Another look back: Text adventures and Infocom

If the graphics in the old arcade games were bad (as I talked about in a past blog post), the graphics in text adventure games were, well, horrible. Actually you can’t judge them because there were no graphics.

Text adventures for me, and for many others, started with this:

You are in an open field west of a big white house with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

That was how Infocom’s Zork I started. This game started what was to be a good run for a company that wrote good games without graphics – imagine that! We had to think, type our commands in plain english (no l33tsp33k). Ah, the days when command of our language meant something to gaming.

Infocom is long and gone (Activision bought the rights to their games a while back). You can still buy the Infocom games in shrink-wrap packaging through Amazon, but there’s other ways to enjoy them.

The gaming genre for text adventures is interactive fiction (IF). Most are built using something called a Z-machine interpreter. Z-code is a programming language which is perfectly suited for interactive fiction, and just about all Infocom games were written with it. There are many different versions of Z-code, and many different versions of interpreters, for just about every OS and platform.

If you want to know more about the history of Infocom, it’s games, and it’s people, go to the Infocom home page. Well, maybe not the Infocom home page, but the closest thing you’ll find to it. It includes links to download Zork I, II, and III (the only three Infocom games that Activision does not hold the rights for, and they are freely distributed now); a history of all the games, images of box covers, and so much more. I got lost in here for about an hour in an enthralling walk down memory lane.

Once you tire of the Zork trilogy (you did download it and play them all, right?), you have to buy the games… well, not really. I’m not condoning this, but… is actually a service where you can play 29 different IF games (and most of the most popular Infocom games) online via a Telnet connection. Simply telnet to, sign in with username zork (no password), and play the game you want to play. What better way to waste time at work – and your boss will think you’re coding some obscure programming language when he sees the archaic text-only interface on your screen!

For those that want to play the games when offline, you need to do two things. The first is to find, download, and install a Z-machine interperter. Then you need to download the Z-code files, which you open from the interpreter. Then you play.

There’s one place to find out how to find all items you need: This site is nothing short of fantastic. In addition to links to Z-code interpreters, it includes links to download Z-code files for the most popular Infocom games. And it includes the full content of the Invisiclues books for many games. (Invisiclues books were old cheat guides written in the form of FAQs. They came with a highlighter pen that would “reveal” the hidden clues. So high-tech! How I yearn for them. Damn parents made me throw out everything good.) And it includes a walkthrough for most games (if you just want to enjoy reading the game like a book).

Beyond that, if you want even more, go to The Interactive Fiction Archive, which includes hundreds of articles, FAQs, and – most importantly – downloadable IF games.

So plug in your CGA graphics card, unplug your joystick, and nuzzle up to your PC in a way you probably haven’t done for a decade…

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California’s proposed video game legislation (again!)

As reported on Gamasutra, Feb 17 2005:

Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), California’s Speaker pro tem, has introduced a bill into the California legislature that would prohibit children under 17 from purchasing videogames that depict serious injury to human beings….

“When you push a computer button, you are pulling the trigger,” Yee said, explaining the need for such strict labels on the games industry as opposed to movies or TV. “Children are developing the skills to stalk, maim and shoot people.” …

Doesn’t the network news often depict stories and content about stalking, maiming, and shooting? An interesting sociological study would be to understand the impact of “news” stories depicting violent crime, and “games” depicting violent crime. We all understand that exposure to something can make it more bearable, even acceptable (such as the tendency of domestic violence to span generations). However, exposure to something can also make you more aware of the negative aspects of it (such as the tendency to avoid drug addiction after watching the same destroy a friend or family member).

Food for thought… Millions of people play “violent” computer games every day, and the overwhelming majority of them clearly suffer no adverse affects. Perhaps this proposed legislation is best left on the drawing board and off the books.

What defines success for a Web-based game?

[This article is largely copied from a post I made on the International Game Developers Association Web site. The original post can be found on the IGDA’s Online Games forum.]

Is a successful Web-based game something that pays for itself (bandwidth, infrastructure, etc.)? Is it something that provides adequate financial reward compared to the development effort? Is it something that generates enough popularity to generate marketing awareness for some other entity?

The answer really depends on the intent of the developer. A hobbyist may want a game to cover his expenses. An independent may want the game to generate some amount of revenue to justify his continued effort in it, ignoring the initial development effort (which was most likely done in spare time without any initial working capital). A traditional company will certainly measure success by the total return on investment, considering development and operating costs, but may consider a Web game a "success" if it exists more as a marketing toy to bring awareness to other products or services offered by the company.

I haven’t done serious research, but my experience is that most Web-based games are developed by hobbyists or independents, making the need for a "true return on investment" an afterthought when defining the game’s success.

But what of the intangible costs? What of the experience and knowledge obtained while developing and operating a game? Does this not have value?
A personal example:

I’ve probably spent somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 hours working on my game, CSFBL, since late 1999. It’s impossible to nail down an exact number, because I do it in my spare time. There have been weeks where 40 hours dedicated to it is an understatement, and weeks where 5 hours is stretching it. How do you quantify those hours? At a measly $25 an hour, that’s between $50k and $100k. It takes a lot for a Web-based game to generate that kind of revenue, and I’d bet most of those games that reached a "production" stage don’t accumulate that in their lifetime.

I’ll confess: CSFBL hasn’t brought in anywhere near that kind of money – and when you consider the expenses of the server and bandwidth, it has probably operated at a loss throughout its entire history [i]before you consider any compensation for my time[/i]. But, the knowledge I have gained from this has catapulted my ability to do other work (though not the work I’d like to do, which is Web games!). Has the indirect benefit of my game been enough to call it a success? Only I can judge that. Some days, I feel it has.

It would be interesting to hear other people’s experiences in this area.

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You can go back: Atari Flashback™ Classic Game Console

To prove that thirty-year-old technology still has a place today, Atari is releasing the Atari Flashback Classic Game Console – essentially a new console video game that has two controllers and twenty classic Atari games built right in. This is not intended to compete with the likes of the PlayStation 2. Rather, it is intended to give people who yearn for the retro games of the Atari 2600 and Atati 7800 something to satisfy their yearning.

Note that the games included are the video game console versions and not the arcade versions – meaning 16-color graphics and pretty stale gameplay will be the norm. Then again, if you throw on your bell-bottoms and find some old recordings of Wolfman Jack to put on the stereo, you just might be sent back in time some 20 to 30 years, and you just might enjoy yourself.

Atari to Reissue Scores of Old Games / “Well, they were great 20 years ago…”

As reported by the Associated Press, Atari has ?plans to reissue scores of its classic titles from yesteryear on a single disc that can be played on the game consoles Xbox and PlayStation 2.?

All this fun stuff reminds me of an old blog entry I wrote a while back…

Well, they were great 20 years ago…

Pong, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong…

If you were born between 1965 and 1975, you were fortunate enough to experience the Golden Age of Video Games. Those of us of this generation were post-Baby Boom and pre-Generation X; we were the first computerized, video game generation. We were the first electronic generation. We were Generation V-G. It was wonderful.

Asteroids, Super Mario Brothers, Pac Man…

What brought me to this? A simple article on the Web edition of Electronic Gaming Monthly, aptly entitled Child’s Play. This article is a synopsis of what happens when a bunch of 10 to 13 year-olds (who probably can’t program their way out of the box without 3D acceleration and 256MB of RAM) try out those video game classics we grew up with: Pong, Donkey Kong, Mattel’s Handheld Football, Tetris, Super Mario Brothers (the NES version), Space Invaders, and E.T. (for the Atari 2600).

Track and Field, Centipede, Lunar Lander…

If you thought the attention span of the modern child is short, put them in front of a 16-color highly pixelated 2D Super Mario. Reading through the article makes me think of three things:

  1. Kids like video games where things blow up.
  2. Kids are not nostalgic.
  3. Pre-teens know what a hooker is.

Rather than cry about the plight of the next generation (don’t worry, I plan on taking very good care of myself so as not to be a burdern on you), I took a look around the Web to find those places that hold true to the nostalgia of days gone by.

  • PONG-Story: A site dedicated to Ralph H. Baer, the inventor of the first video game, PONG. After going through this site, I realize that PONG was not the first video game – but it was my first video game.
  • RetroGames: It’s more about game emulation than about the games themselves. It include links to the best tool for playing the games of yesterday on your PC, MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), the greatest and most comprehensive arcade game emulator, and some very popular message forums (with a horrible interface).
  • Classic Videogame Ads: It’s not about the games, but about the game marketing. After seeing the BurgerTime ad, I wonder how I ever forgot it. Oh, and whereas today kids argue about who has more expensive P. Diddy sportswear, in my day we argued Intellivision vs. Atari.
  • Intellivision Lives: Yes, it does live, and I’m amazed that it kept such a following. Actually, I’m not amazed. I was so excited when the handheld Intellivision game that plugs right into your TV came out that I bought it promptly opened it as soon as I got home. Let me say, it sucked. It had 25 games but none of them were quite the same. Even the sounds were wrong. I simply can’t play Night Stalker without the distinct heartbeat sound (even the robots never changed, unlike the real game), or Skiing without the distinct swoosh of the skis or the crack when you hit a tree. Yes, all this stuff was rudely missing. Fortunately, you can play the Intellivision classics on your PC – some offered as free downloads, and the larger collections from Intellivision Lives (includes all Mattel Electronics games), Intellivision Rocks (includes all Activision and Imagic games), and Intellivision’s Greatest Hits (retail collections).
  • The Killer List of Videogames: It is the killer list – as of this writing, 4,174 different arcade games. An incredible collection of information, screenshots, and 3-D models of the machines that ate every quarter that fell in your pocket.

I’ll try to throw more your way in the future, but until then…

Time Pilot, Defender, Pole Position, Missile Command, Robotron 2084…