Activision’s first couple of years as a home-computer publisher were, for all their spirit of innovation and occasional artistic highs, mildly disappointing in commercial terms. While all of their games of this period were by no means flops, the only outsize hit among them was David Crane’s Ghostbusters. Activision was dogged by their own history; even selling several hundred thousand copies of Ghostbusters could feel anticlimactic when compared with the glory days of 1980 to 1983, when million-sellers were practically routine. And the company dragged along behind it more than psychological vestiges of that history. On the plus side, Jim Levy still had a substantial war chest made up of the profits socked away during those years with which to work. But on the minus side, the organization he ran was still too big, too unwieldy in light of the vastly reduced number of units they were moving these days in this completely different market. Levy was forced to authorize a painful series of almost quarterly layoffs as the big sales explosions stubbornly refused to come and Activision’s balance sheets remained in the red. Then came the departure of Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead to form the lean, mean Accolade, and that company’s galling instant profitability. Activision found themselves cast in the role of the bloated Atari of old, Jim Levy himself in that of the hated Ray Kassar. Nobody liked it one bit.
Levy and his board therefore adopted a new strategy for the second half of 1985: they would use some of that slowly dwindling war chest to acquire a whole stable of smaller developers, who would nevertheless continue to release games on their own imprints to avoid market saturation. The result would be more and more diverse games, separated into lines that would immediately identify for consumers just what type of game each title really was. In short order, Activision scooped up Gamestar, a developer of sports games. They also bought Creative Software, another tiny but stalwart industry survivor. Creative would specialize in home-oriented productivity software; ever since Brøderbund had hit it big with Bank Street Writer and The Print Shop publishers like Activision had been dreaming of duplicating their success. And then along came Infocom.
Joel Berez happened to run into Levy, accidentally or on purpose, during a business trip to Chicago in December of 1985. By this time Infocom’s travails were an open secret in the industry. Levy, by all accounts a genuine fan of Infocom’s games and, as Activision games like Portal attest, a great believer in the concept of interactive literature, immediately made it clear that Activision would be very interested in acquiring Infocom. Levy’s was literally the only offer on the table. After it dawned on them that Infocom alone could not possibly make a success out of Cornerstone, Al Vezza and his fellow business-oriented peers on Infocom’s board had for some time clung to the pipe dream of selling out to a big business publisher like Lotus, WordPerfect, or even Microsoft. But by now it was becoming clear even to them that absolutely no one cared a whit about Cornerstone, that the only value in Infocom was the games and the company’s still-sterling reputation as a game developer. However, those qualities, while by no means negligible, were outweighed in the eyes of most potential purchasers by the mountain of debt under which Infocom now labored, as well as by the worrisome shrinking sales of the pure text adventures released recently both by Infocom and their competitors. These were also very uncertain times for the industry in general, with many companies focused more on simple survival than expansion. Only Levy claimed to be able to sell his board on the idea of an Infocom acquisition. For Infocom, the choice was shaping up to be a stark one indeed: Activision subsidiary or bankruptcy. As Dave Lebling wryly said when asked his opinion on the acquisition, “What is a drowning man’s opinion of a life preserver?”
Levy was as good as his word. He convinced Activision’s board — some, especially in a year or two, might prefer to say “rammed the scheme through” — and on February 19, 1986, the two boards signed an agreement in principle for Activision to acquire Infocom by giving approximately $2.4 million in Activision stock to Infocom’s stockholders and assuming the company’s $6.8 million in debt. This was, for those keeping score, a pittance compared to what Simon & Schuster had been willing to pay barely a year before. But, what with their mountain of debt and flagging sales, Infocom’s new bargaining position wasn’t exactly strong; Simon & Schuster was now unwilling to do any deal at all, having already firmly rejected Vezza and Berez’s desperate, humiliating attempts to reopen the subject. As it was, Infocom considered themselves pretty lucky to get what they did; Levy could have driven a much harder bargain had he wanted to. And so Activision’s lawyers and accountants went to work to finalize things, and a few months later Infocom, Inc., officially ceased to exist. That fateful day was June 13, 1986, almost exactly seven years after a handful of MIT hackers had first gotten together with a vague intention to do “something with microcomputers.” It was also Friday the Thirteenth.
Still, even the most superstitious amongst Infocom’s staff could see little immediate ground for worry. If they had to give up their independence, it was hard to imagine a better guy to answer to than Jim Levy. He just “got” Infocom in a way that Al Vezza, for one, never had. He understood not only what the games were all about but also the company’s culture, and he seemed perfectly happy just to let both continue on as they were. During the due-diligence phase of the acquisition, Levy visited Infocom’s offices for a guided tour conducted, as one of his last official acts at Infocom, by an Al Vezza who visibly wanted nothing more by this time than to put this whole disappointing episode of his life behind him and return to the familiarity of MIT. In the process of duly demonstrating a series of games in progress, he came to Steve Meretzky’s next project, a risqué science-fiction farce (later succinctly described by Infocom’s newsletter as “Hitchhiker’s Guide with sex”) called Leather Goddesses of Phobos. “Of course, that’s not necessarily the final name,” muttered Vezza with embarrassment. “What? I wouldn’t call it anything else!” laughed a delighted Levy, to almost audible sighs of relief from the staffers around him.
Levy not only accepted but joined right in with the sort of cheerful insanity that had always made Vezza so uncomfortable. He cemented Infocom’s loyalty via his handling of the “InfoWedding” staffers threw for him and Joel Berez, who took over once again as Infocom’s top manager following Vezza’s unlamented departure. A description of the blessed nuptials appeared in Infocom’s newsletter.
In a dramatic affirmation of combinatorial spirit, Activision President James H. Levy and Infocom President Joel M. Berez were merged in a moving ceremony presided over by InfoRabbi Stuart W. Galleywitz. Infocommies cheered, participated in responsive readings from Hackers (written by Steven Levy — no relation to Jim), and threw rice at the beaming CEOs.
Berez read a tone poem drawn from the purple prose of several interactive-fiction stories, and Levy responded with a (clean) limerick.
The bride wore a veil made from five yards of nylon net, and carried artificial flowers. Both bride and groom wore looks of bemused surprise.
After a honeymoon at Aragain Falls, the newly merged couple will maintain their separate product-development and marketing facilities in Mountain View, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts (i.e., we’ll still be the Infocom you know and love).
Queried about graphics in interactive-fiction stories, or better parsers in Little Computer People, the happy couple declined comment, but smiled enigmatically.
Soon after, Levy submitted to a gently mocking “Gruer’s Profile” (a play on a long-running advertising series by Dewar’s whiskey) prepared for the newsletter:
Hobby: Collecting software-development companies.
Latest Book Read: The Ballyhoo hint book.
Latest Accomplishment: Finding foster homes for all the Little Computer People.
Favorite Infocom Game: Cornerstone.
Why I Do What I Do: Alimony.
Quote: “People often mistake me for Bruce Willis.”
Profile: Charismatic. A real motivator. Looks great in a limousine.
His Drink: “Gruer’s Dark,” right out of a canteen. “Its taste blends perfectly with the sense of satisfaction I feel in knowing that I am now the kingpin of interactive fiction.”
Levy seemed to go out of his way to make the Infocom folks feel respected and comfortable within his growing Activision family. He was careful, for instance, never to refer to this acquisition as an acquisition or, God forbid, a buy-out. It was always a “merger” of apparent equals. The recently departed Marc Blank, who kept in close touch with his old colleagues and knew Levy from his time in the industry, calls him today a “great guy.” Brian Moriarty considered him “fairly benign” (mostly harmless?), with a gratifying taste for “quirky, interesting games”: “He seemed like a good match. It looked like we were going to be okay.”
This period immediately after the Activision acquisition would prove to be an Indian summer of sorts between a very difficult period just passed and another very difficult one to come. In some ways the Imps had it better than ever. With Vezza and his business-oriented allies now all gone, Infocom was clearly and exclusively a game-development shop; all of the cognitive dissonance brought on by Cornerstone was at long last in the past. Now everyone could just concentrate on making the best interactive fiction they possibly could, knowing as they did so that any money they made could go back into making still better, richer virtual worlds. Otherwise, things looked largely to be business as usual. The first game Infocom published as an Activision subsidiary was Moriarty’s Trinity, in my opinion simply the best single piece of work they would ever manage, and one which everyone inside Infocom recognized even at the time as one of their more “special” games. As omens go, that seemed as good as they come, certainly more than enough to offset any concerns about that unfortunate choice of Friday the Thirteenth.
Activision’s marketing people did almost immediately offer some suggestions — and largely very sensible ones — to Infocom. Some of these Mike Dornbrook’s marketing people greeted with open arms; they were things that they had been lobbying for to the Imps, usually without much success, for years now. Most notably, Activision strongly recommended that Infocom take a hard look at a back catalog that featured some of the most beloved classics in the young culture of computer gaming and think about how to utilize the goodwill and nostalgia they engendered. The Zork brand in particular, still by far the most recognizable in Infocom’s arsenal, had been, in defiance of all marketing wisdom, largely ignored since the original trilogy concluded back in 1982. Now Infocom prepared a pair of deluxe limited-edition slip-cased compilations of the Zork and Enchanter trilogies designed not only to give newcomers a convenient point of entry but also, and almost more importantly, to appeal to the collecting instinct that motivated (and still motivates) so many of their fans. Infocom had long since learned that many of their most loyal customers didn’t generally get all that far in the games at all. Some didn’t even play them all that much. Many just liked the idea of them, liked to collect them and see them standing there on the shelf. Put an old game in a snazzy new package and many of them would buy it all over again.
Infocom also got to work at long last — in fact, literally years after they should have in Dornbrook’s view — on a new game to bear the Zork name. While they were at it, they assigned Meretzky to bring back Infocom’s single most beloved character, the cuddly robot Floyd, in the sequel to Planetfall that that game’s finale had promised back in 1983 — just as soon as he was done with Leather Goddesses, that is, a game for which Infocom, in deference to the time-honored maxim that Sex Sells, also had very high hopes.
The Infocom/Activision honeymoon period and the spirit of creative and commercial renewal it engendered would last barely six months. The chummy dialogue between these two offices on opposite coasts would likewise devolve quickly into decrees and surly obedience — or, occasionally, covert or overt defiance. But that’s for a future article. For now we’ll leave Infocom to enjoy their Indian summer of relative content, and begin to look at the games that this period produced.
(Largely the usual Infocom sources this time out: Jason Scott’s Get Lamp interviews and Down From the Top of Its Game. The Dave Lebling quote comes from an interview with Adventure Classic Gaming. The anecdote about Vezza and Levy comes from Steve Meretzky’s interview for Game Design, Theory & Practice by Richard Rouse III.
Patreon supporters: this article is a bit shorter than the norm simply because that’s the length that it “wanted” to be. Because of that, I’m making it a freebie. In the future I’ll continue to make articles of less than 2500 words free.)
December 29, 2014 at 7:03 pm
Great article as always! I really have no comments on this piece, which captures the spirit of the “merger” quite well; I just wanted to offer a word about where this whole thing is inevitably going in another couple of posts.
In the course of my own research, I am probably the only person that has interviewed both Jim Levy and Bruce Davis (heck, I may be the only person that has ever done a historical retrospective interview with Davis about Activision). Davis is — to be polite — a controversial figure in interactive fiction circles, so I wanted to preemptively say a word or two before you turn your expert attention to that topic. I can, of course, offer no sourcing on any of this right now, but I am not asking for the inclusion of specific facts in your post; I just want to set a general mood.
According to our talk, Levy really did see the Activision-Infocom merger as a partnership. His thought was that Activision had some of the best game designers in the business (people like David Crane and Steve Cartwright) and Infocom had some of the best writers in the business, and by joining forces, they could move interactive entertainment forward together. He never planned to isolate Infocom as a separate entity doing its own thing. He knew as well as anyone that interactive fiction was the past, not the future, but he did believe the implementors could help lead us into that future hand in hand with Activision game designers. Based on your characterizations in previous posts, we might see this as Activision 2.5, or even 3.0.
I think this is the point Davis failed to grasp. Levy tasked him with integrating Infocom with Activision shortly before the management change, but “integration” to Davis just meant standardizing business practices, production, sales, and all that jazz. He had no desire to see Infocom fail (despite what all the implementors seem to think), but if Infocom was going to succeed, it would have to do so on the backs of its own products. Rather than forming a partnership, Davis created a parent-subsidiary relationship. Too wounded by the losses on Cornerstone and the decline in sales of interactive fiction, Infocom was unable to migrate to a graphical platform in time to catch the new wave of adventure products and fell apart.
Would Levy’s plan have worked? The answer is maybe. It’s certainly a compelling idea. However, with both Activision and Infocom running at a loss, one does wonder if Activision could have really made a meaningful investment to create this dream. Certainly Dick Lehrberg, another interview subject who was VP of product development for Activision at the time, viewed the acquisition as a mistake and felt it would have been better to collaborate with Infocom without buying the whole thing.
In my interview with Davis, he comes across as a well-meaning guy faced with a volatile market that made some good choices (bringing Activision into the NES market, pushing CD-ROM with the Manhole, developing a close relationship with Sega) and some bad choices (focusing productivity software development on the IIGS and Hypercard, supporting the Atari market just a hair too long) and just did not quite know how Infocom fit into his plans (whether those plans were a good idea is a whole other topic beyond the scope of this comment). Therefore, I feel some of the extreme demonizing of him is a little unfair, though he certainly still needs to be held accountable for his mistakes. You have always taken a balanced look at the industry, so I trust you will do so when it comes to this thorny topic as well.
December 30, 2014 at 7:29 am
Thanks for this.
Some of Levy’s (apparent) comments to you do strike me as perhaps Monday-morning quarterbacking, always a danger with personal interviews. It’s a bit hard for me to picture this as a merger of great writers being paired with great designers because a) none of Activision’s designers had ever worked with narrative-oriented games and b) the Imps themselves were actually pretty great designers in their own rights and, with the exception of Brian Moriarty and perhaps Jeff O’Neill, really only competent writers. Certainly this is nothing like the expectations Infocom themselves had of the merger (which may point to part of the eventual problems that would develop, but there you go).
Bruce Davis has become along with Al Vezza one of the two great villains of Infocom’s history. Unlike Vezza, for whom some of the Imps express a certain sympathy and understanding as for a guy just pursuing the wrong dream in the wrong company, virtually no one can even mention Davis’s name without obvious rancor. To describe the relationship that developed as toxic is almost an understatement. In my experience, it almost requires two unreasonable parties to reduce a relationship to that level. While most of the materials to which I have access definitely do tell the story of the Infocom/Activision relationship from the point of view of the former, I’m well aware that there are two sides to every story. I’ll certainly try to do due diligence to Activision’s side. What was Activision *supposed* to do with this money-losing maker of text adventures in an era when fewer and fewer people were buying text adventures? And there was definitely a side of Infocom that just Didn’t Play Well With Others.
That said, it wasn’t Infocom alone who saw Davis as a soulless personality with a certain contempt for Activision’s customers. David Crane, who left Activision almost immediately after the Davis reign began, also retains an intense dislike for him. He definitely had a knack for rubbing people the wrong way…
I may contact you privately, if that’s okay, to get your insights before writing more on this history (which will actually be several months down the road).
December 30, 2014 at 3:31 pm
Sure, feel free to contact me. As for Levy, I agree that a true merging of these different cultures would have been a stretch to implement (honestly, Activision never leveraged Gamestar as well as it could have in sports and that was a less complicated culture shock), but I believe the sentiment. I thought your Activision 2.0 article really captured Levy’s thoughts on the computer game market well and jived with the views he expressed in our interview. He saw Activision as a trendsetter and tastemaker and wanted to be on the cutting edge artistically. Of course, the flip side of that was that he ignored both military simulations and CRPGs (famously calling the Bard’s Tale, which could have been an Activision product, “nicheware for nerds” according to Dick Lehrberg), which is where the real money was in mid-1980s computer gaming. I believe integrating the companies would have been incredibly difficult, which is probably why Davis never did it, but I am fairly convinced that’s what Levy wanted based on his track record, general philosophy, and the merger spin during the acquisition itself. Obviously the board was not so enchanted by this vision in the end.
As for Davis and Crane, Crane usually talks about his dislike for the creative direction of the company, but in one interview he mentioned a salary dispute. This is how Davis characterized it as well without any prompting. Davis thought Crane’s salary was high for a struggling company and wanted to go to an incentive-based scheme. Crane felt insulted as a founder and successful designer. I believe that was a misstep on Davis’s part. There is no doubt Davis rubbed some of the creative people the wrong way.
He who shall not be named
May 7, 2015 at 7:54 pm
Are you serious?
Davis freaking SUED Infocom’s officers while they continued to work there, for overstating the “good will” value of the company.
He basically said “they shouldn’t take it personally.” He didn’t think suing Berez while Joel was trying to run the company, would effect how Infocom worked.
I was there and it had to be the most bizarre thing I ever observed in the game business.
To Infocom’s credit they produced some beautiful titles during this period (Shogun comes to mind) but Davis’s bad opinion on all things Infocom ruined it all.
Bobby Kotick gets a lot of heat, but at least he saw the value in Infocom, too late to save the company as Bruce had already shut it down by then.
Davis engaged in so much recreational litigation that it would come back to bite him and almost kill the company, in regards to the Baer patent judgement in 1990.
In the most ironic of ironies, Activision ‘discovered’ CYAN in 1988, published their first two games, then Davis stiffed them on payments in 1990.
They, of course, ended the relationship … went to Broderbund, and released MYST, the most successful computer game of it’s day.
Lack-o-Vision for sure.
July 10, 2016 at 12:39 am
” His thought was that Activision had some of the best game designers … and Infocom had some of the best writers … ”
“Would Levy’s plan have worked? ”
– Well, maybe not for Activision in 1986-87 but Lucasfilm proved the point in 1990 with Loom, which was as graphical and musical as adventure games get and was authored by Brian Moriarty, famous Infocom veteran, aided by a team that included graphic-adventure maestros Gary Winnick and Steve Purcell.
Had Levy been given more time and money, he surely would have managed get the Implementor’s to fully embrace the new adventure gaming paradigm. Davis could have adopted a management style similar to Microprose’s, where they “milked” a catalog of conventional titles but also gave Sid Meier freedom to create true classics. The Garriott family at Origin did something similar endlessly repackaging old hits and publishing lackluster new titles to give Richard and his team latitude to craft the next Ultima, which, as dictated by company policy, had to break new CRPG ground and substantially expand upon its predecessor’s gameplay.
December 30, 2014 at 9:07 am
Good luck renovating Bruce Davis’ reputation as anything but a lawyer who was a harbinger of how far the games industry would sink, Alex.
December 30, 2014 at 4:56 pm
Not to get too far off the topic of this thread, but if there is a thesis that has been developing in my own work, its that there is an inherent tension between the creativity required to create an excellent game and the business acumen necessary to make a game successful and that when either side dominates the other, it creates problems.
Activision represents both sides of this extreme. During the Activision 2.0 years, Jim Levy fostered great creativity at the company with games like Little Computer People, Alter Ego, and Portal. These were all avant garde products pushing the envelop creatively, but were generally sales disappointments. Meanwhile, Activision missed the boat on CRPGs, military simulations, and graphical adventures, which is where the real money resided. As a result, the company continued to post losses and never fully recovered from the crash.
The company required a change, and the board made one. Davis, however, swung the company too far in the other direction. He took a “singles and doubles” approach to the market, releasing products in popular genres that were low risk with a decent, though not exceptional return. This brought Activision back to profitability (barely), but at the cost of a lot of creativity. Activision needed to be more in tune with the market to remain a going concern, but it is a shame that the majority of the product line became very pedestrian. Most of the company’s output from this period is forgettable, which runs counter to the reputation of the Activision brand in other time periods. I consider that unfortunate, and Davis certainly deserves his share of the blame.
People tend to overlook a few things about Davis, however. First, the company did turn a profit after sixteen consecutive quarters of losses. Now to be fair, Davis achieved this by doing a final big writeoff, which Levy could have technically done too, so that’s not quite as impressive as it sounds. Still, his company released products people were interested in buying, and that is something a publicly traded company needs to do even if its not always artistically palatable.
Second, he did foster innovation in certain areas. He was the person who saw The Manhole in a catalog and decided to sign the product to get Activision into CD-ROM, which makes him an early adopter. He is also the person who recognized the franchise potential of Shanghai and asked for a sequel with new game variants. He took very few risks in games, but he was not completely against pushing boundaries.
Third, there is a lot of negativity about his decision to get into business/productivity products, but as this very blog post points out, it was Levy that started that shift, not Davis. It was not unreasonable for a software company in the late 1980s to want to tap into the productivity market, where Broederbund had a lot of success, as did EA for a time with Deluxe Paint. Activision actually had some innovative products in this area, including one that was PowerPoint before PowerPoint, but Davis made a decision to concentrate on underserved, graphical platforms, the Apple IIGS and Hypercard, which failed miserably and took Activision’s products with them. Clearly, Davis read the market poorly.
Now, of course, Activision is led by Bobby Kotick. You probably will not like me saying this, but Kotick’s Activision represents creativity and business largely in balance. Yes, much of what Activision does is sequel and retread, but every few years there is a Tony Hawk, or a Modern Warfare, or a Skylanders, or a Warlords of Draenor that does innovate and move the market forward (even though the company then tends to iterate to death, which killed the Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero franchises). In short, Activision makes boatloads of money, releases games enjoyed by millions, and occasionally releases something cutting edge. That’s not a perfect system by any means, but it is the reason why the company is still around today when most of its early competitors are not.
I know that personally I wish every game that appeared was an artistic triumph with an interesting story and/or game mechanics. I purchase very few sequels and retreads. I also understand, however, that game development is expensive, and it’s those sequels and retreads that fund the games I like. Davis tried to strike a balance between creativity and financial success, but he chased too many of the wrong platforms and alienated some of his best creative talent along the way. This ultimately made his tenure unsuccessful. Therefore, he was a well-meaning executive that read the market wrong, not “a harbinger of how far the games industry would sink.” This is the kind of hyperbole I am hoping Jimmy will avoid.
December 30, 2014 at 5:31 pm
Activision under Levy actually was fairly active in graphic adventures, releasing Tracer Sanction, Mindshadow, Borrowed Time, Murder on the Mississippi, and Tass Times in Tonetown over the span of just a couple of years. But otherwise, yeah, I don’t really disagree.
One other problem they had was with fairly fundamental quality control, which you can dump into the “business” side or make a category of its own as you will. Many of their games were buggy and/or just not that playable, the incomplete germs of what could have great games. Murder on the Mississippi, for instance, was all but unsolvable because the programmer forgot to render the graphic of an item vital for solving one of its puzzles. The fact that nobody caught this tells me that, as was depressingly typical of adventure games at this time, absolutely no one at Activision had even *played* the game all the way through before shoving it out the door. People like Levy who tried to draw direct parallels between, say, games and music often failed to account for the fact that games absolutely *need* heaps and heaps of polishing, no matter how brilliant they are conceptually. Spontaneity as we know it from music just doesn’t have an equivalent in game design. A Husker Du album might actually be the better for some tape hiss and general sloppiness in the production and performance. An equivalent game is literally unplayable.
This was one area where Infocom was the class of the industry. Their determination to sell no game before its time, and to test the hell out of each and every title and take testers’ feedback *seriously*, is perhaps the biggest reason that their games stand up so well today, while others from the talented, well-meaning folks at Synapse, Telarium, and elsewhere come off so poorly in comparison.
December 30, 2014 at 7:16 pm
In the interest in not derailing Jimmy’s blog comments, I’m not contributing further to this thread.
May 7, 2015 at 10:15 pm
It was myself and Sherry Whitely who championed “The Manhole” which, to Davis’ credit … approved.
I was hired out of Aegis in 1988 to help with the technology image of Activision, and Manhole and Manhole CD-ROM were a big part of.
I’ll leave it to others to reveal how Activision lost Cyan.
May 7, 2015 at 10:18 pm
Bobby deserves a lot of credit, for letting us build “The Return to Zork” after the failure of LGOP2.
This turned out to be a wise decision.
I believe I’m the only senior management person who survived the Davis->Kotick transition … partly because I knew Bobby during the mid ’80’s when I was at Aegis.
December 31, 2014 at 7:34 am
That’s a pity, Jason. This discussion is fascinating and while it may be a derail from the actual post it certainly is exactly what Jimmys Blog as a whole is about.
I guess you disagree with Alex and don’t want to start a controversy but thats unavoidable when writing about the past. People remember things and judge them differently. Nothing wrong with that as long as all participants try to keep it civil.
May 28, 2022 at 11:57 am
Activison -> Activision
risque -> risqué
May 30, 2022 at 4:46 am