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'Tales from the GDC Vault': It's GDC Vault Madness!

[In the first of his new 'Tales from the GDC Vault' series, digital historian Jason Scott updates on his continued task, digitizing and contextualizing Game Developers Conference content for the GDC multimedia archives, highlighting two of the just-posted classic postmortems for scrutiny.]

Jason Scott, GDC historian and archivist here. I'm still around! After the end of my historically-themed work for 'GDC 25', it was not 100% clear that GDC would want to continue the process of rescuing/archiving their own past for presentation on the Vault. Well, the word came down and here I am. So let's dive back in.

I'm really glad they made this choice, because a service like the GDC Vault holds a lot of value, whether for game scholars studying trends and events in the industry, or to give newer developers insight into what practices have been in place and maybe even why those practices came about.

To that end, I hope to turn this room of videotape, audiotape and artifacts into a nicely boxed, digitized pile that you can enjoy - most of which will be made available in the free section of GDC Vault.

One part of being the GDC historian is you get to go to GDC. I had a great time, took a lot of photos, and talked to a good number of people. And I got to attend the newest crop of presentations, instead of hearing them off audio and videotape.

Like a certain percentage of GDC attendees, I was really impressed and looking forward to the Classic Postmortems... but I was also keeping my expectations tempered. After all, in some cases the developers were being asked to hearken 10 to 20 years ago, and talk about events that might have fallen by the wayside in terms of memory.

I figured most might go in somewhat nostalgic directions, glossing over harshness or not giving much larger context, in favor of reminiscing about the whole project as being worth all the now-forgotten trouble.

I had little to worry about. The postmortems were amazing. Let me highlight a couple you should check out if you haven't already.


Mark Cerny, who has had a long career in video games with companies including Crystal Dynamics, Sega, Insomniac, Sony, and Naughty Dog, got his big break working for Atari back in 1982.

From this early time came a very unique, very visually arresting game called Marble Madness. For his classic postmortem, Cerny breaks down the choices and process that lead to Marble Madness, and then what work went into the design/hardware of the game itself.

Gamasutra covered this nicely, but I want to additionally point out how effectively Cerny gives a feeling for working at Atari at the time. In particular, he covers the time and iteration issues that hardware/software developers within the company had to deal with, and the amount of design work that was changed or thrown out along the way. His notes and early drawings from that time are excellent, and he shows what decisions he made and why.

The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: The Best Kind of Drudgery

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this February/March, official GDC historian Jason Scott debuts newly digitized audio from multiple years of the show, from an American McGee's Alice postmortem through the Messiah Engine and beyond.]

The UPS guy has started to build up a level of respect for me these days - I get that kind of glance that says somehow I've become one of his big dropoff stops, when it's supposed to all be simple one-box deliveries in a suburban neighborhood. I make it a point to always help unload the truck, which keeps me on his good side and not finding boxes dumped sideways at the end of the driveway or worse.

So when he showed up and I came out, all he had to do was look me in the eye and go "Fourteen".

Fourteen? Well, it appears that while in the process of moving some offices, my corporate masters had packed up every last scrap of material related to GDC, sealed all the boxes, and sent this pile of history off to the archive guy. So now I have all the cassettes, programs, documents, CD-ROMs and flyers for all of GDC's past from about 1996. Not bad. This is what some of it looks like. Some of it:


This is not the same as the first photo I put up a while ago - this is an entire other set of material. Formats include VHS, Betamax, Mini-DV, CD-ROM, Audio Cassette, Jaz Drive (shudder), and in one particularly interesting development, an entire hard drive with the year scrawled on it.

So this is the crossroads, or more accurately the threshold; from here it stops being a novelty to have material to digitize or an inbox with work left to do - from here it starts being a haul. The presentations also can't be cherry-picked like at the start; this is just simply all of them, all types, every subject that the GDC organizers thought needed to be spoken about in later half of the 1990s. It's about duty over fun now.

But that's a duty I think is worth taking on. So I've been going through the tapes I've already digitized, uploading them, and getting things together.

Frankly, this amount of material coming in has meant I've had to really step up the ingesting hardware. Here's what we have going on right now in that department:

The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: An Audio Avalanche

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this February/March, official GDC historian Jason Scott unearths and digitizes late '90s audio talks on the Chinese game market, adapting games, game engineering discipline and making casual games.]

There's quite a huge amount of historical Game Developers Conference audio and videotapes in my to-do pile, so it's been a case of knocking through them as fast as possible, to turn them from decaying analog recordings into longer-lifed digital ones. A few dozen are finished, with dozens more waiting.

When you have a historical archive of a bunch of presentations from such a fast-moving field as game development, it might seem to be a matter of dismissing these historical items as "out of date" and then waiting for the latest and greatest.

But there's something to be said for listening to well-assembled, clear sessions on aspects of game-making that still hold true. Here's a few issues that have been around for some time, and continue to be relevant.

In one notable audio talk we've digitized onto GDC Vault, William Dalton lays out a CGDC 1998 wake-up call that the development environment of games need to bring in the same qualities that software has had for years in other industries.

Entitled 'Bringing Engineering Discipline to Entertainment Development', and now available on GDC Vault, he describes what happens when these time-tested best practices are laid in front of the then-still-young computer game development culture. Listening to it, it might be interesting to compare to your own group's practices and see how many points you have already internalized, and how many have been cast aside.

Elsewhere, noted puzzle designer Scott Kim's 1997 CGDC talk now available on GDC Vault in audio, 'Games for the Rest of Us' has a really amazing delivery style. As he steps through the current state of the game-creation industry and the type of games that are appealing to a mass-market, he drops asides and wry observations that keep his audience engaged and chortling throughout.

The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: No Longer An Issue

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this February/March, official GDC historian Jason Scott goes back to the '90s to unearth classic lectures on coin-ops, modem play and game packaging.]

When things go obsolete in the technical world, they really go obsolete. They disappear like they owe you something, like they're trying to hide out, lest anybody find them. One moment, an issue or discovery seems like it's going to be the one true way - the next, it's not even listed as an option.

Since Game Developers Conference has always been a conference and a conversation about moving forward (with the occasional glance back), it's not surprising that the odd talk would be a wonderfully assembled, well-spoken, insightful presentation about something no longer that relevant. Or, at least, apparently not relevant. Here's a few that went by that got my attention in that theme.

With so much software showing up through online delivery these days,Pam Sandbury and Terry Soo Hoo's 1997 GDC talk on video game packaging, now available on GDC Vault in audio form, sheds a lot of usefulness very quickly. That said, it's a great snapshot of what makes a box stand on its own, and with the expectation that online sales will become more and more the norm, and the need to stand out from the wash of other products growing, it likely has some life left in it yet.

However, if you remember walking through your local software or computer
shop and being entranced by certain boxes and put off by others, these
speakers cover everything from placement and design through to logistics
and brainstorming unique ideas to make your program the must-have on
the shelf.

The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: A Quake Aftershock

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this February/March, official GDC historian Jason Scott goes back to CGDC 1996 for a classic keynote speech on id's Quake from Mike Abrash.]
The videos of Game Developers Conference and CGDC speeches in the boxes mailed to me from headquarters go back to 1996, with a few in 1997, more in 1998, and then a lot more after the turn of the century.
The later ones are on BetaSP and other high-end format tapes, while the pre-2000 recordings tend to be on VHS (or the previously revealed audio tapes).
There's something about those VHS tapes that give them a sense of authority, that we're looking in on a window of a time lost, even though it's barely a decade ago.
The videos are especially interesting considering the huge leaps in computing power since then, where the people in the video talk about boundaries and pushing limits that barely register on our modern radar.
But if you want someone talking about pushing boundaries in the most intense fashion, then you can't do much better than a CGDC 1996 keynote talk from Michael Abrash, formerly of id Software.
Here's some screengrabs from the VHS that we retrieved from the GDC archives:



In a sign of id Software and John Carmack's open policy, Abrash presents this speech about internal coding methods of seminal first-person shooter Quake just after he left the company (and very soon after Quake was released).

The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: We Have (IGF) Video

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next February, official GDC historian Jason Scott puts his first digitized video online -- a showreel of the first-ever Independent Games Festival finalists.]

As part of my contract as GDC's archivist and historian, I am tasked with digitizing audio and video from GDC's multi-faceted and multi-decade past. Audio has been getting all my attention, as it's pretty simple to do, and so dozens of talks will show up in the Vault. But video was always going to be the most difficult part... I just knew it would be, and I wasn't wrong.

First, the video is primarily on VHS tapes. Remember VHS tapes? They're nowhere near as popular anymore, and especially not for the kind of thing you connect to a computer and have it "just work".

There's also issues with getting the right video framing, the best method of recording, and also the whole "turning it into a digitized file" thing. It was, in other words, an excellent way to spend an entire Sunday.

(For the techs at home, I am using a LG DVD/VHS Combo I got at Best Buy (Model #RC897T) going through a Hauppauge! USB-Live2 video ingesting connection, to a Hauppauge! program called WinTV which has 4:2:2 sampling, into TS streams. Then I deinterlace and render out in Sony Vegas.)

So if I'm going to go through all this effort, the first video should probably be something reasonably fascinating, and so here's a screengrab of what I dug up (click to access it on GDC Vault):

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The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: A Numbers Game

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next February, official GDC historian Jason Scott unearths a GDC 1997 talk on the arcane art of pricing retail games in the '90s.]

I've been humming along with audio recording digitization for the GDC Vault (and intend to start doing video as well) and as I cast the net wider, I get to listen to a range of subjects I normally wouldn't sit around for. It's like I'm suddenly an attendee who went to every panel, in every year. And in the front row, besides!

With this mega-attending of a quantum GDC, I've gotten a real appreciation for clear and well-spoken speakers, and subjects presented comprehensively. The titles don't have to sound sexy, and they don't have to have speakers' names that are ripped from the cover of top-selling games. They just have to give a great talk.

So with great pleasure, I present to you "Strategic Pricing", a Game Developers Conference 1997 presentation given by Phil Adam and Ann Stevens, and for which the audio is available on GDC Vault for free. A talk in which... hey, come back here! I'm serious!

Phil Adam co-founded Spectrum-Holobyte, a grand game publisher founded in the early 1980s; the company nearly made it to 20 years before being absorbed by Hasbro in 1998. At the time of this presentation, Mr. Adam is working at Interplay, a company he'd ultimately become president of.

As we're all living in the future now, the urge to point where the past got it wrong is pretty strong. But what I think is more useful than pointing out this prediction versus that prediction is the clear, straightforward way the speakers describe the nature of choosing what price to charge for retail games and when, how to assess the lifetime of a game, and some examples of successes and failures they've been a part of.

The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: Totally Boffo

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next February, official GDC historian Jason Scott makes available online for the first time audio of a GDC 1998 talk about storied adventure game studio Boffo Games.]

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Dornbrook a few years back related to a gaming history project.

As the marketing genius of Infocom, he figured somewhere in the story I was trying to tell, although at the time I wasn't sure how much. It turned out he was extremely prominent in the story, and beyond that, was one of the best interviews I've done throughout the years (out of over 300).

Involved with companies such as Infocom (some time ago!) and Harmonix (more recently!), Mike has been a playtester, marketer, salesman and no doubt a bushel of other, less formal roles. He's been in the games industry for three decades, a remarkable achievement.

Mike's talents are two-fold - he's great at marketing and management for a video game company, and he's got a razor-sharp memory. While asking someone to remember events of a quarter-century ago is at best a fishing expedition with a lot of chances for bringing up old shoes and tires, Mike provided story after story and backed it up with facts; an interviewer's dream.

So it was with pleasure that I found an audiotape called "Look Before You Leap: The Rise and Fall of Boffo Games", presented by Mike Dornbrook at Game Developers Conference 1998 in Long Beach, CA.

The GDC Chronicles: A Report from the Second GDC

[In the latest update in his 'GDC Chronicles' articles ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next February, official GDC historian Jason Scott analyzes the take-aways from a report on 1988's second ever Computer Game Developers Conference.]

If you want to impress your colleagues with your old-school GDC knowledge, be sure to work in how the 25th GDC will not be the 25th year of GDC.

It worked like this. When the first GDC was organized, it was held at Chris Crawford's home in 1988. It was such a wild success, that a second GDC was put together and held at a hotel in the same year, with a panel/session format that has held to the present day. I wasn't there, but thanks to contributed items, I can have an idea of what went on.

Eric Goldberg wrote an article for the Journal of Computer Game Design, Crawford's journal related to games and game-making, describing in overview what went on GDC #2 (then called CGDC). Here's scanned images (with permission) from the Journal:


You can view the article as a pdf file (4.3mb) or browse the images on the GDC Flickr stream. You can also click on individual thumbnails to get an idea of the article's writing.

The article is effusive in tone, happy that the whole event came off with few hitches and pleased at the amount of support shown by the 150+ attendees on the need for a conference focused on game design and issues related specifically to designers.

The keynote was the legendary Dani Bunten, creator of M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold, who gave this advice: Start a family, raise children. Grow as a person and learn from your family what people want from games and how games can best serve the needs of adults and children. Bunten, ultimately, wanted to say that being a nerd or a geek was nothing to be ashamed of, and the assembled attendees could feel pride in their accomplishments and talents.

The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: The Sound of Adventure

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival mining ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next February, official GDC historian Jason Scott presents newly unearthed audio of a 1998 Game Developers Conference lecture led by Steve Meretzky.]

Besides the comprehensive pile of material from Game Developers Conference organizers itself, attendees have been sending in photos, stories, and home movies of their times at various conferences throughout the years. Sadly, nobody is has yet mailed in any console prototypes or cardboard standups, but I'm patient. I'll wait.

Meanwhile, there's this massive pile of tapes, both audio and video, that need some digitizing. I've started with the audio tapes, recordings of sessions and symposiums at GDCs past. Pretty much all I have are recorded professionally, by companies hired to capture the event, and therefore recorded off the mixing board. Eventually, GDC moves away from audio tapes (actual tapes) and shifts over to CD-ROMs with recordings on them, and of course video.

I've always had a soft spot for adventure games, so I thought our first digitized exhibit on this 'GDC 25' journey would be Tape #109 from the 1998 Game Developers Conference, held in Long Beach, California from May 4th-8th. The title of this tape is 'Are Adventure Games Dead?', hosted by Steve Meretzky, and it's now available to listen to on GDC Vault.

Meretzky, now at social game giant Playdom, probably needs no introduction for most of you, but if so, by 1998 he was already recognized as a giant in the field of game design, having made fifteen games for companies such as Infocom, Legend Entertainment, and Boffo.

Many of these were adventure games, of both the text and graphics variety, and in this hour-long seminar (which he calls "a roundtable but with a lot more people"), he presents his thoughts on the state of adventure gaming in the late '90s, and then invites audience members to comment and questions.

While I think the whole tape is worth listening to, I'll just mention some highlights. After a short introduction about how the seminar will go, Meretzky shows the audience (unfortunately, not in a way we can know what was shown) the sales of 18 recent adventure games (1996-1998). The list is dominated at the top by Myst and Riven, with other games' sales leaving Meretzky "shocked" at how low they are.

The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: The Inbox and the Starting Line

[In a new series of posts, official GDC historian Jason Scott will be presenting video, audio, photos and attendee recollections from the last twenty-four iterations of CGDC and the Game Developers Conference event, ahead of GDC 25 in San Francisco next February.]

Hello, my name is Jason Scott, and this is my inbox.

Jason's Tape Inbox

What you see here is the first of what I hope will be hundreds of tapes, documents and artifacts related to the nearly quarter-century history of the Game Developer's Conference.

A short while ago, I agreed to be GDC's official historian and archivist to help celebrate the 25th conference by digitizing as many records of past events as I can. A short time after agreeing to this task, huge piles of boxes arrived on my front porch. The digitization has begun!

GDC Item Catalog

In a twice-weekly posting leading up to the 2011 GDC, I'll be bringing you highlights and discoveries from this process, and posting them for you at the GDC Vault to enjoy and share.

Connecting the Global Game Development Community