(NOTE: The text in this article was entered by Peter Scheyen and premission was given for it to appear here)

Very few games get reviewed in magazines or journals outside the specalist computer press like ZZap! You won't find many platform game reviews in The Times or Punch. But you could find an Infocom review. Infocom started working in the late seventies, formed out of an Artificial Intelligence development team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and grew rapidly into the most respected software house in the world.
Pencil Picture

Four Minds - Forever Voyaging

Little is known about the teams and individuals that develop the games. Infocom don't exactly advertise their products lavishly. And usually, only one or two titles per year are introduced. So, arrangements were made to allow me to chat to four of the people behind the myth to find out just what makes this unique organisation tick.

The usual convoluted phoning arrangements had to be made, timing had to be compatible (which it nearly wasn't as I got the time zone for Massachusetts wrong) and ZZAP! Towers had to be clinically sealed to provide the necessary tomb like silence required for our hypersensitive taping equipment (that almost makes it sound good). Despite attempts to have everything arranged properly, there was the inevitable last minute panic. All was well, in the end. This is what transpired..

by Sean Masterson.


First on the line was Dave Lebling. He helped explain how the company came into existence. 'Well, I was one of the people who helped found the company. There were a bunch of us working at MIT, now called the Laboratory of Computer Science, and we had this frightful idea that we were a pretty clever bunch of people. So we actually founded the company before we knew what we were going to do with it. Only later did we decide to do computer games.

'We were working on all sorts of things. For the ten years before the company took off, we worked on things which were artificial intelligence related, office products etc. We really did a variety of different activities.'

Dave went on to describe how the first Infocom titles came about. 'Well, we saw the original adventure game, the one that was written by Don Woods and Will Crowther, often referred to as Colossal Cave/Adventure. We really were quite excited by it but at the same time, we thought it had some limitations and decided to write a similar sort of game but better! So we did.

'It was written on and off, over a period of about six months to a year. The original version, the very smallest part, was done fairly quickly. But we kept adding. So substantially, what you see today is Zork I, II and III. It was written as one piece first and then split up into a trilogy. When we split it up, we added a lot of new material. Maybe, I don't know, a couple of K for each of the games. Zork I was all original material. Zork II had new characters and so on

'The first machine for which the game was released was the TRS 80!. In fact at the time,
Zork 1 logo (24K)
the only candidate machines were that and the Apple. Possibly the Atari as well. What we did, this requires going into our technology a little bit, when we first designed our system, we designed so that we could easily transport our games from one machine to another. Most of the code could remain unchanged. Only a small section, maybe 5 or 10K would have to be changed. In fact, when you're talking about machines with a similar architecture, like the Apple and the Atari, the changes would be even smaller.

'So planning for other machines was part of our design right from the very beginning because we realised that this was going to be a very rapidly changing market and we didn't want to have to spend a year doing each conversion. That's why each of our games on that part of our series called Interactive Fiction is simultaneously released.

'The first game I worked on after Zork I and Zork II was Starcross, which was a science fiction game ... and a little bit on Zork III. Then Enchanter, after that; then Suspect and most recently, last year, Spellbreaker, concluding the trilogy we started with Enchanter.'

Many people have said that of all the Infocom games, Starcross is the most difficult. So where did Dave get the inspiration for such a masterpiece? 'I've probably read hundreds, more likely thousands of science fiction books, stories magazines etc. I've always been interested. Starcross was really a homage to a cross between Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and various Larry Niven stories. The Niven connection is in the fact that there are a variety of essentially friendly aliens, strange devices and particularly the stepping discs. The red and blue stepping discs that feature in a large number of problems are based on the stepping discs from Larry Niven's Known Space stories.'

But as Dave added, Enchanter was very different to other games at the time because of its complex magic system. 'Well, that comes from fantasy -- reading fantasy as opposed to science fiction! Really, Enchanter was inspired by reading Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy which, I think, is one of the best fantasy novels or series ever written. Enchanter, well ... most of our games really, take about nine months to write. I'm not too sure whether Enchanter took slightly less or longer, thinking about it.

On and off during writing the early Zorks, if you notice, there's not much in the way of magic or magic spells in those games and I was thinking for a long time, even before we started splitting Zork into episodes, that magic spells would make an interesting addition to the games. Eventually I came up with a scheme for doing magic spells and the game resulted.'

So was it intended to evolve as a trilogy like its predecessors did? And what about his conclusion to the series, the recently released Spellbreaker, was he satisfied with that? 'No, I suspected it might be a trilogy, and then part way into it, near the end I guess, Steve Meretzky said he'd like to do a second game. So we talked about it and we had some really good ideas and stuff. So before Enchanter had been finished, he started work on Sorcerer.

'I think I would say that I got most of the things into it (Spellbreaker) that I wanted to. Something that I had actually started thinking about at the time that Enchanter was written that ultimately appeared in Spellbreaker was the idea that you could actually write things and create things yourself in the game. Beyond that, I think the only thing you tend to regret when you've finished, is you always which there had been that extra 5K or 10K. The game Spellbreaker, for instance is something of the order of 1K -- once it's inside the system, so a lot of things have to be left out just because of the lack of room.'

Dave explained which of the games he found most difficult to write and which had become his favourite. He also made a point about Infocom's aims in game design. 'Definitely Suspect. I've read enormous amounts of literature, not just SF and fantasy but mystery, adventure, so I vowed that I'd never do another one until ... I will do another mystery once we have a better parser. You need it for the characters. It's too frustrating given the limitations of the conversations.

'Probably, I would say that the favourite is a toss up between Enchanter and Starcross. I like Starcross because my my real love is for just hard SF -- stories which move the plot along with science. A lot of the puzzles are down like that in the game. I enjoy that. I enjoy that kind of story.

'The firm seems to have split in two directions. We have these big games, called the Interactive Fiction Plus series which are much bigger and have a richer environment made possible by the size of the few machines they run on. We have the classic games -- the ones everybody knows and I think we'll keep doing both because the classics have a certain charm.

'So we'll keep doing that, but more importantly, I think what we want to do is keep ... well, we want to get it so that play is better, interaction is a lot smoother and more conversational than it is now. What we have done over time is improve it little by little so there are improvements in say, Spellbreaker over Enchanter but we still know we're geared to smoothness in talking to other human beings. The closer we can get to that, the better our games will be because you don't want to spend most of your time playing what we call 'guess the word'. Our games have very large vocabularies; A Mind Forever Voyaging has over two thousand words. On the level, that's still not as much as you would like. The level of English understood is good but not as good as we would like. As we say on our packages, we're never satisfied.'

All this was very interesting, but where did the strange Cornerstone project fit into the pattern and what's more -- what was Cornerstone? 'Cornerstone is a business product. It is the first in a line of business products and it uses similar technology to the games. That is to say, there is a large core which doesn't change on different machines. So far, we've only put it out for the IBM PC and the Apple series. It may come out for other machines in the future. We occasionally refer to it as our worst game.'



With that, Dave disappeared to be replaced at the mouthpiece by one of the most famous members of the Infocom team, 28 year old Steve Meretzky who began by telling me how he first began working for the company. 'I've been with the company about four years. I started as a games tester. Well, I worked on the first two games that Infocom did, that is Zork I and Zork II. The first one that I actually did as an employee was Deadline.'

How did the plot for his first game, Planetfall come about? 'Well, I would say that it was pretty typical of most of our designs which is that you start with a storyline and it changes somewhat along the way, but before you begin, you do have an idea of at least roughly what the story's going to be. As you begin doing the actual programming, you get new ideas and things you want to do.

'Then when people begin playing it, you get suggestions. The more you see things that they try to do, the more you get additional ideas. So usually you start with the story and then it evolves over the whole design and implementation.'

All of Steve's games have had an exceptionally good reception from all sides of the press. When I asked him how he felt about this, he modestly answered from the point of view of the company. 'Well, we feel pretty good. I mean, each game takes pretty close to a year of work. After spending that amount of time on something, you feel pretty good when people like it.'

Fair enough. I asked him if working on Sorcerer created any problems as he was effectively in Dave Lebling's territory, here? 'Well, in some ways it was easier and in some ways it was harder. It was easier in that there wasn't so much independent thinking that I had to do because the game setting was already created. However, it was also harder because I didn't have as much flexibility but it was an interesting change from starting with my own universe.'

I wondered whether Steve had considered any preset objectives with this game. 'No not really. I just wanted to do a game that was very puzzle oriented. Planetfall certainly has its share of puzzles but it has much more in the storyline than Sorcerer did. I really wanted to try to do something that was almost entirely puzzle oriented. I think that the coal mine puzzle is the hardest part of Sorcerer.'

Sorcerer was one of the first Infocom games I had played. One of the best features which, as I learned later, was employed in all their games, was the use of considered, unpredictable responses to certain requests. I took the opportunity of asking Steve how these came about. 'Generally, the way they appear is playtesters play the games. They say, "I tried to do this and didn't get a response or a response which didn't make sense or just a default response which isn't good enough in this case." So you put in a special response for that case which is usually funny, if you can think of something funny, or is nasty if you happen to be in a bad mood when you write it. Or if it's a particularly annoying thing that the person tried to do. If it was a stupid thing to do, then you might be a little nastier in your response. Or if it was something that a smart Alec would try to do then you might be nasty as well. But yeah, those are where you really get a lot of opportunity to put humour into the game.'

Probably Steve's (and perhaps Infocom's) most famous game is their adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Mr Meretzky talked a little about its origins. 'Well, most of the writers here were familiar with and enjoyed the books and the radio shows. Douglas Adams was familiar with and enjoyed some of our products, and so a mutual friend of Infocom's and Douglas's, introduced us and we hit it off pretty well. About a year after that, we started work on the Hitchhikers game and I was basically chosen to do that because I was available at the time and I had done Planetfall, which was humourous science fiction.
'It started out with him coming over here and we worked together in Boston for about a week. Then we connected up a computer mail network and communicated pretty much on a daily basis that way. We talked on the phone once or twice a week and then about three months after that first meeting, I went over to England and spent a week there. After that the design was pretty much done and I was left alone to do all the testing and bug fixing type of work and then Douglas came over here for another week right before it went out, just to do some last minute polishing. Basically I did all the programming and he did most of the writing and we designed most of the puzzles working together.'

Steve's latest masterpiece is called A Mind Forever Voyaging but unlike their normal games, this one only runs on sixteen bit micros. 'There already is an Amiga version. All our games run on both of those two (ST and Amiga). AMFV is the first game in our new plus series. Basically we now have two lines of adventure games; the original line and the plus line which are much larger and won't run on the lower end machines but the plus games and the originals all run on the more powerful machines.'

Steve never seems to run short of ideas (then again, neither do the rest of the team). Certainly, AMFV seems to be one of the most original pieces of software to ever appear on a home computer. 'I think it's really hard to track down where the ideas came from. But one thing that made it possible was the system which allowed a lot more complexity and, you know, just a lot more time in the game. Without the Plus system it would have been impossible to have a bigger geography or as much text or anything like that. I also, when I was doing AMFV, I wanted to have a game which was more serious and had a message in it which was something that we hadn't done before. And as far as the individual or more specific ideas, they came about the way most come about; just sitting and thinking about it, talking with other people and rejecting ideas and developing the scenario.'

After all this hard work, had Steve considered one game in particular to be his favourite? 'That's really hard to say. I enjoyed all of them for different reasons. Probably Planetfall was the most fun because it was the first and so nothing was repetitious and it wasn't like anything I had ever done before.'
Sean talks to Stu Gally, Senior Games Designer and learns that there are no "Bosses" at Infocom; and to Carl Genatossio, Art Designer, about Infocom's unusal packaging, including the famous flying saucers that kept falling off shop shelves.

Note : This article was original on Alex's "Brigadon - Zzap!64 Online" site, which has closed down while he's gone on a world trip and eventually planning to live and work in Dublin, Ireland. According to his farewell message on his site he gives premission to grab and download any pages of use. I tried to contact him directly to request premission to actually use those pages on this site, but as I found out from a friend of his, he'd left already. At the moment I'm going by this farewell message and assuming that it's okay to use his pages on this site. His site will be offline and these articles shouldn't be lost. Should he request it or his site comes back at a later stage, I'll delete these related files.

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