In 1972 "Colossal Cave" (also known as "Adventure"), a text-based game in which you had to collect treasures in a gigantic cave, was written by a man named Willie Crowther, who put it on the university mainframe at Boston University. It was only rudimentary and lurked around there, until in 1976 it was immensely expanded by another unselfish human being, Don Woods. This improved version became highly popular among college students, who played it by accessing the mainframe over ARPAnet (the ancestor of what today is the Internet).
Two of those, sometime early in 1977, that couldn't stop playing were Dave Lebling and his friend Marc Blank from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT for short. Both were part of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science ("LCS"), which at that time created a programming language called "MDL."
Lebling had already written a computer game of his own and was obsessed by "Dungeons & Dragons," the pen and paper roleplaying game. In fact, he was so obsessed that he developed a program to aid him playing it. After solving "Colossal Cave" and with the outset of doing a game like that better, he started to write a simple parser in MDL (lovingly called "muddle"), Blank and Tim Anderson, also part of LCS, fooled a little around with the code and built a simple game featuring four rooms to test it.
After this preliminary exercise Blank, Lebling, Anderson, and yet another student, Bruce Daniels, started with the real project. They designed maps and puzzles for players to solve and named this new endeavor "Zork" - a hacker word floating around at that time, which the four actually used on all their works-in-progress. Later it was decided to change the name to "Dungeon," but, to avoid copyright problems, the much more original name "Zork" was kept.
In the Summer of 1977 they finally came somewhere close to a finish and had a working version, although puzzles and rooms were still being included as ongoing expansion. But the game was playable, already half the size of what was later known as "Zork I" and most of the later famous features like the "Great Underground Empire," ruled by "Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive " and the feared "Grue," which Lebling had borrowed by Jack Vance, were already in it.
On the university's PDP-10 the game was a gigantic success and massively distributed over ARPAnet. Hundreds of users got hooked on it and the team received a never ending line of comments which they used to still enhance the game and make puzzles better. It was until 1979 when the guys actually put the last puzzle into it (a last mainframe update was done in 1981) and by that time this mainframe version of "Zork" had reached the size of about 1 Megabyte - a huge size back then.
Originally they had planned to let the case rest once the game got finished, as they had achieved their goal: to do a better game than "Colossal Cave." But just at that time a number of people at LCS decided to form a company, because they wanted to stay and work together after graduation from MIT.
They didn't have the slightest idea what they wanted to sell, but with Lebling and Anderson being two of the possible founders, they decided to use what is already there and make "Zork" their first product - it was never intended that this company would specialize on entertainment software.
Meanwhile and independently Joel Berez, who at that time worked on his graduate studies at LCS and had heard about the Zork project, and Marc Blank, who worked on his parents wish to become a doctor, met by chance in Pittsburgh. Together they marveled about the exciting success of the newly available home computers, among them the TRS-80 and the Apple II, who had the capabilities to process more complex tasks than the machines before.
Just as an intellectual challenge they tried to find a way that would allow to bring Zork, which was programmed to work on a large mainframe, to these computers and came up with a genius system to do so. They designed a special programming language, which through an emulator could run on any computer and called it "Z-Machine." It was a "virtual processor," which ran on the newly compiled "ZIL," "Zork Implementation Language" while every home computer got its own "ZIP," "Z-Machine Interpreter Program," that could interpretate the Z-Machine code for it.
Having the solution for the problem that the LCS group faced, Blank and Berez became part of the new company, that after a lot of discussion was named "Infocom" and officially founded on June 22, 1979 by Tim Anderson, Joel Berez, Marc Blank, Mike Broos, Scott Cutler, Stu Galley, Dave Lebling, J. C. R. Licklider, Chris Reeve and Al Vezza. The first Board of Directors consisted of Berez, Broos, Galley, Lebling, and Vezza.
Problem was, "Zork" was still too big for the Apples and TRS-80s, which had 16KB of memory. They were forced to take huge bits out of the original and named the revamped game "Zork I." Finally, after some more bug huntings and improvements, Infocom in 1980 had its first "official" product to sell, got its own P.O. Box and looked for a distributor.
"Personal Software Inc.," known for "Visicalc," the first spreadsheet program for PCs, agreed to do it, in November 1980 "Zork I" was out for the PDP-11 and Infocom got its first payment in form of a check over $800. It was only a month later that the program was ported for the TRS-80 and sold over 1500 copies until September 1981. In that year, Bruce Daniels, already working for Apple, also adapted it for the Apple II and more than 6000 copies got sold. Overall, "Zork I" sold over 1.000.000 copies on various platforms over the years.
But unsatisfied with the support of PS, Inc., the enthusiastic enterpreneurs behind Infocom agreed to publish their next project themselves. Supported by marketing expert Mort Rosenthal they searched for stores and "Zork II" became the first wholly Infocom product. It sold well and on Jan. 1., 1982 Infocom moved to the later famous address at 55 Wheeler Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 and started to develop marvelous games like "Suspended," Planetfall," "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," "Infidel" and "Spellbreaker."
But, unfortunately, not much later in the same year and when Infocom was still on the rise to be one of the brightest stars of the software industry, the company already made its worst decision: Go back to the initial intentions when founding the company, have a business division and do a program called "Cornerstone," a database. Loads of money were coming in and loads of money were spent on that one project - too much. Cornerstone was finished in 1984 and published in 1985, at a price of $495. Even after a later price reduction to $95 it gave its name all honors - it lay on the shelves like stone.
With that luggage to carry Infocom also had to face another problem: In the mid-1980s faster computers with faster processors and better graphical qualities (like the Amiga and Atari ST) were introduced and players shifted their preferences to games with graphics, animations and sound. The market for text adventures became more limited and that didn't help to get rid of the financial burden.
Infocom's fitness was failing and finally only one step was left: To cope with the changing market, bad financial shape and to let the company survive Infocom was sold on June 13, 1986 to the pioneers of the Atari VCS, Activision, for about 7.5 million Dollars.
Still, even after being bought by Activision, Infocom had problems and to get along with the market changes was forced to make concessions. So in 1987, "Beyond Zork," written by Brian Moriarty, became the first Infocom game to feature a graphical user interface. It had a map that changed according to the player's movements among other graphic tidbits and also had some roleplaying elements. To take this development even further, "Zork Zero," written a year later by Steve Meretzky, came with even more enhanced graphics.
But hardcore fans got alienated by the graphics and new buyers couldn't be attracted. Infocom still wrote great adventures, but did not have enough experience in doing graphical games. Titles like "Journey" failed and on May 5, 1989 Activision forced Infocom to lay off 16 of at that time 26 employees (in contrast, Infocom employed about a hundred people in 1984 to get "Cornerstone" finished). To the remaining 10 Activision offered to move to Menlo Park, CA, where Activision had their headquarters. Only five accepted and what then remained of Infocom was nothing much like the original company.
All games up to "Shogun" were done at Infocom's original place in Cambridge, MA. The games published past 1989 were by mostly different authors and had little to do with the original idea Infocom had about high class computer games.