Against the Gods

Against the Gods
The Short, Happy Life of Infocom

Lara Crigger | 25 Jul 2006 12:04
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Infocom, king of the text adventure and the first behemoth of American computer game development, began not with a bang, but with an internet meme.

Long before "All Your Base" and the "O R'LY? owl," there was Adventure. Released in 1975 onto the ARPANet (the internet's predecessor), Will Crowther's Adventure was essentially a simulation of a caving expedition he'd done in Kentucky. But his co-workers loved it, and they passed it along to their friends. As the game traveled across networks, it was revised and re-written, particularly when Stanford researcher Don Woods beefed up the storyline and added some Tolkien-esque flair. By the time it migrated onto MIT's mainframe in 1976, the game had blossomed into somewhat of a pre-internet net phenomenon.

As a game, however, Adventure was far from perfect. Aside from programming artifacts and design flaws, Adventure's biggest drawback was its parser (the program that translated a player's input into directions the game could understand). The parser could only handle two-word commands, like "go north" or "take sword," frustrating players who wanted more natural, complex commands.

So, in 1977, four MIT students - Marc Blank, Tim Anderson, Dave Lebling and Bruce Daniels - decided to make their own game in Adventure's image. Their version retained Adventure's basic interface but featured an improved parser, which now could understand complete sentences. The new game, which they named Zork, appeared on the school's mainframe in 1979, where anyone who had access could play. Like Adventure before it, Zork steadily earned a worldwide cult following.

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Shortly after Zork's publication, a few MIT computer science students - including Zork's writers - decided that they wanted to work together outside a stuffy university setting. That summer, they started their own software company and called it Infocom.

In retrospect, the idea was painfully naïve. Although Infocom's founders vaguely knew they wanted to create business software, they had no model, no business plan, not even a product. But as luck would have it, the home PC market had just entered its first boom. Blank, along with his friend, Joel Berez, suggested bringing Zork to this new home audience; the game's profits could help finance Infocom until its business division took off.

But Zork was monstrous; the game's memory requirements alone made most contemporary PCs weep in horror. To make Zork run on a weaker system would require substantial re-engineering.

Blank and Berez started their ambitious task by first constructing the "Z-machine," a virtual machine that included only the operations Zork specifically required. The Z-machine would also leave most of the game code on disk, loading sections into the system's memory only when necessary. Next, they built a new compiler, the Z-machine Interpretive Program (ZIP), which ported the game to a given operating system. To run Zork, all a computer needed was its platform-specific ZIP. With the variety of computer models available at the time, this portability would become the crux of Infocom's success.

But even after re-tooling, Zork was still too big. So, the game was divided into three parts, and the first segment was released in 1980 as Zork I.

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