History

Questionable Bluetooth ZX Spectrum Funded

Zx ipad 2

I was just looking at an old ZX Spectrum on my desk and thinking that it would be pretty funny to connect it up as a keyboard to my iPad. Then I made the colossal mistake of searching for that on Twitter.  You know a weird idea is really an epic idea when someone has already launched a Kickstarter project to make it happen.  I kid you not, the ZX Spectrum is going to be a Bluetooth keyboard for iOS and Android.

Zx spectrumThe Sinclair ZX Spectrum was launched in 1982 and sold an estimated 5 million units over 10 years to make it one of the best-selling computers of its time.  And now it's being recast as rubber-keyed Bluetooth keyboard for iOS / Android for use with Spectrum emulator games.  

Elite Systems, a UK Spectrum software company that's been in business for 26 years (which sort of begs a different question), is seeking to raise £60,000 to manufacture the first 1,000 units.  The price to get in on this retro action is £50 plus another £10 to ship outside the UK.  

This fancy 21st century Speccy has been getting a ton of news coverage in support of the Kickstarter project.  For anyone with an interest in retro-gaming, this is definitely worth checking out.  If you don't go in for the whole nostalgia thing, then, please, do it for the kids... 

Update:
The project has now hit it's goal of £60,000 and has set a stretch goal of £67,500 to cover any shortfalls.  If you were on the fence about this, you've got until end of day Friday to sign up. 

Another Update:
In the final hours of the funding for this project, reports started surfacing that Elite had not been paying royalties to developers of several Spectrum games they were distributing.  A number of backers (myself included) dropped their support level down to £1 to wait until the matter was cleared up. Elite also appears to be about £81,000 in dept to creditors. The project was still funded, but it definitely casts a shadow over this project. I've posted several new links on this story below under Bad News.


The Making of Prince of Persia

Making of prince of persia

Jordan Mechner, the game designer behind The Last Express, Prince of Persia and Karateka, has released his design diaries on The Making of Prince of Persia, available on Kindle for $7.99.  

Mechner is also famous creating Karateka and Prince of Persia games on the Apple ][ computer back in the 1980s.  Prince of Persia spawned multiple sequels and remakes over the years as well as a blockbuster Hollywood movie, for which Mechner was a producer and the original screenwriter.  

Here's a behind the scenes video that shows some of the original video footage Mechner shot.


IF Theory Reader

  IF Theory

Those who have been in the IF community for a long time probably know all about the history of the IF Theory Book.  It was originally started ten years ago by Emily Short and Dennis Jerz, got sidetracked for a number of reasons, and then was finally updated and published by Kevin Jackson-Meade and J Robinson Wheeler last year.  But what may have gotten overlooked amidst all of the delays is how darned good the book is.

I can appreciate the dilemma of the original crew behind the IF Theory book. My own IF project has lost steam in the past year owing to an overly busy work life.  But having taken a break from Inform7 coding for longer than I would like, I've been diving back into the IF Theory Reader, as it's now known.  While I had read several of the articles in the book elsewhere on the web, having them all compiled in one place is a tremendous resource.

The book weighs in at over 400 pages and includes articles by some of the best IF authors in the post-commercial period including Nick Montfort, Andrew Plotkin, Michael Gentry, Gareth Rees, Emily Short, Jon Ingold, Duncan Stevens, J Robinson Wheeler, Robb Sherwin and Stephen Granade among others.

And despite the title which makes the book sound rather academic, many of the articles provide practical techniques for improving the quality of one's writing, whether it's dialog, descriptions, puzzles, pacing, geography or even how to build a good hint system.  If you are looking for theory, Graham Nelson's pieces are phenomenal.  (Not that I understood much of them, but they are still entertaining.) You can view the full table of contents at IFWiki

The IF Theory Reader stands up there with Aaron Reed's Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7Inform Designer's Manual and Twisty Little Passages.  These are all essential readings for any would be IF author. 

The IF Theory Reader is available from Lulu for $13 in paperback and as a free PDF.  I wasn't able to find a free ePub or Mobi version suitable for eReaders, but you can always convert the PDF to other formats using Calibre.  


The Last Express on iOS

Last express

Jordan Mechner's graphic adventure game The Last Express has been ported to iOS and is now available in its full rotoscoped glory for iPhone and iPad.  It's a classic murder mystery set in 1914 at the onset of World War I and takes place on the Orient Express as you travel from Paris to Constantinople.  

The original game took almost five years to create and was widely heralded upon its release in 1997.  Mechner combined Hitchcock-style storytelling in a game that was rich with visuals and had a dramatic background soundtrack.  Unfortunately, The Last Express fell victim of weak marketing and disappeared from site within a year.  Though the game was widely praised, it never got the audience attention it deserved.

Luckily, French gaming company DotEmu has ported The Last Express to iOS and it's available for the bargain price of $4.99 --less than the price of a decent beer in San Francisco and far less than the original PC version.  And considering that The Last Express offers 15-20 hours of game play, it's a steal.  There are 30 different characters in the game ranging from Russian anarchist to British spy, all of whom play a role in a mystery that you have to unravel.  The game takes place more-or-less in realtime, and the outcome depends on timing as much as careful sleuthing.  But don't expect to solve this in one sitting and without getting killed a few times.  Luckily the game has a built in rewind feature as well as multiple levels of hints.  

Despite the fact that The Last Express is fifteen years old, the story remains compelling, much the same way that a classic black & white movie can outshine the latest 3D gimicks from Hollywood.  And even if the game controls are not perfect, I found them easy to use.  The result is an engaging game experience even for those who aren't intrigued by nostalgia. In many ways, The Last Express is Mechner's most dramatic work, and I hope that the rumors of a film adaptation come to fruition.

Mechner is also famous creating Karateka and Prince of Persia games on the Apple ][ computer back in the 1980s.  Prince of Persia spawned multiple sequels and remakes over the years as well as a blockbuster Hollywood movie, for which Mechner was a producer and the original screenwriter.  Mechner published his original design journals as The Making of Prince of Persia, available on Kindle for $7.99.  

Here's the official iOS trailer for The Last Express:


Kickstarter Jumpstarts Retro Adventure Games

Twoguys

With the recent successes of Double Fine and Wasteland 2 on getting multi-million dollar funding on Kickstarter, new graphical adventure games have been popping up on Kickstarter like mushrooms at a Phish concert in Vancouver.  Personally, I think this is hugely interesting.  Not just because oldschool games are being funded, but because Kickstarter has the potential to disrupt the traditional game publisher who serves as a middleman between creative studios and the buying public.  While publisher fulfill a useful role in many cases, they also work as a gatekeeper that makes it hard for more speculative works to see light of day.  With Kickstarter there's the opportunity to promote create projects that are more specialized and might not have mass market appeal.  

Even Forbes commented on this recent trend:

Drawing on the already-participatory relationship between developers and gamers, crowd-funded video games allow fans to become investors in projects they care about from the ground up.

Customers are always “investors” in a sense since their cash determines whether a game will be profitable or not; but with the rise of crowd-funding, that investment begins long before the game is even developed.

I think this also says something about piracy, at least tangentially. Since piracy concerns have led to a new DRM regime and plenty of fan backlash, it’s a good sign that gamers are willing to pony up prior to a game’s actual release. It reveals a level of trust and enthusiasm that may not be present in much of the gaming industry.

Of course, there's plenty of risk associated with Kickstarter.  Maybe these games won't live up to the lofty expectations that have been set.  And maybe the buying audience will tire of funding games 9 months or more in advance of seeing the end product.  It's not exactly a model that delivers instant gratification.  Still I think it's a great way to build a community around a game.  And many of the projects being funded are giving people the opportunity to get a peek behind the scenes with design materials, documentary footage etc.  

Here are a few interesting projects currently seeking funding.  (And yes, I've pledged to several of these.  If someone wants to port Frotz to the Kindle, I'll pitch in on that also.)

Update:
Unfortunately, Rob Swigart's game has been canceled.  But there is a Tex Murphy game in the works that is quite close to fully funded.  Tex Murphy was the star of several breakthrough FMV adventure games including "Under a Killing Moon" and "The Pandora Directive" among others.   


BBC Micro at 30

BBC_Micro_people_in_2008
Photo of the BBC Micro team from 2008

This past weekend commemorated the 30th anniversary of the celebrated BBC Micro, designed and sold by Acorn Computers.  Although I grew up in Canada, I was fascinated by the British computer scene that I read about in Personal Computer World and other UK magazines.  I was intrigued by these strange machines such as the Sinclair ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, the Acorn Atom, the Dragon and others.  

Acorn was founded by ex-Sinclair employee Chris Curry and although both companies went on to huge success in the market, there was always an intense rivalrly.  That story is well told in the BBC 4 comedy drama "MIcro Men" (called "Syntax Era" during production) originally aired in 2009.  While the dialog is sometimes a bit over the top, it's intended as a light-hearted comedy, so don't take it too seriously.  I don't know if Sir Clive routinely threw phones out the window (he always appears so calm in interviews) but the fight at the Baron of Beef pub in Cambridge really did happen and was reported in the press.  

The BBC Micro and the Sinclair machines are largely responsible for the development of the early microcomputer industry in Britain and helped launch the careers of numerous engineers, programmers and executives in the IT industry today.  One of the inventions from that era, the Acorn RISC Machine went on to become the ARM chip that powers just about every smartphone on the planet.

If you're from that era and still recall the thrill of a programming a micro with 48k of memory in Basic, I'm sure you'll find the story as well as the soundtrack a nice blast from the past.

You can find Micro Men on YouTube as well as the usual torrent sources...

If you've got memories of these old micros feel free to add your comments below. (Also, if anyone has a spare 48k Spectrum to donate, please let me know.)


Dennis Wheatley Gone Wild

Wheatley1 

It was while watching the Get Lamp documentary last summer that I first learned about the Dennis Wheatley / JG Links crimefile dossiers from the 1930s.  These books were the first of their kind, enabling armchair detectives to solve a murder mystery with nothing but the evidence laid before them, consisting of police reports, interviews with suspects, telegrams, blueprints, newspaper stories, photos and even physical evidence in the form of matchesticks, hairs, bloodstained curtains, poison pills and the like.  All of the evidence and documents were held together in a ribbon-bound stiff cardboard folio.  The Wheatley dossiers were a breakthrough in publishing and went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies around the world.  

The Wheatley crimefiles were reprinted in the late 1970s as high quality facsimiles of the originals.  They were almost indistinguishable from the originals, execept for an added dustjacket and the fact that they are generally in better condition.  While Wheatley only published four books of this genre, to me they were legendary for inspiring the packaging of Infocom's Deadline, The Witness and subsequent games.

Somehow I managed to find a few of the 1970s reprints on eBay.  And then a few more.  And then I discovered a 1930s first edition in a bookshop.  Many months later at significant cost and effort I've accumulated several dozen high quality 1970s reprints and original 1930s editions from booksellers across the US, Canada, England that are now stacked up in my home office. 

I'm going to keep just one of each of the editions.  The rest, I've started giving away as prizes for various IF competitions and to testers of my game The Z-Machine Matter.  Contact me at ZUrlocker via hotmail if you have a competition in need of prizes or if you'd like to test the The Z-Machine Matter. (And yes, there's another new version based on recent alpha feedback.)

Wheatley_4


1936 Edition Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossier

IMG_0697

I happened to be in a small dusty used bookstore a few weeks back, the kind that are becoming rarer and rarer.  I was killing time before a business reception and thought I might find a couple of Robert Goddard paperbacks.  As the owner was ringing me up I looked around and noticed they had a few old first editions and miscellaneous old books from the 1920s and '30s amidst paperbacks and long-gone hardback bestsellers.  I asked the owner if he ever ran across any old Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers from the 1930s.  

It's hard to explain to people what these are.  They're generally quarto, softbound ribbon-tied detective stories.  Though instead of a traditional linear narrative, it's a dossier of printed evidence, police reports, interview transcripts, photos, telegrams, and other evidence, such as matches, a strand of hair, etc all bound together.  As I explained he was giving me the usual blank look and I figured this conversation would end as it usually does with the owner smiling politely and saying he's never heard of such a thing.  

But instead he leans behind the cash and reaches for a book and says "You mean, like this?"  He's holding a 1936 William Morrow hardback edition of crime file number one "File On Bolitho Blane" the US title of "Murder off Miami."

Holy sh*t!  I thought to myself.  And actually, I said it out loud.  I've got the 1970s reprint editions, but not the orginals.  Heck, I'd never even seen one before.  This is something I'd expect to find in some rare book museum or private collection somewhere.  He'd just bought it a couple of days earlier and hadn't gotten around to shelving it and probably wasn't even sure where to put it.  

The long and the short of it is, I walked out of there with a fantastic find which set me back less than a decent bottle of wine.  While it's not the Guttenberg Bible, it's still pretty rare.  And for those who know their history of Interactive Fiction or have seen the brilliant documentary film Get Lamp, Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers were the inspiration for the creative packaging and props that Infocom debuted with Deadline.  

Sometimes you just get lucky.

Below are some photos from the book.  The last photo is the cover of an even more rare ribbon bound, 1st US Edition that I was able to find online recently. So now that I've got two, I'll have to figure out where to donate one of these. Perhaps an upcoming IF competition?

If anyone has an original Wheatley dossier or similar Crimefile books from the 1930s in good condition that they'd like to donate please let me know. 


Infocom Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces

Infocom_masterpieces
 
I was in college during Infocom's glory years and though I was aware of their games, I had neither the time to play them nor the money to buy them.  Years later I was able to pick up some of the "grey box" versions of games like Border Zone, Deadline and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  But even these became quite hard to find in the pre-internet era.  And unfortunately, I tossed these some years later during some misguided spring cleaning.

Lucky for many, in 1991 Activision re-issued many of the Infocom games in the Lost Treasures of Infocom with 20 games in the first collection and another 11 in the second.  In 1996, Activision published the Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces collection with 33 titles on a single CD ROM.  

The only downside of these collections was that instead of getting the great Infocom props or "feelies" you got cheap black & white printed book with Lost Treasures and a PDF version in the Masterpieces collection. Still, for the price, it provided a good introduction to Infocom for a new generation of games. It's well worth picking up if you can find it on Amazon or eBay.

Infocom_masterpieces_back


Interviews with Infocommies

Adams_meretsky

The original interactive fiction authors at Infocom were heroes; they combined creative puzzles with compelling prose and great packaging.  Over the years, I've ready many good interviews with the Infocom implementors.  I've gathered up as many useful links as I could find from online sources as well as some old print magazines from back in the deay.  Here are a couple of short excerpts as well as links to the full interviews.

Steve Meretsky

What do you think had made Infocom initially so successful as a game developer and publisher before its demise under Activision in 1989?

For its time, Infocom had very impressive technology: the multi-word parser was a huge improvement over the two-word parser that was state-of-the-art in those days, as well as the compression techniques that allowed Infocom to store an astounding amount of game play on a floppy disk which, in those days, held only about 80K of data! Also, Infocom as a company had a near-obsession with quality, which showed through in everything from package design to the scarcity of "bugs".

Dave Lebling

Among all people you have collaborated with, who gained your highest respect? Why?

I mostly collaborated with people inside Infocom. I always found Marc Blank to have a game-sense or puzzle-sense most like mine, and we collaborated easily on several games, most notably Enchanter. I think I was most in awe of Steve Meretzky, whose reservoir of ideas never seems to run dry, and who has always been a meticulous and dedicated craftsman about his work, and cares deeply about every aspect of it. All this while denying that he is a programmer.

Bob Bates 

What is your philosophy in designing puzzles for adventure games? In other words, what makes a great puzzle and what makes a poor one?

I've written extensively about this, and to answer the question completely would take much more time than is available in an interview. The basics, though, are that a puzzle must be fair, it should be natural to its environment, the information needed to solve it should be available in the game, and when the player finally learns the answer, if he didn't figure it out for himself, he should slap himself on the forehead and say, "Of course!!!" rather than wanting to shoot the designer.

Dave Lebling

Had elaborate packaging been one of Infocom's ideas from the start?

Well the first packaging of Zork was just the disk and the manual, very prosaic, and the first one that had really exciting packaging was Deadline, the first murder mystery we did. We had seen some things by Dennis Wheatley, I don't know what sort of books you'd call them, but they had clues, transcripts, all kinds of fun stuff in them, and I think it was Marc Blank seeing those things that motivated him to write Deadline and so we got the idea that it would be fun to have interesting stuff in our packaging too. It was such a success, and partly for that reason as well as being a good game, that the next time we did a game we thought, well, we can put some other keen stuff in it, and so we've just made a habit of it.

Click through to the links below to Adventure Classic Gaming to read the full interviews.

And more interviews at XYZZY News:

And some highlights of random interviews, from the Infocom Homepage: