Monday, November 18, 2013

Case Study No. 1123: Zach Vowell

UT Video Game Archive
Matt and Taylor take a tour of the Video Game Archive and learn about the history of video games and game developers in Austin, TX.

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[scene opens with two students standing outside of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History (at the University of Texas at Austin) and speaking directly to the camera]
MATT: Hey, what's up guys, this is Matt.
TAYLOR: And I'm Taylor.
[the male student adopts an "old Bill Cosby" voice]
MATT: And we're at the Video Game Archive on campus, and we're gonna see how we used to hafta climb uphill two ways to play video games, and we used to hafta use dice! But now it's on the keyboards and the computers, and ...
[he looks at the female student, who just shakes her head]
TAYLOR: And the digital ...
MATT: What?
TAYLOR: I don't even know.
MATT: What's your name, sonny girl?
[she laughs]
TAYLOR: Taylor ...
[cut to several shots of items from the Video Game Archive (including a "Son of M.U.L.E." test cartridge and a copy of "Wing Commander III"), then Matt interviews Zach Vowell (the young male archivist in charge of the collection)]
MATT: What exactly do you have here at this exhibit?
ZACH: We try to collect materials that will document the process of game development ... uh, and game developers themselves, and some of the inner workings of the video game industry.
[cut to Zach being interviewed by Taylor, while pointing out several other items laid out on the table]
ZACH: These two circuit boards here are from Super Nintendo games that actually never made it to market.
[cut to a closeup of two cardboard boxes containing circuit boards]
ZACH: So, they're games that were developed up to a very high level ... the actual game was made, but it was never released to the public.
[cut to Zach holding up a cartridge labelled "Son of M.U.L.E. Test Cartridge No. 02"]
ZACH: This is a test cartridge, as you can see, for a game called "Son of M.U.L.E.", which was the sequel to the original "M.U.L.E." game. The story goes, according to George Sanger who donated it to us, he worked on the music for that game too ... The Electronic Arts wanted to include a bunch of guns and violence in M.U.L.E., which if you're familiar with the original M.U.L.E. game, it's not like that at all. It's more like trading and an interstellar atmosphere.
[cut to more shots of items in the Archive (including Star Wars cardboard cutouts), then back to Matt and Zach standing in front of a wall filled with pen and paper tabletop game boxes]
MATT: Alright, Matt here again. And one of the more important things that we have to remember is that video games haven't always been around. We used to have pen and paper games, and they actually have a good collection of some of the pen and paper games here. Would you care to explain on some of this?
ZACH: Sure, these are some of the games that Warren Spector donated to the Archive, because he actually worked for TSR, which is the company in ... Wisconsin, I believe, that put out all of the "Dungeons and Dragons" games.
[he points to one of the boxes behind him]
ZACH: He worked on the "Dungeons and Dragons" games, but also on ... for instance, "Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century."
[cut to a closeup of some promotion material for "Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds"]
ZACH: But even before he worked for TSR, he also worked for a pen and paper game company that's in Austin called Steve Jackson Games.
[he takes an instruction manual for the game "Toon" off the shelf]
ZACH: And here's one of the games that Spector worked on ...
[cut to more shots of items in the Archive (including an Atari 810 console), then back to Matt and Taylor outside (as the wind blows Taylor's hair over her face)]
MATT: Well, that was the Video Game Archive here at the Briscoe Center. We did learn a lot of cool stuff, we learned about the history of video games, we learned about how role playing games influenced and ... what in the hell are you doing with the wind, Taylor?
[she tries to move her hair aside]
TAYLOR: My hair ...
[she laughs, as Matt turns back to the camera]
MATT: This is why video game nerds only stay inside ... Back to you guys.



The UT Videogame Archive seeks to preserve and protect the work of videogame developers, publishers and artists for use by a wide array of researchers. We are eager to meet or correspond with anyone interested in donating game software and hardware, documents, art, digital records, promotional materials, and business records related to all things videogame. The archive seeks not only materials from game designers and producers, but also documentation on gamers, gameplay, and advocacy organizations related to the videogame industry.



Earlier this year, Austin attorney Richard Anton was looking to get rid of his old, unused Apple II Plus computer.

Then his wife found out about the University of Texas' Videogame Archive, an effort to preserve gaming history that was started three years ago by some of the godfathers of the Austin gaming scene.

Anton ended up donating the computer and a stack of software to the archive, which operates as part of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

An intern got the computer working and used it to play a copy of "Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress," which was created by Richard Garriott, one of the aforementioned godfathers.

"I'm glad it's working, and I'm glad there's some interest in it," said Anton, who said he spent about $3,500 for the computer and assorted peripherals in the early 1980s.

Since the archive started in 2007, thanks to the efforts of Garriott and fellow gaming legends Warren Spector and George Sanger, a music composer, the center has amassed more than 1,500 video games and about 200 linear feet of design documents, game proposals, internal correspondence and concept art, as well as much more, said digital archivist Zach Vowell.

The collection includes e-mails from Spector discussing the production of his acclaimed cyberpunk game, "Deus Ex," which was released in 2000.

Those e-mails reveal an incredible amount of detail regarding the production of the game, Vowell said.

"You call tell with 'Deus Ex' that they really thought hard about every aspect of the game, and it showed in the end," he said.

There's also a copy of "Akalabeth: World of Doom," Garriott's first video game. It's still in one of the plastic bags Garriott used to package his games that he sold more than 30 years ago.

"State-of-the-art publishing back then was a Ziploc bag," said Garriott, who donated a trove of his own documents to the collection and plans to give more.

In the quickly evolving art form of gaming, source material from early developers can be an important learning tool for future generations, he said.

"I think it is really important that, while we still have our fingers on some of that early material — and importantly, some of those early creators are still around to talk about it — it's very valuable to try to capture as much as possible," Garriott said.

Preserving gaming history is more important now than ever, said Billy Cain, a gaming industry veteran who is chief creative officer at Lakeway-based Sneaky Games.

Cain donated items from his collection of video games, consoles, game magazines, strategy guides and design documents.

"It's the right thing to do," he said.

With games becoming more and more mainstream, "it seemed more important than ever to provide some grounding, and where things came from," he said.

And while the collection is very Austin-heavy, Vowell recently got an unexpected call from the attorney for David Rosen, a former CEO of Sega Corp., a pioneering game and console maker. Rosen donated some late 1980s-era Sega Genesis console systems and games.

Archiving video game history can be a tricky process, because obsolescence is a huge problem. Many of the old computers, consoles and operating systems used to play the earliest video games are simply no longer around.

For instance, the 1962 game "Spacewar!" exists on a punched paper tape, which requires a PDP-1 computer, according to the report "Preserving Virtual Worlds," by a team of researchers led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But, to the best of those researchers' knowledge, there's only one functioning PDP-1 computer left in the world.

"The fate of the paper tape of 'Spacewar!' is the fate awaiting all games without the active intervention of preservationists," wrote principal investigator Jerome McDonough of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"A book may pass 50 years on a shelf and still be readily accessible; rapid technological change and the resulting obsolescence of the technology necessary to access software mean that a computer game will not," McDonough wrote.

Vowell says that archivists are still pondering the obsolescence problem. But ideally they would like for researchers to be able to play the actual games that they're studying, he said.

In a way, the video game archive is a good fit with the Briscoe Center, which is known for its Texas history collections, Vowell said.

"This kind of stuff, you don't think it would fit together immediately, but I think it does make sense, because it is local history," he said. "And the role that the game business played in Austin's development ... it was pretty substantial."



A recent essay by an Italian film scholar suggests that the quality and methods of preserving videogame history have a long way to go.

The article, written by Federico Giordano, sheds some light on the problems videogame archivists face and offers some tangible solutions. The essay is a heady read but's recent translation from the original Italian should make it a wee bit easier to digest.

"The widespread need to store and preserve has only appeared in recent years because of the awareness of how technological media becomes obsolete," Giordano writes.

How can one archive an MMO? How does one judge between emulation and games running on their original hardware? How do archivists credit early Japanese and American games where staff often went unlisted? Giordano doesn't answer these questions but he does open up an interesting discussion on the topic.

"Game archives and exhibitions have to give themselves a series of priorities," Giordano writes. "A videogame is not merely a text, a support, atom or bit but an experience. A game is a relationship between the user/ text /space and usage and social context."

The article condenses archiving into three stages: storage, transfer and emulation. First, the original copy must be properly preserved, then transferred onto current storage (from floppy to a modern hard drive, for instance) and finally emulated on current hardware. Any gamer who keeps old games unopened in their original box, a gigabyte of ROMs in a desktop folder, and knows all about running PS2 games on PC, is an archivist in a way. "Piracy? No, I'm archiving these games," some might say.

Zach Vowell, an archivist for the UT Video Game Archive in Austin, Texas, spoke to me last year about the troubles of preserving games. He cited physical storage space and developer availability being the main hurdles of his job. Veteran game designers, such as Warren Spector (Deus Ex) and Richard Garriott (Ultima series), came to him with contributions, but most contemporary studios aren't as willing to give source code, internal documents and alpha builds.

"One of the reasons that Warren Spector was passionate about creating the archive is that when he was a graduate film student [at UT] in the early 1980s - at the same time that he worked at Steve Jackson Games - he was confronted with the extreme lack of documentation regarding early film history," Vowell said. "He didn't want the same thing to happen to the game industry."

The success of Vowell's archive (and similar ones) will continue to thrive on contributions and support from gamers and game developers.

How much value do you place on preserving your favorite past time's history?

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