Gaming

Uncovering the hidden history of bestselling video games


If you worked on video game magazines in the 90s, there was one sight you got used to pretty quickly. On every desk, in every drawer, there were dozens of DVD-R discs with the titles of games scrawled on them with Sharpies. These were the prerelease versions of games that were sent to us by developers to preview and review. We’d play them on debug consoles (the machines used by developers to build and test games), write our thoughts, then chuck the discs in a pile, or a bin.

Fast forward two decades and game players now realise that such early and unreleased versions of games have genuine historical value. Celebrating its 15th anniversary next month, the website Hidden Palace is a collective dedicated to tracking down and archiving video game prototypes, source code and other overlooked artefacts from the development process. Last month, the site made headlines across the video game world when it announced it had secured more than 700 PlayStation 2 demo and prototype discs – all provided by a single anonymous source. The site staff have logged each disc, digitised the builds and worked with the Internet Archive to make them available.

Many of the discs in the collection, which Hidden Palace has called Project Deluge, are the sort of prerelease press discs that I saw hundreds of while working on magazines such as Edge, Official PlayStation and Arcade in the mid-90s. “I still have four CD folders full of them,” says an ex-Konami representative who wishes to remain anonymous. “We would formulate the lists of how many copies of the code we’d need to send out to magazines, and this would be given to a marketing assistant who would then burn the discs. For the big games – Metal Gear, Silent Hill – the discs would come with the names of intended publications, but for games like Bloody Roar, we’d just be sent a big stack. There would be different builds for each game: historically, we’d see an E3 build, which would be the first reveal, then the preview build, second preview and then review.

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“Internally at Konami, they would also get regular milestone builds, so they’d see a lot more versions. For example, Hudson Soft would come in once a year and present their entire roster of stuff – all off these discs. There would be these very different builds that you’d get to see.”

Indeed, looking through the vast list of PS2 discs procured by the site, which also lets you click on photos of the discs themselves, it’s clear that many are internal developer builds of games because there are so many variations. For example, there are 22 discs containing different versions of Acclaim’s stealth adventure Alias, based on the TV series. Nick Harper, creative director at Acclaim’s Cheltenham studio during the era, recognises them as milestones builds – he’s even able to identify his own handwriting on the discs. “We used to have a disc burner in the basement,” he says. “Someone would write the version number on with a Sharpie – I think one of our discs in Project Deluge says ‘26-ish’ on it, because we’d obviously forgotten what version we were up to!”

An early, unpublished version of Alias.
An early, unpublished version of Alias

“By the end of a project,” he says, “you’d have this massive stack of DVDs. I looked at the photos of the discs on the site for one of the Extreme G games we worked on, and it just had ‘Front End test’ written on it. I expect that one didn’t even have the full game – it would have been just to test the UI [user interface].”

So why are these discs interesting? Why should we care about prototype, demo and milestone versions of old games? Several of the developers I spoke to for this feature drew a comparison with special editions of acclaimed albums, which provide multiple early demo versions of well-known tracks; they may be rough, but it’s a chance for fans to experience a favourite song in a completely different way, and understand how it was transformed through the writing and recording process.

“It’s really interesting when you’ve finished a game to go back through the milestone builds and see the evolution of the product,” says Harper. “You can look at these older builds and glimpse the issues that a team had to overcome to get to release. Often at the start, the game is more ambitious, but then you’re always having to scale down because of tight deadlines or because the target hardware can’t do what you want. Sometimes the earlier versions look prettier because, later on, you’ve had to optimise the poly count.

“There might be different gameplay or, on a racing game, you might see that they’ve had to change the track layout to make it more or less forgiving. So these are quite interesting historical documents. They give you a glimpse into the thought processes of the studio.”

Among those 700 PS2 discs are early versions of important games such as God of War II, Soul Reaver 2 and Shadow of the Colossus, all of which contain subtle differences to the finished games. Digging through these discs is like electronic archeology: you are discovering the remnants of lost ideas, lost features – and sometimes lost games. “Some of the games [we have archived] never got a retail release, because they were cancelled, the developer ran out of money, or the game just wasn’t up to par,” says Luke from Hidden Palace. “These are perhaps the most historically significant, because in most cases very few copies have survived.”

Some examples from the wider Hidden Palace collection include an unreleased version of Doom for the Sega 32X, a cancelled conversion of the VHS board game Atmosfear for the SNES, and a flight battle game named Propeller Arena, which was cancelled after 9/11. (“The build is literally dated September 11,” says Luke). Among the Project Deluge collection is an early demo of a game based on the Alien movie franchise, developed by UK studio Climax Solent and probably a pitch to a publisher which never saw release.

But what are the legal ramifications of copying, archiving and distributing this code? “As most of the games are early prototypes of very popular and commercially valuable video game franchises like Final Fantasy, Crash Bandicoot and Zelda, it is possible that the rights owners will be looking to protect their brand and enforce their legal rights in response to Project Deluge,” says Alicia Morton of entertainment law firm Sheridans. “The fact that these games were unfinished and unpublished is irrelevant when it comes to legal protection, at least under English law: they are treated in the same way as published games.”

However, Morton concedes it will be difficult for publishers to pursue a legal case because Hidden Palace isn’t hosting or distributing the builds itself, and everyone involved in the project is anonymous. There is also a publicity risk attached to going after hobbyist archives. “The reality is, games companies understand the user-base and the PR side of things,” says Julian Ward, head of games at legal firm Lee and Thompson. “A lot of the people who run publishers and developers are gamers themselves, they’re aware of the community.”

A development version of Burnout for the PS2.
A development version of Burnout for the PS2

One thing that’s certain is that there’s a growing interest in properly preserving video game history, both in the academic sphere and in gaming communities. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the European Federation of Game Archives Museums and Preservation Projects and the National Video Game Museum are collecting and storing games. All understand that, after years of institutional apathy toward the value of video games, the pressure is on.

“Video game preservation is definitely in its infancy,” says Luke. “You can draw parallels to movies or television series before they were considered worth preserving. We are racing against the clock, as old chips and discs (especially CD-Rs) are susceptible to something called ‘bit rot’, which is the irreversible loss or corruption of data due to the ageing of the storage medium.”

As a journalist of the era, I feel I should take a share of the blame. I’ve had demo versions of games such as Tomb Raider, Half-Life, Virtua Fighter and Silent Hill on my desk that ended up just being thrown away, used as a drinks coaster or lobbed across the office at the art staff.

Fortunately, Hidden Palace now has several dozen regular contributors and researchers, and a lively Discord server with more than 3,500 users – all looking for that next big prototype find. According to Luke, the source that provided the 700 PS2 discs has many more in their collection from other disc-based machines of the era – we can expect to see them added to the collection, too. Perhaps what the community most needs, however, is support from the industry – not just potentially litigious publishers, but also the developers themselves who may well be holding on to the true historical treasures.

“I’ve got some ‘special’ builds of the very first Burnout knocking around somewhere,” admits Alex Ward, founder of ThreeFieldsEntertainment, and original creator of Burnout. “All the good stuff, the stuff that would never leave the building – it remains in the hands of the developers.” Our Konami source agrees: “I don’t know what I’ll ever do with all these discs as they’re not really mine – I suppose they’ll have to be buried with me!”



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