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.
Some bits and pieces
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 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.