The Sistine Chapel, Chapter 5: A Model Pope?
The Next Generation in Graphics, Part 3: Software Meets Hardware
The first finished devices to ship with the 3Dfx Voodoo chipset inside them were not add-on boards for personal computers, but rather standup arcade machines. That venerable segment of the videogames industry was enjoying its last lease on life in the mid-1990s; this was the last era when the graphics of the arcade machines were sufficiently better than those which home computers and consoles could generate as to make it worth getting up off the couch, driving into town, and dropping a quarter or two into a slot to see them. The Voodoo chips now became part and parcel of that, ironically just before they would do much to destroy the arcade market by bringing equally high-quality 3D graphics into homes. For now, though, they wowed players of arcade games like San Francisco Rush: Extreme Racing, Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey, and NFL Blitz.
Still, Gary Tarolli, Scott Sellers, and Ross Smith were most excited by the potential of the add-on-board market. All too well aware of how the chicken-or-the-egg deadlock between game makers and players had doomed their earlier efforts with Pellucid and Media Vision, they launched an all-out charm offensive among game developers long before they had any actual hardware to show them. Smith goes so far as to call “connecting with the developers early on and evangelizing them” the “single most important thing we ever did” — more important, that is to say, than designing the Voodoo chips themselves, impressive as they were. Throughout 1995, somebody from 3Dfx was guaranteed to be present wherever developers got together to talk among themselves. While these evangelizers had no hardware as yet, they did have software simulations running on SGI workstations — simulations which, they promised, duplicated exactly the capabilities the real chips would have when they started arriving in quantity from Taiwan.
Our core trio realized early on that their task must involve software as much as hardware in another, more enduring sense: they had to make it as easy as possible to support the Voodoo chipset. In my previous article, I mentioned how their old employer SGI had created an open-source software library for 3D graphics, known as OpenGL. A team of programmers from 3Dfx now took this as the starting point of a slimmed-down, ultra-optimized MS-DOS library they called GLide; whereas OpenGL sported well over 300 individual function calls, GLide had less than 100. It was fast, it was lightweight, and it was easy to program. They had good reason to be proud of it. Its only drawback was that it would only work with the Voodoo chips — which was not necessarily a drawback at all in the eyes of its creators, given that they hoped and planned to dominate a thriving future market for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics on personal computers.
Yet that domination was by no means assured, for they were far from the only ones developing consumer-oriented 3D chipsets. One other company in particular gave every indication of being on the inside track to widespread acceptance. That company was Rendition, another small, venture-capital-funded startup that was doing all of the same things 3Dfx was doing — only Rendition had gotten started even earlier. It had actually been Rendition who announced a 3D chipset first, and they had been evangelizing it ever since every bit as tirelessly as 3Dfx.
The Voodoo chipset was technologically baroque in comparison to Rendition’s chips, which went under the name of Vérité. This meant that Voodoo should easily outperform them — eventually, once all of the logistics of East Asian chip fabricating had been dealt with and deals had been signed with board makers. In June of 1996, when the first Vérité-powered boards shipped, the Voodoo chipset quite literally didn’t exist as far as consumers were concerned. Those first Vérité boards were made by none other than Creative Labs, the 800-pound gorilla of the home-computer add-on market, maker of the ubiquitous Sound Blaster sound cards and many a “multimedia upgrade kit.” Such a partner must be counted as yet another early coup for Rendition.
The Vérité cards were followed by a flood of others whose slickly aggressive names belied their somewhat workmanlike designs: 3D Labs Permedia, S3 Virge, ATI 3D Rage, Matrox Mystique. And still Voodoo was nowhere.
What was everywhere was confusion; it was all but impossible for the poor, benighted gamer to make heads or tails of the situation. None of these chipsets were compatible with one another at the hardware level in the way that 2D graphics cards were; there were no hardware standards for 3D graphics akin to VGA, that last legacy of IBM’s era of dominance, much less the various SVGA standards defined by the Video Electronic Standards Association (VESA). Given that most action-oriented computer games still ran on MS-DOS, this was a serious problem.
For, being more of a collection of basic function calls than a proper operating system, MS-DOS was not known for its hardware agnosticism. Most of the folks making 3D chips did provide an MS-DOS software package for steering them, similar in concept to 3Dfx’s GLide, if seldom as optimized and elegant. But, just like GLide, such libraries worked only with the chipset for which they had been created. What was sorely needed was an intermediate layer of software to sit between games and the chipset-manufacturer-provided libraries, to automatically translate generic function calls into forms suitable for whatever particular chipset happened to exist on that particular computer. This alone could make it possible for one build of one game to run on multiple 3D chipsets. Yet such a level of hardware abstraction was far beyond the capabilities of bare-bones MS-DOS.
Absent a more reasonable solution, the only choice was to make separate versions of games for each of the various 3D chipsets. And so began the brief-lived, unlamented era of the 3D pack-in game. All of the 3D-hardware manufacturers courted the developers and publishers of popular software-rendered 3D games, dangling before them all sorts of enticements to create special versions that took advantage of their cards, more often than not to be included right in the box with them. Activision’s hugely successful giant-robot-fighting game MechWarrior 2 became the king of the pack-ins, with at least half a dozen different chipset-specific versions floating around, all paid for upfront by the board makers in cold, hard cash. (Whatever else can be said about him, Bobby Kotick has always been able to spot the seams in the gaming market where gold is waiting to be mined.)
It was an absurd, untenable situation; the game or games that came in the box were the only ones that the purchasers of some of the also-ran 3D contenders ever got a chance to play with their new toys. Gamers and chipset makers alike could only hope that, once Windows replaced MS-DOS as the gaming standard, their pain would go away.
In the meanwhile, the games studio that everyone with an interest in the 3D-acceleration sweepstakes was courting most of all was id Software — more specifically, id’s founder and tech guru, gaming’s anointed Master of 3D Algorithms, John Carmack. They all begged him for a version of Quake for their chipset.
And once again, it was Rendition that scored the early coup here. Carmack actually shared some of the Quake source code with them well before either the finished game or the finished Vérité chipset was available for purchase. Programmed by a pair of Rendition’s own staffers working with the advice and support of Carmack and Michael Abrash, the Vérité-rendered version of the game, commonly known as vQuake, came out very shortly after the software-rendered version. Carmack called it “the premier platform for Quake” — truly marketing copy to die for. Gamers too agreed that 3D acceleration made the original’s amazing graphics that much more amazing, while the makers of other 3D chipsets gnashed their teeth and seethed.
Among these, of course, was the tardy 3Dfx. The first Voodoo cards appeared late, seemingly hopelessly so: well into the fall of 1996. Nor did they have the prestige and distribution muscle of a partner like Creative Labs behind them: the first two Voodoo boards rather came from smaller firms by the names of Diamond and Orchid. They sold for $300, putting them well up at the pricey end of the market — and, unlike all of the competition’s cards, these required you to have another, 2D-graphics card in your computer as well. For all of these reasons, they seemed easy enough to dismiss as overpriced white elephants at first blush. But that impression lasted only until you got a look at them in action. The Voodoo cards came complete with a list of features that none of the competition could come close to matching in the aggregate: bilinear filtering, trilinear MIP-mapping, alpha blending, fog effects, accelerated light sources. If you don’t know what those terms mean, rest assured that they made games look better and play faster than anything else on the market. This was amply demonstrated by those first Voodoo boards’ pack-in title, an otherwise rather undistinguished, typical-of-its-time shooter called Hellbender. In its new incarnation, it suddenly looked stunning.
The battle lines were drawn between Rendition and 3Dfx. But sadly for the former, it quickly emerged that their chipset had one especially devastating weakness in comparison to its rival: its Z-buffering support left much to be desired. And what, you ask, is Z-buffering? Read on!
One of the non-obvious problems that 3D-graphics systems must solve is the need for objects in the foreground of a scene to realistically obscure those behind them. If, at the rendering stage, we were to simply draw the objects in whatever random order they came to us, we would wind up with a dog’s breakfast of overlapping shapes. We need to have a way of depth-sorting the objects if we want to end up with a coherent, correctly rendered scene.
The most straightforward way of depth-sorting is called the Painter’s Algorithm, because it duplicates the process a human artist usually goes through to paint a picture. Let’s say our artist wants to paint a still life of an apple sitting in front of a basket of other fruits. First she will paint the basket to her satisfaction, then paint the apple right over the top of it. Similarly, when we use a Painter’s Algorithm on the computer, we first sort the whole collection of objects into a hierarchy that begins with those that are farthest from our virtual camera and ends with those closest to it. Only after this has been done do we set about the task of actually drawing them to the screen, in our sorted order from the farthest away to the closest. And so we end up with a correctly rendered image.
But, as so often happens in matters like this, the most logically straightforward way is far from the most efficient way of depth-sorting a 3D scene. When the number of objects involved is few, the Painter’s Algorithm works reasonably well. When the numbers get into the hundreds or thousands, however, it results in much wasted effort, as the computer ends up drawing objects that are completely obscured by other objects in front of them — i.e., objects that don’t really need to be drawn at all. Even more importantly, the process of sorting all of the objects by depth beforehand is painfully time-consuming, a speed bump that stops the rendering process dead until it is completed. Even in the 1990s, when their technology was in a laughably primitive stage compared to today, GPUs tended to emphasize parallel processing — i.e., staying constantly busy with multiple tasks at the same time. The necessity of sorting every object in a scene by depth before even getting properly started on rendering it rather threw all that out the window.
Enter the Z-buffer. Under this approach, every object is rendered right away as soon as it comes down the pipeline, used to build the appropriate part of the raster of colored pixels that, once completed, will be sent to the monitor screen as a single frame. But there comes an additional wrinkle in the form of the Z-buffer itself: a separate, parallel raster containing not the color of each pixel but its distance from the camera. Before the GPU adds an entry to the raster of pixel colors, it compares the distance of that pixel from the camera with the number in that location in the Z-buffer. If the current distance is less than the one already found there, it knows that the pixel in question should be overwritten in the main raster and that the Z-buffer raster should be updated with that pixel’s new distance from the camera. Ditto if the Z-buffer contains a null value, indicating no object has yet been drawn at that pixel. But if the current distance is larger than the (non-null) number already found there, the GPU simply moves on without doing anything more, confident in the knowledge that what it had wanted to draw should actually be hidden by what it has already drawn.
There are plenty of occasions when the same pixel is drawn over twice — or many times — before reaching the screen even under this scheme, but it is nevertheless still vastly more efficient than the Painter’s Algorithm, because it keeps objects flowing through the pipeline steadily, with no hiccups caused by lengthy sorting operations. Z-buffering support was reportedly a last-minute addition to the Vérité chipset, and it showed. Turning depth-sorting on for 100-percent realistic rendering on these chips cut their throughput almost in half; the Voodoo chipset, by contrast, just said, “No worries!,” and kept right on trucking. This was an advantage of titanic proportions. It eventually emerged that the programmers at Rendition had been able to get Quake running acceptably on the Vérité chips only by kludging together their own depth-sorting algorithms in software. With Voodoo, programmers wouldn’t have to waste time with stuff like that.
But surprisingly, the game that blew open the doors for the Voodoo chipset wasn’t Quake or anything else from id. It was rather a little something called Tomb Raider, from the British studio Core Design, a game which used a behind-the-back third-person perspective rather than the more typical first-person view — the better to appreciate its protagonist, the buxom and acrobatic female archaeologist Lara Croft. In addition to Lara’s considerable assets, Tomb Raider attracted gamers with its unprecedentedly huge and wide-open 3D environments. (It will be the subject of my next article, for those interested in reading more about its massive commercial profile and somewhat controversial legacy.)
In November of 1996, when Tomb Raider been out for less than a month, Core put a Voodoo patch for it up on their website. Gamers were blown away. “It’s a totally new game!” gushed one on Usenet. “It was playable but a little jerky without the patch, but silky smooth to play and beautiful to look at with the patch.” “The level of detail you get with the Voodoo chip is amazing!” enthused another. Or how about this for a ringing testimonial?
I had been playing the regular Tomb Raider on my PC for about two weeks
before I got the patch, with about ten people seeing the game, and not
really saying anything regarding how amazing it was. When I got the
accelerated patch, after about four days, every single person who has
seen the game has been in awe watching the graphics and how
smooth [and] lifelike the movement is. The feel is different, you can see
things much more clearly, it’s just a more enjoyable game now.
Tomb Raider became the biggest hit of the 1996 holiday season, and tens if not hundreds of thousands of Voodoo-based 3D cards joined it under Christmas trees.
In January of 1997, id released GLQuake, a new version of that game that used the Voodoo chipset. In telling contrast to the Vérité-powered vQuake, which had been coded by Rendition’s programmers, GLQuake had been taken on by John Carmack as a personal project. The proof was in the pudding; this Quake ran faster and looked better than either of the previous ones. Running on a machine built around a 200 MHz Intel Pentium processor, GLQuake could manage 70 frames per second, compared to 41 frames for the software-rendered version, whilst appearing much more realistic and less pixelated.
One last stroke of luck put the finishing touch on 3Dfx’s destiny of world domination: the price of memory dropped precipitously, thanks to a number of new RAM-chip factories that came online all at once in East Asia. (The factories had been built largely to feed the memory demands of Windows 95, the straw that was stirring the drink of the entire computer industry.) The Voodoo chipset required 4 MB of memory to operate effectively — an appreciable quantity in those days, and a big reason why the cards that used it tended to cost almost as twice as much as those based on the Vérité chips, despite lacking the added complications and expense of 2D support. But with the drop in memory prices, it suddenly became practical to sell a Voodoo card for under $200. Rendition could also lower their prices somewhat thanks to the memory windfall, of course, but at these lower price points the dollar difference wasn’t as damaging to 3Dfx. After all, the Voodoo cards were universally acknowledged to be the class of the industry. They were surely worth paying a little bit of a premium for. By the middle of 1997, the Voodoo chipset was everywhere, the Vérité one left dead at the side of the road. “If you want full support for a gamut of games, you need to get a 3Dfx card,” wrote Computer Gaming World.
These were heady times at 3Dfx, which had become almost overnight the most hallowed name in hardcore action gaming outside of id Software, all whilst making an order of magnitude more money than id, whose business model under John Carmack was hardly fine-tuned to maximize revenues. In a comment he left recently on this site, reader Captain Kal said that, when it comes to 3D gaming in the late 1990s, “one company springs to my mind without even thinking: 3Dfx. Yes, we also had 3D solutions from ATI, NVIDIA, or even S3, but Voodoo cards created the kind of dedication that I hadn’t seen since the Amiga days.” The comparison strikes me as thoroughly apropos.
3Dfx brought in a high-profile CEO named Greg Ballard, formerly of Warner Music and the videogame giant Capcom, to oversee a smashingly successful initial public offering in June of 1997. He and the three thirty-something founders were the oldest people at the company. “Most of the software engineers were [in their] early twenties, gamers through and through, loved games,” says Scott Sellers. “Would code during the day and play games at night. It was a culture of fun.” Their offices stood at the eighth hole of a golf course in Sunnyvale, California. “We’d sit out there and drink beer,” says Ross Smith. “And you’d have to dodge incoming golf balls a bit. But the culture was great.” Every time he came down for a visit, says their investing angel Gordon Campbell,
they’d show you something new, a new demo, a new mapping technique. There was always something. It was a very creative environment. The work hard and play hard thing, that to me kind of was Silicon Valley. You went out and socialized with your crew and had beer fests and did all that kind of stuff. And a friendly environment where everybody knew everybody and everybody was not in a hierarchy so much as part of the group or the team.
I think the thing that was added here was, it’s the gaming industry. And that was a whole new twist on it. I mean, if you go to the trade shows, you’d have guys that would show up at our booth with Dracula capes and pointed teeth. I mean, it was just crazy.
While the folks at 3Dfx were working hard and playing hard, an enormously consequential advancement in the field of software was on the verge of transforming the computer-games industry. As I noted previously, in 1996 most hardcore action games were still being released for MS-DOS. In 1997, however, that changed in a big way. With the exception of only a few straggling Luddites, game developers switched over to Windows 95 en masse. Quake had been an MS-DOS game; Quake II, which would ship at the end of 1997, ran under Windows. The same held true for the original Tomb Raider and its 1997 sequel, as it did for countless others.
Gaming was made possible on Windows 95 by Microsoft’s DirectX libraries, which finally let programmers do everything in Windows that they had once done in MS-DOS, with only a slight speed penalty if any, all while giving them the welcome luxury of hardware independence. That is to say, all of the fiddly details of disparate video and sound cards and all the rest were abstracted away into Windows device drivers that communicated automatically with DirectX to do the needful. It was an enormous burden lifted off of developers’ shoulders. Ditto gamers, who no longer had to futz about for hours with cryptic “autoexec.bat” and “config.sys” files, searching out the exact combination of arcane incantations that would allow each game they bought to run optimally on their precise machine. One no longer needed to be a tech-head simply to install a game.
In its original release of September 1995, the full DirectX suite consisted of DirectDraw for 2D pixel graphics, DirectSound for sound and music, DirectInput for managing joysticks and other game-centric input devices, and DirectPlay for networked multiplayer gaming. It provided no support for doing 3D graphics. But never fear, Microsoft said: 3D support was coming. Already in February of 1995, they had purchased a British company called RenderMorphics, the creator of Reality Lab, a hardware-agnostic 3D library. As promised, Microsoft added Direct3D to the DirectX collection with the latter’s 2.0 release, in June of 1996.
But, as the noted computer scientist Andrew Tanenbaum once said, “the nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from.” For the next several years, Direct3D would compete with another library serving the same purpose: a complete, hardware-agnostic Windows port of SGI’s OpenGL, whose most prominent booster was no less leading a light than John Carmack. Direct3D would finally win out despite Carmack’s endorsement of its rival, but we need not concern ourselves overmuch with the details of that tempest in a teacup here. Suffice to say that even the most bitter partisans on one side of the divide or the other could usually agree that both Direct3D and OpenGL were vastly preferable to the bad old days of chipset-specific 3D games.
Unfortunately for them, 3Dfx, rather feeling their oats after all of their success, made in response to these developments the first of a series of bad decisions that would cause their time at the top of the 3D-graphics heap to be a relatively short one.
Like all of the others, the Voodoo chipset could be used under Windows with either Direct3D or OpenGL. But there were some features on the Voodoo chips that the current implementations of those libraries didn’t support. 3Dfx was worried, reasonably enough on the face of it, about a “least-common-denominator effect” which would cancel out the very real advantages of their 3D chipset and make one example of the breed more or less as good as any other. However, instead of working with the folks behind Direct3D and OpenGL to get support for the Voodoo chips’ special features into those libraries, they opted to release a Windows version of GLide, and to strongly encourage game developers to keep working with it instead of either of the more hardware-agnostic alternatives. “You don’t want to just have a title 80 percent as good as it could be because your competitors are all going to be at 100 percent,” they said pointedly. They went so far as to start speaking of Voodoo-equipped machines as a whole new platform unto themselves, separate from more plebeian personal computers.
It was the talk and actions of a company that had begun to take its own press releases a bit too much to heart. But for a time 3Dfx got away with it. Developers coded for GLide in addition to or instead of Direct3D or OpenGL, because you really could do a lot more with it and because the cachet of the “certified” 3Dfx logo that using GLide allowed them to put on their boxes really was huge.
In March of 1998, the first cards with a new 3Dfx chipset, known as Voodoo2, began to appear. Voodoo2 boasted twice the overall throughput of its predecessor, and could handle a screen resolution of 800 X 600 instead of just 640 X 480; you could even join two of the new cards together to get even better performance and higher resolutions. This latest chipset only seemed to cement 3Dfx’s position as the class of their field.
The bottom line reflected this. 3Dfx was, in the words of their new CEO Greg Ballard, “a rocket ship.” In 1995, they earned $4 million in revenue; in 1996, $44 million; in 1997, $210 million; and in 1998, their peak year, $450 million. And yet their laser focus on selling the Ferraris of 3D acceleration was blinding Ballard and his colleagues to the potential of 3D Toyotas, where the biggest money of all was waiting to be made.
Over the course of the second half of the 1990s, 3D GPUs went from being exotic pieces of kit known only to hardcore gamers to being just another piece of commodity hardware found in almost all computers. 3Dfx had nothing to do with this significant shift. Instead they all but ignored this so-called “OEM” (“Original Equipment Manufacturer”) side of the GPU equation: chipsets that weren’t the hottest or the sexiest on the market, but that were cheap and easy to solder right onto the motherboards of low-end and mid-range machines bearing such unsexy name plates as Compaq and Packard Bell. Ironically, Gordon Campbell had made a fortune with Chips & Technologies selling just such commodity-grade 2D graphics chipsets. But 3Dfx was obstinately determined to fly above the OEM segment, determined to offer “premium” products only. “It doesn’t matter if 20 million people have one of our competitors’ chips,” said Scott Sellers in 1997. “How many of those people are hardcore gamers? How many of those people are buying games?” “I can guarantee that 100 percent of 3Dfx owners are buying games,” chimed in a self-satisfied-sounding Gary Tarolli.
The obvious question to ask in response was why it should matter to 3Dfx how many games — or what types of games — the users of their chips were buying, as long as they were buying gadgets that contained their chips. While 3Dfx basked in their status as the hardcore gamer’s favorite, other companies were selling many more 3D chips, admittedly at much less of a profit on a chip-per-chip basis, at the OEM end of the market. Among these was a firm known as NVIDIA, which had been founded on the back of a napkin in a Denny’s diner in 1993. NVIDIA’s first attempt to compete head to head with 3Dfx at the high end was underwhelming at best: released well after the Voodoo2 chipset, the RIVA TNT ran so hot that it required a noisy onboard cooling fan, and yet still couldn’t match the Voodoo2’s performance. By that time, however, NVIDIA was already building a lucrative business out of cheaper, simpler chips on the OEM side, even as they were gaining the wisdom they would need to mount a more credible assault on the hardcore-gamer market. In late 1998, 3Dfx finally seemed to be waking up to the fact that they would need to reach beyond the hardcore to continue their rise, when they released a new chipset called Voodoo Banshee which wasn’t quite as powerful as the Voodoo2 chips but could do conventional 2D as well as 3D graphics, meaning its owners would not be forced to buy a second video card just in order to use their computers.
But sadly, they followed this step forward with an absolutely disastrous mistake. You’ll remember that prior to this point 3Dfx had sold their chips only to other companies, who then incorporated them into add-on boards of their own design, in the same way that Intel sold microprocessors to computer makers rather than directly to consumers (aside from the build-your-own-rig hobbyists, that is). This business model had made sense for 3Dfx when they were cash-strapped and hadn’t a hope of building retail-distribution channels equal to those of the established board makers. Now, though, they were flush with cash, and enjoyed far better name recognition than the companies that made the boards which used their chips; even the likes of Creative Labs, who had long since dropped Rendition and were now selling plenty of 3Dfx boards, couldn’t touch them in terms of prestige. Why not cut out all these middlemen by manufacturing their own boards using their own chips and selling them directly to consumers with only the 3Dfx name on the box? They decided to do exactly that with their third state-of-the-art 3D chipset, the predictably named Voodoo3, which was ready in the spring of 1999.
Those famous last words apply: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” With the benefit of hindsight, we can see all too clearly what a terrible decision it actually was. The move into the board market became, says Scott Sellers, the “anchor” that would drag down the whole company in a rather breathtakingly short span of time: “We started competing with what used to be our own customers” — i.e., the makers of all those earlier Voodoo boards. Then, too, 3Dfx found that the logistics of selling a polished consumer product at retail, from manufacturing to distribution to advertising, were much more complex than they had reckoned with.
Still, they might — just might — have been able to figure it all out and make it work, if only the Voodoo3 chipset had been a bit better. As it was, it was an upgrade to be sure, but not quite as much of one as everyone had been expecting. In fact, some began to point out now that even the Voodoo2 chips hadn’t been that great a leap: they too were better than their predecessors, yes, but that was more down to ever-falling memory prices and ever-improving chip-fabrication technologies than any groundbreaking innovations in their fundamental designs. It seemed that 3Dfx had started to grow complacent some time ago.
NVIDIA saw their opening and made the most of it. They introduced a new line of their own, called the TNT2, which outdid its 3Dfx competitor in at least one key metric: it could do 24-bit color, giving it almost 17 million shades of onscreen nuance, compared to just over 65,000 in the case of Voodoo3. For the first time, 3Dfx’s chips were not the unqualified, undisputed technological leaders. To make matters worse, NVIDIA had been working closely with Microsoft in exactly the way that 3Dfx had never found it in their hearts to do, ensuring that every last feature of their chips was well-supported by the increasingly dominant Direct3D libraries.
And then, as the final nail in the coffin, there were all those third-party board makers 3Dfx had so rudely jilted when they decided to take over that side of the business themselves. These had nowhere left to go but into NVIDIA’s welcoming arms. And needless to say, these business partners spurned were highly motivated to make 3Dfx pay for their betrayal.
NVIDIA was on a roll now. They soon came out with yet another new chipset, the GeForce 256, which had a “Transform & Lighting” (T&L) engine built in, a major conceptual advance. And again, the new technology was accessible right from the start through Direct3D, thanks to NVIDIA’s tight relationship with Microsoft. Meanwhile the 3Dfx chips still needed GLide to perform at their best. With those chips’ sales now plummeting, more and more game developers decided the oddball library just wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. By the end of 1999, a 3Dfx death spiral that absolutely no one had seen coming at the start of the year was already well along. NVIDIA was rapidly sewing up both the high end and the low end, leaving 3Dfx with nothing.
In 2000, NVIDIA continued to go from strength to strength. Their biggest challenger at the hardcore-gamer level that year was not 3Dfx, but rather ATI, who arrived on the scene with a new architecture known as Radeon. 3Dfx attempted to right the ship with a two-pronged approach: a Voodoo4 chipset aimed at the long-neglected budget market, and a Voodoo5 aimed at the high end. Both had potential, but the company was badly strapped for cash by now, and couldn’t afford to give them the launch they deserved. In December of 2000, 3Dfx announced that they had agreed to sell out to NVIDIA, who thought they had spotted some bits and bobs in their more recent chips that they might be able to make use of. And that, as they say, was that.
3Dfx was a brief-burning comet by any standard, a company which did everything right up to the instant when someone somewhere flipped a switch and it suddenly started doing everything wrong instead. But whatever regrets Gary Tarolli, Scott Sellers, and Ross Smith may have about the way it all turned out, they can rest secure in the knowledge that they changed not just gaming but computing in general forever. Their vanquisher NVIDIA had revenues of almost $27 billion last year, on the strength of GPUs which are as far beyond the original Voodoo chips as an F-35 is beyond the Wright Brothers’ flier, which are at the forefront not just of 3D graphics but a whole new trend toward “massively parallel” computing.
And yet even today, the 3Dfx name and logo can still send a little tingle of excitement running down the spines of gamers of a certain age, just as that of the Amiga can among some just slightly older. For a brief few years there, over the course of one of most febrile, chaotic, and yet exciting periods in all of gaming history, having a Voodoo card in your computer meant that you had the best graphics money could buy. Most of us wouldn’t want to go back to the days of needing to constantly tinker with the innards of our computers, of dropping hundreds of dollars on the latest and the greatest and hoping that publishers would still be supporting it in six months, of poring over magazines trying to make sense of long lists of arcane bullet points that seemed like fragments of a particularly esoteric PhD thesis (largely because they originally were). No, we wouldn’t want to go back; those days were kind of ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look back and smile at the extraordinary technological progression we were privileged to witness over such a disarmingly short period of time.
Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.
(Sources: the books Renegades of the Empire: How Three Software Warriors Started a Revolution Behind the Walls of Fortress Microsoft by Michael Drummond, Masters of DOOM: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner, and Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke. Computer Gaming World of November 1995, January 1996, July 1996, November 1996, December 1996, September 1997, October 1997, November 1997, and April 1998; Next Generation of October 1997 and January 1998; Atomic of June 2003; Game Developer of December 1996/January 1997 and February/March 1997. Online sources include “3Dfx and Voodoo Graphics — The Technologies Within” at The Overclocker, former 3Dfx CEO Greg Ballard’s lecture for Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leader series, the Computer History Museum’s “oral history” with the founders of 3Dfx, Fabian Sanglard’s reconstruction of the workings of the Vérité chipset and the Voodoo 1 chipset, “Famous Graphics Chips: 3Dfx’s Voodoo” by Dr. Jon Peddie at the IEEE Computer Society’s site, and “A Fallen Titan’s Final Glory” by Joel Hruska at the long-defunct Sudhian Media. Also, the Usenet discussions that followed the release of the 3Dfx patch for Tomb Raider and Nicol Bolas’s crazily detailed reply to the Stack Exchange question “Why Do Game Developer Prefer Windows?”.)
The Next Generation in Graphics, Part 2: Three Dimensions in Hardware
Most of the academic papers about 3D graphics that John Carmack so assiduously studied during the 1990s stemmed from, of all times and places, the Salt Lake City, Utah, of the 1970s. This state of affairs was a credit to one man by the name of Dave Evans.
Born in Salt Lake City in 1924, Evans was a physicist by training and an electrical engineer by inclination, who found his way to the highest rungs of computing research by way of the aviation industry. By the early 1960s, he was at the University of California, Berkeley, where he did important work in the field of time-sharing, taking the first step toward the democratization of computing by making it possible for multiple people to use one of the ultra-expensive big computers of the day at the same time, each of them accessing it through a separate dumb terminal. During this same period, Evans befriended one Ivan Sutherland, who deserves perhaps more than any other person the title of Father of Computer Graphics as we know them today.
For, in the course of earning his PhD at MIT, Sutherland developed a landmark software application known as Sketchpad, the first interactive computer-based drawing program of any stripe. Sketchpad did not do 3D graphics. It did, however, record its user’s drawings as points and lines on a two-dimensional plane. The potential for adding a third dimension to its Flatland-esque world — a Z coordinate to go along with X and Y — was lost on no one, least of all Sutherland himself. His 1963 thesis on Sketchpad rocketed him into the academic stratosphere.
In 1964, at the ripe old age of 26, Sutherland succeeded J.C.R. Licklider as head of the computer division of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the most remarkable technology incubator in computing history. Alas, he proved ill-suited to the role of administrator: he was too young, too introverted — just too nerdy, as a later generation would have put it. But during the unhappy year he spent there before getting back to the pure research that was his real passion, he put the University of Utah on the computing map, largely as a favor to his friend Dave Evans.
Evans may have left Salt Lake City more than a decade ago, but he remained a devout Mormon, who found the counterculture values of the Berkeley of the 1960s rather uncongenial. So, he had decided to take his old alma mater up on an offer to come home and build a computer-science department there. Sutherland now awarded said department a small ARPA contract, one fairly insignificant in itself. What was significant was that it brought the University of Utah into the ARPA club of elite research institutions that were otherwise clustered on the coasts. An early place on the ARPANET, the predecessor to the modern Internet, was not the least of the perks which would come its way as a result.
Evans looked for a niche for his university amidst the august company it was suddenly joining. The territory of time-sharing was pretty much staked; extensive research in that field was already going full steam ahead at places like MIT and Berkeley. Ditto networking and artificial intelligence and the nuts and bolts of hardware design. Computer graphics, though… that was something else. There were smart minds here and there working on them — count Ivan Sutherland as Exhibit Number One — but no real research hubs dedicated to them. So, it was settled: computer graphics would become the University of Utah’s specialty. In what can only be described as a fantastic coup, in 1968 Evans convinced Sutherland himself to abandon the East Coast prestige of Harvard, where he had gone after leaving his post as the head of ARPA, in favor of the Mormon badlands of Utah.
Things just snowballed from there. Evans and Sutherland assembled around them an incredible constellation of bright young sparks, who over the course of the next decade defined the terms and mapped the geography of the field of 3D graphics as we still know it today, writing papers that remain as relevant today as they were half a century ago — or perchance more so, given the rise of 3D games. For example, the two most commonly used algorithms for calculating the vagaries of light and shade in 3D games stem directly from the University of Utah: Gouraud shading was invented by a Utah student named Henri Gouraud in 1971, while Phong shading was invented by another named Bui Tuong Phong in 1973.
But of course, lots of other students passed through the university without leaving so indelible a mark. One of these was Jim Clark, who would still be semi-anonymous today if he hadn’t gone on to become an entrepreneur who co-founded two of the most important tech companies of the late twentieth century.
When you’ve written as many capsule biographies as I have, you come to realize that the idea of the truly self-made person is for the most part a myth. Certainly almost all of the famous names in computing history were, long before any of their other qualities entered into the equation, lucky: lucky in their time and place of birth, in their familial circumstances, perhaps in (sad as it is to say) their race and gender, definitely in the opportunities that were offered to them. This isn’t to disparage their accomplishments; they did, after all, still need to have the vision to grasp the brass ring of opportunity and the talent to make the most of it. Suffice to say, then, that luck is a prerequisite but the farthest thing from a guarantee.
Every once in a while, however, I come across someone who really did almost literally make something out of nothing. One of these folks is Jim Clark. If today as a soon-to-be octogenarian he indulges as enthusiastically as any of his Old White Guy peers in the clichéd trappings of obscene wealth, from the mansions, yachts, cars, and wine to the Victoria’s Secret model he has taken for a fourth wife, he can at least credibly claim to have pulled himself up to his current station in life entirely by his own bootstraps.
Clark was born in 1944, in a place that made Salt Lake City seem like a cosmopolitan metropolis by comparison: the small Texas Panhandle town of Plainview. He grew up dirt poor, the son of a single mother living well below the poverty line. Nobody expected much of anything from him, and he obliged their lack of expectations. “I thought the whole world was shit and I was living in the middle of it,” he recalls.
An indifferent student at best, he was expelled from high school his junior year for telling a teacher to go to hell. At loose ends, he opted for the classic gambit of running away to sea: he joined the Navy at age seventeen. It was only when the Navy gave him a standardized math test, and he scored the highest in his group of recruits on it, that it began to dawn on him that he might actually be good at something. Encouraged by a few instructors to pursue his aptitude, he enrolled in correspondence courses to fill his free time when out plying the world’s oceans as a crewman on a destroyer.
Ten years later, in 1971, the high-school dropout, now six years out of the Navy and married with children, found himself working on a physics PhD at Louisiana State University. Clark:
I noticed in Physics Today an article that observed that physicists getting PhDs from places like Harvard, MIT, Yale, and so on didn’t like the jobs they were getting. And I thought, well, what am I doing — I’m getting a PhD in physics from Louisiana State University! And I kept thinking, well, I’m married, and I’ve got these obligations. By this time, I had a second child, so I was real eager to get a good job, and I just got discouraged about physics. And a friend of mine pointed to the University of Utah as having a computer-graphics specialty. I didn’t know much about it, but I was good with geometry and physics, which involves a lot of geometry.
So, Clark applied for a spot at the University of Utah and was accepted.
But, as I already implied, he didn’t become a star there. His 1974 thesis was entitled “3D Design of Free-Form B-Spline Surfaces”; it was a solid piece of work addressing a practical problem, but not anything to really get the juices flowing. Afterward, he spent half a decade bouncing around from campus to campus as an adjunct professor: the Universities of California at Santa Cruz and Berkeley, the New York Institute of Technology, Stanford. He was fairly miserable throughout. As an academic of no special note, he was hired primarily as an instructor rather than a researcher, and he wasn’t at all cut out for the job, being too impatient, too irascible. Proving the old adage that the child is the father of the man, he was fired from at least one post for insubordination, just like that angry teenager who had once told off his high-school teacher. Meanwhile he went through not one but two wives. “I was in this kind of downbeat funk,” he says. “Dark, dark, dark.”
It was now early 1979. At Stanford, Clark was working right next door to Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which was inventing much of the modern paradigm of computing, from mice and menus to laser printers and local-area networking. Some of the colleagues Clark had known at the University of Utah were happily ensconced over there. But he was still on the outside looking in. It was infuriating — and yet he was about to find a way to make his mark at last.
Hardware engineering at the time was in the throes of a revolution and its backlash, over a technology that went by the mild-mannered name of “Very Large Scale Integration” (VLSI). The integrated circuit, which packed multiple transistors onto a single microchip, had been invented at Texas Instruments at the end of the 1950s, and had become a staple of computer design already during the following decade. Yet those early implementations often put only a relative handful of transistors on a chip, meaning that they still required lots of chips to accomplish anything useful. A turning point came in 1971 with the Intel 4004, the world’s first microprocessor — i.e., the first time that anyone put the entire brain of a computer on a single chip. Barely remarked at the time, that leap would result in the first kit computers being made available for home users in 1975, followed by the Trinity of 1977, the first three plug-em-in-and-go personal computers suitable for the home. Even then, though, there were many in the academic establishment who scoffed at the idea of VLSI, which required a new, in some ways uglier approach to designing circuitry. In a vivid illustration that being a visionary in some areas doesn’t preclude one from being a reactionary in others, many of the folks at PARC were among the scoffers. Look how far we’ve come doing things one way, they said. Why change?
A PARC researcher named Lynn Conway was enraged by such hidebound thinking. A rare female hardware engineer, she had made scant progress to date getting her point of view through to the old boy’s club that surrounded her at PARC. So, broadening her line of attack, she wrote a paper about the basic techniques of modern chip design, and sent it out to a dozen or so universities along with a tempting offer: if any students or faculty wished to draw up schematics for a chip of their own and send them to her, she would arrange to have the chip fabricated in real silicon and sent back to its proud parent. The point of it all was just to get people to see the potential of VLSI, not to push forward the state of the art. And indeed, just as she had expected, almost all of the designs she received were trivially simple by the standards of even the microchip industry of 1979: digital time keepers, adding machines, and the like. But one was unexpectedly, even crazily complex. Alone among the submissions, it bore a precautionary notice of copyright, from one James Clark. He called his creation the Geometry Engine.
The Geometry Engine was the first and, it seems likely, only microchip that Jim Clark ever personally attempted to design in his life. It was created in response to a fundamental problem that had been vexing 3D modelers since the very beginning: that 3D graphics required shocking quantities of mathematical calculations to bring to life, scaling almost exponentially with the complexity of the scene to be depicted. And worse, the type of math they required was not the type that the researchers’ computers were especially good at.
Wait a moment, some of you might be saying. Isn’t math the very thing that computers do? It’s right there in the name: they compute things. Well, yes, but not all types of math are created equal. Modern computers are also digital devices, meaning they are naturally equipped to deal only with discrete things. Like the game of DOOM, theirs is a universe of stair steps rather than smooth slopes. They like integer numbers, not decimals. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, they could approximate the latter through a storage format known as floating point, but they dealt with these floating-point numbers at least an order of magnitude slower than they did whole numbers, as well as requiring a lot more memory to store them. For this reason, programmers avoided them whenever possible.
And it actually was possible to do so a surprisingly large amount of the time. Most of what computers were commonly used for could be accomplished using only whole numbers — for example, by using Euclidean division that yields a quotient and a remainder in place of decimal division. Even financial software could be built using integers only to count the total number of cents rather than floating-point values to represent dollars and cents. 3D-graphics software, however, was one place where you just couldn’t get around them. Creating a reasonably accurate mathematical representation of an analog 3D space forced you to use floating-point numbers. And this in turn made 3D graphics slow.
Jim Clark certainly wasn’t the first person to think about designing a specialized piece of hardware to lift some of the burden from general-purpose computer designs, an add-on optimized for doing the sorts of mathematical operations that 3D graphics required and nothing else. Various gadgets along these lines had been built already, starting a decade or more before his Geometry Engine. Clark was the first, however, to think of packing it all onto a single chip — or at worst a small collection of them — that could live on a microcomputer’s motherboard or on a card mounted in a slot, that could be mass-produced and sold in the thousands or millions. His description of his “slave processor” sounded disarmingly modest (not, it must be said, a quality for which Clark is typically noted): “It is a four-component vector, floating-point processor for accomplishing three basic operations in computer graphics: matrix transformations, clipping, and mapping to output-device coordinates [i.e., going from an analog world space to pixels in a digital raster].” Yet it was a truly revolutionary idea, the genesis of the graphical processing units (GPUs) of today, which are in some ways more technically complex than the CPUs they serve. The Geometry Engine still needed to use floating-point numbers — it was, after all, still a digital device — but the old engineering doctrine that specialization yields efficiency came into play: it was optimized to do only floating-point calculations, and only a tiny subset of all the ones possible at that, just as quickly as it could.
The Geometry Engine changed Clark’s life. At last, he had something exciting and uniquely his. “All of these people started coming up and wanting to be part of my project,” he remembers. Always an awkward fit in academia, he turned his thinking in a different direction, adopting the mindset of an entrepreneur. “He reinvented his relationship to the world in a way that is considered normal only in California,” writes journalist Michael Lewis in a book about Clark. “No one who had been in his life to that point would be in it ten years later. His wife, his friends, his colleagues, even his casual acquaintances — they’d all be new.” Clark himself wouldn’t hesitate to blast his former profession in later years with all the fury of a professor scorned.
I love the metric of business. It’s money. It’s real simple. You either make money or you don’t. The metric of the university is politics. Does that person like you? Do all these people like you enough to say, “Yeah, he’s worthy?”
But by whatever metric, success didn’t come easy. The Geometry Engine and all it entailed proved a harder sell with the movers and shakers in commercial computing than it had with his colleagues at Stanford. It wasn’t until 1982 that he was able to scrape together the funding to found a company called Silicon Graphics, Incorporated (SGI), and even then he was forced to give 85 percent of his company’s shares to others in order to make it a reality. Then it took another two years after that to actually ship the first hardware.
The market segment SGI was targeting is one that no longer really exists. The machines it made were technically microcomputers, being built around microprocessors, but they were not intended for the homes of ordinary consumers, nor even for the cubicles of ordinary office workers. These were much higher-end, more expensive machines than those, even if they could fit under a desk like one of them. They were called workstation computers. The typical customer spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on them in the service of some highly demanding task or another.
In the case of the SGI machines, of course, that task was almost always related to graphics, usually 3D graphics. Their expense wasn’t bound up with their CPUs; in the beginning, these were fairly plebeian chips from the Motorola 68000 series, the same line used in such consumer-grade personal computers as the Apple Macintosh and the Commodore Amiga. No, the justification of their high price tags rather lay with their custom GPUs, which even in 1984 already went far beyond the likes of Clark’s old Geometry Engine. An SGI GPU was a sort of black box for 3D graphics: feed it all of the data that constituted a scene on one side, and watch a glorious visual representation emerge at the other, thanks to an array of specialized circuitry designed for that purpose and no other.
Now that it had finally gotten off the ground, SGI became very successful very quickly. Its machines were widely used in staple 3D applications like computer-aided industrial design (CAD) and flight simulation, whilst also opening up new vistas in video and film production. They drove the shift in Hollywood from special effects made using miniature models and stop-motion techniques dating back to the era of King Kong to the extensive use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) that we see even in the purportedly live-action films of today. (Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were among SGI’s first and best customers.) “When a moviegoer rubbed his eyes and said, ‘What’ll they think of next?’,” writes Michael Lewis, “it was usually because SGI had upgraded its machines.”
The company peaked in the early 1990s, when its graphics workstations were the key to CGI-driven blockbusters like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Never mind the names that flashed by in the opening credits; everyone could agree that the computer-generated dinosaurs were the real stars of Jurassic Park. SGI was bringing in over $3 billion in annual revenue and had close to 15,000 employees by 1993, the year that movie was released. That same year, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore came out personally to SGI’s offices in Silicon Valley to celebrate this American success story.
SGI’s hardware subsystem for graphics, the beating heart of its business model, was known in 1993 as the RealityEngine2. This latest GPU was, wrote Byte magazine in a contemporary article, “richly parallel,” meaning that it could do many calculations simultaneously, in contrast to a traditional CPU, which could only execute one instruction at a time. (Such parallelism is the reason that modern GPUs are so often used for some math-intensive non-graphical applications, such as crypto-currency mining and neural networking.) To support this black box and deliver to its well-heeled customers a complete turnkey solution for all their graphics needs, SGI had also spearheaded an open-source software library for 3D applications, known as the Open Graphics Library, or OpenGL. Even the CPUs in its latest machines were SGI’s own; it had purchased a maker of same called MIPS Technologies in 1990.
But all of this success did not imply a harmonious corporation. Jim Clark was convinced that he had been hard done by back in 1982, when he was forced to give up 85 percent of his brainchild in order to secure the funding he needed, then screwed over again when he was compelled by his board to give up the CEO post to a former Hewlett Packard executive named Ed McCracken in 1984. The two men had been at vicious loggerheads for years; Clark, who could be downright mean when the mood struck him, reduced McCracken to public tears on at least one occasion. At one memorable corporate retreat intended to repair the toxic atmosphere in the board room, recalls Clark, “the psychologist determined that everyone else on the executive committee was passive aggressive. I was just aggressive.”
Clark claims that the most substantive bone of contention was McCracken’s blasé indifference to the so-called low-end market, meaning all of those non-workstation-class personal computers that were proliferating in the millions during the 1980s and early 1990s. If SGI’s machines were advancing by leaps and bounds, these consumer-grade computers were hopscotching on a rocket. “You could see a time when the PC would be able to do the sort of graphics that [our] machines did,” says Clark. But McCracken, for one, couldn’t see it, was content to live fat and happy off of the high prices and high profit margins of SGI’s current machines.
He did authorize some experiments at the lower end, but his heart was never in it. In 1990, SGI deigned to put a limited subset of the RealityEngine smorgasbord onto an add-on card for Intel-based personal computers. Calling it IrisVision, it hopefully talked up its price of “under $5000,” which really was absurdly low by the company’s usual standards. What with its complete lack of software support and its way-too-high price for this marketplace, IrisVision went nowhere, whereupon McCracken took the failure as a vindication of his position. “This is a low-margin business, and we’re a high-margin company, so we’re going to stop doing that,” he said.
Despite McCracken’s indifference, Clark eventually managed to broker a deal with Nintendo to make a MIPS microprocessor and an SGI GPU the heart of the latter’s Nintendo 64 videogame console. But he quit after yet another shouting match with McCracken in 1994, two years before it hit the street.
He had been right all along about the inevitable course of the industry, however undiplomatically he may have stated his case over the years. Personal computers did indeed start to swallow the workstation market almost at the exact point in time that Clark bailed. The profits from the Nintendo deal were rich, but they were largely erased by another of McCracken’s pet projects, an ill-advised acquisition of the struggling supercomputer maker Cray. Meanwhile, with McCracken so obviously more interested in selling a handful of supercomputers for millions of dollars each than millions upon millions of consoles for a few hundred dollars each, a group of frustrated SGI employees left the company to help Nintendo make the GameCube, the followup to the Nintendo 64, on their own. It was all downhill for SGI after that, bottoming out in a 2009 bankruptcy and liquidation.
As for Clark, he would go on to a second entrepreneurial act as remarkable as his first, abandoning 3D graphics to make a World Wide Web browser with Marc Andreessen. We will say farewell to him here, but you can read the story of his second company Netscape’s meteoric rise and fall elsewhere on this site.
Now, though, I’d like to return to the scene of SGI’s glory days, introducing in the process three new starring players. Gary Tarolli and Scott Sellers were talented young engineers who were recruited to SGI in the 1980s; Ross Smith was a marketing and business-development type who initially worked for MIPS Technologies, then ended up at SGI when it acquired that company in 1990. The three became fast friends. Being of a younger generation, they didn’t share the contempt for everyday personal computers that dominated among their company’s upper management. Whereas the latter laughed at the primitiveness of games like Wolfenstein 3D and Ultima Underworld, if they bothered to notice them at all, our trio saw a brewing revolution in gaming, and thought about how much it could be helped along by hardware-accelerated 3D graphics.
Convinced that there was a huge opportunity here, they begged their managers to get into the gaming space. But, still smarting from the recent failure of IrisVision, McCracken and his cronies rejected their pleas out of hand. (One of the small mysteries in this story is why their efforts never came to the attention of Jim Clark, why an alliance was never formed. The likely answer is that Clark had, by his own admission, largely removed himself from the day-to-day running of SGI by this time, being more commonly seen on his boat than in his office.) At last, Tarolli, Sellers, Smith, and some like-minded colleagues ran another offer up the flagpole. You aren’t doing anything with IrisVision, they said. Let us form a spinoff company of our own to try to sell it. And much to their own astonishment, this time management agreed.
They decided to call their new company Pellucid — not the best name in the world, sounding as it did rather like a medicine of some sort, but then they were still green at all this. The technology they had to peddle was a couple of years old, but it still blew just about anything else in the MS-DOS/Windows space out of the water, being able to display 16 million colors at a resolution of 1024 X 768, with 3D acceleration built-in. (Contrast this with the SVGA card found in the typical home computer of the time, which could do 256 colors at 640 X 480, with no 3D affordances). Pellucid rebranded the old IrisVision the ProGraphics 1024. Thanks to the relentless march of chip-fabrication technology, they found that they could now manufacture it cheaply enough to be able to sell it for as little as $1000 — still pricey, to be sure, but a price that some hardcore gamers, as well as others with a strong interest in having the best graphics possible, might just be willing to pay.
The problem, the folks at Pellucid soon came to realize, was a well-nigh intractable deadlock between the chicken and the egg. Without software written to take advantage of its more advanced capabilities, the ProGraphics 1024 was just another SVGA graphics card, selling for a ridiculously high price. So, consumers waited for said software to arrive. Meanwhile software developers, seeing the as-yet non-existent installed base, saw no reason to begin supporting the card. Breaking this logjam must require a concentrated public-relations and developer-outreach effort, the likes of which the shoestring spinoff couldn’t possibly afford.
They thought they had done an end-run around the problem in May of 1993, when they agreed, with the blessing of SGI, to sell Pellucid kit and caboodle to a major up-and-comer in consumer computing known as Media Vision, which currently sold “multimedia upgrade kits” consisting of CD-ROM drives and sound cards. But Media Vision’s ambitions knew no bounds: they intended to branch out into many other kinds of hardware and software. With proven people like Stan Cornyn, a legendary hit-maker from the music industry, on their management rolls and with millions and millions of dollars on hand to fund their efforts, Media Vision looked poised to dominate.
It seemed the perfect landing place for Pellucid; Media Vision had all the enthusiasm for the consumer market that SGI had lacked. The new parent company’s management said, correctly, that the ProGraphics 1024 was too old by now and too expensive to ever become a volume product, but that 3D acceleration’s time would come as soon as the current wave of excitement over CD-ROM and multimedia began to ebb and people started looking for the next big thing. When that happened, Media Vision would be there with a newer, more reasonably priced 3D card, thanks to the people who had once called themselves Pellucid. It sounded pretty good, even if in the here and now it did seem to entail more waiting around than anything else.
There was just one stumbling block: “Media Vision was run by crooks,” as Scott Sellers puts it. In April of 1994, a scandal erupted in the business pages of the nation’s newspapers. It turned out that Media Vision had been an experiment in “fake it until you make it” on a gigantic scale. Its founders had engaged in just about every form of malfeasance imaginable, creating a financial house of cards whose honest revenues were a minuscule fraction of what everyone had assumed them to be. By mid-summer, the company had blown away like so much dust in the wind, still providing income only for the lawyers who were left to pick over the corpse. (At least two people would eventually be sent to prison for their roles in the conspiracy.) The former Pellucid folks were left as high and dry as everyone else who had gotten into bed with Media Vision. All of their efforts to date had led to the sale of no more than 2000 graphics cards.
That same summer of 1994, a prominent Silicon Valley figure named Gordon Campbell was looking for interesting projects in which to invest. Campbell had earned his reputation as one of the Valley’s wise men through a company called Chips and Technologies (C&T), which he had co-founded in 1984. One of those hidden movers in the computer industry, C&T had largely invented the concept of the chipset: chips or small collections of them that could be integrated directly into a computer’s motherboard to perform functions that used to be placed on add-on cards. C&T had first made a name for itself by reducing IBM’s bulky nineteen-chip EGA graphics card to just four chips that were cheaper to make and consumed less power. Campbell’s firm thrived alongside the cost-conscious PC clone industry, which by the beginning of the 1990s was rendering IBM itself, the very company whose products it had once so unabashedly copied, all but irrelevant. Onboard video, onboard sound, disk controllers, basic firmware… you name it, C&T had a cheap, good-enough-for-the-average-consumer chipset to handle it.
But now Campbell had left C&T “in pursuit of new opportunities,” as they say in Valley speak. Looking for a marketing person for one of the startups in which he had invested a stake, he interviewed a young man named Ross Smith who had SGI on his résumé — always a plus. But the interview didn’t go well. Campbell:
It was the worst interview I think I’ve ever had. And so finally, I just turned to him and I said, “Okay, your heart’s not in this interview. What do you really want to do?”
And he kind of looks surprised and says, well, there are these two other guys, and we want to start a 3D-graphics company. And the next thing I know, we had set up a meeting. And we had, over a lot of beers, a discussion which led these guys to all come and work at my office. And that set up the start of 3Dfx.
It seemed to all of them that, after all of the delays and blind alleys, it truly was now or never to make a mark. For hardware-accelerated 3D graphics were already beginning to trickle down into the consumer space. In standup arcades, games like Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter were using rudimentary GPUs. Ditto the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation, the latest in home-videogame consoles, both which were on the verge of release in Japan, with American debuts expected in 1995. Meanwhile the software-only, 2.5D graphics of DOOM were taking the world of hardcore computer gamers by storm. The men behind 3Dfx felt that the next move must surely seem obvious to many other people besides themselves. The only reason the masses of computer-game players and developers weren’t clamoring for 3D graphics cards already was that they didn’t yet realize what such gadgets could do for them.
Still, they were all wary of getting back into the add-on board market, where they had been burned so badly before. Selling products directly to consumers required retail access and marketing muscle that they still lacked. Instead, following in the footsteps of C&T, they decided to sell a 3D chipset only to other companies, who could then build it into add-on boards for personal computers, standup-arcade machines, whatever they wished.
At the same time, though, they wanted their technology to be known, in exactly the way that the anonymous chipsets made by C&T were not. In the pursuit of this aspiration, Gordon Campbell found inspiration from another company that had become a household name despite selling very little directly to consumers. Intel had launched the “Intel Inside” campaign in 1990, just as the era of the PC clone was giving way to a more amorphous commodity architecture. The company introduced a requirement that the makers of computers which used its CPUs include the Intel Inside logo on their packaging and on the cases of the computers themselves, even as it made the same logo the centerpiece of a standalone advertising campaign in print and on television. The effort paid off; Intel became almost as identified with the Second Home Computer Revolution in the minds of consumers as was Microsoft, whose own logo showed up on their screens every time they booted into Windows. People took to calling the emerging duopoly the “Wintel” juggernaut, a name which has stuck around to this day.
So, it was decided: a requirement to display a similarly snazzy 3Dfx logo would be written into that company’s contracts as well. The 3Dfx name itself was a vast improvement over Pellucid. As time went on, 3Dfx would continue to display a near-genius for catchy branding: “Voodoo” for the chipset itself, “GLide” for the software library that controlled it. All of this reflected a business savvy the likes of which hadn’t been seen from Pellucid, that was a credit both to Campbell’s steady hand and the accumulating experience of the other three partners.
But none of it would have mattered without the right product. Campbell told his trio of protégés in no uncertain terms that they were never going to make a dent in computer gaming with a $1000 video card; they needed to get the price down to a third of that at the most, which meant the chipset itself could cost the manufacturers who used it in their products not much more than $100 a pop. That was a tall order, especially considering that gamers’ expectations of graphical fidelity weren’t diminishing. On the contrary: the old Pellucid card hadn’t even been able to do 3D texture mapping, a failing that gamers would never accept post-DOOM.
It was left to Gary Tarolli and Scott Sellers to figure out what absolutely had to be in there, such as the aforementioned texture mapping, and what they could get away with tossing overboard. Driven by the remorseless logic of chip-fabrication costs, they wound up going much farther with the tossing than they ever could have imagined when they started out. There could be no talk of 24-bit color or unusually high resolutions: 16-bit color (offering a little over 65,000 onscreen shades) at a resolution of 640 X 480 would be the limit.A resolution of 800 X 600 was technically possible using the Voodoo chipset, but using this resolution meant that the programmer could not use a vital affordance known as Z-buffering. For this reason, it was almost never seen in the wild. Likewise, they threw out the capability of handling any polygons except for the simplest of them all, the humble triangle. For, they realized, you could make almost any solid you liked by combining triangular surfaces together. With enough triangles in your world — and their chipset would let you have up to 1 million of them — you needn’t lament the absence of the other polygons all that much.
Sellers had another epiphany soon after. Intel’s latest CPU, to which gamers were quickly migrating, was the Pentium. It had a built-in floating-point co-processor which was… not too shabby, actually. It should therefore be possible to take the first phase of the 3D-graphics pipeline — the modeling phase — out of the GPU entirely and just let the CPU handle it. And so another crucial decision was made: they would concern themselves only with the rendering or rasterization phase, which was a much greater challenge to tackle in software alone, even with a Pentium. Another huge piece of the puzzle was thus neatly excised — or rather outsourced back to the place where it was already being done in current games. This would have been heresy at SGI, whose ethic had always been to do it all in the GPU. But then, they were no longer at SGI, were they?
Undoubtedly their bravest decision of all was to throw out any and all 2D-graphics capabilities — i.e., the neat rasters of pixels used to display Windows desktops and word processors and all of those earlier, less exciting games. Makers of Voodoo boards would have to include a cable to connect the existing, everyday graphics cards inside their customers’ machines to their new 3D ones. When you ran non-3D applications, the Voodoo card would simply pass the video signal on to the monitor unchanged. But when you fired up a 3D game, it would take over from the other board. A relay inside made a distinctly audible click when this happened. Far from a bug, gamers would soon come to consider the noise a feature.”Because you knew it was time to have fun,” as Ross Smith puts it.
It was a radical plan, to be sure. These new cards would be useful only for games, would have no other purpose whatsoever; there would be no justifying this hardware purchase to the parents or the spouse with talk of productivity or educational applications. Nevertheless, the cost savings seemed worth it. After all, almost everyone who initially went out to buy the new cards would already have a perfectly good 2D video card in their computer. Why make them pay extra to duplicate those functions?
The final design used just two custom chips. One of them, internally known as the T-Rex (Jurassic Park was still in the air), was dedicated exclusively to the texture mapping that had been so conspicuously missing from the Pellucid board. Another, called the FBI (“Frame Buffer Interface”), did everything else required in the rendering phase. Add to this pair a few less exciting off-the-shelf chips and four megabytes worth of RAM chips, put it on a board with the appropriate connectors, and you had yourself a 3Dfx Voodoo GPU.
Needless to say, getting this far took some time. Tarolli, Sellers, and Smith spent the last half of 1994 camped out in Campbell’s office, deciding what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it and securing the funding they needed to make it happen. Then they spent all of 1995 in offices of their own, hiring about a dozen people to help them, praying all the time that no other killer product would emerge to make all of their efforts moot. While they worked, the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation did indeed arrive on American shores, becoming the first gaming devices equpped with 3D GPUs to reach American homes in quantity. The 3Dfx crew were not overly impressed by either console — and yet they found the public’s warm reception of the PlayStation in particular oddly encouraging. “That showed, at a very rudimentary level, what could be done with 3D graphics with very crude texture mapping,” says Scott Sellers. “And it was pretty abysmal quality. But the consumers were just eating it up.”
They got their first finished chipsets back from their Taiwanese fabricator at the end of January 1996, then spent Super Bowl weekend soldering them into place and testing them. There were a few teething problems, but in the end everything came together as expected. They had their 3D chipset, at the beginning of a year destined to be dominated by the likes of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. It seemed the perfect product for a time when gamers couldn’t get enough 3D mayhem. “If it had been a couple of years earlier,” says Gary Tarolli, “it would have been too early. If it had been a couple of years later, it would have been too late.” As it was, they were ready to go at the Goldilocks moment. Now they just had to sell their chipset to gamers — which meant they first had to sell it to game developers and board makers.
Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.
(Sources: the books The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik, and The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story by Michael Lewis; Byte of May 1992 and November 1993; InfoWorld of April 22 1991 and May 31 1993; Next Generation of October 1997; ACM’s Computer Graphics journal of July 1982; Wired of January 1994 and October 1994. Online sources include the Computer History Museum’s “oral histories” with Jim Clark, Forest Baskett, and the founders of 3Dfx; Wayne Carlson’s “Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation”; “Fall of Voodoo” by Ernie Smith at Tedium; Fabian Sanglard’s reconstruction of the workings of the Voodoo 1 chips; “Famous Graphics Chips: 3Dfx’s Voodoo” by Dr. Jon Peddie at the IEEE Computer Society’s site; an internal technical description of the Voodoo technology archived at bitsavers.org.)
|↑1||A resolution of 800 X 600 was technically possible using the Voodoo chipset, but using this resolution meant that the programmer could not use a vital affordance known as Z-buffering. For this reason, it was almost never seen in the wild.|
The Next Generation in Graphics, Part 1: Three Dimensions in Software (or, Quake and Its Discontents)
“Mathematics,” wrote the historian of science Carl Benjamin Boyer many years ago, “is as much an aspect of culture as it is a collection of algorithms.” The same might be said about the mathematical algorithms we choose to prioritize — especially in these modern times, when the right set of formulas can be worth many millions of dollars, can be trade secrets as jealously guarded as the recipes for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s Special Sauce.
We can learn much about the tech zeitgeist from those algorithms the conventional wisdom thinks are most valuable. At the very beginning of the 1990s, when “multimedia” was the buzzword of the age and the future of games was believed to lie with “interactive movies” made out of video clips of real actors, the race was on to develop video codecs: libraries of code able to digitize footage from the analog world and compress it to a fraction of its natural size, thereby making it possible to fit a reasonable quantity of it on CDs and hard drives. This was a period when Apple’s QuickTime was regarded as a killer app in itself, when Philips’s ill-fated CD-i console could be delayed for years by the lack of a way to get video to its screen quickly and attractively.
It is a rule in almost all kinds of engineering that, the more specialized a device is, the more efficiently it can perform the tasks that lie within its limited sphere. This rule holds true as much in computing as anywhere else. So, when software proved able to stretch only so far in the face of the limited general-purpose computing power of the day, some started to build their video codecs into specialized hardware add-ons.
Just a few years later, after the zeitgeist in games had shifted, the whole process repeated itself in a different context.
By the middle years of the decade, with the limitations of working with canned video clips becoming all too plain, interactive movies were beginning to look like a severe case of the emperor’s new clothes. The games industry therefore shifted its hopeful gaze to another approach, one that would prove a much more lasting transformation in the way games were made. This 3D Revolution did have one point of similarity with the mooted and then abandoned meeting of Silicon Valley and Hollywood: it too was driven by algorithms, implemented first in software and then in hardware.
It was different, however, in that the entire industry looked to one man to lead it into its algorithmic 3D future. That man’s name was John Carmack.
Whether they happen to be pixel art hand-drawn by human artists or video footage captured by cameras, 2D graphics already exist on disk before they appear on the monitor screen. And therein lies the source of their limitations. Clever programmers can manipulate them to some extent — pixel art generally more so than digitized video — but the possibilities are bounded by the fundamentally static nature of the source material. 3D graphics, however, are literally drawn by the computer. They can go anywhere and do just about anything. For, while 2D graphics are stored as a concrete grid of pixels, 3D graphics are described using only the abstract language of mathematics — a language able to describe not just a scene but an entire world, assuming you have a powerful enough computer running a good enough algorithm.
Like so many things that get really complicated really quickly, the basic concepts of 3D graphics are disarmingly simple. The process behind them can be divided into two phases: the modeling phase and the rendering, or rasterization, phase.
It all begins with simple two-dimensional shapes of the sort we all remember from middle-school geometry, each defined as a collection of points on a plane and straight lines connecting them together. By combining and arranging these two-dimensional shapes, or surfaces, together in three-dimensional space, we can make solids — or, in the language of computerized 3D graphics, objects.
Once we have a collection of objects, we can put them into a world space, wherever we like and at whatever angle of orientation we like. This world space is laid out as a three-dimensional grid, with its point of origin — i.e., the point where X, Y, and Z are all zero — wherever we wish it to be. In addition to our objects, we also place within it a camera — or, if you like, an observer in our world — at whatever position and angle of orientation we wish. At their simplest, 3D graphics require nothing more at the modeling phase.
We sometimes call the second phase the “rasterization” phase in reference to the orderly two-dimensional grid of pixels which make up the image seen on a monitor screen, which in computer-science parlance is known as a raster. The whole point of this rasterization phase, then, is to make our computer’s monitor a window into our imaginary world from the point of view of our imaginary camera. This entails converting said world’s three dimensions back into our two-dimensional raster of pixels, using the rules of perspective that have been understood by human artists since the Renaissance.
The most basic of all 3D graphics are of the “wire-frame” stripe, which attempt to draw only the lines that form the edges of their surfaces. They were seen fairly frequently on microcomputers as far back as the early 1980s, the most iconic example undoubtedly being the classic 1984 space-trading game Elite.
Even in something as simple as Elite, we can begin to see how 3D graphics blur the lines between a purely presentation-level technology and a full-blown world simulation. When we have one enemy spaceship in our sights in Elite, there might be several others above, behind, or below us, which the 3D engine “knows” about but which we may not. Combined with a physics engine and some player and computer agency in the model world (taking here the form of lasers and thrusters), it provides the raw materials for a game. Small wonder that so many game developers came to see 3D graphics as such a natural fit.
But, for all that those wire frames in Elite might have had their novel charm in their day, programmers realized that the aesthetics of 3D graphics had to get better for them to become a viable proposition over the long haul. This realization touched off an algorithmic arms race that is still ongoing to this day. The obvious first step was to paint in the surfaces of each solid in single blocks of color, as the later versions of Elite that were written for 16-bit rather than 8-bit machines often did. It was an improvement in a way, but it still looked jarringly artificial, even against a spartan star field in outer space.
The next way station on the road to a semi-realistic-looking computer-generated world was light sources of varying strengths, positioned in the world with X, Y, and Z coordinates of their own, casting their illumination and shadows realistically on the objects to be found there.
The final step was to add textures, small pictures that were painted onto surfaces in place of uniform blocks of color; think of the pitted paint job of a tired X-Wing fighter or the camouflage of a Sherman tank. Textures introduced an enormous degree of complication at the rasterization stage; it wasn’t easy for 3D engines to make them look believable from a multitude of different lines of sight. That said, believable lighting was almost as complicated. Textures or lighting, or both, were already the fodder for many an academic thesis before microcomputers even existed.
In the more results-focused milieu of commercial game development, where what was possible was determined largely by which types of microprocessors Intel and Motorola were selling the most of in any given year, programmers were forced to choose between compromised visions of the academic ideal. These broke down into two categories, neatly exemplified by the two most profitable computer games of the 1990s. Those games that followed in one or the other’s footsteps came to be known as the “Myst clones” and the “DOOM clones.” They could hardly have been more dissimilar in personality, yet they were both symbols of a burgeoning 3D revolution.
The Myst clones got their name from a game developed by Cyan Studios and published by Brøderbund in September of 1993, which went on to sell at least 6 million copies as a boxed retail product and quite likely millions more as a pack-in of one description or another. Myst and the many games that copied its approach tended to be, as even their most strident detractors had to admit, rather beautiful to look at. This was because they didn’t attempt to render their 3D imagery in real time; their rendering was instead done beforehand, often on beefy workstation-class machines, then captured as finished rasters of pixels on disk. Given that they worked with graphics that needed to be rendered only once and could be allowed to take hours to do so if necessary, the creators of games like this could pull out all the stops in terms of textures, lighting, and the sheer number and complexity of the 3D solids that made up their worlds.
These games’ disadvantage — a pretty darn massive one in the opinion of many players — was that their scope of interactive potential was as sharply limited in its way as that of all those interactive movies built around canned video clips that the industry was slowly giving up on. They could present their worlds to their players only as a collection of pre-rendered nodes to be jumped between, could do nothing on the fly. These limitations led most of their designers to build their gameplay around set-piece puzzles found in otherwise static, non-interactive environments, which most players soon started to find a bit boring. Although the genre had its contemplative pleasures and its dedicated aficionados who appreciated them, its appeal as anything other than a tech demo — the basis on which the original Myst was primarily sold — turned out to be the very definition of niche, as the publishers of Myst clones belatedly learned to their dismay. The harsh reality became undeniable once Riven, the much-anticipated, sumptuously beautiful sequel to Myst, under-performed expectations by “only” selling 1 million copies when it finally appeared four years after its hallowed predecessor. With the exception only of Titanic: Adventure out of Time, which owed its fluke success to a certain James Cameron movie with which it happened to share a name and a setting, no other game of this style ever cracked half a million in unit sales. The genre has been off the mainstream radar for decades now.
The DOOM clones, on the other hand, have proved a far more enduring fixture of mainstream gaming. They took their name, of course, from the landmark game of first-person carnage which the energetic young men of id Software released just a couple of months after Myst reached store shelves. John Carmack, the mastermind of the DOOM engine, managed to present a dynamic, seamless, apparently 3D world in place of the static nodes of Myst, and managed to do it in real time, even on a fairly plebeian consumer-grade computer. He did so first of all by being a genius programmer, able to squeeze every last drop out of the limited hardware at his disposal. And then, when even that wasn’t enough to get the job done, he threw out feature after feature that the academics whose papers he had pored over insisted was essential for any “real” 3D engine. His motto was, if you can’t get it done honestly, cheat, by hard-coding assumptions about the world into your algorithms and simply not letting the player — or the level designer — violate them. The end result was no Myst-like archetype of beauty in still screenshots. It pasted 2D sprites into its world whenever there wasn’t horsepower enough to do real modeling, had an understanding of light and its properties that is most kindly described as rudimentary, and couldn’t even handle sloping floors or ceilings, or walls that weren’t perfectly vertical. Heck, it didn’t even let you look up or down.
And absolutely none of that mattered. DOOM may have looked a bit crude in freeze-frame, but millions of gamers found it awe-inspiring to behold in motion. Indeed, many of them thought that Carmack’s engine, combined with John Romero and Sandy Petersen’s devious level designs, gave them the most fun they’d ever had sitting behind a computer. This was immersion of a level they’d barely imagined possible, the perfect demonstration of the real potential of 3D graphics — even if it actually was, as John Carmack would be the first to admit, only 2.5D at best. No matter; DOOM felt like real 3D, and that was enough.
A hit game will always attract imitators, and a massive hit will attract legions of them. Accordingly, the market was soon flooded with, if anything, even more DOOM clones than Myst clones, all running in similar 2.5D engines, the product of both intense reverse engineering of DOOM itself and Carmack’s habit of talking freely about how he made the magic happen to pretty much anyone who asked him, no matter how much his colleagues at id begged him not to. “Programming is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “Teaching something to a fellow programmer doesn’t take it away from you. I’m happy to share what I can because I’m in it for the love of programming.” Carmack was elevated to veritable godhood, the prophet on the 3D mountaintop passing down whatever scraps of wisdom he deigned to share with the lesser mortals below.
Seen in retrospect, the DOOM clones are, like the Myst clones, a fairly anonymous lot for the most part, doubling down on transgressive ultra-violence instead of majestic isolation, but equally failing to capture a certain ineffable something that lay beyond the nuts and bolts of their inspiration’s technology. The most important difference between the Myst and DOOM clones came down to the filthy lucre of dollar and unit sales: whereas Myst‘s coattails proved largely illusory, producing few other hits, DOOM‘s were anything but. Most people who had bought Myst, it seemed, were satisfied with that single purchase; people who bought DOOM were left wanting more first-person mayhem, even if it wasn’t quite up to the same standard.
The one DOOM clone that came closest to replacing DOOM itself in the hearts of gamers was known as Duke Nukem 3D. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, given its pedigree: it was a product of 3D Realms, the rebranded incarnation of Scott Miller’s Apogee Software. Whilst trading under the earlier name, Miller had pioneered the episodic shareware model of game distribution, a way of escaping the heavy-handed group-think of the major boxed-game publishers and their tediously high-concept interactive movies in favor of games that were exponentially cheaper to develop, but also rawer, more visceral, more in line with what the teenage and twenty-something males who still constituted the large majority of dedicated gamers were actually jonesing to play. Miller had discovered the young men of id when they were still working for a disk magazine in Shreveport, Louisiana. He had then convinced them to move to his own glossier, better-connected hometown of Dallas, Texas, and distributed their proto-DOOM shooter Wolfenstein 3D to great success. His protégées had elected to strike out on their own when the time came to release DOOM, but it’s fair to say that that game would probably never have come to exist at all if not for their shareware Svengali. And even if it had, it probably wouldn’t have made them so much money; Jay Wilbur, id’s own tireless guerilla marketer, learned most of his tricks from watching Scott Miller.
Still a man with a keen sense of what his customers really wanted, Miller re-branded Apogee as 3D Realms as a way of signifying its continuing relevance amidst the 3D revolution that took the games industry by storm after DOOM. Then he, his junior partner George Broussard, and 3D Realms’s technical mastermind Ken Silverman set about making a DOOM-like engine of their own, known as Build, which they could sell to other developers who wanted to get up and running quickly. And they used the same engine to make a game of their own, which would turn out to be the most memorable of all those built with Build.
Duke Nukem 3D‘s secret weapon was one of the few boxes in the rubric of mainstream gaming success that DOOM had failed to tick off: a memorable character to serve as both star and mascot. First conceived several years earlier for a pair of Apogee 2D platformers, Duke Nukem was Joseph Lieberman’s worst nightmare, an unrepentant gangster with equally insatiable appetites for bombs and boobies, a fellow who “thinks the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is a convenience store,” as his advertising trumpeted. His latest game combined some of the best, tightest level design yet seen outside of DOOM with a festival of adolescent transgression, from toilet water that served as health potions to strippers who would flash their pixelated breasts at you for the price of a dollar bill. The whole thing was topped off with the truly over-the-top quips of Duke himself: “I’m gonna rip off your head and shit down your neck!”; “Your face? Your ass? What’s the difference?” It was an unbeatable combination, proof positive that Miller’s ability to read his market was undimmed. Released in January of 1996, relatively late in the day for this generation of 3D — or rather 2.5D — technology, Duke Nukem 3D became by some reports the best-selling single computer game of that entire year. It is still remembered with warm nostalgia today by countless middle-aged men who would never want their own children to play a game like this. And so the cycle of life continues…
Duke Nukem 3D was a triumph of design and attitude rather than technology; in keeping with most of the DOOM clones, the Build engine’s technical innovations over its inspiration were fairly modest. John Carmack scoffed that his old friends’ creation looked like it was “held together with bubble gum.”
The game that did push the technology envelope farthest, albeit without quite managing to escape the ghetto of the DOOM clones, was also a sign in another way of how quickly DOOM was changing the industry: rather than stemming from scruffy veterans of the shareware scene like id and 3D Realms, it came from the heart of the industry’s old-money establishment — from no less respectable and well-financed an entity than George Lucas’s very own games studio.
LucasArts’s Dark Forces was a shooter set in the Star Wars universe, which disappointed everyone right out of the gate with the news that it was not going to let you fight with a light saber. The developers had taken a hard look at it, they said, but concluded in the end that it just wasn’t possible to pull off satisfactorily within the hardware specifications they had to meet. This failing was especially ironic in light of the fact that they had chosen to name their new 2.5D engine “Jedi.” But they partially atoned for it by making the Jedi engine capable of hosting unprecedentedly enormous levels — not just horizontally so, but vertically as well. Dark Forces was full of yawning drop-offs and cavernous open spaces, the likes which you never saw in DOOM — or Duke Nukem 3D, for that matter, despite its release date of almost a year after Dark Forces. Even more importantly, Dark Forces felt like Star Wars, right from the moment that John Williams’s stirring theme song played over stage-setting text which scrolled away into the frame rather than across it. Although they weren’t allowed to make any of the movies’ characters their game’s star, LucasArts created a serviceable if slightly generic stand-in named Kyle Katarn, then sent him off on vertigo-inducing chases through huge levels stuffed to the gills with storm troopers in urgent need of remedial gunnery training, just like in the movies. Although Dark Forces toned down the violence that so many other DOOM clones were making such a selling point out of — there was no blood whatsoever on display here, just as there had not been in the movies — it compensated by giving gamers the chance to live out some of their most treasured childhood media memories, at a time when there were no new non-interactive Star Wars experiences to be had.
Unfortunately, LucasArts’s design instincts weren’t quite on a par with their presentation and technology. Dark Forces‘s levels were horribly confusing, providing little guidance about what to do or where to go in spaces whose sheer three-dimensional size and scope made the two-dimensional auto-map all but useless. Almost everyone who goes back to play the game today tends to agree that it just isn’t as much fun as it ought to be. At the time, though, the Star Wars connection and its technical innovations were enough to make Dark Forces a hit almost the equal of DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D. Even John Carmack made a point of praising LucasArts for what they had managed to pull off on hardware not much better than that demanded by DOOM.
Yet everyone seemed to be waiting on Carmack himself, the industry’s anointed Master of 3D Algorithms, to initiate the real technological paradigm shift. It was obvious what that must entail: an actual, totally non-fake rendered-on-the-fly first-person 3D engine, without all of the compromises that had marked DOOM and its imitators. Such engines weren’t entirely unheard of; the Boston studio Looking Glass Technologies had been working with them for five years, employing them in such innovative, immersive games as Ultima Underworld and System Shock. But those games were qualitatively different from DOOM and its clones: slower, more complex, more cerebral. The mainstream wanted a game that played just as quickly and violently and viscerally as DOOM, but that did it in uncompromising real 3D. With computers getting faster every year and with a genius like John Carmack to hand, it ought to be possible.
And so Carmack duly went to work on just such an engine, for a game that was to be called Quake. His ever-excitable level designer John Romero, who had the looks and personality to be the rock star gaming had been craving for years, was all in with bells on. “The next game is going to blow DOOM all to hell,” he told his legions of adoring fans. “DOOM totally sucks in comparison to our next game! Quake is going to be a bigger step over DOOM than DOOM was over Wolf 3D.” Drunk on success and adulation, he said that Quake would be more than just a game: “It will be a movement.” (Whatever that meant!) The drumbeat of excitement building outside of id almost seemed to justify his hyperbole; from all the way across the Atlantic, the British magazine PC Zone declared that the upcoming Quake would be “the most important PC game ever made.” The soundtrack alone was to be a significant milestone in the incorporation of gaming into mainstream pop culture, being the work of Trent Reznor and his enormously popular industrial-rock band Nine Inch Nails. Such a collaboration would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.
While Romero was enjoying life as gaming’s own preeminent rock star and waiting for Carmack to get far enough along on the Quake engine to give him something to do, Carmack was living like a monk, working from 4 PM to 4 AM every day. In another sign of just how quickly id had moved up in the world, he had found himself an unexpectedly well-credentialed programming partner. Michael Abrash was one of the establishment’s star programmers, who had written a ton of magazine articles and two highly regarded technical tomes on assembly-language and graphics programming and was now a part of Microsoft’s Windows NT team. When Carmack, who had cut his teeth on Abrash’s writings, invited him out of the blue to come to Dallas and do Quake with him, Bill Gates himself tried to dissuade his employee. “You might not like it down there,” he warned. Abrash was, after all, pushing 40, a staid sort with an almost academic demeanor, while id was a nest of hyperactive arrested adolescence on a permanent sugar high. But he went anyway, because he was pretty sure Carmack was a genius, and because Carmack seemed to Abrash a bit lonely, working all night every night with only his computer for company. Abrash thought he saw in Quake a first glimmer of a new form of virtual existence that companies like Meta are still chasing eagerly today: “a pretty complicated, online, networked universe,” all in glorious embodied 3D. “We do Quake, other companies do other games, people start building worlds with our format and engine and tools, and these worlds can be glommed together via doorways from one to another. To me this sounds like a recipe for the first real cyberspace, which I believe will happen the way a real space station or habitat probably would — by accretion.”
He may not have come down if he had known precisely what he was getting into; he would later compare making Quake to “being strapped onto a rocket during takeoff in the middle of a hurricane.” The project proved a tumultuous, exhausting struggle that very nearly broke id as a cohesive company, even as the money from DOOM was continuing to roll in. (id’s annual revenues reached $15.6 million in 1995, a very impressive figure for what was still a relatively tiny company, with a staff numbering only a few dozen.)
Romero envisioned a game that would be as innovative in terms of gameplay as technology, that would be built largely around sword-fighting and other forms of hand-to-hand combat rather than gun play — the same style of combat that LucasArts had decided was too impractical for Dark Forces. Some of his early descriptions make Quake sound more like a full-fledged CRPG in the offing than another straightforward action game. But it just wouldn’t come together, according to some of Romero’s colleagues because he failed to communicate his expectations to them, rather leading them to suspect that even he wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to make.
Carmack finally stepped in and ordered his design team to make Quake essentially a more graphically impressive DOOM. Romero accepted the decision outwardly, but seethed inwardly at this breach of longstanding id etiquette; Carmack had always made the engines, then given Romero free rein to turn them into games. Romero largely checked out, opening a door that ambitious newcomers like American McGee and Tim Willits, who had come up through the thriving DOOM modding community, didn’t hesitate to push through. The offices of id had always been as hyper-competitive as a DOOM deathmatch, but now the atmosphere was becoming a toxic stew of buried resentments.
In a misguided attempt to fix the bad vibes, Carmack, whose understanding of human nature was as shallow as his understanding of computer graphics was deep, announced one day that he had ordered a construction crew in to knock down all of the walls, so that everybody could work together from a single “war room.” One for all and all for one, and all that. The offices of the most profitable games studio in the world were transformed into a dystopian setting perfect for a DOOM clone, as described by a wide-eyed reporter from Wired magazine who came for a visit: “a maze of drywall and plastic sheeting, with plaster dust everywhere, loose acoustic tiles, and cables dangling from the ceiling. Almost every item not directly related to the completion of Quake was gone. The only privacy to be found was between the padded earpieces of headphones.”
Needless to say, it didn’t have the effect Carmack had hoped for. In his book-length history of id’s early life and times, journalist David Kushner paints a jittery, unnerving picture of the final months of Quake‘s development: they “became a blur of silent and intense all-nighters, punctuated by the occasional crash of a keyboard against a wall. The construction crew had turned the office into a heap. The guys were taking their frustrations out by hurling computer parts into the drywall like knives.” Michael Abrash is more succinct: “A month before shipping, we were sick to death of working on Quake.” And level designer Sandy Petersen, the old man of the group, who did his best to keep his head down and stay out of the intra-office cold war, is even more so: “[Quake] was not fun to do.”
Quake was finally finished in June of 1996. It would prove a transitional game in more ways than one, caught between where games had recently been and where they were going. Still staying true to that odd spirit of hacker idealism that coexisted with his lust for ever faster Ferraris, Carmack insisted that Quake be made available as shareware, so that people could try it out before plunking down its full price. The game accordingly got a confusing, staggered release, much to the chagrin of its official publisher GT Interactive. To kick things off, the first eight levels went up online. Shortly after, there appeared in stores a $10 CD of the full game that had to be unlocked by paying id an additional $50 in order to play beyond the eighth level. Only after that, in August of 1996, did the game appear in a conventional retail edition.
Predictably enough, it all turned into a bit of a fiasco. Crackers quickly reverse-engineered the algorithms used for generating the unlocking codes, which were markedly less sophisticated than the ones used to generate the 3D graphics on the disc. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were able to get the entirety of the most hotly anticipated game of the year for $10. Meanwhile even many of those unwilling or unable to crack their shareware copies decided that eight levels was enough for them, especially given that the unregistered version could be used for multiplayer deathmatches. Carmack’s misplaced idealism cost id and GT Interactive millions, poisoning relations between them; the two companies soon parted ways.
So, the era of shareware as an underground pipeline of cutting-edge games came to an end with Quake. From now on, id would concentrate on boxed games selling for full price, as would all of their fellow survivors from that wild and woolly time. Gaming’s underground had become its establishment.
But its distribution model wasn’t the only sense in which Quake was as much a throwback as a step forward. It held fast as well to Carmack’s disinterest in the fictional context of id’s games, as illustrated by his famous claim that the story behind a game was no more important than the story behind a porn movie. It would be blatantly incorrect to claim that the DOOM clones which flooded the market between 1994 and 1996 represented some great exploding of the potential of interactive narrative, but they had begun to show some interest, if not precisely in elaborate set-piece storytelling in the way of adventure games, at least in the appeal of setting and texture. Dark Forces had been a pioneer in this respect, what with its between-levels cut scenes, its relatively fleshed-out main character, and most of all its environments that really did look and feel like the Star Wars films, from their brutalist architecture to John Williams’s unmistakable score. Even Duke Nukem 3D had the character of Duke, plus a distinctively seedy, neon-soaked post-apocalyptic Los Angeles for him to run around in. No one would accuse it of being an overly mature aesthetic vision, but it certainly was a unified one.
Quake, on the other hand, displayed all the signs of its fractious process of creation, of half a dozen wayward designers all pulling in different directions. From a central hub, you took “slipgates” into alternate dimensions that contained a little bit of everything on the designers’ not-overly-discriminating pop-culture radar, from zombie flicks to Dungeons & Dragons, from Jaws to H.P. Lovecraft, from The Terminator to heavy-metal music, and so wound up not making much of a distinct impression at all.
Most creative works are stamped with the mood of the people who created them, no matter how hard the project managers try to separate the art from the artists. With its color palette dominated by shocks of orange and red, DOOM had almost literally burst off the monitor screen with the edgy joie de vivre of a group of young men whom nobody had expected to amount to much of anything, who suddenly found themselves on the verge of remaking the business of games in their own unkempt image. Quake felt tired by contrast. Even its attempts to blow past the barriers of good taste seemed more obligatory than inspired; the Satanic symbolism, elaborate torture devices, severed heads, and other forms of gore were outdone by other games that were already pushing the envelope even further. This game felt almost somber — not an emotion anyone had ever before associated with id. Its levels were slower and emptier than those of DOOM, with a color palette full of mournful browns and other earth tones. Even the much-vaunted soundtrack wound up rather underwhelming. It was bereft of the melodic hooks that had made Nine Inch Nails’s previous output more palatable for radio listeners than that of most other “extreme” bands; it was more an exercise in sound design than music composition. One couldn’t help but suspect that Trent Reznor had held back all of his good material for his band’s next real record.
At its worst, Quake felt like a tech demo waiting for someone to turn it into an actual game, proving that John Carmack needed John Romero as badly as Romero needed him. But that once-fruitful relationship was never to be rehabilitated: Carmack fired Romero within days of finishing Quake. The two would never work together again.
It was truly the end of an era at id. Sandy Petersen was soon let go as well, Michael Abrash went back to the comfortable bosom of Microsoft, and Jay Wilbur quit for the best of all possible reasons: because his son asked him, “How come all the other daddies go to the baseball games and you never do?” All of them left as exhausted as Quake looks and feels.
Of course, there was nary a hint of Quake‘s infelicities to be found in the press coverage that greeted its release. Even more so than most media industries, the games industry has always run on enthusiasm, and it had no desire at this particular juncture to eat its own by pointing out the flaws in the most important PC game ever made. The coverage in the magazines was marked by a cloying fan-boy fawning that was becoming ever more sadly prominent in gamer culture. “We are not even worthy to lick your toenails free of grit and fluffy sock detritus,” PC Zone wrote in a public letter to id. “We genuflect deeply and offer our bare chests for you to stab with a pair of scissors.” (Eww! A sense of proportion is as badly lacking as a sense of self-respect…) Even the usually sober-minded (by gaming-journalism standards) Computer Gaming World got a little bit creepy: “Describing Quake is like talking about sex. It must be experienced to be fully appreciated.”
Still, I would be a poor historian indeed if I called all the hyperbole of 1996 entirely unjustified. The fact is that the passage of time has tended to emphasize Quake‘s weaknesses, which are mostly in the realm of design and aesthetics, whilst obscuring its contemporary strengths, which were in the realm of technology. Although not quite the first game to graft a true 3D engine onto ultra-fast-action gameplay — Interplay’s Descent beat it to the market by more than a year — it certainly did so more flexibly and credibly than anything else to date, even if Carmack still wasn’t above cheating a bit when push came to shove. (By no means is the Quake engine entirely free of tricksy 2D sprites in places where proper 3D models are just too expensive to render.)
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to fully convey today just how revolutionary the granular details of Quake seemed in 1996: the way you could look up and down and all around you with complete freedom; the way its physics engine made guns kick so that you could almost feel it in your mouse hand; the way you could dive into water and experience the visceral sensation of actually swimming; the way the wood paneling of its walls glinted realistically under the overhead lighting. Such things are commonplace today, but Quake paved the way. Most of the complaints I’ve raised about it could be mitigated by the simple expedient of not even bothering with the lackluster single-player campaign, of just playing it with your mates in deathmatch.
But even if you preferred to play alone, Quake was a sign of better things to come. “It goes beyond the game and more into the engine and the possibilities,” says Rob Smith, who watched the Quake mania come and go as the editor of PC Gamer magazine. “Quake presented options to countless designers. The game itself doesn’t make many ‘all-time’ lists, but its impact [was] as a game changer for 3D gaming, [an] engine that allowed other game makers to express themselves.” For with the industry’s Master of 3D Algorithms John Carmack having shown what was possible and talking as freely as ever about how he had achieved it, with Michael Abrash soon to write an entire book about how he and Carmack had made the magic happen, more games of this type, ready and able to harness the technology of true 3D to more exciting designs, couldn’t be far behind. “We’ve pretty much decided that our niche is in first-person futuristic action games,” said John Carmack. “We stumble when we get away from the techno stuff.” The industry was settling into a model that would remain in place for years to come: id would show what was possible with the technology of 3D graphics, then leave it to other developers to bend it in more interesting directions.
Soon enough, then, titles like Jedi Knight and Half-Life would push the genre once known as DOOM clones, now trading under the more sustainable name of the first-person shooter, in more sophisticated directions in terms of storytelling and atmosphere, without losing the essence of what made their progenitors so much fun. They will doubtless feature in future articles.
Next time, however, I want to continue to focus on the technology, as we turn to another way in which Quake was a rough draft for a better gaming future: months after its initial release, it became one of the first games to display the potential of hardware acceleration for 3D graphics, marking the beginning of a whole new segment of the microcomputer industry, one worth many billions of dollars today.
Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.
(Sources: the books Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters by David L. Craddock, The Graphics Programming Black Book by Michael Abrash, Masters of DOOM: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, and Computer Graphics from Scratch: A Programmer’s Introduction by Gabriel Gambetta. PC Zone of May 1996; Computer Gaming World of July 1996 and October 1996; Wired of August 1996 and January 2010. Online sources include Michael Abrash’s “Ramblings in Realtime” for Blue’s News.
Quake is available as a digital purchase at GOG.com, as is Star Wars: Dark Forces. Duke Nukem 3D can be found on Steam.)
Wing Commander IV
It’s tough to put a neat label on Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. On the one hand, it was a colossally ambitious and expensive project — in fact, the first computer game in history with a budget exceeding $10 million. On the other, it was a somewhat rushed, workmanlike game, developed in half the time of Wing Commander III using the same engine and tools. That these two things can simultaneously be true is down to the strange economics of mid-1990s interactive movies.
Origin Systems and Chris Roberts, the Wing Commander franchise’s development studio and mastermind respectively, wasted very little time embarking on the fourth numbered game in the series after finishing up the third one in the fall of 1994. Within two weeks, Roberts was hard at work on his next story outline. Not long after the holiday season was over and it was clear that Wing Commander III had done very well indeed for itself, his managers gave him the green light to start production in earnest, on a scale of which even a dreamer like him could hardly have imagined a few years earlier.
Like its predecessor, Wing Commander IV was destined to be an oddly bifurcated project. The “game” part of the game — the missions you actually fly from the cockpit of a spaceborne fighter — was to be created in Origin’s Austin, Texas, offices by a self-contained and largely self-sufficient team of programmers and mission designers, using the existing flight engine with only modest tweaks, without a great deal of day-to-day communication with Roberts himself. Meanwhile the latter would spend the bulk of 1995 in Southern California, continuing his career as Hollywood’s most unlikely and under-qualified movie director, shooting a script created by Frank DePalma and Terry Borst from his own story outline. It was this endeavor that absorbed the vast majority of a vastly increased budget.
For there were two big, expensive changes on this side of the house. One was a shift away from the green-screen approach of filming real actors on empty sound stages, with the scenery painted in during post-production by pixel artists; instead Origin had its Hollywood partners Crocodille Productions build traditional sets, no fewer than 37 of them in all. The other was the decision to abandon videotape in favor of 35-millimeter stock, the same medium on which feature films were shot. This was a dubiously defensible decision on practical grounds, what with the sharply limited size and resolution of the computer-monitor screens on which Roberts’s movie would be seen, but it says much about where the young would-be auteur’s inspirations and aspirations lay. “My goal is to bring the superior production values of Hollywood movies to the interactive realm,” he said in an interview. Origin would wind up paying Crocodile $7.7 million in all in the pursuit of that lofty goal.
These changes served only to distance the movie part of Wing Commander from the game part that much more; now the folks in Austin didn’t even have to paint backgrounds for Roberts’s film shoot. More than ever, the two halves of the whole were water and oil rather than water and wine. All told, it’s doubtful whether the flying-and-shooting part of Wing Commander IV absorbed much more than 10 percent of the total budget.
Origin was able to hire most of the featured actors from last time out to return for Wing Commander IV. Once again, Mark Hamill, one of the most sensible people in Hollywood, agreed to head up the cast as Colonel Blair, the protagonist and the player’s avatar, for a salary of $419,100 for the 43-day shoot. (“A lot of actors spend their whole lives wanting to be known as anything,” he said when delicately asked if he ever dwelt upon his gradual, decade-long slide down through the ranks of the acting profession, from starring as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars blockbusters to starring in videogames. “I always thought I should be happy for what I have instead of being unhappy for what I don’t have. So, you know, if things are going alright with your family… I don’t know, not really. I think it’s good.”) Likewise, Tom Wilson ($117,300) returned to play Blair’s fellow pilot and frenemy Maniac; Malcolm McDowell ($285,500) again played the stiffly starched Admiral Tolwyn; and John Rhys-Davies ($52,100) came back as the fighter jock turned statesman Paladin. After the rest of the cast and incidental expenses were factored in, the total bill for the actors came to just under $1.4 million.
Far from being taken aback by the numbers involved, Origin made them a point of pride. If anything, it inflated them; the total development cost of $12 million which was given to magazines like Computer Gaming World over the course of one of the most extensive pre-release hype campaigns the industry had ever seen would appear to be a million or two over the real figure, based on what I’ve been able to glean from the company’s internal budgeting documents. Intentionally or not, the new game’s subtitle made the journalists’ headlines almost too easy to write: clearly, the true “price of freedom” was $12 million. The award for the most impassioned preview must go to the British edition of PC Gamer, which proclaimed that the game’s eventual release would be “one of the most important events of the twentieth century.” On an only slightly more subdued note, Computer Gaming World noted that “if Wing Commander III was like Hollywood, this game is Hollywood.” The mainstream media got in on the excitement as well: CNN ran a segment on the work in progress, Newsweek wrote it up, and Daily Variety was correct in calling it “the most expensive CD-ROM production ever” — never mind a million or two here or there. Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell earned some more money by traveling the morning-radio and local-television circuit in the final weeks before the big release.
Wing Commander IV was advertised on television at a time when that was still a rarity for computer games. The advertisements blatantly spoiled what was intended to be a major revelation about the real villain of the story. (You have been warned!)
The game was launched on February 8, 1996, in a gala affair at the Beverly Hills Planet Hollywood, with most of the important cast members in attendance to donate their costumes — “the first memorabilia from a CD-ROM game to be donated to the internationally famous restaurant,” as Origin announced proudly. (The restaurant itself appears to have been less enthused; the costumes were never put on display after the party, and seem to be lost now.) The assembled press included representatives of CNN, The Today Show, HBO, Delta Airlines’s in-flight magazine, and the Associated Press among others. In the weeks that followed, Chris Roberts and Mark Hamill did a box-signing tour in conjunction with Incredible Universe, a major big-box electronics chain of the time.
The early reviews were positive, and not just those in the nerdy media. “The game skillfully integrates live-action video with computer-generated graphics and sophisticated gameplay. Has saving the universe ever been this much fun?” asked Newsweek, presumably rhetorically. Entertainment Weekly called Wing Commander IV “a movie game that takes CD-ROM warfare into the next generation,” giving it an A- on its final report card. The Salt Lake City Tribune said that it had “a cast that would make any TV-movie director jealous — and more than a few feature-film directors as well. While many games tout themselves as interactive movies, Wing Commander IV is truly deserving of the title — a pure joy to watch and play.” The Detroit Free Press said that “at times, it was like watching an episode of a science-fiction show.”
The organs of hardcore gaming were equally fulsome. Australia’s Hyper magazine lived up to its name (Hyperventilate? Hyperbole?) with the epistemologically questionable assertion that “if you don’t play this then you really don’t own a computer.” Computer Gaming World, still the United States’s journal of record, was almost as effusive, writing that “as good as the previous installment was, it served only as a rough prototype for the polished chrome that adorns Wing Commander IV. This truly is the vanguard of the next generation of electronic entertainment.”
Surprisingly, it was left to PC Gamer, the number-two periodical in the American market, normally more rather than less hype-prone than its older and somewhat stodgier competitor, to inject a note of caution into the critical discourse, by acknowledging how borderline absurd it was on the face of it to release a game in which 90 percent of the budget had gone into the cut scenes.
How you feel about Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom is going to depend a lot on how you felt about Wing Commander III and the direction the series seems to be headed in.
When the original Wing Commander came out, it was a series of incredible, state-of-the-art space-combat sequences, tied together with occasional animated cut scenes. Today, Wing Commander IV seems more like a series of incredible, full-motion-video cut scenes tied together with occasional space-combat sequences. You can see the shift away from gameplay and toward multimedia flash in one of the ads for Wing Commander IV; seven of the eight little “bullet points” that list the game’s impressive new features are devoted to improvements in the quality of the video. Only the last point says anything about actual gameplay. If the tail’s not wagging the dog yet, it’s getting close.
For all its cosmetic improvements, Wing Commander IV feels just a little hollow. I can’t help thinking about what the fourth Wing Commander game might be like if the series had moved in the opposite direction, making huge improvements in the actual gameplay, rather than spending more and more time and effort on the stuff in between.
Still, these concerns were only raised parenthetically; even PC Gamer‘s reviewer saw fit to give the game a rating of 90 percent after unfurrowing his brow.
Today, however, the imbalance described above has become even more difficult to overlook, and seems even more absurd. As my regular readers know, narrative-oriented games are the ones I tend to be most passionate about; I’m the farthest thing from a Chris Crawford, insisting that the inclusion of any set-piece story line is a betrayal of interactive entertainment’s potential. My academic background is largely in literary studies, which perhaps explains why I tend to want to read games like others do books. And yet, with all that said, I also recognize that a game needs to give its player something interesting to do.
I’m reminded of an anecdote from Steve Diggle, a guitarist for the 1970s punk band Buzzcocks. He tells of seeing the keyboardist for the progressive-rock band Yes performing with “a telephone exchange of electronic things that nobody could afford or relate to. At the end, he brought an alpine horn out — because he was Swiss. It was a long way from Little Richard. I thought, ‘Something’s got to change.'” There’s some of the same quality to Wing Commander IV. Matters have gone so far out on a limb that one begins to suspect the only thing left to be done is just to burn it all down and start over.
But we do strive to be fair around here, so let’s try to evaluate the movie and the game of Wing Commander IV on their own merits before we address their imperfect union.
Chris Roberts is not a subtle storyteller; his influences are always close to the surface. The first three Wing Commander games were essentially a retelling of World War II in the Pacific, with the Terran Confederation for which Blair flies in the role of the United States and its allies and the evil feline Kilrathi in that of Japan. Now, with the alien space cats defeated once and for all, Roberts has moved on to the murkier ethical terrain of the Cold War, where battles are fought in the shadows and friend and foe are not so easy to distinguish. Instead of being lauded like the returning Greatest Generation were in the United States after World War II, Blair and his comrades who fought the good fight against the Kilrathi are treated more like the soldiers who came back from Vietnam. We learn that we’ve gone from rah-rah patriotism to something else the very first time we see Blair, when he meets a down-on-his-luck fellow veteran in a bar and can, at you the player’s discretion, give him a few coins to help him out. Shades of gray are not really Roberts’s forte; earnest guy that he is, he prefers the primary-color emotions. Still, he’s staked out his dramatic territory and now we have to go with it.
Having been relegated to the reserves after the end of the war with the Kilrathi, Blair has lately been running a planetside farm, but he’s called back to active duty to deal with a new problem on the frontiers of the Terran Confederation: a series of pirate raids in the region of the Border Worlds, a group of planets that is allied with the Confederation but has always preferred not to join it formally. Because the attacks are all against Confederation vessels rather than those of the Border Worlds, it is assumed that the free-spirited inhabitants of the latter are behind them. I trust that it won’t be too much a spoiler if I reveal here that the reality is far more sinister.
By all means, we should give props to Roberts for not just finding some way to bring the Kilrathi back as humanity’s existential threat. They are still around, and even make an appearance in Wing Commander IV, but they’ve seen the error of their ways with Confederation guidance and are busily rebuilding their society on more peaceful lines. (The parallels with World War II-era — and now postwar — Japan, in other words, still hold true.)
The returns from Origin’s $9 million investment in the movie are front and center. An advantage of working with real sets instead of green screens is the way that the camera is suddenly allowed to move, making the end result look less like something filmed during the very earliest days of cinema and more like a product of the post-Citizen Kane era. One of the very first scenes is arguably the most impressive of them all. The camera starts on the ceiling of a meeting hall, looking directly down at the assembled dignitaries, then slowly sweeps to ground level, shifting as it moves from a vertical to a horizontal orientation. I’d set this scene up beside the opening of Activision’s Spycraft — released at almost the same time as Wing Commander IV, as it happens — as the most sophisticated that this generation of interactive movies ever got by the purely technical standards of film-making. (I do suspect that Wing Commander IV‘s relative adroitness is not so much down to Chris Roberts as to its cinematographer, a 21-year Hollywood veteran named Eric Goldstein.)
The acting, by contrast, is on about the same level as Wing Commander III: professional if not quite passionate. Mark Hamill’s dour performance is actually among the least engaging. (This is made doubly odd by the fact that he had recently been reinventing himself as a voice actor, through a series of portrayals — including a memorable one in the game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers — that are as giddy and uninhibited as his Colonel Blair isn’t.) On the other hand, it’s a pleasure to hear Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies deploy their dulcet Shakespearian-trained voices on even pedestrian (at best) dialog like this. But the happiest member of the cast must be Tom Wilson, whose agent’s phone hadn’t exactly been ringing off the hook in recent years; his traditional-cinema career had peaked with his role as the cretinous villain Biff in the Back to the Future films. Here he takes on the similarly over-the-top role of Maniac, a character who had become a surprise hit with the fans in Wing Commander III, and sees his screen time increased considerably in the fourth game as a result. As comic-relief sidekicks go, he’s no Sancho Panza, but he does provide a welcome respite from Blair’s always prattling on, a little listlessly and sleepy-eyed at times, about duty and honor and what hell war is (such hell that Chris Roberts can’t stop making games about it).
That said, the best humor in Wing Commander IV is of the unintentional kind. There’s a sort of Uncanny Valley in the midst of this business of interactive movies, as there is in so many creative fields. When the term was applied to games that merely took some inspiration from cinema, perhaps with a few (bad) actors mouthing some lines in front of green screens, it was easier to accept fairly uncritically. But the closer games like this one come to being real movies, the more their remaining shortcomings seem to stand out, and, paradoxically, the farther from their goal they seem to be. The reality is that 37 sets isn’t many by Hollywood standards — and most of these are cheap, sparse, painfully plastic-looking sets at that. Like in those old 1960s episodes of Star Trek, everybody onscreen visibly jumps — not in any particular unison, mind you — when the camera shakes to indicate an explosion and the party-supply-store smoke machines start up. The ray guns they shoot each other with look like gaudy plastic toys that Wal Mart would be ashamed to stock, while the accompanying sound effects would have been rejected as too cheesy by half by the producers of Battlestar Galactica.
All of this is understandable, even forgivable. A shooting budget of $9 million may have been enormous in game terms, but it was nothing by the standards of a Hollywood popcorn flick. (The 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact, for example, had five times the budget of Wing Commander IV, and it was not even an especially expensive example of its breed.) In the long run, interactive movies would find their Uncanny Valley impossible to bridge. Those who made them believed that they were uniquely capable of attracting a wider, more diverse audience than the people who typically played games in the mid-1990s. That proposition may have been debatable, but we’ll take it at face value. The problem was that, in order to attract these folks, they had to look like more than C-movies with aspirations of reaching B status. And the games industry’s current revenues simply didn’t give them any way to get from here to there. Wing Commander IV is a prime case in point: the most expensive game ever made still looked like a cheap joke by Hollywood standards.
Other failings of Wing Commander IV, however, are less understandable and perchance less forgivable. It’s sometimes hard to believe that this script was the product of professional screenwriters, given the quantity of dialog which seems lifted from a Saturday Night Live sketch, which often had my wife and I rolling on the floor when we played the game together recently. (Or rather, when I played and she watched and laughed.) “Just because we operate in the void of space, is loyalty equally weightless?” Malcolm McDowell somehow manages to intone in that gorgeously honed accent of his without smirking. A young woman mourning the loss of her beau — as soon as you saw that these two had a thing going, you knew he was doomed, by the timeless logic of war movies — chooses the wrong horse as her metaphor and then just keeps on riding it out into the rhetorical sagebrush: “He’s out there along with my heart. Both no more than space dust. People fly through him every day and don’t even know it.”
Then there’s the way that everyone, excepting only Blair, is constantly referred to only by his or her call sign. This doesn’t do much to enhance the stateliness of a formal military funeral: “Some may think that Catscratch will be forgotten. They’re wrong. He’ll stay in our hearts always.” There’s the way that all of the men are constantly saluting each other at random moments, as if they’re channeling all of the feelings they don’t know how to express into that act — saluting to keep from crying, saluting as a way to avoid saying, “I love you, man!,” saluting whenever the screenwriters don’t know what the hell else to have them do. (Of course, they all do it so sloppily that anyone who really was in the military will be itching to jump through the monitor and smack them into shape.) And then there’s the ranks and titles, which sound like something children on a playground — or perhaps (ahem!) someone else? — came up with: Admiral Tolwyn gets promoted to “Space Marshal,” for Pete’s sake.
I do feel just a little bad to make fun of all this so much because Chris Roberts’s heart is clearly in the right place. As a time when an increasing number of games were appealing only to the worst sides of their players, Wing Commander IV at least gave lip service to the ties that bind, the thing things we owe to one another. It’s not precisely wrong in anything it says, even if it does become a bit one-note in that tedious John Wayne kind of way. Deep into the game, you discover that the sinister conspiracy you’ve been pursuing involves a new spin on the loathsome old arguments of eugenics, those beliefs that some of us have better genes than others and are thus more useful, valuable human beings, entitled to things that their inferior counterparts are not. Wing Commander IV knows precisely where it stands on this issue — on the right side. But boy, can its delivery be clumsy. And its handling of a more complex social issue like the plight of war veterans trying to integrate back into civilian society is about as nuanced as the old episodes of Magnum, P.I. that probably inspired it.
But betwixt and between all of the speechifying and saluting, there is still a game to play, consisting of about 25 to 30 missions worth of space-combat action, depending on the choices you make from the interactive movie’s occasional menus and how well you fly the missions themselves. The unsung hero of Wing Commander IV must surely be one Anthony Morone, who bore the thankless title of “Game Director,” meaning that he was the one who oversaw the creation of the far less glamorous game part of the game back in Austin while Chris Roberts was off in Hollywood shooting his movie. He did what he could with the limited time and resources at his disposal.
I noted above how the very way that this fourth game was made tended to pull the two halves of its personality even farther apart. That’s true on one level, but it’s also true that Morone made some not entirely unsuccessful efforts to push back against that centrifugal drift. Some of the storytelling now happens inside the missions themselves — something Wing Commander II, the first heavily plot-based entry in the series, did notably well, only to have Wing Commander III forget about it almost completely. Now, though, it’s back, such that your actions during the missions have a much greater impact on the direction of the movie. For example, at one point you’re sent to intercept some Confederation personnel who have apparently turned traitor. In the course of this mission, you learn what their real motivations are, and, if you think they’re good ones, you can change sides and become their escort rather than their attacker.
Indeed, there are quite a few possible paths through the story line and a handful of different endings, based on both the choices you take from those menus that pop up from time to time during the movie portions and your actions in the heat of battle. In this respect too, Wing Commander IV is more ambitious and more sophisticated than Wing Commander III.
But it is enough? It’s hard to escape a creeping sense of ennui as you play this game. The flight engine and mission design still lag well behind LucasArts’s 1994 release TIE Fighter, a game that has aged much better than this one in all of its particulars. Roughly two out of every three missions here still don’t have much to do with the plot and aren’t much more than the usual “fly between these way points and shoot whatever you find there” — a product of the need to turn Roberts’s movie into a game that lasts longer than a few hours, in order to be sure that players feel like they have gotten their $50 worth. Worse, the missions are poorly balanced, being much more difficult than those in the previous game; enemy missiles are brutally overpowered, being now virtually guaranteed to kill you with one hit. The sharply increased difficulty feels more accidental than intentional, a product of the compressed development schedule and a resultant lack of play-testing. However it came about, it pulls directly against Origin’s urgent need to attract more — read, more casual — gamers to the series in order to justify its escalating budgets. Here as in so many other places in this game, the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, to the detriment of both.
In the end, then, neither the movie nor the game of Wing Commander IV can fully stand up on its own, and in combination they tend to clash more than they create any scintillating synergy. One senses when playing through the complete package that Origin’s explorations in this direction have indeed reached a sort of natural limit akin to that alpine-horn-playing keyboard player, that the only thing left to do now is to back up and try something else.
The magazines may have been carried away by the hype around Wing Commander IV, but not all ordinary gamers were. For example, one by the name of Robert Fletcher sent Origin the following letter:
I have noticed that the game design used by Origin has stayed basically the same. Wing Commander IV is a good example of a game design that has shown little growth. If one were to strip away the film clips, there would be a bare-bones game. The game would look and play like a game from the early 1980s. A very simple branching story line, with a little arcade action.
With all the muscle and talent at Origin’s command, it makes me wonder if Origin is really trying to push the frontier of game design. I know a little of what it takes to develop a game, from all the articles I have read (and I have read many). Many writers and developers are calling for their peers to get back to pushing the frontier of game design, over the development of better graphics.
Wing Commander IV has the best graphics I have seen, and it will be a while before anyone will match this work of art. But as a game, Wing Commander IV makes a better movie.
In its April 1996 issue — notice that date! — Computer Gaming World published an alleged preview of Origin’s plans for Wing Commander V. Silly though the article is, it says something about the reputation that Chris Roberts and his franchise were garnering among gamers like our Mr. Fletcher for pushing the envelope of money and technology past the boundaries of common sense, traveling far out on a limb that was in serious danger of being cut off behind them.
With Wing Commander IV barely a month old, Origin has already announced incredible plans for the next game in the highly successful series. In another first for a computer-game company, Origin says it will design small working models of highly maneuverable drones which can be launched into space, piloted remotely, and filmed. The craft will enable Wing V to have “unprecedented spaceflight realism and true ‘star appeal,'” said a company spokesman.
Although the next game in the science-fiction series sounds more like fiction than science, Origin’s Chris Roberts says it’s the next logical step for his six-year-old creation. “If you think about it,” he says, “Wing Commander [I] was the game where we learned the mechanics of space fighting. We made lots of changes and improvements in Wing II. With Wing III, we raised the bar considerably with better graphics, more realistic action, full-motion video, and big-name stars in video segments. In Wing IV, we upped the ante again with real sets, more video, and, in my opinion, a much better story. We’ve reached the point of using real stars and real sets — now it’s time to take our act on location: real space.”
Analysts say it’s nearly impossible to estimate the cost of such an undertaking. Some put figures at between $100 million and $10 billion, just to deploy a small number of remotely pilotable vehicles beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Despite this, Origin’s Lord British (Richard Garriott) claims that he has much of the necessary financial support from investors. Says Garriott, “When we told [investors] what we wanted to do for Wing Commander V, they were amazed. We’re talking about one of man’s deepest desires — to break free of the bonds of Earth. We know it seems costly in comparison with other games, but this is unlike anything that’s ever been done. I don’t see any problem getting the financial backing for this project, and we expect to recoup the investment in the first week. You’re going to see a worldwide release on eight platforms in 36 countries. It’s going to be a huge event. It’ll dwarf even Windows 95.”
Tellingly, some fans believed the announcement was real, writing Origin concerned letters about whether this was really such a good use of its resources.
Still, the sense of unease about Origin’s direction was far from universal. In a sidebar that accompanied its glowing review of Wing Commander IV in that same April 1996 issue, Computer Gaming World asked on a less satirical note, “Is it time to take interactive movies seriously?” The answer according to the magazine was yes: “Some will continue to mock the concept of ‘Siliwood,’ but the marriage of Hollywood and Silicon Valley is definitely real and here to stay. In this regard, no current game charts a more optimistic path to the future of multimedia entertainment than Wing Commander IV.” Alas, the magazine’s satire would prove more prescient than this straightforward opinion piece. Rather than the end of the beginning of the era of interactive movies, Wing Commander IV would go down in history as the beginning of the end, a limit of grandiosity beyond which further progress was impossible.
The reason came down to the cold, hard logic of dollars and cents, working off of a single data point: Wing Commander IV sold less than half as many copies as Wing Commander III. Despite the increased budget and improved production values, despite all the mainstream press coverage, despite the gala premiere at Planet Hollywood, it just barely managed to break even, long after its initial release. I believe the reason why had everything to with that Uncanny Valley I described for you. Those excited enough by the potential of the medium to give these interactive movies the benefit of the doubt had already done so, and even many of these folks were now losing interest. Meanwhile the rest of the world was, at best, waiting for such productions to mature enough that they could sit comfortably beside real movies, or even television. But this was a leap that even Origin Systems, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, the biggest game publisher in the country, was financially incapable of making. And as things currently stood, the return on investment on productions even the size of Wing Commander IV — much less still larger — simply wasn’t there.
During this period, a group of enterprising Netizens took it upon themselves to compile a weekly “Internet PC Games Chart” by polling thousands of their fellow gamers on what they were playing just at that moment. Wing Commander IV is present on the lists they published during the spring of 1996, rising as high as number four for a couple of weeks. But the list of games that consistently place above it is telling: Command & Conquer, Warcraft II, DOOM II, Descent, Civilization II. Although some of them do have some elements of story to bind their campaigns together and deliver a long-form single-player experience, none of them aspires to full-blown interactive movie-dom (not even Command & Conquer, which does feature real human actors onscreen giving its mission briefings). In fact, no games meeting that description are ever to be found anywhere in the top ten at the same time as Wing Commander IV.
Thanks to data like this, it was slowly beginning to dawn on the industry’s movers and shakers that the existing hardcore gamers — the people actually buying games today, and thereby sustaining their companies — were less interested in a merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood than they were. “I don’t think it’s necessary to spend that much money to suspend disbelief and entertain the gamer,” said Jim Namestka of Dreamforge Intertainment by way of articulating the emerging new conventional wisdom. “It’s alright to spend a lot of money on enhancing the game experience, but a large portion spent instead on huge salaries for big-name actors… I question whether that’s really necessary.”
I’ve written quite a lot in recent articles about 1996 as the year that essentially erased the point-and-click adventure game as one of the industry’s marquee genres. Wing Commander IV isn’t one of those, of course, even if it does look a bit like one at times, when you’re wandering around a ship talking to your crew mates. Still, the Venn diagram of the interactive movie does encompass games like Wing Commander IV, just as it does games like, say, Phantasmagoria, the biggest adventure hit of 1995, which sold even more copies than Wing Commander III. In 1996, however, no game inside that Venn diagram became a million-selling breakout hit. The best any could manage was a middling performance relative to expectations, as was the case for Wing Commander IV. And so the retrenchment began.
It would have been financially foolish to do anything else. The titles that accompanied and often bested Wing Commander IV on those Internet PC Games Charts had all cost vastly less money to make and yet sold as well or better. id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, the games that had started the shift away from overblown storytelling and extended multimedia cut scenes and back to the nuts and bolts of gameplay, had been built by a tiny team of scruffy outsiders working on a shoestring; call this the games industry’s own version of Buzzcocks versus Yes.
The shift away from interactive movies didn’t happen overnight. At Origin, the process of bargaining with financial realities would lead to one more Wing Commander game before the franchise was put out to pasture, still incorporating real actors in live-action cut scenes, but on a less lavish, more sustainable — read, cheaper — scale. The proof was right there in the box: Wing Commander: Prophecy, which but for a last-minute decision by marketing would have been known as Wing Commander V, shipped on three CDs in early 1997 rather than the six of Wing Commander IV. By that time, the whole franchise was looking hopelessly passé in a sea of real-time strategy and first-person shooters whose ethic was to get you into the action fast and keep you there, without any clichéd meditations about the hell that is war. Wing Commander IV had proved to be the peak of the interactive-movie mountain rather than the next base camp which Chris Roberts had imagined it to be.
This is not to say that digital interactive storytelling as a whole died in 1996. It just needed to find other, more practical and ultimately more satisfying ways to move forward. Some of those would take shape in the long-moribund CRPG genre, which enjoyed an unexpected revival close to the decade’s end. Adventure games too would soldier on, but on a smaller scale more appropriate to their reduced commercial circumstances, driven now by passion for the medium rather than hype, painted once again in lovely pixel art instead of grainy digitized video. For that matter, even space simulators would enjoy a golden twilight before falling out of fashion for good, thanks to several titles that kicked against what Wing Commander had become by returning the focus to what happened in the cockpit.
All of these development have left Wing Commander IV standing alone and exposed, its obvious faults only magnified that much more by its splendid isolation. It isn’t a great game, nor even all that good a game, but it isn’t a cynical or unlikable one either. Call it a true child of Chris Roberts: a gawky chip off the old block, with too much money and talent and yet not quite enough.
Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.
(Sources: the book Origin’s Official Guide to Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom by Melissa Tyler; Computer Gaming World of February 1995, May 1995, December 1995, April 1996, and July 1997; Strategy Plus of December 1995; the American PC Gamer of September 1995 and May 1996; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of September 8 1995, January 12 1996, February 12 1996, April 5 1996, and May 17 1996; Retro Gamer 59. Online sources include the various other internal Origin documents, video clips, pictures, and more hosted at Wing Commander News and Mark Asher’s CNET GameCenter columns from March 24 1999 and October 29 1999. And, for something completely different, Buzzcocks being interview at the British Library in 2016. RIP Pete Shelley.
Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom is available from GOG.com as a digital purchase.)