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Where Games Go To Sleep: The Game Preservation Crisis, Part 1
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Where Games Go To Sleep: The Game Preservation Crisis, Part 1

January 27, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

Keith Robinson of Intellivision Productions recalls saving Intellivision source code. Mattel, its former corporate parent, had auctioned off 8-inch floppy disk drives that were essential in reading Intellivision game source code saved on floppy disks. Robinson would be forced to track down the company that had purchased the drives from Mattel at auction, and then call the drive manufacturer to obtain a correct jumper setting to get the drives functional once again.

The Intellivision game source code was finally transferred from floppy disk to a new storage format -- essentially rescued from obsolescence. A compilation of these games was recently released for the Nintendo DS in October of 2010, and can also be downloaded on the iPhone, iPad, and Microsoft's Game Room.

Console manufacturers Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony also shared their insights on game preservation.

Microsoft maintains special departments that are responsible for storing all gaming material in onsite and offsite locations. Microsoft currently has plans to transfer games made prior to the year 2000 from older media to new reliable storage platforms as part of its BCDR (Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery) program.

Nintendo highlighted its series of "Iwata Asks" features found on its website, and how original game design documents have inspired Nintendo designers throughout the years.

One "Iwata Asks" interview highlights how original NES design documents created in 1985 for The Legend of Zelda are continuously used as specification reference when Nintendo develops new installments in the Zelda series. Nintendo also highlighted the importance of its Wii Virtual Console service in preserving and reintroducing older game titles to new audiences.

Sony Computer Entertainment of America discussed the importance of the PlayStation Network and Home Arcade and how they're "extending the lifecycle" of older games. Sony disclosed that archiving externally developed titles "varied depending on contracts" as well as regions. Sony revealed the challenges that exist concerning the recovery of source code that requires specific obsolescent or unavailable hardware. According to Sony, BIOS expiration or revisions may pose significant problems with long-term storage of PC hardware and development tools.

Some companies that we approached for this article were understandably not willing to come forth to discuss the subject of video game preservation. Some cited company policy in discussing development matters, while some had no video game artifacts at all.

One such company contacted was an electronics manufacturer that once previously produced video game consoles and software. The company conducted a search for all available video game artifacts in its overseas corporate archive for the purpose of this article.

A stunning reply was given: no video game material such as hardware, software, or source code could be found in its official corporate archive. The company would eventually decline to participate in this article entirely, but did promise to further investigate why its historic video game legacy could not be found in its own internal archive.

Sadly, the tragic fact remains that a lot of video game artifacts were either dumped in trash bins, or abandoned altogether.

Stories of development teams arriving at their offices to find the front doors locked and their employer bankrupt are not at all uncommon. Depending on the organization of a developer or publisher, the management may not comprehend what is contained on storage media, or within filing cabinets, binders, and desk drawers when employees are let go. What does a video game company do with its game design material when its offices are closed or sold to another company?

There are unconfirmed reports of Japanese developers closing their North American divisions in the late nineties and leaving their old arcade games and office filing cabinets in storage units. Their corporate parent in Japan would eventually abandon these storage units.

One such company that made headlines for dumping game development material in the trash was Atari Corporation (not to be confused with the present-day Atari Incorporated, Atari Interactive, or Atari Europe SASU).

The following two incidents have nothing to do with old cartridges and hardware being buried in a desert landfill in 1983.

Atari Corporation would sell filing cabinets filled with game source code, production documents and marketing diagrams to bewildered buyers at its warehouses throughout 1984 and 1985. These rapid-fire office furniture clearance sales were done by the order of the Tramiel family, who had taken over Atari in 1984, laying off thousands of employees and selling off mountains of Atari office equipment to raise cash.

Patty Ansuini, vice-president of A.P. Construction in San Jose, California had heard that office equipment was being sold off at an Atari warehouse in nearby Santa Clara. According to a San Jose Mercury News article, Ansuini purchased a locked two-drawer filing cabinet for $125 from an Atari warehouse and was told she could keep its contents. What Ansuini didn't realize at the time of her purchase was that the filing cabinet was from an Atari game engineering office.

Ansuini brought the Atari filing cabinet back to the construction company office, and would hire a locksmith with a spare set of keys to get the cabinet open.

Once opened, Ansuini and her husband were shocked to discover cardboard file folders containing source code for 84 different games published on the Atari 2600, including Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Centipede and Pole Position, as well as a word processing program. The filing cabinet even contained source code for Atari 2600 game prototypes that had not been published at the time. These prototypes included games based on the "Dukes of Hazard" TV series and the "Gremlins" motion picture.

Renowned game designer and former Atari programmer Chris Crawford remembers the contents of the cabinet Ansuini had acquired to this day. The reporter writing the San Jose Mercury News article in 1984 contacted Crawford to ask for help in identifying the cabinet contents.

Crawford recalls its exact location where Atari kept the cabinet for this article: The second floor of 1272 Borregas Avenue in Sunnyvale, California, then home of Atari Corporation VCS/2600 engineering. "I remember the secretarial station there right next to the Department Chairman's office in the corner; the filing cabinet was right behind her desk against the wall."

He clarifies what each element for one Atari 2600 game consisted of in the filing cabinet that Ansuini had purchased: "It would consist of three components for each game: the printed source code, amounting to a few dozen pages of striped computer paper; an 8-inch floppy disk containing the source and object code; and an EEPROM mounted on a PC board containing the final object code in a runnable format. Each programmer was required to deliver these to the VCS secretary as part of the final work on the game."

Ansuini made the prompt decision to return all of the game components to Atari Corporation. She made several phone calls to Atari headquarters and left messages with its head of security. She even tried getting a hold of then Atari president Sam Tramiel. No one returned her calls, but she was advised to call back.

Finally, the same San Jose Mercury News reporter that had contacted Crawford got a hold of James L. Copland, then VP of marketing at Atari Corporation. Copland sent over three Atari employees to Ansuini's construction company office to retrieve the Atari 2600 game source code contents for all 86 games. "It's a very sloppy way to unload furniture," Copland remarked to the reporter.

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