Frank Cifaldi is the founder and codirector, with Kelsey Lewin, of the Video Game History Foundation. The establishment of the foundation in 2016 culminated a series of activities in preserving, collecting, and writing about games, most notably the Lost Levels website, which he started in 2003. Before focusing his work on game history and preservation in the foundation, he was active in a variety of roles in the game industry, including game journalism and development. Henry Lowood interviewed Mr. Cifaldi via Zoom on July 26, 2022. The text of this interview has been edited for legibility and clarity.
Henry Lowood: Let’s start right at the beginning. When and where were you born and raised? Where did you go to school, and if you went to college, where did you go to college?
Frank Cifaldi: I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1982 and grew up there. Didn’t leave until I was an adult. And I just went to normal public schools, experimented with community college for a while before leaving that to essentially start my career in video games. I had been doing freelance work at that point. I had a full-time job. I had freelance, video game journalism, and I was going to school at night. So I had to cut one of those out. So I decided the liberal-arts major probably wasn’t going to do too much for me. So ...
HL: [chuckle] What kinds of games did you play during your childhood? I assume you did play games, electronic or tabletop. What sorts of things did you do with games as you were growing up?
FC: Yeah, you know, typical kid stuff growing up in the eighties and nineties. Had a Nintendo like everyone else did, had a, you know, subscription to Nintendo Power magazine and kinda kept up with that. You know, I think it’s hard for people today maybe to understand, but video games were just kind of toys back then to most of us. And so when I hit an age where I wasn’t playing with toys anymore, the video games kind of dropped off in the same way. So I don’t have this sort of clean continuity where, you know, I grew up playing video games and that’s what inspired me or whatever. It’s like, no, they were toys. They were around. Then they stopped being around and I picked up a guitar instead. Right, and so I’d say I had of the era a fairly typical relationship to video games.
In terms of other games, I mean, I don’t know if I’d call myself a board gamer or anything like that. You know, it was mostly just family stuff, playing Monopoly, things like that. I don’t think I ever actually played a game of Mouse Trap, but I certainly set it up and sprung it frequently. My family was really into Scrabble, not quite my game, but I’d grown up with very intense family Scrabble matches in the living room between my grandpa, my mom, and my aunt. But yeah, I’d say fairly typical. You know, I had a system or two, rented games, got a Game Boy for Christmas, stuff like that.
HL: So after what you just said about games kind of being more in your toy phase as a child, what crossed you over into thinking about things like emulation and game technologies by, I guess around by the end of the 1990s, right? So what was the trigger that got you started finding games, emulating games, and activities like that?
FC: It’s really the internet that did it. I got my first computer and along with it access to the internet in 1998. And, at this time I’m, I don’t know, maybe a junior in high school and I couldn’t tell you exactly what made me start looking at video games on the internet. I think that at that time, you know, you suddenly have like an infinite encyclopedia. So you start just looking up things that do interest you, have interested you in the past. And I don’t know. I stumbled into looking up the games I played as a kid, just out of interest and curiosity in the same way that I was looking up, you know, bands that I liked. It was the same thing, and it was really the discovery of emulation as a concept that caught my interest, maybe just at the right time in my development.
I don’t know, but I specifically remember I was interested in an RPG [role-playing game] series that Sega made called Phantasy Star, and I was on a fan website and one of the sections on the website was like, download the games. And I was like, what? [chuckle] And I, you know, downloaded the ROM of the first game, and I double-clicked it, and nothing happened, but I actually read the text on the page [chuckle] and figured out how they were supposed to get this other program to run it. And I did that and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m playing a Sega game on my computer. That makes no sense.” And it was really just the magic of emulation, along with, at the exact same time, I think, some of the early websites that documented video game history. The one that probably inspired me most, may even still be online, though he hasn’t updated it in forever, is tsr’s NES [Nintendo Entertainment System] Archive. There’s also nesworld.com, which is still active somehow. Between emulation and these sites that are sort of documenting, like, look at these weird games that came out in Japan that you never heard of and stuff like that, I just kind of got interested in games from the past again, but through a new lens of the unexplored, uncharted territory of exploration, as opposed to just navel-gazing nostalgia. And so I got into it in that way and I started exploring games, but also digging into emulation. Just through my natural curiosity, I started digging into like, “Well, where does this stuff even come from?” “How do video games go from a cartridge to a file on the internet? I mean, how does that happen?”
I wound up in communities that were the people who were actually finding these games and building the custom hardware to get the data off of them and writing improved emulation in order to get them working and stuff like that. The origin story I often tell, and I’ve told this so many times that it may no longer be true, just because memory is weird like that, is that—and I know this part is true—I had seen a documentary about the Film Foundation, Martin Scorsese’s nonprofit. It covered a lot of what film preservation took, what the necessities were, why it was important, how media deteriorates. I got spooked by that very spooky stat that the Film Foundation loves to bring out which is, and I’m going to butcher the numbers, but it’s something like 90 percent of American cinema made before 1930 no longer exists. Even if it was subconscious, that inspired me. I became a part of these communities that were hunting down the more obscure video games to make sure that they were digitized and put online. I don’t know if I was using the word preservation yet. I doubt it. I think it was more that, you know, I was a young kid and I wanted access to everything. Like, it was more of an, I don’t know, act of rebellion maybe than preservation at the time. But that’s how I got started getting back into video games. I didn’t mention this, but also at this time you could still go to garage sales and thrift stores and get, you know, beautiful mint-condition in-box games for like five dollars. So I started collecting games at that time, and getting into it from this digital preservation angle as well. It just became a hobby for me at this peak moment in my life, being sixteen, seventeen years old, something like that. When that stuff can just enter your brain and never leave.
HL: You mentioned communities. Do you remember any of the people who were involved? I doubt there were organizations yet, but do you remember any?
FC: Yeah. I mean the forum that really opened my eyes to this practice was SMS Power as in Sega Master System Power, which is still around. It’s run by Omar Cornut, who, like me, ended up in the video game industry. He maintains a very, very popular engineering tool called Dear ImGui, something like that, and runs a game studio called Lizardcube. They did that Wonder Boy III HD [high definition] remake, which is cool. It was like his favorite game of all time that he was talking about on these forums back in the nineties, but his community’s still going. That is sort of the first place. The second place that is long gone, I think, was a website called the Sardius Experience. This was Danny Cowen who also got into the industry. He was a writer at Joystick for a while, but his website had the plain-text document that was the first attempt at, “Here are the Nintendo Entertainment System games that are not online yet.” He had a forum as well. So it was really those two forums. And then, I don’t quite remember how we ended up on IRC [Internet Relay Chat], but there were IRC rooms on FNet that we all sort of got together on to talk about this stuff and start forming something like a scene-release group, but a light version of it to go track the rest of these down and get them online.
HL: I’m going to continue with the collecting in a second, but first I want to ask you one Las Vegas question. Las Vegas has had lots of game and technology expositions, like the Classic Gaming Expo, for example, or CES [Consumer Electronics Show], things like that. Did you attend any of those events? Did they have any impact on you? Did you learn anything there or meet anybody there?
FC: I used to sneak into CES, but this was past the glory days for video games, because once E3 came around in ʼ95, you know, video games weren’t really there anymore. You know, that was happening when I was literally a child. So I didn’t really get to experience CES in my hometown when it was the video games show, but yeah. Classic Gaming Expo. I went to technically the first one in 1999. So I say technically the first one, because in ʼ98 they did hold something called World of Atari. It was very Atari focused, but ʼ99 was, you know, the same show, but they renamed it Classic Gaming Expo. So I’m going to say I went to the first one.
HL: [chuckle] Did you attend World of Atari as well?
FC: No, I did not. I didn’t even know about it.
HL: I just wanted to establish that in case somebody wants to claim precedence over you.
FC: Yeah. I did not go to World of Atari ʼ98, but I did go to the Classic Gaming Expo 1999. I volunteered and helped set up. Yeah. I remember my task when I went early was Joe Santulli handed me an Odyssey, the first Odyssey, and said, “Go hook this up.” And I’d never seen one in my life. There was no cabling for it. But yeah, I got into those communities and went to that expo. Very early.
HL: Okay. So collecting. You’ve talked about that a little bit, but you know, from the standpoint of today, you’ve done so much with collecting documentation, like magazines and so forth. It sounds like you started with games or did you also collect things like magazines at the beginning as well?
FC: Not at the beginning. And I was collecting magazines ... Sorry, collecting video games. Not really from like a preservation angle. It was just that they were still cheap and cool, you know? People reading this might marvel at this, but it really was that you would get games for like, three bucks, five bucks, still mint in their packaging, because they weren’t that old yet. And they weren’t that collectible yet. They weren’t worth anything and so I had, you know, a bookshelf full of complete in-box games that I just got from going to thrift stores and garage sales. There’s a chain of used-toy stores in Vegas called Replay Used Toys and Things that was incredible for video games and just kind of built up a collection and also early eBay.
I purchased maybe a hundred complete in-box games for, you know, an average of four bucks each or something like that and I just liked having them. I don’t know. So that didn’t last too long. I think it was maybe 2004, that I just ... I have a very specific moment where it ended, which is funny. I was at FuncoLand, another source of this stuff, and I had just purchased a very nice, complete in-box copy of Home Alone Two on the Nintendo, based on the movie, Home Alone Two. I went to my car, and I opened the trunk. I just put it down in the trunk and Macaulay Culkin was just staring at me and I just stared back at Macaulay Culkin. And I just had this thought, “I’m never going to play this. Why do I own this? [laughter] I have no love for Home Alone Two. I don’t need to own this in my home. What am I doing?”
I ended up selling my game collection pretty soon after at a Classic Gaming Expo in 2004 or something like that. Might have even been 2002 now that I think about it. Just unloaded it all and Chris Kohler had a field day.
HL: [chuckle] What turned your attention to unpublished games?
FC: So like I said, I was in this community of people sort of tracking these games down, and we were finding some obscure things, digitizing them. I actually got a little bit frustrated by the practice because we’d find these neat, complete games that had not been on the internet yet. There wasn’t an avenue to celebrate or talk about them. It was just like, here’s the latest file, you know, add this to your set, and I didn’t like that. This is cool. We should be adding context. We should be talking about these games. And so I started on Tripod or Angelfire or whatever I started, just a free website. I started doing write-ups on these games that were being distributed. Just, you know, like, “Hey, here’s …” I don’t know if I had the skills yet to give you history, but it was just like, you know at least a little minireview, something graphical.
So it was a little bit of that. It was a little bit also of, you know, going to these expos, meeting these collectors. There was this concept then of prototype video games, right, of games that either never shipped at all or games where you might say, “Hey, there’s an early version because a magazine got it before it was done”—that kind of stuff. And it was this guy, Jason Wilson, in particular who was in these communities looking for rare games to add to his collection. I sort of knew about the concept of these nonretail games through him. For example, EarthBound (Nintendo’s RPG) was unreleased on the NES, the English-language version anyway. That had made its way online really early on. So, you know, it was a concept I was familiar with. It’s a combination of wanting more context, of understanding the collectibility of these things. And then finally, understanding that there are these sort of prototype games out there. I started hunting for them in my own way. I reached out to a programmer; Chris Shrigley is his name. And this is cool. I recently got to tell him, like very recently, that he inspired my career path in a weird way. I saw his resume online. I saw that he had converted a Milton Bradley board game called HeroQuest to the Nintendo as part of his resume, which is not a game that shipped. So I emailed him and asked about it, and he replied with the entire source code repository. [chuckle] And digging through it, we found a built binary of the game. We still can’t build from source—although I haven’t looked at it in twenty-something years, maybe I can now. And you know, launched in an emulator, there it was. It had this gorgeous soundtrack by Neil Baldwin who was just a maestro of that particular system. He is one of the best composers on that system. Not only, it’s not just this boring conversion, it’s like a real game from Eurocom and a known studio with this original, beautiful soundtrack by a really, really great composer. I just [chuckle] had to email the guy and ask, and I think you know that before that it was like fighting with collectors over the scraps that made it to eBay or whatever. But then I found that, hey, maybe there’s a better way to recover this stuff.
I’ve never been good at being given the instructions and running with them. I’m an easily bored person. My efforts at that point were like, “Okay, how obscure can I get? What is the stuff that no one else is going after?” And so I was doing things like I had a small business in high school where I was importing Taiwanese Nintendo games, because there was a whole industry there. This company, Sachen, made sixty-something games for the Nintendo. They were still in business, which no one seemed to realize but me, and I was bulk importing rare Taiwanese games and selling them to collectors. And of course, you know, digitizing them on the side. I didn’t have the skills, actually. Kevin Horton was doing that. He now works at Analogue, the guys who are doing those FPGA [field-programmable gate array] consoles. The Analogue Pocket is his baby. But yeah, I was always trying to figure out what’s the best use of me? You know, what’s the best use of this obsessive person who’s really into this? And after that interaction with Chris Shrigley, I decided these unreleased games, these are the most volatile things. I don’t need to be the person who’s hunting on eBay for things that were sold in stores. I can be a person who’s doing the social engineering of tracking down lost or maybe, you know, not quite complete or whatever video games.
I had that in mind. What sparked Lost Levels was that—I know I just said, I don’t need to be the person scouring eBay—but it wasn’t eBay scour that [chuckle] got Lost Levels going. There was a seller on eBay in Spain who had been slowly listing what were clearly like magazine reviews, cartridges, video games from the eighties and nineties, you know, what we would call prototypes. I think it’s a flawed word, but that’s just what the collectors took over as etymology for video games. So they’re prototypes now. He was slowly listing some fairly uninteresting games. So I messaged him on eBay. He clearly had a lot. I had heard from someone that he said he had more and I asked him for a list. He sent me a giant list of around two hundred video games that he had in prototype form. Clearly this was, you know, a magazine’s archive or something. In that list were like four or five NES games that never shipped that we didn’t know of another copy of. These auctions were ending at, I don’t know, a 100, 150 bucks. He didn’t know these particular games were unreleased. So I said, “Hey, look, if you want to do a deal off eBay, I’ll give you two hundred bucks for these five.” [chuckle] And he said, “Okay.” And so suddenly I had, I don’t remember, it was like four or five completely unreleased NES games that no one had seen before that we had managed to snipe away from the collector’s market that we now didn’t have to compete with. I had this philosophy that unreleased games are the most volatile. We should focus on that. I suddenly had this pile of games. I also had this group of like-minded people that I’d been collaborating with for a couple years at this point. And it was just like, “Hey, let’s start something that’s specifically about unreleased games. Like that’s the stuff that we’re all the most interested in. That’s the stuff that we know is most valuable. And again, like, I was getting bored with, you know, just pop a file on the internet. I wanted context. So, I thought I’d start this website and try to find the people who made the games, get their stories, stuff like that, and start preserving video game history. In the back of my head, it was also, “I don’t know, I’m in school with maybe an English major, I’m not quite sure yet. Maybe I’m a writer.” [chuckle] So it was also sort of a portfolio thing. Maybe I’ll start writing for magazines about video games. Never an ambition really before that moment, but yeah, that’s how Lost Levels came about. And it was an attempt at documenting unreleased games, both from an oral-history perspective and from a digital-files perspective at the same time.
HL: I have a semitechnical question about unreleased games. There is a category of games—I’ve seen a collection of these in Germany, for example—of prerelease versions of games that are submitted for ratings and reviews, of course, for magazines. Do those count for what you were interested in? Or were you really looking only at games that never saw the light of day in publication form?
FC: Lost Levels specifically?
FC: Lost Levels specifically was just unreleased games. I would count among unreleased games, unreleased translations of games. Let’s put it that way. But this is a not-quite-finished version of a retail game. I mean, there’s plenty of other avenues for that. I wanted a dedicated space to preserve the stories behind unpublished works.
HL: Okay. So, that was Lost Levels. What was Redeye.net? Was that before or after Lost Levels?
FC: Oh, that was before. Yeah, that was before. That was a proto–Lost Levels. It was an unreleased game—no, sorry—just RAM-dumping repository place.
HL: This is a looking-back question then we’ll move on to your journalism and then to the game-history foundation. If you look back from today, and you may not want to hear this, but you’re coming close to twenty-five years of doing this stuff, right?
FC: Yeah. Yeah.
HL: What would you say, looking back at it from today, that history meant for you at that early stage? Game studies was not quite in existence yet. Some game-studies people like to say 2000 was the year that it started. So, you know, you’re starting all of this or at least you’re getting on track even a little before that. What would you say it meant to you at that point? What were you after personally?
FC: I mean, the best analog I can give you, Henry, is the film-preservation analog.
I was horrified by the film industry’s lack of preserving its own heritage, you know, in its earliest days. I didn’t like the idea of that happening again with video games, which as you know, it has. I think my philosophy of that has evolved over the years to mean that we didn’t save the actual source material, but at the time, my perspective was there are entire games that people worked on for a very long time that no one ever got to see and it wasn’t necessarily because they were bad. I didn’t like that. And, you know, I’m talking about the Nintendo a lot and the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, that was my focus for a long time, in a lot of ways. It’s still a first-love thing for me. But specifically with unpublished work on that system, I understood very early on and I still understand this, that system was very unique when it comes to unpublished work, because there was a gold rush at the time. Any game made money, and development was still fairly cheap to do. Nintendo of America limited you if you were a publishing partner to five titles a year. So, it was this perfect storm where someone like a Capcom might develop ten games in a year and just ship the five that they felt the most confident in marketing. And then the other five might be these complete, polished, ready-to-manufacture games that they just had no avenue to manufacture, so they got scrapped. I don’t shed tears over unfinished work that wasn’t coming together. You know what I mean? That happens in any creative pursuit, right? Movies get abandoned you know, before they’re shot—things like that. And it’s not a big deal to me that we can’t access that work, but there was something and there still is something about entirely finished games that from the perspective of the people who made them were done and ready to be sold, that just never got sold. And therefore, you know, these games were killed purely for marketing reasons as opposed to being unfinished or being bad, right? It was and still is, especially for that system, a shame for a lot of these games to disappear, because they’re real products. They’re in a lot of ways just as valid and sometimes better than the stuff that made it to the shelves. They tend to be these missing pieces of people’s careers that again are like complete, polished, and occasionally pretty decent, games. Your question was, “How did I feel about history and game studies and stuff like that?” The way I felt at that time was that, well, we’re missing a lot of it. I did not know about game history studies. I saw it coming. I don’t know that I would have put it that way necessarily, but it was clear to me early on that this stuff is really important and there’s going to be books about these games. My place in the world, I thought, was just to make sure that when people are ready to tell these stories, they have the things that they need. I just pitched the foundation just then. [chuckle] That’s our elevator pitch right there. I’ve been me for a long time.
HL: Two things I’d say to that is if somebody would ask me to pigeonhole you, I think I would go with game archivist rather than game historian.
FC: Sure. I agree.
HL: Because I think that’s where your passion is: preservation, making sure the materials are there.
FC: Yeah. We can go down this hole whenever you want, but for me, about the actual historian part of this: I hate writing. I don’t like publishing things. [chuckle] I do it as a proof of concept. This is why I do what I do. Everyone should go do stuff like this. Occasionally, there’s stories that I want to tell, but the storytelling isn’t my passion. It’s the availability of the materials and stories then can be told.
HL: The other little quick hit is the Scorsese story you told. I’ve heard that from one other person. And that other person is Warren Spector.
FC: That doesn’t surprise me at all. Yeah.
HL: Well, you just mentioned hating writing. So of course, my next questions are going to be, how did you transition to writing? You have a long writing resume; we won’t go through all of it in detail.
HL: But Insert Credit and Gamasutra, One Up, GameTap, which I want to talk about separately afterward, are all places where you wrote. How did you get into journalism actually being a gig for you? How did that happen?
FC: Yeah. Again, not a passion, but a skill that I had. And, you know at this time, I was, I don’t know, twenty years old, something like that. Not really sure what I’m doing with my life. Writing words for a living seemed reasonable as a career path. But you know when I realized that maybe I can write about video games, that sounded cool. I had the magazines as a kid or whatever, but I wasn’t an avid video game [enthusiast]. I didn’t keep up on the news or anything like that. I never felt like I’m part of gamer culture or whatever, but you know, there was a valid career path doing that. I could write. I was into this video game history. And so again, part of Lost Levels was maybe it was a portfolio, and I can just do this. Long story short is that it worked, but the first way I got anyone’s attention was this website Insert Credit, which is still around as a podcast that I am on. But at that time, it was trying to redefine how people talk about video games. It sort of spawned what I believe Kieron Gillen has termed new games journalism, which makes me shudder, just like paste Hunter Thompson onto video games, but it was a website that was trying to do things differently, that was speaking like people speak about video games and covering the really obscure, weird stuff. I don’t entirely remember how I got hooked up with them. I think it was a friend of mine, Ian Adams, who also ended up in the video game industry. He was a fan of that website and a friend of mine. And I think he just made Brandon Sheffield pay attention to me. I ended up, just for free, for fun, doing a couple articles for Insert Credit. At that time, 2004, Insert Credit was where recruiters went to look for talent for video game journalism. Like Insert Credit was the spawning ground for freelance video game writing. And so I think it was two days later that someone was talking to me about freelancing for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, which was my first gig. And then Simon Carless, whom you know, was a big fan of Insert Credit and actually worked with Brandon at that time, I think. I think Brandon was at Game Developer magazine at that time and started recruiting me to do a little bit of freelance for Gamasutra. I don’t remember what my earliest stuff was, honestly. No, I do. My first thing was I started a column called Playing Catch Up, and the idea was, there are people from the industry’s past that we just haven’t heard from in a while. I didn’t like, “Where are they now?” because that assumes that they’re done, you know? [chuckle] But it was more of a, “Hey, what have you been up to? We haven’t heard from you in a while.” My first one was interviewing Al Lowe, the Leisure Suit Larry guy, because we hadn’t heard from him in a while. Which is funny, because I’m about to moderate a panel with him at PAX [Penny Arcade Expo]. It’s coming full circle. But yeah, I ended up getting all this freelance work. Gamasutra had these fun little columns, at Nintendo Official Magazine UK I was reviewing bad licensed GBA [Game Boy Advance] games, just total starter stuff [chuckle] You know, playing them on emulators, because why not?
It went from there and for me it was, you know, money. It was slightly more rewarding work than the mental-health clinic that I was an administrative assistant at. And I kind of liked that it kept me close to my passion, which was the archival slash history stuff with games, which, you know, just infected me everywhere I went. Like, my first column at Gamasutra was Let’s Talk to Old People [chuckle]. So yeah, that’s really how it got started. And that was my start in video game journalism as a paid thing. It was 2004 or something like that.
HL: You know, most of the people reading this interview are probably used to academic writing, but not to regular trade or journalistic writing. Can you summarize what that work is like when you write for magazines and websites about games, whether you’re on the staff or a freelancer? How do you find stories? What are the assignments like? What’s production like?
FC: Sure. I mean, in those earliest days it was a lot different than when on staff or whatever. But as a game reviewer, it really was just wait for my assignment and get sent the file or the cartridge. And, you know, here’s your word count, here’s some samples of the magazine, so you understand our tone. It’s British, it’s very “lad-mag,” as they say. And go, you know, submit your draft. I’ll add in some Britishisms [chuckle] before we publish and then you’re done. So, I mean that’s what that was. Gamasutra as a freelancer in those days, I wasn’t a freelance news reporter or anything. I was a freelance columnist. And so it was developing with Simon Carless columns that I could do on the regular. So I mentioned Playing Catch Up, [and I] had a second one around that time called Media Consumption. Playing Catch Up was, “Hey, we haven’t heard from you in a while. What have you been up to?” Media Consumption was, “Hey, we have heard from you in a while. [chuckle] You are a known quantity, but let’s talk about things that aren’t video games.” We would track down creative people and ask, “What are you watching? What are you listening to?” Actually, “What are you playing?” was part of it too. It’s just like, “What is the media that is inspiring you right now as a creator?” And Gamasutra, we should specify in this interview, is—well, was, they changed the name—a peer-to-peer game-development publication. These were columns meant to inspire game developers. So, that’s how that went. But you know, I think you’re asking, “Okay, once you’re on staff, you are like the news editor eventually, right?” You’re kind of asking what’s day-to-day publishing that way?
FC: At a site like Gamasutra, which is now game developer.com? Thank God. [chuckle] People were so mad about that name, too.
HL: Source of endless confusion on top of it, because there always was the link to Game Developer magazine.
FC: We had Game Developers conference, Game Developer magazine, and gamasutra.com. [chuckle] And we owned the domain gamedeveloper.com that whole time. God, people were mad about the name change, and it’s like, “Yeah, you never had to tell someone you worked at Gamasutra.” [chuckle] But you know, day-to-day as news and features editor, a lot of it was, you know, we had freelance news writers and we’re just kind of keeping up on the news. And for a website like that or later One Up, I don’t know that I ever had a story quota, like this is how many stories must be published today, but there is an expectation that even if the news isn’t that exciting, we need more stories on the homepage was kind of, you know, the philosophy, at least at that time. I’m sure still to some extent today. And so, it was a combination of having freelancers sort of working at home and myself writing up stories, and it was, “Oh, we got this press release. Let’s interpret, you know, that run of story.” Like “Oh, this other website got this interview. And there’s something interesting to extract from there, write a story about that.” We had original columns, like the ones I was doing; we had some others that other freelancers were doing. And really the goal was just make sure that our website is always vibrant and fresh and that there’s always new content being pumped in through working hours. You know, back in the days when people would just type in the address of a website and see what’s new there. [chuckle] That’s not really the world we live in anymore. And so, yeah, it’s a lot of just wrangling freelancers. It’s a lot of monitoring traffic, looking for trends. And you know, honestly, less trends and more like “We are not going to hit our numbers, let’s come up with some original reporting that we think will go viral.” Through my various careers news editor was kind of my main job, [and] I would say it was always a traffic-based business. And so, it’s “How do we generate more traffic?” In the best of times it was a hot story. In the worst of times, it was keep reducing the size of the pages so that people have to click through to the next page and give us another number [chuckle]. But yeah, it’s that. It’s setting up the standards. I was very pleased to learn that. So I wrote up best practices for publishing a[s a] news story on Gamasutra in 2011, or something like that. I was very pleased to learn that as of like, four months ago, they were still using it. [laughter] I just gave access to the current news editor to edit it so that they can update it finally. But literally, my Google doc was still, I guess, being linked from the backend, from the CMS [content management system] [chuckle] where it’s—“Hey, before you write this, make sure you do understand our guidelines.” I could talk about the role of being a news editor forever. I don’t think that’s terribly useful. But from my perspective, it’s always just making sure that we don’t lose ourselves to our traffic needs, you know, sort of balancing the business needs of staying online, staying paid, with making sure that we have a product that is unique and that’s us and that people are coming to us specifically to get something they can’t get anywhere else. So that was a little easier with Gamasutra because there weren’t any other industry publications that covered things from an art and philosophy perspective, so we could always kind of rely on that. There are other business websites, but there weren’t others that were covering the art of making games. So we could always rely on that. And then, you know, One Up was just a lot of, “Okay, what games have an anniversary coming up that are incredibly popular? Let’s get out a fifty-page page Zelda thing, to keep people going.” [chuckle] And we used to also like, I don’t know if Digg is still around, but we used to game Digg to make sure that we were like front-page Digg. It’s a dirty business sometimes, but ...
HL: Digg. Oh, okay. Digg makes me think of the Atari dig, but ...
FC: No, D-I-G-G. It’s kind of light Reddit, right?
FC: Yeah. Digg is still around, digg.com. Used to be, you know, in the sort of pre-Twitter days, that’s where news would go viral.
HL: Before we get to the foundation, I want to ask you about one other thing, which is GameTap. It’s an interesting item on your resume, because it’s a little different from other things. For our readers, I will just say that GameTap was this Warner service that was quite early, I would say too early with streaming access to a game library. The elevator pitch was Netflix for games or something like that.
FC: Although, I don’t even know if Netflix was digital yet at that point. [chuckle]
HL: Yeah. That’s true. [chuckle] That’s actually a really good point. I forget how long ago GameTap was founded, 2005. I’ve seen articles from you with GameTap as your employer from 2006, 2007. So you must have started there pretty early?
FC: Well, I didn’t write articles at GameTap.
HL: What did you do there? That’s the question then.
FC: I was the editorial director of the actual video game product. So GameTap was, you know, an executable program. It later became a website, but at that time it was an executable downloadable program and you paid for a subscription for all-you-could-play access to the entire library of things that we had licensed. And at one point we had over a thousand games. My job was just all of the copy in the client; that doesn’t mean I wrote it all. I was just in charge of it all. So that included promotional banner ads, pushing you to, you know, games that we wanted you to play that week or initiatives that we had going: contests, stuff like that. It was the overview descriptions of the games themselves. It was the instructions for playing the games. It was historical trivia. And yeah, that was mainly my actual on-paper role. But I actually had a full-time writer and a lovely freelance budget, so it didn’t take up too much of my time. [chuckle] And so, really what my job ended up being was more of being part of the content planning in terms of like, “Okay, what games should we prioritize in terms of putting tech work into getting them working?” It’s similar to running a new website really. It’s, “Okay, every week should be exciting because we release games on Wednesdays.” So, it’s just making sure that we’re spreading things out appropriately to maintain interest and retain our customers, make sure there’s like a Tomb Raider or Hitman or whatever every week. Technically, there was a community manager, but I ended up doing a lot of community management there. I touched a little bit of all things content, worked with the video team a little bit to help do the preproduction work on a documentary on the making of Sonic, The Hedgehog, stuff like that. But yeah, mostly it was just a daily grind of making sure that we were retaining customers from the perspective of an editorial department.
HL: Based on your time there, would you agree that it was a failure? And if so, why did it fail?
FC: I mean, certainly from a financial perspective, yeah, I’m sure it was a huge failure. I never had access to the numbers. I did have access to the contracts that we gave to game publishers, and they certainly didn’t fail on the … [chuckle] Oh my God. You’re welcome, EA. God. We really thought Ultima was worth a lot of money apparently.
HL: Well, it was Warner money, right?
FC: It was. It was Time Warner. We were, yeah. I don’t remember the name of the division, but it was the division of Time Warner that consisted of Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, and GameTap. I think those were the three products that were in that same category. We didn’t work with the cool cartoon people. They gave us a separate building in an abandoned train station or something. But we were next door to Creative Loafing, which is a cool alt weekly, so that was kind of nice. But why did it fail? I don’t really understand how big business works, so I couldn’t give you a real answer there. I suspect that a lot of the investment in that product wasn’t necessarily 100 percent from the perspective of running a video game product. I think that it might have been Time Warner investing in the idea of digital content delivery, period. Because we had an entire video team creating original video content that no one watched, but you know, we had this whole pipeline of creating and publishing original video content. So I don’t know if it was a failure ... You know, I only know how to run very tiny businesses. I don’t know how to scale up and say, “Okay, well, that experiment was worth the money.” Right? I just don’t have enough insight on GameTap. I suspect that it was a failure financially, but I don’t know for sure that they ever were banking on it making money. It always just felt to me like we were a science experiment for them.
HL: Yeah. The reason I’m curious about it is that, as a game library that was at least open to academic use, it was a nice moment that hasn’t really been replicated since then.
FC: Well, I mean, we’ve got ... I mean, whatever Xbox’s thing is called is kind of the closest analog now.
HL: Yeah. I guess.
FC: But yeah, I agree with you. And okay, so from another perspective, right? “Why didn’t it actually capture the attention of the game-playing public?” Right? I don’t know. You have got to remember, this is 2005 or something. We hadn’t adopted Spotify yet. You know what I mean?
HL: Yeah. Sure.
FC: I did. I was a Rhapsody subscriber from day one practically. I kind of understood the appeal of “pay a subscription” instead of buying stuff pretty early on, but that’s just not where the world was yet. Could it work now? I think of Steam or Epic. Well, Epic, I think they do it. I don’t know. I can see it working on an existing platform today. Let’s put it that way. But I think it was just way too early at the time. I don’t think it could have worked. And it’s a shame because it worked beautifully from a tech perspective. Everything worked amazingly, but it just was a really hard thing to explain. There was a lot of investment in things that I didn’t necessarily agree with that, on paper, might have made sense. Like GameTap invested a lot of time and money and energy into this concept of episodic video games being the future. So, they had Sam and Max from Telltale. They had American McGee’s Grimm. There was this Derek Smart flight game that I think they canceled. I think he finished it and we didn’t ship it, but there was a lot of internal production stuff for that. We were focusing a lot on that. We were generating original animated series. I don’t know, that didn’t make sense to me, because the product we were selling was “play all the games you want,” but we were also feeding you original video even though you’re already a subscriber, and I don’t think anyone subscribed for the video. You know what I mean? It seemed like a really weird play. I feel like it’s one of those things where maybe it could have worked if it were tempered down and allowed to just kind of breathe and find its footing, but because it was just trying to be all things at once all the time, it just seemed like a really huge money sink. But again, I have no insight into [what] the high-level goals even were internally. [chuckle] It clearly wasn’t getting enough subscribers, and the numbers I was privy to were a little bit dire in terms of player retention and stuff like that. American McGee’s Grimm, the episodic series I mentioned, it was like twenty-something episodes. And that final episode, which was free, you didn’t even have to pay us to play it. That final episode was played like 120 times.
HL: Oh god. [chuckle]
FC: Yeah. Clearly, a lot of what they were trying to do didn’t work. I don’t know. The leadership at that company would just kind of disappear [chuckle] in weird ways. I don’t know if I want to badmouth ex-colleagues necessarily, but we didn’t really have a captain helming the ship at all. It was a mess.
HL: Okay. So, let’s move forward about a decade to the Game History Foundation.
HL: So, I was looking at the filings, the foundation was founded in 2016, so you’ve actually been around for six years now, which surprised me.
FC: Not me. [chuckle]
FC: I’ve felt those six years. [chuckle]
HL: It’s headquartered in Oakland, although I imagine, from what I’ve seen, it’s pretty distributed.
HL: Can you describe basically what the thoughts were that led to creating the foundation, and then how it’s been structured?
HL: And I guess how it works.
FC: I mean, the ways it started and what we are now are very different conversations, so we’ll have both.
FC: So, we didn’t even get into my game development career, like—
HL: Do you want to? We can take a few minutes on that.
FC: Sure, because it’s part of the story that got me here.
HL: Let’s do it.
FC: I kind of realized, I don’t know, around 2013, something like that, working at Gamasutra that this video game journalism thing, or just online journalism in general, I didn’t see the future in it anymore. It’s like, I’m never going to buy a house. [chuckle] I’m never going to have an adult salary in the Bay Area if this is my job. I just kind of realized that. And not that game development was much better, but at that point, having worked at Gamasutra twice for several years combined and hung out with people who made and published games, I felt like I at least fundamentally understood how game development worked. And also, I had friends in the industry. Mike Mika specifically, who is the studio director of Other Ocean, I was hanging out with him. I kind of let him know, “Look, I’m looking for a change. Do you think this could work?” And he, very quickly, just said, “Yes, come on in.” And I had a job really, really quickly, which was surprising. I was hired on at Other Ocean to just sort of be a little bit of everything. I saw my job primarily as I wasn’t that young, but compared to the average age of the studio, I was the young blood who will have fresh ideas and the person who will pick up on all the stuff that no one feels like doing, like making an org chart, [chuckle] writing our internal newsletter, and some biz dev, business development and conceptualizing of games and stuff like that. And so I worked there full-time for, I don’t know, four or five years, something like that. The role kind of quickly evolved into essentially designer slash producer, and the main thing I ended up having as my role there was spearheading the launch of a game label within the company, Digital Eclipse—producing and directing, and doing all things but engineering on our first proof-of-concept product, which was Mega Man Legacy Collection. So the business we were trying to establish was, “Hey, instead of ...” And again, I’ve always been me. This is the exact same story of how I was bored with just putting ROMs on the internet. Let’s give them context. I was bored with video game classic game compilations being like, “Here’s eighty games. Good luck, kid. [chuckle] Appreciate these for some reason.” And so, legacy collection was a proof of concept of this is not a value pack of old stuff. This is the equivalent of a hardcover art book on your shelf celebrating these games. It just happens to be running on a video game console, because that’s the product I wanted to see in the world. And so that’s what I ended up doing mainly there, worked on that. That one was my baby. Then I stepped back a little bit to start the early seeds of the foundation.
[I was] working here and working with Mike and still, you know I’m doing the video game preservation stuff on the side this entire time. Let’s not lose track of that. I’m still collecting magazines, which we didn’t even talk about. I was, you know, digitizing unreleased games, popping them online. I was still doing all this work just on my own this entire career. I always viewed my career in video games as a way to stay close to my real work, which was the preservation stuff, but also make a living, right? Because I couldn’t make a living doing video game preservation, unless I took that job at The Strong [National Museum of Play] that I didn’t take. And so I think the moment that the idea of “start a nonprofit,” that’s probably a decade old at that point, right? I think a combination of things led to the foundation, a couple things. One of them was Mike Mika and I, we were on the advisory board and we’re invited to the opening of the Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian. And as part of that trip, I contacted Dave Gibson at the Library of Congress because they had started their video game collection. I contacted him and asked, “Hey, can we come look at this and meet you guys?” So, Mike and I drove to Culpeper and went to the Library of Congress. I don’t remember what it’s called, film and audio archive or something like that in Culpeper [Audio-Visual Conservation Center at the Library of Congress Packard Campus]. I don’t think they get too many visitors. They were very happy. [chuckle] They carted us into this beautiful theater that was built into their facility and they screened a film about the importance of the Library of Congress, with quotes from Groucho Marx about how important it is and stuff like that. [chuckle] It’s very cute. And we went and looked at their video game collection, which was interesting. It kind of consisted of when video game publishers, for reasons unknown, submitted an entire video game to the copyright office, which they didn’t have to do. And so anytime that happened, they just put them aside, and they ended up being the core of this video game collection. We’re talking to them about their challenges and how, you know, they’re equipped to do all these amazing things, but there’s too much red tape for them to really accomplish too much. They can’t go out and ask for things and they are existing behind this bureaucracy that is preventing the real work from happening. I should also say at this time, like you know, I met you really early on, Henry, running the Game Preservation SIG [special-interest group] of IGDA [International Game Developers Association]. I met John Paul Dyson at his first GDC [Game Developers Conference] and had visited The Strong by that point, I’m pretty sure. Like I kind of knew the lay of the land of what the institutions were and what they were doing. And I think for Mike and me, just something about that trip, you know, and the two-hour drive back to DC, I think we just got to talking and it was, “We should probably just do this for real.” There are so many challenges that we are recognizing as people in the industry that we do not believe institutions are equipped for. We don’t think institutions are equipped for handling video game source code, for really understanding the sort of retro enthusiast and collectors communities and how they fit into the larger puzzle, for understanding software emulation and how that can be used for proper preservation, and what they might need support on to further their practice, and then how they might become legitimized. The foundation started there, I think. And when it launched, the pitch was I had to use my status to fundraise essentially, because I did have sort of a following on Twitter as the video game preservation guy. I wanted something to be bigger than me, but I kind of had to focus on me to, you know, to get any money raised. It had to come from my fans or followers, or whatever.
So, the initial pitch was essentially, “Hey, I’ve been doing this for like fifteen years on the side. What if it was my job? What else could I get done if this were actually my job? Let’s maybe figure this out together.” The concept at that time, which we kind of came full circle on and back to was, look, video game preservation is hard. Video game history storytelling is also hard. I think one feeds the other. I think that the reason that video game history is so hard is because the tools suck. We don’t have easy access to source material. I remember just being really inspired by, like, oh, specifically, I remember the commentary track on the Casablanca DVD by Roger Ebert. So, Roger Ebert does this commentary track over Casablanca and he’s giving all this insight into the production of this movie and it’s coming from surviving studio notes. It’s coming from old scripts, right? It’s coming from photos on the set. It’s coming from, I don’t even remember what else, but it’s clearly coming from all this material that was sourced material at the time that existed in places that he could get to so that he could tell the story on this DVD. And I’m just watching this going, “We don’t have that remotely for Super Mario Brothers.” We just have a video game to play, and maybe some contemporary coverage of it, but that’s it. And so the foundation was started as this notion of “Let’s build a digital repository of video game information for study,” and let’s start getting better video game history out there. It was a combination of collecting material that is of use and of—we really like to use the term stoking the market. We publish things on the blog and on YouTube and stuff like that, just to be like, “See? [chuckle] When you have access to stuff like this, here’s the kinds of stories you can tell.”
I’m just going to steamroll right into what we are now. So, you know, for us, really the pitch is that video games are, at least financially, if not culturally, the dominant medium at this point. And yet, if you walk into Barnes & Noble and look at the shelves, you’ve got three giant shelves of film study and history. You’ve got three more of music history and study. And then for video games, there might be two actual books, [chuckle] like Console Wars and one of the other ones, and then maybe a couple art books, right? And then that’s it. To us, that makes no sense. That does not feel right. And it’s the same with documentaries as well. There are just not a lot of documentaries about video game history. And when there are, it’s the same five stories, and they’re all told from the perspective of, you know, the white dudes in charge. It’s all business history and not art history. It’s really strange. And so our goal at the foundation is to start riding that ship before it’s too late, because we’re at a point in history where people are dying now. You know, Ralph Baer dying was the beginning of that, right? We’re at this point now. We’re getting old. We’re starting to lose the actual stories of especially the earliest days of this industry, which by the way, I still think we’re in the talkies era of. I think we have a really unique story of the foundation in that we’re not coming at this from an institutional perspective. Kelsey [Lewin] and I don’t come from that world. We don’t have library degrees, right? We didn’t work in museums or archives or anything like that. We are people who call ourselves frustrated video game historians, and we don’t have access to things. So, that’s where we’re coming from. Our background is not institutional, it’s in video game journalism, it’s in video game development, it’s in being connected to these collector circles, for me, since you know, ʼ99. For Kelsey, she runs two stores in Seattle. And also, you know, understanding the institutional world as well, at least from the outside. So, we had this unique story in that we feel like we are our own target audience. We are in the communities of game historians, understanding how it is that they study video game history. Maybe in a position where we’re a little braver, I would say, than established institutions that have a lot more to lose. We find ourselves occupying, in the broader scope of sort of video game preservation, sort of the midpoint between The Strong National Museum of Play and the Internet Archive. So, Strong Museum of Play, God bless them, conservative when it comes to digitally accessible information, and you know they should be, right? Again, they have a lot to lose, right?
HL: Yeah. So do we at Stanford.
FC: Right. Exactly. Exactly. Same with you guys, right? And it’s like, things that get donated there or to you, it’s, yes, that can be theoretically accessed, but it’s on-site, right? You’re great at ingesting material, at conserving the material, which we’re terrible at, but we’re getting there, and you know, making it accessible physically to people who come in and study. The Strong is the same way, and it’s why so much material gets funneled there. And let me be clear, I funnel material there still. You know, I am not saying it’s a wrong approach, I’m just saying, it’s filling a niche that I don’t need to, right? Then the other side of that, the other extreme, is the philosophy behind the Internet Archive, which is just pop it all online and ask forgiveness, not permission. And, you know, every time we have a conversation with the developer who has things, it’s like, here are your options, you know, you can donate it somewhere like Stanford or The Strong Museum, and it will be safe. It will be accessible. It will never be online. It might someday, but we have not seen a path for that, and I don’t feel like there will be one in the near future. Internet Archive is like, okay, you don’t care? Great. Just get all that stuff online. People will find it. But what we found in reality is that a lot of people who have been in the industry and have this material fall somewhere in the middle, where it’s, “Look, I have this stuff. I saved it for a reason. I want as many people as possible to easily access this stuff, but I don’t want to get in trouble.” You know, “I don’t want to lose my career. I don’t want to be seen as someone who pirates things on the internet. I need help.” And so the space that we’re trying to occupy is, okay, let us take the burden on that away from you. And so a lot of what we’re doing now ... And you’re talking to me, by the way, in a time when we’re just starting to actually finally, after six years, get the product started, which is that digital repository. We just signed our Preservica contract. And it’s a horrifying amount of money.
I know you know what that is. But we have a lot of developer archives that are donated that are falling in the middle there. We’re trying to find that middle ground of remote digital access without it just being online for all. Because that’s the donor’s wish. And so, that’s the problem that we’re trying to solve, is how do we get things digitally, remotely, accessible when it comes to video game history in a way that makes the donor happy. In both ways, that people can actually get to it and that they’re not seen as distributing copyrighted material. That’s our place in the world. That’s what we’re actively working on. And that’s our main goal right now. So it’s a few things; it’s developer archives, it’s also, you know, magazines, which we haven’t really talked about too much. We think video game magazines, when it comes to history, are the densest source of information, at least in the era of magazines. And so, we are trying to solve the notion of the stuff being digitally accessible. Right now, the path for that is put it on the Internet Archive and pray [chuckle]. And the prayers have not prevented companies like Future from pulling their stuff offline. We’re building this complete collection of video game magazines and hoping that controlled digital lending survives long enough for us to actually make them accessible online in a legal way.
HL: So I have three more questions. Interestingly, I would’ve had four, but one of my questions was about whether you saw the foundation as being a middle ground and you completely answered that one already. Before I do the three questions, there are just two quick hits. One is, you mentioned people say, “Oh, he is the video game preservation guy.” I’m going to give you a new name. I’m going to say you’re the video game documentation guy. Okay. That’s the first thing I just want to throw in. The other thing is what you said about game history and its absence, something about as you’re driving back from Culpeper, that anecdote. It is the same in academic game history as opposed to game studies more generally, which is why Ray Guins and I started the game history series, the book series with MIT press, to address that absence of game history and try to produce more academic writing about it. Okay. Anyway, I just wanted to throw those in, that in a way we’re both landing on the same problem.
FC: Well, it’s just finding the hole, right? It’s like, oh, here’s a hole we can actually fill that we have the tools for. Yeah. It’s the same thing.
HL: Okay. So last three questions. The first one is, I wanted to drill a little bit on a couple of areas in which you have worked. I mean, you have a lot of projects, as you know, and people can go on your websites and see all of that. But there are two in particular I want you to talk about, because they seem to come out of your own biography. One of them is the archive of media assets and the other is the work that you’ve done with game developers to find their own lost assets and other forms of IP. Can you talk about those two areas and why you think they’re important?
FC: Yeah. So, the media assets collection, again, we think video game magazines are the densest source of information. And what gets interesting is, well, “What was their source material? Can we dig even deeper?” Kelsey Lewin is the poster child for this specifically because of a video that she did. She kind of started her career with game preservation as a YouTube content creator, explaining video game history. And she did a video on an accessory called the “exertainment bike.” It was an exercise bike for the Super Nintendo, had its own unique software and stuff like that. She scoured the internet and physical places and news archives and things like that for any just crumbs of information about the company that made this thing and who these people even were, where they were located, and what else they had done and stuff like that. And, you know, she worked for like a month just researching this stuff. When we were at Game Informer magazine in 2019 doing an archival project there—which is its own huge story in its own—you know, they had kept a lot of their paper press releases. I found the exertainment file and handed it to Kelsey. And she said, “Everything that I found is just on this sheet of paper. [Laughter] Every crumb that I found scattered throughout the world that took me like a month of research was just on this one sheet of paper this whole time. I would’ve saved so much [time]. And there’s more on here that isn’t anywhere.” And so, you know, that’s a perfect example of okay, the magazines are great, but they’re secondhand, right? Like what was the source material they were using for their reporting? That gets us closer to the historical truth. So we’ve identified that as a tremendous source of video game study. You’re reminding me actually, I have a message from Norm [Norman Caruso], the Gaming Historian, and I owe him some stuff about MarioKart. We put a lot of emphasis on that because, again, we are our own target audience. We understand how this stuff is gold. And I’m from the media. I remember getting these press kits [chuckle] and we have access to a lot of them. So Game Informer’s collection, [and] we obtained GamePro’s surviving collection of digital press kits. I took everything from 1UP/EGM [Electronic Gaming Monthly] when I was there that survived. It’s something where we know the importance and we uniquely have the connections to get to them. That has paid off, not just in historical information, but also it has paid off, excellent segue, into providing assets back to right’s holders.
A great example of that is Limited Run and Konami reissued a game called Zombies Ate My Neighbors, which was a Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo game developed at Lucasfilm actually. No corporate archive had assets for the box art other than the actual printed retail game maybe. But we actually had from one of our media assets collections, we had very high-res[olution] film for the composited pieces of the box. So we were able to provide that back to the rights holder for the republishing of the game. They printed a poster and stuff like that. It’s not beautiful art or anything [chuckle], but we were able to reunite them with some lost material. I did that with Lucasfilm as well, with some Monkey Island art. But yeah, it’s just like ... We could talk forever, Henry. [chuckle]
What I’ve often said is the beauty and the shame of the video game industry versus something like Hollywood, is that up until maybe this moment right now in history, we didn’t have the five-studio system. We had the hundred-studio system. The industry for better or worse is starting to consolidate, right? There’s four or five companies who are buying everyone. So maybe we are in a position now where material survives, but through most of history, that’s just not how it worked. We had all these independent studios that, you know, moved offices, were bought and sold, et cetera. And all this stuff would just disappear. A lot of the stuff that was sent to the media, they might have retained a copy once, but that has not survived because of all the moving around in this industry. These media assets, whether it’s film, digital press kits, stuff like that, a lot of material only survives there. Another great example is Danny O’Dwyer just did a documentary on DMA Design. The company that did like Lemmings all the way through Grand Theft Auto in Scotland. We were able to dig out from a press kit about the original Grand Theft Auto paper sketches of characters from the first game, and we were able to dig out a team photo of the team that made Grand Theft Auto. That stuff was sent to magazines, but never published in magazines because no one knew what Grand Theft Auto was going to be. Because we have that press kit, Danny was able to show people, here’s what these guys looked like. You know, the people who made Grand Theft Auto, here’s what they actually looked like. This is the only source for that. And that’s why it’s so important to us to go all the way back to that primary material instead of relying just on what editors decided to publish.
HL: We have the Road & Track archive here at Stanford with tons of press kits. Of course, it’s automobiles not games, but it’s phenomenal what you find in there. And it ties in with all of your interests because press kits can document products that weren’t released the way they were originally described. I think that the takeaway really is that the Game History Foundation is the place for that kind of ephemeral material of the game industry and that you’ve been able to collect it systematically. Getting entire runs from major magazines and so forth is fantastic. I’m sure when you have your repository up and running and people are able to get full access to the collection, it’s going to make a huge difference.
HL: So, second to last question-
FC: If you know anyone with $2 million, let me know.
HL: If I know anyone with $2 million. Well, you know, California, if you own a house, you probably have $2 million, but ...
FC: [chuckle] I do not. I’m a renter.
HL: [chuckle] Okay. Let’s go to the second to last question. And these last two can be pretty quick, depending on what you want to say. Just summary questions. First of all, I just want to know if there was anything you wanted to get off your chest, a gripe about how game historians or writers, journalists, whatever category of writers, do or do not use game documentation. You have so much interest in and exposure to documentation and you’re collecting it. Do you have any gripes about the way it’s been used? Now, I don’t mean for you to pick on anyone in particular. I just wonder about the gaps that you see in the appreciation or the use of the kinds of documentation that you collect.
FC: You know, it’s funny, Kelsey and I have talked about this a lot. We think for the most part, video game history is not being told very well, but also we don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. So I don’t tend to have gripes against people because the history I’m seeing for the most part, at least the stuff I watch, I’m sure there’s a lot of, you know, filler YouTube content that is not even on my radar, but what I tend to see is people actually doing their best with what they’ve got. We just don’t have a lot of access to things. And so, no, I don’t think I have any gripes against video game historians and storytellers. I do think that the amateur preservation world, maybe, has a priorities problem in that I think so much effort in the citizen archivist world, to steal a term from John Paul Dyson, is just hyperfocused on digitizing video game media to the point where it’s just like, people are putting tons of effort into digitizing a review cartridge of a [Nintendo] DS game that has two bytes different from the final game. It’s just useless data. And, you know, that’s important work too, it can be, but it’s like, every time I see the effort put into that, my first thought is scan a book, [chuckle] let’s get more information out there. Again, my whole philosophy in my career is always just find the thing no one’s doing. And in the video game preservation world, I think what no one’s doing is the social engineering part, so I’m happy to take that on. But I would like to see more effort put into documenting information as opposed to data because the data tends to be, from my perspective, the least important part in most cases. Of course there’s the occasional eureka! prototype that comes up that gets people excited. But for the most part, it’s like, you know, it’s been twenty-something years of me doing this and yeah, that’s what excited me in the nineties. But it turns out, it’s not that exciting, [chuckle] to go after basically finished video games and put so much emphasis on that. It’s like, let’s start getting information out there instead. Anyways, if I’m griping, it’s there.
HL: Well, I mean, for me, you’re preaching to the converted pretty much with that, I think we’ve even reached—this was in the Preserving Virtual Worlds report1—the point with certain categories of games and game-related activities that it doesn’t even make sense to talk about preserving some categories of game software because that doesn’t capture much about the game. If you think of the massively online games or the software-as-a-service types of games that’s obvious, but critically just capturing the experience of the players, you absolutely need documentation for that. Anyway, it’s not for me to gripe. It was for you to gripe. This will really be the last question, it’s totally open ended and maybe it’s even a dumb question, but I just wanted to think a little bit about the future of where game documentation is going. Is there any trend or new idea that’s come across your desk in the last year or so that fired you up, or is there something that you think is going to be critically important that hasn’t happened yet?
FC: Yeah. It’s something that we’re trying to encourage more of and it’s really hard, which is the study of a video game through its actual source material, its source code, its original art, stuff like that. This is, you know, a fairly new way of studying games and one that is really difficult to do because source code tends to be very closely guarded as a trade secret. And so, you know, again, something I like to do with content is what I call stoking the market, it’s like, here’s what we can do in this bright, big, beautiful tomorrow [chuckle] where our philosophy is the one that people adopt. Something I did in 2020 revolved around my favorite video game of all time, The Secret of Monkey Island. I had access to the original source code and its build tools. And I learned through surviving documentation and stuff, how to actually script into the game and edit it. What we ended up doing was, I found a lot of deleted scenes, cut content, stuff like that. I natively built it back into the game and made videos to show a lot of the content that didn’t quite make it. And then we did a, I think, two-hour video stream. It was me and Ron Gilbert, the creator of the game. We talked for a long time about how the scripting language worked. And we did a live demonstration where, you know, I edited the game, and literally notepad saved it, compiled it, showed the results. And for Monkey Island specifically, that was a really great way of illustrating what made the game unique because the tone of that game came about because of how easy it was to script it. You know, the developers have described it as improv game development and it’s true. And so, I am very interested in video game study from source. It is a huge problem, the lack of availability of source, but what I’d like to see is better access to it, you know, in ways that aren’t scary to people. Like the Monkey Island thing. I was in contact with Lucasfilm early on, I said, “Look, I don’t want to surprise you with this. Do you want to work with me on this? Do you want to promote this?” And, you know, it’s something that we did and turns out, “Oh, that’s not that scary,” to give a good historian keys to the vault is not actually that scary.
So we’re trying to poke the bear when it comes to source study and just see how far we can take that before anyone gets uncomfortable. I believe no one’s going to get uncomfortable with a thirty-year-old damn game, you know? No one’s going to steal SCUMM 4.0 and make a game out of it. [chuckle] It’s just not going to work. And so, you know, that’s the future I want to see more of, with black-box studying of a game using its actual source material. We’re working toward that. Maybe not as quickly as we’d like, because we’re such a short-staffed organization—there’s only three of us. But that’s a future we want to see, that people can actually get into the DNA of the games that they love to understand them on a different level. Like I mentioned, The Secret of Monkey Island is my favorite game of all time. I understand and appreciate it tenfold now. As I’m playing it now, I know what’s going on under the hood. I understand what it took to get here. I understand some of the creative decisions that were made because I understand the limitations of the scripting language. I can appreciate it in a whole new way now. I wish everyone could have that experience with their favorite works.
HL: Yeah. I know I said it was the last question, but I just want to add that what you said there was important. It’s the mark of a serious research archive of any sort that you start to move from collecting documentation to creating documentation. You know, you start to realize here’s a person we need to interview. Here’s something interpretive we can do. I imagine traditionally people think in terms of exhibits, maybe in a museum or a library and maybe that’s in your future too, or actually you’ve done some exhibits. But in particular, when you mentioned the Ron Gilbert interview, I think what’s really important there is that you’re able to create documentation through the intelligence of your program and your experience with these different forms of documentation and recognize what one particular type of documentation, namely source, can deliver. Then you put that together, I guess, with notes and other materials around the source code. Then here is Ron Gilbert, who was involved in this project, and you pulled in some other people from Lucas to talk about different things. You created a video that is itself a primary source then, for other people to use. That wasn’t really a question, was it? That was just me riffing.
FC: [chuckle] It was a pat on the head.
HL: Yes, it was very much so. [chuckle] That’s it, that’s what I needed for the ending is a pat on the head, a virtual pat on the head. Frank, thanks very much for this.
1. ^ Jerome P. McDonough et al., Preserving Virtual Worlds Final Report, August 31, 2010. For more information on the various iterations of PVW, see: https://library.stanford.edu/projects/preserving-virtual-worlds.