SimCity at GDC

March 14th, 2011 11:56 AM
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Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy and I are exhausted from a weekend spent at PAX East, an annual video game convention held in Boston. There were some fun classic computer references: Bill Amend put up a picture of an old, non-Apple II computer as representative of the state of technology when he started drawing FoxTrot; Paul Saunders of LoadingReadyRun and The Escapist cited Hard Hat Mack as one of his first and favorite games as a kid (he can expect an issue of Juiced.GS in his mailbox later this month), while his colleague Graham Stark acknowledged The Interbank Incident; and Jerry Holkins reminisced about thinking for a week that he'd lost his Wasteland save game before realizing it was on the other side of the floppy. He actually hugged his mom, crying, "We're back!"

For gamers, there were several classic arcade and console rooms, the former courtesy the American Classic Arcade Museum to which Andy and I made our annual pilgrimage last month, but other than the aforementioned hat tips, there wasn't much here for retrocomputing enthusiasts. Such was not the case at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, where an iOS version of Out of This World was announced. But there was some other insight out of GDC of interest to Apple II users.

A popular form of GDC panel is the post-mortem, in which developers talk about the thought and processes that went into a game that was released anywhere from a day to a decade ago. Will Wright of SimCity fame was one such presenter, discussing the origin of Raid on Bungeling Bay:

When he decided to make a game after learning BASIC and Pascal, "It was almost more of a whim," he said. At that point, a lot of people on the Apple II were on their second or third generation games, so he was worried about competing with them.

But the Commodore 64 had just come out, "so I thought I'll just buy one of these new computers, make a game on that, and level the playing field," said Wright. He actually programmed the game on the Apple II, then dumped it onto the C64.

"I remember I was 4 or 5 years old, and I went on a helicopter ride, and it was one of the coolest things in the world," he said, so he knew he wanted helicopters in the game, as well as some sort of clockwork world. And since the Apple II's games were all very simple screens, "I wanted a very large world that I could really get lost in, and feel like it was that large."

He made two tools to build the game world: Chedid was a character editor, which was “really primitive,” he said. Wedit lets you scroll around the world and place the characters from Chedid. “Wedit eventually evolved into Sim City,” he said. “I was scrolling around the world and having a lot of fun with it.”

So, there you have it: SimCity was designed to be a map editor for an Apple II game. How frustrating that the Apple II's role in the creation of one of gaming's most celebrated franchises has not been rewarded with its own version of SimCity. With the source code having been made available some years ago, shouldn't it just be a matter of time? It's a popular topic in csa2, but AFAIK, the only attempts to port the game were made before the source was released. How about a renewed effort?

UPDATE: The video, audio, and slides from this GDC presentation are now available.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

Every office needs an Apple II

June 14th, 2010 1:31 PM
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Ever since I moved out of my parents' house in 1997, I've not had space for a proper Apple II setup. I'd left behind two Apple IIGS computers in the basement: one from which my father ran the family business, another leftover from when I ran a dial-up BBS (1993–1997). In December 2008, I finally rescued the latter from years of inactivity when I installed it in my office cubicle.


It was a great relief, though not a surprise, to find that everything still worked fine after 11 years. Only two things failed me, both memory-based. The first was the ROM 01's inbuilt battery, which stores various settings in the BRAM. But I had previously installed Bill Tudor's BRAM.Checker, which stores the contents of BRAM to the hard drive on shutdown and restores them on startup, so it wasn't a big deal. Nonetheless, it was cheap enough to buy a battery pack from ReactiveMicro.com at KansasFest 2009.

The other failing was my own memory. For more than a decade, I had relied on emulators — first Bernie ][ the Rescue, then Sweet16. I've now been reminded that computing on the metal is a very different experience. I was soon asking myself and others many basic questions: to ensure my revived machine is still good, how do I run a self-diagnostic test at boot time? (Hold down Open-Apple and Option.) What does it mean that the test returned "0C000003 GS Diagnostic Self-Test error/ Sound Test: Data register failed"? (It means I have a ZipGS accelerator card installed.) All sorts of little things, I had to relearn — though strangely enough, I danced around ProTERM's various keyboard shortcuts for several minutes before realizing I had no reason to remember these esoteric commands.

It was also vaguely embarrassing to boot up a machine that represented my teen philosophies. The startup splash screen made it clear that no IBMs were allowed, and the mouse pointer was replaced by an ominous skull. What I saw in the 1990s as amusing frivolities, I see in 2010 as a waste of resources.

The first new acquisition I made for my computer was from RetroFloppy, run by David Schmidt, creator of ADTPro. The combination of hardware and software he provided allowed me to create disk images on my Mac of the Q-Drive from which I'd run my BBS. As Jason Scott would say, I don't know what among this data needs to be preserved, but it's better to make backups now, lest it not be available later when I decide it is worth preserving.

My IIGS hasn't seen a ton of use since its initial corporate installation. I sometimes spend lunch break playing Lode Runner or trying out old copies of Scholastic's Microzine. I want to put it on the corporate network, but the Uthernet card sells as quickly as they're produced. (I can't wait to see the look on the helpdesk tech's faces when they get that support ticket!) An easy way to transfer individual files between the Apple II and my MacBook would also be handy; to that end, I am an eager future customer of Rich Dreher's CFFA3000 model of his historically popular IDE/CompactFlash interface card. I'm also awaiting the delivery of a ROM 03 machine — my first of that model, and my first Apple II purchase in eighteen years — that will serve as a backup (or maybe even a replacement) to my primary machine.

My Apple II was to be the subject of a Computerworld.com video, as I teased on the A2Unplugged podcast last year. We shot a half-hour of footage and winnowed it down to about 12 minutes, which was the longest video we'd ever produced in-house. Unfortunately, we never found the appropriate context in which to launch the video, and a few months later, its producer was laid off. We found the raw footage on his workplace hard drive, but the final cut was never found.

The bright side is that I now have a cubicle that sports three generations of Apple computers: an Apple-1, an Apple II, and a MacBook Pro. I still get some amused looks from my co-workers — unfortunately, nothing quite as delighted as this gentleman was with his surprise retrocomputer: