If you’ve stumbled upon this post and you’re not passionate about gaming you may think that Infocom is a new online service providing news and infos about economy and finance. But if you’re reading this post because you know what Infocom means in the history of video games you can join me in the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the birth of this company, founded on June 22nd in 1979 by Tim Anderson, Joel Berez, Marc Blank, Mike Broos, Scott Cutler, Stu Galley, Dave Lebling, J. C. R. Licklider, Chris Reeve and Al Vezza (sorry I’m a bit late to the party).
Based in Cambridge, MA, Infocom made its reputation making out of a genre, the interactive fiction, a piece of art. Infocom release an incredible amount of titles, epsecially in the early 80s that defined the genre and that are still today considered brilliant examples of video games; their most famous game, Zork, became a sort of eponymous of the interactive fiction genre.
Before setting up Infocom the founders were already working on their masterpiece, Zork, whose development started back in 1977 inspired by Colossal Cave (or Adventure) released for the DPD-10 mainframe that year . What made the game great is not olnly its complexity and the detailed plot and environments but the engine that “drives” the game. The Z-machine is a virtual machine for which Infocom compiled the game code. The strong point of the Z-machine was its portability: instead of porting every single game on different platforms, Infocom only needed to realize an emulator for the Z-machine for a specific platform and immediately all of the games were available for that platform. This trick allowed Infocom to release their game on a vasta range of computers with obvious commercial benefits.
Zork implemented an advanced state of the art parser, capable to read and understand a sheer amount of words and to understand also complex statemente, beyond the classic verb-noun syntax of the previous text adventures. This made the gameplay a lot easier for a player and gave him the possibility to free roam the environment and perform a large number of actions without worrying about what word to type in the parser.
Zork was only the first game released by Infocom, in 1980. It was so big that they had to split it in three different games : Zork I: The Great Underworld Empire, Zork II: The Wizard of Frobozz (1981) and Zork III: The Dungeon Master (1982). The game was a tremendous success: in an era when computer games were slightly more than quirks, the first Zork sold 32000 copies by the first half of 1982, 100000 in 1982 and 150000 in 1984 with a total amount by 1986 of almost 380000. The figures of the other two games are not comparable but they were incredible as well: Zork II sold slightly more than 173000 copies by 1986 and Zorkl III slightly less than 130000 (always by 1896). If you do the math the total is almost 700000 copies. The incredible cash flow encouraged Infocom to throw himself in the text adventure genre and other masterpieces soon followed.
The second great trilogy made by Infocom was the Enchanter series: started in 1983 with Enchanter, continued with Sorcerer in 1984 and was completed in 1985 with Spellbreaker and it was another success, on the sales side and on the critic side. The same years Infocom worked on the twin games Planetfall (1983) and Stationfall (1987) to another great success.
Infocom had two huge selling points that made them the most important developer at least regarding adventure games: first of all, they used to sell their games also in the libraries, since most of their adventures were text based and very similar to novels, attracting a lot of readers. Second, their packaginf was quite unique, since they not only sold a game but an “experience”: along with the game and the manual in the box there were what they called fellies, small real objects somewhate tied to the plot of the game and fundamental to complete the game.
Between the first Zork and Stationfall, Infocom kept developing and releasing games: in 1982 Deadline and starcross, in 1983 Suspended: A
Cryogenic Nightmare, The Witness and Infidel and in 1984 Seastalkers Suspects and Cutthroats. always in 1984 Infocom released another great success with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a game that went to sell more than 400000 copies.
Even remaining loyal to the interactive fiction genre, infocom knew how to innovate and in 1985 they released A Mind Forever Voyaging. In this game there are no puzzles, except for one at the end and has a serious political theme; the gameplay is based more on the exploration and interation with other characters. Even though it wasn’t a big success it became through the years a cult game and is now revered as one of the most important Infocom games.
Towards the end of the 80s the interactive fiction genre was becoming out of date and Infocom tried to differentiate the production. Their first graphic adventure was Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X! in 1992, while in 1988 they tacked the RPG genre with BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception followed in 1991 by BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge.
By the end of the 80s Infocom wasn’t the top company out there anymore. After Activision buyout in 1986 the company was relocated in 1989 after which became only a publishing label. Despite a sad ending Infocom was surely one of the most important companies during the 80s for the quality of their games and the care they put in their commercialization.
Infocom closure was surely great loss for all of us.