Technology Review: Author of Play

There’s nothing terribly stunning or new in this interview with Steve Meretzky, but I’m happy to read his memories about the good old days of text adventuring.

SM: It’s kind of hard to imagine, looking back on
these text games now, but at the time, they were really the cutting
edge–not just of games, but of any computer application. They pushed
the limits of computing power. To be able to type in sentences in
natural English and have the computer understand them seemed really
cool to players. Infocom also did some incredible things in terms of
text compression, frequent-word algorithms, and the like that allowed
us to get what at the time seemed like an extraordinary amount of
material into a game.

TR: Infocom created a “Z-machine,” which
was a piece of software that could serve as a container for any Infocom
game. When a new type of computer came out, you could adapt the
Z-machine to that computer, and Infocom’s entire library would
immediately be available for it. How did that help the company?

SM: It was certainly a huge component of Infocom’s
competitive advantage. It was just hugely important in the early ’80s,
when there was a new, completely incompatible PC coming out once a
month or so. Digital would come out with one, and HP would come out
with one, and Tandy would come out with another, and NEC would come out
with another, and there were just so many. I think at one point we had
20 different personal computers that we were supporting. The great
thing was that it was almost free to move our game to some new computer
even if it would only sell a hundred copies. And the other huge
advantage was the speed with which we could respond to a new computer.
The biggest success was when the Mac came out in 1984. We wrote a Mac
interpreter, and got about 15 games running on the Mac, at a point when
there were only maybe 15 other games in the entire universe that you
could find for your Mac. So half of all the game titles that you could
find for the Mac were ours.