Michael Latham (SEGA) – Interview

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Eternal Champions spends a lot of time in our Mega Drive, and I’m still rubbish at it. Adrian caught up with arguably the main driving force behind the game, the legendary Michael Latham, who is quite happy to share with us details of a possible current-gen successor? Say whaaaaaaaaat.

 

Want to hear our views on Eternal Champions and other alternative fighting games? Check out the first podcast of June here.

 

Michael – thank you for stopping by Arcade Attack. Your time in the video games industry is long and illustrious, but how did you first get into it?

I was (one of) the true War Games generation. That movie rocked my world. I took up programming and wrote my own demon dialler, got myself in trouble doing that, but that’s another story… During this time computer software stores like Software Etc. and Egghead, I worked at both, were a new and shiny thing. This meant we had representatives from all the hardware and software makers coming to our store to do special demos and give us free copies of the software so we would become evangelists for their products. One of those representatives was from a new gaming company in the US, called Rainbird Software. They were a very successful game maker in the UK that was owned by British Telecom. Known for games like Starglider II, Carrier Command, and Stunt Car Racer. They hired me to help program demo discs for the products and convert the games for the US market. I spent a lot of time in London working with the various product teams. As luck would have it Rainbird’s office was in a spare location of the original Activision building. So, this meant we used their break room and bathrooms, so we were quite friendly with their development team.

 

Do you remember the first ever video game you worked on?

So as noted I started more on the programming side but I was pretty rubbish. So, when I found out there were game producers who would manage the process, in some cases do game design, and being technical meant I could better work the various teams. I don’t count any of the Rainbird as my first games since it was tweaking an existing product. Turns out BT had a knack for great timing and sold all the Rainbird assets because there was no future in games using phone or data lines to game over. I think Doom shipped weeks later… For me it turned out to be a great thing. The Activision team hired me on the spot to be an Associate Producer working for Michael Suarez’s group. Because I could code, make art assets, write sound drivers and so on it was decided I would take on the role of being the fire fighter. So there was two products that were assigned to me. One was Power Drift, a PC port of the Sega arcade game (Keith, calm down!! – Ed). This project was really struggling as a PC in those days were CGA, 1-Bit sound speaker, and slow CPU boxes. I flew down to Diamond Bar, CA and met the team. A husband and wife, with two programmers all working out of their house. Turns out this team is my future EC team and was purchased later to become Sega LA. Together we got the product out and Sega was impressed that this problem project turned out so well. The other game was called Redbelt, later renamed Tongue of the Fatman. This was the PC product not the Genesis product which was work in progress never finished and sold to Razorsoft via a bankruptcy sale. So, I lay no claim to that except I was working on it before Activision was sold and moved to LA. I got a job at Sega because I worked with them on this and the Power Drift project.

 

 

Eternal Champions is rightly regarded as an essential SEGA Mega Drive title (a true Arcade Attack favourite). Can you explain how the game’s idea and concept was first conceived?

I worked on Tongue of the Fatman PC back in a time where the only fighting games were Karateka and the arcade version of Street Fighter 1 machine with the giant buttons. In the PC game I did lots of advanced stuff. I had a weapon and ability upgrades, gambling, and of course a primitive story mode. Space was super limited back then. I even had a simple combo system. So, when I was offered a job at Sega I was pretty much put into my roll of fire fighter and had to get a few projects under control and out. One day a Street Fighter 2 machine appeared in our breakroom, turns out Scott Berfield was working on a fighting game. His vision was super different, you can read about it here:

Interview: Scott Berfield (SOA Producer)

BTW, Scott and I are friends though you wouldn’t know it from the article. He’s one prickly man. The only thing from Scott’s design I was keeping was the name of the game, it would be a fighting game, and one concept sketch that Ernie had drawn, which would become Shadow. So, starting from there I worked with Ernie on creating rough sketches of all the characters, building out the world, creating the fighting system, and finding VHS tapes for every fighting style. At this time I was promoted to Executive Producer and leader of the Omega group. So, Clyde was super concerned if I could balance all this. I had a deep passion to take my experience from Fatman and do it correctly. So I was working day and night 7 days a week until that full design you have read was finished. I remember a fair amount of pushback to why I had so much story line stuff, but I stuck to my guns and wouldn’t allow any of it to be cut (we’re thankful you didn’t! – Ed).

 

What was your exact role in Eternal Champions and what are your feelings looking back at this title?

I had a dual role, which again was not a thing that was done at this time. I was Executive Producer of the game which meant I managed the development team and worked with key groups in Sega like marketing, sales, and so on to ensure the game will have a successful roll-out. I also was the lead designer. Normally a producer works with a designer as part of the development team. At this time, some producers would want to do some high-level game design, a lot of others would leave that to the development team. If they did a high-level pass that document would be around 10-30 pages. So when I dropped the giant folder on Clyde Grossman’s desk, he thought I was playing a prank on him. To spite not following his wishes he came around with the design and its vision. For the development team, I think they were also shocked but in a good way.

A development team often must deal with feature creep and lots of misunderstandings during an average game development process. In the case of EC every screen was described way before UI/UX wireframing was a practice and every character down to every move was all documented. The artist loved having a VHS time code reference for nearly every move in the game and I even gave wireframe descriptions for how things worked like blade weapons.

So, I’m very proud that I was able to do both jobs. It also helped the Rod and team at Interactive Designs and I had worked together on Power Drift, Green Dog, and other titles. So there was a lot of mutual respect and trust in each other and it shows in the execution of the games.

 

Eternal Champions stands out from many fighting games of the era with its deep plot and sophisticated control system. Are you surprised future fighting games didn’t really adopt this approach?

I wasn’t surprised as most fighting games at the time were taken from or emulating an arcade experience. So, it is all about getting down to the fighting and getting more quarters drained. I was shocked that once titles like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat moved beyond just the arcade that they didn’t invest more time into giving the home player a lot more content, investment, and replayability.

I think If you look at the most recent home release of Street Fighter and the big displeasure at the very anemic single player mode, there may now be a shift towards giving more respect to deep plots and adding sophistication to the control system.

 

Do you have a personal favourite champion and overkill finishing move?

For sure Larcen is my favorite character. I love his time period, fighting style, and look. Most people assume then Shadow is my favorite female character as she is the most popular for sure, but when I play I love Jetta. I was always a Chun Li player in SF, Jetta has that speed and air attacks that I really love.

My favorite overkill is a hard one. Turns out coming up with all those ways to kill people is harder than you would think. I think the one that always makes me laugh is the one in Midknight’s background where a pit opens and your character falls down a series of blades and saws going on and on until just a tiny bit remains. The way the artist implemented it is more funny than shocking.

My favorite sudden death is an easy one. It’s in the Jetta background where the player has a clown car dropped on them and clown honks the horn which shoots out blood. I remember the artist calling me and asking if I was serious about this kill or was I pranking them. I’m like yep, totally serious.

 

 

What are your views on the enhanced Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side and do you see this title as the definitive Eternal Champions game?

Yep for now this is the definitive game. We listened to the customer feedback and improved pretty much all areas of the game. I loved being able to add even more story. Also, because at this point I was still running Omega, but also running Test, QA, and working with Operations, I was able to share design development with Erik Wahlberg, my producer as well as the entire team. Adding that diversity made the product even better. Also Rod and team were now the Sega LA development group, so working for the same company meant we could really push the envelope. I wish people could play the Sega CD version versus the original but because of how most emulators work, it’s not possible.

 

Is it true that an Eternal Champions game was being developed for the SEGA Saturn, and if so, why was it cancelled and how close was it to completion?

Yes, if you look at the original Saturn box it’s listed as a coming game. The short answer on the cancellation was SOJ was very frustrated that EC was getting more market attention than the Virtua Fighter series in the US and Europe. So, they decided to kill the EC Saturn game and focus all fighting efforts on VF. Even to this day you won’t see any EC characters appearing in Sega games where they have characters from a variety of other games. The ban still holds (what?? – Ed).

I wrote a 30-page treatment and there was a Saturn demo of the fighting but sadly both have been lost to time. My treatment being lost isn’t a bad thing, I have the full thing still in my head. The main concept was you have the Eternals and the Infernals facing off against each other in fights through time. Depending on the fight outcomes a time ripple would then change the story, alter dynamic backgrounds, even the characters. To win you must correct the time-line and defeat the ultimate enemy which is Chaos. That end fight would have been epic. Unlike the prior end fight you would be morphing between time-variants of your character and Chaos morphs between his.

 

There are strong rumours that a new Eternal Champions game could be in the works, can you shed any light to our readers?

It’s true that I have been talking with Adam McClard. He was a big EC fan and he is also super passionate about fighting games. Right now we are in the super early design and exploration phase.

 

If a new Eternal Champions game was developed, what direction would you like to take the game in?

That is unclear at this time. Currently we are using the working title Eternal Successors for the project. The concept is a spiritual successor to EC. This would mean new story lines, new characters, and a new big bad guy. We also plan to explore what it would look like to use the original EC intellectual property since Sega hasn’t used it in years. Also we have a long term vision of developing a larger development platform similar to what MMOs do so that several fighting games could use this central service and even cross over. At some point soon you can go to eternalchampions.com or eternalsuccessors.com to keep up on the project.

Below is one of the tease assets that shows a possible new character. This character actually has a direct connection with Larcen. It’s possible our new characters may all share connections to the originals. Lots of designing and discussion yet to occur.

 

 

Which game did you have the most fun working on and can you explain why?

Wow that’s a toss-up, a pure tie. Eternal Champions is the obvious answer. I loved being able to do that level of design work. I loved working with a team that had such passion and respect for each other. It’s the game I get the most contact from the fans about. I love their fan art, fan fiction, and even a couple have made their own games.

The other project was Ghostbusters 2, from back in my Activision days. It’s a long story but the short version was some other person designing and managing the game and months went by and nothing. The company hit the panic button with three months’ development time left and transferred it to me as the ultimate firefighting challenge. That night my friend Tony Van, a great game designer and producer got in a conference room with pizza and Jolt cola, spent the entire night coming up with a design. I pretty much got a plane the next day and we shipped the game 3 months later saving the company from financial disaster as it was the big holiday drive title. I did everything from art, sound code, and even sound samples and effects to ensure that schedule was met. Despite often sleeping underneath my desk I had the time of my life making that challenge happen.

 

 

What projects are you currently working on?

Currently I’m working on the Eternal Successors project. If that doesn’t move forward I will likely focus on doing Augmented Reality gaming or applications. I like to work on a platform when it’s early in the cycle and there are some real tough challenges to solve.

 

If you could share a few drinks with any video game character who would you choose and why?

Wow a toughie so many great ones. Almost went old school and picked the pong dot, but I would go with Earthworm Jim. I remember the first time I saw that game, it was mind blowing. To me maybe the greatest original character ever designed in a game. It is so fully developed and perfect. Also, he seems like a funny guy who could tell some great stories while you throw some Negronis back.

 

We’d back that! Thanks again for stopping by Michael, and keep us updated on Eternal Successors!

 

Want to hear our views on Eternal Champions and other alternative fighting games? Check out the first podcast of June here.

 

Adrian

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