Hardware Spotlight – 3DO Interactive Multiplayer

We all know consoles such as the Atari 2600, the NES and SNES, the Mega Drive, the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, and the Xbox 360. These systems, among others, are the ones which have helped shape the modern video gaming industry the most. They are the systems which achieved the highest levels of mainstream appeal and success, and we rightfully look back on them for their brilliance and the influence which they left behind.

Yet, these systems are simply a few among many. For every successful video game system, you can name four or five disappointing or unsuccessful attempts. These systems failed for a variety of reasons, but some of them had really interesting ideas and I am often more interested in these systems than I am their more successful brethren. Some were manufactured by large, multinational corporations, while others were the product of smaller, more passionate collections of people. Some were released on a worldwide scale while others only domestically.

With this series, I plan to talk about these failed systems. These oddities. These sometimes, unfortunately, overlooked pieces of hardware. They may never have set the world on fire, but they most certainly hold their own unique place in the history of video games.

To begin with, I thought I’d talk about one of my favourite overlooked systems. A system which, in my opinion, undeservedly gets ranked as one of the worst video game consoles of all time. The 3DO Interactive Multiplayer.

“The what?” I hear a lot of you saying. Don’t worry, I’m going to explain. There are certainly plenty of older gamers who will remember what the 3DO is; a strange video game console designed by the same people who also designed the Commodore Amiga 1000 micro-computer and the Atari Lynx handheld, from the founder of Electronic Arts. But as time passes fewer people who play video games know what this thing actually is, and a lot of those who do know what it is know it as nothing more than a meme, or an ever-present inclusion in those aforementioned “worst console” lists. I genuinely think this perception of the 3DO is unfair. The story of the 3DO is fascinating, and while some of the details remain unconfirmed, many in the community consider what I am about to discuss to be true.

To truly understand why the 3DO was created you need to look back at the gaming landscape in 1993. The SNES and Mega Drive were both at the height of their success, but the world was already starting to move away from ROM cartridges and 16-bit graphics. Early 32-bit, CD-based systems, the FM Towns Marty in Japan and the Commodore Amiga CD32 in Europe, were already available, and even Sega and NEC had already dabbled with optical media with the PC Engine CD and Sega Mega CD. Nintendo was also planning a CD add-on for the SNES in collaboration with Sony, which eventually lead to the creation of the PlayStation, and Philips had released the Philips CD-i in 1991. And while Atari’s Jaguar console still relied on cartridges the company was trying to one-up everyone else by claiming the console was 64-bit (which it wasn’t).

The 3DO Company was founded in 1991 by Electronic Arts founder and entrepreneur Trip Hawkins. After founding The 3DO Company he remained on the board of EA until 1994, but his main focus was the production and release of his new vision for console gaming. He wanted to release a console which would standardise the video game industry and bring it in line with the movie industry. Whenever a film was released on VHS, the dominant video format at the time, he paid attention to the fact that VHS tapes would work on every VHS player regardless of which company manufactured the hardware. The video game industry has never worked like this. Each system has its own set of games which are unavailable on any other, and these exclusive games drive hardware sales. This isn’t really as important today as it was in the early 90s, as publishers often release their games for as many different platforms as possible to maximise potential profits, but in the early 90s exclusives were the bread and butter of any system aspiring to be the next big thing. You need to remember that video game consoles during that era didn’t have any other features. You couldn’t watch your DVDs and Blu-rays on them or listen to music on them or stream Netflix. They were designed exclusively to play games, so you needed the best games possible to make your system stand out from the rest of the pack, and you needed them to be only available on your hardware.

Hawkins considered this approach to be anti-consumer. He didn’t think customers should have to buy multiple systems just to be able to play all the games which interested them. Why buy both a Mega Drive and Super Nintendo when you can buy a single console which played all of the games? This was the driving factor behind the creation of the 3DO.

The 3DO Company lacked the necessary resources and infrastructure to produce the console itself, and that was never the intention even if it could. Hawkins instead decided to design a console and sell the licensing right for the hardware to a selection of electronics companies, who would then manufacture the console and The 3DO Company would take royalties from each unit sold.

To design the hardware Hawkins hired Dave Needle and Robert J Michal, veterans of the industry who previously designed the Amiga 1000 and Atari Lynx, as he was previously acquainted with the duo. He wanted the 3DO to represent a true leap in hardware design over existing consoles, with 3D graphics being of utmost importance. At the core of the system was 32-bit ARM CPU clocked at 12.5MHz, two accelerated video co-processors capable of producing between 9 and 16 million pixels per second, with distortion, scaling, rotation and texture maps, and up to 50,000 polygons per second. It also had 2MB of main RAM, 1MB of VRAM, a double-speed CD drive (a marked improvement over the Mega CD and PC Engine CD), Dolby Surround support and S-Video output (but sadly no native RGB compatibility).

The companies which signed up to manufacture the consoles were all allowed to create their own version of the system, with the aesthetic design and features being left to their discretion, but the internal hardware and compatibility with the software needed to be identical across all variants. To Hawkins’ credit, he did manage to pull this off. At the time of its release, the 3DO was an incredible piece of hardware capable of things its competitors could only imagine, and he brokered deals with companies including Panasonic, Sanyo and GoldStar to manufacture the hardware.

Everything was coming together for him, but one huge hurdle remained which needed to be jumped. He had to convince developers and publishers to support his new system. As we are all well aware, what good is a cutting edge piece of hardware designed to be the future of console gaming if it doesn’t have any games?

His first port of call was a familiar one, and the company he was still associated with; Electronic Arts. EA is widely viewed today with disdain by the core gaming audience as a company which is anti-customer and which cares little about the artistic integrity of its games. It’s about maximising its profits through disgusting business practices, and it isn’t even above exposing children to gambling to achieve its end goal. Back in 1993 their public image was considerably softer, even if the company was already heading in the direction it has taken today, and they were still one of the biggest publishers in the world. Hawkins saw EA as vital to the success of the 3DO. If he could bring a company of its stature on board it would send a positive message to other publishers that the 3DO was worth investing in.

EA became a huge supporter of the 3DO, with no other company releasing as many games for the system and certainly none of them producing games with as much variety. Many of EA’s games are heralded as amongst the best ever released for the system, with versions of its Madden and FIFA series receiving acclaim for their superiority compared to other formats, while other games like the RPG Immercenary, and the 3D driving games Road Rash and Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed really showcased just how impressive the hardware actually was. The Need for Speed remains one of EA’s largest franchises to this very day, and it debuted on the 3DO. It also ported across some of its most successful computer games, including Bullfrog Productions’ critically acclaimed Syndicate and Theme Park, as well as Origin Systems’ Super Wing Commander and the technically superb Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger. Wing Commander III especially was a big deal, as the PC original was a massively demanding game, one which only the highest-end hardware could run effectively, and the 3DO port was well received. Remember the “But can it run Crysis?” meme from 2007? Well, Wing Commander III was that game in 1994.

One tactic Hawkins employed to gain support was having a small development fee of only $3, which he hoped would attract publishers who could earn a bigger cut of their game sales compared to the Mega Drive and SNES. The idea was to make the licensing fee appealing to get developers on board, and once the 3DO became settled in the market that fee would be increased. This tactic opened the door for a lot of start-up developers to get on board, such as the current Tomb Raider developer, Crystal Dynamics, which released a lot of games for the 3DO, including the launch title and pack-in game Crash ‘n Burn. It wasn’t a great game by any stretch of the imagination, and neither were many of its 3DO efforts, but it was a huge technical showpiece. If you compare Crash ‘n Burn to what the competition could achieve on a technical level it was clearly far ahead in that regard. Crystal Dynamics also developed a great port of the SNK classic Samurai Shodown, and the first game in its Gex franchise was also developed for the system.

Hawkins managed to sell the idea of the 3DO to Japanese companies as well, and interest in the hardware was relatively high in the land of the rising sun. Capcom and Konami committed to the console, with games such as Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Policenauts seeing releases (although Policenauts never left Japan). The console also received other acclaimed PC ports including, but not limited to, the influential survival horror title Alone in the Dark and the quite spectacular sci-fi masterpiece Star Control II.

A downside to the small development fee was a lack of quality control, which did result in the 3DO becoming home to a lot of poor software and, unfortunately, softcore porn games. The now infamous Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is a great example of the former, while Vivid Interactive released many adult games such as The Coven and Blonde Justice. It also gained the attention of Digital Pictures, the notorious developer of a selection of full-motion video titles for the Mega CD, which resulted in many of its “classics” also calling the 3DO their home.

It seemed to be going well for the 3DO leading up to launch. Panasonic was confirmed to be manufacturing the launch model, with variants from Sanyo and GoldStar coming further down the line, and some major studios had signed up to develop games for it. Hawkins’ vision was within his grasp, but a considerable challenge still remained. His vision for the system wouldn’t work without Sega and Nintendo. If the two biggest names in gaming didn’t buy into his idea, it was never going to be fulfilled. We don’t truly know what happened. Did he meet up with executives at Sega and Nintendo? I can’t say, although we know what the end result was.

Even if the 3DO was never going to become the new standard Hawkins was still determined to make the console a success in its own right. He still had the best hardware and good support, so he still had a solid foundation to build on.

The first model of the console, the Panasonic FZ-1 R.E.A.L 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, to give it its full, convoluted name, launched in North America in October 1993 for the quite ridiculous price of $700. Adjusted for inflation the system is still the second most expensive video game console ever released, behind only the Neo Geo AES. This high price point certainly took the console out of the price range of the average consumer, essentially relegating the system to the status of a niche, premium piece of hardware much like the Neo Geo. It was, however, expensive for a reason. It had cutting edge hardware, but that alone wasn’t the singular cause of its large price tag. While the vision of the console was to become the standard in gaming Hawkins was also focused on expanding the multimedia capabilities. It was designed to play music CDs out of the box and, via an expansion module, Video CDs. These features are where the “Multiplayer” part of the consoles name originated from. Pretty impressive for 1993, and in theory purchasing a single 3DO would have been less expensive than buying a console, CD player and VHS or VCD player all individually.

Another factor in its high price was the business model itself. Hardware is always expensive, especially when it’s on the cutting edge, but because of the deal Hawkins had struck with the hardware manufacturers those companies would only gain royalties from hardware sales and absolutely nothing from the software. If you look at the approach Sony took with the original PlayStation, as a comparison, it was selling the hardware at a loss at launch to make the price point much more appealing for customers, but it was a calculated risk for the company because Sony also earned royalties from each piece of software sold. Sony hoped that by selling the PlayStation at a loss it would get the system into as many homes as possible, and then the software sales would eventually counter the loss on the hardware. Sony also knew that the manufacturing cost of the hardware would eventually drop, meaning that in the future the hardware would become profitable. But Panasonic never had this safety net so they needed to make a profit on each sale, otherwise, it wouldn’t be financially beneficial.

While there was definite interest in the 3DO, and while most of the pre-release coverage had been positive, consumers were simply scared off by that high price tag and hardware remained on store shelves. Something needed to be done to get the ball rolling. The original FZ-1 model was an absolutely beautiful piece of hardware, and still is to this very day. When you see one up close you can tell it truly was a premium piece of hardware for its time, but this didn’t matter if customers weren’t buying it. The most logical decision was to redesign the hardware and make the production costs cheaper to lower the price.

In 1994 Panasonic released the much cheaper FZ-10 model. Unlike the FZ-1, which had a mechanical disc tray slot, this new version was a top loader much like the original PlayStation, which saved a considerable amount of money. It also included its own built-in software to access data management, a feature the FZ-1 model mind-bogglingly didn’t include. The 3DO doesn’t use memory cards, but it does have in-built memory for storing save game data similar to the Mega CD and PC Engine CD. If you owned an FZ-1 you could only access data management by using the Sampler CD which was included with the system, a Game Guru which was released after launch or pick up one of a handful of games which allowed you to access data management through its own software. This was obviously problematic because if you had filled the internal memory, which wasn’t difficult to do considering how small it was, you wouldn’t be able to access data management to delete old game saves if you misplaced your Sampler CD or didn’t have one of the other two options. So the FZ-10 model was not only cheaper but much more user-friendly.

It was also around this time that other versions of the hardware from GoldStar and Sanyo started hitting store shelves. The GoldStar one, in particular, was a lot more cut back and cost-efficient, meaning it was cheaper than the Panasonic offerings. These changes in strategy also coincided with the launch of the system in Europe and Japan, but its success in Japan was limited by the release of the much more technically impressive Sega Saturn and PlayStation later that same year, and it never gained any traction in the market despite relatively decent sales in the launch period. The Sanyo model remained exclusive to Japan. In Europe, also, the system failed to capture the imagination of gamers. It did sell adequately in the UK, all things considered, but it was still expensive and gamers seemed willing to wait for Sega and Sony’s new offerings.

The 3DO never recovered from its slow start. Sales kept falling, and developer support started to dry up. Many of its best games eventually made their way to competing systems, and by late 1995 the system was all but dead. In 1996 all 3DO hardware was discontinued, and Hawkins gamble had failed. Across its relatively short two-and-a-half-year lifespan the system only managed to sell 2 million units. At first, Hawkins seemed to take the failure in his stride, and plans for a successor called the M2 were already underway. The M2 hardware was promising, based on what the press was shown, but unsurprisingly the console never saw the light of day. Interestingly, the hardware was used in a scattering of arcade machines.

Today the 3DO is a mostly forgotten console, a footnote in video game history which existed sandwiched in-between some of the most beloved consoles of all time. But the story of the 3DO is certainly a fascinating tale, and the system really did have some great games. It wasn’t a terrible console; it was simply misguided. Whenever I boot up mine today I’m still thoroughly impressed by it. Knowing that 3D titles like Road Rash, The Need for Speed and others existed on consoles before the PlayStation and Saturn came on the scene is rather impressive. I think that should be its lasting legacy.

About the Author: Widdowmaker

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