Steve Meretzky Interview

Steve Meretzky helped create classic text-adventure games like Planetfall and Zork Zero. In our interview, he discusses his current and future projects.

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Steve Meretzky, creator of numerous classic Infocom text adventures, has recently turned to designing online games. We had a chance to talk to him recently.

Steve Meretzky has had a long and varied career in designing games. Back in the 1980s, Steve Meretzky designed some of the most popular adventure games from Infocom, including Planetfall, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Zork Zero. Unlike some who left the industry after those heady early days, Meretzky pushed into new formats and genres after Activision acquired Infocom in 1986, and the studio fell into disarray. In the early 1990s, he developed a series of humorous adventures, notably Spellcasting 101 and its two follow-ups for Legend Entertainment (the developer of Wheel of Time and the upcoming sequel to Unreal). In addition, Meretzky tried his hand at puzzle-game design with Hodj 'n' Podj and also with modern graphical adventures with the offbeat detective game The Space Bar. GameSpot recently had the chance to catch up with Meretzky, who recently joined WorldWinner.com to head up the game site's web-based game creation.


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GameSpot: You are best known for authoring a number of successful text adventures for Infocom in the 1980s. How did you get your start doing interactive fiction?

Steve Meretzky: It all started the day I discovered an Apple II on my dining room table. To make a short story long, I knew a lot of the founders of Infocom from MIT; they were a few years ahead of me, and we were all involved in some of the same student activities (specifically, the film and lecture program). I majored in construction project management, and my first few jobs were mind-numbingly boring jobs at various construction companies. Meanwhile, my roommate Mike Dornbrook was the single game tester for Infocom, and since this was before Infocom even had office space, he was testing Zork I on an Apple II in our dining room. When he wasn't around, I'd play it also and report any problems I found, and it turned out that I was pretty good at finding bugs. So when Mike went off to business school, I became Infocom's sole tester. I did that for about a year, and then Marc Blank, coauthor of Zork and Infocom's VP of development, asked me if I'd like to try writing a game. In the fall of '82 I started writing Planetfall, which came out a year later.


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GS: As you've moved into doing games in other genres, what sorts of new design challenges have you faced? What lessons from adventure game design have carried over?

SM: In the early days, game development was pretty much a one-person operation. There were no graphics and audio, and I did all the design, writing, producing, and (with copious help) programming. But as we got into the late '80s and the '90s, games became increasingly large projects with huge, specialized teams, and making a game has more and more become a matter of being a team leader, imparting a vision for the game to an ever-wider circle of diverse people. Communication and leadership skills, which weren't at all necessary in the early days, are now critical. And, thankfully, I haven't had to write a line of code in at least 6 six years!

The main lesson from those early days that's still as applicable today is that "God is in the details." The last 50 percent of the work only improves the game 5 percent, but it's that 5 percent - the ripples on the water, the response to an obscure command, the customized menus and buttons instead of using Windows, the hidden Easter eggs, and so forth - that makes the difference between just another game and a top-notch game. Unfortunately, most publishers, with their eye on the current quarter's bottom line, are too short-sighted to notice that the companies that always follow this rule, such as Blizzard, produce the bestsellers.

GS: In recent years, you authored a graphical adventure and a board puzzle game. What types of games are you interested in doing outside adventure games?

SM: The types of games that I like to play are the same types of games that I like to work on. My favorite types of games are adventures, RPGs, strategy games, and classic puzzle games. I've done all of the above except for strategy, so that's what I'd be most interested in getting involved with in the future. I'm also interested in things that go off in radical new directions, like The Sims or The Incredible Machine.


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GS: How do you see the state of the adventure-game market right now? Would you be interested in returning to adventure games in the future?

SM: The adventure-game market is in a pretty pitiful state right now. My last game, The Space Bar, was a huge effort and got terrific reviews and still sold diddly. There are other more recent examples, such as Grim Fandango, which should have been among the bestsellers of the year but were barely able to pay their own development costs. I love writing adventure games, but it's pretty dispiriting to pour your heart and soul into a game for a couple of years to have only a few tens of thousands of people play it. I think that players are somewhat justifiably bored by the genre, as other genres offer more replayability, multiplayer experiences, and more technical zing. I do have some grand ideas on ways to bring the excitement - and the players - back to the adventure genre, which I'd be eager to try out; but at this point just doing a standard adventure game doesn't seem to be worth it.

GS: You are now creative director at WorldWinner.com. What brought you there?

SM: It's a pretty exciting change of pace for me. Other than an educational board game that I wrote for Junior Net, it's my first time working in an online environment. And after spending my whole career working on games that take a year or two to complete, being able to get a game done in a month and have people playing it immediately is a real trip!

Also, I think WorldWinner's economic model is so promising. There are a lot of gaming sites where people can play for free, some of which offer dinky prizes based on advertising revenue. WorldWinner is a place where people can go to compete against other players in games of skill for big cash prizes. People coming to www.worldwinner.com select a game that's normally for a single player - like Solitaire, for example - then pay an entry fee and then play in a tournament where their score is pitted against the other players in the tournament. The person with the best score wins the prize (which comes out of the entry fees). We have all sorts of different tournament structures and prize levels, and determining all of that is part of my job here. We've only been live for a couple of months, but we've already had people win thousands of dollars playing our games.


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GS: What particular challenges do you see in designing web-based games?

SM: Well, there's the pipeline issue, for one. After years of being used to the vast delivery capacity of a CD-ROM, I'm suddenly back in the days where every byte counts. Fortunately, I spent years trying to cram as much as possible onto low-capacity floppy disks, so my "old-timer" experience is actually turning out to be a blessing!

Another area that's a big challenge is in preventing cheating. In single-player games, there's no need to prevent cheating - if someone cheats, they're only hurting themselves. But in a multiplayer environment, cheating affects the other players, and in an entry-fee prize model like ours, the need to prevent cheating is magnified even more. So I spend a lot of my time thinking of ingenious ways to foil the plans of cheaters and hackers.

And, of course, there's the noise level. With the retail channel, we're always complaining that we've got to compete with 5,000 other games. But online, you're competing with 500,000 web sites (with 100,000 more being added every five minutes, it seems).

GS: What game projects have you been working on there? When can we expect to see new original games?

SM: We've basically got three phases. The first phase is to create familiar, popular games for the "casual gamer" - the sorts of games that come with Windows, remakes of classic arcade games, and so forth. Games from this first phase are up on our site already. The second phase is to take familiar games but give them interesting new twists that take the gameplay a step beyond what people are used to. The first few games from this phase are in development now. And in the third phase, I'll be creating some completely new and original games that will be available only on WorldWinner.com. Also, by early next year, we hope to introduce head-to-head games, like chess and reversi. Our plan is to introduce a couple of new games each month. Fortunately, I've been in game development for years, so I'm used to going weeks at a time without sleep...

GS: Thanks, Steve.

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