Forgotten Consoles: 3DO Interactive Multiplayer

by Terri Rose

Retro gaming tends to focus on the big guns -- the NES, the SNES, the Genesis/Mega Drive, and in Europe the microcomputers and Sega Master System. But what about the oddities, the weirdos, the systems that didn't break through? In Forgotten Consoles, I'll be exploring some of these machines. Next up’s Electronic Arts’ Trip Hawkins’ teamed up with Panasonic for the ahead of its time and, uh, not great 3D0.

 By Evan-Amos [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

By Evan-Amos [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

By the time the early 1990s were rolling around, one word was on every software and developer’s lips: multimedia. The incredible storage power of CD technology meant that the amount of pre-rendered graphical material stored on a disc could dwarf previous technologies like cassette tapes, floppy disks, and cartridges. IBM-compatible PCs and some Japanese computers were the first to jump on board this train, and CD-based PC games like Alone in the Dark and Myst showed that pre-rendered multimedia experiences could very well be the future of gaming.

And so, the floodgates opened. Dutch CD manufacturing magnate Phillips began developing their CD-i machine, Sega started on the Mega CD add-on, Commodore bumbled out the woeful CD-32, and NEC also developed a CD add-on for their PC Engine system.

Trip Hawkins, the crafty and innovative CEO of Electronic Arts, had taken the company from a staid publisher of computer and software games (including the critically important Deluxe Paint for the Commodore Amiga) to a high-end publisher for the Mega Drive/Genesis.

However, Trip had higher ambitions than growing EA into a monolith mega-publisher (I mean, when would that happen?). He wanted his own console.

Inspired by developments in the Japanese arcade market, Hawkins left EA in 1991 to form 3D0 Interactive. His goal with this new company was to develop the premiere CD-based entertainment system.

One small problem, of course. Though Hawkins surrounded himself with some of the best and brightest in the development and publishing game, 3D0 needed a manufacturer to make the system!

There were two options for a manufacturer, both from Japan: Panasonic and Sony. Sony passed to focus on what would ultimately become the Playstation (so, good call), and Panasonic ended up being the one 3D0 went with, at least initially. Though Sega of America’s then CEO Tom Kalinskie claims Sega was seriously interested in buying the 3D0, it’s not really certain what the project would have replaced. Certainly not the Mega CD — the Saturn? Who knows. The important thing is, Panasonic agreed to make the machine for its initial run.

With its high-end hardware and bevy of licensing deals, the 3D0 arrived on shelves as both a powerful and high-priced machine — it initially sold at $699.00 USD when it hit shelves in the fall of 1993. A hefty price tag, but worth it? We’ll see.

So how’s the system? It’s certainly not awful. It’s pretty much the definition of a between-generations system. It laps the Mega Drive/Genesis and SNES in power, but it blanched in comparison to the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation once those were released.

And once again, its game library was an issue. There were no new exciting arcade ports, just a lot of PC ports (EA games make up a huge part of the library, no duh) and third party games waned. Sony masterfully cultivated third party developers with their ability to control the production of the CDs themselves, allowing tight quality control of the printing process within a week. 3D0 couldn’t do this (actually, nor could Sega or Nintendo in the generation), and they struggled heavily because of it.

The 3D0 was forced to slash its price down to $150 by 1996, meaning 3D0 was losing over $100 per unit. The 3D0 was removed from shelves later that year, and Trip Hawkins returned to EA shortly after.