September 20, 2008 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
While at NVision a few weeks back in San Jose, I got a chance to chat in detail to Jason 'Textfiles.com' Scott (pictured, left, in his natural habitat), who was at the event ahead of wandering off to Penny Arcade Expo to shoot MC Frontalot videos.
After that he is probably jetting around the world, maybe to grab interviews for the 'Get Lamp' documentary he's currently working on, chronicling the history of the text adventure. [EDIT: Oh, he really is jetting round the world, though merely to present computer history talks in Europe.]
Anyhow, Jason specifically mentioned to me that his Flickr account had some gems on it related to his interactive fiction research, and then showed me something spectacular - a set of Infocom scans revealing the sales numbers for the Zork creator's games from 1981-1989, in two parts:
This is the data from 1981 to 1986, and reveals that Zork I was by far the best-selling title in that period - selling around 380,000 units from 1981 to 1986, with quite an impressive 'long tail'.
Of course, the classic Douglas Adams co-authored Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy game is second, with 254,000 sold, but there are some other surprises in there - Planetfall has a decent 70,000, and even the super-odd, super-rare Fooblitzky sold 8,000 or so. I guess that's not too good, actually - oh well.
The total is just over 2 million units sold, and considering that I believe Infocom games retailed for $30-$40 even back then, this was a bit of a raging success, one suspects. (It's surprising how little the games' purchase cost has appreciated - anyone know exact costs for Infocom games at the time?)
In fact, the Infocom Wikipedia entry specifically notes how well the company did with its 'evergreen' approach: "Infocom had a successful marketing approach that kept all their games in store inventories for years. Because of this, older titles' sales often kept pace with sales of newer games. For example, because Zork was available for years after its initial release in 1980, it continued to top charts in sales well into the mid-1980s."
Anyhow, Infocom got bought by Activision in 1986, and there are also some handwritten sales figures for 1987-1989 which help to chronicle the company's (relative) sales decline, though, as can be seen, some games still did reasonably well:
While Fooblitzky actually managed negative sales (returns, oh dear) during that period, Hitchhiker's and the immortal Leather Goddesses Of Phobos seem to have been two of the better selling titles.
In general, a relatively small number of the games managed more than 30,000 in the time period, at least according to this document - and helped contribute to Infocom's demise as a standalone developer (though Activision still owns rights to basically all of its games, of course).
Now, I'm hardly an Infocom expert, so excuse me if I even got any of this basic info wrong. Obviously, a lot of this material may appear in some form in the upcoming Get Lamp, which has quite a bit of Infocom in it. And I don't _think_ I'm stealing Jason's thunder here - just proxy blogging for him!
But it's awesome to see some of this material posted online - quite stealthily and incidentally, for whatever reason - ahead of the documentary for us to marvel at and interpret. This, folks, is video game history.