My father, the original gamer

June 16th, 2014 10:24 AM
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When I think back to my childhood, there are two things I don't remember ever not having: an Apple II, and video games. From computer games like Castle Wolfenstein and Choplifter to Atari 2600 classics such as Space Invaders and Adventure, I've always been gaming.

Having such entertainment opportunities is typical in the modern household — but thirty years ago? It was almost unheard of. Who decided I should grow up to be a gamer?

The answer is my dad — and to commemorate Father's Day, I found out what makes him the family's original gamer.

I'm so grateful my father gave me this opportunity to interview him. The subject matter may not be so serious, but it answered some questions I'd always had, like: how did we end up with a pinball table in the basement? (It was Gottlieb's Spirit of 76, if you were wondering.) Why don't you game much anymore? These questions were always in the back of my mind but never important enough to ask.

When I asked Dad if he had any specific memories of me growing up playing games, I thought he might remember how I excitedly relayed to him every plot point of the original Final Fantasy, one of my first RPGs, as I encountered them. Or how he accompanied me to the Nintendo World Championships in 1990, where I placed second for my state and age group. Instead he abstracted out the concepts of what made me unique in a family of gamers. I could never dominate an arcade machine like my brother Dave could with Q*bert and Pac-Man, but it's true that I really appreciated the context and minutia of these imaginative worlds, which I don't think I ever consciously was aware of until my dad said it on camera.

I expected this video to teach me about my dad, not myself. But Apple II user ionfarmer commented, "I really enjoyed your Father's Day video and appreciated hearing your father's video gaming experience, and by extension, your video game pedigree! That was awesome!" And Dave's partner Dawn wrote, "The memories you capture are truly amazing ( listening to your dad talking about his childhood, and of course the differences between you and Dave).&quot.

So thank you, Dad, for this opportunity to remember that the Apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Happy Father's Day!

The evolution of classroom tech

June 9th, 2014 8:53 AM
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The Apple II long had a role in education, with a library of edutainment software that included Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Scholastic Microzine. So it's only fitting that it features prominently in the first decade of the Washington Post's reflection on the evolution of classroom technology:

From the article:

1977

The Apple II computer—in all its gray boxiness—was introduced. Aggressive marketing and volume discounts made it popular in schools. The landmark, garage-built computers, which retailed for $1,295, were the first Apples to use full color graphics—for a simple reason: Designer Steve Wozniak wanted to be able to play Breakout on the machine, and that original game ran in color.

1985–87

The mid-‘80s ushered in an era of educational computer games. Oregon Trail taught kids about the harsh realities of life as a 19th century pioneer, dysentery and all (and it’s still around today, though children of the ’80s and ’90s would hardly recognize it). Mavis Beacon taught typing—fast. Carmen Sandiego tried to pique kids’ interest in geography. And Number Munchers aimed to get children excited about multiplication and division.

From the video, you might think the Apple II was obsolete by the time the 1990s rolled around. But this early computer continues to educate today's youth, whether as a programming tool, a museum piece, or a study in game design.

Replaying the founding of Apple

June 2nd, 2014 9:35 AM
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Gender Inclusive Game Design by Sheri Granar RayAfter recently finishing the Austin Grossman novel You, which featured many references to classic computers such as the Apple II and Commodore 64, I moved onto the 1986 novel Replay, a time travel tale by Ken Grimwood. It's a bit like Groundhog Day, except instead of the main character repeating the same day, he's reliving the same 25 years. As in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, he naturally uses his future knowledge to ensure his financial security — except where Biff Tannen relied solely on sporting events, Jeff Winston also plays the stock market, making investments in companies he knows are bound to succeed.

At one point, his wife laments to him a recent business meeting:

"Hippies, that's all they were. That tall boy was barefoot, for God's sake, and the other one looked like a…a Neanderthal!"

"Their idea has a lot of potential; it doesn't matter what they looked like."

"Well, somebody ought to tell them the sixties are over, if they want to do anything with that silly idea of theirs. I just don't believe you fell for it, and gave them all that money!"

He couldn't really blame her for the way she'd reacted; without benefit of foresight, the two young men and their garageful of secondhand electronic components would indeed seem unlikely candidates for a spot on the Fortune 500. But within five years that garage in Cupertino, California would be famous, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would prove to be the soundest investment of 1976. Jeff had given them half a million dollars, insisted they follow the advice of a retired young marketing executive from Intel they had recently met, and told them to make whatever they wanted as long as they continued to call it "Apple." He had let them keep forty-nine percent of the new enterprise.

"Who in the world would want a computer in their house? And what makes you think those scruffy boys really know how to make one, anyway?"

The ability of Grimwood's protagonist to meddle with history is inconsistent. In this particular 25-year bounce, all the hero's investments accomplish is to funnel various companies' profits into his bank account. But Steve Weyhrich of Sophistication & Simplicity points out how dramatically the above cash influx would alter Apple's evolution: "This person who invested $500,000 in Apple before Mike Markkula came around would potentially have made it unnecessary for Markkula, regardless of this investor’s recommendation. Markkula's personal involvement in the company would possibly have been diluted, since it was not his cash that was at risk. The outcome of the early days of Apple could have been quite different with a large, non-Markkula-based capital investment. Jobs would probably have decided he didn’t need some old-school business person telling him what to do, which could have removed the adult supervision they needed in those early days."

However, Steve and I disagree over whether such startup capital would've even been welcome. Mike Markkula had invested $250,000 in Apple in exchange for becoming a one-third owner of Apple, this being after Ron Wayne had temporarily owned 10% of the company. In neither case did Jobs or Wozniak relinquish majority control of their fledgling company. Last summer's Jobs film suggested Jobs was a shrewd businessman in his negotiations with Markkula, and while I suspect that particular scene was exaggerated, I absolutely believe Jobs as a man insisting on being in control. For him to settle for keeping only 49% of his company, even in exchange for a half-million dollars, is unbelievable.

But Steve points out, "Remember that before Markkula came along to invest, Jobs was willing to sell the Apple II to Chuck Peddle and Jack Tramiel of Commodore in exchange for jobs with that company and a specific salary. With an offer of $500,000, he would have probably been willing to [settle for a] 49% or less share."

What do you think? Would Woz and Jobs have taken this offer? And, if so, how would it have affected Apple's development?

Kids react to the Apple II

May 26th, 2014 10:40 AM
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Our standards and expectations for computers have changed a great deal since the Apple II arrived on the scene. Internet access, graphic user interfaces, and mass storage are all basic features of any modern hardware and operating system. Those of us who grew up in simpler, yet less intuitive, times can mentally switch between the eras… but what about the next generation of users?

Watch as teen and pre-teen kids react to their first encounter with an Apple II:

"Kids React" is a popular and ongoing series by The Fine Bros, whose YouTube channel has over 8 million subscribers and 1.6 billion views. I suspect some of that popularity has gone to the kids' head, with the younger ones preciously overreacting for the camera. One of my favorite comments was a kid saying that the Apple II is at least better than Flappy Bird, an irritating iOS game; good thing he wasn't forced to play the Commodore 64 version! Another kid said the Apple II is good only as a footstool. Better that than an aquarium, I suppose.

But their reactions nonetheless have merit. It's reasonable for a computer to assume that, if you turn it on or insert a disk, you want it to react to that action somehow. Obtuse commands like PR#6 are not welcoming to a new user. The Apple II was a blank canvas, and we were patient enough to learn its language and idiosyncrasies; but were we more accustomed to being catered to, I don't think we would've taken to the Apple like we did.

Still, I wish the video hadn't been edited to be quite so down on the computer. Apple II games are not all that different in style from modern mobile games, and I think the kids would've had fun with titles like Lode Runner, Cannonball Blitz, or even Oregon Trail. Certainly the featured action game from Keypunch Software, D-Day, was a better choice than VisiCalc, to which I exposed my own students a decade ago. But we hardly saw any of their engagement with the game, instead watching them struggle with the interface and OS and getting none of the reward — though we do get a bit more footage in the bonus video:

Exposing a younger generation to its predecessor's technology is not a new concept. The Fine Bros. have previously given kids rotary phones and Walkmans to play with, and I've posted several other such videos to this blog before: French students playing with a variety of old technology, four Americans playing with a C64 and Atari 2600, and British students encountering a C64.

It's great to finally see the Apple II specifically be the focus of such a video. But I suspect any reader of this blog who exposed their own children to an Apple II would be greeted with far more fascination and enthusiasm. We're just a different breed.

(Hat tip to Adam Clark Estes via Kirk Millwood)

Apple rocks Fraggle Rock

May 19th, 2014 10:36 AM
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Last month, I had the pleasure of patronizing my local independent theater for a double feature of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal one day, and a Muppet triple feature the next. I grew up with the work of Jim Henson and, having recently seen Muppets Most Wanted, I was happy to revisit my childhood with Kermit and company's earlier incarnations.

Another significant influence on my youth was, of course, the Apple II. I was only four or five years old when my father brought one home. Just as Sesame Street and the Children's Television Workshop opened my imagination, the Apple II gave me a workbench on which to express that creativity.

I didn't realize the intersection of the two arts — puppetry and computers — extended beyond my own experience (and various Apple marketing materials). Although Henson didn't use much CGI to perform his magic, according to Starring the Computer, an Apple II did feature in an episode of Fraggle Rock. The show, which bore similarities to the Mary Norton novel The Borrowers, split time between the workshop of Doc and his dog Sprocket, and the underground world of the Fraggles. In the first season's 14th episode, Doc and Sprocket challenge each other to a game on an Apple IIe. The game is unidentified, but wrote Starring the Computer commenter rjluna2, "I recognized the BASIC program that alternates the color line and black line to the randomized point that is rendered. A small delay to see the beautiful pattern before refreshing by executing 'HGR2'. I wrote a program like that more than 30 years ago."

Fraggle Rock

Challenging the Fraggle Rock Doc.
Image courtesy Starring the Computer.

Perhaps it aired at the wrong time in my market, but I never caught much of Fraggle Rock's five seasons. But the work of Henson and his collaborators nonetheless left an impression, to the point that I am still shy around Carroll Spinney like I am with no other celebrity.

Today is May 19. On May 17, 1990, I walked to the corner store and to pick up the local newspaper. On the front page were juxtaposed two stars: Jim Henson and Sammy Davis Jr. Both had passed away the previous day. Henson was 53.

Too young.

(Hat tip to Kelly Guimont)

The ultimate game: Archon

May 12th, 2014 4:41 PM
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In the Austin Grossman novel You, our hero is asked, "So what's your ultimate game?

"You know, the game you'd make if you could make any game at all," the long-haired designed explained.

"Forget about budget," the short guy added. "You're in charge. Just do anything! Greatest game ever!"

"The Ultimate Game," I said, "I can do just… anything?"

They nodded. I felt ridiculous. Was the Ultimate Game the one in which I ride a hundred-foot-tall pink rhino through the streets, driving my enemies before me? The one where the chess pieces come alive and talk in a strange poetry? Is it just a game where I always win?

"So… okay, okay. You're playing chess, right, but all the pieces are actual monsters, and when you take one you have to… actually fight… it?" Why were they looking at me that way?

"You mean like in Archon? For the C64?"

"Um. Right."

Archon, a Greek word that means "ruler" or "lord"1 — also a monster in Dungeons & Dragons2 — was a multiplatform action-strategy game distributed by Electronic Arts in 1983. I played it on the NES, but it was also available for the Apple II. Players took turns moving pieces across a board that fluctuated through a spectrum of light and dark, with each extreme favoring a different team. The game pieces had different strengths and capabilities, from shapeshifting to spellcasting, that they brought into combat. I loved playing Archon with my older brothers, as its mix of fast-paced battle with more thoughtful tactics played to my jack-of-all-trades nature. Some of my brothers were faster than me, and others were smarter, but needing having to be both leveled the playing field more than other games did. (The Super NES game Actraiser would later take a similar approach, to great — and inimitable — success.)

A 1984 sequel, Archon II: Adept, was also published for home computers but never got ported to game consoles, thus escaping my notice.

But I did get to revisit the concept almost two decades later. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2003, my last year attending the still-ongoing event, I visited the LucasArts booth, which had more than just Star Wars games:

I briefly left a galaxy far, far away to observe Wrath Unleashed, an action-strategy game. It struck me as bearing a slight resemblance to another game, but the more I saw of Wrath Unleashed, the less slight the resemblance became, until I had to ask the LucasArts rep, "Have you ever played an old game called 'Archon'?" Rather than profess ignorance or extort the differences, he simply nodded and said, "Exactly."

But somehow, the core mechanics hadn't aged well. Perhaps it was because my brothers had grown up, leaving video games (and their gaming sibling) behind. But I didn't find the same engagement and tension in Wrath Unleashed that I did in Archon. (Sibling rivalry was likely a factor in Austin Grossman's affair with Archon, too: his brother Lev included it in his list of the ten greatest games for the Apple II.)

Is Archon the ultimate game? No. That title would likely belong to Zork, or The Legend of Zelda, or something equally revolutionary and genre-defining. But what Archon has in common with those games is timelessness: even today, playing the ruler of a shifting battlefield is still fun.

For a more thorough review of Archon, including a "Where are they now?" of the game's programmers, read The 8-Bit Game: Digesting Archon | 8bitrocket, by Jeff Fulton. (Hat tip to Blake Patterson)