Archive for November, 2010

Vince Briel talks with Racketboy

November 29th, 2010 1:17 PM
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Since the Apple-1 has been making headlines lately, it seems timely to hear from the man who's helped revitalize interest in this historic machine. Vince Briel is the creator of the Replica I, a fully functional Apple-1 clone authorized by Steve Wozniak himself. The unit sells as a kit of 88 unassembled parts for $149, or as an assembled, ready-to-use circuit board for $199. Both options make it a significantly more affordable alternative than buying one at Christie's auction house.

Vince is no stranger to the pages of magazine Juiced.GS, where he was interviewed by Doug Cuff in 2004, with Andy Molloy's review of the Apple-1 replica following four years later — a topic I myself then tackled for Computerworld.com in 2009. Vince was also part of a five-person roundtable in what remains one of my most memorable Juiced.GS issues to date.

Briel's latest interview, however, is not in print, but in podcast, and not even in one of the many aimed at an Apple II audience. Instead, Vince was a guest of Racketboy.com, "an independent video game site that caters to the old-school console gamer and their unique gaming lifestyles." The show's guests were decided by reader vote, with Vince being of sufficient reputation to make the cut. The interview was published this past January and is an entertaining listen, revealing details about the creation of the Replica I, Vince's interactions with Woz, the product's timeless popularity, and upcoming products, including an MP3 card.

Although the podcast is available via iTunes, this particular episode is not, so you'll have to download the MP3 manually to add it to your audio collection. It's worth this simple effort to hear from one of the Apple II community's leading hardware developers.

Sold at Christie's: Apple-1 #82 for $213K

November 25th, 2010 11:00 AM
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Last week, I belatedly reported that Christie's auction house would be selling an Apple-1 on Nov. 23. On that date, by the time I remembered what day it was, the lot had already sold and Christie's had closed. I was at work at Computerworld and mentioned the occasion to the news chief, who suggested I write about it, as the reporter responsible for Computerworld's auction's pre-event coverage was on holiday. I was already planning on blogging about it for this site but didn't have any details about where the computer had gone, so I questioned the potential for my article to be newsworthy.

But thanks to a blog comment by Eric Rucker, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at KansasFest 2010, I was able to take the story in the opposite direction by examining where this particular Apple-1 had come from. A quick trip to IRC, and I had the retrocomputing expert on the line, helping me get my facts straight.

The resulting article, which got some love on Google News, is now posted on Computerworld.com:

Christie's auction house in London today sold an Apple-1 computer for £133,250, or $213,600.

The lot, which went up for auction at 9:30 a.m. ET today, had an estimated value of between $160,300 and $240,450.

Two hundred Apple-1 computers are estimated to have been created and sold for $666.66 before Apple Computer Inc. was founded in 1977. Once the Apple II, the company's first official product, was released, many of the Apple-1 models were reclaimed as trade-ins. Only about 50 are still known to exist, many of them indexed by hardware developer Mike Willegal.

Read the rest of this story at Computerworld.com »

The history of game design

November 22nd, 2010 11:11 AM
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My alma mater offers a major in interactive media and game design, a field that didn't exist during my time there as a student. It's one of many such programs that have popped up across academia in the past decade, in response to the growing popularity and cultural acceptance of video games as an industry and pastime.

Yet electronic game design predates its study by decades. When there were no templates, exemplars, formulae, or rubrics, creative programmers experimented with creative and risky innovations, setting the course for thirty years of successors. Although modern games can still be ingenious, such variation from popular game design is often relegated to low-budget "indie" games and not the big-budget blockbusters sold at retail, which are almost always sequels to existing intellectual properties (IP). This was not the case with the Apple II; visionary games such as Lode Runner, Oregon Trail, and Choplifter were enormous successes and are remembered fondly today.

When today's students are educated in game design and theory, it only makes sense to reflect on historical successes as well. Some academic institutions have wisely chosen to complement their modern game design with this retrospective look. Such a course was once offered at Stanford as the "History of Computer Game Design".

This course provides a historical and critical approach to the evolution of computer and video game design from its beginnings to the present. It brings together cultural, business, and technical perspectives. Students should come away from the course with an understanding of the history of this medium, as well as insights into design, production, marketing, and socio-cultural impacts of interactive entertainment and communication.

The course's required reading includes Dungeons & Dreamers, a book I gave high marks to when I reviewed it for Juiced.GS for its analysis of the 1970s and the era's intersection of popularity in Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and personal computing. Considering such engaging assignments, I have to wonder why Stanford's course wasn't popular enough to have become a regular part of the school's curriculum; sadly, the "History of Computer Game Design" course does not appear to have been offered since 2005.

This class was part of an accompanying interactive project that has likewise not been updated in nearly a decade. It had an ambitious and socially relevant mission:

The aim of this project is to explore the history and cultural impact of a crucial segment of contemporary new media: interactive simulations and video games. Once the late-night amusement of nerds and hackers who built "Space Wars" and the "Game of Life" in the 1950s and 1960s, video games and interactive media have emerged as one of the most vibrant elements of today's entertainment industry. However, despite the growing popularity and legitimacy of video games, the importance of the medium itself has all but eluded notice by most scholars and media critics. As a result, this project seeks to ground the history and study of video games within a framework of rigorous academic discourse.

While Roger Ebert may contend that video games are not art, others have suggested the better question is: "Can artists express themselves through the video game medium?" I feel the answer to that is an obvious "Yes!", as demonstrated by games from the Apple II to today. It's only a matter of time before game design history is as common a field of study as art history, film theory, and music appreciation.

In addition to the aforementioned Dungeons & Dreamers, other books providing academic perspectives on game design's history include Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort, and Dungeons & Desktops by Matt Barton.

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

The return of interactive fiction

November 18th, 2010 10:09 AM
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Text adventures, or interactive fiction, are currently en vogue, as evidenced by more than the release of the medium's own documentary. Beyond GET LAMP and its niche market, IF has been making appearances in even mainstream media, leading the way for new and exciting developments in this classic gaming genre.

My cousin, bless her heart, emailed me this clip from the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory, asking, "Do you remember these games, or are they before your time?"

I suspect most of BBT's geeky audience will recognize and appreciate this nod to gaming's textual origins, as even modern gaming has taken to acknowledging its roots. Earlier this month, Activision released the highly anticipated first-person shooter, Call of Duty: Black Ops (or CoD:BlOps for short). The game includes an Easter Egg: hidden within but accessible from a virtual computer terminal in the game's militaristic setting is none other than Zork itself. This treat is made possible by Activision's purchase of Infocom in 1986, seven years after the company was founded and three before it was shut down.

Although this bonus feature is an amazing opportunity to introduce the current generation of gamers to interactive fiction, Jason Scott points out an inherent flaw in the context in which Activision has chosen to do so. Players of CoD:BlOps are expecting an intense, fast-paced, and violent experience, filled with twitch reactions and realistic graphics. To ask them to slow down, sit at a virtual keyboard, and be challenged by the puzzles of Zork only brings into contrast how far gaming has come, and the obstacles IF now faces.

Nonetheless, those obstacles are being tackled — and overcome — by the likes of Andrew Plotkin. This IF designer, interviewed in GET LAMP, recently set out to use Kickstarter to raise enough money to quit his day job and dedicate himself to creating text adventures for Mac, PC, and iPhone. He hoped to raise $8,000 in 30 days; in the first twelve hours, he raised $12,000.

Many of Plotkin's current works can be played on his homepage, where we should expect to find the fruits of his labors continue to be published once his sabbatical begins.

In the meantime, if you want to try a point-and-click interface that explores abstract concepts in an interactive fiction-like experience, try A House in California, loosely based on the Apple II classic Mystery House. It's one example of how far IF actually has come in the past three decades — even if it is no Call of Duty.

(Hat tips to Andy Molloy and Jason Scott)

FS: Apple-1, via Christie's of London

November 15th, 2010 10:20 AM
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It's not often that retrocomputing news spreads quickly, but by the time I write this blog, it's already old news: on Nov. 23, Christie's auction house in London will auction an Apple-1 computer. The estimated value is $160,300–$240,450.

I first heard the news via Sean Fahey's Twitter, which linked to the Daily Mail Reporter's story. I figured the number of people who even knew what an Apple-1 was would end the story there — but within 24 hours, it was making homepage headlines on everything from Computerworld to CNN. A Google News search shows nearly 300 news stories covering the story.

All this attention is a bit mystifying, as although only a quarter of the original 200 Apple-1 units are known to exist, their appearance on the auction lot is not that unusual. There was one on eBay just two months ago, which sold for just under $23K. That one came with a caveat: "I have not applied electricity to the motherboard in well over ten years, and do not intend to for this auction. Thus, you should assume this is an auction for a museum quality historical artifact, not a working computer." Similarly, the Christie's lot does not describe their unit's working state. Why theirs is going for so much, other than the prestige of the Christie's name, I cannot discern.

Some of the marvel being heaped upon this ancient technology is also both baffling and irritating. "Song storage capacity: Zero", indicates the Daily Mail Reporter; "Its minuscule amount of memory — eight kilobytes — wouldn't even be enough to store a single iTunes song", wrote PC Magazine. If you mean MP3 files, then sure — not even Maxster would run on this machine. The MP3 codec was not developed until the 1990s, well after the Apple-1's debut in 1976. But to consider "song" and "MP3" to be analogous is narrow-minded. I bet the Apple-1 could beep a mean rendition of "Turkey in the Straw". Other functions within its ability are also being misgauged; "this setup 'could barely power a game of Pong'", quoted CNN. I didn't realize Pong required more than 8K of RAM? But both comparisons miss the point. To say that the modern consequence of the Apple-1 is a digital Walkman casts Steve Wozniak's invention as more of a quaint novelty than the technological revolution it was.

For my money, I'd rather buy a Replica I. This Apple-1 clone comes as either a kit ($149) or preassembled ($199) from Vince Briel, expert hardware developer. As related in the documentary Welcome to Macintosh, Briel created the clone with a unique look and even some additional features, so that it would not be confused for (or passed off as) an original Apple-1 (though Mike Willegal seems to be working on a more authentic replica). I built my own Replica I at KansasFest 2009 and had a blast, though my manufacture was not without its flaws (which some Computerworld readers have accused me of staging!). Due to the lack of a monitor, I've not used the Apple-1 in the 16 months since I built it, which I feel better about for having paid $149 than $240,450.

It's unfortunate that all this attention has been focused more on the Apple-1 has a historical artifact than on the vibrant and modern retrocomputing scene. Nonetheless, it'll be interesting to see where the Apple-1 goes. There's already one in the Smithsonian Institute, but another museum might benefit from its own. Does the Computer History Museum have one? How about the Louvre? Surely we can all agree the Apple-1 is a work of art!

Watch this blog for the exciting conclusion to this fast-breaking news story.

Toy Story's Apple origin

November 11th, 2010 12:21 PM
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Cult of Mac, which recently interviewed John Sculley, now has an interview with Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3, in which he reveals his first computer:

Tell me about your first Apple product.

My very first Apple product was an Apple II Plus computer, which I got around 1981, when I was about fourteen. It had 48k of memory.

How many have you owned through the years? Any favorites?

How many Apple products? Wow, I don’t know if I can account for them all. Practically one of everything. And I’m not exaggerating. Yes, even a Newton.

I can tell you how many PC's I've owned: Zero.

Is it coincidence that such a hardcore Apple fan would be employed by Pixar, a company owned by Steve Jobs? Probably. The way the quotation is worded, it's possible he had a non-Apple computer before the II Plus (available 1979–1982). But that Mr. Unkrich has been so dedicated to the brand in the thirty years since that introduction is telling of the kind of loyalty Apple computers inspire. I wonder if he still has that Apple II somewhere? Would any other machine have led him to create the highest-grossing animated film of all time?

(Hat tip to Michael Gray)