The 3DO system (as well as the company) is a somewhat infamous story in the annals of console gaming. No one will argue that, with a two-year jump on the slightly more powerful Sega Saturn
and Sony PlayStation
, the 3DO system had a legitimate shot to conquer the 32-bit market. After all, the PlayStation2
is currently dominating its more powerful competition thanks to an 18-month jump on sales and a higher quantity of titles, the very strategy that was supposed to catapult 3DO ahead of Nintendo
. Unfortunately, a mix of poor decisions and bad timing doomed the promising console to a quiet death.
Trip Hawkins of Electronic Arts formed the independent 3DO company in 1991. While they would later become a middle-tier software developer, the original purpose of the 3DO was one and one alone: to bring 3D, CD-based gaming to the unwashed, pixelated masses.
The console hierarchy at the time was pretty much established. The TurboGrafx-16 was successful in Japan, and pioneered CD technology with its groundbreaking add-on. However, it was floundering in America, and TTi's attempted relaunch of the system was crashing and burning almost immediately. Nintendo was finally beginning to pull away from Sega, but the two systems shared the market close enough to equally, making a formidable barrier to any newcomers.
Hawkins recruited two engineers, Dave Needle and R.J. Mical, from Amiga to develop his new system. At the time of the 3DO's launch, PC gaming was still more or less a rarity, and consoles were limited to cartridges. Hawkins envisioned a system based on the burgeoning compact disc format, capable of FMV, digital sound, and voice acting. He wanted the 3DO to be thought of as another piece of the home entertainment system, right alongside the stereo and the VCR. The designers added a metric assload of features to add to the 3DO's value. It would play VCDs, and audio CDs. The 3DO ran a true multitasking core OS, and featured an array of expansion ports for products that, while ambitious, would by and large never see the light of day. Many aspects of the system's design were ahead of it's time. The 3DO featured internal system memory, rather than storing saves on the games themselves or on a memory card, a feature not seen again until the Microsoft X-Box. The 3DO came standard with high-quality S-Video output, and ran standard at a then-stunning 640x480 (remember, the PlayStation's default resolution is 256x224, and it can only run in 640 without texturing). It came with one controller port, but featured an innovative design where each controller branched into it's own port. Thus, up to 8 controllers could be daisy-chained without the need for a multi-tap. A modem add-on was also planned.
The next step, once the system was designed, was to manufacture and market it. Rather than take it on themselves, 3DO had the novel idea of licensing out the basic system design to various electronics manufacturers, to further the idea of the 3DO being an integral part of a home entertainment center. Matsushita/Panasonic was 3DO's primary manufacturer, but 3DOs were also produced by Samsung, Goldstar, AT&T, and Sanyo. Even Creative Labs got into the act by releasing the 3DO Blaster, which was a card that plugged into your computer and worked in concert with a Creative Labs CD-ROM drive to play the 3DO, essentially making it the first fully licensed and supported console emulator.
The 3DO was launched in 1993. Despite the sheer power of the console, it sold poorly. Why? This letter responding to 3DO's initial public offering perhaps sums things up.
"The company emphasizes over and over in its red herring prospectus the need to offer an introductory platform at an "affordable price" in order to gain maximum household market share. Yet, the suggested retail price for the Interactive Multiplayer is a whopping $700 when current versions of video game consoles sell for $100 to $300. We don't get it. Even if the platform meets your performance expectations and includes audio and photo CD capabilities, $700 is an expensive Christmas present for the mass market you need to capture."
The 3DO's MSRP of $699 turned it off to all but the most hardcore of gamers. While Goldstar offered a slightly stripped-down version at a more reasonable $349, Panasonic was the most visible of the 3DO distributors and the damage was done. The 3DO suffered the same fate as the Neo-Geo; despite it's high performance, it was labelled a rich man's system, and sales suffered in comparison to it's 16-bit competitors. That's not to say that the 3DO dropped off the radar completely. Their extremely liberal licensing policy, while allowing for a lot of games that should never have seen the light of day (Plumbers Don't Wear Ties), gave the system a wider variety of more advanced titles than any other until the PlayStation. Many of today's 32-bit franchises originated on the 3DO, such as Need for Speed and Gex. Developers continuted to push the envelope of the video game format, with Wing Commander III bringing a revolutionary movie-like presence to the little black box. The 3DO's hands-off style of content approval and seemingly unlimited system resources made it a very attractive choice for developers.
While the 3DO was largely ignored by consumers, the other gaming companies took notes. Sega and Sony prepared to launch their own 32-bit systems, and Nintendo retreated into it's evil lair to conspire with Silicon Graphics on the Ultra 64. However, the 3DO had a massive ace up its sleeve: the M2.
Up until that point, gaming systems had been strictly fixed architecture. This meant that, no matter what, the capabilities of the system were fixed when launched. All systems are still designed this way, small exceptions like the Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak notwithstanding. However, 3DO had been designed for the long haul, and they intended to stick around long enough to gain market share come hell or high water.
The 64-bit Mark 2 accelerator had been planned from day 1, and had been in development long before Sony's PlayStation was even announced. It's intention was to leapfrog the competition and keep the 3DO's popularity up. As the price dropped, the 3DO had been slowly but surely gaining speed, and if they could make the M2 powerful enough, it could give 3DO an unprecedented long-term presence in the market. The power of the M2 was stunning at the time. It was announced at the two-year anniversary of the 3DO in 1995, and it's specs dwarfed the PlayStation and Saturn, and even surpassed the Nintendo 64, a system which would not be released until 1996. It was the most powerful console hardware ever developed until the launch of the Sega Dreamcast. Its CPU was a PowerPC variant which featured 10 co-processors for video and audio. It could reach 1,000,000 polygons a second, more than twice that of the PS1. It had unheard of 3D capabilities such as bi-linear filtering, Z-buffering, and mip-mapping. It featured SDRAM, PCMCIA ports, and MPEG decoding, all remarkable feats for an upgrade whose development started in 1993.
So what the hell happened?
Matsushita purchased the rights to the M2 upgrade outright from 3DO in early 1996, and the M2 was expected to launch in Japan late that year. However, Matsushita inexplicably turned it's back on the M2, deciding instead to utilize the technology in arcade boards to compete with Sega's Model 2 hardware. Matsushita decided that since other developers were hopping onto the Sony bandwagon and seemed leery about a second go-round with the 3DO. Matsushita decided to cast it's lot in the arcades, where the M2 architecture became a successful, but unremarkable standby.
The only record we have of the M2's potential was an early build of World Championship Racing, the only game for the M2 shown to the press before it's cancellation. GameSpot.com had this to say:
"Very fast. Very beautiful. Set on the "mysterious" M2 Matsushita system, this slick racing game seemingly had every cool feature found in all of the popular racers. Features included realistic physics and handling, pre-race track tutorials, replay functions, real-time damage, four different camera angles (full screen, cockpit, far behind the car, and close behind the car), brake lights, and a high frame rate. Most impressive was the complete lack of pop-up, nonexistent because of the fact that the entire track was already built. In some cases, miles of background could be seen."
In the end, the 3DO died out as Sony dominated Sega and grabbed hold of the video game market. Trip Hawkins and 3DO turned to software development, and are currently involved in such franchises as Army Men and Heroes of Might & Magic. Matsushita officially discontinued all M2 development in 1997, after Nintendo's entry into the 64-bit market.
The 3DO was a console built for the future. It had an array of features that, for its time, rivalled today's MS X-Box. Were it not for some disastrous marketing and price decisions by Panasonic and the 3DO company, the system could have easily been the king of the hill for the entire decade. Now, it's just another failed system by "the other guys."
Quotes from http://www.redherring.com/mag/issue01/letter.html and http://www.videogames.com/features/universal/graveyard/m2.html, respectively. Thanks to classicgaming.com and Alzarius' excellent 3DO FAQ for hardware information.