Commander Keen & Softdisk PC in the news

February 25th, 2019 2:49 PM
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Ever since game consoles started featuring Internet connectivity and online stores, the number of downloadable games to choose from has exploded. With no need to manufacture or distribute expensive physical units, almost any indie developer can publish a game online. Often, these are small, indie titles with almost no marketing or name recognition flooding the online catalog. But while recently browsing the Nintendo Switch's eShop, I saw a old familiar name that caught my eye: Commander Keen, in his original adventure.

That name may not ring a bell to Apple II users, as Commander Keen was originally released in 1990 for MS-DOS only, with a Game Boy Color sequel arriving over a decade later. But look behind the scenes of this franchise from id Software, and you'll find a familiar lineage: Tom Hall, John Carmack, John Romero, and Adrian Carmack. These four creators founded id Software specifically to publish Commander Keen after originally developing the game while working at Softdisk. It was at Softdisk that Romero and company also created such memorable Apple II titles as Dangerous Dave.

So what's behind this sudden revival of Commander Keen? Once again, LoadingReadyRun has the full story in the latest CheckPoint:

Just like how John Carmack still loves his Apple II, and John Romero ported Dangerous Dave to iOS, it's great to know that former id Software creative director Tom Hall is still passionate about his classic games. Even if we'll never see an Apple II port, let's hope Commander Keen's Switch release is a sign of things to come.

Can we get John Carmack to KansasFest?

July 30th, 2018 10:49 AM
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When John Romero was the keynote speaker for KansasFest 2012, an old friend was in the audience: Lane Roathe, KansasFest 2008 keynote speaker. The two had worked together at Softdisk and later founded Ideas from the Deep, or id.

But there was a third person in that original triumverate of founders: John Carmack. Like Romero and Roathe, Carmack has remained active in the games industry, currently serving as the CTO for Oculus, Facebook's virtual-reality company. And, also like Romero and Roathe, Carmack hasn't forgotten his roots.

In 2012, Carmack got an Apple IIc for Christmas; in 2015, he introduced it to his son. If he tweets about the Apple II every three years, then he maintained that tradition coinciding with this month's KansasFest:

He later reiterated his interest, reminiscing about the constraints of the Apple II that breed creativity:

Carmack is definitely a guy who knows what's up and isn't that many steps removed from our community: despite not following the @KansasFest account, Carmack even knew the hashtag to use — perhaps from following Jason Scott.

At least two KansasFest members acknowledged Carmack's tweets with replies, the first being frequent HackFest judge Quinn Dunki:

Followed by KansasFest committee member Andy Molloy:

How long before Carmack joins the ranks of KansasFest keynote speakers, with Romero and Roathe in the audience?

(Full disclosure: Although I was part of the committee that recruited Roathe and Romero, I am not currently a member of the KansasFest committee and do not have any insider knowledge about the current speaker selection process. This post is based solely on observation of public information and speculation.)

The legend of John Romero

February 26th, 2018 9:06 AM
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When I was on the KansasFest committee, I performed much of the outreach to parties outside what we commonly think of as the Apple II community. That included recruitment of keynote speakers, which was always one of the most important steps in organizing each annual convention. Once we had a keynote speaker to headline the event, we could open registration — which meant brainstorming and solicitation of speakers began very early.

While most candidates responded to our emails, not all of them were able to accept our invitations, for a variety of legitimate reasons: usually that they'd moved past the Apple II, or that we couldn't sufficiently compensate them for their time. When they did respond in the affirmative, it wasn't unusual for several rounds of questions and clarifications to occur before they'd agree to attend. None of this was unexpected or unfair; on the contrary, we recognized that an Apple II convention in the middle of the country at the height of vacation season was a hard sell.

All this made it all the more shocking when the keynote speaker we thought most likely to say no was the one whose enthusiastic acceptance arrived the fastest. Given that the sun has still not set on the legend of John Romero, I never expected such a luminary of the gaming industry to come to KansasFest. That preconceived notion served only to demonstrate how little I knew him. He was friendly, generous, timely, and delivered one of the best KansasFest keynote speeches I've ever witnessed.

More evidence of John's benevolence is apparent in the latest episode of Jason Scott's podcast, Jason Scott Talks His Way Out of It (which I back on Patreon). Over the course of Jason's 24-minute monologue, he recounts his own personal interactions with John as well as John's many contributions to gaming and the Apple II community.

I'm tempted to call John's appearance at KansasFest a homecoming. But John never left the Apple II community, celebrating it in 1998 by hosting his own reunion of renowned Apple II developers and publishers, as documented in this landmark ZDNet feature by Steven Kent. John recreated that event almost 20 years later when he and partner Brenda Romero, herself of Wizardry fame, hosted another Apple II reunion in 2015. Both events reunited John with his peers from the days well before his Doom and Quake fame, when he created such classic Softdisk and UpTime games for the Apple II as Dangerous Dave.

John Romero is one of my favorite people in the gaming industry, not only because of the software he's created but because of how he conducts himself as a person and the respect, enthusiasm, and support he shows others — such as by showing no hesitation about being an Apple II keynote speaker in Missouri in the middle of July.

Scoring Dangerous Dave

December 21st, 2015 11:39 AM
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On IndieSider, my biweekly podcast, I interview game developers about the creative process. The Apple II is one of the platforms that got me into gaming, so I enjoy the opportunities to feature it on my show, bringing everything full circle. For example, Episode #16 featured the voice talents of Brutal Deluxe's Antoine Vignau, whereas episode #26 highlighted the work of Wade Clarke in interactive fiction.

Some of my podcast subjects come to me through public relations specialists such as Emily Morganti, whom I've found to be a gamer with excellent taste in games. She recently pitched me a game she didn't realize I have a long history with: Dangerous Dave. This franchise of side-scrolling platform games was founded on the Apple II, where it had two famous names attached to it: publisher Softdisk and developer John Romero.

John has been a friend to the Apple II community before, during, and since his success with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake: he was the KansasFest 2012 keynote speaker, and his writing is featured in this month's issue of Juiced.GS. He recently ported one of his Dangerous Dave games to iOS — but it was not Mr. Romero that Ms. Morganti was representing. Instead she was putting me in touch with Dren McDonald, the composer who created the score for Gathering Sky, a game I featured in IndieSider #28.

I took the opportunity to interview Dren about his long history of collaborations with the Romero family; creating an original soundtrack for an Apple II game; the programming tools that a digital musician employs; and what constitutes the "chipbilly" genre he invented for this game, seemingly inspired by chiptune. The resulting interview became IndieSider #34, which can be viewed on YouTube:

or listened to in your podcatcher of choice:

I appreciated featuring one of the many creative artists who contribute something to a game other than design or development. It takes a village to keep the Apple II alive!

John Romero's Stage of Development

November 16th, 2015 10:59 AM
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I started my academic career in computer science but ended in communications. One way I currently marry those disciplines is not by developing games, as I originally thought I would, but by interviewing those who do. The IndieSider audio podcast airs biweekly with stories of independent game development (including on the Apple II), showcasing the design, execution, and funding challenges encountered by small studios with big dreams.

Documentarian Russ Pitts of Flying Saucer Media has a dream of his own: to produce a series of video profiles of games industry personalities. Think of Stage of Development as similar to IndieSider, but more professional, more visual, better funded, and not focusing exclusively on indie game developers. In fact, one early episode will spotlight one of the biggest names in the industry: John Romero, KansasFest 2012 keynote speaker.

In 1998, Romero hosted an Apple II reunion attended by platform luminaries, such as Dan Gorlin (Choplifter), Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia), Doug Smith (Lode Runner), Joel Berez (Infocom), and Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion). In the summer of 2015, Romero threw another such party, with the guest list including Robert Woodhead (Wizardry), Chuck Sommerville (Snake Byte), David Mullich (Heroes of Might and Magic), and Margot Comstock (Softalk). Not only was the event extensively documented by Jason Scott, but Romero had each of the attendees sign his Apple II case; a glimpse of their autographs can be seen in the opening moments of the above Stage of Development video.

I'm excited to see Romero's contributions recognized and the human side of game development brought to life by Pitts' series. Though Stage of Development didn't meet its Kickstarter crowdfunding goal, the project is nonetheless moving forward. You can subscribe to receive email updates on the series.

(Hat tip to Polygamer)

Preserving Bob Bishop's legacy

February 2nd, 2015 9:26 AM
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In mid-November, John Romero shared with the Apple II community some sad news: Bob Bishop, co-founder of Apple's R&D department and KansasFest 2011 keynote speaker, had passed away. The news came in time for me to include Bishop in my Computerworld slideshow of tech luminaries we lost in 2014; along with Patrick McGovern and Ralph Baer, Bishop was one of three luminaries I'd had the honor of meeting among the 23 in the article.

It is all well and good to honor the legacy of those who have gone before, but it takes more than mere platitudes to ensure their contributions are not buried with them. Thankfully, Romero was more than the bearer of bad news, as this past weekend, after a tip from on a tip from Gary Koffler, Romero had an encouraging update to share on Facebook:

Prepare for a mindblast. Today my wife and I went to the late Bob Bishop's estate to rescue whatever we could from the giant dumpster outside the house — everything will be thrown away today (Saturday). We were able to save all historical items of note.

One of the items we got was this black Apple II+ which you will note is NOT a Bell & Howell. We believe it is the prototype for that edition. The lid easily pops off like normal, and the date is 1979. Bob also had an Apple II serial number 13. The family will be auctioning that one off.

We filled our van full of stuff. I can't believe the amazing amount of stuff we got that's collectible.

… To clarify, there was no dumpster diving involved. The dumpster sat silent and empty, waiting for today when everything left in Bob's houses would be tossed in. We went through all the rooms of his houses and picked everything of value we could find.

Bob Bishop's Bell & Howell

The resulting thread is extensive, with postulations as to the nature and origin of some of Bishop's rarer hardware, and questions of where similar collections might be found or donated. The Computer History Museum of Mountain View, California, and the Strong Museum of Rochester, New York, were frequently cited, with a representative of the latter chiming into the thread. I can vouch for both institutions, as both are actively archiving Juiced.GS for scholars and future generations of retrocomputing enthusiasts to reference.

There are many components to preserving our digital legacies: ensuring software for legacy computers can still be executed; preserving the original hardware; making our personal digital data collections accessible. I'm grateful that we have people like John Romero and Jason Scott, and institutions like the CHM and the Strong, actively working to keep alive the memory and accomplishments of heroes like Bob Bishop.