Saturday, May 15

Discovering the hidden history of the best-selling video games | Games

IIf you worked in video game magazines in the 90s, there was a sight that you got used to pretty quickly. On every desk, in every drawer, were dozens of DVD-R discs with game titles scrawled with Sharpies. These were the prerelease versions of the games that the developers sent us for preview and review. We would play them on debug consoles (the machines used by developers to create and test games), write down our thoughts, and then throw the discs into a pile or trash can.

Fast-forward two decades and gamers now realize that such early, previously unreleased versions of games have genuine historical value. Celebrating its 15th anniversary next month, the website Hidden palace is a collective dedicated to tracking and archiving video game prototypes, source code, and other artifacts overlooked from the development process. Last month, the site made headlines across the gaming world when it announced that it had sourced more than 700 PlayStation 2 demo discs and prototypes, all provided by a single anonymous source. Site staff have registered each disc, digitized compilations, and worked with the Internet Archive so that they are available.

Many of the records in the collection, which Hidden Palace has called Project Deluge, are the kind of preliminary press records that I saw hundreds of while working on magazines like Edge, Official. PlayStation and Arcade in the mid-90s. “I still have four CD folders full of them,” says a former Konami representative who wishes to remain anonymous. “We would formulate the lists of how many copies of the code we would need to send to the magazines, and this would be given to a marketing assistant who would then record the discs. For the big games, Metal Gear, Silent Hill, the discs would come with the names of the intended releases, but for games like Bloody Roar, they would just send us a big stack. There would be different builds for each game – historically, we would see an E3 build, which would be the first reveal, then the preview build, the second preview, and then the review.

“Internally at Konami, they would also get regular milestone builds, so they would see a lot more releases. For example, Hudson Soft would come in once a year and present their full list of things, all of these records. You could see these very different versions. “

In fact, looking through the vast list of PS2 discs acquired by the site, which also allows you to click on the photos of the discs themselves, it is clear that many are builds of games from internal developers because there are many variations. For example, there are 22 discs that contain different versions of Acclaim’s stealth adventure, Alias, based on the television series. Nick Harper, creative director of Acclaim’s Cheltenham studio at the time, recognizes them as milestones are built; it is even capable of identifying its own letter on discs. “We used to have a record recorder in the basement,” he says. “Someone would write the version number with a Sharpie. I think one of our records on Project Deluge says ’26 -ish ‘, because obviously we had forgotten which version we were making!”

An early and unreleased version of Alias.
An early and unreleased version of Alias

“At the end of a project,” he says, “you would have this huge stack of DVDs. I looked at the photos of the discs on the site of one of the Extreme G games we worked on, and it had just written ‘Front End Test’ on it. I guess one didn’t even have the full set; it would have been just to test the user interface [user interface]. “

So why are these records interesting? Why should we care about prototype, demo, and historical versions of old games? Several of the developers I spoke to for this feature compared to acclaimed album special editions, which provide multiple demo versions of known tracks; They can be difficult, but it’s an opportunity for fans to experience a favorite song in a completely different way and understand how it was transformed through the writing and recording process.

“It’s really cool when you finish a game, go through the milestone builds and see the evolution of the product,” says Harper. “You can look at these older versions and get a glimpse of the problems a team had to overcome to get to launch. Often the game is more ambitious at first, but then you always have to downsize due to tight deadlines or because the target hardware can’t do what you want. Sometimes older versions look prettier because later on you’ve had to optimize the polygon count.

“There may be different gameplay or, in a racing game, you might see that they have had to change the layout of the track to make it more or less forgiving. So these are quite interesting historical documents. They give you an idea of ​​the mental processes of the study. “

Among those 700 PS2 discs are early versions of major games like God of War II, Soul Reaver 2, and Shadow of the Colossus, all of which contain subtle differences from the finished games. Examining these disks is like electronic archeology – you’re uncovering the remains of lost ideas, lost features, and sometimes lost games. “Some of the games [we have archived] they never got a retail release, because they were canceled, the developer ran out of money, or the game just wasn’t up to the mark, “says Luke of Hidden Palace. “These are perhaps the most important historically, because in most cases very few copies have survived.”

Some examples from Hidden Palace’s broader collection include a previously unreleased version of Doom for the Sega 32X, a canceled conversion of the VHS Atmosfear board game for the SNES, and a flying battle game called Propeller Arena, which was canceled after September 11. . (“The construction is literally dated September 11,” says Luke). Among the Project Deluge collection is an early demo of a game based on the Alien movie franchise, developed by British studio Climax Solent and likely a publisher release that was never released.

But what are the legal ramifications of copying, archiving, and distributing this code? “As most games are early prototypes of highly popular and commercially valuable video game franchises such as Final Fantasy, Crash Bandicoot, and Zelda, rights owners may seek to protect their brand and enforce their legal rights in response to Project Deluge, ”says Alicia Morton of the entertainment law firm Sheridans. “The fact that these games were neither finished nor published is irrelevant when it comes to legal protection, at least under English law: they are treated in the same way as published games.”

However, Morton admits that it will be difficult for publishers to bring a legal case because Hidden Palace does not host or distribute the compilations themselves, and everyone involved in the project is anonymous. There is also an advertising risk associated with chasing amateur files. “The reality is that gaming companies understand the user base and the public relations side,” says Julian Ward, director of games for the law firm Lee and Thompson. “A lot of the people who run publishers and developers are gamers, they are aware of the community.”

A development version of Burnout for PS2.
A development version of Burnout for PS2

One thing that is for sure is that there is a growing interest in properly preserving the history of video games, both in academia and in the video game communities. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the European Federation of Conservation Projects and Game Archives Museums and the National Video Game Museum are collecting and storing games. Everyone understands that after years of institutional apathy towards the value of video games, the pressure continues to mount.

“Video game preservation is definitely in its infancy,” says Luke. “You can draw parallels with movies or TV series before they were considered worth keeping. We are racing against the clock, as old chips and discs (especially CD-Rs) are susceptible to something called ‘bit rot’, which is the irreversible loss or corruption of data due to aging of the storage medium. “

As a journalist of the time, I think I must take some of the blame. I’ve had demo versions of games like Tomb Raider, Half-Life, Virtua Fighter, and Silent Hill on my desk that ended up simply being thrown away, used as coasters, or tossed by the office on the art staff.

Fortunately, Hidden Palace now has several dozen regular contributors and researchers, and an active Discord server with over 3,500 users, all looking for the next big prototype. According to Luke, the source that provided the PS2 700 discs has many more in their collection than other disc-based machines of the time; we can also expect to see them added to the collection. Perhaps what the community needs most, however, is the support of the industry – not just potentially litigious publishers, but also the developers themselves who may well be holding on to true historical treasures.

“I have some ‘special’ versions of the first Burnout hanging around somewhere,” admits Alex Ward, founder of ThreeFieldsEntertainment and original creator of Burnout. “Everything good, what would never leave the building, remains in the hands of the developers.” Our Konami source agrees: “I don’t know what I’ll do with all these discs, since they’re not really mine, I guess we’ll have to bury them with me!”

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