The Secret Trade in Unreleased Games

By Leon Hurley - Kotaku UK on at

You've probably seen videos of unannounced or cancelled games. Not necessarily the older retro stuff, but more recent things like Star Wars Battlefront 3 or Stranglehold 2. Did you know there’s a keen, and occasionally zealous, culture of collectors and traders passing these things around?

What surprised me most when I looked into the trade in prototype and cancelled games is just how much interest there is the more recent stuff. Older, more immediately collectable games might seem the obvious target, but there’s an equally passionate group of people chasing things like Halo multiplayer betas that were never released to the public.

There are many levels to all this. Some simply collect and play the games, others code and and hack, extracting fresh info from old files or reinstating missing features. There’s even a community quite happily extracting and modding Halo maps. For others it’s about preserving the often transient world of video game history.

2007 shots of an early Halo 3 multiplayer beta, known by collectors as the 'Pimps at Sea' build.

Whatever the motives, there are a couple of main camps, says gaming archivist Andrew Borman from PtoPOnline. “I think you'll find at least two strong groups. People who care about gaming history and want to preserve things, like myself, like Frank Cifaldi, heck, even the Library of Congress as of late. Then you have a group that is in it just to have something that they aren't suppose to have."

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A GIF of a Duke Nukem jet pack model recovered from "a DVD-R labelled Duke Nukem: Critical Mass (PSP)" after extensive research by the Library of Congress. Technician David Gibson described the find as "the source disc used to author the UMD for an unreleased PlayStation Portable game", consisting of, "a file directory, including every asset used to make up the game in a wide variety of proprietary formats".

We’ll talk more about the groups separately later, but both sides, whether playing for fun or history, usually need some special hardware. Andrew explains: "Older cart games can generally be played on the original systems, or as ROM dumps on emulators. As we move forward with advanced DRM, that becomes much harder. Some titles require additional extras not found in the retail boxes, like more RAM, so development or debug kits become a viable way to test these things. Otherwise, modchips are still viable too, and often much cheaper."

That last option of modchips is one of the most common choices. Benjamin Fiset-Deschênes builds them and is currently working on a new model called the ‘Xblast’ for an early 2015 release.

That makes him a good person to explain how they work. “A modchip is a physical device that alters the security mechanism of a console to circumvent copy protection and/or region-locking,” he says. “This allows you to play non-original or imported games on your console.” It's obviously a shady area, invalidating warranties and enabling piracy as well as the playing of prototype games.

Because each console has specific security mechanisms, each requires different chips. “In the case of the Xbox original, a modchip is simply a 'container' device that holds a modified BIOS+Kernel combination, called BIOS on the scene," explains Benjamin. “The main purpose of a modchip is to get that BIOS to execute on the console hardware instead of the stock one, which contains copy protection.”

Basic chips just let you play a game, more complicated set ups can include extras. Benjamin’s prototype, for example, includes a screen. Others can hold additional BIOS options, extra RAM and even embedded operating systems that can change the properties of the host console.

The legal issues are clear here, but it’s chips like these that let people play unfinished code and half built prototypes - assuming you’re willing to take varying degrees of risk. “If you can solder components on a printed circuit board, you can install a modchip on the original Xbox,” is Benjamin’s explanation of the skill required. Although he makes it clear that it all depends on what you want to mod. A PS2? “These are not recommended for a novice.”

crackdown

Using technology like this, however, there are people playing partially complete versions of  Crackdown (above) or debug builds of games like 2010’s Splatterhouse, right now (below).

The question is: why? "The thrill is finding something that shouldn't exist," says Andrew Borman. Although even with games that may well of been canned because of quality, there's still something to be discovered. "Almost as interesting as 'what makes a game great?' is 'why didn't a game work out?'" The idea of seeing the unseen is a sentiment mirrored by BananaSwag, the YouTuber who gave us the most recent look at Free Radicals' never released Star Wars Battlefront 3. “I like alphas and betas because I love looking at the difference between that and retail,” he says. It's something shared by many collectors - the exclusivity and access to something that isn't generally available, as well as detailed discussion of the tiniest differences in HUD, weapons or other details.

For BananaSwag, however, his enthusiasm has come at a cost, with attacks from both protective collectors and gamers who want the build he showed. Because of this attention he makes it clear while speaking to me that he won't trade or give out that, or any other, game. "A lot of people that I used to respect got mad at me for leaking [the] footage. I didn't want any of this attention, I just wanted other Star Wars or Battlefront fans to see this." The upset came for different reasons following the 'leak': "Collectors, because I leaked footage, Star Wars fans because I won't leak the build. It was mostly just 'Stop leaking things', or that I'm 'a selfish (insert insult here)' for not releasing the full build."

BananaSwag isn't even a high level dealer ("I'm not very involved in that side, he says, I just got lucky with this one"). He's simply a kid who likes games and fell foul of the extremely zealous nature of collection. "I don't think I will ever get anything private again due to this. A lot of people are angry at me," he says.

"I don't think I will ever get anything private again due to this. A lot of people are angry at me"

For some, while collecting is the hobby, making sure other people aren't allowed in their club is just as passionately pursued. "There is one group I can think of," says BananaSwag. "They have all of the Halo builds that ever got into the public. The rules: 'Don't give this to anyone. For any reason. Ever.'" Some people take it very seriously. Andrew Borman has similar stories: "I've gotten death threats. I've had people try and dox me. You just have to take it in stride"

You see, while some stuff is freely passed around, the rest costs money. Figures like $250 are mentioned for the Star Wars Battlefront 3 build, and $300 will allegedly buy you a private Halo 4 network test. [Update: I've been informed that this build has been leaked and "is worth nothing now."] Where it can get tricky is that a lot of this value seems implied, rather than actual. There's a thriving trade in games media review and promo disks for example - previews and reviews publishers used to send out in pre-internet days for those who had the debug consoles to play them on (a practice almost extinct now, with download codes taking their place and increased security against internet leaks).

There are drawers and folders full of these things in the offices where I work. Hundreds of individually burned disks with names scrawled on them in marker pen. Some are 90 to 100% complete review games, others are self-contained levels to test out. (In the past something like the recent Evolve Big Alpha would have arrived in a jiffy bag to play for coverage). To me and most journalists they're worthless a few years down the line but, according to the price lists of the people selling them, I'm sitting on a few thousand pounds' worth of treasure.

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The Flintstones Viva Rock Vegas, 'the rarest PAL Dreamcast game ever' according to some sources.

Elsewhere, the provenance of games plays a part. Collectors weigh up the worth of a prototype according to the features it does, or doesn't, have. Is it a new or different built to the one already being passed around? That quickly gets confusing as one disk, apparently more valuable than another, is decried as the same but with a different build date. Often something's worth is purely based on an individual's word, with exaggerated claims or mudslinging rivalries between traders making it hard to tell what's really on offer.

This isn't a well regulated market, so valuations are shaky at best. "There is no usual price really," says Andrew Borman. "Sports titles are nearly worthless. A big name cancelled title would be worth more to most people than a cancelled version of Madden (which does exist for the PS1, by the way). Released titles with some differences on them don't typically command a whole lot unless it is a big title. Then the price can change depending on who sees it and has money to spend."

According to Monokoma from Unseen64, a site that specialises in collecting and archiving cancelled games and betas, "it depends on the quality of the game." Even 'leaks' like BananSwag's videos won't necessary devalue a title. "If a prototype is already valuable and videos show that it looks good and it seems fun to play, then that prototype could go up in value. If a prototype is rare and valuable but videos show that it’s really incomplete, bugged and not fun to play, then its value could drop."

One thing that will always command value, however, is an un-ripped physical disk. "When a game is dumped and leaked online, when there are infinite digital copies of that unfinished/unreleased game, then [it] loses a lot of his value," says Monokoma. Although digital stuff can still keep its value if it requires some technical ability to run. Certain multiplayer betas were coded for specific servers or online environments for example, and have to be hacked to life by someone with at least a minimum of coding knowledge.

Often, the rare games in question seem mythical - built up from blurry videos and unclear screenshots, like those fake Facebook warnings that regularly do the rounds. For example, there's an ironically legendary Halo 3 alpha build known as 'Pimps at Sea', still sought after by some fans. Here's one one description of it:

"The Halo3 alpha build, known as 'Pimps at Sea', was a Bungie friends and family test program. It was multiplayer only. You didn't have to be a Bungie employee to play it, but you had to get it from one. For example, if your dad or brother worked there. It was played over public XBL and was downloaded by redeeming a one-time use code. I know some gaming media personnel had access to it as well. Sadly, I never got my hands on a copy. :'("

It's hugely sought after. When I mention the folders of old debug code lying around my office, BananaSwag gets hugely excited. "I need you to boot up a 360 right now, then go to your download history. If you have any Halo 3 builds besides the public beta. I will get you any info you want for it, especially Pimps at Sea". When I explain to him that anything a developer intentionally sent out in the past would have gone to numerous magazines and websites (and so unlikely to be rare), he's still insistent. "You should really see what Halo builds you can get, those are worth a lot in trade value."

In my opinion, it's unlikely a single 'Pimps at Sea' build even exists in the form many think its does. There are probably several early Halo 3 builds and prototypes creating the few scattered videos and images that have coalesced to create this Loch Ness Monster of elusive prototypes. Even the name is more closely associated with a long running Bungie April Fool's gag.

That's not to say the rarities aren't out there. There are plenty of games with clear proof of existence. Things like 'Resident Evil 1.5', Capcom's canned first attempt at a sequel, or, more recently, Obsidian’s Alien Crucible.

Monokoma from Unseen64's most wanted list includes Resident Evil 1.5. There are plenty of videos to prove it exists, even if the code isn't as readily available. Other games in his sights include cancelled N64 builds of Resident Evil 0, Zelda DD and Mother 3, all of which were developed initially with the N64's failed DD disk drive peripheral in mind, before it was cancelled. In many cases it's unclear what code even remains. Mother 3, for example, only seems to exist in promotional material and four rumoured DD Nintendo development disks, labled 'M3' last seen around 10 years ago.

[Update: Andrew has clarified that "those 4 DD disks actually contained Mario Studio games, no Mother 3 sadly." He also says that "[Resi] 1.5 is out there for everyone as of a year or two ago. There just isn't all that much to it."]

holy

PtoPOnline's Andrew Borman also has a hit list of games he'd love to see. "Personally, I would love to get my hands on BC, the cancelled Lionhead title for the Xbox, or an early build of Perfect Dark Zero for the original Xbox. For me, my personal grail was Stargate SG-1: The Alliance, which I've been lucky enough to do some great coverage on. The other was Star Wars Battlefront 3, which I also was able to share footage from. I would also like to see some solid SNES CD/'Play Station' content [the aborted Sony/Nintendo collaboration that birthed the PS1], but hardware is a different ballgame. I know that a few Duke Nukem Forever and Prey builds were recovered, but Bethesda has refused to do anything with them so far."


BC - a Lionhead title cancelled in 2004 with Peter Molyneux citing "the ambitious nature of the gameplay".

That last point brings us to one pertinent issue surrounding the collection of these games: preservation. It's something that Andrew's passionate about. "Gaming is a part of our culture. It is something that will be looked upon for decades or, hopefully, centuries to come. But one only needs to look at the history of movies and television to see what happens when culture is seen as only a passing fad. A large majority of early silent films are gone and lost forever. Popular TV shows like Doctor Who have dozens of episodes still missing to this day, because people in charge didn't deem them to be valuable."

A similar problem has previously threatened, and continues to threaten, gaming history. Some creators like Warren Spector have taken to archiving their work with historical bodies personally, but, at larger organisations, the future is less certain. "Companies aren't taking care of their source code," states Andrew. "Sega is the easy one to pick on, since they have lost code to Sonic and Panzer Dragoon Saga. Sega threw out entire computer archives with prototype builds and are known to use ROM dumps from the internet in some of their Genesis collections. Look at the Silent Hill collection, where the developers were forced to work from unfinished code because Konami had lost it. Same with Kingdom Hearts assets."

The surprising source of many leaked alphas and prototypes highlights the problem here. These games aren't always treasured artefacts passed lovingly between knowledgeable collectors. More often than not it's junk that turns up somewhere. "These prototypes could be sold after a software house went bankrupt and all their properties were confiscated," explains Monokoma.

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You've only got to see this year's "Office Equipment Blow Out Sale" sign from Murdered Soul Suspect dev Airtight Games' recent closure to see how that can happen. "They could have been preserved by former developers and then sold to private collectors," Monokoma adds. "Sometime those unfinished games could be found accidentally in development kits or PCs that are sold or lost when a team stops development for a certain console." It's a similar story for Andrew: "A certain amount of what I get to cover comes from developers themselves; where I've established a rapport. I will agree to, and can be trusted [with], whatever terms they have with sharing information, whether it is physical titles, videos, or just their experiences working with the game."

For Andrew, exploring the strange world of half-finished games is vital to preserving our digital heritage. "It isn't always popular, due to the copyright issues that surround it, something the Library of Congress knows all too well. [But] if game companies aren't going to take care of their data, and I can make a difference in preserving what is a part of our culture, then I am going to do it. "


This article originally appeared on Kotaku UK, our gaming-obsessed site. Check them out for original reporting, gaming culture, and humour.