An Interview with Howard Sherman of Malinche Entertainment

Matt Barton's picture

Howard Sherman: Malinche Entertainment's Big KahunaHoward Sherman: Malinche Entertainment's Big KahunaAs many of you are well aware, I've always been a big fan of Infocom and interactive fiction. Although text adventures aren't nearly as ubiquitous as they were back in Infocom's heyday, they are still being developed and published today--and, thanks to the chutzpah of one man, Howard Sherman, they are becoming commercially viable once again. Sherman's company, Malinche Entertainment, is, to quote Sherman, "Infocom 2.0." I think you're going to really enjoy reading the following interview, in which Sherman talks about his ideas and goals to promote and support the interactive fiction community. Howard is a great guy, and I really appreciate what he's doing for an often underrated (and unappreciated!) genre. Big thanks to Howard and Malinche Entertainment for taking time out to answer my questions!

For those unfortunate people who may be unaware of the genre, could you briefly explain the type of games you publish and their unique appeal?

Malinche Entertainment is the world's only publisher of text adventure games also known as interactive fiction. Some people call us Infocom 2.0 or Infocom: The Next Generation
which are very complimentary as well as descriptive. Basically, we picked up and carried the torch for Infocom in the interactive fiction department by delivering bestseller material in terms of full-length novels in almost every genre of fiction as we mix in the interactive element that propels the character into the story as the main character.

Fiction book mavens are as blown away by the dynamic interactive fiction titles we publish as are the old-school adventure game fans we've always catered to.

Which of your current projects do you think would have the best chance of capturing the imagination of a first-time adventure gamer?

Saints in Sin City for sure. Las Vegas is a topic 80 million annnual visitors to Sin City can relate to immediately. Just about everybody has some opinion or impression of Las Vegas to call upon. With Saints in Sin City I am drawing upon that initial impression of society at large and expanding it in very personal, very real ways.

Can you describe your marketing strategy for interactive fiction? How does it differ from the typical game marketing strategy?

Me and Jimmy, my sales director, hashed this out during a meeting about three years ago. On the white board I sketched out a simple formula that I came up with after a few years of interactive fiction marketing under my belt.

That formula is: games = graphics.

He just stared at it for a few seconds then just said "Yep. That's the size of it."

We more-or-less stopped marketing to gamers at that point with the exception of adventure gamers who immediately understand what Malinche Entertainment does.

Our second prong of attack is the general fiction book market. The book market is a vast mother lode where new customer acquisition is concerned.

A tertiary market are blind gamers. Thanks to better and better screen reading technology, our text adventure games are a natural draw for the accessible market.

How do you feel about the overall profitability of the interactive fiction market? Is it expanding?
I feel really good about it where Malinche is concerned. Malinche has been profitable for a few years now. Having a mature catalog spanning almost all genres helps as does ongoing research and development to deliver fresh interactive fiction to all the most modern platforms like the Nintendo DS and the iPhone.

This enables us to keep our current customers engaged as we publish new titles as well as add draw for readers and adventure gamers who discover us for the first time and find a lot to like in the extensive catalog of novel-length interactive fiction titles we offer.

Profit and growth for Malinche is consistent in a nice 45 degree angle sort of way.

In the time since we launched, a half dozen other companies and individuals have entered then exited the commercial interactive fiction market. A couple of newcomers seem about ready to enter the arena. Our projections of their efforts tell us they won't last a year. We've cracked the code for success while they haven't cultivated a clue. We'll be here making money long after they're gone.

What advice would you give an aspiring IF author who wanted to work with Malinche Entertainment?

First, don't submit anything unsolicited. We'll just toss it in the bin at the direction of our lawyers. We recently signed a pair of adventure game designers who came with well-established credentials and a proven track record for delivering successful adventure game titles. We'll be formally announcing this relationship shortly and, once we do, the entire adventure game world will immediately understand the power of this new synergy.

One nice chap gave interactive fiction a shot with an inspiring implementation of the Harry Potter novels he sent me last year. Before we even tackled the intellectual property issues we were stopped dead in our tracks by the aspiring game designer's obviously amateurish style. I gave him some free advice, wished him luck and told him to get back to me when he's got something viable and more polished for me to look at.

So, if you're going to approach us at all you really need to have all of your ducks in a row. Start out with a formal proposal. Give me your pitch in a page or less. Tell me what you want to do. Tell me why you can do it better than anyone else. Then tell me how much money we're all going to make.

Can you tell us about your latest projects?

Saints in Sin City is what I spend almost every day on. I'm loving the puzzle and character possibilities. Just this morning I outlined a ridiculously hard (yet reasonable) puzzle involving something you'll find in every single casino on earth. The common sense approach to this omnipresent part of the backdrop will have adventurers screaming in agony at the elegant implementation of a puzzle that makes perfect sense once you see it all laid out yet will probably vex even veteran adventurers for quite a while.

Marc Blank once remarked to me that Implementors can have a lot of fun with sadistic tendencies and after mapping out this latest puzzle I can appreciate what he said on a higher plane now.

On deck is Grand Damned, a supernatural/paranormal thriller which is set for release this holiday season. While I am not actively implementing I am jotting down ideas and inspirations as they come to me.

What are your thoughts on the "Milliways" and the recovery of the lost IF backup drive that's been in the news so much lately?

I'd love to get a copy of what's on that drive if only to be able to step inside that time machine and experience for myself what it must've been like to be an original Implementer.

I already knew about 80% of the story behind Milliways that's come to light in the past few days. It was very insightful to get the other 20%.

Reading about the Milliways Massacre reinforces everything I decided about Malinche when I first launched the company back in 2002; Malinche will never be beholden to a corporate master. We will never tie the company's success or future to a single project no matter how completely $#@! amazing it may seem to be. Nobody except me will be so crucial to my company's success. Malinche will never have a fattened-up corporate culture to slow down decisions. I consult my staff and I listen to my customers but ultimately I am in charge. For better or for worse, it's all on me. So far there is just one title that I wished had done better -- Endgame. I love the title and I am very proud of it. I will always be. But it didn't sell as well as any of my other titles. Not nearly as well. That's my fault and my responsibility. I learned a lot about game design and the finer points of promotion. That's a mistake that will not be repeated.

Secretly, I still hold out hope that Endgame will explode in popularity. I think Endgame can be a breakthrough hit because of how it's so well tied to events in North Korea and the Middle East. People have told me that what's inside Endgame is not just strategically sound... it's positively prophetic.

Comments

yakumo9275
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Joined: 12/26/2006
Infocom 2.0 my arse. If you

Infocom 2.0 my arse. If you cant say something nice dont say anything at all. stu runs away. im not even going to touch this.

-- Stu --

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Bill Loguidice
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Malinche Madness

Nice work, Matt. Very enlightening about an often misunderstood, controversial and undeniably colorful figure...



Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Matt Barton
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I'm not sure I understand

I'm not sure I understand your comment, Stu. I must admit, I'm not as familiar with Malinche's publications as I'd like to be. Maybe I will get the chance to play Saints in Sin City or Endgame this summer. At any rate, though, I don't know anyone who projects more confidence in the future of IF than Howard.

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Calibrator
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I don't know the background

The postings by Stu and Bill seem to convey that Mr. Sherman and/or his company is somewhat controversial.
I don't know as I didn't really follow the IF scene for the last two or three years but I had a look at his website and it's loaded with silly slogans ("At Malinche, Customer Service Isn't a Feature - it's a Royal Proclamation!" or "Ranked As The Hottest in Horror by Apple Computer!") and painful photograph captions ("The Grand Implementor with a majestic view of the temple in the background.").
Apart from that his page seems amateurishly designed and I don't like the cover art of the games but this is a matter of taste.

The questions in this interview are good and could lead to good answers but instead he fills them with marketing targetted at the first-time or casual gamer by telling them that
a) he doesn't make games (games = graphics, which he doesn't have)
b) he is the only one publishing games that are not games
c) he makes books you can, well, play *ahem* "interact" with

He also puts stuff in his gameboxes like Infocom did. Well, no microscopic invisible starfleets but the occasional pirate eye patch or a candy bar aren't that bad.

"Some people call us Infocom 2.0 or Infocom: The Next Generation which are very complimentary as well as descriptive."

So calling his company "Infocom 2.0" must be true, though this is (cleverly) only used via citation. The Grand Implementor is humble, too.

We could argue that publishing means "commercial exploitation" (in which case I can name you at least one other text adventure that is still being sold today) or we could define it as "making publicly available" - the latter being done by a large number of people, sometimes with several masterpieces under their belt.
Either way he simply isn't the only publisher in this field.

I can't say if his products are really "bestseller material" as I haven't played them but if he says so...

@Matt:
"At any rate, though, I don't know anyone who projects more confidence in the future of IF than Howard."

Naturally - as he makes a living from it! I would do the exact same thing if I were in the shoes of the "Grand Implementor"...

Thanks for the funny interview but I like reading your book much better (plug! plug!) ;-)

take care,
Calibrator

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Matt Barton
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I've been looking at the

I've been looking at the website and trying to find the problematic areas, but it looks pretty good to me. I mean, for Pete's sake, it IS text adventure we're talking about, so I don't expect to see a slick flash animation or what have you. It's the text that should really sell the product.

One thing I did notice is that he likes to be very assertive when it comes to the games and his talents. I can't tell what is meant as humor or tongue-in-cheek. I saw the one with the pyramid and thought he was being funny there, rather like the humor in the Infocom games. It's hard to argue with all those testimonials, and I was surprised to see one from a "Will L.," which I have to wonder--is that you, Bill?

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Bill Loguidice
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Not Me
Matt Barton wrote:

I've been looking at the website and trying to find the problematic areas, but it looks pretty good to me. I mean, for Pete's sake, it IS text adventure we're talking about, so I don't expect to see a slick flash animation or what have you. It's the text that should really sell the product.

One thing I did notice is that he likes to be very assertive when it comes to the games and his talents. I can't tell what is meant as humor or tongue-in-cheek. I saw the one with the pyramid and thought he was being funny there, rather like the humor in the Infocom games. It's hard to argue with all those testimonials, and I was surprised to see one from a "Will L.," which I have to wonder--is that you, Bill?

It's a coincidence... I've never, ever used "Will"...



Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Anonymous (not verified)
(A few years late, but I feel

(A few years late, but I feel like I should explain why Malinche is so controversial.)

In the modern interactive fiction community (which is surprisingly large), Sherman is known more for his massive ego than his games. He calls himself "the last implementer," ignoring genre giants like Andrew Plotkin, Emily Short, Graham Nelson, or dozens of other acclaimed interactive fiction writers whose works are much better known than his own - and when community members take offense, he strikes back with astonishing vitriol, dismissing their critically-acclaimed efforts as a "collective failure" and proclaiming his own works "nothing less than astonishing." (http://www.adventureclassicgaming.com/index.php/site/comments/219/P10/)

Malinche's games are often panned by reviewers as mediocre-to-bad by modern standards: riddled with typos, buggy, poorly-designed, and confusingly written. Sherman's business practices are shady, as well. He claims massive sales figures but has never provided a shred of evidence to support them. He portrays Malinche as a small group of developers, but there's no evidence anyone other than Sherman himself has ever worked for it. The reviews on his website are cherry-picked and frequently distort the author's original intent. etc.

Meanwhile, the rest of the community goes on its merry way, producing some pretty nifty games: Blue Lacuna; Varicella; Anchorhead; Spider and Web; Lost Pig; Slouching Towards Bedlam; City of Secrets. Memorably, Gametrailers.com gave Counterfeit Monkey a 9.4 out of 10, the same rating they gave Bioshock Infinite. http://www.gametrailers.com/reviews/ikyf0p/counterfeit-monkey-review

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