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Hitchhiker's Special - Interview
Our Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Special begins with an interview with the author of the Infocom game, Steve Meretzky
On a frozen early March morning in London I met up with Steve Meretzky to talk about life, the universe and everything. We had met, only once before, in Las Vegas some 20 years earlier and now we were meeting again - amazingly to talk about the same game!
In an exchange of emails to set up the interview he described himself as being very tall, bearded and jetlagged; he was all three in large measure. He also gripped a copy of Bill Bryson's "Notes on a Small Island" as if it would be a lifesaver while in the UK.
London can be strange to the unsure visitor. For example, on the way to our meeting I saw an advert for bikinis being blown about in the snow storm - only in London! In the next two hours we talked about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and how it was nominated for a BAFTA interactive award, working with Douglas Adams, his time at Infocom and now WorldWinner, Dice2Mice and the games he likes to play.
Infocom was the home of the text adventure. In the early 1980s computers only had a few K of memory, not the mega and gigabytes of today, and so most adventures were of the "go North", "Hit troll" variety. Despite this limitation they were a massive genre of games rivalling conversions of arcade games. As computers gained a little more memory (often described in hardware adverts as a "massive 48 or 64K") some publishers started adding in graphics but Infocom stuck to its guns. It believed that a poor picture took up a lot more space than a thousand good words and featured games that have become almost legends such as the Zork trilogy, Planetfall, Suspended, Deadline, the wonderfully named Leather Goddesses of Phobos and of course Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Infocom games were far from dull or dry as the text weaved fascinating stories, worlds only limited by the author's imagination and adventure puzzles that could cause baldness with the sheer hair-pulling frustration they could inflict. They also had amazingly complex packaging that included all manner of items such as police reports, scratch and sniff cards and the bag of fluff and the all-black sunglasses found in Hitchhiker's.
The way Leather Goddesses of Phobos came into being is typical of the company, as it started as a joke. "It was just before a corporate party for major investors and we had a board showing the progress of the various versions of games in development" explains Meretzky. "I then just added a made up game called Leather Goddeses of Phobos to the bottom to see if anyone would notice". The head of Infocom did and got it erased just before the party began.
After that, if anything ran late it was blamed on extra work caused by Leather Goddeses of Phobos until eventually it was made into a game and sold along with a scratch and sniff card and 3D comic.
Eventually, Infocom was bought out by Activision who promptly decided its games needed graphics and a few years later the adventure genre was dead.
The Wilderness Years
After Infocom, Meretzky set up his own company and entered a twilight world which was full of deals done that were then as easily undone.
"It was a difficult time as I got further and further away from what I loved, spending my time running a company rather then designing games". It was also a crazy time for example, "Companies would ask for games for the PC and PS2 and we'd say 'sure no problem' then try and hire someone who could do the PS2 version, only for it to be dropped".
In one story that sums up the era Meretzky pitched over 18 games to a company that had $30 million dollars burning a whole in the bank. "They listened to all 18 and chose 11 and signed a contract that day". Unfortunately, that $30 million turned out to actually be an $18 million deficit and the deal was lost along with the company.
A few titles managed to make it but it was overall a time of frustration, of pitches, demos, prototypes that the market has yet to see. Now, Steve Meretzky has returned to games designing at WorldWinner.
Welcome home at WorldWinner
WorldWinner specialises in simple, skill based games and makes its money by hosting tournaments in just the sort of games that are popular with mousewives - women who have the time to play and enjoy fun and simple games.
"The games are simple and fun and can be played as lightly or as seriously as a player wishes" explains Meretzky. Due to US gaming laws, the games must be skill based and devoid of any luck, which would make them games of chance. "We had to make backgammon into skillgammon," says Meretzky.
He is not only the chief games designer thinking up new games, he also spends his time devising new tournament formats and ways to beat the cheats. "About 75-80% of our players are female who love the chance to play games, relax and win some money in the tournaments but we have to on constant lookout for the cheats as cheating to win is one thing, cheating to win money is another!."
Although there are larger tournaments, most players seem to enjoy quick and simple 2-5 player games with prize money at stake for the winner. WorldWinner aren't complaining as taking their small share of each stake is making it a massive Internet success story.
About the BAFTA
Initially Meretzky was surprised that a 20 year old game was being nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy Film Television Award) Interactive Award. When we talked more we realised that the game had never truly gone away. It had been played for many years at a variety of unofficial websites until the BBC took on the task of revamping it. "The timing couldn't be better with the film to be released at the end of April 05" says Meretzky.
Working with Adams
According to Meretzky, Douglas Adams was a delight to be with but he could challenge the patience of a saint. "He took procrastination to an art form and beyond" says Meretzky "He was the perfect dinner companion, knew all the best places, travelled everywhere first class and knew how to enjoy life to the full."
After an initial meeting that agreed a quite ambitious seven month production schedule they agreed that he would email through "wodges of new stuff". The day for a new installment would come and pass, as would the next few. It was also the deadline for the Hitchhiker's book "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish" and he had yet to write a single word!
When the next batch of material finally did arrive it would be far less than expected but would also be so unique. "Only Douglas could come up with things like an inventory item called 'no tea' or that the game should lie to you" says Meretzky.
Eventually, his agent, well used to his ways by now, sent him off to a house in the country to write the book away from the distractions of London.
The game was also completed in similar circumstances as it seems that the one thing Adam's hated most about being a writer was the actual writing! As Adams use to say "I love the sound deadlines make as they whoosh by!" "I was initially a little intimidated by him and so at first was a little hesitant to suggest ideas" admits Meretzky.
As the development continued Meretsly would add in more and more so it became more of a joint project rather then just coding Adam's ideas. By the end of what Adam's described as a pear shaped game (thin or linear at the start, then wider before tapering off) he paid Meretzky the ultimate compliment by not being able to tell who wrote which bit!
Meretzky on Dice2Mice
Steve Meretzky is a games fan and we were delighted to hear his comments about Dice2Mice! Indeed, at times he seemed more interested in talking about what we were doing then Hitchhiker's! Yes, Steve we know what we're attempting here is ambitious but we love every minute of it! Just wait till you see our new launch Attitude!
What Meretzky plays...
Steve Meretzky lives and breathes games and finds time in between devising new games to play them as well! He enjoys both a poker night and a games night once a month and plays games one hour a week at work during a gaming lunch break. WorldWinner sounds like a cool place to work!