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Moving to California

29 Jul

The work week of May 1, 1989, started off much like any other inside the beleaguered latter-day Infocom. In the cavernous 18,000 square feet of their office space at 125 CambridgePark Drive — its sheer size was an ever-present reminder of more optimistic times, when Infocom had thought themselves poised to become the next Lotus — the shrunken staff of just 26 souls puttered through another Monday, pausing now and again to chat about the weekend just passed. The old days when CambridgePark would buzz during off-hours with parties and socializing and passionate programmers and testers burning the midnight oil were now a memory of the past. Changing life circumstances — the majority of the remaining staff were now married, many with small children — had done as much as the generalized malaise now afflicting the place to put an end to all that. CambridgePark now felt much like any other office, albeit a peculiarly empty one, and one over which hung an almost palpable sense of impending doom. Still, when the axe finally fell it came as a shock. It always does.

A memo went out early that week asking everyone to attend a meeting on Thursday, May 4, “to discuss the next generation of internal products.” More ominously, the memo said that the 3:00 P.M. meeting would “go as late as necessary.” And evidently management expected that to mean quite late, for they would be “ordering out for dinner.”

The axe fell over the course of that long afternoon and evening. Infocom would be “moving” to California, where it was to be reconstituted and re-imagined as a more closely coupled subsidiary of Mediagenic,1 under a “general manager” named Rob Sears. Just 11 of the 26 current employees were offered positions at this new version of Infocom. Exactly whose name was and wasn’t on that list of job offers is neither necessary nor appropriate to discuss here. Suffice to say that those Mediagenic decided were desirable to retain often weren’t the pivotal creative voices you might expect, and that only 5 of the 11 accepted the offer anyway. Only one long-serving employee from Infocom’s glory days would end up making the move: Duncan Blanchard, a longstanding interpreter programmer and the last leader of the old Micro Group before it was assimilated into the Systems Group in 1987. For the other old-timers, it was all over. Another six weeks or so to finish a few final projects and tidy up the place, and that would be that.

Bob Bates, working on his licensed Abyss game from suburban Maryland, had planned to fly up to Cambridge for one of his regular design meetings on Monday, May 8. But Infocom’s new Mediagenic-installed head Joe Ybarra called him early in the week of May 1, saying he really needed him to come up this same week if at all possible. When Bates arrived on Friday, May 5, to a curiously subdued CambridgePark, he was ushered immediately into Ybarra’s office. Infocom was moving to California without most of its current employees, Ybarra informed him, and his Abyss project was being cancelled. Nor would Infocom be requiring Bates’s services again; his development contract was officially terminated as of today. When a shell-shocked Bates returned home on the red eye that same rainy night, he found that his roof was leaking buckets. It had turned into that sort of week for everyone.

Steve Meretzky had been scheduled to attend the Computer Game Developers’ Conference that very weekend in Sunnyvale, California. He was still allowed to fly out on Infocom’s dime, but replaced the company’s name on his badge with “Make Me an Offer!” It was at this event that word of the fate of Infocom, which everyone knew had long been troubled but which still remained one of the most respected names in computer games, was first spread within the industry.

News of Infocom’s fate first reached the world at large via an announcement in the May 22, 1989, issue of the Boston Globe Magazine. The understated headline has become oddly iconic among fans: “Computer-Games Firm Moving to California.” A “new consumer preference for games with graphics and sound,” went the workmanlike report, was responsible for Infocom’s travails, along with Nintendo and “the aging of Infocom’s traditional audience, composed of early computer users who spent evenings and weekends hunched over a terminal drawing maps in text-only games that took 20 to 50 hours to solve.”

When word reached the trade press, Mediagenic held tightly to the story that this was simply a move, not a shutdown. Rob Sears made the counter-intuitive claim that Mediagenic was doing what they were “not so much to close Infocom down as to ensure it survives.” “The Great Underground Empire, curiously enough, has not been shut down,” insisted Joe Ybarra. “What’s happened is we’re in the process of relocating it to the West Coast.” At the same time, though, Yabarra did have to quietly admit that none of the Imps who had built the Great Underground Empire would remain a part of it. He could only offer some unconvincingly vague suggestions that some of the former Imps might “do projects” at some point as outside contractors. Certainly anyone wedded to the idea of Infocom as a maker first and foremost of text adventures was given little reason for hope.

You’ll probably see a shift in direction that’s commensurate with which way the market is headed. If you look at all the successful products, they’re graphics- and sound-intensive. Products as a whole are pushing more toward role-playing than toward our classic adventure game. I think we’ll be building more hybrids that share elements of all these different genres. In particular, one of the areas I find most exciting is getting into more interactive graphics, the idea of doing things that are object-oriented… a cross between Manhole and the HyperCard environment and our traditional object-oriented ZIL environment.

(In case Ybarra’s comments don’t make it clear, know that “object-oriented” was one of the sexiest buzzwords of the period, to be applied to anything and everything possible.)

The personnel inside CambridgePark continued to perform their duties in desultory fashion during those final weeks following the meeting that informed them of their fate. There was still plenty to do; Infocom had still not delivered finalized versions of their four most recent works of graphical interactive fiction for MS-DOS, the most important platform in the industry. Yet there was, understandably, little enthusiasm for doing it. Employees spent a lot of time picking out free games from the collection around the office, bidding on the office furniture and computers, and indulging their black humor via vehicles like a lunchtime “slideshow history of Infocom” entitled “Cornerstone through Tombstone.” And then the last day came, and the lights inside CambridgePark were extinguished forever — or at least until the next corporate tenant arrived.

By the point of that final closure, a considerable amount of back-channel sniping by the people of the former Infocom had begun toward Mediagenic. Not coincidentally, Mediagenic’s own take on recent events also became less sanguine. Sources from Infocom claimed that Mediagenic had pulled the plug just as the money spigots were about to open, just before the all-important MS-DOS versions of their graphical interactive fictions finally hit the market; as it was, these versions would all be released by Mediagenic as un-promoted afterthoughts within weeks of the closure. Mediagenic, for whom Infocom’s slow progress on their MS-DOS interpreter had been a huge frustration and a significant factor in their decision to finally wash their hands of CambridgePark altogether, replied that “the consolidation might not have become necessary if the IBM SKUs could have been released initially.” Likewise, Joe Ybarra’s characterization of the fundamental failings of Infocom’s games grew more pointed: “We cannot continue, in the marketplace, living off products that take eight hours to play well and up to 200 hours to complete.”

The view of the decision of May 4, 1989, that prevails universally today, as representative of a definitive ending rather than a move or consolidation, was already taking hold. Mediagenic stopped giving even lip service to Infocom as an ongoing operation of its own in the spring of 1990, when Rob Sears left and the remaining handful of personnel who had worked under him were either let go or absorbed into the parent company. From now on, Infocom would be a mere label under which Mediagenic would release some of their more narrative-oriented games.

In the long run, the people who had made up the old Infocom would all be just fine. After all, they were one hell of an impressive group, with credentials and talents that made them eminently employable. For those stalwarts in positions of business or creative leadership, who had been forced to bear up under the ever more crushing burden of Infocom’s troubled finances since 1985, the final, sharply definitive ending to it all felt like something of a relief as soon as the shock and pain of the initial announcement had faded.

The majority of the old Infocom staff exited the games industry at the same time that they exited Infocom, never to return. The limited or nonexistent applicability of the skills of some of Infocom’s most essential employees to the games being made by other companies — like, for instance, those of editor, producer, and all-around unsung hero Jon Palace — says much about just how unique Infocom really was. For others, though, the decision to get out of games had more to do with their fatigue with such an eternally tormented and tormenting industry than it did with job opportunities or a lack thereof inside it. Put simply, there are easier ways to make a living than by making computer games, and masterful programmers like Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling, and Stu Galley reckoned they were ready for more ordinary jobs. They and many others like them went on to live happy lives, building good, enjoyable careers that needn’t consume them. But there were also some gluttons for punishment who hadn’t yet burnt out on games. Marc Blank, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, Mike Dornbrook, and Bob Bates would all be stubborn and passionate enough to remain in the industry. We’ll thus be meeting at least some of them again in future articles.

Seen purely as a business proposition, Infocom had been a colossal, unadulterated failure. Whether as independent company or Mediagenic subsidiary, Infocom never enjoyed a single profitable year after 1983, and its final ledger shows it to be millions in the red over the course of its relatively brief lifetime. But very few of those who had worked there thought of Infocom as a failure in the aftermath of its death — not even those former employees whose jobs had entailed fretting about the endless cavalcade of quarterly and yearly losses.

For some former employees, including many who might have had little to no interest in the company’s actual products, Infocom remains forever in their memories just a really fun office to work in — indeed, the best they could ever imagine. Plenty of these people would be shocked to learn of the aura of awed respect and love that still surrounds the very name of Infocom in the minds of fans today; they never realized they were creating timeless games. Others, of course, including virtually everyone who played a major creative role in making the games, did realize, at least after the fact, that they had done something very special indeed. Some former employees accept the bad decisions and missed opportunities that so frustrate fans peaceably, as karma, fate, or just plain old learning experiences. Others, thankfully a minority, still curse the names of either or both Al Vezza and Bruce Davis, the two great villains of the story, and are intermittently tormented by thoughts of what might have been.

What might have been… it’s a fraught question, isn’t it? Yet it’s a question that we as humans, confronted with something as special and noble as Infocom that seems so self-evidently to have died too soon, can hardly resist asking. The historian in me knows to be very leery of setting off down that road. Still, just this once, coming as we are to the end of the most detailed story I’ve ever told on this blog, maybe we can indulge in a little bit of counter-factualizing.

It seems to me that the first and perhaps most important thing we need to do to come to grips with the might-have-beens that surround Infocom is to separate the company itself from the medium of the text adventure. Such a separation can be weirdly difficult to actually accomplish. Infocom didn’t create the text adventure, nor did the company’s end mark the medium’s end — far from it, as years of articles that are hopefully still to come right here on this site will underline — but the name of Infocom would always remain all but synonymous with the form. Jason Scott has told how, when he was making his Get Lamp documentary about the life and times of the text adventure, he was constantly asked by friends how his “Infocom movie” was coming. At a certain point, he just gave up on correcting them.

Given this close connection, it can be jarring to consider that few to none of the people working at Infocom, even among those who weren’t on Team Cornerstone, thought of their company as an exclusive maker of text adventures. The story of how Infocom first came to make text adventures almost accidentally — that of needing a product to bootstrap their operation, and pulling good old MIT Zork down off the shelf as the fastest way to make one — has of course been well-documented, here and in plenty of other places. But even after they had become identified as makers of the world’s most sophisticated text adventures, they were very reluctant to settle for that niche. A research project into cross-platform graphics was begun already in 1983, at the same time that they were running all those iconic “anti-graphics” advertisements; said advertisements were merely clever promotions, not the expression of an absolute corporate philosophy. In 1984, Mike Berlyn and Marc Blank poured considerable time and effort into another innovative research project that came to naught in the end, a multi-player MUD-like environment to be hosted by the online service CompuServe. The following year brought the multi-player computerized board game Fooblitzky, Infocom’s first graphical product and one of the oddest they ever released. In short, Infocom always had ambitions beyond the text adventure, but those ambitions were consistently crippled by the lack of money for game development that plagued the company beginning as early as 1983, when Cornerstone first began to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

The counter-factual scenario most likely to yield an Infocom that survives beyond the 1980s is, as fan wisdom has long attested, one in which they never start down the Cornerstone wormhole. Yet the same best-case scenario is also possessed of a trait that fans may be less eager to acknowledge: in it, the money not spent on Cornerstone isn’t spent on making ever more elaborate text adventures, but rather on embracing new genres, new paradigms of play. Infocom could quite likely have survived if they’d avoided Cornerstone and made smart business decisions, and the world of gaming would doubtless have been a better place for their tradition of literacy, thoughtfulness, and innovation. But unfortunately, those same smart business decisions would likely have to entail branching out from the text adventure early, and eventually moving on completely. Dave Lebling:

I think in terms of continuing to produce the kind of thing we had been producing — i.e., text adventures with lots of cool technology to make them more realistic, lots of plot value, etc. — we could have gone on forever. I’m less sure whether the market would have continued to buy those. We had big arguments about this even before the Mediagenic/Activision acquisition. If you’ve spent several thousand dollars for a computer with a color screen and a video card and you want to display lots of pretty pictures, are you going to settle for a text adventure?

In my opinion, that was sort of a minority taste, just like reading is somewhat of a minority taste. People would much rather look at pictures than read as a rule. There’s a subculture of people who love to read, who are passionate about reading, passionate about books, but it’s not the majority of the public. The same thing is true in computers. There are people who like pictures and action and so forth, and there are people who like reading. And again, they are a minority.

So, I don’t think Infocom could have continued to go on from strength to strength the way we seemed to have been doing initially; we would have plateaued out. I think we eventually would have had to branch out into other kinds of games ourselves. The advantage would have been that we would have decided what to do, rather than some other company.

For proof of Lebling’s assertions, we need only look to what happened in the broader computer-game industry of our own timeline during the mid- to late-1980s. In 1984, at the height of the bookware frenzy, at least a dozen publishers in the United States alone could lay claim to major initiatives in the realm of text adventures, a medium that, being in most people’s mind the ultimate anti-action game, seemed the perfect fit for post-Great Videogame Crash electronic entertainment. Every single one of those initiatives, excepting only the games Infocom released that year, disappointed to one degree or another. To imagine that a counter-factual Infocom — even one with the resources to improve their technology, to offer even bigger and better games than the ones we know, to include pictures and interface conveniences years before the Infocom of our own timeline — could have continued to buck the trend for very long seems a stretch. And indeed, many of Infocom’s financial travails, which began already in 1985 when a subtle but worrisome sales slowdown on the part of many of their games first became evident alongside the obvious disaster that was Cornerstone, had far more to do with the wider market for text adventures than it did with Cornerstone. Put another way: if their games business had continued to explode as it had in 1983 and 1984, Infocom could have weathered the storm of Cornerstone’s failure bruised but solvent. It was a perfect storm, a combination of their slackening games business and the fiasco that was Cornerstone, that cast them into Mediagenic’s arms in 1986.

So, to understand the reasons for Infocom’s collapse we need to ask why it was that the bookware boom, during which they were the shining example to be emulated by all those other publishers, so comprehensively failed to meet expectations. I think there are two reasons really, involving two D-words I tend to dwell on a lot around here: Demographics and Design.

Simply put, the games industry of the mid- to late-1980s wasn’t populated by enough readers to sustain a vibrant culture of commercial text adventures. The overwhelming computer-game demographic by 1985 was teenage boys, who have never been known as a terribly thoughtful group. The dominance enjoyed by text adventures during the earlier years of the decade owed much to the fact that computer gaming was a much more exclusive hobby during that period, practiced only by those with a restless bent of mind and the financial resources to invest thousands of dollars in an object as ultimately useless as an early microcomputer for the home. Mike Dornbrook and others involved with Infocom near the beginning have often mentioned their wonder at the sheer number of doctors and lawyers on their mailing lists. The demographics of gaming began to change with the arrival of the inexpensive Commodore 64 as a major market force in 1983. Within the next year or two, it remade the entire industry in its image — and most definitely not to the text adventure’s benefit.

At the same time that this demographic shift was underway, Infocom and the various bookware bandwagon jumpers were allowing themselves to become confused about the reasons for the text adventure’s ascendancy even among the relatively cerebral home-computer constituency of the early 1980s. Companies making text adventures in those early days can be divided into two groups: those like Sierra who were working in text because nothing else was practical at the time, and those like Infocom who saw the text adventure as a worthy new ludic and/or literary form unto itself. Sierra got away from text adventures just as soon as they could, and went on to become one of the biggest and most important game publishers of the 1990s. Infocom stuck with the form, and we know what happened to them. There is I think a lesson to be found therein. Infocom craved a sort of player who didn’t exist in the numbers they believed them to even in the early years, and who came to make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the gaming public as time went by. By 1987, some of Infocom’s experiments were aimed at a computer-game customer who was all but nonexistent: like a fan of New Yorker-style verbal wit in the case of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It, or a romance-novel fan in the case of Plundered Hearts.

A tantalizing question must be whether a healthier Infocom could have created a market for such games among non-gaming, possibly non-computer-owning lovers of books and puzzles. Clearly their games did have appeal to some well outside of the typical computer-game demographic. Infocom during their halcyon days had enjoyed glowing write-ups in such places as the Boston Globe, the New York Times Review of Books, Discovery magazine, and even Rolling Stone. Still, the fact remained that their games threw up tremendous barriers to entry, beginning with the sheer cost of the equipment needed to run them and ending with the learning curve for interacting with them. While it’s tempting to imagine a world of interactive fiction existing entirely outside the rest of the games industry with its bash-and-crash take on existence — a world where literary sophisticates pick up a copy of the latest Infocom release from a kiosk in a trendy bookstore — it’s hard to imagine even a healthy Infocom creating such a milieu from scratch. It’s also doubtful, for that matter, whether most of their precious remaining base of customers really wanted to see them moving in that direction. The Infocom games that are most notable for their literary ambition, like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, were never among their biggest sellers. A substantial percentage of their customer base, as various Imps have wryly noted over the years, would have been quite happy if Infocom had churned out nothing but endless iterations on the original Zork. It was at least as much the Imps’ own creative restlessness as it was the need to serve the market that led them to dabble in so many different literary genres.

But what of those customers who were perfectly content with new iterations of Zork? Where did they disappear to as the years went by? After all, Infocom continued to indulge them with plenty of traditional games right up until the end, and plenty of other companies were equally willing to serve them. I think that it may be when we come to the Zorkian traditionalists that we especially have to consider that other D-word.

If you ask gaming old-timers about text adventures today, most will recall them as creaky, virtually unplayable things riddled with guess-the-verb issues and incomprehensible puzzles. And here’s the thing: such conventional wisdom really isn’t wrong. When I first began to write the history that this blog has become, I hoped I would be able to unearth a lot of hidden text-adventure gems from publishers other than Infocom to share with you. I did find some games that fit that description, but I also found that even the good games from other publishers stand as deviations from the norm of terrible design, sometimes fostered by an unusually dedicated development team, sometimes by the stars just seeming to align in the right way. It seems impossible to imagine that the bad design that was so endemic to the medium throughout the 1980s didn’t play a major role in turning many players away permanently. Infocom’s games were vastly better than those of their competitors, a fact which played a huge role in fostering the company’s small but legendarily loyal group of hardcore fans. Yet even Infocom’s games were hardly guaranteed to be completely free of design issues. Indeed, as Infocom’s personnel pool shrunk and the pressure from Mediagenic to release more games more quickly increased, design issues that they once seemed to have put behind them began to creep back into their games to a rather disconcerting degree. With almost all of the trade-magazine reviewers uninterested in really delving into issues of design, playability, and solubility, players had no real way of knowing which games they could trust and which they couldn’t. The graphic adventures that came to supersede text featured lots of terrible design choices in their own right, but they at least had the virtue of novelty, and that of serving as showcases for the graphics and sound of the latest home computers. (In the longer run, there’s a strong argument to be made that the graphic adventure would wind up shooting itself in the head via poor design by the end of the 1990s exactly as the text adventure had ten years before.)

But rather than unspooling further counter-factual speculations on how it all could have turned out differently, maybe we should ask ourselves another important question that’s less frequently discussed: that of whether an Infocom that survived and continued making text adventures of one sort or another would really have been the best thing for the still burgeoning art of interactive fiction. It’s hard not to remark the sense of creative exhaustion that imbues Infocom’s last gasp, their final four attempts at “graphical interactive fiction.” Much of that is doubtless down to the strain of their ever-worsening relationship with Bruce Davis and Mediagenic, and the long run of commercial disappointments that had prompted that strain. But is that all that was going on? Both Dave Lebling and Marc Blank have spoken of a sense of not really knowing what to do next with interactive fiction after having innovated so relentlessly for so long. Lebling:

I think the space of what can be done in text adventures has been well-explored by a variety of very creative people (by no means all of whom worked at Infocom). It would take, I fear, a qualitative leap in the development language or environment to expand that space. We never got very good at doing conversation, for example. There’s a long way to go before realistic conversations exist in games. We were okay but not spectacular at giving people more than one way to solve a problem. You need a more advanced input method to solve that one. People are just not that interested in typing to the game to simulate physical actions. A virtual-reality suit would solve that but they’re a long way off.

No one has yet solved the primary problem of adventure games, which is, what happens when the player doesn’t do what you expected? Once progress is made on that one, it might be fun to write an adventure game again.

And Blank:

To me, the problem was where it could go, whether we had reached some kind of practical limit in terms of writing a story that way. People used to always ask whether you could have a more powerful parser. Could you have a parser that understood different kinds of sentences? Questions, statements to other characters like “I’m hungry.” Better interaction than the very stilted kind of thing we did in the mysteries, or in Suspended where you could only say things like “go to this room” — where you’re basically just adding the name of a character and a comma at the beginning of a sentence, but everything else is the same.

The problem is that the more things you want to handle the more cases you have to handle, and it becomes very open-ended. You end up much more with the guess-the-word problem. If all of a sudden you can ask any question, but there are really only three questions that are important to the story, you’re either going to spend all this time coming up with answers that don’t mean anything or you’re going to have a lot of “I don’t know that,” which is frustrating. I always suspected it was a dead end. The nice thing about the command-oriented game is that you can come up with a pretty complete vocabulary and a pretty complete set of responses. As soon as it becomes more open-ended — if I can say, “I’m hungry” or “I like blue rubber balls” — how do you respond to that? It’s like Eliza. You get an answer, but it has nothing to do with what you asked, and at some point you realize it’s a fraud, that there’s no information there. What happens is that the worlds get bigger as you open up the vocabulary, but they get sparser. There’s less real information; it’s mostly noise just there to convince you of the world. I think that’s when it gets boring.

I worried about this a lot because people would always ask about the next step, the next thing we could do. It really wasn’t clear to me. Okay, you can make the writing better, and you can make puzzles that are more interesting. But as far as pushing toward a real interactive story — in a real story, you don’t just give everyone commands, right? — that was an issue. We worked on some of those issues for quite a while before we realized that we just weren’t getting anywhere. It was hard to know where to go with it, what was going to be the interesting part of it. Or were you turning it into a simulation, a world you can wander around in but not much happens? I always kind of hit a wall trying to move forward there.

So we said, okay, there are new [literary] genres. So then we had Amy doing Plundered Hearts, Jeff doing Nord and Bert, etc. We don’t know what the next step is technically, so instead we’re going to just kind of mess with the format. So we’ll do a satire and a pulp romance and a horror story. But there was a real issue of creative burnout. You’ve done all these things. Do you just keep doing them? Where does it go? Where does it lead? By the time Infocom closed down, I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t obvious. I got the sense that some of the games were just an excuse to try something else: “I don’t know what to do, let’s try this.”

To some extent, Lebling and especially Blank fall victim here to their need, being technologists at heart, to always measure the progress of the medium of the text adventure in technological terms. No one declares the novel to be a dead form because the technology of printed text hasn’t advanced in hundreds of years. As many of my earlier articles attest, I see immense value in many of the literary experiments of Infocom’s later years that Blank is a bit too eager to dismiss.

I see evidence in Lebling and Blank’s comments of two creatively exhausted people rather than a creatively exhausted medium. I suspect that the group of people who made up Infocom, brilliant as they were, had taken the art of interactive fiction just about as far as they were personally able to by 1989. The innovations that would follow — and, contrary to both men’s statements above, they most definitely do exist — would largely come out of a very different culture, one free of the commercial pressures that had begun more and more to hamstring Infocom by the end. A work that is to be sold for $30 or more as a boxed computer game has to meet certain requirements, certain player expectations, that often worked at cross-purposes to the medium’s artistic evolution. Must a game require many hours to play? Must a game have puzzles? Can a game feel like a personal testament? Is an interactive-fiction game necessarily a game at all? To paraphrase that famous old Electronic Arts advertisement, can a work of interactive fiction make you cry? These were questions that Infocom — especially but not exclusively an Infocom under Mediagenic, laser-focused as the latter was on delivering conventional hit games — wasn’t in any position to further explore. The medium’s creative future would have to be left to the amateurs.

If we begin to see Infocom as, rather than a beautiful thing that was strangled far too soon, a beautiful thing that simply ran its course, we might just begin to upend the narrative of tragedy that surrounds the legendary company to this day. Among many fans of text adventures today, there’s still a marked tendency to look back on the heyday of Infocom and the commercial text adventure in general as the pivotal era in the medium’s history, a lost golden age that ended far too soon. That’s understandable on one level. This brief era marks the only period in history when it was realistically conceivable to make a living authoring text adventures, a career that plenty of hardcore fans would rate as their absolute first choice in careers out of all of them. We’ve thus seen the tragic version of the medium’s history repeated again and again for far longer than the alleged golden age actually lasted. Ironically, we tend to see it especially in those summations of interactive fiction and its history that try to reach beyond the insular community of present-day enthusiasts to serve as introductions for the uninitiated. Such articles almost always begin with Infocom, proceed to dwell at length on those glory days gone by, then mention the modern community — “but wait, interactive fiction isn’t dead!” — in a way that inevitably smacks of a lingering population of diehards. It seems rather a shabby way to frame the history of a living literary form, doesn’t it? Perhaps we can learn to do better.

In his 2007 PhD thesis on interactive fiction, Jeremy Douglass proposed recasting the commercial era as “an important anomaly, a brief big-business deviation from the otherwise constant association of the IF genre with individual authors each networked into a kind of literary salon culture.” This was what interactive fiction largely was before Infocom, and what it became again after them. Seeing the medium’s history in this way doesn’t mean minimizing the accomplishments of Infocom, whose 35-game canon deserves always to be regarded as the text adventure’s version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the wellspring and constant source of inspiration for everything that followed. It does, however, mean recognizing that, in terms of great games that delight and amuse and tantalize and sometimes move their players, the text adventure was really just getting started even as Infocom died. Because this blog has long since begun to reach readers from well outside the interactive-fiction community from which it first sprang, I’m going to guess that some of you may have little experience with what came after Infocom. It’s for those readers among you especially that I plan to cover what came next with the same care I lavished on Infocom’s history. So, never fear. I plan to spend a lot more time praising the humble text adventure in the time to come, and I’m far from ready to bury it alongside Infocom.

(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. Some of it is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Periodical sources include Computer Gaming World of September 1989; The Boston Globe Magazine of May 22 1989; Questbusters of July 1989; The Games Machine of October 1989, December 1989, and July 1990. See also Adventure Classic Gaming’s interview with Dave Lebling and Jeremy Douglass’s PhD thesis. And my huge thanks go out to Bob Bates, who granted me an extended interview about his work with Infocom.)


  1. Mediagenic was known as Activision until mid-1988. To avoid confusion, I just stick with the name “Mediagenic” in this article. 

 

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72 Responses to Moving to California

  1. Max Horn

    July 29, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Typo: “would all would be”

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2016 at 10:08 pm

      Thanks!

       
  2. Duncan Stevens

    July 29, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    35-game canon deserves always to be regarded as the text adventure’s version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

    An interesting comparison! Certainly apt insofar as the set of works varies widely in quality and includes, along with some real masterpieces, several pieces that are generally acknowledged as not very good–and insofar as the *form* of the works in the canon has held sway, to a large extent, in later works.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2016 at 9:35 pm

      It’s a little interesting/amusing to note how close the works are in number as well: 39 plays generally believed to have been solely authored by Shakespeare versus 35 Infocom games. (Although perhaps we should regard the final four works of graphical interactive fiction the way we do the Fletcher collaborations — i.e., as compromised later works produced in the artist’s declining years.)

      But one thing that really does repeatedly amaze me is how much of modern interactive fiction, right to the present day, echoes ideas first experimented with in one Infocom game or another. It really has proved an extraordinarily rich heritage.

       
  3. Jason Scott

    July 29, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    Hooray! It has been a pleasure to watch the extra material from GET LAMP have a new life in these many articles.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2016 at 9:38 pm

      My sincere thanks, Jason, for all you’ve done — sharing so much with me, lending your name and reputation to this blog before I’d found many readers, etc. I’m in your debt.

       
  4. David Cornelson

    July 29, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Are you going to explore the history of TADS and Inform?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2016 at 9:39 pm

      In due course, yes. But first we have a little something called AGT…

       
      • Alexander Freeman

        July 30, 2016 at 2:00 am

        Just out of curiosity, do you plan on covering Space Aliens Laughed at My Cardigan and Paul Panks?

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          July 30, 2016 at 7:19 am

          Hadn’t really thought about either. Possibly they will come up in the form of community lore. Paul Panks’s is a sad, uncomfortable story that seems difficult to tell in a forum like this one without being exploitative.

           
          • Jubal

            July 30, 2016 at 9:58 am

            Perhaps something like the infamous Stiffy Makane might be a better example of “the worst of amateur IF” than the late Mr. Panks, not least for the long-lasting influence it has had on the community.

            For what it’s worth, I miss the poor mad bastard. He had a drive and a love for the form that few have ever approached.

             
          • Alexander Freeman

            July 30, 2016 at 8:39 pm

            Yeah, I remember someone comparing him to Ed Wood, and I think that’s an apt comparison. Both were bad at what they did, but they also had relentless drive and tons of passion and were very prolific. Unfortunately, it would be hard to discuss Paul Panks now that you mention it.

             
          • ZUrlocker

            July 30, 2016 at 9:20 pm

            Great post to end the infocom era. Very thoughtful. Personally, I think some expository on Paul Panks and others would be very worthwhile. He was not always successful, but he sure was prolific.

             
          • Jubal

            July 31, 2016 at 12:52 am

            The Ed Wood comparison seems pretty fair, actually.

            Panks also has the dubious distinction of having written the only amateur-era IF game ever to be discussed on Cracked.com.

             
  5. Andrew

    July 29, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Oddly appropriate that you quote the EA tagline about IF making you cry – I wouldn’t quite say this article has done that for me, but it is moving to read and the extended analysis and almost “obituary” of Infocom was clearly a labour of love on your part.

    I can almost picture you sitting at your PC, trying to type “And so in May 1989 they pretty much all got sacked. The End”, before realising that you couldn’t possibly end it so abruptly and, even if took you sitting up 72 hours straight to do it properly and finishing in a caffeine-induced haze then, dammit, that’s what you were going to have to do.

    Does your last piece on Infocom feel like the end of an era to you?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      It certainly marks a major turning point, and I’m very much aware of that. Not to disappoint, though, but your picture of how this article came to be is a little more dramatic than the reality. My working habits are more classical than romantic, I’m afraid. Marriage and middle age tend to do that to you. ;)

      I do also think that I share some of the sentiment of the Infocom old guard in mostly just being sort of glad it’s all over. The final era is pretty dispiriting, and I don’t particularly enjoying raking game after game over the coals, although I strained mightily to find ways to do that interesting, readable ways. But still, it was more in the case of those last four reviews that I was tempted to just do something like you describe — just write, “And the last four games all sucked,” and then write this article. This article, on the other hand, had been brewing somewhere in the back of my mind for literally years.

      And then of course I am genuinely excited to get to what came after Infocom, which is a great story in itself. So that certainly helped ease the pain. ;)

       
  6. AguyinaRPG

    July 29, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Very nice examination, Jim. I didn’t read every Infocom article up until this point, but I definitely wanted to read this one.

    I think your take on Infocom’s relevance and ability to persist is one that I can follow. These guys were not just restricted to these co-called “archaic” style of games or styles such as Zork (I’m looking to talk to Dornbrook about his work at Looking Glass for example). The interactive fiction medium has many important lessons to glean from it. Certainly games like Plundered Hearts prove that much for their diversity in theme and approach. The very best of the genre taps into styles of interaction which are seldom seen in video games, merely for not having enough prominent examples to draw from.

    However, I do agree with Lebling and Blank on the failure state of interaction. Chris Crawford obviously echoes this (while touting his own work, of course) and I do see it as a roadblock. Not necessarily because you *need* to have a conversation in these games, but because the world is constructed as if you do. The world isn’t so intelligently designed as to let the player understand why actions don’t work. It’s a concession and always has been.

    I do also believe that the literary types in games do have a certain arrogance, though I don’t mean that in a mean way. They are dedicated towards bringing a certain level of sophistication to games, fighting tooth and nail to preserve what they believe to be a good story against what’s best for the game. Both Infocom and Sierra demonstrate this well, I think. I don’t think you can excuse the former just because the latter is far more obvious. Still, I respect both camps, and I hope that discussion of Infocom will continue to help game creators realize the different paths they can utilize in the realm of interactive experiences.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2016 at 9:52 pm

      Can you give some examples of Infocom “fighting to preserve what they believe to be a good story against what’s best for the game?” I ask because, while I can perhaps think of just a few, they’re all among the 13 Infocom games I would broadly categorize as design failures rather than the 22 successes. I certainly don’t see it as a commonplace pattern in their designs. Most of their failures failed for very different reasons.

       
      • Jollo

        July 30, 2016 at 7:21 pm

        I believe he’s talking about their later, more cerebral thought experiments.

         
      • Brian Bagnall

        August 3, 2016 at 2:48 pm

        You wouldn’t happen to have a list of the 22 successes and 13 failures would you?

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          August 3, 2016 at 3:06 pm

          See the 22 Infocom games listed in my Hall of Fame. ;)

           
  7. Carl Read

    July 30, 2016 at 12:28 am

    I remember reading someone from Infocom saying once that “we probably have more computing power here than some third-world countries”. Which was probably true, but it may have also explained their lack of commercial savvy. In a world when home computers were mostly without floppy drives, (except for those owned by doctors and lawyers), they were only making multi-disk games.

    I played a lot of cassette-based adventures before I touched an Infocom game, but didn’t find Infocom’s any more enjoyable. This is probably me though, in that I enjoy looking around a world more than solving puzzles.

    One thought you possibly haven’t had regarding the limited take up of text adventures in those days, is that a lot of users could hardly type and probably hated doing so. We take it as a given now that people can type, but a lot of those buying C64s for games probably hadn’t touched a keyboard before getting them. This, now, shouldn’t be a problem.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 30, 2016 at 7:29 am

      I wouldn’t say that Infocom lacked commercial savvy. Their iconic marketing campaigns from 1983 and 1984 in particular ought to be studied in every business school in the land. Even Cornerstone was quite well-presented. What brought them down was far more complicated.

       
      • Carl Read

        July 31, 2016 at 12:57 am

        But the arrogance inherent in that ‘third-world’ comment perhaps explains why they didn’t bother to work out how to get their games working on cassette-based machines. No amount of marketing could get them into that market, which as you know, was huge in the UK.

         
        • AguyinaRPG

          July 31, 2016 at 2:11 am

          But really, how much software actually was a success from the US to the UK in this period? Very few publishers really tried to make that gap. Activision did it early on, but I can’t recall any big hits they had with that.

           
          • Jimmy Maher

            July 31, 2016 at 6:34 am

            Ghostbusters was a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

             
          • Carl Read

            July 31, 2016 at 7:24 am

            I don’t know for sure – that’s a job for a historian! ;)

            (Remembers an early mention of infocom games in MicroComputer Printout – scans and puts on Web here…

            http://oi66.tinypic.com/2cg0me1.jpg
            http://oi67.tinypic.com/2vihuvb.jpg

            ) That’s from January 1983 and was someone’s idea of what should be included in their desert island disks. The Zork disks were for sale in the mag at £29.95 each (albeit Atari ones). For comparison, the Spectrum was selling for £125 at that point, the Commodore Vic20 for £170, its cassette drive for £44.95 and its disk drive for £396!

            It’s hardly any wonder the UK games market was cassette based then. The US games were available, but if disk only, it’s obvious not many would sell.

             
        • Jimmy Maher

          July 31, 2016 at 6:45 am

          I don’t see it as arrogance. Their games were totally dependent on the Z-Machine’s virtual-memory scheme; one might even say that that was at the heart of everything that made them so special. There just wasn’t any way to move them onto cassette without gutting them so badly as to cut out the heart of what made an Infocom game an Infocom game.

          To advance a medium (any medium), developers sometimes have to leave some hardware behind. Infocom showed a willingness to do this throughout the company’s existence. In the beginning, when Zork I was first released, the American market was also still fairly cassette-centric. Infocom thus made a conscious choice from the beginning to forgo a big chunk of their potential market in favor of offering the remainder a much *better* experience. Later, of course, they did it again with the Interactive Fiction Plus games. Neither A Mind Forever Voyaging nor Trinity, perhaps the two most respected Infocom games today, would have been possible without this willingness.

          Infocom had terrible distribution in Britain anyway until the Mediagenic acquisition — making their games available at last in Europe for a (somewhat) reasonable price was one of the few good turns Mediagenic did Infocom. And by that time disk drives were starting to become a little more common. Yes, you could perhaps argue that Infocom should have aggressively pushed into Europe earlier, but they were doing very well in the United States already, and were still a small company with little muscle to establish distribution in foreign markets. And then there was the cassette/disk-drive dichotomy between the markets…

          Infocom *can* be justly accused of arrogance in some areas. But it’s really hard for me to see this as being among them. The “Third World” comment was almost certainly delivered with a wink and a nudge. Infocom loved to talk up the power of their PDP-10, which was a completely plebeian piece of hardware in the world they came from, for the benefit of the wide-eyed gaming journalists who came to visit them. Arrogance or just a bit of sly fun? You be the judge…

           
          • Carl Read

            July 31, 2016 at 9:01 am

            I’ve just read your ‘ZIL and the Z-Machine’, so now know how they approached storage. (Sorry for my random-access approach to reading the site…) And I’m still not convinced the games couldn’t have been done on both disk and cassette without gutting them.

            The virtual memory approach obviously wouldn’t work on tape, but adventures are made up of locations which are usually linked to other locations near to them. Groups of near locations could be loaded in as needed from tape, with rewinds hopefully kept to a minimum for the player. (Ahh – the good old days…:)

            My guess is they just couldn’t be arsed to solve the problem, if they even considered it.

             
          • Jimmy Maher

            July 31, 2016 at 11:14 am

            If you really are willing to be convinced, I would suggest you look a little more carefully at the Z-Machine architecture and consider such questions as how you would create a contiguous environment — objects dropped in one location stay there; doors stay open or closed; the thief continues about his business on the other side of the map; machines and gadgets stay in the state you left them; etc — using a bunch of static loads and what kind of end-user experience having to constantly wait for tape access as you, say, roam to and fro over the landscape of Zork would result in. A good place to start might be the Z-Machine Standards Document: http://inform-fiction.org/zmachine/standards/z1point1/index.html.

            If not, fair enough. “They just couldn’t be arsed” does have the virtue of pithy simplicity. ;)

             
          • Carl Read

            August 1, 2016 at 7:59 am

            To quote you from here: http://www.filfre.net/2012/01/zil-and-the-z-machine/

            “The dynamic data — memory the virtual machine will write to as well as read — is always stored in the host computer’s RAM. The static data, however, is loaded in and out of RAM by the interpreter as needed in 1 K blocks known as pages.”

            In other words, it’s just the static data that’s loaded from disk as the game is played, unlike what you’re trying to claim below. With some thought, it could’ve been made to work fine on disk as well as be usable from tape.

            Infocom’s parser and the games themselves should be their claim to fame. The use of virtual memory to achieve it is neither here nor there.

             
          • Jimmy Maher

            August 1, 2016 at 10:41 am

            I’m afraid you’re confusing dynamic and static data with dynamic and static loading of that data. In a disk-based game the static data — i.e., data that will not change in the course of play and thus doesn’t need always to be memory-resident — can be loaded dynamically under the control of the interpreter, swapped in and out in discrete 1 K chunks as needed. This is because a floppy-disk drive is a (relatively) fast dynamic-access storage device. A tape drive is a slow sequential storage device, which means the only practical way to use it as a sort of virtual memory is to divide the game into chunks that each effectively functions as an independent little adventure of its own. This was how, for example, Level 9 did it with their later three-part adventures.

            Maybe a real-world example of the challenges would be helpful. Let’s take Zork I, the smallest story file Infocom ever released and thus presumably the most amendable to being converted to tape. Here’s its vital statistics, courtesy of the “infodump” analysis utility. (Note that this is the later, more fleshed-out version of Zork I rather than the one that ran in the 32 K TRS-80 with disk drive. This later release, requiring also a more fleshed-out interpreter, is the version that sold by far the most units. Using it strikes me as in keeping with our stipulation that we’re not allowed to “gut” the games to fit them onto tape. If you like, however, feel free to substitute the numbers from my ZIL and the Z-Machine article. I don’t think the core problems will change all that much.)

            Story file is zork1.dat

            **** Story file header ****

            Z-code version: 3
            Interpreter flags: Display score/moves
            Release number: 88
            Size of resident memory: 4e37
            Start PC: 4f05
            Dictionary address: 3b21
            Object table address: 02b0
            Global variables address: 2271
            Size of dynamic memory: 2e53
            Game flags: None
            Serial number: 840726
            Abbreviations address: 01f0
            File size: 14b8c
            Checksum: a129

            This tells us that the total size of the story file is about 84 K (1db8c in hex) and the size of the resident memory — i.e., dynamic memory, or things that can change during play, and thus have always to be present in the computer’s RAM — is about 20 K (4e37 in hex).

            Now, let’s consider some numbers in the case of a 48 K tape-based Sinclair Spectrum, which is the platform I’m going to presume you propose Infocom should have been targeting. The interpreter generally required about 16 K on the 8-bit machines. Then we need to devote another 20 K to the dynamic memory, putting us at 36 K. The Z-Machine requires a stack of at least 2 K, putting us at 38 K. I’m not familiar enough with the Spectrum to know how much additional memory is required by the screen and other utility functions, so in the spirit of putting the best possible face on things we’ll ignore the significant additional memory we’d lose there.

            That still leaves us with just 10 K to use for the remaining 64 K of story file. Infocom’s development system wasn’t designed to sort static memory into chunks based on geography, but, again, let’s hand-wave that away, assuming they did a major ground-up rewrite to somehow give it this capability. It still means that Zork I would require 7 or at best 6 separate tape loads for the player to entirely traverse its geography. And Zork I is an extremely nonlinear game, meaning the player is constantly trekking hither and yon. I’m going to guess that, in addition to the frustrations of constantly rewinding and fast-forwarding the tape, the player of such a game would spend far more time waiting on all these loads than actually playing.

            And, again, this is a best-case scenario with countless problems hand-waved away. The non-changing details of the objects the player can carry, for instance, are not stored in dynamic memory in the standard Infocom system, but they would have to be in a tape-based scenario like this one if you didn’t want to have to go to tape every time you examined an object in your inventory. The result would be a requirement for still further memory-resident code, and still less space left over for the rest of the game to be swapped in as needed from tape.

            Later Infocom story files — even the non-Interactive Fiction Plus games — grew steadily in size to pin themselves right up against the theoretical maximum story-file size of 128 K. For this reason, Infocom dropped support for 48 K machines even with disk drives by 1985 or so. There just wasn’t enough space. I’m going to have to bow out now, but I really would encourage you have a look at the Z-Machines Standards Document if you’re interested in exploring this topic further.

             
          • Carl Read

            August 1, 2016 at 8:00 am

            Umm – above! :)

             
          • Keith Palmer

            August 1, 2016 at 10:12 pm

            All this discussion of “putting an Infocom game on cassette” has me thinking of Mini-Zork, boiled down from Zork I (just as Zork I was a segment of the “mainframe Zork”…) There was even a map somewhere in the “Infocom Cabinet” files that left me wondering if a similar process of condensing was being contemplated for Zork II. Of course, just because it was possible to fit a complete adventure game and the necessary interpreter into the Commodore 64’s memory space doesn’t mean this would have been an appealing idea to those who would have had to count every character…

             
          • Alexander Freeman

            August 2, 2016 at 4:17 am

            All this has made me wonder how text adventure game that did what Wasteland did would have been received. That is, one that did something like putting all the descriptions of objects and rooms and some read herrings into the manual so as to make it small enough to fit on something like a tape.

             
          • Jimmy Maher

            August 2, 2016 at 6:41 am

            Infocom came closest to that in Moonmist, which effectively moved most of the room descriptions into a brochure accompanying the game. Hard to say whether it was more motivated by the need to save space or copy protection, though. (But then the same could be said of Wasteland.) Personally, I found it very annoying. You interact with the text much more consistently and intimately in a text adventure.

             
          • flowmotion

            August 8, 2016 at 4:38 am

            Just to back up what Jimmy is saying here is some more gross figure, found here. (regarding Commodore’s cassette system):

            http://arstechnica.com/civis/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=690223

            > Well, if the transfer rate is 300 baud (which really meant “bits per second” even though “baud” is supposed to mean “signal state changes per second”)… 10 bits are used per byte, so a 30 minute “side” of a cassette would hold 30minutes * 60secs/min * 300bits/sec / 10bits/byte = 54 Kbytes.

            Per a previous article, Zork I was 77K (about half the size of an Apple disk). So even if a feasible swap system was somehow built, it would take ~43 minutes to load the data into the system, under optimal conditions. As a practical matter, you would constantly be loading the cassette as you moved around the map.

            I only had the briefest experience with cassette PCs and getting 4kb of STARTREK.BAS to load was a flakey and interminable experience. So, even if it was theoretically possible to get these games loading from a cassette, the user experience would be so horrible really nobody would want to do it.

             
  8. Keith Palmer

    July 30, 2016 at 11:33 am

    I knew about “11 of the 26 were asked to move; 5 of the 11 actually moved” and had seen “From Cornerstone to Tombstone” in the “Infocom Cabinet,” but hearing Infocom had to finish the MS-DOS interpreter for their final games even after being told the bad news adds that extra bit of poignancy.

    In any case, as much as I can remember a bit from Get Lamp that makes me wonder if a thing or two might yet be said about “The Lost Treasures of Infocom” (although I can absolutely suppose the bundles were something a handful of new people at most worked on), this was a solid wrap-up. Lebling and Blank’s gloomy “how can these games ever respond to unanticipated input?” comments did at least leave me wondering if there could be something to them, but perhaps that just leaves me anticipating what you’ve got to say about the “noncommercial scene.” (There, perhaps, I have to face how I could always play more current interactive fiction than the limited amount I actually do.) Your speculation about just what had happened to the people who had bought Infocom’s first releases seems reasonable enough, although I can think back to Get Lamp again and a comment in it that, for all the self-depreciating rhetoric in the IF community about “the eclipse of literacy,” “reading off a computer screen” may be more comfortable for people now (through improved resolution and simple practice) than it was in the 1980s. (I suppose there I can also reflect on a short-lived Apple II magazine from the mid-1980s that included a column from Softalk’s Margot Tommervik; in the hangover after the 8-bit home computer boom of the early 1980s went bust, she built one column around speculation the “computer market” had already saturated at the size of the “people who read for pleasure” market.)

    As for me, in 1989 I was still wondering if I’d ever see a hint about just how to hold “tea” and “no tea” at the same time and finish The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; seeking out other Infocom games at that time didn’t occur to me at all… although maybe the awareness that developed that I’d “missed out” (at least until “The Lost Treasures of Infocom”) might have played its own part in making Infocom stick in my head.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 30, 2016 at 1:12 pm

      The release of Lost Treasures definitely marks a watershed moment of its own. Widely regarded among the general public as just a maker of oddball, outdated games by the time they closed, Infocom’s stock rose precipitously in the early 1990s following the huge-selling Lost Treasures compilations, the text adventure’s last belated commercial hurrah. You’re right that that must be an important part of any Infocom history in its own right; it’s really the starting point of the modern view of the company.

       
  9. Felix

    July 30, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Ironic how a thing several people wrote about this spring (myself included) was already so clearly seen and said by Marc Blank, who knows how long ago: that any parser-based text adventure is doomed to be 90% fluff, that has to be painstakingly handcrafted even though it does nothing to advance the story; that picking the important bits out of all the fluff can be as tedious for the player as it is for the author, even outside of puzzles; last but not least, that making the parser and world model smarter would only increase the proportion of irrelevant fluff from 90% to 99.9%. If anything, the post-commercial era has taught us that more sophistication wasn’t the answer. And it still took us all a lot of pain to reach that conclusion.

    Either way, Infocom didn’t deserve Cornerstone; saddling them with that terrible idea was a lot like throwing a millstone to a drowning person instead of a life raft. As my mother taught me, “if you can’t help someone, at least leave them alone”. Good things might have come out of Infocom dying of natural causes rather than bean-counter boneheadedness, things we can only guess at now. And I’m sick of seeing this story repeating again and again. Three times just in my own career alone is plenty enough.

     
    • Michael Davis

      August 1, 2016 at 7:53 pm

      Is that irony?

       
    • flowmotion

      August 3, 2016 at 3:52 am

      Excellent point.

      Perhaps Infocom’s few big hits were not solely due to the “14 year old boy” appeal, but that IF works best in simplified universes where there are only treasures to steal, trolls to stab, and buttons to push, and so on.

      ASK CHARACTER ABOUT HIS WIFE is something you might be eager to read, but not something you ever personally like to do. The tropes worked as tropes.the “literariness” was perhaps unwanted.

       
      • Felix

        August 7, 2016 at 2:49 pm

        @flowmotion: Indeed. Note how in Stanley Parable, interaction is also limited to moving around and pushing buttons…

         
  10. Ben Kidwell

    July 30, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    Amazing article. Very emotional to finally read this after so many years of reading your retelling of the story of Infocom, which was also the story of my childhood. You combine impeccable research with personal experience and love for the works and an empathetic human understanding of the protagonists. This blog changed my life by providing me with tremendous inspiration for my own creative projects. I’m excited to see your telling of the story of the rise of independent IF.

     
    • Colin Djukic

      July 31, 2016 at 7:03 am

      I want to second that comment. Your articles are always wonderful, but this is a high mark. Thank you for what you’re doing, and I’d like to take a bow to Jason Scott as well, keep it up.

       
  11. Steven Marsh

    July 30, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    A fascinating coda to a fascinating company. Thank you for your efforts.

    As an aside, this article is showing as having posted on July 23; I suspect that’s not the case (and it actually posted July 29, based on the first comments). Not sure how much that matters to you, but I thought I’d mention it!

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 30, 2016 at 8:15 pm

      I accidentally hit publish on a draft some days ago, then quickly unpublished it again. It must have retained the original date. Changed it manually. Thanks!

       
  12. Alexander Freeman

    July 30, 2016 at 8:46 pm

    I came to more or less the same conclusion you did about Infocom. I seem to recall you even comparing what happened there to a summer romance. I still think if they’d played their cards right, Lurking Horror and Plundered Hearts wouldn’t have been compromised as much, and they would have made some games that were better than Zork Zero, Beyond Zork, and Shogun. They could have done a better job branching out to other types of games before finally leaving text adventure games behind for good in, say, 1990.

     
  13. Pedro Timóteo

    July 31, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Great post as always; both informative and emotional.

    Like others have done (both yourself, and commenters above), it’s fun to speculate, to ask “what if” (there had been no Cornerstone, Infocom had been slightly better at business, and so on. I think they *might* have extended the commercial IF era for a few years (not many), and later innovations such as Magnetic Scrolls’ “Magnetic Windows” and Legend’s engine might have come from Infocom instead, and possibly even a few years earlier.

    I also wonder if Infocom might have lived on doing point and click adventures — possibly more “mature” and innovative than those from Sierra and Lucasfilm –, if they had an engine of their own at least as good as AGI/SCI and SCUMM. But would the Imps have been interested in doing those kinds of games? In the “real timeline”, only one of them was (Brian Moriarty, with Loom)…

    Of course, by 2000 or so, even point and click adventures probably couldn’t go on making any real money…

     
    • Pedro Timóteo

      July 31, 2016 at 10:20 am

      I also wonder if Infocom couldn’t have had a *lot* of success doing graphical remakes of their classic games (think Softporn -> Leisure Suit Larry), in the late 80s and early 90s. They would already have better stories, better puzzles and a better design than most of what Sierra did… Who’d want Space Quest when they could have AGI(ish) Planetfall?

      Again, I don’t know if the Imps would have enjoyed that, though.

       
      • Alexander Freeman

        August 1, 2016 at 12:36 am

        Interesting points. I think a graphical remake without a parser would have lost too much. However, the graphics for Sierra’s AGI and SCI0 games took up so much memory that there wasn’t enough left for a parser as good as Infocom’s. CDs could have taken care of that problem, but they didn’t take off until after parser games left the market. I’m not sure why even point-and-click adventure games died commercially around 2000, though. They seem as though they’d cost a lot less to make than plenty of modern-day games.

         
      • Lisa H.

        August 1, 2016 at 1:35 am

        Who’d want Space Quest when they could have AGI(ish) Planetfall?

        I’d play them both. Although that might be easy for me to say given that I wasn’t playing SQ contemporary with its releases; like Planetfall I only came to it rather later.

         
  14. Bernie

    July 31, 2016 at 4:12 pm

    My Two Cents ….

    Joe Ybarra had a part of the truth : Manhole + HyperCard … but was wrong about people not wanting games that took “20 to 50 hours”.

    The Infocom gang were onto something with their discovery of a “Zork-leaning” demographic hungry for more puzzles … but wrong on their pessimistic views about computer games and reading. And specially wrong believing that the game world had to be “hyper-interactive” in order for adventure games to have a future.

    What i’m saying is that all these guys could have anticipated the future and acted accordingly if they had worked better together.

    Myst , a very “zorkian” world full of puzzles (ditto for Infocom’s demographic insights) from the people who created The Manhole (ditto for Ybarra’s comment) using an engine very similar to HyperCard that was created on Mac II’s (ditto for Ybarra and the Imps) , went on to become the best selling computer game in history since its introduction in 1994. And it included loads of reading ! Gee, the back story was even based on magical books and writing !

    There’s also The 7th Guest : not very Zork-like, but entirely puzzle-based , and with a horror theme “lurking” behind the brain teasers. It also sold a lot of copies and spawned a sequel.

    The “what-if” question brought to mind a story I read in an old issue of RetroGamer Magazine : Ultimate Play The Game (which I think you have mentioned in Antiquarian also), one of the premier ZX Spectrum developers during the system’s golden years (83-87). Although their creations were in very different genres from Infocom’s, they shared the same “cult” status among their audience and that “otherness” distinguishing them form the rest of their peers in the eyes of the press. What makes the story of Ultimate’s founders, in my opinion, a success in contrast to Infocom’s is that they were able to see the demise of their chosen technology platform (early-to-mid 80’s 8-bit home computers) very early (’85-’86), when the ZX, C64 and their peers were at their peak, and acted accordingly. They took their “essence” as designers and applied it to the up-and-coming console medium by re-forming as the legendary Rare Ltd., of “Donkey Kong Country” fame. They even managed to swith genres and still make it big with their “Goldeneye 007” 1st person shooter.

    The collapse of Infocom’s whole concept was not Conerstone’s or Mediagenic’s fault in the end, it was the Imps’ ! …. they weren’t flexible enough towards new technology as designers, and neither entrepreneurial enough to sell their stake at the right moment and regroup under a new banner. This surely would have benefitted adventure gaming in general during the 90’s.

    Sorry for the long post ! Perhaps Jimmy can help me a little and reprhrase this using his unique powers of synthesis and insight , like he did with the material on this wonderful post !

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      July 31, 2016 at 5:12 pm

      You do want to be careful drawing too many conclusions from the huge success of Myst. It was the first game to really show off the capabilities of the new generation of so-called “multimedia PCs”: CD-ROM, SVGA graphics, Soundblaster sound cards. Most people who bought it bought it as a showpiece, not a game they were all that serious about playing and completing. It was also packaged with many “multimedia kits,” which made up a big chunk of its sales. It must be one of the least *played* games in proportion to its sales in history.

      Of course, back in the day plenty of people bought Zork as a showpiece of its own. And just as (I would argue) many publishers took the wrong lesson from the success of Zork, the success of Myst resulted in a flood of clones, none of which managed more than a tiny fraction of its sales.

       
      • Lisa H.

        August 1, 2016 at 1:37 am

        My mother bought Myst; I don’t know if she ever played it much, but my main picture of it is of the box sitting dusty on the little side table next to her computer. Personally, I still haven’t ever played it!

         
      • Bernie

        August 5, 2016 at 3:12 pm

        Thank you very much jimmy !

        Maybe my perspective is not wide enough, since I was one of those few you mention that actually played Myst and finished it. It even inspired me to take up Zork again after many years.

        Your comment has led me to refine my view a little bit : Myst was a very honest effort to bring traditional, zork-style, adventure-gaming to wider audience by taking advantage of the emerging Multimedia-PC technology platform. But it turned out they only managed to promote the technology itself, and were only preaching to the converts as far as adventure gaming is concerned. But they tried, and were sucessful in some twisted way apart from financially. This could’ve been Infocom’s Imps, and perhaps the kind of money generated by Myst would’ve given them enough space to create something truly wonderful.

        Your comment about developers learning the wrong lesson from Zork and Myst also gave a new perspective on another genre you’ve discussed here : RPG’s. US and European developers might also have learned the wrong lesson from the “Gold Box” and Richard Garriott’s “canonical” Ultimas (V, VI and specially VII) going on to craft bigger and bigger geographies, increasingly complex world models and legions of NPC’s with detailed lives and homes of their own. This brought good profits during the 90’s and early 2000’s, perhaps thanks to a novelty factor and improving 3D graphics. But there was also Final Fantasy V, VI, VII and the whole Japanese / console phenomenon, the guys who learned the “right” lessons from Garriott : emphasize the ‘Role’ and ‘Game’ aspects and simplify the ‘Play’ with almost-linear progression and an intuitive battle interface. And don’t waste graphics power on more “realistic” knights and orcs, make it all very stilyzed and fluid, manga-style. Then, the Diablo series brought that all-important element of real-time hack-n-slash action. If you look at any best-selling RPG of the last 10 years, you’ll immediately recognize Final Fantasy’s and Diablo’s influence, but in the same historical time frame the closest thing you’ll find to a “modern-day Ultima” are, paradoxically, re-makes of Ultima V and VI painstakingly created on modern engines that provide scripting capabilities.

         
        • whomever

          August 5, 2016 at 4:39 pm

          I’m not sure I buy the “all recent successful RPG Isn’t like Ultima”. What about the Elder Scrolls? They have been super successful and feel like pretty direct descendents to me.

           
  15. Sam Garret

    August 1, 2016 at 12:06 am

    Tiny, tiny typo I almost hesitate to mention as it’s so small:

    “gaming public as time went by”.

    Lovely article as always, and the talk of Myst in the comments makes me eager to read your take on Return to Zork, Nemesis, and Grand Inquisitor, all of which were interesting, but also, in some ways, horrible. Something to look forward to, I guess.

     
    • Sam Garret

      August 1, 2016 at 12:20 am

      (Note to self: don’t indicate typos with greater than and less than signs or the extraneous letters they contain will get stripped because HTML. D’oh!)

       
      • Sniffnoy

        August 1, 2016 at 3:07 pm

        Note, you can include the less than sign (<) by typing &lt;, and you can include the greater-than sign (>) by typing &gt;. (Assuming I’ve done this right…)

         
    • Jimmy Maher

      August 1, 2016 at 6:25 am

      Always appreciated, even (especially?) when tiny. Thanks!

       
  16. Michael Davis

    August 1, 2016 at 7:55 pm

    Man, what a ride, huh? Thank you so much for this blog. I can’t imagine how many man-hours you pour into this project, but it is very, very appreciated :D

     
  17. Joe

    August 2, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    I enjoyed the article!

    I do think your comments about Blank and Lebling come across as a bit dismissive, suggesting that their technical interests blindered their view of interactive fiction’s prospects.

    They were professional game devs working in a commercial environment, and I suspect the quotes you included were (implicitly) about the prospects of commercial IF. Homebrew, freeware hobbyist projects are a whole different thing. As much as you or I might enjoy them, they are, market-wise, completely irrelevant!

    Presumably Blank and Lebling were talking about measures needed to return IF to (at least modest) popularity, which almost by definition means a legitimate commerical market. I would argue that the current demand even for *free* IF would not register on any legitimate measure of game popularity by genre, and the demand for *paid* IF, even of high quality, would absolutely not register. There would need to be some sort of radical, literally game-changing paradigm shift in how IF is designed and interacted with to generate enough fans to make it register… which is exactly what Blank and Lebling were saying in those quotes.

    The reality is, the IF community *is*, to a large extent, a small group of die-hards. There is no shame in that whatsoever! But that doesn’t mean Blank and Lebling’s comments were anything but spot-on.

     
  18. flowmotion

    August 3, 2016 at 4:13 am

    > Infocom never enjoyed a single profitable year after 1983

    I have to say the picture of late-stage Infocom you have been painting here for a while has been quite depressing.

    They churn out game-after-game, they get some semi-positive response in obscure publications, and the game goes on to sell in completely minuscule numbers. Who knows if this is some hardcore fanbase, or people buying something by mistake because of the cover art. Even now, only their biggest fans could even remember half this stuff. They take some advantage of their creative freedom in this situation, but for the most part they just go through the motions and just keep churning out game after game after poor-selling game.

    Once I worked in a “great environment” at a job that was completely dead-end due to corporate politics. Everyone put in their 20-30 hours, there was a lot of drinking and sleeping with coworkers, it was a fun place to work. Whenever I run into someone from that job, they talk about how great it was. But we all knew (or should have known) that we were doomed. I realized that kind of job attracts a certain “fun person” which makes it a “fun job”. But success-oriented people don’t hang around and wait for the noose to be put around their neck.

    If you told me in 1989 that Infocom was still around, I “would have been like no way”. I imagine a lot of these people felt the exact same way about their job.

     
  19. Oscillations

    August 5, 2016 at 4:40 am

    Post-Infocom IF just isn’t interesting and never will be. Even the Infocom story is way more interesting at this point than playing any of their games.

     
    • NorkaBoid

      August 16, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      Oh, I don’t know. Certainly the Infocom story, as unfolded for us by Jimmy here, has been a great deal more fascinating than I, for one, had ever imagined. And it may seem impossible to top at this point.
      But … when you consider that “post-Infocom” IF consists of a much more diverse body of works (dare I call them “games” collectively?) created by a much more diverse bunch of people over a much longer — and still expanding — period of time, why should we not expect the story of post-Infocom interactive fiction to be a couple orders of magnitude more interesting?
      If the Lane Barrow interview is any indication of what’s still to come, we’re in for quite a ride!

       
  20. metzomagic

    August 10, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Wow. I thought I knew the history of Infocom quite well, but it turns out that was only in the context of playing some of their more popular efforts, and from ‘randomly accessing’ some of your other articles about them. I had assumed that their demise was largely due to the popularity of IF waning because of the advent of graphics and sound.

    So when I saw a reference to ‘Cornerstone’ in this article, I had not the slightest inkling of what you were talking about. Only when I did a site search for the term did I find your ‘Down From the Top’ article dated 3 April, 2014. And then I read it; and then I wept :-( They really, really, needed a separate business division for Cornerstone. End of story.

     
  21. Lee Jones

    August 12, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    This was quite a bittersweet read. Sad, at times, but somewhat hopeful.

    I’ve been studying the world consumer electronics from the late 1970s through the 1980s, and I’ve noticed, on the whole… It seems like there was an over-abundant optimism, pervading the entire industry, that just all sort of… Crashed, for a variety of reasons, and left us with the closed, lifeless coporate environment we have today.

    For some reason, Infocom reminds me greatly of Atari. Both companies experienced a rather similar rise and fall, and both had these grandiose ideals of changing the industry. Atari certainly started as simply a videogame company, but their ambitions grew exponentially to include a grand computer revolution, that never came to be.

    The videogame/computer industry seems to be rife with grand ideals of changing the world, that are too ambitious, and run their course, before puttering out with a whimper.

     
  22. Nate

    August 13, 2016 at 11:24 am

    “I’ve been studying the world consumer electronics from the late 1970s through the 1980s, and I’ve noticed, on the whole… It seems like there was an over-abundant optimism, pervading the entire industry, that just all sort of… Crashed, for a variety of reasons, and left us with the closed, lifeless coporate environment we have today.”

    As someone who was a kid in the 1980s, I agree. There was a strong strain of utopianism in the early microcomputer world. Read the early 1970s-80s magazines – Creative Computing and Byte particularly – and you can see there were very high expectations that ‘putting computers in the hands of the people’ would transform society, expand consciousness, and shift power back from governments and corporations. The Venn diagram of the early microcomputer people and the ‘West Coast technological hippie’ scene was nearly a circle. Stewart Brand and Timothy Leary. Steve Wozniak (Jobs not nearly as much, but Apple still gets a lot of mileage out of their ‘hippie cred’ despite being the most corporate of corporates).

    The utopianism mostly died out by the mid 1980s, then kicked in again – briefly – in the 1990s with the Internet and ‘cyberculture’ and the whole mom-and-pop ISP era and Open Source. But Facebook and iPhones have now killed it again. Data transfer even for non-Americans is centralised in Seattle and San Francisco in hundred-billion-dollar tech unicorns, and we’ve all shrugged and accepted that GCHQ/NSA are reading everything. Our devices are increasingly less general-purpose, more locked down, requiring signing keys to publish software.

    This new era of centralisation would have been unthinkable even in the 1990s – but was very much the expectation in the 1970s, the era of IBM mainframes and the Bell telephone monopoly, before the microcomputers.

    It’s starting to feel like the 1980s-90s were a brief, weird optimistic anomaly. I hope maybe we can get another chance. But I think we’ll have to first have a popular sensibility that demands it. Another 1960s, or something like it.

     
  23. Lee Jones

    August 24, 2016 at 1:51 am

    Another question here to the OP, but since we’ve reached the end of Infocom’s tale, I’m somewhat curious why not a post about “Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception” from 1988?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      August 24, 2016 at 3:42 am

      It was an Infocom game in name only, curated entirely by Mediagenic. The Cambridge team had nothing to do with it.

       

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