Publishing and Marketing

Infocom began distributing Zork itself in October of 1981. (Before then, Zork had been published by a third party, Personal Software.) The Infocom strategy for software distribution was untraditional; instead of just showing off its products in software and computer stores, Infocom titles were also seen in bookstores. Infocom also adhered to a slightly different marketing model. Most software companies at the time distributed their latest release to a retail outlet, which implied that their last release was no longer worth playing. Infocom titles remained on the shelves even as new titles were introduced. Zork, for instance, stayed on the Billboard Top 50 Best-Selling Software Titles list for three years after its 1981 release.

It was not until April of the next year, though, that Infocom's self-publishing changed from a necessity to a boon. Blank, while developing the game Deadline, was unable to fit all of the game's pieces into the 80 kilobytes of disk space. Working with the newly hired advertising agency Giardini/Russel, Blank created several artifacts that were essential to the story line, including "photos, interrogation reports, lab reports and pills found near the body," and included them in the packaging for Deadline. (Click on the thumbnails to see full-size images.)

The new packaging was unprecedented in the game industry and was extremely well received. Reviewers and customers alike raved about the detail that had gone into the additional materials, which heightened the overall sense of believability that was already an Infocom trademark. A standard had been set, one to which Infocom would adhere over the next few years. And, in addition to the positive effects on game realism, the essential, difficult to duplicate game pieces had the important side effect of discouraging software piracy.

Infocom employed Giardini/Russel to help them create ever-more extensive packaging for their next 16 games. By 1984, Infocom was spending close to $60,000 on average for each game, so marketing director Dornbrook decided to bring package design in-house. The implementor who wrote each game would collaborate with several people, including an art director and a few writers, to create the extra bits that went into each package. Several artifacts had to be specially sought out, such as ancient "Zorkmid" coins, scratch-n-sniff cards, and glow-in-the-dark stones.

When people found out that Infocom was creating unique, extensive, creative packages for every new game, with each new release outdoing the previous ones, the publicity began to spread like wildfire. Articles raving about Infocom products, both on the inside and outside of the box, appeared in all the major computing magazines, as well as more mainstream fare like Time, Newsweek, Discover, and even Rolling Stone. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

An article from Discover (March 1984) featuring Infocom's games.

View the gallery of Infocom advertisements

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