Steve Weyhrich's Minecraft Apple II

June 5th, 2017 10:30 AM
by
Filed under Game trail;
1 comment.

When it comes to video games, crafting is something I profess to hate. This is a gameplay mechanism wherein you engage in trivial quests to discover or harvest random materials that, by themselves, do nothing, but when combined, may create a unique, useful, or powerful item. But figuring out what items produce these meaningful combinations, and which others result in meaningless junk, is part of the "fun". The whole process is mundane, tedious, and frustrating.

And yet crafting is the titular theme of Minecraft, which is the second best-selling video or computer game of all time, behind only Tetris. I've never played Minecraft, so it's probably not actually as banal as I expect, especially since 121 million people would disagree with me.

One of those people is Steve Weyhrich, and even I have to admit that, whatever I think of the methodology, his results are astounding. Six years ago, Steve presented the fruits of his labor: a massive, to-scale Apple II Plus that you could walk around in. The attention to detail was remarkable, as was the amount of time and dedication such a creation must've required.

In hindsight, perhaps I should not have been so dazzled — because Steve certainly wasn't. Five years later, unsatisfied with his original effort, Steve set out to create an even better Apple II. In his latest video, released two months ago today, Steve shows off a virtual Apple IIe, complete with modem, retrocomputing magazines, and soda.

I don't know how or why Steve does what he does. And since I've never played Minecraft, I don't know if there's any way to share his creation — a sort of Shapeways for Minecraft creations. But I don't need to play Minecraft or explore Steve's Apple myself to be impressed. I knew both Steve and Minecraft were capable of fantastic works of art, but this latest invention surpasses all expectations.

Maybe crafting isn't all that bad, after all.

Charles Babbage Institute on Juiced.GS

May 29th, 2017 11:55 AM
by
Filed under History;
leave a comment.

In the summer of 2011, I applied for Juiced.GS to receive an International Standard Serial Number. My goal in having an industry-standard reference number was to make this quarterly publication easier to accession into libraries and archives. Once the ISSN was issued, I contacted institutions around the world to ask if they would accept a complete collection of Juiced.GS.

One such organization that was at the top of my list was the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Although perhaps not as well-known as the Computer History Museum in California or as geographically accessible as the Strong Museum of Play in New York, both of which have a tourist appeal to them, the CBI is nonetheless widely respected as a research center for history of information technology. It was an honor for Juiced.GS to be accepted into its archives.

Four years later, I was travelling en route to KansasFest 2015. I decided to fly from Boston to Fargo, North Dakota, to visit my friend Sabriel, who had been a guest on my podcast, Polygamer. Not only was I looking forward to spending time with her in a less harried environment than our usual gaming conferences, but North Dakota was one of the seven United States I'd never been to; checking it off would bring me closer to having visited all fifty.

From Fargo, there were a couple different routes to KansasFest, including driving. But the timing didn't work out to stop in Nebraska and carpool with any of the KFesters there, so I decided to fly. The only problem was that there were no direct flights from Fargo to… almost anywhere, including Kansas City. My flight would have a layover in Minneapolis.

J. Arvid Nelson, CBI curator and archivist, shows off the gem of the CBI collection.Minneapolis! That's the home of the Charles Babbage Institute! Instead of an indirect flight, Sabriel graciously drove me to Minneapolis the day before my flight. I emailed my contact there, Arvid Nelsen, to let him know we were coming, and he offered us an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour. That visit is documented on the Juiced.GS blog.

During that tour, Arvid and I discovered that we both had an interest in the diversity of the tech industry, both modern and historical. I was only a year into my Polygamer podcast back then, but when I got home, I emailed him to see if he'd like to be a guest. It took awhile to coordinate, but two years later, that interview with Arvid and current CBI archivist Amanda Wick finally happened in last week's podcast.

It's not uncommon for my gaming interests to lead to Juiced.GS stories: my attendance at MAGFest resulted in a Juiced.GS cover story about Al Lowe, creator of Leisure Suit Larry; and my IndieSider podcast interview with the creator of Shadowgate similarly led an another cover story.

But this is the first time I can think of that the Apple II led to an episode of Polygamer. Having attended the last nineteen KansasFests, I've observed that we tend to be a fairly homogenous population, which wouldn't normally be a good fit for a podcast about diversity. I'm delighted that the Apple II and the Charles Babbage Institute nonetheless resulted in a fascinating conversation about history, diversity, and archiving. Please do visit the CBI, either online or in-person as I have, and listen to our podcast.

Video Game Hall of Fame overlooks the Apple II in 2017

May 22nd, 2017 8:45 AM
by
Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage;
3 comments.

Every spring, the World Video Game Hall of Fame expands its list of inductees. This virtual recognition, hosted by the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, acknowledges games that "have significantly affected the video game industry, popular culture, and society in general".

Since the games are assessed not for their cutting-edge graphics, replayability, or "fun factor", it makes sense that many inductees would be older titles. Despite being constrained by the technology of the era, these early games were foundational in creating an industry and its franchises. And few machines were as elemental in that process as the Apple II.

However, The Strong rarely recognizes native Apple II games. The first class of inductees, announced in 2015, passed over Oregon Trail in favor of Doom, Pac-Man, Pong, Super Mario Bros., Tetris, and World of Warcraft. Oregon Trail finally got its due in 2016, but at the same time that John Madden Football got sacked to make room for The Sims, Sonic The Hedgehog, Space Invaders, The Legend of Zelda, and Grand Theft Auto III.

Now it's 2017. Another class has been accepted into the Hall of Fame, and for the first time, no Apple II game was even nominated. Nominated but not accepted this year were Microsoft Windows Solitaire, Mortal Kombat, Myst, Portal, Tomb Raider, and Wii Sports; the winners were Donkey Kong, Halo: Combat Evolved, Pokémon Red and Green, and Street Fighter II. While Donkey Kong and Solitaire originated in the 1980s and had Apple II iterations, none of these titles and franchises were made popular by the Apple II, like Oregon Trail and John Madden were.

Rather than feel slighted in 2017, Let's ensure the 2018 ballot doesn't similarly overlook our favorite retrocomputer. What games should we nominate for consideration in next year's class — again, taking into account not how much time we spent playing these games, but their lasting impact on the industry and genre?

So as to not spread ourselves thin and divide our votes among too many choices, I have only two suggestions: Ultima and King's Quest. Both games created fully realized worlds and new ways to interact with them, introducing both franchises and gameplay mechanics that continue to this day. What more could the World Video Game Hall of Fame ask for?

Let's get the Apple II the recognition it deserves. In the meantime, as a platform-agnostic gamer, I offer my congratulations to all the non-Apple II titles that received this honor in 2017 — many of which made lasting impressions on both gaming culture and my own childhood.

Learning HTML at A2 University

May 15th, 2017 12:00 PM
by
Filed under Musings;
leave a comment.

I just finished my sixth semester of teaching at Emerson College. My course is an overview of all forms of electronic publishing: websites, e-books, podcasts, crowdfunding, and more. But we ground all these lessons in the basics: HTML and CSS.

Learning hypertext markup language might today be equivalent to learning cursive writing: it's a nice skill to have, but for the average user, one that computers have made obsolete. Rich-text editors (RTE) and WYSIWYG editors have enabled the composition of text, tables, and inline images without ever seeing any HTML code. Only developers and theme designers may ever need to delve into a site's source.

But I feel it's important to understand what's happening underneath the hood, so to speak. If a student can't get a page layout just right, eliminating the middleman of an RTE and manipulating the code directly is the best way to ensure the realization of one's intentions.

When I learned HTML, we didn't have to choose between those two options: with the possible exception of WebWorks GS, there was no intermediary between an Apple II user and their code. All HTML was crafted by hand. And since HTML is inherently text, it made sense that I learned it in a text environment: GEnie.

The Apple II RoundTable on the GEnie online service had as one its services the Apple II University, run by Charlie Hartley. Members could sign up for free courses in a variety of topics based on or tangential to the Apple II. Unlike today's Lynda or Udemy courses, A2U courses were taught in real-time with a live instructor who set the pace and evaluated the homework. It was through this process that I first learned HTML.

I don't have any of the lessons I received or or homework I produced in that course — perhaps they're available as part of the "Time in a Bottle" (TiaB) CD archive of GEnie assets. But I do proudly retain my certificate of completion, earned 21 years ago yesterday:

Apple II University

While this accomplishment might not carry much weight in today's developer and designer circles, I do recall bringing it to at least one job interview, where its longevity and legacy carried more weight than its academic value. HTML has changed a lot since 1996, but being able to say I first learned HTML just five years after the World Wide Web became publicly available demonstrates a foundational, historical knowledge that can't be taught in today's classroom.

Spectrum's origins

May 8th, 2017 8:27 AM
by
Filed under Musings, Software showcase;
1 comment.

I've been thinking about my dad a lot lately. He's the one who introduced me to the Apple II and enabled (if not supported) my BBS and CompuServe habit when I was in grade school. I made those online connections with ProTERM, which was 8-bit, but I was eager to switch to an application that took advantage of our Apple IIGS. I eventually got it when, after many delays, Seven Hills Software released Spectrum.

My dad didn't use the telecommunications aspects of our computer; his only application was AppleWorks Classic, with which he maintained the financial records of the family business. All he knew about Spectrum came from whatever I mentioned.

One day, my dad asked me if I knew that Spectrum was based out of our home state of Massachusetts? I was bewildered by this remark: Spectrum was a product, not a company, and it was developed by a European programmer. I doubt my dad was referring to Seven Hills Software, the Florida publisher whose name I'd had no reason to mention to him and which I doubt he would've remembered from the credit card bill. But Dad insisted that, while driving through the next town over, he'd seen a billboard advertising Spectrum.

Once he mentioned the billboard, I knew what he was talking about: Spectrum Health Systems, a Massachusetts-based organization that offers counseling and recovery services. Sure enough, they had advertisements in some of the rougher parts of town.

Spectrum Health Systems

My dad had an odd sense of humor that often relied on teasing or on playing dumb to mislead people. I never found out if he sincerely thought my Apple II program had come, out of all the places in the world, from a nearby city, and that he would be the one to inform me of it — or if he was playing some harmless but humorless joke.

It's not something I ever begrudged my dad, but it was such a weird exchange that, even decades later, it's left me wondering: what was he thinking??

Open Sorcery & the power of text

May 1st, 2017 1:00 PM
by
Filed under Game trail;
leave a comment.

In the course of producing my IndieSider podcast, I discover a variety of surprising, fascinating indie games. Wading through tons of clones and me-toos is worth it when I find a game that refines an old concept or executes something new — or both.

Such is the case with Open Sorcery, a Twine-based interactive fiction Steam game that replaces text adventures' traditional parser with hypertext and links. I saw Open Sorcery at two different game conventions before I finally got some one-on-one time with it at home. I ended up playing far longer than I do more visually complex games, growing attached to the characters and replaying it to get a "better" ending.

I was surprised — not that text can be so engaging, but that I'd ever forgotten it could be. I grew up on the Apple II playing text adventures and MUDs, from Eamon to British Legends, exploring worlds of fantasy and science fiction and getting lost in their puzzles and decisions. When away from the computer, I filled my time with Choose Your Own Adventure and Endless Quest. With text leaving so many gaps for my imagination to fill, it was easy to inject myself into those adventures.

It was wonderful to rediscover the power of text, as described by Richard Bartle in this excerpt from Jason Scott's documentary, GET LAMP:

Modern-day shooters may strive for adjectives such as "gripping" and "compelling"; the best words I can use to describe Open Sorcery are "thoughtful" and "delightful". I highly recommend it.