Archive for the ‘Software showcase’ Category

Old programs, new tricks, and ways to make the Apple II perform.

Crowdfunding Thimbleweed Park

December 15th, 2014 8:08 AM
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This summer, Ron Gilbert unearthed his Maniac Mansion design notes. What was a seemingly nostalgic trip down memory lane may in fact have been the first steps toward the future: a return to his roots, crowdfunded on Kickstarter.

That's where Gilbert and Gary Winnick, Maniac Mansion co-designer, have successfully funded Thimbleweed Park, a new point-and-click adventure in the style of Maniac Mansion. "Why do we want to make Thimbleweed Park?" asks their campaign, which concludes the afternoon of Thursday, December 18. "Because we miss classic adventures and all their innocence and charm."

Ken Macklin, who designed Maniac Mansion's cover art, will return for Thimbleweed Park. So will David Fox, Lucasfilm's SCUMM scripter who decided to put the hamster in the microwave. And while the game will feature classic pixel art, there'll be a modern soundtrack by Steve Kirk. Writes Gilbert:

Don't get me wrong, I loved the SID chip, PC speaker, the Adlib card and amazing digital sound of the SoundBlaster (that still sounded like it was coming out of a PC speaker), but so much 'emotional data' can be carried in music and your eyes are already bleeding from the awesomely retro art, so why should your ears bleed too?

With all that said, though… what about the gameplay? I'm concerned that the interface appears a little too old school, which, as the developers of Shadowgate recently learned, isn't necessarily designed with modern gamers in mind. And what of the puzzles — will they be more logical? Or will be be sticking hunks of cheese in car ignitions? Gilbert's last game, The Cave, promised to be reminiscent of Maniac Mansion, with multiple playable characters, each with unique talents. But the game didn't exactly tear up the charts.

That all said, I'm willing to give this team and game a chance. I've backed Thimbleweed Park for $20 mark, essentially preordering the finished product, due for delivery in June 2016. I am sorely tempted to kick it up to $50, at which level the reward is having my name and phone number included in an in-game phonebook — and when players dial that number, they'll get my actual voicemail! Either way, stay tuned to this blog in two years to hear my thoughts on what comes next from Gilbert & Co.

Oregon Trail Live

November 10th, 2014 9:42 AM
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At KansasFest 2014, I brought a text adventure to life, courtesy Parsely. It was an interactive, real-world, technology-free experience based on Apple II games of the 1970s — and it wasn't the first or only such game to get such a treatment.

Oregon Trail, that classic edutainment title of frontier survival, has since 2012 been leaping off the screen to educate us about the hardship of early America. Adapted by Kelly Williams Brown, Oregon Trail Live is played not in schools, but by visitors to the Willamette Heritage Center of Salem, Oregon. Emily Grosvenor writes for The Atlantic:

Oregon Trail LiveOn the trail, as in the game, if you killed a bison, you could only carry 200 pounds of meat with you. In the live-action game, participants face the task of pushing 200 pounds of meat up a hill—in this case, a 200 pound man in a wagon regaling the crowd with meat facts. In our case, it was a local butcher dressed like a cow, who later tested us on the names of cuts of a side of beef.

At every turn the live action game converts the computerized saga into a real life obstacle. Die on the real trail—and 50 percent of travelers did in the trail's first years—and you're good ole dead. Perish in the computer game—of dysentery, cannibalism, drowning, cholera, typhoid, measles, or snakebite—and you get to see your own epitaph. Kick it in the live—action game and your friends must compose a dirge to sing at your funeral.

Grosvenor's additional photos from the event make it look like a ton of fun, with players creating characters, inhabiting roles, and working toward a common goal. Although she doesn't use the term, this take on Oregon Trail could be considered a LARP — a Live-Action Role-Playing Game. LARPs are normally associate with Dungeons & Dragons-style settings, as most humorously demonstrated in the film Knights of Badassdom, but it's not a stretch to see similar characteristics manifesting itself in Oregon Trail. What's next — a reality TV series, equipping contestants with little more than a covered wagon and some mules with which to survive a cross-country trek?

Grosvenor's coverage is of the most recent Oregon Trail Live, an annual event, with the fourth OTL to be held Saturday, September 19, 2015. Can't wait until then? Other Oregon Trail adaptations abound, including a trailer for a feature-length movie. Sadly, a full movie was never intended to be completed, but The Homesman, opening in theaters November 14 and starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, looks to come close to the idea:

(Hat tip to Christopher Curley)

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)

Building an Apple II games database

August 18th, 2014 6:48 PM
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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
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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 »