Infocom

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Infocom
Industry Entertainment/Business software
Founded MIT (June 22, 1979 (1979-06-22))
Defunct May 5, 1989 (1989-05-05)
Headquarters Cambridge, Massachusetts
Key people Dave Lebling
Marc Blank
Albert Vezza
Joel Berez
Steve Meretzky
Products

Zork series
Planetfall series
Leather Goddesses of Phobos series
Deadline
Z-machine
Cornerstone
Computer game version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

See products listing
Revenue N/A
Employees N/A
Website None

Infocom was a software company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that produced numerous works of interactive fiction. They also produced one notable business application, a relational database called Cornerstone.

Infocom was founded on June 22, 1979 by MIT staff and students led by Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Albert Vezza, and Joel Berez and lasted as an independent company until 1986 when it was bought by Activision. Activision finally shut down the Infocom division in 1989, although they released some titles in the 1990s under the Infocom Zork brand. Activision abandoned the Infocom trademark in 2002.

The name was later registered by Oliver Klaeffling of Germany in 2007, which itself was abandoned the following year. The Infocom trademark is currently held by Pete Hottelet's Omni Consumer Products, who registered the name around the same time as Klaeffling in 2007.[1]

Overview[edit]

Infocom games are text adventures where users direct the action by entering short strings of words to give commands when prompted. Generally the program will respond by describing the results of the action, often the contents of a room if the player has moved within the virtual world. The user reads this information, decides what to do, and enters another short series of words. Examples include "go west" or "take flashlight".

Infocom games were written using a roughly LISP-like programming language called ZIL (Zork Implementation Language or Zork Interactive Language—it was referred to as both) that compiled into a byte code able to run on a standardized virtual machine called the Z-machine. As the games were text based and used variants of the same Z-machine interpreter, the interpreter had to be ported to new computer architectures only once per architecture, rather than once per game. Each game file included a sophisticated parser which allowed the user to type complex instructions to the game. Unlike earlier works of interactive fiction which only understood commands of the form 'verb noun', Infocom's parser could understand a wider variety of sentences. For instance one might type "open the large door, then go west", or "go to festeron".[2]

With the Z-machine, Infocom was able to release most of their games for most popular home computers of the day simultaneously—the Apple II family, Atari 800, IBM PC compatibles, Amstrad CPC/PCW (one disc worked on both machines), Commodore 64, Commodore Plus/4, Commodore 128,[3] Kaypro CP/M, Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, the Mac, Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga and the Radio Shack TRS-80. The company was also known for shipping creative props, or "feelies" (and even "smellies"), with its games.

History[edit]

The beginning[edit]

Zork I was Infocom's first product. This screenshot of Zork I is representative of the sort of interaction a player has with Infocom's interactive fiction titles. Here it is depicted running on a modern Z-machine interpreter.

Inspired by Colossal Cave, Marc Blank and Dave Lebling created what was to become the first Infocom game, Zork, in 1977 at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science. Despite the development of a revolutionary virtual memory system that allowed games to be much larger than the average personal computer's normal capacity, the enormous mainframe-developed game had to be split into three roughly equal parts. Zork I was released originally for the TRS-80 in 1980 and eventually sold more than a million copies across several platforms. Even though Microsoft released a cheap version of Adventure with its initial version of MS-DOS 1.0 for IBM PCs, Zork I was still a popular seller for the PC, thanks to the superior quality of its writing and packaging.[citation needed]

Lebling and Blank each authored several more games and additional game writers (or "Implementors") were hired, notably including Steve Meretzky. Other popular and inventive titles included a number of sequels and spinoff games in the Zork series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and A Mind Forever Voyaging.

In its first few years of operation, text adventures proved to be a huge revenue stream for the company. Whereas most computer games of the era would achieve initial success and then suffer a significant drop-off in sales, Infocom titles continued to sell for years and years. Employee Tim Anderson said of their situation, "It was phenomenal — we had a basement that just printed money."[4]

Reception[edit]

In a 1987 interview Joel Berez stated, "[Infocom's] audience tends to be composed of heavy readers. We sell to the minority that does read".[5] Three components proved key to Infocom's success: marketing strategy, rich storytelling and feelies.[citation needed] Whereas most game developers sold their games mainly in software stores, Infocom also distributed their games via bookstores.[6] Infocom's products appealed more to those with expensive computers, such as the Apple Macintosh, IBM PC, and Commodore Amiga. Berez stated that "there is no noticeable correlation between graphics machines and our penetration. There is a high correlation between the price of the machine and our sales ... people who are putting more money into their machines tend to buy more of our software".[5] Since their games were text-based, patrons of bookstores were drawn to the Infocom games as they were already interested in reading. Unlike most computer software, Infocom titles were distributed under a no-returns policy,[citation needed] which allowed them to make money from a single game for a longer period of time.

Next, Infocom titles featured strong storytelling and rich descriptions, eschewing the day's primitive graphic capabilities, allowing users to use their own imaginations for the lavish and exotic locations the games described. Infocom's puzzles were unique in that they were usually tightly integrated into the storyline, and rarely did gamers feel like they were being made to jump through one arbitrary hoop after another, as was the case in many of the competitors' games. The puzzles were logical but also required close attention to the clues and hints given in the story, causing most gamers to keep copious notes as they went along.

Sometimes, though, Infocom threw in puzzles just for the humor of it—if the user never ran into these, they could still finish the game just fine. But discovering these early Easter Eggs was satisfying for some fans of the games. For example, one popular Easter egg was in the Enchanter game, which involved collecting magic spells to use in accomplishing the quest. One of these was a summoning spell, which the player needed to use to summon certain characters at different parts of the game. At one point the game mentions the "Implementers" who were responsible for creating the land of Zork. If the player tried to summon the Implementers, the game would suddenly produce a vision of Dave Lebling and Marc Blank at their computers, surprised at this "bug" in the game and working feverishly to fix it.

Third, the inclusion of "feelies"—imaginative props and extras tied to the game's theme—provided some copy protection against pirating. Some games were unsolvable without the extra content provided with the boxed game. And because of the cleverness and uniqueness of the feelies, users rarely felt like they were an intrusion or inconvenience, as was the case with most of the other copy-protection schemes of the time.[citation needed]

Although Infocom started out with Zork, and although the Zork world was the centerpiece of their product line throughout the Zork and Enchanter series, the company quickly branched out into a wide variety of story lines: fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, horror, historical adventure, children's stories, and others that defied categories. In an attempt to reach out to females, Infocom also produced Plundered Hearts, which required the gamer to take the part of a heroine in a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, and which required the heroine to use more feminine tactics to win the game, since hacking-and-slashing was not a very ladylike way to behave. And to compete with the Leisure Suit Larry style games that were also appearing, Infocom also came out with Leather Goddesses of Phobos in 1986, which featured "tame", "suggestive", and "lewd" playing modes, and that was notable for including among its "feelies" a "scratch-and-sniff" card with six odors that corresponded to six cues during the game.

Invisiclues[edit]

Originally, hints for the game were provided as a "pay-per-hint" service created by Mike Dornbrook called the Zork User's Group (ZUG). Dornbrook also started Infocom's customer newsletter called The New Zork Times to discuss game hints and preview and showcase new products.

The pay-per-hint service eventually led to the development of InvisiClues: books with hints, maps, clues and solutions for puzzles in the games. The answers to the puzzles were printed in invisible ink that only became visible with a special marker that was provided with each book. Usually, two or more answers were given for each question that a gamer might have. The first answer would provide a subtle hint, the second a less subtle hint, and so forth until the last one gave an explicit answer. Gamers could thus reveal only the hints that they needed to have to play the game. To prevent the mere questions (printed in normal ink) from giving away too much information about the game, a certain number of misleading fake questions were included in every InvisiClues book. The InvisClues books were regularly ranked in near the top of best seller lists for computer books.[7]

In the Solid Gold line or re-releases InvisiClues were integrated into the game. By typing "HINT" twice the player would open up a screen of possible topics where they could then reveal one hint at a time for each puzzle, just like the books.

Interactive fiction[edit]

Infocom also released a small number of "interactive fiction paperbacks" (gamebooks), which were based on the games and featured the ability to choose a different path through the story. Similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure series, every couple of pages the book would give the reader the chance to make a choice, such as which direction they wanted to go or how they wanted to respond to another character. The reader would then choose one of the given answers and turn to the appropriate page. These books, however, never did sell particularly well, and quickly disappeared from the bookshelves.

Cornerstone[edit]

Despite their success with computer games, Vezza and other company founders hoped to produce successful business programs like Lotus Development, also founded by people from MIT.[8] In 1984 Infocom started putting resources into a new division to produce business products. In 1985 they released a database product, Cornerstone, aimed at capturing the then booming database market for small business. Though this application was hailed upon its release for ease of use, it sold only 10,000 copies; not enough to cover the development expenses.[9]

The program failed for a number of reasons. Although it was packaged in a slick hard plastic carrying case and was a very good database for personal and home use, it was originally priced at USD$495 per copy and used copy-protected disks. Another serious miscalculation was that the program did not include any kind of scripting language, so it was not promoted by any of the database consultants that small businesses typically hired to create and maintain their DB applications. Reviewers were also consistently disappointed that Infocom—noted for the natural language syntax of their games—did not include a natural language query ability, which was the most expected feature for this database. And a final disappointment was that Cornerstone was available only for IBM PCs and not any of the other platforms that Infocom supported for their games; while Cornerstone had been programmed with its own virtual machine for maximum portability, that feature had become essentially irrelevant. Cornerstone used the virtual machine for its processing, resulting in lackluster performance.[9]

Changing marketplace[edit]

Whereas Infocom's games had benefited significantly from the portability offered by running on top of a virtual machine, this strategy did not prove to be a significant advantage for Cornerstone; in fact, the virtual machine significantly slowed the database's execution speed. Businesses were moving en masse to the IBM PC platform by that time, so portability was no longer a significant differentiator. Infocom had sunk much of the money from games sales into Cornerstone; this, in addition to a slump in computer game sales, left the company in a very precarious financial position. By the time Infocom removed the copy-protection and reduced the price to less than $100, it was too late, and the market had moved on to other database solutions.

And finally, the game market itself was shifting into graphic games. The 1990s, though, were a turbulent time for graphics development, as the computer industry was collapsing, with long-time computer makers such as Tandy/Radio Shack, Atari, and Commodore/Amiga disappearing, and the PC and Macintosh markets were fighting for dominance. Development of graphics technology was very aggressive during this time, which made it very expensive and risky to create cutting-edge, high-performance graphics, and many companies came and went in this period. Many people were buying new, more powerful computers expressly for games, and the days were long-gone when people would be satisfied with simple vectored line drawings, such as those that made the Wizardry games famous, or with the blocky graphics that were used in Sierra Entertainment's King's Quest games. In this climate, Infocom's history of text-based adventures and story-centered gaming did not help much in making the transition to graphics.

Activision takeover[edit]

After Cornerstone's failure, Infocom laid off half of its 100 employees,[10] and Activision acquired the company on 13 June 1986 for $7.5 million.[8] While relations were cordial between the two companies at first, the departure of Jim Levy from Activision left Bruce Davis in charge. Davis believed that his company had paid too much for Infocom and initiated a lawsuit against them to recoup some of the cost, along with changing the way Infocom was run. For example:

  • Davis required they use Activision's packaging plant instead of their own in-house one, raising the cost of each package from $0.45 to over $0.90. In addition, the Activision plant made numerous mistakes in packaging, whereas the Infocom one almost never did.
  • Infocom had a successful marketing approach that kept all their games in store inventories for years. Because of this, older titles' sales often kept pace with sales of newer games. For example, because Zork was available for years after its initial release in 1980, it continued to top charts in sales well into the mid-1980s. Activision preferred to market Infocom's games the way they marketed their other titles: replacing older titles with newer ones. While this made sense for the graphically intensive games that made up the rest of Activision's catalog, since Infocom games were text based, it didn't make sense - the newer games didn't have improved text. This marketing approach cut off potential revenue for numerous Infocom titles that had consistently brought in money for several years.
  • Davis required the struggling developer to produce eight titles a year. Infocom had traditionally produced about four games per year with more staff than they had post-merger.
  • Davis pushed Infocom to release more graphical games, but the one they did release, Fooblitzky, bombed. This was, in part, due to Infocom's long-standing rule of maximum portability; a game that could display graphics on a number of different systems couldn't take advantage of the strengths of any of them.
  • The cost of acquisition was amortized by deducting it from Infocom's operating revenue during the next several years.

Closure and afterward[edit]

By 1988 rumors spread of disputes between Activision and Infocom.[11] Infocom employees reportedly believed that Activision gave poorer-quality games to Infocom, such as Tom Snyder Productions' unsuccessful Infocomics. Activision moved Infocom development to California in 1989, and the company was now just a publishing label.[8] Rising costs and falling profits, exacerbated by the lack of new products in 1988 and technical issues with its MS-DOS products, caused Activision to close Infocom in 1989.[12]

For a few years, Activision continued to market Infocom's classic games in collections (usually by genre, such as the Science Fiction collection); in 1991, they published The Lost Treasures of Infocom, followed in 1992 by The Lost Treasures of Infocom II. These compilations featured nearly every game produced by Infocom before 1988. (Leather Goddesses of Phobos was not included in either bundle, but could be ordered via a coupon included with Lost Treasures II.) The compilations lacked the "feelies" that came with each game, but in some cases included photographs of them. In 1996, the first bundles were followed by Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom, a single CD-ROM which contained the works of both collections. This release, however, was missing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Shogun because the licenses from Douglas Adams' and James Clavell's estates had expired.

In 2012, Activision released Lost Treasures of Infocom for iOS devices. In-app purchases provide access for 27 of the titles. It also lacks Shogun and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as well as Beyond Zork, Zork Zero and Nord and Bert.

Titles and authors[edit]

Interactive fiction[edit]

Other titles[edit]

Collections[edit]

  • The Zork Trilogy (1986; contained Zork I, Zork II & Zork III)
  • The Enchanter Trilogy (1986; contained Enchanter, Sorcerer & Spellbreaker)
  • The Lost Treasures of Infocom (1991; contained 20 of Infocom's interactive fiction games)
  • The Lost Treasures of Infocom II (1992; contained 11 interactive fiction games)
  • The Zork Anthology (1994; contained Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Beyond Zork & Zork Zero)
  • The Mystery Collection (1995; contained Deadline, Lurking Horror, Moonmist, Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, Suspect and The Witness. Zork Zero and Planetfall were a bonus in some packages)
  • The Adventure Collection (1995; contained Border Zone, Plundered Hearts, Cutthroats, Trinity and Infidel)
  • The Comedy Collection (1995; contained Bureaucracy, Hollywood Hijinx and Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It)
  • The Fantasy Collection (1995; contained Spellbreaker, Enchanter, Sorcerer, Seastalker and Wishbringer)
  • The Science Fiction Collection (1995; contained Suspended, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, Stationfall and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy)
  • Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom (1996; contained 33 Infocom games plus six winners of the 1995 Interactive Fiction Competition, which was not affiliated with Infocom)
  • Zork Special Edition (1997; contained Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis, and Planetfall)
  • Zork Classics: Interactive Fiction (2000)
  • The Zork Legacy Collection (2002; contained The Zork Anthology, Return to Zork, and Zork Nemesis)
  • Lost Treasures of Infocom (2012; In-App purchases for most of the titles)

Legacy[edit]

With the exception of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Shogun, the copyrights to the Infocom games are believed to be still held by Activision. Dungeon, the mainframe precursor to the commercial Zork trilogy, is generally assumed to be in the public domain and is available from The Interactive Fiction Archive as original FORTRAN source code, a Z-machine story file and as various native source ports. Many Infocom titles can be downloaded via the Internet, but only in violation of the copyright. There are currently at least four Infocom sampler and demos available from the IF Archive as Z-machine story files which require a Z-machine interpreter to play. Interpreters are available for most computer platforms, the most widely used being the Frotz, Zip, and Nitfol interpreters.

Five games (Zork I, Planetfall, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Wishbringer and Leather Goddesses of Phobos) were re-released in Solid Gold format. The Solid Gold versions of those games include a built-in InvisiClues hint system.

Zork made a cameo appearance as an easter egg in Activision and Treyarch's Call of Duty: Black Ops. It can be accessed during the main menu and runs much like a DOS program.

See also[edit]

  • 69,105, a number commonly found as an in-joke in many Infocom titles.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ That "new" "official" Infocom web site
  2. ^ The Wishbringer manual with more examples of complex commands possible with Infocom games.
  3. ^ Infocom was actually one of the very few companies to release game software for the C128's native mode, contrary to most software houses' practice of only catering for the combined C64/128 market (as the C128 was compatible with the C64)
  4. ^ (Briceno 2000, p18)
  5. ^ a b Ferrell, Keith (January 1988). "Interactive Text In An Animated Age". Compute!. p. 17. Retrieved 10 November 2013. 
  6. ^ (Briceno 2000, p23)
  7. ^ (Briceno 2000, p26-27)
  8. ^ a b c Wilson, Johnny L. (November 1991). "A History of Computer Games". Computer Gaming World. p. 10. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  9. ^ a b Down From the Top of Its Game: Cornerstone from MIT
  10. ^ Oxner, Bill (May 1986). "Hobby & Industry News". Computer Gaming World. p. 4. 
  11. ^ "Rumored Activision/Infocom Rift Unfounded". Computer Gaming World. April 1988. p. 9. 
  12. ^ "Inside the Industry: Infocom's West Coast Move Stirs Controversy", Computer Gaming World, September 1989: 10 

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Articles about Infocom[edit]

Detailed Infocom & game information[edit]

Game details[edit]