Episode 3 Interview with Ken Allen!
- About Me
- My Introduction To Sierra
- The Sierra games I worked on that were my favorites
- Some random memories I have while working at Sierra.
- Events that lead to my departure, and Life after Sierra
- A little known fact about the music for SQ5
- Questions from my Facebook friends
I remember rumors that circulated through the company that someone from Sierra had contacted Duracell to gain permission to use the Energizer Bunny in SQ4, to which Duracell said “Sure use our bunny.” Energizer owned the Energizer Bunny, not Duracell. And Sierra got sued. But, I think the story is apocryphal because I doubt Duracell would actually say “sure use our bunny” when they didn’t have a bunny.
Early in my tenure at Sierra, a movement to unionize the workforce developed. As I recall, us non-management lackeys were going to be represented by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union. Mainly because this was a union for a high tech sector. Sierra worked very hard to put down the union uprising. They didn’t break any laws. And eventually, the unionization movement petered out. One of the union organizers was eventually fired because he violated company policy against using company equipment for personal use. Sierra Management found astronomy software on the office PC of that person. We all saw it as a shot across the bow.
You know that scene in SQ3 where game developers are confined to their cubicles and the manager walks above them on a catwalk whip in hand, issuing an occasional crack of the whip? I saw a couple weekends at Sierra where a similar version of the scene unfolded for real. I don’t recall which game they were working on, but the head of operations walked around the cubicles where the dev team was toiling; they were under a very tight deadline.What else… I walked past the board room and saw Louis Castle and Brett Sperry (founders of Westwood) were demoing Legend of Kyrandia in hopes of landing a publishing deal. Sierra passed on it but Westwood completed the game and self published it. I remember the ads “If you like Kings Quest, you’ll love Kyrandia.” Which I think also appeared on the box of the first installment of the series. I think there were threats of lawsuits over the use of Sierra trademark. But, yeah, I was in the room, albeit briefly as the game was pitched.
If you look at my Moby Games profile, you’ll see at list of about 50 games, and there are about 10 more that should go on that list, because many games I worked on don’t list credits.
Something only about 5 people in the universe know is that I actually did the complete score and set of sound effects for SQ5 for Mark Crowe at Dynamix. He was no longer at the home office in Oakhurst and the distance gave Dynamix a little more freedom to hire contractors of their choosing.
I finished all the music and sound in a couple months, and I got paid the full amount, but after I completed the work, I was a little careless and let it slip to a Sierra employee (I can’t remember who) that I had done the SQ5 music.Ken and Roberta were vacationing in Barcelona during the the Olympics, and from what I heard, when he returned he was informed of my involvement and ordered my music be pulled and replace by music composed by Sierra employee composer Chris Stevens.
I can’t blame Ken for this decision. I mean, I wouldn’t an ex-employee somehow weaseling in and taking a staring role in the development of a flagship product. But at least I got paid. I’m pretty sure most, if not all, my sound effects survived, but the score I wrote for the game is probably lost to the world. Oh and if someone does have those song files, please let me know.
Questions from Facebook and Twitter
What were my musical influences? from Adam Vujic in Australia via Facebook
My favorite composer was Jerry Goldsmith, who composed the music for Planet of the Apes, 4 of the Star Trek movies, Hoosiers, Rudy, Patton and a ton more. In fact, the Patton film score made me want to be a composer. I was awestruck by the film’s music and it was the first movie soundtrack album I ever purchased. After I left Sierra, I signed up for some film scoring classes at UCLA, and one of the classes offered was an all day session taught by my hero, Jerry Goldsmith where he talked about the decisions and musical techniques he brought to bear while scoring Rudy. He signed my copy of the soundtrack album (which I have framed in my home office) and generously posed for a photo of the two of us.
Did I find it difficult given that there were several sound cards around of varying quality. Did I have to adjust the instrumentation for each to ensure the score was faithfully reproduced? also from Adam Vujic
There were really only two types of sound cards when I started at Sierra, those that used FM synthesis (the kind used in the Yamaha DX7) and those that used Addative synthesis from Roland, and the FM synthesis had two categories, 2-operator and 4-operator. Plus we supported the Tandy 3 voice chipset which just simple sine waves, no synthesis, and the PC speaker. So, yeah it was a challenge. We had to adapt each song to play on each of the 5 different playback devices. But when General MIDI became the standard for all sound cards, it became much easier.
Alistar Gillett of Tulsa Oklahoma asked the following through Facebook:
1. Firstly, is it cool reconnecting with all the old Sierra folks? I imagine some of them you probably haven’t come across in 20 years! (Also on Facebook Sierra alum, Marty McKenna, asked “What was is like working with me?”)
It was a totally blast working with all the people at the Oakhurst office! If I start listing names, this podcast will go on for hours and I sure I’d still leave someone out, so I won’t even start. Working at Sierra was something real special. In spite of some of the unflattering stories floating around, we all felt very lucky to be working there. Ken Williams had a keen awareness of where computer games were going and I saw the beginnings of Sierra’s transition away from just doing adventure games and embracing new genres, like arcade games, strategy games, educational games and casual games I’ve had infrequent contact with most of the ex-Sierra crowd. But reconnecting is always a joy.
2. Josh Mandel recently suggested you help with music for the Two Guys’ new project, SpaceVenture. Obviously you work for Trion now, but- thoughts?
I love Josh. We’re part of our own little mutual admiration society. I did music for his game that Legend published, but did so under a pen name so I wouldn’t get fired for conflict of interest. The announcement from the Andromeda guys has inspired all of us connected with the original franchise to imagine all sorts of possibilities. Those are my thoughts. By the way, Josh, I think I owe you about 10 bucks for all the little candies I consumed that you had on your desk for visitors. The check is in the mail.
3. What is your favourite piece of music you ever composed while at Sierra?
Obviously the opening sequence for SQ4. There’s actually a funny story behind that. When SQ4 was kicking off, I lobbied hard to get tapped as the game’s composer, but Mark Seibert had already assigned me to a couple other projects. One day, he took a couple weeks vacation time and while he away, he delegated minding the music department to me.
During this time the two guys from Andromeda came to me is a bit of a panic because Sierra, now a public company, had regular board meetings where progress on the various games in development would be reviewed; and SQ4 was on the scheduled meeting that was only 5 days away.
So Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy came to me and said, we need music for the opening sequence and we need it like Monday (it was Friday or course). So I went to Bill Davis, told him the predicament and suggested we video tape the opening and I’d crank out the music over the weekend. He agreed and gave me 20 bucks to go buy some video tape for that purpose.
As we recorded the video, Mark Crowe told me exactly what he wanted in terms of musical style, and sound effects that were needed for each scene, he was very specific even giving reference to sounds used in sci-fi movies (like the sound of the device used by Dekker in Blade Runner where he was studying the photos found in the living quarters of a replicant he’d just killed).
Scott had just had one point of direction, “Knock our socks off, Ken!” So that’s what I did. I got almost no sleep that weekend and when Monday came around, I uploaded the sound files to the company’s file server and met with the two guys to go over my work. They plugged in the tunes to the game and launched it. As the music played, I remember watching their reaction, sitting back with their arms crossed watching the game opening unfold with the big orchestra underscore. Mark Crowe, who normally smiles with a kind of side smirk, actually revealed his teeth as the music continued to play. Mark wanted only one change, the cantina had a futuristic honkytonk tune that he didn’t care for, so the next day I brought in something more akin to the Star Wars cantina music. I heard through the grapevine that during the board meeting, Roberta, who was also present, asked her husband why the music for her games did sound as good as the music for Space Quest – but I don’t know for sure if that’s true.
Mark Seibert came back from vacation a bit surprised by what had developed in his absence, but I was reassigned to work on SQ4. I think due to the insistence from the Andromeda guys. I went on to score many of the high profile games at Sierra after that.
4. What was your favourite project while working at Sierra? (Don’t say some Adlib conversion!)
SQ4 was by far my favorite, but also had a ton of fun composing for the remake of Oilswell. Between each level of the game was a little vignette featuring the game’s dinosaur mascot, Slater where something spectacularly wrong would happen to him. It was like writing music for a cartoon. This was the kind of influence Bill Davis brought to Sierra. I think Bill actually won a significant award for the cartoon opening of the movie City Slickers while he worked at Kurtz and Friends in Hollywood. GREAT FUN!
5. What is your favourite music style, and what inspired you then (1989-1991) and now?
By far I like composing for orchestra. Go to my YouTube channel (youtube.com/mrkenallen) and you see a trailer for the Star Trek game I was designing and producing for Interplay. That’s my music being played by a 40 piece orchestra of Hollywood musicians and I’m the conductor. Standing in front of 40 professional musicians playing my music was VERY gratifying. But I taught myself to write in any style and did so for many of the games I worked on, including big band, rockabilly, technorock, classic rock, bluegrass, cartoon music, practically everything.
Richard Garriot and Chuck Norris walk into a bar; what type of music plays and why?