The Island of Lost Games No.3: 3DO

Well, this should be a laugh, right? The 3DO is perhaps the easiest videogame system of all time to mercilessly criticise, a system that failed on nearly every front from hardware specs and software lineup, to pricing and management.Or did it?

There’s lots for the critics to find fault and poke fun at. First of all there’s the man behind the 3DO, Trip Hawkins, a guy who nearly put the game software industry’s 300 tonne gorilla in Electronic Arts, out of business by delaying the company’s involvement in console development on the grounds that he infamously felt they would be a passing fad. Not only that, but his company would create the Army Men franchise, a collection of some of the very worst games in history that only ended when banned by a UN resolution. Something about cruel and unusual torture. Probably.

Then there’s the name itself, which gives away hints to some of the problems the machine encountered hitting the market. What does 3DO mean?  A triumphant statement heralding the arrival of 3D gaming? 3DO  was impressive on release, but would soon be outstripped in every sense by Sega and Sony. It simply didn’t have the horsepower to deliver strong 3D visuals, often relying on tricks involving pre-rendered content and sprite manipulation to create the illusion of 3D. 3DO’s marketing material would defiantly state ‘audio, video, 3DO’ as if the machine were the logical next step up from the wireless and moving pictures, which to many critics encapsulates the 3DO as the ultimate definition of Trip Hawkins’ hubris. Within corporate circles, 3DO came to represent Hawkins’ business model for the system as it related to third party publishers. While Sega and Nintendo at the time charged incredibly high licensing fees to companies wanting to produce content for their consoles, it cost 3 Dollars Only to get involved in 3DO development (at first anyway, more on that later). This was a novel way of getting developers and publishers involved with the system, but the low fee, coupled with the lack of stringent quality control meant for a fairly large range of software becoming available for the system’s brief life (good for us looking back) with much of it shovelware (not so good) including a slew of interactive movies and titles released by porn labels (‘yay!’- pre internet teenage youths)  which were (in most cases) so tame that you were unlikely to grasp even a glimpse of side boob (‘what the hell did I waste my money on?’- post internet adults).

The 3DO story begins in earnest in 1991, when, after leaving Electronic Arts, the company he co-founded, Trip Hawkins and his team started working on the hardware project that would come to be 3DO. CDs were slowly beginning to be used in PCs, and rumblings were heard of Sega and Nintendo’s efforts to use CDs in their future hardware strategies; Sega’s efforts would lead to the ill fated Mega CD, while Nintendo partnered with Sony for a proposed CD expansion for the Super Famicom- when Sony and Nintendo had a falling out, you probably know what happened.(hint: it begins with P and ends with ‘laystation’). Trip’s vision was different to how the games industry titans viewed things however. Rather than just be a games device, 3DO would be an all encompassing media hub, a one box solution that would handle pictures and movies through Photo and VCD support, music, and a range of software that would run from the educational to the entertaining to the, ah, arousing. Looking back on the situation now, here’s where 3DO seems a little less daft, as with the exception of the porn (which probably wasn’t part of Hawkin’s agenda in the first place), 3DO was trying to court the market Xbox 360 PS3, and to an extent Wii are trying to court now, just some sixteen years earlier.

 

Hawkins’ grand vision required a lot of help from other companies, and it was decided that 3DO wouldn’t be a proprietary format like most consoles had been. Instead 3DO would be a chipset that would be licensed to interested companies, who could then use 3DO when designing whatever product they were making, be it HiFi equipment, VCRs, CD Players, fridges, or whatever. By its launch in October 1993, Hawkins had amassed a decent range of very special corporate friends in Goldstar, Sanyo, Samsung, AT&T, Creative Labs and Panasonic, who would produce a 3DO console for the machine’s Japanese launch, and most of the 3DOs that would be sold globally.

Technically speaking, 3DO was a fairly heavy hitter- for its time. Textured 3D polygons and full screen FMV support was something that rivalled high end PCs in 1992/1993, and far outstripped the 16 bit generation. Here’s where things started to go wrong though. Here was a fast moving era and Hawkins had moved too soon. Prices of high speed CD ROM drives and memory started tumbling soon after 3DO hit market, which helped Sega and Sony release far superior machines at far lower prices. While Sony would launch playstation at $300 and 39,800 Yen, 3DO would hit the market just a year earlier (in Japan at least) at $699 dollars and 54,480 Yen.  Not just a necessity of high priced parts, this infamously lamentable price point was one stubbornly dictated by Panasonic, a company who knew little about videogames and were used to selling high end audio visual equipment. In their business a high initial price point was standard as a reflection of perceived quality. Slow US launch figures of 50,000 units in its first quarter weren’t even enough for Panasonic to change their tune- attach rates for new products are about the same they said. This may have been true for TVs and video recorders, but gaming was a quicker moving world, and developers would be turned off by those figures.

Goldstar would come out with a much cheaper model a few months later, but the damage was done. 3DO was seen as a rich man’s machine, and with all the shovelware about, most gamers thought it best to stay with their SNES and Megadrive. For the most part they were right to- but Trip Hawkins’ contacts from his EA days payed off with definitely the best games on the system. Road Rash and Need For Speed  handled 3D much more competently than other games, which either had a draw distance of about three metres or ran at ten frames per second. Their Madden and FIFA offerings were also head and shoulders over their 16 bit opposite numbers, and better than EA’s early Playstation and Saturn material. Still, consumer confidence had been shaken and promotional campaigns like these:

 didn’t help. Hawkins partners slowly fell away, including AT&T which had been planning to use 3DO in a modem equipped set top box capable of community networking and online play. What machines does that remind you of? With the technical partners gone, Hawkins was forced to raise the licensing cost for developers, and software support dried up almost overnight. Battered but undaunted, Hawkins worked at a follow up to 3DO, the M2. The technology that was to be behind it was bleeding edge, but media and corporate partners laughed poor Trip out the door, and M2 went from being a new home console, to being an architectural 3D modelling tool, to being vapourware.

Trip Hawkins was arguably too far ahead of his time with 3DO, but poor decisions involving pricing, a lack of stringent quality control on the software front, and outright bad timing gave the machine a lifetime of less than two years. Plugging one in in 2009 is an interesting experience, as it always is with old machines. While 2D games hold up well enough, as they usually do, the FMV based games were poor on release and haven’t aged well. 3D is often a pain for the eyes, with games like Autobahn Tokio  having a particularly horrible frame rate and cardboard box cars. EA are the goto company for games, and their version of FIFA, rebranded JLeague Virtual Stadium for Japan is surprisingly fast and fluid. Collectors will want to hunt down and pay the requisite high price for Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo– let me know how it is if you ever get a copy. Those gamers who get out less will also find the aforementioned adult treasure trove, in the investigations for this article, about ten porn themed games cropped up, though only one seemed to definitely have full fledged nudity in, judging by the box art. Gaijingamers did not take the plunge. Not on a moral high ground basis, the game was more expensive at three thousand than I was willing to pay for low quality old grot.

Autobahn Tokio. The framerate is so poor, youre actually looking at a video now.

Autobahn Tokio. The framerate is so poor, you're actually looking at a video now.

To those wanting to have a punt on a 3DO, the two  Panasonic models of the console are the most easy to find. You should be able to pick them up for around 5,000 Yen, with requisite cables, any more than that and expect manuals and/or a box.If you have a choice, the newer top loading model is preferable to the original front loader, which had a tendency to break.Trader and Hard Off are your best bets to find it in the wild, so to speak, or there’s the usual electronic auction sites.

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One Response to “The Island of Lost Games No.3: 3DO”

  1. I actually owned a 3D0. My favourite games, TWISTED, NIGHT TRAP and virtual house. Yes, even though the loading times were REDICULOUSLY LONG.

    Wow, this is probably the first write up (more than a 1-2 sentence blurb) on 3D0 that I’ve EVER seen.

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