3DO Interactive Multiplayer
The 3DO Interactive Multiplayer was a video game console developed by the 3DO Company and manufactured in the U.S. by Panasonic from 1993 until 1995. The console and the 3DO company are historically known for being a business failure, having sold few 3DO consoles, and subsequently games, due to the console’s $699 price tag. This article will not focus on the failures of the 3DO and will instead look at the technological impacts the console had on the gaming industry. This article will specifically expand on Zelinski’s argument that “…computer-centered media has come to focus on the operation and design of the interface. This boundary between media users and media devices simultaneously divides and connects two different spheres: that of the active users of the machines and that of the active machines and programs” (Zelinski, 259) as well as Alex Galloway’s similar observation that there are “two basic types of action in video games: machine actions and operator actions…acts performed by players” (Galloway, 5). This article will not only focus on 3DO technology as ground-breaking for the home console, but will also examine how the console has continued to survive as a rare pop culture oddity through the efforts of gamers.
The 3DO company and the 3DO console were a vision of entrepreneur and former chairman of Electronic Arts, Trip Hawkins, who founded 3DO with the intention of “build[ing] a game machine that was 50 times as powerful as Sega's or Nintendo's“ (Time, 1994). By choosing to develop a 32-bit CD-based console, the 3DO company intended to release a product that extended beyond gaming and was instead a multi-purpose system allowing users to use a variety of CD-based media as well as network using an external modem. The 3DO console was invented and designed by Dave Needle and TJ Mical, who co-founded the New Technologies Group, which eventually merged with and became part of the 3DO company.
Design and Technology
Like most computers and home consoles, the 3DO is completely encased in an opaque (black, in this case) plastic box that does not show any of the system’s hardware. The first 3DO model was square and looked similar to a VHS player, while the second model was sleeker and more contemporary looking. The physical design of the 3DO allowed the system’s functions to be masked entirely, creating an environment similar to the “darkened room” or “chamber” of the camera obscura. Much like how the camera obscura allowed for an extraordinary visual experience through “…the representation of an exterior phenomenon [which] occurs within the rectilinear confines of a darkened room, a chamber, or in Locke’s words, an ‘empty cabinet,’” the gaming console exhibits this same sort of magic. Gamers are allowed a fantastical experience limited to the confines of the game that are “magically” produced by a black box. The user needs limited working knowledge of how the device operates in order to gain the visual (and audio) experience, and the machine does not necessarily need any user input in order to produce the experience (i.e. you menu and load pages), thus allowing the machine and the user to exist independently, “…the spectator is a more free-floating inhabitant of the darkness, a marginal supplementary presence independent of the machinery of representation” (Crarey, 41).
Core System Architecture
The 3DO was equipped with a ARM60 32-bit central processing unit. And had 1MB of video RAM. The ARM60 is now obsolete, and at the time the only other system that had an ARM60 RISC was the Zerlink GPS Receiver. The 3DO had several “folios” that allowed a relationship between several aspects of hardware and software. For example, the audio folio allowed for the creation and manipulation of sound effects and music. The 3DO was also the first home console that provided a visual display for music, so that when you played CDs a visual moving image would appear and change with the music, similar to older Windows screen savers. A 3-D folio was also developed for the console (but not released) and would have been used to create 3-D effects. The 3DO also had a digital control port, similar to the Mac ADB port, as opposed to an analog control port.
The 3DO had standard gaming peripherals such as controllers and a laser gun, however, one significant difference in the 3DO controllers that was new at the time was there was only one controller port on the console. Other controllers had to be linked to the original controller, creating a “daisy chain” that allowed for 8 controllers to be used on one console. While this may have been uncomfortable, few consoles at the time allowed for such a high number of controllers to be connected to one console.
Other innovative peripherals were developed for the 3DO but never released. AT&T developed an external modem for the 3DO that would create a network using voice-over-data technology for users to talk to each other. External memory devices were also developed for the 3DO, specifically a 128K memory card that was developed by TDK and would allow players to store games externally. Additionally, computer plug-in cards were developed to allow users to play 3DO games on computer screens, which extended the life of the console beyond the television and made the 3DO a potentially versatile entertainment system. Unfortunately, the 3DO ceased production before any of these peripherals could be popularized.
The 3DO was one of the first home gaming consoles to use CD-ROMs, which are a remediation of ROM cartridges (now obsolete for the home console). Initially, CD-ROMs were not seen as a progressive change, because “cartridges were directly connected to the system’s working memory, and could be read instantly” (Therrien, 121). CD-ROMs required a longer loading time and were initially considered an inferior medium by gamers, but they could hold more information, making them appealing to game developers, and were cheaper to produce. Since CDs were originally intended for audio playback, the music accompanying many early CD-ROM games was of superior quality, and several gamers would purchase games for the music accompanying game play (Therrien, 123). Most importantly, having a CD-ROM drive allowed the 3DO to not only play games, but audio CDs and photo CDs as well, allowing it to extend beyond gaming and achieve the multi-purpose entertainment vision Hawkins envisioned.
Prior to CD-ROMs being a common medium for games, many home consoles using ROM Cartridges, which were read-only and typically did not have much read/write capability. During the 16-bit generation of home consoles, a SNES ROM cartridge could hold about 6 megabytes of data (it was 4 megabytes for Sega Genesis and less for other consoles); in 1986 a 12-inch CD-ROM could hold up to 550 megabytes of data (Therrien, 121). ROM cartridges also contained less storage space, were expensive to make, more tedious for gamers to store due to their bulkiness, and didn’t have much multi-purpose use. The 3DO established a technological foundation for future consoles by helping to popularize optical media for the home console.
Many games for the 3DO followed a standard game genre, i.e. car racing, first person shooters, etc. However, what was unique about 3DO games that intended to show off the console’s advanced technology were the interactive movie games, which were intended to showcase the console’s video capability. Many of the games played like short videos, and required little user activity, making them ideal for adult content. One such game, “Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties,” is an interactive movie game in which you must make decisions regarding the romantic relationships of a young woman. The “game” aspect is a remediation of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style book, and the game features a few long strip-tease segments that have nothing to do with game play but are rather used as a way to integrate video content into a game and exhibit the console‘s capabilities.
Independent of the 3DO’s mechanic actions, gamers conducted their own actions, which have helped to preserve the console. Since the console was only produced for two years and was incredibly expensive, very few consoles were sold and still remain today. However, some who owned and enjoyed the console in the 90s still play it today, and maintain communities online. One UK blog, which claims that it is just “Some insane ramblings about a games console that died almost 10 years ago,” has documented several of the hundreds of games that were released for the 3DO, creating an archive and a platform for other users to read and discuss their favorite 3DO games. A Google Group also exists, which has archived gamers’ discussions from the early 90s on various ways to hack the console and alter it to meet their interests and needs (i.e. how to attach peripherals developed for other computers or consoles to the 3DO), as well as other 3DO-related topics. The group is still accessible, but is rarely active. There hasn’t been much recent “homebrew” activity for the 3DO, but two new games were released in 2008 for the console, which claims they are “the first new officially licensed releases in over a dozen years” (GDG Publishing, 2008). Although many have forgotten the 3DO as a console that flopped due to an overly ambitious start-up company and mediocre games, fans still strive to remember the console as an innovative machine that extended the capabilities of the home console.