The 3DO Company, and how the games industry changed in the 1990s

When you stand in front of a mirror frequently, you don’t notice gradual changes happening. It’s only when you catch a glimpse after not looking for a while that the differences jump out at you. That’s what 3DO was like for me. After a decade and a half away from the industry, coming back in was like getting back in front of the mirror for the first time in quite a while. It was immediately apparent to me how things were dramatically different, for better or worse.

One of the first things I noticed at 3DO was an increase in female programmers, though still not a lot. Two of my favourites were Quinn Dunki and Victoria Lease. As luck would have it, there came a project in which they wound up seated next to each other in one bull-pen. The first time I walked in there and saw them together I started laughing hysterically. They asked me what was so funny, and I said, “Nothing, your majesty.”

“What do you mean, ‘your majesty’?”

“Well… it only seems appropriate when addressing Quinn-Victoria.”

Obviously, my sense of humour was one thing that had not changed, but my wardrobe had. At Atari, I was “the guy with the whip” (from doing Raiders of the Lost Ark). At 3DO, I was “the guy with the pants”. I became part of the corporate culture… or at least part of the building map. “HR? Sure, go up to the second floor, turn left at the top of the stairs, head down the hallway, and turn right at the guy with the pants…” I was a 3DO landmark. That wasn’t what I set out to achieve, but in a way, it was exactly where I was headed. [Note for UK readers: for ‘pants’, read ‘trousers’ – just to avoid any startling mental images. Ed.]

The Panasonic 3DO console’s existence was brief, but it made enough of a ripple to spawn its own magazine.

There are things we take for granted now that didn’t exist at Atari. Like Design Documents. The design doc for Yars’ Revenge consisted of a few pages of graph paper with some graphics concepts drawn out, box by box. At Atari, the idea of a full-blown document describing every aspect of the game was as scarce as spreadsheets, which was very scarce indeed.

Another thing that shifted was how we spent our Friday afternoons. Don’t get me wrong, Friday afternoons were always special. But the Atari legacy beer bash blowouts had been replaced by the 3DO All-Hands Meeting. A rather staid affair with company announcements, a bit of rah-rah thrown in, and a general updating on the state of current production led by 3DO CEO, Trip Hawkins. This was usually followed by informal clusters of casual conversation on a BYOB basis.

One thing that hadn’t changed, however, was the presence of Tod Frye at a company meeting. I’m thinking of one All-Hands meeting in particular. It’s the last company meeting before Christmas, which means 3DO will give some little gift to all the employees. This time it’s miniature Swiss Army knives. They’re tiny, with just a couple of blades, but they’re personalised: each one has the employee’s name printed on it.

Here they are: Howard Scott Warshaw’s incredible 3DO trousers (or pants)

So, the gifts are bestowed, and our CEO Trip Hawkins is talking about the gifts. He notes how special it is that we have our names on them. At this point, Tod yells out, “They have the names on them so when you find one in your back, you know where to return it.” The crowd roars with laughter, largely from recognising the truth of it. This is pure Tod, pointing out both the humour and the brutality of developing video games.

And how about that 3DO party mystique? My first year, the party was held at an aeronautical museum, to signify how we were taking off. In subsequent years it was decided parties were frivolous wastes of time and money (read: we have no money and you need to be working), signifying the aeroplane was losing altitude. Instead of parties, we received only the holiday trinkets at the All-Hands, thus leading to Tod’s classic contribution. Unfortunately, his observation was truer than it was funny. Shortly thereafter, the plane crashed.

EA founder and 3DO head honcho Trip Hawkins. Not pictured: collection of tiny Swiss Army knives

3DO also significantly tweaked my inner concept of what game development means. At Atari, making a game was like piloting a small speedboat. You can’t carry too much or go very far, but you can make sharp turns on impulse and land pretty much anywhere you want. Now, game development is more like a cruise ship. It delivers previously unimaginable entertainment experiences and carries a tremendous load of supplies (graphics), but it requires a huge crew and has tremendous inertia. Once it gets going, changing direction isn’t much of an option.

The hardest adjustment for me was that modern game projects seemed to have the responsibility diluted. When you did a game at Atari, it was all yours! The success was all yours and the failure was all yours. In many ways it was less comfortable, but I really preferred it. That’s not necessarily a big loss, because another thing that changed over time is I achieved a healthier perspective on work/life balance than I ever had at Atari. Not perfect, but better.

Again, joining 3DO was like getting back in front of the mirror, and in the interim, my reflections had become more productive. Of course, mirrors only reveal surface changes. There were obvious things as soon as I got there, and then there were deeper changes that became clear to me only after spending more time in the new world. We’ll talk about some of those next time.

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