Against the Gods

Against the Gods
The Short, Happy Life of Infocom

Lara Crigger | 25 Jul 2006 12:04
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Cornerstone's problem was not poor design but obsolescence. It operated on the same virtual machine technology that had made Zork and other games so portable, but by 1985, the IBM-PC had become the dominant computer platform. Portability was no longer an issue. In fact, Cornerstone's virtual technology slowed the IBM to a crawl.

Unfortunately, Cornerstone's failure coincided with a lull in the gaming industry. For the first time ever, Infocom's game profits stagnated, and Zork I slipped from the number one slot - where it had been for three years - to number 10.

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Infocom was in dire financial straits. Even three rounds of layoffs and across-the board salary cuts couldn't save the company. By the end of 1985, it was clear Infocom would need outside assistance.

In 1986, Jim Levy, CEO of Activision (and huge Infocom fan), offered to buy the struggling company. Infocom accepted, and that February, Activision purchased the company for $7.5 million.

In general, most Infocom employees looked favorably upon the union, realizing it was the only way to keep their beloved company afloat. It didn't hurt that Activision's corporate culture was similar to Infocom's, or that Levy promised to stay out of their affairs.

But then, six months later, Activision also ran into financial trouble. Levy was replaced by Bruce Davis, the only board member who'd been against the Infocom merger.

Davis was far more hands-on than his predecessor, and many of his ill-conceived decisions crippled Infocom. Not only did he require the company to use Activision's packaging plant instead of their own, doubling their marketing costs, he also restructured Infocom's selling practices. Previously, older Infocom games sold like books, side-by-side with newer ones. Davis halted that, retiring the older ones for good. To fill the now-empty shelves, he ordered Infocom to produce eight games a year, instead of the four or five as before.

To make matters worse, text adventures were no longer selling as well as they used to, especially since graphical adventures had finally become competitive on the market. But Infocom had little time or money to experiment with graphics, and the few such titles they released sold poorly.

By 1989, Activision had had enough. That May, the company laid off most of the remaining Infocom staff and integrated Infocom's sales, marketing and customer support teams into its own. Infocom was officially dead. While Activision continued to release greatest hit compilation of Infocom games (like The Lost Treasures of Infocom), text adventures themselves faded away.

That is, until they found a home on the internet. Returning to the primordial soup from which they spawned, text adventures have inspired a quiet but substantial net following. Today, you can find most of Infocom's games online, and Zork is only a short Google away.

Lara Crigger is a freelance science and tech writer whose work on videogames has appeared in Computer Games Magazine and Gamers with Jobs. Her favorite Infocom game is Trinity, but she still has a soft spot for Leather Goddesses Of Phobos.

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