Daily Archives: January 11, 2012

Selling Zork

When we left off, it was late summer, 1979, and seven of the nine partners involved with Infocom were living in Boston, working various day jobs, and discussing as time allowed just what the newly minted company should actually do. Meanwhile, the other two partners, Marc Blank and Joel Berez, were living in Pittsburgh and doing something more practical about the question, designing — entirely on paper at this stage — a system for getting Zork (or at least half of it) from the PDP-10 to the microcomputer. As Blank and Berez continued their work that fall, they became more and more convinced that, yes, this could actually work, and so began lobbying the others back in Boston to make Zork Infocom’s first project. Their case was compelling enough that even a reluctant Al Vezza finally agreed.

As it happened, Berez had been accepted for a graduate business program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He moved back to Boston that November for that — and to take the title of President of the still largely theoretical Infocom. Faced with being trapped in Pittsburgh all by himself while his friends implemented his designs, Blank made the rather personally momentous decision to drop out of his medical residency and come to Boston as well. Thus, as 1980 dawned the proverbial gang was all back together again, and work on a new Zork was proceeding apace.

With their connections at MIT and DEC, PDP-10 computer time was not hard to come by even for those at Infocom who had officially left MIT. Indeed, for all that their ultimate goal was to sell Zork on the micros, Infocom continued at this stage to do their work entirely on the PDP-10; perhaps the old motto of “We hate micros!” was still not entirely dead. Blank and Lebling wrote on the PDP-10 the complete ZIL development system, including the compiler and, for testing purposes, the first working Z-Machine virtual machine. Remarkably, the conceptual design that Blank and Berez had sketched out on napkins and scrap paper turned out perfectly workable in reality. As I noted in my last post, the reimplementation in ZIL even gave them the opportunity to improve on the original Zork in some ways.

Even when the time came to leave the PDP-10, Infocom’s biases showed through; the second Z-Machine implementation was not for a Radio Shack or an Apple, but for a DEC PDP-11. While the PDP-10 was DEC’s flagship model, big and powerful enough that it probably deserves to be labeled a mainframe rather than a minicomputer, the PDP-11 was the company’s smaller, cheaper bread-and-butter model. DEC is estimated to have sold over 170,000 of them during the 1970s alone. Relatively portable (if being able to move a computer with only a single van can count as “portable”) and requiring no raised floor or other data-center machinations, PDP-11s were everywhere: in factories, in laboratories, in air-traffic control centers — and in Joel Berez’s bedroom(!). The PDP-11 already had a Zork in a sense, having been the first target platform of that FORTRAN port of Dungeon, but that didn’t stop Infocom from making PDP-11 Zork their first commercial product. Relatively ubiquitous as the PDP-11 was, the market was not exactly a commercial gaming stronghold; Zork reportedly sold less than 100 copies there. (One of which recently surfaced on eBay; see Jason Scott’s Get Lamp site for a scan of the surprisingly thorough — albeit typewritten and mimeographed — manual.) Clearly, Infocom needed to get Zork onto the microcomputers.

In that spirit, Infocom purchased a TRS-80 system, and Scott Cutler, one of the few partners with any real microcomputer experience, set to work with Blank’s help to build a Z-Machine for it. The moment of truth came at last:

Scott and Marc demonstrated that Zork I was alive in it by starting the game and actually collecting points with the incantation “N.E.OPEN.IN.” (It’s certainly no less inspiring than “Come here, Mr. Watson; I want you!”)

It’s always a fraught moment when a programming project finally comes to life and does something. I remember my excitement when my own Z-Machine interpreter, Filfre, first printed out the opening text to the first game I elected to test it with, Infidel. I can only imagine Blank and Cutler’s excitement, when all of this was so new and the stakes were so much higher. Anyway, the Z-Machine concept worked. Once the game was completely playable, Infocom, heirs to an institutional computing tradition of doing things the right way, did something virtually unprecedented for a microcomputer game: they put their new game through rigorous, repeated testing. Their star tester was an MIT student named Mike Dornbrook, who fell in love with the game and obsessed over it endlessly, crafting lovingly detailed maps of its geography and working to iron out not just technical problems but dodgy puzzles and parser difficulties. (If only On-Line Systems, Scott Adams, and other developers had a similar patience and commitment to quality in these early days…)

Ongoing testing aside, Infocom had a real, marketable product. Now they just needed to decide how to sell it. One option was to do what Ken Williams was deciding to do at about this time, to go it alone. With little experience or knowledge of the young microcomputer industry, however, that seemed risky, and no one was excited about trying to devise packaging and duplicating thousands (hopefully!) of disks. They therefore began shopping Zork to publishers. An approach to Microsoft was rebuffed by the marketing department; they already had their own text adventure, Adventure itself, and apparently felt one was enough for any publisher. Later Bill Gates, who was a fan of the PDP-10 Zork, heard about the offer and tried to reopen the subject, but by then Infocom was already in talks with Dan Fylstra of Personal Software, leaving a Microsoft Zork to history as a fascinating might-have-been.

Personal Software has largely been forgotten today, but at the time it was the brightest star of the young software industry, easily eclipsing Microsoft. Founded by Peter R. Jennings and Fylstra, a founding editor of the seminal Byte magazine, PS hit a goldmine in 1979 when it reached an agreement with Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston to publish VisiCalc for the Apple II. Aided by some smart PS advertising that properly emphasized the revolutionary nature of this truly revolutionary product, VisiCalc was by the time Infocom came calling the talk of the business world and the software hit of the young microcomputer industry, eventually selling in the hundreds of thousands. VisiCalc not only made PS the biggest software publisher on the planet and the subject of profiles by the likes of Time magazine, but also gave them huge power within the industry. This power extended even to Apple itself; countless customers were putting the cart before the horse, buying Apple IIs just to have a computer to run their new copy of VisiCalc on. It was the first “killer app” of the PC era, and sold all of the Apple IIs that that label would imply. With money and power like that, PS certainly seemed not a bad way for Infocom to get their new game out there. Fylstra had attended business school at MIT, and was acquainted from there with both Vezza and the PDP-10 version of his product. It didn’t take Berez and Vezza much time to get a deal done which even included a sorely needed advance on future royalty payments, what with Infocom having pretty much spent their initial $11,500 on hardware, testers, and PDP-10 time.

In between their other tasks, the other partners wrote a couple of magazine articles to help drum up anticipation. “How to Fit a Large Program into a Small Machine,” a cagey explanation of the concepts of the virtual machine and virtual memory, appeared in Creative Computing that July; “Zork and the Future of Computerized Fantasy Simulations,” a more theoretical article on the burgeoning art of the text adventure, appeared in Byte‘s big “adventure” issue in December. Having not yet come up with the elegant name of “interactive fiction,” Lebling saddled Zork and its peers with the rather unwieldy “computerized fantasy simulations” (“CFS”) label in the latter. As it appeared the TRS-80 version of Zork was just coming onto the market under the PS imprint.

Initial sales were not overwhelming; the TRS-80 version sold about 1500 copies in its first nine months. This figure can perhaps be partly attributed to the unimaginative and halfhearted marketing of PS, who in the wake of the VisiCalc juggernaut were increasingly uncertain whether they wanted to be involved with games at all. It’s also true, however, that the TRS-80 software market never really thrived in the way that sales of TRS-80 hardware might make you expect. A big culprit was Radio Shack’s own policies. They insisted on selling in their stores only software published under their own imprint. Yet they offered developers a very paltry royalty compared to the rest of the industry, and refused to even properly credit them on the software itself, preferring the image of an all-benevolent Tandy Corporation that apparently dropped immaculate software creations out of its rear end. Owners of other computer stores, meanwhile, such as the ComputerLand outlets that were exploding across the country, left Radio Shack to sell and service its own machines, instead concentrating on other platforms. It’s likely that the TRS-80 Zork fell at least partially into this distributional black hole that was already in danger of making the TRS-80 an also-ran in contrast to the young microcomputer industry’s newly anointed darling, the Apple II. In fact, that very December Apple went public, making its founders and about 300 others instant millionaires — the first big tech IPO, and a sign that soon the “microcomputer industry” would just be the “computer industry.”

Speaking of which: Bruce Daniels, the only member of the original Zork team who hadn’t joined Infocom, had accepted a job with Apple and moved to California after graduation. He agreed to create a Z-Machine for the Apple II under contract. Apple II Zork was released in February of 1981, and it did much better than the TRS-80 version, selling a steady 1000 copies per month. Infocom now had a steady stream of revenue at last, along with the basic technological infrastructure — ZIL and the Z-Machine — that would define the company for the rest of its life. Things were starting to look pretty good — but twists and turns were just ahead.

We’ll talk about them soon enough, but next time I want to leave the historical reality behind for a while in favor of virtual reality. Yes, we’re going to take a little tour of Zork‘s Great Underground Empire.


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