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Author of Play

Technology Review talks to Steve Meretzky ‘79 about the heyday of Infocom.
February 24, 2009

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.

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.

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