By: Lothian

Is a picture worth a thousand words? Back in late 1976 when the first meeting of the founders of what would eventually become Infocom took place, this was not the case. A new programming language developed by the MIT Dynamic Modelling Group (DM) called Muddle (MDL) had just been completed and four ambitious programmers were out to take full advantage of it. Their names were: Marc Blank, Bruce K. Daniels, Tim Anderson, and Dave Lebling; their first programming venture: Zork.

Infocom was founded by 10 members from DM consisting of Tim Anderson, Joel Berez, Marc Blank, Mike Broos, Scott Cutler, Stu Galley, Dave Lebling, J. C. R. Licklider, Chris Reeve, Al Vezza. The Zork project was completed for mainframe use in February of 1979 and shipped in November 1980 by Personal Software Inc. for DEC PDP-11 machines running ITS; The dawn of computer gaming was upon the general populous with this tiny text-based adventure game.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire begins with the epic lines:

“You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.”

From there the adventure continues. Zork started the text based adventure game trend on over 25 different platforms. Infocom had its problems with Personal Software Inc. almost immediately and by October 1981, they went their separate ways and Infocom bought all the Apple][ versions back from PS. The following month, Infocom released Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz; the continuation of the original Zork. Using the same parser as the previous Zork (and the following Zork, Zork III: The Dungeon Master released in September 1982), the text-based action continues as the story behind the trilogy unfolds.

September of 1982 also saw the release of another Infocom title: Starcross. Although this title followed in the traditional Infocom text-based adventure style, the setting was different from the previous three Zork titles. Starcross was set in space in the year 2186. The game unfolded as you, a quantum black hole miner, proceed into the depths of space searching for a bonanza. Along the way, you rendezvous with a gargantuan alien space craft and must infiltrate the ship and accept a challenge that was issued thousands of years ago.

By early 1983, Infocom had established itself as a household name and continued to crank out superb titles, each with a richer and more detailed story than the last. Over the twelve months that made up 1983, Infocom released five titles: Suspended, The Witness, Planetfall, Enchanter and Infidel. The most successful of the five proved to be Enchanter and inevitably spun-off into a trilogy, including Sorcerer (March 1984) and Spellbreaker (October 1985). The Enchanter trilogy added the fantasy genre to Infocom’s mainly adventure based titles. As a result, the game authors diversified the storylines and started to release different styles of games at the same time. This was most evident during 1984, where another five Infocom titles hit the market: Sorcerer, Seastalker, Cutthroats, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Suspect. Seastalker placed you in the middle of the ocean on a rescue mission to a vessel that had just been attacked by a sea monster. Cutthroats has you diving for lost treasure and meeting some of the most well developed NPCs in an Infocom game. This was a lot harder to accomplish in the pre-graphics era of computer gaming and the Infocom authors should be commended on their fabulous composition in these games. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reverted back to the pure adventure genre with you playing Arthur Dent, a rather ordinary Earth denizen. The Infocom authors flexed a new creative muscle with this title making the comedic undertones much more prevalent than in any other title. Following this game, Infocom branched out into a new gaming genre: Comedy. The final game of 1984, Suspect, again showed a turn in the Infocom style, this time towards mystery. As a newspaper reporter at a fancy Hollywood gala, you are framed for murder and have but a few hours to uncover the details; You must work fast though since the murderer is in your midst, laughing behind your back.

Infocom had made it halfway through the decade and things were looking up. They reached a record 100 employees in June and had attained revenues of over $10 million. To promote their newest title: Suspect, for the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show, Infocom rented a mansion and invited 5000 guests to be murder suspects. Only three titles made it to store shelves by the end of 1985: Wishbringer, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Spellbreaker. Wishbringer: The Black Stone of Dreams has you as a postal worker who delivers a strange package to a magic shop. Upon arrival, you discover that the curator, an old woman, has had her cat kidnapped by “the evil one”. Your quest leads you down a path that eventually climaxes with a battle between good and evil. A Mind Forever Voyaging twists back to the sci-fi genre where the hero is the first sentient machine who must save the present by entering into the future.

Infocom was now one of the most successful releasers of entertainment software on the market. They were, in the early 80's, the Microsoft of computer games. Activision had noticed this and on February 19, 1986, the directors of Infocom and Activision met to discuss a merger. This took place four months later on June 13, 1986. The merger didn’t slow Infocom down any and over the course of that year, another six titles were released: Ballyhoo, Fooblitzky, Trinity, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Moonmist and the Enchanter Trilogy. Again, Infocom had produced a myriad of different game styles: Ballyhoo takes place at a circus, Trinity has you as a tourist in London, Leather Goddesses of Phobos places you back in space; Moonmist, despite its name, places you back in England but this time as a detective.

The tides were now turning for Infocom; between 1987-89, Infocom was reporting losses of $200,000 per fiscal quarter. Although the company was taking a beating financially, 1987 saw the most Infocom releases of any previous year, including the Zork Trilogy and solid gold releases of Zork I and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This was a good year for comedies: Hollywood Hijinx and Bureaucracy were released a month apart and Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It hit the shelves in September. Sci-Fi and Mystery continued with Stationfall and The Lurking Horror repectively and Plundered Hearts, Border Zone and Beyond Zork continued the adventure genre. Beyond Zork was a breakthrough game, stylistically for Infocom since it featured the first graphics in any of their titles: an on-screen map. Although by 1987, this was not revolutionary to the gaming scene it was a big step for the company.

Two years were left in the decade and Infocom was finally changing their tried-and-true development style. The first release of 1988 was Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels took a bold new step by including 15 sound files with the game. The text-based silence of Infocom titles had finally been shattered. However, the new releases were starting to wane and Infocom decided to release gold versions of: Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Planetfall and Wishbringer. New releases did include Lane Mastodon and Gamma Force which did poorly but ZorkQuest and ZorkQuest II did better. By now Infocom was down to 30 employees but they did produce one phenomenal title: Zork Zero, the first Infocom title to use bitmap graphics. In late 1988, in collaboration with Activision, BattleTech was released.

By 1989, only five employees remain but three final titles manage to infiltrate the market: Shogun, Journey and Arthur. All three maintained the bitmap graphics style set by Zork Zero but with only five employees, the end was near. Most software developers saw the end coming since graphical adventure games had been on the market ever since On-Line Systems (Sierra On-Line) first released Mystery House in 1980. Whether it was pure stubbornness or just selling nostalgia, Infocom decided against graphics until near the end and inevitably faced the consequences. The fall of Infocom brought an end to the text-based adventure era for personal computers and ushered in the wave of graphical adventure games. All the Infocom titles are now available through Activision on one disc called Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces.

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