Building an Apple II games database

August 18th, 2014 6:48 PM
by
Filed under Game trail;
leave a comment.

Whenever I've blogged about Brian Picchi, it's been in the context of the games he's made, such as Retro Fever or Deadly Orbs. But his latest undertaking is more meta and Sisyphean: a database of every 8-bit Apple II game.

The list, most recently updated on August 12, 2014, currently indexes the title, publisher, developer(s), year of publication, and media for 2,160 titles. The data are culled from such sources as MobyGames, GameFAQs, YouTube, and wikis

"It started both as a project Alex Lee and I were talking about, and because I was just curious as to how many Apple II games there are," said Picchi in an email to Apple II Bits. "Every site I had seen had under 1,000 games listed, despite claims of several thousand by other sources, including Apple."

But the database's value is in more than just verifying or setting records. "I also thought it might be helpful because I hear lots of people asking questions like 'What was that game from my childhood I can't remember, I know it was in an issue of Microzine?' or 'How many games supported Mockingboard?' or 'How many games did Sierra release for the Apple II?'" continued Picchi. "The list is available to anyone who wants to use it for any purpose." Anyone who wants to contribute to the database may do so via Google Docs.

As a metadata junkie, I'm excited to see so much information being compiling and to consider how much more can be added. Data such as game genre, additional assets such as box art, and links to related resources, such as Virtual Apple II or the Internet Archive's Console Living Room implementation of JSMESS. Picchi agrees: "I'd love to see it built into something like http://www.c64.com/ where you search for the game, can view screenshots, download it directly, etc."
Games databaseCollecting so much information is only half of this vast undertaking, with organizing and presenting it being another. The database is currently implemented using TablePress, one of my all-time favorite WordPress plugins. It's a powerful tool, but one that is ultimately limited in how much data it can associate and present with a single software title. The database may be better served by creating a Content Post Type, which would allow the definition of fields and attachments unique to this database.

The end result would be exactly why I was briefly enrolled in a Master's of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program: I love collecting and organizing information but lack the programming skills necessary to structure and host such vast quantities of data in a useful, meaningful way. But one thing I've learned about Picchi from reading his Juiced.GS article is that he's constantly expanding his boundaries, mastering new languages and platforms. Could WordPress be next? If so, it will be to the benefit of Apple II gamers the world over!

Maniac Mansion design notes

August 11th, 2014 11:34 AM
by
Filed under Game trail, History;
leave a comment.

Despite growing up an avid gamer, I didn't play many commercial games for the Apple II. (No, I didn't pirate them, either.) We had the Atari 2600 before we had an Apple, and from there, our console collection grew to include every Nintendo system. It was there, on the 8-bit NES, that I encountered many classics that had been ported from the Apple II: Ultima, Archon — and Maniac Mansion.

That last title was a point-and-click adventure developed at LucasFilm Games. Players chose two of six characters to accompany primary protagonist Dave on his exploration of a mad scientist's home to rescue Dave's girlfriend, Sandy. Along the way, gamers encounter a sentient meteor, a disembodied tentacle, an explodable hamster, and one of the first instances of video game cutscenes. Maniac Mansion garnered a cult following, spawning both a sequel and a television series.

The writer, director, artist and programmer responsible for Maniac Mansion was Ron Gilbert, who later wrote several of the Monkey Island games on the Mac, all of which used the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) game engine. Although Gilbert has moved past these titles and tools, he hasn't forgotten his roots, as evidenced by recent posts to his blog, Grumpy Gamer:

While cleaning out my storage unit in Seattle, I came across a treasure trove of original documents and backup disks from the early days of Lucasfilm Games and Humongous Entertainment. I hadn't been to the unit in over 10 years and had no idea what was waiting for me.

Here is the original pitch document Gary and I used for Maniac Mansion. Gary had done some quick concepts, but we didn't have a real design, screen shots or any code. This was before I realized coding the whole game in 6502 was nuts and began working on the SCUMM system.

If this document… say[s] anything, it's how much ideas change from initial concept to finished game. And that's a good thing. Never be afraid to change your ideas. Refine and edit. If your finished game looks just like your initial idea, then you haven't pushed and challenged yourself hard enough.

His first batch of scanned Maniac Mansion design notes showcases UI mockups, a map of a mansion that never would've fit into 320K, and puzzle ideas that didn't make the cut until 25 years later. A second batch of notes demonstrates the logic and code behind SCUMM.

It's fascinating and wonderful that Gilbert saved these documents and is now making them available. He likely didn't know the place Maniac Mansion would earn in gaming history — surely there are countless other point-and-click adventures of the era that have been forgotten. But this one was not, and now the context and process by which it was created can be examined in a new light. I hope these documents (or their scans) eventually make their way to an institution such as the Strong Museum's International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

Maniac Mansion

It was a dark and clear night…

Want more Maniac Mansion history? In 2012, Gilbert gave a one-hour Maniac Mansion post-mortem at the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). Due to wonky embed code, the video is better viewed in the GDC Vault, but it's included below for convenience.

Read the rest of this entry »

Let's Play Structris

August 4th, 2014 12:00 PM
by
Filed under Game trail;
2 comments.

KansasFest is a week over, and all I have is memories.

Memories — and an awesome mug.

For the second consecutive year, attendee Michael Sternberg hosted a Structris tournament based on his version of Martin Haye's original Tetris game. I entered and, after a poor showing in 2013, rebounded in 2014: I had the highest score in the first round (100 points); went up against the reigning champion and broke the world record in the second round (249 points on level 17); and, in the third and final round, defeated the developer himself. It was pretty epic.

To give something back, I've created a Let's Play video of Structris, coinciding with last week's 25th anniversary of the North American launch of the Nintendo Game Boy, which came with Tetris. Enjoy!

KansasFest 2014 on Storify

July 28th, 2014 10:33 PM
by
Filed under Happenings;
leave a comment.

Having returned from KansasFest 2014 just a day ago, I find myself with have far too many emails to write, packages to mail, and naps to take. As such, I can offer no words of my own to express the joy and attending my 17th annual Apple II convention — so I will let others' words do so for me.

Please enjoy the following Storify, collecting select tweets, Flickr albums, Facebook posts, and more from #A2KFest.

Read the rest of this entry »

The odd case for Motter Tektura

July 21st, 2014 12:18 PM
by
Filed under History;
1 comment.

When I was in high school, my computer of choice was the Apple II. I still carried a Trapper Keeper. And I probably wore Reebok shoes. I must not have had an eye for design or detail, as I never noticed until this month that all three products used the same font: Motter Tektura.

Motter Tektura

Motter Tektura. Montage courtesy Gizmodo.

Gizmodo recently reported how this font, designed by Othmar Motter (1927–2010) in 1975, defined a decade of consumer products. But I'm surprised it made its mark on Apple, given that much of what Apple has done (and still does) is proprietary. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said:

If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Apple's Susan Kare designed many of the company's fonts, such as Chicago, Geneva, and Monaco. While the Motter Tektura font's use predates her 1982 addition to the Apple staff, I can still imagine the Steve Jobs of the 1970s demanding that the Apple II be branded in a way completely inimitable. With both Kare and the Macintosh years off, maybe early Apple lacked the resources to be developing its own fonts, especially if they were for marketing purposes only and not to be used by the system software itself.

But knowing that this font was on both my favorite computer from my childhood, an organizational device that my classmates mocked, and a ratty pair of mud-caked footwear … is an odd association to make, even all these years later.

Halt and Catch Fire's take on 1983

July 14th, 2014 11:12 AM
by
Filed under History, Mainstream coverage;
leave a comment.

Last month, television channel AMC debuted the original series Halt and Catch Fire. Like their prior success, Mad Men, this show uses a specific industry and era as a backdrop — but instead of an advertising agency in the 1960s, it's a computer hardware company in 1983.

That was a magical time for Apple and the rest of the industry: IBM was making moves into consumer desktops, the Macintosh was in development, and the Apple II was riding high. Halt and Catch Fire tries to capture some of that energy and drama with its own versions of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, but with some additional variables, players, and catalysts thrown into the mix.

I reviewed the series for Computerworld.com, a former employer I'm always happy to collaborate with (and which last month went out of print). As a freelancer, I'd previously reviewed the films Jobs and Her, which were creative exercises in reminding me I was writing for Computerworld, not Cinemaworld — critiquing the cinematography and acting wouldn't cut it for this audience.

So for Halt and Catch Fire, my first professional television review, I dedicated some paragraphs to analyzing the show's tech props — details that geeks would pick up on but no one else would notice. Although it's atypical for a review to bring in outside voices, I nonetheless consulted with Dave Ross, a neighbor who happens to have also been the president of the South West Regional Association of Programmers, a Chicago-based Commodore 64 user group. Since in that era I was an Apple II user exclusively, Ross's perspective on the technology of the times was useful. Steve Weyhrich and Vince Briel also provided some insight, though without being directly quoted.

Halt and Catch Fire's Byte

A Byte from 1980? I don't think so.

I don't know if I'll continue watching the show beyond the first five episodes, but I did enjoy this assignment. On Google Plus, John Kocurek offers some projections for the show's future:

Episode 6 lays the groundwork for an interesting arc. It is set in August of 1983. Just a few months later, the Mac is introduced — which offers the possibility of the writers taking the series into a parallel universe where you have the easy-to-use Mac having an easy to use machine that also runs PC software. Assuming the writers are consistent, it would remember things about you, be able to make suggestions. Be an assistant. That would have been a game changer at the time.

Watch Halt and Catch Fire Sundays at 10 pm on AMC, or stream it live via Amazon Instant Video. For more details, read my review for Computerworld.