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 the Library for Computer Science 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 two-word text 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 containing around 10-12 problems to solve. This primordial Zork contains a band, a bandstand, and perhaps as a nod to the election of Jimmy Carter as U.S. President, 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 actions. 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.
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 renamed 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. Also helping form this new venture is Chris Reeve and Stu Galley. They start off with a grand total of $11,500 in the company 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 its 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.
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 Adventure, for the TRS-80 and Apple II, via their Consumer Products division. Infocom then finds 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 Microchess, 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 end up selling worldwide for a wide variety of computer platforms.
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 a version for the “luggable” portable Osborne I. A game implementer or imp will usually take from four to six months to create a game, programming it on a DEC 20 computer that is affectionately referred to around the office as ‘Fred’. The design process is a fairly communal effort at Infocom, with regular brainstorming sessions to keep things fresh and inject new ideas. As can be imagined with a company that produces fairly complicated text adventure games, testing and quality assurance is a lengthy and arduous process, with a game going through three testing phases: alpha, beta, and finally gamma or a releasable state.
Feeling the Package
Infocom also attempts 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. The game packaging is handled by the Creative Services department inside Infocom. They are the ones responsible for what is termed “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. Steve Meretzky’s 1986 adult-leaning SF comedy game Leather Goddesses of Phobos (featuring ‘Tame’, “Suggestive’ and ‘Lewd’ modes, selectable by users) ends up winning the award for Best Game Packaging, given to it by the Software Publishers Association. Items in the box included a ‘Scratch ‘N Sniff’ card, containing six distinctive scratch areas to which users would be prompted to activate and smell at various points during the game. During development, Meretzky himself would run around Infocom with the samples, asking employees to guess what the smells were. There is a point and click graphical adventure sequel to the game released by Infocom/Activision in 1992, and forget filling your nose, there is no scratch ‘n sniff. However, the title for it is quite a load for your mouth – Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X! You’ve really got to think that Infocom was making a comment on the elongated subtitles to Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry games with that one.
You find a clue.
Supporting the growing legion of Zork fans with maps and a 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 at an exorbitant rate of $6/hr while it resided on that institution’s mainframe. Brought in without any previous knowledge at all on computer games to lend a fresh perspective, Dornbrook initially withheld his deepening love of Infocom games from his employers, for fear they would stop paying him to play them. 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.