As in years past, the end of May heralds the results of School of Information student projects related to the UT Videogame Archive. This year, one project held particular interest for the archive, as it sought to “preserve” Richard Garriott’s early RPG Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress.
Preserving a game with such a multiplicity of versions and platforms is an arduous task. Sierra On-Line originally published Ultima II in 1982 for the Apple II, but the publisher quickly ported it for Atari 8-bit computers, Commodore 64, and DOS. Furthermore, Origin Systems later re-issued Ultima II as part of the Ultima Trilogy (itself available in different ports) and Ultima I – VI Series titles. The students, Halley Grogan, Mark Cooper, and Anna Chen, chose to focus on the original Apple II version, the DOS Ultima Trilogy version, and the DOS Ultima I – VI Series version for their project.
Screenshot of an emulator running Ultima II during a significant property testing session. Click on the screenshot above to view a montage of clips taken from the significant property testing.
Then, soon enough, the students were confronted with the question of emulation regarding game preservation. Will creating disk images from the original 5.25″ floppy disks, and then packaging them with an appropriate emulator be sufficient enough to preserve an authentic experience of the game? To begin answering this question, the students conducted a small-scale user study which sought to uncover which, if any, “significant properties” are lost when playing Ultima II on an emulator.
The study included three different platforms for the game: 1) a working Apple II machine, 2) AppleWin, a free Apple II emulator for PC, and 3) Virtual ][, a commercial Apple II emulator for Mac. Without delving into the methodology of the study (the student’s full project report can be found here), it’s sufficient to say that each study participant initially played one of the emulators and the Apple II (not necessarily in that order), then discussed their impressions with project coordinators, and then finally played the second emulator.
After the gameplay ended, the project coordinators posed more questions to the study participants in an effort to gauge the participants’ impressions of their experience. To their slight surprise, the project coordinators found that their study participants preferred the original Apple II version! This finding contradicts one of the only other significant property studies conducted regarding videogames, which was published in the American Archivist in 2006 and focused on the game Chuckie Egg. In that 2006 study, participants preferred the emulated versions.
Reviewing their methodology, the Ultima II project coordinators noted that they specifically asked their participants to disregard the level of “fun” they experienced when evaluating each version of Ultima II. This aspect of their methodology and the discrepency of results with the 2006 study led the project coordinators to ask: is “fun” a significant property of videogames?
While you ponder that eternal question, rest assured that the products of the student’s work — disk images of Ultima II in several iterations, the emulators, patches, and study documentation — will soon be stored in the Briscoe Center’s digital repository. So, in some sense, we can say that the students completed their quest, and tackled many challenges that will help future work in this area.