Losing Apple II writers to GamerGate

September 22nd, 2014 10:57 AM
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The video game industry has been ashamed to host a recent debacle known as GamerGate. At its heart are matters of equality and diversity in the tech industry, which hits close to home for me: I host a podcast about those very issues.

The fallout from GamerGate is that voices that were already marginalized — in this case, women's — were silenced, with several accomplished writers leaving the industry. I don't blame them: no one should have to tolerate the abuse, harassment, and threats that these professionals have.

Despite a thirty-year gap between the Apple II and GamerGate, these writers' departure is to the detriment of even our retrocomputing community. Jenn Frank, whom I support on Patreon, not that long ago wrote over a thousand words on the legacy of Mystery House. In this piece, she outlines how the game launched Sierra On-Line as a company and the genres of graphical adventure and graphical mystery-horror. Frank does this not by examining her own navel, as this blogger does, but by interviewing a cavalcade of modern and legendary game designers, including Ken Williams, Jake Elliott, Erin Robinson, Ken Levine, Jane Jensen, and Al Lowe.

Mystery House, despite not being that much fun, even opened the door for women — maybe even Frank herself — to make names for themselves in a traditionally male-dominated industry:

Best of all, Mystery House resulted in the founding of Sierra itself. While many female developers often find it difficult to break into the modern-day mainstream games industry, Jensen remembers Sierra as a boon to women: "I was lucky getting into Sierra Online," she reminds us, "because there were already a number of strong female designers there — Roberta Williams, Christy Marx, Lori Cole. So I never felt there were any stumbling blocks at all in my path."

Mystery House

How one game defined a genre (or two) without being particularly enjoyable.

Don't expect any more research and writing like this: Jenn Frank has left the industry. Trolls and thugs drove her off.

Who's next? Leigh Alexander? One of the most distinctive and prolific voices of modern gaming journalism, Alexander's gaming origin is rooted in the Apple II. She's been revisiting the computer games of her youth, narrating her gameplay experiences on YouTube. She too has applied her unique lens to Mystery House. But she's not going anywhere, despite some gamers making it clear her voice is not welcome — to which she taunts, "What, you want to leave me death threats? Go for it!"

If you want to read more about Mystery House, Jimmy Maher has written on the subject extensively. But that's not the point. Who knows what Frank's next piece would've been? We'll never know. Will Alexander continue sharing her unique experiences on YouTube? If things get worse, maybe not.

Yesterday's games are treasures for today's journalists and historians to discover. It is important to preserve not just the subject of their study, but the dedication and perseverance of those skilled professionals who will deliver it to us. By supporting those who support the Apple II, we make an investment in their future. Alexander tells us how:

When you see something unjust happen, say that you condemn it. When someone's the victim of destructive sexist behavior, defend them — not in a brownie points-seeking way, directing your comments at the victim herself or copying women into your Tweets so that they know you’re a good guy — but in your own channels. When you see friends and colleagues passing on destructive opinions, challenge them. By engaging the issue yourself, you take responsibility.

Be aware of your own power and how you can use it to help others. … Don't just send her a nice note in private about how bad it looks like things are sucking and how you "have her back." Actually have her back. Stand up in public and say that yours is not a professional infrastructure that allows women to be abused or treated unfairly. Say that so-and-so is a talented, valued asset you’re proud to work with or for.

Ernest Adams has similar words of advice. Read his "Call to Arms for Decent Men".

Whatever your generation or gender, we're all gamers. Let's stand up for one another.

Kickstarting the history of Sierra On-Line

July 8th, 2013 2:00 PM
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We retrocomputing enthusiasts have seen Kickstarter used for books (The First Apple, What's Where), games (Shadowgate, Ultima), and documentaries (GET LAMP, 6502). Now it's time to open your wallets again, as the latest project to warrant an Apple II user's investment is a documentary of Sierra On-Line.

Sierra On-Line was the developer and publisher of such classic point-and-click adventure games as the noble King's Quest, comedic Space Quest, avaricious Gold Rush!, and lascivious Leisure Suit Larry (a modern remake of which was published just last month, courtesy Kickstarter). Many of these franchises got their start on the Apple II, so naturally we should be keen to back this project, right?

I bid caution: Kickstarter is an investment platform, and you'd do well to research this project. In this case, this project already toured the Kickstarter circuit in 2012, when the creators asked for $40,000; they received $1,312. Their pitch video at the time consisted entirely of gameplay footage and title cards — no interviews, no introductions, no voiceovers. To their credit, that initial fundraising failure didn't deter the film crew, as their new pitch video demonstrates they've spent the past year conducting interviews with Sierra On-Line luminaries. Having that in their pocket may justify their new request for $125,000. (Makes you wonder what they were hoping to accomplish with just a third that sum!) They have thus far received $10,367, or nine times more than their last effort — but it's a slow start, an still a long ways from their goal.

One thing missing from their new video is the talent behind the camera. I'd like to know that the documentarians dedicating themselves to this project are as passionate about adventure gaming as they need their backers to be. The enthusiasm that Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder brought to their comic strip documentary, Stripped, was contagious and, I suspect, a large part of why it raised double its goal on its first Kickstarter and its second Kickstarter. Between the lack of personality in the video and the relatively terse text write-up, the drive behind the Sierra On-Line film is not as explicit.

The Sierra On-Line documentary is entitled Heroes, an improvement over the original name, So You Want To Be A Hero? One backer suggested, why not call it Quests? I like the ring of that, since it abstracts and plays upon the King's/Space/Police Quest series. The project creators acknowledged and thoughtfully responded to that suggestion:

We chose the title Heroes for the film for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, the term "Hero" was a theme rooted in the adventure games. From the perspective of all of us who played the games, we had the opportunity to be a hero. We also felt that this was an appropriate term that serves as an homage to all of those at Sierra who worked tirelessly to create the games we all know and love a success.

Will this Kickstarter meet or even exceed its fundraising? Will the final film, scheduled for a March 2014 release, reveal anything new about this storied game company, or will it cater more to nostalgic fans? We'll begin to have the answers when the Kickstarter campaign closes on the evening of August 5.

In the meantime, digital antiquarian Jimmy Maher, whom we interviewed this year on Open Apple, has written extensively about the history of Sierra. Although he's not collected his works on this particular subject into a book, I encourage you to scroll through his posts and read them in the order in which they were published; the detail and accuracy of his narratives are remarkable.

UPDATE: This project has failed, having raised only $28,872, or 23% of its goal.

Battle Chess & Space Quest return

May 14th, 2012 5:27 PM
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Tim Schafer, what hath you wrought? The extravagant funding his unidentified adventure game received via crowdfunding site Kickstarter has opened the floodgates to a resurgence of vintage franchises: Wasteland, Leisure Suit Larry, Shadowrun, and more.

The latest Apple II licenses to seek resurrection via Kickstarter are Space Quest and Battle Chess. The former, dubbed "SpaceVenture" (they apparently couldn't get the rights to the original name), will be produced by Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, aka "The Two Guys from Andromeda", the two designers who created the series for Sierra On-Line in the first place. The development seems to be pretty well outlined, with several notable voice actors having signed on, though I've seen no assets from the game as of yet. The final game will be installable on PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android, or playable in Google's Chrome Web browser. A preorder will cost you $15 and get them that much closer to the usual half-a-million goal before the June 12, 2012, deadline.

By contrast, the Battle Chess project couldn't be more different. Subdued Software, developers of no games I've ever heard of, have licensed the Battle Chess name and have essentially completed production of an update to the classic strategy game. All that remains before its October 2012 release is to add Internet support, for which they are asking for a paltry $100,000:

… implementing a full featured online experience, like the one we have planned, will take several months. A list of features include; Skilled Based Matchmaking, Statistics, Leaderboards, Achievements and in-game chat. We also needed to factor in the cost of fulfilling rewards and running this campaign. We have carefully planned out the costs of staffing the programmers, artists and testers necessary to complete online multiplayer feature and arrived at this amount.

This modest ambition extends to the scale of the release: $100K will secure a PC-only release, with additional funding promising ports to Mac, iOS, Android, and Xbox 360. If you're counting on support for one of those platforms, one course of action is to pledge your dollars to the project — and, if they don't collect enough funding for additional systems before the June 1 deadline, withdraw your pledge. (Selfish, no?)

The lack of accessibility to Battle Chess brought to mind a potential alternative. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my discussion of a similar game, Battle vs. Chess, originally scheduled for release on Sep 28, 2010, then pushed back to Spring 2011. To date, Battle vs. Chess has still not been released in the United States, according to Wikipedia, "due to an injunction by Interplay Entertainment for trademark infringement due to its similarity to Interplay title Battle Chess." In February 2012, I received this update from Robin Kunimune, Community Manager of publisher TopWare Interactive:

… Battle Vs. Chess has not been released in the USA, yet. If it were in our power, we would do so in a heartbeat, but sadly the publishing rights remain with a company with which we no longer associate. We are currently waiting for said company to fold and declare bankruptcy (at which point we would regain the publishing rights and release the game) or to go ahead and release the game themselves.

In the meantime, the "true" Battle Chess is looking pretty polished, with plenty of neat death sequences — although the outcome is determined in accordance with the rules of chess, it's still fun to watch the characters duke it out, with each potential matchup of pieces and winners resulting in a unique encounter. Check out these three gameplay videos:

Whether you support an ambitious game that's still in the planning stage and not coming out until 2013 but for a variety of platforms, or a game that's all but finished with a meager fundraising goal and target platform — or both — is between you and your wallet. Happy funding!

Leisure Suit Larry returns

April 5th, 2012 1:28 PM
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Hot on the heels of Juiced.GS's March cover story on Kickstarter, Apple II franchises are crawling out of the woodwork to seek crowdfunded revivals. Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert will be delivering a Maniac Mansion-style adventure game in October 2012, while exactly a year later, Brian Fargo will publish a sequel to the role-playing game Wasteland. What's next?

It's a return to the land of the lounge lizards with Leisure Suit Larry, the sexy, seedy adventure games featuring pickup artist Larry Laffer and his quest to become better acquainted with the opposite gender. The series was a contemporary of adventure games Space Quest, King's Quest, and Police Quest and featured the point-and-click interface endemic of Sierra Online titles.

Franchise creator Al Lowe is asking for a cool half-mil to apply a graphical overhaul to the original 1987 game, add voice acting, and port it to "XBLA, PSN, Android, iPads, iPhones, Windows Phones, Kindle, Linux and of course, Mac!"

The best part of Lowe's pitch is the video that prominently features an Apple II, both in the opening shot and around three minutes in:

In addition to the aforementioned features, I'm hopeful that, like the recent special edition of The Secret of Monkey Island, we'll be able to switch between the original and updated graphics on the fly. We'll find out upon the remake's release this October.

(Retrogamers may also be interested in backing an original Shadowrun game)

(Hat tip to Kevin Savetz; consultation by Steve Weyhrich)

The King's Quest continues

April 14th, 2011 2:50 PM
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As mentioned on this week's episode of Open Apple, remakes of Sierra's first three King's Quest point-and-click adventures are now available as free downloads from developer AGD Interactive. The only game in that series I'd previously encountered was the fifth, courtesy its Nintendo adaptation. I wouldn't think earlier incarnations of such a crude game would age well, but I've briefly played AGD's version of King's Quest III, released just this year, and found it a superb and enjoyable title that is competitive with today's games.

If you've never played King's Quest and are wondering what all the hubbub is, Clint puts the original game in context, recollecting how groundbreaking the interface was compared to predecessors such as Mystery House:

To our modern gaming world, King's Quest is hopelessly antiquated in both look and play, but it still stands as one of our most important relics of computer gaming. And back in the day, I was as mesmerized as anyone by the amazing magic it represented. King's Quest … was nothing less than revolutionary, and I don't think it's too much to say every graphical adventure game that followed owes it (and, I guess, IBM's money) at least a nod of respect.

As Clint alludes to, King's Quest did not emerge in a vacuum, nor did it prove to be an anomaly. The entire lifespan of the genre that Sierra redefined is reviewed in Ars Technica's in-depth look at the 25-year rise and fall of a beloved genre. The piece encompasses all variety of graphic adventures, from the Macintosh classic Shadowgate to LucasArts' many SCUMM titles to Telltale Games' recent episodic ventures, such as Sam & Max.

It's a lengthy piece of journalism — nearly 7,000 words. In about as much time as it'll take you to read, you could play through the entire King's Quest game, as demonstrated in this speed run:

If you ask me, such experiences are meant to be savored, indicative as they are of a more thoughtful era in computer gaming. My thanks to AGD Interactive for bringing the past into the present, and for Sarien for suggesting that touch interfaces such as the iPad offers are ripe for a resurgence in the genre's popularity.

(Hat tip to Blake Patterson)

UPDATE: Want to see the full King's Quest played in real-time? Spend 98 minutes watching this video!