Adventure International

Posted: December 21st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Text Adventure History | 5 Comments »

Scott Adams When people think “text adventure company”, a lot of people think Infocom, but others also think of Adventure International, which was not only the first company to sell text adventures, but one of the first companies to sell computer gaming software at all. Based out of Florida and run by the husband and wife team of Scott and Alexis Adams, this company lived a relatively short but fascinating life from the late 1970s through to the early 1980s. I have interviewed both Adams’ and one of their employees, Dan Horn, but the reach of this company extends far beyond that. One of the co-founders of Broderbund Software, Doug Carlson, got his start with Adventure International, and with dozens of contracted programmers and artists, a lot of people moved through the company in one way or another.

There were almost no exceptions to the rule that a software company did not survive the early 1980s without getting bought out or invested from the outside. Adventure International didn’t seek investment or money in that fashion and collapsed within itself. All parties I talked to seem to have bounced back from this experience.

As part of my research and archiving with the history of this company, I scanned in a catalog that I’d received when I was 13. It was one of the last catalogs they put out and show the company at the top of its game, at least in terms of the breadth of software and the face they put on to the world.

When the word “Adventure” is in the name of the company, you expect a lot of adventures, and AI didn’t disappoint. Scott created a bunch (the Scott Adams Grand Adventures) and they created additional games all the way up to the end. I thought the layout of the SAGA part of the catalog was particularly well done:

If you browse the pages, you can see the variety of software available – besides the expected adventure games, there was financial software, utility software, and even mailing list maintenance.

As a side note, when I was 12, I bought my first ever piece of computer software, and it was made by Adventure International: It was called Preppie! and was in some ways an obvious frogger clone (although the rules were slightly different). It was what felt like arcade quality at the time, and I bought it on cassette, meaning it was a 20 minute wait to play. And it was always worth it. Here’s what the game was like. (Youtube Video)

One of the great things about this documentary has been meeting a bunch of people whose names I only ever knew from brightly colored boxes.

PDP-11 Zork Manual: Save $2,348.31

Posted: November 30th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, Text Adventure History | 9 Comments »

The winner of the the Zork PDP-11 Manual auction I mentioned a couple entries ago has been kind (and astoundingly generous) and has donated a PDF of a scanned version of the manual they bought. They paid $2,348.31, and you pay zero.

Zork PDP-11 Manual PDF (1.3mb)

To recap, this is a manual for the PDP-11 version of Zork. It came on a diskette (a rather large diskette) and was actually sold. This version predates the TRS-80 version sold by Personal Software, and the general tale is that less than 100 copies were sold.

This version is autographed by Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, and Joel Berez.

The manual, even without the magnetic media, holds a whole host of interesting points within it. It had to explain, to a commercial audience, both the process of installing the software and the pointers for interacting with a text adventure, which at the time was a pretty new idea. Reading it, you’ll either get perspective or nostalgia about that time.

Infocom at this point was a PO Box and some big plans, but had no office space, hence the address.

The donor wishes to remain anonymous. Thank you, donor.

PDP-11 Zork Auction

Posted: November 28th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Text Adventure History | 2 Comments »

An interesting auction occurred this past week: someone put up a signed and verified copy of PDP-11 Zork, which is a very rare edition that predates even the Personal Software edition of Zork. If it looks like some photocopied pages on yellow paper, you’d be quite correct. It also includes the original PO box of the company before it moved into actual office space at 55 Wheeler Street in Cambridge, MA.

I bid on this, putting in what I thought was a ludicrous amount of money. My excuse was that I was likely to award it as some sort of prize during the sale of GET LAMP. Or maybe I was going to keep it for myself. Who knows.

My bid was in the hundreds of dollars. I thought I was being silly.

It went for $2,348.

Here’s the original link to the auction on E-bay. I have no insider information on the reason it went for sale, now, as it did. I was told about the auction by a friend in the context of “oh, this might be of interest to you”. I do know of cases of one-time Infocom employees selling off artifacts over time.

By the way, this came with no magnetic media; it was just the set of papers and a letter of authenticity. Not that having the original magnetic media would have been that informative, but just so you know what went on the block.

What a bargain!

Artifact Collection at the Office

Posted: November 28th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Text Adventure History | 4 Comments »

Office Photos, November 2008

As part of working for the past few years on this documentary, I’ve been collecting artifacts related to text adventures. This ranges from things like the stack of adventure-related books above to software, printouts, advertisements, and videotape. A lot will get into the movie one way or another.

The books are interesting. Some are just walkthroughs, where an author solves a game as best they can and then tell you the specific steps to solve the games. Others try and give you subtle hints about the way to go so you can discover the final bits yourself. But most interesting to me personally are a couple books specifically geared towards the creation of adventure games. One of these, Writing Basic Adventure Programs for the TRS-80 by Frank Dacosta, is hardbound and far outstrips any reasonable treatment of the subject, including page after page of underlying programming theory to ensure your program would be the most well-constructed game for the TRS-80, ever.  Published in 1982, it only had a couple years of possible usefulness for what it was written for, but the general themes and lessons in the book would probably work up to the present day.

A few more books:

Office Photos, November 2008

Infocom Sales Figures

Posted: November 26th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, Text Adventure History | No Comments »

One of the neater things I scanned in from Steve Meretzky’s collection were these two pages of sales figures of Infocom products.

First, a caveat. When I say someone from Infocom was amazing, I don’t want to make it sound like a lot of other people at infocom weren’t amazing, because they were. I’m just focusing on one or two amazing people at any given time in describing them to you.  As an additional note, when I say that Infocom was amazing, I don’t want to give the impression that companies outside Infocom weren’t amazing as well. They were.

So, anyway: Mike Dornbrook at Infocom was amazing.

His interview was great, but beyond that, the pure mass of things he did and how he did them was pervasive in a bunch of other interviews as well. He invented Invisiclues, got the Zork User’s Group going (which eventually wrapped back into Infocom) and a lot of good ideas about marketing and interacting with the users came from him.

He also was a marketer, and so his interest in the hard numbers was legion. He’d keep a list of sales numbers on a chalkboard in his office, and he was always on top of what was working or not working. When he clashed with the creative side on things, it was generally to make things better, not necessarily cheaper or easier. It was Mike, for example, who had to go track down how exactly one would go about making Zorkmids.

The scans I post above were picked up by Simon Carless a few months ago, and he caused a small amount of press about them. Here’s some links to various discussions: 1 2 3.

The pages were in the folder without much context, but judging by the date, I am going to assume these were tracked for handing over to Activision, to answer questions and set expectations.

I don’t want to spend too much type analyzing them; others have done so with the same amount of first-hand knowledge I do (none) so no sense adding to anything there. What’s obvious, though, is that the games industry was a little smaller than people might think, back in the 1980s. Remember, Infocom was one of the top sellers of software, not just game software, in the home computer market.

Scanning Infocom

Posted: November 25th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Interactive Fiction, production, Text Adventure History | 7 Comments »

There are worse places to be than Steve Meretzky’s basement.

As part of the GET LAMP project, I’ve been collecting artifacts and images throughout the commercial heydays of text adventures, and nobody got bigger than Infocom in the early 1980s. And Steve was one of the big designers at Infocom, creating or co-creating some of the most lasting games in the genre: Planetfall, Sorcerer, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Stationfall… and then went on after Infocom to make many other classics as well. He is a towering figure in the games industry, recognized as one of the greats, among other designers who have produced one-tenth his output.

But beyond his place in the history of text adventures, he’s also acutely aware of the history of text adventures, and the process, and the trends of a gaming industry. Unlike a lot (and I do mean the vast majority) of commercial text adventure authors, he’s still in the game-making business; a lot moved into other programming jobs, or contract work, or basically stepping upwards into management of other programmers. (A few walked away from computers as a livelihood, too.)

But even beyond that, beyond the fact that he was this great designer and also associated with this great company and has been a willing participant in recounting the history of this genre, is the fact that he’s been a tireless archivist of all the history he’s walked through or been a part of.

This can’t be trumpeted enough: Steve saved everything.

He’s let me go through a lot of what he saved, to scan parts of it for use in my movie. And there was a lot to go through.

He followed one of the core tenets of archiving: save everything you can, because you never know what will end up being the most important items in the regard of history. He saved memos, handwritten notes, ad copy, correspondence with printers and PR folk. He saved invitations to parties, softball game announcements, photos and sketches.

This is also critical: it’s sorted. He didn’t sort it to the level of fanaticism that would require someone to only keep a subset of stuff, but he has it in arrangements that made my life a lot easier: memos by years, folders for sales, folders for drawings, and game design binders. Did I mention the game design binders? Every scrap of paper related to the design of his games, thousands of pages of revision, discussion, improvements, dead ends and so on.

He also had a really nice copy of Cornerstone, the ultimately-failed Infocom business product:

I can’t imagine there are that many pristine copies of this product left; that one of them would be in the collection of someone whose company partially failed because of this product shows his stellar attitude to saving the artifacts.

I wish more people who worked in firms of great fame or whose company has or had great influence in the minds of the world would be like this. While for many it might not be informative to browse over the castoffs of a commercial enterprise, for others it’s a perfect insight into what came before. Infocom had to pioneer many now-common ideas in marketing, production and programming approach; the academics that started the company threw a lot of very interesting incubated ideas into the mix and I personally believe that’s what led to its initial success. Beyond that, though, you can’t discount the work of their creative teams to turn very good game ideas into must-have classics.

I must state clearly that not every step of Infocom was a sure-footed midas touch, and not every choice made came back a hundred-fold in riches. Contained in these documents are silly demands, poorly-considered options, badly-handled maneuvers, and the failings of people all too human.

These are not items saved to trot out at every gathering of folks to self-aggrandize. They aren’t trumpeted in every piece of post-1990 correspondence to win arguments by fiat. This is a collection of influential writings and behind the scenes artifacts that a serious student of games and self-proposed archive of gaming materials would have to acknowledge as a world-class library. We are all very lucky that Steve had the forward-thinking approach to his work to keep such a tight record of the last few decades of his productive life. We will all be better for it.

How lucky I was to have contact with Steve Meretzky. How lucky we all are!