Sierra On-Line spent the ’80s and early ’90s building an impressive catalog of adventure games, titles that were pointed to as examples of the best the technology of the moment could offer. They built franchises that stood the test of time: King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Quest For Glory all boast innovative ideas and storytelling and each franchise has multiple titles that are as good and often better than the ones before it, something really rare in gaming both then and now. They innovated in the emerging internet space of the ’90s, with services like The ImagiNation Network in the early ’90s and the actually-still-sort-of-alive The Realm Online game in the late ’90s.
They also made delightfully weird business decisions like starting their own magazine and putting a lot of energy into annual trailers for their new games, things that couldn’t possibly have given a return on the time spent making them but that in retrospect stand out as a very “Sierra” thing. Let’s take a look at one such effort today, the Spring 1989 release of the (then-titled) Sierra Newsletter.
I picked Spring 1989 because this issue represents a sort of transition from ‘newsletter’ into ‘magazine’ – things like an actual cover, full color pages, and a focus on both internal and third-party ads reflect a dialing up of the effort compared to past newsletter releases which were pretty much aimed directly at those hardcore fans. It’s still very text-y, something that will change a bit in later issues. It gets more homespun the further back you go, and more professional past this point, and both approaches have their charm.
I also picked 1989 because Sierra had a pretty amazing late 1988/early 1989 lineup coming out that year. Police Quest 2, Space Quest 3, Gold Rush! and King’s Quest 4 are all-time gaming greats, Sierra’s Platinum Portfolio. This issue is predictably filled with the company’s enthusiasm for the games, and also includes submissions from their fans at the time who agreed.
Also new in 1989 are the Sierra 1-900 hint line, a line that as a 12 year old I got in trouble for racking up too many charges for, and the Bulletin Board System. The BBS featured a demo of Space Quest 3. How long must that have taken to download in 1989?
The more overt ads for the new titles are slick and beautiful, and the third party ads for components that can enhance the Sierra gaming experience are thoughtfully placed.
And then there’s the trailers. For a time Sierra produced an annual reel of trailers for their upcoming titles – trailers that are simultaneously overproduced, low-budget, and cheesy. But they’re great. These were sent to game stores and, as you can see below, offered to fans directly with a rebate incentive to receive and watch the VHS.
It’s a neat look at what direct marketing was like in 1989, but I can’t imagine it paying off for them. Add together the production, VHS, shipping, and rebate costs and you’ve got a pretty high price tag for each person reached. Still, I’m glad they did it because these trailers hit a real sweet spot.
Here’s the full newsletter, courtesy of Archive.org.
In the future we’ll look at more issues of The Sierra Newsletter (later renamed InterAction to avoid conflict with the Sierra club) as well as additional trailer reels. I promise not to make them all such blatant love letters to the company.
Well, I promise to try.