Preserving the creative process
Posted at 01:11 on 11th November 2007 - permalink

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to meet Ron Gilbert at an informal “meet the fans” event in London. I asked if he’d ever thought about making the production notes and materials for the Monkey Island games available to the public. His reply (paraphrasing from memory) was:

“Arrr! But why? Who would be interested? So anyway, the secret-“

– which I have to say surprised me somewhat.

I’ve since found that this mindset is quite pervasive in the games industry. Attentions are always focussed on the next big thing, and once a game has shipped it’s assumed to be of no interest except as a historical curiosity. Any documentation made during the development process ends up getting trashed or mouldering away in a programmer’s bottom drawer somewhere. (Occasionally fragments do emerge – such as this excellent ‘Vision Statement’ by the designers of Planescape Torment.)

In many cases access to these materials would answer a lot of players’ questions, ranging from geeky points of trivia about characters and plot up to the rationale for major design decisions. Canny developers would also stand to benefit from swotting up – attempts to cash in on the success recapture the magic of well-loved games and genres would be improved if they sought only to retain the features and conventions that enrich the game, rather than the ones that were imposed by technical limitations or a lack or time.

It would also help to explode a lot of myths, especially among obsessive fans who assume that because a game has the name of a popular franchise on the cover, everyone involved in it’s development must have encyclopedic knowledge of (and unquestioning respect for) previous titles made years ago by people they may not have even met.

Part of the reason that the industry has developed such a cavalier attitude to historical preservation is a lack or resources to devote to a process which has no obvious commercial benefit. What’s needed is a repository for these materials maintained by parties who can dedicate the necessary time and effort to preserving and presenting them.

It’s quite common for universities to keep libraries of the notes and artwork created by authors, illustrators and film-makers, but until recently there didn’t seem to be any equivalent initiative for games developers. So I was excited to discover that earlier this year, the University of Texas announced that it was starting a Videogames Archive, with the involvement of Richard Garriott, Warren Spector and a raft of big-name developers and publishers.

Hopefully this archive will lead to similar efforts being undertaken in Europe and elsewhere, and will help to convince developers that there is some value in preserving and sharing these materials. In the mean time, you can donate (money or items – assuming you agree with the concept and how they’re going about implementing it, of course) to the University of Texas’s archive here.

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