[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.
There’s lots of great parts in the postmortem, but I think my favorite is discussing how he uses basic ray-tracing to improve the graphics of Marble Madness, but because of the constraints of the hardware, it all has to be pre-rendered. While amazing-looking, it also entirely crippled Atari’s VAX and was only run on the weekends, where it only freaked out a few people who found the machine unusable, while it calculated the handful of rays needed.
It’s a fantastic video presentation. Check it out for free on the GDC Vault.
One other side-note: during the presentation Cerny thanks Atarigames.com for the extensive documents library they’ve recovered, which allowed Cerny to get access to his own engineering notes – otherwise, they’d have been lost forever. This situation was just recently covered in the incredible When Games Go to Sleep series on Gamasutra – the fact is, preservation and archiving efforts have been wildly ranging at companies, and the result has been losses in both heritage and even further development of a license.
While a post-mortem by John Romero about id Software’s seminal Doom seems like a no-brainer, Romero comments himself that he was unaware of anything like it being done before! Nonetheless, it’s now available for free on GDC Vault in video form.
Co-presenting with Tom Hall, who had left id Software during the development of DOOM was a stroke of genius. There was a cloud of sadness and loss in his departure (he has gone on to an excellent career, post-id) and the talk gave Hall a chance to talk about his contributions to the success of Doom and what his part of the puzzle was.
Romero has always done a very good job keeping artifacts from his own history with video games, and so he was able to step through many, many iterations and choices through Doom‘s process. Some of it is very well known, but some of it isn’t – the unique bubble of hype, expectation, talent and revolution of the title is even stranger from the inside. Turning down an offer to convert Doom into a license title for Aliens takes a lot of guts.
An especially nice aspect of this talk is walking through the contextual events and situations around Doom, and not just this UI change or that optimization. Hall and Romero, who hadn’t worked together on this project for almost 20 years, slip right into joking and trading off observations, a sign of how they’ve gotten along well lately. (A good sign of their working relationship at Loot Drop, the new developer they’ve co-founded.)
These are just two of the classic post-mortems that have arrived in the vault for free – I’ll be discussing more of the talks that are coming online, as well as continuing to rescue lost-lost talks from their cassette graves. Tune in again, next week (this column is now weekly) when I discuss other golden nuggets in my progression through the back catalogs of GDC.