Daily Archives: September 5, 2015

…and Into the Fire

When Infocom’s loyal fans received their New Zork Times newsletter for the spring of 1986, they were surprised not only by the shocking acquisition by Activision that was announced therein but also by the issue’s letterhead. Replacing The New Zork Times was a simple “* * * *.” It seemed that a certain Gray Lady in New York City had belatedly — very belatedly, in light of the fact that she had published several articles about Infocom — gotten wind of the title of the newsletter and decided that it wasn’t kosher at all. “You are endangering vital Times Company assets,” she had written, without deigning to clarify in exactly what way. The bottom line, however, was clear enough: “I am asking our attorney to take the necessary steps.”

This obviously wasn’t a fight that Infocom was going to win. After apologizing to “the millions of people who had bought The New York Times hoping to receive ‘* * * *,'” they initiated a contest to seek out a new name, the ironic prize a subscription to The New York Times. Cliff Tuel of San Jose had the winning suggestion, The Status Line, although I must say that my personal favorites are The Gnu Yak Times (“All the gnus’ wee feet leave prints”), The Old Zork Times, and The New York Times (“Really give them something to complain about!”). Tuel declined his Times subscription, saying he lacked a bird cage that needed lining, and asked for a free Infocom game instead, thus enabling a delighted Infocom to write that “The New York Times can’t be given away!”

Amid all the turbulence that had led to the Activision acquisition, the need to retire the name that had been on Infocom’s newsletter since Mike Dornbrook had founded The Zork Users Group back in 1981 was a fairly minor problem, one to be dealt with with as much grace and good humor as possible — in the case of Infocom that always meant a considerable amount of both — and put behind them. Seen with the benefit of hindsight, though, it represents the beginning of the slow erosion of Infocom’s identity that would mark this final era of their existence, a process of bargaining with powers greater than themselves that slowly leached away more and more autonomy, more and more personality, from this proud little troupe that had always done things their own way. By the time that process came to its inevitable painful anticlimax three years later, some at Infocom would wonder if it mightn’t have been better to have just let the company go under in 1986.

Perhaps Infocom, desperate as they were to see Activision as an unmitigated savior, should indeed have been more conscious from the beginning of what the acquisition must really mean. Yet that was hard to do as a jovial Jim Levy joined in the usual Infocom insanity to take part in an impromptu “InfoWedding,” hastened to declare at every opportunity his love for their games, and always used the word “merger” — never “acquisition” — when describing the new “partnership.” It was almost enough to cause one to forget where all of the actual power resided. Brian Moriarty continues to refer to Levy even today almost dismissively, as “a fairly benign guy” (a turn of phrase that always brings to mind the old “mostly harmless” gag from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Infocom hastened to declare in their newsletter that all would remain business as usual: “We’ll still be the Infocom you know and love.”

But the reality is that few companies buy other companies in order to just leave them alone and let them continue to go about their business, regardless of what they first say to the nervous employees of said companies. Levy did have quiet plans of his own for Infocom, plans that, if fully known, might have left the latter feeling less sanguine about their future. Alex Smith, a videogame historian who recently interviewed Levy at some length, describes his plans thus: “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.” Entering into such a partnership as the clear junior partner must be, at best, an uncomfortable adjustment for a company that wasn’t used to answering to anyone. Whatever else happened in the Activision/Infocom relationship — and plenty would — nothing was ever going to be quite the same again for the latter.

While Jim Levy’s bigger plans remained for the long term, to be put into practice perhaps after Infocom had had some time to adjust to their new reality, Activision had an immediate impact on Infocom’s day-to-day operations in at least one very important respect. Following a 1985 in which Infocom’s output dipped to just three new works of interactive fiction, plus Cornerstone and the graphical multiplayer game Fooblitzky, many fans had begun to speculate on the company’s overall health as well as its commitment to the genre which had made it what it was. With Infocom now firmly and unambiguously a specialist in adventure games again, Activision encouraged them to make something of a statement by releasing a lot of interactive fiction before 1986 was out. Eager to cooperate and just as eager as Activision was to tell the world that they were “back,” Joel Berez and his management team crafted an ambitious release schedule. In addition to a pair of Zork and Enchanter trilogy collector’s sets and the already released Ballyhoo and Trinity, they pushed the Imps to finish four more new games. All seemed like they had real commercial potential with one demographic or another. There was Leather Goddesses of Phobos, a game for which, in deference to Steve Meretzky’s proven comedic touch and most of all to the time-honored maxim that Sex Sells, they had very high hopes; Moonmist, a second collaboration between Stu Galley and seasoned children’s author Jim Lawrence that would be, after the Tom Swift-in-all-but-name Seastalker, Nancy Drew with the serial numbers filed away; Hollywood Hijinx, a product of first-time author “Hollywood” Dave Anderson and an old-school puzzlefest of the sort that a large percentage of Infocom’s hardcore fans still adored above any other sort of game; and Bureaucracy, a satirical comedy with a uniquely long and troubled development history already behind it which would nevertheless have the huge advantage of having Douglas Adams’s name on the box.

It was all too ambitious. Eager to please as they might have been, Infocom had never before pushed out four games in six months, and really wasn’t equipped to do it now without compromising quality in ways no one was willing to do. Management only compounded the problem by remaining in denial about this reality for far too long. Jon Palace became the unfortunate point man ordered to find a way to finish, package, and polish the two games that were least far along, Hollywood Hijinx and Bureaucracy, in record time. When he told his managers that this was impractical, and asked if he could just focus on getting one or the other out in time, his request was denied; management wanted both. In the end, both projects spilled into the following year, Hollywood Hijinx appearing in January and Bureaucracy not until March. Palace:

That was a hard lesson learned. We missed the Christmas season. As Steve Meretzky likes to say, games need a certain amount of time, and just putting more resources on them doesn’t make it happen faster. You can’t use nine women to have a baby in one month.

The episode precipitated some of the first cracks in the relationship between Activision and Infocom, began to engender a slowly hardening perception of the latter on the part of the former as an undisciplined gang of artistes who just wouldn’t knuckle down to the hard-headed business of selling games, who greeted every suggestion with a long explanation of why they, special little flowers that they were, just couldn’t manage it. As for Infocom’s perception of Activision… well, much more on that momentarily.

Whatever Activision’s perception, at this stage Infocom was still striving mightily to please both their customers by making quality games and their new masters by making lots more of them. Including the two titles that had slipped from 1986, Infocom released no fewer than eight games over the course of 1987, followed by another that slipped into January of 1988. It marked by far the most prolific outpouring in the company’s history.  While the expanded release schedule allowed room for one or two unabashed experiments, Infocom’s management was every bit as aware as Activision’s that they could really use a big hit or three among that group. As Infocom looked over their plans for the year on New Years Day 1987 they must have felt like they had as close to a can’t-miss lineup as they could possibly craft. It included games like Douglas Adams’s Bureaucracy, better late than never; Stationfall, the long-awaited sequel to one of their most beloved early titles, featuring copious amounts of Floyd the lovable robot; The Lurking Horror, a leap into horror fiction that seemed especially well-timed on the heels of ICOM’s dire but very successful Uninvited. For the coup de grâce, they planned to cap the year with Beyond Zork, their first use since 1982 of their strongest brand by a mile, a brand the Imps had previously rejected ever using again. They now proved far more willing than in earlier years to compromise their artistic ideals a bit for the sake of commercial concerns. Figuring that if you can’t beat ’em you might as well join ’em, Beyond Zork would combine traditional text-adventure mechanics with the randomized combat and character leveling of a CRPG, a genre whose popularity seemed to be growing in inverse proportion to the decline of Infocom’s brand of adventure game. Infocom was truly pulling out all the stops for this one, for which they were designing yet another new version of their venerable Z-Machine that would allow for an onscreen automap, a windowing system, mouse input, more sophisticated text formatting, and a character-based graphics system that, if not quite what most people thought of when they thought of graphics in an adventure game in 1987, was certainly as close as Infocom had ever come.

The verdict on whether what would turn out to be the last great outpouring of all-text Infocom games was ultimately a good or a bad thing remains mixed to this day. Some who were at Infocom believe it was all far, far too much, especially given that their employee rolls remained stuck at about 40 people who were now being expected to produce almost twice the product of earlier years. It’s hard to imagine how this increased workload couldn’t have had an effect on the end result. And indeed, some of the games of 1987 do show signs of stress in the form of puzzles that could have used a bit more thought or ideas that aren’t quite fully formed. Further, Mike Dornbrook for one believes that by 1987 there was simply a very finite number of diehards willing to buy all-text adventure games at all, and that even many of these people were unwilling to buy eight of them in a single year. Thus, he believes, Infocom’s 1987 games to a large extent ended up cannibalizing one another’s sales. (Dornbrook actually lobbied fruitlessly at the time that Infocom should be going in the opposite direction, should be pouring all of their resources into just one or two major epics per year, a very radical idea that would have entailed the upending of the one-author one-game model of creation that had been with the company almost since the beginning.) Set against these practical concerns, however, must be the fact that the expanded release schedule allowed some welcome new voices that I for one would certainly not want to be without. Amy Briggs’s absolutely delightful Plundered Hearts alone is more than argument enough for the policy in my eyes.

Infocom’s newfound prolificacy undoubtedly contributed to the decision to retire Mike Dornbrook’s old matrix of fiction genres and difficulties that had been instituted along with the gray-box era of standardized packaging back in 1984. Beginning with Hollywood Hijinx, these categories were replaced on the box covers with a simple “Interactive Fiction” label and an author credit. It’s hard to mourn their disappearance too much. The difficulty rankings in particular were arguably worse than useless, having far too often been motivated more by how difficult Infocom’s marketing department would like for a given game to be than by the reality. (Particular lowlights included the infamously hard yet “Standard” level Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the “Advanced” yet almost trivial Infidel.) Of late the genre tags had also been looking increasingly strained as the Imps continued to explore new fictional territory. (Was the mournful Cold War tragedy Trinity really what people were looking for when they set out to buy a “Fantasy” game? Was Leather Goddesses of Phobos science fiction or was it “pure” comedy?) Looking back, the loss of the matrix seems once again most impactful in the symbolic rather than the practical sense, as one more piece of Infocom’s old identity bargained away.

Bruce Davis

Bruce Davis

If the character of the earliest changes wrought by the Activision acquisition can be and were debated, both now and at the time, those that began to take hold after January of 1987 leave far less room for discussion. Everyone at Infocom at the time agrees that most of them were nothing less than devastating. The trouble all stemmed from the toppling of Jim Levy and the ascent of one Bruce Davis, the man destined to go down in Infocom lore as Al Vezza’s successor in the role of the great villain of the story. While some of the Imps can now find it in their hearts to forgive Vezza for the Cornerstone debacle and all of his other mistakes, none seem willing to extend the same courtesy to Davis. The wounds he inflicted still fester all these years later, and former Infocom staffers, so balanced and level-headed and even wise when discussing most topics, can sometimes begin to sound like shrill conspiracy theorists when the topic turns to Davis. Marc Blank:

My sense of Bruce Davis is that he thought that companies made money by suing people, not by making products. He didn’t like the fact that Infocom had been bought in the first place, and he arranged to make it fail and shut it down.

Mike Dornbrook:

He was a lawyer who had no games experience. I don’t know that he even had much business experience, other than as a legal consultant.

He thought like a lawyer, not an entrepreneur. He didn’t seem to care what the moral/ethical deal was, but what he could get away with in court.

As we’ll see, Davis did much to earn such vitriol. At the same time, though, these characterizations of him are hardly fair. Far from lacking any experience in business, Davis had cut his teeth in the games industry as the head of Imagic, a developer and publisher that had followed in the footsteps of Jim Levy and Activision to enjoy a couple of very successful years as a third-party purveyor of titles for the Atari VCS during that platform’s boom period. After the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 Davis had, ironically in light of the role he would later play as Infocom’s nemesis-in-chief, tried to jump onto the bookware bandwagon that had arisen largely as a reaction to Infocom’s success, creating a line of interactive fiction in partnership with Bantam Books called Living Literature. When that proved not to be a success, the remnants of Imagic wound up at Activision. (See Scott Stilphen’s comment below for more on this.) Among those remnants was Davis himself, who worked for Activision initially as a freelance consultant hired by a board that was growing more and more restive under Jim Levy’s leadership, concerned by his continual investing in quirky, high-concept titles like Alter Ego and Portal and by his complete dismissal of some of the most popular genres in gaming, such as the CRPG. (Levy had, for instance, rejected Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale as “nicheware for nerds,” leaving Electronic Arts to pick it up and turn it into a massive hit.)

In his role as consultant, Davis had pushed hard to convince Activision to purchase not Infocom but rather Sierra, whose animated graphical adventures he believed, correctly, to be the direction the industry at large must go in the years to come. Mike Dornbrook claims that Davis actually negotiated the purchase with Ken Williams, only to have Jim Levy and the board reject it “over a fairly small difference of opinion on price.” (“I suspect that he would have messed up Sierra, though,” notes Dornbrook.) Conversely, Davis adamantly opposed Levy’s purchase of Infocom, believing — again, it must be admitted, correctly — that text adventures were on their way out and that the price Activision was paying was far too high. He did have a point. Neither purchaser nor purchasee had made a single quarterly profit in years, and Infocom’s recent sales showed worrying evidence of a steady downward slide even absent the damage done by Cornerstone. Nevertheless, Jim Levy got his way one last time; he got his preferred adventure-game company. But he was on borrowed time. In mid-January 1987, following yet another underwhelming Christmas season, with the huge nest egg Activision had collected during the videogame boom now wiped out by more than three straight years of big losses, Davis orchestrated what Dornbrook calls an “underhanded coup” to oust Levy and take over his role of CEO. Life at Infocom got hugely more difficult from that moment forward.

That said, to imagine that Davis was deliberately conspiring to destroy Infocom strikes me as quite the stretch. He may very well have felt that Activision had gotten a raw deal on the purchase, but, having staked his reputation on his ability to turn Activision around, he was hardly in a position to exorcise a personal grudge that must impact their all-important bottom line. Looking at Infocom from his office on the other coast, he saw an under-performing subsidiary that needed to change the way it operated in order to become a good citizen of Activision’s corporate family. He took it upon himself to effect the necessary changes, without paying any undue heed to the complaints of this undisciplined bunch who, what with all of the absurd antics they called their “culture,” didn’t seem all that concerned about the fact that their games weren’t selling well and that they were continuing to lose money. This was a drastic misreading of Infocom — everyone cared very much indeed and desperately wanted to turn their fortunes around — but there it was.

The first indication the average Infocom fan received that the times they were a-changing came when Infocom’s third and fourth games of 1987, Stationfall and The Lurking Horror, were released simultaneously in June. Replacing the classic gray-box packaging was something that looked almost the same at first glance but was… well, there’s no kinder way to put it: it looked, and was, much cheaper. Replacing the old bound-in “browsie” was a conventional manual dropped into a depressingly conventional shrink-wrapped box. Feelies to set the stage could still be found therein, but they were dramatically reduced in quantity and quality. The era of classy Infocom packaging was over just like that, one more piece of their identity stolen away.

Unsurprisingly, the change was the result of a Bruce Davis initiative. In the name of streamlining the operations of the parent company and all of its subsidiaries and taking advantage of economies of scale, he demanded that everyone use the same size and style of box and that all products be manufactured in the same plant. For Infocom, who had always been intimately involved with every detail of the packaging of their games and who had worked with the same local assembly company for years, the resulting compromises and loss of oversight felt positively emasculating. Nor did it save them any money. Mike Dornbrook claims that they were billed twice as much for each of the new cheap, flimsy packages, and that Activision’s packager, unused to assembling boxes full of so many little goodies, kept screwing up to boot, leaving out instruction manuals or dropping in the wrong disks.

But the cheaper packaging was only one consequence of being expected to conform to Activision’s company-wide distribution model, and quite possibly one of the less damaging at that. Something else was going on behind the scenes, less immediately obvious to the casual buyer but devastating to Infocom’s business model. Mike Dornbrook:

When Bruce Davis took over Activision, he told the sales force that the strategy was to clear the shelves: this is a hits-driven business, products have a two- or three-month shelf life. Get them out there, then get them off the shelves to make room for new product.

When he announced that, I made a point of saying to him that that wasn’t at all the business model that worked for us. What we’d been doing was putting out four to five really strong games per year, with the hope that one of them would become a really strong back-catalog title that would sell for years and years to come. When he came in in 1987, Zork I and some of the other early games were still selling well at retail. About half of our total yearly sales came from the back catalog. And most of the profits came from the back catalog. We invested a ton of money in the new games in the hope that one of them would become a back-catalog [perennial].

He threw that out. He threw out half of our sales and completely changed our financial model. When we told that he’d just thrown out half our sales, his response was to do twice as many games, do eight games per year instead of four. But the whole industry was going in the direction of investing more in each title. Games were becoming more elaborate. We couldn’t halve the amount of work we put into a game and stay competitive, halve the budget. But that’s what we were ordered to do.

Infocom had previously charged retailers and distributors a stiff 15-percent restocking fee on product which was returned to them, causing them to think twice before placing large orders on new titles but also creating a strong incentive to keep catalog titles on their shelves. Under Davis, Activision adopted exactly the opposite stance, trying to create a buzz for new releases by encouraging distributors and retailers to order massive quantities, which they could return for no penalty if necessary to clear space for the next big hit. Dave Lebling:

Activision bought into the “sell huge, accept returns” theory. That did not help Infocom because it meant that there was an easy choice for a distributor or a retail store when new stuff came in and they were short on shelf space: “Here’s this Infocom stuff. It sells, but it sells slowly. And here’s this new game that might be a huge hit! Let’s send the Infocom stuff back. Activision is accepting returns now.” That essentially destroyed the Infocom back list in one stroke.

Activision was equally uninterested in another major Infocom revenue center: the InvisiClues line of hints books that, as much or more so than the games, sold steadily if unspectacularly as catalog items over periods of years. Moonmist, Infocom’s last game of 1986, also became their last to receive the full-fledged InvisiClues treatment. After that they experimented with combining somewhat stripped-down clues for two recent games in one hint booklet in the hope that, having purchased hints for the game they were having trouble with, buyers would be encouraged to buy the other game for which they already had hints to hand. It doesn’t appear to have worked out all that well, especially given that the combinations were essentially random, based strictly on what games came out at around the same times and possessing none of the thematic consistency that might make each pairing particularly appealing to players with certain interests. By the end of 1987 the InvisiClues line was being phased out entirely in favor of in-game hint systems. Thus was yet another piece of the iconic Infocom experience lost, along with one more important source of revenue.

Infocom was trapped in a strange and awkward position. Increasingly associated with where computer gaming had been rather than where it was going, they were controlled by a parent obsessed with the Now of ephemeral hit-making, a parent which seemed almost to be actively trying to erase the rich heritage that was perhaps their greatest remaining strength in the marketplace. Trying to find a way to make all that old stuff new again to accord with Activision’s business model, Infocom indulged in a flurry of repackaging: a pair of themed collections, one of “Classic Mysteries” and the other of “Classic Science Fiction”; “Solid Gold” editions of the big older hits Zork I, Hitchhiker’s, Leather Goddesses, Planetfall, and Wishbringer that included in-game hints to replace the InvisiClues that were no longer being made.

Included among the supplementary materials in Activision’s 1996 Masterpieces of Infocom collection is a document that’s fascinating in a very uncomfortable sort of way: the minutes of a meeting that took place at Infocom during this confused and confusing period. Specifically, the meeting occurred on April 29, 1987. It shows the company wrestling with what feels like a full-on identity crisis, a far cry from their confident, brash, even arrogant glory days.

There was a great deal of discussion about defining what it is we do. For example, do we just do I.F.?  Do we do anything that has an English parser in it?  Do we have to have puzzles?  Do we have to have stories? If you do a point-and-click interface (like Deja Vu) is it still “what we do”?

There was a lot of discussion of what the market is.  Do we think there is any realistic chance of doing “mass-market” stuff?  Reading and typing make us a minority taste immediately. What if you don’t have to read and/or type?  Can you do a good I.F. game with a point-and-click interface?  Deja Vu has one approach, Labyrinth another.

What makes our games enjoyable?  Lots of different things were mentioned: Puzzles, story, humor, exploration, etc.

They struggle with the trade press’s general disinterest in Infocom, which they believe to be born of that perpetual bane of the text adventure in general: the fact that a modern, sophisticated one looks pretty much the same at a glance as a creaky, simplistic one.

Some people in the market seem to believe that I.F. technology, particularly ours, hasn’t advanced in years.  They don’t notice the small improvements in the parser and substrate, probably because to a casual observer, our newest games look a lot like our first ones.

(Apparently, Personal Computing is doing a piece on new stuff, and said they weren’t including anything of ours (when asked) because it’s “old hat.”)

Some ideas for changing this opinion:

  • Graphic title screens.
  • “Illuminated” text adventures (as XZIP will permit).
  • Sound.
  • Friendlier parser (knows about common “first-time” mistakes).
  • Better demos (a demo mode, or a demo with speech recognition and speech synthesis for output).

There was a fair amount of discussion about whether it is worth doing any kind of graphics unless it is “the best.”  Is it worthwhile merely equalling the level of graphics in The Pawn?  I think the consensus was that doing good graphics (such as an “illuminated” adventure with Pawn-quality graphics) was better than doing nothing.

A friendlier parser that might make it possible to learn how to play without reading the manual was proposed.  It was pointed out that we do this already (to some extent) in games such as Seastalker and Wishbringer.  Might be nice to do even better, though.

The consensus was that these things should not all be introduced at once (waiting until they’ve all been designed and implemented), but rather one thing at a time, whenever we have a game that wants to use them. Of course, given our manpower shortage, we can hardly do it any other way.

That last paragraph says much about how things would play out over the balance of 1987: it became, among other things, the Year of the Technological Gimmick at Infocom. The Z-Machine had remained clean, simple, and remarkably stable for years, changed only in very straightforward, commonsense ways to support the new Interactive Fiction Plus line of 256 K story files. Now, however, it was about to be extended — some might say “tortured” — in about a dozen different ways at once, making, as Graham Nelson puts it, “a mess of the system of opcodes (designed by committee).” Some of the torturing was necessary simply to bring Infocom’s games to parity with the latest innovations from Britain’s Magnetic Scrolls and Level 9, the other two companies in the English-speaking world still actively trying to push forward the art and technology of the text adventure. Thus Infocom added an undo command, command-line recall and editing, and programmable function keys among other unflashy but welcome conveniences to their games. Perhaps the most welcome of all of these was the simplest: beginning with Bureaucracy, “x” finally became a synonym for the verb “examine,” which was getting used ever more frequently as the games’ worlds and text grew ever richer. These final additions put the bow on the Infocom model for interactive fiction destined to be adopted as standard best practice by the hobbyist community that would arise after their demise.

Other innovations from this period proved less long-lived. There’s a whiff of desperation clinging to the cheesy sound effects that were shoehorned into The Lurking Horror and Sherlock: Riddle of the Crown Jewels — “We may still not know how to do graphics, but we can do sound!” — and the less said about the pointless real-time element that was added to Border Zone the better. And then there were the tangle of additions — colors, new typefaces, character graphics, windows, mouse support — that made Beyond Zork into what Infocom liked to call an “illuminated” text adventure. At some point, one senses, Infocom just started throwing everything at the wall in the hope that some of it would stick, would make the world forget that the one thing it kept actually asking Infocom for — beautiful bit-mapped illustrations like those found in the Magnetic Scrolls games — wasn’t being delivered. Graphics of that stripe remained impossible as long as Infocom remained tied to that big character-oriented DECSystem-20 that had been at the heart of their development process since the very beginning.

The gimmicks didn’t help very much. Infocom’s ambitious slate of games for 1987, conceived with such high hopes, turned into a cavalcade of disappointments as the year wore on; 1987 also became the Year of the 20,000-Seller. Some, like Bureaucracy, did a bit better than 20,000 while still falling short of expectations. Some, like Border Zone, Infocom’s single worst-selling all-text adventure ever, did considerably worse. But most hovered right there around 20,000 copies, a fraction of what even the least commercially imposing Infocom games had been selling during 1983 and 1984. Beyond Zork, their ace in the hole, their all but guaranteed blockbuster, proved in its way the biggest heartbreaker of all. Its sales topped 40,000 copies, a darn sight better than any other game of the year but still far below expectations; the big games of previous years had topped 100,000 in sales as a matter of course. Underwhelming as it was in relative terms, Beyond Zork was successful enough to nudge the slimmed-down Infocom into profitability one last time in the fourth quarter of 1987, the first time the company had managed such a feat since the same quarter of 1983. Yet what might have looked like a hopeful sign was really a mirage. Beyond Zork‘s sales clearly weren’t going to buoy them for long, and they had nothing in the immediate pipeline that looked remotely as promising. Clearly something had to give. Infocom was simply not justifiable for Activision as an ongoing concern selling games in numbers like these, and Bruce Davis was fast running out of patience.

Given Davis’s unwillingness to listen to Infocom, his determination to, as Stu Galley puts it, “be rigorous” with what he saw as a “bad investment,” it was tempting to lay all of these problems at his feet and be done with it. Indeed, that’s a temptation from which many former Infocom staffers are far from immune even today. In their more thoughtful moments, however, they have to acknowledge that Infocom’s problems extended far beyond Davis. Dave Lebling:

Activision had managed to mess things up so badly from our point of view that the fact that the industry as a whole was having problems was something we didn’t begin to actually get until later. But we got it later. Sales were off, some of which we thought, I still think rightly, was due to Activision’s lousy policies. But some of it was just that there were a lot of games out there on a lot of subjects, and the influx of better and better graphics were having an impact.

Any argument that Bruce Davis was simply incompetent must reckon with the fact that, problem child Infocom’s travails notwithstanding, he accomplished everything he had promised for Activision as a whole and then some during 1987. In the fiscal year which ended on March 31, 1987, Activision had lost no less than $14.6 million (a sizable chunk of which was due to the Infocom acquisition). In the year ending March 31, 1988, they made $3.6 million, marking the company’s first profitable fiscal year since 1982-83. Davis accomplished this remarkable turnaround via a series of shrewd moves that showed him to be anything but incompetent. He leveraged Activision’s far-reaching and efficient distribution network, a legacy of their glory days when games like Pitfall! sold huge numbers through the mass merchandisers, to build a large network of smaller “affiliated publishers” who paid for access to it. These rolls included the likes of Lucasfilm Games, New World Computing, Access Software, Firebird and Rainbird, and in some markets Sierra. Within a year of Davis’s taking over, Computer Gaming World was fretting that Activision and Electronic Arts were effectively dividing the entire industry into two camps via their extensive, dueling networks of affiliates. Under Davis, Activision had gone from also-ran to a potential engulfer and devourer in an amazingly short time.

For their own games, Activision homed in on categories that were proven commercial winners and largely discarded the rest. The new focus paid off. The first year of Davis’s stewardship yielded several substantial hits, colorful fast-paced titles slow-pitched right down the center of the mainstream to hit the prototypical gamer of the era, the teenage boy, right in his sweet spot. Teenage boys loved karate; thus the slick action-adventure The Last Ninja and a beat-em-up called Chop ‘N Drop (known as International Karate + in Europe) did very well. They also loved Arnold; thus the success of Predator. And of late they were returning to the standup arcades; thus a port of the arcade hit Rampage became a “mega-hit” for Activision in turn on home computers. The new management team preferred to see themselves as realistic, hardheaded businesspeople replacing Jim Levy’s artsy-fartsy dreamers, whose era they often referenced obliquely in interviews. “Now we’ve focused in on the products that have been most successful for us,” said product manager Mark Beaumont in one. “We’re channeling in on those areas that work best and not taking too many forays into the never-never land of ‘who knows what this product is.'” Director of corporate communications Loretta Stagnitto elaborated further in another:

Games like Web Dimension, Alter Ego, and Portal were truly innovative, but the consumer was more interested in action-oriented, strategy games, and/or fantasy/role-playing titles. In other words, the programs weren’t geared to the needs of the average user. Then the company spent a lot of money trying to convince everybody they wanted those types of programs, instead of publishing what the people really wanted. It was a very confusing time in Activision’s history.

Davis himself indulged in what verged on open gloating at his predecessor’s expense: “We’ve been making money and we plan to continue it forever, and if we don’t, you can talk to the next guy.” The idea was to get product out there quickly to capitalize on the latest trends in television, movies, the arcades.

It was only Infocom that stubbornly resisted the new approach. Jon Palace:

We had a summit at some rather dreary hotel in Cambridge. We were sitting around a big U-shaped table, and one of the heads of Activision said, “Our motto is, if you can’t be best be first.” All of the Activision people nodded their heads. And all of the Infocom people were looking at each other thinking, “That doesn’t sound good for us.”

Smug character that he may have been, cold fish with little passion for games as anything other than commodities that he may also have been, the inconvenient truth lurking at the root of the story of Infocom’s final years is that Bruce Davis was also largely right about the direction of the industry. It was becoming more and more driven by hits; licenses were getting ever more important; shelf lives were shrinking; the types of games being produced were becoming more homogenized; a handful of players were playing a bigger and bigger role, increasingly dictating the terms under which the industry as a whole operated. Whether Bruce Davis was more symptom or cause of these realities was almost irrelevant. These truths weren’t and never would be universal; there still was and would remain room for people doing interesting, bold, creative work. (Thankfully, or I wouldn’t have much more to talk about on this blog.) But the question at hand was whether Infocom, having sold their souls to a company now so determined to play in the mainstream, could find a sustainable niche whilst remaining recognizably themselves. If they could, the next question must be whether the commercially ambitious Davis would be content to let them remain there. And the answers weren’t looking very good.

Still, real life is messy and eras are never all one thing, and to paint too gloomy a picture of life at the latter-day Infocom would be a mistake. Amid all the stress and angst there remained plenty of space for all of the usual crazy antics, plus a few new ones to boot. For instance, the hermit-crab races, one of the all-time legendary Infocom absurdities, started up only at this late date. Likewise some of the best and most entertaining promotional ideas, like the “Marathon of the Minds” that brought together teams of high-school or university students to assault the latest game until one of them solved the thing or everyone dropped from sheer exhaustion. The Status Line that reported on it all was a New Zork Times by another name that still smelled as sweet to the loyal fans still buying the games; it actually expanded in size and production values during 1987. If the picture it painted of life inside CambridgePark Drive — a life of nonstop fun and creativity unbound — wasn’t exactly the whole story, it wasn’t exactly a lie or a PR snow job either. Infocom, whatever the era, was a pretty great place to be. One suspects that the dawning realization that the end may be near only made everyone that much more determined to enjoy it.

Most of all, there remained — and remain — that last run of games to attend to, tarnished a bit here and there by the rushed schedule and the other drawbacks of life under Bruce Davis, but still oozing design craft and consistently failing in interesting ways even when they do fail. Like players at the time of their release, we should be sure to enjoy them while they last. So, settle in. The end may be approaching, but we’ve still got a lot to talk about.

(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. Thanks again, Jason! Other sources include: personal correspondence with Mike Dornbrook, for which I also offer my heartfelt thanks; The New Zork Times/Status Line of Spring 1986 and Summer 1986; Computer Gaming World of March 1988 and April 1988; Compute! of November 1987 and August 1988; Commodore Magazine of July 1989; InfoWorld of June 25 1984 and October 3 1988; Down From the Top of Its Game, an academic paper on Infocom’s history; and the supplementary materials included with Activision’s 1996 Masterpieces of Infocom collection.)


Posted by on September 5, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction