Unfocom

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Unfocom

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Unfocom was a software company responsible for the creation of numerous text adventure games. It was founded in 1979 by Dave Nibelung, Mel Blanc, Al Jazeera and a member of the Green Berets known only as Joel.

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edit Founding

Unfocom was founded on June 22, 1979, by four teenagers who, while drunk and bored at the fact that the anniversary of Ten Cent Beer Disco Demolition Night hadn't come yet, wrote a computer program that, when given a textual input, would write "You can't see any <input> here." on the television monitor, and decided that it was such a pinnacle of modern technology that ought to be sold to the general public. This game, called "Deadly Dungeon Adventure" and packaged in unmodifed Lord of the Rings trilogy boxset boxes[1], sold every copy that was produced[2] and earned the quartet exactly $10 in profit, which, since 1979 was still far enough in the past that money was still worth something, enabled them to found a private business the very next day.

Though originally intended to be called "Infocom", Mel Blanc accidentally typoed the I while typing the copyright notice on the opening screen of Zork 1. Since the backspace key had yet to be invented, the name stuck.[3]

edit Text Adventures

Main article: Zork

Unfocom was most famous for its advancement in the text adventure genre of computer games, the most famous of which is the Zork series, released in 1980. Unlike earlier attempts at text adventure gaming, such as Microsoft Corporation's MS-DOS, the command parser in Zork 1 was far closer in complexity and user-friendliness to today's adventure games. While its competitors could only understand terse commands such as "dir", "man" and "rm", the Zork parser could handle entire English words such as "inv" and "xyzzy", and even whole sentences such as "go up".

Another advancement made by Zork was that its game world, the "GReat Underground Empire", was inspired by fantasy and Western mythology. This was a striking departure from most of the text adventures of its era, which were set in barren cyberspace locations such as "C:/". And while the descriptions of MS-DOS's locations (accessed by the "dir" command) were incredibly terse (often just a list of its modifiable objects), Zork provided each of its rooms with a unique description - even going so far as to intricately describe each room of its maze.

Although these innovations were welcomed at the time by many gamers, several rival developers greeted it coldly. The leading criticism of Zork's use of descriptive text was put forth by Tim Paterson, one of MS-DOS's writers. It went thus:

"Hey, the name of the place ought to give you more than enough description. Take MS-DOS's "C:/DOS/" room, for example. And no amount of flavor text can beat the greatest storyteller in the world - your imagination. Here's Zork: "You are in the kitchen. There are cupboards and a door that leads to the yard outside. On the counter is a butcher knife." Y'see? It leaves nothing to the imagination! But in the amazing cyberscape of MS-DOS, there can be anything there! A cow, a chest of Spanish gold, anything!"

edit Success

Unfocom's success lay ultimately in the rich storytelling of its games. The most lauded of its storylines was that of Zork 1, which told the tale of an unnamed adventurer who got repeatedly eaten by grues, exploded by magic runes, and crushed by dark gods, only to return again and again to attempt to overcome these challenges, until finally giving up and playing Bejeweled instead. Also held in high regard was the story of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which an Englishman in a bathrobe tries repeatedly to catch a small fish that gets fired out of a vending machine, while being constantly thwarted by tiny robots and small grates in the floor.

edit Bitter, Shameful Failure

"I will always remember that day. April, 1984 - I had just strolled into the office as usual only to find it eerily quiet. The music was off, the coffee cups were untouched, and nobody was engaged in beanbag fights or office croquet. Everybody in the company was sitting at the main table with a look of death on their faces. I started to ask Trish what was going on, but before I said anything she nodded and pushed the week's copy of Hobby Circuitry and Electronics across the table toward me. I knew even before I read the headline that our worst fear had come horribly true - graphics had been invented. I don't think any of us have ever been happy again."

~ Dave Nibelung

On a bright cold day in April, the Unfocom dream would be shattered forever by the alarm clock of progress. Electronic engineers around the country had discovered that if a computer could be taught to display words and letters on a television screen, then it would surely be possible for them to display rudimentary pictures as well. This discovery had become known as "Graphics" and had spelled the downfall of Unfocom and the livelihoods of its employees.

In no less than two hours after the discovery, Fantasy Picture Adventure: The Moving Image Television Game (in color) was released by rival video game company Atari. Although the game itself simply consisted of a yellow box moving sideways across a greenish-blue screen and did not have any means of player input, it still managed to sell well over 50,000 copies - a hiterto unprecedented figure which led to a nationwide shortage of punch-cards on which to encode the game. Sales of Zork 2, meanwhile, dropped from 200 to 0 in a matter of days. Within a week, all but the seven former employees of Unfocom had forgotten that the Zork series had ever existed.[4]

edit Selling Out

However, this wasn't the end of Unfocom or the fantasy world of its creation. Several weeks after the last of the Unfocom staff members had been forcibly removed from the former company building[5], a nearby cold, faceless computer entertainment conglomerate offered to purchase the ruined and accursed company, on the provision that all of the Unfocom staff members would work from a single terminal in an unused toilet cubicle in the company complex, would produce 10 Zork sequels a year (each one funnier than the last), and would be paid in raw meat.

After several hours of these new working conditions, every Unfocom staff member resigned, after being informed that the electricity used by their computer terminal was being rented out from Activision itself, with rent deducted from their own raw meat salary - such that after a month of the current conditions most of the programmers would have had to forfeit their fingers.

As a result of all of this, Activision ended up in possession of all of the intellectual property rights to the characters and themes of Zork (though, strangely enough, not to the name "Zork" itself - a caveat which allowed Dave Nibelung and Mel Blanc to complete and sell[6] the then-unfinished final game, Zork 3: The Dungeon Master, in 1985, albeit with many of the still-copyrighted aspects censored).

edit Titles

edit Footnotes

  1. Not the DVD movie adaptation, of course, or even the book trilogy, but the 72-disk Viewmaster adaptation released in '78.
  2. One.
  3. He later joked in an interview that it maybe should have been called "Undocom". He then stopped smiling, muttered under his breath that he wished that he could "undo the last two decades of my life too," and began softly whimpering.
  4. With exception to the 200 nerds who had playtested Zork 1 at Dave Nibelung's university, and would later quote the idiosyncratic phrases of the Zork parser in a self-aware ironic fashion for the next 21 years in between games of NetHack.
  5. This was achieved by cutting off all power to the building, then waiting until nightfall. As the building grew dark, the lone unnamed staff member grew anxious and shouted "Frotz" several times before dashing out of the building, seemingly running from an unseen creature.
  6. One, if you're wondering.

edit See Also

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