The History of the Video Game Development Process

The modern software development process is sort of out in the open. Any sizeable project like a new version of Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop is discussed widely in technology forums and blogs. Although beta testers generally sign NDAs with companies, details or full copies of beta software leaks regularly.

Google’s Android OS is not quite Open Source, but will rely heavily on the Open Source contributions from the public. This past weekend an ARS Technica article about updates to Android acknowledged Google’s creation of a public bug tracking system as a “sign that Google is taking the needs of the Android third-party developer community more seriously.”

Clearly, expectation of visibility into today’s major software projects has increased with the growth of the web. But what about older software? Who is looking into the games and tools that we used on a daily basis 15 years ago?

Know Your Mario History

nintendo power glove is a hardware part of video game historyA new Download Squad article discusses the impending release of a historical documents related to Sega video game development between 1993 and 1994. It claims that a “large community of Sonic fans have been searching for prototypes and lost levels in the games for many years now.” Indeed, you can read the granular details.

The new article says that a community member is planning on releasing “an entire year’s backup of data from the Sega of America offices from 1993-1994.” The article calls the eagerness of the community to review the information as part of a post-modern archeology culture, where people examine the assembly-level code of these game ROMs.

Post-modern archeology? …Really?

In 2004 Henry Lowood, the Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections at Stanford University presented an argument for the preservation of videogames to the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works that included the following passage:

Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at M.I.T., has written that video games may be the “art form for the digital age.” Some of you will find this thought difficult to reconcile with Pong, Pac-Man or Pokemon. Jenkins answers by suggesting that such reactions “tell us more about our contemporary notion of art—as arid and stuffy, as the property of an educated and economic elite, as cut off from everyday experience—than they tell us about games.”

Debating the ultimate status of games as an art form strikes me as less important than the potential impact of computer games on artistic expression, more a matter of the interplay between computer games and artistic practice.

It is nice to know that the academic community has been on board to preserve video game history for some time. But it appears that the forefront of research is being taken care of through crowd-sourcing on the web; the release of 15 year old corporate documents draws a buzz a little nerdier and a little less consipracy-laden than the release of new evidence from the JFK assassination.

Poppy Field near VétheuilI suppose it makes sense that if there is a large community that wants insight into the development of today’s work and play software such as the Android OS or next Street Fighter, would also want insight into the games they played when they were young. I wonder how long it will be that the theft of historical source code will make as realistic movie plot as that of Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh, and Degas.

Update: While exploring a compelling new suite of web applications from Aviary, I came across an interesting related note in their work blog that reads:  “There is so much to learn from the implementations of design concepts in games that can be applied to non-gaming.”  A bit off the topic of historical software development, but a nod nonetheless towards important lessons that can be learned from video games.  Read the full entry: 3 lessons learned from Half-Life.

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