The Quest to Preserve Ultima II

As in years past, the end of May heralds the results of School of Information student projects related to the UT Videogame Archive. This year, one project held particular interest for the archive, as it sought to “preserve” Richard Garriott’s early RPG Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress.

Preserving a game with such a multiplicity of versions and platforms is an arduous task. Sierra On-Line originally published Ultima II in 1982 for the Apple II, but the publisher quickly ported it for Atari 8-bit computers, Commodore 64, and DOS. Furthermore, Origin Systems later re-issued Ultima II as part of the Ultima Trilogy (itself available in different ports) and Ultima I – VI Series titles. The students, Halley Grogan, Mark Cooper, and Anna Chen, chose to focus on the original Apple II version, the DOS Ultima Trilogy version, and the DOS Ultima I – VI Series version for their project.

Screenshot of an emulator running Ultima II during a significant property testing session. Click on the screenshot above to view a montage of clips taken from the significant property testing.

Then, soon enough, the students were confronted with the question of emulation regarding game preservation. Will creating disk images from the original 5.25″ floppy disks, and then packaging them with an appropriate emulator be sufficient enough to preserve an authentic experience of the game? To begin answering this question, the students conducted a small-scale user study which sought to uncover which, if any, “significant properties” are lost when playing Ultima II on an emulator.

The study included three different platforms for the game: 1) a working Apple II machine, 2) AppleWin, a free Apple II emulator for PC, and 3) Virtual ][, a commercial Apple II emulator for Mac. Without delving into the methodology of the study (the student’s full project report can be found here), it’s sufficient to say that each study participant initially played one of the emulators and the Apple II (not necessarily in that order), then discussed their impressions with project coordinators, and then finally played the second emulator.

After the gameplay ended, the project coordinators posed more questions to the study participants in an effort to gauge the participants’ impressions of their experience. To their slight surprise, the project coordinators found that their study participants preferred the original Apple II version! This finding contradicts one of the only other significant property studies conducted regarding videogames, which was published in the American Archivist in 2006 and focused on the game Chuckie Egg. In that 2006 study, participants preferred the emulated versions.

Reviewing their methodology, the Ultima II project coordinators noted that they specifically asked their participants to disregard the level of “fun” they experienced when evaluating each version of Ultima II. This aspect of their methodology and the discrepency of results with the 2006 study led the project coordinators to ask: is “fun” a significant property of videogames?

While you ponder that eternal question, rest assured that the products of the student’s work — disk images of Ultima II in several iterations, the emulators, patches, and study documentation — will soon be stored in the Briscoe Center’s digital repository. So, in some sense, we can say that the students completed their quest, and tackled many challenges that will help future work in this area.

Digitized Tidbits

With our focus on building the archive and promptly processing the donations we acquire, it is hard to make time for digitization and web access. But with the little spare time and the help of students from UT’s School of Information, we have managed to digitize several items. And now that these items are available online, we wanted to highlight them here.

Fax from Electronic Arts providing feedback for the first sketches Team Fat produced for the game Jane's Combat Simulations: Advanced Tactical Fighters, George Sanger Papers, e_gs_0058_01.

First, in 2009, a student group scanned a series of documents from George Sanger’s papers related to his work on Jane’s Combat Simulations: Advanced Tactical Fighters and Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo. Sanger stored the documents with the sound recordings he produced for these games, so their full meaning and significance is somewhat lost when divorced from those recordings, but they hold interest by themselves as well. In particular, they provide a glimpse into the relationship between Sanger and his clients Electronic Arts (Advanced Tactical Fighters) and Humongous Entertainment (Putt-Putt).

All of the items digitized from Sanger’s papers can be found here.

Secondly, we have recently made a few videos available online from the Warren Spector Papers. The VHS tapes contain demos and promotional clips for games produced by Origin Systems during Spector’s time there. One of the promotional clips, titled “Origin Systems: Works-In-Progress” features Spector talking about System Shock and Wings of Glory, Richard Garriott on Ultima VIII, and Ken Demarest on Bioforge.

Frame of a narrated video demo of Origin games scheduled for a Spring 1990 release, Warren Spector Papers, dv_00021.

The five videos currently available from Spector’s papers can be found on the Briscoe Center’s Rich Media website. The site allows for indexing and table of contents, which makes accessing the videos more user-friendly.

We intend for these items to be a few in a long series of digitized content from the UT Videogame Archive made available online.  As more become available, we’ll be sure to post updates here.

Videogame Archive at Explore UT

For the first time since its establishment in late 2007, the UT Videogame Archive participated in Explore UT on Saturday. Explore UT is the University of Texas at Austin’s annual “open house” to Kindergarten-12th Grade students and the communities that support them. Each March, students from all over Texas visit the UT-Austin campus and discover the opportunities that await them in higher education.

Kids playing videogames at Explore UT
One kid playing Sonic the Hedgehog, while another plays the Vectrex

In years past the UT Videogame Archive’s collection of functional game hardware and software could not measure up to an influx of eager kids, but this year we decided the archive was ready. When we opened the Briscoe Center’s reading room doors at 11am, we were still a little anxious. But 6 hours later, hundreds of kids had passed through– when the Center announced that it was closing at 5pm, and a few stragglers remained glued to the challenges of Super Mario Bros. 3, we knew it had been a success.

In an effort to mix the familiar with the more obscure, we decided to offer three console choices: Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master System I, and the Vectrex. As previously reported in this blog, the NES and Sega consoles were donated by veteran Austin game developer Billy Cain, and the Vectrex donated by Mike Hall.

Due to the condition of Cain’s NES, we initially offered only Castlevania, but we dug into David Rosen’s collection of Sega games and brought out Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Afterburner, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Wonder Boy in Monster Island. For the Vectrex, we had three titles available, again courtesy of Mike Hall: Hyperchase, Fortress of Narzod, and Blitz!

A group of kids crowd around the Sega console

A nearly non-stop stream of girls and boys of all ages played all three consoles. The Vectrex’s minimal vector graphics may have drawn the least amount of players, but it rarely went unused. Sonic proved to remain relevant, as many of the kids gravitated towards the familiar spinning hedgehog, even though it was the 8-bit version. A handful of groups entered the reading room exclaiming, “Wow, look at how old these games are!” Reactions of this sort persisted even when we decided to load the ever-popular Super Mario Bros. 3 into the NES.

But more discerning opinions were not wanting either. One young boy, for example, approached us after a round on the Sega console, and opined that he had always had the impression that Sega was the better game company than Nintendo, but now that he had a chance to play both back to back, his opinion of Sega’s superiority had been strengthened.

And that little exchange illustrates what the UT Videogame Archive is all about: making videogame history available to the public, so that they (whether they be reserchers, historians, journalists, or gamers) can make judgments for themselves based on the available evidence.

Sonic the Hedgehog and Hyperchase!

All in all it was a tremendous experience to make these consoles (and, in the case of NES, their iconic controllers) accessible to a younger audience, and in a small way expose them to videogames-as-history. In years to come we hope to modestly expand the videogame archive’s presence at Explore UT, so be sure to check back with us by next February for news regarding the UT Videogame Archive at Explore UT 2012.

Welcome to 2011

Greetings, and happy new year! Sure, we’re a little over a month into 2011 but it’s so hard to keep track of time with all the activity around the UT Videogame Archive. In late 2010 we received a large donation of hardware, software and other materials from David Rosen, former CEO of videogame powerhouse SEGA. The games Rosen donated nearly run the gamut: Master System, Genesis, Saturn, Game Gear, Sega-CD, and even Pico games are all represented. In all, the donation totaled over 500 cartridges, as well as the consoles and peripherals necessary to play these games.

Sega games on shelves
Sega Genesis, CD, Saturn, Game Gear and Pico games from Rosen's donation

In other exciting news, the Austin American Statesman, Austin’s premier news source, wrote a wonderful article on the UT Videogame Archive for its December 20, 2010 edition. Included in the article were quotes from Richard Garriott and Billy Cain, two high profile UTVGA donors. The article also mentions the final report of the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, a fascinating look at the problems and research opportunities inherent in saving and accessing video games and other interactive experiences.

The publicity generated by the Statesman article put us in contact with David Downing and Mike Hall, among others, who quickly chose to donate even more material to the Videogame Archive! Downing worked as a producer at Origin Systems in the 1990s, primarily on the bestselling Wing Commander franchise, and has more recently worked on titles such as Warriors of Might and Magic and Spongebob Squarepants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman. His donation consisted of several binders of design documents related to the above mentioned games, plus a few boxes of game software.

Vectrex playing "Web Wars"
Mike Hall's Vectrex playing "Web Wars"

Mike Hall was kind enough to donate a working Vectrex console. Vectrex was released by Milton Bradley in 1982 and was one of the only early console systems to feature a built in screen.

That’s all we have to report for now but we’ll be back soon enough with another crop of videogame treasures. Until then, don’t forget to tell your friends, family, and total strangers about the UT Videogame Archive and the work we are doing in preserving videogame history!

‘Tis the Season

Happy Holidays from the UT Videogame Archive! As appropriate for this festive season, we’ve received exciting gifts from several gracious donors. First up is Richard Anton, an attorney in the Austin area who donated an operational Apple II system along with loads of early Apple software, including a an original copy of Ultima II.

Ultima II Box Art / on the Apple II

Another recent donation comes from Amy Goldenburg, an active local IGDA member and human resources professional who has worked in the human resources and art departments of several Austin-area videogame studios. As part of a job search in the mid-1990s, Goldenburg compiled a clippings file on many local studios and developers. The file serves as a valuable historical resource for a field that evolves quickly and often ruthlessly; a “snapshot” of a studio or developer could fill crucial gaps in the history of Texas videogame development.

A particularly exciting gift comes from Gary Gattis, a long-time member of the Austin game development community, who co-founded Human Code Interactive in 1993 and later worked on the Star Wars Galaxies MMORPG for Sony Online. Gattis has given us a wealth of design materials, including titles he produced from the Schoolhouse Rock and Enchanted Tales series as well as concept art and design documents from Digital Anvil (Chris Roberts’ post-Origin studio) and for a proposed yet unreleased cross-platform [TV series/MMORPG/DVD-ROM] interactive experience titled Avalon.

Map drafts from Avalon

We hope to continue receiving such interesting materials from these donors and others. As explained on our Donors page, donating materials to the UTVGA guarantees that your valuable work and/or collection will be preserved, quite literally making you a part of videogame history. We’ve worked to make the donation process as streamlined and painless as possible, so remember: ’tis the season! Until next time, happy holidays and happy gaming!

Fall at the VGA

Hello again! Fall has finally arrived in central Texas and the Video Game Archive is staying busy as always. We’ve recently been working on storing digital media files from the Warren Spector Collection as well as audio interviews of game developers from UT Professor Megan Winget’s Preserving Games project on the University of Texas Digital Repository (UTDR). The “ingest packages” (which include the original media files, access copies and preservation copies as well as associated text and metadata files) are nearly ready to upload–we’ll let you know as soon as they become available to the public.

We’ve also recently acquired a treasure trove of video games, consoles, game magazines, strategy guides and design documents from Billy Cain, who worked on the Ultima and Wing Commander series at Origin/E.A. as well as producing and developing Spongebob Squarepants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman at Blue Sky Interactive for publishing by  THQ. His collection includes some really interesting insight into the development of Wing Commander: Prophecy as well as an unreleased (but nearly complete!) first-person squad-based shooter called Crimson Order. There are also a great deal of games and consoles, everything from the Mattel Intellivision to the Sega Master System to the TurboGrafx 16. We’re still working on setting up a way to play games on all of these consoles, but until that happens (and our productivity simultaneously plummets) we’ll all be hard at work preserving the core and culture of the video game experience for future generations!

IGDA Austin 2010 Picnic

On June 26th the UTVGA attended the annual picnic held by the Austin chapter of IGDA at Richard Garriott’s Castleton Village in northwest Austin. The weather was hot and humid but we were graciously allowed to share a shaded tent with VGA superstar Bill Bottorff and his Austin Business Computers. We met and talked to many industry players about archives and videogame preservation, and it was encouraging to know that many of these professionals share a passion for saving the history of their medium. The event also fostered a connection with the Austin Museum of Digital Art, a great organization whose mission will no doubt invite some of the same challenges we face here at the Videogame Archive.

But this picnic was not just a place to network. There was plenty of fun to be had, with videogame contests, boat rides on Lake Austin, and attendees getting “zombie-fied” by Scare for a Cure. We also enjoyed great BBQ from the Salt Lick and dessert from Amy’s Ice Cream while listening to music from Captains of the Chess Team, a band fronted by VGA donor George Sanger. Overall a great event for a great videogame community. If you attended the IGDA picnic and wish to know more about the UTVGA, visit our new site or contact us to continue the conversation.

Welcome!

Welcome to Continuous Play, the retooled from the University of Texas Videogame Archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. This blog pairs perfectly with our brand new site, where we’ve redesigned things to appeal more to potential donors and researchers. You’ll notice that there are now two direct links labeled as such in the navigation menu on the left side of the site to help explain the type of research we help facilitate and the type of materials we collect. You can see examples of these various materials by clicking on the Media link, get in touch with us through the Contact link, and learn what we’re all about through the Mission link. You’ll even soon be able to play Agonoid, a flash game developed by UT’s student game developer society EgADS, by clicking the Play! link. Let us know what you think of the new site as well as anything else you’d like to see.

We at the UTVGA have also been keeping busy with other developments. All of our holdings have now been fully cataloged, allowing us to more effectively store our collections and free up space for new materials (hint, hint)! In addition, fully searchable and browsable EAD versions of several of our finding aids can now be found on TARO, and can be located by the creator’s last name (i.e. Garriott, Richard or Spector, Warren). Finally, we are working with students and professionals at the UT iSchool to preserve and make accessible materials currently stored on older hard drives and media within our collection. Reliable digital archival preservation is a relatively new and massively important field, and we are excited to be working with some of the leading figures within it. More to come on all these developments, so stay tuned!

Videogame Archive Exhibit opens at the Austin Airport

The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History is proud to present an exhibit of items selected from the collections that form the UT Videogame Archive. The exhibit, entitled Behind the Screens, will be on display at the Austin Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) in the main terminal concourse until January 26, 2010.

Much of the material in the exhibit is from the collections of the archive’s first three donors: Richard Garriott, Warren Spector, and George “The Fat Man” Sanger. Visitors to the exhibit can take a peek inside the videogame industry and have the opportunity to view rare items, such as the program code for an early Garriott game that is stored on computer “punched tape.”

Also featured is a rare prototype cartridge of M.U.L.E.‘s “lost” sequel, “Son of M.U.L.E.” and design documents from Warren Spector’s innovative classic Deus Ex. And that’s just the beginning! The Briscoe Center is thrilled to showcase these unique and fascinating materials to the public, which might have been lost if they had not been donated by the game developers themselves. This exhibit is an excellent introduction to videogame history for travelers to and from Austin.

di_05378_pub
Conceptual artwork for an undeveloped game Warren Spector had conceived. Spector (Warren) Papers, di_05378.

Students present more work at the Archive

Last year, readers may recall two graduate student groups from the School of Information here at the University of Texas at Austin tackled the problem of archiving digital records from the George Sanger Papers.  With the passing of a year and the accumulation of more materials for the Videogame Archive, four student groups from the same course grappled with born-digital documentation from George Sanger, Warren Spector, and Heather Kelley.

On May 8 these hard-working students wrapped up their course work by giving presentations.

The first group presented their work on documentation related to George “The Fat Man” Sanger’s audio for Advanced Tactical Fighters and Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo.  They were confronted with 4 different media types: 3.5” floppy disks, ZIP disks, DAT tapes, and the dreaded ADAT tapes.  Within these media, they found the Fat Man’s predilection for using different file formats for one project, running across .SND files, .WAVs, .MIDIs, .SYXs, .XMIs, .KRZs (specific to the Kurzweil K2000 synthesizer), .ARRs, as well as other text and graphic files.  The group used the New Zealand Metadata Extractor (http://meta-extractor.sourceforge.net/) to extract the appropriate metadata from the files, and in the end ingested, from media such as this, nearly 2,000 files into the school’s digital repository. The students’ work will ensure that researchers can reliably trace Team Fat’s compositional progress through both of these jobs.

The second group found themselves faced with eighteen 5.25” floppy disks from Warren Spector’s days at Steve Jackson Games and TSR.  The students recounted their difficulties locating the machines that created the content on Spector’s disks: a Kaypro IV and an Apple IIc.  After searching high and low, they were introduced to the folks at the Goodwill Computer Museum (http://www.goodwillcomputermuseum.org/), and from there the project became smoother.  For example, once they gained access to the disks’ contents, they discovered the disks primarily contained text files, which Spector created for TOONand his TSR-era novels The Hollow Earth Affair and One Thing After Another.  But they also ran across correspondence, such as this message (prophetically appropriate to the group’s travails) to Bruce Heard on October 15, 1986:

“I have a new word processor that is causing lots of problems… lack of headers, page numbers and other standard elements of professional submissions.”

Screenshot of a Kaypro IV directory, listing the files available on a 5.25" disk labeled "TOON". Spector (Warren) Papers, UT Videogame Archive.
Screenshot of a Kaypro IV directory, listing the files available on a 5.25" disk labeled "TOON". Spector (Warren) Papers, UT Videogame Archive.

Gaining access to the files was one thing. Next they had to transfer the files to more stable media, which proved challenging with the Kaypro IV, a machine with very little networking capability. It did have a null modem cable, and, using Kermit software (www.columbia.edu/kermit/), the group (with critical help and advice from the Computer Museum staff) successfully migrated the data from the floppy disks to the digital repository.

The third group may have started out with most uninteresting project, but once they saw what they had, the project quickly became the most glamorous of the four. Their project began with just one CD labeled “Ion Storm E-mail, 2004”, which proved to have 3 .PST files within it. .PST files, you may recall, are the output through which Microsoft Outlook exports its email messages. So, one CD with three files on it, all of it totaling a little over 2 gigabytes. Big deal? Yes! Once the group opened the .PST files in Outlook 2003 (the program version that originally exported them), they discovered the email within dated from 1997-2004 and included over 56,000 emails and 6,374 attachments! And they further realized, while going through the email, that anyone interested in the history of Ion Storm (especially the Austin office) would need to consult this resource. And if one wanted to know about Toby Maguire’s request for a Thief: Deadly Shadows walk-through, well, one could learn that too.

The final group that presented that morning worked on 7 JAZ disks from the Heather Kelley Papers. The JAZ disks (http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/dpm/dpm-eng/oldmedia/pages/jazdisk.html), made by Iomega (the company that made ZIP disks) dated from Kelley’s work on Redbeard Pirate’s Quest, a “smart toy” that, as the toy’s packaging puts it, makes “your every move magically come to life on your computer.” Redbeard, or ARGH, the toy’s development code name, was released in 1999 to critical acclaim and disappointing commercial results. The archive had fortunately acquired a JAZ drive before the project, but the students still needed to locate a SCSI adapter that would connect the JAZ drive to the ports available on a contemporary computer. Once they did so, they were able to migrate 8,136 files from the JAZ disks which covered the range of Redbeard’s development, including the toy’s complete source code, Open Media Toolkit files and utilities, images, and sound. Since many of these files constituted uncompiled source code, utilities, and assets of one kind or another, the group spent a considerable amount of time making sense of it all, even interviewing Kelley (who was producer for the toy) and the lead programmer Chris Spears. The students’ project documentation will go a long way towards making these Redbeard files accessible to researchers interested in smart toys and human-computer interaction.

Thanks to all twelve of the students who helped preserve these archival records this semester, and made them infinitely more accessible in the process.