In 1994, Catapult launched what was the first widespread attempt at online play. Its Xband modem, released on both the Genesis and the SNES, wasn’t attempt at trying to bring consoles online, but it was by far the most successful up until that point. As gamers everywhere began to take each other on in Mortal Kombat and Super Street Fighter II, the seed of an online gaming service was planted, and its success eventually led to a little thing thing we know as Xbox Live.
One of the many people working to make Xband a reality was David Ashley. As a programmer responsible for making games compatible with the modem, he was there when the service started and was directly involved in making the service a success.
Mr. Ashley was kind enough to sit down for some Q & A with Sega-16.
Sega-16: Are you a gamer? If so, what types of games do you prefer?
David Ashley: I used to play computer games a lot more than I do now. Nowadays, if I play games it feels like indulgence, while my kids are around and they need attention. I was addicted to Counter Strike for a while. I liked Doom II a lot. Right at the moment my son and I are into the old game Toy Commander for Sega Dreamcast. I never got into the fight games (Mortal Kombat, etc). I liked the strategy games like WarCraft, WarCraft II and Starcraft. Not really into road race games. I like puzzle games. Loved Riven and Exile, as well as Full Throttle.
Sega-16: Other programmers, like Kevin McGrath at Electronic Arts, had reverse engineered the Genesis. How hard did you find the process? Did you have help or was it a solo project?
David Ashley: I thought it was surprisingly easy actually. It was a solo project. It took about two or three weeks to figure enough about the hardware registers to be able to program a game. I had also figured out a lot of the details of the FM sound chip they used. The task was made easier because I had had experience with the Z-80 cpu, the 68000 cpu, and the Amiga hardware. Moreover I had played around with the Yamaha DX-27 which used FM for sound generation. I didn’t really need to learn anything to figure the Genesis out.
Another company, I think called Color Dreams, down in the L.A. area, also reverse engineered the Genesis. They never figured out the sound part though. I think they wanted to buy my information on the Genesis sound hardware, but nothing ever came of it. There was a fellow Dan something who worked there, I was impressed with this guy, in fact he’s someone I’d like to talk to now if I could find him.
Sega-16: How did you come to work at Catapult?
David Ashley: Early in 1995, I was in Eugene, Oregon and I think I saw some posting by Catapult somewhere, perhaps on a Usenet news group. As I recall they were asking for people who liked to hack games, and they wanted people experienced with the Sega Genesis. I called and I think I spoke to Steve Perlman. He asked me to fax my resume over. I did, then a couple of weeks went by. Then I received a letter thanking me for submitting my resume but there were no positions available. This was a surprise. Then a few days later Perlman called back, asking if I’d sent my resume. There’s a lesson in that. Some drone had grabbed the resume and on her own decided to reject it. I faxed the resume again, and Perlman was impressed and arranged for an interview. I think I flew down and used a rental car and met with some of the guys there. They offered me a contract job: 12 weeks, $900/week as I recall, and they wanted me to hack games to work with their XBAND modem system. Within 9 or 10 weeks they made me an offer of employment. I think I started at $72K.
Sega-16: How hard was it to hack the games to work with the Xband? Did all games naturally lend themselves to modification, or were some titles harder than others?
David Ashley: There never was a vast library of games that worked with the XBAND modem. I think I only hacked one or two games myself. I did Super Street Fighter II. Hard/easy, I’m not sure if that concept applies. It took time to do. You’d have to figure out where the game read the joy pad, and modify that code to pull in data from the modem. You’d have to cut out menu options so both sides would start at the same place. You’d have to make sure random number generators got initialized to known values on both sides — you didn’t want anything to get the two sides out of sync. I think any game would lend itself to hacking, except the fast twitch games. Mortal Kombat on SNES turned out to be one programmer’s career at Catapult, he seemed to work on nothing else. The XBAND modem introduced latency between what you saw on your tv and what you had done with moving the joy pad. This threw off people’s game.
Sega-16: What exactly did you need to do to hack a game for use with the Xband? Did Catapult provide any special tools or was it just a matter of programming?
David Ashley: Catapult had a piece of hardware, an ASIC, built into the XBAND modem that built on top of the Game Genie concept. The Game Genie could modify some small number of memory locations so rather than reading a value from the cartridge ROM, it would replace a 16-bit word with its own value. The Game Genie could give you infinite lives, or infinite ammo, whatever. This was done by modifying the instruction that either decremented lives or ammo, or did the check to see if your lives/ammo were zero. The XBAND ASIC was designed by Steve Roskowski. It could do everything the Game Genie could do, plus map in whole regions of RAM to arbitrary locations in memory. There were clever ways it could map memory in and out based on the action of interrupts or returning from interrupts. Roskowski’s another fellow I’d like to touch bases with now, he was pretty sharp + I wonder what he’s up to.
Given that capability hacking a game was a matter of figuring out what the game code did and figuring out how to modify it to do what was necessary. Catapult had no special tools for hacking. They had some game patches for other games, and typically you’d start a patch for a new game by using an existing patch for an old game. The patch was sort of a library, it had to communicate with the XBAND modem to send/receive data, and manage the XBAND ASIC to modify sections of the cartridge as necessary. What I brought to the table was a powerful debugger that I modified to work within the 32K flashrom of the XBAND modem itself. It used the LED’s of the XBAND modem for communication to a PC’s parallel port. Shannon Holland inserted my debugger into the XBAND rom image as I recall. So on power up my debugger would be having control. You could single step, put breakpoints, evaluate expressions, do searches, all the usual debug functions. I had written this debugger for the Amiga, and had used that for hacking Amiga games + software. With that it was trivial to hack any game on the Genesis.
Sega-16: The Xband is considered a forefather to online services like Xbox Live. Did you ever think at the time that online gaming would become so big?
David Ashley: I think there was never any doubt that online gaming was going to be *huge*. The argument we always used was any game player will very quickly master the game’s AI and be able to beat it — so where’s the challenge? The only challenge can come from playing other human opponents who can get better just as well as you can.
Sega-16: Did you think the Xband would become a big success?
David Ashley: In those days I wasn’t so aware of the business aspects of the work. I was enjoying the work and the intellectual/puzzle aspects of it. I don’t think I ever really gave much thought as to whether it was a viable business model. I do recall thinking it was a great idea, only that it was about two years too late. The Genesis and SNES were already on their way out, to be replaced by PC gaming and the next gen systems.
In retrospect I’m surprised how they were able to get so much funding to have a real company, with so many engineers, busily working at building technology for such a limited audience. At the height of XBAND I think the subscription base was never more than 7,000 users or so. Catapult hoped that game publishers would build XBAND support into their products so it wouldn’t be necessary to hack games. Genesis + SNES games were on their way out. I think there were only a couple of games for Genesis that had XBAND support built in from day one. Catapult wanted to transition into PC gaming. But then the big games companies like EA + whatnot were getting into their own online presence + infrastructure. What could XBAND offer that they couldn’t do for themselves? XBand was bought out by MPath after I left, and I think most of the people either left or were laid off. I don’t know what happened to MPath.
Sega-16: Why did you leave Catapult?
David Ashley: Steve Perlman, who hired me at Catapult, and who was one of the original 4 founders of Catapult (With Adam Gross, Steve Roskowski, and some woman whose name escapes me (Adam’s girlfriend or wife as I recall), had a falling out with the other founders. He got fired with the board of directors’ approval. He felt pretty angry about the way it was done. I had felt a lot of loyalty towards him so I kept in contact after he had left. He started up a new company WebTV and began recruiting employees of Catapult. I saw $$$ and left Catapult to be employee #1 of WebTV. Within six weeks I had had a falling out with Perlman, in a disagreement about how much stock I’d receive in WebTV. I left WebTV. Later I think it was sold to Microsoft for $425M. Doh! Someone ought to write a book about this stuff! Those were interesting times.
Sega-16: You worked with Savia LTD. in Hong Kong to produce content for the Sega Genesis. Were they new games or ports of existing titles?
David Ashley: Savia was mostly a fellow named Viveik Saigal, good guy, I still talk with him upon occasion. He had a company in Hong Kong that produced Sega Genesis systems and games. However the margins were tiny, lots of other companies there were doing the same thing. His idea was to create their own content (cartridges + whatnot) to differentiate his company from the competition, and boost profits. He hired me to work on a cartridge for the Muslim market, it was intended to show kids or adults how to do the daily prayers, as well as provide history of the religion and related information. That project didn’t go much of anywhere; it sort of petered out.
Another hack I did was to take some baseball or football game on the Genesis and modify the artwork to make it look like a new version. So it was really the same old game, just a new title screen. Watch what you buy in Hong Kong :^). I don’t know if they made any money on that. I don’t think Savia actually produced any original games for the Genesis. Their market was less developed countries, where buying a Sega Genesis for $20 was expensive but affordable. They had a little home computer that was really a Genesis inside, with a 3.5″ disk drive and keyboard. It could do computer stuff and play games. Pretty slick thing.
Many thanks to Mr. Ashley for his cooperation and insight into the Xband. For more information on the Xband service and how it worked, check out our full feature Xband: Online Gaming’s First Big Try.