Infocom was a software company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that produced numerous works of interactive fiction. They also produced one notable business application, a relational database called Cornerstone. Infocom was founded on June 22 1979 by MIT staff and students led by Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Albert Vezza, and Joel Berez and lasted as an independent company until 1986 when it was bought by Activision. Activision finally shut down the Infocom division in 1989, although they released some titles in the 1990s under the Infocom Zork brand.
Infocom was well-known among game-players for the parser
which allowed the user to type complex instructions to the game. Unlike earlier works of interactive fiction, which only understood commands of the form 'verb noun' (e.g. "get apple"), Infocom's parser could understand commands like "get all apples except the green apple from the barrel." Infocom games were written using a roughly LISP
-like programming language called ZIL
(Zork Implementation Language or Zork Interactive Language--it was referred to as both) that compiled into a byte code
able to run on a standardized virtual machine
called the Z-machine
. As the games were text based and used variants of the same Z-machine interpreter, the interpreter had to be ported to new computer architectures
only once per architecture, rather than once per game. Thus, Infocom was able to release most of their games for most popular home computers
of the day simultaneously—the Apple II family
, Atari 800
, IBM PC compatibles
, Amstrad CPC
(one disc worked on both machines), Commodore 64
, Commodore 128
, Kaypro CP/M
, Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
, the Mac
, Atari ST
, the Commodore Amiga
and the Radio Shack TRS-80
. The company was also known for shipping creative props, or "feelies
" (and even "smellies"), with its games.
Inspired by Colossal Cave, Marc Blank and Dave Lebling created what was to become the first Infocom game, Zork, in 1977 at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science. Despite the development of a revolutionary virtual memory system that allowed games to be much larger than the average personal computer's normal capacity, the enormous mainframe-developed game had to be split into three roughly equal parts. Zork I was released originally for the TRS-80 in 1980 and eventually sold more than a million copies across several platforms. It is notable that although Microsoft released a cheap version of Adventure with its initial version of MS-DOS 1.0 for IBM PCs, Zork I was still a popular seller for the PC, thanks to the superior quality of its writing and packaging.
Lebling and Blank each authored several more games and additional game writers (or "Implementors") were hired, notably including Steve Meretzky. Other popular and inventive titles included the rest of the Zork series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and A Mind Forever Voyaging.
In its first few years of operation, text adventures proved to be a huge revenue stream for the company. Whereas most computer games of the era would achieve initial success and then suffer a significant drop-off in sales, Infocom titles continued to sell for years and years. Employee Tim Anderson said of their situation, "It was phenomenal—we had a basement that just printed money.
Three components proved key to Infocom's success: marketing strategy, rich storytelling and feelies. Whereas most game developers sold their games mainly in software stores, Infocom also distributed their games via bookstores. Since their games were text-based, patrons of bookstores were drawn to the Infocom games as they were already interested in reading. Unlike most computer software, Infocom titles were distributed under a no-returns policy, which allowed them to make money from a single game for a longer period of time.
Next, Infocom titles featured strong storytelling and rich descriptions, eschewing the day's primitive graphic capabilities, allowing users to use their own imaginations for the lavish and exotic locations the games described. Infocom's puzzles were unique in that they were usually tightly integrated into the storyline, and rarely did gamers feel like they were being made to jump through one arbitrary hoop after another, as was the case in many of the competitors' games. The puzzles were logical but also required close attention to the clues and hints given in the story, causing most gamers to keep copious notes as they went along.
Sometimes, though, Infocom threw in puzzles just for the humor of it—if the user never ran into these, they could still finish the game just fine. But discovering these early Easter Eggs was satisfying for some fans of the games. For example, one popular example was in the Enchanter game, which involved collecting magic spells to use in accomplishing the quest. One of these was a summoning spell, which the player needed to use to summon certain characters at different parts of the game. At one point the game mentions the "Implementers" who were responsible for creating the land of Zork. If the player tried to summon the Implementers, the game would suddenly produce a vision of Dave Lebling and Marc Blank at their computers, surprised at this "bug" in the game and working feverishly to fix it.
Third, the inclusion of "feelies"—imaginative props and extras tied to the game's theme—provided some copy protection against pirating. Some games were unsolvable without the extra content provided with the boxed game. And because of the cleverness and uniqueness of the feelies, users rarely felt like they were an intrusion or inconvenience, as was the case with most of the other copy-protection schemes of the time.
Although Infocom started out with Zork, and although the Zork world was the centerpiece of their product line throughout the Zork and Enchanter series, the company quickly branched out into a wide variety of story lines: fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, horror, historical adventure, children's stories, and others that defied categories. In an attempt to reach out to females, Infocom also produced Plundered Hearts, which required the gamer to take the part of a heroine in a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, and which required the heroine to use more feminine tactics to win the game, since hacking-and-slashing was not a very lady-like way to behave. And to compete with the Leisure Suit Larry style games that were also appearing, Infocom also came out with Leather Goddesses of Phobos in 1986, which featured "tame", "suggestive", and "lewd" playing modes, and that was notable for including among its "feelies" a "scratch-and-sniff" card with six odors that corresponded to six cues during the game.
Many of the games' puzzles proved too difficult for some players. Since only a few computer users at the time had access to online communities such as CompuServe
and the The Source
, Infocom was regularly flooded with phone calls from customers pleading for hints to solving game puzzles. Due to this, Mike Dornbrook
created the Zork User's Group
(ZUG) to handle a typewritten "pay-per-hint" service. He also started Infocom's customer newsletter called The New Zork Times
to discuss game hints and preview and showcase new products. (After the threat of a lawsuit by the New York Times
, the newsletter's name was later changed to The Status Line
, a reference to an informational feature provided the player in every Infocom game.)
The pay-per-hint service eventually led to the development of InvisiClues: books with hints, maps, clues and solutions for puzzles in the games. The answers to the puzzles were printed in invisible ink that only became visible with a special marker that was provided with each book. Usually, two or more answers were given for each question that a gamer might have. The first answer would provide a subtle hint, the second a less subtle hint, and so forth until the last one gave an explicit answer. Gamers could thus reveal only the hints that they absolutely needed to have to play the game. After playing the game, a typical player might then uncover the rest of the hints because they were frequently humorous.
For example, the original hint book for Enchanter had the following questions:
- Is Enchanter really Zork IV?
- Is the sky green?
- Does a bear build laser weapons in the woods?
- Will there be a sequel to Enchanter?
- Zork V. (which turned out to be Sorcerer)
To prevent the mere questions (printed in normal ink) from giving away too much information about the game, a certain number of misleading fake questions were included in every InvisiClues book.
Because of the clever use of hidden clues and Infocom's trademark humor, the sale of InvisiClues proved incredibly lucrative—even players who didn't need the hints would buy the books for post-game enjoyment. The books' sales consistently filled computer book best seller lists until the list developers were forced to combine all InvisiClues sales into one number, which simply assured that it would almost always occupy the topmost position.
In the Solid Gold line or re-releases InvisiClues were integrated into the game. By typing "HINT" twice the player would open up a screen of possible topics where they could then reveal one hint at a time for each puzzle, just like the books.
Infocom also released a small number of "interactive fiction paperbacks" (gamebooks
), which were based on the games and featured the ability to choose a different path through the story. Every couple of pages the book would give you the chance to make a choice, such as which direction you wanted to go or how you wanted to respond to another character. You would then choose one of the given answers and turn to the appropriate page. These books, however, never did sell particularly well, and quickly disappeared from the bookshelves.
In 1984 Infocom started putting resources into a new division to produce business products. In 1985 they released a database
, aimed at capturing the then booming database market for small business. Though this application was hailed upon its release for ease of use, it sold only 10,000 copies; not enough to cover the development expenses. The program failed because, although it was packaged in a slick hard plastic carrying case and was a very good database for personal and home use, it was originally priced at $495 per copy and used copy-protected disks. Another serious miscalculation was that the program did not include any kind of scripting language, so it was not promoted by any of the database consultants that small businesses typically hired to create and maintain their DB applications. Reviewers were also consistently disappointed that Infocom—noted for the natural language syntax of their games—did not include a natural language query ability, which was the most expected feature for this database. And a final disappointment was that Cornerstone
was available only for IBM PCs
and not any of the other platforms that Infocom supported for their games; while Cornerstone
had been programmed with its own virtual machine for maximum portability, that feature had become essentially irrelevant.
Whereas Infocom's games had benefited significantly from the portability offered by running on top of a virtual machine, this strategy did not prove to be a significant advantage for Cornerstone
; in fact, the virtual machine significantly slowed the database's execution speed. Most businesses were moving to the IBM PC platform by that time, so portability was no longer a significant differentiator. Infocom had sunk much of the money from games sales into Cornerstone
; this, in addition to a slump in computer game sales, left the company in a very precarious financial position. By the time Infocom removed the copy-protection and reduced the price to less than $100, it was too late, and the market had moved on to other database solutions.
And finally, the game market itself was shifting into graphic games. The 1990s, though, were a turbulent time for graphics development, as the computer industry was collapsing, with long-time computer makers such as Tandy/Radio Shack, Atari, and Commodore/Amiga disappearing, and the PC and Macintosh markets were fighting for dominance. Development of graphics technology was very aggressive during this time, which made it very expensive and risky to create cutting-edge, high-performance graphics, and many companies came and went in this period. Many people were buying new, more powerful computers expressly for games, and the days were long-gone when people would be satisfied with simple vectored line drawings, such as those that made the Wizardry games famous, or with the blocky graphics that were used in Sierra Entertainment's King's Quest games. Gamers in particular were most unforgiving when the graphics did not live up to their expectations. In this climate, Infocom's history of text-based adventures and story-centered gaming did not help much in making the transition to graphics.
A lack of offers for the company led to a reverse triangular merger
on 13 June 1986. This turned out to be the beginning of the end for Infocom. While relations were cordial between the two companies at first, the departure of Jim Levy
from Activision left Bruce Davis
in charge. Davis believed that his company had paid too much for Infocom and initiated a lawsuit against them to recoup some of the cost. Furthermore, he made a string of poor, heavy-handed decisions that made Infocom unprofitable. For example:
- Davis demanded they use Activision's packaging plant instead of their own in-house one, raising the cost of each package from $0.45 to over $0.90. In addition, the Activision plant made numerous mistakes in packaging where the Infocom one almost never did.
- Infocom had a successful marketing approach that kept all their games in store inventories for years. Because of this, older titles' sales often kept pace with sales of newer games. For example, because Zork was available for years after its initial release in 1980, it continued to top charts in sales well into the mid-1980s. Activision preferred to market Infocom's games the way they marketed their other titles: replacing older titles with newer ones. While this made sense for the graphically intensive games that made up the rest of Activision's catalog, since Infocom games were text based, it didn't make sense - the newer games didn't have improved text. This marketing approach cut off potential revenue for numerous Infocom titles that had consistently brought in money for several years.
- Davis demanded the struggling developer must produce eight titles a year. Infocom had traditionally produced about four games per year with more staff than they currently had.
- Davis pushed Infocom to release more graphical games, but the one they did release, Fooblitzky, bombed. This was, in part, due to Infocom's long-standing rule of maximum portability; a game that could display graphics on a number of different systems couldn't take advantage of the strengths of any of them.
- The cost of acquisition was amortized by deducting it from Infocom's operating revenue during the next several years. Of course this accounting made it difficult for Infocom to show a profit.
Rising costs and falling profits due to these changes and other botched ventures caused Activision to finally pull the plug on Infocom in 1989. For a few years, Activision continued to market Infocom's classic games in collections (usually by genre, such as the Science Fiction collection); in 1991, they published The Lost Treasures of Infocom
, followed in 1992 by The Lost Treasures of Infocom II
. These two compilations featured nearly every game produced by Infocom before 1988. (Leather Goddesses of Phobos
was not included in either bundle, but could be ordered via a coupon included with Lost Treasures II
.) In 1996, these were followed by Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom
, a single CD-ROM which contained the works of both collections combined. This release, however, was missing The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy
because the licenses from Douglas Adams and James Clavell
's estate had expired.
Titles and authors
- The Zork series:
- The Planetfall series:
- Deadline (1982, Marc Blank)
- Starcross (1982, Dave Lebling)
- Suspended: A Cryogenic Nightmare (1983, Michael Berlyn)
- Infidel (1983, Michael Berlyn)
- The Witness (1983, Stu Galley)
- Cutthroats (1984, Michael Berlyn & Jerry Wolper)
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1984, Steve Meretzky & Douglas Adams)
- Seastalker (1984, Stu Galley & Jim Lawrence)
- Suspect (1984, Dave Lebling)
- A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985, Steve Meretzky)
- Wishbringer: The Magick Stone of Dreams (1985, Brian Moriarty)
- Ballyhoo (1986, Jeff O'Neill)
- Hollywood Hijinx (1986, "Hollywood" Dave Anderson)
- Leather Goddesses of Phobos (1986, Steve Meretzky)
- Moonmist (1986, Stu Galley)
- Trinity (1986, Brian Moriarty)
- Border Zone (1987, Marc Blank)
- Bureaucracy (1987, Infocom & Douglas Adams)
- The Lurking Horror (1987, Dave Lebling)
- Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It (1987, Jeff O'Neill)
- Plundered Hearts (1987, Amy Briggs)
- Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels (1988, Bob Bates)
- Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur (1989, Bob Bates)
- James Clavell's Shogun (1989, Dave Lebling)
- Journey (1989, Marc Blank)
- Graphic Adventures
- BattleTech Games
- Other Games
- Lane Mastodon vs. the Blubbermen (1988, Steve Meretzky)
- Gamma Force in Pit of a Thousand Screams (1988, Amy Briggs)
- ZorkQuest: Assault on Egreth Castle (1988, Elizabeth Langosy)
- ZorkQuest II: The Crystal of Doom (1988, Elizabeth Langosy)
- The Zork Trilogy (1986; contained Zork I, Zork II & Zork III)
- The Enchanter Trilogy (1986; contained Enchanter, Sorcerer & Spellbreaker)
- The Lost Treasures of Infocom (1991; contained 20 of Infocom's interactive fiction games)
- The Lost Treasures of Infocom II (1992; contained 11 interactive fiction games)
- The Zork Anthology (1994; contained Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Beyond Zork & Zork Zero)
- Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom (1996; contained 33 Infocom games plus six winners of the SPAG Interactive Fiction Contest not affiliated with Infocom)
- Zork Special Edition (1997; contained Zork I, Zork II, Zork III, Beyond Zork, Zork Zero, Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis, and Planetfall)
- Zork Classics: Interactive Fiction (2000)
- The Zork Legacy Collection (2002; contained The Zork Anthology, Return to Zork, and Zork Nemesis)
With the exception of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
, the copyrights to the Infocom games are believed to be still held by Activision. Dungeon
, the mainframe precursor to the commercial Zork trilogy, is generally assumed to be in the public domain and is available from The Interactive Fiction Archive as original FORTRAN
source code, a Z-machine
story file and as various native source ports. Many Infocom titles can be downloaded via the Internet
, but only in violation of the copyright. There are currently at least four Infocom sampler and demos available from the IF Archive as Z-machine
story files which require a Z-machine interpreter
to play. Interpreters are available for most computer platforms, the most widely used being the Frotz
, and Nitfol
Five games (Zork I, Planetfall, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Wishbringer and Leather Goddesses of Phobos) were re-released in Solid Gold format. The Solid Gold versions of those games include a built-in InvisiClues hint system.
A Mind Forever Voyaging and all subsequent games have the "Oops" feature. If you write a sentence and you accidentally misspell a word and the game does not know the misspelled version of the word, you can type oops (your word) instead of retyping the whole sentence. The feature also appears in the Solid Gold releases.
- 69,105, a number commonly found as an in-joke in many Infocom titles.
- Infocom company profile from MobyGames
- Infocom Documentation Project - Group working with Activision's permission to recreate manuals for Infocom games in PDF and text formats.
- "Interactive Text In An Animated Age: Infocom Faces The Challenge" article, an interview with Joel Berez and Marc Blank from Compute! magazine in January 1988.
- Infocom-IF.org, Infocom history, authors, etc; often updated with any news from Activision
- Infocom Fact-sheet - Contains extensive information on various releases including different versions and packaging. Also includes a timeline of Infocom.
- INFOCOM Homepage by Peter Scheyen—An enthusiast's home page, containing, among many other resources, a timeline of Infocom's founding, releases and eventual dissolution.
- Down From the Top of Its Game: The Story of Infocom, Inc.—A report from MIT which offers a very detailed examination of Infocom's creative successes and marketing failures.
- The Infocom Gallery with photos of all game boxes, feelies, instruction manuals and extra game contents
- Covers of the Infocom boxes
- Online java version of various Infocom games
- Dungeon source code at The Interactive Fiction Archive
- ZDungeon Z-machine story file port from the original Dungeon MDL source code, at The Interactive Fiction Archive
- Infocom Sampler & Demo Z-machine story files, at The Interactive Fiction Archive
- Milliways: Infocom's Unreleased Sequel to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
- [news://rec.arts.int-fiction rec.arts.int-fiction] with discussion of IF design
- [news://rec.games.int-fiction rec.games.int-fiction] with discussion of IF reading/playing