The first of two posts about Infocom’s database management product, Cornerstone.
They F@#&k You Up
Forgoing the uncomfortable details: I had been on a cold streak since 1979, the year I entered kindergarten. I suppose I was a strange kid, as I was already a voracious reader and very interested in science. That made me an easy mark for a certain variety of bully. I recall that I was once struck in the head with a rock so hard that it knocked me unconscious. No one was ever held accountable. Violence was an everyday thing: inexorable and, it would seem, unremarkable. Grown-ups either couldn’t or wouldn’t protect me.
Adults had problems of their own. It was hard not to feel like an imposition or distraction, like something in the way of them solving their difficulties. Still, there was a nagging sense that, in fact, they lacked the competence needed to handle their problems, let alone mine. While they asserted control over the lives of children, they evinced very little control over themselves or their circumstances. That was the worst thing about it: the realization that nobody was at the wheel, that we were all on a larger and more complex playground, waiting for the next stone to strike us from behind.
Looking back to the beginning of Gold Machine, I see that I’ve written about the best parts of my childhood in a nostalgic way. The tone there is affectionate, and I may seem to contradict myself. I don’t. My relationship with my Commodore 64 was the least fraught, most consistently rewarding relationship in my life. Perhaps that was unhealthy, to relate to a computer in such terms, but that’s always a relative assessment, isn’t it?
I got my first Commodore 64 computer in 1983, after the price dropped from $600 to $300 USD. My father bought it at a mom & pop computer store where an ex-student of his worked. For several agonizing months, I did not have a 1541 disk drive. I played games on cartridges (the best was Lode Runner) and wrote BASIC programs that I couldn’t save. I remember making character graphics via PRINT commands and at least one short and primitive Choose Your Own Adventure-style game. At this time, I was already playing disk games at a friend’s house: Jumpman, Jumpman Junior, Shamus, Temple of Apshai, Miner 2049’er, and, most important, tons of Infocom games: the Zork trilogy, Deadline, Suspended, and still more.
When Christmas finally arrived, I had a 1541 drive and, thanks to the lively pirating scene in my hometown, a large game collection! While I did play a lot of Jumpman, the crown jewels were the many Infocom games. I had no folios, of course. Instead, I had a stack of hand-labelled diskettes manufactured by Verbatim, Maxell, Elephant, and perhaps others. I recall beating Enchanter first. It remains one of my two favorite Infocom games (the other is A Mind Forever Voyaging) to this day. The first Infocom game that my parents bought for me—I think it was my birthday in 1984—was the lovely Deadline folio edition. Even though I would not beat it for two more years, the game was one of my most-treasured possessions. I beat the Zork games out of order. I think Zork II was the first. I initially could not solve the baseball puzzle, but a friend’s big brother had a mail-order map that explained it. I did the rest myself, brute forcing the infamous Bank of Zork puzzle. Then it was Zork III, with Zork I last. Like so many people, I was stymied by the thief and the egg. In fact, I didn’t solve that puzzle. Rather, I was stupidly wandering the maze with the egg in my possession.
I loved adventure games best of all. Why? I think that I must have appreciated, on a very deep level, that they could be won. They were fair in a way that life was not. Everyone started in the same place, and everybody faced the same problems. It was a delight to escape to a world that was bound by immutable laws. Some games, it must be admitted, are not fair, but at least they are not the sort of unfair that life might be.
I loved adventure games best of all. Why? I think that I must have appreciated, on a very deep level, that they could be won. They were fair in a way that life was not.
I have used the terms “fantasy of power” and “fantasy of mastery” elsewhere on Gold Machine. The first is commonly used in game criticism, but the second is not. Most adventure games are fantasies of mastery. Players master the map and its problems via problem solving, observation, and information management. An appeal of the mastery fantasy is that it asserts a world in which the player’s aptitudes matter far more than they do with regard to real-world concerns like baseball or playground safety.
Such games invited me to imagine a world where information management might, in fact, save the world. They encouraged me to imagine that I might save the world.
Cornerstone: Not That Kind of Information Management
Inside my spiffy Deadline folio was a card that I could mail in to get on their mailing list and receive The New Zork Times, their (mostly) quarterly newsletter. Getting the NZT in the mail was a major event. I immediately read the whole thing front to back, reflecting on Infocom’s glorious past and promising future. For instance, I read articles like “Frank Answers to the Ten Top Frequently Asked Questions,” the “Infocom Scoreboard,” and even the “Infocom Horoscope” from the Spring 1984 issue.
If signs of a coming storm appeared in late 1984, they were but specks on the horizon. In the same issue, there was a small block with an image and fine print. It read more like an ad than a feature. I’ll post the text in its entirety here:
On November 1 Infocom announces a new business product that will change the way people use computers.
The New York Times called our entertainment software products “remarkable,” and the Washington Post said they were “the beginning of a new art form.” Our first creation, the ZORK® Trilogy, even outsold today’s most popular business software. And all of our products continue to dominate the entertainment software best-seller lists.
Behind our success is a unique technology that lets us create software that eliminates the barriers between computers and people. Now we’ve applied this technology to a new product that will help professionals solve the complex problems they face every business day.
Every once in a while an innovation in software changes the way people think about computers. Our interactive fiction software did that for entertainment, and now we’re about to do it for business. Starting in early 1985, business people everywhere will be able to enjoy a more productive relationship with their personal computers.
Infocom. We always mean business.
I, for one, did not like the sound of that. In the announcement I heard—right or wrong—that Infocom sought greener and more adult pastures. I had no interest in the problems that arose “every business day,” and in fact I supposed that they likely distracted adults from their responsibilities as teachers, parents, and so forth. Assessing their upcoming or recent, unappetizing releases (Cutthroats, Seastalker, and Suspect), Infocom did seem to have slipped a bit. While Sorcerer was great, it did not measure up to Enchanter. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was brilliant, but its source material was not Infocom’s. How had Infocom really been doing lately?
I had no interest in the problems that arose “every business day,” and in fact I supposed that they likely distracted adults from their responsibilities as teachers, parents, and so forth.
Things got more serious in the next issue, which featured a three-column article, “Why Business Products” (6)? It seemed directed at readers like me who worried about decentered game production and a loss of philosophical clarity. Unfortunately, it has kind of a “how do you do, fellow kids” feel to it, and it certainly leads with the chin: “Why business products, indeed! I could just as well ask, why games?” Such is the sugar meant to sweeten any salt found in a front-page article featuring the banner headline: “Cornerstone: “The Hottest New Business Product of 1985.”
Even though Infocom would continue making text games for four years, I didn’t know that. To me, Cornerstone felt like typical adult nonsense: jumping ship when you need them, an inability to discern what does and doesn’t matter, and—I would understand this better in later years—a “childlike” preference for fantasy over reality. My relationship with Infocom would never be what it had been, even as much as I enjoyed those old games. I feared that they would forever be looking for something better than games, for a customer better than me. In that year (1985), I played and loved Wishbringer, was unable to play A Mind Forever Voyaging (it required 128k of memory) and skipped Spellbreaker. When the New Zork Times bragged of Spellbreaker that “crackerjacks will find their skills tested by the most challenging puzzles ever concocted by Infocom,” I decided that the difficulty in Enchanter and Sorcerer was just fine. I wasn’t interested in something more difficult.
This turned out, as we will eventually see, to be a widely held view.
Instead, I bought Ultima III, Pitfall II, Mail Order Monsters, Bard’s Tale, and others. I would only play a few more Infocom games: Ballyhoo, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Stationfall, and… perhaps Lurking Horror? I can’t recall. In any case, my interests had begun to tilt toward CRPG games, of which there were many for the Commodore 64. I appreciated that in a well-made RPG, a player can always hope to get out what they put in. In that sense, they may well be fairer than adventure games.
Perhaps I mean to say that it’s harder to bear a grudge against the finite.
I’m not sure that I even knew that Infocom had gone out of business. By 1989, I had a Nintendo Entertainment System and was playing RPGs on it. In 1993, when I bought the two Lost Treasures releases for my new x486 PC, my feelings about Infocom had softened. Right or wrong, I thought that their foray into more “adult” software had likely destroyed them. They had traded success for futility, and I—a newly minted adult—saw something sympathetic in that. It’s different engaging with the finite (Infocom in 1993) as opposed to something more indeterminate (Infocom in 1985). Perhaps I mean to say that it’s harder to bear a grudge against the finite. Looking back, I think I mostly resented possibilities. By 1993, Infocom had none.
Gold Machine flips the coin for a much more adult assessment of the failed Cornerstone project. Was it greed? Existential Bad Faith? Capitalism generally? Don’t miss out!
5 thoughts on “Grown-Ups Are not to Be Trusted: Cornerstone”
Hi. Your first paragraphs made me smile. My C64 was cassette-based for most of its existence (including the essential head alignment toolkit), and the 1541 as an extraordinary luxury years later – as well as my gateway to Infocom (but no copies over here in the UK – Infocom games were a rare sighting).
As for Cornerstone…..two thoughts (which might anticipate your own). Did ANY software company manage to sell both business software and games seriously (Microsoft dabbled in games, but we knew which side of the fence they were really on)?
And what we might call ‘financial walls’ is the second thought. Most other business software sellers had to either get venture capital, or a loan, or a big investor to make their product. Infocom used (as I understand it) the profits from their games to fund their business software. There is an argument that the virtual machine technology underpinned both, but I think that’s a stretch. The lack of financial walls meant that the business software side probably wasn’t managed terribly well and was over-resourced, and the games software side was patronised as not being ‘real software’ and investment with-held from it.
Did Cornerstone sink Infocom? Probably not in the long-term as, in the long-term all text adventures were dead as a commercial concern. But it certainly held them back from investment, and we would have got possibly better games in the latter years without Cornerstone – and that makes me sad.
Without stealing too much of next week’s thunder, I think problems with the way Cornerstone was funded (profits from the games division were not enough to cover the bill) created an insurmountable barrier to continued independence. To me, though, the greater issue was the narrow focus of company leadership that either could not or would not imagine a future for Infocom’s game business. Zork Zero (1989) struggled to feature even the most rudimentary graphics technology. The z-machine architecture was ten years old, and it showed. It was far, far too late to be investigating its new interfaces and features.
Perhaps this is a lot of words to say that I agree with many of your points!
” Did ANY software company manage to sell both business software and games seriously”
At the time, they probably had VisiCorp in mind, whose success with Microchess financed VisiCalc, the first killer app for the Apple 2. But they also should have seen the way VisiCalc was made irrelevant overnight by Lotus 1-2-3 shortly thereafter before committing to jump into that shark tank with another product in the crowded spreadsheet field.
Europress made both, but for their business product – the excellent Minioffice2 – they decided to publish under the name Database Software.
The platform owners (eg Commodore/Apple/Microsoft) also published both business and game software