What if King’s Quest developer Sierra On-Line had purchased id Software before it had a chance to make DOOM? It’s a fascinating “what-if” in gaming history, and it might have happened if Sierra founder Ken Williams hadn’t balked at the extra $100,000 needed to close the deal.
John Romero, who founded id Software and played a key role in designing DOOM, related the story of Sierra’s near-acquisition during a talk earlier today at GDC 2022. In the course of discussing the development of Wolfenstein 3D — which was completed in less than six months — Romero took a detour to recall Sierra’s offer to purchase id Software.
According to Romero, id Software came to Sierra’s attention after Romero sent Ken and Roberta Williams a copy of one of the studio’s Commander Keen games. Ken Williams was impressed and invited the id Software to California to “talk business.”
At the time Sierra On-line was a PC development powerhouse, having found great success with the King’s Quest series and a host of other releases in the mid-to-late 1980s. Romero recalls being impressed by Sierra’s picturesque studio, which had more than 200 developers and was nestled in a town not far from Yosemite National Park. By contrast, id Software had just four employees.
The id Software showed Ken Williams an early version of Wolfenstein 3D, and Romero recalls being “dumbfounded” by his response.
“After about 30 seconds of watching, 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 start of a new genre: the first-person shooter. And Ken could not pay it any notice.”
Williams, for his part, was reportedly shocked to hear that id Software was making $50,000 per month from its shareware model, which was exploding in popularity in the early 90s. He offered to acquire id Software for $2.5 million in company stock.
Romero says id Software was thrilled by the offer, but decided to ask for an extra $100,000 in cash up front.
“Ken thought about it for a second, then he was like, ‘No thanks, but good luck with everything.’ So the 100k was a little too rich for him,” Romero says.
Wildly diverging destinies
The destinies of Sierra On-Line and id Software diverged wildly after that encounter. Just a few years later, Sierra On-Line was acquired by CUC International, which put it on the path toward collapse and closure. In the meantime, id Software made DOOM, which propelled it into the ranks of the most famous studios ever, later to be acquired by Bethesda and eventually, Xbox.
Had id Software decided to go forward with the deal, it may have met the fate of Red Baron developer Dynamix, which was shuttered amid a restructuring effort in 2001. Either that, or the success of DOOM might have pushed Sierra On-Line away from its fateful acquisition. Either way, gaming history might have been very different.
As it happens, Ken and Roberta Williams recently returned to the games industry after a lengthy hiatus. They are currently working on Colossal Cave 3D — a massive update of the classic 1970s text adventure. As for Romero, he recently made a new level for DOOM 2 with all proceeds aiding refugees from the Ukraine conflict.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.