cruiser twenty times.  I was freaking out, yelling at the computer and I just could not figure out why on Earth my police car kept crashing.  I was pressing the arrow buttons to turn… why?! WHY?!! WHY?!?!

My father from the sofa in the other room created one of the first memes ever when he shouted “Read the F%^&ing Manual!”.  And lo and behold once I turned from the computer and started reading I learned about the prescribed safety walkaround every police officer must do to their car before driving away at the start of a shift.   After hours trying the same thing over and over I finally tried something new, solved the puzzle and drove off to solve crime and make Lytton California a safer place for all!   That is all it took.  That act of reading the manual and solving that one specific puzzle instilled in me an obsession with computer games, and problem solving.  I already was obsessed with computers in general.  I still remember how I felt when I finally got to drive to the next screen on the map! When I got a call to join my partner Steve at Carols Coffee House in North East Lytton! The world opened up for me that day, I was unstoppable, I was a police officer and I was immersed in a completely new life and adventure!

Sierra would grow to become a fairly large and popular game company.  They had their own magazine and published so many amazing games.  I bought many of them and I still have a few of the originals today.  I’m looking at a 3-game value pack on my desk now that features Police Quest 3, Manhunter 2: San Francisco, and Silpheed.  (All three of those games are gems).  Roberta and Ken Williams (the couple that created Sierra) became heroes to me, their games became the soundtrack to my life and I spent many years from then on immersing myself in their popular quest based games.  King’s Quest, Space Quest, Thexder, and Manhunter were all great sources of enjoyment but I ALWAYS kept going back to Police Quest.  As I got older Police Quest evolved as well and became more mature, less adventure-some and in some ways less enjoyable, but really these memories are all fleeting, they all have an association with a point in time, and as much as you want to re-live them later on it’s never quite the same, is it.  Those games were perfect for me then, the perfect gateway, the right time, with the right mix of problem solving and enjoyment that got me hooked.   Those games were the gateway for me to evolve into Bulletin Board Software (BBS) development, computer system building, phreaking, hacking, and all those fun, innocent experiments throughout high school that taught me so much about how software and hardware works. 

I am fortunate enough to have had an upbringing where I was exposed to computers at an early age.  I was also fortunate enough to have parents who understood that computer games – while not their cup of tea – had some educational benefit.  I am glad both my parents encouraged my interaction with the personal computer, and I am fortunate enough to have stumbled into Radio Shack that day in 1987 and picked up that cardboard box with the stylized Sierra Nevada mountain range on the top, and those five-and-a-quarter floppies inside.

I still have a copy of the original Police Quest 1 on my laptop today.  One day I’m going to show it to my kids and see what they think.  

Thanks for reading, as always!

I’ll follow this up soon with a post about my adventures with Remote Access BBS software and the creation of my own BBS which I called “Durham Online Association” or DOA.  Door Games and ANSI art FTW!