John Roach and the TRS-80

RIP to John Roach, the father of the TRS-80 computer.

The TRS-80 wasn’t the first computer I programmed—I had already worked on a series of mainframes and microcomputers in high school and my first two years of college—but in 1982 or so, I convinced a few friends: Mike Ball, Tom Wells, and Chris Lee, to invest a few hundred dollars each in an idea I had for a game company. There was a semi-thriving world of play-by-mail games in the day, where people in a world before the internet and personal computers could play games with each other by postal mail, often adjudicated by someone with a computer. I wrote GANGLORD, a tactical-level gang-warfare game where you controlled individual gang members and selected them to carry out robberies and other actions on and around the blocks you controlled.

Chris was the one with the computer, a TRS-80 with a sticker on the back saying its build date was December 1979. With some of the money, we bought an LNW memory expansion kit and a couple of 5-1/4” disk drives. Given the limitations of home computing storage and memory at the time, it took some work to make things work. Each player’s data was stored on a diskette, and each group of city blocks (amazingly, almost 1600) on another. Game logic on yet another disc. No hard drive, so the game logic would need to be loaded in, then environment and player data as needed.

Player actions were entered, actions were evaluated, and combat between gangs was resolved on a weapon-action basis, with each named gang member and their target identified, as well as the weapon used, plus the results. All printed out on an Epson MX-80 dot-matrix machine.

Aside from the setting—which was unique in a world of big computer-run PBM games set in interstellar space and D&D-influenced hand-adjudicated fantasy PBMs—GANGLORD‘s focus on small-unit actions on an individual level was kind of a new thing, particularly when combined with the ability to name each member of the gang. Sadly, despite the fact that I still have the computer, the peripherals, and the diskettes, I haven’t been able to scare up a copy of the rulebook, a copy of which is sitting on the table in this much-used photo.

I typed up the rules on my friend Melinde Lutz’s fancy proportional-spaced Olivetti typewriter, which put it a couple notches above the standard typewritten or dot-matrix-printed rules for small publishers at the time. Melinde and her then-husband Tucker let me use part of the office in their house for operations. Marcel—who also did the art for EUCON, the science-fiction convention I put together—did a great cover for the book which (again) I only have via that photo.

The whole thing was horribly undercapitalized. I think we ran one or two ads—I’ve got to dig into my copies of Autoduel Quarterly—but we hit a wall with just a couple dozen paying customers. I got some great comments from folks at several established PBM developers, including a couple very soft inquiries about buying the game—but it was such a work-in-development at the time I didn’t think there was any way I could turn it over. The process of running the game involved long sequences of swapping diskettes in an out of the drives, which worked for the scale I had, but might not have been very scalable. I thought if I could get the game to a point where it was running well, then it would be time to talk to people about the next step. But it never got there.

Anyway, that’s my TRS-80 story, sort of.

Diplomacy Today

Some 30-odd years ago I tried to run a play-by-mail DIPLOMACY game to keep in touch with someone my game-playing friends. I’d moved to Portland, Oregon from Eugene in 1987 and left behind some of the folks I’d played with in my early 20s. I picked up a couple folks in Portland while I was at Reed College, but one of them had headed out to Princeton after a year or so, and the other got sucked up by Microsoft before he graduated. Back in the pre-Internet, mostly pre-email days when you still had to pay long-distance phone fees, it was hard for me to keep up with my far-flung cohort; ultimately, I wasn’t successful, i lost touch with most everyone, either for years or for ever.

I’d started this project while I was working at Powell’s Books, where I had just convinced management to set up a $10,000 state-of-the-art desktop publishing system (just slightly less than my annual income there, at the time) and finishing off my English Literature degree at Reed. Id seen a few other DIPLOMACY zines, and i was reasonably certain this one was unique in style, at least, so i sent a couple of the black-and-white issues off to Avalon Hill’s in-house magazine THE GENERAL. Then-editor Rex Martin wrote back, and he was going to be a player in the second game I was planning to run (the ’Red’ edition), with the possibility that we might run some material in THE GENERAL.

But things didn’t work out in the short run. i don’t recall exactly how it fell apart, but like a lot of PBM games, there were issues with everyone having time to deal with real life before they got around to games. There were already intimations in this relatively early phase of the Blue game. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, DIPLOMACY-wise.

Anyway, the interesting thing to me was that I’d written a little colophon for this edition, highlighting hardware and software in use around 1990.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been asked several times about how DT is put together, what programs are used, how the graphics are generated, etc. It seems appropriate to address some of these questions now that we’re making a major format upgrade.

First, it probably helps to know that my job places me in close contact with Apple Macintosh II computer with 2MB of RAM, a 40MB internal hard drive, an Ehman Engineering removable 45MB hard drive, and a color monitor, all of which is attached to a LaserWriter IINT. Basic page layout is done with Aldus PageMaker (the latest version is 3.02CK), with most of the text being directly entered into PageMaker. Our lovely master map was done by Regan Carey in Adobe Illustrator. I’d tried my hand at tracing a scanned DIPLOMACY map, but Regan’s looks soooo much better. The patterns used in the black-and-white maps were designed by myself, except for the double-headed Russian eagle, which is a simplified version of Regan’s logo (featured on the front page of this issue). Likewise, the DIPLOMACY TODAY logo and most of the other graphics were created by myself with Adobe Illustrator (latest version is 1.9.3). I use bits and pieces of the master map to make the ones with arrows and things. All of the fonts are standard LaserWriter Plus (and later) fonts: the logo is in Avant Garde, with some heavy line strokes, headlines are in Helvetica and Helvetica Narrow, body text is New Century Schoolbook; and some Zapf Dingbats are thrown in for good measure. The look, of course, derives directly from the pages of USA TODAY.

Up until now. I’ve just been printing the newsletter on the LaserWriter and letting it go at that (a process I will continue for most of the people on the mailing list). To get this first color issue, however, I’ve been forced to delay publication partly because none of the Portland service bureaus were equipped with a PostScript color laser printer. Finally, L.graphix, just a block from my office, came through, and got their new QMS up and running just after New Year’s.

If I can get hold of Regan to ask him for permission, I will make the master map available to anyone willing to give him credit for it. Anyone with a self-addressed, stamped envelope can have a copy of DT in black-and-white, an SASE and $2 will get them the color version the players get for free.

—Questions about DIPLOMACY TODAY

My Satanic Majesty 2

I first referenced this image 14 years ago, when I wrote about the time anti-D&D Christians threatened to picket a talk I gave at the Springfield Public Library to a few tween-age boys about role-playing games, but back then the size of the images I was uploading was fairly small. Combined with the fact that what I had to scan was a sort of grainy newspaper photo from 1982, I didn’t really get into what exactly was on the table.

But I ran across the ori9ginal print the other day sorting through some boxes and made a new scan, taking a closer look with my aging eyes at what was there.

On the far left of the table, nearest the podium, at the back is a Gamemaster’s Screen for the Champions RPG. The images of the items in front of it are too blown out for me to read, but they are presumably Champions rule books.

Next to that is a line of material for the Bushido RPG, in this case the boxed set that came out after the earlier zip-lock editions. In front of the box (standing) are a couple of the rulebooks, then what appears to be a copy of the supplement Valley of the Mists, which is presumably still in a box somewhere (I catalogued the digest-sized zip-loc Bushido in Just a Box of Games, Box 2. Central on the table is the map of Japan on the gamester’s screen (?) from Bushido that I picked because their graphics were quite good.

In front of the Bushido screen are several of the TRAVELLER books, with Book 1: Characters and Combat and Book 2: Starships, visible enough to sort of read.

Standing just to the right of the Bushido screen would be a couple of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books, both from the first edition as that was state-of-the-art in 1982. The Monster Manual is clearly visible, and I believe the Dungeon Master’s Guide is in front of it (from what little I can see of the cover). Presumably, the kid on the right of the image is flipping through the Player’s Handbook, which logically should have occupied the rightmost corner of the table.

In front of the AD&D books is the rulebook for STARWEB, the flagship galactic conquest play-buy-mail game from Flying Buffalo. And in front of that is a rulebook for The Morrow Project, one of a number of post-nuclear holocaust survivalist RPGs that went for a grittier, more realistic aesthetic than, say, Gamma World.

I can’t make out what’s on the closest corner of the table, but I’m pretty sure it was a printout from my own play-by-mail game, whose cover is just behind it: GANGLORD, a game of gang warfare in The Big City, where you directed individual members of your gang on missions of robbery, extortion, and territory expansion. My long-term plan—if I’d ever gotten past the point where I had only about 40 players, we were seriously under-capitalized— was for the most successful gangs to become organized criminal syndicates (MOBRULES) and then political parties (POLITICO, yeah, I would have sued their asses when they came along twenty years later), in a trio of interrelated power politics games.

But, Reagan.

Special thanks to the reporter from the Springfield newspaper who provided me with a copy of this image nearly 40 years ago. I will find your name somewhere.


via David Landázuri’s TK before I knew her Facebook album

It was three months ago today that a woman of many names passed away.

I met Kim McDonald in 1980 at the science fiction and fantasy bookstore I worked at. I was a year out of high school. I’d spent the previous fall and winter at Oregon State University but the Corvallis branch of the store was sold and I didn’t have a job any more, my girlfriend dumped me on Valentine’s Day, and I was homesick already, so I went back down to Eugene to live with my folks and at went back to work at the Eugene shop.

Kim came in one night and we got into an argument about some book and then she hung around until closing and drove me out to my folks’ house where we talked all night about science fiction and fantasy books we liked. And that was the start of four years together.

Kim’s first name was Teresa, but during our time together she also went by TK and Starsea. She’d often introduce herself by the latter name when she met new people at the monthly party we went to at author John Varley‘s house, where she’d wear springy antenna headgear.

It was an incredibly productive period for both of us. Aside from our jobs, TK was involved in the local theater scene (she’d graduated in theater arts from the UofO) and we played games, went to the then-new Bijou Theater, and visited friends. I was failing school before I dropped out because of the economy, but that was the period I wrote and published a play-by-mail game and organized Eucon, a science fiction convention.

Things didn’t last, though, and by 1985 it was all over. TK moved out of the house we were renting from my parents and moved on with her life. She came to my birthday party at the end of the year, but after I moved to Portland, we didn’t have any contact.

I did hear through the grapevine that she’d gotten married (twice, actually, after her first husband died) and was chosen as the 2006 Slug Queen. She worked for the UofO Philosophy Department administrative office for most of the 35 years she was at the university.

It was an incredible shock to hear from her widower, David Landázuri, a few days after her death, when he reached out to me to help piece out some of the time before he met her in 2003. I was staying in a motel in Gresham with my father during the February ice storm that had much of the Portland area (and beyond) in a power blackout, just after he’d had cancer surgery. What’s been almost more of a shock was to realize how much of that era has slipped away from my memories. I wracked my brain to help David as much as I could and looked through what few photos I have from the pre-digital period. Just a couple of studio portraits, and a couple photos from a trip to the beach in Southern California with Kim’s mother. A couple of birthday cards with her address from when we met and that’s about it.

I was honored to be invited to participate in the Zoom memorial with a bunch of her firends and co-workers, all of whom probably know her better after being friends for years than I do living with her for a few years nearly forty years ago. But it’s still weird to know that someone who was such an integral part of your life in your earliest adult years is gone. Thanks to David for letting me know and for including me.

The University of Oregon has approved space for a memorial to their long-time employee. You can contribute at the GoFundMe link below.

The Great Shockwave Revival

On the DIRECT-L listserv (yes, it still exists!). the talk of the past week has been how to do a Shockwave for Director emulator in JavaScript.

The invaluable Valentin Schmidt, has something amazing.

Here a funny solution, but it really works:

It’s a 68k mac emulator ported to JS that loads a minimal System 8 (15
MB) and then immediately plays a DCR, in this case it’s the guided tour
that came with Director 4.0. You might have to click into the browser
window to enable sound.

The Great Dutch Director Confab of 2001

It was one of the great honors of my temporary life as a Macromedia Director semi-celebrity to meet up with folks from the community when I traveled. When Barbara and I got to Amsterdam, Mark Reijnders, Lucas Meijer, Mark Hagers, and P¡m all showed up at the Amstelhoeck, coming from across the country, just for our own little Director convention. You can see Mark R. is wearing his Director Online t-shirt (I was editor at the time). Lucas, had put on an impressive show of 3D content at the Shockwave 3D launch in NYC a couple of months earlier, and has gone on to be a driving force at Unity.

I’m Learning Japanese, I Really Think So

Somehow, I don’t feel like I’ve made great progress in my late-life attempt to learn Japanese. I started off back when we thought we’d be able to travel, in 2019, trying to cram Japanese, German, Dutch, and Irish every day, built up a month-long streak and then got disgusted with both Duolingo and myself when I missed a day and broke the streak. That, and jeez louise, the Irish course is hard. Got back into it after the pandemic started and just did Japanese. It was an incomplete in my first Japanese class that pushed me over the edge of academic disqualification at the UofO 40 years ago—I’ve never been good at languages OR studying—but I’m back!

Dad’s Books

One of the things about Twitter is every now and then you accidentally brush up against people in a way you never would in the blog world. I made a comment about reading books I give to Dad before I fork them over, with regard to Nixonland by Rick Perlstein.

A Quarter-Century of Online Media

New Year’s Eve 1995 was the turning point in my career in multimedia.

I’d been working in the relatively-new digital prepress field for four years when I quit my job at Exact Imaging and went out on my own as a freelance print production and graphics specialist with a sideline as a multimedia development instructor.

In a previous job (out of the six prepress jobs I held between mid-1991 and mid-1995) I’d picked up an unopened copy of Macromedia Director second-hand from a car dealership in Florida somehow. It was a couple of books and a bunch of diskettes. I had a fair amount of experience with everything from page layout applications to image editing to vector artwork tools, as well as some programming experience that was long in the tooth even then. I’d tried to break into the local CD-ROM development scene without any success and hung on the edges by editing the newsletter for the Portland chapter of the International Interactive Communication Society (of which I would eventually serve as the last vice-president, along with my current boss, Brad Smith as president(, even running an ad for a digital portfolio production service (which never got a single client) in an issue of Step-by-Step Graphics magazine (I had written an article on a graphic artist named Steve Cowden that ran in the same issue). The service never got any clients.

At a meeting of the IICS that summer, being in the right place at the right time landed me a shot at a somewhat steady stream of income to anchor my freelance business. Dr. Brad Hansen at the Portland State University School of Extended Studies announced he was looking for someone to teach Director as part of the school’s Professional Development Program. I dropped my name in the hat, and within a few weeks I was off to San Francisco to take the class I would be teaching from ex-Macromedia instructor Ken Durso. That got me the all-essential certification I needed to become a Macromedia-certified instructor and classes started up that fall.

This was still the early days of the public internet. Netscape Navigator was still the Web browser. Animated GIFs and the <blink> tag were the cornerstones of online animation; JavaScript was in its infancy and Java applets were the crème de la crème for interactive experiences but, y’know, Java. I managed to get down to the Macromedia User Conference at the end of October, where the buzz was about something new called Shockwave.

It was my first time at a UCON, so I didn’t know anyone or what all I was supposed to see, but if I remember correctly, the previews of Shockwave were held in smaller sessions, with an air of intrigue. The stuff we were shown was simply amazing, given the state of the Web art the time, which was largely static text and images, with hyperlinks.

Shockwave! book cover, Korean edition

My own focus had been on print, but the people managing operations at Exact Imaging—Sherwood Herben and Rick Hawley—had made an early move into network operations for transferring design files and previews of high-resolution scans back and forth between the shop and our clients, most of whom were in the high-tech industry. So I’d worked on the company web site. Then one of the projects I got tmy first summer from Dale Ott—my one big client when I got started and the guy I rented a cubicle space from—was the annual report for Sequent Computers, on which I did print prep and conversion to PDFs for online distribution, which was kind of a new thing. So I watched the presentation at Macromedia with some interest.

The whole thing about Director was its portability (more or less) between the Mac and Windows worlds. You could take most simple Director movie files from a Windows machine runnning a copy of Director and transfer them to a Mac running Director, open up the file, and then play it. Unfortunately, there were times when new tools on one platform lagged behind, and that first month or two after the public demos of Shockwave, you could make Shockwave movies (using a special compression tool called Afterburner) on either platform, but the playback engine—the browser plugin—only existed on Windows. And coming from the print industry—which was almost exclusively Mac—I did not have a Windows machine.

As soon as I was able to get onto the Shockwave beta—early December, I think—I made a Shockwave movie. But to see it, I ended up heading 30 miles out of town to Scappoose to Waldo Thompson’s house to see it because he would let me install the Shockwave plugin on his computer. I bought an Acer desktop and crammed it in my tiny workspace at Dale’s.

No idea at the time how to make money with the Shockwave. Meanwhile, the news on Shockwave dribbled out. There wasn’t even an official email list server for keeping the general public informed (there may have been for the private beta). To keep up on things, you had to visit what was essentially a blog page comment section (before there were blogs), which you had to manually reload.

That was the situation for me on New Year’s Eve, 1995. I was in the office late, doing some last-minute bookkeeping, and I checked the Shockwave page. There at the end was a note from someone who said they were a computer book literary agent who needed someone to write a book on Shockwave, and they needed them fast.

There were a couple of strikes against me on this. 1) I had never written anything as long as a book, in fact, I’d been telling people for several years that I thought that my undergraduate English thesis at Reed College was probably one of the shortest on record (I have no actual evidence that is true, but hey, 25 pages). And that took me months. Sure, I had to read a lot of research and Shakespeare, but I was going to have to do that for the book because 2) I hadn’t actually done anything professionally in Director—much less Shockwave—and as far as Macromedia knew, I did not exist. No inside information, no contacts, no expertise to make up for that. Bit I sent an email to David Rogelberg anyway.

By January 17th, 1996 I had a contract in hand to produce a Shockwave book full of tutorials for Ventana Press in 10 weeks for $15,000, a sum I was kind of agog at. If I could get the book done in 8 weeks, I’d get another $5,000. I never got up the gumption to ask what had happened. Books are typically put on publishing schedules months in advance, and as I got into the process of submitting content, I came to realize that this one had a lot of gears already in motion. For instance, the cover artwork—a hideous orange and green Frankenstein theme (on the US edition, the Korean cover above is more…subtle)—that carried through to the interface design for the accompanying CD-ROM (skillfully technically executed by Eric Coker). My suspicion was that the original authors assigned to the book got reassigned to a hotter project and they were in a bind, which is how they ended up with me.

I missed the 8-week deadline, but made the 10-week. Basically, the book was written with me looking through each of the specific capabilities of the commands in the NetLingo library, which were still only partially-documented in some cases. Figure out the variations. Figure out what they did. Figure out what they were used for (there weren’t examples for everything yet). Write tests to make sure I was right about how they worked. Then write up a tutorial about how to use it.

The book ended up at about 270 pages, mostly tutorials I’d devised by going through each of the (then) limited Lingo language commands for Director. I tried to figure out how each command was constructed (the documentation was still fairly sketchy) and then tried to figure out what it would be used for. I didn’t try to teach anyone how to use Director—that was a far larger project and way out of scope of what I could do in 8–10 weeks—but I think I did a decent job of conveying the basics. Even though I hadn’t actually created any of the DISKfolios apart from some demos, the fact that I had some expertise at crunching graphics down to their bare minimums to fit on a diskette came in handy, since everyone had been spreading out to fill up CD-ROMs.

I pressed local sound guru David Duddleston into service for the chapter on audio and inveigled my friend Jeff “Punk Rock” Martin to let me use a track from his band The Surf Trio for some audio. The book came in about 270 pages, with another 70 pages of references to projects by people like Dave Yang and Gary Rosenzweig (whose Director book came out from Ventana at about the same time as my Shockwave book did), some reference Appendices and an index.

And that was the only time I ever made money writing a book. Have a great 2021!

Alan Levine found my book very useful!