First posted on 03 May 2001. Last updated on 22 September 2011.
The revolution and evolution of the adventure genre owe much to Steve Meretzky. Fans of interactive fiction should recognize Meretzky as a member of the Infocom Implementors. He is the father of such classics as Planetfall, Sorcerer, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (with Douglas Adams), A Mind Forever Voyaging, Stationfall, and Zork Zero, as well as the Leather Goddesses of Phobos and the Spellcasting series. His last adventure game is The Space Bar in 1997. Oddly enough, Meretzky's career has started originally at MIT in the summer of 1975 when studying to become an architect, only to stumble later into the computer game industry where he has since found his fame and fortune. We are privileged to have this exclusive interview with Meretzky. In the interview, Meretzky speaks of his past work with Infocom, his passion as a game designer, and his current project.
- What was your first "gig" as a game designer? What/Who convinced you to pursue a career in the gaming industry?
- Marc Blank, who was Infocom's VP of Development, who was also one of the original authors of Zork, hired me as Infocom's second tester, and after a year of that offered me a chance to write my own game (which became Planetfall). Before getting involved in computer games, I was working in construction management, which is what I majored in at college; after that, getting into games was like digging into chocolate cake after a few years of eating nothing but brussel sprouts.
- What do you think had made Infocom initially so successful as a game developer and publisher before its demise under Activision in 1989?
- For its time, Infocom had very impressive technology: the multi-word parser was a huge improvement over the two-word parser that was state-of-the-art in those days, as well as the compression techniques that allowed Infocom to store an astounding amount of game play on a floppy disk which, in those days, held only about 80K of data! Also, Infocom as a company had a near-obsession with quality, which showed through in everything from package design to the scarcity of "bugs".
- You have been labeled as one of the famed "Infocom Imps" (short for Infocom Implementors). Where/What was the origin of this nickname?
- "Implement" was an old programmer's term for writing a program, as in "I can implement that subroutine in two minutes." The name took on new significance with the publication of Enchanter, by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, in 1983. In that game, you could find a book which related the ancient Legend of the Implementors; apparently, some believed that the world did not exist until it was created from the imaginations of the Implementors. Furthermore, you could use a magic spell to summon the Implementors; when you did so, there was a funny little scene in which Marc and Dave appear in the game, attribute their arrival to a bug which they proceed to fix, and then they vanish.
- Of all the interactive fiction titles you penned at Infocom, which single title (can only pick one) best represents the pinnacle of your contribution to the realm of interactive fiction? Why?
- A Mind Forever Voyaging, because it was my largest, most serious, and most socially relevant work, and because I feel it showed that computer games could be more than an adolescent pastime, but could instead be used to explore Big Issues.
- Of all the adventure game series (i.e. games with sequels) you have worked on, which is your favorite series? Why?
- I always enjoyed the Enchanter games the most. The addition of spellcasting to the mix of typical adventure activities made these games particularly fun to play and particularly fun to write.
- If you have to pick one title, which of your work was the biggest disappointment to you (despite rave reviews)? Why?
- Probably The Space Bar, because it was so much more work than any game I've ever worked on, and I thought it came out so well, and it could wonderful reviews, but sold like bat guano.
- During the time Activision took over Infocom from 1986 to 1989, what mistakes did Infocom and Activision make that ultimately spelt the end of Infocom? Did you have any regret staying with Infocom until the end?
- Infocom had already made one huge mistake, which was investing in a business product called Cornerstone, and one lesser mistake, which was not diversifying our line of games fast enough, as a hedge against the day when the text adventure market went south. Following the acquisition by Activision, the first year went quite smoothly while Jim Levy was still in charge of Activision. But then he was booted by the board of directors, and Bruce Davis installed, and it was all downhill from there. Bruce was the only member of the BofD who was against the Infocom acquisition, and it showed in his dealings with us. The last couple of years were a slow painful death as Activision continued to strip functions away from Infocom — production, then PR, then package design, etc. - and then turn around and charge Infocom twice as much for doing half as good a job.
I have no regrets about staying at Infocom until the end. Although I've worked at some great places since then, with really wonderful groups of people, there's never been anything that's compared with the Infocom crew and work environment.
- The appeal of adventure genre has dramatically lessened since the golden days of Infocom. What do you think are the driving forces behind the "apparent" demise of the genre? Have developers relied excessively on technology when developing adventure titles that otherwise have little substance? With the current software and hardware advances in gaming technology, what is your present opinion on the age-old debate on the reliance on "text" versus "graphics" in adventure game design?
- Clearly, the vast majority of people prefer a visual experience. But the economics were just never there for graphic adventures; it's just too expensive to show all the things that you can describe in text. So people just moved onto other genres where images could be created more algorithmically and therefore more economically. I'd certainly rather play a good, deep text adventure than a stripped-down linear graphic adventure.
- After Infocom, you freelanced for Legend, Activision, and Electronic Arts. How was the work experience different from that during your time at Infocom?
- I was, for the most part, working at home, which I hated. This is before the days of widespread email, so it was pretty isolating, both creatively and socially. And since I wasn't geographically in the same place as the rest of the team working on the game, my oversight of the creative process was a lot lesser, which was creative unsatisfying. I'm much happier working together with a group of people, as has been the case since those days (Boffo, GameFX, WorldWinner).
- You co-founded Boffo Games in 1994 with Mike Dornbrook and Leo DaCosta. What adventure game titles were produced under this label? In retrospect, the "Boffo" period had been a difficult transition in your career. What were the obstacles you faced marketing your products at the time?
- We created two games at Boffo, Hodj 'n' Podj and The Space Bar; only the latter was an adventure game. Our main problem at Boffo was in selecting unstable partners; our publisher for Hodj 'n' Podj was Media Vision, and they went belly-up in mid-project, and the game went to Virgin Interactive in a bankruptcy sale; our publisher for The Space Bar was Rocket Science, and again they went belly-up in mid-project and the game went to Segasoft in a bankruptcy sale. And then by that point the graphic adventure market was as dead as the text adventure market, and after a few months of futilely trying to close another deal, the Boffo days were over.
- Your brief working relationships with both GameFX and Blizzard had also not been very fruitful. Projects were repeatedly abandoned. Contracts were signed then later canceled. What advice can you give to those new to the business to protect oneself in the gaming industry from such turmoil?
- Pretty different experiences. I just consulted with Blizzard for a couple of weeks on their Warcraft Adventure game, trying to bring it from a B+ title to an A title, but ultimately they decided that they couldn't justify the time or expense it would take to do that. The situation with GameFX was totally different, I was an employee there for a year and a half, and trying to get the go-ahead on any project from our parent company THQ was completely futile. It was just a long series of abandoned demos and prototypes, and then THQ finally laid off the entire team, which was in my opinion the most talented group of people I've ever worked with, including Infocom. It was insane.
The situation you describe with cancelled contracts is more akin to the Boffo days, rather than the Blizzard or GameFX experience.
I don't have much advice for protecting oneself against the instability of the industry. With console platforms constantly coming and going, and with the PC platform constantly evolving so rapidly, and with companies gulping each other up right and left, and with most of the executives running big companies having no understanding of or interest in the games that their companies are producing, there's precious little stability in the industry. The best advice is to assume the worst, and be ready for it.
- Of all people you have collaborated with, who gained your highest respect? Why?
- I really enjoy working with Ron Cobb, who did the concept art for The Space Bar. Not only is he a tremendously talented artist, he's also a truly funny and creative person who contributed countless ideas to the game design itself. Plus he a really nice person, and completely unassuming despite his achievements (celebrated "underground" cartoonist, contributor to Star Wars, Alien, Back to the Future, etc.)
- What do you think is the single most important principal when designing interactive fiction or adventure games?
- Same as for any game - it needs to be fun. If it's too hard, or too easy, or too repetitive, or if the interactive comes too infrequently, or if the puzzles are unfair - well, those all just boil down to the fact that the game (or that part of the game) won't be fun.
- How has your design philosophy changed over your almost twenty-year career?
- I'm much less interested in catering to the hard-core gamer, more interested in things that will have a broader appeal to a more casual type of game player.
- Do you believe the adventure genre is dying, that is, will adventure games survive without infusion from other genres, such as action or role-playing?
- Dying? Dead. Will they be reborn? It's possible, given some new technology that makes them both economical and "sexy" again.
- What is your current "gig"?
- I'm Creative Content Director for WorldWinner.com, an online games site that offers games of skill in a variety of genres. Players pay a fee to enter tournaments, with the tournament winner or winners getting a cash prize. It's obviously very different from anything I've done before, and I'm having quite a fun time.
- Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you have any adventure game (especially adventure game series) currently in development? If not, what kind of opportunity will you like to see before committing back to your "roots"?
- I don't really bother trying to see five years into the future. If I picked any given point in my life, and tried to look five years into the future, where I actually turned out to be five years later is so completely different and unpredictable, it's really a silly exercise. I have no adventure game or anything similar currently in development, but I certainly hope to return to story-based games at some indefinite point in the future.