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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 4 of 5 Next

Collectors see a value in preserving video game development materials acquired from companies. Current game developers and publishers see a financial incentive in bringing these older games to compilation releases and online game subscription services. Developers of these releases look closer at contents including source code and can find technical value that saves them both time and money. In presenting older games utilizing emulation, the original game source code itself is important for a developer to examine the ins and outs of the original hardware it was designed for.

Jeff Vavasour, a well-known video game producer and programmer, has credits that include lead programmer on such console compilations as Midway Arcade Treasures and Atari Anthology. His contributions to programming can be played on countless video game compilations of classic titles developed by Digital Eclipse (now known as Backbone Entertainment).

Vavasour's own company, Code Mystics Inc., recently developed Atari Greatest Hits Volume 1 and Dragon's Lair for the Nintendo DS. Vavasour explains the importance of utilizing source code from an arcade game in which the hardware may have been designed to run only one game.

"Having the source code can be tremendously useful even in emulation when it comes to debugging. When something is not working the way it's supposed to, understanding the context of what the game is trying to do to the hardware is a big part of diagnosing the problem. Even poorly commented source code still has function names and variable names that can shed some light on what's going on.

"Beyond that, there's the need to reverse engineer certain state information. For example, in modern emulation packages, we need to know things about the game's current state such as whose turn it is, whether the game is over, etc. in order to change controller behavior in accordance with a modern console's controller standards.

"(e.g. an arcade game might've had people taking turns on a single controller, but the console has a separate controller per player; and player 1's controller shouldn't influence the game during player 2's turn.)

"We can figure out this stuff without source code, but it can be very tedious to locate the information that way. Having the source code shows us exactly how (and often precisely where) that information is stored in the arcade game's memory."

Scott Hawkins, founder of G1M2, is a developer that brought a number of Sega Dreamcast games to online game service GameTap utilizing its own in-house developed emulator.

G1M2 also developed Data East Arcade Classics for the Wii, and the PS2 compilations of SNK Playmore's Art of Fighting Anthology and Fatal Fury Battle Archives. Hawkins explained how source code saved the day for a publisher when one classic game needed to have artwork removed in order for it to be re-released.

"One interesting example was when we were bringing an existing action sports game to a new platform. The game included a lot of in-game content featuring licensed brands and artwork. Unfortunately, the licenses had expired, so the banners, logos, and other previously licensed items needed to be removed or swapped out.

"Luckily for that project, we had access to source code and it was relatively easy to replace the licensed content with generic non-licensed items. If we did not have access to source code, the publisher would have had to pay to re-license the content so that it could still be in the game, we would have had to hack the items out of the game without access to source code, or the game would not have been able to be re-released for a new opportunity.

"Swapping out music or certain art items can be easy, but changing character models or other major game features can become a showstopper without access to source code," says Hawkins.

Having no source code almost proved to be a showstopper for Hawkins when a company he previously co-founded known as CodeFire was developing Sega Smash Pack for the Game Boy Advance in 2001. Sega Smash Pack was a compilation that contained Golden Axe, Ecco The Dolphin, and Sonic Spinball, released in 2002.

Hawkins and his team had little or no access to source code for any of the games during its 2001 development timeframe. They were forced to recreate Golden Axe from scratch with a utility that compiled all of the in-game art assets. The source code for Ecco the Dolphin was located at an external developer that had adequately backed up the project. Hawkins retells a story about locating the source code for Sonic Spinball, which ended up being found in an unlikely location:

"Sonic Spinball had been developed by an internal team at Sega called Sega Technical Institute (STI), but the computers that had the backed up source code were no longer at the office and no one appeared to have a copy of the archive. I started asking people within the company, people that had worked on the project, but were no longer with the company, and other people that had been in that department whether or not they had worked on the game.

"The lead designer of Sonic Spinball replied to me that he had a copy of the original design document for the game. I told him that was cool, but it would not help me with porting the game to a new platform.

About two weeks later, I received a very interesting call. The former director of technology for the group called me up and said, 'I have good news, bad news, and strange news. The strange news is that you asked me a couple of weeks ago if I had a copy of the source code for Sonic Spinball, and while cleaning out my garage this weekend, I came across a box labeled 'Sonic Spinball'. The good news is that it may have the source code in it. The bad news is that the disc is a magneto-optical disc and I have no way of confirming the exact contents of the disc.'

"I sent our project coordinator over to pick up the magneto-optical disc, we gave it to our creative services group (which still had a magneto-optical drive at the time), and luckily for us -- it had the source code we were looking for! This story had a happy ending -- as the source code worked great for us and we shipped Sega Smash Pack for the GBA with all three games included in the product (and we did not have to recreate Sonic Spinball from scratch)."

Hawkins would go on to deliver the original Sonic Spinball source code from the magnetic optic disc to Sega, (along with a backup of the source code and assets for the GBA version) after the project was completed.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

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