Encrypting the web for retrocomputers

October 24th, 2016 11:53 AM
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Earlier this month, for only the second time ever, I took the helm as host of the Retro Computing Roundtable podcast.

Whoever hosts an episode of RCR must come to the table with an opening topic: some issue that the co-hosts can debate and articulate in the show's first ten minutes. For this episode, I raised an issue inspired by this very website: should we support emerging web standards at the cost of backward compatibility with retrocomputers?

This matter landed on my radar when my two web hosts, DreamHost and WP Engine, started supporting Let's Encrypt, a source for free Secure Socket Layer certificates that would otherwise cost tens or hundreds of dollars per domain per year. SSL ensures that a user's online experience was secure, which historically has been important for sites trading in e-commerce, healthcare, and other confidential consumer data. But now, Google is giving a search engine ranking boost to any website that uses SSL, whether or not the site's contents and transactions would benefit from it. Since SSL certificates are now free and every site benefits from having one, there was nothing stopping me from applying them to all my WordPress blogs.
Let's Encrypt
I stopped short on Apple II Bits, though. This is a website about 8-bit and 16-bit computers, and the only browsers I know of for those machines — Contiki and Spectrum Internet Suite — support only websites that begin with HTTP, only HTTPS. Enabling SSL on Apple II Bits would mean that the website would no longer be accessible by the very computer the website is about.

How much should this concern me? Very little, suggested the hosts of RCR, arguing that few people surf the Web from their Apple II computers except as an amusement. Google Analytics supports this notion: examining the list of browsers used to access this website in the last year, I see 28 different browsers, from Chrome, Firefox, and Safari down to BlackBerry, Nintendo, PlayStation 3, Sony Vita, Amazon Silk, and even Cốc Cốc. But out of 13,520 sessions, I don't see a single one from a browser that identifies itself as running on an Apple II.

Besides, content can be intended for Apple II users without being accessible from an Apple II. The Retro Computing Roundtable is distributed as an MP3, and Juiced.GS is published in hardcopy; neither can be downloaded and consumed using an Apple II.

The World Wide Web is an evolving medium with emerging standards; thanks to the W3C, we rest assured that most modern browsers will comply with these standards, producing a uniform user experience. If webmasters make their best effort to comply with these standards, then we mustn't put the onus on them to accommodate browsers that do not or cannot meet these standards. Sadly, that may mean excluding the Apple II; fortunately, it's a price to be paid by no one visiting this site.

8bitdo brings Bluetooth connectivity to Apple II

October 17th, 2016 8:18 AM
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Games are my favorite genre of Apple II application, so anything that makes it easier to play my favorite Apple II games is something I'll line up for. It's why I just bought Alex Lukacz's 4play card (reviewed in the September 2016 issue of Juiced.GS) and am now awaiting the AP40 controller, currently on Kickstarter.

The AP40 is a Bluetooth controller with an aesthetic reminiscent of the classic Apple logo. Its name is both an evolution of the developer's previous model, the AP30, as well as an acknowledgement of 2017 being the 40th anniversary of the Apple II.

By itself, this play on nostalgia is nothing special — skins and themes for Bluetooth controllers are not hard to come by. The killer app aspect of the AP40 is that it comes with a wireless receiver that plugs into the Apple II, enabling the use of any Bluetooth controller. Although the project description cites compatibility with the Apple IIc specifically, I emailed the developers and confirmed that any model of Apple II will work.

If you're interested, there are a couple purchasing options to consider. The AP40 gamepad alone costs $49, but if you have another Bluetooth controller you're happy with, you can get just the receiver for $49; or buy both for $85. A limited-edition controller with mini-Apple II stand costs $69, but there is no turnkey package that includes both this special edition and a wireless receiver.

The AP40 has made headlines like few other pieces of retrocomputing tech has, having been featured in Forbes, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Cult of Mac, and more. For all that, there may nonetheless be a marketing issue, because the controller seems to be getting more press coverage than its Apple II compatibility; when I mentioned the Kickstarter on the Retro Computing Roundtable episode #138, one of the other hosts who'd seen these headlines was flabbergasted to discover the controller worked on actual Apple II hardware.

For personal use, I wanted just the receiver, for use with my PlayStation 4's DualShock controller — but for the purposes of a proper review in the pages of Juiced.GS, I've emailed 8bitdo and assembled a package of limited-edition controller complete with receiver. The Kickstarter currently has nine days to go but has already exceeded its crowdfunding goal of $16,111 USD; given the developer's track record, I'm confident the products will ship on or near the promised delivery date of January 2017, in time for the March 2017 issue of Juiced.GS.

Wasteland 3 hits Fig

October 10th, 2016 9:18 AM
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Some Apple II games never die, no matter what post-apocalyptic future they endure. Not even a nuclear holocaust can stop Brian Fargo, the inimitable founder of game studio Interplay, where he developed both The Bard's Tale and Wasteland. Now the head of inXile Entertainment, Fargo has brought both of those former franchises to Kickstarter, resulting thus far in the release of Wasteland 2 in 2014 for Steam and in 2015 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

It's been four years since the successful Kickstarter for Wasteland 2, so Fargo is going back for more: last week, he announced Wasteland 3, extending the adventures of the 22nd-century Desert Rangers. But this time, instead of Kickstarter, Fargo has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Fig.

Fig (whose advisory board includes Fargo) was founded in August 2015 as a crowdfunding platform specifically for computer and video games. Besides that dedicated focus, the biggest difference from Kickstarter is that Fig allows not just donations and preorders, but actual investments, establishing equity in the final product and its success. Investments occur in $1,000 increments up to $2.25 million. If Wasteland 3 sells 500,000 units, investors receive a 1.36x return on their investment; if 1,000,000 units are sold, the return is 1.8x. It's by no means a get-rich-quick scheme, especially for small investors such as I would be. I've instead donated a mere $5 to show my support, knowing that my contribution won't make or break the campaign; at the time of my pledge, Wasteland 3 was already 99% of the way to its goal, needing only another $50,000. (The campaign will succeed if it raises $2,750,000 by Thursday, November 3, 2016.)

Upon completion of the Fig campaign, Wasteland 3 will go into inXile's development queue. Two of inXile's previously crowdfunded projects are still unreleased: Torment: Tides of Numenera; and The Bard's Tale 4. But that shouldn't count against inXile's track record. As the Wasteland 3 pitch video explains, game development occurs in stages, and those artists who contribute to a game's early stages, such as the writers, have completed their work on those other two projects and are eager to begin something new.

But what about the game itself? I never played the original Wasteland (which inspired the Fallout franchise) or its sequel, even though I mentioned both in my KansasFest 2016 presentation of Steam games. But it looks like the series' third entry introduces many new features, including drivable vehicles, multiplayer mode, a Colorado setting, and simultaneous releases for Steam and consoles (PS4 & Xbox One) in late 2019. Take a gander at the turn-based combat in this (NSFW) gameplay video:

It's exciting to see a series that originated on the Apple II continue to resonate with modern gamers who are willing to pledge their dollars to ensure the franchise's future. Long live Wasteland!

Interactive fiction on Polygamer

October 3rd, 2016 10:28 AM
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Last summer, I explored interactive fiction in my biweekly podcast, IndieSider, when I interviewed Apple II user Wade Clarke about his Eamon-turned-Inform game, Leadlight Gamma. I enjoyed our discussion interactive fiction, one of these oldest forms of electronic entertainment, but it was only recently that I finally gave the medium the coverage it deserved on my other podcast, Polygamer.

Polygamer finally turned its focus to interactive fiction with this summer's founding of the non-profit Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation:

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF) helps ensure the ongoing maintenance, improvement, and preservation of the tools and services crucial to the creation and distribution of interactive fiction, as well as the development of new projects to foster the continued growth of this art form.

To discuss this important step in the development and preservation of text adventures, I spoke with IFTF co-founder Chris Klimas. That hour-long conversation can be heard in Polygamer #50:

Chris isn't just on the board of the IFTF; he's also the creator of Twine, an open-source storytelling engine. It and Inform are possibly the most popular modern tools for the creation of interactive fiction. Its accessible architecture has made game developers of those who previously considered themselves only storytellers,
removing the gatekeeping that has kept so many narratives from being shared. One of its most notable manifestations came from Zoë Quinn, a game developer who has also been on Polygamer, when she used Twine to create Depression Quest, one of the first entries in the emerging genre of empathy games.

My discussion with Chris ranged over all these topics and more: gatekeeping, education, crowdfunding, and the annual IFComp, which is currently underway. It was one of the most enjoyable episodes of Polygamer I've recorded in awhile, and even if we didn't directly discuss the Apple II, I'm confident that retrocomputing users will find it a fascinating discussion about the complexities and possibilities of a medium our platform helped give birth to.

For more discussion about IF and the IFTF, listen to Retro Computing Roundtable #136:

[Full disclosure: I have donated to the IFTF.]

The Apple IIGS turns 30

September 26th, 2016 8:56 AM
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September 15, 2016, marked the 30th anniversary of the release of the Apple IIGS, the last model of Apple II to be developed and produced by Apple Computer Inc. Released two years after the introduction of the Macintosh, the IIGS was the only 16-bit Apple II, offering an entirely new operating system and suite of software.

Happy 30th to the Apple IIɢs!

I was 9 years old when we got our first Apple IIGS. I'd already been weaned on a steady diet of Apple IIe software, from VisiCalc and AppleWriter to Castle Wolfenstein and Choplifter — so that's how we used the Apple IIGS: as an accelerated Apple IIe. It wasn't until I started plundering the games library of the Apple II Users Forum on CompuServe that I started exploring what the Apple IIGS was uniquely capable of. With advice from Scott Everts and Loren Damewood, we invested in some hardware upgrades from Quality Computers that made the Apple IIGS a far more powerful machine than the IIe we once owned.

It wasn't long before my gaming hours were being spent on Bouncin' Ferno, Milestones 2000, Copy Killers, DuelTris, Floortiles, GShisen, and Xenocide. For telecommunications, I moved from ProTERM to Spectrum and its infinitely scriptable environment, where I crafted many chatroom games for CompuServe and GEnie. This budding podcaster got his start manipulating people's voices in AudioZap. And for word processing — well, I stuck with AppleWorks, of course. But for the most part, I never looked back once I "upgraded" to the ultimate Apple II.

Yet today, it seems the vast majority of today's retrocomputing programmers are developing 8-bit software. Quinn Dunk is hacking the Apple IIc Plus ROM, Martin Haye and company are building the world of Lawless Legends, French Touch is crafting 8-bit demos… the quantity and quality of Apple II software seems to dwarf releases for the Apple IIGS.

I can think of two reasons why this may be true. Given its late arrival and relatively limited number of models, the Apple IIGS was never as popular as its predecessors nor as likely to be someone's first Apple II. Thirty years ago, there were more 8-bit users than there were 16-bit users, and the two communities have experienced attrition proportionately. And with more secondhand 8-bit Apple II computers available, it's more likely to be the gateway for new community members than the Apple IIGS is.

The second reason is that the 8-bit Apple II offers a greater programming challenge than the Apple IIGS, in that constraints breed creativity. Although the Apple IIGS has more software and hardware resources at its disposal, it's more of a challenge and an accomplishment to create a cool program when you have only 48 kilobytes of RAM and not 4.25 megabytes.

It's similar to what Eric Shepherd said at KansasFest 2013: the Apple is finite and capable of being entirely grokked by a single developer. That's more true for the Apple II than it is for the IIGS.

The IIGS is the youngest Apple II, just as for many years, I was the youngest of the Apple II community. It'll always hold a special place in my heart. Now I'm curious to know why you think this technically superior machine doesn't hold that place in the hearts of more Apple II users. Share your theories in the comment belows or on Facebook or Twitter!

Leigh Alexander's Patreon for Lo-Fi Let's Play

September 19th, 2016 1:54 PM
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Two-and-a-half years ago, I pointed Apple II Bits readers to the YouTube videos of Leigh Alexander. This renown and accomplished journalist in the video games industry was creating Let's Play videos of classic Apple II games, recording her gameplay experiences combined with her personal commentary. It was a fun and original look at one player's history with her childhood computer.

A lot has happened to gaming and to Alexander since that April 2014 blog post. In August 2014, GamerGate broke. In December 2014, Juiced.GS reviewed Alexander's e-book, Breathing Machine. In April 2015, Alexander became editor-in-chief of Offworld, a BoingBoing-run video game journalism website with a focus on publishing marginalized voices. In February 2016, Alexander departed Offworld and the gaming industry entirely.

I was concerned we'd heard the last of this powerful and important voice — so I was delighted this month when she launched a Patreon to support her latest initiative: the return of her Lo-Fi Let's Play video series.

"What started as a fun outlet for me to recapture some of the sense of mystery and wonder I once felt about games became much more popular than I expected," writes Alexander:

Rediscovering and sharing these charming old works was a great source of comfort and joy toward the end of my time in the game industry. They had a sort of innocence I had missed, and a pioneer spirit I felt warmly toward, and they reminded me in an essential way why playing computer games was once a source of uncomplicated joy and imagination for me. The simplicity of their infrastructure, the severity of their limitations, and their earnestness in the face of those limitations is still a touchstone of inspiration for me in the age of modern high-end hardware and noisy social media. I can't tell you how thrilled I am that there are folks out there that share these feelings with me.

Alexander is asking for contributions on a per-video basis of an amount of your choosing. At $5, you get a newsletter with behind-the-scenes storytelling; at $20 and $200, Alexander sacrifices some degree of editorial control to let you help pick what games she plays next.

You may wonder why one should contribute anything; after all, "Thanks to the magic of emulation and the tireless work of archivists, the videos cost me nothing but time and love to make, and they are and will always be ad-free and available to all on YouTube," acknowledges Alexander. "But sadly, life as a freelancer means that the things I get paid for need to come first, leaving passion projects to languish."

I don't tend to watch Let's Play videos myself, but I acknowledge their value and importance in capturing the experience the Apple II invokes. I'm contributing to Alexander's campaign and encourage you to do so, too — but even if you don't, I hope you'll check out her videos and share in her joy for the gaming heritage of the Apple II.

If this is your first Patreon, don't let it be your last — these other Apple II creators are also seeking your support: