Ebenezered part I: The Ghost of IT Past

My last post was called “Humbug! Scrooge and Web 2.0” and actually it made me think. With the end of the year approaching and all the sites run their ‘best of the year’ melancholy. Let’s get some eggnog out and join the crowd! Woohoo! In the next couple of days there will be the 3-part article about IT in my perception. Not that I consider myself to be Scrooge, or Scrooge like, and if any ghosts will haunt me here, well, let’s say the Ghostbusters where not around in his time yet (that would make a good movie!).

My wife has been bugging me about my melancholy and the ‘I am getting old’. I came home telling her that a colleague of mine that I work with day in and day out did not know about Aliens, James Cameron’s movie that had creeped me out as a 12 year old boy, because she was not born yet at that time. Jurassic Park, 16 years old, Alien, 32 years old, Jaws, 34. But not only that. My best friend, a IT specialist in Vancouver, Canada, an I like to take a trip down memory lane. We learned to know each other in 1988, actually more or less because of a computer that we both owned. No, not the Commodore 64, but the blazing Olivetti M24. Owning a full-scale PC was not main-stream back then, and we both had it since ’87. What made that computer for example excellent at that time, is that it actually could produce color. 4 colors at one time in ‘high-res’ of 320×200 pixels. Life was good. Sound was not an issue, and animation was, well, different. Flight Simulator from Microsoft was around then, already with version 3.0 which in every perspective was one of the originals for the use of a 3D reality engine that we see in so many games right now.

Of course I think back with a positive feeling to this time, it was one of the things that was there constantly when I was in my adolescent years. Adventure games, which were big back then, actually could give you te feeling to be playing in a story, almost movie-like. Of course not to todays’ standards, but for that time, imagination and 4 colors and good stories were enough. And even without the 4 colors. Who, from that time, did not play the text-only adventures Zork (The mother of adventure games) and IBM’s Adventure?

In that time, I was already well known with the Atari game computer which I loved, playing Space Invaders, pac-man, pitfall and Spiderman fanatically. True, there was no depth in the games, nor was there any room on the cartridges for that. Although, I also played Raiders of the Lost ark on that thing, which was actually quite revolutionary as being a kind of adventure game.

For me, the real settlers of that time, and still are in some way, were Ken and Roberta Williams. Not so much from the early years in their company On-line, but from the introduction of King’s Quest: Romancing the Throne, which paved the way for many adventure games (“quests”) to come. Owning an original “Sierra On-line” box was something amazing. It meant quality, entertainment, and it looked damn good in the book case. My best friend, Redmar, and I, we played loads of games back then, and for me, things got interesting at one time when I decided to run every *.exe or *.bat or *.com file I could find just to see what it meant. I lived in the Netherlands, my English back then was very limited. I had no clue what ‘Format.exe’ meant and what it did. Nice. Too bad the computer was actually my fathers work computer and he was not too happy when he came home that evening, having a computer that did not work anymore.

But also, in that time, I came across a tool called gw-basic, which eventually became for me the first dabbling in the programming. I have created anything in gw-basic, and then qbasic 4. Of course, hardly anything worked and I used only the if… then… else statements. But it was nice to get a concept of how programming worked. My passion was, and still is, in story-telling. I could use the computer easily to create my own things, like you could not in real life. Sierra, with the King’s Quests’, Space Quests, Leisure Suit Larry (Hey, the first big-scale virus was included there), Gold Rush, Police Quest, Conquest of Camelot… name them, I played them. Lucasfilm was the other pioneer here, with Maniac Mansion, etc. And don’t forget Origin’s Ultima series.

But this PC had something else that somehow was very effective for a growing medium, it allowed pornography. And as a growing-up kid in a liberal country, thatis where your attention goes. Artworx was at that time actually the only strip-poker builder of any class.  It is how I learned to play poker. Actually, Strip Poker 2.0 was not even in 4, but in whopping 3 colors. But it was the imagination (and as an adolescent kid, there is enough of that) that filled in the blanks.

Time flies, and a whole new era arrived. The PC developed. It’s competitors like the Amiga 500 and the Atari ST had so much more to offer, but just like VHS before then, it is not always to technically most savvy technique that survives. And the PC was quite modular. And around 1990 all kinds of upgrades were available. Graphic cards that could deliver a whopping 256 colors in 320×200, the AdLib card which could produce something like music, with 11 simultaneous sounds that sounded like it was played in an empty tin cup. But that one was soon followed by one of the major brands, Creative Labs’ Sound blaster which sounded exactly like the AdLib, but could play digitized sound. The use of color, and sound, paved the way for the MPC, or Multimedia PC. A standard that soon faded, because, well, there was not way you could NOT buy an MPC. Games got bigger, not always better. Sierra and Lucasfilm were the rulers on the adventure isle. Origin pushed the limits with releasing Ultima 7:The Black Gate which actually requires 2MB of RAM to even play, and there it was, Wing Commander. Because the game market was still growing, new types of games were invented all the time. With three ground-braking types to follow: First of all, Apogee financed and distributed a little game from a small company called ID Software; Wolfenstein. Wow, I have played that game over and over. Not only because it was the first real famous first-person shooter, but it also featured stereo sound if you owned the Sound-Blaster Pro. The other two game inventions that I personally think p were completely new were both because of a well-done re-design of the portable game computers; the GameBoy. And it came with Tetris. I absolutely believe that if Tetris was not delivered with the GameBoy, Nintendo would not have been as successful as it is now. The other one, also from Nintendo was Pokemon. Both games were not for me, but I cannot deny their huge following, even till this day.

The game market blew open and more and more smaller companies started producing games from good to horrible quality. Sex CD-rom’s sold like warm bread since you could not download it yet for free from every internet site, unless you called into a BBS and downloaded 1 image per 3 minutes (ehm, I have no experience here 😉 ). Around this moment I started writing for a Dutch Game Magazine, called the Softwareguide, and started to see that a lot of the software then, was clearly made by people who just wanted to earn some money, and did not do what they really were good at. A trend that we still see today, a lot. In games, in websites, in corporations. But there were absolute highlights, like the earlier mentioned Wing Commander and Wing Commander II that featured speech, The Dagger of Amon Ra, that actually featured a first original song-soundtrack, the highly acclaimed King’s Quest 6, The Day of the Tentacle, but also Mean Streets, one of the first games containing (some) real recorded footage and actors. From then everything developed rapidly, with the final mentioning of an original game platform, the Real-time Strategy game, or RTS with the still magnificent Dune II from Westwood studios, soon to be sequel-ed by the new merchandising of Command & Conquer and Red Alert. Also, this is where Blizzard got it’s fame, producing almost immediately a Command & Conquer clone: Warcraft; Orcs and Humans, starting up the WarCraft brand, now well known by World of Warcraft.

Origin dived also into something completely new; the first social networking game, or maybe even the first popular social networking environment; Ultima Online and with this introducing the Massive Multi player On line Role Playing Game (MMORPG).

But blizzard had another trick up it’s sleeve… Diablo. Re-defining the hack-n-slash RPG games.

But it was also a dark time. Since the gaming market became such a commercial success, it was not about the quality, but who did the best marketing that came out on top. Electronic Arts, first a tiny publisher of games, started to just buy game companies and not producing themselves. And they were great at this, and grew to become the biggest game publisher around, but not a well-loved one in the industry. One of the bigger game companies that was disappearing under it’s hood was Origin, buying this way the branding of the immense popular Ultima series and Wing Commander series. But it’s owner, Richard Garriott, soon knew he made the wrong decision and after releasing it’s last game in the Ultima series; Ultima IX left the company and closed the doors, but not without taking it’s legacy. The brand Ultima was now Electronic Arts’, but Richard still kept the rights to all the personalities in the games. This is also why there most probably will never be an official Ultima anymore. Too bad.

But this features only the games. And I am not even completely taking into account the development on the game consoles, because that has been a war on it’s own, that first Nintendo ruled, then Sega, and then they both lost to Sony with it’s PlayStation. Super Nes 64 from Nintendo,3D0 that was killed before it actually got launched and soon we arrived in the Game Cube, Playstation 2, Xbox and finally the Wii, PS3 and Xbox360. But that is more for the next article.

Something I am greatly bypassing here is the development on another major area; the Internet. I was never really a guy for networking. I liked my computer, with my single-player games. But when my best friend and I hooked our PC’s up with a serial cable to play DOOM or DOOM2 in multi player mode, I had to admit, that was fun. Ending the weeks in the Academy by playing Marathon on the Macintosh network that we had over there. But when I first had to deal with Internet, it was a pain. More so because I was an Interaction Designer, I had to design. And to be honest, in that time, there was not a lot to design yet. Images were in saturated GIF files, and preferably as small as possible. It was good for sharing information. But that was it. And email. I liked that, and I still do.

Actually, although we see things like multimedia sites now, it all did not change a lot. As a web developer, we still cannot go around HTML completely. The browsers we all like to use now, no matter if it is FireFox, IE or Opera or whatever, they all find their roots in Mosaic, the grandparent of all browsers, and in many ways the official ancestor of FireFox. Mosaic was at least simple. It could not do a lot, but it did that fine. The fun part came into effect when the network connections got better, and because of Yahoo! and eBay and AOL (and it’s dreaded CompuServe) Internet became a household product, and by which the PC became an object that people found in many living room. But because of this popularity, one player arrived in the browser market, and shook things up: Microsoft decided to bring Internet Explorer to the table. And I am not going into the combo-package of Windows/IE here. That is not for this blog. But Microsoft, as a small player on the field went up to NetScape Navigator, the ruler of the web browser. But IE had a major trick up it’s sleeve; it allowed web developers to make mistakes and stillshow everything correctly. Or, in other words, soon IE became the browser of choice for everyone who made their own websites but did not know how to do it. Because when they made a mistake, it was still fine. Easy, smart. But still that caused a huge problem for us, web designers back then. Because what worked in IE, did simply not work in NetScape. Even if it was a one-pixel difference, it had cost so much time to professionally design web sites back then.

But there was something else brewing. A major company in the digital design world, MacroMind, bought a small tiny animation code called Flash and started to sell it as Flash 2.0 It hardly could do anything but showing animations on line that were fast. It became interesting when they invented with Flash 3.0 their own programming language called Action Script. This was a very smart move. Macromind, at this moment they had changed their name to MacroMedia, had a lot of experience in serving animation tools with MacroMedia Director and it’s programming-for-designers language Lingo. So they did the same trick for Flash. Programming was so simple, that designers did not need hard-core developers in their team. And you don’t want that, because programmers bash away creativity as a general rule, but you need them. Flash became amazingly popular, and every website started to have their own animations. But MacroMedia felt the mistake of Action Script. People demanded more, but when you demand more of possibilities in development, you have to create a more strict programming language. So, there was Action Script 2.0. This scared away a lot of flash designers, because it became ‘too difficult’. On the other end, Flash became more grown, but was not yet on the level of real scripting and on line programming languages. So, in 2007, they released Action Script 3.0. Finally, a language that could be considered as a grown-up language, allowing Flash to become a real development platform. But for many designer, it is one step too far. And the real programmers are dabbling in C# or C++ or Java or other .Net or Sun languages.

In the end, we can say that in the last 30 years, the computer grew up. Is it mature yet? I don’t really know. But that is something to explore in the next article of this saga: “Ebenezerd part II: The ghost of IT present”.

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