The Rise and Fall of Infocom
(c) Computer Gaming World, November 1991
from "A History of Computer Games" by Johnny Wilson
"To continue the story" by John Holder.


In The Beginning...

A group of M.I.T. hackers (including Marc Blanc[sic], Joel Berez and others) began to create a text adventure called Zork which owed its original inspiration to Adventure and went its mentor one better by creating a parser that could understand complete sentences. Zork was not actually available on a home computer until 1981 when the hackers' new company, Infocom, released the game for the Apple II.

Although Zork did not arrive on the Apple II until 1981, its birth was more properly part of the '70s. In the mid-1970s, Infocom's eventual braintrust (Marc Blank, Joel Berez and Dave Lebling) met at M.I.T.'s Laboratory of Computer Science. Inspired by the original Adventure, Blank and Lebling designed a mainframe adventure game.

It wasn't just any adventure game, however. The goal of the game's designers was to allow the computer to understand more typical English sentences than the simplistic and often infuriating two-word parser of previous adventure games. So, Marc Blank applied his artificial intelligence work and created ZIL (Zork Interactive Language), a "parser" which allowed the program to find associations between sentences and, hence, better understand what the player wanted to do.

Students at M.I.T. responded so favorably to the mainframe version of Zork that a professor at the institute, Al Vezza, encouraged the group to form a corporation. On June 22, 1979, the professor and his star pupils (Berez, Blank and Lebling) formed Infocom for the express purpose of developing Zork for the personal computer market. Its success was followed by Starcross (a science fiction adventure which came packaged in its own flying saucer) and two Zork sequels (Zork II and Zork III).

At first, the company seemed very focused on producing quality interactive fiction and designers like Stu Galley, Steve Meretzky and Brian Moriarty were added to the cast. Games like Deadline, Planetfall, Suspended and Witness followed (1983). Yet, Blank, Berez and Vezza had a hidden agenda that was already beginning to foreshadow changes at the company. Their goal was to move from games to productivity tools.

Actually, many people do not realize that the founders of Infocom were not entirely interested in computer games. Most did not even like personal computers. Instead, they were business-oriented and hoped to "make it big" like their friends and classmates who founded Lotus Development. The idea of producing a business-oriented database became an obsession, as did the later move to luxury accommodations in Cambridge. Vezza was determined to out-Lotus Lotus. What this obsession did to Infocom in the latter part of the '80s can be read later in this article.

Infocomplications

1986 also brought the red ink of Cornerstone, the only Infocom product without a plot. Cornerstone was a database that rocked the corporate structure of Infocom rather than bringing the desired stability. Instead, it brought trouble.

Of course, it didn't look like trouble, at first. It looked (as it does in many corporate acquisitions) like a "White Knight" riding to the rescue. James Levy, (then) CEO of (then) Activision, was a true fan of Infocom games. He perceived the corporate weakness brought about by Cornerstone as an opportunity to acquire a software jewel and began putting the deal in motion that was finalized on Feb. 19, 1986.

Activision purchased Infocom for $7.5 million (although much of the settlement price was in Activision common stock and may have had a different value by the final payment on June 13, 1986). This meant that Marc Blanc[sic] lost his bet with Cornerstone co-author Brian "Spike" Berkowitz that Infocom stock would top $20.00 per share by '87 or Blanc[sic] would buy Spike dinner in Paris. Infocom sold for much less than $20 per share and the last CGW heard, the bet had still not been paid off and Blanc[sic] was trying to change the venue to Tokyo.

The acquisition was not received well at Infocom. The company newsletter, once known as the New Zork Times but soon to be known as The Status Line, joked about graphics in interactive fiction stories and better parsers in Little Computer People (one of Activision's big hits of the era), but printed one phrase that, in retrospect, offers a melancholic ring: "We'll still be the Infocom you know and love." At first, it looked like this might be true. From 1985's low of three interactive fiction titles, 1986 saw five new titles.

The humor at Infocom never really stopped until the latter days. When the New York Times complained about their newsletter's original name (New Zork Times), they ran a contest to rename the publication and first prize was a subscription to the New York Times. Their in-house (great underground) paper InfoDope joked that Levy wanted them to do simulations, cynically suggesting titles like Tugboat Simulator and Empire State Elevator Operator. Less-than-kind remarks accused Activision superstar Steve Cartwright (designer of Alien and Ghostbusters) of being able to turn out action games in an afternoon.

Yet harmless jokes about Levy turned to cynical anger at Levy's successor, Bruce Davis. Insiders claim Activision's new CEO had been against the Infocom buyout from the start and that he immediately raised the ante on some anticipated losses that were to have been indemnified by Infocom shareholders from $300,00 to $900,000 with no accounting. The shareholders filed a preemptive suit and managed to stave off the "required" payment.

Morale began to deteriorate, with Infocom personnel feeling like Davis was foisting off all the programs which should have been still-born in development onto Infocom. They detested Infocomics, the Tom Snyder Productions attempt to use the computer as an interactive comic book (the idea was to produce $12 products in a continuing series that would appeal to the comics crowd), never believing in the concept but noting that all the development costs were being charged against their budget. A brutal (underground) memo urged Infocommies to join the "Bruce Youth" movement, casting the CEO in a classic bad guy role as he requested Infocom personnel to "turn in" their fellow employees whenever said Infocommies would murmur "a discouraging word."

The Fall...

Activision gradually dismantled Infocom. First, sales and manufacturing were absorbed. This seemed logical, but by the time the great Infocomics experiment failed in 1988, public relations and customer support were also absorbed. In 1989, development was moved to the West Coast, but those who built the Great Underground Empire elected not to move or were not invited to do so. As Arthur, BattleTech, Journey and Shogun reached the market, Infocom was no longer a distinctive publisher, it was only a label.

To continue the story:

Infocom became a label, and Activision went through a radical reorganization. Finally, Mediagenic was formed. Mediagenic was the parent company of Activision and Infocom. You may see new products come out under the Infocom label, but the original writers have moved on. Mediagenic went nearly bankrupt, and merged with The Disc Company, which later changed its name back to Activision, and continues to hold the copyright to the old Infocom games, now in collections of 20 games under the title The Lost Treasures of Infocom, available in volumes I and II (at least until recently - my last call to Activision indicated that they were discontinuing sales on the old Infocom products).


Browse Infocom's games
Go back to the Table of Contents