Making a Prototype of the Future: The Development of Immercenary
September 19, 2012 Page 1 of 3
With the recent 7DFPS game jam, indies attempted to release the first person shooter from its current creative stagnation. But it wasn't always such a conservative genre; its early days, in the 1990s, were a time of wild experimentation. To remind us of that, it's worth examining the genre's early titles -- ones that went down roads not traveled today.
Released in 1995 for the 3DO, Immercenary was a faux-MMO shooter set in a decidedly 1990s cyber-future. It was released when the internet had just begun to enter the popular consciousness, the 3DO was the most powerful console on the market, Doom was only two years old, and games like Quake, Half-Life, and Ultima Online were still several years away.
Though ambitious, Immercenary [YouTube gameplay video] was the first project for newly-formed developer Five Miles Out. Co-founder Chris Stashuk, a graphic design graduate, started out as art director for the Martin & Martin agency, shifting its work environment to computers.
"In 1992, the potential of computer graphics was really coming into fruition. I think it was my eagerness to create in a digital environment that prepared me for Five Miles Out," says Stashuk.
He was invited to start the company by co-founder JD Robinson. "I was at the same university JD attended, and worked on some collaboration projects. He approached me in 1993 about [being] lead artist with the new company he was forming.
"So I started training in 3D modeling and animation, working in 3D Studio Max. Other programmers and videographers came on board, and we started working with the theme for Perfect, which Electronic Arts renamed Immercenary."
Also involved was Marla Johnson-Norris, a veteran of television production, who had a small video production company at the time.
She explains how EA laid the groundwork for Immercenary: "JD, a good friend, had worked with Ozark Softscape legend Danielle Bunten, creator of M.U.L.E. When EA producer Jim Simmons asked JD if he would consider developing a design document for a game, for a new platform that incorporated video in a way previous platforms had been unable, JD put together a team that included me to work on the document."
It's worth considering that when development began, the 3DO wasn't out yet. Console gamers were still playing the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, and the landmark PC FPS, Doom, wouldn't arrive until the end of 1993. Even the CD-ROM was new.
The prospect of working on new hardware -- which arrived before the PlayStation made 3D graphics and CD-ROM mainstream parts of console gaming -- was exciting for Stashuk and the team. "With the 3DO platform on the brink of release, it was decided that we'd apply all of our programming development research towards 3DO as the release platform, which at the time expressed huge potential," he says.
Current FPS development is dictated by advancing hardware, and so it also was in the early 1990s for Immercenary. Johnson-Norris describes some of the technicalities: "We put together a plan to show off the capabilities of the platform, EA accepted it, and we were funded to develop it. We hired the staff and got to work. My focus was the machine's capability to deliver video or film quickly.
"We shot video and film sequences of the characters and tested the quality of the imagery in the game environment. We had a film specialist with EA come out and work with us. We ended up going with high quality video instead of film -- it actually delivered an equal quality for a lower cost."
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