Doug Lanford started his video game career at Sega of America in late 1991. He had recently graduated from college with an Electrical Engineering degree and was looking to get in to game development. With luck he ended up starting as a game tester at the video game giant.
Soon after, he was hired in tech support before becoming a junior programmer on Jurassic Park for the Sega Mega CD a few months later. Lanford would spend more than four years at Sega doing Mega CD games before moving on to Gametek, a small company developing Nintendo 64 games. When Gametek closed a few years later, Lanford went to 3DO, where he started as a new hire on the second Battletanx game for the Nintendo 64.
We caught up with Lanford, who was a software engineer at 3DO, to talk about the last days of the developer.
You joined 3DO when the Nintendo 64 was at its peak. How did you find development on the console when you started work on Battletanx: Global Assault?
Former 3DO software engineer, Doug Lanford: It was an interesting experience. At Gametek I had spent two and a half years working on the Nintendo 64 a year or so before it was publicly released, so I initially dealt with shifting and still in development hardware. By the time I got hired at 3DO, I was very knowledgeable about the console and its capabilities. However, being the new guy on the Battletanx team, I initially got handed the boring tasks in the game such as creating the menus. Soon after they handed me the task of updating the collision system, and I rebuilt it to handle some pseudo 3D setup that allowed the tanks to jump over ramps and so on. By the end of the project, I was building plug-ins for the designers that allowed them to script the cinematics that the in-game engine used for the story, which was a lot of fun.
What stood out for you in those early days at 3DO?
DL: I met a several people who had built the old Atari 2600 games I played as a kid. Among them Tod Frey, who did the 2600 version of Pac Man, and Howard Scott Warshaw, who did Yar’s Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the infamous E.T., who is still a good friend of mine.
Anything memorable happen during the development of Battletanx: Global Assault?
DL: During the production of Battletanx: Global Assault, 3DO got sued because of the commercials they did for the game and its predecessor. The ads mimicked a popular set of commercials used by Snuggles, a fabric softener company, and their teddy bear mascot. In the first Battletanx advertisement, the toy bear gets blown up by tanks from the game as a parody, and the second advertisement for Global Assault had the bear being rebuilt like in the old Six Million Dollar Man TV series. The ads were very funny and I made sure to get a personal copy of them for myself. Actually, I managed to get my picture taken with the burnt and torn up teddy bear they used in the commercials, which was a fun experience. After Battletanx: Global Assault on Nintendo 64, I helped do a port of the game to the original PlayStation before I moved on to work on the WarJetz instalment for the PlayStation.
How had PlayStation and Nintendo 64 development matured at that point?
DL: By the time I started working at 3DO, the Nintendo 64 development tools were quite mature. In fact, I had worked with a much earlier version of the same debugging tools, called SNASM by SN Systems, while at Sega. I recently googled SN Systems and I found that they still exist today, having moved on to provide development tools for the PlayStation 3 and other platforms. During my early days at Gametek, we had to use barely-working development tools, but before Gametek died, the SNASM kits had appeared. By the time I got hired at 3DO, the Nintendo 64 and its development tools were pretty robust. In fact, I used those same SN Systems tools, though in a much more advanced form, on most of my later PlayStation 2 work.
When you moved on to work on the newly released PlayStation 2, what was your impression of the first batch of development tools for it?
DL: The PlayStation 2 was initially very difficult to work with, though some of it I managed to avoid. At the time the console was about to be released, I was working on the original PlayStation version of WarJetz. At the same time, several people on our team were working on building the framework for the PlayStation 2. Once we finished the game for the PlayStation, we all immediately leaped on doing a PlayStation 2 version using the limited engine our co-workers had cobbled together.
How was development on World Destruction League: WarJetz on the PlayStation 2?
DL: WarJetz on the console ended up being both some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, and yet the most fun. In six months we built a game on a new console, and it was somewhat based on the code we had already built for the PlayStation version, but we went all out adding everything we could think of to use the new abilities of the PlayStation 2 in the short time we had. My boss was Howard Scott Warshaw, a very creative and fun guy, and he kept throwing intriguing tasks at me. I ended up building most of the weapons and their effects for the game, and he gave a free hand to come up with interesting ideas and how I might make them look.
Any memorable moments from the development of that game?
DL: One of my favourite memories from that time was when Howard told me the game needed a mushroom cloud effect for a nuke and then just left me to figure how to do it by myself. Over the next week I figured out how to build a real-time nuke effect out of less than 400 polygons, complete with collision effects that would blast buildings as the blast ring shot out. I think it might have been the first real-time nuke mushroom cloud in a game. After WarJetz, I ended up spending about a month working on Dragon Rage, mostly adding my smoke trail system from WarJetz into the game and then creating the four ‘fury’ dragon attacks. I then moved on to Jonny Moseley Mad Trix for a few weeks to build the game’s animated menus before ending up on Jacked.
3DO was a decent-sized developer and publisher in those days, but what was it like to work for the company?
DL: 3DO was an interesting place to work. On the one hand, I sometimes felt like I was just a cog in the gears and one small part in the workings, and the expectation was there to work my rear end off without much appreciation. Other times, I had the opportunity to do some amazing work I’m very proud of to this day.
3DO had initially started as a company dedicated to selling its 3DO Interactive Multiplayer before discontinuing it to become a third-party developer. While you were at 3DO, were there any remnants left at the company from its console past?
DL: While everyone knew about the 3DO console, that side of the business was gone. In fact, nobody I worked with directly had ever worked on it. By that point, 3DO was purely a software developer and distributor.
Did you encounter 3DO founder Trip Hawkins on a regular basis while working at 3DO? And what kind of person was he to work with?
DL: While I saw Trip Hawkins fairly frequently, I doubt I exchanged more than two or three sentences with him over the four and a half years I worked there. I do recall the Friday company keggers, or should I say, ‘meetings.’ Every Friday afternoon the entire company would get together and have a beer while Trip announced the latest company news. Trip did always seem like a very dynamic and energetic guy.
3DO would eventually file for bankruptcy in mid-2003. How did you react to the news at the time?
DL: It didn’t surprise me by that point, as it was pretty obvious the company was in serious financial trouble. There had been a couple of rounds of layoffs in the previous year, and about six months before, everyone in the company had to take a ten per cent pay cut. A few weeks before the bankruptcy, the entire team that was working on Jacked, including myself, was told that we would be laid off once the game was completed. As you can imagine, it was not much of an incentive to work hard. It didn’t trouble me at all, as I was already looking for a new job at that point. I was still trying to finish Jacked, as I wanted to see it completed after all the hard work we had put into it.
What do you think contributed to the downfall of 3DO?
DL: I can’t say for sure, as I had little view of the business side of the company. I do think that sometimes the company relied too much on deadlines and pushing products out before they could reach their full potential. As such, some of the finished games weren’t as good as they could have been. Also, relying on an endless stream of Army Men games likely didn’t help.
How different were those last few years of work at 3DO compared to your earlier years at the company?
DL: As was happening across the industry, the development teams were getting larger to handle the more complex next generation systems, which meant that game development in general got more expensive. On Battletanx: Global Assault, we had perhaps a dozen people working on it and got the game done in less than a year. For WarJetz on PlayStation 2, we had about 20 people and six months. By the time we got to Jacked, which was being built for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube, we had a dev team of more than 50 people and had been working on the game for a year and a half by the time of the bankruptcy. As such, one of the things the management did to try to cut costs was to just ‘ask’ all of us to work longer hours. By the time 3DO ended, I was pretty burned out.
One of the several games that found itself a victim of the bankruptcy was Jacked. What happened to it after the company’s collapse?
DL: Jacked was supposed to be a spiritual successor to the old Road Rash games. In fact, we had a couple of people on the development team that had worked on the Road Rash license in the past. It was a motorcycle racing game with sometimes goofy combat. For example, one of the race courses took place on a golf course and you could pick up things like a golf club and beat an opponent off their bike. You could then leap over and steal, or ‘jack,’ their motorcycle. If you finished in one of the top three places in the race, you could then keep the bike. That was how you unlocked new bikes in the game.
What features did you guys put into the game?
DL: You could pick one of about seven or so different riders, each with one or two special abilities, and unlock about 24 different motorcycles. Weapons varied from things like shotguns and Molotov cocktails, to level-specific weapons like the golf club or a stop sign you could swipe from the side of the road in a level where you raced through city streets. There were about eight or so different environments, from a desert canyon to a Mayan ruin filled jungle and a ski resort. Each environment had multiple areas that could be unlocked, allowing four or five different race courses through each. It was really turning into a fun game.
Whatever happened to Jacked?
DL: At the time 3DO died, we had about a month of adding in a couple of minor last minute features and doing some tuning, and then it would have gone to testing. All told, it probably would have been in stores within three to four months. I know that another company picked up the rights to Jacked after 3DO, which I think might have been Jowood, but they never completed it. I actually have a copy of the final version of the game, which is fully playable. If I would be able to track down a PlayStation 2 development console like the ones we used for testing, I would still be able to play it.
Are you surprised to see that the 3DO brand has more or less disappeared into gaming history, as well as several of the properties it released?
DL: In the early days, I had no clue things would end up in this way. 3DO seemed like a very solid and stable place to work, and it wasn’t until the last year and a half that the cracks began to show. Though, as I mentioned before, nobody was surprised anymore by the end.
How would you sum up your time at 3DO?
DL: I mostly enjoyed the experience at 3DO, and I did some of my best and most interesting work at the company. It was, at times, a bit of a big corporate place to work and I felt like just another cog in the machine. The last couple of years also had a lot of long hours, but overall I’m glad I worked there.
For more information about Doug Lanford’s experiences in video game development, go to: www.opusgames.com.
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