At the basis of Infocom's success in the software industry is a collection of hard-working people dedicated to making Infocom games as great as they can be, while maintaining a sense of humor and thoroughly enjoying their jobs. I visited Infocom recently to interview and learn about the people and company responsible for the classic Zork games and many, many others.
You are standing in the entrance of Boston International Airport. An exit leads west and a ramp goes up from here. There is a dollar bill here.
>TAKE DOLLAR BILL
As you bend over to pick up the dollar bill, a little boy runs over to you, leading his mother by the hand. The boy is crying. He says that you took his dollar and, after the mother slaps you for being cruel to children or some such nonsense, the duo walk away. You are left embarrassed and confused.
You have wandered onto the sidewalk outside of Boston International Airport. A cab pull up in front of you and the driver looks impatiently at you. There is a small white stone here.
>GET IN CAB
As soon as you step into the cab, the driver floors the gas pedal and you find yourself smashed against the other door. The driver apologizes for the inconvenience and begins to ask you where you're going until he notes the look of mesmerized anticipation on your face and realizes that you must be headed to Infocom in Cambridge. "Happens to the best of them," the driver chuckles.
The stone is a small white piece of smooth marble that feels unusually light.
The driver takes you to the front of the building at 125 Cambridge Park Drive and tells you that the fare for the ride is $16.90.
You are carrying: A wallet
Inside the wallet, you find $25 and a movie stub. Upon seeing the movie stub, you remember that terribly boring and stupid summer movie about the return of a giant shark to claim revenge on a family.
>GIVE $20 TO DRIVER
The driver thanks you for your generosity and leaves you standing on the pavement in a cloud of dust as he speeds away.
Outside 125 Cambridge Park Drive
You are outside the building that houses, among other offices, the headquarters of Infocom, the destination of your visit to the Boston area. A door enters to the east. The stone is glowing with a dark blue light.
What you have just read is an example of interactive fiction, the trademark of Cambridge-based Infocom, describing fictitiously the jaunt I recently took from the airport to Infocom's offices.
For those of you who don't know what interactive fiction is all about, a definition is in order. Infocom interactive fiction games are entirely text games. There are no pictures, moving graphics or space invaders that pop up on your screen. Rather, the computer responds to your typed commands with prose descriptions of your surroundings, the consequences of your actions, what you see, hear and feel, what objects are within reach and which directions you can traverse.
In an interactive fiction game, you control a central character or, in some cases, more than one character, through your commands. You must assume the role of that character as if you were really in that universe-on-disk. Hence the name interactive fiction. You control the events in the story and time passes only in relation to the entering of commands. There is no set method to finish a story. For the most part, there are certain things you must do to finish, but the order in which you do them varies, depending on the game.
For example, in the above story, I didn't have to pick up the dollar or stone. Trying for the dollar was a nonsense action, as we found out afterwards. The stone, on the other hand, has some distinct purpose. In this case, it sensed closeness to Infocom's offices. Typical of Infocom games, you sometimes don't find out the purpose of an object until later in the game or by experimenting. Also, examining objects is very important. I wouldn't have known that I had any money unless I had examined my wallet or that the stone was different in that it was unusually light for its size.
The commands that you can use in an interactive fiction story are much more numerous than the two or three I used above. Aside from going in different directions and examining objects, you can do all sorts of other things, including attacking other characters, using objects and talking to characters. There are special commands that allow you to change your playing environment as well - like SCRIPT, which prints a transcript of your game session on your printer, if you have one. Also, some games have commands specifically made for them (the Enchanter games use CAST for casting spells). Commands use verb-object relationships to get things done. the structure is easy to learn and in no time you can be playing. Most games also give you some kind of rating or score and the goal of that game is to reach the maximum status or score.
"You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door." Sounds familiar? This is the first line of what has since become a classic in the realm of adventure games and software, Zork. Four college students at M.I.T. designed the game after being totally enthralled with Adventure, created by Willie Crowther and Don Woods. The first "adventure game" ever, Adventure appeared on M.I.T.'s ARPAnet in the Laboratory for Computer Science about a decade ago. These four men were Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling, Marc Blank and Bruce Daniels, the first three of whom went on to form Infocom, along with Chris Reeve, Joel Berez and Stu Galley in 1979.
Since then, business has gone up and down, but Infocom's staying power in the marketplace led to a $10 million gross last year. Infocom has sold over two million interactive fiction titles to date, one million of the Zork trilogy alone. Their place in the software industry is a direct result of the lengthy and exacting evolution of a game from conception to the software store's shelves.
The initial idea for a game starts with an imp. There is usually a meeting scheduled when an imp decides that he/she wants to start designing a new game. At this meeting, the imp introduces all of the ideas that he/she has and they are voted upon and talked about. This gives the imp a good idea of which project to pursue.
An imp usually takes four to six months to design a game. In that period, many changes will be made in the direction the games takes. Each imp has a different approach to the physical design of the game. Dave Lebling starts by drawing the geography/locations and then populates them with the objects and characters in the game. Steve Meretzky writes down his ideas and develops the story line first. Only after these elements are worked out does he progress further. He then develops the puzzles and finally works on the geography of the game.
Designing interactive fiction is not as easy as just coding what must be done to finish the game. That's the first part. Then the imp must account for all other situations that can occur based on the many strange things that people try. There has to be a limit. For instance, an imp has to try to think of every possible thing that a person can try to do with an object to ensure that there are no fatal crashes. Sometimes, an imp decides that he doesn't want people to try something and makes it impossible to do in the game. For example, in The Lurking Horror, on the roof of the Brown building there is a peach tree in a tub. Lebling was originally going to have a puzzle revolve around the tree and a single peach on its branches but instead covered the tree with slime so that it couldn't be climbed. His reasoning: "I wanted to keep people form climbing the peach tree - I didn't want to have to check all possibilities such as players jumping off the tree, cutting its branches, etc."
Trying to code all possibilities can be very tedious. To avoid burnout, the imps meet once a week to talk about puzzles and how other imps' programs are coming along. They exchange ideas and trade stories pertaining to game design and interactive fiction to get a fresh perspective on things and keep themselves abreast of the others' activities. Other times, these meetings are just fun, with no talk at all about designing tips. Rather these are an opportunity to let off steam that builds up after deciding how many times to allow a player to mess up in the game before getting killed. Lebling described Infocom's philosophy: "We try to make each game as complete and clean as possible. I'm sure we spend far more time in testing than any of our competitors. We work very hard to make things as rich as we can. We don't like nothing to happen in response to the player's command if we can help it. We'd rather have the game work so that if you try something reasonable, you'll get some kind of response for your actions."
The key word at Infocom is "we." It's not a competition to see which department can do the best in their area of the game, but an active collaboration among all departments. The relationships that are probably the most important to the finished product take place in the second stage of game production, in which Testing and Creative Services simultaneously do their jobs, while going back to the imps for suggestions and problems they might have.
Creative Services and Testing each put in about four months of work in their areas.
Creative Services is responsible for packaging the game and all the neat things that go into the package. Carl Genatossio, Creative Services Manager, explains the process: "Elisabeth Langosy (Staff Writer), Angela Crews (Graphic Services Supervisor) and I play the game very early in testing for about a week to get the gist of it. We play just enough so that we can create packaging to reflect the world you're about to enter when you slip the disk into the drive. We meet with the imp to discuss what should go into the package as well. Since we've always made all-text products, we put all the graphics in the packaging. Everything in the packaging contains clues to something happening in the game.
Genatossio contracts artists and photographers for the package art. Langosy writes the text for the manuals and inserts and Crews pursues the physical objects placed in the game package. Later, Creative Services puts together the InvisiClue booklet that is made for each game.
Meanwhile, the testers are making sure that the game in production is error-free and good as the imp can make it. The majority of the testing phase is spent checking bugs and rechecking old bugs. It gets very tiring to play the same game again and again, so Product Testing Manager Liz Cyr-Jones tries to space out the testers so that they don't get burned out on a game. Cyr-Jones describes Testing: "There are a ton of meetings involved and at some point in the process a day may go by where three new versions of the same game are tested. It's very handy to have the designers right down the hall."
After Testing and Creative Services are finished, the product is almost ready. Getting the product to market now lies in the hands of Marketing and Sales. Director of Marketing Mike Dornbrook, Product Manager Gayle Syska and Sales Development Manager Gabrielle Accardi each have a few weeks with the product to do their jobs. Public Relations Manager Cynthia Weiss also has a few weeks to send out press releases and review copies to reviewers on her list. Ironically, advertising has been cut back and Infocom relies heavily on the work of these three people to promote the product.
Distribution of a new product throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia is handled by Activision. Infocom, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Activision, retains full creative control over products under the Infocom label. Director of Marketing Dornbrook said "Activision is there to help us with different things we may need. Activision offers us many more possibilities, including an Amiga version of The Lurking Horror that includes sound effects."
To put an interactive fiction program onto disk for consumer use, the imps use a language created especially for the design of interactive fiction called ZIL (Zork Implementation Language). Chris Reeve, Vice President of Product Development, describes ZIL: "It's similar to the computer science language Pascal in that a command entered in the game call a procedure, and that procedure calls other procedures in a long chain to check all of the possibilities. Eventually, the chain ends and the command can be processed. Programming in ZIL with new commands requires linking the new commands to the appropriate procedures. ZIL is symbolic, like LISP, and checks the relationships between an object and an action to see if it is feasible."
An imp designs the game on a mainframe DEC 20 system, lovingly known as "Fred". After using ZIL to get the code together form the game, the program is converted to the various microcomputers. Because the conversion to different micros occurs after the main code is written, all versions are essentially written at the same time. The original machine language (called Z-machine language) is placed on the micro's disk along with a ZIP (Z-machine Interpreter Program) that understands the original machine language and adapts it to the micro. Brian Moriarty, designer of the new release Beyond Zork, attempted to use advanced EZIPs (enhanced ZIPs) to produce unique features for his game.
While developing Beyond Zork, Brian asked "What could be done to make all of the typing and mapping easier for the player?" The result is found in Beyond Zork, complete with many new enhancements. The game draws a map on the screen as you visit locations. It also allows the player to use a mouse to point at the map to move along. You can also program the function keys to execute a string of commands. These enhancements will make Beyond Zork very popular in the market to those looking for a little extra with their Infocom game.
I had the pleasure of playing Beyond Zork during my trip to Infocom. Although it wasn't complete, I can already say that the game will be one of my favorites of the year. Beyond Zork, aside from all the normal elements and those discussed by Moriarty above, is partly a role-playing game in that your character has distinct characteristic ratings that increase throughout the game. Moriarty described Beyond Zork: "It's not a sequel and it's not a prequel. It takes place in the universe of the Zork trilogy, the Enchanter trilogy and Wishbringer and has elements from all those games."
New directions that Infocom has taken are evident in two games released in September. Plundered Hearts, designed by newest imp (and first female game designer) Amy Briggs, is the first interactive fiction game from Infocom with a female protagonist. Briggs describes Plundered Hearts as a "pirate romance. You're a woman traveling in the Caribbean in the late 1600's and you get caught up with pirates. It's not a silly romance story that has women swooning everywhere, but more serious and lifelike."
Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head Or Tail Of It is the other recent release. Nord and Bert, designed by Jeff O'Neill, is a set of eight short stories that deals with word games. The short story format and the online InvisiClues are unique to Nord and Bert. On-line InvisiClues can be accessed with a special command and require the player to "peel of" the answer to a question to select the level of help wanted - a general push in the right direction or a revelation of the full answer. Jon Palace, Creative Development Manager, remarked, "We're not promising on-line InvisiClues with all future games. It's an experiment. Just like the enhancements made in Beyond Zork."
Infocom hopes to collaborate with many authors to design games. Douglas Adams has had two successes with Infocom's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (co-authored with Steve Meretzky) and Bureaucracy. The company would like to se collaborations with other authors for game designers. Look for more news in this area soon.
Other big news from Cambridge is the return of Marc Blank, Zork trilogy co-author, to design a spy game. The game will have three segments, one of which will take place in real time, so that if you take your time playing the game, you'll waste valuable game time. Blank has been away from Infocom for a few years but the veteran designer has been working on his new project for some time. Border Zone should be available by the time you read this.
The success that Infocom enjoyed last year was considerable. Public Relations Manager Cynthia Weiss related proudly, "All of our titles released this year made it to the Softsel Hot list. The games that were named to the list were Bureaucracy, Hollywood Hijinx, Stationfall and The Lurking Horror. Also, last quarter we saw the first profit since December 1983.
Obviously, the company would not be as successful if it weren't for the talented innovators who form the backbone of Infocom. Their interactive fiction keeps people up late, home from work and hopelessly addicted until completion. I annually replay the Zork trilogy just like other people re-read certain books. The humor, creativity and intellectual challenges contained in each game expand the imagination.
After meeting the people at Infocom, I can no longer regard a new game as merely a box with a disk and enclosures. Instead I see the hard work and dedication that goes into every game, from the Customer Support reps who replace disks and answer endless questions to Testing who look for the best in a game, extending to all areas of the company.
Carl Genatossio described it best: "It's a mix of top quality people working here - the game writer, the marketing people, the creative people, the production people, the testers, public relations and customer support. Everybody is really top-notch here, and it's just a wonderful working relationship."
I would like to personally thank Cynthia Weiss, without whom this article could not have been written. Her hard work is well-appreciated.
Early in the testing stages, Elizabeth, Angela and Carl play the game for about a week to get the feel of what's happening. They think about ideas for a few days and then meet with the game implementor to determine what should go into the game's packaging. After deciding what the package will look like and what enclosures will be used, the work is started. Carl contracts photographers and artists to work on the game's cover and inside art. Elizabeth writes the manuals and any other written material included with the game. Angela investigates appropriate gimmicks for the game and the production of these enclosures.
Angela Crews has had some interesting experiences in searching out Infocom's trademark enclosures. for Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which won an award for Best Software Packaging, she contacted many companies to assemble a large number of samples for the Scratch 'N Sniff™ card included in every package. Game designer Steve Meretzky followed people for days with these samples in hand urging them to guess what the smells were. Another conquest that Angela made was the plastic bug included with The Lurking Horror. Again she contacted numerous companies and had literally hundreds of bugs in the drawers of her desk. Eventually, after rejecting ones that grew in water and ones that were too expensive, the right one was picked.
A recent change made by Creative Services was the elimination of the gray pinstriped package that opened to reveal the story book for the game. Genatossio explains that the package was designed to be browseable in the stores, but that store owners demanded that they be shrink-wrapped to prevent dog-eared copies. "We had this browseable shrink-wrapped package that wasn't really browseable anymore," remarked Genatossio.
Langosy offers, "People found it awkward putting that box on their computer table to read the book, which was unremovable. The format forced us to have a booklet for each game, as well. Also, certain enclosures couldn't be used because they couldn't fit in the tray."
The packaging for The Lurking Horror and Stationfall introduced a new format for Infocom games. The two boxes look very exciting and all of the enclosures are removable so that examination is easier.
Infocom has found that many people buy the games for the packaging. Also, the packaging includes items helpful in the game and, more recently, the enclosures have become an effective anti-piracy safeguard. The enclosures sometimes contain code numbers, and these items just can't be duplicated. At any rate, the packaging of Infocom games is one of the attractive features of the company's products, part of the reason the games jump right off the store shelves.
Infocom games go through three testing stages - alpha, beta and gamma. Product Testing Manager Liz Cyr-Jones describes the transition from alpha to beta: "For a game to move out of alpha into beta, the game has to be clean - free of obvious typos and crashes. The story line has to be set, and all of the puzzles and characters and the real guts of the game have to be intact."
Beta and gamma testing are both done outside the company by unpaid volunteers. There is a group of about 15 people who test the games in these phases. They check for errors and play the game as much as possible. After correcting any remaining errors from the beta stage, the game is passed through gamma phase and is then ready for shipment to the stores.
Sometimes errors still make it through the system, but after Testing is finished tearing a game apart, the final product is virtually flawless. The testers try 98% of the possible commands in the game and then continue to try more. Tester Gary Brennan remarks, "We try everything. We beat them to death." This lengthy process of finding the bugs and sending the game version back to the imps pays off in the end when a product is released with a certainty that most of the problems have been tested and corrected.
I used to think that game testers had an easy life, getting paid to play computer game all day. That misconception dissolved when I met this hardworking bunch. They are a collection of sharp minds who unceasingly explore a game from top to bottom. Max Buxton says that after finishing the testing process, boredom with the game results: "We'll get a game in early alpha and it'll be great. By late gamma, it's not the same - we never want to see that game again."
Each tester has his or her own approach to testing. Most agree that you determine your attitude toward a game the first time you play. The testers are given no instructions for playing a new product. They simply start the game and play it to see what it does. Often, it takes most of alpha to figure out what is going on.
Games that are received into Testing aren't necessarily complete, so testing involves a lot of interaction with the imps. When problems occur, the imps can come to the terminal to delve into the code of the game exactly where the problem occurs. Elements change from revision to revision like the weather. Besides the testing of a game, other duties include testing the computer version of the game on the PC's and evaluating other companies' games to keep from being burned out.
What are the toughest games that they've tested? Cyr-Jones claimed Spellbreaker was her toughest because the game was already hard and not knowing what to do only made it harder. Brennan picked Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head Or Tail Of It because there was nothing to do in the game except for the wordplay and Beyond Zork because of the random geography that changes every time you play it. Buxton claimed A Mind Forever Voyaging was the toughest because the game takes place in a medium-sized town in five time zones and its geography and story line are very intricate.
Perhaps the fact that the newsletter is free for all purchasers of an Infocom game helps the circulation of The Status Line. By filling in the warranty card that comes with every game, you are eligible to receive The Status Line. No renewal is necessary for you to receive the most up-to-date information about Infocom and its games. The newsletter is published four times a year and has grown larger every year of publication.
The New Zork Times was first published in 1982 under the direction of Mike Dornbrook, who coincidentally also founded the Zork Users Group, ZUG. In 1986, a famous New York newspaper requested that Infocom change the name of the newsletter. One issue went by without a new name. Finally, a reader's suggestion was accepted in a contest and the name of the newsletter was officially changed to The Status Line. However, true fans of Infocom still refer to the newsletter as The New Zork Times.
The New Zork Times offered subscribers special Zork merchandise that, alas, is no longer available. When Infocom took over NZT from ZUG, the special merchandise did not switch hands. So, if you can find any of the original Zork buttons, bumper stickers, hint booklets and posters, you have a bona fide collector's items. Still, The Status Line continues the tradition of those four early editions of NZT and offers some special deals of its own.
Subscribers are eligible to take part in the contests that appear in The Status Line, of which there are usually two per issue. Also, readers of the newsletter occasionally get special offers for Infocom merchandise and discounts on games. For example, all 18 issues of The Status Line/The New Zork Times were offered for $10 in the Summer 1987 issue of The Status Line. Similar items are occasionally offered for sale. In the Winter 1986 edition of the newsletter (then The New Zork Times), the first 150 purchasers of Ballyhoo for each computer version received editions signed and numbered by Jeff O'Neill.
I find the most interesting part of each edition of The Status Line is the puzzle that appears in the back. Each puzzle really has two parts. First, the reader must answer trivia questions about the Infocom games. These questions can ask for number answers or word answers and are usually difficult and obscure. In any case, after answering these questions, the results are placed into some other kind of puzzle, requiring correct answers from the first part and an ability to solve the second puzzle. Previous puzzles have included crosswords, connect the dots, anagrams and guessing what game a particular name comes from.
Thanks to Frank Skagemo for transcribing and donating this article.