It may be a difficult thing to imagine for some, but there are people alive today in America for whom the very concept of a “computer” seemed like pure science fiction for decades. Everyone knows – or knew – at least one. A grandparent, parent, or aunt that never had any use for a computer in the home. Many of these people saw computing evolve from 1950’s mainframes staffed by crisply “uniformed” IBM technicians in shirts and ties, to the Commodore 64 and Apple II which combined to kickstart the digital golden age of computing in the 1980’s. When my parents learned of my interest in computers at a young age, it was fairly easily shrugged aside, for a time.
Eventually I wound up with my first computer, a Texas Instruments 99/4a that never really struck my fancy as a thirteen year old in the throes of an ADHD diagnosis process. And then onward and upward, to the far more capable and expandable Commodore 64. Now this. This was a computer I could DO things with. I could play games, I could type in programs from the pages of Mad magazine which would display the face of Alfred E. Neumann on my TV set. I could learn to program, write my own software, become the next Bill Gates before anyone outside of the computer or financial industries ever knew what he’d mean to the world at large!
Of course, I never did.
Instead I spent years riding the wave of technological advance, moving from computer to computer, platform to platform on the thinnest of budgets. The Commodore 64 begat a Commodore 128D, which begat a ‘286, which begat a ‘486, and so on. I had become an enthusiast. The last time I would ever spend without a computer was a period of time in foster care. Once that ended, and I had my own apartment and computer returned to me – I would be hooked.
Forward to today.
I am sitting at a thoroughly middle of the road machine, for someone with an interest in video gaming. A six-core computer with the processing power of tens of thousands of those Commodore 64’s, or Apple II’s. Twelve gigabytes of RAM, instead of the paltry-but-then-amazing 64 kilobytes available in the aptly named Commodore 64. My video card alone runs at a speed once considered so amazing that entire buildings were designed just to contain the hardware it would take to process the same amount of data. Yet, I don’t see the computer on my desk now as any kind of accomplishment for humankind. I don’t see it as something amazing that needs to be preserved. I see it as, fundamentally, a tool to be replaced when it no longer serves its purpose.
I don’t say the same about the Commodore 64.
And increasingly, contrary to what many people would call rational thought, I’m not the only one. The number of “retrocomputing” hobbyists and collectors has always been unknown, but today it seems that the concepts that drew so many of us into the age of computing during that “golden age” of the 1980’s are coming to the forefront with a new resurgence of interest.
But it isn’t the Commodore 64, the Apple II or even the BBC Micro that leads the way.
It’s a new generation of 80’s-era systems, built virtually within the confines of video games. Primarily, the popular title “Minecraft”, initially created by Markus “Notch” Persson from his home in Sweden. Available for download on the PC, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android platforms, Minecraft is an open-world sandbox game where players are able to gather resources and construct some truly amazing objects in the virtual space. Initially a largely single-player title programmed by Notch himself, it eventually became a sales juggernaut leaving him in the enviable position of forming his own game company with a multimillion dollar bank account and a staff of talented, devoted employees. And the devotion doesn’t just go one way. His dividend on estimated hundred-million dollar company holdings for 2011 was a total of three million, all of which was divided among the employees of his company, Mojang.
With Minecraft, Notch unlocked the creativity in thousands of devoted players. There are numerous music videos, short films, and songs devoted to the game or that use the game as a framing device to tell a story. Yet, the most interesting use of Minecraft to date has been the addition of player-created modifications. Despite Minecraft lacking a proper development API for third-party tools, its nature as a Java program has made reverse-engineered hacks and modifications the true driving force behind the game’s adoption. One of these hacks is the aptly named “ComputerCraft”, which allows a player to build functional computers, disk drives, and “Turtles” which act much like the Logo accessory of old. These computers are designed to be used with the Lua scripting language, with players able to use a machine in-game and author programs which can trigger actions inside the game world or even network between systems and serve as GPS-like navigation systems.
Other pioneering projects that have been accomplished in Minecraft, are devices such as a full 16 bit arithmetic logic unit which was built entirely using standard components that Notch included with the game. Another project exists with the goal of adding a full 6502 capable computer system into the game. These are amazing learning tools, able to excite the people who play Minecraft in ways that were never even considered remotely manageable only a year previously. Joel Levin, a teacher at a private school in New York City has earned the moniker “The Minecraft Teacher” for his innovative use of Minecraft as a teaching tool. He even reached an agreement with Notch’s company Mojang, to found MinecraftEdu, a company devoted to selling an educationally modded version of Minecraft specially tailored for classroom use.
Notch himself may never have envisioned this role, but it’s clear from his recent announcement of the next project he plans to personally helm at his company, that he’s embracing it with gusto.
On March 28th, readers of Notch’s largely disused Tumblr site were treated with the following post which began with this tantalizing tidbit:
TITLE: dcpu specs, classified, not final TO: redacted DATE: 20120328 VERSION: 4 16 bit architecture 0x10000 words of ram (128kb) 8 registers (A, B, C, X, Y, Z, I, J) program counter (PC) stack pointer (SP) overflow (O)
On March 29th, Notch posted the image below to his Twitter feed.
On April 1st, he officially announced the game “Mars Effect”, a take on the popular – and recently controversial – Mass Effect series, in a doubly pointed joke referencing a recent trademark suit his company had endured over the title of another game they currently have in development, and a friendly jab at the controversial ending to the Mass Effect trilogy which had been in the news.
In his description for “Mars Effect”, Notch described a free roaming sci-fi space combat, trading and mining game.
“The computer in the game is a fully functioning emulated 16 bit CPU that can be used to control your entire ship, or just to play games on while waiting for a large mining operation to finish.”
Being announced on April Fool’s Day, many readers considered it a joke and wished that such a game truly were in development. We didn’t have to wait long. April 2nd, Notch completed the legal filings necessary and acquired the domain name 0x10c.com, which became the new – yet awkward – title for the very game originally announced as “Mars Effect”.
I firmly believe this is going to be a truly interesting time for people who love vintage computing. For the first time in decades, a whole new generation of technically minded people are going to be exposed to an environment where working within the constraints of a limited system with logic so low-level that it can actually be understood by a human brain without requiring superhuman acuity. Gamers who play with these systems in their virtual spaceships will perhaps wonder, maybe for the first time, whether or not there are any vintage computers out there for them to experience. Alternatively, this may provide some of the industry’s older generation, who still understand the concepts long left for dead in mainstream commercial development with a new outlet with which to work. The possibilities are mind boggling.
Many questions remain, however. Will Notch’s “DCPU-16” include a ROM toolbox? How deep will it go? Will it have a robust series of buses and interfaces that players and programmers will be able to tap into and possibly even exploit in ways similarly to how early 8 bit systems were designed? What kind of graphics capabilities will the chip include?
Will players be able to develop ROM chips themselves? Will entire operating systems be possible? Will RAM be expanded, and more importantly, should it?
Notch’s design of DCPU-16 is an amazing start to what could eventually become an entire ecosystem of development potential. Who knows where he’ll stop, and where his work may enable other programmers in the future to go?
To fans of retrocomputing, I say: “Embrace this.”
This is quite possibly the beginning of the next wave. The next generation of interested hackers, tinkerers and users of vintage computing techniques and sensibilities. I predict that within a year of 0x10c’s release, the option of buying a physical DCPU-16 will exist. We will see the inversion of today’s 8 and 16 bit status quo – virtually emulated hardware coming to life in physical form.
Embrace it. This is the future, and it’s going to be just as much fun as the past.
Update: Shortly after the initial posting of this article, Notch released the first bit of “complete” documentation for the DCPU-16 design which will be used for 0x10c. The specification for programming in assembly on this virtual processor can be found here.