A Seat at the Big Kids’ Table: Cornerstone

What is a Cornerstone, anyway?

Various sources all tell the same story: a handful of MIT students and faculty associated with its Dynamic Modeling Group computer lab decided to found a small software company. They had no idea what to sell or even what to call themselves, but they were so collectively confident in their abilities that success seemed nevertheless assured. This wasn’t naiveté or arrogance: these people came from one of the most elite technical schools in the world, where they not only survived but thrived. Some even managed to co-write Zork, a massive PDP text adventure game, in their spare time. They were in many ways strangers to failure and would remain so for a handful of happily ascendant years.

The students were clever twentysomethings, and smart even by MIT standards. These weren’t the boom years of the late 90’s, though: real companies were run by grown-ups, and this little company would be no different. It needed men (they were always men back then, weren’t they?) of experience, serious men, to talk to press, investors, realtors, and banks. At this story’s beginning, some directors of Infocom came and went, but two played crucial and lasting roles at Infocom’s “big kids’ table:” Professors Al Vezza and J.C.L. Licklider. Both had prominent roles in MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) of which the DM group was a part. Licklider was, by all accounts, a likable and well-connected mentor type who had interfaced with Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA) to secure funding for various MIT projects. The students liked to call him “Lick.”

Al Vezza was a different case, and it is hard to shake the impression that even the most generous authors interested in Infocom have struggled to keep from saying something (or many things) genuinely nasty about him. By all accounts that I can find, he was not charismatic, inspirational, visionary, shrewd, or even a team player. Still, he must have been good at something. He had been in charge of the DM group, and, later, an assistant director of LCS. These were, one must guess, highly competitive environments with countless qualified people chasing after employment therein. He is always the villainous bumbler of the Infocom story, but how did he get to be where he was, doing what he did? It really does seem that Infocom collectively wanted him to be a CEO at one point in its history.

Many of these would-be entrepreneurs had not quit their day jobs in the early days of 1979. There was no office, only a PO box. There was no product yet, only a name. The name “Infocom,” which remains remarkably undescriptive, was chosen before there was a clear idea of what the company might do. Vezza, ironically, had the clearest idea about the company:

“[That was the] dream of the leader of the group, Al Vezza…someday he would bring together all the people who’d been involved with the group to start a commercial venture using the same techniques that had been so highly successful,”

More ironic still: when Infocom succeeded on these terms, Vezza was unhappy with the outcome. More on that later.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh

Marc Blank, another of the original “Zork Four” (Dave Lebling and Tim Anderson were still in New England with the temporarily aimless “Infocom”) was having a hard time enjoying himself at his medical residency (he went to medical school, of all things!). Fellow MIT graduate Joel Berez was managing his family housewares business there, and the two would get together to talk about the old hacker days at MIT, which they both missed. One of the things that they talked about was porting the mainframe adventure game written in the DMG lab, Zork, to home computers.

The two of them came up with a novel solution that would prove to be a crucial element in Infocom’s success as a computer game company: a virtual computer that greatly simplified porting games to different systems called the “Z-machine.” It was only a matter of time before Blank and Berez had left Pittsburgh for Cambridge, where it at last seemed there was something Infocom might do. Sell Zork, of course.

Close-up of a KL10 switch, a third generation PDP mainframe. It has a very long row of blue, light blue, and white rocker switches.
Without resources or direction to do otherwise, both Cornerstone and Infocom’s games were bound to graying mainframe technology.

Dare to Want It All: Cornerstone

The aim of this essay is not to recall Infocom’s history in total. It is, however, meant to call attention to its foundational aimlessness, to the ambiguous qualifications of its leaders at crucial moments in its story, and to the absence of existential commitment that was ultimately its fatal flaw. I hope that, after 72 posts here and over 150,000 words, no reader wonders if I think that Infocom was, at one time, one of the greatest game publishers in the world. It may not be clear, though, that I believe that Infocom could have remained one of the greatest game publishers in the world, if it would have had the courage to want it.

You see, the entire time that Infocom was churning out record-breaking, innovative hits one after another (the Zork trilogy, Deadline, Suspended, and so forth), it was hard at work trying to figure out how it might transition to being a real company making real things for grown-ups. They held meetings, consulted with strategists, all in hopes of finding a product to make in the lucrative field of business software. Note that no one at Infocom, so far as I can tell, had any passion for one particular business product or another. Marc Blank didn’t stand up, for instance, at a board meeting and loudly declare: “I have always wanted to make a database program!” No, the decision to make commercial database product seems rather cold-blooded. There was no in-house expertise, no intrinsic motivation, no passion for database technology to be found. People thought it might be profitable, and presumably Al Vezza thought “database management” would sound nicer to say at a cocktail party instead of “computer games.”

Rather hilariously, Al Vezza once told Dornbrook that he didn’t “understand finance.”

More than one source has stated that Vezza was embarrassed by Infocom’s product identity as a games publisher. He didn’t understand video games, and I have never read anywhere that he played them. Like many of the younger implementers, he was a Mainframe Dude who didn’t seem to fully “get” the microcomputer or its promise as a market. Vezza thought that video game audiences were flighty and chased fads. To him, it wasn’t a stable business.

The thing about Al Vezza is this: yes, he absolutely did lack the visionary capabilities required of a 1980s tech CEO. He didn’t understand the business that he was running. His life as a college administrator gave him little to no expertise in matters of finance. He made poor decisions with regard to funding the database project, decisions that would make it impossible for Infocom to survive as an independent company. Ultimately, those choices would culminate in Infocom’s complete failure as a gaming concern.

However, it is a bit like inviting a vampire into your home, isn’t it? When you do so, you give it power. Why did Infocom keep giving Vezza power if they collectively didn’t like what he would do? If they disagreed with the database management product? Vezza, existentially, was at least philosophically consistent. He wanted to make business software, he starved the games business of R&D and strategic technical planning (in 1984, Infocom games didn’t take advantage of the unique features of microcomputers. All of their games were still essentially mainframe ports) to fund the database product. He leveraged the company up to the eyeballs to finance the massive team (larger than the profitable game business) making the database product.

An old black and white image of Bella Lugosi playing Dracula. He wears a black tuxedo with a white shirt, white vest, and white bowtie. He is reaching ominously toward the camera.
That Vampire in Suspect was, in fact, the protagonist of Cornerstone.

While I’m on record as disliking the gray box reissues for artistic reasons, there can be no doubt that Mike Dornbrook, Infocom’s marketing manager, was a shrewd, effective businessperson who had helped the company make many sound decisions over the years (the gray boxes were good for business, incidentally). Rather hilariously, Al Vezza once told Dornbrook that he didn’t “understand finance.” Why did Infocom collectively listen to Vezza instead of Dornbrook?

As a bit of trivia, why did Steve Meretzky decide, in 1984, to name a magic spell—one that sees into the future—“vezza?” Irony? Or did people really believe he was leading Infocom into the future?

Does What It Says on the Tin

Still, you have to give it to Vezza. He knew what he wanted, and he said what he wanted. He was a known quantity. He was the CEO because people knew what he was, and they wanted what he was. He didn’t kidnap Infocom or hold it at gunpoint. He didn’t, unlike, say, Bruce Davis (Activision CEO), have it in for Infocom. He had something that he wanted to do, and people at Infocom went along with it.

We know that social capital was one of Vezza’s motivators, but what of the rest of Infocom, its board in particular? Greed? Did they, too, believe from the beginning that games were just a waypoint on a trip to something bigger and more lucrative? Most critical narratives focus on division and resentment between the games and business products, and that was by all accounts real. However, I think that a lot of dramatizations of those times focus on fan lore like Meretzky’s “memo hacking.” These stories evoke the atmosphere of a “David and Goliath” story and are quite funny but fail to examine the actual power structure of Infocom as an organization.

We know that social capital was one of Vezza’s motivators, but what of the rest of Infocom, its board in particular? Greed?

Was Meretzky ever in danger of getting fired for spoofing and distributing bogus memos? The accounts don’t seem to say. The reality that most legends fail to dramatize is that both Meretzky and that widely mocked, unnamed woman from Human Resources distracted each-other and their peers from the calamitous and destructive choices that company management was making daily. These confrontations benefited management as they encouraged workers to turn on their fellows instead of them.

I’d suggest that, rather than consider Vezza the villain of this story, we consider how he came to power. I’d also argue that, whether it was deliberate or else happy accident, tension between workers in the two divisions actually reduced accountability at the executive level.

This closeup of a full-page cornerstone advertisement shows a diverse group of people in business attire, all smiling upward toward the camera.
Detail from a full-page ad for Cornerstone.

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

I mentioned earlier that the Cornerstone project robbed the games division of crucial R&D and strategic planning. This is true. Why didn’t Infocom survive as part of Activision? One reason is that, by 1985 (the year that Cornerstone released), Infocom was already hopelessly behind in terms of technology. Their games were essentially ports of mainframe games that could not take advantage of the advanced features of microcomputers. It would take years of investment to identify the next-generation technology needed to drive future interactive games. The time to start that research likely would have been 1981.

Instead, they found themselves in the mid-1980s with a graying mainframe platform, a custom language that didn’t naturally dovetail with other game-authoring technologies, and a staff with very limited experience with development outside of Infocom’s 1979/1980 architecture. It is not at all clear that the original Implementors would have recognized this problem, but thanks to Infocom’s cannibalistic financial practices, it wouldn’t have mattered. This lack of foresight would culminate in the delayed release of Zork Zero, a game with a very modest graphical interface and—for its time—underwhelming production values.

After all, Infocom was a company before it knew what to do, and it had a name before it knew what it meant.

I suggest that Infocom could have been a long-lived computer game publisher if it had ever made—in terms of finance, leadership, and staffing—a commitment to being one. Its indecisiveness and failure to forge an authentic identity were ultimately its undoing. That failure to choose was part of its DNA. After all, Infocom was a company before it knew what to do, and it had a name before it knew what it meant.

I personally believe that brilliant people like Marc Blank and Dave Lebling could have, with proper funding and a clear mission, guided new hires in researching the technologies needed to usher in a second phase in Infocom’s history as leaders in the world of interactive media. Would their products have been text-only games? Not very likely. Would they reflect the development experiences of the world’s best authors of narrative games? Almost certainly. Might they have survived alongside their then-contemporaries Electronic Arts and Activision? It is harder to say, though even Al Vezza would have to admit that video games are, as of this writing, very serious business.

Sources

Next

This is a natural halfway point in Gold Machine’s complete Infocom playthrough. I’ll post a short project update next week. In two weeks, we will dive into one of Infocom’s best-loved games: Wishbringer!

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6 thoughts on “A Seat at the Big Kids’ Table: Cornerstone

    1. Believe it or not, my initial plan was to review it, but it wouldn’t have been consistent with my goals for Gold Machine. Besides, between Maher and the MIT paper, I don’t think there’s anything to add. It was a pretty good database product that was held back by its lack of programming features and mediocre to poor performance.

      By all accounts, it wasn’t bad. If Infocom’s financial plan had accounted for iteration, perhaps a profitable version would eventually have released. Unfortunately—and perhaps confusingly—Infocom assumed that it would be a profitable blockbuster right out of the gate. Despite betting everything on it, Infocom didn’t give it time and space for growth.

  1. Al Vezza makes for an interesting and perhaps slightly tragic case study in historiography: what should be a footnote to his real accomplishments has been blown out of all proportion by a small group of people who are extremely invested in that one phase of his career. His Wikipedia page today calls him a “computer science professor” in passing and then goes on to tell about nothing but his checkered tenure with Infocom. This does him an enormous disservice.

    I’d agree that Vezza probably wasn’t overly “charismatic,” arguably not “inspirational” or perhaps even “visionary,” but I’d drawn a line at “shrewd” and “not a team player.” He was a very good administrator at MIT, J.C.R. Licklider’s right-hand man there for many years prior to Infocom’s founding. He was the practical guy that allowed Licklider, who most definitely was a visionary, to focus on the big-picture questions that were his forte. And Vezza’s career wasn’t finished even after Infocom; indeed, its most important phase was yet to come. During the 1990s, he co-founded the World Wide Web Consortium with none other than Tim Berners-Lee, for whom he served a similar role as he had for Licklider. He became instrumental in keeping the Internet and World Wide Web open and free, which was by no means an inevitable thing, given all of the moneyed interests that were swooping in during those go-go days.

    Obviously, the Infocom years brought out the worst in Vezza, who was profoundly unsuited to the role of dynamic tech entrepreneur, who had a particularly severe blind spot when it came to games and their eventual importance. But it’s a pity this comparatively minor episode has come to dominate all discussion of his life. And yes, I’m as responsible for that state of affairs as anyone. At the time I was writing about Infocom, I hadn’t studied the origin story of the Internet in any depth. I’d cover him with more nuance if I was writing those articles today.

    The Infocom principals — those who do the interviews and set the narrative today — continue to nurse a great deal of personal animosity toward Vezza, and use him as a scapegoat for everything went wrong at Infocom. But Vezza’s failings were in many cases all of their own. None of the founders, for example, had much liking for or understanding of microcomputers. (I believe there’s a quote somewhere on The Digital Antiquarian from someone — maybe Stu Galley? — saying that “We hate PCs!” could have been Infocom’s corporate motto.) It’s telling that the “Micro Group” at Infocom — the people who wrote the interpreters for all of the target platforms — was made up entirely of younger hackers who had cut their teeth on the micros and felt comfortable in that chaotic milieu which tended to offend the sensibilities of their bosses. Infocom’s dogged mainframe mentality was a big factor in their decline and eventual collapse, and it persisted well after Vezza was gone.

    J.C.R. Licklider, by the way, was much, much more than “a likable and well-connected mentor type who had interfaced with Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA) to secure funding for various MIT projects.” He was in fact the spiritual father of the modern Internet, being the man who first proposed an “Intergalactic Computer Network” while serving as the first head of ARPA’s computer-research division in the early 1960s, then kept pushing and pushing against the resistance of his colleagues — many of them much more famous historical figures today than him — until it finally became a reality. As such, he stands alongside Tim Berners-Lee as the most important conceptual architects of our modern digital world. If you’re interested in learning more, I can highly recommend The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop, a fantastically written and very readable account of Licklider’s life and the heady waters in which he swam.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Jimmy! Since you’ve researched the internet’s origins so thoroughly, I’ll defer to you with regard to the larger arcs of Vezza’s and “Lick’s” careers. I’m glad we agree that the Vezza-as-bogeyman narrative masked cultural and organizational issues at Infocom that were quite limiting, Cornerstone or otherwise. I’ve always felt bad for him, to be honest.

  2. Yes, on that we can agree. 😉 Cornerstone is a perfect illustration of Infocom’s weaknesses. It’s not a bad product at all in terms of features and interface, but it was rather undone by the decision to run it in a virtual machine, which allowed Infocom to develop it on their precious mainframe but made the end result sloooowwww in comparison to the competition. The “we hate PCs!” attitude, combined perhaps with a preference for overly esoteric technical approaches in general — hardly an unknown syndrome in academic computing circles — proved to be their Achilles heel.

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