UT Archive Is Save Slot for Gaming's Past

Godfathers of Austin gaming scene work to preserve gaming history

By BRIAN GAAR
|  Sunday, Dec 26, 2010  |  Updated 7:45 AM CDT
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UT Archive Is Save Slot for Gaming's Past

AP

Joel Skolnick, computer store manager in Cambridge, Mass., displays a memory board of an Apple II computer in 1978.

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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."

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