John Romero Remembers When Sierra Almost Bought id Software: ‘I Was Stunned’

They say hindsight is 20/20, but I would like to think that if I were a successful video game executive in the early 90’s, I would be very excited to see an early version of id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. According to John Romero, the revolutionary first-person shooter didn’t spark any sparks for Sierra Online co-founder Ken Williams in a meeting that nearly ended with the purchase of Sierra.

Romero recounted the meeting at a GDC 2022 talk held today (as told by IGN). I had set up a meeting with Sierra after sending Ken and Roberta Williams one of id’s Commander Keen games. The pair were so interested in Keen that Romero, along with id co-founder John Carmack, met with Ken Williams at Sierra’s upscale Northern California offices to discuss a possible acquisition.

During the meeting, Romero showed an early version of Wolfenstein 3D, the game that would essentially create the FPS genre, for Williams. Romero was quite disappointed with Williams’ response.

“After about 30 seconds of watching it, he wanted to show me the new game they were working on, Red Baron Online,” Romero said. “I was dumbfounded. Like, here’s the future, the beginning of a new genre: the first-person shooter. And Ken didn’t pay attention to that.”

(Image credit: id Software)

Romero was even more discouraged by Sierra’s interest in id when the price talks began. As reported in the 2003 book Masters of Doom, Williams offered to buy the company for $2.5 million in stock. Romero and Carmack feared that id’s company culture would conflict with Sierra’s, but they were prepared to accept the deal on one condition: an extra $100,000 in cash upfront.

While Williams was impressed with how id was making $50,000 a month from its shareware business, he eventually said no, which signaled to Romero that Sierra wasn’t serious about id and its potential. The deal fell through and id released 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 his childhood. “I wanted a balance for our revenues like one-third gaming, one-third education and one-third productivity,” he said. Williams added that at that time Sierra could have acquired “pretty much any company” and gaming was just one part of their 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 closed its doors in 2008. In 2021, Microsoft bought Bethesda, which includes id Software, for $7.5 billion.

30 years later, it looks like Sierra’s co-founders are back in gaming. After getting bored during the pandemic, the duo decided to get back into development, now leading a small team to make Colossal Cave 3D for PC and VR.

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