Play Stuff Blog

Unboxing the Past: The Don Daglow Papers  

The Don Daglow papers after archiving, The Strong, Rochester, New York. Eight months, 169 boxes, 1,270 folders, 1,314 objects, and a partridge in a pear tree. Minus the bird, these statistics hint at just how large the archives of video game pioneer Don Daglow are and how long it took to prepare them for research use at The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play. This collection of video game concepts, development papers, original artwork, never-released game demos, and Stormfront Studios company records provides a behind-the-scenes look at video game development from the 1980s through 2000s.

Imagine your garage is full of boxes (or maybe it actually is) and that there isn’t much order to what’s in the boxes. How would you organize everything in a way that told a comprehensive story? Where would you even start? As project archivist, my job for the last eight months has been to organize the contents of dozens of boxes to tell a cohesive story about Don Daglow—an American computer and video game designer, programmer, and producer best known for pioneering simulation games, creating the first online multiplayer role-playing game with graphics, and founding game developer for Stormfront Studios.

“The Simpsons’ Adventure” –character designs (Lisa the Bard, Milhouse the Wizard Apprentice, Valkyrie Marge, Homer the Barbarian, and Bart the Adventurer), about 2003. From the Don Daglow papers, 1977–2012. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Back to the pile of boxes… For me, the starting place was to imagine a metaphorical first date. Tell me about yourself! Where have you been all my life? Ahh! Mental red flag! I learned the contents of the boxes, looked at the condition of the materials, and came up with a plan for organization. The next steps required an iterative approach: a box-by-box review and sorting of materials, generally first by type of item (papers, CDs, photos), then by topic, then a more specific topic, and sort and repeat until everything is organized according to plan. At that point, I had rehoused the collection in 169 spiffy new archival quality boxes and folders. And finally I wrote a finding aid, an 85-page document describing the collection as a whole and the contents of all those boxes.

Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone concept art, about 2004. From the Don Daglow papers, 1977–2012. The Strong, Rochester, New York. This process may seem tedious and time consuming, but amidst all the sorting, wonderful finds crop up. For instance, I discovered one gem in the form of an unpublished game concept called The Simpsons’ Adventure (2003), where our favorite cartoon family embarks on a heroic adventure in a medieval world, including character sketches, various scene styles, and demos. Other treasures include detailed concept art for many games, such as Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone (2004), which cover character styles, scene design, and storyboards. Byzantine: The Betrayal (1997), for which The Strong has video production logs, research and travel forms, story synopsizes, and video processing papers, won three International EMMA Awards and featured live actors and live action footage shot in Turkey.

This collection contains so many more game development papers for popular and groundbreaking titles including Neverwinter Nights (1991–1997), the first graphical MMORPG; Stronghold (1993), the first 3-D real-time-strategy game; Quantum Space (1989), the original play-by-email game to be offered by a major online service; Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992), the first game where an NPC could fall in love with a player character; Tony La Russa Baseball games (1991–1997); The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002); and Eragon (2006). The Don Daglow Papers also include more than 150 unpublished game concepts that are creative and intriguing, untold hours of game play, unreleased demos, interviews with Stormfront Studios developers, voice actor footage, and level maps, all now open for research and scholarly use.