(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 Drawing

Four Minds - Forever Voyaging


The famous American adventure games writing outfit INFOCOM is generally shy and retiring, but in last month's phone interview marathon with Dave Lebling and Sean Meretzky, SEAN MASTERTON learned something about how Infocom go about designing their games. In this concluding part, the reviewer is handed over to two more vital cogs in the Infocom machinery.

by Sean Masterson.


  When Stu Galley came on the line, I asked him how the company actually worked. One of the things that has been said about Infocom is that there are no real bosses. 'Yeah, I think that's fair to say. Anyway, in my group, as game designers, we're very co-operative. I think there's very little difference in status.

'Typically, the whole process of game design takes nine to twelve months. Say from conception to end. The conception will start with an idea -- either one that the designer has himself or from talking with a collaborator or whatever. But in many ways I think it's like writing a long work of fiction, anything that takes that long. Starting with the process of outlining, typically the designer will write a synopsis of a few pages, sort of an outline and it tells the important ideas and features that this game will have. And that's passed round for comment and we get together once there's the go ahead. Then we spend two or three months making the first draft of the program so to speak.

'Our group meets once a week at least, for lunch and talking over the status of different games that are being developed and whatever other issues have to be discussed. You know, usually, at least one or two things -- er design issues are brought up that need to be discussed. Even at the early stage, the conceptual stage, a meeting like that can be really useful for er ... I was just trying to finish my sentence and I forgot the word ... brainstorming!'

Stu had a first for the company with Seastalker. Given the company's reputation for producing complex, high level adventures, were there any complications writing a junior game?

'No, I think it's something of a higher standard to write a simpler game because I wanted the program to respond intelligently to the kinds of inputs that the younger players are apt to use. We did a bit of testing with some actual live kids here in the office and er ... one of the things that I discovered about younger players is that they use a big variety of different sentence structures, sort of more colloquial or more ungrammatical inputs. And I wanted to be able to do something helpful with a situation like that while at the same time, sort of ... I didn't want to accept really ungrammatical commands because I wanted to set a good example to the player.

'On the other hand, I found that kids could and would use commands that adults would never think of. So in a way, I think that the standard of friendliness and fun was maintained as far as I can see.

'I think that all kinds of people play it. I don't have any market research at my fingertips or sales research but I know that, I've seen reviews of the game in magazines written by adults and they often regard it as just as puzzling just as much fun.'

Stu sounded so enthusiastic -- I assumed he got a great deal of pleasure from his work. 'Yes, yes I do. It's funny, it's almost like a dream fulfilled but up until a few years ago, I had no idea that this was what my dream was because I had no examples to go by.'

I was surprised to hear about his immediate reactions after a game had been finished. I had assumed there would be a celebratory mood but apparently, this was not the case. 'Well frankly the immediate feeling is a bit of a let down. I think, of course there's a feeling of relief that, you know it's like finishing a year at university, getting all of the exams out of the way. I'd say a let down because there's no immediate feedback -- whether you did a good job or not. Once the programming is finished, then there's a couple of months at least, before there's feedback from players or reviewers. It really would be more like six months to a year before one gets the feeling of job well done or whatever.'

So what did he have planned for the future? Were there any exciting ideas for a new game? 'Yes there is actually. Let's see. I'm not too sure how much I should say about this as it might turn into a product. I've at least one -- probably several. Personally I'd like to reach new segments of the audience by making each new game innovative or appealing in a different way from all the others so that someone who had maybe tried Zork or tried a mystery and not gotten excited about it might find something really interesting in a different sort of game.

'I think all categories of popular fiction would be fun to make into games. Personally I would like it to be just interactive fiction. Well, writing interactive fiction plus is a two edged sword, because while you have a lot more room to do things in you also have the problem of taking on a bigger project and having a lot more work to do to get all the details right. I sort of prefer a smaller scope, something more like a stage play instead of a movie. I think the confines are helpful in some ways.

'Well actually I did work on a game that I spent about six months on and then decided to shelve it, so to speak -- to put it aside. The problem there, was that the story line wasn't sufficiently well developed to make it really interesting. I guess I had a vision of a certain kind of atmosphere in the writing that was rather hard to bring off and after some testing in house here, it became clear that it would need some significant changes to make it work right. I'm glad we're able to do that and we don't have to forge ahead with something that doesn't really work well.'

Infocom appear as a very secretive organisation. I asked Stu whether this profile was intentional? 'Yes, I think it's generally true of American software companies particularly that they don't comment on new products until they're officially announced. And I think the reason for that is because of the last question we talked about where the product may be under development and although the company may intend to release it on time, unforseen things may happen and it has to be postponed or cancelled. So it just seems safer, I guess, to keep the wraps on a product until it's finished.'

When I asked Stu what his favourite game was he pointed out that one of them wasn't an Infocom game. No problem, said I, just tell us what they are. 'It's just that the other times I've been asked that question, usually Infocom games are excluded. Okay, it's very hard to say, really. It's like asking a parent to pick a favourite child. Each are favourites in different ways. I still enjoy Witness for certain aspects of it, although I now feel that I could have done it a lot better. That was my first one.

'Seastalker is similar. I like certain things about it very much. I like the game I'm working on right now in many ways. There are a lot of different things about it. Er ... I'm looking at my shelf full of packages here! I like Hitchhikers. That's a lot of fun.

'As far as non-Infocom games, I think my favourite is Loderunner. The thing that I like about it is that it's the huge variety of the scenes derived from this very small set of building blocks and it reminds me in a way of mathematics -- one of my favourite subjects, because it's like taking those small sets of axioms and deriving elaborate mathematical structures from them. But Loderunner's the way to do it visually.'


Finally, I spoke with the man responsible for all those crazy bits and bobs that proliferate in an Infocom game box. He can introduce himself. 'I've been with the company since last April. And before that I was actually working for the ad agency that Infocom had at that time. I guess I would say that I've been working on Infocom packaging over two years. I'm 31.

'I came to the company last year to start a creative department for packaging and other related material that we produce and I had worked at the agency where we develop most of the crazy packaging for Infocom, so I knew everything there was to know about the product before I started here, kind of a nice transition to come from the agency to here. And you know, it's been a real good experience working here directly with the people because everyone is so creative, so it's a totally creative environment. I'm not at a lack for having any ideas what to do. Just from talking to the people around here, you know.'
One of the clever aspects of game packaging is the way Infocom hide protection within the package rather than the program. Carl commented on this. 'Well that's worked out better on some games than on others. Sometimes we'll get a real good idea for an anti-piracy device. I don't know if you have seen AMFV. The secret decoder wheel in that is really essential to play the game. It's something like 360 random number access combinations. It's not something you can xerox a copy of. It's not something you can pass on to a friend and forget about because, you really need that to play the game.'

It had occured to me that the decoder wheel was similar to Sorcerer's Infotator. 'No that was done by someone else at the ad agency. That was prior to my involvement on Infocom games. But you can see that we do put a lot of thought into devices that actually, the person who buys the game would want to have in the first place and it's essential to playing the game.
'We probably, out of any software or any entertainment software company, yeah we probably spend more on the package than anyone else does and er -- we have very high quality printing; again a lot of thought is put behind everything that goes into the package in general. So with that in mind, we just put in the extra effort to make up a protection device that is attractive and works quite well and fits the mood of the game.' Infocom pills (6K)
'Usually, from concept to finally printed package, it takes about four months. We start out when the game is in alpha testing. We get a look at the game then the internal tester takes a look at it. Me and my copywriter in the marketing department get a look at the game at that point. We play it for about a week or so and then we have a creative meeting with the game writers and the marketing dept.

'We come up with a creative focus for what the packaging should be as it relates to the game and at that point it takes about two to three weeks for a concept for the total package. And once that is settled, it takes about a month to get art and photography and typography done and from that point I'd say that once art has started and all of that and copy is written, it takes about another month to put all the boards together to get the material ready for printing. The printing process takes about eight weeks.'
One of the most startling visual aspects of older Infocom games were the box shapes. These have now been standardised. Carl made several points about the reasons for this. 'I can speak about the original packages a bit because I know somewhat about that. When Infocom first started out as a company, they had come to the ad agency which at that time was Giardini-Russell in Watertown Massachusetts. Anyway, they had come to the agency at the time and the agency was very big in the hi tech field and they (Infocom) only had a very small budget. They said, 'How do we market and advertise these games?' And based on what the agency had seen of the games and the amount of money available, they said, 'Basically, you should put all of your money into packaging because that's going to be the thing that's most noticeable about your product' and that's where we started with these wild packages.

'Now the first games like Suspended and Starcross and the Zorks (although the Zorks had a very simple package) but the others up to Seastalker were all in very intricately put together packages simply to be another ... something that people would want to touch and hold and get into! But what killed those packages was the fact that the dealers couldn't stack a flying saucer on a shelf very well! They kept falling off and rolling in the aisles, you know?'

So did Carl find any constraints with new packaging? 'No I don't as a matter of fact. You know we've standardised the boxes as you can see but each one of those packages is individual. I approach them as an individual problem and I find that there is very little repetition in what I do, even though the format is the same. I am basically free to do whatever I want to do. For instance, we're doing something right now in, we're working on the Trinity game, I don't know if you know about that one. Well we're doing something new in that the manual in that game is going to be a comic book. I don't know how familiar you are with comic books -- are you familiar with the Classics Illustrated?'

No -- unfortunately...

'Well, okay, that's a comic book series that was out in this country in the late fifties and early sixties and what they were like were sort of comic book versions of history books. So this game, Trinity which is a fantasy game, has a lot of reference to historical information, so we're doing a full colour comic book in a Classic style. I'm always working with different people. That's what I think keeps the packaging fresh and challenging, certainly for me to work on. I find each one to be just like starting a whole new thing.'

Was there a particularly memorable design that Carl had worked on? 'I would have to say, probably Suspect because of the art style for one. I went with a literary style -- a high brow literary style and because of all the pieces that went inside that, the invitation, the receipt for the costume, the magazine article -- and the article in particular, I wanted it to have a look about it so that it would actually look as if it had been ripped from the pages of a magazine, so we had to make a special bad cut for that so that it was consistent with every one that we printed. That one happens to be my favourite and it was one of the first that had to be designed for the new format so I feel that it works really well because I put a lot of thought into it.'

I asked him how it was decided where the booklet would stop and the bits would start. 'There's a photograph on the back of every package which shows you what you get inside the box, and usually those things are not created until after the package has been printed. So what I have to do is make mock ups of those things and that's probably the most difficult part of the whole packaging thing, creating and photographing those items in an interesting scene to give you the mood for the game.

'We try to do something different every time we work on a game and I guess I don't know how to answer that except to say that whatever happens, we're always looking into other things. It's an ongoing thing from day to day. If I see something in a magazine or in a toy store or a book store ... I have a tremendous collection of little items that might be interesting for something further on down the line, somewhere, sometime, somehow, you know?

'When I'm busy I never keep track of the time. When I first came here they had held the work for me. They were waiting for me to come in because I was coming over from the agency. When you're really rolling on something worthwhile then time doesn't matter. That's another reason why it made sense to come here and start this department, because the way an agency works, they bill by the hour. My time is virtually unlimited here and I get a chance to do everything that I want to do and sit down and nit pick without worrying how much time I'm spending on it.

'It's a sort of perfectionist's type of job. You can come here at two in the morning and there'll be someone here. There's someone working around the clock. When you get dedicated people like that and it's a fun job, I mean it doesn't make any difference how long you ... well, how many hours you put in and we have a flexible atmosphere as long as you get your job done and have a good time with it.'

Time was ticking on and my throat was becoming dry. Thanking the folks at Infocom, I placed the receiver down and made my way to the Bull Inn to rehabilitate. As the old flatulence bitter trickled down my throat, I knew that a ball of fluff would never be the same again.

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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