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An Unlikely Savior

19 Apr

Activision Blizzard is the largest game publisher in the Western world today, generating a staggering $7.5 billion in revenue every year. Along with the only slightly smaller behemoth Electronic Arts and a few Japanese competitors, Activision for all intents and purposes is the face of gaming as a mainstream, mass-media phenomenon. Even as the gaming intelligentsia looks askance at Activision for their unshakeable fixation on sequels and tried-and-true formulas, the general public just can’t seem to get enough Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush Saga. Likewise, Bobby Kotick, who has sat in the CEO’s chair at Activision for over a quarter of a century now, is as hated by gamers of a certain progressive sensibility as he is loved by the investment community.

But Activision’s story could have — perhaps by all rights should have — gone very differently. When Kotick became CEO, the company was a shambling wreck that hadn’t been consistently profitable in almost a decade. Mismanagement combined with bad luck had driven it to the ragged edge of oblivion. What to a large degree saved Activision and made the world safe for World of Warcraft was, of all things, a defunct maker of text adventures which longtime readers of this ongoing history have gotten to know quite well. The fact that Infocom, the red-headed stepchild a previous Activision CEO had never wanted, is directly responsible for Activision’s continuing existence today is one of the strangest aspects of both companies’ stories.



The reinvention of Activision engineered by Bobby Kotick in the early 1990s was actually the company’s third in less than a decade.

Activision 1.0 was founded in 1979 by four former Atari programmers known as the “Fantastic Four,” along with a former music-industry executive named Jim Levy. Their founding tenets were that Atari VCS owners deserved better games than the console’s parent was currently giving them, and that Atari VCS game programmers deserved more recognition and more money than were currently forthcoming from the same source. They parlayed that philosophy into one of the most remarkable success stories of the first great videogame boom; their game Pitfall! alone sold more than 4 million copies in 1982. It would, alas, be a long, long time before Activision would enjoy success like that again.

Following the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, Levy tried to remake Activision into a publisher of home-computer games with a certain high-concept, artsy air. But, while the ambitions of releases like Little Computer People, Alter Ego, and Portal still make them interesting case studies today, Activision 2.0 generated few outright hits. Six months after Levy had acquired Infocom, the preeminent maker of artsy computer games, in mid-1986, he was forced out by his board.

Levy’s replacement was a corporate lawyer named Bruce Davis. He nixed the artsy fare, doubled down on licensed titles, and tried to establish Activision 3.0 as a maker of mass-market general-purpose computer software as well as games. Eighteen months into his tenure, he changed the company’s name to Mediagenic to reflect this new identity. But the new products were, like the new name, mostly bland in a soulless corporate way that, in the opinion of many, reflected Davis’s own personality all too accurately. By decade’s end, Mediagenic was regarded as an important player within their industry at least as much for their distributional clout, a legacy of their early days of Atari VCS success, as for the games and software they published under their own imprint. A good chunk of the industry used Mediagenic’s network to distribute their wares as members of the company’s affiliated-labels program.

Then the loss of a major lawsuit, combined with a slow accretion of questionable decisions from Davis, led to a complete implosion in 1990. The piggy bank provided by Activision 1.0’s success had finally run dry, and most observers assumed that was that for Mediagenic — or Activision, or whatever they preferred to call themselves today.

But over the course of 1991, a fast-talking wiz kid named Bobby Kotick seized control of the mortally wounded mastodon and put it through the wringer of bankruptcy. What emerged by the end of that year was so transformed as to raise the philosophical question of whether it ought to be considered the same entity at all. The new company employed just 10 percent as many people as the old (25 rather than 250) and was headquartered in a different region entirely (Los Angeles rather than Silicon Valley). It even had a new name — or, rather, an old one. Perhaps the smartest move Kotick ever made was to reclaim the company’s old appellation of “Activision,” still redolent for many of the nostalgia-rich first golden age of videogames, in lieu of the universally mocked corporatese of “Mediagenic.” Activision 4.0, the name reversion seemed to say, wouldn’t be afraid of their heritage in the way that versions 2.0 and 3.0 had been. Nor would they be shy about labeling themselves a maker of games, full stop; Mediagenic’s lines of “personal-productivity” software and the like were among the first things Kotick trashed.

Kotick was still considerably short of his thirtieth birthday when he took on the role of Activision’s supreme leader, but he felt like he’d been waiting for this opportunity forever. He’d spent much of the previous decade sniffing around at the margins of the industry, looking for a way to become a mover and shaker of note. (In 1987, for instance, at the tender age of 24, he’d made a serious attempt to scrape together a pool of investors to buy the computer company Commodore.) Now, at last, he had his chance to be a difference maker.

It was indeed a grand chance, but it was also an extremely tenuous one. He had been able to save Activision — save it for the time being, that is — only by mortgaging some 95 percent of it to its numerous creditors. These creditors-cum-investors were empowered to pull the plug at any time; Kotick himself maintained his position as CEO only by their grace. He needed product to stop the bleeding and add some black to the sea of red ink that was Activision’s books, thereby to show the creditors that their forbearance toward this tottering company with a snot-nosed greenhorn at the head hadn’t been a mistake. But where was said product to come from? Activision was starved for cash even as the typical game-development budget in the industry around them was increasing almost exponentially year over year. And it wasn’t as if third-party developers were lining up to work with them; they’d stiffed half the industry in the process of going through bankruptcy.

To get the product spigot flowing again, Kotick found a partner to join him in the executive suite. Peter Doctorow had spent the last six years or so with Accolade (a company ironically founded by two ex-Activision developers in 1984, in a fashion amusingly similar to the way that restless Atari programmers had begotten Activision). In the role of product-development guru, Doctorow had done much to create and maintain Accolade’s reputation as a maker of attractive and accessible games with natural commercial appeal. Activision, on the other hand, hadn’t enjoyed a comparable reputation since the heyday of the Atari VCS. Jumping ship from the successful Accolade to an Activision on life support would have struck most as a fool’s leap, but Kotick could be very persuasive. He managed to tempt Doctorow away with the title of president and the promise of an opportunity to build something entirely new from the ground up.

Of course, building materials for the new thing could and should still be scrounged from the ruins of Mediagenic whenever possible. After arriving at Activision, Doctorow thus made his first priority an inventory of what he already had to work with in the form of technology and intellectual property. On the whole, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Activision had never been particularly good at spawning the surefire franchises that gaming executives love. There were no Leisure Suit Larrys or Lord Britishes lurking in their archives — much less any Super Marios. Pitfall!, the most famous and successful title of all from the Atari VCS halcyon days, might be a candidate for revival, but its simple platforming charms were at odds with where computer gaming was and where it seemed to be going in the early 1990s; the talk in the industry was all about multimedia, live-action video, interactive movies, and story, story, story. Pitfall! would have been a more natural fit on the consoles, but Kotick and Doctorow weren’t sure they had the resources to compete as of yet in those hyper-competitive, expensive-to-enter walled gardens. Their first beachhead, they decided, ought to be on computers.

In that context, there were all those old Infocom games… was there some commercial potential there? Certainly Zork still had more name recognition than any property in the Activision stable other than Pitfall!.

Ironically, the question of a potential Infocom revival would have been moot if Bruce Davis had gotten his way. He had never wanted Infocom, having advised his predecessor Jim Levy strongly against acquiring them when he was still a mere paid consultant. When Infocom delivered a long string of poor-selling games over the course of 1987 and 1988, he felt vindicated, and justified in ordering their offices closed permanently in the spring of 1989.

Even after that seemingly final insult, Davis continued to make clear his lack of respect for Infocom. During the mad scramble for cash preceding the ultimate collapse of Mediagenic, he called several people in the industry, including Ken Williams at Sierra and Bob Bates at the newly founded Legend Entertainment, to see if they would be interested in buying the whole Infocom legacy outright — including games, copyrights, trademarks, source code, and the whole stack of development tools. He dropped his asking price as low as $25,000 without finding a taker; the multimedia-obsessed Williams had never had much interest in text adventures, and Bates was trying to get Legend off the ground and simply didn’t have the money to spare.

When a Mediagenic producer named Kelly Zmak learned what Davis was doing, he told him he was crazy. Zmak said that he believed there was still far more than $25,000 worth of value in the Infocom properties, in the form of nostalgia if nothing else. He believed there would be a market for a compilation of Infocom games, which were now available only as pricey out-of-print collectibles. Davis was skeptical — the appeal of Infocom’s games had always been lost on him — but told Zmak that, if he could put such a thing together for no more than $10,000, they might as well give it a try. Any port in a storm, as they say.

As it happened, Mediagenic’s downfall was complete before Zmak could get his proposed compilation into stores. But he was one of the few who got to keep his job with the resurrected company, and he made it clear to his new managers that he still believed there was real money to be made from the Infocom legacy. Kotick and Doctorow agreed to let him finish up his interrupted project.

And so one of the first products from the new Activision 4.0 became a collection of old games from the eras of Activision 3.0, 2.0, and even 1.0. It was known as The Lost Treasures of Infocom, and first entered shops very early in 1992.

Activision’s stewardship of the legacy that had been bequeathed to them was about as respectful as one could hope for under the circumstances. The compilation included 20 of the 35 canonical Infocom games. The selection felt a little random; while most of the really big, iconic titles — like all of the Zork games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Enchanter trilogy, and Planetfall — were included, the 100,000-plus-selling Leather Goddesses of Phobos and Wishbringer were oddly absent. The feelies that had been such an important part of the Infocom experience were reduced to badly photocopied facsimiles lumped together in a thick, cheaply printed black-and-white manual — if, that is, they made the package at all. The compilers’ choices of which feelies ought to be included were as hit-and-miss as their selection of games, and in at least one case — that of Ballyhoo — the loss of an essential feelie rendered a game unwinnable without recourse to outside resources. Hardcore Infocom fans had good reason to bemoan this ugly mockery of the original games’ lovingly crafted packaging. “Where is the soul?” asked one of them in print, speaking for them all.

But any real or perceived lack of soul didn’t stop people from buying the thing. In fact, people bought it in greater numbers than even Kelly Zmak had dared to predict. At least 100,000 copies of The Lost Treasures of Infocom were sold — numbers better than any individual Infocom game had managed since 1986 — at a typical street price of about $60. With a response like that, Activision wasted no time in releasing most of the remaining games as The Lost Treasures of Infocom II, to sales that were almost as good. Along with Legend Entertainment’s final few illustrated text adventures, Lost Treasures I and II mark the last gasps of interactive fiction as a force in mainstream commercial American computer gaming.

The Lost Treasures of Infocom — the only shovelware compilation ever to spark a full-on artistic movement.

Yet these two early examples of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous practice of the shovelware compilation constitute a form of beginning as well as ending.  By collecting the vast majority of the Infocom legacy in one place, they cemented the idea of an established Infocom canon of Great Works, providing all those who would seek to make or play text adventures in the future with an easily accessible shared heritage from which to draw. For the Renaissance of amateur interactive fiction that would take firm hold by the mid-1990s, the Lost Treasures would become a sort of equivalent to what The Complete Works of William Shakespeare means to English literature. Had such heretofore obscure but groundbreaking Infocom releases as, say, Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It and Plundered Hearts not been collected in this manner, it’s doubtful whether they ever could have become as influential as they would eventually prove. Certainly a considerable percentage of the figures who would go on to make the Interactive Fiction Renaissance a reality completed their Infocom collection or even discovered the company’s rich legacy for the first time thanks to the Lost Treasures compilations.

Brian Eno once famously said that, while only about 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s debut album, every one of them who did went out and started a band. A similar bit of hyperbole might be applied to the 100,000-and-change who bought Lost Treasures. These compilations did much to change perceptions of Infocom, from a mere interesting relic of an earlier era of gaming into something timeless and, well, canonical — a rich literary tradition that deserved to be maintained and further developed. It’s fair to ask whether the entire vibrant ecosystem of interactive fiction that remains with us today, in the form of such entities as the annual IF Comp and the Inform programming language, would ever have come to exist absent the Lost Treasures. Their importance to everything that would follow in interactive fiction is so pronounced that anecdotes involving them will doubtless continue to surface again and again as we observe the birth of a new community built around the love of text and parsers in future articles on this site.

For Activision, on the other hand, the Lost Treasures compilations made a much more immediate and practical difference. What with their development costs of close to zero and their no-frills packaging that hadn’t cost all that much more to put together, every copy sold was as close to pure profit as a game could possibly get. They made an immediate difference to Activision’s financial picture, giving them some desperately needed breathing room to think about next steps.

Observing the success of the compilations, Peter Doctorow was inclined to return to the Infocom well again. In fact, he had for some time now been eyeing Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Infocom’s last genuine hit, with interest. In the time since it had sold 130,000 copies in 1986, similarly risqué adventure games had become a profitable niche market: Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series, Legend’s Spellcasting series, and Accolade’s Les Manley series had all done more or less well. There ought to be a space, Doctorow reasoned, for a sequel to the game which had started the trend by demonstrating that, in games as just about everywhere else, Sex Sells. Hewing to this timeless maxim, he had made a point of holding the first Leather Goddesses out of the Lost Treasures compilations in favor of giving it its own re-release as a standalone $10 budget title — the only one of the old Infocom games to be accorded this honor.

Doctorow had a tool which he very much wanted to use in the service of a new adventure game. Whilst casting through the odds and ends of technology left over from the Mediagenic days, he had come upon something known as the Multimedia Applications Development Environment, the work of a small internal team of developers headed by one William Volk. MADE had been designed to facilitate immersive multimedia environments under MS-DOS that were much like the Apple Macintosh’s widely lauded HyperCard environment. In fact, Mediagenic had used it just before the wheels had come off to publish a colorized MS-DOS port of The Manhole, Rand and Robyn Miller’s unique HyperCard-based “fantasy exploration for children of all ages.” Volk and most of his people were among the survivors from the old times still around at the new Activision, and the combination of the MADE engine with Leather Goddesses struck Doctorow as a commercially potent one. He thus signed Steve Meretzky, designer of the original game, to write a sequel to this second most popular game he had ever worked on. (The most popular of all, of course, had been Hitchhiker’s, which was off limits thanks to the complications of licensing.)

But from the beginning, the project was beset by cognitive dissonance, alongside extreme pressure, born of Activision’s precarious finances, to just get the game done as quickly as possible. Activision’s management had decided that adventure games in the multimedia age ought to be capable of appealing to a far wider, less stereotypically eggheaded audience than the games of yore, and therefore issued firm instructions to Meretzky and the rest of the development team to include only the simplest of puzzles. Yet this prioritization of simplicity above all else rather belied the new game’s status as a sequel to an Infocom game which, in addition to its lurid content, had featured arguably the best set of interlocking puzzles Meretzky had ever come up with. The first Leather Goddesses had been a veritable master class in classic adventure-game design. The second would be… something else.

Which isn’t to say that the sequel didn’t incorporate some original ideas of its own; they were just orthogonal to those that had made the original so great. Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X really wanted to a be a CD-based title, but a critical mass of CD-ROM-equipped computers just wasn’t quite there yet at the time it was made. So, when it shipped in May of 1992 it filled 17 (!) floppy disks, using the space mostly for, as Activision’s advertisements proudly trumpeted in somewhat mangled diction, “more than an hour of amazing digital sound track!” Because a fair number of MS-DOS computer owners still didn’t have sound cards at this point, and because a fair proportion of those that did had older models of same that weren’t up to the task of delivering digitized audio as opposed to synthesized sounds and music, Activision also included a “LifeSize Sound Enhancer” in every box — a little gadget with a basic digital-to-analog circuit and a speaker inside it, which could be plugged into the printer port to make the game talk. This addition pushed the price up into the $60 range, making the game a tough sell for the bare few hours of content it offered — particularly if you already had a decent sound card and thus didn’t even need the hardware gadget you were being forced to pay for. Indeed, thanks to those 17 floppy disks, Leather Goddesses 2 would come perilously close to taking most gamers longer to install than it would to actually play.

That said, brevity was among the least of the game’s sins: Leather Goddesses 2 truly was a comprehensive creative disaster. The fact that this entire game was built from an overly literal interpretation of a tossed-off joke at the end of its predecessor says it all really. Meretzky’s designs had been getting lazier for years by the time this one arrived, but this game, his first to rely solely on a point-and-click interface, marked a new low for him. Not only were the brilliant puzzles that used to do at least as much as his humor to make his games special entirely absent, but so was all of the subversive edge to his writing. To be fair, Activision’s determination to make the game as accessible as possible — read, trivially easy — may have largely accounted for the former lack. Meretzky chafed at watching much of the puzzle design — if this game’s rudimentary interactivity can even be described using those words — get put together without him in Activision’s offices, a continent away from his Boston home. The careless writing, however, is harder to make excuses for.

In the tradition of the first Leather Goddesses, the sequel lets you choose to play as a man or a woman — or, this time, as an alien of indeterminate sex.

Still, this game is obviously designed for the proverbial male gaze. The real question is, why were all these attempts to be sexy in games so painfully, despressingly unsexy? Has anyone ever gotten really turned on by a picture like this one?

Earlier Meretzky games had known they were stupid, and that smart sense of self-awareness blinking through between the stupid had been their saving grace when they wandered into questionable, even borderline offensive territory. This one, on the other hand, was as introspective as one of the bimbos who lived within it. Was this really the same designer who just seven years before had so unabashedly aimed for Meaning in the most literary sense with A Mind Forever Voyaging? During his time at Infocom, Meretzky had been the Man of 1000 Ideas, who could rattle off densely packed pages full of games he wanted to make when given the least bit of encouragement. And yet by the end of 1992, he had made basically the same game four times in a row, with diminishing returns every time out. Just how far did he think he could ride scantily clad babes and broad innuendo? The shtick was wearing thin.

The women in many games of this ilk appear to be assembled from spare parts that don’t quite fit together properly.

Here, though, that would seem to literally be the case. These two girls have the exact same breasts.

In his perceptive review of Leather Goddesses 2 for Computer Gaming World magazine, Chris Lombardi pointed out how far Meretzky had fallen, how cheap and exploitative the game felt — and not even cheap and exploitative in a good way, for those who really were looking for titillation above all else.

The treatment of sex in LGOP2 seems so gratuitous, and adolescent, and (to use a friend’s favorite adjective for pop music) insipid. The game’s “explicit” visual content is all very tame (no more explicit than a beer commercial, really) and, for the most part, involves rather mediocre images of women in tight shirts, garters, or leather, most with impossibly protruding nipples. It’s the stuff of a Wally Cleaver daydream, which is appropriate to the game’s context, I suppose.

It appears quite innocuous at first, yet as I played along I began to sense an underlying attitude running through it all that can best be seen in the use of a whorehouse in the game. When one approaches this whorehouse, one is served a menu of a dozen or so names to choose from. Choosing a name takes players to a harlot’s room and affords them a “look at the goods.” Though loosely integrated into the storyline, it is all too apparent that it is merely an excuse for a slideshow of more rather average drawings of women.

You have to wonder what Activision was thinking. Do they imagine adults are turned on or, at minimum, entertained by this stuff? If they do, then I think they’ve misunderstood their market. And that must be the case, for the only other possibility is to suggest that their real target market is actually, and more insidiously, a younger, larger slice of the computer-game demographic pie.

On the whole, Lombardi was kinder to the game than I would have been, but his review nevertheless raised the ire of Peter Doctorow, who wrote in to the magazine with an ad hominem response: “It seems clear to me that you must be among those who long for the good old days, when films were black and white, comic books were a dime, and you could get an American-made gas guzzler with a distinct personality, meticulously designed taillights, and a grill reminiscent of a gargantuan grin. Sadly, the merry band that was Infocom can no longer be supported with text adventures.”

It seldom profits a creator to attempt to rebut a reviewer’s opinion, as Doctorow ought to have been experienced enough to know. His graceless accusation of Ludditism, which didn’t even address the real concerns Lombardi stated in his review, is perhaps actually a response to a vocal minority of the Infocom hardcore who were guaranteed to give Activision grief for any attempt to drag a beloved legacy into the multimedia age. Even more so, though, it was a sign of the extreme financial duress under which Activision still labored. Computer Gaming World was widely accepted as the American journal of record for the hobby in question, and their opinions could make or break a game’s commercial prospects. The lukewarm review doubtless contributed to Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2‘s failure to sell anywhere near as many copies as the Lost Treasures compilations — and at a time when Activision couldn’t afford to be releasing flops.

So, for more reasons than one, Leather Goddesses 2 would go down in history as an embarrassing blot on the CV of everyone involved. Sex, it seemed, didn’t always sell after all — not when it was done this poorly.

One might have thought that the failure of Leather Goddesses 2 would convince Activision not to attempt any further Infocom revivals. Yet once the smoke cleared even the defensive Doctorow could recognize that its execution had been, to say the least, lacking. And there still remained the counterexample of the Lost Treasures compilations, which were continuing to sell briskly. Activision thus decided to try again — this time with a far more concerted, better-funded effort that would exploit the most famous Infocom brand of all. Zork itself was about to make a splashy return to center stage.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1992, July 1992, and October 1992; Questbusters of February 1992 and August 1992; Compute! of November 1987; Amazing Computing of April 1992; Commodore Magazine of July 1989; .info of April 1992. Online sources include Roger J. Long’s review of the first Lost Treasures compilation. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk and Bob Bates for sharing their memories and impressions with me in personal interviews.)

 
 

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38 Responses to An Unlikely Savior

  1. Brian Bagnall

    April 19, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    “The real question is, why were all these attempts to be sexy in games so painfully, despressingly unsexy? Has anyone ever gotten really turned on by a picture like this one?” When you’re 15 years old, YES! The art is probably an ode to Barbarella.

     
  2. Alex Freeman

    April 19, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    How fortuitous that just as you put this up about Infocom, Renga in Blue has this announcement:
    https://bluerenga.wordpress.com/2019/04/16/all-the-infocom-source-code-is-available-and-other-recent-news/

     
  3. Jason Dyer

    April 19, 2019 at 6:00 pm

    Want some rye? Course you do.

     
    • Lisa H.

      April 19, 2019 at 7:42 pm

      Who’s like us? Damn few, and they’re all dead!

       
    • Nate

      April 19, 2019 at 8:03 pm

      Oh man, that was the catchphrase all over my university that year

       
  4. Steph C

    April 19, 2019 at 6:12 pm

    I’ve enjoyed this blog for years, but this marks the point where it’s starting to get into things I actually remember happening at the time they happened. Although I had a copy of ZORK and, I think, a couple of the others prior to Lost Treasures coming out, for the most part, Lost Treasures WAS the Infocom games, to me. (It’s been an experience reading your histories of the others–they were always just there, in a big bunch, so reading about how they were created and their original boxes/feelies and such is a very strange mix of the familiar and the mundane.)

    And, oh boy, Return to Zork! I have some very fond memories of that one. I don’t know how it would hold up on a replay, but I’ll never forget Boos.

     
  5. Aula

    April 19, 2019 at 6:16 pm

    “restless Atari programmers had begotton Activision”

    should be “begotten”

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 19, 2019 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks!

       
  6. xxx

    April 19, 2019 at 8:55 pm

    (Typo: “ringer” instead of “wringer”.)

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 19, 2019 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks!

       
  7. Andrew Pam

    April 19, 2019 at 8:58 pm

    “through the ringer” is a typo for “wringer”.

     
  8. Keith Palmer

    April 19, 2019 at 9:00 pm

    With the comment on “Star Trek 25th Anniversary” that this chronicle would soon be entering 1993, I did wonder about possible windows for “The Lost Treasures of Infocom” to be mentioned… and as it turned out, it was mentioned before “the 1993 preview.”

    I do remember seeing a box for it in a software store late in 1992 and feeling greatly excited by that; I have an impression that not that long before I’d browsed a computer-game book, possibly a guide by John C. Dvorak, that had taken its own nostalgic look back at Infocom but suggested some form of revival was on its way. At that point, the single Infocom game I’d played had been “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (and I’d only finished it not that long before, after years of bumping my head against the “tea and no tea” problem, when I learned a friend had its hint book and managed to decipher its developed-yet-faded clues), but the catalog in that game’s box and other bits of “1980s computing flotsam” I’d already run across had left me with an impression of having all but missed out on something well worth having taken in. I went so far as to begin drafting a letter to the last Tandy Color Computer magazine asking if anyone else would be willing to sell their old games (with boxes), but never got it sent off before the magazine folded. At the end of 1992, though, my family did get a Macintosh LC II, and acquired “The Lost Treasures of Infocom” not that long after…

    While I acknowledge the unimpressiveness of the packaging (the hint book was a particular problem; with no “magic ink” to be developed, trying to find a first hint meant seeing the solution for just about everything else, which in the end just left me thinking I wasn’t clever enough to solve Infocom-level puzzles), the bundle was absolutely better than nothing. (However, the comment that Moonmist was unsolvable has me thinking I’ve seen the unsolvable game was actually Ballyhoo, its “radio station ad” having been left out of the manual; I did manage to solve the “entry-level” Moonmist.)

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 19, 2019 at 9:11 pm

      Yes, looks like it was Ballyhoo. Thanks!

       
    • Lisa H.

      April 20, 2019 at 7:49 pm

      which in the end just left me thinking I wasn’t clever enough to solve Infocom-level puzzles

      Join the club.

       
  9. TT

    April 19, 2019 at 11:37 pm

    Enjoyed this immensely…really looking forward to this continuing exposition on Activision, thanks very much!

    Appreciate your writing style on these.

     
  10. Tom

    April 20, 2019 at 9:36 am

    risque (add an accent?)

    Harder to makes excuses for (omit a letter?)

    rather medicore images (flip two letters around?)

    Thanks for the entertaining read. I was especially intrigued by the character of Bobby Kotick. Are we going to find out what made him tick in the next installment? And, of course, Steve Meretzky. Will you treat us to some informed conjecture as to why the quality of his output faded like it did?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 20, 2019 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks!

      Not sure I can offer any profound insights into Bobby Kotick. He’s obviously a guy who likes making money and likes power, and is quite good at what he does. Beyond that… well, he’s extremely high-profile, but paradoxically extremely private. He reveals very little in interviews.

      I think Meretzky’s later output serves to ironically highlight the value of the “adventure-game production function” Infocom provided. As I’ve said many times now, the real magic of Infocom wasn’t that their designers were so much more naturally brilliant than those at other studios, nor even their technology; it was the *process* they instilled for taking a game from idea to finished product, with constant iterative feedback to the designer along the way. Meretzky benefited from this perhaps even more than most. He could easily slip into lazy habits even while at Infocom when not challenged; Jon Palace, for example, has spoken of having to constantly push Meretzky to go over his prose an extra time or two, to make it cleaner, tighter, and more vivid. The space limitations of the Z-Machine also helped; if you’ve only got a sharply limited number of words to work with, you better make each one count.

      After Infocom, Meretzky was seldom challenged to do his best work in the same way. He was now the star designer lending his name to projects, and the dynamic just wasn’t the same. Also — and I do admit that we’re getting dangerously close to psychoanalysis territory here — I think he had a chip in his shoulder that he wasn’t allowed to make the more thematically ambitious games he dreamed of, like his (in)famous Titanic project. But instead of trying to find a middle road between what publishers wanted to publish and what he wanted to do, he just kind of slummed it. And by the time his Planetfall sequel with Activision fell apart amidst lots of squabbling — a story I will get to in somewhat more detail at some point, although not in the next article — he was gaining a reputation for being difficult to work with, which certainly didn’t help him get the projects he really wanted to do off the ground.

      All that said, I am fond of some of Meretzky’s 1990s work, such as Superhero League of Hoboken and Hodj ‘n’ Podj. Leather Goddesses 2 was thankfully as bad as it got.

       
      • Tom

        April 20, 2019 at 3:30 pm

        Thanks for those insights. I very much look forward to the squabbling around the Planetfall sequel.

         
      • Alex Freeman

        April 22, 2019 at 5:41 am

        The space limitations of the Z-Machine also helped; if you’ve only got a sharply limited number of words to work with, you better make each one count.

        I’m reminded of how the crappy hardware of the Soviet Union made Russian become great programmers because they had to make each byte count. Or how some soldiers in WW2 become great at MacGyvering because they had to improvise with what little they had. Maybe there’s a case for giving people too little.

         
  11. whomever

    April 20, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    BTW, jwz@ (of mozilla and various other fame) posted a fascinating anecdote about a somewhat more recent attempt to purchase Infocom to his blog…https://www.jwz.org/blog/2019/04/infocom/

     
    • Bernd

      April 25, 2019 at 7:53 am

      In the referenced posting, jwz provides a one-liner for cloning all repositories from “historicalsource”. If you only want to clone the repositories with Infocom source code, use the following one-liner:

      curl “https://api.github.com/search/repositories?q=user:historicalsource+topic:infocom&per_page=100&page=1″ | grep git_url | cut -d \” -f 4 | xargs -L1 git clone

       
  12. Chris

    April 20, 2019 at 7:30 pm

     
  13. David

    April 20, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    Return to Zork was my favorite game in 1992. I used to put the CD into my then new Sony Discman player and rock out to the soundtrack. I remember getting that guy drunk too in the game. I never beat the game. I wanted to buy the hint book so bad.
    Cheers, David

     
  14. Rowan Lipkovits

    April 20, 2019 at 11:19 pm

    “Accolade (a company ironically founded by two ex-Activision developers in 1984, in a fashion amusingly similar to the way that restless Atari programmers had begotten Activision)”

    This seems like a good place to repeat the old claim that just as Apple and Activision chose their names so as to appear before Atari in the phone book, so too did Accolade and Absolute Entertainment aim to pre-empt Activision in the same way.

     
    • Rowan Lipkovits

      May 16, 2019 at 5:44 pm

      While spinning the alphabet yarn, I left out Acclaim from the final list! Is it true, who knows, but I will absolutely tell the most complete version of this story every time, given the chance.

       
  15. Rowan

    April 20, 2019 at 11:28 pm

    “the game which had started the trend by demonstrating that, in games as just about everywhere else, Sex Sells.”

    Floored to learn that Phobos predates Leisure Larry (er, you omitted his suit – much as he would prefer, I suspect) … though of course the Softporn Adventure that got Larry underway dates to quite a bit earlier. (But it didn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire, so I understand its omission here.)

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2019 at 12:34 am

      Woops! Thanks!

      Soft Porn was in fact very successful by the standards of its time — but that time was 1981, when home computers were truly in their infancy and a massive hit game might sell 20,000 copies. There was quite a bit of “dirty” software around during this time, but, as investment capital rushed in and the industry professionalized, that sort of thing went away — or at least went underground — for obvious reasons. It was Leather Goddesses in 1986 which showed that you could do very well walking a fine line: naughty enough to get buyers’ attention, but not naughty enough that stores would refuse to stock the product. Sierra in particular took this lesson to heart with Leisure Suit Larry, and the rest is history.

       
  16. Alex Freeman

    April 22, 2019 at 9:39 pm

    Oh, and there’s also the Infocom Cabinet:
    https://archive.org/details/infocomcabinet

     
  17. Lt. Nitpicker

    April 24, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    One of the lingering questions I have after reading this article is how were the international divisions of Mediagenic (in the UK) were impacted by their parent’s decline and bankruptcy? You touched on this a little with your piece on Spindizzy Worlds, but I’d be interested to know if you stumbled across more info while doing research for your pieces on Activision “3.0” and its rise from bankruptcy.

     
    • Lt. Nitpicker

      April 24, 2019 at 5:21 pm

      *(like in the UK)

       
    • Jimmy Maher

      April 25, 2019 at 7:49 am

      I’m afraid I was pretty laser-focused on the American operation in preparing this article. I do know that Mediagenic’s semi-autonomous European subsidiary was closed amidst all the chaos. Activision 4.0 did, however, start up European distribution again quite quickly. The Lost Treasures of Infocom, for instance, was available in Europe — or at least in Britain — almost as early as it was in the States. I’ve been talking lately with the British Graham Nelson, creator of Curses! and Inform, and he mentioned playing most of Infocom’s games for the first time in 1992 thanks to the Lost Treasures compilations.

       
  18. Zurlocker

    May 9, 2019 at 1:51 am

    Great story! I remember buying Lost Treasures I and II (and the later budget title Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces) at Fry’s Electronics in Sunnyvale as a way to finally build out my Infocom collection. The manual looked like it was derived from photocopies, but still… it was worth every penny. Heck I bought it a again when Lost Treasures came out for iOS. And then a few years ago I bought about two dozen of the old Infocom titles with the original packaging on eBay.

    For those interested in the early history of Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, here’s a fun video from 1984 when he and Howard Marks from U of Michigan formed a software company called Arktronics. It was an office / windowing type of software later licensed to Apple. Steve Jobs came out to Ann Arbor and convinced Kotick to focus full-time on the business and drop out of school. The rest is history…

    https://gailpellettproductions.com/software-entrepreneurs-84/

     
    • Lisa H.

      May 9, 2019 at 4:13 am

      Sunnyvale Fry’s? Hello, local!

      I don’t know where ours came from. Back in those days I think there was still an Egghead (?) at the Sunnyvale Town Center.

       
  19. Cliffy

    May 9, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    I first learned of the existence of the Lost Treasures compilations some time in ’93 or ’94’s when I, prompted by what I cannot recall, wrote a letter to Peter Doctorow telling him Activision should re-release the Infocom catalogue, and he replied with what appeared to be a self-typed letter informing me that he already had. (The margins were off, a telltale sign in those days that it had been untouched by the secretarial staff.)

    Good investment of the stamp, Pete, given that I bought Lost Treasures II, two or three of the later subject-matter collections, and Masterpieces over the next few years.

     
  20. Adam Thornton

    May 11, 2019 at 6:48 am

    LGOP2 remains the only software I have ever returned to the store for a refund.

    I saw it at an Egghead or somesuch in Houston. I made sure to ask the clerk, “if it sucks, can I bring it back?” He assured me I could.

    I think I bought it on a Friday and returned it the following Monday.

     
  21. Tim K.

    September 25, 2019 at 2:31 pm

    I can personally vouch for one other aspect of the “Lost Treasures” collections’ appeal, besides mere nostalgia. People like me who had previously played Infocom games mostly in the form of pirated copies now had the opportunity to at least partially atone for their past transgressions, by legitimately purchasing those games in a convenient, reasonably priced bundle (notwithstanding the lackluster packaging) – and as a bonus, got to experience other games they may have missed before.

     
  22. Tim K.

    September 26, 2019 at 6:55 pm

    By the way … is anyone here ticked off that the fantastic iOS version of “Lost Treasures of Infocom” doesn’t run on current Apple devices because Activision never authorized its developer, Code Mystics, to upgrade it to a 64-bit app for iOS 11+?

    http://www.codemystics.com/products.shtml?19#ios11

     

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