Against the Gods

Against the Gods
The Short, Happy Life of Infocom

Lara Crigger | 25 Jul 2006 12:04
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Although Zork I would eventually sell more than a million copies over several platforms, initial sales were slow. This was partly because Zork's publisher, Personal Software, Inc., incorrectly marketed the game as a hack-and-slash: The cover art featured a mustachioed barbarian with a gleaming sword, vanquishing a cowering orc. But when Personal Software dropped Infocom in 1981, Infocom brought its publishing in-house and started over. They discarded all of Zork's original packaging and made their own much-improved game materials.

In-house publishing was a brilliant move for Infocom, since it allowed them more creative freedom. This proved especially true in 1982, when Marc Blank, working on his detective mystery, Deadline, realized he couldn't fit everything he wanted into the actual game. So, he designed extra items to include in the packaging, like photos, lab results and pills. Reviewers and players alike loved it, and thus began Infocom's famous tradition of "feelies."

As Zork I steadily gained in popularity, Infocom released the rest of the Zork trilogy, as well as some standalone titles: Deadline, Starcross, Planetfall and others. These games were consistent critical and commercial hits, and soon, Infocom had earned a reputation for enjoyable, well-written games. This goodwill continued for years, and some of their later titles - like Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - would be remembered among the greatest games ever made.

Much of Infocom's success rested with its employees: Most were young, well-educated and without families. Lacking other commitments to hold them back, the programmers (known as "Implementers," or Imps for short) could turn games around quickly - within nine months, on average - and for less than $500,000.

Moreover, most Imps enjoyed developing games for Infocom because it was a genuinely fun place to work. There were parties, costume contests and weekly Imps' Lunches, where employees got together and discussed ideas freely. In the Imps' Lounge, aborted board games and half-finished diversions covered the tables. Sometimes, Imps would stage hermit crab races on a makeshift tabletop racetrack. The quirky culture and laid-back creativity made Infocom unlike anything the gaming industry had ever seen.

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Emboldened by their gaming success, Infocom executives felt confident enough to return to their original plan: Developing business software. In 1982, the company created a Business Products division and started work on a relational database called Cornerstone.

At the time, Cornerstone seemed like a bright idea. Business software promised higher profit margins: Whereas the typical game retailed for $50, database software sold for 10 times that. Also, many employees believed the company should diversify in order to survive; fickle gamers could quit their Infocom addiction at any time, but business clients tended to invest heavily and stick with their software.

Yet, from the start, Cornerstone suffered money troubles. Finding investors proved difficult, since people were understandably skeptical of a gaming company interested in making "serious" software. Moreover, Business Products hurled cash at new offices and resources, money that Infocom hadn't yet made.

This might have resolved itself, had Cornerstone sold well. But when the software was released in 1985, it was a commercial flop. In its first year, Cornerstone only sold 10,000 copies, less than 40% of its projected sales.

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