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The Bruce Youth

22 Apr

On June 13, 1988, exactly two years to the day after Infocom officially became a subsidiary of Activision, a set of identical Federal Express packages appeared on the doorsteps of the old, independent Infocom’s former stockholders. This group, which included among its ranks such employees and contractors of the current Infocom as Joel Berez, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, and Stu Galley, had been the direct beneficiaries of the $2.4 million in stock that Activision had paid along with the assumption of $6.8 million in debt to acquire the company. The bundles of legal documents the former stockholders now found inside the Federal Express envelopes were eye-opening to say the least: they said that the shareholders would have to pay Activision much of that money back.

As is standard practice in such deals, the shareholders had signed contracts agreeing to indemnify Activision if they were shown to have misrepresented the financial position of their company. In layperson’s terms, if they had cooked the books to get Activision to bite, they would be personally liable for the difference between fantasy and reality. Activision had two years to make such a claim, which makes the date of June 13, 1988 — literally the last possible instant to do so — very significant.

The exact reasoning behind Activision’s demand for recompense was vague at best, seemingly amounting to little more than an assertion that Infocom had turned out not to be worth as much as an ongoing subsidiary as both Activision and Infocom had thought it would back in 1986. The former shareholders viewed it as simply an attempt by Activision’s President Bruce Davis to extort money out of them, especially as the contract they had signed demanded that concrete data ground any indemnification claim. The deal to acquire Infocom had happened during the reign of Davis’s predecessor Jim Levy, allegedly over Davis’s strident objections. Now, the shareholders assumed, he meant to wring whatever money he could out of a money-losing subsidiary he had never wanted before he cast it aside. Incensed to be essentially accused of fraud and humiliated that the perceived value of their company, one of the leading lights in computer games just a few years before, had come down to this, the former shareholders vowed to fight Davis in court.

Shortly after igniting this powder keg, Davis made one of his infrequent visits to Infocom from Activision’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters. While there, he took marketing manager Mike Dornbrook out to dinner. Dornbrook shared with me his recollections of that evening.

Bruce wanted me to help him improve morale at Infocom and increase productivity. I told him that the lawsuit1 wasn’t helping. At that point I don’t think there were more than about 40 people at Infocom, and many of the top folks were being sued by Bruce and everyone knew it. While Marc Blank, JCR Licklider, and Al Vezza were no longer employees, they still had lots of connections and they, too, were being sued. All of us viewed the lawsuit as completely unfair.

I told Bruce that I was intimately involved with the finances of Infocom in Spring 1986 and I was sure that Joel and the rest of the team were honest. They not only believed all the financial numbers, they felt that Activision was getting a very good deal. How did he expect them to react to this lawsuit?

His response was that he didn’t care if the numbers were actually accurate and believed at that time. In retrospect, it was clear to him that Activision had overpaid and he was convinced that a jury would agree and reward him some of the money back. He felt it was his duty to the Activision shareholders to get as much back as he could. He expected the Infocom indemnifying shareholders to simply negotiate a settlement. When I told him that they would rather fight than give in to such blackmail, he indicated that I was being naive to think this.

Dornbrook was right; the shareholders did choose to fight. The costly legal battle that resulted would go on for years; Dornbrook claims that Activision’s demands for restitution eventually reached a well-nigh incomprehensible $16 million. The battle would continue even after a bankrupt Activision was acquired in a hostile takeover by a group of investors led by Bobby Kotick in 1991.2 The mess would finally be settled only well into the 1990s, when the shareholders agreed to pay a pittance to Activision — $10,000 or so in total — just to make an endless nightmare go away.

In the context of 1988, Activision’s claim made for one hell of a situation. Some of the most important people at Infocom, including their President Joel Berez, were now engaged in an open legal battle with the same people they were expected to work with and report to. Yes, it was one hell of a situation. For that matter, it was shaping up to be one hell of a year.

The heart of Infocom’s travails, the wellspring from which the indemnification claim as well as every other problem burst, was a steady decline in sales. Worrisome signs of the gaming public’s slacking interest in their text-only interactive fiction could be discerned as early as 1985, and by 1987 that reality was fairly pounding them in the face every day. Between January 1987 and January 1988, Infocom flooded the adventure-game market with nine new titles to average sales of only about 20,000 units per game, a fraction of what their games used to sell. Clearly releasing more games wasn’t helping their cause. All signs indicated that the flood of new releases only prompted their all too finite remaining base of fans to pick and choose more carefully among the few titles each tended to purchase each year. Thus in working harder Infocom most definitely wasn’t working smarter, but rather managing to get even less bang than before for their development buck.

But if more games didn’t help, what would? Drowning as they were, they cast about desperately, giving serious consideration to ideas at which the younger, prouder Infocom would have scoffed. Some seriously mooted suggestions were described even by those who did the suggesting as “schlock,” such as partnerships with Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, or the rather vague category of “Hollywood stars.” (The sad reality, of course, was that Infocom’s own star had now burned so low that they wouldn’t have had much chance of tempting even the lowest-wattage such fodder into working with them.) The most shocking and patently desperate suggestion of all was for a “serious XXX porn game,” although they wouldn’t put their own name on it. After all, one must have some dignity.

In this atmosphere of magic-bullet hunting, it was natural to turn back to the glory days, to the names that had once made Infocom one of the glories of their industry. Thus the Zork name, left unused since Zork III in 1982, was resurrected at last for Brian Moriarty’s Beyond Zork, begun in late 1986 and released a year later.

Yet there was another of their old games that Infocom looked back upon with if anything even more wistfulness than the original Zork trilogy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the very personification of Infocom’s glory days, selling well over 300,000 copies, attracting considerable mainstream-press coverage, and generally marking the high-water point of their commercial fortunes. The game itself hadn’t so much ended as stopped midstream, its final paragraphs explicitly promising a sequel. If only they could finally get that sequel made…

The problem with doing the Hitchhiker‘s sequel was it must entail trying to work yet again with the charmingly insufferable Douglas Adams, a black hole of procrastination who seemed to suck up the productivity of every Imp he came into contact with. Bureaucracy, first proposed by Adams as a sort of light palate cleanser between Hitchhiker’s and its sequel, had turned into the most tortured project in Infocom’s history, involving at one time or another most of the development staff and consuming fully two years in all (the average Infocom game required about six to nine months). Released at last in March of 1987 only thanks to a last-minute rescue mission mounted by Adams’s good friend and semi-regular ghostwriter Michael Bywater, the end result had left no one entirely happy.

Even as Bureaucracy was still lurching erratically toward completion, Stu Galley had taken a stab at outlining a possible plot for a Hitchhiker’s sequel, calling it Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Infocom hoped they could run Galley’s ideas by Adams to maybe, just maybe get his juices flowing and get him to want to get started properly. But little resulted other than a lot of internal discussion and a very sketchy beginning-of-a-demo that would be kicked around for a long time at Infocom and, later, around the modern Internet after it was leaked from an old backup by a blogger. Over on the other side of the Atlantic, Adams continued to say all the right things in the abstract and to deliver absolutely no usable concrete feedback.

With this evidence to hand that Douglas Adams continued to be Douglas Adams, enthusiastic about proposing projects but completely disinterested in actually working on them, no one wanted to even think about starting on the Bureaucracy merry-go-round all over again. Infocom was in a weird position: everyone wanted a Hitchhiker’s sequel in the abstract, but no one wanted to try to work with Adams on one. And so, just as had happened with Bureaucracy, the project got passed around to whomever didn’t manage to look busy enough before any given planning session. It became the most energy- and morale-draining hot potato ever.

In the immediate wake of Bureaucracy‘s release, Infocom hoped they might be able to shepherd the Hitchhiker’s sequel to completion by once again turning the tasks that would normally be shouldered by Adams over to Michael Bywater. This time, however, his work didn’t go as smoothly. Whether stymied by the differences between writing a game from scratch and merely (re)writing all of the text for a game, as he had largely done for Bureaucracy and would later do for Magnetic Scroll’s Jinxter, or daunted by the prospect of playing with some of his old friend’s most beloved creations, he was slow to produce results, even when Infocom flew him to Cambridge and put him up in a nearby hotel so he could be closer to the action.

Despite little progress on a script having been made by year’s end, the project was foisted on Infocom’s Amy Briggs for implementation at the beginning of 1988. She felt herself to have been placed in an untenable position, caught between Infocom and a none-too-responsive British contingent consisting of Bywater and Adams — and, with Bywater currently dating Magnetic Scrolls’s head Anita Sinclair, an undefined role to quite possibly be played by that company as well. Unsure where her responsibilities on Restaurant began and ended and frustrated by management’s unwillingness to let her turn any of her own original ideas into a game, she announced that she would be leaving Infocom in June.

With Briggs bowing out, a new suggestion surfaced from Britain: just let Douglas and Michael and Anita do the whole thing over here, implementing it using Magnetic Scrolls’s in-house technology. Most at Infocom were left aghast by the idea. While they had been willing to publicly acknowledge Magnetic Scrolls as the worthiest of their direct competitors — conveniently leaving out the fact that they were, at least in North America, also largely their only remaining direct competitors — and while relations between the two companies were for the most part quite good, no one at Infocom truly regarded Magnetic Scrolls as their equals in craftsmanship. In this belief, it must be said, they were correct. Magnetic Scrolls’s engine did a few things better than Infocom’s, but it did a lot of other things worse, and their games in general remained well behind Infocom’s in terms of design and attention to detail. It had always been Magnetic Scrolls who were the disciples, who had filled their games with homages to Zork and Hitchhiker’s and gratefully accepted Infocom’s benevolent condescension. The idea of Magnetic Scrolls doing the next Hitchhiker’s — one of Infocom’s two biggest properties — was just too, too much, one more measure of how far they had fallen. It was hard not to take as a personal betrayal the fact that Adams was even proposing such a thing.

The Hitchhiker’s sequel finally died on the vine during the middle months of 1988, abandoned due to dwindling resources — Magnetic Scrolls’s business wasn’t exactly booming by that point either — and sheer exhaustion with the subject on both sides of the Atlantic. Just as a potential Restaurant at the End of the Universe was puffed up to almost mythic proportions as a business-saver in its own day, the sequel-that-never-was has loomed large in fan dialogues over the years since — especially after that aforementioned leak, whose source didn’t do a great job of contextualizing Stu Galley’s brief demo and instead proclaimed it to be “the unreleased sequel to Hitchhiker’s,” full stop. In truth, the idea that a Restaurant game could have measurably altered Infocom’s trajectory seems doubtful at best. Despite sporting Douglas Adams’s name so prominently, Bureaucracy had sold less than 30,000 copies, only a tad better than the typical Infocom game of its period. While the Hitchhiker’s name could be expected to add appreciably to that total, the hard fact remained that it just wasn’t 1984 anymore. A Restaurant at the End of the Universe that sold 100,000, even a miraculous 200,000 copies would have done little to cure the underlying diseases ailing Infocom. To survive, Infocom needed to improve the sales of all of their games dramatically.

Looked at soberly, it was obvious even at the time that a far more sustainable cure than any one-off hit game must be a new game engine that would finally give the market what it had seemingly been demanding for quite some time now: Infocom games with real graphics, real pictures. The big DEC machine on which Infocom continued to develop their games, so much the source of their strength during the early years, had long since become their albatross in this area. With Beyond Zork, their so-called “illuminated text adventure,” they had pushed its limited display capabilities as far as they could possibly go — and that still wasn’t anywhere near far enough.

Accordingly, on May 4, 1987, Infocom went through a significant restructuring. The old Micro Group, responsible for deploying the games onto the many microcomputers Infocom supported, was merged with the Systems Group, previously responsible for maintaining the DEC and its ZIL compiler, along with all of the other development tools the DEC hosted. The newly combined entity would write entirely new versions of ZIL and the Z-Machine from scratch, inspired by the architectures of the old systems but not necessarily beholden to them. The new ZIL compiler would for the first time itself run on microcomputers, on a set of shiny new top-of-the-line Apple Macintosh IIs that had just been delivered, while the new version 6 Z-Machine would at last support proper graphics, at the cost of running on just a small subset of the huge variety of machines Infocom had once supported: the Apple Macintosh, the Apple II, the Commodore Amiga, and MS-DOS became the only survivors from a group that had once numbered almost 25. Ah, well… the list of viable consumer-computing platforms had been whittled down almost as markedly as the list of producers of textual interactive fiction in recent years.

I’ll pick up the thread of the first (and last) graphical Z-Machine’s development in somewhat more detail in my next article. For now, though, I’ll just note that adapting Infocom’s core competencies to new technology and to the addition of graphics proved, as one might expect, a challenging undertaking. The gap between the release of the last text-only game in January of 1988 and the first illustrated game in October was a long, tense one, during which the old catalog titles continued to sell worse than ever without even the modest kick of excitement provided by new releases. Even after October, the first of the new illustrated games was for months available for the Macintosh only, not a big gaming machine.

It was during 1988 that Infocom first began to take on the stink of not just a troubled business but a dying one. For the first time, many who worked there began to judge the pain of these trying times to outweigh the legendary fun and camaraderie that always marked life inside the company. And many also seemed caught out by the natural cycles of life. Old timers still refer to this period as Infocom’s “baby boom.” It seemed just about every one of these heretofore happy-go-lucky singles was suddenly getting married and/or starting families. Those life changes made spending uncounted evenings and weekends working and playing with their Infocom family less appealing, and made the stability of a good job working for a bigger company with a more certain future that much more appealing. Even if the new games succeeded, the heyday of the old Infocom, once characterized by my fellow historian Graham Nelson as “a happy, one-time thing, like a summer romance,” seemed to be inexorably coming to an end.

In short, then, people started to leave. Some were the rank-and-file, the behind-the-scenes secretaries and accountants and middle managers whose names you don’t often hear in histories like this one, but who fill out softball teams, gossip around water coolers, and are as essential as anyone else to running a business. Others, however, were bigger names. Some were disturbingly big names.

The first of the Imps to go was Jeff O’Neill, very early in the new year. His departure was followed by Amy Briggs’s announcement that she would be leaving in June. And that news was in turn followed by the departure of one of the really big dogs: none other than Brian Moriarty, tempted away by an offer to design point-and-click graphical adventures for Lucasfilm Games.

As they jumped off the sinking ship, the departing tried their best to put a brave face on things for those they left behind. “I am still excited by the computer-entertainment industry,” wrote Amy Briggs in her farewell memo, “and I honestly think that Infocom has a good chance to be at the top of the heap, as long as you don’t give up long-term quality and innovation for short-term bucks.” Gayle Syska, a long-time product manager, wrote upon her departure that “I truly believe that Infocom has the potential to do very well this year and into the future. I’m probably leaving Infocom just before the big pay-off comes for all of our hard work. I think interactive fiction is still alive and is soon to be doing well again. Infocom interactive fiction will experience a resurgence just like videogames.” Such encouragements read as forced now as they must have back in 1988. If the future is so rosy, why are you leaving?

In the aftermath of Bruce Davis’s June 13 indemnification bombshell, the stream of departures threatened to turn into a flood. Two of the losses that immediately followed that event were perhaps the most irrevocable of all. One was that of Jon Palace, the quiet advocate for quality and professionalism who had made every single one of Infocom’s games better than it needed to be since his arrival more than four years before: convincing this Imp to try to make his prose just a little more evocative, convincing packaging to find a way to include that expensive but essential feelie. Palace’s steadying influence would be sorely missed in the Infocom games still to come. With his departure, the highly systemized Infocom process of making quality adventure games, something I’ve made much of on this blog for (I believe) very justifiable reasons, finally began to break down under the sheer pressure of external events. Each of their final few games has moments that leave one thinking, “Gee, if only Jon Palace had still been there this part might have been a little bit better…”

The other incalculable loss was that of President Joel Berez, who had led Infocom to their initial glory, dutifully stepped back to make way for Al Vezza and the misguided dream of Cornerstone, then returned to leading Infocom as a whole following the Activision acquisition. Through good times and bad, Berez had walked a fine diplomatic line, doing his best to negotiate for the resources his Imps needed without embarrassing or unduly agitating those above him in the hierarchy. Recently he had been working hard to put down rumors of a “rift” between Activision and Infocom that were for the first time starting to bubble into the trade press; as usual, Berez considered his words carefully and said all the diplomatically correct things. In the aftermath of the indemnification action, however, he felt he just couldn’t continue. After all, Berez was himself one of the former shareholders from whom Davis was demanding repayment. How could he launch a lawsuit against the guy to defend his reputation and continue at the same time to report to him, continue to interact with him on an almost daily basis and work with him to try to rebuild a reeling Infocom? He decided he couldn’t, and quit.

To replace Berez, Davis brought in his own man, newly poached from Electronic Arts: Joe Ybarra. Whatever else you could say about him, Ybarra wasn’t the soulless business lawyer that so many at Infocom would accuse Davis himself of being. As one of Electronic Arts’s first game producers, Ybarra had helped to invent on the fly the critical role that such folks play in game-making to this day. He loved games, and had a rich resume of classic titles to his credit — titles which he had not just managed but nurtured, advocated for, and contributed to creatively. Among them were such landmark designs as M.U.L.E., Seven Cities of GoldThe Bard’s Tale, Starflight, and most recently Wasteland. One thing Ybarra had yet to do in his career, however, was show any particular interest in or affinity for text adventures, making him on the surface at least an odd choice for this new role. The tightly knit group remaining at Infocom had never known life without Berez, and weren’t exactly open-minded about this new arrival from the hated corporate mothership. Ybarra was immediately pigeonholed as the company man sent by Davis to whip them into shape. It was an extremely uncomfortable situation for everyone.

But Infocom wasn’t the only part of Bruce Davis’s empire undergoing wrenching, vertigo-inducing change that year. Indeed, the hiring away of Ybarra from Electronic Arts was itself part and parcel of Davis’s increasingly aggressive approach to running Activision — a company which, just to add to the confusion, wasn’t actually called Activision anymore.

During the first eighteen months following the ouster of his predecessor Jim Levy, Davis had accomplished all he had promised Activision’s board back in January of 1987 and then some, returning an operation that had been losing money for years under Levy to solid profitability. He’d done so by re-focusing on safe, commercially proven game genres, avoiding the long shots and artistic flights of fancy that had characterized so many of Activision’s games under Levy. And, even more importantly, he’d done it by building a large stable of smaller “affiliated publishers” who paid for access to Activision’s extensive distribution network. Only Infocom, still losing hundreds of thousands almost every quarter, remained the stubborn outlier in Davis’s turnaround story. Now he felt emboldened to really put his stamp on Activision.

During that busy June of 1988, Davis announced to an incredulous world and an equally incredulous Infocom that Activision would henceforth be known as “Mediagenic.” The new name, he said, would be “more reflective of the total corporate personality”; the old “still causes potential investors to think of cartridge games.” The decision to abandon a storied name like Activision’s should never be taken lightly. Yet the decision to make this name change at this point in time is particularly inexplicable. Davis was choosing to actively dissociate his company with their heritage in cartridge games just as cartridge games were becoming red-hot again, thanks to the rise of Nintendo. And then the new name was just so patently terrible, sounding like something some marketer’s computer had spit out when asked to produce variations on the theme of “Activision.” Plenty would argue that it was indeed reflective of the new company’s emerging “total corporate personality” under Davis — more’s the pity. Jokes about the new name could be heard at every trade show and conference: “Mediagenic is a bio-engineering firm producing mutant couch potatoes”; “a mediagenic is a disease that infects television sets.” Within bare weeks, Davis was already backpedaling — one imagines one can almost hear him sobbing “What have I done?” between the lines of the press releases — saying that the cartridge-based titles that Mediagenic was now frantically trying to develop for the Nintendo would retain the old Activision name. Mediagenic would be the General Motors of videogames, dividing their product line into “brands” like Activision, Gamestar, Infocom, and a new productivity line with the even worse name of “TENpointO.” (“They must have gone through that many versions of a real name, then gave up,” went the joke.)

For Infocom, it marked one more step in a creeping transformation that had already been underway for quite some months. From a semi-independent development studio, they were being inexorably converted into a mere brand for any narrative-oriented games Mediagenic chose to publish, many of which might not involve the folks in Infocom’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, ostensible headquarters at all.

The first “Infocom” game that wasn’t quite an Infocom game had been something called Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth, a Macintosh CRPG originally self-published by a pair of programmers named Scott Schmitz and Ken Updike in 1987. After Activision (as they still were known at the time) picked up the rights to the game, they gave it to Infocom, their “Master Storytellers,” where it fit in relatively well with the new Macintosh-centric development direction. By all indications, the Infocom staffers found Quarterstaff genuinely intriguing, devoting quite some months to overhauling a somewhat rough-around-the-edges game filled with programmer text, programmer art, and an awkward programmer interface. Amy Briggs rewrote almost every word of the text in her own light-hearted style, and the testing department attacked the game with the same enthusiasm they showed toward any other. Released only for the Macintosh, the game’s sales were fairly minuscule, but Quarterstaff is certainly the outside creation of this period that feels most like the real Infocom put some real heart into it.

Far less well-liked — in fact, deeply, passionately loathed — were the so-called “Infocomics.” Back in 1986, Tom Snyder Productions, a name with a rich legacy in software for education and edutainment, had signed a contract with Jim Levy’s Activision to make a series of computerized comic books similar in conception to Accolade’s Comics, each selling for $12 or less. On the face of it, it wasn’t really a bad idea at all. While Accolade’s take on the idea proved charming enough to make my personal gaming Hall of Fame, however, things stubbornly refused to come together for the Tom Snyder versions: they were too slow, the graphics were too ugly, the player’s options for controlling the story too trivial, the whole experience too awkward. And, although development stretched on and on, they just never seemed to get much better. When Bruce Davis decided to dump responsibility for the creative side of the whole troubled project on Infocom, the Imps took it as a personal affront. Gritting their teeth all the while, Steve Meretzky and Amy Briggs cranked out the storyline and dialog for one Infocomic each, and another staffer named Elizabeth Langosy did two more.

It seems safe to say that nothing Bruce Davis imposed upon Infocom outside of the indemnification action enraged his subsidiary quite as much as Infocomics. Having always taken quality so seriously, to be associated with something so plainly substandard, so cheap in all definitions of the word, was anathema to Infocom. Upon the Infocomics’ release, their displeasure leaked out into the public sphere; Computer Gaming World came directly to Davis to demand he address “rumors” that “the Infocom division had become a dumping ground for unwanted Activision product.” “Nothing was shunted off on anybody,” Davis insisted. “Infocom is an A+ line, not a B line!” As far as the people inside Infocom were concerned, he wasn’t fooling anyone.

The final Infocom-game-in-name-only of this period, a licensed CRPG called BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, is a militaristic game about giant fighting robots whose aesthetics feel a million miles away from Infocom’s classic textual interactive fiction. But this time the real Infocom wasn’t asked to do much of anything with it other than plug it in their newsletter, and by the time of its release in November of 1988 everyone was feeling too demoralized to muster much further outrage anyway.

As their situation grew to feel more and more hopeless, open defiance at Infocom turned increasingly into passive aggression and gallows humor. One anonymous employee created a theme song for the age, sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Allentown.”

Well, we’re working here at Infocom,
And they’re shutting the DEC 20s down,
Out in Menlo Park they write a report,
Fill out a form, see you in court.
Well, our founders didn’t see it at all,
Had an office down at Faneuil Hall,
Thought they’d get rich selling Cornerstone,
Ed Reuteman, Tommy Smaldone.
And we’re living here at Infocom,
But our recent games were all a bomb,
And it’s getting very hard to pay.

And we’re waiting here at Infocom,
For the public offering we never found,
For the promises Al Vezza made,
If we worked hard, if we behaved.
So the Golden Floppies hang on the wall,
But they never really helped us at all.
No, they never taught us what was neat,
Graphics and sound, sizzling heat.
And we’re waiting here at Infocom,
For the latest Apple download from Tom,
And they’re supposed to ship today.

Every tester had a pretty good shot,
To become an Imp and earn a lot,
But that was all before those Mountain View crooks,
Started writing off good will on our books.
Well, I’m living here at Infocom,
Even the rotisserie standings are glum,
So I won’t be logging in today,
And it’s getting very hard to pay.
And we’re living here at Infocom.

But perhaps the bitterest single expression of the anger and pain being felt inside Infocom was the “Bruce Youth Informant’s Report” that was briefly circulated. A response to the constant corporate-speak hectorings to just be positive and productive that were always coming down from Mediagenic in California and now from Joe Ybarra right inside Infocom’s own walls, the memo went full Godwin on their not-so-respected supreme leader.

Of course, we can’t depend on the honor system alone to pry some from their negative niches. So during this week, accompanying our “No Negs” week, we will also have a little self-help program for those of us who can’t stop the black humor. The program, known as “Bruce Youth,” is modeled after the highly successful Hitler Youth program in Germany several years ago. Although we won’t have executions or imprisonments for offenders, you will be able to turn in fellow employees who utter negative comments. Just fill out the form below.

Bruce Youth

At year’s end, Fred, Infocom’s faithful old DECsystem 20, was shut down for the last time and decommissioned. Relieved of its duties of hosting the ZIL compiler and serving as the hub of Infocom’s game-development efforts already months before, the old machine had soldiered on as host to Infocom’s internal email system and other such workaday applications. Now, however, it was to be replaced entirely by a shiny new Sun server. A piece of exotic high technology when it had arrived at Infocom six years before, described in reverent tones in countless fawning magazine articles during the glory years that followed, the DEC was now just an obsolete dinosaur of an old computer, destined for the scrapheap. As they watched the workers haul its bits and pieces outside and throw them roughly into the back of a truck, it must have been hard for Dave Lebling and Steve Meretzky, the last remnants of the once-thriving team of Imps who had created so many great games on the DEC, not to draw comparisons to their own work in interactive fiction. Once heralded in the New York Times and the Boston Globe as the dawning of a major new literary form, now nobody much seemed to care about Infocom or their games at all. It seemed that they too were obsolete, destined for the scrapheap of history.

It was, then, in this ever more despairing and poisonous atmosphere that Infocom’s last few adventure games were developed and released. To imagine that the circumstances of their creation could somehow not affect them would be very naive. And indeed, all are badly flawed works in their own ways, falling far short of the standards of earlier years. For that reason, I don’t expect my articles about these final games to be among the most pleasant I’ve ever written; this article certainly hasn’t been. But I’ve come this far, and I owe it to you and to this bigger history we’re in the midst of to complete Infocom’s story in the same detail with which I began it. So, next time we’ll turn our attention to the first of those final works, and see what we can see there.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Much of is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Magazine sources include Computer Gaming World of April 1988, July 1988, November 1988, and November 1991; Questbusters of September 1988 and February 1989; InfoWorld of November 28 1988; Amazing Computing of August 1988 and October 1988. Also Down From the Top of Its Game, a business study of Infocom. And, last but certainly not least, my thanks go to Mike Dornbrook and my fellow historian Alex Smith for their correspondence.)


  1. Note that “lawsuit” probably isn’t quite the correct terminology. Activision’s demand for recompense wasn’t technically a lawsuit; it would actually be the former shareholders who would first sue Activision for allegedly making a false indemnification claim. Still, I trust that the gist of Dornbrook’s sentiment is clear and accurate enough. 

  2. Ironically, an unexpectedly popular Infocom shovelware package called The Lost Treasures of Infocom is widely credited with turning around the financial fortunes of the new Kotick-led Activision, while the first big new hit of same was something called Return to Zork. Kotick would thus still be trying to extract money from the old Infocom shareholders for allegedly overvaluing their company even as the fruits of the Infocom acquisition were saving his own. 

 
 

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34 Responses to The Bruce Youth

  1. Jim Leonard

    April 22, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Wonderful coverage as always, but I have to call unnecessary roughness on the Infocomics assessment. The 2-D graphics, of which there were many, were manipulated in full 3-D during intros and transitions (courtesy of David Kaemmer, who would later produce the Papyrus indycar racing games), which was above and beyond what was required. They were less interactive, yes, but they were meant to be a comic you could read from multiple character’s viewpoints, and they achieved that exactly.

    I won’t claim that Infocomics were high art, but I feel they succeeded on the level they were going for.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 22, 2016 at 5:06 pm

      Fair enough. I would just note first of all that this article presents at least as much the view the folks at Infocom had of the Infocomics as my own point of view as a critic. Putting my critic’s hat firmly on now, I would say the biggest problem with the Infocomics is that they just look *ugly*, not colorful and fun like a proper comic book. (A comparison with Accolade’s Comics really is instructive.) I haven’t delved into their development history enough to know, but I suspect that they were developed for MS-DOS CGA first, then ported to more graphically capable platforms. Bad choice. Also note that they were still running in CGA on MS-DOS long after most games had come to support EGA — doubtless a consequence of their long, troubled development. At the time, it just made them look cheap.

       
  2. Duncan Stevens

    April 22, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    Two legal reactions.

    His response was that he didn’t care if the numbers were actually accurate and believed at that time. In retrospect, it was clear to him that Activision had overpaid and he was convinced that a jury would agree and reward him some of the money back.

    I really doubt that the contract allowed Activision to recover from Infocom if the deal looked bad “in retrospect,” and I hope Dornbrook ran straight to Infocom’s lawyers.

    In the aftermath of the indemnification action, however, he felt he just couldn’t continue. After all, Berez was himself one of the former shareholders from whom Davis was demanding repayment. How could he launch a lawsuit against the guy to defend his reputation and continue at the same time to report to him, continue to interact with him on an almost daily basis and work with him to try to rebuild a reeling Infocom?

    Berez wasn’t, to my understanding, “launching a lawsuit” against Davis or Activision; he was defending one (or, more specifically, a third-party indemnity claim). So I would tweak it to “engage in active litigation against Davis to defend his reputation and continue at the same time…”

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 22, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      On your first point, we should remember that we’re getting one side of the story here. I hesitate to present that side as absolute fact, although I trust Dornbrook that’s he’s recalling as honestly as he can.

      On your second:

      The question, which maybe you can answer (or maybe you just have), is whether an indemnification claim is in fact a lawsuit. I’ve heard two versions of the story, one that Berez and company were defending a lawsuit, the other that the indemnification claim was an action with legal force but not a lawsuit — i.e., presumably if it wasn’t paid it could *lead to* a lawsuit. The stockholders then launched a lawsuit of their own to say they wouldn’t pay it (and quite possibly asking for recompense of their own for the damage done to their reputation). I know that without any documentation other than memories and one or two writeups by contemporary gaming journalists — not exactly a group known for their professionalism or scrupulous accuracy — it’s hard to say anything for sure, but any light you can shed would be appreciated as always.

       
      • Duncan Stevens

        April 22, 2016 at 5:38 pm

        There are a lot of options here, and the legal documents don’t seem to be publicly available. (I wouldn’t rely on descriptions of litigation in the mainstream press, let alone in gaming publications. Even the mainstream press gets a lot of this stuff wrong.)

        Activision’s shareholders sued Activision’s management; that much seems clear. The theory of the suit could have been that Activision inflated the value of the stock by making misrepresentations about the business, which would violate federal securities laws. Or it could have been that Activision’s management violated their duties to Activision itself by mismanaging the company, which might give rise to fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and other claims. (This is ordinarily known as a derivative suit.)

        A defendant in a lawsuit has the option of bringing in a third-party defendant on a variety of theories, among them indemnification, meaning “you promised that, if I was forced to pay party X under circumstances Y, you’d foot the bill.” It’s possible that there was an actual indemnity clause in the Infocom purchase agreement, though I doubt it stretched this far, there are third-party claims other than indemnity that I won’t go into here. A third-party claim is in fact a lawsuit, though it’s ancillary to a separate lawsuit, and it doesn’t have force independent of the main suit; if the Activision shareholders suddenly decided to drop their suit against Activision’s management, there would be nothing for Infocom’s various shareholders to indemnify Activision’s management for.

        It’s possible that Infocom’s management filed their own lawsuit against Davis et al., asserting that they had no indemnification responsibility. That would usually be done as an action for declaratory judgment, and most often a likely defendant will do it preemptively (i.e., before it gets sued) in order to pick a forum (say, Massachusetts state court, with juries likely to be sympathetic to the local business, rather than California state or federal court). But your description makes it sound like the third-party claim from Activision’s management came as a surprise to Infocom; Infocom’s lawyers didn’t see it coming and make a preemptive strike. More to the point, this sort of choose-the-forum tactic wouldn’t work for a third-party claim anyway, since the third-party claim is inextricably attached to a larger suit (the Activision shareholder suit) that already exists; there’s no point in jockeying over where to litigate an offshoot of it. It has to be part of the same action. So I doubt this is what happened.

        But it’s possible that Infocom’s shareholders had some independent claim against Davis et al. Maybe they were themselves Activision shareholders for some reason (perhaps some of the 1986 buyout compensation was in the form of stock options), and were either indirectly or directly involved in the shareholder litigation. Or maybe they had some contract claim against Davis for his hamhanded handling of Infocom, though I doubt it–a purchaser wouldn’t typically assume any obligations to the shareholders or employees of the purchased company. If they did have such a claim, it probably wouldn’t have been brought as part of the larger Activision dispute; it probably would have been an independent suit. So I can’t say it’s definitely wrong. It just seems very unlikely.

         
        • Duncan Stevens

          April 22, 2016 at 5:55 pm

          I guess I should say: there is such a thing as a freestanding indemnity claim. Usually, this would be filed when you’ve already had to pay the money you think someone else (the indemnitor) should be paying for you, and you’re trying to force the indemnitor to pay up. If you *haven’t* had to pay the money already, there’s not generally a basis for an independent suit; the third-party claim says, in effect, “if I have to pay, you should pay for me.” Can’t swear that it’s never happened, but it would be unusual.

          (Also, I suspect that what the shareholders got was a lawsuit, not just a demand, if the timing was so crucial. There could have been a two-year window under the purchase agreement under which indemnity demands had to be delivered in that time, but Activision’s lawyers probably wouldn’t have limited themselves that way, and I can’t see Infocom’s lawyers insisting. Among other things, that would have been something of a red flag. The two-year deadline probably arose from a state statute of limitations, and sending a demand letter does not extend a statute of limitations.)

           
        • Jimmy Maher

          April 22, 2016 at 5:55 pm

          Okay. Trying to unpack this a little bit…

          Why is it “clear” that *Activision’s* shareholders sued Activision’s management? Do you know something I don’t, or is there a misunderstanding here somewhere?

          And a couple of things:

          I feel pretty confident that the initial action was indeed an indemnification claim. This is what Dornbrook told me, and what the most thorough published account I’ve found of the episode, in the November 1991 Computer Gaming World, claims. (That account was by Johnny Wilson, who’s about as respectable as gaming journalists come.) My understanding was that an indemnification agreement was fairly standard boilerplate when one company acquires another in this way.

          Activision definitely paid Infocom’s shareholders in stock rather than cash at the acquisition. Whether and which ones still owned said stock two years later I don’t know.

           
          • Duncan Stevens

            April 22, 2016 at 6:41 pm

            Why is it “clear” that *Activision’s* shareholders sued Activision’s management?

            I’m assuming this is so if Activision was seeking an indemnity from Infocom’s shareholders in the amount of Activision’s purchase of the Infocom stock (as your description above seems to suggest). An indemnity for what? Most likely, damage sustained to Activision as a result of misrepresentations in the runup to the purchase–i.e., misrepresentations that caused Activision to make a purchase it would not otherwise have made. I think Activision was more likely to be seeking recovery on this theory if its shareholders were already suing Activision. Among other things, it *invites* such a shareholder suit by suggesting that management didn’t do a good job in vetting Infocom.

            (I pulled that CGW article. Here’s what it says:

            Yet harmless jokes about Levy turned to
            cynical anger at Levy’s successor, Bruce
            Davis. Insiders claim Activision’s new CEO
            had been against the Infocom buy-out from
            the start and that he immediately raised the
            ante on some anticipated losses that were
            to have been indemnified by Infocom
            shareholders from $300,000 to $900,000
            with no accounting. The shareholders filed
            a preemptive suit and managed to stave off
            the “required” payment.

            …which, to my mind, confuses things even more. So if you’d prefer to just stick with what you have, I won’t blame you.)

             
          • Jimmy Maher

            April 22, 2016 at 7:10 pm

            Yes, okay. I think I will this leave alone as the best compromise I can manage between the various accounts. I tried to find some documentation on the case from third-party sources, but, as you say, nothing seems to be publicly available. At any rate, I feel confident in the broad strokes: Bruce Davis initiated actions to try to get some of Activision’s money back, the shareholders viewed it as horribly unfair, and the whole episode contributed materially to the collapse of Infocom. Thanks so much for your feedback! If I find anything more definite, I’ll run it by you.

             
  3. Lisa H.

    April 22, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    One anonymous employee created a theme song for the age, a variation on Billy Joel’s “Allentown.”

    I’d call this a filk, myself.

    But out recent games were all a bomb

    Our.

    Even the rotisserie standings are glum

    “Rotisserie”? What’s this person referring to? (Presumably not actual roasted meat?)

    That informant’s report is hilarious. Perhaps a bit ironically in the circumstances, it has the feel of a feelie (IMO).

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 22, 2016 at 7:17 pm

      Thanks!

      I actually had no idea what a “filk” was. Having looked it up… mm, seems a little too fannish for my tastes. I did change the wording of the original, though, which I agree didn’t quite sit right.

      “Rotisserie” refers to Infocom’s Rotisserie baseball league: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy_baseball.

      The Bruce Youth report does feel quite… Meretzky, doesn’t it?

       
      • Lisa H.

        April 23, 2016 at 4:04 am

        IMO Infocom as a topic is in the corral of “fannish” in the sense of being scifi-nerdy (one could certainly write a filk in the key of Infocom), but perhaps it’s splitting hairs.

         
  4. Nate

    April 22, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    Nice work as always.

    “But out recent games” -> “But our”

     
  5. Michael Russo

    April 22, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    Please be kind to Zork Zero. I know it can seem a bit of a mess at times, but it’s a big, sprawling, entertaining mess of a classic puzzler, and when you get to the end you really do get the relieved feeling (like Arthur gets at the end of “Mostly Harmless”) that is all finally over.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 22, 2016 at 7:24 pm

      I can agree with the last part of this. ;)

       
      • Michael Russo

        April 22, 2016 at 7:43 pm

        lol well you also have to agree that the thing is big and sprawling since the V6 Z-machine supports so many more locations and objects and much more room for text (if only they’d been able to give Lurking Horror more room for the text that DL had to cut out)… we wouldn’t see that kind of size to a text adventure again until Curses really. the “entertaining” part i’ll admit is subjective but there are others like me out there who enjoyed it. we also knew it was (or was going to be) the end.

         
  6. Keith Palmer

    April 22, 2016 at 10:16 pm

    I had to go back to “Down From the Top of Its Game” to confirm that it hadn’t mentioned the former Infocom shareholders being sent legal documents demanding money back; it would have added that much more punch to interpretations of Bruce Davis as the unrelieved villain of the sad end of the story. Now, I’m just looking at some of Graham Nelson’s briefer comments in “The Inform Designer’s Manual” and considering them as allusions to the dealings.

    Having read the documents from “The Infocom Cabinet,” though, I was aware of Infocom moving to Macintosh IIs for its development system, and I can admit to being intrigued and even amused by that, although it does get me thinking of “the happiest/most outwardly successful/most self-satisfied” (depending on your point of view) era of “the Scully years” at Apple. I also took note of a page in the “1988 memos” where someone tries to put the best spin possible on the Infocomics; on the other hand, the memo is another farewell letter… (I do remember seeing an ad for the Infocomics in a “physical” comic book I was reading at the time, and maybe my anime fandom makes me think of “visual novels” and wonder if there might have been a “starting point” for something bigger if not for the lowest-common-denominator graphics…) I’m also wondering how the “Infocom novels” fit into these final days.

    While I understand your touching lightly on “Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception” and moving on, I have to admit that while “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” was the sole Infocom adventure I actually played when the company was still in business, I did have a chance to play that CRPG not that many years after it came out, at a sort of “computer games centre” in my home town. However, I might have been set up for that by having watched “Robotech” a few years before, then noticed Battletech RPG modules in hobby shops to wonder just who was ripping off who… (Years later, I would sort out at last things were a bit more complicated than that.) For some reason, I’m amused a marketing point was made of the computer game’s little thumbnails of “character art” being “in the Japanese style,” as I’ve seen comments from the original RPG designer that he had been struck by the general idea of “giant piloted robots” and the designs of “mecha anime,” but hadn’t cared for all the other foreign baggage attached.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 22, 2016 at 10:29 pm

      For what it’s worth, the CRPG Addict played Battletech and wasn’t impressed: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.dk/2012/03/battletech-final-rating.html. It seems typical of the quickie licensed fodder Activision/Mediagenic was churning out a lot of during the Bruce Davis era.

      I do have an article on the Mac in the later 1980s on my calendar, by the way.

       
      • Captain Rufus

        April 23, 2016 at 10:39 pm

        I’m a big Battletech fan. Even in its day it was a bit of a disappointment as so many early Westwood games were. The first hour or two of gameplay was fantastic. The next 10+ hours were mostly cut and paste padding with one of the worst end game sequences to any RPG ever. Colored door puzzles. Depending on if you had a map or not it was like 1-5 hours of colored door puzzles. I know when I think giant robots I think colored door keys.

         
  7. Alex Smith

    April 22, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    One minor correction: Joe Ybarra was not the very first EA producer; he was preceded by Dave Evans and Pat Mariott, who had both worked as project managers under Trip at Apple (Joe had also been at Apple too, but did not actually know Trip). Joe’s last job at EA was as the head of the “Interactive Stories” division, which is probably why he was hired to lead Infocom (that, and Activision harbored a fair number of ex-EA people by that point).

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 23, 2016 at 8:49 am

      Thanks! Minor edit made.

       
  8. Bernie

    April 23, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    Jimmy :

    Congratulations on a very detailed yet delightfully readable piece that manages to both entertain and educate at the same time !

    The bits about Infocom’s disappointing sales for their last batch of titles in 1987-1988, the mention of similar woes at Magnetic Scrolls and the bit in sidenote number 2. about Return to Zork, made me wonder if Activision’s management might not after all had been given Infocom good advice regarding the market’s future, but marred by bad policies and strategies.

    I tried to find some information about sales of graphics-oriented adventure games released within this time frame (’87-’88) which could have been comparable to Infocom’s titles (i.e. not by Sierra). Maybe Lucasfilm’s Maniac Mansion, ICOM’s Shadowgate and Deja Vú II, Interplay’s Tass Times, etc… Even though these early graphics-centric offerings hadn’t yet reached Infocom levels of complexity or playability, I suspect they proved “good enough” to pull Interactive Fiction’s intended demographic.

    I wonder if you could perhaps offer your perspective regarding this Infocom-vs-best-graphic-oriented-efforts comparison.

    P.S. – Return To Zork (1993) , a purely “multimedia” offering, reportedly moved over 1 million units. Imagine if the original Infocom had embraced a visual design philosophy back in 1987.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 24, 2016 at 8:07 am

      While concrete sales numbers are hard to come by, all of the graphical lines you mention with the possible exception of Tass Times were definitely outselling Infocom’s text adventures healthily by 1987. I’m not sure Activision’s management was telling Infocom anything they didn’t already know. As far back as 1983, the year of “We put our graphics where the sun don’t shine,” Infocom had been mulling various schemes for inserting graphics into their games in one form of another. The problem was that Cornerstone sucked up all the resources that might have gone toward such a project, and after Cornerstone flopped, with sales of their text adventures also slowing, there simply was no money for it. Under Bruce Davis, Activision talked a good game about wanting Infocom to add graphics, but, again, didn’t give them any money to execute with. The final batch of illustrated games was created on a shoestring.

       
      • Bernie

        April 26, 2016 at 12:11 am

        Thnaks a big lot for the clarification Jimmy !

        I seem to have been under the impression they were STILL stubborn about adding graphics in 1987. But I failed to look at the budget situation (Cornerstone, and then Davis wanting “something for nothing”).

        I’ve always wondered how great the original Infocom’s (had they stayed together) “MYST-killer” might have been. I don’t mean to discredit Cyan, but I’ve always considered Zork’s content far superior to Myst’s in terms of creativity. And let’s better not mention 7th Guest !

         
  9. Bernie

    April 23, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    …” had been GIVING Infocom good advice” …..

    Sorry for the typo !

     
  10. Alexander Freeman

    April 26, 2016 at 3:42 am

    As I see it, this is what Activision and Infocom should have done:
    After getting rid of Al Vezza and the whole Cornerstone thing, Infocom should have made a determined effort to fight the notion that it was antiquated. It should have started soon afterward making a 16-bit version of ZIL only for 16-bit computers such as the Mac, Amiga, Atari ST, Apple IIGS, and IBM-PC compatibles. The Apple II and Commodore 64 would have been out.

    Freed from the constraints of 8-bit computers, the new ZIL would have enabled bigger games with a new interface that could include pictures, including, most importantly, perhaps, an auto-map. There could have been a window for the room description and another for the inventory. Pictures would have a black-and-white version to show on CGA, Hercules, and the Mac.

    The release for The Lurking Horror and Plundered Hearts should have been delayed for a year so that they could take full advantage of the new language as they got rolled out for 1988.

    They also should have decommissioned the DEC in 1986 or even 1985 and switched over to using Amigas (or perhaps IBM PC compatibles as those were the ones that ended up winning in the marketplace) for development.

    Activision should have given the funding to make all this possible but also told Infocom to forget about finding a silver bullet and instead focus on doing what it did best– being innovative. It also should have finally encouraged the imps to branch out in terms of game design and try making games that weren’t text adventures so they’d be prepared the eventual commercial demise of text adventures.

     
  11. Alexander Freeman

    April 26, 2016 at 3:43 am

    “With this evidence to hand that Douglas Adams continued to be Douglas Adams, enthusiastic about proposing projects but completely disinterested in actually working on them…”

    I think you mean “uninterested” as “disinterested” means “impartial” or “unbiased”.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 26, 2016 at 5:20 am

      Thanks, but it can mean both in modern usage.

      “Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean ‘not interested, indifferent’; uninterested in its earliest use meant ‘impartial.’ By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense ‘not interested, indifferent.’ It is occasionally used to mean ‘not having a personal or property interest.’

      Many object to the use of disinterested to mean ‘not interested, indifferent.’ They insist that disinterested can mean only ‘impartial’: A disinterested observer is the best judge of behavior. However, both senses are well established in all varieties of English, and the sense intended is almost always clear from the context. “

       
      • Alexander Freeman

        April 27, 2016 at 3:48 am

        It seems you’re quoting Dictionary.com. Ah, well, I guess that’s another thing which I learned in English class but which turned out to be not entirely accurate. As a side note, why do comments on this blog now require approval first?

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          April 27, 2016 at 5:19 am

          Comments only require approval if it’s the first time you’ve entered a particular email address or there are two or more links in your comment.

           
  12. DZ-Jay

    April 19, 2017 at 11:17 am

    >> “Gee, if only Jon Palace had still been there this part might have been been a little bit better…”

    There is a redundant “been” in there which is redundant. :)

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2017 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks!

       

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