Gold Machine: Infocom's Cornerstone (1985) Up: Part 2

In my effort to write about all Infocom-authored and published software, it is time to examine the release between Suspect and Wishbringer: Cornerstone.

This first piece is a memoir/remembrance of my reaction as a ten-year-old to coverage of Cornerstone in The New Zork Times. The second will be a more “adult” reflection on Infocom’s creative and fiscal trajectories.

  1. Grown-Ups Are not to Be Trusted: Cornerstone
  2. A Seat at the Big Kids’ Table: Cornerstone

Thanks for keeping us updated here! I really enjoy “when I was a kid” looks back, as they give me all kinds of ideas. This was my favorite line:

I definitely found this to be the case! I remember the Infocom games were very, very hard. But they were less hard than, say, getting certain people to be nicer to me. There were some rules, and at the end of the day, I could convince myself I should’ve seen that or “Gee, when I’m an adult, I’ll see that all the time, because I’ll be older and wiser and more common-sensical! Right?” So it gave me something to strive for.

Of course, a big difference is, Infocom didn’t want to be too unfair, while some people did, because it was part of their power trip.

So I was sort of blown away when I saw the Player’s Bill of Rights years later, and not just that it was there, but it’d been around a good long while. It never occurred to me that I could both be very very grateful games existed and demand fairness from them so they didn’t take up too much of my time. And that actually wouldn’t be considered greedy.


I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ve thought about wedging in more personal remembrances, and maybe I will if the demand is there.

“A Player’s Bill of Rights” is a breakthrough craft document, even if I sometimes worry that critics have misunderstood it. It would be nice for some clever author to return to the topic of fairness at its level of scope—it’s been almost 30 years!—just as Zarf revisited his Cruelty Scale.


Ha, I’ve been looking forward to reading your take on Cornerstone, then I opened it up and saw the Philip-Larkin-quoting header which signaled that this is definitely a swerve from my expectations! But I really liked the essay, and think it will serve as a nice framing for the second piece.

Looking at the Cornerstone promotional copy you quote, one thing that jumps out to me is that in addition to the defensiveness, it’s all pretty vague and general, which generally doesn’t make for a very engaging sales pitch.

Apropos of the discussion of fairness in adventures vs. CRPGs, this is actually something that came up in some conversation on the CRPG Addict’s blog, occasioned by his finishing Wizardry 4 (which is more of a puzzle game than an RPG in some respects). If you’re interested, the thread’s at the bottom of this post (I have a couple of replies in there, posting as “Tetrapod” for not-very-interesting reasons involving Mountain Goats lyrics and the vagaries of Wordpress logins).


I love CRPGAddict. Sounds like W4 is an interesting case. Wizardry support on C64 was spotty or else releases were delayed, so I don’t think I ever played many.

It’s an interesting point about cruelty. It is very easy to lock oneself out of victory in a certain type of RPG due to mechanic-specific choices (getting stuck without resources to continue). I recall aggressively save scumming in Dulrag’s tower for a very narrow escape. Thanks for the link!

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Last week’s piece made the Critical Distance roundup again. This is not an IF-focused venue!

Meanwhile, here is my adult assessment of the circumstances surrounding Cornerstone. Do I think Infocom could have survived without it? Maybe. Making text only games? Unlikely.


The question about what Infocom would have done absent Cornerstone is interesting, but I find myself toying with a different way of looking at the counterfactual: if we posit an Infocom that successfully managed to make it through to the 90s putting out commercially-viable games, what would that have meant for the amateur IF scene?

The reason this is interesting to me is that the relatively-static Z-machine (I think specifically versions 3 or 5, though these technical details are beyond my expertise) provided a clear anchoring point for the amateur pioneers to work towards – obviously TADS isn’t as literally built on a reverse-engineered Z-machine as Inform, and there are lots of independent strands coming from fans of non-US companies like Magnetic Scrolls that I know less about, but still, there’s a lot of convergent evolution. Folks, it seems to me, were largely trying to create work that could match Infocom’s universally-agreed-upon mid-80’s high point, both in terms of technological affordances and game design and writing, and that organized the scene’s efforts, and judgments, accordingly.

But what if you muddy the waters and suppose that Infocom successfully pivoted, so that it put out late-80s text/graphic hybrids that weren’t the easily-dismissed likes of Shogun, Journey, and Zork Zero, and then further transitioned to 90s graphic adventurers that were (perhaps more literary) peers of the games coming out of Sierra and LucasArts? At that point, you’d presumably see a fracturing of what people really into Infocom-type games would see as “classic Infocom” – some would be into the early-to-mid-80s stuff that constitutes our current understanding of the “canon”, but presumably others would see the notional Legend-style text/graphics hybrids as the pinnacle of achievement, and still others (maybe the majority) would be subsumed into the set of folks working to recreate the classic point-and-click games.

In that landscape, instead of a well-defined (albeit small) community focused on creating a specific mid-80s touchpoint, you’d probably see a broader variety of efforts, with that Balkanization of labor likely hindering progress as well as siloing the kind of community excitement and support that led to TADS and Inform catching fire.

And importantly, if some more advanced platform than .z5 wound up being exalted as the archetypal experience, that would probably imply graphics would be a greater part of the equation. That would have made authoring a game a much more challenging proposition, I think, in terms of the design and technical skills required – even today, with much better tools, I know many authors agonize about how to just create reasonable cover art! And distributing, sharing, and playing these presumably bigger games using the Internet infrastructure of the mid 90s would likewise have been much more challenging and out of reach of many folks (the community would have likely been even more university-focused, it occurs to me).

Anyway, this is of course all just idle noodling. But it does seem to me that there’s a case to be made that if we excoriate Cornerstone for killing Infocom, it might also deserve some of the credit for creating the vibrant amateur IF scene that’s now lasted longer than Infocom ever did!


I am entirely certain of that.

TADS and earlier systems existed, but the engine that drove RAIF forward in the 1990s was the one-two-three punch of the ITF group reverse-engineering the Z-machine, Graham releasing Inform, and Whizzard launching IFComp (originally conceived as a way to encourage short Inform games.) None of that would have happened if Infocom had still been a live concern.

Well, the reverse-engineering might have happened, but people would have been a lot more averse to discussing the new tools in public.

Long-term, I suspect there would still have been open-source parser tools, in much the same way that AdventureMaker and RenPy became available for other genres. We might all have standardized on TADS… although TADS only went open-source in 1997, so maybe not…


AdventureMaker? What’s that? Any links?

Down from the Top of Its Game is an account of Infocom’s history and Cornerstone’s role in it prepared as a student project for a Structure of Engineering Revolutions course at MIT. The abstract of the associated paper says:

Infocom did not fail simply because it decided to shift its focus to business software by making Cornerstone, a relational database. Infocom failed for many reasons that were closely tied to how the company managed the transition to business products. Behind the scenes, the transition created a litany of problems that hurt both the games and the business divisions of the company. Combined with some bad luck, these problems—not simply the development of Cornerstone—ultimately led to Infocom’s downfall.

But saying they failed “for many reasons that were closely tied to how the company managed the transition to business products” is importantly distinct from failing due to the development of the one business product they created seems to me to be splitting hairs excessively fine.


I think it’s too fine a distinction too. Cornerstone ate up a LOT of interactive fiction revenue, and generated very little revenue of its own.

Looking at the summary they provide of the failure, those “other reasons” are:

  • “the company’s leaders failed to raise enough money to mitigate the risks involved with entering into a new business”;
  • “the company overspent its own assets to create its Business Products division”;
  • “the company failed to isolate the games and business divisions from each other”.

Then all that snowballed into the Activision sale amid the sector-wide mid-80s downturn, and then the Activision sale went worse than expected because the Infocom-friendly exec who brokered the sale left, and the failure to invest in upgraded games technology combined with the churn-em-out business model forced on them by Activision made everything go belly up.

So yeah, I guess these are technically reasons why there were reasons beyond the development of Cornerstone went into the collapse, but they are reasons that the specific way Infocom developed Cornerstone led to the collapse, which as you say feels like it’s slicing the bologna awfully fine.

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Thanks for engaging with the content is such a thoughtful way, Mike.

Having asked after this on Facebook and Twitter, I want to point out that almost every answer assumed that Bates and Meretzky represent what Infocom would have done if they had continued. Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn are no less Infocom than Bates and Meretzky, and they didn’t get into point and click games. Well, there was that rather miserable pixel hunter for the Newton, but by 1995 Blank and Berlyn were likely working on the ill-fated platformer, Busby. Mike Berlyn was lead designer.

Blank wound up working on a 3d action adventure game called “Syphon Filter,” and eventually the IP (as well as the studio Blank and Berlyn founded) was purchased by Sony. The studio lives on as Sony Bend Studio. I’d argue that, in terms of enduring in changing markets, Blank, Berlyn, & Co had far more success, even if they are rarely mentioned in IF circles.

So, it has to be asked, which post-Infocom company, BB&C or Legend, had a better recipe for success? In a world where Infocom stopped making mainframe ports in a timely manner, what would they have done instead?

As for the implications for the DIY community:

I think others know better than I, but I will say that my Infocom fan-fic involves identifying a micro-centered architecture by 1985. It’s nice to think that they would, by the early 1990s, be protective of their games as opposed to being protective of a platform that they had left behind, but realistically it would have changed a lot in terms of the DIY scene.

I think Cornerstone is the celebrity spokesperson of Infocom’s failure, but there were some serious organizational and strategic shortcomings that might have sunk them regardless. The absence of technical planning and R&D (which I think should have staffed up in 1981) became a huge issue. Yes, by 1984 Cornerstone had made such a financial commitment impossible, but 1984 was too late. Infocom was not prepared to take meaningful advantage of the features of increasingly popular microcomputers. Zork Zero suffered many delays—the x86 version missed the Christmas holiday—because its fairly rudimentary graphics just weren’t working right.

They had no plan to find a next technical breakthrough, even though they were originally an industry leader in terms of its technology. The industry was leaving them behind. Still, who knows, maybe they would have pivoted if it weren’t for Cornerstone sucking all the oxygen out of the room.


I agree that Infocom would have been doomed with or without Cornerstone if they continued to not smell which way the wind was blowing regarding text and graphics and to plan and develop accordingly. And I don’t see that there’s a reason to specifically predict they would have done that if there hadn’t been a Cornerstone. But I figure that saying someone died due to a specific cause doesn’t imply that they’d have lived forever absent that cause. :grinning:

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One more thought:

Cornerstone didn’t end Infocom; it made it impossible for Infocom to remain independent.

Bruce Davis (Activision CEO) disliked the merger/acquisition and had been quite vocal about it. Still, as a businessperson, he likely would have kept them around if they had been profitable. Unfortunately, they never again made a profit. They hadn’t since 1983, I think. Infocom survived Cornerstone but couldn’t survive Activision.

Bruce Davis gets a lot of bad press, and truthfully, I’ve always assumed that he was a jerk. But giving a division 4 years to make a profit before cutting it loose just seems like something any CEO might do.

Which isn’t an endorsement. I think a more visionary leader would have found a use for so much talent, even if what they were doing at the time wasn’t working out financially.

e: I just realized I can change my avatar pic because I’m through with Cornerstone!

I’m glad you mentioned that. The Infocom Task Force never gets any credit, yet we wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for them. This was a group of students from Sydney University that reverse engineered the Infocom file format and wrote an interpreter in C.

I had a bloke at work on work experience who gave me a printout of the ITF source code. I wrote an interpreter for the Atari ST based on this printout. I also wrote utilities for the Atari 8-bit and Atari ST so that I could extract the data from the Atari 8-bit floppies (which didn’t use DOS) and transfer it across a null modem cable so that I could play them on the Atari ST with my new interpreter. That was a long time ago. Happy days.


I don’t really have a sense what a vital and well-funded Infocom games division might have done in the 1990s. “Copy Myst but with an Infocom sensibility” is one possibility – although it certainly would have taken a few years to spin up the graphics team.

(That is, they would have had to be in a position to invest several years’ worth of funding in a brand-new-to-Infocom game genre. This is a heavier lift than just saying “Infocom survives into the 90s”!)

On a different track, if Infocom had been active in the 1990s, I might well have sent them a resume in 1994-ish with System’s Twilight as my portfolio. Fun to think about. No idea at all what would have happened.


Yeah. I guess the question is if/when they could have gotten over their mainframe tech. Jimmy Maher reminded me in a comment that someone (Stu Galley, perhaps) said, maybe in NZT, “We hate PCs!” They went so far as to buy another PDP for Cornerstone, when the VM definitely held that application back, performance-wise.

My fanfic involves putting money into R&D before '84, something they realistically would never have done (the PDP/VM dev model was still paying off, and they were quite proud of it). Still, in a world without Cornerstone, they might have done so before '90. By then, the VM would have been of far less use due to platform consolidation. It’s fun to imagine what the band might have done, had they stayed together.

I’ve long thought it’s revisionist to suggest they should have known a VM was a bad idea for a database. Clearly Infocom saw their broad multi-platform support as one of their greatest strengths–justifiably so, in the days when a dozen or more wildly different home computers were battling for the long tail of sales. Probably no one made as much money as Infocom selling software for computers like the Commodore 128 or the TI Professional. And in no way was the writing on the wall that early. Even at the time Infocom closed down, it was still by no means certain that the Amiga, the ST, or the Mac wasn’t about to out-compete DOS PCs (Windows was entirely pointless in 1989). Being able to quickly port software to whatever computers people had was very important. Infocom was making huge piles of money from owners of the Apple II and the C-64, who would get excited when a command made the disc drive turn on for 10 seconds. It could have been hard to realize that slow response times wouldn’t be worth it in a business product.

I pitched a game to Infocom in its last days, probably '89 but maybe late '88. For whatever reason, they didn’t take the time out from what I now know was what was left of the organization circling the drain to reply to a unsolicited letter from an unknown college student.