Microsoft consumes Activision; and a plea

Friday, October 13, 2023

Comments: 61   (latest October 29)

Tagged: microsoft, activision, monopolies, infocom, history, preservation

The gavel has fallen; the cup has been stomped; pick your metaphor. Microsoft has succeeded in its almost-two-year quest to gobble up Activision.

The peculiar side effect in my corner of the world is that Microsoft now owns the dusty remains of Infocom. Microsoft owns all the classic Infocom games (except maybe Hitchhiker and Shogun). They own the rights to sell the games. They own the rights to make more Zork spinoffs.

Of course, from a corporate point of view, this means exactly nothing. Activision has kept a few Infocom games up on GOG (EDIT: and Steam). For a while they sold them for iOS, but that was too much work so they stopped. In 2009 they flirted with a casual Zork tie-in that went nowhere. None of this rates even a footnote in the Microsoft acquisition prospectus, which I imagine is six hundred pages of Candy Crush stats with an appendix mentioning WoW and CoD as "also nice to have".

But of course I'm interested in the Zork stuff. Let's follow the bouncing brogmoid!

  • 1979: Infocom is founded. It enjoys a few years of wild stardom, followed by an inevitable downturn in the face of graphical games. (Plus the whole Cornerstone thing.)
  • 1986: Activision acquires Infocom, saving Infocom's bacon for a couple of years.
  • 1987: Activision's board replaces CEO Jim Levy, who had brought Infocom on board, with Bruce Davis.
  • 1988: Davis shakes up Activision and renames it Mediagenic.
  • 1989: Mediagenic/Activision shuts down Infocom as a studio. (It keeps the name alive as an adventure publishing label.)
  • 1990-1991: Mediagenic is now itself sliding down the tubes.
  • 1991: Bobby Kotick buys the carcass of Mediagenic. To make a quick buck, he has the Infocom library reissued, which saves his bacon. Also there's Return to Zork.
  • 1992-1993: Kotick mulches the rest of Mediagenic and reorganizes it as (effectively) a new company called Activision.
  • 1996: Activision reissues the Infocom games again as the Masterpieces CD-ROM. As a bonus, this includes the winners of the first IFComp, including A Change in the Weather. No complaints.
  • 2008: Activision merges with Vivendi/Blizzard, forming "Activision Blizzard". Despite the name, if you look at the details it's really more like Vivendi acquiring Activision.
  • 2016: Now it's "Activision Blizzard King".
  • 2022: Microsoft gets a gleam in its eye. Microsoft does not offer to change its name to "Microsoft Activision".

Depending on how you count, that's three-to-five companies which have died and passed the Infocom IP on to a successor.

(And the Implementors, aka the folks who wrote the Infocom games in the first place? They never had any rights to the stuff. They were on salary. All the Infocom games were "works for hire".)

So why am I digging this up? Aside from "history is interesting", which it is.

Microsoft-the-company does not care about Infocom. But a lot of people in Microsoft must care. Microsoft is heavily populated by greying GenX nerds just like me. Folks who grew up with the first home computers and fondly remember the games of the early 1980s.

To those nerds, I direct this request:

It is time to do right by the memory of Infocom. It is time to let it go.

For twenty years, Infocom properties have existed in a foggy hinterland of "Well, Activision owns it, but... you know. You can find the stuff online." I don't just mean the games! It's also the manuals, the advertisements, the packaging, all the ephemera. It's all available, but... you know. Illegally.

This represents an enormous success of videogame history preservation -- except when you look at those links, they're all individual hobbyists who just collect stuff. (Spoiler: one of them is me.) The lucky ones maybe got an Activision guy to say "Sure, you have permission to do that" back in the mid-90s. Everyone else is just skating by on legal obscurity.

Now, Activision has never hassled fans over this stuff. Fans have been circumspect and mostly not tried to distribute the games in playable form. It's peaceable. But it's not legal, which makes life hard for real-world libraries and universities.

The top-hatted elephant in the room is of course Jason Scott, who scanned an enormous amount of Infocom trivia from Steve Meretzky's personal collection. The scans went up on the Internet Archive. (Meretzky later donated his physical collection to Stanford.) A few years later, Jason said "the heck with it" and also posted all the Infocom source code, or as much of it as has been preserved by fans, anyway.

(Ironically, that source code dump went up on Github, which is also a Microsoft acquisition...)

Anyhow. I say it is time to end this liminality and bring all this work into the legal daylight. I see two paths.

  • Microsoft could place all of the Infocom intellectual property under a Creative Commons license. Again, not just the games. This needs to include all of Infocom's material: source code, manuals, maps, packaging, advertisements, newsletters. Everything that people have scanned over the years, or could scan in the future.

  • Or, bolder: Microsoft could donate the Infocom copyrights to a worthy nonprofit. Naturally I put forth the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation! But, really, there's options. I already mentioned the Internet Archive. The Video Game History Foundation does sterling work. I'm sure you can name more.

For what it's worth, if IFTF becomes the guardian of any Infocom or other historic IF material, our first order of business to discuss would be a Creative Commons release.

Just to be clear, I'm talking about copyrights and other information rights: publication, scanning. The rights of students to play games for classes. The right to make sequels and fan works.

Physical artifacts from the Infocom era are a whole 'nother story. I have no idea if any such objects still exist in Activision's basement. If they do, they should be handled by a university or a museum. (See above re Meretzky's stuff at Stanford. The MIT Museum has material donated by Dave Lebling and Mike Dornbrook.)

Right. That's my proposal. If you happen to work at Microsoft Activision Blizzard Github King, maybe pass it around a little? See if the higher-ups are amenable. My lines are open, personally or through IFTF.


EDIT-ADD: Monday, Oct 16

Happy Monday! This post has gotten some attention over the weekend. People did indeed pass it around. See:

Looks like a lot of public support for the idea. Thanks!

One other comment that didn't make it into the thread, from Stefan Vogt:

What's easily forgotten in this context are the historical interpreters, which should be part of such an agreement. These used to be an even greyer area in the grey zone ballet that happened since Infocom has been shut down.

Good point! These are the Z-code interpreters (for Apple 2, C-64, etc) which Infocom bundled on their game disks. You can extract a binary off any Infocom disk image, but the (assembly) source code for these is largely lost. (One exception.) Lot of work to be done here, and the interpreters should definitely be included in any rights grant.

There's also been some cynical pushback against the idea that Microsoft would ever do anything generous. I've lightly moderated the comment thread to remove some of that. Sorry, but the world is terrible enough already. I insist on optimism about this one tiny thing.

So, as you see, the word has been passed inside Activision and Microsoft. I've made contact with some of the right people.

Now comes the frustrating part: you're going to have to wait for more news. Everybody at Activision is, no surprise, really busy this month. Not only are they figuring out a whole new corporate structure, but the next CoD game launches on Nov 10. So nothing is going to happen overnight.

I am following up as needed; the discussions will happen when they can happen.

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