Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Trademarking Infocom, again, part two

I posted yesterday about a company called SmartMonsters, who are running a port of (MIT) Zork in a MUD framework. They are trying to register the "Infocom" trademark.
But it turns out that someone else is trying to do the same thing. If you look at the URL infocom.xyz, you'll see a bare-bones site which claims "Infocom and the Infocom logo are trademarks of Infocom LLC." According to business records, Infocom LLC is a company formed in Colorado Springs in 2015.
Now, a US trademark search turns up no mention of this crew. And it looks like they've been claiming the "Infocom" trademark for years with no registration. But I am told that they are objecting to SmartMonsters' use of it. I don't really know how the trademark-tussling process works, so let's just say it's "in contention".
(I need hardly say that registering the Infocom trademark gives you no rights at all to the Infocom games. Those are covered by copyright, an entirely separate matter.)
So what are they doing with the trademark? The answer is a job posting that appeared last week:
In this position you will be provided with the source code for a proprietary assembler that consists of slightly under 4,000 lines of code. The source code you will study was written in assembly language to run on the TOPS-20 operating system on the PDP-10 mainframe computer. [...]
In this position you will play an important role by writing a functional specification document that describes the functions, program flow, error handling, and other information of the assembler that the person operating inside the clean room will need to know to develop a compatible replacement program. The replacement program is expected to be able to process the same input files and to generate bit-identical output files. [...]
The final specification will be made available under GPL-3.0-or-later. The software developed inside the clean room will be released under AGPL-3.0-or-later.
"Freelance Specification Writer" posted by Infocom LLC
This is an exact description of Infocom's ZAP assembler, which was part of their ZIL toolchain. (ZILCH turned ZIL code into Z-code assembly; ZAP turned the assembly into a Z-code game file.)
The source code in question turned up in the Infocom source-dump which appeared last year. Nobody noticed it right off. But a few months ago, a sharp-eyed user spotted ZAP buried in the MiniZork source directory.
The file "zap.mid" is MIDAS assembly code, an MIT variant of PDP-10 machine language. And it is indeed about 3800 lines long.
The job post describes a classical clean-room setup. You do this if you want to make a work-alike copy of someone else's program that isn't derived from their source code. The result does the same job -- "identical output", like the post says -- but you own it. This is legal because algorithms aren't copyrightable. (It may be ethically sketchy -- that's another whole question. But it's legal.) (Unless the algorithm is patented, but that's not the case here.)
So that's what this company is trying to do. The next question is, why? This is where my brain falls flat on the floor. And not just mine. I asked Jason Scott. He passed the word along to the old Infocom folks. Nobody, I mean nobody, can figure out what the point is.
The infocom.xyz site has two games up, which look like Lode Runner clones -- Linux only. This doesn't give much clue what line of business they're in, other than "not in it for the money".
(Yes, I sent them email, in case they were willing to tell me. They said "no further comment beyond what has already been made public.")
Let's be clear about what already exists. There are several open-source compilers that handle Z-code assembly. zasm does it; Inform 6 and ZILF both include the capability. We also have throrough descriptions of the Z-machine architecture, both Infocom's original document and the modern reconstruction. And of course there are dozens of open-source interpreters which play Z-code games.
All of these tools derive from the reverse-engineering work that went on in the late 1980s. The InfoTaskForce's seminal Z-code interpreter is archived here.
That was no kind of a "clean-room" project! The InfoTaskForce group dug into Infocom's proprietary games and interpreters, figured out how it all worked, and reimplemented it. (The Infocom spec document I linked didn't turn up until years later.) If Infocom, the original company, had wanted to make a legal issue of it in 1989, they probably could have. But they didn't.
After that, everything discovered by the ITF was public knowledge. The modern Z-machine spec (originally written by Graham Nelson) was a collation of that knowledge; Graham did not have to decompile Infocom interpreters. That spec has a Creative Common license (BY-SA-4, noted here). It's freely usable in every practical sense.
You can say that all modern Z-code/ZIL tools are "tainted evidence", due to the original ITF reverse-engineering. But it's a tenuous argument. And it still leaves the question of what you'd use a "less-tainted" ZAP assembler for.
Academic purposes? Studying Infocom's tools and processes is a worthwhile (and fascinating) goal. But it makes no sense to use a clean-room tool for that. You want to study every scrap of information available!
Compiling Infocom's ZIL source code for fun? There are plenty of people doing that already, using existing open-source tools. Some folks are even tackling bug fixes and modernization. (Yes, Activision's copyrights are a question here. The concensus is that volunteer updates to the source code are fan activity and basically okay. Don't go selling them, is all.)
Compiling Infocom's code for profit? A clean-room compiler or assembler doesn't give you any leverage there. You're still building a game file derived from proprietary source code. Again, selling it without Activision's permission would be right out.
Writing new, original ZIL games for fun? As I said, this is already a popular hobby. The forum is buzzing with ZIL programming chatter.
Writing new, original games for profit? I gotta tell you, ZIL is not the right tool for that job. Even if you think you're going to get rich off parser IF (tricky at best), you'll want a modern tool which can handle dense, highly-detailed games. Of all the Infocom alumni who revisited parser IF (Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Bob Bates), none of them chose ZIL.
For the sheer challenge of the hack? Maybe? But people usually don't put down money for that sort of fun. This setup involves hiring a documentation writer and a copyright lawyer, for a start.
So I'm left with nothing. My best guess is that they want to write unauthorized sequels to the Infocom canon, but they don't understand either the legal realities (a clean-room assembler gains you nothing) or the IF community. My second guess is that they want to contribute a legally unencumbered open-source tool, but they don't understand that this has no practical value. I dunno. They're certainly doing nothing to dispel the impression that they might have sketchy intentions.
On top of which, they consistently present themselves as "Infocom". Not "Infocom enthusiasts" or even "a new generation of Infocom". This tweet (from last year) is an eye-rolling example. I also see a discussion thread in which someone said they were (briefly) selling the old Infocom games without permission? I can't verify that, but jeez.
I guess we'll find out, or else they'll sink without a trace and we never will.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Trademarking Infocom, again, part one

It must be a Monday -- someone has trademarked "Infocom"!
No, this doesn't happen every Monday. But over the past twenty years, a surprising number of people have tried to register "Infocom" as a game-related trademark.
The original Infocom company trademarked their name in 1979. Activision purchased the company and the trademark in 1986. But, of course, the Infocom brand didn't last long after that. Activision allowed the trademark to lapse in 2002. (They let "Zork" lapse in 2003. Curiously, they renewed the trademark on "Return to Zork", which remains live today.)
This set off a weird slow-motion frenzy in which some Infocom fan or other would notice the dead trademark and try to do something with it.
  • Oliver Klaeffling filed a registration in 2007. He posted a web page for a game called Triumvirate, apparently a fan-sequel to Trinity. (I wrote about this in 2010.) The game never appeared.
  • Omni Consumer Products also filed a registration in 2007. This is a silly but real company run by Pete Hottelet. It sells real version of fictional products like Fight Club Soap and Stay Puft Marshmallows. Omni held onto the trademark until 2016.
  • Bob Bates, one of the original Infocom folks, filed a registration in 2017. This was shortly after his Thaumistry kickstarter. The game shipped that year, but the trademark registration was not completed.
And now, just a few months ago, a company called SmartMonsters has filed for it.
Interestingly, this registration only covers "online, non-downloadable" videogames. If you look at the SmartMonsters site, you'll see that it runs a set of old-school MUDs. By old-school, I mean they are strongly oriented around RPG-style stats, skills, and XP. This is what all MUDs were like before the "social" TinyMUD/MUSH/MOO tree branched off.
One of their available games is a port of Dungeon. It claims to be "mashed-up from several of the 1980s C ports". It's running in a MUD framework, but it's not multiplayer. It's also pretty alpha; I couldn't manage to take inventory or attack the troll.
The SmartMonsters people are clearly long-time MUD-and-IF folks. Their IF resources page links to IFDB, the forum, and a bunch of classic games (including mine). Their bio page describes co-founder Gary Smith as "...the guy who ported Zork from MDL to C on the PDP."
(I'll note that this is an unrecovered port! All the extant C versions of Zork/Dungeon are translated from Bob Supnik's Fortran version. I dropped SmartMonsters a note asking about it. They say Gary's C port is lost, but he might have a VisualBasic port lying around from the old days...)
I'm pleased to have stumbled across SmartMonsters. But that's not the weird part of this story! There's another company trying to pick up the Infocom trademark right now. I'll post about them tomorrow.
("How do you keep a dornbeast in suspense?")

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Myst documentary kickstarter

Today's news: a documentary about Myst has popped up on Kickstarter.
This has been under way for a while. I mentioned last year that Philip Shane, the filmmaker, was wandering around Mysterium, talking to people and filming random "life among the Myst fans" footage. (So it's not impossible that I'll show up in the background of the documentary...)
The project goal is $200k, which will cover further filming at Cyan and other locations. According to the project page, Shane wants to visit the places where the Millers grew up, talk to people involved with the Mac and Hypercard (where Myst was originally built), tour the modern game industry looking for Myst followups and influences, and generally construct a very broad-spectrum view of the game and its context. The documentary is aimed to release at the end of 2022.
For more info on the documentary, and comments from Robyn and Rand Miller, see this VentureBeat article (published yesterday).
This offsets the bad news from earlier in the week: Firmament, Cyan's upcoming game, is delayed until probably 2022. Its original Kickstarter estimate date was mid-2020 -- this month -- but, well, game dev is game dev. Cyan's original notion of a medium-sized game and an 18-month dev cycle has grown into a "bigger story arc". On the up side, the documentary should be able to wrap with a view of the Firmament launch! Hopefully this will all dovetail into a Cyan media moment, as it were.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Followup on Apple Arcade

Back in September I wrote up my impressions on Apple Arcade's goals and where it might settle down.
Not long after that, I fired up my free trial month on the Arcade and started poking around. Which was fun! As always, I was most interested in short narrative games and clever puzzle toys. In that line, I was happy to discover Assemble With Care, What the Golf?, Card of Darkness, Over the Alps, Where Cards Fall, Tint, Discolored, and others.
(I'll also mention Manifold Garden, Neo Cab, and Mutazione. I played those three on PC, but they also fly the Arcade banner. Platforms should be tripping over each other to fund titles like those.)
At the end of my trial month, I let Arcade lapse. No regrets, no surprise. I'm not implacably opposed to subscription entertainment packages, but I'd rather pay for my fun (and spend my free time) a la carte. So far I've stuck to that plan. Yes, I watched Game of Thrones and Star Trek Discovery a year behind everyone else. Turns out I'm okay with that.
Now Apple Arcade hates me, right? I tried but didn't buy. I'm apparently not alone, either. This article just popped up:
Apple Inc. has shifted the strategy of its Apple Arcade gaming service, canceling contracts for some games in development while seeking other titles that it believes will better retain subscribers. [...] Apple is increasingly interested in titles that will keep users hooked, so subscribers stay beyond the free trial of the service [...].
For what it's worth, this fits with what I hear on the indie grapevine. So what does it mean for Arcade?
It's clear what it means for me: Apple Arcade doesn't want me back. It's jettisoning exactly the subgenres I care about. Myst/Room-style puzzlers (Discolored) are not meant to be replayed. Short narrative games or visual novels (Over the Alps, Neo Cab) may be worth two or three sessions to try different endings, but you're not going to sink hours into them every week. Puzzle collections like Tint can offer hundreds of levels, but honestly, I'm going to put them aside after twenty or fifty. (If it has only twenty or fifty more-focused levels, then I'll get completist about it.)
I'll occasionally get hooked on a roguelike or Brough-like (Card of Darkness), but that's rare.
No complaints! I declared that I wasn't in Arcade's target market; they turned elsewhere. Fair.
But it's a blow to the premium/unique/boutique brand that they launched with. Turns out, Arcade is chasing the same addiction-loop games as everybody else in the freemium market. Their fixed monthly fee precludes the worst "buy gems for your next move" abuses, but it's still the same genre. Games must be designed to hook you and maximize playtime.
In other words, no more Neo Cab, Mutazione, or Manifold Garden. Nothing like Monument Valley, either. Too bad for Apple.
This doesn't exactly match any of the imaginary futures in my post. Oh, my #2 was close: "Apple stops pumping money, continues curating a [narrow] list of games for Arcade." But I was thinking of curated premium games. Arcade has moved out of that space entirely. The games I care about are back where they were last year: poking hopefully at the smart indie publishers (mostly Annapurna), or trying to wangle deals with the other platform holders. (Sony, Microsoft, and Epic are still funding some interesting stuff. Nintendo is... still Nintendo. The Switch isn't completely played out yet for developers, which I admit surprises me.)
Those games are also appearing in the App Store, to be clear. Back in the fall, when Arcade was still launching five titles a week, the regular App Store got seriously quiet. But it's rebounded; my sort of stuff now pops up at the usual rate. (Song of Bloom, Samsara Room, The Almost Gone, If Found...)
Is Arcade a failure? It's certainly past its season of buzz. Nobody talks about Arcade any more. It will never again be the epicenter of exciting mobile games -- not unless Apple changes course yet again.
But look. Sometimes Apple puts up an unexciting product, lets it run long after everybody has written it off, adjusts it a few times, and then announces that it's making a zillion dollars a year. "Services" is now 22% of Apple's revenue. Maybe in a couple of years, Arcade will be an unstoppable powerhouse of... games I don't play much. Or maybe it will be quietly folded up and put away. I guess I'll post again when I know.