Ian Chadwick’s long-running column in ST-LOG.
ST-LOG #5 / AUGUST 1986 / PAGE 71ST
It’s not easy trying to think up something witty with which to begin a new column. So I’ll save the wit for a later issue. Let’s talk about languages, instead.
ST developers and users are high on C these days, citing portability between machines, modular structure, etc., as reasons for enthroning it as language of choice. I’m not so sure it fits. We heard the same gushing praise for Pascal when it arrived, and even for FORTH. (Argh! Try as I might, I could never get my head bent enough to learn to program backwards in FORTH style…)
I’m in favor of BASIC, myself. Hands up, everyone who agrees. See? A lot of us out there don’t want a career as a programmer, but want to tinker, hack and write little programs to amuse ourselves and our children, or to put up on CompuServe as monuments to our abilities. Good ol’ BASIC suits that need, or would if there were a decent version on the ST. C is a superior developer’s language, and I agree about all of its benefits—except ease of learning. It takes dedication and effort, which equates with time. Time is something a lot of us have Iittle of today.
BASIC is easy to learn. It lets you fumble around, write sloppy code, experiment and see the results right away. It’s immediate. And lots of fun. I’ve never heard anyone describe C as fun. And fun was one of the reasons I bought a computer, back in the Pleozoic.
ST BASIC is awful, simply put. It’s slow, clumsy, does awkward things with windows and doesn’t like TOS in ROM. Wonderful. One sure way of moving everyone to C is to give them a terrible BASIC. Atari managed to do that. The ever-churning rumor mill has it that they have a new BASIC due out very soon now, which fixes everything. Sure. After Halley’s Comet, I gave up on wonders.
BASIC is the people’s language. It may not be the best, but I don’t know any computer owner who doesn’t know some BASIC, or who hasn’t tinkered with programming in it. BASIC programmers often graduate to assembly language, if they move upward at all.
To me, assembler is superior to any high-level language. Hey, you’re speaking the machine’s language, not through some interface. You and your computer can have a real conversation in assembler, once you learn to translate into hex in your head.
My first experience with my brand new ST was to load TOS (from disk, of course), load BASIC (ditto; no one had considered the advantages of putting it in ROM, or at least on a cartridge, like the 8-bit line), to find I had 5K free.
The mind boggles. I had started in about 1979 with 16K, at which point, people were shouting about all the memory they had to work in (machines had gone from 4K to 16K in the preceding year). I crawled up to 48K, 64K, 128K—and now, on my half-meg machine, I was reduced to 5K! The benefits of an advancing technology… It tends to color one’s approach to BASIC, to say the least.
At the Atlanta COMDEX, I was given a copy of Softworks BASIC, a compiled BASIC with a lot of commands, plus complete access to AES, VDI, BIOS and the rest of the GEM functions (more than some versions of C offer). It should be great; it has oodles of features and compiles your code, removing the numero uno complaint about BASIC—slowness. But there are strings attached, as always.
Softworks BASIC doesn’t have an interpreter. Being able to write your code and test it as you work is BASIC’s main advantage for the non-professional. If C had an interpreter, it would probably take over a lot of BASIC users. The process for this BASIC is much like that for C; you write the code using a word processor (they provide 1st Word on the disk, but it’s not my favorite choice), then compile it.
You don’t see the results of your efforts until the very end, so if you find bugs, it’s back to the text file again. But, before you run the program, enter their runtime system. What? Yes, that’s right…you don’t create stand-alone code, only an intermediate code. It can’t be run by anyone else, unless they also have the runtime program.
This suggests either that they expect everyone will buy a copy, or that you can distribute the runtime system freely. Nothing in the manual suggests otherwise; it lacks even the basic copyright information (those lines about: “distribute this program, and we break your legs”). Big mistake. All BASICs need an interpreter. Carve that one in stone, please.
Second mistake: compilers should produce stand-alone code. Hand me the chisel again, for law number two. This intermediate stuff harks back to the good old days of the Apple II+ and TRS-80 Model 1 (and the brontosaur). We’ve come a tad further than mandatory runtime programs (especially if those aren’t for free distribution).
Mistake number three (this is like Monty Hall, isn’t it?): the manual. Manuals are a subject dear to my heart, having written so many in my time. To call this one terse is to lean toward understatement. Curt is a better adjective. It’s a modest reference document, if you’re already familiar with BASIC; otherwise, it’s rather like Linear B. Several important (and powerful) commands are given a few threadbare lines of description, rather than the lengthy explanations they deserve. Functional examples are so rare as to be an endangered species.
Many of the commands are not found in the Atari 8-bit universe (they come from the IBM or TRS worlds, I gather), so a lot of ST owners won’t be familiar with them. You can probably figure out half of the basic command list from your background BASIC use, but the rest are baffling.
The GEM information is spartan, and the error message description cryptic. This keeps book publishers happy; they gleefully churn out books to decode the abysmal manuals that accompany most software.
Bottom line: looks very good, but needs serious work. This could be the dynamite BASIC we’ve all been waiting for, once these three elements are patched up. (It’s a major overhaul, but think of the fame, the riches, the glory!) Until then, it has a limited audience, unfortunately.
Lest we forget, there are two other languages vying for space on CompuServe’s ATARI16 SIG: OSS’s Personal Pascal and TDI’s Modula-2.
I’ve played minimally with Pascal on other machines and know of its popularity, but I haven’t worked with the OSS version. All I can say is that it has a good reputation (as does the company), and the text editor that accompanies it is superb. I know programmers who bought it for its non-GEM text editor, to write assembly code!
I bought Modula-2 and tinkered a bit, although I haven’t seen the latest release (mine’s version 1, and I’ve been lazy about returning my disks for an upgrade). Word has it that it’s pretty good. The interesting thing is that Pascal and Modula-2 were both written by Niklaus Wirth, Modula-2 being the later—and some say more advanced—version of Pascal.
The greatest difficulty is finding entry-level teaching books on it. It’s relatively new and unpopular, although it offers some very potent programming features for the HLL (that’s high-level language, folks) crowd, who want to go beyond BASIC. Who knows, I might even get around to serious tinkering when I finally get version 2.
Finally, a serious question. Do you really need to learn to program? It’s a lot like cars: you can learn to drive, go shopping, pick the kids up, race around the streets and even parallel park downtown—without ever once learning to change a spark plug.
Programming is auto mechanics for the computer. You don’t need to program to use a computer. If your main use is word processing (like 94% of us, according to one survey I read) or games, then why bother? I don’t need to learn C to enjoy playing Time Bandit on Ethel. (Jerry Pournelle names his computers, so I call my 130XE Fred, and my ST is Ethel. I toyed with Bert and Ernie, Roy and Dale, and even Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent.)
Anyway, aside from the writing aspects, I use my computer to play games. When I finally get tired of other people’s games, I’ll sink my teeth into one of those HLL’s and write my own.
Ian Chadwick is the author of Mapping the Atari (Compute! Books, 1983, 1985) and has been employed as a writer, editor, journalist, cook, salesman, house painter and itinerant fruit picker, among other things. He lives in Toronto with his wife, six cats and one beleaguered dog, whom he’s trying to teach to play chess.
ST-LOG #7 / OCTOBER 1986 / PAGE 49ST
Let’s talk about software development. Lots of software gets out into the market, but not a lot of it is top-notch stuff. This is particularly true when the hardware is new, like the ST. In the early stages, a lot of mediocre (or worse) programs hit the shelves. Why? In this column, I’m going to talk to the publishers about the process. A lot of you are new to the business and haven’t really figured things out yet.
First, of course, is the learning curve. New hardware always has hidden “features,” bugs, functions you don’t discover until the system has been around long enough for developers to get into it seriously. Fair enough; software tends to become more sophisticated as programmers learn the inner workings and are able to apply both their knowledge and the knowledge other users uncover. A system as complex and demanding as the ST demands a longer learning curve than does a simpler system. We forgive a lack of sophistication in early programming efforts, with the understanding that better efforts will follow. I’ll assume that your programmers are adequate in this respect.
A big problem lies in your publishing company’s corporate structure itself. All too often, the programmers call all the shots; they are the developers, beta testers, marketing arm and head honchos. Unfortunately, while this looks good on their business cards, it makes for a narrow-looking company. And programmers are, too often, people without the skills or expertise to wear all those hats. Small companies which follow this model need to change their style. Either bring on board someone who knows business, or get outside help and consultation.
A basic developmental flowchart would be: publisher comes up with a product to sell; writes design specs; has a preliminary program written, along with a preliminary manual; has the product and manual evaluated by outsiders; has the program finished; goes through another testing cycle; rewrites and debugs; prepares final manual, disk and package; then places it in the distribution stream. Of course, there are a lot of other considerations—contracts with outside programmers, advertising and promotion, market research, project coordination, editing—all depending on the company involved. The weakest areas in this process are usually in market research, design specification compilation and evaluation.
First, I assume a company’s research finds there is a need or a profitable market for a product. It goes without saying that some level of research is performed, or else you’re talking Russian Roulette with your capital. Basic research involves a lot of foot and phone work; you call distributors and retailers first, asking them what’s coming and what’s been asked for. Read the trade journals and try to find trends or growth areas.
Check out the competition. See who has what out, what it does, and what’s due in the next few months (or year). Read reviews to find the strong and weak points. Try to uncover sales figures to see if it’s worthwhile and profitable (that’s the magic word). Compare prices and see if there’s enough margin to undersell or compete at the same price.
You can hire someone to do this for you, or you can have it all done in-house. But, whatever you do, make sure you know the market first. Find out why a product is demanded or is selling. Who is buying the machines? Will they also buy your program? At what price? Can you make money at that price? Will the program sell more machines or vice versa? Who will stock it? Sell it? Review it? Prepare a written analysis that tells whether or not there’s a reason to go ahead and publish. This is done as standard practice in the book publishing industry; it fits the software business, as well.
Next, you write up the design specs for your product. Make sure you buy the competition’s packages and see how they handle it. Try to find better, more elegant solutions or features. No, I don’t recommend copying and plagiarism, but I do suggest you know what the other companies are doing, then aim at producing a better product with more features than what’s currently on the market. The only way you’ll know is to buy the competition and test it. Don’t kid yourself: if you think other industries don’t compare the competitor’s products and try to outdo them, you’re deluding yourself.
Design specs are critical. This is the working scaffold around which you’ll build your product. Be as complete and detailed as possible. You may need to change the specs later; be prepared. Write up the essential features first, then potentially attractive features. This is where a lot of brainstorming is necessary. Don’t attempt to do it alone; involve everyone in your office if you can. Never look down on ideas, no matter what their source.
With a basic design idea in mind, go outside the company. Ask the users and sellers what they want in a product of that type. Don’t think you know it all. Ask the users. If your product is a professional one, ask the potential buyers what they want. Don’t just program something and dump it on the market.
For example, say you decide we need another word processor (we do, but I’ll cover that in another column). Go to professional writers, or users who write several hours daily. Ask them what they need, if they want mouse or keyboard commands, or both. Do they need or want GEM? How many keystrokes will they accept to implement a command? Do they need to search and replace bare carriage returns, and do they need windows and buffers? How large a document do they plan to write? Do they use a hard disk or a spelling checker? Is ASCII file output needed? Find out what they’re using now, and why they like or dislike it. Ask about printers, speed, fonts, and everything else you can think of. Put it all in writing.
This is a critical, often overlooked step. It pays to talk to users and find out what they’re doing and what they need. It also pays to examine the best-sellers and the well-reviewed products from another hardware system. You can see what’s worked there—and why. Many of the ideas and innovations can be carried over to the ST environment. Don’t be afraid to incorporate a good idea into your product, as long as you write it yourself.
An amazing amount of software hits the market without ever going though an elementary design stage. How often have you wondered, “Why doesn’t it do this?” or thought, “It would be so much easier if it did it this way…,” or “Why haven’t they included this painfully obvious and necessary feature?” I haven’t found much software that doesn’t bring up these thoughts. That’s why it’s important to get the specs right first. And the only way you’ll do so is by asking users what they need. Remember, in any other manufacturing or publication industry, fully developed and understood design specs are crucial.
Evaluation is the second part of this two-stage process. It’s done after you’ve got some of the program written, enough to test it outside. This is also a key issue: go outside. People in the real world will find bugs and make programs crash in ways you never even considered. If you ask a person to press a numeric key, they’ll press A, or a function key. They’ll change disks when they shouldn’t, choose the worst menu option, enter bad filenames, forget to turn on the printer, and everything else. And more. They’ll also be able to find design flaws and make suggestions to improve them. Your programmers can’t see this; they’ve worked with the program too closely. They wrote it; they know not to press A when 6 is expected.
Evaluation is a barometer for your product. Get professional users (I feel I must hammer that word home… Don’t depend on your friends, your wife or hubbie, your mother, or your kids to test the product). Get someone who knows the field, uses similar products, needs the product or would use it if available—and who’s dependable and willing to be critical. Pay them for their efforts, or promise them a finished copy. Mention them in the credits, but make it a business transaction. Demand a written report and feel free to ask for clarification or expansion on points you don’t understand.
This is the make-it-or-break-it point. If your evaluators come back with a lot of criticisms, you’d better decide whether to redesign and rewrite, or to scrap the project altogether. I do this type of work for several companies, including Batteries Included and Antic. My reports are deadly; I’m very critical and tear the products to pieces. I test everything, then recommend which points must be changed to sell the product and which should be changed to improve it. I can’t foresee or find every technical flaw, but I cover the user end completely. When these companies combine my reports with those from other sources, they have a good, detailed, critical analysis of the program. That’s the base they need, to decide where to go next.
Of course, the needs and demands of a professional user are different from those of the casual user. I’m a professional writer: I spend eight to twelve hours every day (weekends, too) in front of one of my computers, writing. I need different, often more powerful or complex things in a word processor than does the person who writes a few articles or letters. I’ve used a dozen different computer systems and know what most major word processors can and can’t do. But my evaluation of a word processor will take this into account.
If the program suits my needs, it will suit almost anyone in the business or professional market. This isn’t true the other way around. If your testers are casual users, the result will be a program they can use, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to see or appreciate what a regular or demanding user requires. Know your intended market.
By the same token, I would only use a project management program casually, so my report can only deal properly with the user interface and bugs. I couldn’t tell whether or not the program design would best suit a professional project manager. I use speadsheets regularly, so I can evaluate them, but I can’t evaluate an accounting package as competently.
for and know the basics. Some should be technically oriented and some just competent users. By getting technical and nontechnical (not casual) reviewers, your company gets a well-rounded perspective on the product. Generally, if your original design specs were properly developed, you won’t face major rewrites or redesign at this stage.
If your evaluations come back negative, go back to square one. It’s better to redesign and produce a good, finished product than produce a half-finished one. You’ll only get bad reviews, customer dissatisfaction and a bad reputation with the latter. Think about the general reaction to VIP Professional when it arrived; it had many bugs and lacked the promised GEM interface. Most of the negative reaction could have been avoided by following a reasonable design/evaluation cycle, rather than rushing it out.
Don’t confuse evaluation with testing. Testing is done on a “finished” product to iron out any last bugs, wrinkles or problems. It is not an invitation for design analysis. This can be done by competent, but not necessarily professional, users. It can be done in-house by people who are unfamiliar with the program, but you should send a few outside as well, to cover all bases. You can never test software too much.
Most of my criticisms of programs are due to weaknesses in these steps—or the lack of them, in some companies. No amount of professional programming expertise can make up for sloppy research or design. My own background includes both software and trade book editing for major publishing houses. Nothing got published without market research, financial analysis, and, where appropriate, design and evaluation.
There are other issues which can change the reaction to your products: packaging and documentation are two of the more important. Both must be professional and complete. Don’t leave ad copy, jacket copy, or—especially—your manuals in the programmers’ hands. Get them written by people who understand English and can write it adequately. Have all copy read by outsiders. Have them comment on it, along with the program. This goes for all text within the program as well: make sure it is fully proofed and edited. Don’t let something like your up $1 appear, when you’re was intended (as appears in Soft Logik’s Electro Solitaire & 21).
Get good package design—done by artists, not someone in the back room who took art one year in school. Make sure they understand that it has to sit on a store shelf, both face and spine out. Make sure they understand color, type and the need for a readable package. Above all, be professional in every stage, in every activity and every outlook.
Ian Chadwick is author of Mapping the Atari and several software manuals. He worked in the publishing business on and off for fifteen years. He was also an itinerant fruit picker, short order cook, game store manager, magazine editor and journalist. He lives in Toronto with Susan, their six cats and one dog. He is currently writing a murder mystery and trying to teach his dog Pascal.
ST-LOG #8 / NOVEMBER 1986 / PAGE 61ST
I think I’ll write a column about games. That should be easy, right? I already know and enjoy Time Bandit. I’ll just drop by the local Atari dealer, watch a bunch of screens, take notes, then come home. Nothing to it: add a passel of sage comments to my notes and I have a column. Okay…
“Got anything new in games? Like chess? Or a wargame? Something intellectual.”
“Here! I have this wonderful new game. It’s called Rogue, from Epyx,” the salesman said. He leaned over to report, in a confidential voice, “It was taken from a mainframe game.” And he winked, conspiratorially.
Mainframe? The last time I saw a mainframe playing games was when the awesome might of the University of Toronto’s computer system massed to match me at 3-D tic-tac-toe. It lost. That was back in the days when a terminal meant a printer with a keyboard, and a video output was called a CRT. No one had CRTs then. “Show me.”
Oops. He’s in medium resolution, and it won’t load. I see a message about “Low-rez” on the screen. It must be a translation from a mainframe that didn’t speak English. They must mean “low-res”! He changes his modes, regardless. Click, click, he taps the mouse. Ah…color, graphics!
“It has twenty-six levels,” the clerk mutters, almost adoringly. I type in my name and the first screen comes up, full of neat little walls and a little caricature of a character who looks like Bilbo, being chased by a bat.
“Nice graphics,” I say, trying to dodge the bat.
“Watch. Here, go there. No. Open the door, that one. Watch out for the hobgoblin! Oh. Oh, dear.”
I’m dead. Well, that was short. Twenty-six levels, eh? I choose “new game.” Whirr, whirr, whirr. Back to the same initial picture. What? No reboot without having to go back to square one? Sigh. Try again. Ah, an ice monster. Hack, stab, hack, stab. I defeat it! What five miserable gold pieces? Grrr…
Okay, so I go on. I get attacked by bats and emus. Why do I feel like I’m fighting in Australia? Okay, down the stairs. There’s an amulet I have to find. Use the zoom; ah, there’s the stairway. What? A letter I attacks me. Hmm…killer alphabets.
“That’s an ice monster,” the salesman informs me. In the same climate as emus? I wonder. Trudge, trudge. Oops. I throw my bow at a centaur. Sigh; It’s lost. Now I go around trying to stab monsters with arrows. Of course, I die. Again.
“Can you win at this thing?”
“I don’t know, but it has twenty-six levels!”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“But twenty-six levels! Who cares if you win? Think of all the fun!”
Okay, so it’s fun. It’s also not very original in concept, but if a new user has never heard of or played Dungeons & Dragons™—say, if you just came from Mars—it’s a nice introduction. It’s not Time Bandit, but then again, where else can I fight emus?
Okay, so it’s nicely done; I admit it. He beams at me and tells me it has twenty-six levels again. I saw only three of them. I don’t know if I could last another twenty-three. At least I can save a game and return to it later (well, it also makes you quit the game if you save it…). My version of Time Bandit doesn’t allow that. Maybe Gord will send me a new one.
“What else have you got?”
“You’re gonna love this one: Temple of Apshai.”
“Huh? I played that on my TRS-80 Model 1. Around the last ice age.”
“The Trash 80 didn’t have graphics. Or sound. Watch this.” He boots it up, in low-res, just in case we get attacked by a “low-rez” warning. Hmmm.
“This has a predefined character called Brian Nailfoot. Sounds clumsy.”
“You can change it,” he says.
“No, leave it. I don’t want to get too attached to him.” Let’s see, 140 pieces of silver. He’s been moonlighting. Better buy a shield, some armor, a what? A Bastard-sword? Don’t ask; it’s only a game. Buy one anyway. Oops, I’m not strong enough. Can I take a Charles Atlas course first? No? Okay, get the broadsword. What about a bow? Twelve? Offer nine. No? Try ten. No? Eleven? Come on…okay, twelve. And it says I’m a hard bargainer—for paying what he asked! Artificial stupidity…so buy what you can and save the character. Now, let’s try our mettle.
Ah, it’s animated. I walk forward. No, not that far, stupid. Argh. Hit by a skeleton. Come back! Wait. No, hit it, bounce off, ohhh…I’m dead. Try again. Okay, fire a few arrows. That killed it. Grab the treasure. Hmmm. Trash. Sigh. What are my options? Ylixir? What’s that, a Martian pet? Must be from the same guys who put “low rez” in the last game.
More trash. Boring. Who keeps their trash in little treasure cases in a dungeon? Carry on… All this trash. At least these are neat monsters. I have mushrooms, a cloak and kelp. Some treasure. I have mushrooms growing in my basement already, and who needs kelp? Maybe if I wanted to open a sushi bar… Ah, there’s a likely looking box. And a spider. Surely I can defeat a spider, right? Wrong. I die, again.
“Okay, try this one.” He pushes me aside and boots up Swords of Kadash, from Penguin Polarware. Penguin? I wonder if it’ll be full of polar bears and ptarmigans. Nothing like killer ptarmigans. Nope. It’s another D&D™ clone, I think. A slice off the old bologna, as they say. I read the opening message. Accursed villains? My favorite foes. I enter the dungeon. I choose a joystick.
It’s not as well done as Rogue, even Apshai. Maybe on a par with something 8-bit, like Crypts of Terror. Remember that game? Ho hum. I keep hitting myself with my own arrows. I die. A lot. Luckily, this game has a benevolent deity, and I get reincarnated. A lot. It’s a lot like Lode Runner, without quite as much fun. I pop the disk. It wasn’t a lot like D&D™ after all, much to its detraction.
The clerk looks at me in exasperation. “If you don’t like fantasy role-playing games, maybe you’d prefer something more action oriented.” Why should I tell him I played D&D™ when he was still in diapers? These are good games, sure, but I’m not all that keen on fighting green slimes and magic centipedes. Orcs give me hives.
“Mudpies. Hey, this is fun. You’ll love it. Trust me.” I shiver when anyone says those words. A lawyer once used them to me. I’m still recovering. Mudpies, he tells me, is from MichTron. I wait with baited breath. Another Time Bandit perhaps?
“What’s the point of the game?”
“You have to throw mudpies at the clowns and clear them off the screen,” he says. Mudpies? Not very manly. “Make sure you keep your energy level up.”
“How do I do that?”
“See those McDonald’s bags? Those are fries. Eat them, the milkshakes and the burgers whenever your food indicator turns red. But not too many.”
Not too many is right. I don’t even eat that stuff in real life. How can I do it here? Besides, I’m a vegetarian. He shows me how to throw a pie. I bonk a clown. The others gang up on me and throw bowling pins. Sheesh!
All I have are mudpies! More come out of the holes in the walls. Bonk! Bonk! Bonk! Sigh. “I know, don’t tell me. It has twenty-six levels, too.”
“Look, this is good. Red Alert, from Antic. You’ve heard of them.” He nudges me in the ribs. I try not to nudge him back with the disk drive. He boots up the game. “You put your cities anywhere you like, then you put your missile silos and laser bases to protect them.” He spreads the items across a map of North America.
“Don’t put one there.” I say.
“Where, here? That’s Toronto! Your hometown.”
“I know. Just don’t put one there. It would make me queasy if I lost it.”
“All right. I’ll put it here. That’s Detroit.” Right. Who cares if they take out someone else’s hometown? “Watch.” The missiles start coming in over the pole. Zap, blam. Subs pop up and shoot from the oceans. Argh! There goes San Francisco! What? What happened to Miami? The damn Cubans had missiles, and they fired at me! Sneaky weasels! I’ll nuke’em myself. Huh? I can’t hit the Cubans? My mood goes black. So do my cities. More missiles approach. My silos are empty, my lasers drained. Boom, boom. Game over.
“No. Too much like real life. Sort of like watching ‘The Day After’ over and over again. How about something less violent?”
“Do you like 007 movies? Here, try Major Motion.”
I do. I’m driving a car with a front-aimed machine gun. Always wanted one of those things on the highway. I blast a few nasties, bump others off the road; then—squeal!—I skid into a tree. Some guy with spikes on his wheels ripped my tires! Grr…the truck drops me back on the road again. Wait! That guy with the spikes is still there, waiting for me to get out of the truck. Squeal! Grr… Next time I get a missile, I fire at him from behind. Hee, hee… wait! Nothing happened! Argh. Squeal…
Okay, this calls for serious action. I clear the road. What are tourists doing on attack alley, anyway? What! Some F15 slipped down from 12-o’clock high and nuked me. Okay. Try again. “Hey! That’s a clone of this car!” I say. “How do I kill it?”
“You don’t. You just have to get in the truck and hope it goes away.”
“Where’s the truck?”
“You’ll have to wait.” I can’t. The clone which I can’t kill is very apt at killing me. Too bad. I was just starting to like this game. I never like to play games where I don’t have at least a 50-50 on an opponent.
“How about something cerebral?” I ask.
The clerk is a disappointed man. He boots up Electro Solitaire & 21, from Soft Logik. “Well, there’s always this…”
“Now you’re talking. Black jack? I’m a whiz. Let’s see…” I sit down and playa hand. Hmmm. It doesn’t bother to tally my score. Sloppy, I think to myself. I win! Dealer goes bust. What? The screen says “Your up $20.” My up what? Could they possibly mean “you’re”? Same guys who came up with “low rez,” I bet. Must be a conspiracy to have all the illiterates in the world band together and write software. I try again. This time, it’s a push. The dealer wins. Huh? Shouldn’t it be a tie, and the money stays down? I give the clerk back the disk. “I want a game that knows the rules,” I say, simply. I didn’t add from someone who knows the basic rules of English. He just shrugs and gives me Cards from MichTron.
“Ah, this is more like it,” I say. The clerk beams. Five games in one. Blackjack, Poker Squares, Klondike, Cribbage and Solitaire. Hmmm; just called Solitaire? What’s that? Ah! It’s La Belle Lucie, an old and popular version of solitaire. Klondike looks familiar, except I can’t select the more common three-card (rather than one) draw method. Oh well, let’s try Blackjack.
Hmmm. I have 13 showing. At least it tallies my score. “How do I get another card?”
“Huh? No mouse option? Why not press H for hit? You know, and S for stand? Mnemonics, you know…”
“Just press 1,” he snarls. I do. I get an eight. Twenty-one. I win.
“It’s where you enter your name and bet amount.”
“I just did. Last turn.”
“You have to enter it every turn. It’s easy; just press RETURN.”
“Can’t I tell it to use the figures for good?”
“Why? It’s easy!”
“No mouse option?” Nope; he shakes his head. I’m a real nitpicker, he figures. I try again. It’s a push situation. Ah! It lets it stand. Good work. Someone read the rules before they attempted to program. But the keyboard entry method doesn’t overwhelm me. So I won’t play Blackjack. The rest look good. “Wrap it. I’ll take it.”
The clerk falls off his chair in surprise. A sale? From me? I get up to leave. “Wait!” he shouts. “Don’t you want to see Universe II?”
“What happened to Universe I?”
“It’s not out for this machine.”
“Call me when it is. Meanwhile, I’ll practice my solitaire.”
“But what about the adventures? Sundog? The Pawn? King’s Quest II?”
“What happened to King’s Quest I? Don’t tell me—it’s not out for this machine.”
“Hacker? Borrowed Time? Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”
“Next time!” I say and close the door behind me. I look back for a brief moment and see the clerk grabbing boxes of adventure games from the shelves, his mouth still moving. Calling out games, I guess. Well, I got something…not chess, like I had really hoped, and not a wargame, but something to while away those idle moments when I don’t have time for a Time Bandit session. Maybe I’ll go back and look at the adventures next month.
I walk down the street and pass a McDonald’s. I hurry past, afraid some nut with a pie in his hand will come at me.
Ian Chadwick is the author of Mapping the Atari and other nonsense. He lives in Toronto with his wife and their small menagerie, none of whom are willing to learn any computer languages. He is currently writing mystery fiction, because he wants to publish something people can read in the john.
ST-LOG #9 / DECEMBER 1986 / PAGE 51ST
Tinker tinker tinker.
That’s the sound of me, engaged in the genteel art of hacking. I admit it: I’m an obsessive hacker. I really don’t like programming all that much, but I do like chipping away at other folks’ programs. And at hardware, too—nothing gives me greater delight than opening up something electronic and poking about inside (well, almost nothing, but this is a family magazine…).
One day, I was dallying about on CompuServe and saw a file of instructions for enlarging the screen display on my monochrome monitor. “Hot damn!” I thought, and grabbed it in my capture buffer. As soon as I was off-line, I was up to my elbows in hot wires, twiddling tiny little screws and pots. The result? Well, okay, so I’m not so hot; I have a greatly expanded monitor display that is nicely crooked. Sigh. The left side curves up and is ever so slightly out of focus. I hope detwiddling some of the pots will reduce the effect. One day, I’ll get around to doing it again. Maybe even within the Age of Mammals. Maybe.
Somewhat safer is my hacking in files and programs. I like to get down to track and sector level, and scramble bytes. My collection of 8-bit software is full of hacked programs. I learned how to hack Flight Simulator files, War in Russia files; I changed Eastern Front, some of the maps in NAM and Panzer Grenadier—all on the sector level (all legit copies of the programs, too). Sure, it took a lot of trial and error, but I made a zillion backups first, then spent a few dozen hours making little changes and noting their effects. The results are rewarding, at least in the same sense that solving a puzzle is.
Okay, so I also do the same on the ST. Of course, I don’t have a lot to work with (at least no wargames, yet…nudge, nudge), but I have fun changing alert dialogs, menu names, that sort of thing. My biggest challenge to date came after playing Epyx’s Rogue (yes, I did buy it, twenty-six levels and all). I kept dying. A lot. I don’t like to die, even metaphorically. I made it to level 15 once. Not enough. “Time to hack,” I thought.
I got out my hacker program (more on this later) and started to search the 220-plus sectors in the game. Aha! Deep into the file, I noticed in the ASCII display a lot of things like 2d6, 3d3 in one sector. Hmmm. “Nope,” I thought, “that ain’t hexadecimal. That’s D&D™ syntax, betcha.” The 2d6 means roll two six-sided dice. Of course, I wasn’t sure of the order of things, but I started changing a lot of values. I made my character stronger—9d9 (Hey! This is my fantasy; if I wanna pretend I’m Conan, that’s my business…) and everything else weaker. Then I went back in after the amulet.
Hack, slash, hack, slash; I left behind me a bloody trail of dead monsters. I even went down to level 30 (when you’re on a roll…) and made my way back up. Then I retired the game, successfully mastered. After all, who’ll know? Hee hee…
So that’s a little excursion into what I do with my spare time. The game didn’t interest me half as much as figuring out its innards. And for that, you need a hacking tool. “Aha,” the reader mutters, “the meat of the article, after all.” No, it’s the carrot (I’m a vegetarian, remember). Hackers’ tools—usually disk utilities—are those which allow you access to disks and sometimes memory. They let you read and write sectors, recover lost files, examine and set file attributes, that sort of thing.
I have several hackers’ tools in my workbench—Hippo ST Disk Utilities, MichTron Utilities, Antic’s Disk Doctor, Holmes & Duckworth’s Atari ST Toolkit Volume 1, and a demo version of a German program from Focus called TLDU (The Last Disk Utility). Of that lot, the one I use most (say 99 percent of the time) is Disk Doctor. Why? you might well ask. Read on.
My version of the Hippo ST Disk Utilities (DUST) is very early—TOS-in-ROM days. It doesn’t work well on my ROM-based hard drive system, being prone to crash rather frequently. Since it’s the only protected program of the lot, I can’t save it on my hard drive, without having the original disk nearby for “verification” every time I use it. DUST has trouble reading the first sectors on a disk. It does “double” screen redraws, and the “help” files in my version are scrambled, so only a few of them are intact. The readable ones contain several errors, such as stating that TOS ignores read-only and hidden-file attributes (it does not). DUST does have a memory editor, but it also crashes during use (even if you haven’t changed anything!) After a few attempts, I gave up on it. And I haven’t examined a later version.
H&D’s package is a collection of several programs, each with rather limited use (e.g., a file recovery program, a sector editor, a directory print—which actually creates an ASCII file you have to print when you exit). In order to creatively hack a disk, you need to load one, use it, then quit, load another, and so on. It doesn’t tell you anything about file attributes, can’t change disk labels, has poor error recovery, and only deals with drives A and B. It lacks information on file attributes and sophisticated directory information, and has no on-line help. Besides that, in some programs (like file recovery), the display is poorly designed and minimal use (if any) is made of GEM. It does have a memory edit/display program, but I found those search routines woefully slow.
MichTron’s MUTIL.PRG is much better. It allows you to easily change file attributes, but doesn’t tell you what they mean anywhere—and the docs are inadequate in this area. The display doesn’t tell you how many sectors are in a file (it uses the analog GEM scroll bar, with no indication of the number shown), and there’s no way to go directly to a specified sector (e.g., jump to the third of sixty). It also has the annoying inability to remember the drive you select; it always returns to the boot drive, no matter how many times you use another one. Also, the ASCII string search is case-sensitive, with no means to turn the case off. Other features, like verify sectors, don’t return much information—or any. Finally, I’ve had the program crash (two bombs) a few times in mid-hack, so I stopped using it.
TLDU is, admittedly, a demo version, so it doesn’t have all the features installed, but it doesn’t really need them. I wouldn’t use it anyway. First of all, it doesn’t work in color, so that makes it a poor choice for any users who didn’t opt for monochrome. It promises over 100 commands in its final version, but so few worked in the version I’ve got (although the docs say they should), it’s dangerous to even experiment with. It’s an awkward command-driven TOS (not GEM) program without any help files, so you need to memorize all those commands. If a new version is out, perhaps much of this has changed for the better. It could certainly use improvement. Besides, anything that bills itself as the last, the ultimate, the best, or whatever is bound to be flaky, in my book.
Okay, so I use Dan Matejka’s Disk Doctor. To date, it hasn’t crashed on me once. It handles floppies and hard drives equally well and has on-line help files (which, having had something to do with the writing thereof, I believe are well done) that can be sent to the printer or the screen. It reads and writes sectors, searches, displays how many sectors are in a file and deleted files, and all the file attributes. It works. I have this thing about liking programs that work. It doesn’t have a memory-edit feature, a track-format option, nor can it set file attributes as easily as MUTIL. I sorely miss those features, but it has excellent file and disk recovery routines that compensate well for the lack of other features, and a nice display. Of the programs of this ilk, I think it’s the best.
With Disk Doctor, I’ve saved myself a lot of ulcers. I’ve recovered files inadvertently (or even deliberately) trashed. I’ve fixed or altered files to suit my needs and tastes, corrected small problems, and learned a lot about the ST’s disk structure and how many programs are assembled. Not everyone is a disk hacker, but it’s an instructive thing to learn—and can be a lot of fun, albeit a tad dangerous if you mess up (backups becomes a key word).
None of the programs above can read or write those elusive tracks beyond 79, although several copy and/or format programs allow you to use them. None of the programs here really tell you how to create a boot sector for a double-sided disk, though MichTron thoughtfully provides a double-sided boot sector to simply copy to disk, using their program. MUTIL comes with Mi-Dupe, a track-oriented disk-copy program. H&D’s package has a single-drive format/copy program, offering little more than the vanilla TOS format/copy routine does. Neither will copy past sector 79.
My ultimate disk utility would include several features lacking in everything I’ve seen so far: ability to disassemble a file from disk or memory (and save the source code that results); ability to load a file at any location in memory; ability to read and write to the “hidden” tracks (80-82); full memory view, edit and save (as a file or as sectors); jump to any memory location (and run a program from there); multiple search options; and several other features already found in popular 8-bit debuggers and disk utilities. Until then, I’ll keep hacking with what I’ve got and wait for things to get better. Hmmm. Maybe I can improve my score in Time Bandit this way…
Ian Chadwick is the Director of Editorial Services at Batteries Included. He lives in Toronto with Susan and their pet stegosaur. They considered getting a pelycosaur instead (possibly a dimetrodon), but were worried that it would eat one of their cats. Ian is currently writing romance fiction and trying to figure how to reverse his time-travel experiment, to return the stegosaur to the Jurassic before it defoliates their garden.
ST-LOG #10 / JANUARY 1987 / PAGE 47
“Hello, I’d like to buy a copy of MacPaint,” I said to the smiling, nattily dressed Apple dealer. Behind him, a group of programming types were playing with a resource editor on a Mac, and muttering about event timers and the like. I could tell they were programmers, because they were all drinking Coke and eating donuts. Real health food fanatics.
“Didn’t you get one when you bought your Macintosh?” Smiley asked me somewhat condescendingly.
“It’s not for a Mac,” I replied. “It’s for an ST.”
“An ST? An Atari ST?” He dripped sarcasm all over the orange indoor-outdoor carpeting. One of the programming types over heard and rolled his eyes. Another sniggered. Gad, how I dislike people who snigger.
“Yes, an Atari ST. I’d like to buy MacPaint for my Atari ST. How much is it?”
“Sir,” said Smiley, leaning forward and still dripping, “MacPaint will only run on a Macintosh. It will not run on an Atari of any sort, no matter how much they tried to make it look like a Macintosh.” The sniggerer progressed to guffaws. Gad, how I dislike people who guffaw.
“No, it’ll run on my ST, don’t worry,” I assured him, then added confidentially, “I have the monochrome monitor.”
Smiley straightened up and looked down at me, frowning. “I don’t know what those Atari dealers have been telling you, but under no circumstances will an Apple program designed for the Macintosh run on an Atari product.” I could hear him capitalize words like Apple and Macintosh, just as if he were saying “God” and “the Constitution.” Little icicles hung from every word. Probably trained in selling at Tuktoyaktuk U. I brushed the frost from my jacket and persisted.
“Yes it will. Listen: it’s a 68000, right? So it will work. How much do you sell it for?”
Smiley wasn’t smiling any more. My insistence in wasting his valuable time was turning him frigid. Maybe I should have called him Frosty instead. “Sir, if you don’t mind, I have more important…”
“Listen, I’ll tell you what,” I said easily. “I’ll make you a bet. I have my ST in my car. I’ll bring it in and load a copy of MacPaint. If it doesn’t work, I’ll give you a hundred dollars. If it does, you give me the program free of charge.”
Frosty’s eyes lit up like little squinty LEDs. “Fish in a barrel,” he must have thought. “A fool and his money!” The programmers at the Mac station were grinning like predatory weasels, looking at me as if I were a trapped, fat chicken. I smiled at them, and I’ll swear one began to salivate. Nice bunch, but would you want your sister to marry one? Frosty quickly agreed, and I dashed out to my car. Minutes later, I was struggling through the door with an armload of Atari equipment.
By now, several customers and the store manager had heard about me, and were all waiting around for my arrival. I think there were even bets that I wouldn’t return. I fooled them. Mister Manager patted Frosty on the back (who—unable to decide which personality to wear—was being Smiley again). Everyone was enjoying the joke, at my expense. Smiley promised to buy Mr. Manager lunch when I’d gone. “Pick anywhere you want to eat,” he said, “It’s on me.” Good career move.
I set up the ST, and hooked in the cables, power supplies and drives. The ST looks as if it rests on a Sargasso Sea of wires, compared to the Mac. I quietly plugged in my Magic Sac and booted the Atari. Several disparaging remarks were made about the screen and the menus by the programmer types. Mister Manager was loudly pointing out the mental deficiencies of the dealer who told me an ST would run Apple programs, counterpointing his arguments with his own store’s virtues. I opened the Magic Sac loader, set it to 512K Motivator and, when it asked, I put in my special Finder 4.1 disk.
Clump clump clump clump—I heard the jaws dropping as the Welcome to Macintosh screen appeared. Someone muttered “good fake.” Then the desktop cleared, and the whimpers of astonishment were audible as I quickly ran through the menu bar. I already had a copy of MacPaint on a Magic-formatted disk, so I put it in drive B and loaded the program. The blood had drained completely from Smiley’s face. He was now Whitey. Mister Manager was glaring at him with eyes like little black holes. No one chortled even once.
Suddenly the customers were all over me, asking questions. I quit MacPaint and loaded Excel, then several public domain games from CompuServe’s MACUS SIG. The programmers who recognized them were in awe. One kept mumbling “impossible” over and over again. When I booted MDS Edit from the Mac developer’s kit, I was sure Whitey was going to faint. Especially when his boss said he wanted lunch at Maxim’s. In Paris. France.
I answered a few questions—several from the customers, about the location of the closest Atari dealer—and demonstrated a few odds and ends, impressing everyone with the 30-percent increase in speed which Magic Sac has over the Mac. Then I closed it all down and stood up.
“Can I have my MacPaint now? I have to run.” I said. Whitey was trembling. He pointed at the now dead screen.
“But you already have one. I saw it.”
“Sure, but that’s a copy. I want an original, so I can’t be accused of piracy. I have an original of all the others. I just need MacPaint.” I waited patiently, while Whitey and Mister Manager disappeared into the back room to retrieve a copy, probably from some carton full of Mac. When Whitey returned, I was all packed up and ready to go. He looked somewhat dishevelled, as though someone had brushed his suit with a live bobcat. Mister Manager didn’t return, but I could hear him in the storeroom tearing walls down. Whitey gave me my MacPaint and I left. When I looked back, the programmer types were staggering around the store, looking as if someone had emptied a Buck Rogers stun gun on them. I smiled. I’d always wanted to do that.
Okay, okay, so the real secret lay in the Magic Sac (formerly the MacCartridge—see issue 45 of ANALOG Computing for the story of its introduction at the West Coast Computer Faire), from Data Pacific, Inc. It’s a plug-in cartridge, equipped with two Apple Mac ROMs. I didn’t tell them that—I couldn’t resist the chance to pull off my trick. However, aside from playing practical jokes on Apple dealers, of what use is the Magic Sac?
Well, first of all, as advertised, it doesn’t come with those very necessary ROMs. You need to pry them out of your Mac—and they must be old 64K ROMs, not the newest Mac Plus ROMs. Which makes this the most expensive cartridge in computer history: $129.00 for the cartridge and $3000.00 for the Mac (which doesn’t work anymore, because you’ve just taken the ROMs out…)! DPI had to go this route, because Apple threatened legal action otherwise (the Magic Sac is sold as a “Mac” peripheral). Apple sues everyone. If you’ve seen the new GEM 2 from DR, you’ll know how Apple’s lawsuits can cripple a product. The company refuses to sell old ROMs to us Atari folk, even if the ROMs are useless to them. Apple doesn’t like entrepreneurs to tread on their turf, either.
However, as I’ve discovered, a few enterprising local dealers have managed to obtain them for sale. I don’t know where they got them—Apple says they won’t sell them, but someone obviously does. The Magic Sac won’t work with EPROMS. The sidebar to that story: Atari dealers can’t sell any Mac software with the Sac—like the System and Finder. You still need to port those over from a Mac, using an ImageWriter cable. This assumes you have a Mac already, right? Otherwise, it’s piracy.
Okay, so I have a Mac and an ST, and legit copies of everything (I really had MacPaint, too, but I just wanted to be mean… I find most Mac users insufferably arrogant). And if I port over the programs to my ST, is it piracy? Urk. Sticky question. Lots of people (and publishers) say yes. But it’s not that easy.
First, if you take the ROMS out of your Mac, you’re still really using the software on your Mac, or a part of it, ’cause the original ROMS are in use. So that can’t be piracy, even if an ST is the transport for the data. Also, Mac disks won’t load from the ST drives (at least until Data Pacific releases its Mac drive for the ST!) Protected software won’t run, even when ported over, because, when it checks the drives for the protection, it isn’t there on the ST drives. Lots of other programs won’t run, either—including MacWrite (it will load and scroll, but touch the RETURN key, and—wham!—bomb city). And the music is permanently disabled. So, despite all the hoopla, there isn’t an infinite number of programs that will work with it.
Many programs can’t take advantage of the larger screen, although you can often use the space to open more windows, at least increasing their visibility and readability. But MacPaint still uses the teeny screen size, despite the largely unused border around it. Then you need an ImageWriter printer to dump MacPaint files. If you’re planning to buy the Mac-compatible drive and the ImageWriter, why not just use the Mac? Sure, with the Mac drive they’re planning, it’ll be a lot cheaper than buying a real Mac. But how many Mac programs do I really want? Excel, Think Tank, a game or two. Not enough to make it worth the dollars for the extra hardware, at least, not personally.
I’d rather see the software manufacturers wake up to the growing sales of the ST and decide to port over their Mac products. Then I’d only need to buy the software. But that would require the sleepy industry—so long lulled by the IBM/clone and Apple sales—to realize that, gee whiz, there’s something big happening out here. Don’t hold your breath wailing. Lots of those folks are still saying, “Atari who?” when you try to discuss the ST with them. Sigh.
Speaking of software, there are two programs for which I’m still searching. Oh, variations exist, but none that meet my standards or needs: a good word processor and a good outline generator. I’m still using ST Writer (version 1.50 now…), because it does more for me than any of the others do. As for outline processors. well, let’s leave these two for next month. Maybe by then I’ll have some new products to discuss.
Ian Chadwick is a member of the Romance Writers of America and recently submitted a romance/mystery to a large paperback publisher. In his spare time, he writes mystery and spy fiction, collects rejection slips, walks the dog and ponders the meaning of existence.
ST-LOG #11 / FEBRUARY 1987 / PAGE 15
Fiends! Rapscallions! Scoundrels!
Why am I shouting? Well, you see…I had a column already written; a nice, mildly philosophic monologue on the concept of GEM as a working environment, with relevant commentaries on word processing. I wafted sonorous paragraphs on the debate between user interface and productivity across the page, waxed polemic on the dichotomy between casual and professional user. In short, another one of those who-does-he-think-he-is? heavily opinionated columns that brings burning ire to the heart of the reader (sheesh, I just love writing stuff like that). Sorry; you’ll have to wait for that one.
Just as I was typing my last pithy points, I was interrupted. The mailperson handed me a small box with an Illinois return address and a SubLogic logo on the label. My hands trembled with anticipation. Was this the fabled ST Flight Simulator I held in my hands, or some cruel jest to entice me into palpitating disappointment? I laid the parcel reverently on the coffee table and gently removed the sealing tape with a few swift flicks of the paring knife. Snick! Snick! Afire with expectation, I separated the slices of cardboard and peered inside. It was! FS2 had arrived for my ST at last. Madly I danced around the room in consummate glee, waving the package around, spinning like a dervish. (They also sent me their Amiga version. Great…What’s an Amiga?)
Now don’t get the wrong idea. I didn’t rush up and cram the disk into my computer, foregoing all work in progress for a weekend of heady delight in the rapture only a true FS2 addict knows. No siree. I waited at least ten minutes before I did that, savoring every delicious second, teasing myself with nasty thoughts like, “What if it’s only the box?” or “What if the disk is bad?” Oh, we can be cruel to ourselves at times.
Get the picture? Probably not. Try to imagine a dishevelled man in his mid-thirties sitting in front of a computer all weekend, leaving only to perform the absolutely necessary bodily functions, (and only then when it was “perform or burst…”), ignoring wife, house, cats, dog, stegosaur (still haven’t got it back to the Jurassic yet…), in order to play with this program. I gave up showering, shaving, eating—almost—in order to discover what new thrills lay in store for me in the ST version. And I was not disappointed. My wife thinks I’m shy a few bricks at the present time, but she was kind enough to bring me meals at the keyboard, while I stared at my monitor and went “wroooom” and “neeeeeow!” and “ka-boom!” as my simulated airplane rocketed up into the simulated sky, twirled, dived, twisted and slapped into a simulated building…simulated crash, bmn, boom! Wheee!
Look, I’m not as crazy as you think. It all began innocently enough on Tuesday. I was sitting in my office on that drizzly afternoon listening to the monotonous staccato of rain on my desktop and reading my name on the glass of my office door: kciwdahc nai. On my desk was a copy of a book curiously titled 40 Great Flight Simulator Adventures, by Charles Gulick, from COMPUTE! Publications.
Right up until that moment, I had played FS2 on my Atari XE, but had never given it more than a passing look. Nice simulation, good job, well done, but…so what? The graphics were okay, nothing spectacular. I got tired of flying around Chicago (that is, after I learned to get airborne, and often enough I failed at that). Basically, it seemed pretty limited in its ability to hold my attention. The manuals were daunting, the instructions arcane (do I have to read all this stuff in order to fly the thing?) They made Linear B look veritably lucid in comparison. I simply put it among the rest of the disks I’ll take with me when I retire to Bali and have all the time in the world to learn about them. Right after I win the big lottery.
I was bored—didn’t want to work, just wanted to go home and drink some beer. I opened Gulick’s book and began browsing (it was a choice of that or of reading some corporate sales nonsense that was strictly Valium for the brain cells). I suddenly realized he was writing about places in the FS2 universe I didn’t even know existed. Sure, you get all those maps, but I never understood how to get anywhere other than Meigs, never knew what the numbers meant, and all my efforts had lead to serious program—and, therefore, plane—crashes.
Gulick, however, was blithely guiding the reader around the Statue of Liberty, between the World Trade Towers, and landing in Central Park. Now, New York may not be your favorite city, but, from up here (Toronto), it seems the center of the world. I wanted to get home and try this out. It carefully, simply laid out how to enter the editor and set the parameters. And there was more—deadstick free-fall glides from 10,000 feet; night flights into LAX; fogged-in islands, dangerous turbulence, tricky dashes beneath the George Washington bridge. It was as if a little door opened in my head, and a voice said, “Look at all this neat stuff!” I feigned terminal illness and left work, in order to go home and try this out.
I probably spent 100 hours at FS2 back then, playing with 40 GFSA and its sequel, 40 MGFSA (guess what the M stands for?) I built scenario disks, hacked the originals trying to discover how to build databases of my own (I didn’t…sigh); I had a great time. And it all sort of paled, along with almost everything else on the XE, when I got my ST.
Now, in spite of my apparent interest in games, I don’t really spend a lot of time playing them. I haven’t the time, to begin with; I haven’t got many (for the ST) and I find it boring after a few minutes of basic alien-frying. How many times can you play cosmic froggie space zapper? FS2 is a whole other ball game, so to speak. On the ST, it moves from the realm of a game to a rite of passage. One day, I may have to go to the software equivalent of AA, to stand up and tell a group of equally besotted strangers I spend hours at the keyboard with this game—at the expense of wife, friends, employment…
So what is all this brouhaha, anyway? What makes this version so spectacular? Glad you asked. First, you’ve got control over your view window: it can be as large as the screen itself—the instrument panel neatly tucks down in the GEM fashion, somewhere below the bottom of the viewing window. You can have two disparate views, in different windows, at once—say, one straight ahead, the other from the spotter plane. Spotter plane? Yes, you can even watch yourself from an imaginary plane located at a chosen distance, and viewpoint from your own plane. Or from the tower. Tower? Yup, you can see yourself come in as an air traffic controller might. And you can have a map—the old radar screen—up at the same time, too.
In case you get tired of zipping about in the Cessna, you can select the Learjet. Whhoooommmm! Travelling at the edge of Mach 1, at 49,000 feet, beats it all. Well, it beats most things. Setting environment, time of day, clouds, winds, location…all easy, through GEM menus and windows. Choose a partial panel or none at all. Turn off crash detect. All simple clicks. Slew mode was never so easy. And the manual is so much easier and friendlier, I couldn’t believe it was the same company.
Did I mention the multi-player mode? No? How’s this? You can hook up two STs, either directly or through a modem (300, 1200 or 2400 baud), and fly with a friend—even see the other player and buzz them. I haven’t tried it, but maybe you can even ram each other. (They don’t let you shoot them. I wanted dogfights over Kankakee, but cooler heads prevailed at SubLogic.) No, they didn’t allow for any multi-player World War I Ace, either, but the solo game is still intact.
What about the forty additional airports? There are San Francisco and the central California environs, San Rafael, Monterey, Lake Tahoe, Fresno, Mendicino…places, for the most part, I’ve never been to, but have now flown to in my simulated world. San Francisco itself has lots more detail: more buildings, mountains, Alcatraz, the Bay. There are even four prerecorded situations at which to begin, rather than just Meigs. Heaven, I’m in heaven…
Okay, there are drawbacks. You have to get flying to set an inflight situation (else you find you’re 3,000 feet up, at full throttle, and no forward momentum; the resulting plunge is not amusing), instead of simply setting an airspeed indicator. The VOR dials require laborious, time-consuming mouse clicking (the description of how to set them in the manual is incorrect). You can only save twelve situations in a single file. (And it must be on the disk in drive A and is always called “F7,” so you can’t even save more than one on a disk. What a waste of GEM potential! Who came up with that one?) That seems like a serious restriction for a 1-meg macrune. Of course, there’s the ol’ bugbear: I can’t load it onto or from my hard disk, or even use drive B. No one at subLogic seems to think we may have more than one disk drive in use in our lifetimes.
Still, these are really small complaints, in comparison to the very large pleasure I get from this program. My only real (and currently unquenchable) unhappiness lies in the lack of a local database to discover. I doubt Toronto is high on the list of locales for them to turn into a scenery disk. Flying LA is okay, but I’d like to fly around near home once in a while.
I should add that I wrote Bruce Artwick a polite letter, almost begging him to release the information concerning the database file structure and the compilers for same (or at least sell them), so those of us on the outside could create our own scenery disks. I’m willing to spend some spare hours doing it; I’m sure many others would be, too. He hasn’t replied yet. Who knows? Maybe he’ll agree. Maybe if everyone who felt the same way wrote him and asked, it would work. Are you listening to me? Is Mr. Artwick?
I love this program. It delights me, entertains, relaxes and challenges me, all at once. It’s my own little fantasy world to explore. I fly free; I shed the troubles, the traffic, the trauma of everyday cares when I load Flight Simulator. Flying is a lot like dreaming, and in your dreams, they say, you are truly free.
Oh, why was I shouting? Because now I’m behind on deadlines, I’m late with articles, my personal writing is suffering…all because they catered to my addiction. Fiends, rapscallions…and I do love ’em for it!
Ian Chadwick writes, edits, plays blues guitar, casts the I Ching, walks the dog, feeds the cats, washes the dishes, makes homemade beer, plays wargames, and enjoys romantic dinners with his wife, when he’s not playing Flight Simulator. According to his wife, he is currently involved only in the latter activity.
ST-LOG #13 / APRIL 1987 / PAGE 67
I think of myself as a “professional writer.” Since I spend a minimum of ten hours a day writing—documentation, articles, fiction, reviews—I don’t think this is a vanity; it’s merely a job description. I also edit manuals and promotional copy produced by others. The most important tool in my work is a word processor, so this month I’m going to write about writing and word processors.
Obviously, I need more elaborate tools than do those of you who spend only a few minutes, maybe an hour or two at the keyboard—writing a letter to Aunt Martha thanking her for the tie, pounding out the “what I did on my summer vacation” essay, or whatever—but I think many of you will benefit from what I have to say. My job also requires me to work on several different computers, so I often have to write or edit on one machine, then port the results over to another where it’s reformatted, re-edited and spell-checked. This tends to color my image of the ideal writing tool somewhat differently than would be the case if, like most people, I used only one machine.
I’m often asked “Which word processor do you use?” It’s a question rather different from “Which word processor do you recommend?” My answer to the former is always Perfect Writer; it’s an amazing and wonderful program I use under CP/M on my Kaypro 4. That, however, isn’t the answer an ST user wants to hear. Nor can I recommend that people replace their STs with MS-DOS machines just so they can use Word Perfect. These are, however, the two programs I consider the models of excellence in their respective environments.
My answer in regard to the ST is ST Writer (version 1.70, the latest at the time of this writing), and that generates a certain amount of surprise. ST Writer is perceived by those unfamiliar with either the program or the finer points of word processing as a holdover from the 8-bit world—a dinosaur, so to speak. They ask me about GEM-based programs, astounded that I don’t use a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) processor that reproduces on-screen exactly what will come out of the printer. I’m seen as eccentric (or archaic) in my tastes. But I have my reasons, all of them carefully conceived and based on years of experience.
First, WYSIWG isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I don’t need my word processor to exactly portray the final printed output, except as a minor convenience. Publishers usually ask for articles or manuscripts in ASCII format, unless they’re using your particular word processor—and I know of no publisher outside the Atari world who uses an ST professionally for writing or editing.
Thus the “Print-to-screen” feature in ST Writer provides an adequate display for my purposes. As for style changes (such as bold, underline or italics), I can see where my command marks are in ST Writer, so I know what will be affected in the printout, and I don’t need to see the style displayed to know how it will appear in print. Font changes, it’s true, are another story, but I use only the system font anyway, for ASCII compatibility. Besides, a non-system font printout is really a graphics dump, and that takes a long time, longer than I find worth waiting for. Maybe when I go into desktop publishing (and I will, shortly…), my requirements will change.
GEM is a nice and easy interface, but it’s not always suited to the application at hand. When I first started working on a Macintosh, back when it was the new toy, I wasn’t all that impressed. Everything was pictures; Mister Folder and Mister Disk. I felt like a grown-up playing in Mr. Rogers’ universe. To do something simple like delete a file, I had to open Mister Disk, then open Mister Folder and drag Mister File (kicking and screaming) into Mister Trashcan, who ate him all up (after I pulled down Mister Menu and clicked Mister Mouse on empty trashcan). I was afraid they’d bring out a Mac with Cabbage Patch icons next.
Still, eventually, I did learn to like at least certain aspects of the icon interface. Choosing files and programs is easy and doesn’t require a lot of typing. Point click, double click; hardly a mental strain to learn. Compare this to UNIX, whose command structure can make hex dumps seem lucid. Even MS-DOS and CP/M have a fair number of arcane command conventions not designed for the casual user. Personally, I’ve always felt this was an attempt by programmers to make the accomplished computer user appear wizard-like to his or her peers. After all, the same trick serves witch doctors and faith healers well.
GEM-based programs generally offer a more intuitive and simpler means to perform tasks which in TOS-based programs are driven by arbitrary commands. However, this simplicity does entail expensive trade-offs. First, most GEM-based programs have limitations on the number of characters that can be displayed on a line (seventy-six is about the most one can get if one vertical scroll bar is used). They are slow when displaying text and performing screen redraws. I’m not a touch typist, but years of keyboarding have made me pretty fast, and I’ve encountered several GEM programs that can’t keep up with me. Worse, it took 1st Word 18 seconds to go from the top to the bottom of a very large text file in a recent test I performed—but it took ST Writer only about a second to do the same thing.
A particular—and perhaps the only—GEM advantage here lies in being able to access resident desk accessories, and to do such things as file I/O with a simple mouse click and (often) no typing. The flip side of this coin is that you have to depend on the mouse as an integral device for achieving these and most other ends. I find the mouse a distraction when I’m involved in the creative aspects of a task—in this case, writing. When I have to pause in mid-sentence to go find the mouse, my train of thought is derailed (easy to do at the best of times). Of course, a suitable alternative would be to provide keyboard substitutes for mouse-driven commands, but many programmers overlook this simple solution and don’t bother to encode keyboard options along with the mouse commands.
Lest you think this is merely a personal quirk: in the capacity of book editor, I’ve spoken to many writers over the past few years who’ve had similar experiences with mouse-driven systems. Most expressed the same criticism: mouse-driven programs are too distracting when the grey matter is trying to work.
A minor annoyance is the lack of file sizes in the GEM file selector box. I need that information; I’m often asked to write within a word or character size restriction, and the file size gives me a handy measurement. To get this in GEM-based programs, I must leave the program, examine the file in the desktop, then reload the program—a major nuisance and certainly not acceptable in a serious writing tool.
Looking broadly at the word processors available for the ST, what is most striking is the lack of real power in these programs, particularly those with a GEM interface. This of course has nothing to do with GEM per se, but it has a lot to do with the design of the programs to date.
Many writers need footnotes, indexes,
appendices, multiple types of sections and
headings, tables of contents, multiple-line
headers and footers, and the like. These,
like chapter, section and heading numbering,
must be automated processes that require
a minimum of manual input from the
writer. For example, to index a word on a
page, you might insert the command
in the document beside the
actual occurrence of the word computer.
The word computer, as written in the parentheses,
appears in the index (which is
printed right after the document, as part
of the process), along with the page number
on which the command and the word
appear. Numbering systems must automatically
generate the correct next number in
the sequence. In a four-tier system you can
easily get 188.8.131.52 or 184.108.40.206 if you number
Another necessity is variable page formatting. Separate paragraphs may need to be indented or outdented, margins may need to be changed for charts or tables, and TABs may have to be set differently in several places. The formatting of a document must be completely flexible.
Some of these features are available in various programs—Abacus’s Textpro has indexing; Haba Writer II gives you variable headers and a glossary; Regent Word II has two-line headers and footers, a sort routine and word count. But, at least at the time of this writing, no single program for the ST offers all these features (mind you, they are all available in both Word Perfect and Perfect Writer on those other systems). So any choice of ST word processor is bound to have its limitations at present. Given that, ST Writer (which has all of the basic features and is free) is to my mind still the best buy around. Compared to 1st Word, Atari’s other free word processor, ST Writer is considerably more powerful and faster.
My final concern has to do with the disk itself. If a program is copy protected, then I can’t use it, regardless of whatever else it has going for it. I have to boot my word processor a dozen or more times a day. That’s hard on any disk. There ought to be some method of installing software on a hard drive and still protecting it from the numerous pirates. I don’t mind the protection of casual programs—entertainment and games—but I need to put my most frequently-used applications on my hard drive.
As a postscript to my last column, I’ve written to Bruce Artwick at subLOGIC again about users’ building their own databases for Flight Simulator 2, but he hasn’t responded to either letter. This is very disappointing and speaks poorly for subLOGIC’s public relations.
Ian Chadwick is a free-lance writer. He is editor of the Murder and Mayhem society newsletter, and a member of the Romance Writers Association. After writing this column, he packed his bags for a long overdue vacation in Mexico with his wife Susan.
ST-LOG #14 / MAY 1987 / PAGE 51
There’s a guerilla war going on in Zaire. Bet you didn’t know that. I sure didn’t. I spent three months last summer studying Zaire: its politics, geography, mineral resources, its ties to the American and Soviet spheres. I never once read about an ongoing guerilla war. Zaire seemed peaceful under the absolute but essentially benign hand of President Mobutu Sese Seko. Now I read the minor country news and am told, in 1986, FLNC soldiers jubilantly occupied Kinshasa—the once stately capital of the country known to many as the Belgian Congo. Curiously enough, by 1987, they were merely on the outskirts of the city. Hmmm…
Worse: I’m told Zaire is neutral toward the USA, but friendly toward the USSR—an about-face for Mobutu, who not only kicked the Soviet “advisors” out of his country, but allowed the CIA to use Zaire as their base in the Angola operation. Zaire is also described as an insignificant military power. I’m sure Mobutu would take offense—Zaire was the only sub-Saharan African nation to send troops to Chad when Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi invaded it (well, his troops did, actually). Mobutu actually takes pride in his self-determined role as southern Africa’s policeman.
And the final indignity, if the reappearance of the almost extinct FLNC wasn’t bad enough, is that the insurgency is led by: Insurgency. That’s right: a nameless, faceless group that goes by the generic name for their kind. A veritable Orwellian concept.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Mindscape’s Balance of Power—a complex, challenging and demanding simulation of world politics written by Chris Crawford, that old Atari 8-bit whiz kid. As a simulation and a game, I’m mightily impressed with it. And, as you might gather, as a lesson in history and politics, I’m not quite so enthralled.
The idea of the game is to play the leader of the USSR or the USA and, in a period of eight years, manage to prevail over the computer- or human-controlled opponent—diplomatically. Crawford has factored in the immediate end of the game when Defcon 1 is reached. Nuclear war is not the goal but, rather, the antithesis of it. Instead, you have at hand more cunning and subtle weapons: diplomatic relations, military and economic aid, intervention, destabilization, treaties and diplomatic pressure.
If that weren’t enough, there is a veritable mountain of data to absorb about every country—from the literacy level, to the number of phones, schools, TVs and telephones, through violence and protests, assassinations, civil rights and riots, crossing investments vs. military spending, consumer spending against the population. A screen of nine bar charts and graphs measures the eight-year cycle of any nation through diplomatic relations, coups, insurgency and the like.
Think that’s got you boggled? Wait—there’s more. Newspapers proclaim the “headline events” for major and minor countries. You have to be able to pick out the wheat from the chaff: does the small turnout for the Brazilian President, coupled with the drop in military aid from the US, portend his downfall? Is the time ripe for an insurgency thrust? Or destabilization? It’s an awesome thing to tackle. You need to be able to read between the lines, weighing the increase in consumer spending against your economic aid—is it getting through to the people, or is it being pocketed by the higher-ups?
No move can be contemplated until you have examined all the variables. Some elements are worthless—canards, if you will, especially in the beginner and intermediate games. Other items contain the nuggets of critical data you need to make your decisions: the crowds cheer the President and the US opens trade relations—but, on page three, it says he’s nationalizing the mines. Is he about to swing to the left? How do you react?
Much of the game design intrigues and delights me. It’s the ultimate simulation, with a forest of variables through which I can tramp. It’s a cacophony of data in which one must struggle to pick out the relevant tunes.
However, it would be closer to the truth to say that several deficiencies almost make me loathe to play it. Let’s look at the reasons why.
Zaire is only one of sixty-two nations portrayed in Balance of Power. The information about its status, described above, comes from the “Closeup” screen in the beginner’s level game. Data like this has the annoying habit of changing in different levels—as if, the harder the game becomes, the more realistic its data. This seems somewhat perplexing to me; why should it change like this?
Take a look at Mozambique, expert level: neutral to the USA but cold toward the USSR; trade relations with the former, none with the latter; and a moderate right government. Are we speaking of the same country? Mozambique is a Marxist state that the Republic of South Africa has been trying for years to destabilize. Mozambique’s attempt in 1984 to reach western capitalist nations only fed fire to the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR—not the Makonde as Crawford states). They’re still trying to remain Marxist, while encouraging western capital. But moderate right? Sheesh!
Chad (a country central to current African conflicts) doesn’t appear on the map. Nor do a lot of other countries—about ninety-odd in all are left off. Some popular hot spots, like Grenada, Cyprus, Ireland, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Salvador, Guatemala, Bolivia, Yemen and the Falklands, are among the most obvious of the missing locales. Forget about sending US troops to Northern Ireland—the game doesn’t allow it or several other interesting options. Yet each of these countries has had severe unrest, civil or other wars, and is a pawn in the great power game—equal to many countries included in Balance of Power and more than equal to others. (Can you imagine a civil war in Australia?)
The combination of changing, inexact and sometimes basically wrong data is annoying, frustrating and maddening. If the politically innocent play this game, they may get to believe it resembles the real world. It ain’t necessarily so, folks. A simple read through such publications as the African Review will reveal a host of errata about that continent alone!
One of the problems most likely lies in the age of the data. Balance was first released in 1985 for the Macintosh (you know, the Magic Sac computer in its big box…). Since then, it doesn’t appear that the database has been changed—it’s at least two, if not three years old and out of date in many areas. Of twenty books in Crawford’s bibliography, nine are dated 1982 or earlier.
But what about play? Well, as the American player, I found the Russians invaded Iran every game. If I questioned this (remember, this isn’t sending in the troops, just protesting), they would always go to Defcon 1. Big bang—game over. I was never able to invade anyone. And, as the Russian player…those nasty Yankees invaded Iran! But when I protested, they meekly backed down! For that matter, I generally found the Russians were aggressive beyond realism (especially with Gorbachev in power, now), while the Americans were wimpy folk who pulled out when threatened. Maybe I’ve got a leftist microprocessor?
On the other hand, maybe Chris watched Red Dawn a few too many times and started to believe it was a documentary. The game has the feel of the paranoid commie-bashing American stereotyped in such movies. The Russkies are the bad guys who go for their guns every time and get all the breaks; the USA is polite and stands back when asked to, and obeys the UN. For that matter, a lot of US messages which indicate that country’s acquiescence involve the United Nations—a sore point for many ultra-right Americans, and thrashed to death in the game. Sigh. I can’t help but feel Crawford’s political point of view is a tad biased, not to mention naive and unrealistic. Or maybe he’s trying to teach us a lesson. In which case, class dismissed—you won’t learn a lot here!
The action/response mechanism is simplistic as well. It allows only one response: question. Continued questioning, if the opponent doesn’t back down, leads to nuclear war. I like to think that neither side would go to that level in a protest over the establishment of trade relations. The possibility of compromise, at least in the solitaire game, does not exist.
Just so that you won’t think I’m picking on the game simply for a difference in view, or over a few tiddly details like facts, there are other problems here, too. The main one is the protection scheme on the disk. I don’t mind protection, but this one saves games onto the same disk. A trifle dangerous? Worse; when you quit, it automatically saves the game to the master disk. And you can’t save on another disk! This simple, convenient little feature was left out to help confound us all.
The game is very disk intensive. Why not let us copy it, then check the master once and let us write to a backup disk? This seems merely logical and benign. The current scheme is noticeably user-hostile. And let us save more than one game!
Aha! Here’s another little feature they neglected to mention: If you save a game, then decide to go look at another level just for the fun of it, and then quit without even making a move—you guessed it! Balance’s software writes over the single saved game on the disk. Yup, you just lost the hours of play you went through! Nice trick. My usual method is to find a situation where I can go to Defcon 1 and die, in order to escape without saving.
And finally, the game is neither as fast nor as smooth as it was on the Mac, although the colors in medium resolution are much nicer than the grey scale on the Mac. The Mac version was ported over almost exactly, which means that some of the ST’s features were ignored in order to share identical displays. A pity, really—this is probably the one time where GEM might have had a beneficial effect.
The bottom line: a superb idea, a well-crafted and designed simulation with tremendous potential, flawed by inaccurate data and inadequate disk I/O methods. A real tragedy, because I want to like this game so much. My suggestion: clean up the disk I/O nonsense, let the user save games to another disk and rebuild the database. Better still, create a utility that allows users to enter updated data themselves, thus keeping the game current.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based writer who currently works for Laser Data Technology, a company which publishes MS-DOS-based desktop publishing software. He is also working on a book on GFA BASIC and an ST-Log GFA BASIC column, and is writing a “Battle of Midway” game in GFA.
ST-LOG #15 / JUNE 1987 / PAGE 35
I just spent three days at the ECOO computer show—that’s the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario. The show is intended to inform teachers (who call themselves educators) about computers (which they call learning tools) in the schools (educational institutions). Got that?
It’s a lot like any other computer show except on a smaller scale, with a more definite focus than most. Atari was there, along with IBM, Apple and Commodore—the “name” companies. (Atari showed only STs, not XEs, which strikes me as rather limiting, but they seldom ask my advice in these matters anyway.) There were also several book publishers present, who have a vested interest in the market—McGraw-Hill and Addison-Wesley, among others. However, the majority of the floor space was occupied by software distributors, such as Schoolhouse Computing Ltd. For the most part, these were distributors who exclusively target educational institutions (schools, see above…).
One particular afternoon, being nosey, I overheard Atari Canada’s educational rep, Bruce Corbett, speaking with several prospective hardware buyers from local school boards. The teachers were usually quite keen on the ST—it shows well and the price is right. But somehow it was being passed over in favor of other systems. I listened more closely when Bruce started in with the real power behind the throne—the buyers—pointing out the advantages of the system. He had a good line, one that should have connected well, but consumer response was frequently, “What sort of educational software do you have?”—and he could only point out a handful of “educational” programs on a wall. The buyers would then turn and look at the display of eight zillion such programs for Commodore and Apple across the aisle—many of which are tailored to the Canadian curricula. Then they’d mutter thanks and wander off. Some feigned polite interest in the hardware; some got genuinely excited when they saw a program like Publishing Partner pumping out high-quality newsletters on a laser printer. But then they’d consider the software availability and mosey on to the eight-zillion display.
Seeing this, I corralled a couple of reps of the larger software publishers one afternoon and asked them why they weren’t producing for the ST.
“What’s the installed base in the schools?” one asked me in return.
I didn’t know. I asked him if that mattered particularly. After all, their products would help develop a base.
“We only produce software for an installed base,” he replied. I pointed out that schools were more likely to buy a computer if there was software; thus, availability would create the installed base. He was unmoved: “We need a market for our product before we translate any of our existing products.”
I shook my head and tried again. His stand made it unlikely for a new machine to get any support—until it was at a point where it didn’t need their product, anyway…Catch 22.
“We only produce software for an installed base,” he reiterated and went off to demonstrate a product to a passing educator. This is crazy, I thought. Schools won’t buy until there’s software; software publishers won’t publish until the computers are in the schools. How can anyone win in this kind of situation? Boy, if the Wright brothers had had that point of view, they would have waited until they could fly over to the beach before test flying their plane!
Is there really such a dearth of ST educational software? Or was my perception based on just the temporary lack of display copies in the show? I walked back to one of the larger distributors who was also selling wares on the floor. Their display wall was littered with products. A sign announced products for Apple IIs of all sorts, Commodore 64s and 128s, Amigas, Macintoshes, IBM PCs and PCjrs, and Atari STs. A salesman approached me and asked if he could help.
“Yes, I’d like to buy several of your products,” I answered and pointed out at random a dozen programs in the display—several of them by large publishers, and many well recognized titles. His eyes lit up and he began writing up a bill, listing every program in his neat, legible script. He tallied the total on his adding machine, figured in the tax and quoted me a price.
“You’re lucky. We have all of these in stock. What computer system do you want them for?”
“The Atari ST, please.”
His eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed. He turned to someone in the booth—probably his boss—and conferred in muted grunts. Then he came back to me, obviously distressed.
“We don’t have any of these for the Atari ST, only for the Commodore, Apple or IBM. Don’t you have one of those machines?”
“No. Your sign says Atari ST. I assumed that’s what it meant. What do you have for the ST, then?” That seemed to catch him. He thought a moment and came up blank. He thrust a catalog into my hands and suggested that I look for myself, then wandered off, looking for more profitable customers. I walked away, but I looked back to see him shredding the invoice he had so carefully prepared.
That afternoon, I looked through the catalog—some 47 pages of products from, perhaps, 150 publishers. In that entire list, only 25 products were for the ST. Among these were ChessMaster, Balance of Power, Word Writer, Personal Finance Pak, King’s Quest, some graphics, printing and games. None of these would I even casually classify as “educational.” Only 4, from Coursemaker International, were readily recognizable as educational in the stricter sense of the word. Some, like Winnie the Pooh, are games with lip service paid to educational goals, but not much else.
Needless to say, I was disappointed. It seems we could and should do better. After all, isn’t education a prime purpose for computers in the home, let alone in the schools? My 12-year-old daughter was coming to visit on the weekend, so I decided to try my local software outlet on Saturday and see what they could offer. Retail stores are often up on such things, and I assumed the clerk was over tlle trauma from my last visit.
“Hi,” I said as I walked in, hoping to disarm him quickly. “I’m looking for some educational software for a bright 12-year-old. Any suggestions?”
He pointed me over to a wall of software and finished serving a customer. He had programs like First Shapes and Speller Bee from First Byte—both in the right vein, but too young for Jessica by about eight years. There were two programs from Unicorn called Fraction Action and Decimal Dungeon beside them. I shuddered. This sort of thing I’d encountered before—my bet was that she’d quickly learn to either associate decimals with monsters and mazes, or only be able to solve arithmetic in later years if she had a sword in one hand and could kill something later. On the other hand, these might be perfectly good programs, but I’m as prone to being affected by the title and the box art as anyone—and these suggested something less than what I’d had in mind.
This is a problem in a lot of “educational” software—trying to make a game out of a learning process, as if we’re so dull and unimaginative that we need rewards and lots of laughs in order to master schoolwork. Not only does that insult the intelligence of the user, but it’s not didactic—these programs entertain but don’t teach in any sound, pedagogical manner. I recall a spelling program for another computer, a few years back, in which you had to send a diver down to the ocean floor to find the right letters to make up the word-fighting sharks, avoiding jellyfish, hunting through weeds and shipwrecks—one letter at a time. Fifteen minutes of scuba work and you found out you’d misspelled cat. Real educational—if you’re Flipper.
Math Word Problems from Spinnaker seemed a more sensible approach to the topic, at least from the box description, but encompassed grades 7 to 12, and she’s only in the 6th. Maybe that’s equivalent to a higher grade in U.S. terms, but I wasn’t sure enough to buy it. Besides, what a wonderful way to spend an afternoon: hi kid, here are some math problems for you!
But, on the other hand, if it was too dry, she wouldn’t use it without supervision, and I wasn’t prepared to do that, what with our once-in-a-blue-moon visit status. No, it had to be something light but useful, something she could amuse herself with for an hour or two and still gain some sort of knowledge from. I was musing on the questionable introduction of the game ethic into education when the clerk came over. I said I had already ruled out these few games and asked what else he had.
“Well, we have Donald Duck’s Playground and Winnie the Pooh—they’re both adventures. Wonderful fun, good graphics.” I looked at the packages a bit dubiously. He ran Winnie on an ST and guided me through a few moves. Cute, but I failed to appreciate its purpose—beyond enriching A.A. Milne’s and Walt Disney’s already considerable estates.
“No, I think she’s a bit too old for these. She’s gone beyond Winnie the Pooh and is up to Phil Collins and Bon Jovi already. Besides, I want something educational, not just a game.”
He looked miffed. “Adventures are educational. They help children build sentences and solve problems.” He pushed a handful of Infocom games at me. “How about one of these?”
I tried to imagine my daughter typing Take the knife and stab the dwarf. Get the money from under the table. Education? That’s a lot like using “Miami Vice” as a role model for social studies. “No thanks, I’m thinking of something a little less gamelike and more on the side of learning. Besides, I think these may be a tad too old for her.” I could just see her, when she got home, telling her mother we had played Leather Goddesses of Phobos all afternoon.
“What about Typing Tutor? That’s educational.” He was right, and it certainly teaches something, but I was pretty sure she got enough of that exercise in school, where they have other computers. It was the best bet, however, so I stored it away until later and asked for more. Obviously it was his last real offer, because he started roaming the stock and making silly suggestions.
“Is she old enough for Balance of Power? That’s very educational.” I had just reviewed the game and personally didn’t feel she was ready for Crawford’s somewhat lopsided view of politics and history. I was afraid that she’d want to go see Rambo afterward. I said no. “Is she good in history? We have a copy of Great Battles here.”
I had spent several evenings that week playing the games in the Royal Software battles package, and I really liked the program—being a wargamer, it fits about all of my criteria for good wargaming. It’s also a surprisingly good opponent, and, overall, the program is well designed and seems thoroughly researched—not an easy thing to accomplish. I like the game a lot (I’ll review it real soon now…), but aside from having a copy, I don’t think a 12-year-old girl would appreciate the intricacies of 19th-century warfare. I told him I’d pass on it.
“There’s always Time Bandits.”
“Time Bandits?” I asked incredulously. “What educational value does that have?”
“Well, it encourages problem solving, and it teaches hand-eye coordination.” I sighed. Killing bizarre aliens and spiders, roaming about in a dungeon and playing Pac-Man is lots of fun, but hardly my idea of education. Maybe the clerk watched a lot of TV, so, for him, it was education. Maybe it was even reality for him. No, I said, I already have one, thanks. He rolled his eyes. “What does she take in school? Maybe that will help me.”
What does one take in grade six? I can’t recall. I went to grade six around the time of the last Ice Age. She’d only mentioned two things recently. “French,” I said, “and clarinet.” He closed his eyes and seemed to be uttering a silent prayer to whatever gods wa tch over clerks in computer stores. I noticed a new nervous tic in his facial muscles.
Well, after another half hour, I bought Typing Tutor and left the store less than fully satisfied. My daughter had to change her plans at the last moment, so I can’t tell you now how it turned out—or whether or not it was worth the money.
I’m still upset by the lack of software in this field after almost two years, and I can’t figure out who’s at fault. Is it the publishers because they ignore Atari? Some are only now starting to recognize the machine. Will they get involved in educational software? No one is saying. Or is it Atari’s fault for either not encouraging them, or for a weak effort to break into the lucrative school market? I know that Atari Canada has targeted the schools strongly, and they’re pushing in that realm (Bruce even has a nice, glossy newsletter now), but I don’t know what the U.S. has been up to.
I expected to see a lot more software—language programs, for example, are pretty common. What about geography? Science? History? Surely it doesn’t take a lot of programming to create a Trivial Pursuit type of game, one which focuses on educational aspects and has its questions ranked by grade levels.
The disappearance of the 8-bit line from the display suggests that it’s no longer in the running—maybe they’re targeting it as a game machine now. It has more educational software available than the ST. Both Commodore and Apple 8-bit systems are still selling in schools, so I don’t know why Atari isn’t continuing to push in that market. I’d sure like some answers, though.
Two final notes: I did get a letter back from subLOGIC about my request for information so users can build their own scenery disks for FSII. They said “thank you for your letter” and little else. They didn’t answer any of my questions or my requests, nor make any comment on my suggestions. I was only surprised that they didn’t send it addressed to “occupant.”
Thanks where it’s deserved: Marty Herzog, formerly of BI, is now at Atari Canada. He is kind enough to let me borrow or look at his new software, so I get to see it while it’s still current. He keeps me informed on a lot of new products and developments. Without Marty and his coworker, Julius Oclamak, I’d see far fewer products than I do now. Thanks to both of you.
Ian Chadwick lives in Canada with his wife Susan and their numerous pets. He is currently working on a book about using GFA BASIC on the ST, a short story about explorer Henry Hudson and a BASIC game on the battle of Midway. In between hobbies, he works for a living.
ST-LOG #16 / JULY 1987 / PAGE 66
Lee Pappas called me not long ago and asked me to do a column on what makes good software. Sure, I thought, fish in a barrel. After all, that’s what I’m always on about, right? Should be easy.
Well, it’s not. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that—like a lot of things in our lives—good and bad are subjective terms when applied to software. Basically, I came up with: “Software is good when it does well that which you expected of it.”
Sound a trifle wishy-washy? Perhaps, but I couldn’t come up with any overall laws governing something that’s as wide-ranging as software. It’s a lot like asking “what makes a good book?” or “what makes a good meal?” I tried two approaches: first, I assembled my own list of good and bad software, and tried to determine what made me put each piece in its category. Then I called a few friends and asked them to name pieces of software they thought good or bad—not just for the ST, although I paid somewhat more attention to it than to other machines. Bear with me, kind reader, because the issue is not confined to one machine. I’ll have to use examples from several systems to illustrate my points. However, at the end of this diatribe, I do try to make a point.
The answers I got didn’t surprise me; after all, I’ve heard a lot in the same vein before—and I’ve been arguing the point for years. But they didn’t clarify the question of what determines good or bad. A writer friend told me he thought WordStar was the best piece of software he’d ever used. To me, WordStar is one of the worst—it’s difficult to learn and use, has nothing even vaguely intuitive about it, has few mnemonic commands, has bad documentation and produces files that can’t be read by most other word processors without difficulty. He thinks it’s great and won’t even try another word processor—it took him so long to learn WordStar that he doesn’t want to venture into that process again. And now, having mastered every nuance and quirk, he’s quite proficient and efficient with it. He swears he likes the way the program works.
Another friend, who recently bought an ST after years working as a systems analyst in the mini- and mainframe computer environment and with an old CP/M system as his main home computer until this spring, sang the praises of 1st Word endlessly—another program I detest, for different reasons. But to him, the simplicity of GEM and the ability to perform reasonably complex actions with a minimum number of keystrokes was simply amazing. After all, he was accustomed to command-driven, text-oriented programming. He waxed rhapsodic over the use of the mouse alone.
Both these people are professionals and both are well acquainted with the computer field. Both use computers in their daily lives to perform regular job-related tasks. Yet both approach the tasks differently and want their software to perform much the same task in almost radically different manners. But Bill, the writer, wants a program that does everything a writing tool might do—while Bob, the programmer, uses his to write letters and shopping lists, and lets the kids do their homework on it. So it comes down to subjectivity, based on need for performance again.
Ah, but are there not some essential elements, some basic blocks we can use to measure quality? I wondered. Can we develop a scale, say one to ten, to measure certain features and determine, in vitro, as it were, the quality of a product? Break a program down to its molecular structure and analyze each component against an absolute scale? Not so easy, I learned.
Take, for example, the user interface. I’ve said before that I like to do a lot of things through the keyboard rather than the mouse, and having to remove my hands from the keyboard to activate a command, rather than being able to do it by key combinations, breaks the momentum of my activity. Something like saving a file is a task I pause to perform—the interruption to write to disk forces it, so I don’t mind having to add into that pause the time to use the GEM file selector to set the drive and filename. But something like moving the cursor to the top of a file and searching for a word is a task I want to control through the keyboard. If I have to stop and play around with a scroll bar, then pull down a menu to get at the search command, I find I’m wasting my time and losing the thread of my work.
To me, therefore, a good ST program offers an integrated dual interface—a keyboard command structure and a GEM mouse/menu structure for those who prefer it. In some programs, GEM is such an integral part of things that I can’t imagine the program doing the same job even remotely well without it. Look at Tom Hudson’s fabulous CAD 3D 2.0. On the other hand, in DEGAS Elite he combines GEM and TOS (non-GEM) functions so well that you can’t really tell they’re not one and the same interface. And he supports the whole structure with a series of keyboard commands for “power” users.
In the last version of PaperClip Elite ever seen by BI, you couldn’t use the arrow keys to move from the start of one line to the end of the previous one. Not a programming flaw, this was something the programmers wanted and felt was the way a word processor should work. In order to go backward this one space, you had to go to the beginning of the line above, then move the cursor over to the end. That sort of design is what I call seriously flawed. It’s about as friendly to the user as a hungry crocodile—and about as pretty. This is, of course, a problem that often occurs when one lets programmers, rather than end users, design the specifications.
Another thing to consider is how well a program handles the activities in the interface. How many games have you encountered that don’t have a “quit” button or command? Seems incredible, but many don’t—you have to shut the machine off in order to exit. It’s like having to turn off your car every time you come to a stop light. This is not only silly, it shows a critical lack of awareness of the user’s needs.
In my column in Strategy and Tactics magazine, I’ve regularly raked companies over the coals for selling games in which cursor positioning is an integral part of play—and yet not providing a joystick routine to accomplish it. Instead, you must play with hands continually poised over the keyboard, to perform a task simply and easily handled by a natural joystick movement.
When computers come with built-in joystick ports and handling routines, this omission says a lot about the lack of development and testing, not to mention the abilities of the programmers. SSI, of wargame fame, has produced a lot of good games crippled by this glaring oversight, and they continue to do so—Roadwar 2000 on the ST requires keypad cursor movement when a simple joystick control would make the game 100 percent friendlier.
Imagine buying a word processor to find that it wouldn’t save a file. It might format, search and print, but not save. Sounds crazy, right? You’d never buy it; it would offer little that a typewriter couldn’t provide. But what about a game, say one that could take four, five, maybe as long as eight hours to complete? What would you think if you couldn’t save a game in progress, but had to start from the beginning each time, and play either to the end or until you ran out of chances and “died”? Crazy? Broderbund’s popular Lode Runner was thus flawed. It was otherwise a great game, but one that I (like many others I know) never played after the first two or three times—because we couldn’t save it midway through the game. To my mind, that makes for bad software, no matter what other strengths it has. MichTron had the sense to revise Time Bandits to permit saving, much to their credit.
The original version of a popular IBM program, Ability, offered a telecommunications program, but it wouldn’t let you download files—just capture text. Think of how useful that would be on Delphi or CompuServe!
Let’s look at some other items. Ever use a spreadsheet? I’ve used several, on a lot of different machines. When I got my ST, I transferred all my income/expense templates over to A-CALC from Macintosh Multiplan format. But A-CALC, while being reasonably good, is plagued by a simple, annoying and avoidable data entry flaw. In it, you need to double-click on a cell to enter data in it—unnecessary, but you can learn to live with it.
The real irritation is that each cell accepts only one data type (value, text or formula), and, in order to specify which, you have to press TAB to cycle through the choices. It’s an extra step that shouldn’t be required of the user. After all, 1-2-3, Multiplan, Supercalc, VisiCalc and Perfect Calc never required it—they all have more intelligent methods to determine the data type. In Multiplan, anything that starts with an equals sign is a formula; anything that starts with a number or an arithmetic sign is a value; the rest is text. If you need, for some reason, to force an exception to this rule, it’s easy to do so with a special character prefixed to the data. (Not having seen it, I can’t answer whether or not the new A-CALC Prime continues this bit of folly.)
Another area I constantly harp on in word processors is the ability to search and replace carriage returns and other characters outside the normal number/letter range. I use this simple feature constantly, to remove excess CRs from text files I download or port from another computer. Anyone who has ever done this knows the frustration of trying to reformat text without this function. It’s the main reason I continue to use ST Writer. But, while easy to implement, it seems to have been ignored by far too many people designing word processors. Personally, since it’s so essential to my daily writing, I’ll never use a word processor that doesn’t have this capability, nor can I consider one without it a “professional” program.
Documentation is, as some of you may know, rather close to my heart, since I write and edit it for a living. I’ve seen a lot of good programs hampered by poor documentation. The PC version of Word Perfect is a shining example of a great program with an abominable manual. It’s arcane, explains things poorly, is awkwardly organized, and, in order to learn how to use a feature, you have to read about it in the tutorial, then the reference and (usually) the special features section—three places in which, too often, only a part of the explanation is found.
My wife told me about the problems she and her fellow workers had when they first got their PC, and tried to learn to use it and the software they were given with it. One program was Lotus’s famous 1-2-3. The tutorial tells you to type the data exactly as shown, in order to follow their lessons. So they were reading through and working on it, and came to a line like ENTER 100. This meant, of course, to type 100 in the selected cell and press ENTER. But nothing told them that—and, being accustomed to typewriters with a RETURN key, they assumed the line meant press ENTER then type 100.
Of course, nothing worked right—and it was a long time before they figured out why. That’s an example where the docs should have been made more explicit, assuming unfamiliarity with jargon.
The initial release of MichTron’s GFA BASIC suffered from what might easily be described as the worst manual for an ST product ever. If it hadn’t been for the quality of the program and the stamina of its users, the package would have died right away. Again, MichTron had the sense to rewrite, update and revise the manual (although they foolishly bound the pages, rather than using the more practical binder style).
Of course, the flip side to the documentation issue is that the worse it is, the greater the demand for books on the program. Thus, there’s a greater opportunity for writers like myself to enter the field. Of course, that too often ends up producing an overwhelming glut of books on a particular topic—and the books also serve as manuals for any pirated copies of the program.
The efficient use of computer resources is a key issue in determining how good a program is. I’ve already mentioned the idiocy of not providing a joystick routine in a computer designed for it—a great example of poor resource use. Another is memory management.
The earliest versions of MacWrite could only manage a document up to about ten or twelve pages long. Professional? Not even close. (The latest versions of MacWrite, without the size restrictions, are still clumsy, weak and ungainly word processors, ill suited for anything professional or important.) Perfect Writer, on my 64K Kaypro 4, can manage a text file as large as a disk (400K), by loading only segments into memory at a time. But the first IBM translation of the program (the PC was then also a 64K machine, remember…), couldn’t even do that. After 40K, it choked and crashed.
DataSoft has produced some pretty good programs, with simple idiocies in them that, if avoided, would make them a lot better. Take Mercenary, for example. Every time you play—even returning to a saved game—you have to go through the agonizingly long intro. The first time it’s cute. After that, it’s merely annoying. I find it irritates me so much that I won’t play the game any more. At least in Alternate Reality, they let you get out of it by pressing the spacebar. But A.R. has one of those stupid endgame situations where you have to reboot the computer if you die—something which again reduces its repeat play value for me.
What else makes a program good or bad? Well, the visual interface for one. Good graphics get me to appreciate a game more than mediocre efforts. King’s Quest II uses graphics that seem identical to the 8-bit versions-something that annoys me no end. After all, I paid good money for a machine with higher graphics capability, so why should I pay for 8-bit graphics in my software? Not that they have to be art masterpieces, but elegance can be had simply.
Sundog from FTL has better graphics than its 8-bit versions, and, when seen side by side, the difference makes the ST version stand out. Look at the terrific graphics in Time Bandits. It’s a superb example of what can be done. (MichTron’s latest, GoldRunner, is a good arcade game with nicely crafted graphics, marred by a protection scheme that makes it impossible to save high scores. The program hangs and requires a system reboot—at least on my copy, and on those of two other people I know.)
Good graphics don’t necessarily make a good game, however; Mindscape’s SDI has a lot of good graphics, but the flight controls are sluggish, the action slow and the plotline, well, juvenile. Electronic Arts translated FireFox for the ST from other computers. The result is bad graphics and bad action, making it one of the worst games of the year.
Activision’s Little Computer People has graphics that look a lot like Commodore 64 screens, which they probably are. The program is stunning in another manner: its total lack of purpose. It struck me as the software incarnation of the word pointless. Thinking it might be just my adult point of view, I gave it to a friend with two girls, 8 and 11. They lost interest in it within a few minutes, declared it stupid and went off to play elsewhere. I was gratified to have my impression seconded by experts.
Why are there so many little nuisances in otherwise good software? In part, because programmers do a lot of the design. Many are simply not qualified for this; they may program like geniuses, but when it comes to creating specifications, they’re fish out of water.
Another nuisance is that too many programmers and small software companies work in a void. They never check out the competition, especially that on other systems. There’s nothing wrong with taking a good idea or a good implementation and writing your code around it—why reinvent the wheel?
Good design demands that a program be developed by a broad spectrum of people—users, programmers, marketing experts. Who can best design a tractor: a race car driver or a farmer? Who can best design a word processor: a writer or someone whose writing is mainly done with a text editor for source code? With all due respect for their talents, programmers seldom have the breadth of knowledge, the user experience or the practical experience in the business world to design a variety of products.
So what makes software good? Design, I suppose, is the key issue. After all, it, more than any other single thing, determines the quality of software. Without proper, well developed design work, you end up with software in the discount sale bins a few months after its release—or, less fortunately, on buyers’ shelves gathering dust after one or two attempts to use it. And I, for one, think we’re long past having to put up with that sort of thing.
ST-LOG #17 / AUGUST 1987 / PAGE 70
Computer applications seem to me to appear as great waves that crash into our lives and change the way we do things. Word processors, databases and spreadsheets—all have had a remarkable impact on not only our commercial lives, but our private lives as well. The majority of the people I know use a computer at home, and many have moved into full-time freelance jobs because of it. The computer hasn’t brought us a new industrial revolution—it’s more like a full-scale civil war.
Desktop publishing (DP) is the latest wave to hit the beaches and one of the most important thus far. Actually, the term is misleading—it sounds as if there’s another form of publishing that takes place away from desks—maybe stovetop publishing? Anyway, Gutenberg’s mechanization of the printing process was the seminal event in the evolution of information processing—and DP is a major milestone along that route.
Sound pompous? Yeah, it does to me too. But I’m serious. The crux of the entire issue—with computers and, indeed, with the whole information exchange process—lies in the computer’s ability to put the control of such things in the hands of the user. This is precisely what the printing press did with the written word. The art of the scribe was soon a lost art.
Of course, new technology demands new skills: typography, typesetting and printing quickly became crafts in their own right. With the advent of electronic typesetting, a lot of the composition skills were assumed by graphic and layout artists, while the actual setting of type became more of a mechanical process. Typographers, nowadays, are a rare breed.
Word processors, computer typesetters, digitizers, graphic and paint programs, telecommunications—all have been used in the preparation and production of books, magazines and newsletters for years. DP programs synthesize all of this, along with a host of other features: page layout, document control, pagination and effective printer control. DP programs are, perhaps, the most sophisticated, complex software yet to appear.
It helped DP software that a simultaneous wave was cresting in printer development. But let’s face it: dot-matrix printers—even the superb 24-pin machines—are simply not good enough for final output at any professional level, period. They can’t do real micro-spacing, kerning or vector graphics. They’re great for homegrown output—user group newsletters, self-made greeting cards, Print-Shop-type stuff—but nowhere near good enough for books or magazines. Then again, neither are most laser printers. Even the highly touted Postscript printers with a resolution of 300 dots-per-inch (dpi) are still at the low end of acceptability for commercial output. Most publishers demand 600 dpi—or more—for even straight text.
I’ve recently been working with a 1200-dpi Printware laser printer, and that’s about as coarse as I’d ever care to get for anything involving graphics. Its output is easily recognized as a computer product by anyone with a magnifying glass. Since laser printers with 600 or higher dpi are currently few and far between, and those that are available are rather expensive, DP tends to remain outside the economic range of the casual user. Today, at least.
Be that as it may, the various models of Hewlett-Packard’s LaserJet have cornered roughly 70 percent of the laser printer market. With the “inexpensive” entries into the field by Canon and Ricoh, it seems likely that people will be buying these printers than the more expensive Postscript compatibles, which may offer more versatility, but at a higher price. Publishing Partner supports HP, but none of the others (as far as I know) do.
A key selling point for DP programs is their automation of tedious or complex layout and typesetting processes. Here, automation is the key word. That’s where Publishing Partner fails to meet its promises in many areas.
Take a look at kerning, for example. Kerning is the reduction of space between certain pairs of characters, so that they’re more visually attractive. Some of the more frequently kerned pairs are: Yo, We, To, Tr, To, Wo, Tu, Tw, Yo, Te, P., Ty, Wa, yo, we, T., Y., TA, PA and WA. In the example of Yo, kerning reduces the space between the two so that the a is actually underneath the upper limb of the Y. In practice, most DP programs kern over 200 pairs, but more than 500 are used in most typesetters.
Kerning is now a regular practice in typesetting. It not only makes the flow of type more attractive, by reducing unnecessary white space, but it tightens up the lines of text themselves, allowing far less wasted space.
Let’s talk about Publishing Partner. It’s a great, fun program for homebrew output. My friends at Atari Canada do a reasonable job with it to produce their educational newsletter, but it won’t win any design awards. Don’t get your hopes up if you’re planning to create and format your great novel on it—the program’s a long way from capably handling any lengthy professional-level document.
Publishing Partner has only manual kerning—a task simply beyond comprehension in a book-size publication. Curiously enough, it’s not even indexed under kerning; it’s under “manual kerning.” I can’t determine the amount of space the kerning applies or removes; it appears to be in points, a grossly large amount for kerning.
Kerning, like many typesetting functions, works best on the basis of a text-size-relative unit of measurement, not an absolute one. For example, the commonly used “point” (1/72 inch) is a typesetter’s and printer’s absolute measurement. But type is often dealt with in Ems. An Em is a square equal in width to the total height of the type (so a 10-point Em is 10 points on a side). [For more on type height, refer to Figure 4 in “Page Perfect,” on page 50.] This is broken down into Ens (one-half Em), thins (one-third Em) and Units (1/54 Em). The characters are usually kerned in Units (or a percentage of the space between them), not in points.
Yes, Publishing Partner allows a certain amount of control over the spacing between characters (in Units, it turns out—the only place I can see that Units are used in the entire program—and they’re poorly explained, at that), but only on highlighted text. Nothing can be automatically applied to an entire article or chapter. Unfortunately, their elegant little dialog box for adjusting the character spacing uses one size of text—not what’s necessarily chosen on the page—so the effect is achieved by trial and error.
Line spacing—more commonly called leading—is adjusted in the same box. I can’t figure out if it’s measured from baseline to baseline, baseline to ascender, or descender to ascender. At least I know from the display that it’s in points. Despite the nicety of negative leading, I wonder why they bothered with such an enormous range, when the effect has limited practical value and is absolutely wasted if the negative spacing exceeds the point size. A negative leading of 42 points on 11-point type is just plain silly.
If the terminology is confusing, you’d better learn it fast. DP is based on typesetting and printing terms. I doubt most people would readily understand what’s meant when I talk about type that’s 10 on 12, or set solid, or minus leading—yet they all involve the simple process of line spacing.
What about Pi characters? Drop caps? Gutter widths and gutter rules? Text greeking? Serif and sans serif typefaces? Bullets? Set size? The difference between a font and a typeface? Quadding?
You can’t really discuss the issues without understanding the jargon, any more than you can discuss auto mechanics without knowing the names of engine parts. Of course, there’s no glossary in the program to help you learn this new vocabulary. Better start reading other books on the subject, if you want to appreciate what this is all about!
Measurement is another issue: Publishing Partner is dependent on the printer’s line resolution. But typesetting demands exacting control. Can you create a hairline or half-point line with your printer? What happens when the line is on an angle? Does it look more like a staircase? This is where both resolution and vector graphics become important. Publishing Partner supports lines from .5 to 6 points, but finer control would be appreciated—something more closely linked to a laser printer output.
The handy metal ruler used by typesetters and graphic designers has been replaced by a screen ruler. A nice idea, but not carried through as needed. Rulers need a wide variety of measurement units, but you only get picas (1 pica=12 points), inches and centimeters. Everyone I know in the printing business deals in points. Many of this program’s measurements are in points also, but you have no accurate way to measure them. Anyone doing precise work on a laser printer soon learns to work in its resolution—dots. Many printers have a 300-dpi resolution, so users need a ruler in that scale, as well.
The rulers are at the top and left sides of the screen, which means measuring an object requires moving the page to the ruler, rather than the other way around. The rulers are absolute to page edge—you can’t set the starting point to suit your page design. And, finally, you don’t have “floating” rulers to measure diagonal objects on the page.
Character sizes are limited to full-point increments (some programs allow half-point increments). The maximum character size is 72 points, which is probably as large as most people ever need, but banner headlines sometimes exceed that. Adobe’s PostScript fonts go up to 255 points—you won’t be able to use them, however.
Hyphenation can be a serious problem. Since we’re dealing in variable width structures, such as columns, there’s no way to guarantee that the lines of text imported from outside editors will properly fill the lines. A hyphenator that can properly divide words is absolutely essential for newspaper, newsletter or magazine output—actually any output that uses both right and left justification. The many rules of hyphenation are complex, and having to apply those rules over long text is a tedious, unrewarding task—a task you must assume with Publishing Partner, unfortunately.
An important selling point in DP is its ability to create text runarounds. These happen when you drop graphics into a text area, and the text breaks and flows around the graphics. Line breaks and hyphenation change to suit the graphic’s border. No can do in Publishing Partner—at least not automatically. You can wrestle with column margins and simulate the effect, but it’s not the same.
Perhaps Publishing Partner’s greatest weakness is in its handling of pages and columns. First, you’ll have to decide—before you load the text—how long the document will be, then delete extra pages later (something that drives users crazy in PageMaker). But worse, when you go to all the trouble of creating a complex layout—say, a two- or three-column page—then fill it with text, you’re stuck with it. If you want to move column one a few points left, you have to manually adjust each one on each page. Nothing automatic here, folks—it’s often easier to throw your design away and start again.
This program has a lot of nice, elegant and handy features: plenty of file and disk comnlands, graphic features and a bunch of ways to fool around with type. It also supports page sizes up to 18 inches—a nice touch, even if you can’t tile-print on a smaller page size.
Publishing Partner is above Print Shop and that lot, but can’t stand knee-high to Ventura, PageMaker, Harvard Publisher or The Office Publisher—the big guns in the DP marketplace. Maybe version 2.0? We’ll see…
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based writer who currently works in the desktop publishing industry. He’s been an author. book editor, magazine editor and roustabout in the publishing business for many years. In his spare time, he brews his own beer and plays wargames.
ST-LOG #18 / APRIL 1988 / PAGE 51
By the time you read this, Atari may have released their IBM clone, the PC1. Then again, they may not have—it’s hard to keep up with the pushme/pullyou nature of their product announcements. Rumor suggests that some of the higher echelon Atari execs aren’t anxious to sell in the PC market. And, that some of them are not happy about manufacturing the machine in the first place. They’re afraid it will take away from their efforts to market the ST.
Dealers, on the other hand, seem eager to get it. I’ve been told by several dealers that they expect to move a lot of them. Some of these dealers are also (Gasp) Commodore dealers who sell the Commodore PC10, PC20 and so on, in reasonable numbers. The Commodore isn’t a bad clone, but is a tad more expensive than many of the gray-area imports (those no-name Korean and Taiwanese clones). Other dealers may offer clones of various names and brands, but, in any case, no one has ever suggested the PC clones reduce potential sales for their Amigas—the markets are too different.
There’s plenty of sales potential in those PC/MS-DOS machines. In this two-university city with dozens of colleges and technical schools, teachers are saying to their students, “You should (or need to) buy a computer.”
They don’t, however, mean buy an ST, or an 800XL, or a C64, or even a Macintosh—they mean buy an IBM clone. Period. They have shorn versions of Word Perfect, dBase, 1-2-3, and others for sale in the textbook stores—all running under an MS-DOS environment.
They have all sorts of courseware programs and books, all for the same system. They’ve got doodley-squat for the ST; and they don’t care one whit either. It’s PC/MS-DOS, take it or leave it.
Atari huffs and puffs and gets in a tizzy about selling to the “Big Blue” market. But face it folks, the money is in MS-DOS. Whether you (or they) like it or not.
So me, I’m looking forward to getting one of these machines. I already have a laptop Toshiba T1100 on which I do a lot of my writing now. I couldn’t live without it. My ST can read its 3½-inch disks too, so I can pass data files back and forth with ease, and use my ST’s hard drive for Toshiba support.
But, I want a desktop model; something with slots so I can add a 2-megabyte RAM card, a hard disk, and so on, and not have to swap disks between incompatible machines. I trust the PC1 will have those options—I’d hate to think Atari is going to release a crippled machine. Consider that even here in Canada, where the devalued peso barely buys what it oughta, I can get an XT clone with one drive, AT-style keyboard, 640K RAM and monochrome video board for $650 and I can add boards and drives to my heart’s content. Atari has to compete with this.
Finding out exactly what the PC does have is tough. People up here hem and haw when I ask how many card slots it has. Or RAM. Or expansion bus lines. What’s the big secret? Maybe no one knows! Maybe it’s not even in production yet!
Anyway…turning to things ST, my friends at Micro D Distributing arranged for me to borrow a copy of PC Ditto from Avant-Garde Systems to review and test, since I have a lot of PC software on 3½-inch disks. I dropped in on the closest Electronic Playworld where Eric set it up and ran it for me.
A kid looked up from the display of Commodore PC-10s while I loaded some software. He’d been pricing clones and asking about compatibility for the past few minutes. He was a student at the University of Toronto (Engineering, which is almost like a real subject) and needed a PC for his lab work.
“Is that Sidekick running on that 1040?”
“Yes it is,” I said in my most innocent voice.
“I didn’t think it was translated over to the ST,” he said as awed sounds issued from his mouth. Other shoppers, sensing action, peered our way. A few shuffled over toward the end of the store where the STs are set up.
“It’s not,” I replied while loading Word Perfect 4.2 with a text file.
“Then how are you doing that?” (Intimations of magic and skulduggery here…)
“Why, I’m using PC Ditto, a PC/MS-DOS emulator…”
You get the drift, I’m sure. I ran through the dozen or so programs I had with me, including a few public domain things I got from CIS. Yes indeed, prestidigitation, folks. Nothing up my sleeve, but all the same, here we see a game machine acting like a Baby Blue. Hmmm…
So, here I stood, loading this, trying that. I got GEM 2.0 running on an ST—that’s the version after the legal conference between Apple and Digital Research: the one that’s not supposed to look like a Mac, but looks like Smalltalk no matter what anyone says (yet I never saw Alan Kay suing Steve Jobs about it). But, dear readers, I digress…
Why, you ask, would anyone want to run PC software when they have an ST? Well, for one, there are a lot of good programs out there—1-2-3, Word Perfect, Grammatik, Ventura, dBase III, AutoCAD, to name a few. On the other hand, a lot of PC software is more expensive than an entire ST system. But, for those of us with both systems, it’s quite a boon. If you hook up a 5¼-inch drive to your ST, you can even run a lot of the protected programs without any trouble. There are even (Gasp) some good games for the PC which will probably come out for the ST about the time Halley’s comet returns.
For me, with my Toshiba T1100 and amber monitor, the advantage is obvious. I can run programs in color using the ST monitor. Also, a 5¼-inch drive for my Toshiba retails at $88 here, while an ST drive is about $300—a distinct savings. The flip side is that it’s slow—I mean glacial. About as fast as a C64. Obviously, I don’t want to run anything where speed is an issue. But then if my T1100 needs to go in for repairs anytime, I can use my ST in the interim and not lose valuable work time. So the cost is certainly worth it.
There are some caveats, however. First, I don’t believe it works with the monochrome monitors—color only. Second, you need a DOS disk from which to boot. PC and MS-DOS are proprietary programs, just like other software. You can’t walk into a computer store and ask for a copy of DOS to go along with your PC Ditto. You’ll have to buy it. (One advantage of owning a PC or clone is that you already have this disk and don’t need to shell out another $200 or so).
When I visited Atari Canada and brought up the topic of the PC1 and PC Ditto, I got a pretty cool reception. Some of those same people who were dumping on MS-DOS as clunky, slow, inane and hostile, were praising CLIs (Command Line Interpreters) for the ST a while back. For the uninitiated, CLIs give you text command input for commands, instead of GEM. For example, rather than double-click on drive A to see its contents, you type DIR A:. Sound familiar? A lot like MS-DOS? Maybe exactly like MS-DOS? Some are, at least. Others are of the UNIX persuasion: nasty, obfuscatory, hostile and generally inelegant (compared to which MS-DOS is a veritable delight of ease and charm).
The ST is a nice machine, but it’s not going to make it in the business world. No way, no how. IBM architecture has its foot in that door for life. And they’re not exactly stagnant: they’ve grown from PC, through XT and AT to some amazing 16MHz 386 machines that just roar. And then there’s OS/2, the new operating system due sometime before the next ice age. Things change in that world, but the sales curves just keep going up. And, believe it or not, IBM and other manufacturers have rejuvenated the PCjr concept—the “home” PC market—with what appears to be success. Can the ST compete in the home market if Big Blue Brother and its minions come forth in force? Sigh…
Okay, so I see people having two distinct machines: a business and home machine. Certainly, most ST games can run circles around the usual lot of PC offerings (despite an unfortunate penchant for arcade style, as opposed to strategic entertainments where the mind is the workhorse, not the trigger finger). PC Ditto is the bridge between the two, so that you can enjoy the benefits of both worlds. The PC1 and its ilk are the serious solution for long-term efforts (assuming, as I stated above, Atari is intelligent and foresightful enough to offer a machine that can compete with the others).
Now for some whining, crying and sniffling. I’m writing this column on my T1100. Why? Not because Word Perfect is so much better than any current ST word processor, but because I had a little accident. Let me tell you about it.
I recently got a copy of MichTron’s Tune Up, a hard disk optimizer. This program basically reads the files off the disk and writes them back in contiguous order, rather than scattering them all over the disk. This makes reading and writing operations a lot faster. I’ve used this sort of program in the PC environment, so I knew what to expect. Sort of.
I read the manual first. It’s short. Very short. Okay, nothing new, no warnings I need worry about. I ran the program. After trying a few basic operations, I optimized my hard disk (segmented into four drives C to F). I don’t have a RAMdisk at present, but I do have DeskCart. Looks fine…working…a few error messages, but it keeps on chugging. Fine. It’s over. I reboot the system.
DISK ERROR! DISK ERROR! I couldn’t reload my hard drive. No way, no how. I tried everything. No go. Somehow, the program managed to zap the drive. I even had a terrible time getting the &±%$# thing formatted—it took several hours and many, many attempts. Everything lost, wiped out, destroyed, gone. Imagine my delight.
Of course, I have backups of my program files and applications. But, what I hadn’t done for a few months—due to an overload at the ex-office—was backup my own files. Everything I had downloaded from CIS was gone. All my programs in GFA BASIC gone. My Midway game, and all the data files that went with it, gone. My Flash DO files gone. My romance novel gone. My sci-fi short stories gone. All the stuff that really mattered: GONE.
Now, to be fair, I took this little problem to a few other folk. Julius at Atari Canada sat down and ran the program on his own system without a single hitch. No one else had the same experience. Which led me to wonder: Why me? Was it because I had four disks partitioned? Or did DeskCart somehow interact with it in a nasty fashion? (For a reason that escapes me, some of the disk copy programs like Procopy will not work with DeskCart plugged in.)
Nonetheless, caveat emptor. I’d suggest that you remove any and all carts from the port first, and—just in case—make sure you have a backup copy of everything before you start. For those of you who want this sort of optimization, but don’t want to risk my experience, you can simply back up your hard disk and reformat it, then copy each file back, one at a time. They’ll be written contiguously. And, of course, the real lesson is: Always back everything up first!
An Atari twist: I saw a little item in the local paper, Toronto Computes, so I thought I’d bring you my experiences with the same problem.
Quite a long time ago, my 520 was upgraded locally to 1 meg. It started refusing to boot, then sometimes bombed out in the middle of things. One day, it finally refused to start up at all. So I took it to Keith Hope at BI (ah, the good old days) and he took it in hand, literally. He held it up and twisted the case. Voila! It worked again. Needless to say, I questioned him on this matter. His reply: “The metal shield is in two parts, joined only by pressure contacts. It tends to oxidize and break contact between the halves. The twisting cleans it enough to work again.”
“Isn’t there a somewhat better solution?” I asked. He suggested that I solder one or two of the twist connections so that the connection was—more or less—permanent. He did so for me and I’ve never had this problem since. I might add that the real solution involves Atari making a more competent shield that screws down, rather than this stupid twist-tab idea. But, hey, who’s listening to me?
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a newly-empty hard disk drive. If anyone has PD software—especially GFA BASIC programs—to replace those now lost, he would appreciate any you can send to him at: 47 Oakcrest Ave, Toronto, Ont., Canada M4C 1B4. Gracias.
ST-LOG #19 / MAY 1988 / PAGE 53
This was a difficult column to write. Normally, I have a target, some idea of what to do. This time, I tried two or three things and they all felt unsatisfactory.
Why? Well, I used to work for a company involved in desktop publishing. For the four months I was there, I worked almost every evening and weekend writing, editing, training and testing. In the final seven weeks alone, I put in 260 hours overtime. I was burning out. I spent little time with my wife, abandoned the garden, ignored the cats, and my social life became a black hole. And when, over personal conflicts inside the company, I was asked to resign, it almost seemed a relief rather than a hardship.
Since that time, I haven’t done too much. I’ve been relaxing, letting the tension slowly evaporate. So when I sat down to write this column, I realized I hadn’t done much of anything with my ST in months. I had nothing to pick on, nothing to stand on my soap box and rail about.
Then I got to thinking about those few programs I did use during the “hard times.” The computer became my escape vehicle, my dream machine. I didn’t play many games—they’re a lot like television: canned and preprogrammed. What little time I had was spent with Tom Hudson’s CAD 3D 2.0. It became my personal transport to that place in my own mind where I could relax.
I like my relaxation to be stimulating, rather than passive. I read at every opportunity. There are piles of books in every room in my house, and I carry books with me everywhere: in the john, in the car, in my briefcase and in my jacket. I even take a book when I walk the dog. TV interferes with my reading, so I try to avoid it.
But there are few computer recreations that stimulate me as CAD 3D does. I get lost inside it. I build things, create objects I’ve never seen before. I’ve assembled a model of my own house and another of a city street full of skyscrapers. I built several spaceships, a few cars and a chess set. None of them has been very well built or designed—I’m sure there are hundreds of talented artists out there who could do them all better and in less time—but I’ve received an enormous amount of pleasure from the process.
What I’m doing is extending my childhood hobby of model building. When I was a young teenager—back around the Miocene—I built plastic models. Then, I was limited by my paltry allowance and the constraints placed on the actual contents of a model kit. Now, I’m free to build and create what was only limited by my imagination.
The real fun I had with models wasn’t in following the instructions (something I’m poor at); it was in the customizing. A lot of my models looked like hell, but I had lots of fun in the building. And that’s what appeals to me about CAD 3D: it’s simply a helluva lotta fun.
I remember one morning last year at around 6 a.m., my wife Susan came into the computer room where I was hunched over my ST, tapping away. I must have looked a might dishevelled.
“When did you get up this morning?” she asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“Ah, well, I never exactly got to bed last night,” I replied sheepishly.
“What have you been doing all night?”
“Come here, I’ll show you,” I said, beaming with pride and still running on the adrenaline that had kept me going all night.
Susan sat down beside me and patiently watched as I proudly displayed my model of Stonehenge, crafted with the beta version of the first CAD 3D. I rotated it, zoomed into the center, pointed out the various rings of stones, blew it up, shrank it down to an indistinguishable dot. After about 15 minutes I turned to her.
“Well?” I asked.
“What do you think of it?”
“What does it do?”
“Do?” I cried, aghast, “What do you mean, do?”
Well, it went on like that for the next few minutes. Susan, a practical woman, couldn’t quite appreciate the joy I felt after laboring eight hours to produce the collection of lines she saw on the screen. Susan, of course, never built models as a kid, so couldn’t quite see the flickering phosphor as much of anything.
The end result of a piece of software is pretty fragile: a clump of magnetic oxide with magnetic poles aligned in specific directions so that it can be decoded later. Hardly something an archeologist will recognize a few millennia from now.
What I write with my computer becomes hard copy, which is eventually stored somewhere, in archival form that can be handled and read. The output from my spreadsheet is forever enshrined in some government tax office (a dubious immortality, I’ll admit). These are practical, understandable applications with concrete output. The computer merely performs as a tool for a task that existed before the computer itself.
But the output of CAD 3D (as well as Aegis Animator and other such programs) is entirely on disk, since their output is meant to be directed to a computer’s screen, not the flatness of paper. It somehow makes the result ethereal, like a ghost, something not quite real. We’re more accustomed to end objects that can be touched or have some permanence. When I turn off my computer, I get a disquieting feeling I’ve lost something, even though I know it’s been saved to disk.
The computer as an imagination device is more or less ignored by the sales folk, who like to nail down in solid form all the wonders the machine can do. I’ve never heard anyone call it a dream machine. But isn’t that one of those marvelous things we want it for? In that 8-hour period, I erected the circles of stone and dug the pits and rings in the earth, just as the mysterious engineers did some 3,000 years ago on a windy plain near Salisbury. In your dreams you are truly free.
I worked a lot with CAD 3D during the few months I was involved with its manual. I developed a great respect for Tom Hudson, the author, who seems to be building tools that inveterate tinkerers like myself enjoy so much. I really grew to like the program, due in part, no doubt, to Tom’s willingness to listen to my suggestions, even if harebrained. I still have an armload of suggestions, if he’s in the market for them. But the program has come a long way since I first played with it.
It’s nice to see a new version of any program you appreciate. It signifies that the author/publishers care: they’re continuing the development and design work begun with 1.0. It means evolution for the user—you can grow into new versions and learn new features easily. It also means the program won’t become outmoded or outdated, because new versions are always on their way. In a way, it’s a lot like buying a car. I like my current set of wheels, but five or six years from now, when I’m ready for another, I’ll want a newer, state-of-the-art vehicle—not the 1986 model again.
So CAD 3D 2.0 is the new model. By itself, there’s not a lot new in the design or intent. The main purpose is to let you create and manipulate 3D objects in space, and view them from a variety of angles. However, the overall appearance and performance of the program has been significantly improved.
The user interface has been polished, more objects are allowed (forty), and there’s finally the option to load and save templates for extruded objects. There’s “real-time” camera movement in super view and optional stereo separation for the StereoTek glasses (which I’ve seen, but not used). There’s greater color control, better (and faster) shading effects and a recolor option. You can arrange objects in four different groups and manipulate each individually.
For me, the most important additions are the truly flexible placement of lighting sources and the ability to measure and scale objects. The latter dilutes one of the criticisms of the earlier version, that without a method of measurement and scaling, the program is not “professional.”
The manual is new, too—very clear and well written. It has a tutorial, tips, advanced techniques, lots of illustrations, even a keyboard command card.
These enhancements pale in comparison to the animation feature. CAD 3D 2.0 comes with the Cybermate animation language program. It is now possible to create complex animation “stories” limited only by your available disk space. Here’s where I confess my weakness. I haven’t done much more than make a few halting attempts to master the animation. I’ve seen the results. Darrel Anderson not only wrote a tutorial on using Cybermate, but produced an impressive demonstration involving a spaceship-disk flying into the ST—quite amazing and somewhat beyond my current ability. As I said, I’ve been busy. I’m saving this delight for another time.
But my delight is still in making the models, trying to build in the CAD universe. I always feel a little like a deity, since I have such absolute control there. I have the power to create and destroy, to shape and move. It’s like working magic.
In trying to create the model of my own house, I had to wander through it—both in my mind and in reality—to find something I’d never noticed before, or to clarify some detail I’d ignored. I got to know my house more intimately than I expected. Of course, I made the whole thing look good, but it’s not accurate. I plan to measure everything in the house one day and rebuild the model to scale. Luckily, the program’s resizing feature will let me do it to the existing model, without having to start again from scratch.
When I had my little house built, I copied it a few times. There! I had my block. I had the same sense of delight a friend gets when he builds model railroad sets. (Of course, his stands in his basement, where he can look at it anytime.)
Probably the best line in the entire manual (at the end of the first tutorial) parallels my own approach: “Get completely lost in the CAD 3D universe.” I can’t think of a better way to discover the wonders of this program.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based writer. He’s been an author, book editor, magazine editor and roustabout in the publishing business for many years. In his spare time, he brews his own beer and plays wargames.
ST-LOG #20 / JUNE 1988 / PAGE 41
“Whatever became of….”
A lot of conversations begin with these words when people learn of my past association with Batteries Included. People want to know what happened. More often, people want to know what happened to the software BI had announced that hasn’t yet seen the light of day—the Elite series in particular. Somehow, in the acquisition of BI by Electronic Arts, a lot of products appeared to fall by the wayside.
A lot of the time I have to answer, “I dunno,” because EA never let me in on their plans. When I left BI, among the projects in the works for the ST were PaperClip Elite, Contact (aka Bute, the terminal emulator, once called Termulator until someone realized the name was already in use), the Thundersaurus, B/Graph Elite, Consultant Elite, a revised Thunder and a few other programs. As far as I can tell, none of these are going to be released by EA, at least within the Age of Mammals.
That’s too bad. There were a lot of good products under development back before New Year’s 1987. Top of the list and the closest to completion was Scott Northmore’s Consulant Elite.
Scott had originally written an impressive database for the MS-DOS market, called Genapp. It was one of those products up in the application stratosphere—complex, powerful and flexible. He wrestled the user interface under a GEM shell, which made it considerably easier to use and more approachable than the command-based ogres, dBase and Rbase, but sharing their capabilities nonetheless. Once running under GEM, the next phase was to move it over to the ST. But DRI’s GEM in the PC/MS-DOS environment isn’t 100% the same as GEM in an ST, and translations aren’t quite as simple as one might expect. Still, Scott managed to tame the tiger to the point where we could honestly say it was 90% finished and ready for outside testing. The prototype worked, and the database engine itself performed properly—it was mostly a matter of tightening the user interface. It also promised to be the most powerful database manager available for the ST by far. Then the troubles began.
Michael Reichmann, president of BI, left for what appeared to be greener pastures (a company called Laser Friendly, involved in desktop publishing—soon to become a haven for several ex-BI employees). With him went a lot of the drive and determination that kept BI going. The remaining management was indecisive and insecure. There were a lot of meetings, and thousands of words were spoken, but software publication—not to mention development and testing—virtually came to a standstill while psychic efforts were expended in useless hair-pulling and tooth-gnashing over the financial crunch BI found itself in. Those of us who wanted to continue on were powerless to get the wheels turning again. We marched towards the inevitable: the sale of the company.
No one told Scott or any of the other software authors about this however. Management dithered and hesitated and hemmed and hawed while he worked diligently on his own. We were forbidden to discuss the situation with any of the authors in case it jeopardized the negotiations with Epyx and later EA. That only lead to a lot of angry, frustrated programmers and developers. Not to mention the angst many of us at BI felt over this sort of treatment.
Suddenly, or so it seemed, the whole thing ended. BI went into receivership, people were fired without warning—most without being given proper notice or sufficient separation pay (myself included). But it was people like Scott who were really left with the short end of the stick.
Scott had brought Consultant Elite to the beta test stage, but what now? EA held the rights to all products, even those in development, and were slow to release them—even those they had no intention to publish. Scott finally got the rights for his program back in December—nine months or so after the sale. For nine months he couldn’t legally do anything with Consultant. All that work didn’t generate any income.
Scott realized they would have to return the rights sooner or later, so he was resourceful enough to approach several other ST software publishers in the meantime. But with the rights in limbo for so long, one could or would make a commitment to the program. Worse, perhaps, several companies were interested but realized the responsibility for supporting such a high-end product was a major undertaking outside their realm. They were impressed and excited by the program, but lacked either resources or stamina to provide the requisite support staff Consultant required. And that bodes ill for the development of serious ST software in the future.
So Consultant Elite is still unpublished—potentially one of the most powerful database programs for the ST, a professional-level product that won’t see the light of day because Scott can’t find a publisher willing to support it. That’s not to say there aren’t good database programs out there now, but the likelihood of seeing more of such or better programs in the future is slim (competition means better end products and real choice—and very few publishers seem willing to enter the fray).
A similar fate befell B/Graph Elite. It seems no one can see the need for a serious statistical/graphing program (with a spreadsheet data-entry interface) in the ST market. Sure, these programs sell well, and are in demand in the PC/MS-DOS world, but ST software publishers seem to shy away from the upper-end products. Either that or they haven’t the foggiest idea what they should be selling.
All this makes me somewhat nervous. It’s like we’re doomed to seeing the ST become a great game machine, or a super midi-controller, but with a dearth of products aimed at the business! professional user. And face it folks, professional users are staying away in droves.
After all, what do you have for the ST we can truly say falls into the professional category? Anything the likes of 1-2-3 (or Quattro or Excel), Sidekick, Desqview, Symphony, Framework, Paradox, Ready, Keyworks, Ventura, Grammatik, Prolog, Tornado Notes, and so on? I doubt that any of their publishers will release for the ST. It’s seen as a game machine by most outsiders. And in order to change that attitude, we have to see more top-level products produced and sold by existing ST publishers.
Sure, Word Perfect Corp. released Word Perfect 4.1—so far the only publisher of note in the PC/MS-DOS world to do anything of that sort. So, at last, we have a word processor that can be considered professional quality. What else? The sad truth is that we simply don’t have much (if any) software in the PC/MS-DOS league.
I really don’t want to pick holes in every product and whine about what we don’t have. In truth, a lot of what’s out there is pretty good, but it’s all based on a perception of home market needs and prejudices; it’s pretty much still a cottage industry. Maybe we’re to blame. Maybe most ST buyers don’t want the business and professional-level software; they want lightweight products, simple utilities and lots of games. In that case, Word Perfect may well fail to sell big in the ST market, despite the quantity of features it offers (it towers over any other ST word processor).
Of course, the home market is where Atari seems to be aiming its best shot. I don’t see a Single ST in use in any corporate environment. Can anyone name a member of the Fortune 1000 that uses STs? Apple has managed to get the Mac into a lot of businesses. Why not Atari?
Well, in part, it’s because they can’t approach a major business seriously without some solid software to offer them. Can you imagine Atari trying to sell to a major corporation?
“Well, no, we don’t have networking, no simple means to move files from your existing PCs, no suitable terminal emulation for your mainframe connetion, software lacks full compatibility with your 1-2-3 and dBase files, and the keyboard is medicocre, but you can play some great games on it….”
Maybe I’m just in a bad mood. I get depressed when I go into a software shop and see the shelves full of PC/MS-DOS products. I’d like to see things change and find products like Scott’s Consultant Elite (or whatever he’s calling it now—maybe Genapp Elite?) and B/Graph Elite in my local software store soon, before the ST becomes the C64 of the ’80s.
Ah, so that’s why they never got in touch.
Remember back when, I made a fuss about Sublogic not doing a Flight Simulator scenery disk for my own area (Toronto)? I even wrote them twice and begged them to release the information for creating a scenery disk database so local users could design their own places to fly (or create fantasy places—why not?). In response, I got a written equivalent of the cold shoulder from them.
Well, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Scenery Disk 11—the “Detroit/Lake Huron” disk—has Toronto on it! And a good deal of southern Ontario too. But they don’t mention it anywhere on the package. I booted my FS2 and skewed over to find out why.
If you know the city, you’ll understand why Sublogic is reluctant to admit to having Toronto on any of their disks. Toronto is, after all, not an American city. Just because it’s the largest city in Canada, with roughly five million people in the combined metro and suburban regions, doesn’t mean they should give it any special treatment, right? And the fact there are more ST owners in Soutern Ontario than anywhere else in the country shouldn’t bother them either, I suppose.
Well, imagine my disappointment: Toronto is given one single building—the CN Tower—around which we can fly. Detroit—roughly the same size and population—has oodles of interesting places to see. At night, FS2’s Toronto is as black, bleak and dreary as a morgue. And to add insult to injury, Pearson International Airport—as busy as Chicago’s O’Hare—is missing from the booklet and map listing and was given no buildings in the database, not even a lousy hangar! And where are the dozens of large satellite communities that surround this city? Consigned to FS2 limbo, no doubt. Finally, what’s with all the lakes that look like half-cooked fracted pancakes that cover the northern landscape? Do the designers think we live in a swamp?
Think there might be a little bit of prejudice in the making of this product? Look, as a Canadian, I’m accustomed to getting the short shrift from Americans who think that the world ends at the border, but this is carrying it too far; it’s a smack in our faces. It would have been better had Sublogic not included Canada at all than to insult us with such a piddling poor effort.
My love of FS2 has suffered a serious blow with this scenery disk. And I’m not the only one who feels this way up here. Fellow enthusiasts have discussed it with me in several stores—all equally grieved at the offhand manner in which our own area was handled. It casts a dark shadow on any claims to accuracy that the scenery disks might ever carry in the future. Sublogic, are you listening? If you ever want us on your side again, you’d better recall those disks and fix them up, soon, before the damage is irreversible.
ST-LOG #21 / JULY 1988 / PAGE 84
It’s been a long time since I wrote one of these columns. ST-Log is just out now and my column in it was written last fall, six or more months before it finally saw print. It’s a trifle dated…I can’t even remember the contents of any subsequent columns. Well, back to work, then.
Of late, I’ve had the opportunity to work with WordPerfect 4.1 and Microsoft Write for the ST. The former crashes a lot and won’t always perform as ordered. The latter is a weak-kneed offering not a whit better than anything already on the market. Both are a lot more expensive than any of the competition as well.
Both programs are the products of large, wealthy and important software publishers—WordPerfect Corp. and Microsoft—whose strengths in the PC and Mac worlds are well known. Both companies must be highly embarrassed by these products, although for different reasons.
WP appeared in late fall, 87. Four revisions were shipped out by the end of January 88. And there are still serious bugs in it. The program merrily crashes, performs erratically, freezes up and dies with disturbing frequency. It does not inspire confidence.
What’s the latest version? Well, at the time of this writing, it’s January 29. But the versions aren’t numbered so you can tell what you have—they all say 4.1. Rely on the file creation dates on the disks. A “clean” version of WP was slated for release in late March. Perhaps we’ve all received it now.
WP has a feature list as long as your arm. Very impressive, and if they all worked properly, it would be truly amazing (remember, they all do work on the PC). It has a super spelling checker and thesaurus, macro commands, on-screen column display, flexible printer control and a whole lot more—more than I dare list here. One can understand, at least, why the program costs so much—it offers value for the money.
WP 4.1 made a big hit in the PC world a couple of years back. But it was topped by 4.2 a year ago. 4.1 for the ST is a close work-alike to the PC version. Why didn’t they bring out 4.2 for the ST, rather than 4.1? Why did they slavishly tie the ST version to the PC, rather than take advantage of the ST’s various features such as graphics? Why did they release a flawed version that should have been kept in the beta stage for a few more months? Good questions.
This isn’t typical of WordPerfect Corp.—they have a good reputation developed over four years of hard work. Obviously the ST marketplace doesn’t have the potential of the MS-DOS world, so perhaps efforts to perfect the product aren’t quite as active as we would hope—after all, they also sell a version for the Amiga, Apple II and a version 5.0 for the PC is about to be released. All these products take time, effort and money.
WordPerfect Corp. squashed rumours that they would pull out of the Atari market, due to rampant piracy. WP was found on at least three pirate BBSs, but they are still making the effort to stay with us. That shows a serious commitment on their part. If you want them to remain part of this market, then show them the same amount of respect and don’t make or accept any pirate copies of their product. If they pull out, the chance of anyone else in their league coming over to the ST is slightly less than your being hit by Halley’s comet.
I have faith that WP will finally come to its own—that the bugs will be fixed and the program will be finished. It was suggested that they might release 4.2 for the ST a year or so from now. Don’t hold your breath—it will depend on sales of 4.1 to justify the expense and effort. Of course, the pirates could ruin it for all of us….
Microsoft Write is another product altogether. It leaves me with no hope at all. The box art should have alerted me—it’s hideous.
Write is similar to Word 1.0 for the Mac, a product that, when released four years ago, wasn’t much of a hit. Don’t confuse Write for the ST with the excellent program of that name bundled with Microsoft Windows. No hope. And don’t think it bears any resemblance to the latest versions of Word on either the Mac or the PC. Will Microsoft upgrade the ST version? Add new features? Improve the display? Not within the Age of Mammals, anyway.
Write whimpers. It does little that other word processors don’t do at half the price. It looks like it’s WYSIWYG, but aside from screen fonts, it can’t show text as it will appear when printed. Multiple columns, for example, don’t display across the screen. Headers, footers and footnotes don’t show on the page where they print. There isn’t a spelling checker or thesaurus, and printer drivers are limited to the SMM804, Atari laser and Epson-compatibles. The list of features is depressingly short and unimpressive.
Like WP, Write copies from another system—the Mac in this instance. It does it so well that it even ignores the right mouse button (the Mac only has one mouse button…). Like WP, it is also not the latest version the company has to offer everyone else. But unlike WP, it leaves a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste. Why would anyone bother bringing out such a lame duck? And then charging top dollar for it! Surely Jack and the boys don’t think we’re that gullible!?!
I heard that Microsoft washed its hands of the Write project early on and gave it to Atari to finish development (more than a year in the doing thereof). A local source even told me that only a single, co-op student programmer was assigned to the project. Why doesn’t that surprise me? Even if it isn’t true, the program looks like it was a back-burner project. I’m surprised that Microsoft even allowed its name to be associated with the final product. It looks like no one was ever consulted on the concept of word processors and what the consumer might want in one.
On the back of the Write package it states: “Team Microsoft Write with an Atari Mega computer and the Atari SLM804 laser printer for an excellent desktop publishing system.” Write can’t import or print graphics, doesn’t do kerning, can’t produce rules, won’t display multiple columns—the simplest things required by desktop publishing. To call this statement misleading doesn’t do it justice. I say it’s an outright lie. Write is absolutely unsuited for desktop publishing.
WP and Write are major software disappointments, although as I said earlier, for different reasons. I had high hopes that these two companies—major dynamos in the industry and major competitors for the same market (word processing) would race to offer the best programs they could. Neither one achieved that. I’m willing to wait for the finished WP, but as far as I’m concerned, Write isn’t worth the shelf space it consumes.
Way back when, I wrote about the Atari PC1. It’s been available in Canada since the end of December but I understand not in the USA. The PC2 started shipping up here in early March. I’ve been led to believe that the PC series is unloved and unwanted by the U.S. Atari folk. No one seems to care to see them released in the USA. Maybe because they’re tired of flogging the mediocre?
The PC1 is a good idea in a handsome package, but poorly implemented as a consumer product—the design lacks foresight and comprehension of the marketplace demands. It has built-in monochrome, CGA and EGA graphics and a Microsoft compatible mouse. It comes with a good amber monitor but bundling discourages making a purchase of a color or high-res monitor later. The monitor port is standard TTL, without composite or RGB output. So far so good. It goes pretty much downhill from here.
The PC1 has a 720K 3.5″ internal floppy drive and can accept another two externally. The nice thing is that they’re standard ST314 drives. The nasty thing is that Atari doesn’t make a 5.25″ drive for the machine and there’s still a lot of software out there that’s not available on 3.5″ disks. It also makes for difficult data transfer if your office machine uses 1.2MB floppies!
The basic memory is 512K RAM, expandable to 640K maximum. With no expansion cards, forget RAMdisks or additional EMS or LIMS memory cards. This is a severe restriction. Many PC programs make use of expanded memory—Lotus 1-2-3 for example.
The PC1’s biggest failing is the lack of standard expansion slots. There is only a single custom bus—for which the schematics have not been released! The myriad of PC/XT cards available for almost every other PC aren’t of any use with the PC1. Forget internal clock calendars, modems, new graphics drivers, additional parallel or serial ports, joysticks, fax cards, JLaser cards, RAM cards or even a hard drive. If you get anything, it must connect through the existing serial, parallel or floppy port. See what I mean about short-sightedness?
The PC2 is a better machine but still a long way from perfect. It offers pretty much everything the PC1 has, plus a bit more compatibility with the real-world PC market. The biggest difference is that it can house a 20MB hard drive and a single 5.25″ floppy or two floppies. 20MB, however, is a small drive—I filled 40MB on my AT clone in a few months! Also, you apparently can’t mix 3.5″ and 5.25″ drive types to take advantage of both (I use one of each on my system).
Both machines come with a two-button ST mouse (although the best PC mice, like Logitech’s, are the three-button type) but no utilities to create menus, drivers, and so on for non-mouse programs (with which every PC mouse comes, of course).
The PC2 has four standard expansion slots, which is adequate for most users. It doesn’t have the external floppy port, but has the parallel, serial and mouse ports like the PC1.
Both machines are extremely IBM/PC compatible. They are switchable between 4.77 and 8 MHz speeds, but I don’t know how many, if any wait-states that includes, so the realized speed may be less. 4.77 MHz really drags on the 8088, and I can’t imagine why anyone with even a semblance of brain power would work at that slow a speed. Many competing XT clones offer 10MHz “turbo” speeds.
The keyboard, alas, is lightweight and the keys appear to be cut from the ST mold—a trifle larger than standard PC size, so clumsy and awkward—as the ST keyboard is. However, it is detachable. You can replace it with a Keytronics or a similar keyboard.
Both machines come with MS-DOS 3.21, GWBASIC, GEM desktop, GEM Write and GEM Paint. I don’t know why Atari failed to provide the latest version of DOS 3.3. I also wonder why the PC1 rates all of this software when the ST limped along with an unfinished version of NeoChrome, third-rate 1st Word, a slow and cranky BASIC and GEM without GDOS. Think maybe we got the nasty end of the stick?
All in all, I can’t recommend the PC1; the design is too restrictive and there are a lot of expandable competitors at the same price with a few more options from which to choose. It’s not even suited as a home machine, because it can’t be upgraded or enhanced. However, if you need an expensive paperweight….
The PC2 is a reasonable entry-level system for the home user. The limitations on floppy drives (number and type) and hard drive size certainly lower it below any professional or business user category. But as a backup machine, when fully loaded, it should be adequate.
In my next column, I’ll look at an entirely new ST product—ST X*Press designed by Alan Page, co-author of Flash. Imagine being able to get all the news 24 hours a day—international, local, business, your favorite sports stories, market updates, weather, fashion, and so on. Not a newspaper—they’d be on your ST. Instead of rummaging through page after page looking for stories of interest, you could collect stories with specific keywords and save them to disk to read later. That’s just part of what ST X*Press does when combined with your TV cable. It does a whole lot more too, but I’ll talk about it next time. A very exciting new offering for this market.
Desktop publishing: I haven’t seen anything except the earliest release of Publishing Partner (their “professional” version is expected—one hopes a significant improvement over the original!), although I see new packages are out there now (Fleet Street publisher for one). I hope to be able to get the newest releases and compare them with Xerox’s Ventura Publisher for the PC in the near future.
I’ve played a lot of Wargame Construction Set, from SSI, recently. A thinking person’s game—challenging but fun. I’ll review it soon, along with several new products including Juggler from MichTron, GFA Artist, Gunship and Defender of the Crown.
My thanks to readers who sent me PD programs (especially the GFA listings) after my disk hard crashed. I have since heard of others losing their data the same way. I appreciate everyone’s support.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based technical writer specializing in desktop publishing. He is currently designing several wargames, including one for the ST. He is looking for reference books on Napoleonic warfare, campaigns, armies, etc. Contact him at: 47 Oakcrest Ave, Toronto, Ont., Canada, M4C 184.
ST-LOG #22 / AUGUST 1988 / PAGE 56
I was sorting out my hard disk the other day. It’s a job I do irregularly, out of necessity when it becomes close to full. I back up everything, then remove a passel of programs I don’t use. While I was doing this, I realized that most of the programs on the disk are public domain—PD. That gave me pause to consider the whole business of freeware and shareware.
Ever wonder about PD software? A whole lot of people out there work hours and hours and hours at writing the stuff to give it away. Sounds like poor business to me, but bless ’em all! Some of the most useful programs I own are PD.
Who are the authors who spend their time slaving over a hot computer to give us these gems? Charles Johnson, David Betz, James Luczak, David Small, Frank Cohen, David Addison, Tim Purves, Jerry Cole, George Woodside and many, many more. Forgive me if your name isn’t on the list. Many are hackers, but a lot of these people are professionals. It takes a lot of commitment to work that hard for no measurable reward. I think it’s high time we said thanks!
I guess we all take these programs for granted. After all, good or bad, we don’t pay for them. Sure, some are shareware—that means the authors ask you to voluntarily send them a donation. Sometimes this gets you an upgrade or enhanced version. Other times it just makes you feel good. I’ve never seen any figures on shareware; so I haven’t the foggiest idea if anyone makes any money at it. Somehow, it looks more like a labor of love to me.
But where would we be without PD proprams? Online services like Delphi and CompuServe would be nothing more than message systems. Ho hum. Some PD offerings are, truthfully, pretty much an amateur’s effort; sort of a proclamation to the rest of us, “Hey! Look what I did!” But a lot are very well crafted, programmed and designed. And when source code is included, the user support idea really makes the concept fly.
Look at ST Writer, one of the best free programs I’ve ever seen and maybe the best word processor for the ST at present. It came out as a port from the 8-bit Atari Writer. Version 2.52 is the latest (as of this writing), and it’s terrific. The printer drivers have been improved, it has mouse control and other new features; all thanks to the efforts of a dedicated bunch who get nothing beyond personal satisfaction for their services (and, of course, a good word processor).
George Woodside’s Turtle is another delight. I use it whenever I backup the hard disk. And where would we be without the PD archive/de-arc programs that condense files for transfer and storage?
What about games? There are a fair number of good PD games out there. David Addison gave us Monopoly—as professional a game as I’ve ever encountered—among others. And he provides the source code in GFA BASIC, so I can tinker to my heart’s delight. PD games often include clones of popular commercial games which sell for inflated prices: Centipede, PacMan, that sort of thing. And in a lot of cases, the PD versions are even better than the originals.
PD is also the showcase for a lot of new ideas. Many “hidden” features of GEM and IDS have been revealed and exploited first in PD programs. Some of these efforts show the most creative ideas I’ve encountered in the ST environment
There are many nifty utilities out there, at only the cost of the download time, that improve the computing environment considerably. There are programs to select which desk accessories to load, GEM item selector replacements, print spoolers, RAMdisks, replacements for desktop background and icons, printer drivers, graphics translators and more. There are paint and CAD programs, slideshow utilities, educational programs, spreadsheets, word processors, debuggers, disk copiers and sector editors, text editors, databases, languages—so much material that you can get just about any type of program, application or utility you’ll ever need in the PD world.
This, of course, means that there is no excuse for piracy of commercial software, with so much good material available for free or very close to it Then again, there never was any excuse for piracy. But that’s another column. I was surprised to see how much material I had accumulated on my hard disk and how much of it was PD. I was hard pressed to remove a lot of it. since I use many of these programs. They don’t merely consume space on my disk.
Here’s a parochial problem: Canada. The question of software and magazine distribution up here has arisen so often that I thought I’d address it here.
Where do Canadian stores get ST-Log or ANALOG? Up here, the magazine doesn’t (yet) enjoy as wide a distribution as, sad to say, the competition. I’ve been asked many times by retailers where they can get the magazine locally. The answer is—I don’t really know. But I’ve found one supplier who deals nationally: Micro D Distributors (not associated with the American company of that name). They also handle major software publishers. They can be reached in the Toronto region at 741-9825 or outside at 1-(800) 387-5855.
If you’re in your local store (book, computer, software or magazine outlet), and they don’t have ANALOG or ST-Log, ask them to start bringing it in. They can either call ST-Log/ANALOG in California for the name and phone number of a local distributor or call Micro D.
I also wanted to mention Micro D because they have been instrumental in providing me with review copies of software—something most distributors seem loathe to do. One of the problems of writing current reviews in the Great White North is that products, when they reach here, often arrive months behind the U.S. release, if they reach here at all. Many publishers don’t have Canadian distributors and a lot of their products simply never get onto the shelves up here. And what does is pretty expensive.
The problem has a lot to do with minimum order quantities (here comes the lesson, so take out your pens, there’s a test afterwards). A publisher may demand a minimum order of, say five or ten copies to merit a dealer discount. Sometimes they only have one product (or one suitable for the dealer), and the dealer may not want that many copies of an untried product on his or her shelves. Or the item may be just a customer’s special order and no one else wants it. So they order from a distributor who can mix titles for the minimum order and get the one copy, along with other items from other publishers. See?
Without the dealer discount, the markup on a product is hideous. Figure that with our devalued Canadian peso, software is already 30% more expensive in Canada. Add tax, freight charges, distributor’s markup and what have you, and the end result runs anywhere between 50% and 100% markup. Here’s a single, randomly chosen example: MichTron’s great new product, GFA Artist, is $79.95, SLP in the USA. In Canada, it’s $129.95. ST dealers up here aren’t so numerous that they are highly price-competitive, so the pressure to discount is weak. Most stores don’t discount these prices. That makes it very: hard on the consumer. It discourages casual buying (who casually drops $60 or $75 or a game?) and encourages piracy.
What’s the solution? I’m not offering any. I don’t know if there is one. I just thought I’d tell you this, to air the problem. If you come up with something—let me know!
Ian Chadwick is a technical writer and editor living with his wife in an igloo in Toronto, Canada. He is currently writing a murder mystery set in Mexico so he can claim travel expenses and designing a game on the campaigns of Napoleon so he can write off his book purchases.
ST-LOG #23 / SEPTEMBER 1988 / PAGE 60
I was rather surprised to receive several letters asking about a comment I made way back when, about using my Toshiba T1100+ laptop and my Atari ST together. Let me clarify it, for all those who asked.
Any IBM PC or compatible with a 3.5-inch drive can format a disk that the ST can read from and write to. The PC can also read and write to it, so they can both use it to share files. However, unless you have a special program to do it, many PCs cannot write single-sided (360K) floppies in a 3.5-inch drive. My Toshiba can do it, but not my AT clone.
The ST cannot normally write to a disk readable by the PC unless you use a program that writes the correct boot sector to conform to the MS-DOS standard. One example is the excellent DC Formatter, a public-domain utility from Double Click Software. Others are available on most bulletin boards. This process does not alter the disk in any way so as to make it unusable by the ST—it simply allows both systems to use it.
You can write 360K floppies on the ST and write the MS-DOS boot sector for the PC to read. The PC seems quite tolerant about reading from and writing to the single-sided disks, even if it won’t format them. The PC is less fault-tolerant than the ST; so I recommend that, if possible, you format your disks in the PC, rather than the ST.
However, there is a caveat. You must write the MS-DOS boot sector before you write any files to the disk—immediately after format is the best time. One of the things the boot sector establishes is which sector(s) holds the directory table. On the ST, sector 11 is the norm, but on the PC it’s sector 07. If you write the boot sector after you’ve copied files to the disk, you can’t read them on either machine! I haven’t found a “restore” utility which changes a disk back to ST format yet.
Another caveat is to beware of “twister” and other fancy formatting techniques on the ST. I’ve had problems using these disks between systems, so stick to the standard single- or double-sided formats and you won’t have any problems.
Data files (straight text or ASCII) and any software-compatible files (e.g., Word Perfect) can then be transferred between machines and used by progr ams. Of course, program files can’t be used at all, since they’re written for different processors. However, it means you can buy a cheap XT clone with a 40MB hard drive and use it to store all of your ST software for about the same price as a dedicated ST hard disk!
Which brings up another issue: I have a Supra 20MB hard disk—an early model, not one of their slim-line versions. I have trouble with it. When it’s cold or has not been used in a while, it stubbornly refuses to boot right away. I have to turn it and the computer on and off several times, and usually let it run a long while before it “catches” and boots. This can take as long as 15 minutes; no small wait.
This problem has been with me for a long time—ever since I’ve owned it—and remains despite updates to my boot program. I’m not sure I have the latest boot. I once asked Supra about the problem via CompuServe, but I got a less than satisfactory answer. The problem remains, and I am less than happy with my drive’s performance. I have considered upgrading to 40MB or even 60MB, but my experience with this drive discourages me from pursuing Supra’s line further. I’d appreciate any advice from readers about this and other hard-drive issues.
I just received Firebird’s Universal Military Simulator (UMS) and have spent considerable time with it. Anyone who knows me is aware of my penchant for military games and history. For years I wrote a column about computer war games for the largest military history/game magazine. My library is full of military reference books. My board wargaming friends, like me, have little time for long, drawn out games; so I always look forward to a new war game for my computer.
From the advertisements, I expected something truly amazing. It promised to be a design kit with which the user could create any historical battle. For we grognards, this is a ticket to the promised land. Alas, promises made are not always kept.
SSI released Wargame Construction Set (WCS) last year, a game designed along similar lines, in which the user can create his own armies and battlefields. WCS is quite a good package, albeit limited because it allows far too few units on a side to truly simulate a lot of historical battles and has a somewhat limited range of terrain types—probably the result of too close adherence to the 8-bit versions in the translation. It does, however, allow a spectrum of unit types, including helicopters, infantry, tanks, cavalry and boats. WCS plays wells and aside from the limitations, it’s a good, enjoyable package. It makes good use of color and the mouse; it has sound effects, interesting screen graphics and reasonably intelligent algorithms to handle things like combat, spotting and the aggressive nature of the computer-controlled opponent.
UMS, on the other hand, is even more limited, to the point of ridiculousness. A maximum of 24 units is allowed on a side: 18 regulars, six “wildcards.” That rules out a lot of battles right there: Too many compromises have to be made to fit an actual order of battle into 24 units. In the Waterloo scenario, in order to fit the battle into the unit restrictions, historical units are simply ignored, and artillery is lumped into corps units. The entire Prussian army is gone, a long with Grouchy’s corps!
None of the units on-screen look like anything military: They appear as black and white signposts with an abbreviated name and a unit symbol. So much for historical color.
Terrain is worse. There are only clear and woods squares. Clear can be given four height levels: depression, flat, hill and ridge. That’s it. You might think you were fighting on the moon! Woods are simply green squares. They don’t look anything at all like woods. The effects of these limited types of terrain on combat are only discussed in passing, in the documentation.
The playing area map is a lifeless grid work without even the slightest visual appeal. It doesn’t even pretend to simulate real terrain, merely abstracts it. The back of the package announces: “You no longer have to settle for inferior graphics…” I’d be pleased if they were as good as inferior!
Towns, villages and landmarks can be added, but aside from visual clutter, they have no effect on play. The chateaux and farms at Waterloo, so bitterly contested, are nothing in UMS. Worse perhaps, there is no provision for water: no rivers, seas, shorelines. Battles like Marengo, Austerlitz, Saipan, Stalingrad, Wavre and a thousand others which were fought around or near water and which played so critical a role in the action can’t be simulated. Most of the predesigned scenarios in the package were also fought around water—for example, the Smohain river that restricted Napoleon’s right wing, Rock Creek that runs east of Gettysburg.
The combat results provide interesting, if not very amusing and unpredictable results. I’ve had crack units—advancing heavy infantry, good morale, 2,000 strong—beaten by 500 retreating infantry with poor morale, my division taking 1000+ casualties while handing out only 100 themselves! Artillery is considerably overgunned, at least in the Waterloo scenario. A single unit (I Corps, 46 guns) can cause 500+ casualties in a single ten-minute phase. A trifle historical? This happens a bit too often to be considered a unique event.
Unit speeds are another curiosity. Heavy infantry, they say, march at 12.5 mph. (British army marching pace is only 4 mph!) Artillery move at 18.5 mph. (No time is required to limber and unlimber the guns!) By this I gather they assume all artillery is horse artillery; a sad mistake since they weren’t. Cavalry also travels at 18.5 mph, only 50% faster than the infantry (and a lot slower than charge speed!) and no faster then the heavily encumbered artillery. I guess they came by these figures by lottery; there’s no reason for them otherwise.
In combat, units retreat in any direction. They don’t logically fall back towards their supply source. They don’t run pell mell away from the advancing enemy, even when they have room to do so. Instead, the appear to move randomly, often into enemy units, sometimes causing severe casualties as they retreat. Just plain nonsense.
The scenario booklet suggests that the human take Wellington’s army and force the computer Napoleon to attack to show how weak the Emperor’s position was. Well, I made the computer take the Duke’s forces instead, but I let the computer decide all the strategy. It drove the troops out of the positions and headlong into my French army. As a result, it was soundly defeated. Why couldn’t the computer recognize its superior position? Not a very intelligent routine, I’d say.
The UMS order of battle for Waterloo in the scenario booklet is based on sources at least 90 years old, and the numbers disagree with modern sources such as Chandler and Bowden. It contains basic mistakes such as splitting the Young Guard into 1st & 3rd Tirailleurs and 1st & 3rd Voltigeurs and assigning their leadership to Duhesme (misspelled “Duheame”), the division commander and his second, Barrois. In actuality the 1st Tirailleurs and 1st Voltigeurs were together under Chartrand and the 3rd Tirailleurs and 3rd Voltigeurs were together under Guye. Finally, the 21st Division (VI Corps) under General Teste, 4,000 men, is missing. This sort of mistake is very irritating, especially to a history buff.
There is no level for army morale to break. Armies don’t fight to the last man. They break, they rout, they collapse at a certain point when the overall morale breaks. In UMS, they fight to the last. Crazy.
And there are more problems. I can’t get the program to work if any desk accessories are installed (therefore it won’t work with my hard disk since it loads several accessories). There is an annoying double redraw of many screens. There’s no undo option. There’s no hands-off automatic mode (computer vs. computer); you have to manually press N for “next phase” all the time. There is no grid numbering system for the map, so it’s easy to misplace terrain and units when trying to create a scenario. From what I can fathom, moving diagonally costs the same in movement points as moving the same number of squares orthogonally, ignoring basic lessons of geometry. You can create “wildcard” units but their effect and purpose are unexplained. Then again, the rule book explains very little else, so why worry about one more detail?
I wish the designers had bothered to read some of the books on the topic, such as Dupuy’s Numbers, Prediction and War or Rothenberg’s The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon, Keagan’s Face of Battle. UMS’s designers showed no insight into the mechanics of battle at all.
My sneaking suspicion is that UMS was translated exactly as is from the C64 version, complete with errors, nagging limitations, ugly graphics and lousy history. SSI, in translating WCS, made some allowances for the ST. Firebird did not. Whatever strengths this program has (and it does have a few) are drowned by the deluge of weaknesses. Back to the drawing board folks: We expect a lot better from you than rehashed C64 programs! UMS goes back onto the shelf, at the bottom of the heap.
Remember Max Think? Hippo Concept? I do. They were outline processors, like Think Tank and Ready for the Mac/PC. They obviously didn’t make much of a splash, because I haven’t seen Max around for at least a year and Hippo went the way of the Anthracotherio idea (the ancestral artiodactyls). Too bad. I liked Concept even more than Max, especially since it created an ASCII file I could edit with a word processor.
I like outline processors. I use Ready all the time on my PC and have just found a PD version called PCO. They provide a unique approach to data organization, a tree structure that can’t be recreated easily in a word processor. I’m using one to keep achronological record of battles of the Napoleonic Wars. For this sort of database, an outline is extremely well suited; you can see the overview, zoom in on any detail, open whole sections and explore. You’re not limited to fields and other vertebrate structures.
This little blurb is by way of asking for any information about existing (surviving?) ST outliners. I’d like to transfer some more of my PC data over to my ST. Send your cards and letters….
Editorial constraints (not to mention the threat of lawsuit) prevent me from putting into print my more rabid attacks on such areas of interest as mediocre software development, Atari’s weak support of the ST, lukewarm media response, the competition, and other tender areas. So instead of putting my thoughts in print, I’m going to publish them on DELPHI, in the ST SIG area. Free-wheeling personal opinion and point of view only, not necessarily the editorial viewpoint of this magazine, not for reprint. Responses welcome. Watch for it on DELPHI.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based technical writer. He lives with his wife, Susan, their cats, dog, computers, guitars, war games, homemade wine and beer and 10,000 books in a somewhat too small house. H is current pastimes are designing a simulation of Napoleon’s campaigns and gardening.
ST-LOG #24 / OCTOBER 1988 / PAGE 54
The other day I was sharing a few pints of home brew with a couple of old friends, both of whom have been computer users since the late 1970s. We were reminiscing about the “good old days” back when we first got our machines. Tom and I began with the TRS-80, back in 1978. Bill and I went on to Atari 400s, then 800s in 1983; Tom went for the Apple II about the same time.
Today, Bill and I have STs and PCs, Tom an Atari XE. We three bought our computers for much the same reason: to play and eventually design intellectually challenging games.
Tom and I started with 16K of RAM—considered to be an enormous amount of memory, since the computer had only recently evolved from 4K. The competition, the Commodore PET, had only 8K at the time. There was also a built-in BASIC which meant all of this memory was available for programming. A lot of amazing software was designed to run in a mere 16K, a lot of which has not been improved upon in megabyte-size systems. I was among the first users in my neighborhood to purchase the notoriously unreliable TRS-80 expansion box, which added another 48K RAM; 64K was simply staggering. Why, you could put a whole universe in there!
Aside from learning to program, we played a lot of games in those days. There weren’t many arcade-style games around, although a company called Big Five Software produced some truly delightful efforts, especially given the limited graphics capability of the TRS-80. Most of what we played was written in BASIC, which meant we could usually break into the program and hack away at the code when we wanted to tinker. And we tinkered a lot. We whiled away hours discussing the effect of changing a particular variable, of adding subroutines and of altering code. Some of our proposed changes sent us to the library for days of research just to prove a point. We had access to the program source code, so we applied ourselves to mastering it. In the process, we learned a lot about programming, simulations and games. There were few games we didn’t alter in one way or another.
By far, the majority of the games that we played and enjoyed were simulations, more or less, in game form. Most made little, if any, effort to include graphics or sound and were generally text-only display and input. And they occupied us for hours and hours of competition, play and enjoyment. Among these were Santa Paravia, a game about ruling a medieval kingdom; Taipan, a trading game in the 19th Century Orient; and Colony Omega, about building and running a space colony. There were games about running businesses, managing a sawmill, guiding tankers through the straits of Valdez, simulations about pest control, rat populations and buffalo herds. I loved them all. I used to subscribe to a magazine called, Softside, which printed the BASIC listings of these and similar games or simulations. For years, it was my favorite magazine. It was also one of the first publications where I got an article printed.
By today’s standards, they appear boring, even simplistic. We’ve come to expect slick mouse or joystick input, fanciful sound effects, stunning graphics. The thought of a simple, text-only game with limited keyboard input fails to stir the imagination of many users who were introduced to computers through more state-of-the-art designs. Sure, they were stripped down to the bare essentials, but a lot of these games were more involving and enjoyable than many of the more recent efforts I’ve encountered. They demanded thought, planning and strategy.
Graphics and sound effects are chrome. Many developers and designers use them to mask an essentially dull game. Take a look at Defender of the Crown: lots of amazing graphics, nice sound, but essentially a pretty skimpy game underneath. The joust sequence consists solely of attempting to position the cursor (the tip of your lance) in the middle of a moving target (the opponent’s shield). Ho-hum. The sword-fight sequence, when you attempt to rescue a maiden from her kidnapper, is a push-me-pull-you game requiring less skill or talent than perseverance in the mouse-clicking department. The economic sub-system is limited solely to buying and allocating weapons or soldiers. The strategic game consists of plodding about the country trying to grab the few territories before the computer grabs them all, something I’ve failed to do. Somehow, with about the same number of territories, the computer manages to field an army of some hundreds of men to my 20 or 30. Of course, I get beaten every time.
The idea of Defender of the Crown and the equally uninteresting game, SDI, is to create games with movielike scenarios which culminate in a defined plot ending. Sounds good, but they put a lot more effort into the chrome than the meat of the game. The marginally connected segments are too simple and too limited to provide long-term appeal. Instead of a coherent game, you get a hodge-podge of bits and pieces, none of which is particularly interesting.
Not to say, of course, that every game needs to be an intellectual roustabout, but its longevity depends on being able to provide continuing levels of interest and challenge. Straightforward arcade games may sell well initially, but like TV sitcoms, they quickly lose their audience. How many people would buy Asteroids again? Or Lunar Lander? Frogger? Missile Command?
Okay, sure, when the first two were combined and dressed up again in Oids, a lot of us bought it. But would you have bought them by themselves without the enhancements Oids gives them? Didn’t think so. Think about all those shoot-em-up games you bought in the 8-bit world that nowadays you only feel disdain for.
The challenge of racking up just another 1,000 points in Goldrunner, or reaching just another level in Sentry, fades after a while. It’s not much of an accomplishment to engrave your name in the high-scores list on your disk. Unless you’re a serious couch potato, you can’t play these games indefinitely. They are, in the long run, boring. They don’t teach and you don’t learn from them.
A few hours entertainment is a low return for the price: Up here in Canada, the average game sells for about $50. Even at $30, it’s hard to justify buying a lot of variations on the same cosmic-froggy-space-zapper theme. The market has only a certain capacity. On the other hand, a game like Empire offers a lot of bang for the buck, so to speak. I’ve probably spent more hours playing Empire than any other game for the ST. Bill, who bought the game on my recommendation, has become an Empire addict, and it’s become difficult to pry him from the computer when he’s playing it. It’s not really a simulation in the same sense as those I mentioned, but it does make the gray matter work.
The simulations we played in the old days were usually written by people like us; hackers, tinkerers, self-taught programmers. It seemed that, if you had a computer, you learned to program. Maybe you didn’t write programs, but you learned to change other people’s code. Today, despite an abundance of languages, including some excellent offerings like GFA BASIC, there seem to be fewer hackers. The percentage of users who program appears much smaller than it once did. More people seem to be passive users than active. In discussions in computer stores, my question “Do you program?” creates a response similar to that as if I asked, “Do you dive for pearls?” especially among the younger users who see the machine as a toy rather than a tool. There is a disturbing perception among a lot of people of the ST as a game machine. I’d rather see it as a learning tool.
That’s too bad, really. BASIC is an easy language to learn and very satisfying to work in because an interpreted language provides instant user-gratification: The results of your efforts are seen immediately. A two-step language like C or Pascal demands that you write code using a text editor, then compile and link it before you see anything. I personally dislike this process. Besides, GFA’s compiler adds the advantage of being able to create fast, machine-language code from your finished efforts.
So what’s the point? It’s a call for submissions, for more effort in the area of simulation. I’d like to see a lot more of this sort of game grace the pages of ST-Log. I think readers learn a lot more by hacking away at a simulation than they do trying to alter an arcade-style effort that has little, if any, real leeway for change. Adding a single variable to simulate the effects of a disease on a stand of trees to Timber Baron had a wide-ranging impact that altered play completely. You just can’t make that sort of impact in Droid or something similar. And the impetus to hack—and therefore learn—is lessened knowing you can’t make significant alterations without seriously rewriting the code.
Back in the Jurassic period, around the time when I was learning to use my new Atari 800, I worked for Canadian Press, selling a high-level online historical news database. You could search through news as recent as yesterday for specific topics of interest, for people, for companies, for words that might appear in a story.
I learned that an enormous volume of news never sees the light of print, due to restrictions on space or interest. Who cares about the government of Andorra? Or about a new dinosaur find in Montana? About the fiscal deficit in Zaire? The development of a new type of copy-proof gambling chip? I did and still do. It was fascinating to read the hitherto unknown news from all over the world. Since it all interested me, I spent hours on the system, which sold in those days for an online fee of $90 an hour. As the salesman, it was free to me, of course, and I took advantage of it to increase my knowledge, whenever possible. But the system was a trifle rich for my blood once I left the company.
Now, a similar system is available in ST XPress. XPress is a data feed with news, sports, finance, stocks, weather, recipes; quizzes, gossip, lifestyles and other material, transmitted over your television cable. A lot of this material is never printed in your local newspaper or gets airtime on the abysmally truncated news the radio and TV present.
A special decoder hooks up to your ST’s serial port. You must subscribe to the data service and either buy or lease the decoder in order to use XPress. The rates are very reasonable for the value received. The software to capture the data and select material from the feed was written by Alan Page, co-author of Flash, my favorite telecommunications program.
Press software was originally available for the IBM PC, but when Alan took on the job of writing the ST version, he decided to make several improvements. As a result, ST XPress is considerably more flexible and powerful than its PC cousin.
XPress isn’t a historical system: It presents the up-to-the-minute news, with stock and commodity data, from the Standard and Poor’s Portfolio, delayed by a mere 15 minutes. Stories are saved in memory and can be recalled or saved to disk. There’s a lot of news that comes through and many stories are duplicated in a day, so Alan’s software provides the ability to selectively limit what you receive by selecting only certain categories to save. There’s also a keyword search through stories in memory, to help further in finding items of interest from stories in the chosen categories.
By far, the most powerful feature is the clipping folders. These permit saving stories using Boolean logic operators, OR, AND and NOT. The default is OR, but you can specify stories in which only certain words appear together (AND) or in which words do not appear. Clipping folders even work on incoming stories outside your chosen categories.
You can save stories in memory or clipping folders to disk as ASCII files; you can print stories or even load clipping folders from disk. Unfortunately, there is no Autosave feature.
Securities—stocks, commodities, exchange indexes—don’t automatically display in ticker-tape fashion. You’d soon overload on data. Instead, you enter the security symbol you want to monitor, say ATC for Atari Corp., AAPL for Apple Corp. and CBU for Commodore (the symbol legend is provided regularly through the feed or hardcopy can be obtained from Standard and Poor’s). You can add various suffixes, such as C for Canadian or X for mutual funds, where applicable. Only data for those symbols you enter are displayed.
Alan, being one of the rare breed of programmers who understands the need for keyboard commands to supplement the GEM-mouse structure, provides a wide range of Alt-key combinations which perform most of the functions in the menus.
Finally, XPress can work in background mode, so you can be capturing news stories while you’re using another program. Alan tested several programs and found that many—including DEGAS, A-Calc, Thunder, Fleet Street Publisher, ST Writer and WordPerfect—work with ST XPress. Programs that demand most of memory or use the serial port won’t work.
The value of ST XPress should be immediately apparent to anyone interested in current events, sports or stocks. It should also interest researchers, teachers and parents. What a gold mine it is for kids needing background material for a school project! I urge you to look into ST XPress—it’s a new and different application, to my mind the most important new use for a computer to come along in several years.
Ian Chadwick is a technical writer and editor living in Toronto. He is the author of Mapping the Atari, the 8-bit reference guide, published by Compute! Books. He is currently writing a computer simulation to “put his money where his mouth is.” He can be reached on DELPHI by sending mail to username CHADWICK.
ST-LOG #25 / NOVEMBER 1988 / PAGE 90
Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs hold a particular fascination for me. I’ve always enjoyed model building and design, despite my absolute lack of physical skills in that area. Fortunately, the computer has provided me a medium through which I can work without getting glue or ink all over my fingers.
The ability to design objects and layout plans on the computer is very appealing. I have spent hours creating imaginary objects or modelling real ones such as Stonehenge or a street map of my neighborhood. For the Stonehenge model, I did considerable research about the position and design of the stones, then had to use my wits to create the model in the limited resources of the program.
CAD isn’t a definition as much as a general catch-all for a miscellany of program types. There are three basic categories of CAD programs: modelling (also called Computer-Aided Modelling [CAM]; this includes CAD 3D, Master CAD and DynaCAD), drafting (Drafix, First CADD, GFA Draft Plus) and specialty (Computer-Aided Engineering [CAE]; printed circuit design is one such example). I’ll be reviewing several of these packages in future issues of ST-Log, but I thought I’d use this column to introduce the topic.
CAD is an application with considerable impact on certain professions, especially engineers and architects. It is for them what the pocket calculator is for scientists: A device that increases productivity, reduces mechanical work time and releases the user from the more mundane aspects of the job in order to allow him or her to concentrate on the creative and theoretical parts of a task. People with good creative and design sense are no longer limited by mediocre artistic talent, because CAD programs can better substitute for paper and pencil.
The ease with which you can redraw and alter designs in a CAD program as compared with doing so on the artist’s table is impressive, as is the speed with which it is done. Computer users have come to expect such advantages—word processors are a similar example where the computer has changed the whole nature of writing through the ease and speed of use. CAD programs will have an effect on the craft of drafting just like electronic typesetting machines had on typography. Mechanical drafting is a skill on the way to extinction, the work now being done by the designers themselves on the computer.
Tom Weeks, an architect friend of mine, told me how his firm employs many computers and CAD programs in their design and layout process. He himself, impressed with the lineup of available software, purchased a Mega-2 ST with which to work at home. You’ll find some of his comments in my program reviews. His professional point of view, as well as his familiarity with a variety of similar PC-based programs should provide a better insight into this software than I alone could offer.
A recent article in Computer Dealer News summarized a report entitled “CAD/CAM, CAE Users: Current Applications and Future Directions,”which surveyed the IBM PC CAD/CAM market. The survey found that 89% of firms using CAD applications did so for two-dimensional mechanical drafting. That means 3-D modelling is not a priority for professional users, a result that surprised me considerably.
I would have thought that modelling had a higher priority of use. After all, when a client wants a house designed, he or she is presented with a series of 2-D illustrations and blueprints. Perspective drawings are also made, which attempt to convey the “depth” missing in the 2-D drawings. In some cases, especially when office or public buildings are concerned, a model may be built after the basic plans are approved.
A good modelling program can leap ahead of the paper process. The client can sit down in front of the screen and “see” the house from any angle, rotate the view, zoom in to examine detail, look “inside” to determine layout. If properly designed, the roof could be a cohesive object group that can be removed or temporarily hidden. Perhaps each floor could be grouped so that, from the perspective of looking straight down, the successive removal of roof and floor levels would provide a sequential blueprint effect for the viewer, showing floor plans clearly. Finally, using those programs so capable, an animated tour of the house could be designed, taking the client around and through without intervention.
I suspect that, despite the obvious value of such a presentation, most architects and professional users are wedded to their traditional display methods and tools, and therefore haven’t graduated to using the computer to its full potential. Newer generations, schooled in these automated functions at the university level, will bring their profession (kicking and screaming, no doubt) into the modern era.
Drafting applications are not to be sneered at: They are very important in the design process. Paint programs are not suitable as drafting applications, since they treat the screen as a canvas.
Once painted, the only way to change the canvas is by over-painting or block alterations, a brute-force method at best. Drawing and drafting programs are object oriented. This means that a line, collection of lines, an object (such as a polygon or circle) or object group are separate entities that can be moved, altered or erased individually, with no effect on other objects on the screen.
If this distinction isn’t clear, here’s an example. Draw a box on the screen in a paint program: a simple, four-sided rectangle. Next, draw another so that it overlaps the first. Now try to resize the first without changing the dimensions of the second. It is possible, but only by erasing and redrawing lines or using block rescales and then patching up the differences manually. In a drawing/CAD program, you can simply select the first box and alter it, regardless of the proximity of the second.
Along with object orientation, CAD programs often offer “layering”—that is, the ability to draw on distinct levels. The advantage of this in an application such as electronic circuit boards is obvious.
CAD programs and paint programs also differ in their ideal output devices. Paint programs suit high-resolution dot matrix printers, preferably color. CAD programs suit plotters best. Both work quite well with those laser printers which combine both vector and dot-matrix print capabilities, although current 8.5 by 11-inch paper limitations certainly limit the output. Paint programs display best in low resolution, where the full range of color can be used. CAD programs work best in monochrome, where fineness of detail is at its greatest.
This isn’t to denigrate paint programs. Draw/CAD programs usually lack such paint-oriented features as magnified pixel manipulation and sophisticated palette control and animation. Paint and draw programs function differently because they usually have different end-uses.
Personally, I find drawing freehand with a mouse a painful and inaccurate process. The tool is not adequate for the task, in part because the physical design of the mouse. First, the drawing “point” is not in the same location where I learned to draw with a pencil. Second, the mouse focal center, the ball, is misplaced—it is too low in the hand for precise work. The new Microsoft Mouse places the ball (and thus the drawing center) right below the fingertips and the buttons, a superior design, and one I trust others will soon follow. Finally, I look at the screen, not my hand, so I can’t use simple hand-eye coordination in my drawing. I’d much rather use a drawing tablet, which acts and feels more like the paper and pen with which I learned. In CAD programs, the mouse is an excellent device (although I’d still prefer the more ergonomic MS Mouse) and a drawing tablet is often unnecessary, the mouse performing adequately.
Ideally, a combination of both types of programs would be best, but the sheer size and complexity of a combination program would preclude it from running either quickly or on smaller-memory machines. In the meantime, the better CAD programs at least permit saving the screen as a DEGAS or Neochrome format file so the image can be incorporated into illustrations. This is a critical link between the two types of programs. The other side of the coin is the ability to load a paint picture as the background onto which a model or drafting illustration may be drawn.
Because of the extreme differences between paint and CAD files, I think it necessary for the manuals to detail the file structures in order for third parties to design compatible programs around them or for hackers to be able to use the output in other applications. Of course, I believe that the file structure of every application should be explained in the program’s manual, because secrecy over this sort of data only isolates the users from potential outside enhancements.
One of the main issues in CAD is precision scaling, not only in its ability to deal in absolute but also in relative terms. The programs need to be able to simulate various scales of reference accurately and efficiently. When designing a house, for example, you need to be able to build to exacting specifications, not simply create objects that “look” right. The same criteria applies to 2-D programs. A blueprint is a precise document and the program must be able to provide scaling and measurement functions to suit professional output.
The collateral aspect of the above is the ability to produce in listed form the technical details of an object or a group of objects. In the house example, if the client wants to know the size of a particular wall, I should be able to select that wall and print out the scale details: height and width. Better still, I should be able to list (and print) all of the technical specifications for all of the objects in the chosen measurement unit. In 3-D models, this includes other data such as distance from the universe center, depth and X/Y/Z coordinates. Without such information, modelling in two or three dimensions can be, at best, only an inexact and inaccurate process.
Two-dimensional and three-dimensional programs have considerable differences that go beyond the obvious dimensional differences. Objects in 3-D have different display modes (wireframe, wireframe with hidden lines removed, solid, solid with shading), variable lighting for solid displays, the complexities of solid object join and subtraction, variable perspective and movable point of view. There must also be one or more tools with which to create a 3-D object from a 2-D template; extrude and spin are the two most common tools. The ease and sophistication of these tools will be an issue I look at. The reviews will begin next month and run for several months to follow, each one covering one program in detail. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them.
Ian Chadwick is a technical writer and the author of the 8-bit classic, “Mapping the Atari.” Aside from writing, his other hobbies include zymurgy, paleontology and Napoleonic studies. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Susan, their six cats and Kepler, the dog.
ST-LOG #26 / DECEMBER 1988 / PAGE 26
Hooray! I recently got my upgrade of Empire (version 2.05) from Interstel, and I’m quite happy about it. Aside from several new commands and some improvements in the way the old commands worked, my favorite game is now significantly faster. Also, the graphics have been enhanced a teensy bit, improving the aesthetic appeal of the game. All in all, it makes Empire just that much better as an already terrific game. I have a whole panoply of ideas for them (helicopters, airborne troops, missiles, etc.), but for now I like it just as is.
On the other hand, the changes are documented in a barely readable file on the new disk, incongruously called “README.DOC,” significant only in the excruciatingly bad grammar and numerous spelling errors that crop up in it like crabgrass on my lawn. And that’s not to mention the inexcusable use of the passive voice throughout. The author of this miniature horror, Mark Baldwin, has crafted a superb game, but he can’t write English worth snail trails.
I know, I know, no one expects programmers to be able to write in English, but surely they have the technical skills to use a spelling checker.
There’s no reason a single written page should go out of a software publisher without being checked for spelling and grammar. When I get one of these little models of illiteracy, I always feel like I’m a Cro Magnon in a world of Neanderthals.
Come on, guys, this is supposed to be a professional business, right? Is it too much to ask for you to assemble a document without at least spelling errors? Of course, Interstel isn’t the only company guilty of mangling the English language.
Take a look at Avalon Hill’s new release, Spitfire: “as does the up and down direction keys.” The correct form of the verb, as you might guess, is “do.” (You did guess that, didn’t you?) Also, they repeatedly talk about the “verticle speed indicator.”
MichTron’s GFA BASIC 3.0 manual is chock full of little errata, a myriad of annoyances, including “compare to” (compare with is correct), “variable MENU(2) to MENU(15)” (variables; it’s plural), and “the Atari ST has two interface ports to connect a mouse and a joystick” (to which to connect…). Its author is guilty of overwriting to the extreme: “this function centers the object on the coordinates that are specified.” What’s wrong with “the specified coordinates”? “This command waits for a keypress on the key board”: why keypress (one word) and key board (two words)? And where does the author think a key will be pressed? On the disk drive?
Sometimes the errata are more the result of sloppy editing than any inability to write the Queen’s English.
Omnitrend’s Paladin was rewritten from the Breach manual and as such, several oversights happened. For example: “carry a very weak sword”. Weak sword? Probably they meant a “light sword”. What about “fired a sword”? “Swung a sword” is more likely.
Not that these problems usually affect the programs, but they do seriously upset any modestly literate reader. How many times have you read about output being “printed on the printer” or “displayed on the screen”? Where else will something be printed or shown? Or the phrase “data is”—data is plural and the correct phrase is “data are”. Or “your” instead of “you’re”?
Then again, I’ve seen more than a few errors crop up in menu bars, dialog boxes, help files and the like. Atari’s release of Microsoft Write had oodles of grammatical glitches in the program messages. I think the blame for this one lies with Atari, since Microsoft, not unlike Pontius Pilate, washed its hands of the program a while back.
The ST world isn’t the only group at fault, by the way. I recently got Borland’s Sprint word processor for my AT, and it came with a README file with eight 8.5 by 11-inch pages of corrections and clarifications to their manuals! And the English is only marginally better. However, ST publishers seem particularly prone to scale the heights of mediocrity in manuals.
In one sense, the inadequacy of documentation is good: it keeps the computer book publishers in business. However, a weak manual reflects more on the inadequacies of the publisher than on the ability of a writer to overcome them.
I’ve been writing and editing computer manuals for five years now and I’ve seen a lot of inconsistencies, passive voice, grammatical atrocities, spelling errors and just plain bad writing. Every time I come across errors in a professional manual, I shudder.
There are basic rules that should be followed by every software publisher before printing:
Pretty basic stuff. You’d be surprised how many companies ignore these rules. I’ve been working with ISD’s DynaCAD—a superb program—but the manual is, simply put, inadequate. Why? Be cause the programmer wrote it (and he’s a nice guy too, but as a writer, he’s out of his depth).
Really, all of this is inexcusable. Several hundred books on the art and craft of writing English are available at any good bookstore or library. Personally, I feel any technical writer who can’t quote chapter and verse from the Chicago Manual of Style should be shot. Can’t quote Strunk and White? Another one to the wall.
There are some good books available about writing documentation, including Hardwords/Softwords from AshtonTate and The Computer Documentation Kit from Reston. Apple publishes a decent style guide for Mac developers, but we pariahs have a hard time getting hold of it (besides, it’s good but not great, and I have arguments with several parts of it).
The point is that there’s no need for bad documentation. Of course, improved English won’t help the terminally obscure manuals. How many times have you had your hair turn grey trying to uncover the meaning of an obscure error message the writers neglected to document, but it happens every time you try to save a file?
When I was at Batteries Included (BI), I wrote a basic style manual for writers, which never got published for obvious reasons. (Has anyone seen any BI products since the takeover?) Not that I’m an authority (I am, however, a technical writer by profession), but it’s certainly something this industry needs. Perhaps it could be a place to begin an enlightened dialogue. I’ve considered redoing it and making it available (perhaps as a four- to six-part series of magazine articles). Any interest? Write to ST-Log and let them know. I’d be happy to do it.
Although I’m no longer writing the GFA BASIC column, I still get MichTron’s product releases, so I should keep you up to date with their efforts. For those of you who haven’t kept up with the state of affairs as far as GFA BASIC is concerned, MichTron has not kept still. And before I go any further, let me make one of those sweeping, unequivocal statements that always generate nasty mail: GFA BASIC is, as far as I’m concerned, the best programming language available for the ST, superior to C or Pascal. And it’s certainly better supported by MichTron than any other company supports any of their languages, as far as I’ve seen.
Let’s look at what they’ve been up to since GFA was first released. Unless noted, everything below is from MichTron.
With each release, GFA BASIC has improved, and by all means, that is true of the latest version. The language constantly improves and commands have been added, particularly in 3.D. Also, the manuals have improved considerably with each revision.
Training Reboot Camp is a beginner’s guide with a silly title. It’s a good introduction for the newcomer to BASIC, though rather weak in the advanced features.
The Programmer’s Refererue Guide, Volume 1 is a moderate to advanced level guide, containing lots of useful information, but the major failing is the lack of short examples. I simply won’t type in 20 to 30 pages of code to try and learn a simple technique to include in my own programs. About one half of the book rehashes the program manuals, with only moderately more programming information than they provide. The rest contains very good information for technical data, especially in the GEM, AES and VDI areas.
GFA Vector, a 3D-graphics program for GFA BASIC inclusion, is slow, but if 3D graphics are your interest, this package is pretty good. If you don’t speak German, you won’t understand the remarks in the code. Some of the examples don’t work and there’s no way to tell why because of the language barrier.
The GFA BASIC Reference Card is an accordion-type card with all the commands, minimally documented. It’s good if you know the language and need a reminder.
Abacus has released the GFA BASIC Quick Program Reference, which is a modest substitute for the program manuals, with some information not contained in them and other material left out.
The GFA BASIC Book is an intermediate programming tutorial and very good for learning the language. A significant improvement over the original manuals, it’s my favorite of the lot.
GFA Companion is a resource construction set with a horrendously restrictive requirement not to publish any code produced by it, except if compiled. This makes Companion of limited use to anyone. There are several public-domain dialog-box creation kits and example programs that will allow you to do about 80% of what this program accomplishes, without the nonsense about compiling code.
Okay, I said I got Paladin from Omnitrend, so I’d better say something about it. You liked Breach? You’ll like Paladin. They’re almost identical programs. Instead of grenades, you get orbs of fire; instead of missiles, you get crossbows—you get the idea. The differences between Breach and Paladin are mostly in the terminology. They are almost identical in function.
Yeah, they’ve thrown in a handful of magic spells (six spells altogether), but it’s nowhere near the same sophistication as Dungeon Master.
Breach and Paladin also share the same serious programming flaw: only orthogonal movement is allowed, not diagonal. For the uninitiated, this means that if it costs five movement points to enter a square, the player has to move up one and across one, rather than move one diagonally, a total of ten movement points. However, the math of diagonal movement dictates that it should cost only seven points (rounded down), leaving three for other purposes. Obviously, Omnitrend has a terminal problem dealing with square roots. I can recommend a few basic books in math and algebra.
Paladin is a Conan-style magical adventure. The approach is tactical infantry style: lots of sword play, missiles and exploding weapons. The emphasis is on combat rather than on magic. The magic is restricted to things that suit combat and exploration. Forget trying to call up elementals, transforming your opponent into a duck, changing lead into gold. Paladin works on the “zap-em” level of magic.
Not that this is bad; it’s merely limiting. It suits the game, and the scenarios are designed around objective-oriented situations, all involving a lot ofhacking and slashing. It’s not High Fantasy, but Paladin, like its predecessor Breach, is enjoyable and challenging despite the flaws. [A full review appears elsewhere in this issue—ed.]
Ian Chadwick is a technical writer and editor based in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, Susan, and their numerous pets, including Kepler, a dog who is laboriously being taught to play chess. Ian is also trying to get published a 120,000 word fantasy novel he just wrote.
ST-LOG #27 / JANUARY 1989 / PAGE 36
A while back I wrote a somewhat critical review of Universal Military Simulator (UMS). That review caused the publisher some consternation, in part, because it had some errors in it. I’m going to address those errors now and eat a few words.
The review was the center of a minor storm of controversy on DELPHI’s ST Log Forum; not so much for what I said (some agreed, others didn’t), but whether or not a reviewer should review only products he likes. In other words, if you haven’t got anything good to say, say nothing at all.
I don’t agree with that approach and, I was pleased to note, neither did anyone else on the Forum, even those who thought my conclusions about the game were wrong. More importantly, I received the support of the ST-Log staff, who have a commitment to integrity in publishing and will publish a critical review—as long as the facts are right.
Okay, enough of that.
SubLOGIC was kind enough to send me its latest products, including the new Western Europe and Japan scenery disks, plus Jet, its F16/F18 flight simulator. For those of you who have wondered, the ST scenery disks are all “enhanced.” It used to call them “Star scenery disks,” but we don’t have to worry about that sort of distinction now. We get the best of the lot automatically.
Now you should know from previous columns that I like FS2 a lot. I’ve spent many pleasant hours flying over the binary countryside, exploring, soaring and, of course, crashing. Still, despite the occasional aerial acrobatics that plant me in the ground, I really do enjoy the program and find it very relaxing, as well as entertaining.
My biggest complaint has always been the lack of Canadian scenery. Yes, I know that the Detroit-area scenery disk included a whole chunk of Canada, even Toronto (alas, my house is missing), but it was blasé, colorless (that’s colourless, in Canada), and unconvincing. I wanted more.
Now, contrary to popular belief, Canada is not entirely made up of feature less tundra or windswept, treeless plains (it only looks that way from the air). So I wrote to SubLOGIC and asked for its file format. The company didn’t send it to me. I wanted to create my own scenery files and fill in the data to make a detailed flying environment.
Well, soon I’ll be able to do just that. SubLOGIC is going to release a scenery-creation utility. Although it couldn’t tell me for sure, it may even permit adding detail to existing scenery files. Hooray! For me, that’s a tinkerer’s delight. As soon as I get it, I’ll start to work. Watch for my custom-designed scenery files on DELPHI.
Oh, yes, Jet. Well, I haven’t had much time with it; so it’s not fair to review it in detail yet, but I like what I see so far. It’s very different from FS2. For one, the Jet controls are super sensitive, and my first dozen or so efforts got me up but tumbling. I crashed a lot. However, once I managed to stabilize, I enjoyed the ride. Boy, you sure go up in a hurry—and down!
Jet’s main attraction, as I see it, is the ability to actually dogfight with another ST user through a modem or null-modem link. This is great! I only wish they had a version of FS2 that allowed dogfights, not merely mutual flight. I’m a tad more comfortable in the slower prop planes than a missile-laden F16. However, the latter is preferable over gridlocked highways at rush hour.
So far, I haven’t managed to land in one piece, a minor drawback (what’s $30 million worth of aircraft anyways). And forget the carrier scenarios. I have to practice a lot more before I can land on one of those rolling, shifting demons!
And if you were wondering, Jet also works with the scenery disks, so you can really have dogfights over Broadway!
Have I ever mentioned my problem with the ST keyboard?
My AT and laptop both have keys that measure 12 cm wide by 14 cm high, with a 6-cm gap between keys (almost 7 em on the AT). These are typical measurements for the PC/MS-DOS keyboards, based on the ergonomics of the IBM Selectric typewriter. My Smith Corona electric has keys 13 em square, with a 7-cm gap.
All of these keyboards are easy to use, with keys well-spaced and small enough so that big fingers don’t bang several keys at once.
The ST keys measure 15 cm square, with only a 3-cm gap between them. That’s a key gap 25% larger with 50% less space between it and the next key. Bump, slam. My fingers always hit more than one key on it. It’s a touch typists’ hell.
I make so many typos on the ST that I stopped using it for writing. My messages on DELPHI are riddled with typos, because I still use my ST for telecommunications. But I don’t make a tenth of the mistakes on any other keyboard that I make on the ST. And I’m not alone. I’ve seen this thread on CompuServe and know others share the same problem.
And then there’s the tactile response—the springiness of the keys. The ST keyboard is mushy, and although the Mega keys seem much better (I haven’t measured the Mega key size), it’s still sloppy. I don’t care for the mechanical click some PC keyboards have—they make sounds like rats running on a linoleum floor. But I do like the solid resistance they offer.
Why doesn’t anyone offer a new ST keyboard? I’ve seen ads for a revamp kit that adds the spring, but no one offers redesigned keys in the proper shape. I think the keyboard alone is a significant stumbling block to getting the ST accepted in the business or professional world.
Okay, let’s talk about business. Do I hear some groans? Come on, this is important stuff.
It doesn’t mean just the Fortune 1000 as one reader suggested. Business means any commercial enterprise or professional use, be it a dentist’s office, a retail store, an accountant, stockbroker or a writer.
Hands up anyone who can tell me why the PC/MS-DOS systems are so successful in the business marketplace. What do they have that the ST doesn’t? Yes, I know, software, but I’ve ridden roughshod over that path before. What else? Okay, you in the back.
Right, they share a common bus architecture. With some exceptions and caveats, you can buy a card for a PC/clone and move it upwards into an XT, AT and 386 machine, Sometimes you have to buy for your machine type, but even so, there are a lot of cards from which to choose. And the machines have lots of slots. Expansion is a breeze.
The Mega ST has one slot. And that slot isn’t anything even akin to anyone else’s standard. Has anyone seen the tech specs for the slot? I haven’t.
Right now, I can buy a PC/MS-DOS machine, get a super high-res card and color monitor and work in at least 1,280 by 800-pixel resolution, maybe go up to 1,600 by 1,200, 1,200 by 1,664 or higher, Even with the Mega, I’m limited to 640 by 400, monochrome—that’s not even as high as the Hercules Graphics standard on the PC.
My own AT sports a 2MB RAM card, a multi-graphics card (which can push my multi-sync monitor to about 800 by 500 resolution) and a mouse card. I’m looking into getting a fax card, another 2MB of RAM, an optical scanner and a hardcard (a hard disk on a card), all available at any run-of-the-mill computer store. I can also get network links, printer buffers, telephone answering machines, additional drive controllers, bar code readers, tape backups, modems, laser-printer drivers (one that even gives HP Laserjets a postscript capability!) and other cards.
What cards can I add to a Mega? Time’s up. Have you seen any?
Cards aren’t merely the method for expansion, they’re also the means to customize your system to suit your own needs. That’s what open architecture is all about. One slot doesn’t make it as far as “open” is concerned.
Of course, there’s Apple selling its slotless Macintoshes in their various configurations.
One of the reasons the Mac has only achieved a lukewarm success (compared to the PC system) in the business world is that most of the variations have no expansion or customizing capability, while the PC has oodles of it. Only the SE sports a single slot. Wow. However, Apple has pounded the pavement long enough and got its foot in enough doors that it’s managed to sell lots of Macs to people easily convinced they’ll never want to expand or change or customize anything. Hardware off the cookie cutter.
Apple did that “big brother” ad on TV, remember? You can fool some of the people all of the time….
(There’s also UNIX, which despite the fervor of its proselytes, isn’t going anywhere fast. Let’s forget about them for a while, shall we? Say perhaps for the rest of the Age of Mammals.)
Where’s the ST in all of this? A game-machine? Fie on you! Stand in the back of the class with your nose to the wall.
Not that there’s anything wrong with games or entertainment. I think the computer’s potential for entertainment is highly underrated by the pundits of the computer world, It’s no worse than flaking out in front of TV sitcoms and can be a lot more intellectually stimulating. I myself often take a load off the grey matter by spending a few hours playing games on my ST.
What’s wrong with the game-machine image? Well, for one, it won’t sell many systerns. And that’s what the bottom line is all about.
And guess what? Computers sell better in the business market than in the home market. Around 1984, that was a hard lesson for many manufacturers to learn. I wonder if Atari has learned it yet?
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor who, by the time you read this, should be with his wife Susan, soaking up some rays on the beaches of Mexico, drinking cold Coronas and eating spicy tacos.
ST-LOG #28 / FEBRUARY 1989 / PAGE 34
Fantasy. Magic. Elves. Dragons. Wizards. Dungeons. It’s very popular stuff, both in book and game form, maybe more so right now than traditional science fiction. Chadwick’s theory is that, if you can’t write science fiction, you write fantasy. If you can’t write fantasy, you write horror. And if you can’t write horror, you write campaign speeches. (And after that maybe computer-magazine columns?)
There’s a big tendency in fantasy literature to use magic as a deus ex machina: You write your characters into an impossible corner and zap ’em out of it with some sort of spell. Shabby, but effective if your audience isn’t any too discriminating. Yes, yes, there are plenty of good writers who don’t use such simple, expediencies—Ursula LeGuin, Barbara Hambly and so on. But it’s an easy technique and one too often used. Even major authors like Robert Silverberg (Majipoor Chronicles) are guilty of it.
A lot of writers—of books and games—never think out a coherent philosophy of magic first. It’s sort of like faster-than-light travel in shoddy science fiction novels—assumed, used, never explained. Some effort at control is attempted by making magic work like a rechargeable battery, but I’ve never understood the arbitrary distinctions between who can and can’t use magic. Why can’t my fighters cast spells? Or inversely, my wizards use edged weapons?
What is magic anyway? An extension of human abilities? Increased hearing, strength, endurance, healing, that sort of thing? Or is it paranormal—fireballs, sleep spells, teleportation and so on? In fact, it doesn’t matter, as long as the concept is coherent and consistent throughout and, to be dramatically interesting, has limitations and weaknesses that don’t allow it to supercede all other elements.
Nor is much concern ever given to the environment in which the action takes place. How many times have you played a fantasy game where the landscape was dotted with extensive dungeon or cave complexes, full of monsters and treasures? Didn’t anyone ever wonder, since the time frame is almost always pseudo-medieval, how (and why) someone engineered a ten-level-deep dungeon, a sort of inverted skyscraper, then abandoned it? I’ve looked at a lot of real castle plans, and I’ve seldom seen anything two levels deep into the earth, let alone ten!
So here’s a place with no light, no air ventilation or drainage. It’s obviously not designed for human habitation, since it has no heating, bedrooms, dining rooms or washrooms. But there are often shackled skeletons in cells and torture chambers in abundance. Some of these dungeons could hold enough prisoners to fill an entire town and have more torture equipment than the Spanish Inquisition! But inside this inhospitable, dank, cold basement are hundreds of bizarre creatures—products of an alien, post-nuclear ecology? What do they eat? Why don’t they leave spoor? And for some odd reason, they’ve aligned themselves on the levels according to their strengths; the weaker they are, the closer to the surface they’ll be found.
Monsters. Ghosts. Demons. Rock squids. All merrily cohabiting with each other in peace, but bent on the absolute destruction of any human(oid) who might enter. And extremely protective of the gold and jewels they themselves can neither spend nor use.
Where does this bizarre impression of fantasy worlds and magic come from? Well, the mixed species, adventure party going on a quest owes a lot to Tolkien who popularized the idea in his famous Lord of the Rings trilogy. The quest idea itself is as old as the Babylonian Gilgamesh legend (about 6,000 years) and has come to us in many forms, one of the most popular in this culture being the Holy Grail quest. Tolkien also helped define the image of the wizard for many of us.
A lot of the rest is owed to the popularity of TSR’s role-playing Dungeons and Dragons (tm) game. I first played D&D about 12 to 13 years ago when it was a small trilogy of poorly written books by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Gygax somehow ended up as the only name on the credits and went on to turn TSR into a major money-maker, based on the sales of the D&D products. However, for all D&D’s fullness in spells, character classes, monsters and so on, it is extremely weak in applied logic. There is little in the way of environment or ecology. It was assumed that players, in creating their own stories, would fill in the blanks. Well, a lot of people, with three-minute TV-spawned attention spans, don’t seem to be able to get past the one-track dungeon-quest scenario.
What’s the point in entering these places when sanity suggests we leave them alone? Simply to bash a lot of monster brains into porridge and gather up the treasures that, incongruously, seem to be lying about in random heaps everywhere? Sometimes there’s a “quest” involved, but it’s often a thinly disguised excuse to get you to go to the bottom level of the dungeon. The game often ends when you get the object of the quest back up to the light (or the surface). Is this perhaps a metaphor of heaven and hell?
The final absurdity are the characters themselves, the individuals the player controls and associates her/himself with. Aside from the absurd caste system (warrior, priest, ninja and so on), characters have the annoying ability to develop skills and abilities in an extremely short time. Some character called a warrior starts as weak as a kitten, barely able to lift his sword much less swing it, then practices a few minutes, gets in a tussle with a snooper-slink and comes out looking like Conan. A few more encounters and the guy’s bashing everything in sight without even breaking into a sweat! An hour ago, the guy couldn’t even tie his own shoelaces!
Sound a bit strained? Or even silly?
But so many fantasy games (and books) are based on this same sort of thing. Even FTL’s Dungeon Master. Now it may be suicidal to criticize this very popular game, but as good, exciting and challenging as it may be, I still find it hard to become completely absorbed in playing when I find myself several levels deep into the earth, wondering who built such a thing and why.
Okay, having expressed my worries over the raison d’etre of fantasy, let me now put the other foot in my mouth and say that despite such qualms, I generally like the games. Even if I can’t as readily suspend my belief in them.
For one, it’s easier to suspend belief in a fantasy situation than in an arcade or strategy game, mostly because of the close association with individual characters. The violence is also less onerous. It’s hard to get emotional when slugging it out with a blue worm. But when it comes to shooting a German officer in the back (in Eagle’s Lair), I hesitate. I don’t get much enjoyment of the slaughter present in most games.
There’s also the satisfaction of solving the puzzles, mapping the mazes and, eventually, completing the quest. Unfortunately, my interest often runs out before the game is completed—most fantasy games, like adventures, take a long time to complete. So let’s look at a few of the available games.
Epyx’s Rogue (26 levels!) and the Temple of Apshai Trilogy (four levels in each game, some above ground) are lightweights. Rogue has a tongue-in-cheek approach to the “same old story,” and amusing graphics which help relieve the blandness of the story. Apshai, a few generations better than its original TRS-80 incarnation, demands a little too much attention to the manual while playing: pause, read, play, pause and so on. Neither one is terribly memorable.
Dungeon Master (DM) attempts—aside from the rather flimsy premise and setting—to grapple with the question of magic and arrive at a viable solution. The business with syllables and mana (ever wonder where that concept began?) makes at least internal sense to the game. The authors also tried to create some non-linear events in the game to get out of the simplistic “search and destroy” treadmill in so many fantasy games. These include the puzzles that require thought and intuition to be solved.
DM’s success also lies in the attention to detail and the craftsmanship they applied to the adventure. The graphics are good, the user interface quite easy—given the complex theme and the number of objects that must be manipulated—the sound good and the display clear despite the amount of information that needs to be seen. Few games have generated as much affection as DM, even to the point of third-party products (hint books and maps). It’s hard not to like DM.
SSI may be the master of fantasy games, at least in its level of output. It has several games based on the “wander the wilderness” theme, including the Phantasie trilogy, Questron I and II and Rings of Zilfin. These are usually multitiered games in which you have to wrestle not only with the usual dungeon-type adventure, but have to solve a quest, build a party of coadventurers, trade (buy/sell) goods in towns, explore, collect objects and so on. The “total environment” approach offers a wide variety of possibilities over the solo dungeon-type game. The “dungeons” (caves, castles, etc.) are not as deep or extensive as that in DM, but this nod to reality is offset by a large and complex wilderness in which many events occur, particularly random attacks by monsters.
Of the lot, I like the graphics and user interface in Questron (a lot like Rogue), but prefer the environment (and the more detailed game theory, if you will) in Phantasie. Both require considerable dedication and effort, but the aficionado is amply rewarded by the richness of the gaming environment. I don’t much care for Rings of Zilfin’s clumsy user interface, and the graphics are rather primitive. I don’t think it’s in the same class with the other two.
SSI has recently released a game in conjunction with TSR, based on a D&D adventure. I haven’t seen it, but expect a review copy soon.
Perhaps the most interesting fantasy game is Datasoft’s Alternate Reality—The City (AR). One of its main ideas is that the game changes according to how you interact with it. There is no predefined quest per se, except survival. And that’s hard enough. The quest will be revealed in later “chapters” as they are released (The Dungeon, The Wilderness and others I’m told). AR mixes genres: it’s also an adventure. It presents a lot of real-life situations (the need for food, shelter, etc.) with character encounters (the type depending on how you handled previous encounters) and an exercise in mapping.
While it offers good graphics, good ideas and amusing story line, AR’s downfall may be in the lack of a specific goal. While many of us don’t mind the wandering and exploring, after a while it gets a bit boring. After a few hours of traipsing about, building up my character, it feels like I’m “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
Paladin, from Omnitrend, is less of a traditional fantasy than it is a military exercise. It has all of the external trappings—caste characters, magic, monsters—but it is a spin-off from their popular game Breach and is designed as a tactical-level war game with fire spells replacing grenades and that sort of thing. However, with that in mind, Paladin is, nonetheless, quite enjoyable. It is easy to learn and play and appeals to the player who enjoys the slam and bash of combat. The quests are minimal, the puzzles simple and the action plentiful. There is even a scenario-design kit—it’s the only game mentioned here which offers one. The real weakness in Paladin is the lack of diagonal movement and facing.
Personally, I’d like to see a lot of the elements of these games combined—the game interaction of AR, the graphics and interface of DM, with the scope of Phantasie. If I had my druthers, I’d like a modern fantasy. Get away from the medieval line. Make it magic in New York, say, with adventures in the subway and the sewers. An alternate universe that intrudes on ours is always good for a story. Zap the gangs with a sleep spell, battle sewer alligators and tenement rats, explore the Museum of Modern Art and Central Park. Wizardry versus bullets, swords against switchblades, cars jousting with dragons. Throw in the usual lot of monsters and evil magicians, a few quest objects. It would be a bestseller!
ST-LOG #29 / MARCH 1989 / PAGE 24
Not long before I wrote this column (about three or four months before you’ll be reading it), I was at the First Canadian Atari User Show (see the report elsewhere in this issue), here in Canada. I was pleasantly surprised to see a considerable number of women attending the show—until I paid close attention. Almost all of them were in tow behind their boyfriends or spouses, being dragged out to another event to waste a Saturday afternoon among the boys. A look of practiced boredom graces a lot of female faces at computer shows.
Computer fests, particularly the user-group variety, are usually male-bonding rituals. Like the afternoon of The Big Game, except that the chatter isn’t about quarterbacks and snap passes, it’s about processing speed, interrupt routines and the latest version of IDS. There aren’t a lot of women involved in these discussions, for whatever reason, be it biological or sociological. And that’s too bad. I really don’t want to be part of a male-dominated hobby. It’s too boring.
I often wonder why so few women get involved with computers. Sometimes it occurs to me that they’re simply too bright to get caught up in it: boys and their toys, after all. Why spend one’s evenings and weekends hacking out some block of code, deciphering protection schemes, trying to nudge the high score up just another 1,000 points?
Seems a bit of a dead end, when you think about it like that.
Susan, a woman possessed of infinite common sense, uses computers in her office, but at home is only rarely interested in them. She sometimes plays a game of Shanghai or solitaire, but all of my ST passions—Flight Simulator, Jet, Empire, Dungeon Master—leave her cold. If she comes in on me playing a game, when I should be pounding the keys in search of an income, she smiles with a condescending knowledge and understanding that makes me feel like a ten-year-old, caught with a naughty magazine.
Maybe, as many have suggested, it’s the topic matter of most games that make them uninteresting. After all, most action/arcade-style games are violence-ridden, simple-minded efforts, in which one’s intellectual capacity is put to sleep while the hand-eye mechanics work in overtime. Shoot, stab, kick, maim, kill. Why wouldn’t anyone like that?
Sure, some of it is abstract. It’s hard to get emotionally worked up over the droids in Sentry or the unmanned bombs in Missile Command. But other games are pretty graphic. In Into the Eagle’s Lair, you shoot Germans, whose digitized death shout is the reward. Worse, you’re incited to shoot drunken or sleeping officers in the back. My antipathy towards anything Nazi notwithstanding, I don’t feel comfortable playing the game. It puts me in a role I don’t care to see myself in.
In Leatherneck, it’s Rambo vs. the yellow hordes (I assume they’re Oriental—who else lives in bamboo huts? Besides, I never saw Rambo in Nicaragua). Violence and racism—it’s the Monroe Doctrine in video-form. Soldiers die with that eerie digitized scream again. They throw their hands up and fall to the ground, dead. Lovely.
Very few games even involve female characters, and when they do, they’re often stereotyped or thrust into peripheral roles. In Corruption, the secretaries are women, the bosses men. One woman can be found filing her nails all day long. In Leisure Suit Larry, women exist simply as sexual objects for the player to conquer, then discard. In Star Trek, The Rebel Universe, Uhura, the single woman portrayed and the least active member of the team, has a passive role communicating received messages.
Dungeon Master is one of the rare games where females can actually play the lead role and do better than the males. On the other hand, I’m not sure that there is any inherent difference between the genders, aside from the graphics. Are there any unique feminine characteristics programmed in? Only the developers know for sure. The box cover leads you to believe that the men do all the physical work while the women merely hold the candles up. Of course that’s not true of the game. But the game’s women appear to perform like men with breasts—no significant differences from the males.
Of course, if you want to see real sexism in box art, find a copy of the U.K. games Barbarian and Barbarian II from Palace Software: photomontage of a well-endowed woman, wearing a totally inadequate bikini, beside a muscled Neanderthal, in fur briefs, with sword. Dead monster on the ground. Tacky? Only a little.
In the September 1988 issue of the UK. magazine Atari ST User, a woman wrote in decrying the state of ST games. She said, “I know that many of the games are blatantly sexist…many games encourage sexism and violence simply by the images and themes they propose.” In this intelligent and questioning letter, she went on to ask, “What makes your magazine so sure that the majority of men wish to associate themselves with the very dubious ‘macho-male Rambo-type’?”
To which the insensitive and patronizing editorial response was “We’re sure that the majority of our readers identify more closely with the macho-male Rambo-type than a wimp.”
Uh…is this a trick question? Rambo or a wimp? That rather limits the options, doesn’t it? Come on, guys, can’t you think of other role models more suited for identification? What if you don’t want to identify with either character? If I don’t like the Rambo films, why would I want to play a game about him?
Rambo and such characters have little or no redeeming social virtues. They’re violent killers, working outside the law and society; individuals with a pathological need for indiscriminate violence. The character appeals to the immature or the unsophisticated—usually young males—who are easily fooled by the glossy image and cannot grasp the political, moral or social issues at stake underneath. What sort of man reads Soldier of Fortune?
So who’s better? Why not Robin Hood for a start? Lots of action and adventure, humor and very little violence—at least of the killing kind. In legend anyway, Robin Hood seldom killed anyone and even then usually only in self-defense. Not even the mean old Sheriff of Nottingham was killed when he was Robin’s captive. Robin won contests, robbed rich barons and distributed the money to the poor, rescued the downtrodden and so on. He’s a better role model than Rambo by a light-year.
If he’s going to be a male, make my hero Albert Einstein. Put me in the shoes of Robert Oppenheimer. See if I make the same choices. Or Andrei Sakharov. Gandhi. Roy Chapman Andrews. Timothy Leary. Chuck Yeager. Nikolai Tesla. Fats Waller. Ralph Nader. Roald Amundsen. Jacques Cousteau. There are a million suitable, interesting or controversial people to portray. If they’re not all the best subjects for a game based on competition, maybe that opens another aspect of consideration: games based on cooperation. Currently rarer than hen’s teeth.
I’d love to see games based on topics like the race between Scott and Amundsen for the South Pole: competitive, challenging, with real-life heroes, lots of adventure and action, but no violence. Games of discovery, exploration, science, knowledge. Competition doesn’t have to be violent to be exciting. How about a game to try and save the crumbling ecological balance of the planet?
It’s time to bring women into the fore and make them appear more realistic. Female characters in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series or the women mages in Barbara Hambly’s books are strong, independent, intelligent, capable and sensitive. Pretty good subjects for games. In real life we’ve certainly got enough women to respect—Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great, Madame Curie, Golda Meir, Jane Goodall.
But we consistently get males as the lead characters: Rogue, Barbarian, Defender of the Crown, Cosmic Relief, Sundog, Questron, Rings of Zilfin, Out Run, Space Quest, Time Bandits—just a few games where male characters rule the game. The ads for Out Run say, “Hot car. Hot music…and the blonde next to you.” There’s not a cute guy in the seat.
And the themes: Bomber Command, Starglider, Dive Bomber, Warship, Missile Command, Foundation’s Waste, Goldrunner, Leatherneck, Empire, Phantasm, Carrier Command, Gauntlet, Roadwar 2000—kill, destroy, hack, slash, destroy, nuke, murder, cripple and so on.
Think we’ve gone a trifle overboard on the violence bit? For every nonviolent game (e.g., chess, cards), for every game with a socially redeeming message, such as Police Quest (although the officers are male and the game is quite violent) or Global Commander (although its scope is limited and doesn’t address environmental or social issues at all), there are maybe 100 of the kill-shoot-stab-hack variety.
Even when the game isn’t a shooting arcade in window dressing, there are few females in an active role. Adventures, like Corruption, The Pawn and so on, usually give the center stage to male characters and relegate females to peripheral positions, often stereotyped ones. Then there are the blatant games—Leisure Suit Larry or Leather Goddesses of Phobos—vain attempts to hide sexism under a veneer of humor. In King’s Quest II, the whole idea is to find King Graham a “good and kind” woman with “an inner beauty of spirit as well as beauty of the face and form” for him to marry. He’s the active participant, she’s passive. And nothing is ever mentioned about qualities he has to have. He might be Godzilla, for all she can do about it.
One of the better adventures, Datasoft’s Alternate Reality, does not differentiate between the sex of the player character, but most of the encounters are with males. At least AR provides some alternatives to combat, as well as many nonviolent situations. However, the game characters certainly have a propensity for attacking the player character.
It hardly surprises me that I can’t interest Susan in most ST games. And she’s not a technophobe. She uses similar machines daily in her working world. She just doesn’t find either the themes, the presentation or the play of most computer games very interesting.
And we’re passing the image of violence and sexism along to our children through every medium: TV, books, comics, computer games. I think it’s unhealthy. We should try to temper our lust for violence. Think about the message underlying these games. Look at the artwork on the cover (or in the screens). Bikini-clad women with low-browed linebackers (usually somewhat more fully clothed than the women). Is that how we want our children to perceive male/female relationships?
Personally, I prefer strategy (abstract) games like chess, Crossword, Othello and so on. I’m still hopjng someone will write or port a Go game (Nemesis or Cosmos on the PC) to the ST.
I’m a student of military history, so war games appeal to me, especially those which simulate particular battles. Most war games are somewhat abstract, so despite the topic, they are not violent per se, although the military theme is flagrant throughout. But no digitized screams or the thunder of hooves as cavalry grind infantry into the mud. Not even the booming of a cannon. So you’d have to include among the men I admire: Napoleon, Wellington, Julius Caesar, Shaka Zulu and a few others of the hawkish persuasion. But these are real characters, historical personages. Studying them doesn’t necessarily lead to a warlike disposition.
Games like Empire and Colonial Conquest are abstract in the extreme as war games go. There are no dying men, no cities gutted and firebombed. Just flags or symbols changing hands. Not very violent at all—sort of like spirited variations on chess. In Global Commander, in the role of a U.N. moderator, you try to stabilize a world plagued by growing unrest and keep it from breaking out into war.
However, war as a goal is not a healthy message to get across either. We don’t want to encourage people to think we can solve diplomatic crises by sending in the Marines every time (or worse, jumping to nuclear war as in Balance of Power). I don’t recommend it as a subject for everyone’s taste. Maybe games ought to have rating codes like the movies?
There are simulation games which have no violence at all—Shuttle II is an example. You have action, but you must apply a lot of cerebration to the task. And the goal is not violent—it’s peaceful: the accomplishment of a NASA mission. The message of a game like Shuttle II is far healthier than that of Leatherneck, both MichTron products.
I’ve been told publishers don’t produce this sort of game often, because they don’t sell well. I wonder if the reverse isn’t the case: They don’t sell well, because they aren’t produced or promoted well enough. Maybe violent, sexist games only sell well, because we have had little choice so far and have very little exposure to the other sorts of products. Given a greater choice, we’d prove ourselves mature and sensitive by buying the games that project a better social image. Maybe the publishers underestimate the intelligence or the value system of their audience.
I hope so. I’d hate to think they were hitting the nail right on the head.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto writer who is currently writing a novel about spies and police work in the Soviet Union. About the time you read this, he and his wife will be taking a well-deserved vacation in Colombia.
ST-LOG #30 / APRIL 1989 / PAGE 62
YOU ARE IN A LARGE ROOM WITH STRANGE RUNES WRITTEN ALL OVER THE WALLS. THERE IS A JEWELLED AXE ON AN ALTAR. THERE IS A MEAN-LOOKING DWARF HERE. EXITS ARE: NORTH, SOUTH, EAST.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
THE DWARF WON'T LET YOU. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR TWO POINTS.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
THE DWARF WON'T LET YOU. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR ONE POINT.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
THE DWARF WON'T LET YOU. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR ONE POINT.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU DON'T HAVE THE AXE. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR ONE POINT.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
I DON'T SEE ANY "AXXE" HERE. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR TWO POINTS.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU NOW HAVE A JEWELLED AXE. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR TWO POINTS.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
I DON'T KNOW HOW TO "SMASH" SOMETHING. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR THREE POINTS.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU ATTACK THE DWARF. YOU HIT THE DWARF FOR 12 POINTS. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR 1 POINT. YOU ARE GETTING WEAK.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
I DON'T UNDERSTAND "GET OUT" TRY SAYING IT ANOTHER WAY. THE DWARF HITS YOU FOR 1 POINT.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
DO YOU REALLY WANT TO LEAVE THIS GAME? Y/N
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU ATTACK THE DWARF WITH THE AXE. YOU HIT THE DWARF FOR SIX POINTS. THE DWARF IS DEAD.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
I DON'T SEE ANYTHING UNUSUAL ABOUT THE DWARF.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU CAN'T DO THAT-YET!
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU CAN'T DO THAT-YET!
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU CAN'T DO THAT TO THE ALTAR.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
I DON'T UNDERSTAND "TILT". TRY SAYING IT ANOTHER WAY.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
THE ALTAR WON'T BUDGE.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU CAN'T DO THAT TO THE ALTAR.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU ARE CARRYING THE FOLLOWING:
A BLACK ROCK
A BAG OF SNAKES
A RUSTY DAGGER
A GOLDEN ARROW
AN OLD RUNNING SHOE
A BAG OF MARBLES
A JEWELLED AXE
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
THE AXE IS VERY OLD. THERE ARE MANY JEWELS ON THE POMMEL. THERE APPEARS TO BE WRITING ON THE BLADE.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU READ THE MAGIC WORDS. THE AXE GLOWS FOR A MOMENT. THERE IS A SUDDEN FLASH AND A MINOTAUR APPEARS.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU CAN'T GO THAT WAY. EXITS ARE: NORTH, SOUTH, EAST.
THE MINOTAUR WON'T LET YOU. THE MINOTAUR HITS YOU FOR FOUR POINTS. YOU ARE GETTING WEAK.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
YOU ATTACK THE MINOTAUR WITH THE AXE. YOU MISS. THE MINOTAUR MISSES.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
THE MINOTAUR WON'T LET YOU. THE MINOTAUR HITS YOU FOR TWO POINTS. YOU ARE DEAD. YOU SCORED THREE OUT OF A POSSIBLE 1,024 POINTS. WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY AGAIN? Y/N
PLEASE ANSWER Y OR N.
GOODBYE AND THANKS FOR PLAYING GARGOYLE'S QUEST IN FUNLAND.
Argh is right. Sound familiar? Sort of like the script for a few thousand adventure games you’ve played? What exactly is an adventure game? It’s almost easier to say what it’s not. It’s not quite role-playing (although there is some of that in it, especially in games like The Pawn or Alternate Reality). It’s not fantasy (in the sense of games like Dungeon Master and Questron, although many adventures have fantasy elements in them). It’s not an action game, although some adventures have that too (King’s Quest).
Adventures are usually text-based (although Shadowgate and Deja Vu don’t require text input). They can have graphics or not (Infocom’s successful line of adventures have no graphics at all). They usually follow a particular plot line such as solving a murder (Deadline), finding a bride (King’s Quest) or sometimes simply exploring and surviving (Zork, et. al.). Some have no definable plot at all (Alternate Reality, although in this case, the story is supposed to evolve with the character and with subsequent releases of the game). The better adventures have complex story lines with multiple characters who can move throughout the environment like you do and respond in a variety of ways. (Corruption, an otherwise good game, is sadly flawed by its overt sexism and female stereotypes).
Games like Star Trek, Mercenary and Roadwar 2000 are sort-of adventures, but I’d rather leave them outside this discussion. Despite adventure elements within them, they’re more science fiction/strategy.
Essentially an adventure is a combination of things. It’s an interaction between player and game (“the rules of the game are to try and establish what the rules of the game are….”). There are puzzles to be solved (anything from simply figuring out how to open a locked door to solving a murder mystery), a closed environment to explore (often 3-D), items to be found and used (including, sometimes, canards and red herrings). It almost always has a definable end-reaching the exit, solving the crime, running out of time, dying.
Many adventures work on a scoring system that depends on points for objects discovered and/or used, rooms (or other locations) entered and puzzles solved. Better adventures have time-related events, and the game is paced by these events. The secretary sits in her office painting her nails, and you can’t get into her drawer until she leaves, which (you learn from frequent playings) is 10:00. So you can say:
And the game runs itself until that time, or until another event or encounter happens to interrupt the wait.
Encounters with game characters can be as basic and dull as the one parodied before, or very detailed. The characters in Corruption respond to different sorts of questions and actions, giving them realistic, 3-D personalities. In many Infocom games, you can converse with characters about other characters. In Alternate Reality, how you interact with the characters determines how others will interact with you later and what kinds of encounters you’ll have as you progress. You can choose to fight, charm, run, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, the lack of a definable goal in AR dulls this otherwise wonderful game.
Puzzles themselves run from the simple to the subtle and complex. They can be a matter of combining the right elements together at the right time (making dynamite in the Lost Gold Mine adventure) or a battle of wits (trying to get past the nurse in Corruption). You have to immerse yourself in the game and try to think like the characters. Descriptions have clues. Situations have clues. Experimentation is often necessary.
Interaction is through a vocabulary parser. Even the “textless” games like Deja Vu have a parser of sorts. They simply limit the number of choices to a series of general-purpose buttons with labels such as “use” which cover everything from drink, fire, swing, throw, etc.
Problem No. 1: small vocabularies. There are some 575,000 words in the English language. The average person has around 5,000 words in his or her working vocabulary. That’s not even 1% of what the language has to offer. Professionals, specialists, university graduates, professors and so on average between 15,000 and 20,000 words. Less than 5% of the language, but still three or four times more than most folk.
Most adventures have fewer than 1,500 words. That’s like having a conversation with a very young child (or some of the local high-school dropouts). It can be frustrating. My dog is smarter than most adventure parsers. Have you ever spent hours trying to hack out what word the programmer used for a situation? Especially when you know there’s something there:
I SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL HERE
I SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL HERE
I SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL HERE
I DON'T UNDERSTAND "BELOW"
I SEE NOTHING UNUSUAL HERE
THERE IS AN ENVELOPE HERE
Originally, adventures were extremely limited. They responded only to a Tarzan/Jane syntax:
Sentences had to be made up of simple verb/object structures, and if there was any need for more information (such as a choice of weapons), the program would come back and ask for more information:
Must have used the Style Guide for the Terminally Inadequate. Or maybe that famous textbook, English as She is Spoke.
Infocom broke with this silliness and gave us sentence (not mere word) parsers that could accept complex sentences, sometimes even multiple commands:
Still, adventures have only moved to the idiot savant level, in terms of conversation. They are extremely unforgiving of mistakes and typos. If I type “get the sworrd” you know what I mean and recognize the mistake. But if I type it into a game, I get back:
I DON'T SEE ANY "SWORRD" HERE
And I usually lose a turn in the process of making the correction. If I’m under attack by a dwarf or some such denizen, I may be hit and killed before I can enter the right thing. If I forget what exits are available, I lose a turn inquiring or attempting to walk through solid walls.
And what about descriptions? I move into a room and see a long list of information. I can’t remember it all. I manipulate things the best I can, but I often have to type “look” to reread the description before I can continue. That costs me turns or time. Sure be nice if I could scroll backward a screen or two through the text to reread what was presented earlier.
Descriptions are key elements. If they’re well written, you not only get a good image of what’s happening (as well as the ambience of the game), but you find clues and objects. I don’t find the graphics in most adventures, except the Mindscape series (Deja Vu, etc.) necessary or even interesting. I prefer to depend on the text. I’d trade the disk space a graphic consumes for more complete (and colorful) descriptions any day.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of adventure games, I like the challenge, the devious twistings of the logic, the puzzles (and I usually hate the vocabulary). I started playing them in 1978 on my TRS-80 and managed to solve most of the original Scott Adams’ adventures sometime between ’78 and ’85. Since then, I’ve played at quite a few, but never managed to finish any, despite my best efforts to do so.
Why? Read on.
Problem No. 2: the time factor. Most adventures take a looonggg time to play. Some are huge: hundreds of rooms to explore, dwarves to pummel, treasures to unearth, puzzles to wrestle into solutions. My own house pales in comparison to some of these places. Many require that you work your way through the game umpteen times, each time gaining a bit more of the map, the location of another item, finding a way out of the maze and so on. I simply don’t have the time, even with save-game options. Adventures are “desert island” games: things I’d like to take away with me where I could play through them without distraction from the events of daily life.
There’s also the problem of continuity. You have to map things out as you go and usually making notes is wise, so you remember why you crossed the bridge or where you found the axe. You have to play adventures with dedication. You can’t leave them sit for weeks, then return to them. You’ll have forgotten all the bits and pieces and will probably have to start over again.
In terms of value for the dollar, adventures rate high. You’ll probably play them ten times longer than a similarly priced action game. Of course, once solved, an adventure is usually never replayed, unless there are alternate endings you can play for. And adventures provide intellectual challenge far above and beyond the paltry offerings in the arcade game line.
Of the lot, I’d say my favorites (in no special order) are:
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Infocom). Bizarre, funny, demanding. Best played after you read the books.
Corruption (Rainbird). Fast-paced, tightly written, lots of deviousness and danger. Listen to both sides of the tape.
Deja Vu (Mindscape). Good interaction, good plot, nice way of handling things.
Alternate Reality (Datasoft). Great idea for a game, but unfinished until the series is completed.
Nope, never finished any of them—but I will. One day. I’m working on it. (I have the rest of my life.) And don’t send me any clues or hint books. Hint books are like cheating at solitaire. No one wins; you lose. I’ll just keep hacking away at them, saving games as I go along. I just wish there were some shorter adventures around. Games I could finish in one or two evenings.
PS: Datasoft and other companies have an annoying habit of writing long, unavoidable introductions to their games (AR, Mercenary, Global Commander). Please, can’t you code something to allow players to stop the introduction, end the corny music and boring graphics, by pressing a key? I hate games where I have to wait several minutes through repetitive silliness before I can even start playing!
Ian Chadwick is a Canadian writer who also plays war games, go, chess and guitar.
ST-LOG #31 / MAY 1989 / PAGE 54
I was having a coffee with some fellow ST enthusiasts the other day and one of them asked me, “What language do you program in?”
“BASIC,” I said.
The other looked at me aghast. One even gagged, “BASIC? You’re not serious!”
“I am,” I replied evenly.
“But, but…” he spluttered, “Why not C? Everyone programs in C.”
Another one banged his fist on the table and declared, “Pascal. That’s the high-level language to use. It’s easier than C.”
“It’s not easier than BASIC,” I retorted mildly. “BASIC is about the easiest language I know.”
“What about speed? BASIC is so slow.”
I shrugged. “Not if you use a compiler.”
“But what about GEM calls? VDI? AES? BIOS? XBIOS? ST BASIC can’t do any of them without some heavy poking. You might as well write in assembly if you’re going to do everything that way.”
High-level programmers generally agree that assembly language programmers are really nocturnal aliens who think in hexadecimal.
“You can get a lot of direct access to system calls in GFA BASIC 2. In Version 3, you can access all of them directly, the same way you can in C or Pascal, and it’s a structured language,” I said.
Anyway, the conversation continued in that vein. No one asked me if there was, in fact, a compiler available for GFA BASIC 3 (there isn’t, at least not in early January when I wrote this, and I’m not going to phone Germany to find out right now).
Anyway, I like BASIC, and I refuse to apologize for the language. I am particularly fond of interpreted languages. Most languages like C, Pascal, Modula-2 and some variations of BASIC have no inherent interpreter. The process of writing and debugging code with them goes something like this:
Get the picture? Me, I like to test and hack in the interpreter before I get to the compiler stage. That way, I am reasonably assured of a stable program, fewer pieces of paper, a lot less hair pulling and considerably less time spent watching my hard-disk light flash.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of GFA BASIC 2.x (and will be of Version 3.x when bugs are ironed out and when a compiler makes the scene). I’m leery of GFA, now that it no longer (as of this writing) has a North American support and service gioup, MichTron having been dropped under circumstances that appear less than savory. How is it going to be able to update all the current 3.x owners with a non-buggy version?
MichTron is not asleep at the wheel, however. It is bringing out a new BASIC—one very popular in U.K., Highsoft BASIC. It doesn’t have an interpreter. That worries me. I’ve been told online that the system is so constructed that you can go from text-editor to compiler to running the program and back to text editor seamlessly, without any significant pauses. That may alleviate the syndrome described above; we’ll see in a future review.
In the meantime, another U.K. product has made it to our shores in the guise of STOS “The Game Creator,” from Mandarin Software, distributed by Terrific Software out of San Francisco.
STOS bills itself as a “revolutionary package that has everything you need to create fast, exciting games quickly and easily.” I’d hesitate to call it revolutionary, but I’ll agree with the rest. STOS is really BASIC: line numbers, spaghetti code, the whole bit. But it has more than 300 commands with many game-specific functions not found (as such) in any other language I know of.
For example, you can create sprites easily, display up to 15 on the screen, move them, animate them, change their colors and so on—all easily with fairly direct commands. STOS provides not only a decent sprite editor, but simple means to cut sprites out of DEGAS and Neochrome pics, or to copy them from another program. Take a look at these lines:
SPRITE 1,10,100,2 MOVE X 1,"320(2,-6,0)L": MOVE ON
This translates as: Put Sprite #1 from Bank 2 on the screen at Location 10,100. Move Sprite #1 in the X axis, starting from Location 320, at Speed 2 (fast), six pixels to the left each time (a positive number moves it to the right), indefinitely (a number other than 0 is the iteration count, the number of times the step is repeated). L is for loop and means continue this instruction from the start once done (the sprite moves off the screen). MOVE ON activates the command. Pretty straightforward. Then add this line:
ANIM 1, "(2,5)(3,5)(4,5)(5,5)L" ANIM ON
This is the animation sequence: Sprite 1, Images 2 through 5, are each displayed in sequence for a duration of 5/50 of a second. L is the loop and ANIM ON activates it. In two lines, we’ve placed, moved and animated a sprite! This simplicity and ease for otherwise difficult constructions makes STOS a joy to work with.
STOS has more than 20 sprite-related commands alone, including collision detection, tests for location, pixel detection and synchronization with a scrolling background.
Other STOS commands include joystick read commands; numerous sound and music commands; screen fade, shrink, grow and appear commands; screen copy pack, shrink and zoom, window and menu commands and many others; not to mention the usual BASIC command and function list—over 300 commands altogether.
To facilitate game construction, STOS also comes with—among other accessories—a sprite, font, icon and music designer (accessed from within the BASIC program itself!). There is also a “map” editor for creating games with scrolling backgrounds such as Time Bandit and Gauntlet. These accessories can be loaded as background tools or as BASIC programs to edit and change or run. Some of them are a tad awkward, but all perform reasonably well.
STOS has some unusual but powerful features. For example, there are 15 memory banks reserved for program use These can contain sprites, screens, music, data, machine language programs, icons, character sets or be used as temporary workspaces. Banks are saved with your program—that’s why the accessories can take music, sprites and so on from other STOS programs so easily. STOS also uses two levels of screens, a background screen for sprites and another for foreground display “Physic” and “Logic” differentiate between two foreground screens, which can be exchanged with the SWAP command. Banks can also be reserved for other screens and exchanged with the display through a few simple commands.
There are commands to list and print bank information. STOS can switch back and forth between low and medium resolution within a program, without crashing. You can store up to four programs in memory at once and switch between them easily
STOS has a “smart” file save feature: It automatically saves a file in the correct format according to the extension: .ASC for ASCII, .BAS for tokenized BASIC, .PRC to create a run-time program, .ACB for accessories, .MBK and .MBS for memory banks, .VAR for a list of variables and .PI1, .PI2, .PI3 or .NEO for DEGAS or Neochrome graphics.
Probably the only fault I can find with STOS is in the manual. It’s not badly written, but the organization and layout are confusing and awkward. Commands are grouped by function (e.g., sprites), but are not in any order within a gioup (alphabetical order seems not to have occurred to the writers). This makes it difficult to find things by browsing. The “Guided Tour” section shows off some dazzling effects with simple commands, but doesn’t tell how or why—a source of great frustration for the newcomer. You’re not always told everything you need. For example: How many windows can be opened at once?
There are few graphics and screen shots,
when many would ease comprehension
problems. And there are a few typos that
may cause a few headaches. For example, if
you use their example
DIR$=[ \ STOS",
you’ll get an error—the syntax is
DIR$ = [STOS" to go down one directory level.
Another: On page 164, it says 8 × 16 fonts
can be used “happily” in all three resolutions,
but on page 170, it says they’re only
usable in high and medium resolution.
Because of the clumsy manual, you’ll find yourself jumping all over the place, trying to understand features, trying to find associated commands, but one saving grace is the abundance of example code. I only wish they’d included some examples of the results of that code.
STOS isn’t a GEM program, so it doesn’t use or have access to any GEM (or GEMDOS), AES or VDI calls. Nor can you get at the BIOS or XBIOS calls. It uses its own equivalents, although some, like the file selector, are rather inelegant. The menu commands do not equal those found in GFA BASIC; however, you can use icons, not just text in STOS menus. You can gain an extra 32K or so of workspace by auto-booting STOS rather than loading it through the GEM desktop.
Finally you can easily create “run time” versions of your games for commercial release. There are special utilities and commands to do this from within the BASIC interpreter itself These save a .PRG file and a reduced version of STOS, similar to GFA’s run-only program.
STOS comes with three games: a horizontally scrolling train-race game, a Galaxians clone and a Blockade clone. The latter, called Orbit, is itself worth the price of the package. Each also has a construction set for designing your own screens and levels! All three demonstrate STOS’s amazing speed and flexibility plus they can be listed and changed. I added a high-score file-save to Orbit after a few minutes of listing and examining code for a suitable location.
Overall, for BASIC buffs and would-be game designers, STOS is an excellent buy and a fun alternative to the other BASICs. It’s one of the better buys on the ST right now.
First the good news: I was amazed to discover that Borland—a major software publisher in the PC/MS-DOS world, known for its superb products such as Sidekick, Paradox, Sprint and the Turbo languages—has published Turbo C for the ST. Yes, an amazingly fast, powerful, beautifully crafted C! I watched a demonstration of it recently (Calamus was written in Turbo C). It simply outdoes everything else in the category
Now the bad news: It’s only available in Germany. Why? I don’t know. If you want to find out, write to Borland, 4585 Scotts Valley Drive, Scotts Valley California 95066. Apparently the company doesn’t think the North American market is the right place to sell its own product.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor, specializing in technical writing, software manuals and computer documentation.
ST-LOG #32 / JUNE 1989 / PAGE 72
What’s enough? Who decides when a program is good enough for the Atari ST market?
I always wonder. What sort of mind was it that determined that WordPerfect 4.1 was adequate for the ST user, when 4.2 had been available on the PC for a few years and 5.0 was due to be released? Who decided that the ST user was less sophisticated, needed fewer features, could do with less than the latest and greatest version?
Who decided that it was okay to release First CADD, the ST version of Generic CADD, as a stripped-down version of the PC release, making it little more than a toy? Or not to upgrade the ST Drafix to the Ultra version, now available on the PC? Who decided that ST CADD users are any less sophisticated or demanding than PC CADD users?
Who chose to bring out that embarrassing Microsoft Write as is, after the product had evolved so far beyond that level on the Mac? Who thought the Mac users deserved better than ST users?
Who decided that the GFA BASIC 3.0 manual, with all of its faults, typos, spelling mistakes, bad grammar and errata was good enough for ST buyers? Are we viewed as less literate than other computer users?
Who accepted the “index” feature in Calamus as good enough to release in a commercial desktop-publishing product?
The ST gets the nasty end of the stick a lot. There’s a lot of “It’s good enough for the ST” thinking out there, and I, for one, resent it. I’m tired of half-finished products, versions one or more generations earlier than releases on other machines, lukewarm technical support, wholly inadequate manuals, games ported from the C64, spelling mistakes and great grammatical errata in both programs and documentation—the whole bundle. I think we deserve better. And I think it reflects badly on those companies that produce these inferior or faulty products.
Is it deliberate? Sometimes, yes. It’s not a malicious decision—no one puts the time and money into development of a bad product just to spite the users. But the Atari market is simply not generally viewed as serious; an image Atari Corp. itself does little to dispel. And why produce serious software for a predominantly home/hobbyist or a game-machine market?
It’s also a small market, at least on this continent, and publishers play to their audience. For example, Borland, a large publisher in the MS-DOS realm, has produced Turbo C for the ST—sorry; only for sale in Germany. The North American market isn’t big enough to appeal to them. We’ve only seen a trickle of the software available in the U.K., Germany and France, mostly thanks to the efforts of a few publisher/distributors such as MichTron and ISD.
And, yes, the market has a bad reputation as piracy-ridden. Of course, since it’s true, we have only ourselves to blame for that one. As George Morrow once said, “The only industrial costs software companies have is the printing of serial numbers. What drives the prices so high is thievery.” A cogent point to ponder while debating the high cost of your next purchase. I wonder if the problem is significantly less in, say, Germany, where Borland is releasing product. Something must have made them decide it was a better bet than the USA.
So who decides where and what to market? I dunno. I’ve been on that side of the fence and it’s not easy, sitting in your ivory tower, pontificating, making decisions for thousands—maybe millions—of potential consumers. What I do know is that most firms lack any market input. They never poll the retailers, they never poll users—sometimes they conduct a limited “poll” through registration cards, but it’s seldom sufficient. There’s a lot of “by guess and by golly” in the business and down here at the bottom, users suffer for it.
Why doesn’t someone ask us what we’d like to see in a product, rather than try to convince us that what gets produced is acceptable?
Morrow also said, “Without the proper software, computers make very good bookends.” A step before bookends, I suppose, is game machines. I’d hate to think I have several thousand dollars tied up in a game machine. My late grandfather—whose 94 years spanned an enormous wealth of technological developments, from the first cars, through airplanes to space flight—could never understand computer games. He looked in absolute bewilderment at Flight Simulator, unable to see the screen full of lines and slabs of color as fields, towns, bridges and roads. I kept pointing out things to him, saying “See this? It’s a road. Okay, pretend it’s a road, then.”
He never appreciated computer games. Couldn’t see the purpose, couldn’t make the jump to excitement. And, after more than a decade of computing, I’m beginning to wonder about them myself
Anyway, let’s leave him and the games alone right now and get back onto the topic, so I can end the sermonizing.
What can we do to improve our computing lot in life and to make the publishers take us seriously? Well, for one thing, we can write to the larger software houses (those with no ST products) and ask for support. If they get enough letters from ST users, they may wake up to the fact that we’re out here. We can also write to the general computer magazines and ask for coverage of the ST in their pages. Attention outside the few ST publications would improve our visibility. We can also write to existing ST publishers and tell them what we want, what we expect and what we need in software. Don’t leave it up to them to determine what we ought to have.
And write to those publishers whose products aren’t “good enough” and tell them so. No need to whine, but certainly there’s no need for any of us to suffer these things in silence. If we do, then we only get what we deserve.
If you’re not aware already, ISD is working on DynaCADD 2.0 for release this summer. It’s a rather different approach from the original, but promises far greater flexibility, control and speed. I’ve seen the development version, and it’s very impressive.
The main package will provide the 2-D CAD package, along with a programmer’s shell (text editor and compiler/linker) to customize applications, a window, icon and menu generator, and a vector font editor The 3-D package will be produced separately as an add on. ISD is also bringing the product out for the PC, Macintosh and Amiga. Probably the best news is that DynaCADD 2.0 will even run in a 520ST, since it uses a system of command overlays, rather than a single, all-encompassing program. It will remain, for now anyway a monochrome-only program.
At the time of this writing (early March 1989) an upgrade of Calamus, with several bug fixes, is now available. You must send in your original disks, with the serial numbers. ISD is also getting ready to offer around 100 Compugraphic fonts for Calamus to registered users. Like Calamus, these will be encoded with your serial number
Epyx sent me several games that I’ve been somewhat too busy to fully explore. I’ve looked at all of them, however, so here are my notes:
The ones I like best are Sub Battle and Space Station Oblivion. The former is a simulation of WWII submarine warfare. It’s similar to Gato, Silent Service and Up Periscope, except that it includes the Atlantic theatre as well as the Pacific, and it has a side display, not merely conning tower or periscope view modes. It’s an excellent game, tough, and the interface requires a lot of key tapping. But it offers many hours of playing challenge.
Oblivion is one of those odd 3-D maze-adventure-type games, full of tricks, surprises, places to explore. Also, since it’s so abstract, it doesn’t feel violent. It’s not easy to understand at first, and the manual isn’t clear on a lot of things, especially what you’re supposed to do and how the vehicle operates. But it’s fun just to explore and figure it out on your own.
A really nonviolent product from Epyx is Final Assault, a game of mountaineering. It’s simple in concept: choose your level and your trail, grab your supplies and go. No one dies or gets killed—a wonderful change from so many shoot-’em-up games. However, the interface gets pretty tedious on long climbs, especially having to move your character’s foot each and every time. Oh well, I guess it simulates the real thing. Slog, slog, slog.
Quite the opposite is Techno Cop, from US Gold, distributed by Epyx. It’s the archetypal violent game: You play the role of a futuristic policeman whose job it is to kill or capture a bad guy. And in the process kill or capture anyone who attacks you. The emphasis is on kill. The bad guys explode in a gory mess, with a digitized scream. Juvenile, unpleasant and attractive to anyone who thinks Charlie Manson’s a swell guy. To be avoided.
Tower Toppler is a new twist on the old climbing-maze theme, with some nicely humorous graphics. It’s not my cup of tea, but there’s no violence in it either; so it’s acceptable to a broad spectrum of users.
Dive Bomber is flight simulator with a “sink the Bismark” theme. The flight simulator isn’t on a par with FSII; it’s a lot like Avalon Hill’s Spitfire. You have to drop a torpedo on a course with the Bismark. Good luck. It looks easy, but it’s not, especially when everyone’s shooting at you. It’s not realistic; the computer battleship gets a lot of help the German navy didn’t send out historically. Still, it’s different and a challenge. Nice, polished graphics.
Epyx’s biggie right now is Art and Film Director, which I’ll leave for another column, since it deserves better.
I recently returned from Colombia, where I met with one of the few Atari (8-bit) users in the country, a nice guy. He and about ten or 12 others in Medellin have 800 XLs and are trying to learning everything and do everything with a very limited budget, no source of supply and little help. I’ve been sending my old 8-bit products to him, but if you have any software ANALOG magazines, or books lying around that you don’t need or have no use for these days, why not bundle it up and send it to their group? They’ll appreciate all the help they can get. Write to: Armando Prieto Trillos, Apartado Aereo 1706, Medellin, Colombia.
Tell him I sent you. I thank you, in advance, on his behalf. If you have any questions about shipping to Colombia, write to me at the magazine or contact me on DELPHI, username CHADWICK.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based technical writer who lives in an increasingly small house with his wife, Susan, six cats, one dog, two rats and several field mice (who mewed in recently, despite the cats). And that’s not to mention the neighborhood’s stray cats that take up residence as the mood moves them.
ST-LOG #33 / JULY 1989 / PAGE 58
Is computer art really “art” in the traditional sense? That’s a tough question. It’s hard to define computer art, because it lacks solidity. After all, it’s not really anywhere in a form commonly accepted in auctions. Even in a display it’s only a transient visitor to a few RAM chips. And printed—well, what printer can capture all of the details of a screen?
Computer art certainly demands all of the same skills, learning, effort and talent of other art. But unlike all the rest of them, it has no permanent existence. On disk, it’s merely a collection of magnetized oxide particles, prey to whatever cosmic mishap befalls disk data. Even if it remains stable, it is still more subject to change than any other form of art, since a single-bit adjustment creates a new piece. And since it’s copyable, there is no such thing as an “original” as befits a great painter. Signed bitware, unchangeable artistic masters on disk? Not yet, anyway. Until then, “computer art” remains more of a craft than an art.
I’m no great shakes as an artist. Everything I draw seems to come out cockeyed. It’s even worse with software. Doesn’t matter what the drawing tool is or how many amazing features there are either I understand art quite well: the process, perspective, viewpoint, the mechanics, all of that. It just doesn’t translate itself well onto paper (or screen) for me.
However, that doesn’t spoil my fun. Like most folks, I doodle, and given a computer paint program, I do it electronically. I’ve met others who do this quite proficiently and can whip up some rather impressive screens. The polite term for their work is “art,” but I don’t think the electronic Etch-A-Sketch stuff I produce deserves the distinction. I never managed to enchant any lady up to my garret to see my computer etchings, either—Susan was far too canny to fall for that line.
Part of my excuse for poor artistic performance may be valid for a lot of people with a higher level of talent, but who experience difficulty with computer drawing: The primary tool is inadequate, not the software, the mouse. I can do much better with a light pen and even produce something passably attractive with a digitizing tablet. But the mouse seems particularly unsuited for fine, freehand drawing. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t feel like a pen or a brush—or any of the vertically held tools we’re taught to use. Or maybe it’s because most mice have their rolling ball (which represents the pointer location as well) below the palm of your hand, rather than at the fingertips, where a pen or brush works.
Ever try to sketch something with a mouse? My dog could do better holding a crayon in his teeth! It sometimes seems that whatever I draw looks, at first, like a child’s crude efforts. In order to compensate for the clumsiness of the mouse, I have to depend on software features such as zoom-level tools to correct straying lines and clean up nasty clumps of pixels; curve tools (Bezier and b-spline) to make lines look less like snail trails; line, ellipse, frame and so on for polygons. In art software, the more features, the better I like the program.
There are two sorts of art programs around: draw and paint. This column’s about the latter; I’ll do draw programs some other time. Basically the difference is that draw programs deal in “objects” and vectors (as most CAD programs do) and paint programs deal in pixels and screens. There is some overlap in functionality and features, but not enough for my taste.
MacPaint is the archetypal paint program from which many ST paint programs derive (as well as many PC paint programs). In it several important ideas were developed, as well as many icons, features and styles that are today accepted as standards.
DEGAS, one of the first such ST programs, and still one of the best, owes only some of its lineage to MacPaint. Author Tom Hudson took his own course, especially with DEGAS Elite. He prefers the dual command-screen/drawing-screen mode rather than putting all of his tools in the one screen with the work area, but the basic tools are the same However, DEGAS is a bit long in the tooth these days and suffers from three main weaknesses: the rigid picture size (always exactly one screen large), the lack of curve and spline tools and the inability to cut non-rectangular blocks. These could be remedied, along with the addition of new tools and features, to bring DEGAS Elite back to the fore, but I personally don’t believe Electronic Arts has sufficient interest in the ST market to make such a commitment.
I remember when I was working on the manual for DEGAS, back in the ST’s Paleozoic. While learning the features, I spent hours and hours working on a “painting” of a wasp—lots of (for me, anyway) detail meticulously transcribed from a photograph, background scenery lovingly added in at zoom level. I was so proud of it that I offered it to Batteries Included (BI), the company that originally marketed DEGAS, to include on their disk as a sample picture, free of charge.
Some hope. Marty Herzog of BI smiled condescendingly and showed me some of the samples they already had from people with what appeared to be an endless reservoir of talent in that area. As I watched the slide show of their efforts, my wasp became flat, uninviting, lifeless. I heaved a great sigh and went back to the writing, leaving the art to those who do it best.
So what? Well, being an artist is one of those hidden dreams that lurks deep inside me. Despite a propensity for drawing stick men and a sense of perspective only an alien could appreciate, I love to draw. Inside me lurks the heart of Picasso, Rembrandt, Da Vinci. That’s why I can never avoid the lure of new art programs—in this case HyperPaint from Atari UK, Touch-Up from Migraph and two from Human Technologies in France: Lazy Paint and Rough. A real international sampling.
HyperPaint one might call Atari UK’s answer to DEGAS. It is a competent paint program that adds a few features and enhancements to DEGAS but not everything that is needed. It supports GDOS and the manual has a rather good description of GDOS, ASSIGN.SYS and the installation process.
HyperPaint has Bezier curves, save/load .IMG files, ten workscreens (each of which can have its own palette), irregular block cut/copy/paste and a few other features, as well as the standard draw/paint/fill functions we know and expect. The interface is a little jagged and at times awkward. For example, if you choose Quit or click on the close box, you can choose to save the current workscreen (only!) or quit, but not cancel. It’s an easy way to lose a lot of work. Also, you don’t print from within the program—you do so through a separate output program, from which you can load or print a file.
Atari UK failed to provide any sample pictures in any format, a weakness for new users who’d rather tinker with pre-drawn work than attempt their own masterpieces before mastering the program. Facing a sparsity of paint programs, HyperPaint would be high on my list. But with so many others around—even some darn good public domain offerings—it doesn’t offer enough novelty to recommend. It needs more chrome, more shine.
Touch-Up and Lazy Paint (which I believe is also known as ZZ Paint) are monochrome paint programs. This is unusual in itself: Publishers have tended to focus on the ST’s color abilities and have treated monochrome as a poor cousin. Paint programs that have worked in mono have simply done the same things they do in color, without regard to any of the special needs and abilities of black and white. Touch-Up also works on a color monitor, in low and medium resolution, but only provides black and white “colors.” Lazy Paint works strictly in mono.
Monochrome, by the way, isn’t simply trading colors for higher resolution. It’s a different metaphor completely. It’s like the movies. A lot of movies shot in black and white were so done because no one had color technology. On the other hand, a lot of directors chose black and white as their medium, despite the availability of color, because it offers special effects unattainable in color, and it also requires a different type of craftsmanship. Monochrome art is like that: to novices it looks like it offers less. But even if it’s a lot more demanding, the results can be more satisfying.
In monochrome, it’s much easier to do grey-scale gradations, and this should be an integral function in any mono-paint program. Many color paint programs provide a similar feature that permits automatic gradation or shifts, so it’s reasonable to expect the same thing in mono-paint programs. If not done in actual grey scales, then it should be possible through patterns.
Touch-Up is one of those “Ferrari” programs: oodles of chrome, features and functions to complement the usual lot of commands. One example is the “map to black” option that translates color pictures to monochrome. Simple enough idea, except that Touch-Up offers six methods of mapping, with variations. Migraph doesn’t do anything by halves. Other extra features include B-spline and Bezier curves (with nice B-spline parameter settings); a .IMG file viewer; .TIFF format support; a dynamic screen locator in zoom mode; measurements in inches; centimeters or pixels; fill patterns in 75, 150 and 300 dpi; GDOS support; many, many text, clip and display options; plus a whole lot more. A lot of thought went into this program.
There are some problems with Touch-Up however. One is the manual: First, it has no index—an inexcusably amateur oversight. Without an index, it is close to impossible to learn what Touch-Up can do without reading the manual over and over again. Second, the manual is poorly written, using the passive voice and many inexact terms or phrases. I’ll give it a better rating than most MichTron manuals, but it could do with improvements.
Other weaknesses include the lack of multiple magnification levels (only 2 × and 4 ×), the slowness of the redraw and the glacial response time of some features (although a “lightning” mode is available, with fewer features), only one workscreen, the Undo key doesn’t work and an awkward or poorly conceived user interface—for example, the nonrepetitive arrow buttons in the text-size dialog box and no grey scales. These faults combine to make what should be one of the best art programs around, merely a good program. Migraph should, and could, do better. I hope they heed this and upgrade both the minor program flaws and the manual.
Lazy Paint is a different type of program. It’s a lot simpler, with fewer bells and whistles, but it has quite a few special items, such as three different greyscales pattern bars, pattern search, portrait to landscape toggle, .PI3, .IFF, Postscript and .IMG file support, disk information tools, direct scanner support, user-definable filters for the clip box or the entire image and pointer coordinates displayed.
While the basic drawing tools in Lazy Paint are pretty much standard, the program is clean, smooth and easy to use. The few bits of chrome they chose to add are well thought-out and useful—not merely for show. It hasn’t the muscle of Touch-Up, but it’s still a nice program and one to consider for mono-only system.s.
Rough (or ZZ-Rough) is France’s answer to Neochrome. It’s a low-resolution paint program that approaches the idea from a different angle. The program uses the artist’s sketch pad as the metaphor and each page (screen) can have its own palette. They also provide pens, pencils, markers, chalk, stump, tracing tools, brushes and similar artist’s tools. It’s an unusual way to work but rather more intuitive if your perception hasn’t been spoiled by other art programs that more or less ignore the graphic arts standards in their interface.
Rough has several uncommon commands, including the viewing of black lines only, breakdown of a painting (“page”) into black, yellow, blue and red (for producing color separations), animation of pages, 3-D arrows, flexible ruler (for curves), merge sketches and mask parts of sketches. It also has GDOS support. More remarkable is Rough’s ability to handle CAD 3-D V2 objects—retrieve, manipulate and copy the image to a sketch page. This almost allows Rough to be a combination draw/paint program!
Rough’s file-handling capability includes Neochrome, DEGAS regular and compressed. Art Director and GFA Artist formats.
Rough is the best graphic-arts paint program I’ve encountered, and well worth getting when it comes, translated, across the ocean. If bundled with its sister program. Lazy Paint, it will be a dynamite package. Unfortunately I’ve only seen them as beta English-language versions, but what they’ve done so far is impressive and exciting. There is a lot of good software in Europe.
In the meantime, I’m going to continue to doodle with my artware—maybe even find a few more to compare—and play that highly addictive game, Tetris, from Spectrum Holobyte. But more on that next time.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based technical writer who lives in an increasingly small home with his wife, Susan, six cats, one dog, two rats and several field mice (who moved in recently, despite the cats)—and that’s not to mention the neighborhood’s stray cats that take up residence as the mood moves them.
ST-LOG #34 / AUGUST 1989 / PAGE 28
Whew. Talk about opening up a can of worms! You know the old saw that “everything will be fine as long as you don’t mention sex, religion or politics”? Well, include computer languages in that list too.
I’ve received letters and phone calls about the virtues of almost every computer language ever invented. People want to run me out of town, metaphorically at least, because I took a few light-hearted swings against their particular sacred cow. A comment I made about GFA BASIC was questioned by a reader and answered in the letters column—not by me, but by someone else in the magazine who wanted to run roughshod over my ideas. I didn’t write that comment that went “What Ian really meant was…”
Heck, what I said was what I really meant. I don’t need any translators. I am quite capable of planting my own foot in my mouth, thank you.
What’s this all about? I expect the language police to come knocking at my door one night: “Open up! We know you’re using BASIC in there. Come out, the house is surrounded!”
At least that’s how it will be when some of these people get their way, judging by the tone of their comments.
Several people have a penchant for C that borders on obsession. C is currently the number one hit on the computer-language hit parade and may be on its way to becoming the first computer religion. The C crowd told me off in several letters and conversations, warning me to steer clear of their favorites. These guys were the worst, sort of language hit-men. I think it’s because C is a rigid, structured, no-nonsense language. It broaches no bungling, half hearted attempts to learn it, no lallygagging, dawdling, tinkering, C demands harsh discipline and dedicated effort to master it. Nietzsche would have loved C.
Me, I don’t care much for C, partly because it generates frighteningly large computer books on how to use it. Any language that requires you to buy a 1,000-page tome from a third party as your reference guide (and not even a tutorial!) is suspect. Who’s going to read all that? It has no plot, no dialogue, no pictures of dinosaurs in it.
C doesn’t let me ramble. It’s a force of linearity, absolute obedience, a Triumph of the Will diskwise. Besides, C users have no sense of humor. They discuss their language in reverential tones, brook no snide comments or witty asides, Me, I still have a “4th Love If Honk Then” sticker on my car. Not that I really like Forth all that much, but I love seeing the reactions it generates when people in the car behind me try to figure it out!
And maybe I’m a tad prejudiced because C lurks behind Unix, the most difficult, obstinate, obtuse, obscure operating system ever devised, and 15-plus years ago at that! I figure anything that closely tied into Unix can’t be good. If, by some massive stroke of ill fortune, Unix comes to the Atari, I’ll probably pack up my computers and take up full-time zymurgy instead.
I guess which language is best depends on 1) who you are and 2) what you want to do with the language,
I like BASIC because I can write doodle-bug code. What’s wrong with that? I tinker a lot with it, horse around. It suits me; it’s like the way I cook, by guess and by golly. If you came over to my house, you’d understand. I have a workroom cluttered with books, software, computers, rats, guitars—and I bounce around inside it from one thing to another. My mind wanders, so I like a language that reflects that. Of course, I can’t think of any single major application ever written in BASIC, but that’s fine by me.
Nowadays, however, BASICs are getting away from the dab-and-dollop approach by mutating into structured BASICs. Nothing very new, really; I had S-BASIC on my old Kaypro 4. They’re sort of like C hiding in BASIC clothing. GFA BASIC is like that, and that’s the one thing that I don’t like about the program. It’s like the authors are trying to gently lead us over to C. Not me; I’ll go back to that old fossil, ST-BASIC, before I give up my GOTOs and GOSUBs.
HiSoft BASIC is a bit more flexible. It allows you to roam all over the place as you write, but it jumps back to C’s embrace when it comes to handling GEM, BIOS and the other important calls. It disappointed me because I wanted a smoother transition from Microsoft QuickBASIC on the PC, but I wanted the power and chrome of GFA. Maybe one day they’ll get married and give birth to SoftGFA or something like that.
What do you want to do with a language, anyway? It’s not as if programming is exciting. Excitement is being a fighter pilot, fireman, policeman or mud wrestler. Programmers are generally a dull lot who only talk about computers, can’t spell properly and write opaque manuals for their products that no one else understands [I resent that!—Ed.], even when they can untangle the bad grammar.
When you’re a programmer, you don’t get together over a brew with the boys to watch the Big Game and brag about “generating one mean subroutine” during the week. It just isn’t a back-slapping, shoulder-punching lifestyle.
Erroll, a friend, just bought an ST and came to ask me what language he should learn to program. I asked him “Why bother?” Of course, no one accepts that answer, and he waited for my (yawn) usual routine:
If you really want to tear into the machine and get control right down to the individual bits, then assembly language is the tool to choose. Only problem is, it takes 10,000 lines of code to do anything even vaguely important in AL. The serious AL programmers I’ve known are troglodytes anyway, people with bizarre eating habits (pizza and Coke at 7 a.m.) and worse social habits, mostly caused by their insistence in leading nocturnal lives. [Sheesh! Ian, if you thought you got a lot of mail before… —Ed.]
AL is relatively easy to learn and write, given that each line is really only one single command, and there aren’t that many commands. But it’s nearly impossible to decode it later without copious comments. It’s also difficult to debug, because some of the simple commands are downright arcane. Besides, if you can’t do hexadecimal math in your head, then you’ll fail as an AL programmer.
Pascal and its somewhat richer cousin, Modula-2, are “sorta” languages. They’re sorta like structured BASIC, sorta like C, sorta a bit of this, that and the other thing. I always disliked Pascal because I figured it was invented by a bunch of guys sitting in a hot tub somewhere in California. Nowadays, I’m better informed and know it was created by some guy in Switzerland. Probably in a hot tub.
To my delight, I discovered Alice, a rare Pascal interpreter, which gives the language a much-needed shot in the arm in my eyes. Sadly, it lacks its own compiler. However, if you’re teaching Pascal or want to experiment with it, then this is the version to play with. A nice implementation too. Very classy act.
Still, I can’t get away from the deep-seated fear that Pascal programmers all drive BMWs, say “smashing” a lot and wear tennis whites to putter around the house. Probably drink gin and t’s too.
Anyway, I still think that GFA BASIC may be the best language around for anyone who isn’t willing to stay up nights to program in AL, isn’t up to the drill-sergeant correctness of C, or isn’t one of the upwardly mobile Pascal hot-tub crowd. Look: BASIC is easy, fun and rewarding. Most people can’t say that about much else in their lives.
Thoroughly discouraged, Erroll decided he ought to learn to use the applications first, before dipping into the murky swamp of programming on his own.
I shouldn’t knock hot tubs, though. I spent the whole last week of April assembling one in my backyard, as well as helping building the deck around it. Lots of hammering, sawing, tapping tender digits with 20 oz. framing hammers. One day, when I finally get it working and the power upgraded, I’ll probably enjoy it. Right now, my hydro service is so overloaded that when I turn on my computer, the street lights dim. So the tub is sitting there, full of pure Canadian ice water. Nice. Maybe I should drop a few trout fingerlings into it.
Did you know that a 600-gallon tub weighs 6,000 pounds? So what, you ask? Well, I know a lot about hot tubs now, not to mention decks. During the week, I made about 800 trips to the lumber and hardware stores, trying to get enough wood, screws, nails, blades—whatever. I always bought one too few of everything, it seemed. I had the deck all planned out and printed, but I really needed a good estimating package, one that I could use to tally up everything, make one trip, and be done with it. I also needed to figure costs in advance to know for how much to sink into debt.
Sure, this could easily be done on a spreadsheet, but I want something more than just a one-shot deal (I may go into the deck-building business). A general-purpose template would basically require writing an entire hardware store and lumber yard inventory into rows and columns. Rather large, cumbersome and inelegant.
I need a better solution, something that prints out an estimate, not just rows and columns. A multi-window spreadsheet with cut and paste would work, but would still be clumsy.
What I need is a super-smart CAD program that can do the estimates based on the drawing. I’d be able to select an area and define it as 2×6 pressure-treated, 3/16-inch spacing and the program would figure out the area, then how much lumber it translates into, along with approximate number of nails (by the pound). Somewhere, maybe in another window, it would keep track of all the running totals: joists, trim, lattice, that sort of thing. Then all I’d have to do is throw in a few prices for the wood and a guess at the number of hours it would take, and voila!, an estimate.
That’s a ways off, maybe not before Halley’s comet comes around again. Maybe. In the meantime, I’m looking for something functional in a single application, something to write up shopping lists, figure costs and mark-ups and prepare estimates. I’m doing other renovations this year and need to do this often. Anyone have any suggestions? I haven’t seen anything like it yet.
More importantly, such a program would be a godsend for the laptop ST (if, and when, it arrives). I know several contractors who want desperately to be able to do on-the site estimates. This combination could push them into Atari’s hands, saleswise.
While you’re at it, I need something else too: an animal maintenance program. That’s right, I want to track the daily food intake of my menagerie. I have two dogs, six cats and 13 rats (Natasha had babies). I also need to record weights, height, length, vet visits, illness, pedigrees, etc. Really. Everything, both the general stuff and the daily. Maybe graphs too; you know, weight changes, size, health quotas.
I know, I know. Why don’t I just write these applications myself? Well, I would, if I had the time. And I may have to anyway. But I thought I’d ask first.
Last column, I mentioned a new game: Tetris, from Spectrum Holobyte. Since the game is slated for a full scale review, I won’t go into the details here. But to make a long, long story short, it’s great. One of the most addictive games I’ve ever played. Very hot stuff. Simple but demanding. And best of all, absolutely non-violent. Maybe the Russians will become the master programmers of the non-violent game. Wouldn’t that roast a few socks in the White House? Never mind, just go buy one and see what I mean. I’ve reached level eight, with a score around 8,400, so far. A real tough haul to get further That’s all for now. Keep the letters coming, but please, no more bombs.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based freelance writer with massive blisters and sore muscles from a recent encounter with construction. He lives beyond his means in a small house with bis wife, Susan, and too many animals and spends his time trying to keep the neighbors’ kids out of his yard.
ST-LOG #35 / SEPTEMBER 1989 / PAGE 46
One of the sure paths to success in the software world is to boldly go where everyone has gone before, to paraphrase Star Trek’s opening line. After one brave soul has broken the ice with some daring effort, many others like to jump in and share the water.
So it’s been with dBASE, Ashton-Tate’s remarkably popular database manager for the PC world (actually, it sprang from that crusty but much-missed dinosaur, CP/M). Lots of dBASE clones, compatibles and contenders have emerged from the woodwork, few able to garner more than a small share of the market. That hasn’t stopped many from trying. Database managers are among the most important programs available, and there’s considerable room for variation and improvement.
What made dBASE so well received? For one, it broke free from several traditions and gave the user not only an application—the database manager itself-but the tools by which the user could also change the application. dBASE is not merely a program, it is a language and an interpreter. You can use it “as-is” or write your own database manager, report printer, field display and so on.
dBASE got an undeserved reputation as a difficult and unfriendly program, a reputation Ashton-Tate worked hard to overcome. They improved the front end by giving it the “Assist” menu/dialog box interface, improved the report and label-creation programs and over the generations added a wealth of commands and functions.
dBASE’s language isn’t on a par with mega-languages like C; it’s rather simple in comparison. Its focus is data: strings, fields, reports, output. In syntax it’s rather like BASIC, and anyone with even a rudimentary experience in BASIC will find it relatively easy to write programs in dBASE. Many of the commands are, if not identical, similar. You can enter many of the commands directly or write them into stand-alone programs.
And dBASE is quite flexible, tolerant of faults and bug-free. One example is its abi lity to change the database format after it has been created. Even with a large database stored, it is simple to add or delete fields, change field sizes, modify reports and resort the data—without losing anything or crashing the program.
In response. to user comments, dBASE’s user interface has changed to suit more of the casual or novice users. With pull-down menus and pop-up dialog boxes, it’s pretty simple to use. If your tastes run more to the dry functions, simply press Escape and you’re in the command-line interpreter. For that matter, there’s much more power in the command structure than the user interface allows. It’s well worth learning how to use it.
For the ST, the dBASE clone is dBMAN V, from VersaSoft. It has evolved over many versions, including an early one marketed by Atari itself. The back of the dBMAN V manual claims it has “all the power of dBASE III+ and more on your Atari ST!” That’s a mighty impressive claim, one I wouldn’t want to defend as literal in court.
Lest you get led astray, dBMAN is not 100% dBASE III+-compatible. It reads the .DBF database files but has problems with dBASE indexes (“Error 39 line 6 program CMDLINE.RUN.”), even with SET DB3 ON. It also won’t load dBASE II report and label files, and several dBASE commands are not supported or require a substitute. The user interface is similar to but not the same as dBASE.
My first experience with dBMAN was less than impressive. I tried to read a dBASE III file from drive A, got a disk I/O error and the program crashed. Nastily. From that moment on, it refused to load the “assist” program, the menu-driven user interface, and it crashed back to the desktop every time I tried. I copied a few files from the original disks, but it still crashed. Finally I gave up, erased the lot and copied the original back over again—every single file. Two bombs again the next time I tried. Sigh. I rebooted and tried again. After a lot of disk chunking, it finally worked.
That’s not a good way to begin a relationship. dBMAN also takes what seems an end less time to load files and overlays. This is due in part to the glacial speed of the Atari file I/O itself, but I’d hazard a guess that their code could be optimized and some gain in speed achieved. Speed is one of the great bugbears of data processing, and the faster the program works, the happier everyone is. dBMAN seems to have a lot of overlays, too. It’s 300K-plus but spends a frightening time loading overlays.
If you look in the documentation index for the SET commands, you won’t find them. That’s odd. There are a lot of them—44 by my count. A little digging through the manual showed me that the nearly 150 functions (as opposed to the commands) are not listed in the index either. Nor are the MODIFY, SHOP, REPLACE and a whole lot of other commands. Combine this with a lack of a master tutorial and tutorial, and the manual comes across as one of the weakest links in the package. Fortunately, because of its closeness to dBASE, a wide variety of third-party books can help provide generic information, although they can’t repair the manual’s flaws.
Okay, so I finally loaded my dBASE file into dBMAN. So far, so good. The database appeared to arrive intact (all 40 records). I tried to index the database. The result: “Error 11 line 6 program CMDLINE.RUN, report to VersaSoft.” Great. Then it said: “Error 12 line 96 program CRINDEX.RUN.” Then “Error 12 line 113 program A.RUN,” “Error 11 line 58 program ASSIST.RUN.” And instead of returning to Assist, where I’d been when I left, it went back to the command level. So I typed “Do Assist” and got the message “Err 11-A Disk Read Error has Occurred.”
Error 11 in the manual says “check if the disk is operational. Check if the diskette is in place.” Okay, I quit and checked. Yep. Both okay. Other programs work fine. Back into dBMAN. Try to create an index again. Oops. This time I’m told “Sorry, but that file name exists.” That’s okay; I want to overwrite it (the file has zero bytes). Nope, it won’t let me. I have to enter a new filename.
Whatever caused my first problem disappeared, and the index is generated without any error messages. Fine. I close the database and open a larger one: 222 records. It appears to load tine, but when I tell it I want to edit record 222, I’m told “Record 222 is not in the database file.” But I can go to 221 and use Control-N to get there. The record number clearly says 222. When I use Locate and select Bottom, it finds record 222. What’s wrong?
Oops. I accidentally selected modify rather than edit. I get a dialog box with “Create one/use existing one.” There’s no cancel option. What if I don’t wish to do either? Escape and Undo won’t work. I have to wait until I get to the file selector before I can cancel. Not very friendly. A lot of boxes need this sort of addition. And why do some of the pop-up boxes allow mouse selection while others require that I use the keyboard arrows?
Okay, so I want to edit a record. I can enter a record number or accept “0” for the current one. But what is the current record number? It doesn’t say. Just have to hope it’s the one I want.
Let’s create a report. I want to call it “SRT,” the same name as my sorted database. When I enter that name, I’m told “File already exists. Use MODIFY REPORT.” So I go through the tedious process of getting back to Assist and select Modify Report Form. But there is no “SRT.FRM” showing in the file selector! Grrr….
Back to the report generator. All I want to do is create a simple report ofthe book titles in my database. I enter another report name (why?). A lot of disk chunking again. Sigh. Now I have to enter the master database name. Huh? I wanted to use the one I had open in Assist. And during the report process, I keep having to specify the database name. How many times must I tell it? Every time I insert a field, obviously.
I’m very familiar with dBASE; I’ve used it for a couple of years and written databases, reports, etc., for the likes of the University of Toronto. I can create a dBASE report in my sleep—it’s that easy. But confronted with dBMAN’s report screen, I’m stymied; it isn’t an intuitive process. I have to dig into the manual for help and find myself hacking and experimenting because the descriptions and screen shots are not useful or complete.
The report generator is powerful, lots of commands and flexibility, but confusing. There are tutorials for reports and labels, but they’re weak; they offer step-by-step help, but not always the reasons for your action. For example, when you create a report or a label, you are asked for a master database file and a master index. In all three tutorials you’re told you don’t need a master index. Why not? I can’t find any other references about using a master index in the manual. But dBMAN asks. It’s this sort of thing that adds to the aggravation.
The output tutorials discuss only the direct command-line entry method, rather than the menu-oriented system. Now in my opinion, ST users will prefer to use a menu-based system; otherwise they would have bought a PC in the first place! Since dBMAN is available on several platforms, I assume the command-line entry is how they get around having to write multiple manuals. An ST-specific manual is provided, but I can’t see that it’s very ST-oriented.
In dBASE I can reassign the function-key definitions. I don’t think I can in dBMAN. I can’t find any refere nce to it in the manuals.
When I tried to convert a dBASE file, I was thrown back into the GEM desktop with a converted file zero bytes in size.
dBMAN is a diamond in the rough, but it has a lot of problems, mostly in its cumbersome dependance on overlays, the clumsy user interface, the unpolished screen displays, glacial disk I/O and mediocre manual—things that, if cleaned up, would improve the program 1,000%. It’s also not bug-free, something I expect from a company that’s been slogging away so long at a program.
On the plus side, it is a powerful and flexible database program with a lot of muscle. To get to that core, you need dedication, perseverance and faith. It’s certainly the most fully featured database manager available for the ST, and the wealth it offers is undeniable. I just think they could have made it easier to get to it all.
Overall, I’m unsatisfied. The program doesn’t feel polished or even entirely finished, not the feel of a thoroughly professional product. Against the competition (Data Manager ST, Superbase and Regent Base), its weaknesses balance the features so that it doesn’t offer a significant advantage over the others beyond the dBASE file compatibility. I need more dBASE compatibility—indexes, forms, labels—before I move my working files from the PC to the ST, not to mention greater speed and a smoother interface. Maybe I’ll have to wait for dBMAN VI.
By now you probably know about DynaCADD 1.5. ISD deciding to release 1.5, a significant upgrade, rather than bring 2.0 out yet. They’re concentrating their efforts on producing a multi-platform CADD product, including IBM, Mac and Unix. But DynaCADD on the ST needed—and deserved—improvement. So programmer Dave Fletcher spent many, many hours rewriting code so that 1.5 could come about.
Version 1.5 adds many new features, including Bezier and b-spline curves, hatching, sectioning, a vector font editor (and ten Compugraphic fonts), 2-D solid fills, major and minor grid and axis marks. named layers, measure area command, filletting between arcs, background plotting, Postscript support and more. They also reduced the program size by using overlays and managed to make loading them fast enough as to be almost unnoticeable. DynaCADD 1.5 now works comfortably without accessories on a 1040 ST. The new version is also streamlined, with several unnecessary features, such as “Suspend,” removed.
A lot has gone into this version, even a major manual overhaul, to the point of eliminating the criticisms I had in my review (co-authored with Thom Weeks). I recommend that anyone who is a serious CADD user and who hasn’t picked up on DynaCADD yet get this new version. It’s a super program, and the only professional CADD package in the market.
A while ago, I received a small book about the ST, called The Atari ST Book, by Ralph Turner. Since it is more or less a beginner’s book, I didn’t pay it too much attention. However, in the past months the book has become a minor celebrity among a small group of novice users here. Unhappy with their official documentation, I recommended they take a look at Ralph’s book. Many of them have found it helpful. It’s full of useful hints, tips and information the Atari manual either misses or glosses over. There is some peripheral stuff, to be sure, including software-specific discussions that are dated, and I don’t agree with his negative view toward protected software; but overall it’s a good buy and has a non-technical approach, without talking down to the user. Recommended.
Quick test. What’s wrong with this line, found on the back of Michtron’s Personal Finance Manager:
“It’s GEM interface allows transactions to be entered or altered as easily as filling out a form.”
Got it yet? The possessive of “it” is “its.” “It’s” is the contraction for “it is.” If you failed this test, do your homework. The next test is on the passive voice.
Ian Chadwick is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose hobb ies include wriiting about, reading about and exploring the use and abuse of the English language. He is also an amateur paleontologist, naturalist and carpenter.
ST-LOG #36 / OCTOBER 1989 / PAGE 39
As I write this, I’m sitting outside on my deck, typing on my laptop computer, wishing it was a laptop ST. The Transportable is still a few months away, but it looks like a real product, not merely a promise. When it was first announced, I wasn’t sure who would buy one: What applications on the ST make much sense for a laptop user? Then a musician friend pointed out his use: on-stage for MIDI control. Of course! A MIDI-laptop would be a welcome choice amid the growing clutter of the equipment required for the pro musician these days.
For me, the main computer functions are, in order: word processing, database management, spreadsheets, desktop publishing and telecommunications. After that falls everything else, including programming, games and graphics. Unless Atari improves the ST’s mushy keyboard and makes the Transportable’s keys industry standard-size, it’s a bust for word processing, no matter what the size. Ditto for the next two applications. However, it might work well as a portable DTP station if I can import files from my PC (which I use for all typing-intensive activities). It would be even better if Calamus imported WordPerfect files directly, rather than forcing me to go through ASCII files as the intermediate stage.
Actually, a laptop ST would permit me to get back into programming on a larger scale. It would mean I could carry the computer with me and work in places presently restricted by the size of the ST, such as this deck. I wish someone would make a waterproof laptop I could use in my hot tub….
I’m looking forward to the Portfolio, Atari’s tiny PC-clone. To be fair, it’s not really an Atari product (what is?); it’s from Psion in the U.K. Atari simply bought the technology, an easier task than developing their own, I suppose. Anyway, the diminutive computer weighs in at about a pound (half a kilo for my Canadian friends). Powered by three “AA” batteries, it has 128K RAM, expandable to 640K. A 1-2-3-compatible spreadsheet is also included.
Sounds good, but it has two drawbacks that make it less of a computer and more of an electronic notebook. First, the screen: It’s only eight lines by 40 characters. That’s useless for word processing. Second, the keyboard is too small and cramped for serious typing. I realize that it’s a marvel of tiny technology to fit a computer into a box the size of a videocassette, but the design compromises push it outside certain practical uses.
This doesn’t discourage me very much: I need an electronic notebook and had been considering the Sharp IQ calculator for that purpose. Compared with that, the Portfolio is truly several levels above. As long as it can communicate with my PC and has some sort of file transfer, load and save feature, plus reasonably good text-editing and database functions (the latter to store my phone book and contact list), then it will sell well and fill a niche. It appears the electronic notebook’s time may have come at last, with the Portfolio as the first mature offering in that category.
One of the Forum discussions on DELPHI recently drifted into the Atari SLM804 laser printer. Against several of its strongest supporters, I had to defend my stand that the SLM804 is not an adequate professional design. True, it is fast—faster than several competitors, such as the Apple LaserWriter. But it has other drawbacks that weaken it. For example, it doesn’t allow for internally upgraded memory. This means that 1040 users are up the creek: The laser printer demands a Mega ST2 or Mega ST4. This major failing also prevents the SLM804 from being sold across system barriers: PC users, the largest computer base, can’t use it. Of course, the printer’s DMA connection, the reason behind the high print speed, also makes it unusable on other systems.
The Atari laser also lacks other features found on many laser printers: internal or cartridge-based fonts and emulation modes. The former can be rectified through software, but lacking the internal memory means that software fonts consume system RAM rather than printer RAM and reduce the available space for documents. As for emulation, this again is possible through software, but it’s not as elegant or easy as a cartridge solution. Right now, the most popular laser printer is the Hewlett Packard LaserJet. I’d love to be able to port HP-compatible files over to my ST—such as Ventura Publisher print files—and print them on the SLM804. True, Ultrascript allows you to move Postscript files to the ST and then print them on the Atari laser, but again, it’s a software solution and works outside existing DTP programs. It’s much better to have a laser printer with expansion slots to allow a Postscript driver board inside.
For me, these drawbacks outweigh the advantages of the Atari laser, the chief one being the print speed. I never liked “closed architecture” systems, and I think they reduce salability in the long run. Certainly it doesn’t help Atari to have its laser printer limited to the ST, a very small segment of the computer market. Consider that it even leaves Atari PC owners in the cold!
The Atari laser also is an odd duck; it isn’t really compatible with anything else on the market. It isn’t expandable or flexible, which restricts it to a small backwater while the rest of the computer world marches on.
Speaking of reasonable text editing (see the Portfolio notes, above), I just got a copy of Tempus II from MichTron. This is the upgrade of a text editor called Tempus from Creative Computer Design that was well received by programmers for its speed and features. The problem was that it didn’t seem to get wide distribution. Now in the MichTron line, this excellent program will be available to everyone.
Tempus II is a GEM-like program that somehow seems to defy some of the accepted notions about GEM, particularly the cranky, slow scrolling windows we’ve all come to know and hate. Tempus literally screams, as far as scrolling goes. Written entirely in assembly language, Tempus is a fast, smooth program.
Tempus is a lot more than just fast. It has a wealth of good editing features that push it outside the realm of mere text editing into the domain of word processing. So fully featured is this version that it should easily become the editor of choice for the ST. It is certainly the most flexible: It has a wide range of keyboard shortcuts, and the user-definable installation options allow you to establish which keys execute what commands on a permanent basis.
Tempus permits sorting by text or by block, a rare option, but useful for creating lists. It has an internal calculator (RPN, which is an unfortunate choice for anyone not familiar with Forth or more accustomed to the standard scientific type) available through a pull-down menu. You can convert the entire 256 characters in the ST character set through a simple dialog box. The best use of this for programmers is to translate all lowercase input to uppercase, and vice versa. The conversion can affect the entire text or just a block. An unexpected but handy command allows you to quit Tempus and automatically launch another program immediately—for example, to jump right into a compiler.
Tempus does not have the printer-driver flexibility of most ST word processors. This is understandable because most GEM word processors produce graphic output to replicate the screen fonts, but it isn’t necessary with Tempus. In other areas, especially the environmental control, it surpasses most word processors.
The only real flaw I found in Tempus is one shared by all other GEM ST word processors: It cannot perform a search-and-replace on a carriage return/line feed. For some this may be an ephemeral need, but for me (and for porting ASCII files between systems), it’s an absolute necessity. That’s one main reason why I use WordPerfect or ST Writer. But I admit I appear to be among the minority of users who need this feature.
Of course, since it comes from MichTron, Tempus II is crippled by a mediocre manual and woefully inadequate index. Terms like “load file,” “launch program” and “installation” are not even listed in the index, along with several hundred other functions and terms! The manual is confusing and opaque in places and is written entirely in the passive voice. Simply reading isn’t enough to explain many features: You’ll have to sit in front of the program and experiment in order to clarify several features. Maybe a good first learning project is to compile an index for the manual.
To be fair, I don’t know if the abysmal manual is the fault of Creative Computer Designs or MichTron. MichTron may have simply bought or licensed the package as is and taken the manual intact. No matter: It is up to the publisher to ensure the competence and quality of the products to which it assigns its name. And if the manual needs rewriting, so be it. They should do it. But the number of really bad manuals that emerge from MichTron serves to convince me that they do not have the people or resources to identify or correct a bad product. For $79.95, the buyer deserves better.
I also think MichTron’s well-deserved reputation for bad documentation does none of us any good and certainly doesn’t make them appear a professional publisher.
Be that as it may, Tempus II is worth the effort. You can wade through the manual and figure out pretty much everything important in one session. It may take a few attempts to become accustomed to the program’s commands and controls, but once you start using it, you may never want to return to another text editor again. And with the ability to launch directly into an external program, many programmers may never need to. There is a lot of power packed into a mere 70K. I recommend it.
A total non-sequitur, if I may: I recently acquired two ferrets as pets. I’m interested in hearing from any other ferret owners about their experiences with these delightful creatures, as well as suggestions for reading.
Ian Chadwick is a Canadian freelance writer with too many pets. He is also a volunteer worker at the Toronto Humane Society, an association similar to the ASPCA.
ANALOG #78 / NOVEMBER 1989 / PAGE 33
Maybe I’m just getting old.
I was in Electronic Play world a few weeks ago asking what’s new. Richard pointed out a game called Battletech, a graphic adventure from Infocom. Now, that interested me, because I’ve always had a high regard for Infocom’s games.
“What’s it about?” I asked, always a dangerous question.
“It’s based on the Japanese cartoon series,” he replied, as if that was all I needed to know.
Unfortunately, it stumped me. Japanese cartoon series? I wasn’t aware that any Japanese cultural figures had made enough impact on these shores to be recognized by more than a few film aficionados. Toshira Mifune is modestly well known enough, thanks to his role as Toranaga in the Shogun mini-series, but mention Kurosawa to Rambo-level moviegoers, and all you get is “huh?” When you’ve got pop comic stars, you know we’re at an intense level of cultural exchange. Does this mean they’re reading Batman over there?
I’m not a television watcher, so I haven’t the foggiest idea if “Battletech” is a show. For me, a heavy week of TV watching is four hours, and that’s probably two or three hours of PBS specials and a couple of M.A.S.H. reruns during dinner. Anything more strikes me as bordering on addiction. Our set never goes on before 7:00 p.m. and is often off for days at a time. If Battletech has come on the boob tube, it’s slipped by me.
But it’s obviously a popular comic-book series. I managed to see a cover in a local comic shop. I’m not a comics fan; I think comics are literature for the hard of thinking. Sure, there’s a cult image and a certain amount of fun in the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Dr. Atomic, but kids get carried away. One of the local bookstores is going over from literature to comics (where the money is, I’m told), and it fills me with a cold dread to be snooping around for a collection of short stories by Gogol and hear these kids talking about comics as if they’re important contributions to culture—serious discussions on characters like Silver Surfer, Dr. Doom and a host of others. These kids analyze the characters’ attitudes, motives, attire and so on. It’s much like soap operas, I suppose—a fascination with the trivial details of a meaningless pastime. But they act as if comics and soap operas actually have meaning and depth.
Maybe it’s a factor of age. Maybe you have to be young to appreciate comic books. When I was young (back in the Paleozoic), I liked things I have no interest in pursuing now: sweet wines, Mickey Spillane novels, the radical left, cigarettes—all the follies of youth. Maybe when the comic-readers get to be my age, they’ll grow into more relevant things. Like sweet wines, Mickey Spillane novels….
Of course, when I was a kid, I read a few comics, though there wasn’t a fraction of the number available today, and no one seemed to take them seriously. Mostly I chose the Classic Comic series, in part because they helped get me through school without having to read such tedious tomes as The Red Badge of Courage and Wuthering Heights. Instead, I had discovered Orwell, Kawabata, Darwin and Golding and wanted to save my reading time for them.
Anyway, I bought the game, figuring it would be a challenge since I had no preconceptions about the theme or the characters, and also because I wanted to see what Infocom was up to these days.
Battletech reminds me a lot of Sundog, an older graphic adventure from FTL and still one of the best ST games around (if you can find it). The interface is similar. Because there’s a specific purpose in the game, Battletech is more limited than the freewheeling Sundog in its available options, but overall, it proved quite an interesting game. I think graphic adventures is a direction in which Infocom ought to continue.
One of the rules of an adventure game is to discover what the rules are, so I won’t go and spoil your fun in discovery. However, I will give you this: The beginning is a peanut-butter sandwich game. Got that? No? Here’s the theory: There are some games where things happen without your intervention. With these games, you should best walk away and make yourself a peanut-butter sandwich and enjoy it while the system goes about its merry way and does what it must. In this case, the hint is: money. ’Nuff said.
Of course, the documentation you get with the game gives a few hints, but nowhere near enough. You’ll learn, but it takes a few tries before you uncover some of the tricks and secrets. I’ve only learned a few—like how to get out with an intact mech suit—but they sure count! Mostly, the docs provide a map and mech suit diagram, both of which get used a lot.
The game isn’t copy protected, but has no provisions for using a hard disk (at least none stated in the docs). This is a pain because it does a lot of disk I/O, and nothing grinds my teeth more than having to wait while the disk whirls.
For a long time I thought the game involved little more than careening about the countryside in your mech suit, mapping the terrain and shooting anyone who came close. That sort of activity soon wears thin. I finally discovered that the point of the game is revealed over a period of time and by certain actions you undertake (and influenced by the order in which you take them). It actually becomes somewhat involved, like a complex scavenger hunt.
The user interface is well-designed and easy to learn and use. It’s very smooth, but there are places I wish I had a simple alternative. For example, in combat, one mech has nine weapons, which can be individually targeted. However, if I want to fire everything at one target (the usual case), I still have to go through the process of clicking each weapon, then each target. An “all weapons/one target” button would be nice.
Battletech is nowhere near as polished and sophisticated as an Infocom text adventure. The options are severely limited and the available range of actions is pretty narrow; but of course, it has graphics, and they count for a lot. Still, I would prefer to see them apply the same approach to a game like Deadline, rich in characters and options. Also, the logic in the earlier Infocom games had more internal consistency than Battletech exhibits, although this is at most a minor annoyance.
The main drawback and the point that irritates me the most is that the interaction with 95% of the nonplayer characters has to do with fighting—to the death. It’s not as violent as, say, Techno Cop, but once you get your character into a suitable mech suit, you go about blithely killing anything that moves. A major battle between your side and the enemy, resulting in eight or ten deaths, is referred to in the game as “an invigorating scuffle.” Wonder what they’d call a nuclear war?
There’s no wildlife in Battletech. I infer from this that the wildlife on Pacifica (what a misnomer!) was previously wiped out by gangs of mech-suited hunters before they turned their weapons on each other.
It’s also a male-dominated game, not surprising given the origin and the topic. Comics and violence seem to appeal more to young males than females. Even so, a few female characters would be pleasant. Not only more realistic, but maybe romantic as well. Yes, female warriors too. Dungeon Master’s handling of the sexes shows a more mature approach. But since I’ve never seen the comic, I don’t even know if there are women in the “Battletech” mythos. Maybe it’s all guys. Like the Spartans. I guess that appeals to some males.
I’ve railed on about violence in games before, and here I go again. I think the game could be richer and more appealing to a wider audience if there was more to do than kill anyone who approaches. Once I got three mechs together and upgraded, I had an almost invincible party. I started to avoid combat, not because I was afraid of losing, but because it became boring. Click the weapon, target, next weapon, target, begin fight. Sigh.
I’m of the notion that there’s too much violence around us already. I do believe that it affects us when we see it on TV, in movies or in games. I think we become desensitized to the real fact of other people’s pain. It brutalizes the human spirit to be constantly barraged by violence. A few years back there was a controversy over several video games (one or two of which were for the Atari 800XL) that graphically depicted sex, and in one particular case the rape of an Indian woman by a cowboy. A lot of people howled in outrage over these games, saying they’d affect their kids’ perception of sex. Some were even perceptive enough to protest the way the Indians were depicted. The same goes for violence. You can’t see it, hear it, read it, play it in your games without being affected by it.
We ought to have a game-rating system like they have with movies—PG, PG-13, R and so on. Parents should try anything rated R or higher first, to determine if it’s suitable for their kids. And maybe stores should be asked to refrain from selling to young kids any game that’s not suitable for them. I’d rate Techno Cop XX or maybe even XXX, obscene violence. Battletech would be R. I wouldn’t give it to a kid under 14.
Much to my surprise and delight, I have recently been sent a C interpreter, from HiSoft and marketed on this continent by Michtron. No, I haven’t tried it, but it’s the next thing on my list. My only worry is that it doesn’t come with a compiler. The whole point of the exercise seems to me to create compiled code from whatever language you’re using. The back cover promises the code compiles with “any standard compiler”, without bothering to name any with which it has been proven. How do I know whether what the English think of as a “standard compiler” is even available over here? If you buy the package and pursue the matter, you’ll find mentions of Lattice, Aztec and MegaMax C. However, the information about problems using these’ compilers, differences between various implementations and recommendations are mighty few.
A quick glance through the manual revealed several typos. But by now I don’t have to warn you about Michtron manuals, do I?
I have no idea yet how the interpreter works with things like the Resource Construction Set. However, despite the documentation, if the program proves workable, it will be a tremendous boon to a lot of inspiring programmers who want to sink in the C swamp but simply don’t want to wade through the compiler morass to get there.
Michtron also sent me K-Graph3, a graph-construction program reminiscent of the old and cherished B/Graph for the 800 series. On page 15 of the manual, it says, “More information on formats is available in the REFERENCES section of this manual.” Needless to say, there isn’t a REFERENCES section. And the screen shots were entirely left out and had to be included together on a separate errata sheet. Page 38 says this about the Wilcoxon Rank Test: “…computes the ‘W’ value for the test.” Hope you understood that explanation, because there ain’t no more coming. Any idea what skewness and kurtosis are? Even though they’re inadequately explained on page 36, the index doesn’t mention them. Or slope, intercept, quartiles and other concepts that appear in the docs. Another Michtron manual.
I adopted two ferrets in June. The lack of information about these animals is appalling. If anyone has any names of books, magazines, ferret clubs, articles, reports or other information I can use, please contact me at: 47 Oakcrest Ave., Toronto, Ontario Canada M4C 1B4 or by FAX at (416) 698-8880.
Ian Chadwick is a Canadian freelance writer who also does volunteer work at the Toronto Humane Society. He and his wife share their small house with dogs, cats and ferrets, and, at odd times, a time-traveling Stenonychosaurus.
ANALOG #79 / DECEMBER 1989 / PAGE 52
This column is about desktop publishing (DTP) and the arts and crafts associated with it. Try this little quiz, and count one point for each correct answer:
How did you do?
Having the tool doesn’t mean you have the talent. I have the usual plethora of power tools in my basement: saws, hammers, screwdrivers, planes. Although I can use them all reasonably well, I’m not a carpenter.
Desktop publishing is the same. It’s a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides the ability for end users to design, create and print a lot of their own documents. This breaks the chains that have tied many companies to the traditional printers, especially in the area of forms production, where a considerable amount of DTP effort takes place.
Look at these figures, taken from a recent IBM press release:
That makes you think, doesn’t it? Forms seem, from the outside, like accountancy: dull, meticulous, drab. But look around you: We find forms even in our homes. Business and government run on forms, people think in terms of forms, you fill in forms to do almost everything. Forms production is a big business and an enormous source of revenue. It’s also a niajor target of software publishers at the moment, who are beginning to realize that even a small share in the market means big bucks.
Add to forms such publications as newsletters, corporate reports, books, magazines, catalogues, brochures, menus and flyers. DTP offers not only the capability to design, but also escape from expensive paste-up and layout charges. And if limited quantities are required, these documents can even be printed internally at considerable savings and without the associated storage costs. It is certainly tempting to get into DTP, and many companies are doing so. Given the cost savings, it’s no wonder.
If nothing else, think of the trees DTP saves!
The other side of the coin is the ease with which one can produce an incredibly ugly, badly designed, crowded, opaque and unreadable document. All the basic rules of design get ignored. And it shows.
Some rare human beings may have natural skill. They are diamonds in the rough, intuitively piecing together the text and graphic elements onto the page to create flawless, award-worthy design. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the other amateurs who attempt it merely make a mess of things.
Design sense is usually a virtue acquired through training, not one obtained from reading a DTP manual. In publishing of any sort, it is inextricably linked with typography—a discipline, a craft that requires dedication, study and commitment. Without study, can you tell how many points of leading would be optimal in a 19-pica-wide body of text with ten-point type? Without study, how the heck will you even know what a pica is? Or leading? Or the size of a point?
Along with DTP come the dreaded font editors, subtle termites that chew into the marrow of the art. It seems so easy to design a font. All it takes is a little bit of artistic talent, then you draw a few lines and make it look pretty, right? Wrong. Back as early as 1525, Albrecht Dürer published his On the Just Shaping of Letters, a technical treatise on the design of characters. It’s a pretty tough little book; complex and demanding even by today’s standards. Modern font design is even, more so, despite the availability of tools such as the Calamus Font Editor (which is, stupidly enough, a desk accessory, proving once again that the Europeans don’t always think things through before they/publish…).
Current ST font editors make you construct a font one character at a time. That’s a great approach for an adventure game; for typography, however, it’s unsound. You need to construct characters in relation to other characters, to see not only the individual constructions but the effects of all of them together, how they look as words, sentences and paragraphs.
I sat looking over someone’s shoulder recently and watched him design a font of his own for a manual he’s working on. I asked him if it was going to be serif or sans serif.
“Serif,” he answered smartly.
“What kind of serif? A cove serif? Or a square serif? How about a square cove serif? Thin-line serif? Exaggerated serif? Slab sent? Wedge serif? Triangle serif? Bracketed serif?”
“Huh?” he replied. “I think I’ll make it sans serif instead.”
“Will that be a square-normal-end sans serif? Or a square perpendicular end? Or a flared end? Maybe a rounded end?”
He huffed and puffed, but didn’t answer.
“Will you use a standard midline, a constant midline or maybe a high standard midline with a pointed apex? Straight, bowed or concave arms? Horizontal, wedge or vertical openings? Gradual strokes with diagonal stress? Abrupt with vertical stress? Old Style, modern or condensed proportion? What’s the relationship between stroke width and character height? Between descender and x-height? What about aligned numbers? Tapered or straight terminals?”
“Listen,” he snarled, “I’m only working on the kerning lines right now. I’ll deal with the details later.”
“Do you know,” I asked innocently, “what the term kern meant originally?”
He threw me out.
My unnamed friend suffers from the “instant expert” syndrome. He assumes that once you’ve got the software, you’re an expert at the craft, that somehow all you need to know is the technical end of things and the rest will take care of itself. I worry that he’s working on a font, but I lay awake at nights knowing that he’s doing a manual!
Type design is a craft several centuries old. How can anyone expect to get involved in it without at least reading the basics? It’s not merely a matter of creating a few good-looking characters. Sure, you can open any book of type and plagiarize like crazy (ignoring for the moment the copyright issue, since typefaces are mostly copyright and can’t be copied). But how can you be sure the font is properly proportioned? If the thickness of the stroke improves or limits legibility?
But type is only a microcosm, the atoms of the DTP universe. What about the macrocosm: designing publications like books, magazines, even menus. Where will the design knowledge come from? Certainly not from the DTP programs themselves. Calamus, for example, is the best program of the lot but hasn’t a whit of design direction in the docs (nor a bibliography or index).
Okay, so what’s the point of all of this? Simply that owning the tool doesn’t make you an adept with it. Neither does, by the way, knowing the commands. That only makes you technically able to run the program. There’s no osmosis by which you’ll absorb the necessary skills by merely learning to manipulate the command structure.
This fallacy is often reinforced by the software itself, which too often proves to be written by programmers who themselves lack the requisite typographic or typesetting skills. Here’s a small test to illustrate my point: Try to replicate Dürer’s alphabet using any current ST font editor. The font editors want to box everything into nice, neat frames with absolute limits. But Dürer (among others) wasn’t designing for a computer, so he lets lots of strokes, tails and terminals escape the frame. If you start building the character set with A, you run into trouble when you reach Q, which has an unusually long tail—as long as other characters are wide.
The user quite often falls into these programs, unaware of the depth and complexity involved. It’s like quicksand, trying to make a whole font conform to one character’s outlines. The only source of direction is to be found in the manual. Oops, another problem.
MichTron’s font editor doesn’t even give you enough information to be able to use the program fully, let alone understand even the rudiments of type design. ISD’s Calamus Font Editor suffers equally from fuzzy—albeit better—docs, which, among other ills, perpetuate the erroneous belief that the em-quad is the size of a capital “M.” Necessary bibliographies of source references are notably missing from both programs, leaving me to assume that programmers without any background in the art created both programs. That’s much like having a shoe salesman design airplanes.
The answer? I heartily recommend that you leave the DTP design work (including font construction) to those with the training, or that you go out and get the training yourself before you continue. There are many books on design and typography available. If you’re doing this work without having read some of the more popular titles, then you’re stumbling about In the dark. It doesn’t get easier until you start reading.
Ian Chadwick is a Canadian freelance writer who also does volunteer work at the Toronto Humane Society. He and his wife share their small house with dogs, cats, ferrets and, at odd times, a time-traveling stenonychosaurus.