In the early 1980s, Infocom s games were quite unique ” so much so that the company preferred to call them something else entirely: interactive fiction. Infocom s titles were totally separate and distinct from the arcade game clones and derivatives that so many other computer game companies were publishing at the time. Infocom s interactive fiction appealed to an entirely different and more sophisticated group of computer game players. The games content was surprisingly literate and professionally made, with a consistent level of quality that has never been matched. Their text-only nature gave them a literary quality that lent them some degree of respectability, enough to garner a review of the game Deadline in the New York Times Book Review and the admission of two of Infocom s implementors, Steve Meretzky and Dave Lebling, into the Science Fiction Writers of America as interactive authors. The Book Review has certainly never reviewed a computer game since, and the SFWA subsequently changed its rules to prevent the inclusion of any more interactive authors. Steve Meretzky remains one of Infocom s greatest talents, having worked both on one of Infocom s best-selling games, The Hitchhiker s Guide to the Galaxy , and on one of its most respected, A Mind Forever Voyaging . Since the demise of Infocom, Meretzky has continued the literary tradition in adventure gaming ” first with a string of titles for Legend Entertainment and subsequently with his own company, Boffo Games, which produced the lovely The Space Bar . Currently, Meretzky is involved with the Internet game company WorldWinner.com. Of late, adventure games have fallen out of favor with publishers, game audiences, or some combination of both. One cannot help but wonder : what happened to the adventure game fans that made Infocom such a huge success?
What initially attracted you to computer games?
In the late 70s and early 80s, I was actually pretty repelled by computer games and, in fact, by all things computer-ish. I considered them nerdy and antisocial , and it seemed that whenever the talk turned to any computer- related subject, English went right out the window. Lots of people in my dormwere playing the original mainframe Zork , since it was being written at the Lab for Computer Science, and I found their preoccupation with the game pretty distasteful. I played a little bit of MazeWars at the Lab, and I had a brief fling with Space Invaders , but that was about it.
Until, in 81 my roommate Mike Dornbrook was Infocom s first and, at the time, only tester. He started testing Zork I on an Apple II on our dining room table. When he wasn t around, I started playing a little and was soon very hooked. Zork II soon followed Zork I into our dining room test lab. I reported all the bugs that I found, even though Mike was getting paid to find bugs and I wasn t.
So that led to employment at Infocom?
At MIT, I majored in Construction Project Management, and that s the work that I did for the first couple of years after I graduated in June of 79. It was awful : tedious work, boring people, far-from-cutting-edge companies. So, in the fall of 1981, when my roommate Mike Dornbrook went off to business school in Chicago, Marc Blank (VP of Development at Infocom) needed a new tester for his forthcoming mystery game, eventually named Deadline . Since I had proven myself an able tester while testing Zork I and II for free, he hired me on an hourly basis as the replacement tester for Mike. At this point, Infocom still had no office, and just one or two full-time employees . I continued to test at home on the Apple II.
In January of 1982, Infocom moved into wonderful office space at the edge of Cambridge, and I started working out of the office, testing Deadline and then later Zork III and Dave Lebling s first post- Zork effort, Starcross . In June, I began as a half-time employee, having been just a contractor up to that point.
Even at this point, I didn t really have any plans to become a game author ” I was just having a good time doing something fun for a change and waiting to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had minored in writing at MIT, and had submitted some science fiction stories to various magazines, but didn t get anything published.
So how did you come to make the jump from tester to author? Did you have to prove yourself first?
Sometime late in the summer of 82, Marc Blank asked me if I d be interested in writing a game. I agreed right away, pretty much thinking that, while testing games was quite a bit of fun, writing them was probably going to be even more fun. I didn t have to prove myself, for a few reasons. First, I d known Marc for a few years at MIT; we were both involved with running the campus film program, so he knew that I was a pretty hard-working and creative person. Second, Infocom was still quite small and informal, with virtually no bureaucracy involved in such decisions. And third, in making suggestions while testing games, I d shown that I understood the game and puzzle design process.
So what was your inspiration for Planetfall ?
My main interest as a reader, and as a writer, was science fiction, so it was a foregone conclusion that the game would be SF. And since character interaction was what the Infocom development system was weakest at, an environment like a deserted planet seemed like a good idea. Beyond that, I can t really say.
What were your design goals with the Floyd character?
The idea of having a single, very well fleshed-out non-player character was a very early design focus of Planetfall . The Infocom games up to that point had usually had half a dozen characters each, such as the wizard, genie , dragon, princess, and gnomes in Zork II. Because of the large number of such characters, all were rather thin. I thought that by having just one other character (not counting the extremely brief appearances by Blather and by the alien ambassador during the opening scene) I d be able to make that character more interesting and more believable.
I can t remember how I got from that point to Floyd, although cute robot was a very early decision. Perhaps the influence was the Star Wars trilogy, which was then between Empire and Jedi. The character ofWillis, a cute alien in Robert Heinlein s book Red Planet, may have been another influence.
Did you always plan to force the player to allow Floyd to be killed in order to win the game?
No, that decision definitely came midway in the game design/implementation process. Floyd was turning out to be somewhat more humorous than originally conceived, and he was also turning out to be somewhat more sentimental a character than originally conceived: rubbing his head against your shoulder, getting his feelings hurt, discovering the remains of his old friend Lazarus, et cetera. It was clear that people were going to be very attached to him, and at some point the idea just clicked that I could create this really emotional moment.
Also ” and this is a relatively minor influence on the decision, but still worth mentioning ” at the time Electronic Arts was just getting started. They were running a series of ads meant to establish their stable of game designers as artists . One of the ads quoted one of their designers as saying something like, I want to create a computer game that will make people cry. There was a little touch of a budding rivalry there, and I just wanted to head them off at the pass.
The Hitchhiker s Guide to the Galaxy was an adaptation from an already much loved radio series and book. How did you go about adapting a piece of linear fiction into interactive form?
It was actually quite ideal for adaptation, because it was a fairly episodic story line, and because it was an environment filled with all sorts of great characters, locations, technologies, et cetera, while the story line wasn t all that important. It was challenging, but good challenging, not bad challenging.
How was it working with Douglas Adams?
On the plus side, Douglas was already an Infocom fan and had played several of our games, so he understood what an adventure game was and he understood the abilities and limits of our system. On the other hand, he had never written non-linearly before, and that s always a difficult process to get a handle on. Also, I was somewhat awed to be working with him, and didn t assert myself enough at the start of the process. So I think you ll see that the beginning of the game is quite linear, including the destruction of Arthur s house and the scene on board the Vogon ship. Later, when Douglas became more comfortable with interactive design and when I got over my sheepishness, the game became one of the most ruthlessly non-linear designs we ever did.
It was quite wonderful to collaborate with Douglas, who passed away in 2001 at the too-young age of 49. He was a very intelligent and creative person, and humorous as well. He s not a laugh a minute, as you might expect from his writing, but more wry with lots of great anecdotes. He was constantly coming up with ways to stretch the medium in zany ways that I never would have thought of on my own: having the game lie to you, having an inventory object like no tea, having the words from a parser failure be the words that fell through a wormhole to start the interstellar war, et cetera.
How evenly was the work divided between you two?
The original goal was that we d do the design together, Douglas would write the most important text passages and I d fill in around them, and I d do the implementation, meaning the high-level programming using Infocom s development system.
Douglas came to Cambridge for a week when we got started. Then we exchanged e- mails daily, and this was in 84, when non-LAN e-mail was still pretty rare. We also exchanged phone calls approximately weekly.
However, Douglas single overriding characteristic was that he was the world s greatest procrastinator. He was slipping further and further behind on his schedule, and at the same time, his fourth Hitchhiker s book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish , was about a year late and he hadn t written a word.
So his agent sent him away from the distractions of London and forced him to hole up in a country inn out in the western fringes of England. So I went over there to stay at this inn, which was an old baronial estate called Huntsham Court which had been converted into a delightful inn, and spent a week there completing the design. Then I returned to the U.S. and implemented the entire game in about three intense weeks, just in time for an abbreviated summer of testing. Douglas came back over in September for some final rewriting of key text portions, and it was done in time for a late October release. The game quickly shot to number one on the best-seller lists, and stayed there for months.
I ve seen Hitchhiker s referred to as a particularly hard Infocom game. Was that your intention ?
Douglas and I both felt that adventure games were becoming a little too easy, that the original Zork had been much harder than more recent offerings, and the 24/7 obsessive brain-racking was what made these games so addictive . So we might have overreacted and gone too far in the other direction. Certainly, Infocom s testing staff was strongly urging that the game be made easier.
On the other hand, the game s most difficult puzzle, the babel fish puzzle, became a revered classic, and Infocom even began selling T-shirts saying, I Got the Babel Fish. So it s possible that, while some people were turned off by the level of difficulty, others were attracted by it. My feeling was, and continues to be, that people who find the game too hard can get hints, while people who find the game too easy are screwed because there s no way for them to make it harder.
Another contributor to the difficulty may have been the abbreviated testing schedule-for the game, because an already aggressive schedule was made even more so by Douglas spell of procrastination. More time in testing generally results in an easier game, because the inclination is that if even a single tester found a puzzle too hard it should be made easier.
A Mind Forever Voyaging is almost completely missing the humor you are so well known for in your other titles, yet I think it is one of your best works. Was your goal with that project to make a more serious game?
Yes, partly that was a reaction to having just completed a purely comedic game ( HHGTTG ), and partly the feeling that interactive fiction was such a compelling medium that really took over someone s life for days at a time, it was an ideal way to put out a political/social message. It was my attempt to change the world, as it were. The goal was not just to make a work that was more serious and that had a message, but also to create a work that moved away from puzzles and relied more on its story.
The pretense for the player s existence in AMFV is very interesting and a change from other Infocom games. Did you feel the need to break the mold with this title?
I m not sure what the inspiration was for the main character in AMFV being a self-aware computer, although I can remember the moment when the idea came to me, just sitting at my dining room table with one of my roommates, eating dinner. The navigational and interface differences just seemed like a natural extension of that initial decision. Breaking the mold in that way wasn t in my mind as much as breaking the mold in the game s content, as I mentioned earlier.
Did you meet much resistance from within Infocom to do the title, or did the success of your previous games grant you the freedom to do whatever you wanted? Were there fears that the game would be too different?
No resistance at all, and sure, the fact that my games to date had been both critical and market successes certainly helped. But the Infocom philosophy at the time was to do a mixture of games aimed at our core audience ” the Zork games and Enchanter games, for instance ” along with a few more experimental games aimed at pushing the envelope creatively and attempting to expand the audience for interactive fiction. Another example of this latter category were the junior level games like Seastalker and Wishbringer, which were an attempt to bring interactive fiction to a younger audience. There were some slight concerns that the game was a little too puzzle-less, and in fact we beefed up the puzzles in the last section ” not in the epilogue section, but where Ryder comes and occupies the complex.
AMFV also pushed the envelope in the technical direction, being the first game in the Interactive Fiction Plus line, requiring 128K of memory rather than just 64K. It was also about twice as large as any other Infocom game to date.
As you mentioned, the moral implications of the game are particularly strong. Why have you not made a serious game since?
I would like to because I really enjoyed creating AMFV , and I still feel that computer games can have as much of an artistic component as books, movies, theater, et cetera. And I ve gotten so much feedback over the years from people who were impacted by AMFV . A couple of people have mentioned to me that they went into the computer games industry because of playing it.
Unfortunately, even though AMFV had a pretty significant impact on the people who played it, there weren t that many people who played it or bought it compared to other Infocom games: about thirty thousand. And the sort of creative freedom that I had at Infocom has not been present since. With game budgets soaring into seven figures, publishers are not interested in anything that is in any way unproven or experimental.
A couple of years ago, I was involved in a group that was attempting to put together an adventure game whose purpose, in addition to entertainment, was to expose the plight of Chinese-occupied Tibet. One of the people involved was Bob Thurman, a Columbia University professor who is one of the leaders of the Free Tibet movement. He also happens to be the father of Uma Thurman, who would have been in the game and would have brought along a number of other Hollywood celebrities . Not just actors, but people like Philip Glass to do the score, et cetera. There was even the possibility of a cameo by the Dalai Lama. Even with all that marquee value, we couldn t find a publisher who was interested.
But it seems that serious works are allowed to exist in other media, alongside more fun or light works. Why do you think this is not the case in computer games?
I think one problem is that the games industry tends to be less profitable than other media. I ve heard , for example, that it s very rare for a movie to lose money once everything is said and done, including foreign distribution, video, and all that. The vast majority of computer games lose money. So I think that as difficult as it is in cinema to get something made that is kind of experimental or a little bit different, it s way harder in the computer games industry. The executives in my industry are much more afraid of doing anything to shatter expectations.
I think another difference is that there is a path for the less expensive, artier films . There s really no similar path like that in the computer games industry. There are sort of signs that maybe something might be developing on the Internet. It s very encouraging that the Game Developers Conference has been running the Independent Games Festival, and I m also encouraged by the work that s been coming out of Garage Games in Oregon. But for the most part there s nothing like a Blair Witch Project or a Crying Game that the computer games industry can really point to.
So, I think without an avenue for that kind of more experimental game, and with publishers being even more conservative than in other industries, the bottom line is publishers want the safe game. And the safe games tend to be the ones that aren t serious or message-oriented.
So you think Internet distribution might lead to the creation of more serious works?
Well, I think that it may happen if a distribution channel coalesces, and the Internet does seem to be the best bet for that. And it s really not just distribution, it s also on the PR side. All the major magazines pretty much ignore everything except for the major publishers games. In fact, I remember one tiny little blurb, and I think it was really just in somebody s column. It wasn t the magazine reviewing a game, but just one of the columnists mentioning that he d run into a game that he liked and had maybe three column inches on it. And it was this very low production value game that was being distributed over the Internet as shareware, and it sounded really good, like the kind of game I would like. So I went ahead and I downloaded it. And it just really stuck out as a real rarity for a computer gaming magazine to have any mention of a game of that sort.
And certainly, in addition to having the distribution for something like that, you ve also got to have some method for getting the word out to people. You can have a perfectly good distribution system, and if no one finds it, so what? But I think if something like that does coalesce, there will be an avenue for someone to do a relatively inexpensive game, something that could be done in a garage but that does have something really interesting, that does push the envelope in some way other than really high production values. It might be something that creates a new genre , like a SimCity .
How did Leather Goddesses of Phobos come about?
Quite a funny story. When Infocom was still pretty young and small, a few months after moving into its first Cambridge offices, it was decided to have a small beer-and-pizza party for our handful of employees and consultants , the board of directors, local retailers, and people from companies we were working with such as our ad agency or our production warehouse. It was a very informal gathering of just a few dozen people, but it was Infocom s first social function, and Joel Berez, Infocom s president, and Marc Blank were extremely hyper about seeing it come off perfectly.
The party was held in the large central room of Infocom s office space, which doubledas a meeting room and the micro room where we had our one Apple II, our one Atari 800, our one TRS-80, et cetera. One entire wall of this room was a single enormous chalkboard with a permanent handwritten table of all version numbers in release. Something like this:
That is, every time a new version of a game was compiled in-house, it was given a new version number. When a given version number was released on a given machine, that number would be written up on the board. If the supply of, say, Apple II Zork III s ran out, we would order more with the latest approved version, and that particular number on the board would be updated.
So, to get back to the point of this story, shortly before this party I quietly went over to the board and added a line for a game called Leather Goddesses of Phobos . It was just a hack, and I just picked the name as something that would be a little embarrassing but not awful. As it turns out, Joel spotted it before anyone arrived and erased it in a panic. However, the name stuck, and for years thereafter, whenever anyone needed to plug the name of a nonexistent game name into a sentence , it would be Leather Goddesses of Phobos .
Then, at some point in 1985, I came around to the idea of actually doing a game by that name. After all, everyone loved the name, and had been loving it for years. I brought it up as a project that would be a little racy, but that was really more of a take-off on ” and loving tribute to ” SF pulp of the 30s. The idea was instantly accepted by Marc and the other game writers, as well as by Mike Dornbrook, my ex-roommate, who by this point had graduated business school and returned to Infocom to head up marketing.
Upper management took longer to convince, particularly our humorless CEO Al Vezza, who was really only interested in the business products side of the company and found doing any games at all distasteful, even though they were wildly successful and were financing the database project. In fact, a year later, when LGOP was nearly done, and Infocom had been bankrupted by the business products effort, Infocom was in the process of being acquired by Activision. Activision s president, Jim Levy (who understood games and game development), was being shown around the offices by Al Vezza. LGOP came up, and Al quickly and nervously said, Of course, that s not necessarily the final name. Jim roared, What? I wouldn t call it anything else! Naturally this made everyone feel a lot better about the acquisition. Unfortunately, Jim was axed by Activision s board of directors about a year after that.
How did you come to work on Zork Zero ?
It was my idea to do a prequel to the game, and everyone loved the idea of calling such a prequel Zork Zero . It poked fun at the whole sequelitis syndrome that gripped and continues to grip the computer game industry. I had written Sorcerer , the second game of the Enchanter trilogy that can be unofficially considered to be Zork V . It was in the same universe as Zork , and as part of writing the game I compiled the first compendium of Zork history, dates, places, characters, et cetera, by combing through the Zork games and the first Enchanter game, and then attempting to tie them all together with a comprehensive geography and history. There was some initial resistance to this from the original authors, but it quickly became apparent how necessary ” and later, how popular ” a step it was.
So, I was pretty versed in the Zork milieu when Zork Zero began to be discussed. In fact, I think it s safe to say that I was more of an expert on Zork -related details than the original authors. Zork Zero had been on my list of potential next projects for a couple of years, and probably would have been my game the year that I did the Planetfall sequel, Stationfall , except that Brian Moriarty had just finished an adventure-RPG hybrid that we had decided to place in the Zork universe called Beyond Zork , and two Zork games in such close proximity wouldn t work.
As an aside, after finishing Stationfall , the decision was between Zork Zero and an idea that I had been tinkering with for years: an adventure game set on the Titanic during its maiden voyage. But Infocom s management finally decided ” and I heard this many times over the next few years as I pitched this project to many publishers during my post-Infocom days ” people aren t interested in the Titanic. So when the Cameron movie came out and became the most popular movie ever, it was something of a bittersweet moment for me.
When the decision came down to go ahead with Zork Zero , the first thing I did was convene a brainstorming session with the original implementors, or three out of four, at any rate. Marc Blank (who had long since left Infocom and moved to the west coast ), Dave Lebling (still a game author at Infocom), and Tim Anderson (still a senior scientist special-projects programmer at Infocom) were all there. The fourth original author, Bruce Daniels, had long since moved on. The only thing set in stone going into this session was that the game would be a prequel, and that it would end West of a white house. This session produced the very general framework for the game: the setting of Dimwit s castle, the reasons for the destruction of the Flathead dynasty, and the collection of artifacts belonging to each of the twelve Flatheads.
Zork Zero is a strange hybrid of a game: it s almost all text, with just some snippets of graphics thrown in. What was the general idea behind the design?
At the time, Infocom was undergoing some stress and soul-searching. Our sales had been dropping for several years. Going into the 1987 product cycle, the thinking from Infocom/Activision management was There are n thousand hard-core adventure game fans who ll buy any Infocom game no matter how many we put out. Therefore, the strategy should be to put out as many games as possible. We put out eight games during 1987, whereas in any previous year we d never put out more than five. And all of them did pretty badly . So, going into the 1988 product cycle, the thinking was Text adventures are a dying breed; we need to add graphics to our games.
Throughout Infocom s existence, we had always denigrated graphical adventures, and during the early and mid- 80s, this was pretty correct. While the early micros were pretty good at arcade-game-style graphics, they were pretty awful at drawing pictures, as seen in the graphic adventures of that time period. But then the Macintosh came out, providing much better black and white graphics than had been seen to date, followed by the Amiga, which did much better color graphics than anyone had seen before. IBM-PC graphics cards were also getting better. So graphics were starting to look reasonable and give all-text a run for its money. Infocom was a bit slow to come around to this truth.
So, in late 87 and early 88, Infocom s development system was being completely overhauled to handle the addition of graphics. At the same time, the game authors were collectively and individually wrestling with the issue of how to use graphics in games. Some people decided just to use them to illustrate occasional scenes, the way a book with occasional illustrations might use pictures. This is what Dave Lebling did with his IF version of Shogun .
Since the goal for Zork Zero was to be a classic puzzle-based adventure game on steroids, I decided that I primarily wanted to use graphics for puzzle-based situations, so I created five graphical puzzles: a rebus, a tower of Hanoi, a peg-jumping game, a pebble-counting game called nim, and a card game called double fanucci. But I didn t want the game to just look like an old-fashioned text adventure the rest of the time, so I designed the three different decorative borders: one for outside, one for inside buildings , and one for inside dungeons. I also gave every room an icon, and then used those icons for the on-screen graphical maps, which was a pretty good mnemonic device. Finally, I used graphic illustrations in the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, a book in the library that was basically an in-game version of the Zork universe compendium that I d begun compiling while working on Sorcerer .
But none of the graphics games sold any better than the previous year s all-text games, and by mid- 89 Activision decided to shut Infocom down.
They didn t improve sales at all?
I would say that during the previous year, 87, all the games sold around twenty thousand. And the four graphical games that came out in late 88 and early 89 also sold around those same numbers.
So why do you think that was? LucasArts and Sierra seem to have been quite successful with their graphical adventures around that time.
Yes, at the time Sierra was selling several hundred thousand copies of their games. But certainly not Lucas nearly as much. Lucas was in fact quite frustrated that they were putting out games that they felt were technically pretty identical to the Sierra games and in terms of writing and content were really superior to them, and yet only selling a fifth or a third as many copies. And I don t really know what to think about that. It might just be that Sierra was doing a really good job producing games that were very well aimed at a middle-brow audience, at kind of the broadest audience. And much like many of the Infocom games, Lucas games tended to appeal to a somewhat more sophisticated and therefore smaller audience.
So that s why you think the Infocom graphical games didn t take off?
Well, no. I think it was much more that by that point the graphical games had become pretty sophisticated in terms of being not just graphical adventures but animated graphical adventures, like the Sierra and Lucas games of that period. And the Infocom games weren t really more than illustrated text adventures. Even though the graphics were introduced, I don t think it was perceived as being that much of a new animal from what Infocom had been producing up until that point.
So do you think Infocom might have been more successful using graphics if they had made them more integral to the design of the games?
It s hard to say what might have happened in 87 if Infocom had said, We re going to go out and exactly imitate the Sierra adventure game engine the way Lucas did. On the one hand, it has always seemed to me that whoever gets to a market first kind of owns it. And I think that s another reason that Sierra really dominated Lucas at that point. There were certainly a lot of companies that came in, did text adventures, put a lot of effort into it, and did some pretty good text adventures. For example, Synapse Software, in the mid- 80s, with their BTZ engine did a few pretty good games. But they got virtually no sales. It s just pretty hard to go head to head with a market leader, even with games that are just as good, because it s hard to make up for that head start. On the other hand, Infocom certainly had a name that was pretty synonymous with adventure games, so if there was anyone who could have made headway against Sierra s head start it probably would have been Infocom. But at this point it s completely academic, obviously.
The Infocom games all ran off of pretty much the same storytelling system, using nearly identical game mechanics from game to game. Do you think this shared technology and design worked well?
It worked extremely well for its time. It allowed us to get our entire line of games up and running on a new computer within weeks of its release. This was a tremendous commercial edge during a time when the market was fragmented between many different platforms and new, incompatible platforms were coming out all the time. For example, there was a time when there were about twenty-five games available for the original Macintosh, and fifteen of them were Infocom games. This annoyed the Mac people at Apple to no end, since we didn t use the Mac GUI.
Also, the type of games we were doing lent themselves well to a line look, both in the packaging and in the games themselves . It gave them a literary feel: Infocom games all look similar in the same way that all books look similar.
But even today, engines are usually used for several games, particularly if you include expansion packs . And even though the final products appeared to be pretty similar, the Infocom library actually represents several generations of the ZIL engine. There was a pretty major revamping when the Interactive Fiction Plus line came along, starting with AMFV , and then another pretty major revamping around 87 with the introduction of an entirely new, much more powerful parser. And then, of course, there was a major overhaul for the introduction of graphics in 88.
A lot of effort was put into the Infocom parser, and it was well respected as the best in the industry. Did it ever get so good that you thought it couldn t get any better?
Certainly, by the time of the new from-the-ground-up parser circa 1987, I thought we had a parser that, while it could certainly be improved, was about as good as we d ever need for a gaming environment. After all, we weren t trying to understand all natural language, just present-tense imperative sentences. The only area where I would have liked to see continued improvement was in the area of talking to NPCs. But the main problem with making NPCs seem more deep and real wasn t due to parser limitations, it was just the sheer amount of work needed to give a character enough different responses to keep that character from seeming canned, even for a short while.
I personally loved and still love the text-based interface, both from a player and a game writer point of view. But I don t mind either reading or typing, and some people dislike one or the other or both, and that tended to limit our audience, especially as non-reading, non-typing alternatives proliferated. But I find the parser-based input interface to be by far the most powerful and flexible, allowing the user to at least try anything he/she can think of, and allowing the game writer to develop all sorts of puzzles that wouldn t be possible with a point-and-click interface. So many point-and-click adventure games became a matter of simply clicking every object in sight in every possible combination, instead of thinking through the puzzle.
What do you say to criticisms that the parser interface often proved more frustrating than intuitive, and that though the player may know what they want to do, he or she may have trouble finding the correct words for that action?
I think that s simply a poor parser. I can remember playing one Sierra game where there was what I thought was a horse on the screen, and I was trying to do all sorts of things with the horse, and it later turned out it was a unicorn. In those days, when the resolution was so grainy, I was simply not noticing the one pixel that indicated a horn. And so when I was saying stuff like, Get on the horse, it wasn t saying, There s no horse here, which would have tipped me off that maybe it was a unicorn . Instead it was responding with, You can t do that or something much less helpful. So to me, the fault wasn t that the game had a parser interface; the fault was that the game was not well written to begin with or well tested .
Certainly when someone sits down with even the most polished Infocom game, there tends to be, depending on the person, a one-minute or a half- hour period where they re kind of flailing and trying to get the hang of the syntax. But for most people, once they get past that initial kind of confusion, a well-written parser game isn t particularly frustrating. Even in the later Infocom games, we were starting to introduce some things that were really aimed at making that very initial experience less difficult: trying to notice the sorts of things that players did while they were in that mode, and make suggestions to push them in the right direction. The game would try to catch if they typed in an improper kind of a sentence, such as asking a question or using a non-imperative voice. It would try to notice if they did that two or three times in a row and then just say, The way to talk to the game is, and then give a few examples.
And I think that the really critical thing about the parser interface has nothing to do with typing, it is being able to use natural language for your inputs.
Did you ever feel limited by the Infocom development system?
The system was extremely powerful and flexible, and could grow to meet the need of a particular game fairly easily. A minor exception was any change that required a change to the interpreter. Every game sold consisted of the game component, which was machine independent, and an interpreter, which was a machine-specific program which allowed the game component to run on that particular microcomputer. Since there were twenty or more interpreters (one for the Apple II, one for the Mac, one for the DEC Rainbow, one for the NEC PC-800, et cetera) a change to the interpreter required not changing just one program, but changing twenty-plus programs. So that could only be done rarely or when it was extremely important, such as changing the status line in Deadline to display time instead of score and moves.
A more stringent limit was imposed by the desire to run on the widest possible array of machines, so we were always limited by the capabilities of the smallest and weakest of those machines. In the earliest days, the limiting machine was the TRS-80 Model 1, whose disk drive capacity limited the first games to an executable size of 78K. As older machines dropped off the to-be-supported list, this limit slowly rose, but even when I wrote HHGTTG , games were still limited to around 110K. Generally, this limit would be reached midway through testing, and then every addition to the game, to fix a bug or to handle a reasonable input by a tester, would require ever more painful searches for some text ” any text ” to cut or condense. At times, this was a good discipline, to write lean, to-the-point text. But often it became horrible and made us feel like we were butchering our own children. OK, that s a slight exaggeration.
How did the development process work at Infocom? Were you fairly free to choose what games you made?
In the early days, things were pretty informal, and decisions were made by fairly informal consensus. In the later days, particular after the acquisition by Activision, decisions were much more mandated by upper management. Generally, the choice of a game was left up to the individual author. Authors with more of a track record, like Dave Lebling and myself, had more leeway than a greenhorn implementor. Of course, there were marketing considerations as well, such as the strong desire to complete trilogies or the opportunities to work with a licensed property such as HHGTTG .
One thing that was standard over the whole seven-plus years that I was at Infocom was the Implementors Lunches, or, for short, Imp Lunches. These were weekly lunches at which the game writers would get together to talk about the games in development, share ideas, critique each other s work, et cetera. It was probably the most fun couple of hours of the week.
There wasn t too much oversight during the first few months of a game s life, while the implementor was working pretty much alone, other than at the Imp Lunches, any impromptu brainstorming, or requests for help/advice. But once the game went into testing, first among the other writers, then with the internal testing group, and then finally with outside beta testers, the game was under the microscope for months on end. During this time, bugs and suggestions would often run into the thousands.
How fluid and changing was the design of an Infocom game?
This varied from implementor to implementor. My own style was to do a little bit of on-paper design before starting, mostly in creating the geography and any background universe documents such as a time line in the case of Sorcerer , or the rules of the deserted planet s language in Planetfall . But for the most part I would just jump right in and start coding with most of the characters and puzzles living only in my head.
The Infocom development system was terrific , compared to the graphic-based systems I ve worked with since those days, because just the game writer working alone could implement an entire section of the game in only a couple of days, and then try it out and see how it worked. If it had to be scrapped because it wasn t working, it was no big waste of time or resources. This allowed for a lot of going back and rewriting big sections of the game, which is inconceivable nowadays, where such a decision might mean throwing away a hundred thousand dollars worth of graphics.
Was there a lot of playtesting on Infocom titles?
Lots of testing. Since the development system was quite stable during most of Infocom s life, the testing was able to concentrate on game-specific bugs and game content. There would ideally be about two weeks of pre-alpha testing where the other game writers would play a game, followed by two to three months of alpha testing with our in-house testers, followed by a month of beta testing with a couple of dozen outside volunteers. If time allowed, there was also a month of gamma testing, which was just like beta testing except that the idea was not to change a thing unless a really major problem was found.
Testing for both game-specific bugs and game content went on pretty much concurrently, although more heavily weighted toward content during the early days of testing and more toward bugs in the later days, when it became increasingly less desirable to make any significant changes to game content.
The early testing period was probably the most fun and exciting time in the game s development. For one thing, after months and months of working alone, not having any idea if a game was any good other than my own instincts , all of a sudden a bunch of people are playing the game, usually enjoying it, and giving tons of feedback. It s a real rush. Also, we had an auto-scripting feature where our network would automatically make a transcript of each player s sessions, which I could read to see what everyone was trying at every point, so I d often find things which were wrong, but which testers didn t necessarily realize were wrong. Or I d find things that they d tried which were reasonable attempts to solve the puzzle at hand and I d try to reward such an attempt with a clever response or with a hint, rather than just a default message like, You can t put a tablecloth on that.
It was during the testing period that games became great. Going into the testing period, the game was more like a skeleton, and the testing period, as one of our testers once said, put meat on the bones. Lots of the humor, the responses to wacky inputs, the subtle degrees of difficulty, the elimination of unfair puzzles ” these were all the products of Infocom s excellent testing group.
The packaging for Infocom games was really unique. Why did the company go above and beyond what so many other game publishers did?
When Infocom started, the standard for computer game packaging was something similar to a Ziploc bag. It was just a clear plastic bag with a Ziploc top and a hole to hang on a pegboard in stores; the bag would hold a floppy disk and an often cheaply photocopied manual. In fact, the early Radio Shack versions of Zork were in just such a package.
The original publisher of Zork I was a company in California called Personal Software. In fact, the product manager for the Zork line at Personal Software was Mitch Kapor, who went on to found Lotus. Shortly after they starting publishing Zork , Personal Software hit it big-time with a program called Visicalc, the first successful piece of business software for computers. They changed their name from Personal Software to Visicorp, and decided that they didn t want to waste their time dealing with games, and they gave Zork back to Infocom.
Rather than find a new publisher, Infocom decided to be its own publisher, and hired an agency to design the packages. The result was the blister pack packages for Zork I and Zork II , the first time such packages had been used for computer games. This is the type of package in which a clear piece of molded plastic is glued to a cardboard back, with the contents visible through the clear plastic, in this case the contents being the Zork manual with the disk out of sight behind it.
When it was time for the packaging design on Infocom s third game, Deadline , Marc Blank went to the agency with a series of out-of-print books from the 1930s, written by Dennis Wheatley. With names like Murder Off Miami and Who Killed Robert Prentiss? , the books were a portfolio of reports and clues, just like a police detective would be given when investigating a case: interviews with witnesses, typed letters , handwritten notes, railway tickets, newspaper clippings, a used matchstick, and lots more. The idea was that you were the detective, and after sifting through the evidence, you should decide who the murderer was and how they did it, and then open a sealed section of the book and see if you were right.
Marc was very influenced by those books in creating Deadline ” in fact the original working title was Who Killed Marshall Robner? ” and he wanted the agency to be very influenced by them in creating the packaging for Deadline . Marc wanted the player to feel like they were a detective being placed on a case from the moment they opened the package. Also, because of the strict limits on game size, having lab reports and suspect interviews in the package freed up space in the game for more interactive content. The Deadline package that resulted is very reminiscent of those Dennis Wheatley books, with a photo of the crime scene, interviews, fingerprints , lab analyses of things like the teacup found near the body, and even a bag of pills labeled Pills found near the body. Those were actually white-colored SweeTARTS.
The Deadline package was a huge hit, even though we charged $10 more for it, $50 MSRP instead of $40 MSRP. We decided that great packaging was fun, was a great value-added, was a great way to raise the bar and make it harder for new competitors to enter our market space, and most importantly, it was a way to discourage pirating of our games. It was more difficult and less cost effective to need to copy a bunch of package elements as well as the floppy disk. Also, because the packages were so neat and so integral to the experience of playing the game, many people wouldn t have felt they owned the game unless they owned the complete original packaging.
The next games were Zork III and Starcross . Zork III just went in a blister pack to match its brethren, but Starcross was placed in a large plastic flying saucer, along with an asteroid map of your ship s vicinity. This package, while problematic for some stores because of its size and shape, was phenomenally eye-catching and popular. Recently, a still-shrink-wrapped copy of Starcross in this original packaging sold for three thousand dollars on eBay.
My favorite package of all the ones that I worked on was LGOP , with its scratch n sniff card and 3D comic. The comic was a collaboration between me, a comic book artist, and a guy who specialized in translating conventional 2D comic drawings into 3D layers . For the scratch n sniff card, I got several dozen samples from the company that made the scents. Each was on its own card with the name of the scent. So one by one I had other Infocom employees come in, and I d blindfold them and let them scratch each scent and try to identify it. That way, I was able to choose the seven most recognizable scents for the package. It was a lot of fun seeing what thoughts the various scents triggered in people, such as the person who was sniffing the mothballs card and got a silly grin on his face and said, My grandmother s attic!
We, the implementors, had pretty wide latitude on the choice of package elements, as long as we stayed within budgetary parameters. But marketing often had good ideas too, suggesting that my idea for a book in Zork Zero become a calendar, and suggesting things like the creepy rubber bug in the Lurking Horror package. But most of the best ideas came from the writers.
The best package pieces were those that were designed in from the beginning of the game, rather than tacked on as an afterthought once the packaging process started in mid-alpha. Most other game companies had anti-piracy copy protection in their packages, but it was often completely obvious and mood-destroying, such as Type the seventh word on page 91 of the manual. With the better Infocom package elements, you never even realized that you were involved in an anti-piracy activity, because the package elements were so seamlessly intertwined with the gameplay. And, of course, in the all-text environments of our games, the package elements were a great way to add visual pizzazz to the game-playing experience.
There seems to have been a clear difference between Infocom games and the games the rest of the industry offered , especially in terms of a consistent level of quality. Why do you think this was? How was this quality maintained ?
Partly, it was the very early philosophy of Infocom, and even before Infocom, in the creation of Zork , which was to take a fun game, Adventure , but do it better. So there was always a strong desire to be the best. Also, partly it was because the people who made up Infocom were just a really smart and talented group of people. And partly it was luck. We had early success, so when we created each new game we could invest a lot of time and money into it, knowing that its sales would justify the investment, while many other companies couldn t assume that level of sales and therefore couldn t afford the same level of investment.
Our always improving development environment, parser, et cetera, was a big reason-for the high level of quality. The talented testing group, and the time we scheduled for testing, bug-fixing, and general improvement, was another big factor.
Did Infocom s consistent quality level allow it to weather the crash of the mid- 80s pretty easily?
The mid- 80s crash began with a crash on the video games side, and then spilled over into the PC market. Many companies had a mixture of video game and microcomputer SKUs, but Infocom was entirely in the PC market. Also, our games were as un-video-game-like as possible. Another reason why the mid- 80s slump had little effect on Infocom s game sales was that we were on so many machines, and we could quickly get onto any new computers that were released. For example, the Mac came out in early 1985, and our games were extremely successful on the early Macs. And, of course, the high quality helped, because during any slump it s always the schlocky products that die first.
To me, it seems that Infocom games are the only titles from the early 80s that don t seem at all dated. Why do you think that is?
Well, graphics from games in the early 80s look awful, but text just looks like text. So time is kinder to text adventures. And, as we ve already covered, the games were of a very high quality, which helps them hold up over time. And, once you ve eliminated technical obsolescence as an issue, ten to twenty years isn t a very long time for a creative work to age well or not well. Think about books, movies, TV shows, et cetera from the same period. Only a very few that were unusually topical would seem dated today, and Infocom games certainly weren t topical, with perhaps AMFV as a lone exception. And it s certainly not unusual for people to continue to enjoy the best works long after their creation: I Love Lucy is forty years old, Gone With the Wind is sixty years old, the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are eighty years old, Alice in Wonderland is one hundred fifty years old, and Shakespeare s plays are four hundred years old.
Did the Infocom team think that text adventures would be around forever?
We certainly thought they d evolve , in ways foreseeable and unforeseeable. While everyone had their own ideas, I d say that around 1985 a composite of the thinking at that point would be something like this: graphics will improve to the point that they re worth putting in adventure games, there will be a growing emphasis on story over puzzles, games and game- worlds will get larger, there will be more realistic, believable characters in adventure games, many people who have been successful storytellers in other media, such as fiction writers and movie auteurs, will gravitate toward adventure games as the storytelling medium of the future. Looking back, only the first of those points came to pass.
But despite anticipated changes, I think everyone thought that adventure games would be around indefinitely in some form. I don t think anyone thought that by the end of the century all forms of adventure games would be virtually defunct as a commercial game type.
It s interesting that books seem to be able to coexist alongside television and film. Why do you think text adventures cannot seem to do the same thing?
There is still a fairly vigorous marketplace for text adventure games. There are still people writing them and people playing them, it s just not an economic market. The people writing them are not writing them for pay, they re just writing them for the joy of it, and the people playing them are mostly not paying for the experience. And I think one thing that s similar between writing text adventures and writing books is that it tends to be a one-person operation, assuming that you use an existing text adventure writing system. One person without too much specialized training can go off and in a few months write a text adventure game, just like someone with a typewriter, word processor, or big stack of paper and a pen can go off and write novels .
Perhaps it s just a matter of scale, as you mentioned before. The total number of people interested in playing a computer game is just a lot less than the number of people interested in other, traditional, non-interactive media.
I think that s probably true, though I don t know the numbers offhand. But I imagine a best-selling book is probably not much more than a million copies or something. I seem to recall that at the time we did the game, an aggregate of the Hitchhiker s books had sold seven million copies, so maybe a couple of million each? And certainly the number of people who watch television is certainly dozens of times more than that.
The interface for the Spellcasting series was interesting. It allowed the games to function exactly like the Infocom text adventures, but then added the ability for the player to use only the mouse to play by clicking on the list of verbs, nouns, and so forth. What was the idea behind this new interface?
This interface came from the folks at Legend, particularly Bob Bates, who had begun working on this interface for his post-Arthur Infocom game The Abyss , based on the still, at the time, unreleased movie. The game was canceled when Infocom was shut down by Activision, and when Legend decided to start publishing their own adventure games, they continued developing that interface.
The impetus for the interface was not a particular feeling that this was a good/useful/friendly/clever interface for playing adventure games, but rather a feeling that text adventures were dying, that people wanted pictures on the screen at all times, and that people hated to type. I never liked the interface that much. The graphic part of the picture was pretty nice, allowing you to move around by just double-clicking on doors in the picture, or pick things up by double-clicking on them. But I didn t care for the menus for a number of reasons. One, they were way more kludgey and time-consuming than just typing inputs. Two, they were giveaways because they gave you a list of all possible verbs and all visible objects. Three, they were a lot of extra work in implementing the game, for little extra benefit. And four, they precluded any puzzles which involved referring to non-visible objects.
Also, the Spellcasting games went beyond Zork Zero by having full-on graphics. Did you make any changes to the way you wrote and designed your games as a result?
Not much. I think I could take any of my graphic-less Infocom games, get an artist to produce graphics for each room, and retrofit them into Legend s graphical engine. The menu-driven interface would be more problematic than the graphics. Conversely, all the games I did for Legend had a hot key which allowed you to turn off graphics and play them like a pure old-fashioned text adventure. So the graphics were always just an extra, not a mandatory.
In terms of the overall gameplay experience, what do you think was gained and lost by the addition of graphics to the text adventures?
There s the unending, passionate , almost religious argument about whether the pictures we create in our imagination based on a text description are far more vivid than anything created on even a high-resolution millions-of-colors monitor. My own feeling is that there are probably some people who create better images in their imagination , and some whose imaginations are pretty damn feeble. Still, the change resulted in adventure games moving in a somewhat lower-brow, less literary direction.
Second, there were some puzzles precluded by graphics. For example, puzzles that relied on describing something and letting players figure out what it was by examination and experimentation. An example from Zork I : the uninflated raft that isn t called that, it s called a pile of plastic. You have to examine it and find the valve and figure out to try using the air pump, and only then do you discover that it s a raft. In a graphical game, you d be able to see instantly that it was an uninflated raft.
Thirdly, and most importantly, graphics cost way way way more than text. As Brian Moriarty puts it, In graphic adventures, you have to show everything ” and you can t afford to show anything! As a result, graphic games have far fewer of everything, but most important, far fewer alternate solutions to puzzles, alternate routes through the game, interesting responses to reasonable but incorrect attempts to solve a puzzle, fewer humorous responses to actions, et cetera. In other words, graphic adventures have a whole lot less meat on the bones than the Infocom text adventures. You get a lot more of those infuriating vanilla responses, like, You can t do that or your character/avatar just shrugging at you.
How did Superhero League of Hoboken come about? Had you wanted to tackle that genre for a while?
Well, I d been wanting to make an RPG for many years, and at the time, the early 90s, RPGs were generally outselling adventure games. This was before the death of RPGs that lasted until the release of Diablo . But I thought that the usual Tolkienesque fantasy setting and trappings of RPGs had been done to death, and it occurred to me that superheroes was an excellent alternate genre that worked well with RPG gameplay, with superpowers substituting for magic spells.
I originally planned to make it a full RPG, but Legend had never done anything that wasn t a straight adventure game and were therefore nervous, so the only way I could convince them was to make it an RPG/adventure game hybrid.
It s the only superhero game I am aware of that was not dreadful. Why do you
think so few superhero games have been done?
I think that the dearth of superhero games is mostly a legal/licensing issue. Most companies probably feel that only one of the well-known superheroes is worth creating a game around, and such licenses are hard to come by. And even if a license is obtained, the cost of obtaining it means a lot less money in the development budget, which is why all licensed games, not just superhero games, are often so mediocre. I was able to get by with original content in Superhero League because it was a satire . I don t think I ever would have been able to convince Legend to do a straight superhero game in the same style and engine.
Superhero League is your only RPG. What made you want to try a game design in more of an RPG direction?
I enjoyed and still enjoy playing RPGs a lot, and I always try to make games that would be games I d enjoy playing myself if someone else created them. And I always prefer to do something that I haven t done before, whether it s a new genre as was the case here or a serious theme like AMFV or adapting a work from another medium like Hitchhiker s or a larger scale like Zork Zero . Of course, that s just my preference. Publishers often have other ideas!
The game seems to automatically do a lot of things for the player that other RPGs would require the player to do for themselves. Was one of your design goals to make the RPG elements very simple to manage?
Because it was an adventure/RPG hybrid, we guessed that a lot of the players would be RPG players who were pretty inexperienced with adventures, and a lot of the players would be adventure gamers who were pretty inexperienced with RPGs. So I tried very hard to make the puzzles pretty straightforward, and we tried to keep the interface as simple and friendly as possible, given the highly detailed nature of RPG interactions.
Superhero League of Hoboken seemed to be pretty popular. I was wondering why you haven t done another RPG since.
Well, it actually didn t sell all that well. I don t think it sold more than twenty, twenty-five thousand copies. And it was certainly pretty disappointing, because I spent somewhat longer on it, certainly longer than any of the other games I did for Legend. And it got quite good reviews, so the sales numbers were pretty disappointing. I think it was Accolade who distributed that, but at the time Legend was not doing all that well financially , so they didn t really do that great a job on the marketing side. As the publisher but not the distributor, their job was to handle all the advertising and PR, and they couldn t really afford to do all that much on either front. And Accolade as a publisher was certainly not as strong a publisher as someone like an EA might have been.
And I think something that really hurt Superhero League a lot was that the game was delayed about a year from its original release date. That was partly due to the delay of the previous games in the Legend pipeline ahead of it, and partly due to the fact that the game was trying to do some things that couldn t be done in the Legend development system, and this required some extra support. They hired a programmer to do that, and he kind of flaked out, and therefore it had to be rewritten by internal resources. So this served to delay the game, and it ended up coming out middle of 95 instead of middle of 94. And it was a regular VGA game. So, in the meantime, everything had become Super VGA. So by the time it came out it looked very dated. In fact, I remember another game that came out around the same time was Colonization . And I remember playing Colonization and being shocked at how awful it looked. I m sure the experience was very much the same for people looking at Hoboken for the first time.
So would you ever want to do another RPG?
Certainly a lot of the projects that I started working on at GameFX were role-playing games, but of course none of those came to fruition. I certainly very much enjoyed working on Hoboken and I like playing role-playing games, so I definitely wouldn t mind working on another one.
Hodj n Podj was certainly your most different game up to that point. Were you trying to appeal to a new audience with the game?
Well, I wasn t really trying to appeal to a new audience. As with all my designs the audience was basically me. I always just hope that there will be enough other people with the same likes as me to make the game a success.
The idea for Hodj n Podj was at least five years old when it finally became a real project. I originally conceived of the game as a way to bring back all those fun, simple games which had pretty much disappeared, because the hard-core gaming audience which was driving development decisions wouldn t be satisfied by such simple games. This, of course, was before those classic games became ubiquitously available via CD-ROM game packs and more recently via the Internet.
At the time, I felt that a collection of such games would need a framework to tie them together to make them an acceptable economic package, thus the overarching board game and fairy tale back-story/theme. Of course, in the meantime, many companies released game packs with no connecting theme or mechanisms, and did quite well with them. Still, I m very happy creatively with the decision to make the Hodj n Podj mini-games part of a larger structure.
It was only after the game was well into development that we began to suspect that it was going to appeal to a very different gaming audience. This was before the phrase casual gamers had really entered the industry vernacular. As outside testers, employees friends and family, et cetera, began playing early versions of the game, we were surprised to find it appealing to people who didn t normally like computer games. We were particularly pleased and surprised to find how much female players liked it. And finally, we discovered that the game was appealing to another niche that hadn t really been identified yet at that time, family gaming : that is, parents and children playing together. And, thanks to the difficult leveling mechanisms, parents could compete on a relatively level playing field with children, without having to play down to a child s level. It s still the only game I ve ever written that I ve been able to play myself for fun, and I still play with my kids every now and then.
How did The Space Bar project come about and what were your design goals for the project?
That s another idea that had been brewing for a long time. I think the genesis was actually back around 1986 or 87, when the New York Times threatened to sue Infocom because of our customer newsletter being called the New Zork Times . Our lawyer completely poo-pooed the threat, but when Activision began negotiating to buy Infocom, they insisted on all such clouds being removed, and thus we were forced to change the name of the newsletter. There was a naming contest open to customers, plus tons of discussions within the company, and the newsletter ended up being renamed The Status Line . But in the meantime, I suggested The Space Bar and giving the newsletter the ongoing fiction that it was being written by denizens of such a bar and populated with ongoing characters who were regulars in the bar. I m not sure exactly how, but at some point the idea made the leap from newsletter idea to game idea.
The main design goal for the project was to create an adventure game which was composed of a lot of smaller adventure games: a novel is to a short story collection as a conventional adventure game would be to The Space Bar . In addition to just a desire to want to try something different, I also felt (once again reflecting my own needs and wants in my game design) that people had increasingly scarce amounts of time, and that starting an adventure game required setting aside such a huge amount of time, many tens of hours. But if, instead, you could say to yourself, I ll just play this ˜chapter now and save the rest for later, it would be easier to justify picking up and starting the game. Secondary design goals were to create a spaceport bar as compelling as the one in the first Star Wars movie, to create a Bogart-esque noir atmosphere, to be really funny, and to prove that you could make a graphic adventure that, like the Infocom text games, could still have a lot of meat on the bones. As with Hodj n Podj , I felt that just a collection of independent games was too loose and required a connecting thread, thus the meta-story involving Alias Node s search for the shape-shifter, Ni Dopal. Empathy Telepathy was just a convenient device for connecting the short stories to the meta-story.
At the very beginning of the project, Rocket Science was really interested in synergies to leverage their projects in other media: movies, action figures, board games, books, et cetera. I suggested that a great companion project for The Space Bar would be to commission an anthology of short stories by SF writers, with each one selecting one of the characters/races we created for The Space Bar and writing an original story about that race or character. Thus, it wouldn t be a conventional novelization of the game but an interesting companion piece. But, despite initial enthusiasm on their part and repeated reminders on our part, Rocket Science never did anything about it.
Correct me if I m wrong, but it seems that The Space Bar was certainly your biggest budget project. Were you eager to work with such lavish production values?
Yes, it was more than twice the budget of Hodj n Podj , which was my largest budget up to that point. But it was still a relatively small budget compared to other graphic adventures of that time; Boffo was a pretty lean operation that really got a great deal of bang for Rocket Science s buck, and the same is true for our primary art subcontractor for the game, Dub Media.
Even though it was a big budget, it certainly wasn t lavish, because there was never nearly enough money to do everything we wanted to do, so we were always cutting corners. Just one example: Alias PDA was supposed to be an actual animated face, not just a disembodied voice. So in terms of what we wanted to do versus what we could afford to do, it was actually my most financially tight project. This is the big problem with graphic adventures, as discussed earlier, and the main reason why the medium is basically financially dead at this point.
But the project, while extremely stressful from a budgetary standpoint, was still a great time. Working with Ron Cobb as the conceptual artist was one of the real thrills of my career. The Space Bar team was the largest team I d ever directed, which, of course, goes hand in hand with it being the largest budget, and it s pretty exciting having so many people contributing because almost everyone contributes beyond their narrow areas of expertise/responsibility. And I felt that despite the cut corners we substantially met every design goal, which was quite gratifying.
What led you to WorldWinner.com?
After about a year of canceled projects at GameFX/THQ, I was looking to get out and was working with a recruiter, and she steered me toward WorldWinner. The individual games will be very reminiscent of the kind of games in Hodj n Podj , which was definitely one of the main attractions. Also, working in a multi-player online environment was a big lure, because I haven t done that before.
So do you think the Internet provides new possibilities for a wider breadth of games than is currently available?
Yeah, well I definitely think so in terms of providing an outlet for the more personal or more experimental kind of games. Other than that, for now, there are certainly negatives about it in terms of bandwidth. With the games I m doing now, while there are really interesting and really fun things about them, it s certainly kind of annoying to be back in the days where 100K is really big, and in some cases too big. I had gotten away from that as we got into the CD-ROM days, where the size of things became, in most cases, completely inconsequential, and now all of a sudden it s back in spades. But yes, overall, there are certainly positives and negatives , but overall the positives are very promising and the things that are negative about it, like there are certain kinds of games we can t do because of bandwidth ” well, people can still do those games via the normal, traditional channels.
Do you find writing or playing games more fun?
Playing. Writing games is sometimes a lot of fun, and sometimes a lot of drudgery, and sometimes it s really brutally painful, like when your company goes out of business. But playing games is always fun. Of course, the funnest parts of making games are more fun than the funnest parts of playing games.
So much writing in games is dreadful. What do you think is important to keep in mind when writing for a game?
All types of writing are different, and there are plenty of excellent novel writers who couldn t write a screenplay or vice versa. And writing for games is at least as different as those two. Of course, there are exceptions also. It helps to be a game player. You wouldn t expect a novelist to succeed as a screenwriter if he hadn t seen any movies! So a lot of the writing in games is bad because it s being written as though it is for another medium. Of course, some of the writing is bad just because the writers doing it are untalented. As with game design, programmers and producers often incorrectly feel that they re capable of doing the writing.
One thing that makes the writing in games so different is that it often comes in little-disconnected chunks , one-word or one-sentence responses to various actions by the player. There is a difficult trade-off between keeping such snippets interesting and keeping them terse. Also, writing has to be so meticulously crafted for gameplay and puzzle purposes ” give away just enough clues, not too many, don t mislead ” that the quality of the writing often has to take a backseat. And the non-linear nature of games is another obstacle to good writing. If you don t know whether Line A or Line B will come first, there often has to be a duplication of information, giving the appearance of being sloppy or overly wordy. And finally, there s the issue of repetition. In adventure games, you often see the same piece of writing over and over again, with familiarity breeding contempt for even very good writing.
How organic is the design process for your games? Did the onset of graphics end up limiting how much you could change your game?
Very organic, but you re right, graphics games are far more limiting in terms of how much the game can change once it gets beyond the original design stage. Of all my games, AMFV was probably the one that changed the most as the game s production progressed. Originally, it was a much more ambitious, much less story-oriented game, almost a future simulator where the player would be able to set parameters in the present and then travel n years in the future to see what world would result from those decisions.
I also think that development works best when the game grows during implementation, rather than mapping/plotting out the entire game to a fairly high detail level and then starting implementation. That is another big advantage of text adventures over graphic adventures. It allows me, in a game like LGOP or Hoboken, to find and then hone a voice/style while a lot of the game is still on the drawing board, resulting in better, more unified work.
A big issue for adventure games seems to have been difficulty. For instance, if the game is too hard, you are likely to frighten away new players. But if the game is too easy, the hard-core players will dismiss your game. Do you have any idea what a solution to this problem might be?
Difficulty was a constant problem. Our games got consistently easier, which didn t seem to help attract any new players, and definitely seemed to turn off our hard-core fans. Hint books and later in-game hints were definitely considered ways to keep the games pretty hard without discouraging newer , less sophisticated, less masochistic players. It s a pretty good solution, because if the game is too hard, hints can help make the game a good experience for a weaker player, but if the game is too easy it s pretty much ruined for a stronger player. Another solution is to have multiple difficulty levels, with more in-story clues in the easier levels, but this is obviously a lot more work to design, program, and balance.
A frequent complaint one sees about adventure games is that they don t have a lot of replay value. As a designer, what do you do to add that replayability, or do you not consider it a big issue?
Yes, that became increasingly a big issue as my games were competing not so much against other adventures and RPGs, but against strategy games like Civilization and RTS games like WarCraft. To some extent, you can have replayability in adventure games. For example, Suspended was an extremely replayable Infocom game, as you strove to finish the game with the lowest possible casualty levels. Even with Zork I , I remember a New Jersey couple who used to write to us constantly with new ways to win the game in ever-fewer numbers of moves. Alternate puzzle solutions and meat on the bones responses to wacky inputs are other ways to extend playtime. But for the most part, it s just a matter of making sure that it takes thirty or forty hours to play the game, and hoping that that s enough to get a person to spend forty or fifty dollars on it.
Did you ever want to forget about the puzzles and have a game that mostly focused on story? You seem to have done an all puzzles game with Hodj n Podj .
My desire, and I think this goes for most adventure games writers, is to do more story and less puzzle, but puzzle is necessary to keep that thirty- to forty-hour playtime goal. Of all my games, AMFV was certainly the most in the story direction, and Zork Zero was probably the most in the puzzle direction. I certainly don t agree that Hodj n Podj was all puzzles, as the board game certainly has a well-developed opening and closing story, and the gameplay fills in a little more between those bookends : prince rescues princess, prince confronts brother, et cetera.
Did you ever add puzzles to a game solely to make the game longer?
I have definitely added puzzles simply to prolong the gameplay. I d say the whole third section of AMFV was partly that, and partly feeling scared that the game was too different and too puzzle free and that people would rebel if at least there weren t some puzzles in the game. I think Planetfall and Stationfall were definitely cases where, as the game went into testing, there was kind of an impression that the game was too easy and over too quickly. Some more needed to be put in to keep people from finishing the game in ten hours and feeling that they hadn t gotten their money s worth.
Do you ever fear that some people who might like the story elements of adventure games are scared off by the really hard puzzles?
Well, it is kind of a conundrum , because it seems like what makes adventure games so compelling and obsessive are really difficult puzzles that have you up all night, thinking about them even when you re not sitting down playing the game. Then, when you re away from the game, you re thinking about it and all of a sudden Oh my God, the kumquat over in the hay shed seven rooms over, I ve never tried that! And you can t wait to run home and boot up the game to your save and run over to get the kumquat, bring it back, and try whatever. And maybe it works and it s the greatest feeling, or maybe it doesn t work and it s the worst feeling, or maybe it doesn t work but at least it gives you some new direction or hint or something. And in a game with no puzzles or pretty easy puzzles you just don t get that same rush. But, on the other hand, particularly as time went by, it seemed there were more and more people playing adventure games who really, really disliked very hard puzzles. It s very hard to satisfy both audiences. Attempting to satisfy the people more interested in the casual gaming experience seemed to, over time, dribble the audience away, because it resulted in a less compelling gameplay experience.
Did you also serve as a programmer on all of your games?
Through Hoboken , I did both design and programming, and since then just the design. I certainly prefer to avoid programming if possible; doing so was always just a necessary evil. Of course, it certainly has some great advantages in terms of efficiency and one hundred percent perfect communication between programmer and designer. But even if I loved programming, games these days are too complex for one programmer anyway, so I d never be able to do all the design and programming myself anymore.
In adventure games and, in particular, text adventures, limiting what the player can do is a major part of the game. Players can become frustrated from seeing you can t do that too often. How hard do you work to eliminate this problem?
Part of this is limiting the geography of the game. The original choice of setting helps. This is why so many games are set inside a geography with very well-defined boundaries like a cave, castle, island, zeppelin, et cetera. It s less frustrating to not even perceive a boundary than to reach a boundary and be told There s nothing interesting in that direction or You d probably die of thirst if you tried crossing that desert.
Part of it is just rolling up your sleeves and putting in as many non-default responses as possible, based on initial guesses of what people will try, augmented by suggestions from testers and even more ideas from reading the transcripts of testers game sessions. Adding such responses was only limited by time and, more often, by disk space. This was also a good way to put in hints; a player tries something which isn t the Right Answer but which is a Reasonable Thing to Try. I d make the response an explanation of the failure, but perhaps a clue for what to try. For example:
>GIVE THE SANDWICH TO THE OLD MAN
He looks too tired to eat right now.
And part of it is making the default responses as flexible and fun as possible. For example, in Hitchhiker s , the default response for the verb FILL was Phil who? Phil was Zaphod s alias during the party scene. For another example, in Zork I the default response to many impossible actions was chosen from a table, giving you a variety of responses.
So instead of:
loaf of bread: Taken.
loaf of bread: Taken.
knife : It s stuck firmly into countertop.
knife: It s stuck firmly into countertop.
countertop: You can t take that!
countertop: What a concept!
sink: You can t take that!
sink: Think again.
stove : You can t take that!
stove: Not bloody likely.
oven: You can t take that!
oven: Think again.
Do you have a particular starting point when creating a new game?
Varies from game to game. AMFV started with the game s theme/message. Sorcerer started with the complex time travel, meet-your-own-self puzzle and built from there. I ve explained earlier what the seed ideas were for Planetfall and The Space Bar . Generally, I don t do all of one thing before moving on to the next. I don t write the entire story line, and then start on the geography, and then when that s done start writing some puzzles. Instead, I ll rough out a story line, then design the core part of the geography, start populating it with characters and puzzles, refine the story line, add a new scene with resulting geography, add in the two puzzles I thought of in the meantime, combine two characters into a single character, add a couple more rooms to that Laboratory section of the game, add a new puzzle to flesh out the end-game, figure out why Esmerelda ran away from home in the first place, and so forth.
Why do you think that adventure games are so commercially unviable these days?
Simply, the cost-revenue model for the average adventure game is so far from being profitable that almost no publishers will touch them, since almost all publishing decisions these days are being made on a purely commercial rather than creative basis. It s just one of the most expensive types of games to make, and the top n adventure games sell less than the top n games in almost any other category.
Of course, it can be argued that the adventure game isn t dead, but has simply evolved into action/adventure games, e.g., Tomb Raider , and platform games, e.g., Mario , Crash . Personally, I don t consider any game that relies on even a relatively small degree of hand-eye coordination to fit the bill of an adventure game.
I suspect that a major technical innovation could revive the genre, but I don t know whether that will be a voice recognition interface, Turing-proof NPCs, 3D-surround-VR environments, or what.
It s particularly distressing when a well-budgeted game that everyone agrees is well done doesn t sell very well. In particular I m thinking of Grim Fandango .
Yes, Grim Fandango . I don t know the exact numbers, but I don t think it broke a hundred thousand. And that was everyone s pretty much unanimous choice for adventure game of the year. It was a wonderful game. I didn t think from a puzzle point of view it was that great, but from an art direction point of view it was probably the best adventure game I d ever seen.
It seems strange that adventure games used to be among the best-selling games, and now they don t sell well at all. Maybe my numbers are off...
No, that s really true. Around the time of the King s Quest games of the very late 80s and early 90s, they really were the best-selling genre at that time. And the Infocom adventure games, from circa 83 to 85 were too. There was a point when we had five of the top ten selling games for a given month.
So what happened to the players of adventure games?
Well, there are certainly genres that exist now that didn t even exist then. And there are other genres that may have existed then but have certainly come along quite a ways. So it may be that the people who were playing then liked an interactive experience, but they would have been playing the sort of games that are popular today if they could have then. And in 1985 there wasn t anything like a first-person shooter, there wasn t anything like a real-time strategy game.
It might be that there are still quite a few adventure game people out there but simply-that the critical mass of them has dropped a little bit to the point where the ones who are left can no longer support the same degree of game. An adventure game that would cost two million dollars to make now would require ten times as many people to be interested in it as an adventure game that might have cost two hundred thousand dollars fifteen years ago. And maybe the market has even doubled since then, but it hasn t gone up ten-fold. So it has dropped below the critical mass that would make that kind of game economically viable .
What has kept you interested in games for as long as you have been? Have you ever considered writing a novel or writing for other non-interactive media?
I have often considered writing a novel or screenplay, particularly at the most discouraging moments in my game writing career: canceled projects, a company going under, a game selling very poorly. But game writing has always paid the bills, so other writing projects would have to be a moonlighting thing, and with parenting and other outside interests there just isn t a lot of free time for non-paying writing. But any frustrations and unhappiness with making games has been completely on the business side; I ve never found the creative process of making games to be anything less than a blast. It s still a growing/developing medium, so it s pretty exciting to be helping to invent a new art form. Because the pay in the industry is relatively low, everyone you work with tends to be really motivated and love what they re doing, and it s just a pretty cool way to earn a living. For example, how many dads can give their kids T-shirts for a canceled WarCraft adventure game?
Steve Meretzky Gameography
Planetfall , 1983
Sorcerer , 1984
The Hitchhiker s Guide to the Galaxy , 1984
A Mind Forever Voyaging , 1985
Leather Goddesses of Phobos , 1986
Stationfall , 1987
Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz , 1988
Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls , 1990
Spellcasting 201: The Sorcerer s Appliance , 1991
Spellcasting 301: Spring Break , 1992
Leather Goddesses of Phobos II: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X , 1992
Superhero League of Hoboken , 1994
Hodj n Podj , 1995
The Space Bar , 1997
Tile City , 2000
Word Cubes , 2001
Hangmania , 2002
SwapIt! , 2003
Blockwerx , 2004
Triv! , 2004