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Before video games became the vast, graphically intense 3-D environments that they are today, a software company called Infocom dominated the best-seller lists of the early 1980s with games that used words alone to create environments for players to explore. The company’s products, called interactive fiction, fed descriptions of places and scenes to the player, who could respond by typing in actions (such as “get rock”). Infocom, founded in 1979 by a group of MIT alumni and faculty, became famous for a variety of innovations in gaming, both in technical achievement and in game design, and was known in particular for its Zork series of games. Technology Review assistant editor Erica Naone, SM ‘07, talked with Steve Meretzky ‘79, who is celebrated for his writing in Infocom games such as an adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the survival adventure Planetfall. Activision bought Infocom in 1986, and, by 1990, little was left of the company. Meretzky went on to found Boffo Games (which operated from 1994 to 1997); he’s now vice president of game design at You Plus, a company based in Mountain View, CA, that makes games for social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.

Technology Review: How did you get involved with Infocom?

Steve Meretzky: I knew people socially at MIT who had been some of the founders of Infocom. Particularly, we were all members of the MIT Lecture Series Committee at the time. A couple years after I graduated, I was living in Arlington, and my roommate, Mike Dornbrook ‘80, was serving as Infocom’s game tester. Infocom didn’t have office space at that point, so he was just doing the testing in our kitchen with an Apple II. Often I’d be there when he wasn’t home, and I’d play the game he was working on and write down any bugs that I came across as I was playing. After I’d done this with Zork I and Zork II, Mike went off to business school. That left Infocom without a tester, and I took over Mike’s position.

TR: It wasn’t long before you tried your hand at writing games and became known for storytelling innovation. Your game A Mind Forever Voyaging, for example, has the player take on the role of a simulation computer. Was there something about Infocom that fostered that innovation?

SM: One thing that helped was [that] a game really was one person’s effort. It was much easier for one individual to put their stamp of vision and direction onto a game. Since the cost of developing a game was so much less, companies could really afford to be more experimental. If you tried something different, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it didn’t do well, you learned something, and it wasn’t that big an investment to find out that the market wouldn’t accept it. Nowadays, when costs are so much higher, you just don’t have the room for experimentation. You could even look at a smaller focus than the experiment of an entire game. Over the course of the development process, back then, you could write a section of a game, and if it turned out that it wasn’t working, you could throw it away. One person wasted one month. Now, if you developed that equivalent percentage of a game and threw it away, you’d be throwing away five person-years of work. I think that’s a big thing that allowed Infocom to cover such a range of possibilities within the text-adventure field. And it had some big successes and some completely miserable failures.

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Credit: Courtesy of Steve Meretzky

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