Nox Archaist on Kickstarter

October 16th, 2017 4:19 PM
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Nox Archaist, an 8-bit tile-based role-playing game in development by 6502 Workshop, is currently in the last week of its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

Nox Archaist first hit my radar in April 2016, when developer Mark Lemmert emailed me about contributing content for Juiced.GS. Mark has since written three articles about the behind-the-scenes development of this game and recruited me to contribute a unique issue of Juiced.GS available exclusively to Kickstarter backers.

Nox Archaist and games like it are important to me, as I grew up playing the games that inspired it, like The Magic Candle and Ultima III: Exodus. While I love the narrative of modern RPGs, they're often more linear, with a definitive route from the beginning to the ending. By contrast, games like Ultima offered an open world in which I could discover towns haphazardly, receive clues that wouldn't make sense until much later, and marvel with my friends at the different places, people, and monsters we were each encountering in our unique journeys.

Game design has come a long way in the thirty years since, and it's possible to recreate those early experiences while still applying everything we've learned in the intervening decades about elegant user interfaces, character progression, and more. While Nox Archaist isn't the first game to recently promise the best of both worlds, it seems likely to be the first to hit market.

The Nox Archaist crowdfunding campaign is seeking $43,078, which is ambitious by itself but modest compared to Unknown Realm, a similar RPG whose Kickstarter received $126,343 earlier this year. Nox Archaist's campaign started off strong, with donors making an average pledge of $109 each — no doubt enticed by getting in-game towns and artifacts named after them. The campaign currently stands at 41% funded — and 78% of projects that raised more than 20% of their goal are successfully funded. But without continued momentum, the Kicktraq prediction for this campaign is not favorable.

If this Kickstarter does not succeed, then per the platform's all-or-nothing nature, 6502 Workshop will receive none of the pledged funds. But I'm hopeful, even if that happens, that the game itself will nonetheless be a success — whether it seeks additional funding via a more flexible platform, such as Indiegogo, or simply proceeds as an exclusively homebrew effort. The Apple II needs games like Nox Archaist.

Installing optional SSL

October 9th, 2017 11:48 AM
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A year ago this month, I added SSL certificates to all my websites. Be it the ease and affordability of doing via Let's Encrypt, the paranoia of avoiding unencrypted communications inspired by Snowden, or the improvement to search-engine ranking provided by Google, it was an effortless and valuable addition all my sites.

Except this one. I spoke on the Retro Computing Roundtable and wrote on this blog about how evolving Web standards sometimes mean older technology is no longer grandfathered. In this case, no Apple II computer or browser currently supports (or may even be capable of accessing) SSL-encrypted websites. Even though my Google Analytics showed no such machines were accessing Apple II Bits, I was hesitant to disconnect this blog from the computer that inspired it.

Since then, Google stepped up its incentive to offer HTTPS encryption: starting later this month, any page or site with a text field — be it a contact form or a search box — that isn't encrypted will display a warning in Google Chrome. Whether this decision is reasonable or proper can be debated, but I can't ignore its consequences. Among visitors to this site, Chrome is the most popular, constituting 45% of sessions. For thousands of users to have a negative experience so I can accommodate a potential or even nonexistent audience is foolhardy.

Fortunately, as reader mmphosis commented, it's not an either/or proposition: a website can be configured to support both HTTP and HTTPS. This weekend, that's exactly the change I made to Apple II Bits' configuration. The canonical default for this website is still HTTP, but if you type HTTPS into your browser window (or have the EFF's excellent HTTPS Everywhere browser plugin enabled), you can now access the site via HTTPS as well.

In the future, I may investigate reversing those roles and making HTTPS the default but HTTP an option. In the meantime, I hope this compromise between old and new technologies is successful at serving a modern audience of retrocomputing enthusiasts.

Debbie Reynolds' Apple II for auction

October 2nd, 2017 10:21 AM
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Like the rest of the world, I was shocked when Carrie Fisher — Princess Leia, General Organa — died suddenly this past December. As much as the world loved her, no one loved her more than her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who died of a broken heart the next day. This double loss of celebrities, feminists, and icons who inspired generations was a terrible end to a terrible year.

We've not fully closed the chapter on their passing, as only now, nine months later, will their estates be auctioned off. The items that were not specifically outlined in their wills or which were not wanted by their beneficiaries will be sold by Profiles in Auction this weekend, October 7–9, 2017. On the first day of the auction is an item of interest to readers of this blog: Debbie Reynolds' Apple II.

481. One of the first Apple II computers – serial # A2S1-0082. First generation Apple II A2S1-0082, one of the first 100 case-designed computers built by the newly formed Apple Computer, Inc. and the model widely credited with launching the home computer market, with millions sold well into the 1980s (not to be confused with the Apple II Plus, the next generation Apple). [Reynolds' son] Todd Fisher took delivery of this computer directly from Steve Jobs in Los Altos. This computer faithfully served as an inventory database with Debbie Reynolds digitally archived her collection. It's been souped-up from the standard 8K all they [sic] way to 24K ram, many of the ROM chips have Apple logo stickers copyright 1978, a built-in speaker, cassette interface audio jacks, and video out on the rear panel. The power supply was replaced due to a faulty first run under warranty. The case exhibits soiling and slight discoloration (to be expected from so many years of use). Electronics untested. This very early Apple II represents a milestone in computing history that launched uninterrupted Apple brand loyalty from Debbie and her organization. $1,000 – $2,000

Debbie Reynolds is not a celebrity whom I would expect to have used an Apple II or to have kept it all these years. It's unknown how recently it was used, or what about it may be unique to its previous owner. Unlike Apple-1 auctions that seem to occur twice annually, this estate sale is perhaps the most unusual and unexpected Apple II auction since the TV show Lost's Apple II Plus.

Interested parties who wish to bid online may do so immediately at Invaluable.com.

Debbie Reynolds' Apple II

You were meant for me.

If I had more disposable income, I would certainly count myself among the bidders.

(Hat tip to Charles Mangin)

Minecraft Oregon Trail

September 25th, 2017 12:26 PM
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Steve Weyhrich has gone whole-hog on Minecraft, having used the construction game to develop multiple Apple II models. Now Microsoft, the owners of Minecraft, are getting in on the retro action by infusing their virtual world with the most emblematic of Apple II software: Oregon Trail.

Now available is an Oregon Trail world. Just download the free package, install it in Minecraft Education Edition, and you'll find yourself in the town of Independence, Missouri, deciding whether to be a farmer, banker, or carpenter — just like on the Apple II.

Said Caroline Fraser, senior vice president of Oregon Trail publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: "We are delighted to partner with Minecraft Education, giving students a new way to experience one of the most popular educational games of all time, The Oregon Trail. Through the unique magic of Minecraft, students will be drawn to discover the wonders and challenges that pioneers encountered on this famous journey."

However, this version of the Apple II classic comes saddled with limitations. First, the downloaded world does not change Minecraft's rules of game mechanics; it does not introduce new features. While there are signposts along the journey asking players how they want to ford the river, for example, this is more an opportunity for classroom discussion than it is part of an interactive branching narrative; the game doesn't require any action in response to these billboards.

Also, the world works exclusively in the educational version of Minecraft, which was released in 2016 to schools and educators. The average consumer will not have access to this version of the game, nor will the Oregon Trail world work in any other version of Minecraft.

What happens if you try installing the world in a non-educational edition of Minecraft? In an email, the Apple II community's resident Minecraft expert, Steve Weyhrich, suggests there are further differences under the hood:

The original Minecraft, written in Java, is what runs on Mac and Windows, and has it's own data structure and format. Microsoft is now calling this "Minecraft: Java Edition". The newer Minecraft, now just called "Minecraft", is written in some version of C, and they are trying to make all of the various platforms (pocket edition, Windows 10 edition, etc) use the same world structure… That Oregon Trail world in that download you linked does not work on the Java edition.

It's a rare case of the Apple II version actually seeming more accessible and educational by comparison!

Hat tip to Stephen Noonoo

Trello for the Apple II

September 18th, 2017 10:08 AM
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When I started at my current day job two years ago, I asked my Apple II friends for some good team-based project management tools. My quest was made more difficult by me not knowing what I was looking for, as I'd never used any such software.

Still, even though Trello came highly recommended, I found it inscrutable: it seemed to be just a series of lists in which items could be dragged from one column to another. How was this not simply a cloud-based, collaborative spreadsheet — like Google Sheets? I didn't understand how to make it work for me and my team.

Maybe I should given Trello another try, as it's recently proven its heart is in the right place. Their latest commercial is bookended with homages to our favorite classic computer:

Whenever I see the Apple II appear in unexpected places, I wonder how it got there. Who on the Trello team decided that a callback to a 39-year-old Apple computer was the proper frame for their latest advertisement? Where did they get the hardware used in the video? And what's going to become of it?

It may not be a story for the next issue of Juiced.GS… but it's one that puts a smile on my face.

(Hat tip to Eric Shepherd)

Developing Retro Roundup

September 11th, 2017 12:11 PM
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Last week, I officially launched Retro Roundup, a curated RSS aggregator of retrocomputing news.
Retro Roundup banner
Or rather, re-launched: Retro Roundup was founded in 2005 by Kevin Savetz, who approached me this past February about taking over the site. While keeping the same purpose and logo, I rebuilt the site in WordPress, adding taxonomies, email subscriptions, and more. After several months in development, it was finally ready to demo during the KansasFest 2017 lightning talks.

Those talks were two months ago, yet the press release announcing Retro Roundup was published just last week. What took so long?

The problem was that Retro Roundup didn't have a defined end state. Unlike Juiced.GS, which has concrete deadlines resulting in a finished quarterly product, Retro Roundup will never stop growing. The more RSS feeds I add to it, the more content it will publish. How many feeds and how much content are enough to launch a website?

I was reminded of the development of Duke Nukem Forever, a video game that took 15 years to publish. The developers didn't have a roadmap for what the game would look like when it was done; as a result, they kept adding new levels and features and scrapping old ones to be current with the latest technology, which was advancing apace with the game. But every product is outdated by the time it launches — at some point, you just have to declare that it's met its goal and release it.

In my case, I thought I was done Retro Roundup in April — until I showed it to my librarian friend, Michele DeFilippo. She suggested I add "facet searches", which was not a term I'd ever heard, though I was familiar with the functionality: almost every e-commerce website offers parameters and filters to narrow search results. Adding this feature to Retro Roundup made the site infinitely more useful and usable.

Then I thought I was done — until a month later, when I attended WordCamp Portland, and met Scott Tirrell, a fan of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast, on which I'm an occasional guest. I showed him the site, and he enthusiastically offered many more suggestions — from adding a search box to including YouTube channels among the site's feeds.

With such great feedback, I could've kept working on Retro Roundup indefinitely. What pushed me to finally release the site was Kevin plugging it on episode #45 of the ANTIC podcast (38:51–41:53). Listeners of that podcast immediately flocked to Retro Roundup and began submitting RSS feeds. Even before I knew how they'd discovered the site, I realized that I couldn't keep this cat in the bag any longer. So I spent a day off from work adding dozens more feeds to the site, many of which I'd solicited months ago on Facebook, before deciding I'd met some arbitrary, minimum quantity of content.

Despite this milestone, there are still more feeds and features to add. Mark Lemmert of 6502 Workshop was the first to use the "submit an advertisement" form, which I'd somehow overlooked in my testing. I was appalled by the results; an hour of my Friday night was spent bringing it up to spec. And a developer who contributed essential functionality to the a2.click tool is even now working on code that will make Retro Roundup even more usable.

Before last week, I had only two retrocomputing websites: Apple II Bits and Juiced.GS. I hope the former entertains its readers, but it's primarily a personal outlet; while the latter is in support of an offline product. Retro Roundup is the first retrocomputing website I've built that I would call a resource for the community. I've learned scads about WordPress and project management during its development. I hope it is found equally rewarding for its users, who will discover new sources for retrocomputing content, and for publishers, who will see new visitors being sent to their site from Retro Roundup.