Archive for March, 2013

Apple II at PAX East 2013

March 25th, 2013 10:41 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Happenings;
1 comment.

I'm currently recovering from an exhausting, exhilarating weekend spent at PAX East, the annual video game convention hosted by Penny Arcade. The event attracts to Boston 80,000 gamers of the board, card, computer, and video variety, among them many Apple II users. I have attended all four years of the event with Andy Molloy, and lately with Wayne Arthurton as well; even Jordan Mechner has made an appearance. But it wasn't enough to have Apple II enthusiasts in attendance; we wanted an Apple II there as well.

I reached out to Joe Santulli of the Videogame History Museum, an organization that, along with Digital Press Videogames, coordinates PAX's retro room. This dedicated space features consoles and computers from years past — everything from Commodore 64 to Atari 2600 to Sega Dreamcast. They'd never had an Apple II in the collection, and I asked Joe if I could rectify that. He gladly accepted.

I decided to take the role of coordinator rather than donor. I put out a call on Facebook, Google+, and the KansasFest email list, asking if anyone could donate some aspect of a complete 8-bit gaming rig. I received enough responses that, courtesy Wayne Arthurton, Paul Hagstrom, and Mike Maginnis, with logistical support from Thomas Awrey, I was able to put together an unenhanced Apple IIe with 5.25" floppy disk drive, joystick, and bevy of memorable games.

The hardware and software was delivered to PAX as soon as the show opened Friday morning. I stopped into the room several times over the course of the three-day event to check on the machine. No matter the hour of the day, it was always in use, and even more people nearby were talking about it, usually to the effect of "I remember those" or "I can't believe they have an Apple II!" The computer was a hit! Oregon Trail was a popular choice, with Karateka a close second. Ghostbusters, Castle Wolfenstein, and even some BASIC programming also made appearances. Click the below thumbnails for evidence of its popularity (or visit Gamebits for a complete PAX East 2013 photo album).

The Apple II was not just a temporary exhibit for PAX East; it has been permanently donated to the Videogame History Museum and will make appearances at conferences and conventions throughout the country, such as the Game Developers Conference, MAGFest, and PAX Prime.

My thanks to all contributors and attendees who've helped the Apple II spirit come alive at PAX!

What schools don't teach

March 18th, 2013 11:18 AM
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Filed under Musings;
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Computers play an important role in education, be it in programming or game design. Retrocomputers like the Apple II can be especially valuable in any of these disciplines, especially programming. The finite, knowable universe of an 8-bit machine provides the perfect canvas on which budding programmers can craft their first algorithms.

But in many schools, the question isn't with what computers should programming be taught, but whether programming should be taught at all. Demand for programmers has never been higher, with the number of positions growing at twice the national rate. Yet ninety percent of schools offer no programming courses at all, leading to colleges graduating fewer computer science majors than they were a decade ago.

The non-profit Code.org is bringing attention to the need for more programming education in this country with a public service announcement (PSA). For this five-minute video, they have recruited the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and will.i.am, as well as some less likely suspects.

(There are also one-minute and nine-minute versions of this PSA.)

When I was in high school, a required course was geometry. I found it a challenging course, but reasonably so. The theorems and corollaries about alternate interior angles and their kin weren't intended to train me to be an architect; rather, they were lessons in logic, teaching me how to think and solve.

Programming is the modern geometry, offering similar value to students, whether or not they seek careers in computer programming. I do not consider myself a programmer, yet I have benefitted immensely from the languages I taught myself outside of school. I have occasionally tried to pass on these lessons to friends, showing them some (literally) BASIC concepts on the Apple II, such as variables and FOR loops. They remain completely mystified, with one going so far as to marvel at my own capacity to grasp programming: "You're a creative person, Ken, yet you can program. I've never met anyone whose mind can switch between those two modes so effortlessly."

But programming is creative. A relative who doesn't realize that basic tenet recently characterized programming to me as "Doing the same thing, over and over". How he confused programming with data entry is beyond me. But the fusion of creativity and logic is perhaps best found on this digital landscape, and students would benefit from being introduced to that sandbox — whether or not it's on an Apple II.

Lord British returns to Ultima

March 11th, 2013 9:02 AM
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Filed under Game trail;
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Kickstarter has been a boon not only for indie developers, but for established game designers looking to return to the virtual worlds upon which their careers were founded. Shadowgate, Space Quest, Wasteland, and Leisure Suit Larry are just a few of the franchises that got their start on the Apple II and are now slated for a well-funded modern resurrection.

But none of these games carry the impact, the longevity, or the fame as the Ultima series. Lord British has heeded the call of the fans and is turning to Kickstarter to return to Britannia.

On Friday, March 6, at 10 AM CST, Richard Garriott joined fellow Austin gaming company Rooster Teeth to host a live announcement:

The punchline was Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, a new computer role-playing game that lacks the Ultima brand that Garriott can no longer claim, but which only his team owns the legacy to.

The announcement didn't need the full hour that the above video runs, but the extra time gave Garriott and hosts Burnie Burns and Gus Sorola time to reflect on how Garriott built this empire. Working in a computer store at the age of 19, Garriott began selling Akalabeth, making twice as much money in one year as his astronaut father. Garriott brought along several artifacts from those early days, including the Apple II Plus on which he developed Akalabeth. Highlights from that interview are in this gallery of screen captures from the above video.

As much fun as the reminiscing was, it wasn't hard to forget that it was a thinly veiled sales pitch. Garriott wants one million of our dollars via Kickstarter:

Donation levels include the $10 "Guilt Pledge" ("If you ever pirated an Ultima game or used an exploit to grief other players in Ultima Online, here's your chance to repent! For your $10 donation, you will receive a clear conscience and Lord British's undying gratitude") to the $10,000 "Lord of the Manor", which comes with one of 12 known copies of Akalabeth. For those of us with humbler wallets, $40 gets you early access (December 2013) to the final game (October 2014), while $125 will also get you a cloth map feelie — just like the old Ultimas!

It's been a long time since I've been a role-playing gamer, and even longer since I've done so on a computer instead of a video game console. Yet I didn't hesitate to fork over my money to Lord British. Some folks may not be sold on this heir to the Ultima empire:

But there's no denying that Garriott has earned a chance to return to his world. As Benj Edwards tweeted:

The Apple II goes to work

March 4th, 2013 11:27 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, Musings;
2 comments.

It's been almost two months since my Apple IIgs and I left Computerworld. It's been almost as long that I've been in my new position — the first one ever to afford me an office with windows. As much as I love the view, it seems empty without a certain rainbow Apple logo somewhere in the room.

I wasn't sure how long I should be at the new place before making a request to move in my own personal desktop computer. But my easygoing boss had no problems with such a setup, as long as I ran it past our IT department, to be politic. All that accomplished was a remark about how "that Mac must be older than you, Ken!" — two false statements in one, both designed to set me on edge. But I focused on the fact that they had no objections and thus visited my office on a weekend to set up my machine.

My Apple II seems quite happy in its new home. Other than turning the IIgs on to ensure it survived the disassembly and setup processes, I've not had the opportunity to use it — nor have I determined if this institution's network will accommodate my Uthernet interface, which is my preferred configuration for ADTPro.

Although that functionality is essential for certain projects, for now, I'm just happy that my office is beginning to feel like mine.