Game Developer’s Conference 2013: What’s Past is Prologue


This year’s Game Developers Conference featured a rage poetry reading (courtesy of Anna Anthropy), two (!) video game museum exhibits, revelations from the developers of the classic games Myst and X-Com: UFO Defense on the trials and tribulations they faced while forging their creations using arcane tools such as HyperCard, and a session called “Caring About Chrono Trigger” which showcased how the work involved in the preservation of video games is now a common interest and responsibility spread across multiple industries.

Since this was my first time attending GDC, I didn’t have a specific agenda and was free to wander the halls and attend diverse sessions at whim. Here are some photos from the show floor and short recaps of the sessions I attended. I apologize in advance for the terrible quality of some of these photos, which I took with the iPhone model circa obsolete.

Video Game Museum Exhibits

1) The Museum of Art & Digital Entertainment


The MADE is a non-profit museum based in Oakland, CA that provides hands-on access to classic games, so gamers young and old get to enjoy the experience of playing them on their original platforms. Their focus is on educating the populace about videogames as an art form, as well as preserving and celebrating the history of their development as an entertainment medium. They also provide free classes for kids interested in programming, and host lectures and game tournaments. For this year’s GDC they installed three exhibits on the first floor of the Moscone Center West Hall: Games You Can Frame, The Sound of Games, and African-Americans in Game Development.

I agree that all of MYST is suitable to frame, but this photo I took of the frame in a frame is not. I am sorry.

I can't blame the photo quality all on my equipment. I also tend not to notice stuff in the background (like human beings) when I am distracted by console dev kits. Blue PlayStation! WideBoy! Dev kits like these were (are?) the lifeblood of game journalists who receive advance copies of games that cannot be played on normal hardware.

Blue PlayStation:

2) The Videogame History Museum

The Videogame History Museum had a larger exhibit installed on the second floor of the Moscone Center West Hall, with one wall filled with free-to-play arcade cabinets, a special exhibit featuring the history of Sega, lounge areas with era-appropriate television sets, coffee tables littered with old game magazines and vinyl records, and playable consoles. This section was jam-packed with history and it was impossible to experience all of it in its entirety. I did reconfirm that Donkey Kong is just as difficult as I remember, and learned that age and experience has unfortunately not improved my Space Harrier skills.

Scenes from the Videogame History Musem exhibit.

Caring About Chrono Trigger

Poster insert from the Nintendo DS version of Chrono Trigger.

The Caring About Chrono Trigger panel featured four heavy hitters in the realm of game preservation: legendary game developer John Romero (Loot Drop), Jon-Paul Dyson (The Strong), Professor Henry Lowood from Stanford University (and frequent contributor to the HTGG blog), and John Sharpe (Parsons The New School for Design). Each spoke briefly about the current state of their various game preservation projects.

1. John Romero

John Romero spoke about a personal project called The Romero Archives. Its five-fold mission is detailed in several November 17, 2009 tweets on

“1. To catalog and preserve the work of artist John Romero, a noted game designer.
“2. To catalog and preserve the work of fellow game designers.
“3. To make this work accessible to game historians, art historians, new media historians, academics, students of design & game designers.
“4. To encourage game developers to archive the design process for future study.
“5. With the assistance of all the above, to make apparent the validity of game design as a valid art form.”

During his GDC presentation, Romero played several clips from interviews he conducted with several notable game designers. The inspiration to begin collecting and curating personal video histories came from work already being conducted at the Computer History Museum, which has a robust library of oral histories.

Capturing oral histories of game designers provides a glimpse into the development process, and exposes the real experiences people have when working for themselves or for various game companies. Unfortunately, a pen and notepad are not great at capturing panel presentations, and most of my notes for this talk look like this: “Dec 1982 Creative Computing article about every computer out David Lubar Beer Run! Mark Turmell process how to draw graphics on the screen.” I am keeping my fingers crossed that this will end up on the GDC Vault as a free video later.

As an apology, I will tell you the embarrassing story I also told Romero after the session ended (and seconds before he ran off to another appointment). The first time I played DOOM, I experienced my first in-game humiliation. I was holding a chainsaw, and someone punched me to death. After Romero left the scene, I remembered an important element of the story – the person who punched me to death, first said in chat that they were going to punch me to death—and then they did it. In my defense, that was the first time I ever used a keyboard/mouse gaming interface, having preferred console gaming most of my life.

For those of you interested in reading about Romero’s own history working on the seminal first-person shooter DOOM, check out David Kushner’s book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture.

2. Jon-Paul Dyson

Jon-Paul Dyson is the director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, which is part of The Strong family of museums in Rochester, New York. There are 40,000 games and related materials at the site, filling up a 260,000 square foot space. Part of the museum’s preservation process involves getting older computers to run games in their original formats, and they currently employ a full-time arcade technician who does repair work. ICHEG also holds a large library of published media about games, with about 120,000 items, more than 10,000 of which are computer and video game magazines. There are also a large number of Prima strategy guides for early games. Archival materials include design documents from Ken and Roberta Williams. I wish I had pictures of these slides to share. Since I don’t, here’s the next best thing: The Strong offers research fellowships, which offers the opportunity to work with these primary sources hands-on.

3. Henry Lowood

Professor Henry Lowood kept his talk short and to the point. The Cabrinety Project (which is described in an earlier HTGG post), requires some outside assistance, in two particular areas:

a. Within the next six months, we will need to start finding the rights holders for the titles in the Cabrinety collection. The only way to provide real access to these titles will be if Stanford has permission to create an environment in the library where it is possible for researchers to truly experience the games and other software as they were originally intended – possibly through emulation. Anyone who is or who knows someone who holds copyright to titles in the Cabrinety collection is someone we will need to contact later. All the better if they contact us first!

b. We want more documentation!  Art, design documents, digital files, source code, etc. If you’re a game designer, developer, writer, artist, etc., get in touch and let us know that you have materials you’d like to donate. Lowood will put on his curator’s hat and take a look.

4. John Sharp

John Sharp is an Associate Professor of Games at Parsons The New School for Design. His talk focused on “preservation through curation,” and described several museum exhibits and collections that center on games and have a specific focus. For example, the Museum of Modern Art acquired 14 video games that were chosen based on their unique design elements, rather than their artistic qualities.

He also brought up the question of whether games needed to be playable when on exhibit. Sharp curated the “Spacewar! Video Games Blast Off”However, Steve Russell’s Spacewar! was designed for the PDP-1, which is problematic because there is literally only one working PDP-1 machine left in the world (at the Computer History Museum). Instead they set up an exhibit where Spacewar! ran in a Java emulator, but because there was an LCD screen display, code was used to simulate the Vectorscope display type that is organic to the game.

Another exhibit that is coming up is at The Museum of Design in Atlanta, which is co-hosting an exhibit with Georgia Tech’s Digital Media Program called, “XYZ: Alternative Voices in Game Design” from July 14,2013-Sunday, September 1, 2013, that is the first to showcase women game designers and artists.

Classic Game Postmortems

1) Myst

This above photo was literally the only picture that came out of all the ones I took, so it's a good thing that Gamasutra posted the GDC Vault video of this session on their website.

2) X-COM: UFO Defense

This is supposed to be a picture of Julian Gollop.

The release of X-COM: UFO Defense in the early ‘90s nicely coincided with my college years. During this time I also discovered Diablo, DOOM, the entire back catalog of the Super NES, Warcraft II, StarCraft, Age of Empires, and X-COM: UFO Defense. I am honestly kind of shocked I graduated in four years.

It's been years but I still remember that compared to some of the other RTS games, there was something about X-COM, with its slow reveal of the map, the hidden aliens, and the knowledge that there was a "true death" around any corner that made it much more frightening than any of its peers. The suspense it generated all stemmed from gameplay, and wasn't dependent on gore, shock, or any of the other elements so common to games today.

X-COM co-creator Julian Gollop presented a detailed timeline of the history of the game's development during the postmortem, describing his collaboration with his brother Nick Gollop, and explaining how close the game came to not getting made at all.

There doesn't appear to be a free GDC Vault video available for this session, so all I have are my handwritten notes. This image shows how several of the "Origins and Influences" for X-COM came from board games: Sniper!, Traveller, and Freedom in the Galaxy being among them.

The video game preservationist in me cringed when he revealed that these two screens are literally the only surviving concept art from the creation of the game.

X-COM: UFO Defense almost didn’t exist at all. After Spectrum Holobyte purchased Microprose UK in 1993, they cancelled the game outright. However, the X-COM team continued to work on the game despite the cancellation, and it was ready for presentation when Spectrum Holobyte decided they needed to quickly make a product they could sell at the end of the fiscal year. As an unexpected bonus, the science fiction themed television show The X-Files also debuted in 1993, which probably helped boost sales. X-COM: UFO Defense was a hit, spawning a number of sequels, inspiring a generation of fans who still cherish it twenty years later.

GDC Developer Rants

I attended many other sessions at GDC, but in the interest of saving space, I’ll just mention a part of the GDC Developer Rants, because John Romero’s name came up in an interesting context. The rants happened on Friday, March 29, 2013, which is relevant because on Thursday, March 28, 2013, Brenda Brathwaite/Romero resigned as co-chair of the IGDA Women In Games SIG in protest of female dancers being used as entertainment during a YetiZen party that was co-hosted by IGDA.

Game designer Anna Anthropy took the mike during her rant segment, and launched straight into a reading of the Carla Ellison poem, “Romero’s Wives.” It was a bold move by a bold person, and it brought parts of the room to standing ovation.

I’d been out of the industry long enough that I didn’t get the context with which the poem used the phrase, “Had to be John Romero’s wife.” Was this some kind of slam on Romero’s husbanding skills? Some rudimentary Googling turned up evidence that this was not a criticism of John Romero, but of a game journalist who had the bad taste to describe Brenda Brathwaite throughout an interview as “John Romero’s wife.” This is akin to someone describing Kathryn Bigelow as “James Cameron’s ex-wife.” Brenda Brathwaite is a legendary game designer in her own right, with a long history in game development. She is particularly well-known for her work as lead designer of the highly-acclaimed Wizardy roleplaying game series. The Cabrinety collection is lucky enough to have multiple copies of titles from this franchise.