Full Motion Video

From Sega Retro

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FMV required significant compromise, with most games displaying heavily-compressed video at a small resolution.

Full Motion Video (FMV) was a marketing term created to familiarize consumers with the concept of bringing traditional video scenes into existing video game technology. By the early 1990s, improvements within the CD-ROM industry eventually resulted in the technology becoming cheaply available to mass consumer market. With this came a massive wave of development from developers trying to get into "the next big thing" as early as possible. Fueled by speculation, investors unfamiliar with the game industry saw potential in including video scenes in traditional game genres (as a way to "blur the lines" between movies and video games), and eagerly dumped money into these developers, resulting in a glut of poorly-received FMV games (particularly for the Sega CD).

It is not entirely certain where the phrase originates from, nor is there an exact definition of what "full motion video games" should refer to, however it is typically used to describe certain video games of the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, which are centered around the concept of being able to decode and stream digital video in real time (as well as providing a gameplay experience).

Today, decoding and streaming video formats within video games is commonplace, but are usually used for non-interactive sections (e.g. cutscenes, menu backgrounds, etc.). For a while, it was considered part of the gameplay experience. FMV is considered different to the traditional form of displaying video game graphics through the use of sprites or polygons - it was a short-lived fad designed to attract the attention of consumers, giving the illusion of significantly improved graphics when compared to rival methods.


The first game to use full motion video was Nintendo's 1974 arcade light gun shooter Wild Gunman, which used video projection from 16 mm film to display live-action cowboy opponents on a projection screen.[1][2] Another early arcade game to use full motion video was The Driver, an action-racing game released by Kasco (Kansai Seiki Seisakusho Co.) in the 1970s that also used 16 mm film. It required the player to match their steering wheel, gas pedal and brakes with the movements shown on screen, presenting dangerous situations much like those seen in the laserdisc video games that appeared the following decade.[3][4]

The first FMV video game was Sega's laserdisc arcade game Astron Belt, which ran on the Sega Laserdisc hardware, revealed in 1982 and released in 1983. It was followed by the laserdisc game Dragon's Lair later in 1983. Laserdisc games were usually either shooter games with full-motion video backdrops like Astron Belt, or interactive movies like Dragon's Lair. Data East's 1983 game Bega's Battle introduced the use of brief full-motion video cutscenes to develop a story between the game's shooting stages.[5] Other laserdisc arcade games included Space Ace, Taito's Ninja Hayate and Time Gal, and Data East's Road Blaster.

Full Motion Video became common within video games in the early 1990s. While a previous generation had enjoyed experiments on LaserDisc-based arcade systems, the hardware was deemed far too expensive to produce for home video game consumers at the time. Furthremore, the LaserDisc format ended in tragedy and failed to win over the hearts and minds of VHS owners.

The 1992 game Night Trap was perhaps the most infamous use of FMV.

With the advent of compact discs, developers were given enough room to store (low quality) videos, and a generation of new CD-based video game consoles (including the Sega Mega-CD) had the power to stream these videos in real-time. Many developers took advantage of this and attempted to create "revolutionary" games which could now both look and sound superior to their cartridge-based rivals.

For a while, the idea was popular, particularly with North American consumers. Entire systems were built or conceptualised to handle FMV games and to many it was seen as "the future". The general public had different ideas however, and though the likes of Night Trap had initially proved popular (if not just for the controversy that surrounded it), most FMV games failed to capture its success. Unlike a game built with traditional methods, a pre-rendered video cannot be changed in real-time, and thus it is very difficult for the player to manipulate their surroundings in any way.

Many FMV games are very linear in their approach - unlike a game of Sonic the Hedgehog where the player can adjust the position of Sonic ensuring no two play-throughs are exactly the same, most FMV games were destined to always pan out the same way, with relatively little choice involved. FMV games are often built up of "quick-time events", i.e. rely on buttons to be pressed at specific times (or cursors moved to specific areas of the screen) to advance. Others are essentially simple mazes where the player merely chooses a path - he or she does not physically move the character to a goal.

Some FMV games used the technology to their advantage, such as Cyan World's Myst. It is a good choice for adventure games, however this genre was on the decline in the mid-1990s in favour of more action-packed scenarios and has not yet recovered.

FMV games as a concept started to be phased out in the mid-1990s as sales began to slump. With them went entire companies, most notably Digital Pictures who invested heavily in the idea. Today, FMV games are almost non-existent, though some still show up in the form of DVD extras.


Sega Laserdisc hardware

Main article: Sega Laserdisc hardware.

The Sega Laserdisc hardware, which debuted in 1982 and released for arcades with Astron Belt in 1983, was the first video game hardware capable of FMV playback.

Sega Mega Drive

See Sega Mega Drive technical specifications

The Sega Mega Drive is technically capable of FMV playback. But only a handful of developers were able to utilize its FMV playback capabilities, and it was limited by cartridge space.

Sega Mega-CD

Main article: Sega Mega-CD.

Sega (and others) heavily marketed the concept of full motion video games for the Sega Mega-CD, particularly in North America where 60% of the system's launch titles were FMV games. Early promotion for the American hardware advertised it under the working title of Virtual VCR, adopted from Digital Pictures early name for their full-motion video technology. Many popular Japanese RPGs for the system were barred from entering the states due to fears they might not sell in the region. All six Sega Mega-CD 32X titles are "enhanced" FMV games. It was a heavily stressed feature, and considered one of the main reasons the system failed to make the same amount of impact as expected.

The Mega-CD in fact struggles with the concept of full motion video, and compares unfavorably to many of its rivals - the TurboGrafx-CD, Atari Jaguar CD, Neo Geo CD, Philips CD-i, FM Towns Marty, Panasonic 3DO and Amiga CD32. This is because the Mega-CD suffers from the same restrictions as the Sega Mega Drive in terms of on-screen colours - only 64 colours can be outputted on screen at once, which often leads to grainy, low quality video in which detail is lost. The Sega 32X add-on can increase the colour count significantly, but this required extra investment - typically more than any of the consoles mentioned.

FMV games were less common in Japan and Europe.

Pioneer LaserActive

Main article: Pioneer LaserActive.

The Pioneer LaserActive generally bypassed traditional FMV, as its LaserDisc-based LD-ROM technology meant video was natively stored on the game media. However, the system was also able to play Mega-CD and CD-ROM² discs through means of a hardware expansion, and these games could contain FMV.

Sega Saturn

Main article: Sega Saturn.

FMV games are far rarer on the Saturn, but the superior hardware means that the games perform better than on the Mega-CD. This generation of consoles spurred the industry to move away from FMV games and into polygon-based 3D visuals.