Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rise and Fall of Infocom

My article was "Down from the Top of Its Game: The Story of Infocom, Inc. by Hector Briceno, Wesley Chao, Andrew Glenn, Stanley Hu, Ashwin Krishnamurthy, and Bruce Tsuchida. This article chronicles the rise and fall of Infocom from its rise by members from the MIT's Lab of Computer Science and their take off on the heels of it's very successful text-based game Zork. Also contributing to its success were developing an effective system for supporting new platforms, maintaining an engineering culture that excelled in writing games, and marketing its products to the right audience. However, when they tried to transform to business products and with a little bad luck, Infocom fell.

First, the authors give us a little timeline that shows the goings on in the company and the games that they were putting out, along with the economics as well.

Like I said before, the company started out with some LCS students at MIT creating this game Zork. Zork was a text-based game where the screen consisted of text and a command prompt. The player enters text to respond to the prompt and then the game returns with more text. This game was cool to players in that even though they couldn't see anything on the screen, they could picture the game playing out in their minds. In 1979, the MIT guys decided they wanted to work together outside of the lab and started their own company and their first objective was to make Zork available to the blossoming home computer market. The demographic of computer buyers worked out in Infocom's favor in that computers were expensive, so the buyers were wealthy and refined people who liked to read.

However, Infocom ran into many problems in getting their game to fit the memory specs of the personal computer. The authors go on to describe their Z-machine design which just went right over my head. The company was finally able to fit the game and really took off when the Apple II version sold 6000 copies. Then, they describe the company's culture which was very laidback and I got some laughs about the trial they held for the death of goldfish.

Going on the success of Zork, the company began coming out with more and more games. Marc Blank wrote Deadline, which was a mystery game. Dave Lebling wrote a science-fiction game called Starcross, and Amy Briggs wrote the first romance game aimed at women. Each game had to be different since it was only text-based. So it had to be new and have new puzzles. The games were made cheap and the company was turning huge profits. They were consistently at the top of the bestseller lists of computer software.

The games appealed to players because the brought the intellectual aspect of reading a novel with the puzzling nature of logic puzzles. Then, the authors go on to talk about Infocom's unique marketing strategies. After publishing unsuccessfully with a company called Personal Software, Infocom decided to do it themselves and repackaged all the games. Infocom also got into the published tips aspect as well selling books to help the gamers through puzzles.
Unfortunately, the downfall was not included in our reading.

I think that the article was an interesting read into how some of these game startups got started. And how the evolution of gaming started out without even graphics, but just text-based. It says something to the appeal of video games that these games were successful.


Jasun said...

As a former player of this style of game, it was interesting to read about the culture and development of the creating company. That said, I wish the reading had continued a little further. Also, I wonder about applying some of the lessons learned to the current marketing landscape and the companies of today. Have any lessons been learned, or are they still making the same mistakes?

Adrian said...

I enjoyed the story of the creation of Zork, largely because I loved the Infocom style games of yore. I do, strongly recommend that people try playing the Hitch-hiker's game, as it is so much fun (or at least I think so).

Seeing the background place from which it came was especially interesting to me, especially when thinking about Eliza, and the technical limitations of creating a verb-noun/language parsing program. Good stuff.

Nick S said...

I really enjoyed this article. Like I said in class I had Zork for the IIgs but didn't play it because the nintendo was far cooler. Graphics vs text to a little kid is not a fair fight. I found it amazing in the picture they had of the top selling games that zork was number 1 with games like frogger behind it.

Marlon Heimerl said...

As I mentioned in class, these text based games, such as Zork, represent a refreshingly simple game idea for me, that I found constantly stimulating my imagination and leading me to guess what came next. So much of the video game industry today revolves around cutting edge graphics and in my opinion, misses the bus in terms of content. Though the content in these games is not entirely innovative or incredible, it does stimulate the brain on a level that I think all entertainment media should aspire for.

Sarah. R. said...

I was a kid obsessed with Infocom. My current profile pic on Facebook is me sitting in front of my Commodore 64,playing Deadline. The Invisiclues cluebook is visible.

It's really interesting to me that where the company floundered was with a product much more "legitimate" than games. Maybe they should have stuck with the tried and true, although the era of text-based games was really coming to an end, anyway.

Anonymous said...

In class was my first experience with a game such as Zork. The only other sort of experience I have with this format are the books that present decisions to its readers. Not being brought up on such games I would probably have a hard time enjoying playing them. I'm glade to have had the opportunity in class to experience the text based games and how they appeal to the "intellectuals," but the lack of visual aesthetics deters me.