Allegiances Lost

by Roger J. Long

(article date: 1990)

As some of you already know, I have a special interest in Infocom's text adventures. For those that don't, I'll define it a bit. Infocom's text adventures are some of the best games ever written. Each one challenges you to use your skills at problem solving, in order to achieve a certain goal, be it collecting the twenty treasures in Zork I, stopping Professor Moriarty in Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, or the small task of proving your innocence in Suspect. In addition, the games contained detailed descriptions, humor and an intelligent program that recognized more than "GO DOOR". Not included on the program disk, but in the package, were such interesting items as a pair of Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses (since our technology isn't up to that level yet, black cardboard sunglasses were substituted), a "scratch 'n sniff" card, and a drawstring pouch containing a fifty guineas note.

Infocom was quite different in that respect. With other companies, you got a disk, a package, and an instruction manual. The "freebies" that Infocom included with their stories ("games" seems inadequate) were not always necessary to solving them, but they always heightened the experience of solving one.

This was the main reason why I have made a special effort to purchased Infocom's stories. However, it is getting increasingly more difficult to find them. It is not solely because I only have a few left to purchase. It is because of Infocom's decision to stop producing text-only adventures.

Infocom followed a pattern that I've seen in other companies. (Atari is a slightly different case, but it shows a little bit of computer history.) Back in the late 70's, a group at Atari got fed up with the way things were being done, so they quit and formed their own company, Activision. Activision grew a bit (later into the giant we know today called Mediagenic, which also owns Infocom), and the same thing happened. Accolade was then formed. Once again, a group quit and formed Three-Sixty, because they felt they had "come 'full-circle"' (returned to the ideas that created Activision). So far, I have not seen if they have been successful or not.

Epyx's case is closer to what happened to Infocom. Epyx just about grew up with the Commodore 64, and nearly all of their products were released for it. Recently, Epyx announced it was no longer going to make games for personal computers. Instead, it was going to make video games. This left people out who wanted programs for their computers.

(At this point, I could also include Apple, but the June 1990 issue of "Computer Shopper" says it well enough.)

Infocom has taken a similar path, but for a different reason. Between 1977, when the main-frame version of Zork was completed, and 1985, computers really weren't powerful enough to display quality graphics. So, Infocom devoted itself to writing outstandingly detailed stories and advertised as such ("We stick our graphics where the sun don't shine" and "We unleash the world's most powerful graphics technology"-both with a drawing of a brain).

Then, in 1987 when "The Lurking Horror" was introduced, things began to change. Unannounced in their ads, but revealed in the Winter 1987 issue of "The Status Line", Infocom's newsletter, the Amiga version of "Lurking Horror" incorporated sound effects into the story. The final question in that article asked, "Does this represent a move towards the future for Infocom?", and was responded to with, "We always want to take advantage of anything which can enhance a story, and if we can do it in a reasonable way, we will do it. We never stop looking for better ways of doing things as well as more and different things to do in our stories." The higher-end computers (Amiga, Atari ST, IBM PC-compatible and Macintosh) have great capabilities, and it made sense to make use of them.

At the time, I thought it was great, and l still do. Imagine reading on the screen that you have just startled a pack of rats, and then to hear a rat's squeal. It would probably scare me to death!

Infocom's next step also seemed right: The inclusion of graphics to supplement the text. At first, it was simple. An auto-mapping feature was provided for "Beyond Zork". Fortunately, the Commodore 128 was able to provide the graphics Infocom needed, so not all Commodore owners were left out.

The Winter/Spring 1988 issue of "The Status Line" addressed why "Beyond Zork" was not released for all computers. Mike Dornbrook, Infocom's Director of Marketing, noted that to "not support new machines to the best of their technological capabilities spells a very short future for a software developer. To leave behind older machines breeds not only loss of customers' respect and loyalty, but also the destruction of the current sales base; this, too, puts a software company on the edge." He stated that Infocom needed to support those who can support programs for a higher-end machines, but that they didn't want to turn their backs on those with less powerful machines, and that they had "made conscious-and even painful-efforts to continue to support those customers." Again, things seemed well for text-only adventures.

Within a few months, Infocom's next issue of "The Status Line" arrived, and all doubt was dispelled as to Infocom's intentions. The first article stated that in response to customers' requests, Infocom was going to start using graphics. Again, a good move on their part, to respond to your customers. However, they decided to move away from text-only stories. This left out the very people Mike Dornbrook said would be supported, a promise made not six months earlier.

At this point, I could live with their decision.

After all, the 8-bit computers were rapidly being replaced with 16-bit or higher computers, capable of showing quality graphics. Besides, there were still plenty of their previous products that I had yet to play, and some I had yet to buy. But Infocom was not finished with their changes.

In the 20th issue of "The Status Line", Infocom announced that they would be changing the black-and-white newsletter into a full-color magazine called "Escape". Since I was still buying their stories, I expected to still receive a subscription to it. Six months later, another "Status Line" showed up, with the same announcement, but said that the name of the magazine would be "ZQ" (for "ZorkQuest", the name of two of their InfoComics). Again, I expected to continue to receive issues from them.

A year later, I was bewildered as to where my subscription had disappeared to. Infocom's policy was that if you bought a story and sent in the warranty card, you got a one-year subscription. I had thought my subscription might have run out, but after sending in around five warranty cards from the stories I had recently bought, no issues were delivered.

I wrote to Infocom at this point, and received the reply that no issues of "ZQ" had been published. Infocom wanted to devote its energies to producing the best stories they could. Not exactly the answer that I was seeking.

At this point, I realized Infocom was not the same company that I once knew, via their newsletters. I decided that I would do my best to get as many of their text-only adventures as I could, to save the feeling of caring about people that they once displayed.

Infocom is a unique company to me. It is the only one that compelled me to make a special effort to buy their products. When I am ready to move on to a more powerful computer, probably the Amiga, I will most likely purchase the stories they have put out for it. But, they won't hold the same meaning for me as their previous works.

Maybe if I solve "Moonmist" I'll feel better ....


The two change announcements that never happened.
Infocom's reason for no more issues.

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