Twice In A Lifetime: A Tour of Mike Dornbrook’s Desk

Harmonix Chief Operations Officer Mike Dornbrook generously gave us an exciting tour of his office over Central Square and talked about the video games he worked on during his amazing career. Mentioning the titles ZORK or Rock Band to a veteran or newbie gamer often inspires confessions of obsession and Mike has been an instrumental figure in bringing these games to the masses. Mike is a terrific story teller and he has had the privilege to work with a list of wildly interesting minds during his career. His desk and office is an inspiring archive of his complete career from the latest games from Harmonix right through the first games he worked on.

“It all started with ZORK.” ZORK was created in the summer of 1977 by Mark Blank working on the mainframes at MIT in his spare time while he was going through med school. Infocom - the company that distributed ZORK - was started shortly after by a small team that included Mark Blank & a few others. They began developing software and ZORK was lying around on the mainframes at MIT but it was too big (1MB) to sell on a floppy disk.  A team of developers shrunk it down to 82k for the Apple II C. Mike was a tester on mainframes and later on interpreter programs that would quickly run games on new PCs.

The original ZORK packaging

The initial launch of ZORK was in the very specific illustrative Viking style different from the cerebral adventure feel of the game.

The updated, iconic ZORK

 The next release featured a text based version in the iconic stone letters over a black background.

One of the first spreadsheet programs, Visicalc, was created by Software Arts in the very building where Harmonix now resides. The rights to ZORK were owned by PS and were handed back to Infocom since it did not fit in with their future. ZORK was released in the eight inch floppy version, “The deck pdp11 version”. In 1981 & 1982 ZORK was $50.00, which sounds not too far off from what video games cost in 2010, though once you adjust for inflation…

The New ZORK Times Newsletter

Mike went on to business school in Chicago and he urged Infocom to continue engaging with their awesome base of fans. Infocom was too busy so they gave him the rights to everything outside of the software, all the ancillary & promotional content was wide open for sharing with and selling to the large ZORK following out there (and they were out there). Mike came up with exciting ways to keep in touch with the fans: writing The New ZORK Times and selling books of “Invisiclues” that were printed with invisible ink to thwart piracy, all while he was getting his MBA.

Printed with invisible ink, Invisiclues revealed tricks & tips for ZORK

Mike handled product development, marketing and book keeping while he was in business school and his recently retired father handled day to day operations from the basement of their Milwaukee home. They eventually hired five full-time employees to assist with sending orders & keeping track of data from the lower depths of the Dornbrook home.

Infocom bought the rights back from Mike and he received a new job as a Product Manager for Infocom, working on a litany of classic titles and true talents along the way. Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy fame was a client, and Mike had the rare opportunity to spend time with Adams and his fascinating friends in London. "Really intelligent conversations around the dinner table talking about Big Ideas," says Mike. "Not your typical American business conversation.” The iconic details of Hitchhiker’s filled the game box including: the peril-sensitive sunglasses, the “Don’t Panic” button, the pocket fluff, the orders of the destruction your home and your planet & the microscopic battle fleet.

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy came with the micro space fleet & more

Piracy was a concern and Infocom games had the distinction of including all sorts of useful tools in the game box. For instance in the game Witness a match book with a hand written phone number was for a crucial part of the game (Note: you cannot send matches through the United States Postal Service so these had to be ordered without the chemical for lighting them). Deadline, the first mystery game ever, was product number three. Mark Blank, the author, came up with the idea of including all sorts of stuff in the game package related to the mystery story, and it was hugely successful.

The experience working at Infocom was similar to what it’s like to work at Harmonix according to Mike, “Infocom was a really cool place to work, with really fantastic people to work with. For a lot of folks it was one their first jobs of their twenties… Twice in one life time I have been able to work at two of these companies that people have been dying to work for. I view myself as very lucky”.

Early experiences proved that trade shows were a costly endeavor with mixed results. During a 1985 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Infocom had a smaller budget than past years for attending the convention. This was a down year for video games and Mike had to get creative with their presence at CES and looked for a deal on a venue outside the trade show. All the hotels had deals with CES and on a lark they reached out to the Field Museum in Chicago for a get together with key people in the industry. “Only Infocom could afford this!” said the soiree attendees. Big impressions went a long way and they often creatively saved big bucks for Infocom while injecting their own unique personality into each event.

The Bring Your Own Brain party invite

At the “bring your own brain” party attendees were handed color coded name tags before the Infocom presentation of their upcoming game releases. After the talk the color coded groups were sent off to search around the event for clues put together by the game developers leading to hidden prizes. “We discovered that there was a much better way to make an impression on people and from that point forward we tried to do really cool events. The parties didn’t cost very much and they were cleverly done. We became the party everyone wanted to be invited to.” All the top press & game industry folks would come to each bash.

A position as President at Boffo Games with former roommate and Infocom co-worker Steve Meretsky came after a stint with developing databases for American Express.  The short lived company released Space Bar a detective adventure set in outer space.

Mike connected with Looking Glass studios to do some consulting work for their projects. A bunch of the talented folks there moved on to join Harmonix, a company founded by a pair of bright young recent alums from the MIT graduate program, Alex Rigopolous & Eran Egozy. After working with a couple gaming start ups Mike was equipped with a keen Spidey-sense for detecting invisclues for success, “This was like their first job out of college, but I could tell they were REALLY SHARP and they clearly had a dream that music was going to become interactive”. No one was certain how long it could take to make music interactive. Two years? Twenty years? The goal was to stay in business long enough to make it happen.

The Axe was one of the first projects put together by Harmonix. The joystick game was a blast and they were approached by Disney to turn it into an interactive exhibit in Epcot (it can still be seen there). A few of the right people from Sony got to interact with the exhibit and it sparked interest after watching their kids have a fun time with it.

That recognition led to Frequency, the first Playstation 2 game from Harmonix, followed by Amplitude and Antigrav. Konami soon came into the picture creating the Americanized version of Karaoke Revolution. Next came a few games called Guitar Hero, Rock Band & The Beatles: Rock Band and you know the rest, “All of a sudden we were an overnight success, and it only took ten years!”