May the GeForce3 be with you
Originally published in April 2001.
Entertainment is big business. Billions of dollars are spent each year, and billions more are being earned, on products designed to occupy our discretionary time and, more importantly, money. Once at the fringe of the entertainment industry, electronic game development has taken its place as a ruthless business with acquisitions and business failures more common than ever before.
Two prominent companies have suffered major turns of fortune during the past two months. Sega, an icon of the console market, has removed itself from the hardware fray in the battle of platforms to concentrate on software and game-concept development. While 3Dfx Interactive, Inc., the company that made the phrase “accelerated video graphics adapter required” a standard for computer games has been absorbed by the upstart competing chip maker nVidia Corporation.
While the Sega decision seems to be sound business in the wake of the Microsoft X-Box announcement and the Sony Playstation 2 release, the collapse of 3Dfx falls squarely on the companies’ leadership and their failure to foresee the insatiable quest for more video speed from PC-gamers. The recent release of the nVidia GeForce3 chip-set was the final nail in the coffin for the once-supreme accelerated-video company.
Bursting on to the accelerated graphics scene just a few years ago, nVidia has gone from an also ran to the cream of the crop by concentrating on the technology their chips can deliver. The company has done an excellent job of positioning itself as the default chip for video card manufacturers and computer-makers like Dell and Gateway. And in two recent coups they have formed partnerships with Microsoft and Apple Computer to supply video components for upcoming products. That’s right – there’s nVidia-made graphic acceleration coming to both Apples and X-Boxes.
To their credit, nVidia has achieved its noteworthy success by sticking to what it knows best. The company’s abilities lie in developing the technology of accelerated video in the form of the chip-sets that reside on video adapter boards. They leave the actual circuit board construction to other vendors. This keeps costs down and frees up resources for continued research. The GeForce3 chip-set is nVidia’s latest in a long line of company-developed technical innovations.
Besides the usual mega-pixel pushing pipelines and polygon-count rendering numbers, the specifications that set the GeForce3 head-and-shoulders above the other chip makers revolve around three technological innovations: programmability, the Vertex Shader, and the Pixel Shader. The purpose of these three innovations is to off-load most of the video calculation requirements from the CPU and pass those to the video card. This increases the CPU’s capacity to perform other calculations necessary in modern computer games such as calculating artificial intelligence algorithms.
Programmability – Previous 3D accelerators depended on the CPU to interpret instructions from the game software. The 3D accelerator’s job was to pump out the video information as interpreted and presented by the CPU. The GeForce3 is programmable in much the same way the Intel Pentium or AMD Thunderbird are programmable. The GeForce 3 can interpret instructions from the software and then create and push the polygons itself using the shader scheme incorporated into the video card, which is called the nFiniteFX programmable architecture.
Vertex Shader – The vertex shader controls and manipulates the polygons required by the game. Polygons are the wire-mesh outlines that represent characters and scenes in 3D games. This programmable shader can deform, stretch, or shrink objects in the game in real time without taxing the CPU.
Pixel Shader – This little technical gem processes the texturing and lighting effects of a sequence. Simply put, this is the covering that goes over the wire-mesh. The pixel shader can handle multi-texturing using only one complete texture rather than the several textures required in current video technology. This will reduce required memory and greatly enhance the depth of any scene, which will produce real-time effects similar to pre-rendered sequences in game cut-scenes now.
The impact of all this technical mumbo-jumbo will be felt by the computer-game industry for many years to come. This is the beginning of the visual nirvana that hard-core computer gamers have been clamoring for since the first pixel hit the first phosphorous screen in a little game called Pong. (Young readers will have to look up Pong in the history books.) This new technology promises computer graphics so advanced that in some cases you won’t be able to tell the difference between computer games and movies like Toy Story or A Bug’s Life. But the key for the computer gamer is that this level of detail will be rendered and delivered in real-time as you play the game.
Probably just as important from a game development perspective is the GeForce3’s marriage to DirectX 8, Microsoft’s latest multimedia application programming interface (API) which is now integral to the Windows operating system. The close cooperation of Microsoft and nVidia means that computer game developers and publishers have a standard language to use when sending data to the video card. This is significant because in previous 3D-acceleration innovations, the proprietary nature of the introduced technologies limited the number of developers actually willing to take advantage of the new features. The programmability of the video chip-set and the standard interface of DirectX mean that developers can concentrate on game development without worrying about various video card drivers or quirky APIs.
For many casual gamers out there this may seem a techno-geek’s dream with very little application to anyone but the hard core gamer. In the short-term that may prove correct, but in the long-term, these technologies are going to trickle down to all computer games and all hardware configurations. Also a consideration is the near-core computer gamer. These are the gamers that play games often but don’t spend time and resources on upgrading equipment or purchasing the latest and greatest game. They are the normally content gamer who is satisfied with 2-year old games and the 2-year old hardware required to run them.
It has been my experience that when a technological leap of this magnitude occurs in the computer game industry, these near-core types are some of the first to adopt. The GeForce3, and the incremental improvements that will be made to it in the run up to Christmas, could very well be the catalyst that drives computer sales and other game-related upgrades. This is the magnitude of the visual improvement. The “wow” factor of the GeForce3 could prove too much to withstand. The one variable that could quell this computer game buying enthusiasm is the economy. However, from a purely technological standpoint, and assuming computer games on the horizon live up to their hype, just about everyone who plays computer games, no matter how casually, will be considering the purchase of new video hardware before the end of the year.