Prototypes on Dreamcast

We don't necessarily know it, but the design of a video game and what surrounds it is much more complex than we think. Between the first prototype of a game and its marketed version, things are happening. I will try to briefly summarize the succession of the different versions before going a little further into the technique.

We can estimate that he released between 300 and 500 prototypes of a studio; an industry within industry!

  • First, the studio burned their beta (master) from their devkit using a GD-Writer.

  • These masters were then sent to the publisher for duplication and to Sega for quality standards control. We often find the same writing on different titles from the same publisher. Often, it was the work of an intern who spent his days duplicating prototypes.

  • The editors sent the duplicates to the various players in the industry, buyers of major brands and journalists in particular.

Please note, this entire article is based solely on my understanding of the environment, on certain testimonials that I have  collected over the years. There are many aspects and stages that I may be outside of reality, but it is starting to become clearer. Don't be fooled by my words and if you have any additional information, don't hesitate!

Some specific terms for the material

  • GD-R : This is the name of recordable discs in Dreamcast format. We find this inscription on the left or the right of these CDs (abbreviation of G IGABYTE D ISC R ECORDABLE). They are mostly orange. Sometimes GD-Rs are also found with the mention "Katana", which was the codename of the console. The reading surface is blue, a way to authenticate them.

  • As they are not in a hurry, the risk of deterioration or of a rotated disc is greater than on commercial pressed sets.

prototpe Dreamcast (Giga Byte Disc Recordable)
GDR, prototype SEGA dreamcast Katana
GD-R, prototype SEGA Dreamcast rouge
dos d'un GD-R, prototype SEGA dreamcast
  • CD-R : These are the CDs we all use [to burn our games :)]. Some studios have used this type of disc to burn their prototypes. The best known "would be" that of Castelvania, sold in the 2000s. But is this just an urban legend? They are by no means official. The homebrew prototypes are on CD-R. The assets (product sheet, screenshots, packshots, iconographic elements to be cropped, etc.) were naturally copied on this kind of medium.

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Unrelease Homebrew SEGA Dreamcast prototype Dalforce X.O.P

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  • the Silvers : They have nothing to do with prototypes. I thought it was nice to talk to you about it. These are pre-production GD-Rs. We could compare them to samples. These discs have no label. According to the little information in our possession, Sega and third-party publishers, during the production of the games, were entitled to 50 sample discs, in order to test the optimization of the game in real conditions. If they exceeded this quota, they had to pay additional fees. These discs ended up being used as promotional version before the release of the game. I speak about it on my blog by clicking on this link .

SEGA Dreamcast sample, promotionnal disque or Silver
  • Dreamcast System Disc 2 : this is a CD-Boot which allows you to read the prototypes (GD-R) on a standard Dreamcast! Without this disc, it is impossible to launch a Beta, unless you have a Dev-Kit. A manipulation provides access to secret options, all you have to do is connect a controller to port D and hold the Y button during start-up. They were nominative, SEGA knew each owner. At the time of writing this article (September 2020), they are still impossible to dump ...

SEGA Dreamcast disc system 2 face
SEGA Dreamcast disc system 2 dos
SEGA Dreamcast disc system 2 disque (GD-Rom)
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  • GD-Writer Katana (HKT-0400) : This accessory had to be linked to the Dreamcast development kit. It allowed to burn a game version under development on a virgin GD-R.

GD-Writer Katana HKT-400 face SEGA Dreamcast
GD-Writer Katana HKT-400 SEGA Dreamcast
GD-Writer Katana HKT-0400 dos SEGA Dreamcast
  • The Katana Development Kit : I don't think I have much to teach you about it. Its name is self-explanatory. It's kind of a debugging station. To make it work, it must be connected to a pc on which a lot of development programs must be installed, including the SDK.

  • If I'm not talking nonsense, the game was done on the pc then we pushed it on the devkit in order to see how it reacted on a hardware capable of imitating the hardware of a commercial console while having the power to do run a code that is not yet optimized.

  • I let you watch this video that I made a few years ago.

  • The GD-R Duplicator (GD-X) : we should probably use them at publishers, or at Sega. They were used to duplicate the GD-Rs engraved from the GD-R Writer.  They look like the katana dev-kit.

  • Personally, he's been on my wanted list for 5 years ...

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Do you want some jargon, here is some !!!

  • A build : this is the construction of a prototype at a given point in development, we assemble all the parts that make up a game and this gives a version of the game. A game during its creation will have a multitude of different builds, each with more or less advanced portions.

  • The version of a prototype : This is what makes it possible to differentiate the builds. Most studios used the same numbering, for example from 0.1 for the first to 1.0 for the final. We could of course exceed the "1" but rarely  greatly. A version "1.000" or higher is usually the mark that the game is in its final version, ie identical to the one on the market. The version can correspond to the percentage of the games in  development, for example a version 0.8 often means a game at 80% of its development. Some studios had their own numbering system (22b, or version 5.51). There should always be exceptions!

  • A Master : We use this term mainly to designate a "Final" version of a game or the version that is going to be massively duplicated. We can also call "Master" any prototype engraved using a GD-Writer. We can therefore have Masters in alpha, in beta for example (I will come back to this in more detail later ...)

  • The date : this is the date on which the GD-R was burned and not the date of the build.

Exemple d'annotation sur une GD-R, prototype SEGA Dreamcast
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Some phases of game development

  • Tech demo : simple presentation of the game to get an idea of the concept, a level or an environment for example,

  • Alpha : first mount in the game with a progression in its development, making it playable most often, even in a summary way,

  • Beta : the content is complete but the game needs to be optimized. This is the phase of bug detection, the beta-test,

  • Release candidate : The beta test phase has passed, it must be submitted to the manufacturer for approval. Either he passes the test, or he returns to correction. There can therefore be several release candidates 1 then 2 or even 3 until the problems have been corrected. But it is rare to get there because the risk of having to delay the launch of the game is great.

  • The preview : we are on something that holds up, the differences with a final version are minimal. The final adjustments are made. This version is intended to be shown outdoors. Usually this is beta or a limited version of beta.  This is what journalists use  for game previews.

  • The review : we are practically on a final version with a few details ready. It could be a release candidate. This is what journalists use for testing games.

  • Final : the game as we will find it in the trade.

So much for the terms most often used. We can find " pre-alpha ", " pre-review ". Lately, I found a beta with the inscription " check text ", probably a few things related to the translation.

You should also know that each studio worked differently. There was no process defined and imposed by the manufacturer. It is therefore sometimes difficult to navigate.
 

What is a debug menu?

  It can also be dev options to unlock through button combos. Like cheats codes.

There is one that lets you find different bugs such as that of ' Agartha . I  I'll call it the "design" debug menu. You can control the framerate, the contours of objects etc. .

 

One of my V-Rally builds  and that of Stunt GP have a debug menu allowing to test various things before the validation of the final choice. For example changing the field of vision, modifying the braking force of vehicles. I'll call it the "What if ..." debug menu.

Finally, I was able to find debug menus allowing to finish the game more quickly. We can teleport to wherever we want or become invincible. We are here on a "cheat" debug menu. My prototype Dinosaur has these kinds of options.

Debug menus can be present at all stages of a game's development, and even in its final version! By searching the files of some commercial games, some hackers have been able to unlock it. They are therefore not necessarily erased but simply locked.

The conventional method of adding a debug menu to a prototype is to put it in the game's Start menu. But again, nothing is defined, these menus can be well hidden. To access it, it will sometimes be necessary to make a combination of keys at a given moment in the middle of the game. I have seen some very hidden debug menus !!!!

Debug menu de MDK 2 prototype, GD-R SEGA Dreamast
Debug menu du prototype, GD-R de Stung GP sur SEGA Dreamcast
SEGA Dreamcast GD-R, prototype du debug menu d'Agartha

The Standards, Kesako?

Standards are obligations that Sega imposed on studios for the game, for example:

  • The logo display time, which was supposed to appear so many seconds, its size, etc.

  • All that was "interruptions": as the game manages the opening of the console in the middle of the game, adding or removing a controller, a memory card, how to save, etc.

There are plenty of them.

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Sega had a branch where some employees checked the prototypes that studios and publishers sent them.

Failure to meet these imposed standards resulted in additional blows for the studios and delays of several months to correct, send back a new build and go back through this compliance office.

Collect the DEV?

It is my personal feeling, the history I have with the hidden side of video games since I ventured there.

A prototype indirectly explains to us how a game was designed. We can follow its development step by step.

Prototypes, dev kits can contain real treasures. You can find pieces of the source code, new levels, unused monster models and so on. The most interesting obviously remains the canceled games (unreleased).

It is important to preserve them by copying them, as well as sharing them where possible. Putting them online can be used by the community in historical research but also, why not, provide additional information that can advance the hack, the hack. We can thus empower others to get things done.

Making a canceled game available to everyone is to pay homage to this game which could not be released for obscure often financial reasons. Playing it is a way  to thank all the people who got involved in the project which could not see the light of day. We give a second life, should I say a first life to an unreleased.

To return a canceled game online, you must do so respectfully, trying to get the consent of its creator.  I dare not imagine working for years on a game and not having the personal satisfaction of the finished product. It must be a huge frustration. That is why we owe it to them to pay homage.

You don't have to buy DEV to buy DEV and strut with it. It must be understood that this may be the last prototype existing on Earth. In this case, we owe it to ourselves to make good use of it and to benefit as many people as possible. We can bring a stone to the edifice of video game history and maybe thanks to us others will be able to do it later.

Collecting in this environment is completely different than collecting games in commercial versions. The notion of scarcity disappears since everything is rare. The notion of "putting the price for such and such a title because it is called Zelda, Resident Evil or Megaman" is no longer justified. There is no longer any notion of value according to the different criteria that we know, it is at the buyer's goodwill. We leave  of the classic scheme.

It will be more interesting to own an Alpha of a second-rate game than to find a Final version of Shenmue. It is no longer the object or the game that matters, but the difference in content, its state of development.

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Thanks to the pen of a friend who wishes to remain anonymous.

In connection with development  : Tower of Babel Dreamcast Tech Demo version 2 - Dreamcast SDK, Tech Demo and Development Document Release - Katana Dreamcast Dev Kit Release - Scud Race Dreamcast Tech Demo