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Infocom

From Academic Kids

Template:Infobox Company

Template:Zork universe

Infocom was an American software company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that produced numerous works of interactive fiction, known as text adventure computer games. 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, Al 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.

Contents

Overview

Infocom was well-known among game-players for their parser called ZIL (Zork Implementation Language or Zork Interactive Language--it was referred to as both) used in its witty, ambitious text adventures, 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' (e.g. "get apple"), Infocom's parser could understand commands like "get all apples except the green apple from the barrel." Infocom games were written using a programming language that ran on a standardized virtual machine called the Z-machine. As the games were text based and used variants of the same Z-machine interpreter, 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, Commodore 64, Commodore 128¹, the Mac, Atari ST, and the Commodore Amiga. The company was also known for shipping creative props, or "feelies" (and even "smellies"), with its games.

History

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. 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 the rest of 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. One key employee said of their situation, "It was phenomenal—we had a basement that just printed money."

Three key components proved key to their success: marketing strategy, rich storytelling and feelies. Whereas most game developers sold their games mainly in software stores, Infocom also distributed their games via bookstores. Since their games were text-based, patrons of bookstores were drawn to the Infocom games since they were already interested in reading. 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. Third, the inclusion of "feelies"—imaginative props and extras tied to the game's theme—provided some copy protection against pirating. Some games were unsolveable without the extra content provided with the boxed game.

Many of the games' puzzles proved too difficult for some players. Infocom was regularly flooded with phone calls from customers pleading for hints to solving game puzzles. Due to this, Mike Dornbrook created the Zork User's Group (ZUG) to handle a typewritten "pay-per-hint" service. He also started Infocom's customer newsletter called The New Zork Times to discuss game hints and preview and showcase new products. (After the threat of a lawsuit by the New York Times, the newsletter's name was later changed to The Status Line, a reference to an informational feature provided the player in every Infocom game.)

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, provided with each book. Sales of InvisiClues proved incredibly lucrative: their sales consistently filled computer book best seller lists until the list developers were forced to combine all InvisiClues sales into one number, which simply assured that it would almost always occupy the topmost position.

In 1984 Infocom started putting resources into a new division to produce business products. In 1985 they released a database product, Cornerstone. Though this application was hailed upon its released for its ease of use, it sold only 10,000 copies, not enough to cover the development expenses. Whereas their games had benefitted 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. Most businesses were moving 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.

A surprising lack of offers for such a successful company led to the 1985 acquisition of Infocom by Activision. This turned out to be the beginning of the end for Infocom. While relations were cordial between the two companies at first, the departure of James 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. Furthermore, he made a string of poor, heavy-handed decisions that made Infocom unprofitable. For example:

  • Davis demanded they use Activision's packaging plant instead of their own in-house one, raising the cost of each package from $0.45 each to over $0.90 each. In addition, the Activision plant made numerous mistakes in packaging where 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 demanded the struggling developer must produce eight titles a year. Infocom had traditionally produced about four games per year with more staff than they currently had.
  • Davis pushed Infocom to release more graphical games, but the one they did release 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.

Rising costs and falling profits due to these changes and other botched ventures finally caused Activision to pull the plug on Infocom in 1989. 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 two 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.)

Titles & authors

Interactive Fiction

Other Titles

Collections

  • 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 Masterpieces of Infocom (1996; contained 33 Infocom games plus six winners of the SPAG Interactive Fiction Contest not affiliated with Infocom)
  • Zork Special Edition (1997; contained Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis & Planetfall)
  • Zork Classics: Interactive Fiction (2000)

Legacy

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. Many Infocom titles can be downloaded via the Internet, legally in the case of the Zork trilogy and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but in violation of the copyright in most other cases. They are available as Z-machine story files and 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.

Notes

  1. Infocom was actually one of the very few companies (if not the only one) 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)

See also

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

External links

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