RSS

Category Archives: Modern Times

The Analog Antiquarian

I’m very excited today to announce The Analog Antiquarian, a new companion site to this one. While this site continues to be, as the subtitle says, “a history of computer entertainment and digital culture,” the new one will be for “chronicles of worldly wonders” — more wide-angle history articles about some of humanity’s most amazing achievements, beginning with the Pyramids of Giza. Going forward, I’ll be posting new articles to the two sites on alternating Fridays.

Since this is a significant change, I feel I owe you an explanation of how we got to this point.

If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have told you that I’d be satisfied to leave behind as my intellectual legacy, as it were, a skeptical but passionate history of the fascinating new medium of interactive entertainment, stretching from its very beginning to however far I managed to get before I kicked the bucket. But I’ve found myself getting more and more creatively restless since then. Despite trying hard to tamp the restlessness down, I’ve slowly had to face the fact that I have more I want to say and more I want to try as a writer than this site’s format really allows for. It’s not so much that I’m tired of the endlessly interesting march of technology, aesthetics, and culture which I’ve been documenting here, as that I’m tired of only writing about those things.

All of this started to come to a head about eighteen months ago, when I started to look into the game of Civilization. As a game, it’s remarkable enough in its own right, but what really floored me was the stuff around the game, particularly the tech tree and the expansive view of human invention that it depicted. To be honest, I sort of fell in love with the thing.

My first thought was thus to write a history of human invention, to explain how we got from primitive but fundamental technologies like pottery to the moon landing and the Internet. I hired a programmer to work on an interactive tech tree of my own which would show how it all fit together, how this begot that; clicking on developments on it would take you to the articles associated with those developments. But we never could arrive at a design that was unarguably more intuitive than a simple table of contents. And meanwhile I was starting to have other doubts about the idea. Could I master so much technology — I’m a writer, not an engineer — and could I write about it in a way that wouldn’t be horribly dry?

So, I set that plan aside. Instead I decided to write a series of articles for this site, exploring the assumptions and ideas behind Civilization‘s view of history. And, as many of you doubtless remember, I did see that plan through. Yet I was never entirely happy with the articles that resulted, and today I’m less happy with them than ever. Building intellectual castles in the sky just isn’t what I’m best at as a writer. I’m better at telling exciting and interesting stories, sneaking the Big Ideas into the cracks and crevices of the narrative.

Regardless, I made a resolution after I finished the Civilization series to buckle back down here in my wheelhouse of gaming history. But many of you who do creative work probably know how that sort of thing goes. That little muse, once she starts talking to you, is impossible to silence. I still wanted to try another sort of writing, and the Civilization series hadn’t done much to scratch that itch. I finally realized there was only one way to be free of her nagging. I started planning a second site once again, even as I still cast about for just the right approach.

For a time, my plan was to write nothing less than a general history of all human civilization, a sort of 21st-century answer to Will Durant. I still find that idea inordinately appealing in some ways, but the more I thought about it, the more concerns I started to have. If such a project was not to take dozens of lifetimes to complete, it would have to be written in a very summarized way. Could such summaries really satisfy my itch to write personal stories full of plots twists and drama? I also was aware that this type of a history could all too easily become a long narrative of war and oppression, of all the worst sides of humanity. I realized that I’d rather focus on the instances of hope and beauty that occasionally rise above that ugly tumult, reflecting the best rather than the worst in us.

At last, I realized that what I was looking for had been in front of me all the time in Civilization: the wonders of the world. These big, singular achievements all have rich, deeply human stories behind them, and I can’t wait to tell them. I don’t necessarily intend to slavishly follow Civilization‘s set of wonders, merely to use the idea as my guide. It’s a less conceptually ambitious approach than some of the other ones I’ve kicked around, but I think it’s exactly the right one for me, given my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I hope and — in my more self-confident moments anyway — believe that I can do a fantastic job with it. At any rate, I need to try if I’m not to wonder forevermore whether I could have pulled it off.

Now, to speak more directly to you, the readers of this site:

When I’ve wandered off into digressive territory on this site in the past, it’s gotten a mixed reaction: some really liked these changes of pace, some just wanted me to get back to computers and the games they play. This latter is a perfectly reasonable point of view to hold, and I’ll try to dissuade you from it only to the extent of suggesting that you at least have a peek at the new site, just to see if it catches your interest. If the answer is no, fair enough. For you, this announcement today will come as a bit of a disappointment, as it means fewer of the type of articles you do enjoy. I won’t try to spin that into a positive thing. I just hope you’ll be patient with me and my muse, and will want to continue to read and support The Digital Antiquarian on this somewhat slower schedule. Who knows? Maybe having another writerly outlet will make the articles I do write here better. (Oh, yes, I did promise not to spin, didn’t I?)

If, on the other hand, you’re excited by what you see on The Analog Antiquarian, we’ve just arrived at the awkward part of this announcement — the one where I have to ask for your help. The new site is an experiment. In light of all the angst that I went through getting to this point, I’m committed to giving it a good solid try, but the fact remains that each article there demands even more time than each one here; I just can’t continue to do it forever unless I can build a reasonable income from it. I’ve therefore set up a second Patreon campaign for the new site. Please do think about pitching in whatever you can afford and whatever you think the work is worth. (I wish I didn’t have to ask you to sign up for a whole new Patreon, but there just isn’t any alternative. Patreon unfortunately doesn’t offer any way to opt-in for some types of content but not others within a single campaign.) I would be eternally grateful for your support, which, there as here, will let me do the work I love and also put something of real positive value into the world at the same time.

And finally, there is one other thing I would ask of you — even of those of you who aren’t particularly interested in the new site. If you know anyone personally or have social-media circles that might really dig the new content, please do let them know. Establishing a new site on the crowded Internet is hard, and it’s made even harder when you’re a social-media hermit like I am. I’d be ever so grateful for any help you could give in getting the word out.

I think that’s about all I need to say here. You can read more justifications and explanations in the new site’s introductory article and its Patreon page. Again, I hope some of you will find the topics I’ll be tackling on it as exciting as I do, and hope to see some familiar names turn up there. And I hope to see all of you back here next Friday, for the next serving of Digital Antiquaria. Thank you for being the best readers in the world.

 

What’s in a Subtitle?

Sharp-eyed readers may have already noticed that I’ve changed the subtitle of this blog from “a history of computer entertainment” to “a history of computer entertainment and digital culture.” This is not so much indicative of any change in focus as it is a better description of what this blog has always been. I’ve always made space for aspects of what we might call “creative computing” that aren’t games, from electronic literature to the home-computer wars, from the birth of hypertext to early online culture, from influential science fiction to important developments in programming, and that will of course continue.

That is all. Carry on.

 

Ebooks and Future Plans

I’m afraid I don’t have a standard article for you this week. I occasionally need to skip a Friday to store up an independent writer’s version of vacation time, and the beginning of a five-Friday month like this one is a good time to do that. That said, this does make a good chance to give you some updates on the latest goings-on here at Digital Antiquarian World Headquarters, and to solicit some feedback on a couple of things that have been on my mind of late. So, let me do that today, and I’ll be back with the usual fare next Friday. (Patreon supporters: don’t worry, this meta-article’s a freebie!)

First and foremost, I’m pleased to be able to release the latest volume of the growing ebook collection compiling the articles on this site, this one centering roughly — even more roughly than usual, in fact — on 1991. Volume 13 has been a long time coming because the last year has brought with it a lot of longer, somewhat digressive series on topics like Soviet computing and the battle over Tetris, the metamorphosis of Imagine Software into Psygnosis, the world of pre-World Wide Web commercial online services, and of course my recently concluded close reading of Civilization, along with the usual singletons on individual games and related topics. This ebook is by far the fattest one yet, and I think it contains some of the best work I’ve ever done; these are certainly, at any rate, some of the articles I’ve poured the most effort into. As usual, it exists only thanks to the efforts of Richard Lindner. He’s outdone himself this time, even providing fresh cover art to suit what he described to me as the newly “glamorous, visual” era of the 1990s. If you appreciate being able to read the blog in this way, feel free to send him a thank-you note at the email address listed on the title page of the ebook proper.

Next, I want to take this opportunity to clear up the current situation around Patreon, something I’ve neglected to do for an unconscionably long time. Many of you doubtless remember the chaos of last December, when Patreon suddenly announced changes to their financial model that would make a blog like this one, which relies mostly on small donations, much less tenable. I scrambled to find alternatives to Patreon for those who felt (justifiably) betrayed by the changes, and had just about settled on a service called Memberful when Patreon reversed course and went back to the old model after a couple of weeks of huge public outcry.

Despite sending some mixed messages in the weeks that followed that reversal, I haven’t ever implemented Memberful as an alternative funding model due to various nagging concerns: I’m worried about tech-support issues that must come with a bespoke solution, not happy about being forced to sell monthly rather than per-article subscriptions (meaning I have to feel guilty if due to some emergency I can’t publish four articles in any given month), and concerned about the complication and confusion of offering two separate subscription models — plus PayPal! — as funding solutions (just writing a FAQ to explain it all would take a full day or two!). In addition, a hard look at the numbers reveals that a slightly higher percentage of most pledges would go to third parties when using Memberful than happens with Patreon. It’s for all these reasons that, after much agonized back-and-forthing, I’ve elected to stay the course with Patreon alone as my main funding mechanism, taking them at their word that they’ll never again to do anything like what they did last December.

I do understand that some of you are less inclined to be forgiving, which is of course your right. For my part, even the shenanigans of last December weren’t quite enough to destroy the good will I have toward Patreon for literally changing my life by allowing me to justify devoting so much time and energy to this blog. (They were of course only the medium; I’m even more grateful to you readers!) At any rate, know that except for that one blip Patreon has always treated me very well, and that their processing fees are lower than I would pay using any other subscription service. And yeah, okay… maybe also keep your fingers crossed that I’ve made the right decision in giving them a second chance before I hit the panic button. Fool me once…

So, that’s where we stand with the Patreon situation, which can be summed up as sticking with the status quo for now.  But it’s not the only thing I’ve a bit wishy-washy about lately…

As a certain recent ten-article series will testify, I fell hard down the Civilization rabbit hole when I first began to look at that game a year or so ago. I’ve spent quite some time staring at that Advances Chart, trying to decide what might be there for me as a writer. I’m very attracted to the idea of writing some wider-scale macro-history in addition to this ongoing micro-history of the games industry, as I am by the idea of writing said history in terms of achievement and (largely) peaceful progress as opposed to chronicles of wars and battles won and lost.  Still, I’ve struggled to figure out what form it all should take.

My first notion was to start a second blog. It would be called — again, no surprise here for readers of my Civilization articles! — The Narrative of Progress, and would be structured around an Advances Chart similar but not identical to the one in the Civilization box. (Intriguing as it is, the latter also has some notable oddities, such as its decision to make “Alphabet” and “Writing” into separate advances; how could you possibly have one without the other?) I even found a web developer who did some work on prototyping an interactive, dynamically growing Advances Chart with links to individual articles. But we couldn’t ever come up with anything that felt more intuitive and usable than a traditional table of contents, so I gave up on that idea. I was also concerned about whether I could possibly handle the research burden of so many disparate topics in science, technology, and sociology — a concern which the Civilization close reading, over the course of which I made a few embarrassing gaffes which you readers were kind enough to point out to me, has proved were justified.

But still I remain attracted to the idea of doing a different kind of history in addition to this gaming history. Lately, I’ve gravitated to the Wonders of the World. In fact, Civilization prompted my wife Dorte and I to take a trip to Cairo just a month ago — a crazy place, let me tell you! — to see the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and other ancient sites. I think I could do a great job with these topics, as they’re right in my writerly wheelhouse of readable narrative history, and it would be hard to go wrong with stories as fascinating as these. Up until just a couple of weeks ago I had schemed about doing these kinds of stories on this site, but finally had to give it up as well as the wrong approach. I would have to set up a second Patreon anyway, as I couldn’t possibly expect people who signed up to support a “history of interactive entertainment” to support this other stuff as well, and running two Patreons and two parallel tracks out of a single WordPress blog would just be silly.

All of which is to say that I’m as undecided as ever about this stuff. I know I’d like to do some wider-frame historical writing at some point, almost certainly hosted at a different site, but I don’t know exactly when that will be or what form it will take. Would you be interested in reading such a thing? I’d be interested to hear your opinions and suggestions, whether in the comments below or via email.

Whatever happens, rest assured that I remain committed to this ongoing history as well; the worst that might result from a second writing project would be a somewhat slower pace here. I’m occasionally asked how far I intend to go with this history, and I’ve never had a perfect answer. A few years ago, I thought 1993’s Doom might be good stopping place, as it marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in the culture of computer games. But the problem with that, I’ve come to realize, is that it did indeed only mark the beginning of a shift, and to stop there would be to leave countless threads dangling. These days, the end of the 1990s strikes me as a potential candidate, but we’ll see. At any rate, I don’t have plans for stopping anytime soon — not as long as you’re still willing to read and support this work. Who knows, maybe we’ll make it all the way to 2018 someday.

In that meantime, a quick rundown of coming attractions for the historical year of 1992. (If you want to be completely surprised every week, skip this list!)

  • Jeff Tunnell’s hugely influential physics puzzler The Incredible Machine
  • the seminal platformer Another World, among other things a beautiful example of lyrical nonverbal storytelling
  • a series on the evolution of Microsoft Windows, encompassing the tangled story of OS/2, the legal battle with Apple over look-and-feel issues, and those Windows time-wasters, like Solitaire, Minesweeper, and Hearts, that became some of the most-played computer games in history
  • William Gibson’s experimental poem-that-destroys-itself Agrippa
  • Shades of Gray, an underappreciated literary statement in early amateur interactive fiction which came up already in my conversation with Judith Pintar, but deserves an article of its own
  • Legend’s two Gateway games
  • Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
  • Electronic Arts in the post “rock-star” years, Trip Hawkins’s departure, and the formation of 3DO
  • The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, which might just be my all-time favorite Holmes game
  • Interplay’s two Star Trek graphic adventures
  • the adventures in Sierra’s Discovery line of games for children, which were better than most of their adult adventure games during this period
  • Quest for Glory III and IV
  • the strange story behind the two Dune games which were released back-to-back in 1992
  • Star Control II
  • Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII
  • Darklands

Along with all that, I’ve had a great suggestion from Casey Muratori — who, incidentally, was also responsible for my last article by first suggesting I take a closer look at Dynamix’s legacy in narrative games — to write something about good puzzles in adventure games. I’ve long been conscious of spending a lot more time describing bad puzzles in detail than I do good ones. The reason for this is simply that I hesitate to spoil the magic of the good puzzles for you, but feel far less reluctance with regard to the bad ones. Still, it does rather throw things out of balance, and perhaps I should do something about that. Following Casey’s suggestion, I’ve been thinking of an article describing ten or so good puzzles from classic games, analyzing how they work in detail and, most importantly, why they work.

That’s something on which I could use your feedback as well. When you think of the games I’ve written about so far on this blog, whether textual or graphical, is there a puzzle that immediately springs to mind as one that you just really, really loved for one reason or another? (For me, just for the record, that puzzle is the T-removing machine from Leather Goddesses of Phobos.) If so, feel free to send it my way along with a sentence or two telling my why, once again either in the comments below or via private email. I can’t promise I can get to all of them, but I’d like to assemble a reasonable selection of puzzles that delight for as many different reasons as possible.

Finally, please do remember that I depend on you for support in order to continue doing this work. If you enjoy and/or find something of value in what I do here, if you’re lucky enough to have disposable income, and if you haven’t yet taken the plunge, please do think about signing up as a Patreon supporter at whatever level strikes you as practical and warranted. I run what seems to be one of the last “clean” sites on the Internet — no advertisements, no SEO, no personal-data-mining, no “sponsored articles,” just the best content I can provide — but that means that I have to depend entirely upon you to keep it going. With your support, we can continue this journey together for years to come.

And with that, I’ll say thanks to all of you for being the best readers in the world and wish you a great weekend. See you next week with a proper article!

 

Commodore: The Final Years


This blog’s good friend and supporter Brian Bagnall is in the home stretch now of his extended history of the late and lamented (?) Commodore Business Machines. Commodore: The Final Years, the third book in what has turned into a trilogy, is entering its last weekend as a Kickstarter project. I’m happy to say that it’s already demolished its minimum funding goal, but more will help to make the book that much better, with color photos, an embossed cover, and other goodies.

Brian is doing a great service in recording aspects of computer history that would otherwise be lost forever. I know that researching, writing, and self-publishing a book like this one is a huge task, but if the last book is any guide it’s one he’ll handle with aplomb. If you haven’t already, please think about joining me on the rolls of his backers!

 

Patreon About-Face

As many of you have doubtless heard by now, Patreon has abandoned all plans to institute the billing changes which have caused such chaos and consternation over the past week. CEO Jack Conte has posted a public apology, and it’s a very good example of the genre: no making excuses; no placing the blame partially on us with weasel words like “if you felt like you were wronged”; no asking for forgiveness that will have to be earned, not given. There’s not even a single “awesome!” in sight; unlike most of Patreon’s missives, it doesn’t read like it was written by an over-enthused Valley girl. Patreon says that they still want to address the problem which allegedly prompted the changes in the first place — a problem which was never a problem at all for this blog — but they promise to do so in consultation with the community instead of unilaterally, and they promise to find ways to protect the small donors on which this blog and many other projects depend. “We are nothing without you,” Jack Conte writes. He’s correct; hopefully Patreon will never forget that again.

All of this leaves me, not for the first time this week, with a tough decision on my hands — and just after I’d settled on what seemed the right direction forward at that.

On the one hand, if not actively angry anymore I’m still highly irritated. This last week has cost me stress and restless nights, and I got the joy of devoting last weekend almost entirely to working out the technological bits and pieces that would be needed to roll out a more localized funding solution relying on Memberful. And of course this has all cost me a few dozen patrons, many of whom had been with me for a long, long time. I don’t blame them for jumping ship. Not in the least: I blame Patreon. So, there’s a part of me that still wants to wave my middle finger in Patreon’s direction and tell them exactly what to do with their apology.

Yet there is the cutting-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face factor in doing so. I’m actually kind of proud of the Memberful solution I was pulling together, but it has its drawbacks. It relies on a lot of WordPress hacking to work just the way I want it to — the kind of thing that all of my experience with software tells me would become a source of constant headaches, needing to be tinkered with as new releases of WordPress come down the pipe. And I’m sure there are bugs which I would spend lots of time chasing, and then there’s the confusion inherent in offering dueling pledging systems for the same blog. I would also be forced to take on the role of customer-support guy: figuring out why people’s credit cards were rejected by Stripe, why they couldn’t get into their accounts, etc. I was prepared to take on that burden if there was no other alternative, but I’d prefer to avoid it. While I like to think I’m a decent programmer, I believe I’m a very good to excellent writer. (This serves as the universe’s way of compensating me for the staggering number of everyday things at which I’m freakishly terrible.) I’ve worked many years in IT, but now, at 45 years old, I want to be doing the thing I’m best at as often as possible. In other words, I’d like to just be a writer, and to let someone else — like Patreon — take care of the technical and customer-support stuff. That was actually working out pretty well before last week. So, my decision, arrived at not without some agonizing, is to stay with Patreon as this blog’s primary support mechanism.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. What does this mean for those of you who are or were patrons, but took action of your own in response to Patreon’s boneheaded move?

Well, those of you who front-loaded your pledges onto the first article each month to avoid the extra fees can change things back to the way they were in a few weeks. Because pledges are once again aggregated at the end of the month, just as they’ve always been in the past, I’ll pay the exact same amount in processing fees either way.

Those of you who jumped ship entirely have a harder decision. Obviously I would like to see you come back — would like for you to give Patreon another chance — but only you know whether that feels right. I’ve already seen the gamut of sentiment expressed in your comments over on my area of the Patreon site, from “I’ve lost all trust in Patreon” to “Sites backing down in the face of user outrage needs to be encouraged, not discouraged.”

If you can see your way to coming back, I’d be thrilled to have your support again. But if you just can’t justify it, I totally understand. This decision wasn’t an easy one for me either. Perhaps somewhere down the road, if Patreon continues to behave as they promise to from now on, you’ll feel that they’ve earned your forgiveness and your business. Either way, I know where the blame for the loss of your support resides. Hint: it’s not with you. Thank you for all of your support in the past.

And with that all said, I’m going to spend the next couple of days working on writing articles instead of stressing over Patreon and/or Memberful, publish a long and (I think) interesting article tomorrow, and then enjoy a weekend spent visiting the Christmas markets and putting up a tree with my wife instead of sitting hunched in front of the computer putting the final pieces of a new pledging solution in place. I figure I deserve it; it’s been one hell of a last seven or eight days. I hope you all have a similarly relaxing weekend in the offing.

Thank you for your past, current, and/or future support, as the case may be, and happy holidays! See you tomorrow with more piping hot digital antiquaria!