Logo for Zork I, a computer game by Inform

Enter the Great Underground Empire

Zork and Infocom - A New Kind of Fiction

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Infocom 1980

It is pitch dark.  You are likely to be eaten by a Grue.

Two hopeless devotees to Crowther and Wood’s computer text game Adventure are Dave Lebling and Marc Blank, part of the Dynamic Modelling Group at MIT. Lebling has already created his own games on the school’s PDP-10 computer, including a take on the venerable Spacewar! by Steve Russell, as well as Maze, a graphical game where two players move around a maze shooting each other. In order to assist with his obsession with paper-and-dice game Dungeons & Dragons, he writes a D&D assistance program to automate bookkeeping for the game. He also collaborates with Blank and another programmer, Tim Anderson, to create a trivia game that users can contribute to and holds a database of over 1000 questions.

Adventure arrives on MIT’s computer in early 1977 via the Arpanet, a precursor to the modern Internet. Productivity grinds to a halt as the entire MIT computer community throws themselves into the game. By May, Adventure has been solved, and Lebling and company feel the need to pursue a more difficult challenge: create an even better adventure game. On the PDP-10 they program a parser system comparable to the one in Adventure in MDL (muddle) code, a Lisp inspired computer language developed at MIT, and write a four-room game around it with 10-12 problems to solve. Perhaps as a nod to the election of Jimmy Carter as U.S. President, this primordial Zork contains a band, a bandstand, a peanut room (where outside, the band plays Hail to the Chief), as well as a “chamber full of deadlines”.

This first preliminary experiment is ultimately discarded. With Blank finished with his undergraduate studies and off to medical school at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Lebling, Anderson and fellow student Bruce Daniels soon begin work on a more serious attempt. Blank drives up from New York to Boston every weekend to help work on the project. Lebling devises the geographical lay of the land, both upper and lower, as well as composes the expansive descriptions of the locations. More intricate problems to be solved are also sussed out, utilizing a programming technique from MIT’s artificial-intelligence lab that is eventually labeled the Interlogic system, which allows users to input complex sentences as commands, including the use of prepositions and adjectives which allow users to get very specific with their commands. This is opposed to the standard two word verb-noun parsers found in games like Adventure. Unable to think up a suitable title for the new project, Blank dubs it Zork, a nonsense word used around the Computer Science lab at MIT as a handy (and swear-free) exclamation, as well as a placeholder title used for works-in-progress. Zork is to be given a more meaningful title later, although eventually the name sticks. When they finish their first pass at the program in June of 1977, they have a working game about half the size of what eventually becomes Zork I, but in place are most of the trappings of the soon-to-become-legend Great Underground Empire, including the dreaded Grue, a dark-dwelling creature borrowed by Blank from the fantasy works of Jack Vance.

Infocom staff, 1982. Back row, L to R: Chris Reeve, J.C.R. Licklider, Gabrielle Accord, president Joel Berez, Scott Cutler, Michael Berlyn. Front row, L to R: Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Steve Meretsky.

Infocom, 1982 – The most awkward staff photo? Back row, L to R: Chris Reeve, J.C.R. Licklider, Gabrielle Accord, president Joel Berez, Scott Cutler, Michael Berlyn. Front row, L to R: Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, Steve Meretsky.

 

Marc Blank, co-founder of Infocom, circa 1982

Marc Blank, circa 1982

 

The game also allows for containers to hold things, NPC characters or “actors” who can wander about and pursue their own agenda, multiple solutions to certain problems and also allows for the passage of time and the triggering of timed events. Sitting on MIT’s PDP-10, Zork (briefly re-named Dungeon before it’s made apparent this conflicts with the 1975 board game Dungeon! by TSR) undergoes a burst of popularity at the school. Hundreds of users become fixated on the game, as well as “net randoms” who log in from outside across the Arpanet. The developers use the many suggestions that pour in for improvements and puzzle additions to the game. Even a multiplayer version of Zork is toyed with, although nothing comes of it. With over 200 rooms to explore and a vocabulary of almost 1000 words, the final puzzle is added to Zork in February of 1979. Around the same time, Dynamic Modelling System lab director Al Vezza, hoping to monetize some of the technology being developed there, creates a company called Infocom in Cambridge, Mass. This new venture starts off with a grand total of $11,500 in its coffers. Realizing the marketability of Zork, Blank and fellow former Dynamic Modelling System denizen Joel Berez, then earning a business degree at MIT’s Sloan Management School, bring Zork to Vezza, and it becomes the company’s first product. As the game hits the one megabyte size wall in the MDL language, the final mainframe update is made in January 1981.

You see a market here.

Meanwhile, the microcomputer is born. As systems like Tandy’s TRS-80 and the Apple II begin to catch on with the public, the Zork team sees a way that their new company could actually start selling something. Finding the medical profession not to his taste, between the summer of 1979 to spring of 1980, Blank and Lebling work on an ingenious system to move Zork from mainframe to home computer by creating a special language that would run on an emulator, able to operate in any computer environment. The Z-Machine is invented as a non-existent processor that will run the new, compressed Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), a stripped-down version of MDL. Each PC will run it’s own Z-Machine Interpreter Program (ZIP) to interpret the Z-Machine instructions and run the games. Development is done outside of MIT on a DEC-20, rented from Digital Corporation. The system also allows for ten to one compression of the game data. Even so, Zork is still way too large to fit into the minuscule 100K or so storage of most personal computer floppy discs, so it is split into two separate programs: The Great Underground Empire, Part I and The Great Underground Empire, Part II. A little bit of the legacy program also ends up in Zork III, although that game is mostly newly developed problems and locations. At 70K each, the split-up game data nicely fits on the floppy disks of the early personal computers, with a few extra problems thrown in to round out each package.

Logo for Infocom, makers of home computer text adventures, circa 1982

Infocom logo

 

You find a Zork.

In 1979, after extensive refinements and bug testing, and sporting a 600-word parser vocabulary, Zork I is deemed finished. Despite all the effort to squeeze Zork into the confines of the burgeoning personal computer market, Infocom makes its first sale of Zork I with its version for the PDP-11. This platform is hardly a growing concern, however, so Infocom starts to shop the micro-computer version around for a distributor. One possibility floated is Microsoft, but upon contacting them Joel Berez learns that they are already selling a version of the original Colossal Cave game. They then find someone in the neighbourhood: Personal Software Inc., aka Visicorp (makers of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for PCs), of Cambridge, Mass. A pioneering company in the publishing of software developed by others, Zork wasn’t the first piece of entertainment software from Personal Software; The Electric Paintbrush (author Ken Anderson), Bridge Challenger (author George Duisman), Time Trek (author Brad Templeton) and perhaps most notably Microchips, by Peter Jennings, are also put out by Personal Software. Company co-founder Dan Fylstra is already familiar with Zork, having previously played it on a computer while studying at the Harvard Business School. Reaching an agreement with PS in June of 1980, Blank and crew cash their first royalty cheque as Zork for the TRS-80 Model I hits the streets in time for Christmas. In 1980, working for Apple, Bruce Daniels creates a ZIP for the game for the Apple II. 6000 copies of Zork sell for the machine in eight months. In all, one million copies of Zork I sell world-wide for a wide variety of computer platforms.

While considering the release of Part II of Zork, the Infocom group becomes unhappy about PS’s lacklustre support for Zork I, and soon learn that Personal Software is planning to drop their entertainment software line while transforming into a new company called VisiCorp. Infocom thusly decides to wade into the daunting waters of software game publishing, finding time-shared factory and one room of office space in the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in the Boston area and bankrolling the venture with money from the founders, as well as bank loans they themselves guarantee. Bringing on marketing manager Mort Rosenthal, with Joel Berez installed as Infocom president, they set up offices and make their debuts as software publishers with Zork II in 1981. The Zork trilogy is concluded with Zork III: The Dungeon Master, produced over the course of a year and released in 1982. This is also the same year that published author Michael Berlyn joins Infocom as a game designer or Implementer (IMP). Creating the diabolically difficult Suspended (1983), as well as co-authoring Infidel and Cutthroats with Jerry Wolper, Berlyn would leave the company in 1986 and, among other things, create the Bubsy games for Accolade.

 

There are ten games based in the Zork world eventually produced in total, and Infocom goes on to become one of the biggest computer game companies in the industry, making over 35 games for over 23 different computer platforms.  Let me draw a large breath and list the various computers they support, due to the clever Z-Machine interpreter system: Apple II, C64, Atari 8-bit line, DEC Rainbow, DECmate, DEC RT-11, HP 150, HP 110, NEC PC-8000 and APC, IBM-PC, PCjr., KAYPRO II, CP/M compatibles, TI Professional, TI 99/4A, Tandy 2000, TRS-80 CoCo, TRS-80 Models I and II and even the “luggable” portable Osborne I. They also attempt some innovation with their packaging, such as the plastic UFO-shaped container for 1982′s Starcross, and a large box with a featureless plastic face mask staring out at the customer for Suspended. Inside the packaging for Infocom games,  the company includes what they term “feelies”. These are tokens, forms, pamphlets and other items that serve two purposes: to give players some additional colour for the game, and since they often contain critical information on playing serve as a kind of physical copy protection. Infocom eventually standardizes its packaging, mostly due to pressure from retailers who want the company’s products to sit nicely on their shelves. Starting with Cutthroats in 1984, Infocom games are presented in 9″x7″x1″ thin boxes that open like books, to further the idea of interactive fiction. Gamers needn’t worry though: the “feelies” that so enhance the gameplay experience are still present inside.

Zork User's Group map of Zork I, a computer adventure game by Infocom

ZUG map of Zork I

 

You find a clue.

Supporting the growing legion of Zork fans with maps and an 1-800 hint line is the Zork User’s Group, created by Mike Dornbrook in October of 1981. As Infocom’s first paid employee, he had helped his former M.I.T. roomies with play testing Zork while it resided on that institution’s mainframe. While heading ZUG, initially not officially affiliated with Infocom, Dornbrook is also the editor of The New Zork Times, a newsletter started in  mid-1982 and sent out to gamers on Infocom’s mailing list. Upon a not-so-friendly notice from the lawyers from The New York Times, this publication’s name is eventually changed to The Status Line.

ZUG becomes the organization that Infocom refers to when it comes to hints for Zork, and as such Dornbrook is rapidly overcome by phone calls and letters from harried Zork gamers, stuck on one part of the games or another. To alleviate this, he develops the InvisiClues hint books for the Zork trilogy in April of 1982. These offer scaled hints to problems in the game printed in invisible ink, from vague suggestions to outright answers,  which users can reveal in order of specificity with a special developing pen packaged with each book. In the initial outing covering Zork I, there are 175 hints in response to 75 questions, including treasure locations as well as trivia tidbits about the game. The books rapidly become as popular as the games themselves, and after Dornbrook  gets his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in June of 1983, he goes to work at Infocom as product manager for entertainment products. Infocom takes over the functions of ZUG in late 1983. InvisiClues books are subsequently made for most every Infocom game of the era, and make their way onto retail shelves as well as available via mail-order through ZUG.

1985 image of Douglas Adams, author of the Infocom game Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams, circa 1985

 

A Hoopy Frood Enters the Room.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book series  is a very successful SF comedy novel trilogy by 1983. Author Douglas Adams is approached many times with the idea of turning his most famous work into a game, and he rebuffs them all. As a technophile obsessed with computers, Adams picks up Michael Berlyn’s diabolical Infocom text adventure Suspended, getting a taste of the exceptionally well-written and wildly popular games coming out of the company in the early 80′s. Solving the game, Adams feels he’s found kindred spirits at the Cambridge, MA game makers. That year he is introduced to Mark Blanc by humorist Christopher Cerf, a mutual friend. Late in the year, Adams visits the Infocom offices while in town lecturing at MIT. Jumping at the chance of increasing their literary cred with another name author, Infocom signs Adams to a six-game contract in early 1984, with two of the games to be based on the published Hitchhiker’s books. It’s a natural for Infocom to pair up Adams with Steve Meretzky, the latter producing some of the company’s most popular, not to mention most funny, games. In particular, it’s Meretzky’s Planetfall, released by Infocom in August 1983 (and later sequel, Stationfall), that makes him such a perfect match, as these games are noted for having an altogether Adams-y sense of humour. Meretzky had not heard of Hitchhiker’s before writing Planetfall, but people testing the game remark how much it reminds them of Adams’ works.

 

During the Hitchhiker’s game’s six-month development time, Adams writes passages in England, and sends them via computer to Infocom in Boston, where Meretsky adds additional material and then programs everything into the game using Infocom’s game development system. The two writers exchange emails daily, a rarity at the time, and phone calls weekly. In mid 1984, with the testing schedule looming in a few weeks and a release window established to take advantage of the Christmas season, Infocom sends Meretzky to England to prod the famous procrastinator Adams to finish his work on the game. At the time, the author is ensconced at his favourite hideaway; the Huntsham Court County House hotel in the village of Huntsham, located hear Tiverton, Devon. It is the hope of his book publisher that Adams will focus on the fourth Hitchhiker’s book, titled So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish. Hence the two of them hammer out the remaining material for the game in four days. Returning to the U.S., Meretzky misses the bucolic scenery and relaxed atmosphere of the English countryside as he delves into an intense three week crunch session to finish the programming of the game. After a brief testing phase, Adams does some rewrites of the material according to feedback from game testing results.

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