Uncovering the hidden history of bestselling video games

Guardian Technology 07 Apr 2021 08:30
Sony unveils the PlayStation 2 in 1999.
Keith Stuart

Last modified on Wed 7 Apr 2021 09.39 BST

If you worked on video game magazines in the 90s, there was one sight you got used to pretty quickly. On every desk, in every drawer, there were dozens of DVD-R discs with the titles of games scrawled on them with Sharpies. These were the prerelease versions of games that were sent to us by developers to preview and review. We’d play them on debug consoles (the machines used by developers to build and test games), write our thoughts, then chuck the discs in a pile, or a bin.

Fast forward two decades and game players now realise that such early and unreleased versions of games have genuine historical value. Celebrating its 15th anniversary next month, the website Hidden Palace is a collective dedicated to tracking down and archiving video game prototypes, source code and other overlooked artefacts from the development process. Last month, the site made headlines across the video game world when it announced it had secured more than 700 PlayStation 2 demo and prototype discs – all provided by a single anonymous source. The site staff have logged each disc, digitised the builds and worked with the Internet Archive to make them available.

“Internally at Konami, they would also get regular milestone builds, so they’d see a lot more versions. For example, Hudson Soft would come in once a year and present their entire roster of stuff – all off these discs. There would be these very different builds that you’d get to see.”

An early, unpublished version of Alias.

So why are these discs interesting? Why should we care about prototype, demo and milestone versions of old games? Several of the developers I spoke to for this feature drew a comparison with special editions of acclaimed albums, which provide multiple early demo versions of well-known tracks; they may be rough, but it’s a chance for fans to experience a favourite song in a completely different way, and understand how it was transformed through the writing and recording process.

“There might be different gameplay or, on a racing game, you might see that they’ve had to change the track layout to make it more or less forgiving. So these are quite interesting historical documents. They give you a glimpse into the thought processes of the studio.”

Some examples from the wider Hidden Palace collection include an unreleased version of Doom for the Sega 32X, a cancelled conversion of the VHS board game Atmosfear for the SNES, and a flight battle game named Propeller Arena, which was cancelled after 9/11. (“The build 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 UK studio Climax Solent and probably a pitch to a publisher which never saw release.

However, Morton concedes it will be difficult for publishers to pursue a legal case because Hidden Palace isn’t hosting or distributing the builds itself, and everyone involved in the project is anonymous. There is also a publicity risk attached to going after hobbyist archives. “The reality is, games companies understand the user-base and the PR side of things,” says Julian Ward, head of games at legal firm Lee and Thompson. “A lot of the people who run publishers and developers are gamers themselves, they’re aware of the community.”

One thing that’s certain is that there’s a growing interest in properly preserving video game history, both in the academic sphere and in gaming communities. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the European Federation of Game Archives Museums and Preservation Projects and the National Video Game Museum are collecting and storing games. All understand that, after years of institutional apathy toward the value of video games, the pressure is on.

As a journalist of the era, I feel I should take a share of the blame. I’ve had demo versions of games such as Tomb Raider, Half-Life, Virtua Fighter and Silent Hill on my desk that ended up just being thrown away, used as a drinks coaster or lobbed across the office at the art staff.

“I’ve got some ‘special’ builds of the very first Burnout knocking around somewhere,” admits Alex Ward, founder of ThreeFieldsEntertainment, and original creator of Burnout. “All the good stuff, the stuff that would never leave the building – it remains in the hands of the developers.” Our Konami source agrees: “I don’t know what I’ll ever do with all these discs as they’re not really mine – I suppose they’ll have to be buried with me!”

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