TR: Was there a consistent style that seemed to work best?
SM: There was a development philosophy at Infocom, which was to kind of have a little fun with the player and try to always hit them with the unexpected. We tried to foster the feeling that the player and the writer were engaged in a little game of cat and mouse.
TR: Infocom was incredibly popular and influential. You’ve mentioned that at times, the company would have five out of the top ten games. A lot of that was obviously due to compelling stories and game design, but what role did the company’s technology play?
SM: It’s kind of hard to imagine, looking back on these text games now, but at the time, they were really the cutting edge–not just of games, but of any computer application. They pushed the limits of computing power. To be able to type in sentences in natural English and have the computer understand them seemed really cool to players. Infocom also did some incredible things in terms of text compression, frequent-word algorithms, and the like that allowed us to get what at the time seemed like an extraordinary amount of material into a game.
TR: Infocom created a “Z-machine,” which was a piece of software that could serve as a container for any Infocom game. When a new type of computer came out, you could adapt the Z-machine to that computer, and Infocom’s entire library would immediately be available for it. How did that help the company?
SM: It was certainly a huge component of Infocom’s competitive advantage. It was just hugely important in the early ’80s, when there was a new, completely incompatible PC coming out once a month or so. Digital would come out with one, and HP would come out with one, and Tandy would come out with another, and NEC would come out with another, and there were just so many. I think at one point we had 20 different personal computers that we were supporting. The great thing was that it was almost free to move our game to some new computer even if it would only sell a hundred copies. And the other huge advantage was the speed with which we could respond to a new computer. The biggest success was when the Mac came out in 1984. We wrote a Mac interpreter, and got about 15 games running on the Mac, at a point when there were only maybe 15 other games in the entire universe that you could find for your Mac. So half of all the game titles that you could find for the Mac were ours.
TR: Interactive fiction eventually went out of style, partly because games with graphics got much better and much more popular. But you stuck with Infocom until the end. What held you there?
SM: For pretty much everyone who worked there, it was their all-time favorite job. It was a great group of people. It was more than just a job–we were a really tightly knit social group as well. The games were so successful, right out of the gate, and everything seemed to be so easy, and the company had just a ton of fun. It was very rewarding, from a creative standpoint, to have such a huge role in a game–to be able, as one individual contributor, to have such near-total control over the direction of a game. So there were a ton of pluses. Certainly toward the end, sales began to decline. Activision [which bought Infocom toward the end of its life] was much more heavy-handed about the amount of control they were exerting over the creative process, but even in later years it was still a fantastic place to be working.
For further reading, see Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort, SM ‘98, assistant professor of digital media in MIT’s program in writing and humanistic studies.