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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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‘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!

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