Documentary crowdfunding frustration

July 4th, 2016 7:18 AM
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The Kickstarter for 8 bit generation succeeded, leading to the imminent release of a documentary about 8-bit computers. It was a long road, as the film was marked as "Missing In Action" back in 2012, well after I'd already paid for the DVD.

The Kickstarter promised an unlikely turnaround time: the campaign closed on September 25, 2015, with DVDs to ship just five months later in February 2016. That hasn't yet happened — but while we wait, the producers have launched a second Kickstarter for a second documentary.

"The story of Atari is two-thirds the story of Nolan Bushnell, founder and visionary," says the project description, "and one-third the first and probably biggest boom and bust of the new economy some 20 years before the new economy even existed."

The story of Atari is also the origin story of Apple: Steve Jobs got his first job there; Steve Wozniak developed their Breakout game; and together, before they founded Apple Computer Inc., the Steves tried selling the Apple II to Atari.

But how did the filmmakers spin the Atari content out from the original documentary without detracting from it? Turns out there was a marketing miscommunication: the first film was only the first part of a series, with each installment focusing on a different computer and company. What I thought was a broader overview of the 8-bit generation, and which I backed based on its interviews with Steve Wozniak, turned out to be subtitled The Commodore Wars.

Admittedly, I should've read the project's description more closely: "We resolved to release a single long run episode by the working title of Growing The 8 Bit Generation, focused on the home computer explosion and Commodore role in the personal computer revolution." But I usually count on a Kickstarter's campaign video to detail a project — and this project had no video.

That's not the only reason I feel conflicted about their second Kickstarter. I understand that, logistically, launching another crowdfunding campaign while the first remains unfulfilled makes perfect sense: the first documentary is already content-locked and is in the final stages of production, freeing the directors to begin work on editing another film. But emotionally and politically, it's a gamble, as Comcept discovered with the Mighty No. 9 and Red Ash campaigns. It feels like the directors are asking us to double down.

For almost half a decade now, I've been expecting a DVD of a documentary about Apple and its contemporaries. Such a thing may exist as future installments in this DVD series are produced — but it's not what I've been promised, it's not what I paid for, and I find myself a skeptical customer to be asking for more money and faith from.

Reviving the 8-Bit Generation

January 4th, 2016 3:04 PM
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In February 2012, I heard of an upcoming computer documentary called 8-Bit Generation. As it was scheduled to ship imminently, I paid to preordered a copy to review in Juiced.GS. But the ship date came and went, no DVDs shipped, and emails to the director went unanswered. I learned that October that some customers had received refunds, but I was not one of the lucky ones.

Jason Scott saw the bigger picture: what we'd lost was not just a few preorders, but an impressive collection of documentary footage with industry founders and luminaries that may now never see the light of day. As a director himself of such invaluable productions as GET LAMP and BBS: The Documentary, Scott understood the trials of creating such a product and the value of seeing it through to the end.

Thanks in no small part to Scott's empathy and support, the film's producers came out of hiding and sought to finally finish what they'd begun. A successful Kickstarter this past fall produced the necessary funds to see the film through to completion. An email from the project manager assured me that those who have not yet received refunds from the original preorder will eventually receive the documentary. So instead of backing the project at a level that would get me the DVD, I backed the Kickstarter for $1 to get access to any backer-only updates.

The film still isn't done, and the last Kickstarter update is from two months ago, but I've seen enough to now believe that this film exists and will become a finished product. Bil Herd, a former Commodore engineer, will be the narrator, and interviews with the elusive (and now deceased) Jack Tramiel will be donated to the Internet Archive and the Computer History Museum.

Here's an example of a familiar story told in stunning HD quality:

I've never had the ambition or talent to create a documentary and don't envy those who would tackle such a challenge. I believe this time, they'll prove worthy of the faith that's been shown in them.

Cinnamon II hits Kickstarter

August 3rd, 2015 7:13 AM
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Smart watches have a way of setting a precedent and establishing a trend: rumors of the Apple Watch started almost as soon as the first Pebble raised over $10 million on Kickstarter in 2012. Shortly before the Apple Watch was finally released in 2015, we saw the Apple II adapted to that form factor with the Apple II Watch, DJ Harrigan's 3D-printed hack that simulates the hardware and software aesthetics of the Apple II.

Now, entrepreneur Damian Peckett is taking it a step further by putting an actual Apple II inside a watch. Introducing the Cinnamon II:

Although Kickstarters are more effective when they have a pitch video, this campaign lacks one, though it does offer this 12-second demo:

The hardware specs roughly mirror an Apple II Plus, with a "virtualized 6502 clocked at a blistering 1 Megahertz and a whopping 32K of memory… binary compatible with the original 1977's microcomputer. Complete video / sound / keyboard emulation is provided. The Cinnamon II also features a Micro SD socket that offers disk drive emulation." However, the resolution is 160×128, compared to the original Apple II's 280×192, so things are going to be a bit squished.

The dimensions also bring challenges for interacting with such a small Apple II. The available options are limited: "One button brings up a smart onscreen keyboard that allows you to scroll through various keyboard options. The other two buttons are available to user mode applications mapped to the up/down keys. Gesture control is provided via an on board accelerometer that is user programmable. It can be used to interact with user interface elements."

There is only one reward level: $159 AUD will get you the watch. Limited production runs are expensive, so Peckett has set the minimum at roughly 850 watches — hence the crowdfunding goal of $150,000 AUD ($114,842 USD) by August 13, 2015.

Unfortunately, like Bride of the Wizard King before it, this campaign lacks several important components: not only a pitch video, but a breakdown of expenses and different reward levels. The first Pebble offered 11 rewards starting at a mere $1, which 2,615 backers selected — raising more money at that level alone than the Cinnamon II is likely to.

Nonetheless, the Cinnamon II is a cool idea, and I'd like to see it developed further and perhaps open-sourced — I'm sure its ideas can be refined further and its production made more affordable and accessible.

The Bard's Tale IV hits Kickstarter

June 8th, 2015 9:33 AM
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Brian Fargo is at it again. After creating The Bard's Tale and Wasteland on the Apple II for Interplay three decades ago, he revived the latter franchise in 2012 via Kickstarter; the result, Wasteland 2, has an 81% average rating. Now Fargo seeks to crowdfund a revival of The Bard's Tale:

More than a concept, the game already has an in-engine graphics demo that looks quite impressive:

However, there's more to a series than its titular lineage or polygon count. Any time a franchise is revived years after its debut, there's a question of how much of the original talent is still involved. Two years ago, Richard Garriott successfully crowdfunded a game called Lord British's Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. It doesn't have the name "Ultima", and it wasn't published by Origins or Electronic Arts — but it's nonetheless an Ultima game in all but name only, as only the creator of that fantasy world could produce.

Similarly, The Bard's Tale may not involve the most prominent developers and designers to contribute to its last outing. Rebecca Heineman, programmer of 1988's The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate, says she offered to contribute to Fargo's latest project — an offer that was declined. Her team at Olde Sküül is instead working on a dungeon crawler of their own, entitled Dragons of the Rip — prompting her to ask on Facebook, "Do you want a game by someone who financed Bard's Tale, or by the people who actually MADE Bard's Tale III?"

Fortunately, we do not live in an either-or world. Fargo's Kickstarter will almost certainly achieve its crowdfunding goal of $1.25M — at the time of this writing, it's 85% funded with 34 days to go — so we can look forward to playing both The Bard's Tale and Dragons of the Rip. It's a good time to be a retrogamer!

UPDATE (11-Jun-15):

Exciting news today: every backer of The Bard's Tale IV ($20 or more) will get free digital copies of the original The Bard's Tale, The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight and The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate!

The emulated versions of the classic games will be released for free at the end of the campaign for every backer at $20 or higher, and distributed through our backer web site. This is our way of giving our thanks back to you for all your support and helping us bring back The Bard's Tale.

Some of you may know that the emulated versions of these games work on most modern machines, but are a little rough around the edges. Thus, we have an agreement with the original The Bard's Tale III programmer Rebecca "Burger" Heineman and her company Olde Skueuel to update the games for modern machines! She will be working to make the games run natively, without needing emulators, on PC or Mac. This re-releases will be primarily based on the Apple IIGS versions of the games, along with updated art.

Bride of the Wizard King e-book on Kickstarter

May 11th, 2015 10:59 AM
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For artists and developers who feel constraints breed creativity, the Apple II is a perfect platform for their pursuits: games, music, even arts & crafts have been created on or inspired by the machine.

But what about books — and especially graphic novels? There are books about the Apple II — but how many were created on it?

Perhaps not many — and that's what Australian author Myles Stonecutter is looking to fix. His 90-page children's book The Bride of the Wizard King is illustrated entirely on an Apple IIe using the Blazing Paddles software. The book is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter:

Although a fascinating concept, two elements seem to be lacking from the Kickstarter pitch. First, it's not entirely clear what format the book will take. Two sizes of hardcovers as well as an e-book are listed among the rewards — but will the e-book be a PDF, ePub, Mobi, Kindle, iBook, or something else? If it's an app, will it feature any interactivity or other features not found in traditional printed books? Second, it's unclear what the funding — $9,386 USD, or $12,000 AUD — will be used for. "The creative work is completed," says the project description. "Thus far I have looked at Lulu, Blurb and Snapfish as likely online print-on-demand companies to get the initial printing done." Does the print-on-demand route require such a large up-front investment? I'm unsure.

Although the project still has more than three weeks to go, it seems unlikely that it will meet its goal, having achieved only 5% of its desired crowdfunding in the first week. Should the Kickstarter fall flat, I hope Stonecutter finds another way to get his completed work into the hands of the masses.

(Hat tip to Seth Sternberger)

Trekking the Orion Trail

February 16th, 2015 10:20 AM
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I could do an entire blog — not just a blog post, but a blog — on the many Kickstarter campaigns influenced by the 8-bit era of computers. We've seen the return of games, franchises, and styles such as Maniac Mansion, Ultima, Shadowgate, Leisure Suit Larry, Wasteland, and interactive fiction; documentaries on Sierra On-Line and the 6502; and concerts including 8 bit Weapon's.

Oregon Trail alone has prompted several Kickstarters, from the successful Organ Trail to the failed Dead Man's Trail. The latest game likely to join the camp of successful projects is Orion Trail, which combines the gameplay of Oregon Trail with the humor of Space Quest and Galaxy Quest.

The best Kickstarters are those that come to the table with not just a concept, but a prototype — and Orion Trail delivers. If you have the Unity browser plugin installed, you can play an early version of Orion Trail today. I went a few rounds and enjoyed the graphics and humor, but I was demoralized by some of the scenarios my crew encountered. Whether I was being boarded by aliens, encountering space merchants, analyzing an asteroid, or attacking a doomsday machine, I always had three choices, and each seemed equally likely to produce a satisfying solution. No matter my choice, the game spun a random number wheel that somehow determined the result. Perhaps it was this peek at the game's inner workings, but I didn't feet like it mattered what choice I made.

On the bright side, you'll notice some obvious homages to classic computing. "The music was made with the SID emulation engine on an Elektron Monomachine," says the project page. "You'll recognize the SID's distinctive sound from your fondest memories of gaming on a C64 back in the day." Wrong computer for the Apple II community, but admirable nonetheless!

Developer Schell Games looks to release Orion Trail for Mac, Windows, and Linux in December 2015. The game has been Greenlit on Steam, which means when and if Orion Trail is published, it has been approved for distribution on the Steam game platform. Early Access will occur around August.

Before all that happens, the project must obtain a minimum of $90,000 in crowdfunding by March 12. It's currently a third of the way there, which bodes well: in Kickstarter's history, 79% of projects that raised more than 20% of their goal were successfully funded. It's likely we will all be making a star trek along the Orion Trail later this year.

Orion Trail

I have died.

UPDATE (13-Mar-15): This crowdfunding campaign successfully concluded with $97,801 — 108% of the minimum.

(Hat tip to Jenna Hoffstein)