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+.

Appearing on RCR

October 20th, 2014 12:20 PM
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This past winter, I waxed nostalgically about the Open Apple podcast's third birthday, tracing the six-month gestation period of the Apple II community's first and only monthly and co-hosted podcast. Absent from that timeline was a significant milestone: the debut of the Retro Computing Roundtable. For another retrocomputing show to scoop Open Apple was discouraging, but I'm glad we persevered, as the two shows have evolved very different formats and content. Whereas Open Apple features a new guest every month in a polished, edited show that takes hours to produce, RCR rotates among a stable of familiar voices, producing a raw, more organic episode every two weeks.

With RCR turning four years old this month, I was honored to join the shows cast and crew for a guest appearance in episode #85. Although good friends and Juiced.GS contributors Carrington Vanston and Steve Weyhrich were absent from this episode, it was a pleasure to chat with fellow Boston resident Paul Hagstrom, Retrobits host Earl Evans, and fellow fundraising cyclist Michael Mulhern, with whom I'd previously communicated via email only.
Retro Computing Roundtable logoIt was also a bit intimidating! The first half-hour of the show was spent discussing the Atari 520ST, Commodore 128, and other computers of 1985. While I do not denigrate non-Apple II machines, neither do I have any interest in them, mostly due to lack of exposure at a time when I was still too young to appreciate them. Rather than open my mouth and prove myself a fool, I wisely kept quiet; if you were to tune in at any point in that discussion, you wouldn't even know I was there.

But perhaps I need to work on my conversational skills, as I've found, both in RCR and during my recent appearance on the Pixel Pizza podcast , that I tend to wait for a topic I'm passionate about to arise, then engage in a lengthy monologue on the subject. Perhaps the lack of a co-host on my three other podcasts — Polygamer, IndieSider, and The Pubcast — has trained me to fill the silence with my own voice, as I did on RCR in extended discourses about GEnie, feminism, and RadioShack. Maybe my ego needs to be reminded that other people have something to say, too.

Nonetheless, I had a good time on RCR, and I much appreciated their invitation and patience. I hope I added to their listeners' experience more than I detracted from it. Lest I wear out my welcome, I don't expect to be a frequent guest of this show, but it is comforting to know that my retrocomputer podcasting days aren't behind me.

Internationalizing Juiced.GS

October 13th, 2014 10:09 AM
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This past weekend, a handful of Juiced.GS subscribers received a surprise in the mail: a French language edition of the September 2014 issue. The content was translated from the original English not by Google Translate, but by Antoine Vignau of Brutal Deluxe, a polyglot contributor to the magazine.

This collaboration was inspired by Andrés Lozano, who travelled from France to attend KansasFest 2014. While there, he hosted a live Google Hangout so that his fellow patriots could attend KansasFest virtually.

It was during that video chat that I spoke with Antoine Vignau, who I'd previously interviewed for an audio podcast but had never spoken to in video before. Seeing him, Andrés, and many other attendees in the chat reminded me what a presence the Apple II has in France. A few hours later, I emailed Antoine with this unsolicited proposal: "If you're willing to translate the entire September 2014 issue of Juiced.GS, I'll see about publishing it in French. Just as a one-time special — not every issue!"

The result is Juiced.FR, which shipped a week after Juiced.GS. The timing was tricky, as I had to wait until the English edition was done in its entirety before handing it to Antoine to translate. While an issue may be assembled piecemeal, it isn't until every article is laid out that the staff really pulls apart the draft, looking for typos or clarifications. I wanted to have that level of quality in place before Antoine began translating. Even then, Antoine had his work cut out for him; given the technical nature of some of the pieces, it seemed some of the content might be "untranslatable"! But Antoine persevered, producing an issue that I can't read but which I assume is excellent.

While Juiced.GS again met its deadline of shipping in the month listed on the cover, French subscribers' issues were not mailed until a week later, in October. I felt bad about delaying the receipt of their product, but the feedback I've gotten so far is that it was worth the wait.

I don't expect to repeat this promotion in French or other languages — it was a fun but unique experiment, akin to the 5.25" demo disk of Drift that we shipped two years back. It might be fun to translate each issue of a volume into a different language and then package it as the "Babel Bundle", but the audience for such a product would be small.

If you are a French speaker who isn't a subscriber to Juiced.GS, or you're someone who just wants to practice a foreign tongue, you can buy this individual issue of Juiced.FR. We've never sold single issues before, and I expect this one will never be back in print after the original run is sold out, making it a truly limited edition. Show Antoine your appreciation by making sure we sell out!

RadioShack's inevitable demise

October 6th, 2014 1:41 PM
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I became an Apple II user in 1983, but it wasn't until 1990 or so that I started becoming a power user. The APPUSER Forum on CompuServe had so many great games that I couldn't play due to my IIGS not having enough RAM or a hard drive. SysOp Loren Damewood and game developer Scott Everts encouraged me to call Quality Computers to make one upgrade, then another. Before I knew it, I had a juiced GS.

But sometimes, things didn't work quite as expected, and I'd need a trivial adapter for which I didn't want to wait a week for mail order to deliver. Or I needed speakers or some other generic part that wasn't specific to the Apple II. For those times, my father would drive me to local strip mall known as the John Fitch Highway, home of the nearest RadioShack. I became such a regular there that one of the clerks even invited me to his weekly D&D game.

Now, for better or worse, RadioShack's days are numbered. The anachronistically named retail stores may soon follow former parent company Tandy Corporation's TRS-80 into the realm of defunct technology.

Long-time hobbyists and hackers may not mourn RadioShack's passing, as the store has long since transitioned from catering to our needs to competing with big box stores like Best Buy. Walk into any RadioShack today to buy electronic parts and components, and you'll never get the attention of a sales clerk eager to make a commission on a more expensive iPhone or HDTV. Some may say that RadioShack's inventory has simply mirrored a larger shift to a disposable society, where computers are locked down and unable to be tinkered with. But the emergence of the popular Raspberry Pi suggests otherwise. Did you know you can buy the Pi at RadioShack? Maybe if, like the Apple Store, RadioShack held various classes and workshops for working with their products, this might've been a larger market for them.

Yet even that shift alone might not have saved RadioShack. "Call it death by a thousand cuts," said one marketing professor, citing many other changes that have made RadioShack obsolete. For example, as much as RadioShack hawks its cell phones, those very products may also be killing the store. Almost everything RadioShack sold in 1991 can now be done with cell phone apps. Why buy a dozen bulky gadgets when several 99-cent digital widgets can perform the same functions?

Regardless of the chain's current worth, it's always sad to see an old friend go — especially one that, for Apple II users, is still a useful source for batteries and cassette players. It seems unlikely RadioShack can reverse their downward spiral. But we'll always have memories of their years of value to the community.

(Hat tip to Bryan Villados)

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)