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Making a Prototype of the Future: The Development of Immercenary
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Making a Prototype of the Future: The Development of Immercenary

September 19, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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."

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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E McNeill
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Sounds like it was far ahead of its time. I'd love to play an updated game with that structure.

Josh Bycer
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Interesting look at an often overlooked game. I still have my 3dO and Immercenary is a game that I like to play again once in awhile.

Thinking about it, there was so much that Immercenary did first for the FPS genre : open world setting, non linear exploration and even rogue-like mechanics in how the player can lose their stats. One of my favorite parts when I first played it was the DOAsys and being able to chat with all the things that wanted to kill you. I got a chuckle out of meeting the last boss and talking to it when I was ranked 255 .

One question that I've been wondering about all these years, if I remember right, why was the first boss the only one that required a upgraded weapon to fight? It always seemed odd that the first boss who was so low in the ranking effectively gated the player from moving up in ranking was the only one who had to be fought differently.

gren ideer
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This was a great game! I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that it had 'sandbox' or 'emergent' elements any more than Star Raiders for the Atari did. It was basically a large open plane with a bunch of enemies that you searched out and killed, plus the safe hub. Not to take anything away from the game though. It had a great atmosphere and was very cool at the time. Thanks for the memories!

Greg Bemis
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Wow. This brings back memories. Definitely an out-of-the-box title. I still have my working 3DO and Immercenary.

Anna Karl
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This is really a outstanding and wonderful game. I like this very much. It look is very nice. Sound is also terrible. I like it.
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Anna Karl
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This is really a outstanding and wonderful game. I like this very much. It look is very nice. Sound is also terrible. I like it.

Greg Wilcox
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Holy cats. I still have my 3DO as well (and over 100 US and Japanese titles because I'm crazy like that). Immercenary and PO'ed were both ahead of their times in a few areas and while I haven't played either in ages, this article is making me want to fish the game from out of the bin it's in and fly back into my Sanyo TRY-1 system. I guess that's the Random Indie Game of the Week for sometime in October.

@Josh: I always thought that first boss was harder because when you beat it, your character was supposed to get the hang of what needed to be done against certain enemies, so the game gradually became easier as you took time to learn what weapons worked effectively against what enemies. Granted, the last boss was easy if you were fully leveled up and fast on the controller, but hey, if you made it that far, you certainly earned the right to beat that poor sap into chips and bits...


Greg Wilcox
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Heh. Popped the game into my 3DO a few minutes ago and yup, it's still incredible, very surreal stuff that's more amazing when you see how well it predates a lot of things as stated in the article. I'm not sure how a remake would do as a FPS, given how jaded gamers and critics are toward the genre. But perhaps a RPG of sorts? I get a Shin Megami Tensei meets the Matrix vibe right off the bat. Anyway, let me shut my system off before I'm up the rest of the night playing again...