Today’s Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to former Infocom author and Boffo Games founder Steve Meretzky.
It wasn't long after playtesting Infocom legend Marc Blanc's Deadline that Meretzky began writing text adventures of his own, and he's particularly known for some of the seminal interactive fiction created at Infocom. Games created and published under his virtual pen include Sorcerer, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, co-authored by the franchise's late creator, Douglas Adams.
Meretzky stuck around at Infocom through the end, as publisher Activision - who purchased the company four years earlier - pulled the plug in 1989. The following year, working on a contract basis from his home in Boston, Meretzky penned Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, one of two "launch titles" by the newly-formed Legend Entertainment Company.
Adventure games were at their peak in the early 90s, with publishers Sierra and Lucasarts leading the pack. And though Legend's games, including Meretzky's Eric the Unready, Superhero League of Hoboken, and two sequels to Spellcasting were well-received critically, Legend simply did not have the budget to compete with the two powerhouse publishers.
"Legend’s games were sort of a fusion of the depth and detail of Infocom games with a graphical presentation that would be more in keeping with what audiences circa 1990 demanded," he said. "Sales were better than the final games at Infocom, although far less than Sierra was seeing with their adventure games around that time."
In 1994, at the height of the so-called "media explosion" created by the proliferation of CD-ROM drives and improved graphic and sound capabilities in home PCs, Meretzky founded Boffo Games with Leo DaCosta and Mike Dornbrook, both of whom attended MIT with Meretzky in the late 70s. Boffo was founded by MediaVision, the only substantial competition in the hardware industry at the time to the gargantuan Creative Labs.
"Our first game for MediaVision was called Hodj ‘n’ Podj, which was a pretty unusual game. It was a group of about 20 mini-games - what today we’d call 'casual games' - tied together by a board game with a 'Fractured Fairy Tale' flavor," said Meretzky. Two months into development, MediaVision announced a drastic restatement of their previous year's earnings, to the tune of over $100 million less than advertised. "It turned out that they'd been completely cooking the books...kind of a mini-Enron," he said.
Hodj 'n' Podj ended up in bankruptcy court, and was purchased by Virgin Interactive. "They gave it a half-hearted marketing effort, entirely in normal gaming channels despite the game’s non-hardcore appeal," he said. "The results were mediocre sales. Of all my games, though, including all the Infocom games, it’s the game I get the most fan mail about to this day."
MediaVision was merely the beginning of Boffo's troubles. "Over and over, a company that we started a project with would reorganize out of existence or run out of money or just undergo a major change in 'vision' and 'direction,' which are code words for 'we’re canceling all our projects,'" said Meretzky.
Boffo's second and final game, The Space Bar, is "a science fiction mystery comedy set in a seedy space bar," as Meretzky describes it. "Think Sam Spade in the Star Wars cantina." Boffo passed on a publishing offer from Microsoft and signed a deal with Rocket Science, in order to involve founder Ron Cobb, who designed the original cantina scenes in Star Wars, as the game's concept artist.
"With typical Boffo luck, they ran out of money halfway through the project and sold our game to Segasoft." Segasoft, who at the time were concentrating their efforts on online ventures such as the ill-fated Heat.net, gave only a minimal amount of marketing to The Space Bar, and subsequently saw poor sales.
After this, Boffo closed its doors, in what Meretzky describes as "one of the saddest days in my twenty-plus years in the industry." Later, at a Boffo-centered postmortem held at Game Developers Conference, an audience member asked what would have happened if Boffo had inked a deal with Microsoft. Meretzky replied, dryly, "Microsoft would have gone out of business."
Wanting to stay in Boston, Meretzky accepted a position at GameFX, who had recently been acquired by THQ. "Bottom line, that was the most frustrating year and a half I've had as a game designer," he lamented. "I spent most of my time writing concept papers, or creating full designs, or leading small teams to create a demo in order to get a green light from THQ management."
None of these designs were ever approved, and eventually the entire team, described by Meretzky as "the most skilled group of programmers and artists I've ever seen assembled in one group" - were laid off. In August of 2000, Meretzky joined WorldWinner, something of a pioneer in the "skill games" market of online tournaments offering cash prizes.
In his five years at WorldWinner, Meretzky designed thirty Casual-style games. "I thought it’d be fun for perhaps a year or two, but it turned out to be surprisingly challenging and therefore quite interesting and fun," he said. "One challenge was figuring out ways to design games to remove the element of luck, another challenge was to make sure the games were almost completely cheat-proof, with cash on the line for the winner(s)." Most of Meretzky's games are still available for play on WorldWinner.com, including Paint Buckets, Word Cubes, Haunted Mine, and Skillgammon.
In July of this year Meretzky left WorldWinner to join Floodgate Entertainment, though he's still involved with WorldWinner as a Games Advisor. "I thought it would be a fun next step for me," he said. "Floodgate’s mission is to become the 'Pixar of mobile gaming,' doing the most high-end and high-quality games in the space, with a particular focus on multiplayer gaming."
Meretzky is currently working on a project code-named Swashbuckler. "It’s a multiplayer pirate game, where up to sixteen players can sail together in a variety of competitive and cooperative adventures, chat online, form guilds, build their characters over time – in short, the sort of gameplay one normally sees only on a PC," he said.
"It’s probably the most ambitious and complex game ever brought to a cell phone. But the complexity should be pretty invisible to the player; it should be a fun game for a casual player to just jump in into." Floodgate has a number of other projects in the pipeline, including a World War II naval battle simulation, a Tamagochi-style pet game, and a number of other projects that Meretzky says are "too hush-hush to talk about right now." Curious readers can keep abreast of Floodgate's titles at its official website.
[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]