Author Archive

I'm Ken Gagne, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Juiced.GS, the longest-running Apple II print publication, as well as marketing director for annual Apple II convention KansasFest and and co-host of Open Apple, the Apple II community's first and only co-hosted podcast. I've been an active member of the Apple II online community for over two decades, including on CompuServe, GEnie, Delphi, and Syndicomm Online. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

The logo everyone carries

September 29th, 2014 11:49 AM
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Ever since I left Computerworld for a new job in Boston, my daily commute has included public transit. Although some people may prefer the agency and solitude of driving to work, I enjoy letting someone else drive while I kick back for a relaxing ride.

Not being a smartphone owner, I'm not much for passing the time with calls, texts, games, or apps. Since my eyes aren't glued to a pocket-sized screen, I've done plenty of people-watching in my two years on the bus and subway. It's hard to ignore how smartphones have proliferated into everyone's hands — most days, I see more digital diversions than the print publications I still enjoy. As someone whose career was founded in print, I feel a bit sad about its demise.

But on a completely different track, I also feel heartened when I see everyone holding not just smartphones, but iPhones. These devices are a far cry from the machine we celebrate on Open Apple and in Juiced.GS — yet from those humble beginnings sprang an empire that has worked its way into the lives of millions. I look around the sybway and see in everyone's hands and pockets the same logo that was on the computer on which I learned to program, to write, and to game.

Subway iPhone

Image courtesy Jens Schott Knudsen.

As a college instructor, I've had plenty of students who have never used an Apple II or don't even know what one is. And in a way, that's okay, because some part of the Apple II has survived to today. The scrappy company born in a garage was so successful in marketing a product to me and my contemporaries that they grew beyond our wildest dreams.

Every morning, I see more Apple users on the subway than I've ever seen at KansasFest. To the makers of that smartphone, I think, "Well done, guys" — and to the people using them, I think, "You're welcome."

Losing Apple II writers to GamerGate

September 22nd, 2014 10:57 AM
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The video game industry has been ashamed to host a recent debacle known as GamerGate. At its heart are matters of equality and diversity in the tech industry, which hits close to home for me: I host a podcast about those very issues.

The fallout from GamerGate is that voices that were already marginalized — in this case, women's — were silenced, with several accomplished writers leaving the industry. I don't blame them: no one should have to tolerate the abuse, harassment, and threats that these professionals have.

Despite a thirty-year gap between the Apple II and GamerGate, these writers' departure is to the detriment of even our retrocomputing community. Jenn Frank, whom I support on Patreon, not that long ago wrote over a thousand words on the legacy of Mystery House. In this piece, she outlines how the game launched Sierra On-Line as a company and the genres of graphical adventure and graphical mystery-horror. Frank does this not by examining her own navel, as this blogger does, but by interviewing a cavalcade of modern and legendary game designers, including Ken Williams, Jake Elliott, Erin Robinson, Ken Levine, Jane Jensen, and Al Lowe.

Mystery House, despite not being that much fun, even opened the door for women — maybe even Frank herself — to make names for themselves in a traditionally male-dominated industry:

Best of all, Mystery House resulted in the founding of Sierra itself. While many female developers often find it difficult to break into the modern-day mainstream games industry, Jensen remembers Sierra as a boon to women: "I was lucky getting into Sierra Online," she reminds us, "because there were already a number of strong female designers there — Roberta Williams, Christy Marx, Lori Cole. So I never felt there were any stumbling blocks at all in my path."

Mystery House

How one game defined a genre (or two) without being particularly enjoyable.

Don't expect any more research and writing like this: Jenn Frank has left the industry. Trolls and thugs drove her off.

Who's next? Leigh Alexander? One of the most distinctive and prolific voices of modern gaming journalism, Alexander's gaming origin is rooted in the Apple II. She's been revisiting the computer games of her youth, narrating her gameplay experiences on YouTube. She too has applied her unique lens to Mystery House. But she's not going anywhere, despite some gamers making it clear her voice is not welcome — to which she taunts, "What, you want to leave me death threats? Go for it!"

If you want to read more about Mystery House, Jimmy Maher has written on the subject extensively. But that's not the point. Who knows what Frank's next piece would've been? We'll never know. Will Alexander continue sharing her unique experiences on YouTube? If things get worse, maybe not.

Yesterday's games are treasures for today's journalists and historians to discover. It is important to preserve not just the subject of their study, but the dedication and perseverance of those skilled professionals who will deliver it to us. By supporting those who support the Apple II, we make an investment in their future. Alexander tells us how:

When you see something unjust happen, say that you condemn it. When someone's the victim of destructive sexist behavior, defend them — not in a brownie points-seeking way, directing your comments at the victim herself or copying women into your Tweets so that they know you’re a good guy — but in your own channels. When you see friends and colleagues passing on destructive opinions, challenge them. By engaging the issue yourself, you take responsibility.

Be aware of your own power and how you can use it to help others. … Don't just send her a nice note in private about how bad it looks like things are sucking and how you "have her back." Actually have her back. Stand up in public and say that yours is not a professional infrastructure that allows women to be abused or treated unfairly. Say that so-and-so is a talented, valued asset you’re proud to work with or for.

Ernest Adams has similar words of advice. Read his "Call to Arms for Decent Men".

Whatever your generation or gender, we're all gamers. Let's stand up for one another.

The Apple II legacy of Naughty Dog

September 15th, 2014 9:59 AM
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This time last year, I blogged about Steve Chiang, an Apple II game developer who went on to head Zynga, one of the modern gaming industry's most powerful and prolific publishers. It's no surprise that someone of such humble beginnings would rise to such a position: John Romero, Richard Garriott, and Will Wright are among those who continue to build upon the brands they launched on our 8-bit machine.

But one Apple II game developer has never rested on his laurels, creating franchise after franchise that could not be more disparate. In 1984, when Jason Rubin and high school buddy Andy Gavin were 15 years old, they founded Jam Software, later renamed Naughty Dog — something Gavin's father declared would be "the dumbest thing you're ever going to do." Their first games were Math Jam, Ski Crazed, and Keef the Thief, all for the Apple II. Later, Naughty Dog created Crash Bandicoot, the unofficial mascot for the original Sony PlayStation; for the console's successor, they developed Jax and Daxter. After Rubin's departure from Naughty Dog in 2004, the company crafted such franchises as Uncharted and the Last of Us for PlayStation 3 and 4.

This month, Rubin's original studio turns thirty years old.

The above tribute video does not acknowledge the company's Apple II roots, but doubtless the lessons Rubin, Gavin, and Naughty Dog learned on that platform defined not just their careers, but their creativity. Many of today's franchises have ample access to RAM, storage, and processing power, yet they rarely show little innovation over the previous year's games. By comparison, the Apple II, though powerful for its time, was so much more finite.

"Working inside limitations forces you to hone the details down to the absolute essentials, leaving something incredibly clean and focused," said Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong. These are the limitations Rubin and Gavin worked within; as a result, Naughty Dog's games are never the same as last year's, except faster or prettier. Instead of beating a franchise into the ground, they have a dream, make it manifest — and then envision a new one.

To never stop dreaming: it's the Apple II legacy.

(Hat tips to Eurogamer's Jeffrey Matulef and CVG's Mike Jackson)

Apple II cameo at Computerworld

September 8th, 2014 7:49 AM
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When I quit my job at Computerworld almost two years ago, I left the company on good terms. Though that's true of every job I've ever had, Computerworld is unique in allowing me to continue my professional relationship as a freelancer, contributing reviews, interviews, and feature stories. As a result, I've been more prolific since leaving than I was during my tenure there. As a salaried employee, writing was not in my job description, so my byline never affected by bottom line. Now, each successful pitch results in another paycheck, which is a powerful motivator.

The downside to that arrangement is that stories that would've been published when they were "free" (minus the time and effort of the professional editors I worked with) may get passed over when there's a fee associated with them. That's why you saw KansasFest coverage at Computerworld 2007–2013 but not in 2014 — the enterprise IT and Apple II crowds overlap only so much.

Nonetheless, I inadvertently work the Apple II into my latest story for Computerworld. This website is powered by the content management system WordPress, which I've been enthusiastically using and supporting for eight years. When WordPress 3.0 came out four years ago, I reviewed it for Computerworld — so it seemed a natural fit to revisit the topic in my new capacity as a freelancer for last week's release of WordPress 4.0.

My WordPress 4.0 review was submitted with screenshots of the WordPress backend taken while I composed the Apple II Bits blog post "Maniac Mansion design notes". I hadn't been thinking that, with Computerworld's own recent rollout of an entirely new design and more visual CMS, they'd need to use one of these images on the homepage. And so it was that a screenshot of LucasArts' 1987 classic point-and-click adventure game Maniac Mansion graced the homepage of Computerworld.com in 2014.

Maniac Mansion at Computerworld

IT LIVES

The image appears in the article itself but remained on the homepage for less than 24 hours, as screenshots are generally too busy to effectively advertise homepage content. The art director quickly crafted a more representative banner for WordPress and substituted that. But for a brief moment, the Apple II again had its place in the Computerworld sun.

Wade Clarke's Victris plays the Apple II

September 1st, 2014 9:27 AM
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Wade Clarke has long been unique in the intersection of musicians and Apple II programmers. Unlike chiptune musicians such as 8 Bit Weapon, who create music entirely from classic computers, Clarke is more free-range, drawing inspiration and instruments from synthesizers, real-world samples, video games, and more.

Since not all Clarke's music is based on the Apple II, it makes it all the more fun when the computer does pop up in his work. Recently, Clarke pointed me to the liner notes for his album, Victris, where he describes the song "Ai no kuni"

I play by ear, so most of my compositions from back then were only stored in my head. I did record some to cassette, but more often I transcribed them into music software on my family's Apple II computer … in the early 1990s using the Apple IIGS program The Music Studio. The synths I had playing these lines sounded bad, but in this case what I really valued was the composition itself.

These intersecting lines were good enough that even two decades later I didn't want or need to change a note when I had the idea to bring them into an Aeriae track. I'd just heard the riffs anew after rescuing my old Music Studio files from the decaying 3.5-inch floppy disk where they'd lived for twenty-something years.

The song "Heiress" also has ties to the Apple II, incorporating output from Paul Lutus' Electric Duet.

Victris is only the latest embodiment of Clarke's work in both digital and musical realms, as he's been fusing the Apple II with his musical pursuits for the better part of a decade. In 2007, he used Fantavision to create this music video for the song "Amay":

More recently, Clarke contributed his art to the Drift demo disk that was bundled with the June 2012 issue of Juiced.GS.

But even that disk was not Clarke's first appearance in the magazine. In Clarke's track notes for the Victric song "Nurse 2 Alyssa Type", he reflects on his experience with survival horror video games. It was this genre of game that inspired Clarke to develop Leadlight, the Eamon adventure that graced the cover of Juiced.GS's first color issue. Two years later, in Volume 17, Issue 2, he wrote a Juiced.GS article about his ensuing experience transitioning from Eamon to Inform for his interactive fiction exploits.

Survival horror, text adventures, synthesized music, journal articles — Clarke is truly a Renaissance man of the Apple II community! Catch him on tour in Australia later this year.

Apple's prediction for the future

August 25th, 2014 9:54 AM
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Noted historian Steve Weyhrich once took to speculative fiction to answer the question: What if the Apple II line had been allowed to evolve in the same way as the Macintosh line has been evolving over the past ten years? The resulting alternative history is a fascinating look at what might've been.

As it turns out, Apple had their own fantasy for a world in which support for the Apple II continued. In 1987, makeup was applied to age key employees, including Steve Wozniak and John Sculley, casting them as their 1997 selves for this video reflecting on the past decade of Apple:

The video is unintentionally hilarious, not so much in the bad acting as in the misplaced optimism. The news anchors report, "Almost all the growth in the last decade happened in one place: the desktop. And of course, that means Apple." Yet the years 1987–1997 saw Apple's market share dwindle under the leadership of several lackluster CEOs.

But you have to admire Apple's intended dedication to our favorite computing platform. "This being 1997, some people feel the Apple II concept is getting old. We don't agree. [Introducing] the Apple II V.S.O.P. (Very Smooth Old Processor) — the computer for the new millennium!" As the video was shot three years after the release of the Macintosh, I have to wonder if Apple really did see a future for the separate product line of the Apple II, or if they were just tweaking their audience with this prediction.

Another augury: "A computer that talks is no big deal. A computer that really listens — that's a breakthrough. Apple computers have always been friendly, but we've gone from friendly to understanding." Siri listens, but we're still ages from machines that actually understand human speech. I discussed in my review of the Joaquin Phoenix film Her: "Accents, background noise, and sentence structures that don't conform to expected inputs can all derail such interactions. Even when Watson competed on Jeopardy, although it could interpret natural language, that input was typed, not spoken."

But the video was worth it for two lines that had me laugh out loud: at 3:43, a Mac diagnoses a PICNIC error; and this zinger: "In other news, Jack Tramiel opened a new restaurant today."

For more historical predictions of technology's future — some of which have come true, but not quite as expected — see the 2009 blog post, "AT&T predicted the future. Can Microsoft?"

(Hat tip to Daniela Hernandez of Wired)

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