This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing that pay tribute to the really big hitters of the gaming world – the kind of technology that was so cool or advanced that everybody remembers the first time they saw it. We’ll be starting at number 5 and working up to the top of the tree where the winner will be revealed.
#5: The desktop PC transitions to 3D powerhouse
I absolutely loved my 3dfx Voodoo accelerator card. It turned a struggling Pentium PC into a gaming monster that thrashed the games consoles of the day. PC games usually ran at 320×200 MCGA resolution in 256 colour mode, but the arrival of the 3dfx boosted that instantly to 640×480 in 16-bit colour with eye-popping results. The 3dfx also ensured there was a high enough fill rate to deliver very good frame rates for a silky smooth gaming experience.
The idea of a stand-alone 3D accelerator card was inspired and in some ways it’s a pity we don’t have that option any more. Back then people could buy a 2D card that suited their needs – usually a card with some basic 2D acceleration for the Windows GUI – and then choose the level of 3D power they wanted for games. With hindsight it wasn’t particularly practical – the VGA passthru cable used by 3Dfx cards was well known for degrading the picture quality of the main graphics card, but it was certainly a flexible option.
The 3dfx hardware was originally developed to power arcade machines and was used in machines from Atari and Williams. These systems were significantly more powerful than other arcade cabinets of the time and generated quite a bit of attention, and when the company entered the home PC market with a PCI accelerator card things really took off. In what would become a model for other graphics card businesses, 3dfx designed the chipsets but left the actual manufacturing, branding and distribution to third parties.
In the late 1990’s the 3dfx became the dominant 3D acceleration platform for gaming on the PC, and quite a few manufacturers sold 3dfx Voodoo cards including Diamond Multimedia, Orchid, Creative Labs and French manufacturer Guillemot.
|The Guillemot Maxi Gamer – this is the Voodoo card I owned|
Behind great hardware…
An important part of the 3dfx was software support. Early games written for Voodoo cards used the native 3dfx-supplied Glide 3D – a fairly low-level OpenGL-inspired API which didn’t try to abstract the hardware capabilities away too much. Performance was excellent and made full use of the capabilities of the platform, delivering results far better than more abstract frameworks like Direct3D could initially muster. Titles like Diablo, Tombraider II and the excellent Wing Commander: Prophecy looked great at the time.
|Wing Commander Prophecy and Tombraider II running on the 3dfx|
When Voodoo cards first entered the market, hardware-accelerated 3D was at a very early stage on the PC and each competing platform had it’s own native API. While this approach may have made best use of the hardware, the downside was extra work for game developers – which was multiplied by each 3D card they wanted to support.
A very significant factor in the success of the 3dfx platform was arrival the MiniGL driver that was written so that Quake and it’s sequel could run in hardware-accelerated mode. When iD Software developed Quake they took a pragmatic view of the state of existing 3D API libraries and decided they didn’t want to support an array of different graphics accelerators and their native libraries with varying capabilities, so they opted to support just one: the Rendition Vérité. The Rendition platform was chosen because it offered OpenGL support which – at the time – seemed to offer a middle ground for developers. There was more capability on offer than the immature Direct3D but it still had the write-once hardware abstraction that native API’s lacked.
After buying myself a Voodoo card, I can clearly remember getting the MiniGL driver, adding to the the Quake folder and launching the game. Viewing the game for the first time running in hardware accelerated mode was simply stunning. The difference between hardware and software rendering was so huge that it was hard to believe it was the same game. It was at this point that the realisation hit home of how far game development had come when slotting in a 3D accelerator card completely changed the visuals of a game. In the past, games talked directly to hardware and wrote to a computers video memory directly. Quake ushered in the era of powerful modular game architectures, one where a central engine manages the physics and environment of a game, and defers the visual rendering to separate software components that either render in software or talk to 3D acceleration hardware when available.
|Quake software vs hardware 3dfx rendering at double resolution and 16-bit colour|
There were a number of successful upgrades to the original Voodoo card. The Voodoo2 launched in 1998 and offered a significant performance upgrade along with the innovative possibility of running two cards in parallel via Scan Line Interleaving mode – a feature that will be remembered well by PC gamers for excellent 3D performance that remained competitive for quite a few years.
The Rush (Voodoo generation) and Banshee (Voodoo 2 generation) were combo cards that had highly effective 2D graphics as well as 3D acceleration, although they were always somewhat less powerful than the dedicated 3D cards so were not an optimal solution.
Sadly, the wave of success that 3dfx rode on in the early days didn’t last forever. By the time the Voodoo 3 was released they were losing the performance crown to NVIDIA who had doggedly upgraded their combo 2D/3D cards over the years. Their cards had always had a big advantage in that OEM PC makers could use them more cost-effectively than separate 2D/3D cards and this resulted in bigger sales figures and more money for R&D.;
Although unimpressive in early releases, Direct3D continued to be developed by Microsoft and became far more capable – eventually normalising much of the differences in 3D acceleration hardware. Today Direct3D is the universal standard for PC game development, with OpenGL’s early lead being lost due to lack of standardisation and development.
3dfx were also not the most effectively managed company around, and were prone to some pretty big gaffes. Firstly, a business deal with Sega that could have seen 3dfx technology in the Dreamcast went sour and the blame was widely attributed to 3dfx’s handling the partnership. Secondly, they acquired graphics card maker STB but the perceived benefits didn’t materialise and it was a spectacular failure.
End of the line
Finally, the unthinkable happened and as 3dfx fast approached bankruptcy they were bought out by their arch rival NVIDIA. It was the end of an era for a technology that – along with the sound card – was one of the defining advancements in PC gaming. 3dfx popularised the concept of a separate powerful 3D graphics processor to relieve the main CPU from having to do all the work. Although the NVIDIA cards available when 3dfx closed it’s doors were already more powerful and continued development at a great pace, 3dfx is still the 3D graphics company remembered most affectionately by many PC gamers.