Archive for February, 2016

Tim Schafer's Ball Blazer piracy

February 29th, 2016 9:28 AM
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Tim Schafer, whose Double Fine Adventure blew the roof off Kickstarter, has been in the video game industry for nearly 30 years, having worked on such adventure games as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. But the launch of his career was nearly torpedoed by an inadvertent admission of youthful piracy.

In 1989, 22-year-old Schafer was applying for his first job. Atari and Hewlett-Packard, which had been the proving ground for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, respectively, both turned down the aspiring game designer. The first glimmer of hope shone when he netted a phone interview with David Fox of Lucasfilm Games, the group responsible for not only the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, but also several original properties. Schafer gushed over his love for the company's games:

I called David Fox right away and scribbled all the notes you see while I was talking to him. I told him how much I wanted to work at Lucasfilm, not because of Star Wars, but because I loved, "Ball Blaster."

"Ball Blaster, eh?" he said.

"Yeah! I love Ball Blaster!" I said. It was true. I had broken a joystick playing that game on my Atari 800.

"Well, the name of the game is Ball Blazer." Mr. Fox said, curtly. "It was only called Ball Blaster in the pirated version."

Gulp.

Totally busted. It was true — I had played the pirated version. There, I said it. Now, if you’ve ever pirated one of my games you don't need to feel bad, because I did it to Lucasfilm Games when I was in high school. Of course, if you’ve pirated two or more of my games, that's a different story.

Fortunately, Schafer recovered from this stumble: he busted out his Koala Pad and designed a résumé in the style of a graphic adventure game — a ballsy move, appropriately enough. It worked, earning him a job offer as Assistant Designer / Programmer with an annual salary of $27,000 in 1989 dollars. (For comparison, my first salary after college was $25,300, fifteen years after Schafer was making $27K. In 2016 dollars, my first job paid $34,239 while Schafer was making $51,587. Perhaps crime does pay.)

The rest, as they say, is history. You can get the full story on Schafer's blog, where, in 2009, in the twentieth anniversary of that first job offer, he related the whole affair, with scans of his applications, rejections, and offers.

(Hat tip to Jonathon Myers via Anna Megill)

Volkswagen's EPA source code

February 22nd, 2016 9:21 AM
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A year ago, Jalopnik published the story "Autonomous Cars Will Rob Us Of Our Freedom To Be Unproductive", showing a motorist using an Apple II behind the wheel. The unlikely choice of computer could be attributed to the article's author, Jason Torchinsky, a well-known Apple II enthusiast. If you can work any computer into your writing, why not choose your favorite?

This past October, Jason upped his game. "The EPA May Have Found A Second Secret Defeat Device In Diesel VWs" revealed that Volkswagen may have rigged their vehicles to past certain environmental quality tests. Here's the picture Jason used, Apple III and all:

Volkswagen EPA hack

But Jason took it one step further by revealing the source code Volkswagen used to cheat the Environmental Protection Agency:


10 REM SECRET CHEAT CODE #2 STARTS HERE
20 PR#2: REM SET OUTPUT TO INTERNAL CENTER STACK SCREEN
30 PRINT "ARE YOU CURRENTLY TESTING EMISSIONS FOR THE EPA? HIT HORN FOR 'YES', TAP BRAKE FOR 'NO'" : INPUT A$
40 IF A$="HORN" THEN EM$="YES"
50 IF A$="BRAKE" THEN EM$="NO"
60 IF EM$="YES" THEN POKE 232, 64: REM TURNS CLEAN EMISSIONS ON
70 IF EM$="NO" THEN POKE 232, 0: REM GO AHEAD AND RUN IT DIRTY
80 END

Not only are the cars dirty, but so's the code: a more elegant hack could be written in half as many lines. But given that it's likely been decades since any Jalopnik reader saw Applesoft BASIC, it's impressive that Jason got away with including any code at all!

(Hat tip to Jayson Elliot)

Europe's first Apple II

February 15th, 2016 8:03 AM
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1 comment.

Despite the impressive portfolios of such groups as Brutal Deluxe, the FTA, and French Touch, the Apple II was not as big in Europe and especially the United Kingdom as it was in the United States. Domestic machines, such as the BBC Micro or ZX Spectrum, had more inroads into the European personal computer market.

But were it not for Stephen Brewer, the Apple II's overseas footprint might've been even smaller, or completely nonexistent. John Kennedy at the Silicon Republic reports:

After learning about the first Macintosh computers, Brewer and his brother Michael sold everything they had, raised £400,000 and flew to a computer trade show in New York to meet Steve Jobs. After convincing Jobs to give them the first distributorship for Apple Computer in the UK, the Brewer brothers built up a thriving computer business called Microsense that, at its zenith, had a turnover of more than £20m before Apple acquired the company, and Brewer joined the board of Apple during its pivotal early growth years.

That story is told in this interview:

But it wasn't strictly a business relationship. Brewer has this surprising recollection of Steve Jobs:

"He was a good guy. I remember, I think it was June, 1979, I arrived in Cupertino, and he said, 'Stephen, I hope you haven't got have any plans for tonight, because we're having a barbecue for your birthday.' He was that sort of guy, and I feel that successful people are often like that: they care about the individual."

From this interview and anecdote, both Brewer and Jobs come across as transatlantic counterparts: kind, thoughtful individuals with a passion to bring personal computing to the masses. That description, being the opposite impression of the ruthless businessman needed to succeed in Silicon Valley, doesn't fit with what we know of Steve Jobs. Perhaps he had his moments of grace.

Regardless, this partnership helped spread the Apple II's influence across the globe, making for what remains to this day a global community — one that still enjoys its barbecues.

KFest Kookout

Kirk Mitchell at KansasFest 2005

A curious crisis of computer science

February 8th, 2016 9:16 AM
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I frequently hear from programmers born earlier than 1980 that today's kids don't know how to code. Matt Hellinger gave a great talk on the subject at KansasFest 2013, which he followed up with a Juiced.GS article on the subject. Other outlets have opined similarly, such as Simon Bisson pointing to the skills and technology of the past to power today's Internet of Things, and John Martellaro proposing that a revamped iPad could be the ideal learning environment.

There's plenty of truth to what these pundits say. The Raspberry Pi, which is often seen as a modern yet affordable equivalent to the Apple II in terms of easy access to the underlying hardware and software, is a powerful alternative to today's closed environments. My own experiences would suggest that's the way to go: opening up my Apple II, plugging in expansion cards, booting into BASIC, and writing my own code is how I taught myself to fall in love with computers.

The Apple II's impact extends beyond these personal anecdotes, influencing careers and industries for a generation. "The peak in computer-science degrees, in 1985, came about four years after the introduction of IBM's first personal computer and during the heyday of the Apple II, which very likely led to increased interest in getting a computer-science degree," writes Jonah Newman for The Chronicle of Higher Education in "Is There a Crisis in Computer-Science Education?" Had I started with an OS X or Windows machine, I wouldn't know where to begin peeling away the pretty GUI surface and getting at the roots of the machine.

But how has interest in computer science developed since then, paralleling the rise in ubiquity of computers, smartphones, and other closed devices?

University of Washington in Seattle CS enrollment

"The chart above tells quite a story. That blue line — the one that looks like a hockey stick — shows how interest in computer science from freshmen at the University of Washington in Seattle has skyrocketed since 2010 compared with other engineering fields," writes Taylor Soper for GeekWire.

While that's a very small data set, a larger one suggests computer science enrollment is on the upswing. "After the 1985–1986 peak in CS majors, demand declined again through most of the 1990s, before increasing in the 2000s and dropping back down again in recent years… Even though there are proportionally fewer graduates now than there were in 1985, this may be a cyclical trend that's actually beginning to reverse," says Elizabeth Dye for Sparkroom in an analysis of The Chronicle of Higher Education's blog post. The job market plays a large role in that, with bubbles (such as the dot-com of 1997–2000) encouraging higher interest and enrollment in computer science.

The sooner kids have the opportunity not just to use computers, but to program them, the earlier they'll develop an interest in a career in computer science. From the Apple II to the Raspberry Pi, there are many opportunities for young programmers to have that experience working with low-level hardware and software. But the platform they have access to is just one variable in a complex equation, and their childhood is only one window in which they can develop these skills. When I started college as a computer science major in the mid-1990s, I had a classmate who had never written a program before, yet she'd chosen to major in CS; almost two decades later, she's still employed in that industry. The important thing may not be to give our children the same experiences we had, but to spark their curiosity. That quality, regardless of what field they pursue, will be of lifelong value.

(Hat tip to Steve Weyhrich)

Temporal anomaly in MazeFire

February 1st, 2016 11:54 AM
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Back in the summer of 2014, I attended a Boston Games Forum event. This group, now known as Playcrafting, gives local game developers opportunities to network, hone their craft, and showcase their work. Not being a developer, I enjoy Playcrafting letting me get my hands on new and upcoming games as I scout potential candidates for my YouTube channel and IndieSider podcast.

That night, one of the games being demoed was billed as a maze, though it seemed more a multiple-choice trivia/quiz-type game: each correct answer would automatically advance you through from one side of a grid to another. There was nothing a-maze-ing about it, but I was drawn to the theme of the questions: each one was about the history of computer and video games, from Pong to EverQuest and more. The random selection of 19 questions weren't hard, since they were often accompanied by a screenshot of the game featured in the correct answer, but it was still neat to see our history being celebrated.

One of the questions was just slightly wrong in its details, though:

MazeFire (2014)

The game may've come out in 1981 — but it certainly wasn't being played on an Apple IIe, which wasn't released until 1983.

The game in question is the first Wizardry:

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord was an incredibly addictive game developed by Greenberg and Woodhead and launched in 1980 at the Boston Computer Convention. Character classes, alignments, specializations (Samurais and ninjas) along with maze tricks and keys all foreshadowed the MMORPGs of the modern era. Probably was not used for military training, although it was a favorite of at least one Fort Riley US Army Officer.

The text has been updated in the latest version of the game:

mazefire-2016.jpg

You can play Mazefire online for free and test your own knowledge of gaming history.