Archive for November, 2015

Solo climbers

November 30th, 2015 9:58 AM
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Most Apple historians know the name Jean-Louis Gassée: former Director of European Operations at Apple Computer, founder of Be Inc., and the mysterious informant who told John Sculley not to get on a plane to China, lest he be ousted by Steve Jobs.

But Gassée's contributions to technology don't end in the 1980s or even 1990s: he writes a fascinating blog at The Monday Note, drawing upon his experiences and perspectives in the industry. This past summer, he penned a post of particular relevance to Apple II users. "A Salute To Solo Programmers" pays homage to the days when a single developer could create an entire program:

Once upon a time, we were awestruck by the "solo climber", the programmer who could single-handedly write a magnum opus on a barebones machine such as the Apple ][ with its 64 kilobytes of memory (yes, kilo — not mega, let alone gigabytes), and 8-bit processor running at 1MHz (again, mega not giga).

Gassée goes on to offer examples of , Bill Budge, Dan Bricklin, and Paul Lutus, who worked independently to create programs that changed the world. It's a phenomenon that's unlikely today:

Operating systems have become so sophisticated, so tentacular that a single human being can’t possibly internalize their workings and write application code that keeps us users walking on water. There’s no place for a 2015 Paul Lutus.

I encountered a similar sentiment at KansasFest 2013 when I interviewed Eric Shepherd, former senior technical writer for Be Inc.:

I don't know how much of this is just wistful reminiscing for simpler times. As Gassée later acknowledges, modern computers are not only capable of greater feats of engineering, but they still offer wonderful opportunities for solo development. Access to programming tools and resources is unprecedented, with classes being offered for free at local libraries, universities, and makerspaces, including to underserved communities and demographics. Motivated parties can build anything as simple as a Twitter bot to as complex as as a best-selling video game with a team of one.

I don't believe development has outgrown the boundaries of the Apple II — it's expanded them. But the time when "solo climbers" were the rule rather than the exception was unique, and we have much to thank those pioneers who led the way.

(Hat tip to Thomas Compter)

What makes Rock Band rock?

November 23rd, 2015 10:13 AM
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Last month I quit my job at MIT, taking with me the Apple IIGS that had been in my office for nearly three years. I'm not yet settled enough at my new place of employment to inquire if it'd be appropriate to install a 30-year-old machine in my office — but it's only a matter of time.

Fortunately, my computer wasn't my former employer's only connection to the Apple II. The MIT alumni association's podcast, Slice of MIT, recently aired an episode with Eran Egozy '95, who co-founded the video game developer Harmonix. In "What Makes Rock Band Rock?", Egozy gives credit to the Apple II for getting him his start. "When Eran was 15, his parents bought him an Apple II computer. He and a friend got together and decided to find a way to make the computer play back Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony," says the show's host. "This wasn't just one instrument of the symphony: the pair found the whole symphony score, complete with all of the different parts for the string instruments, the brass, and the woodwinds — and every day after school, they would translate the music into computer code. Every ten seconds of the score took 3–4 hours to code."

Here's the whole episode:

MIT and the Apple II: a winning combination!

(Hat tip to Kate Repantis)

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)

Fallout '84

November 9th, 2015 10:16 AM
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Patient fans of the 1988 game Wasteland have had much to celebrate these past few years. After a successful Kickstarter, the original creator released the long-awaited sequel Wasteland 2 in September 2014, returning gamers to the post-apocalyptic landscape as a Desert Ranger, set 15 years after the original game. Wasteland 2: Director's Cut released October 13, 2015, marking the game's first appearance on the Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4.

Those 15 years were not a wasteland of their own, though. Fallout, the spiritual successor to Wasteland, debuted in 1997 and has seen multiple sequels since then. The latest entry in the franchise, Fallout 4, releases tomorrow, November 10, promising to abscond with gamers eager to explore a bombed-out Boston.

But neither Fallout 4 nor Wasteland 2 have brought their series back to their roots: despite the variety of editions and ports, neither game has appeared on the Apple II. Chiptune artist 8 Bit Weapon has set out to correct that oversight, with the following proof of concept of Fallout '84:

This demo was made using the Outlaw Editor, a tool that was was profiled in the September 14 issue of Juiced.GS and devised to assist with the creation of upcoming Old West RPG Lawless Legends. The song with which the above video opens is "Apple Core II", which was released on the album Bits with Byte.

Although the editor and song are available, the Fallout '84 demo is not, limited in distribution to its creators. But gamers can still enjoy the unique experiences of Wasteland 2, Fallout 4, and Lawless Legends — two of which are out now, with the third exploding onto the scene in 2016!

(Hat tips to Seth Sternberger and Mike Fahey)

Computer Show

November 2nd, 2015 9:11 AM
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In the late 1970s and early 1980s — and, some would argue, well beyond then — computers were portrayed in the media as a novelty or fad. But one show took them seriously: Computer Chronicles, a PBS talk show created and co-hosted by Stewart Cheifet. Across nearly two decades of the show's run, technologies such as the Internet and guests such as Bill Budge were presented to a mainstream audience for the first time.

Computer Chronicles has been off the air for 13 years — but now, Computer Show picks up where it left off, serving as a parody that mimics the original show's format. Much as the underrated Brady Bunch Movie transposed the original characters, unaffected by the passage of time from their native 1970s, into a contemporary 1990s setting, Computer Show's hosts are firmly rooted in the early 1980s, baffled by their guests from modern-day Silicon Valley. The guests are actual luminaries playing themselves, from the founders of Lumi.com to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

To date, two episodes have been released, the first being about the intersection of art and technology:

and another about communities:

Computer Show is the product of Sandwich Video, a company that makes commercials for tech products. Their casting of Rob Baedeker as socially awkward Gary Fabert is perfect, creating one of those rare opportunities when it feels okay to laugh at someone instead of with them. Though I confess to being a little tired of Adam Lisagor, who shows up in practically every Sandwich commercial ever.

Computer Show is a brilliant amalgam of classic sensibilities and modern tech, with plenty of Apple II cameos. Check it out!

(Hat tip to Dan Frommer and Proma Khosla)