Steve Meretzky (Infocom) – Interview

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One of the most influential game developers of all time – is no understatement. Steve Meretzky brought us legendary text adventure games such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Zork Zero. He kindly gave Adrian some of his time to share his experiences…

 

Steve, thank you for coming down to see us. An easy one to start, how did you first enter the video game industry?

Just luck… Friends from MIT were among the founders of Infocom. And my roommate at the time, Mike Dornbrook, was Infocom’s (lone) game tester. When he went off to business school, Marc Blank, one of the co-founders, and Infocom’s VP of Development, asked me to become the new game tester.

 

What was the first ever game you worked on with Infocom?

I tested “Zork I” and “Zork II” (wow! – Ed) without getting paid; the first game I got paid to work on was testing “Deadline”.

 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a true gaming classic. What was it like working with the legendary Douglas Adams and were you a fan of his work before you started work on the game?

I had never heard of THHGTTG (catchy – Ed) until I started writing “Planetfall”. Then, as people began playing the game, multiple people said “This reminds me of THHGTTG”, so I thought I’d better check it out. My first contact with it wasn’t the books, but actually a recording of the radio series. I fell in love with it, and put a little homage to THHGTTG into “Planetfall” … when you first arrive on the planet, a hatch opens in your escape pod with several pieces of survival gear, including a towel marked “Don’t Panic”. (I might have some of the details wrong, but it was something along those lines.)

Douglas was a little hard to work with, because he was a notorious procrastinator. But after about three months of collaborating on the game, and way behind schedule because of that collaboration, I went over to England and basically lived with Douglas for a week while we finished the design. The best part of working with him was that he really thought outside the box. Things like having the game lie to you, or having an inventory item called “no tea”, or having a parser-failure input be the words which fall through a wormhole and start an intergalactic war, were things that would never have occurred to me.

 

 

It’s regarded as one of the most important games ever made. What was it actually like when working on it and how do feel now looking back?

It’s great that the game is still played and remembered 30 years later. It’s one of the nice things about text games… They are very easy to keep alive. Live server-based games, like I’ve been working on more recently, vanish from the Earth when they are shut down, never to be played again.

 

Were you ever attached to work on the proposed sequel; Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and do you know why this title never got released?

I had discussions with some of the people working on it, but never worked on it myself. Basically, after the Hitchhiker, Douglas wanted to get away from that property for a while and work on other stuff, so Infocom started collaborating with him on “Bureaucracy”. That game dragged on waaaay longer than anyone expected, and by the time he was ready to return to Hitchhiker and work on the sequel, the text adventure market had pretty much dried up.

 

We’ve read that it took you almost two years to write the script for Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz, is this true?

Oh, nothing close. I did the design AND the implementation of Zork Zero in about a year. Of course, that was just to produce the Mac version. Other people worked on converting the game to Apple II, PC, and Amiga for another 6 months or more, so maybe that’s the source of this misinformation.

 

 

Many people view Zork Zero: The Revenge of Megaboz as the best in the Zork series. Did you initially feel any pressure when first working on the much-loved interactive fiction game?

Oh, sure. I’d already worked in this universe, on “Sorcerer”, and as part of that effort, I created the Encyclopedia Frobozzica that you could use within the game, which was the first real compendium of knowledge about the Great Underground Empire. So I had some chops already, going into the “Zork Zero” development. I convened a meeting of the remaining implementers of the original Zork mainframe game … Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, and Tim Anderson … to brainstorm ideas for the prequel, and to make sure that they were all okay with this project.

 

PC Gamer included you as one of the top 25 ‘Game Gods’, how does it feel that you are regarded as such an important and influential figure in the gaming industry?

I thought it was very cool at the time, but I never expected that people would still be talking about that article almost 20 years later! (we like to reiterate good journaslism – Ed) As I told people then, and still: being a Game God plus $2 will get you on the subway.

 

You have been involved in almost all aspects of game development. Was there a particular role you most enjoyed?

I really haven’t been in that many roles. Mostly game design, plus programming on the early games back when they were essentially one-person efforts. I’ve unofficially worn a producer hat here and there. But design is both my forte and my preference.

 

You have worked for so many legendary video game companies. Which was the most fulfilling and fun to work for?

Certainly Infocom, both because it was my first, and therefore everything was new and special, but also because of the amazing success we enjoyed. But every company has been special in some way, especially all the great people I’ve met and worked with over the years.

 

 

Which game did you have the most fun working on and can you explain why?

That’s tough. “Planetfall” is special because it was my first. “A Mind Forever Voyaging” is perhaps the game that I’ve most had people tell me was the reason they got into the game industry. “Leather Goddesses” was really fun because it pushed so many envelopes, and the packaging elements (3D comic and scratch ‘n’ sniff card) were so much fun to work on. “Hodj ‘n’ Podj” was the first game we made at my own studio, was my first opportunity working with voice actors, and is one of those few projects where the final game exceeded rather than fell short of the initial vision. But, probably, the most fun I had was on a game that never came out – “Dream Kingdom”, which I worked on at Disney. It was a Facebook game where you’d design and build your own theme park, like “Cityville” but using Disneyland buildings and Disney characters. It was an absolute dream team, and the game was coming out wonderfully. And it was great to work with Imagineers and Disney animators, and to visit the theme parks regularly for research. But Disney killed the game, for reasons too long to get into here.

 

What projects are you currently working on?

I just joined King, to build a new development team here in San Francisco. But so far I’ve just been focused on recruiting, and generating ideas, but haven’t actually started a project yet.

 

If you could share a few drinks with any video game character who would you choose and why?

Good question … one I’ve never gotten before. My first thought is the woman from “Her Story”, because there are so many questions I was left with after playing that superb game, and this would give me a chance to pump her for more information!

 

Interesting! Thank you Steve for your time, was awesome hearing about your work on these legendary titles. Readers, please visit Boffo.US for more on Steve and his stellar work.

Adrian

 

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