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Hitchhiking the Galaxy Infocom-Style

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Given that Hitchhiker’s is both one of the most commercially successful text adventures ever released and one that oozes with interesting things to talk about, I thought I would look at the experience in more detail than I have any Infocom game in quite some time. As we’ll see, Hitchhiker’s is not least interesting in that it manages to represent both a step forward and a step back for Infocom and the art of interactive fiction. What follows is a sort of guided tour of the game.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

As with any Infocom game, the experience of Hitchhiker’s for any original player began long before she put the disk in the drive. It began with the box and its contents. The Hitchhiker’s package is one of the most storied of all from this company that became so famous for their rich packages. It’s bursting with stuff, most of it irrelevant to the actual contents of the disk but all of it fun: an advertising brochure for the titular guidebook;[1]“As seen on Tri-D!” a microscopic space fleet;[2]Easily mistaken for an empty plastic baggie. a set of “peril-sensitive sunglasses”;[3]They turn opaque when danger is at hand to avoid upsetting your delicate sensibilities. The ones in the game package are, naturally, made of black construction paper. a piece of pocket fluff; a set of destruct orders for Arthur Dent’s house and the Earth; the obligatory “Don’t Panic!” button.[4]These were manufactured in huge quantities and given away for some time at trade shows and the like as well as being inserted into game boxes.

Impressive as the packaging is, not all of it was to Douglas Adams’s taste. He hated the gibbering green planet,[5]Or whatever it’s supposed to be. which had been designed and pressed into service by Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books imprint without any input from him when they first began to publish the books in North America. He briefly kicked up a fuss when he saw it leering at him from the Infocom box as well, but Infocom’s contacts at Simon & Schuster, whom Infocom was considering allowing to buy them at just this time and thus preferred to remain on good terms with, had asked with some urgency that it be there. By the time Adams saw the box there wasn’t really time to change it anyway. And so the planet — and I have to agree with him that it’s pretty hideous — remained.

The game proper begins just where the books and the smorgasbord of other variations of Hitchhiker’s did: with you as Arthur Dent waking up hungover in bed on what is going to be “the worst day of your life.” You immediately get a couple of clues that this is not going to be your typical Infocom game. The first command you must enter is “TURN ON LIGHT,” a typical enough action to take upon waking up in a dark bedroom, perhaps, but one that could momentarily stump a seasoned adventurer, so accustomed to living in an object-oriented world where she can only interact with what the game tells her exists around her; the game, you see, never mentions the presence of a light switch or a light. Hitchhiker’s will continue to occasionally accept or demand inputs that you, the Seasoned Adventurer, just don’t expect to work. And then when you dutifully check your starting inventory, you learn that you have “no tea” and “a splitting headache.” Such mixing of the physical and the metaphysical amongst your possessions will also remain an ongoing theme.

Especially if you’re at all familiar with any of the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations, you probably won’t have too many problems getting out of the house and lying in front of Mr. Prosser’s bulldozer to stop (for the moment) the destruction of your house to make room for a new bypass. If you do misjudge things and get yourself killed, you get an early introduction to another of the game’s throughgoing traits: the narrator, or the computerized “game master” if you will, has a voice and personality all his own. Playing Hitchhiker’s is like having a conversation — often an infuriating one — with him.

>stand
The bulldozer driver gives a quick chew of his gum and slams in the clutch. The bulldozer piles into the side of your home.

Your home collapses in a cloud of dust, and a stray flying brick hits you squarely on the back of the head. You try to think of some suitable last words, but what with the confusion of the moment and the spinning of your head, you are unable to compose anything pithy and expire in silence.

>s
You keep out of this, you're dead. An ambulance arrives.

>don't panic
You keep out of this, you're dead and should be concentrating on developing a good firm rigor mortis. You are put in the ambulance, which drives away.

>pray
For a dead person you are talking too much. As the ambulance reaches the mortuary a fleet of Vogon Constructor ships unexpectedly arrives and demolishes the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.

We are about to give you your score. Put on your peril-sensitive sunglasses now. (Hit RETURN or ENTER when ready.) >

The narrator doesn’t just tell you what’s happening. He chats with you, messes with you, has fun at your expense, occasionally lies to you. This isn’t precisely new ground for Infocom; their games going back to Zork I had occasionally broken from being the neutral voice of the simulation to offer quips and funny responses. But it’s much, much more pronounced here, an integral part of the experience instead of just the odd response to the occasional misguided or intentionally bizarre input. A similar smart-alecky narrative voice was par for the course with other versions of Hitchhiker’s and, indeed, kind of Adams’s default persona as a writer. Certainly anyone who’s ever read a Dickens novel knows that a second- or third-person voice doesn’t mean the narrator isn’t a character in the work. But seeing it here… well, that feels significant for anyone who’d like to see interactive fiction as a defensible literary form. Chalk that up as a big step forward.

So, Ford Prefect arrives just as expected to return your towel preparatory to getting off this rock before the Vogons blow it up to make way for a hyperspace bypass. If you haven’t experienced it already, here you are also introduced to another dominant trait: the game’s often arbitrary cruelty. If you simply take the towel Ford offers, he marches away, the Vogons arrive, and it’s game over. No, you have to refuse the towel to force Ford to actually notice your situation and come to the snap decision to take you with him.[6]Ford Prefect’s name, by the way, is one of the subtler jokes in Hitchhiker’s, and one that was entirely lost on American readers. The Ford Prefect, you see, was once a model of automobile in Britain. When the Betelgeusian Ford Prefect chose the name as “nicely inconspicuous,” he did so because he had, as Adams himself later clarified, “mistaken the dominant life form” on the planet.

Ford convinces Prosser to take your place in front of the bulldozer, just like in the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations. You head for the pub, where you consume beer and peanuts to fortify yourselves for the matter transference beam. Then Prosser wises up and knocks down your house after all, prompting you, reenacting the role of the Arthur you remember from the book, to run screaming out of the pub. On the way you meet a hungry dog, who is key to one of the most legendarily cruel puzzles in the game. You need to feed him. As for why… well, that you won’t learn until much later. Then the Vogons show up with appropriate pomp and circumstance, and you and Ford have a bare instant to make your escape.

You wake up in darkness. The puzzle that follows can almost be read as an homage to the original Adventure, which had a maze for which close reading was similarly key. It’s early evidence of another trait of Hitchhiker’s: a tendency to evoke and occasionally subvert the adventuring heritage that preceded it. For instance, it will later hit you with a blessedly fake maze. As David Lebling recently put it, the form by 1984 was old and established enough that it could be parodied.

>z
You can hear nothing, smell nothing, taste nothing, see nothing, feel nothing, and are not even certain who you are.

>z
There's nothing you can taste, nothing you can see, nothing you can hear, nothing you can feel, nothing you can smell, you do not even know who you are.

>z
There's nothing you can taste, nothing you can see, nothing you can hear, nothing you can feel, nothing you can smell, you do not even know who you are.

>z
You can see nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing, and are not entirely certain who you are.

>smell
(darkness)
It does smell a bit. There's something pungent being waved under your nose. Your head begins to clear. You can make out a shadow moving in the dark.

>examine shadow
The shadow is vaguely Ford Prefect-shaped.

Vogon Hold
This is a squalid room filled with grubby mattresses, unwashed cups, and unidentifiable bits of smelly alien underwear. A door lies to port, and an airlock lies to starboard.
In the corner is a glass case with a switch and a keyboard.
It looks like the glass case contains:
an atomic vector plotter
Along one wall is a tall dispensing machine.

Ford removes the bottle of Santraginean Mineral Water which he's been waving under your nose. He tells you that you are aboard a Vogon spaceship, and gives you some peanuts.

That “tall dispensing machine” marks the most famous puzzle ever to appear in an Infocom game, or in any text adventure by anyone for that matter. A whole mythology sprung up around it. Infocom did a booming business for a while in “I got the babel fish!” tee-shirts, while it’s still mentioned from time to time today — sometimes, one suspects, by folks who actually know it only as a trope — as the ultimate in cruel puzzles. Yet I’ve always been a bit nonplussed by its reputation. Oh, getting the babel fish from dispenser to auditory canal is a difficult, convoluted game of Mouse Trap which is made yet more difficult by the facts that the dispenser has only a limited number of fish and you have only a limited number of turns in which to work before you’re hauled off to the Vogon captain’s poetry reading. Still, solving this puzzle is far from an insurmountable task. You’re given good feedback upon each failure as to exactly what happened to intercept the babel fish on its journey, while your scope of possibility is somewhat limited by the fact that this is still quite early in the game, when there aren’t yet that many objects to juggle. I feel like its reputation probably stems from this fact that it’s met so early in the game. Thus even most casual players did encounter it — and, it being the first really difficult puzzle, and one of the first for which prior knowledge of the other Hitchhiker’s manifestations was of no use, many or most of those players likely never got any further. The Imps have often noted that most people never finished most of the Infocom games they bought. What with its mass appeal to people who knew nothing of Infocom or adventure games thanks to the license as well as its extreme difficulty, one would presume that Hitchhiker’s had an even more abysmal rate of completion than the norm.

Since solving the babel-fish puzzle[7]Or not. is something of a rite of passage for all adventurers, I won’t totally spoil it here. I will note, however, that the very last step, arguably the most difficult of all, was originally even more difficult.

A small upper-half-of-the-room cleaning robot flies into the room, catches the babel fish (which is all the flying junk it can find), and exits.

The original version didn’t have that crucial parenthesis; it was wisely added at the insistence of Mike Dornbrook, who felt the player deserved just a little nudge.

The babel fish, of course, lets you understand the Vogon language, which is in turn key to getting that atomic vector plotter that is for some reason on display under glass amidst the “smelly bits of alien underwear.” Also key to that endeavor is the Vogon poetry reading to which you’re soon subjected.[8]The original Hitchhiker’s radio serial mentions Vogon poetry as the third worst in the universe. The second is that of the Azgoths of Kria, while the first is that of Paul Neil Milne Johnstone of Earth. Rather astoundingly, Johnstone is actually a real person, a bunk mate of Adams’s back at Brentwood School who would keep him awake nights “scratching this awful poetry about swans and stuff.” Now, it was kind of horrible of Adams to call him out like that (and probably kind of horrible for me to tell this story now), but it just keeps getting better. Poor Johnstone, who was apparently an earnest poet into adult life but not endowed with much humor not of the unintentional stripe, wrote a letter to Time Out magazine that’s as funny as just about anything in Hitchhiker’s:

“Unfortunate that Douglas Adams should choose to reopen a minor incident; that it remains of such consequence to him indicates a certain envy, if not paranoia. Manifest that Adams is being base-minded and mean-spirited, but it is surely unnecessary for Steve Grant [a journalist to whom Adams had told the story] to act as a servile conduit for this pettiness.”

With Johnstone’s lawyers beginning to circle, Paul Neil Milne Johnstone became Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings in the book and later adaptations.
What you’re confronted with here is a puzzle far more cruel in my eyes than the babel-fish puzzle. It’s crucial that you get the Vogon captain to extend his reading to two verses; let’s not get into why. Unfortunately, at the end of the first verse he remarks that “you didn’t seem to enjoy my poetry at all” and has you tossed out the airlock. The solution to this conundrum is a bit of lateral thinking that will likely give logical, object-focused players fits: you just have to “ENJOY POETRY.”

>enjoy poetry
You realise that, although the Vogon poetry is indeed astoundingly bad, worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school. With an effort for which Hercules himself would have patted you on the back, you grit your teeth and enjoy the stuff.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. It’s undeniably clever, and almost worth any pain for the great line “worse things happen at sea, and in fact, at school.” But at heart it’s guess-the-verb, or at least guess-the-phrase, a rather shocking thing to find in an Infocom game of 1984. Now maybe my description of Hitchhiker’s as both progressive and regressive starts to become clearer, as does Dornbrook’s assertion that Adams pushed Meretzky to “break the rules.” A comparison with the babel-fish puzzle shows Hitchhiker’s two puzzling personalities at their extremes. For all its legendary difficulty, the babel-fish puzzle feels to me like a vintage Meretzky puzzle: intricate but logical, responsive to careful reading and experimentation. “ENJOY POETRY,” on the other hand, is all Adams. You either make the necessary intuitive leap or you don’t. If you do, it’s trivial; if you don’t, it’s impossible.

In the session I played before writing this article, something else happened in the midst of the poetry-as-torture-device. Suddenly this long piece of text appeared, apropos of nothing going on at the time:

It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated. For instance, at the exact moment you said "look up vogon in guide" a freak wormhole opened in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried your words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant galaxy where strange and warlike beings were poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.

The two opposing leaders were meeting for the last time. A dreadful silence fell across the conference table as the commander of the Vl'Hurgs, resplendent in his black jewelled battle shorts, gazed levelly at the G'Gugvunt leader squatting opposite him in a cloud of green, sweet-smelling steam. As a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death at his single word of command, the Vl'Hurg challenged his vile enemy to take back what it had said about his mother.

The creature stirred in its sickly broiling vapour, and at that very moment the words "look up vogon in guide" drifted across the conference table. Unfortunately, in the Vl'hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries. Eventually the error was detected, but over two hundred and fifty thousand worlds, their peoples and cultures perished in the holocaust.

You have destroyed most of a small galaxy. Please pick your words with greater care.

It incorporates an invalid input I had tried earlier, an attempt to look something up in the in-game version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide using syntax the game didn’t much like.[9]It’s fairly persnickety here; you can only “CONSULT GUIDE ABOUT” things. The little story is funny, especially if you haven’t recently read the novel version of Hitchhiker’s; it’s lifted verbatim from a passing riff near the end of the book, with only your invalid input replacing the novel’s version of Arthur’s comment that “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle.”[10]Indeed, it seems to go relatively unremarked just how much text in the game is lifted directly from the novel, another artifact perhaps of the sheer difficulty of getting original prose out of Adams. More interesting to me, however, is what it represents conceptually. In incorporating a spurious input into the story in this way, it represents a sort of breaking of the fourth wall — a fascinating development in light of the fact that Infocom had spent a great deal of effort building said wall in the first place. By the time of Hitchhiker’s they scrupulously distinguished between what I’ll refer to as diegetic commands (things that cause things to happen in the storyworld) and non-diegetic — or, if you like, utility — commands (things like “SAVE” or “RESTORE” or, indeed, invalid inputs that don’t affect the storyworld). For instance, time passes in the story and the turn counter advances only in the case of the former. Infocom’s goal had long ago become to separate the undesirable challenge of interacting with the parser from the desirable one of interacting with the storyworld. Now along comes Adams to muddy it all up again. The difference, of course, is that early text adventures confused the layers of interface and simulation because they didn’t entirely know what they were doing. Adams and Mereztky break the formal rules the way artists do — consciously.

That’s not the end of the fellow in the jeweled battle shorts and his buddy; you’ll be meeting them again soon. But in the meantime you’re thrown out of the Vogon airlock[11]Although hopefully not before collecting the essential atomic vector plotter and picked up at the last possible second by the Heart of Gold, thanks to the magic of Infinite Improbability Physics. You end up in Darkness again, a motif that will continue to recur. You come out of it via another of the game’s most storied bits, the first of two incidents of it flat-out lying to you:

>listen
(to darkness)
You hear the deep and distant hum of a star drive coming from far above. There is an exit to port.

>w
You can't go that way.

>n
You can't go that way.

>s
(We were lying about the exit to port.) You emerge from a small doorway...

Entry Bay Number Two
This is an entry bay for the Heart of Gold. A corridor lies aft of here.
There is a sales brochure here.

"This looks like that incredible new Infinite Improbability Drive spaceship, the Heart of Gold!" says Ford, with growing excitement.

"Announcement, announcement. This is Eddie (the shipboard computer). We have just picked up two hitchhikers at an improbability factor of 2 to the 21,914 power to 1 against."

Just as you’d expect from the novel, you soon meet the masters of the Heart of Gold, two-headed party fiend Zaphod Beeblebrox and his Earthling girlfriend Trillian, née Tricia McMillan, whom you (Arthur) once tried to pick up at a party in London only to watch her leave with Zaphod.[12]I’ve always found Zaphod a hilarious character because he was such a walking, talking anachronism even in the early 1980s. He’s just so obviously a creature of the 1970s, from his hippy-dippy diction to his easygoing, lackadaisically stoned take on existence. He’d fit right in in Dazed and Confused. But from here things suddenly diverge from the novel. Your companions all bugger off to the sauna, conveniently removing themselves from the implementation equation and leaving you to explore the Heart of Gold and, eventually, a number of other realities to obtain a collection of tools,[13]Don’t ask. a collection of fluff,[14]Really don’t ask. and, stereotypical Englishman that you are, a good cup of tea. Ford helpfully leaves his copy of the Guide with you; you can “CONSULT” it about an impressive number of things. Some of these entries are just meant for fun, although they are once again often just recycled bits from the book. At least a few, however, are essential reading.

The Heart of Gold also contains the second instance of the game lying to you, this one much more extended.

>u
Corridor, Aft End
This is one end of a short corridor that continues fore along the main deck of the Heart of Gold. Doorways lead to aft and port. In addition, a gangway leads downward.

>s
That entrance leads to the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. It's supposed to be a terribly dangerous area of the ship. Are you sure you want to go in there?

>yes
Absolutely sure?

>yes
I can tell you don't want to really. You stride away with a spring in your step, wisely leaving the Drive Chamber safely behind you. Telegrams arrive from well-wishers in all corners of the Galaxy congratulating you on your prudence and wisdom, cheering you up immensely.

>s
What? You're joking, of course. Can I ask you to reconsider?

>no
Engine Room
You're in the Infinite Improbability Drive chamber. Nothing happens; there is nothing to see.

>l
Engine Room
I mean it! There's nothing to see here!

>l
Engine Room
Okay, okay, there are a FEW things to see here. This is the room that houses the powerful Infinite Improbability Generator that drives the Heart of Gold. An exit lies fore of here.
Sitting in the corner is a spare, portable Improbability Generator.
There is an ionic diffusion rasp here.
There is a pair of hypersonic pliers here.

(Footnote 10)

>footnote 10
I guess it isn't all that dangerous a place after all.

Those footnotes which pop up from time to time are another of the game’s blizzard of new ideas — rather pointless really, but good fun.[15]Like (hopefully) the ones I’ve included in this article in homage. Or maybe this is my bid for literary greatness via my own version of Pale Fire.

If you experiment and use the Guide wisely, you’ll eventually find a way to transport yourself into about half a dozen little vignettes, sometimes still in the person of Arthur, sometimes in that of one of your three companions currently slumming it in the sauna. I won’t belabor most of these; this article has to end at some point, after all, and if you do play for yourself you deserve to discover something for yourself. But I do want to talk just a bit about one, or rather two that are closely interrelated, because they involve a puzzle often cited as an example of Hitchhiker’s extreme, downright un-Infocom-like cruelty.

One of the vignettes features our friend of the jeweled battle shorts. It seems that he and his erstwhile enemy have worked out the source of the misunderstanding that led to all those centuries of terrible war: a creature from Earth.[16]This would seem to belie the Guide‘s description of Earth as “harmless,” and even the revised description of it as “mostly harmless.” You’re transported onto the bridge of his flagship as he and his erstwhile enemy hurtle toward your planet, not yet destroyed by the Vogons in this vignette,[17]There’s a joke, or maybe an aphorism, in there somewhere. “Between a Vl’Hurg and a Vogon,” maybe? with malice in their hearts.

War Chamber
Spread before you, astonishingly enough, is the War Chamber of a star battle cruiser. Through the domed canopy of the ship you can see a vast battle fleet flying in formation behind you through the black, glittering emptiness of space. Ahead is a star system towards which you are hurtling at a terrifying speed.
There is an ultra-plasmic vacuum awl here.

Standing near you are two creatures who are gazing at the star system with terrible hatred in their eyes. One is wearing black jewelled battle shorts, and the other is wreathed in a cloud of green, sweet-smelling steam. They are engaged in conversation.

The fleet continues to hurtle sunwards.

If you’re like, oh, about 95% of players, your journey will end abruptly when the battle fleet, which in a fatal oversight on the part of our militant alien friends turns out to be microscopic by the scale of the Earth, is swallowed by a small dog. To prevent this, you needed to have taken the unmotivated (at the time) step of feeding something to the aforementioned dog way back on Earth in the first act of the game, before the Vogons arrived. Horribly cruel, no? Well, yes and no. Another of the vignettes — they appear in random order, thus justifying Meretzky’s assertion that Hitchhiker’s ends up representing one of the “most ruthlessly nonlinear designs we [Infocom] ever did” — has you replaying the opening sequence of the game again, albeit from the perspective of Ford Prefect. You can also feed the dog there. If you fail at a vignette, meanwhile — and that’s very easy to do — you usually “die,” but that’s not as bad as you might expect. You’re merely returned to the Heart of Gold, and can have another go at it later. This mechanism saves Hitchhiker’s repeatedly, and not least in the case of this puzzle, from accusations of relying on extensive learning by death.

Still, there should be no mistake: Hitchhiker’s is punishingly difficult for even the most experienced of adventurers, the most challenging Infocom release since Suspended and the one with the most elements of, shall we say, questionable fairness since the days of Zork II and Deadline. While it is possible to repeat the vignettes until you solve each overarching challenge, it’s painfully easy to leave small things undone. Having “solved” the vignette in the sense of completing its overarching goal, you’re then locked out of experiencing it again, and thus locked out of victory for reasons that are obscure indeed.[18]Zaphod’s sequence is particularly prone to this, to the extent that I’ll offer a hint: look under the seat! One or two puzzles give no immediate feedback after you solve them, which can lead you to think you’re on the wrong track.[19]I’m thinking particularly of growing the plant here. For virtually the entire game after arriving on the Heart of Gold you labor away with no clear idea what it is you’re really supposed to be accomplishing. Sometimes vital properties of things go undescribed just for the hell of it.[20]I’m speaking particularly of the brilliantly Adamsian “thing your aunt gave you that you don’t know what it is,” of which it’s vital to know — take this as another tip — that you can put things inside it, even though that’s never noted or implied by its description. And then many of these puzzles are… well, they’re just hard, and at least as often hard in the way of “ENJOY POETRY” as in the way of the babel fish. The “Standard” difficulty label on the box, which was placed there purely due to marketing needs, is the cruelest touch of all.

So, we must ask just how Hitchhiker’s became such an aberration in the general trend of Infocom games to become ever fairer and, yes, easier. Meretzky noted that trend in his interview for Get Lamp and was not, either back in the day or at the time of his interview, entirely happy about it. He felt that wrestling with a game for weeks or months until you had that “Eureka!” moment in the bathtub or the middle of a working day was a huge part of the appeal of the original Zork — an appeal that Infocom was gradually diluting. Thus Meretzky and Adams explicitly discussed his opinion that “adventure games were becoming a little too easy,” and that Hitchhiker’s could be a corrective to that. Normally puzzles that were exceptionally difficult had their edges rounded during Infocom’s extensive testing process. But that didn’t happen for Hitchhiker’s to the extent that it normally did, for a couple of reasons. First, many of these puzzles had been written not by any ordinary Imp but by Douglas Adams; for obvious reasons, Infocom was reluctant to step on his toes. Additionally, the testers didn’t have nearly as much time with Hitchhiker’s as with an ordinary Infocom game, thanks to Adams’s procrastination and the resultant delays and Infocom’s determination to get the game out in time for Christmas. The testers did a pretty good job with the purely technical side; even the first release of Hitchhiker’s is not notably buggy. But there wasn’t time for the usual revisions to the design as a whole even had there been a strong motivation to do them from Infocom’s side. Any lack of such motivation was not down to lack of complaining from the testers: Meretzky admits that they “strongly urged that the game be made easier.”

The decision to go ahead with such a cruel design has been second-guessed by folks within Infocom in the years since, especially in light of the declining commercial fortunes of the company’s post-Hitchhiker’s era. Jon Palace presented a pretty good summary of the too-difficult camp’s arguments in his own Get Lamp interview:

Some have argued that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of the biggest mistakes we made because it introduced a huge audience to a relatively difficult game. The difficulty of the game and its design flaws[21]Palace was no fan of the dog-feeding puzzle in particular. may have turned off the largest new audience we could have had. Perhaps we should have made that game a lot easier. It’s very funny, and it’s got some terrific puzzles. But my point is that if it was the first time people were experiencing an Infocom game, because of the names “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Douglas Adams,” there was only so much Douglas Adams they could get out of it without working harder than they wanted to.

Steve Meretzky, on the other hand, remains unrepetant, as do Mike Dornbrook and others. Dornbrook’s argument, which strikes me as flawed, is essentially that most people didn’t finish most Infocom games anyway — even the easier ones — so Hitchhiker’s difficulty or hypothetical lack thereof didn’t make much difference. I suppose your attitude toward these issues says much about what you want Infocom’s games to be: accessible interactive stories with a literary bent or intricate puzzle boxes. It’s Graham Nelson’s memorable description of interactive fiction as a narrative at war with a crossword writ large yet again. For my part, I think interactive fiction can be either, an opinion apparently shared by Meretzky himself, the man who went on to write both the forthrightly literary A Mind Forever Voyaging and the unabashed puzzle box that is Zork Zero. Yet I do demand that my puzzle boxes play fair, and find that Hitchhiker’s sometimes fails me here. And while I have no objection to the concept of a tougher Infocom game for the hardcore who cut their teeth on Zork,[22]See 1985’s Spellbreaker, which unlike Hitchhiker’s was explicitly billed as exactly that and does a superb job at it. I’m not sure that Hitchhiker’s should have been that game, for the obvious commercial considerations Palace has just outlined for us.

And yet, and yet… it’s hard to see how some of the more problematic aspects of Hitchhiker’s could be divorced from its more brilliant parts. As a final example of that, I want to talk about — and, yes, spoil — one last puzzle, one of the last in the game in fact. By now you’ve collected all of the various bits and pieces from the vignettes and the narrative of the game has rejoined that of the book; the Heart of Gold has landed on the legendary lost planet of Magrathea. You’ve also managed to brew yourself a nice hot cup of tea. Now you need to get inside the room of Marvin the Paranoid Android to convince him to open the ship’s hatch to let you go exploring.

>s
Corridor, Aft End
This is one end of a short corridor that continues fore along the main deck of the Heart of Gold. Doorways lead to aft and port. In addition, a gangway leads downward.

>w
The screening door is closed.

>open door
The door explains, in a haughty tone, that the room is occupied by a super-intelligent robot and that lesser beings (by which it means you) are not to be admitted. "Show me some tiny example of your intelligence," it says, "and maybe, just maybe, I might reconsider."

>consult guide about intelligence
The Guide checks through its Sub-Etha-Net database and eventually comes up with the following entry:

Thirty million generations of philosophers have debated the definition of intelligence. The most popular definition appears in the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation android manuals: "Intelligence is the ability to reconcile totally contradictory situations without going completely bonkers -- for example, having a stomach ache and not having a stomach ache at the same time, holding a hole without the doughnut, having good luck and bad luck simultaneously, or seeing a real estate agent waive his fee."

>get no tea
no tea: Taken.

>i
You have:
no tea
tea
a flowerpot
The Hitchhiker's Guide
a towel
a thing your aunt gave you which you don't know what it is
a babel fish (in your ear)
your gown (being worn)

>open door
The door is almost speechless with admiration. "Wow. Simultaneous tea and no tea. My apologies. You are clearly a heavy-duty philosopher." It opens respectfully.

I’m not quite sure how you make that intuitive leap precisely fair, but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live without it. Maybe Hitchhiker’s is fine just the way it is. Soon after, you drink that glorious cup of tea, a feat which, in possibly the most trenchant and certainly the funniest piece of social commentary on the nature of Britishness in the entire game, scores you a full 100 of the game’s total of 400 points. Soon after that you step onto the surface of Magrathea, where “almost instantly the most incredible adventure starts which you’ll have to buy the next game to find out about.” That game, of course, would never materialize. The ludic version of Arthur Dent has remained frozen in amber just outside the Heart of Gold for almost thirty years now, giving Hitchhiker’s claim to one final dubious title: that of the only game in the Infocom canon that doesn’t have an ending.

Crazy and vaguely subversive as it is, Hitchhiker’s would have a massive influence on later works of interactive fiction. Contemporaneous Infocom games are filled with what feels to modern sensibilities like an awful lot of empty rooms that exist only to be mapped and trekked across. Hitchhiker’s, on the other hand, is implemented deeply rather than widely. There are just 31 rooms in the entire game, but virtually every one of them has interesting things to see and do within it. Further, these 31 rooms come not in a single contiguous and unchanging block, but a series of linked dramatic scenes. The Heart of Gold, which contains all of nine rooms, is by far the biggest contiguous area in the game. Hitchhiker’s can thus lay pretty good claim to being the first text adventure to completely abandon the old obsession with geography that defined the likes of Adventure and Zork. Certainly it’s the first Infocom game in which map-making is, even for the most cartographically challenged amongst us, utterly superfluous. This focus on fewer rooms with more to do in them feels rather shockingly modern for a game written in 1984. Ditto the dynamism of most of the scenes, with things always happening around you that demand a reaction. The only place where you can just explore at your leisure is the Heart of Gold.

Many a later game, including such 1990s classics as Curses, Jigsaw, and The Muldoon Legacy, have used linked vignettes like those in Hitchhiker’s to send the player hopscotching through time and space. More have followed its lead in including books and other materials to be “CONSULT”ed. Even a fair number[23]Not to mention this post. have latched onto the pointless but somehow amusing inclusion of footnotes. Less positively, quite a number of games both inside the interactive-fiction genre and outside of it have tried very hard to mimic Adams’s idiosyncratic brand of humor, generally to less than stellar effect.[24]Tolkien is about the only other generally good author I can think of who has sparked as much bad writing as Adams.

Hitchhiker’s is an original, with a tone and feel unique in the annals of interactive fiction. It breaks the rules and gets away with it. I’m not sure prospective designers should try to copy it in that, but they certainly should play it, as should everyone interested in interactive fiction. It’s easily one of the dozen or so absolutely seminal works in the medium. Fortunately, it’s also the most effortless of all Infocom games to play today, as the BBC has for some years now hosted an online version of it. Yes, there’s lots of graphical gilding around the lily, but at heart it’s still the original text adventure. If you’re interested enough in interactive fiction to make it this far in this article and you still haven’t played it, by all means remedy that right away.

(In addition to the various Get Lamp interviews, Steve Meretzky’s interview in the book Game Design Theory and Practice was very valuable in writing this article.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 “As seen on Tri-D!”
2 Easily mistaken for an empty plastic baggie.
3 They turn opaque when danger is at hand to avoid upsetting your delicate sensibilities. The ones in the game package are, naturally, made of black construction paper.
4 These were manufactured in huge quantities and given away for some time at trade shows and the like as well as being inserted into game boxes.
5 Or whatever it’s supposed to be.
6 Ford Prefect’s name, by the way, is one of the subtler jokes in Hitchhiker’s, and one that was entirely lost on American readers. The Ford Prefect, you see, was once a model of automobile in Britain. When the Betelgeusian Ford Prefect chose the name as “nicely inconspicuous,” he did so because he had, as Adams himself later clarified, “mistaken the dominant life form” on the planet.
7 Or not.
8 The original Hitchhiker’s radio serial mentions Vogon poetry as the third worst in the universe. The second is that of the Azgoths of Kria, while the first is that of Paul Neil Milne Johnstone of Earth. Rather astoundingly, Johnstone is actually a real person, a bunk mate of Adams’s back at Brentwood School who would keep him awake nights “scratching this awful poetry about swans and stuff.” Now, it was kind of horrible of Adams to call him out like that (and probably kind of horrible for me to tell this story now), but it just keeps getting better. Poor Johnstone, who was apparently an earnest poet into adult life but not endowed with much humor not of the unintentional stripe, wrote a letter to Time Out magazine that’s as funny as just about anything in Hitchhiker’s:

“Unfortunate that Douglas Adams should choose to reopen a minor incident; that it remains of such consequence to him indicates a certain envy, if not paranoia. Manifest that Adams is being base-minded and mean-spirited, but it is surely unnecessary for Steve Grant [a journalist to whom Adams had told the story] to act as a servile conduit for this pettiness.”

With Johnstone’s lawyers beginning to circle, Paul Neil Milne Johnstone became Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings in the book and later adaptations.

9 It’s fairly persnickety here; you can only “CONSULT GUIDE ABOUT” things.
10 Indeed, it seems to go relatively unremarked just how much text in the game is lifted directly from the novel, another artifact perhaps of the sheer difficulty of getting original prose out of Adams.
11 Although hopefully not before collecting the essential atomic vector plotter
12 I’ve always found Zaphod a hilarious character because he was such a walking, talking anachronism even in the early 1980s. He’s just so obviously a creature of the 1970s, from his hippy-dippy diction to his easygoing, lackadaisically stoned take on existence. He’d fit right in in Dazed and Confused.
13 Don’t ask.
14 Really don’t ask.
15 Like (hopefully) the ones I’ve included in this article in homage. Or maybe this is my bid for literary greatness via my own version of Pale Fire.
16 This would seem to belie the Guide‘s description of Earth as “harmless,” and even the revised description of it as “mostly harmless.”
17 There’s a joke, or maybe an aphorism, in there somewhere. “Between a Vl’Hurg and a Vogon,” maybe?
18 Zaphod’s sequence is particularly prone to this, to the extent that I’ll offer a hint: look under the seat!
19 I’m thinking particularly of growing the plant here.
20 I’m speaking particularly of the brilliantly Adamsian “thing your aunt gave you that you don’t know what it is,” of which it’s vital to know — take this as another tip — that you can put things inside it, even though that’s never noted or implied by its description.
21 Palace was no fan of the dog-feeding puzzle in particular.
22 See 1985’s Spellbreaker, which unlike Hitchhiker’s was explicitly billed as exactly that and does a superb job at it.
23 Not to mention this post.
24 Tolkien is about the only other generally good author I can think of who has sparked as much bad writing as Adams.
 
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Posted by on November 19, 2013 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Infocom: Going It Alone

With Zork on the market and proving to be a major hit, it was time for Infocom to think about the inevitable sequel. The task of preparing it fell to Dave Lebling. At first glance, it looked straightforward enough. He needed only take the half of the original PDP-10 Zork that had not made it into the PC version, label it Zork II, and be done with it. In actuality, however, it was a little more complicated. The new game would at a minimum have to have some restructuring. For example, the goal of the PDP-10 Zork, like the PC version, was to deliver a collection of treasures to the white house outside of which the player started the game. Yet in Zork II said house would not exist. Perhaps motivated at first largely by necessity, Lebling began to tinker with the original design. Soon, inspired by the new ZIL technology Infocom had developed to let them port Zork to the PC, technology that was actually more flexible, more powerful, and simpler to work with than the MDL behind the original Zork, Lebling began to dramatically reshape the design, interspersing elements from the original with new areas, puzzles, and characters. In the end, he would use only about half of the leftover PDP-10 material, which in turn would make up about half of Zork II; the other half would be new. Lebling thus became the first implementer to consciously craft an Infocom game, for sale as a commercial product on PCs.

To the outside world, Infocom now began to establish the corporate personality that people would soon come to love almost as much as their games — a chummy, witty inclusiveness that made people who bought the games feel like they had just signed up for a “smart persons club.” Rather than one of the Zork creators or even one of the Infocom shareholders, the organizer and guider of the club was Mike Dornbrook, a recent MIT biology graduate who had come to Zork only in 1980, as the first and most important playtester of the PC version.

More than anyone else around Infocom, Dornbrook was a believer in Zork, convinced it was far more than an interesting hacking exercise, a way to get some money coming in en route to more serious products, or even “just” a really fun game. He saw Zork as something new under the sun, something that could in some small way change the world. He strongly encouraged Infocom to build a community around this nascent new art form. At his behest, the earliest version of Zork included the following message on a note in the artist’s studio:

Congratulations!
You are the privileged owner of a genuine ZORK Great Underground Empire (Part I), a self contained and self maintaining universe. As a legitimate owner, you have available to you both the Movement Assistance Planner (MAP) and Hierarchical Information for Novice Treasure Seekers (HINTS). For information about these and other services, send a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope to:

Infocom, Inc.
GUE I Maintenance Division
PO Box 120, Kendall Station
Cambridge, Mass. 02142

Joining the smart-persons club was at this stage still quite a complicated process. The aforementioned self-addressed envelope would be retrieved by Stu Galley, who dutifully visited the post office each day. He then sent back a sheet offering a map for purchase, as well as the ultimate personalized hint service; for a couple of dollars a pop, Infocom would personally answer queries.

The map was adapted from Lebling’s original by Dave Ardito, an artist friend of Galley’s who embellished the lines and boxes with some appropriately adventurous visual flourishes. Dornbrook, who had some experience with printing, used his MIT alumni status to print the maps in the middle of the night on a big printing press that normally produced posters and flyers for upcoming campus events. He enlisted his roommate, Steve Meretzky, to help him.

Meretzky was also an MIT alum, having graduated in 1979 with a degree in construction management. He may have gone to the most important computer-science university in the world, but Meretzky wanted no part of that world. He “despised” computers and hackers. In Get Lamp‘s Infocom feature, Dornbrook described Meretzky’s introduction to Zork. Dornbrook was testing the game, and had borrowed a TRS-80 and brought it home to their apartment, where he set it up on the kitchen table.

He [Meretzky] came in the back door and saw the computer and said, “Away!” as only Steve could. I started telling him, “Steve, you’re going to love this!” I was trying to explain to him how to start the game up, and he puts his hands over his ears and starts screaming so he can’t hear me.

But apparently he heard enough. Over the course of the next several weeks, I started noticing when I’d come home and was about to start testing again that the keyboard might have moved half an inch or my notes had moved slightly. I realized Steve was playing the game but wasn’t willing to admit it. One night he finally broke down and said, “Alright! Alright! I need a hint!” And that was the beginning of the end for Steve.

Meretzky soon signed up as a tester, and also joined Dornbrook in his other Infocom-related projects.

There’s a great interview amongst the Get Lamp extras with David Shaw, an MIT student who wrote for the campus newspaper, whose offices were just above the press Dornbrook and Meretzky were surreptitiously borrowing. Shaw was confused by the fact that the press “always seemed to be running,” even when there were no new campus events to promote: “There were always the same two or three guys down there. They were printing something out that clearly wasn’t a movie poster, but they were also being very cagey about what it was they were printing.” One day Shaw found Dornbrook and Meretzky’s apparent “discard pile” of Zork maps and realized at last what was going on.

While the maps were a team effort, hints fell entirely to Dornbrook. He hand-wrote replies on ordinary paper. After a time he found it to be quite a profitable, if occasionally tedious, endeavor. Because most of the queries were variations on the same handful of questions, crafting personal answers didn’t take as much time as one might expect. (See the Infocom section of the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities for scans of the original maps and, even better, a couple of Dornbrook’s handwritten replies to hint requests.)

Then Dornbrook was accepted into an MBA program at the University of Chicago, scheduled to begin in the fall, meaning of course that he would have to leave Boston and give up day-to-day contact with the Infocom folks. No one else felt equipped to replace Dornbrook, who had by this point become in reality if not title Infocom’s head of public relations. Dornbrook, concerned about what would happen to “his” loyal customers, tried to convince President Joel Berez to hire a replacement. Impossible, Berez replied; the company just didn’t yet have the resources to devote someone to nothing but customer relations. So Dornbrook pitched another idea. He would form a new company, the Zork Users Group, to sell hints, maps, memorabilia, and even Infocom games themselves at a slight discount to eager players who joined his new club, which he would run out of Chicago between classes. Infocom in turn would be relieved of this burden. They could simply refer hint requests to Dornbrook, and worry only about making more and better games. Berez agreed, and ZUG was officially born in October of 1981. It would peak at over 20,000 members — but more about that in future posts.

Through much of 1981, Infocom assumed that Personal Software, publisher of the first Zork, would also publish Zork II. After all, Zork was a substantial hit. And indeed, PS responded positively when Infocom first talked with them about Zork II in April. The two companies went so far as to sign a contract that June. But just a few months later PS suddenly pulled the deal. Further, they also announced that they would be dropping the first Zork as well. What happened? wondered Infocom.

What had happened, of course, was VisiCalc. Dan Fylstra, founder of PS, had nurtured Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston’s creation from its very early days, donating an Apple II to the pair to help them develop their idea. Once released in October of 1979, VisiCalc transformed the microcomputer industry — and transformed its publisher. PS, formerly a publisher of games and hobbyist programs, was suddenly “the VisiCalc publisher,” one of the hottest up-and-coming companies in the country. As big as Zork was, it didn’t amount to much in comparison to VisiCalc. By 1981 games and hobbyist software made up less than 10 percent of PS’s revenue. Small wonder that Infocom often felt like their game was something of an afterthought for PS. Now the IBM PC was on the horizon, and PS found itself being courted even by the likes of Big Blue themselves, who needed for VisiCalc to be available on their new computer. Just as Microsoft was also doing at this time, PS began to reshape themselves, leaving behind their hacker and hobbyist roots to focus on the exploding market for VisiCalc and other business software. They began doing in-house development for the first time, rolling out a whole line of programs to capitalize on the VisiCalc name: VisiDex, VisiPlot, VisiTrend, VisiTerm, VisiFile. The following year PS would complete their Visification by renaming themselves VisiCorp, en route to disappearing up their own VisiBum in one of the more spectacular flameouts in software history.

In this new paradigm Zork was not just unnecessary but potentially dangerous. Games were anathema to the new army of pinstriped business customers suddenly buying PCs. Companies like PS, who wished to serve them and be taken seriously despite their own questionable hacker origins, thus began to give anything potentially entertaining a wide berth. The games line would have to go, victim of the same paranoia that kept Infocom’s own Al Vezza up at night.

This rejection left Infocom at a crossroads. It wasn’t, mind you, a disaster; there would doubtlessly be plenty of other publishers eager to sign them now that they had a hit game under their belt. Yet they weren’t sure that was the direction they wanted to go. While there was a certain prestige in being published by the biggest software publisher in the world, they had never really been satisfied with PS. They had always felt like a low priority. The awful Zork “barbarian” packaging PS had come up with made one wonder if anyone at PS had actually bothered to play the game, and promotion efforts had felt cursory and disinterested. Certainly PS had never shown the slightest interest in helping Infocom and Dornbrook to build a loyal customer base. If they wanted to build Infocom as a brand, as the best text adventures in the business, why should they have another company’s logo on their boxes?

But of course becoming a publisher would require Infocom to become a “real” company rather than one that did business from a P.O. Box, with more people involved and real money invested. In a choice between keeping Infocom a profitable little sideline or, well, going for it, the Infocom founders chose the latter.

Several of them secured a substantial loan to bankroll the transition. They also secured a fellow named Mort Rosenthal as marketing manager. He lasted less than a year with Infocom, getting himself fired when he overstepped his authority to offer Infocom’s games to Radio Shack at a steep discount that would get them into every single store. Before that, however, he worked wonders, and not just in marketing. A natural wheeler and dealer, he in Stu Galley’s words secured “a time-shared production plant in Randolph, an ad agency in Watertown, an order-taking service in New Jersey, a supplier of disks in California, and so on,” all in a matter of weeks. He also found them their first tiny office above Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The first two salaried employees to come to work there became Berez, the company’s most prominent business mind, and Marc Blank, the architect of the Z-Machine who had already more than a year before set aside his medical internship and moved back to Boston to take a flyer on the venture.

Showing an instinct for public perception that’s surprising to find in a bunch of hackers, Infocom made one last deal with PS — to buy back PS’s remaining copies of Zork and prevent them from dumping the games onto the market at a discount, thus devaluing the Zork brand. They needed to have Zork II out in time for Christmas, and so worked frantically with the advertising agency Rosenthal had found to craft a whole new look for the series. The motif they came up with was much more appropriate and classy than the old PS barbarian. In fact, it remains the established “look” of Zork to this day.

Ironically for a company whose games were all text, Infocom’s level of visual refinement set them apart, not least in the classic logo that debuted at this time and would remain a fixture for the rest of the company’s life. But speaking of text: in Zork II‘s advertising and packaging we can already see the rhetorical voice that Infocom fans would come to know, a seemingly casual, humorous vibe that nevertheless reflected an immense amount of care — this at a time when most game publishers still seemed to consider even basic grammar of little concern. In comparison to everybody else, Infocom just seemed a little bit classier, a little bit smarter, a little bit more adult. It’s an image that would serve them well.

Next time we’ll accept the invitation above and dive into Zork II itself, which did indeed make it out just in time for Christmas.

 

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The Birth of Infocom

As the Dynamic Modeling Group put the final touches on Zork and put it to bed at last, it was beginning to feel like the end of an era at MIT. Marc Blank was about to graduate medical school and begin his residency in Pittsburgh, which would make extensive MIT hacking impossible even given his seemingly superhuman capacities. Others were finishing their own degree programs at MIT, or just running out of justifications for forestalling “real” careers with real salaries by hanging around their alma mater. In fact, a generational exodus was beginning, not just from the DMG but from MIT’s Laboratory for Computer and AI Lab in general as well. Pressures from the outside world were intruding on the hacker utopia inside MIT at last, pressures which in the next few years would change it forever. Much of the change stemmed from the invention of the microcomputer.

Most in established institutional hacking environments like MIT were initially nonplussed by what’s come to be called the PC revolution. That’s not so surprising, really. Those early microcomputers were absurdly limited machines. The homebrew hackers who bought (and often built) them were just excited to have unfettered access to something that, however minimally, met the definition of “computer.” Those privileged to find a place at an institution like MIT, however, not only had unfettered or nearly unfettered access to the systems there, but said systems were powerful enough to really do something. What charms did an Altair or even TRS-80 have to compare with sophisticated operating systems like TOPS-10 or TOPS-20 or ITS, with well-structured programming languages like LISP and MDL, with research into AI and natural-language processing, even with networked games like Maze and Trivia and, yes, Zork? The microcomputer world looked like a hopelessly uncultured and untutored one, bereft of a whole hacking tradition stretching back two decades or more. How could anyone try to build complex software using BASIC? When many institutional hackers deigned to notice the new machines at all, it was with withering contempt; Stu Galley called “We hate micros!” the unofficial motto of the DMG. They regarded the micros as little more than toys — the very same reaction as most of the general population.

By the spring of 1979, though, it was becoming increasingly clear to anyone willing to look that the little machines had their uses. WordStar, the first really usable microcomputer word processor, had been out for a year, and was moving more and more CP/M-based machines into offices and even writer’s studies. At the West Coast Computer Faire that May, Dan Bricklin demonstrated for the first time VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet program, which would revolutionize accounting and business-planning practice. “How did you ever do without it?” asked the first pre-release advertisement, hyperbolically but, as it turned out, presciently; a few years later millions would be asking themselves just that question. Unlike WordStar and even Scott Adams’s Adventureland, VisiCalc was not a more limited version of an institutional computing concept implemented on microcomputer hardware. It had been conceived, designed, and implemented entirely on the Apple II, the first genuinely new idea in software to be born on the microcomputer — and a sign of a burgeoning changing of the guard.

The microcomputer brought many, many more users to computers than had ever existed before. That in turn brought more private-industry investment into the field, driven by a new reality: that you could make real money at this stuff. And that knowledge brought big changes to MIT and other institutions of “pure” hacking. Most (in)famously, the AI Lab was riven that winter and spring of 1979 by a dispute between Richard Greenblatt, pretty much the dean of the traditional hacker ethic at MIT, and a more pragmatic administrator named Russell Noftsker. Along with a small team of other hackers and hardware engineers, Greenblatt had developed a small single-user computer — a sort of boutique micro, the first of what would come to be called “workstations” — optimized for running LISP. Believing the design to have real commercial potential, Noftsker approached Greenblatt with a proposal to form a company and manufacture it. Greenblatt initially agreed, but soon proved (at least in Noftsker’s view) unwilling to sacrifice even the most minute hacker principle in the face of business realities. The two split in an ugly way, with Noftsker taking much of the AI Lab with him to implement Greenblatt’s original concept as Symbolics, Inc. Feeling disillusioned and betrayed, Greenblatt eventually left as well to form his own, less successful company, Lisp Machines.

It’s not as if no one had ever founded a company out of MIT before, nor that commerce had never mixed with the idealism of the hackers there. The founders of DEC itself, Ken Olson and Harlan Anderson, were MIT alumni who had done the basic design for what became DEC’s first machine, the PDP-1, as students there in the mid-1950s. Thereafter, MIT maintained always a cozy relationship with DEC, testing hardware and, most significantly, developing much essential software for the company’s machines — a relationship that was either, depending on how you look at it, a goldmine for the hackers in giving them perpetual access to the latest technology or a brilliant scheme by DEC for utilizing some of the best computing minds of their generation without paying them a dime. Still, what was happening at MIT in 1979 felt qualitatively different. These hackers were almost all software programmers, after all, and the microcomputer market was demonstrating that it was now possible to sell software on its own as prepackaged works, the way you might a record or a book. As a wise man once said, “Money changes everything.” Many MIT hackers were excited by the potential lucre, as evidenced by the fact that many more chose to follow Noftsker than the idealistic Greenblatt out of the university. Only a handful, such as Marvin Minsky and the ever-stubborn Richard Stallman, remained behind and continued to hew relentlessly to the old hacker ethic.

Infocom’s founders were not among the diehards. As shown by their willingness to add (gasp!) security to ITS to protect their Zork source, something that would have drawn howls of protest from Stallman on at least two different levels, their devotion to the hacker ethic of total sharing and transparency was negotiable at best. In fact, Al Vezza and the DMG had been mulling over commercial applications for the group’s creations as far back as 1976. As the 1979 spring semester wrapped up, however, it seemed clear that if this version of the DMG, about to be scattered to the proverbial winds as it was, wanted to do something commercially, the time to get started was now. And quite a lot of others at MIT were doing the same thing, weren’t they? It wouldn’t do to be left behind in an empty lab, as quite literally happened to poor old Richard Stallman. That’s how Al Vezza saw the situation, anyway, and his charges, eager to remain connected and not averse to increasing their modest university salaries, quickly agreed.

And so Infocom was officially founded on June 22, 1979, with ten stockholders. Included were three of the four hackers who had worked on Zork: Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling, and the newly minted Dr. Marc Blank (commuting from his new medical residency in Pittsburgh). There were also five other current or former DMG hackers: Mike Broos, Scott Cutler, Stu Galley, Joel Berez, Chris Reeve. And then there was Vezza himself and even Licklider, who agreed to join in the same sort of advisory role he had filled for the DMG back at MIT. Each person kicked in whatever funding he could afford, ranging from $400 to $2000, and received an appropriate percentage of the new company’s stock in return. Total startup funds amounted to $11,500. The name was necessarily nondescript, considering that no one knew quite what (if anything) the company would eventually do. The fractured, futuristic compound was much in vogue amongst technology companies of the time — Microsoft, CompuWare, EduWare — and Infocom just followed the trend in choosing the name “least objectionable to everyone.”

As should be clear from the above, Infocom did not exactly begin under auspicious circumstances. I’d call them a garage startup, except that they didn’t even have a garage. Infocom would exist for some months as more of a theoretical company in limbo than an actual business entity. It didn’t even get its first proper mailing address — a P.O. Box — until March of 1980. Needless to say, no one was quitting their day jobs as they met from time to time over the following months to talk about what ought to come next. In August, Mike Broos had already gotten bored with the endeavor and quit, leaving just nine partners. Everyone agreed that they needed something they could put together relatively quickly to sell and really get the company off the ground. More ambitious projects could then follow. But what could they do for that first project?

The hackers trolled through their old projects from MIT, looking for ideas. They kept coming back to the games. There was that Trivia game, but it wouldn’t be practical to store enough questions on a floppy disk to make it worthwhile. More intriguing was the Maze game. Stand-up arcades were booming at the time. If Infocom could build a version of Maze for arcades, they would have something unprecedented. Unfortunately, getting there would require a huge, expensive hardware- as well as software-engineering project. The Infocom partners were clever enough, but they were all software rather than hardware hackers, and money was in short supply. And then of course there was Zork… but there was no way to squeeze a 1 MB adventure game into a 32 K or 48 K microcomputer. Anyway, Vezza wasn’t really comfortable with getting into the games business on any terms, fearing it could tarnish the company’s brand even if only used to raise some early funds and bootstrap the startup. So there was also plenty of discussion of other, more business-like ideas also drawn from the DMG’s project history: a document-tracking system, an email system, a text-processing system.

Meanwhile, Blank was living in Pittsburgh and feeling rather unhappy at being cut off from his old hacking days at MIT. Luckily, he did have at least one old MIT connection there. Joel Berez had worked with the DMG before graduating in 1977. He had spent the last two years living in Pittsburgh and working for his family’s business (which experience perhaps influenced the others to elect him as Infocom’s President in November of 1979). Blank and Berez made a habit of getting together for Chinese food (always the hacker’s staple) and talking about the old times. These conversations kept coming back to Zork. Was it really impossible to even imagine getting the game onto a microcomputer? Soon the conversations turned from nostalgic to technical. As they began to discuss technical realities, other challenges beyond even that of sheer computing capacity presented themselves.

Even if they could somehow get Zork onto a microcomputer, which microcomputer should they choose? The TRS-80 was by far the best early seller, but the Apple II, the Cadillac of the trinity of 1977, was beginning to come on strong now, aided by the new II Plus model and VisiCalc. Next year, and the year after that… who knew? And all of these machines were hopelessly incompatible with one another, meaning that reaching multiple platforms must seemingly entail re-implementing Zork — and any future adventure games they might decide to create — from scratch on each. Blank and Berez cast about for some high-level language that might be relatively portable and acceptable for implementing a new Zork, but they didn’t find much. BASIC was, well, BASIC, and not even all that consistent from microcomputer to microcomputer. There was a promising new implementation of the more palatable Pascal for the Apple II on the horizon, but no word of a similar system on other platforms.

So, if they wanted to be able to sell their game to the whole microcomputer market rather than just a slice of it, they would need to come up with some sort of portable data design that could be made to work on many different microcomputers via an interpreter custom-coded for each model. Creating each interpreters would be a task in itself, of course, but at least a more modest one, and if Infocom should decide to do more games after Zork the labor savings would begin to become very significant indeed. In reaching this conclusion, they followed a line of reasoning already well-trod by Scott Adams and Automated Simulations.

But then there was still another problem: Zork currently existed only as MDL source, a language which of course had no implementation on any microcomputer. If they didn’t want to rewrite the entire game from scratch — and wasn’t the point of this whole exercise to come up with a product relatively quickly and easily? — they would have to find a way to make that code run on microcomputers.

They had, then, quite a collection of problems. We’ll talk about how they solved every one of them — and pretty brilliantly at that — next time.

 
 

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The Roots of Infocom

In November of 1980 Personal Software began running the advertisement above in computer magazines, plugging a new game available then on the TRS-80 and a few months later on the Apple II. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of marketing; its garish, amateurish artwork is defensible only in being pretty typical of the era, and the text is remarkably adept at elucidating absolutely nothing that might make Zork stand out from its text-adventure peers. A jaded adventurer might be excused for turning the page on Zork‘s “mazes [that] confound your quest” and “20 treasures” needing to be returned to the “Trophy Case.” Even Scott Adams, not exactly a champion of formal experimentation, had after all seen fit to move on at least from time to time from simplistic fantasy treasure hunts, and Zork didn’t even offer the pretty pictures of On-Line Systems’s otherwise punishing-almost-to-the-point-of-unplayability early games.

In fact, though, Zork represented a major breakthrough in the text-adventure genre — or maybe I should say a whole collection of breakthroughs, from its parser that actually displayed some inkling of English usage in lieu of simplistic pattern matching to the in-game text that for the first time felt crafted by authors who actually cared about the quality of their prose and didn’t find proper grammar and spelling a needless distraction. In one of my favorite parts of Jason Scott’s Get Lamp documentary, several interviewees muse about just how truly remarkable Zork was in the computing world of 1980-81. The consensus is that it was, for a brief window of time, the most impressive single disk you could pull out to demonstrate what your new TRS-80 or Apple II was capable of.

Zork was playing in a whole different league from any other adventure game, a fact that’s not entirely surprising given its pedigree. You’d never guess it from the advertisement above, but Zork grew out of the most storied area of the most important university in computer-science history: MIT. In fact, Zork‘s pedigree is so impressive that it’s hard to know where to begin and harder to know where to end in describing it, hard to avoid getting sucked into an unending computer-science version of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” To keep things manageable I’ll try as much as I can to restrict myself to people directly involved with Zork or Infocom, the company that developed it. So, let’s begin with Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, a fellow who admittedly had more of a tangential than direct role in Infocom’s history but who does serve as an illustration of the kind of rarified computer-science air Infocom was breathing.

Born in 1915 in St. Louis, Licklider was a psychologist by trade, but had just the sort of restless intellect that Joseph Weizenbaum would lament the (perceived) loss of in a later generation of scholars at MIT. He received a triple BA degree in physics, mathematics, and psychology from St. Louis’s Washington University at age 22, having also flirted with chemistry and fine arts along the way. He settled down a bit to concentrate on psychology for his MA and PhD, but remained consistently interested in connecting the “soft” science of psychology with the “hard” sciences and with technology. And so, when researching the psychological component of hearing, he learned more about the physical design of the human and animal auditory nervous systems than do many medical specialists. (He once described it as “the product of a superb architect and a sloppy workman.”) During World War II, research into the effects of high altitude on bomber crews led him to get equally involved with the radio technology they used to communicate with one another and with other airplanes.

After stints at various universities, Licklider came to MIT in 1950, initially to continue his researches into acoustics and hearing. The following year, however, the military-industrial complex came calling on MIT to help create an early-warning network for the Soviet bombers they envisioned dropping down on America from over the Arctic Circle. Licklider joined the resulting affiliated institution, Lincoln Laboratory, as head of its human-engineering group, and played a role in the creation of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), by far the most ambitious application of computer technology conceived up to that point and, for that matter, for many years afterward. Created by MIT’s Lincoln Lab with IBM and other partners, the heart of SAGE was a collection of IBM AN/FSQ-7 mainframes, physically the largest computers ever built (a record that they look likely to hold forever). The system compiled data from many radar stations to allow operators to track a theoretical incoming strike in real time. They could scramble and guide American aircraft to intercept the bombers, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the resulting battle. Later versions of SAGE even allowed them to temporarily take over control of friendly aircraft, guiding them to the interception point via a link to their autopilot systems. SAGE remained in operation from 1959 until 1983, cost more than the Manhattan Project that had opened this whole can of nuclear worms in the first place, and was responsible for huge advances in computer science, particularly in the areas of networking and interactive time-sharing. (On the other hand, considering that the nuclear-bomber threat SAGE had been designed to counter had been largely superseded by the ICBM threat by the time it went operational, its military usefulness is debatable at best.)

During the 1950s most people, including even many of the engineers and early programmers who worked on them, saw computers as essentially huge calculators. You fed in some numbers at one end and got some others out at the other, whether they be the correct trajectory settings for a piece of artillery to hit some target or other or the current balances of a million bank customers. As he watched early SAGE testers track simulated threats in real time, however, Licklider was inspired to a radical new vision of computing, in which human and computer would actively work together, interactively, to solve problems, generate ideas, perhaps just have fun. He took these ideas with him when he left the nascent SAGE project in 1953 to float around MIT in various roles, all the while drifting slowly away from traditional psychology and toward computer science. In 1957 he became a full-time computer scientist when he (temporarily, as it turned out) left MIT for the consulting firm Bolt Beranek and Newman, a company that would play a huge role in the development of computer networking and what we’ve come to know as the Internet. (Loyal readers of this blog may recall that BBN is also where Will Crowther was employed when he created the original version of Adventure as a footnote to writing the code run by the world’s first computerized network routers.)

Licklider, who insisted that everyone, even his undergraduate students, just call him “Lick,” was as smart as he was unpretentious. Speaking in a soft Missouri drawl that could obscure the genius of some of his ideas, he never seemed to think about personal credit or careerism, and possessed not an ounce of guile. When a more personally ambitious colleague stole one of his ideas, Lick would just shrug it off, saying, “It doesn’t matter who gets the credit; it matters that it gets done.” Everyone loved the guy. Much of his work may have been funded by the realpolitik of the military-industrial complex, but Lick was by temperament an idealist. He became convinced that computers could mold a better, more just society. In it, humans would be free to create and to explore their own potential in partnership with the computer, which would take on all the drudgery and rote work. In a surprising prefiguring of the World Wide Web, he imagined a world of “home computer consoles” connected to a larger network that would bring the world into the home — interactively, unlike the passive, corporate-controlled medium of television. He spelled out all of these ideas carefully in a 1960 paper, “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” staking his claim as one of a long line of computing utopianists that would play a big role in the development of more common-man friendly technologies like the BASIC programming language and eventually of the microcomputer itself.

In 1958, the U.S. government formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency in response to alleged Soviet scientific and technological superiority in the wake of their launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, the previous year. ARPA was intended as something of a “blue-sky” endeavor, pulling together scientists and engineers to research ideas and technology that might not be immediately applicable to ongoing military programs, but that might just prove to be in the future. It became Lick’s next stop after BBN: in 1962 he took over as head of their “Information Processing Techniques Office.” He remained at ARPA for just two years, but is credited by many with shifting the agency’s thinking dramatically. Previously ARPA had focused on monolithic mainframes operating as giant batch-processing “answer machines.” From Where Wizards Stay Up Late:

The computer would be fed intelligence information from a variety of human sources, such as hearsay from cocktail parties or observations of a May Day parade, and try to develop a best-guess scenario on what the Soviets might be up to. “The idea was that you take this powerful computer and feed it all this qualitative information, such as ‘The air force chief drank two martinis,’ or ‘Khrushchev isn’t reading Pravda on Mondays,” recalled Ruina. “And the computer would play Sherlock Holmes and conclude that the Russians must be building an MX-72 missile or something like that.”

“Asinine kinds of things” like this were the thrust of much thinking about computers in those days, including plenty in prestigious universities such as MIT. Lick, however, shifted ARPANET in a more manageable and achievable direction, toward networks of computers running interactive applications in partnership with humans — leave the facts and figures to the computer, and leave the conclusions and the decision-making to the humans. This shift led to the creation of the ARPANET later in the decade. And the ARPANET, as everyone knows by now, eventually turned into the Internet. (Whatever else you can say about the Cold War, it brought about some huge advances in computing.) The humanistic vision of computing that Lick championed, meanwhile, remains viable and compelling today as we continue to wait for the strong AI proponents to produce a HAL.

Lick returned to MIT in 1968, this time as the director of the legendary Project MAC. Formed in 1963 to conduct research for ARPA, MAC stood for either (depending on whom you talked to) Multiple Access Computing or Machine Aided Cognition. Those two names also define the focus of its early research: into time-shared systems that let multiple users share resources and use interactive programs on a single machine; and into artificial intelligence, under the guidance of the two most famous AI proponents of all, John McCarthy (inventor of the term itself) and Marvin Minsky. I could write a few (dozen?) more posts on the careers and ideas of these men, fascinating, problematic, and sometimes disturbing as they are. I could say the same about many other early computing luminaries at MIT with whom Lick came into close contact, such as Ivan Sutherland, inventor of the first paint program and, well, pretty much the whole field of computer-graphics research as well as the successor to his position at ARPA. Instead, I’ll just point you (yet again) to Steven Levy’s Hackers for an accessible if necessarily incomplete description of the intellectual ferment at 1960s MIT, and to Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Matthew Lyon and Katie Hafner for more on Lick’s early career as well as BBN, MIT, and our old friend Will Crowther.

Project MAC split into two in 1970, becoming the MIT AI Laboratory and the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS). Lick stayed with the latter as a sort of grandfather figure to a new generation of young hackers that gradually replaced the old guard described in Levy’s book as the 1970s wore on. His was a shrewd mind always ready to take up their ideas, and one who, thanks to his network of connections in the government and industry, could always get funding for said ideas.

LCS consisted of a number of smaller working groups, one of which was known as the Dynamic Modeling Group. It’s oddly difficult to pin any of these groups down to a single purpose. Indeed, it’s not really possible to do so even for the AI Lab and LCS themselves; plenty of research that could be considered AI work happened at LCS, and plenty that did not comfortably fit under that umbrella took place at the AI Lab. (For instance, Richard Stallman developed the ultimate hacker text editor, EMACS, at the AI Lab — a worthy project certainly but hardly one that had much to do with artificial intelligence.) Groups and the individuals within them were given tremendous freedom to hack on any justifiable projects that interested them (with the un-justifiable of course being left for after hours), a big factor in LCS and the AI Lab’s becoming such beloved homes for hackers. Indeed, many put off graduating or ultimately didn’t bother at all, so intellectually fertile was the atmosphere inside MIT in contrast to what they might find in any “proper” career track in private industry.

The director of the Dynamic Modeling Group was a fellow named Albert (Al) Vezza; he also served as an assistant director of LCS as a whole. And here we have to be a little bit careful. If you know something about Infocom’s history already, you probably recognize Vezza as the uptight corporate heavy of the story, the guy who couldn’t see the magic in the new medium of interactive fiction that the company was pursuing, who insisted on trivializing the game division’s work as a mere source of funding for a “serious” business application, and who eventually drove the company to ruin with his misplaced priorities. Certainly there’s no apparent love lost between the other Infocom alumni and Vezza. An interview with Mike Dornbrook for an MIT student project researching Infocom’s history revealed the following picture of Vezza at MIT:

Where Licklider was charismatic and affectionately called “Lick” by his students, Vezza rarely spoke to LCS members and often made a beeline from the elevator to his office in the morning, shut the door, and never saw anyone. Some people at LCS were unhappy with his managerial style, saying that he was unfriendly and “never talked to people unless he had to, even people who worked in the Lab.”

On the other hand, Lyon and Hafner have this to say:

Vezza always made a good impression. He was sociable and impeccably articulate; he had a keen scientific mind and first-rate administrative instincts.

Whatever his failings, Vezza was much more than an unimaginative empty suit. He in fact had a long and distinguished career which he largely spent furthering some of the ideas first proposed by Lick himself; he appears in Lyon and Hafner’s book, for instance, because he was instrumental in organizing the first public demonstration of the nascent ARPANET’s capabilities. Even after the Infocom years, his was an important voice on the World Wide Web Consortium that defined many of the standards that still guide the Internet today. Certainly it’s a disservice to Vezza that his Wikipedia page consists entirely of his rather inglorious tenure at Infocom, a time he probably considers little more than a disagreeable career footnote. That footnote is of course the main thing we’re interested in, but perhaps we can settle for now on a picture of a man with more of the administrator or bureaucrat than the hacker in him and who was more of a pragmatist than an idealist — and one who had some trouble relating to his charges as a consequence.

Many of those charges had names that Infocom fans would come to know well: Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Stu Galley, Joel Berez, Tim Anderson, etc., etc. Like Lick, many of these folks came to hacking from unexpected places. Lebling, for instance, obtained a degree in political science before getting sucked into LCS, while Blank commuted back and forth between Boston and New York, where he somehow managed to complete medical school even as he hacked like mad at MIT. One thing, however, most certainly held true of everyone: they were good. LCS didn’t suffer fools gladly — or at all.

One of the first projects of the DMG was to create a new programming language for their own projects, which they named with typical hacker cheekiness “Muddle.” Muddle soon became MDL (MIT Design Language) in response to someone (Vezza?) not so enamoured with the DMG’s humor. It was essentially an improved version of an older programming language developed at MIT by John McCarthy, one which was (and remains to this day) the favorite of AI researchers: LISP.

With MDL on hand, the DMG took on a variety of projects, individually or cooperatively. Some of these had real military applications to satisfy the folks who were ultimately funding all of these shenanigans; Lebling, for instance, spent quite some time on computerized Morse-Code recognition systems. But there were plenty of games, too, in some of which Lebling was also a participant, including the best remembered of them all, Maze. Maze ran over a network, with up to 8 Imlac PDS-1s, very simple minicomputers with primitive graphical capabilities, serving as “clients” connected to a single DEC PDP-10 “server.” Players on the PDS-1s could navigate around a shared environment and shoot at each other — the ancestor of modern games like Counterstrike. Maze became a huge hit, and a real problem for administrative types like Vezza; not only did a full 8-player game stretch the PDP-10 server to the limit, but it had a tendency to eventually crash entirely this machine that others needed for “real” work. Vezza demanded again and again that it be removed from the systems, but trying to herd the cats at DMG was pretty much a lost cause. Amongst other “fun” projects, Lebling also created a trivia game which allowed users on the ARPANET to submit new questions, leading to an eventual database of thousands.

And then, in the spring of 1977, Adventure arrived at MIT. Like computer-science departments all over the country, work there essentially came to a standstill while everyone tried to solve it; the folks at DMG finally got the “last lousy point” with the aid of a debugging tool. And with that accomplished, they began, like many other hackers in many other places, to think about how they could make a better Adventure. DMG, however, had some tools to hand that would make them almost uniquely suited to the task.

 
 

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Doing Windows, Part 11: The Internet Tidal Wave

On August 6, 1991, when Microsoft was still in the earliest planning stages of creating the operating system that would become known as Windows 95, an obscure British researcher named Tim Berners-Lee, working out of the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) in Switzerland, put the world’s first publicly accessible website online. For years to come, these two projects would continue to evolve separately, blissfully unconcerned by if not unaware of one another’s existence. And indeed, it is difficult to imagine two computing projects with more opposite personalities. Mirroring its co-founder and CEO Bill Gates, Microsoft was intensely pragmatic and maniacally competitive. Tim Berners-Lee, on the other hand, was a classic academic, a theorist and idealist rather than a businessman. The computers on which he and his ilk built the early Web ran esoteric operating systems like NeXTSTEP and Unix, or at their most plebeian MacOS, not Microsoft’s mass-market workhorse Windows. Microsoft gave you tools for getting everyday things done, while the World Wide Web spent the first couple of years of its existence as little more than an airy proof of concept, to be evangelized by wide-eyed adherents who often appeared to have read one too many William Gibson novels. Forbes magazine was soon to anoint Bill Gates the world’s richest person, his reward for capturing almost half of the international software market; the nascent Web was nowhere to be found in the likes of Forbes.

Those critics who claim that Microsoft was never a visionary company — that it instead thrived by letting others innovate, then swooping in and taking taking over the markets thus opened — love to point to its history with the World Wide Web as Exhibit Number One. Despite having a role which presumably demanded that he stay familiar with all leading-edge developments in computing, Bill Gates by his own admission never even heard of the Web until April of 1993, twenty months after that first site went up. And he didn’t actually surf the Web for himself until another six months after that — perhaps not coincidentally, shortly after a Windows version of NCSA Mosaic, the user-friendly graphical browser that made the Web a welcoming place even for those whose souls didn’t burn with a passion for information theory, had finally been released.

Gates focused instead on a different model of online communication, one arguably more in keeping with his instincts than was the free and open Web. For almost a decade and a half by 1993, various companies had been offering proprieatary dial-up services aimed at owners of home computers. These came complete with early incarnations of many of the staples of modern online life: email, chat lines, discussion forums, online shopping, online banking, online gaming, even online dating. They were different from the Web in that they were walled gardens that provided no access to anything that lay beyond the big mainframes that hosted them. Yet within their walls lived bustling communities whose citizens paid their landlords by the minute for the privilege of participation.

The 500-pound gorilla of this market had always been CompuServe, which had been in the business since the days when a state-of-the-art home computer had 16 K of memory and used cassette tapes for storage. Of late, however, an upstart service called America Online (AOL) had been making waves. Under Steve Case, its wunderkind CEO, AOL aimed its pitch straight at the heart of Middle America rather than the tech-savvy elite. Over the course of 1993 alone, it went from 300,000 to 500,000 subscribers. But that was only the beginning if one listened to Case. For a second Home Computer Revolution, destined to be infinitely more successful and long-lasting than the first, was now in full swing, powered along by the ease of use of Windows 3 and by the latest consumer-grade hardware, which made computing faster and more aesthetically attractive than it had ever been before. AOL’s quick and easy custom software fit in perfectly with these trends. Surely this model of the online future — of curated content offered up by a firm whose stated ambition was to be the latest big player in mass media as a whole; of a subscription model that functioned much like the cable television which the large majority of Americans were already paying for — was more likely to take hold than the anarchic jungle that was the World Wide Web. It was, at any rate, a model that Bill Gates could understand very well, and naturally gravitated toward. Never one to leave cash on the table, he started asking himself how Microsoft could get a piece of this action as well.

Steve Case celebrates outside the New York Stock Exchange on March 19, 1992, the day America Online went public.

Gates proceeded in his standard fashion: in May of 1993, he tried to buy AOL outright. But Steve Case, who nursed dreams of becoming a media mogul on the scale of Walt Disney or Jack Warner, turned him down flat. At this juncture, Russ Siegelman, a 33-year-old physicist-by-education whom Gates had made his point man for online strategy, suggested a second classically Microsoft solution to the dilemma: they could build their own online service that copied AOL in most respects, then bury their rival with money and sheer ubiquity. They could, Siegelman suggested, make their own network an integral part of the eventual Windows 95, make signing up for it just another step in the installation process. How could AOL possibly compete with that? It was the first step down a fraught road that would lead to widespread outrage inside the computer industry and one of the most high-stakes anti-trust investigations in the history of American business — but for all that, the broad strategy would prove very, very effective once it reached its final form. It had a ways still to go at this stage, though, targeting as it did AOL instead of the Web.

Gates put Siegelman in charge of building Microsoft’s online service, which was code-named Project Marvel. “We were not thinking about the Internet at all,” admits one of the project’s managers. “Our competition was CompuServe and America Online. That’s what we were focused on, a proprietary online service.” At the time, there were exactly two computers in Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond, Washington, campus that were connected to the Internet. “Most college kids knew much more than we did because they were exposed to it,” says the Marvel manager. “If I had wanted to connect to the Internet, it would have been easier for me to get into my car and drive over to the University of Washington than to try and get on the Internet at Microsoft.”

It came down to the old “not built here” syndrome that dogs so many large institutions, as well as the fact that the Web and the Internet on which it lived were free, and Bill Gates tended to hold that which was free in contempt. Anyone who attempted to help him over his mental block — and there were more than a few of them at Microsoft — was greeted with an all-purpose rejoinder: “How are we going to make money off of free?” The biggest revolution in computing since the arrival of the first pre-assembled personal computers back in 1977 was taking place all around him, and Gates seemed constitutionally incapable of seeing it for what it was.

In the meantime, others were beginning to address the vexing question of how you made money out of free. On April 4, 1994, Marc Andreessen, the impetus behind the NCSA Mosaic browser, joined forces with Jim Clark, a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur, to found Netscape Communications for the purpose of making a commercial version of the Mosaic browser. A team of programmers, working without consulting the Mosaic source code so as to avoid legal problems, soon did just that, and uploaded Netscape Navigator to the Web on October 13, 1994. Distributed under the shareware model, with a $39 licensing fee requested but not demanded after a 90-day trial period was up, the new browser was installed on more than 10 million computers within nine months.

AOL’s growth had continued apace despite the concurrent explosion of the open Web; by the time of Netscape Navigator’s release, the service had 1.25 million subscribers. Yet Steve Case, no one’s idea of a hardcore techie, was ironically faster to see the potential — or threat — of the Web than was Bill Gates. He adopted a strategy in response that would make him for a time at least a superhero of the business press and the investor set. Instead of fighting the Web, AOL would embrace it — would offer its own Web browser to go along with its proprietary content, thereby adding a gate to its garden wall and tempting subscribers with the best of both worlds. As always for AOL, the whole package would be pitched toward neophytes, with a friendly interface and lots of safeguards — “training wheels,” as the tech cognoscenti dismissively dubbed them — to keep the unwashed masses safe when they did venture out into the untamed wilds of the Web.

But Case needed a browser of his own in order to execute his strategy, and he needed it in a hurry. He needed, in short, to buy a browser rather than build one. He saw three possibilities. One was to bring Netscape and its Navigator into the AOL fold. Another was a small company called Spyglass, a spinoff of the National Center for Supercomputing (NCSA) which was attempting to commercialize the original NCSA Mosaic browser. And the last was a startup called Booklink Technologies, which was making a browser from scratch.

Netscape was undoubtedly the superstar of the bunch, but that didn’t help AOL’s cause any; Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark weren’t about to sell out to anyone. Spyglass, on the other hand, struck Case as an unimaginative Johnny-come-lately that was trying to shut the barn door long after the horse called Netscape had busted out. That left only Booklink. In November of 1994, AOL paid $30 million for the company. The business press scoffed, deeming it a well-nigh flabbergasting over-payment. But Case would get the last laugh.

While AOL was thus rushing urgently to “embrace and extend” the Web, to choose an ominous phrase normally associated with Microsoft, the latter was dawdling along more lackadaisically toward a reckoning with the Internet. During that same busy fall of 1994, IBM released OS/2 3.0, which was marketed as OS/2 Warp in the hope of lending it some much-needed excitement. By either name, it was the latest iteration of an operating system that IBM had originally developed in partnership with Microsoft, an operating system that had once been regarded by both companies as nothing less than the future of mainstream computing. But since the pair’s final falling out in 1991, OS/2 had become an irrelevancy in the face of the Windows juggernaut, winning a measure of affection only in some hacker circles and a few other specialized niches. Despite its snazzy new name and despite being an impressive piece of software from a purely technical perspective, OS/2 Warp wasn’t widely expected to change those fortunes before its release, and this lack of expectations proved well-founded afterward. Yet it was a landmark in another way, being the first operating system to include a Web browser as an integral component, in this case a program called Web Explorer, created by IBM itself because no one else seemed much interested in making a browser for the unpopular OS/2.

This appears to have gotten some gears turning in Bill Gates’s head. Microsoft already planned to include more networking tools than ever before in Windows 95. They had, for example, finally decided to bow to customer demand and build right into the operating system TCP/IP, the networking protocol that allowed a computer to join the Internet; Windows 3 required the installation of a third-party add-on for the same purpose. (“I don’t know what it is, and I don’t want to know what it is,” said Steve Ballmer, Gates’s right-hand man, to his programmers on the subject of TCP/IP. “[But] my customers are screaming about it. Make the pain go away.”) Maybe a Microsoft-branded Web browser for Windows 95 would be a good idea as well, if they could acquire one without breaking the bank.

Just days after AOL bought Booklink for $30 million, Microsoft agreed to give $2 million to Spyglass. In return, Spyglass would give Microsoft a copy of the Mosaic source code, which it could then use as the basis for its own browser. But, lest you be tempted to see this transaction as evidence that Gates’s opinions about the online future had already undergone a sea change by this date, know that the very day this deal went down was also the one on which he chose to publicly announce Microsoft’s own proprietary AOL competitor, to be known as simply the Microsoft Network, or MSN. At most, Gates saw the open Web at this stage as an adjunct to MSN, just as it would soon become to AOL. MSN would come bundled into Windows 95, he told the assembled press, so that anyone who wished to could become a subscriber at the click of a mouse.

The announcement caused alarm bells to ring at AOL. “The Windows operating system is what the dial tone is to the phone industry,” said Steve Case. He thus became neither the first nor the last of Gates’s rival to hint at the need for government intervention: “There needs to be a level playing field on which companies compete.” Some pundits projected that Microsoft might sign up 20 million subscribers to MSN before 1995 was out. Others — the ones whom time would prove to have been more prescient — shook their heads and wondered how Microsoft could still be so clueless about the revolutionary nature of the World Wide Web.

AOL leveraged the Booklink browser to begin offering its subscribers Web access very early in 1995, whereupon its previously robust rate of growth turned downright torrid. By November of 1995, it would have 4 million subscribers. The personable and photogenic Steve Case became a celebrity in his own right, to the point of starring in a splashy advertising campaign for The Gap’s line of khakis; the man and the pants represented respectively the personification and the uniform of the trend in corporate America toward “business casual.” Meanwhile Case’s company became an indelible part of the 1990s zeitgeist. “You’ve got mail!,” the words AOL’s software spoke every time a new email arrived — something that was still very much a novel experience for many subscribers — was featured as a sample in a Prince song, and eventually became the name of a hugely popular romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. CompuServe and AOL’s other old rivals in the proprietary space tried to compete by setting up Internet gateways of their own, but were never able to negotiate the transition from one era of online life to another with the same aplomb as AOL, and gradually faded into irrelevancy.

Thankfully for Microsoft’s shareholders, Bill Gates’s eyes were opened before his company suffered the same fate. At the eleventh hour, with what were supposed to be the final touches being put onto Windows 95, he made a sharp swerve in strategy. He grasped at last that the open Web was the here, the now, and the future, the first major development in mainstream consumer computing in years that hadn’t been more or less dictated by Microsoft — but be that as it may, the Web wasn’t going anywhere. On May 26, 1995, he wrote a memo to every Microsoft employee that exuded an all-hands-on-deck sense of urgency. Gates, the longstanding Internet agnostic, had well and truly gotten the Internet religion.

I want to make clear that our focus on the Internet is critical to every part of our business. The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981. It is even more important than the arrival of [the] graphical user interface (GUI). The PC analogy is apt for many reasons. The PC wasn’t perfect. Aspects of the PC were arbitrary or even poor. However, a phenomena [sic] grew up around the IBM PC that made it a key element of everything that would happen for the next fifteen years. Companies that tried to fight the PC standard often had good reasons for doing so, but they failed because the phenomena overcame any weakness that [the] resistors identified.

Over the last year, a number of people [at Microsoft] have championed embracing TCP/IP, hyperlinking, HTML, and building clients, tools, and servers that compete on the Internet. However, we still have a lot to do. I want every product plan to try and go overboard on Internet features.

Everything changed that day. Instead of walling its campus off from the Internet, Microsoft put the Web at every employee’s fingertips. Gates himself sent his people lists of hot new websites to explore and learn from. The team tasked with building the Microsoft browser, who had heretofore labored in under-staffed obscurity, suddenly had all the resources of the company at their beck and call. The fact was, Gates was scared; his fear oozes palpably from the aggressive language of the memo above. (Other people talked of “joining” the Internet; Gates wanted to “compete” on it.)

But just what was he so afraid of? A pair of data points provides us with some clues. Three days before he wrote his memo, a new programming language and run-time environment had taken the industry by storm. And the day after he did so, a Microsoft executive named Ben Slivka sent out a memo of his own with Gate’s blessing, bearing the odd title of “The Web Is the Next Platform.” To understand what Slivka was driving at, and why Bill Gates took it as such an imminent existential threat to his company’s core business model, we need to back up a few years and look at the origins of the aforementioned programming language.


Bill Joy, an old-school hacker who had made fundamental contributions to the Unix operating system, was regarded as something between a guru and an elder statesman by 1990s techies, who liked to call him “the other Bill.” In early 1991, he shared an eye-opening piece of his mind at a formal dinner for select insiders. Microsoft was then on the ascendant, he acknowledged, but they were “cruising for a bruising.” Sticking with the automotive theme, he compared their products to the American-made cars that had dominated until the 1970s — until the Japanese had come along peddling cars of their own that were more efficient, more reliable, and just plain better than the domestic competition. He said that the same fate would probably befall Microsoft within five to seven years, when a wind of change of one sort or another came along to upend the company and its bloated, ugly products. Just four years later, people would be pointing to a piece of technology from his own company Sun Microsystems as the prophesied agent of Microsoft’s undoing.

Sun had been founded in 1982 to leverage the skills of Joy along with those of a German hardware engineer named Andy Bechtolsheim, who had recently built an elegant desktop computer inspired by the legendary Alto machines of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Over the remainder of the 1980s, Sun made a good living as the premier maker of Unix-based workstations: computers that were a bit too expensive to be marketed to even the most well-heeled consumers, but were among the most powerful of their day that could be fit onto or under a single desktop. Sun possessed a healthy antipathy for Microsoft, for all of the usual reasons cited by the hacker contingent: they considered Microsoft’s software derivative and boring, considered the Intel hardware on which it ran equally clunky and kludgy (Sun first employed Motorola chips, then processors of their own design), and loathed Microsoft’s intensely adversarial and proprietorial approach to everything it touched. For some time, however, Sun’s objections remained merely philosophical; occupying opposite ends of the market as they did, the two companies seldom crossed one another’s paths. But by the end of the decade, the latest Intel hardware had advanced enough to be comparable with that being peddled by Sun. And by the time that Bill Joy made his prediction, Sun knew that something called Windows NT was in the works, knew that Microsoft would be coming in earnest for the high-end-computing space very soon.

About six months after Joy played the oracle, Sun’s management agreed to allow one of their star programmers, a fellow named James Gosling, to form a small independent group in order to explore an idea that had little obviously to do with the company’s main business. “When someone as smart as James wants to pursue an area, we’ll do our best to provide an environment,” said Chief Technology Officer Eric Schmidt.

James Gosling

The specific “area” — or, perhaps better said, problem — that Gosling wanted to address was one that still exists to a large extent today: the inscrutability and lack of interoperability of so many of the gadgets that power our daily lives. The problem would be neatly crystalized almost five years later by one of the milquetoast jokes Jay Leno made at the Windows 95 launch, about how the VCR in even Bill Gates’s living room was still blinking “12:00” because he had never figured out how to set the thing’s clock. What if everything in your house could be made to talk together, wondered Gosling, so that setting one clock would set all of them — so that you didn’t have to have a separate remote control for your television and your VCR, each with about 80 buttons on it that you didn’t understand what they did and never, ever pressed. “What does it take to watch a videotape?” he mused. “You go plunk, plunk, plunk on all of these things in certain magic sequences before you can actually watch your videotape! Why is it so hard? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just slide the tape into the VCR, [and] the system sort of figures it out: ‘Oh, gee, I guess he wants to watch it, so I ought to power up the television set.'”

But when Gosling and his colleagues started to ponder how best to realize their semi-autonomous home of the future, they tripped over a major stumbling block. While it was true that more and more gadgets were becoming “smart,” in the sense of incorporating programmable microprocessors, the details of their digital designs varied enormously. Each program to link each individual model of, say, VCR into the home network would have to be written, tested, and debugged from scratch. Unless, that is, the program could be made to run in a virtual machine.

A virtual machine is an imaginary computer which a real computer can be programmed to simulate. It permits a “write once, run everywhere” approach to software: once a given real computer has an interpreter for a given virtual machine, it can run any and all programs that have been or will be written for that virtual machine, albeit at some cost in performance.

Like almost every other part of the programming language that would eventually become known as Java, the idea of a virtual machine was far from new in the abstract. (“In some sense, I would like to think that there was nothing invented in Java,” says Gosling.) For example, a decade before Gosling went to work on his virtual machine, the Apple Pascal compiler was already targeting one that ran on the lowly Apple II, even as the games publisher Infocom was distributing its text adventures across dozens of otherwise incompatible platforms thanks to its Z-Machine.

Unfortunately, Gosling’s new implementation of this old concept proved unable to solve by itself the original problem for which it had been invented. Even Wi-Fi didn’t exist at this stage, much less the likes of Bluetooth. Just how were all of these smart gadgets supposed to actually talk to one another, to say nothing of pulling down the regular software updates which Gosling envisioned as another benefit of his project? (Building a floppy-disk drive into every toaster was an obvious nonstarter.) After reluctantly giving up on their home of the future, the team pivoted for a while toward “interactive television,” a would-be on-demand streaming system much like our modern Netflix. But Sun had no real record in the consumer space, and cable-television providers and other possible investors were skeptical.

While Gosling was trying to figure out just what this programming language and associated runtime environment he had created might be good for, the World Wide Web was taking off. In July of 1994, a Sun programmer named Patrick Naughton did something that would later give Bill Gates nightmares: he wrote a fairly bare-bones Web browser in Java, more for the challenge than anything else. A couple of months later there came the eureka moment: Naughton and another programmer named Jonathan Payne made it possible to run other Java programs, or “applets” as they would soon be known, right inside their browser. They stuck one of the team’s old graphical demos on a server and clicked the appropriate link, whereupon they were greeted with a screen full of dancing Coca-Cola cans. Payne found it “breathtaking”: “It wasn’t just playing an animation. It was physics calculations going on inside a webpage!”

In order to appreciate his awe, we need to understand what a static place the early Web was. HTML, the “language” in which pages were constructed, was an abbreviation for “Hypertext Markup Language.” In form and function, it was more akin to a typesetting specification than a Turing-complete programming language like C or Pascal or Java; the only form of interactivity it allowed for was the links that took the reader from static page to static page, while its only visual pizazz came in the form of static in-line images (themselves a relatively recent addition to the HTML specification, thanks to NCSA Mosaic). Java stood to change all that at a stroke. If you could embed programs running actual code into your page layouts, you could in theory turn your pages into anything you wanted them to be: games, word processors, spreadsheets, animated cartoons, stock-market tickers, you name it. The Web could almost literally come alive.

The potential was so clearly extraordinary that Java went overnight from a moribund project on the verge of the chopping block to Sun’s top priority. Even Bill Joy, now living in blissful semi-retirement in Colorado, came back to Silicon Valley for a while to lend his prodigious intellect to the process of turning Java into a polished tool for general-purpose programming. There was still enough of the old-school hacker ethic left at Sun that management bowed to the developers’ demand that the language be made available for free to individual programmers and small businesses; Sun would make its money on licensing deals with bigger partners, who would pay for the Java logo on their products and the right to distribute the virtual machine. The potential of Java certainly wasn’t lost on Netscape’s Marc Andreessen, who had long been leading the charge to make the Web more visually exciting. He quickly agreed to pay Sun $750,000 for the opportunity to build Java into the Netscape Navigator browser. In fact, it was Andreessen who served as master of ceremonies at Java’s official coming-out party at a SunWorld conference on May 23, 1995 — i.e., three days before Bill Gates wrote his urgent Internet memo.

What was it that so spooked him about Java? On the one hand, it represented a possible if as-yet unrealized challenge to Microsoft’s own business model of selling boxed software on floppy disks or CDs. If people could gain access to a good word processor just by pointing their browsers to a given site, they would presumably have little motivation to invest in Microsoft Office, the company’s biggest cash cow after Windows. But the danger Java posed to Microsoft might be even more extreme. The most maximalist predictions, which were being trumpeted all over the techie press in the weeks after the big debut, had it that even Windows could soon become irrelevant courtesy of Java. This is what Microsoft’s own Ben Slivka meant when he said that “the Web is the next platform.” The browser itself would become the operating system from the perspective of the user, being supported behind the scenes only by the minimal amount of firmware needed to make it go. Once that happened, a new generation of cheap Internet devices would be poised to replace personal computers as the world now knew them. With all software and all of each person’s data being stored in the cloud, as we would put it today, even local hard drives might become passé. And then, with Netscape Navigator and Java having taken over the role of Windows, Microsoft might very well join IBM, the very company it had so recently displaced from the heights of power, in the crowded field of computing’s has-beens.

In retrospect, such predictions seem massively overblown. Officially labeled beta software, Java was in reality more like an alpha release at best at the time it was being celebrated as the Paris to Microsoft’s Achilles, being painfully crash-prone and slow. And even when it did reach a reasonably mature form, the reality of it would prove considerably less than the hype. One crippling weakness that would continue to plague it was the inability of a Java applet to communicate with the webpage that spawned it; applets ran in Web browsers, but weren’t really of them, being self-contained programs siloed off in a sandbox from the environment that spawned them. Meanwhile the prospects of applications like online word processing, or even online gaming in Java, were sharply limited by the fact that at least 95 percent of Web users were accessing the Internet on dial-up connections, over which even the likes of a single high-resolution photograph could take minutes to load. A word processor like the one included with Microsoft Office would require hours of downloading every time you wanted to use it, assuming it was even possible to create such a complex piece of software in the fragile young language. Java never would manage to entirely overcome these issues, and would in the end enjoy its greatest success in other incarnations than that of the browser-embedded applet.

Still, cooler-headed reasoning like this was not overly commonplace in the months after the SunWorld presentation. By the end of 1995, Sun’s stock price had more than doubled on the strength of Java alone, a product yet to see a 1.0 release. The excitement over Java probably contributed as well to Netscape’s record-breaking initial public offering in August. A cavalcade of companies rushed to follow in the footsteps of Netscape and sign Java distribution deals, most of them on markedly more expensive terms. Even Microsoft bowed to the prevailing winds on December 7 and announced a Java deal of its own. (BusinessWeek magazine described it as a “capitulation.”) That all of this was happening alongside the even more intense hype surrounding the release of Windows 95, an operating system far more expansive than any that had come out of Microsoft to date but one that was nevertheless of a very traditionalist stripe at bottom, speaks to the confusion of these go-go times when digital technology seemed to be going anywhere and everywhere at once.

Whatever fear and loathing he may have felt toward Java, Bill Gates had clearly made his peace with the fact that the Web was computing’s necessary present and future. The Microsoft Network duly debuted as an icon on the default Windows 95 desktop, but it was now pitched primarily as a gateway to the open Web, with just a handful of proprietary features; MSN was, in other words, little more than yet another Internet service provider, of the sort that were popping up all over the country like dandelions after a summer shower. Instead of the 20 million subscribers that some had predicted (and that Steve Case had so feared), it attracted only about 500,000 customers by the end of the year. This left it no more than one-eighth as large as AOL, which had by now completed its own deft pivot from proprietary online service of the 1980s type to the very face of the World Wide Web in the eyes of countless computing neophytes.

Yet if Microsoft’s first tentative steps onto the Web had proved underwhelming, people should have known from the history of the company — and not least from the long, checkered history of Windows itself — that Bill Gates’s standard response to failure and rejection was simply to try again, harder and better. The real war for online supremacy was just getting started.

(Sources: the books Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace by James Wallace, The Silicon Boys by David A. Kaplan, Architects of the Web by Robert H. Reid, Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscape and Its Battle with Microsoft by Michael Cusumano and David B. Yoffie, dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by John Cassidy, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, and There Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher.)

 
 

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