Steve Meretzky is kind of a crabby guy. Not gloomy or excessively negative, but rather in the world-weary way of someone who’s been around the block a time or two not by choice, but because he couldn’t find a parking space. He might complain about how expensive the coffee is at Starbucks, or how he doesn’t have the time or reflexes to play modern games, yet you can’t help but find yourself nodding along in agreement as he makes his grumpy observations. He may be crabby, but talking to him, you also get the impression that he’s often right.
Now a Senior Designer at Blue Fang Games in Massachusetts, Meretzky’s induction into the videogame industry began more than 20 years ago at his kitchen table. He was sharing an apartment with Mike Dornbrook, who at the time was the sole game tester for a small software company called Infocom. The company was so tiny, in fact, that it didn’t have office space, which is why Dornbrook was testing the company’s first game, Zork, on an Apple II in the kitchen. Curious, Meretzky eventually began playing the game himself, keeping track of the bugs he encountered and becoming Infocom’s unofficial second tester. Once Dornbrook went off to business school, Infocom founder Marc Blank made Meretzky a tester in earnest; in 1982, after Infocom had finally made the jump to genuine office space, Blank asked Meretzky if he’d like to try his hand at actually writing a game.
Infocom specialized in interactive fiction, a genre that relied on clever and expressive writing to bring its text-based adventure games to life. Meretzky’s first effort, Planetfall, became one of Infocom’s most well-known and beloved titles, thanks largely to his sharp sense of humor and well-crafted puzzles. Meretzky showed an uncanny ability to transmogrify bits of scrolling text into an adventure as enthralling as any blockbuster movie, forming a strong connection with the player. “It felt like you really were engaging in a one-on-one contest of wills with the player,” Meretzky says of his time designing the interactive fiction games of his early career. “It really was kind of this mano-y-mano battle of wits between author and player.”
The key to that one-on-one relationship was maintaining a delicate balance of frustration and reward, something at which Meretzky was particularly skilled. “You obviously didn’t want to completely stump the player, but if you stumped them for that exact right amount of time, they’d have this big ‘a-ha!’ when they finally figured it out.”
Meretzky went on to write several more Infocom games that would live on to become classics, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (babel fish puzzle be damned), A Mind Forever Voyaging, Sorcerer and Planetfall‘s sequel, Stationfall. Primitive by modern gaming standards, they are nonetheless still exciting players some two decades later. Videogame sites and blogs exploded in paroxysms of nerd glee earlier this year when Waxy.org’s Andy Baio announced that he was in possession of not one, but two playable prototypes of Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the unreleased sequel to Hitchhiker’s Guide.
It’s not hard to see how a Meretzky game like Sorcerer, which weaves puzzles that are just the right amount of frustrating into a story awash in smart humor, might have laid the groundwork for a modern game like Portal. Yet many current game designers weren’t even born when he first sat down at that Apple II in the kitchen. “It’s really easy to slip into the ‘back in the days when one person wrote a game, you young ones today don’t know what it was like,’ and therefore I slip into that way of thinking constantly,” Meretzky observes of his 25 years in the gaming industry. “But mostly it really is sort of an amazing thing to think back on how long it’s been and how quickly the years go by.”
Which is not to say that Meretzky necessarily thinks that the industry has improved with age. He misses the days when development teams and budgets were smaller. “It used to be one man with a vision, and now that’s so rarely the case. For the most part, it’s just so hard for one person to come up with a vision and shepherd it through this huge, long development process,” he laments. He’s not the only one who feels that way, either; Meretzky was planning on giving a speech about the vanishing role of the auteur in game design at Project Horseshoe this November, but was told that one of the other three scheduled speakers was already planning on discussing that very topic. “Two out of the four of the guys speaking wanted to cover the same thing,” says Meretzky. “What does that tell you?”
Still, he admits, the supersizing of game design teams isn’t entirely a bad thing. “There’s a lot of things to be said about being part of a team and having more brains to generate stuff. [Larger teams make] certain types of games possible that would not at all have been conceivable with smaller teams.”
In truth, it’s not really the size or scope of development teams that really bugs Meretzky, it’s how videogames have turned into such a business. “Twenty years ago, people would have said, ‘Computer games, what are they?'” but gaming has since become a bona fide force in the marketplace, and guaranteeing sales is all too frequently considered more important than innovation or creativity. “I’m actually kind of depressed at how little thought goes into games as art as opposed to games as a money-making product.” As Meretzky sees it, “it comes down to what people who have control over the levers of power and the levers of money care about, and they don’t care about art, they care about making money.”
These days, Meretzky spends less time on game design and more time juggling artistic vision with the practicality of budgets and bottom lines, managing those large development teams that are worlds apart from the one-man game designers of days gone by. Maybe that’s why he’s so cranky; asking an artist to compromise on creativity is like asking a child to eat his vegetables. He might do it, but he’s rarely going to be happy about it.
It doesn’t help matters that Meretzky is a self-described perfectionist, one of those people “without market forces who would keep working on a game for years and years until it was done.” Given his druthers, he’d hammer away at a game with no care for deadlines or market research, tweaking it time and time again until it met his high standard of quality. He’d also probably be out of a job, because not many game companies are in a position to put up with that kind of behavior. That unfortunate truth is probably why Meretzky names “don’t get your hopes up” as the single most valuable lesson he’s learned during his 25 years as a game maker.
“There’s never been a game that I’ve ever embarked on where that sort of perfect shining example of the game that was in my brain [was what we got]. What ended up in the box was always to me a crippled, failed, pale imitation of that shining vision that was in my brain to start with. The whole game development process, the grind from day one to release is a process of compromise and cutting, and sort of lowering your standards.” The key to survival, says Meretzky, is “just coming to terms with that, and sort of not having your heart cut out by those cuts and compromises.”
Steve Meretzky is kind of a crabby guy. He has seen games go from being written at kitchen tables to written by committee. He’s wrangled with the Powers That Be who care more about spreadsheets than creativity. He’s a veteran in an industry that’s obsessed with the new. Despite all of that, he still loves gaming – check out his presentation on “The Most Perfect Video Game.” He still cracks jokes every chance he gets, like in his presentation for “Bac Attack” at this year’s Game Design Challenge at GDC (which he won, too). And he can still be impressed and awed – he was thrilled that he got to meet Ralph Baer this year. (“Ralph Baer makes me feel like a noob.”) Cranky though he may be, he still seems to be getting it right.
Susan Arendt still hasn’t forgiven Steve Meretzky for killing Floyd the Robot, and probably never will.