The price of CompuServe

December 9th, 2019 1:45 PM
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I was researching the history of MUDs and MMORPGs when a comment on Jimmy Maher's blog led me to the Wikipedia page for Island of Kesmai, a CompuServe MUD. As an alumnus of that online service, I was aware of this game but had never played it myself. What I found most striking about its history was the section "Price to play":

The game was available on CompuServe for no additional charge. However, CompuServe cost $6 per hour for 300 baud or $12 per hour for 1200 baud access rates. The game processed one command every 10 seconds, which equates to 1​⅔ cents per command.

Oh, gosh. Did that take me back — back to an age where I lived wildly outside my means.

As early as 1986, my dad showed me how to use the Apple Personal Modem on our Apple IIe to connect to what he called "the New York computer" (CompuServe was in Columbus, Ohio). At first we used it only for business and educational purposes: looking up stock prices and online encyclopedia entries. I was one of only three kids in my grade school class who had a home computer, and I was envied for how much easier the computer made my homework.
CompuServe logo
But my main use for the Apple II was computer games. When my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988, I fell wholly in love with its fantasy worlds. Perhaps since the NES had no academic value, or because everyone else in my class had a NES and it was therefore commonplace, my enthusiasm for it had the opposite effect of my Apple II: it made me dramatically unpopular.

I had to look beyond the playground to find friends who enjoyed and understood video games. That led me back to CompuServe and its gaming fora.

I spent hours upon hours in the Apple II Users, Gamers, Video Gamers, and Video Game Publishers fora. I would read every message, download every new game or FAQ, attend every scheduled chat, and occasionally play MUDs like British Legends. Being nominated as Member of the Month (MOTM) in 1992, first in the Apple II Users forum and then in one of the gaming forums, reaffirmed that I'd found my tribe.

This community came with a cost — one that my parents paid. Today, since we are rarely in control of our mobile devices' connection speed, we're charged by the byte; but forty years ago, we were instead charged by the hour. Those hourly fees piled up quickly: chats occurred slowly, and file transfers took forever (a 400K game would take 40 minutes, or $8, to download). CompuServe offered "offline reader" programs like TAPCIS, which would connect to CompuServe, download all the new messages, then disconnect, allowing the user to read the text and compose responses to be sent upon the next connection, all without hogging the phone line and running up expensive connection fees. Alas, I recall no such program for the Apple II.

Also, CompuServe was founded on timesharing: an insurance company wanted its expensive computers to earn their keep in their downtime. That meant, to deter users from competing with the insurance applications, it was more expensive to use CompuServe during the day. My father had told me the wrong switchover time from daytime rates to evening — so every night, I was incurring one hour of expensive connections before nighttime took effect.

Even for those services that didn't charge their own fees, there were still phone bills to be paid. Dialing CompuServe was free; we had a local Tymnet node. But eventually my online addiction spilled over to BBSs, many of which were long-distance calls (usually to Worcester, Massachusetts). Now my father was getting dinged on both his credit card and his phone bills.

The worst month was when my dad got a $500 bill — one that he made me pay. As he drove me to the bank, he told me that he didn't want to do this, but he saw no other choice. That may have been shortsighted, as he did eventually explore alternatives. He threatened to move me from CompuServe to Prodigy, which had a flat-rate plan. This would've been like changing neighborhoods or schools, losing all my friends and having to make new ones, so my dad relented. Instead he gave me a budget of $50/month, and if I came under, I could keep the difference. I was excited by the possibility of using those funds to buy a new Nintendo game every month… yet my online communities still got the better of me, and there was never any money left over. (More likely, I was frequently over-budget.)

One tactic my parents never tried was figuring out why I spent so much time online. They might've learned that the community I had there was one I didn't have anywhere else. Disconnecting CompuServe would've saved them money, but it wouldn't've magically expanded my offline social circle.

Fortunately, my father's threats were empty: he never forced me to leave CompuServe. It helped that I eventually became a sysop, which allowed me to visit my favorite forum for as long as I wanted for free. But I resigned from that position when I moved to college: it was a more diverse environment than my previous schools, and I finally found other gamers offline. But I still wanted to be a part of the Apple II community, so I followed as it migrated to text-friendlier pastures: from CompuServe to GEnie to Delphi to Syndicomm Online. By the time that last one shuttered in 2006, I was a college graduate who was tired of moving and was ready to settle down. Tired of playing in other people's sandboxes, I set up my own site on WordPress. Twelve years later, I got a job at Automattic, the developers of WordPress.com.

I had an expensive childhood — one I'm very fortunate my parents could afford, even if they did so begrudgingly. In hindsight, my dad would call it an investment in my future career, and he'd be right. But more important, CompuServe filled a void and made this kid feel a lot less alone.

The Apple II powering the Lenin Museum

December 2nd, 2019 1:50 PM
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While the Apple II enjoyed broad success in the United States, it was not widely available in many other geographic regions due to distribution and trade regulations. Russia. Instead, the USSR had the Agat, a 6502-based computer with limited compatibility with the Apple II. Any actual Apple II computers in Russia are more likely to be found in museums as part of modern exhibits about historical computers.

So imagine my surprise when Apple II recently turned up in Russia's Lenin Museum, but not as a recent addition: it's been there for decades, powering one of their long-running installations. The software is the Electrosonic System 4000 (ES4000), which was once also used at the United Kingdom's National Science and Media Museum. When the Lenin Museum's curators discovered the ES4000, they recognized its potential for their institution. But:

Soviet law barred them from trading directly with foreign companies, and Agat-7, a Soviet Apple II clone, was unlikely to do the job. It required an external card to run software made in the West, and its 60-pin slots would not fit the 50-pin cards used by the ES4000… That meant the company would need to bring their own Apple computers to the Soviet Union.

To get around Soviet regulations, the deal was signed with a specialized economic body, Technointorg, and carried over through Beech Compix, a British front for the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Foreign staff traveled to the USSR, too—but Cascade, a Russian company, took credit for their job, seemingly to preserve the impression that Soviet technology could not be beat.

The Apple II that the museum procured 32 years ago continues to run the exhibit to this day.

A remote control for the Lenin Museum's Apple II.

Photo by Yuri Litvinenko of Atlas Obscura.

Yuri Litvinenko's story at Atlas Obscura continues to detail Apple's official efforts to penetrate the Russian market with the Macintosh. Given the failure of that initiative, this Apple II remains one of the few Apple II computers to have made its way to the USSR in the computer's original lifespan.

Buy Ken & Roberta Williams' house

November 25th, 2019 10:00 AM
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If you missed the opportunity to buy Richard Garriott's house eight years ago, another piece of Apple II gaming property is now up for sale: the reclusive Ken and Roberta Williams of Sierra On-Line are selling their mansion.

If you're a fan of Sierra On-Line's games such as Mystery House, King's Quest, and The Dark Crystal, you may even see references to it in the home's décor.

If you're interested in living at 40367 Goldside Drive in Oakhurst, California, be prepared to pony up a cool $2,310,000. It's still less than Automattic paid for Tumblr, so go ahead and buy a piece of live-in history.

(Hat tip to Peter Paltridge )

Interplay's cancelled RPG, Meantime

November 18th, 2019 10:26 AM
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I spend more time consuming game news than I do playing games, which means I learn a lot about games well before they're released. Alas, not all games that are reported to be in development ultimately enjoy a public debut. From Scalebound on the Xbox One to StarCraft: Ghost on the Nintendo 64 to SimCity on the Apple IIGS, games that are more than a concept and are anticipated by fans nonetheless get axed for a variety of reasons: too complex a development process, insufficient budget, or too late in a platform's lifespan.

Still, I was surprised to find an early Apple II game on GameRant's list of "10 Canceled RPG Games You Never Knew Existed". As I haven't played many role-playing games in the last twenty years, I found GameRant's list to be aptly named: I hadn't heard of a single one of these titles.

But one of them, Meantime, I feel like I should have:

Following 1988's Wasteland, Interplay (again) wanted to publish a follow-up, and Meantime was put into development for the Apple II. The game was deep into development when a couple of detrimental things occurred. For one, key player Liz Danforth left the team. For another, the team realized that the Apple II was declining in relevance and sales. The team attempted to port the progress over to the MS-DOS, but lead Bill Dugan lost morale upon seeing the incredible graphics of Ultima VII. Knowing that his product was vastly inferior and out-of-date, he decided to cancel the project for good.

Wikipedia has an entire page about the game, elaborating that Meantime was to be set in the same universe as Wasteland, also by Interplay, but with a plot more akin to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure:

The basic premise was that the player would travel through time, and recruit famous historical figures to the player's party. For example, Amelia Earhart joins the party when she is rescued from a Japanese prison camp, and Wernher von Braun does when he is helped to escape the Soviets at the end of World War II. Each character would also have a particular specialty; Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, would have an expert fencing skill. The party would attempt to repair damage caused by a similar party of time-traveling villains, attempting to alter the course of history by influencing events.

Will we ever see a hint of what the game might've been, like we did with SimCity GS? In short, no. Not only does the website JustAdventure.com state that no screenshots of the game exist, but it gets worse, according to Wikipedia:

When Interplay finally did create their spiritual successor to Wasteland, Fallout, none of the Meantime code was used and the only Meantime designer involved in the creation of Fallout was Mark O'Green. No copies of the source code are believed to currently exist.

And yet the Wasteland universe persists: Wasteland 3 was announced just last week as being released on May 19, 2020.

Maybe Interplay will harken back to its lost heritage in an Easter egg still to come.

Which Apple II games are timeless?

November 11th, 2019 10:08 AM
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Canadian comedy troupe LoadingReadyRun, true to their eponymous C64 roots, often includes retrocomputers in their weekly news report. This past week was no exception:

Although this news, citing a blog post by Internet Archive employee and KansasFest regular Jason Scott, is specifically about MS-DOS, the concept applies to the Apple II as well: there are at least 3,170 Apple II games currently playable in the Internet Archive — far more than any of us have ever played in our lifetimes or likely ever will.

But how many of them stand the test of time? As Brendan John "Beej" Dery notes in the above LRR report, games aren't always as fun as we remember them being as kids, when basic inputs returned minimal rewards conveyed with simple graphics and rudimentary sound. Cumbersome controls and user interfaces that we tolerated when we didn't know any better have evolved into more elegant designs and complex narratives. What games still hold up and can still be fun, with our without a healthy dose of nostalgia?

Instead of focusing on games that haven't aged well (such as some text adventures or RPGs), I'd argue that these games remain fun:

  • Lode Runner: When I was a guest on the New Game Plus podcast three years ago, I invited its hosts to play Lode Runner. Having never played the game before, all three found it enjoyable. Recent iterations of Lode Runner have introduced new graphics, but the core gameplay remains as fun today as it was upon its debut.
  • Shadowgate: This point-and-click gothic adventure game was worth remaking in 2012, which improved not just the graphics but also the interface. It would've been for naught if the original game weren't fun. It still is!
  • Prince of Persia: While the battle system is somewhat rudimentary, the dungeon platformer is still challenging for those who want to rescue the princess within the allotted time.
  • Snake Byte: Variations on this game have appeared on countless devices (especially mobile) for decades — a testament to the basic gameplay's staying power.
  • Arkanoid: Not only does this successor to Breakout stand the test of time — we need more games like this. Paddle input devices have practically gone extinct; while mobile devices seem well-suited to movement on one plane, something is lost with a touch interface.
  • BattleChess: Creative animations injected this serious game with levity. The computer's time to make each move and then draw the animations was tedious; a CPU accelerator fixes that, but it also speeds up the animations, which should be savored.
  • DuelTris: The Apple II was young enough that most of its games were original, rather instead of improvements on existing franchises, of which there weren't many. DuelTris is an exception, taking the basic rules ofo Tetris and adding power-ups, a two-player mode, and a rocking soundtrack. DuelTris struck just the right balance of classic and enhanced gameplay; mess with Tetris more than this, and you ruin it.
  • Othello, mahjongg, and other tile games: These classic games feature timeless mechanics that don't significantly benefit from faster computers or better graphics.

This list is by no means exhaustive; such an undertaking could span an entire website, with one game per blog post! But I would love my readers' help in filling in the gaps. What are some Apple II games you've revisited and found to still be fun, all these years later? Leave a comment with your recommendations!

Nuclear floppy

November 4th, 2019 12:08 PM
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Every semester that I teach at Emerson College, I start with a lesson on the history of computers and the Internet. This lesson employs several props, including a variety of floppy disk sizes.

"How many of you remember these?" I say, holding up a 3.5" disk. When I started asking that question seven years ago, every hand went up; now, only half do. And when I ask the same question of 5.25" disks, half the hands used to go up; now, none do.

The one constant over the years is that nobody remembers 8" disks. And that's fair: they debuted in 1972, twenty-five years before my students were born. As this was also well before the arrival of personal computers, I infer this floppy size was used primarily in business and industrial settings.

One industry that lingered with the 8" floppy was the United States government — but even they have decided to move on. Reported last month by Engadget is that our country's military will no longer reply on floppy disks to coordinate the launch of nuclear missiles, replacing them with a "highly-secure solid state digital storage solution".

This is not just a transfer of media; the underlying software must be changing as well. The storage capacity of 8" floppies maxed out at 1.2 megabytes, whereas SSD storage usually holds a minimum of several gigabytes. What would that antiquated nuclear system do with all that extra space? Likely we are upgrading to a more complex and bloated system. It reminds me of the sequel to WarGames, where (spoiler) the original JOSHUA software is uploaded to a modern mainframe to do battle with its more modern counterpart. Would an 8" floppy stand the test of time?

It possibly could, as the floppy medium had its advantages. When I interviewed author R.A. Salvatore back in 2002 about his official novelization of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he said that the book was being written on a computer with no access to the Internet, making it impenetrable except by physical means. Likewise, the US government once defended their choice of 8" floppies: "You can't hack something that doesn't have an IP address. It's a very unique system — it is old and it is very good." Hard to repair and maintain, perhaps, but otherwise reliable.

So farewell to a last bastion of 8" floppies. Like my A2Central.com t-shirt says: It's not obsolete; it's proven technology.

(Hat tip to Eric Reimann)