3dfx and the golden age of PC gaming

We look at the one time leader of PC graphics and its gaming legacy.

John Gunn found himself at 3dfx through STB Systems, a developer and manufacturer of video cards for OEMs such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Gateway. STB Systems had its own retail brand and developed products using graphics technology from 3dfx, NVIDIA, ATI, S3, Cirrus, NEC, and other manufacturers. For a graphics application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) developer such as 3dfx, unless its technology was going on a PC motherboard, it went straight through STB Systems and Gunn.

We caught up with John, then channel sales and marketing vice president of 3dfx, to talk about the one time graphics card leader.

What was it like to work for 3dfx?

Former 3dfx channel sales and marketing vice president, John Gunn (JG): Overwhelmingly exciting. 3dfx's Glide technology brought arcade quality graphics to the PC platform and gamers freaked out over it. It created a new category of products for hardcore gamers. These weren't kids playing games on a console. These were men aged 18 to 40 with college degrees, and high average household incomes. Nothing else compared to it in quality or performance.

How did 3dfx become a pioneer in PC graphics?

JG: Huge and immediately noticeable difference in performance. When you loaded top PC games such as Quake, during set-up you could select if you had Voodoo graphics. With Glade, the user experience was on an entirely different level, whether it was resolution, frames per second, visual effects. You either had Voodoo or you weren't a hardcore gamer.

How closely did 3dfx interact with game developers?

JG: 3dfx was closer to game developers than anyone. Makers of expensive games knew that most of their target customers had Voodoo and they created a very efficient ecosystem for gaming on the PC platform. Unfortunately for 3dfx, Microsoft put more resources behind Direct3D and eventually caught up.

Did Sega create a Dreamcast candidate console, "Blackbelt", using 3dfx technology?

JG: I worked on the retail side of the business and was not a part of this. My perspective is that Sega initially thought that it wanted the best technology, then changed strategy and made a decision based on cost to hit a lower target shelf price for the console and culture.

What did you think of the PowerVR-based Dreamcast?

JG: The industry gave a collective yawn. It was a decent solution, but not enough to get people to switch platforms. Other console developers learned from Sega's missteps and you have seen technology leap with the Xbox or the user-experience evolve with the Wii to drive every console launch since this time.

What could a 3dfx-based Dreamcast do differently?

JG: The graphics, which is what matters most to high end users, would have made a real difference in winning market share. Plus, the number of publishers supporting the platform would have been on an entirely different scale. Who knows what might have been for both companies.

Why did 3dfx sell its own graphics cards from Voodoo 3 onwards?

JG: Much like Apple, which delivers a superior user experience, doesn't need ten companies bashing each other over the head in the market, neither did 3dfx. It's a simple strategy, build a great product and control the distribution process to ensure the highest quality and most positive end user experience.

How did NVIDIA catch up to 3dfx?

JG: Quite simply it was better management of their engineering resources and more engineers. It eventually got to the point where 3dfx needed two processors to stay ahead of NVIDIA's performance, and that priced 3dfx out of the PC OEM market, which was the bigger part of the business and ultimately led to the beginning of the end.

Why were Voodoo 4 and 5 released in the same time frame?

JG: Multiple factors including market strategy, OEM design cycles, competitor releases, 3dfx engineering cycles.

What did you think of 3dfx closing shop in 2002?

JG: It was satisfying to see most of the engineering team find a new home at a great company and to be able to carry on their work. NVIDIA picked up a huge amount of engineering talent with the acquisition and some also went to ATI.

How about 3dfx's assets acquired by rival NVIDIA?

JG: No, it was good news and expected. It was a smart strategic move by NVIDIA and greatly accelerated its efforts in competing with ATI and eventually Intel. Also, 3dfx had received a favorable ruling in a patent case with NVIDIA, consolidation was happening throughout the industry, and it just made smart business sense for a lot of reasons.

What was the real reason for 3dfx's demise?

JG: The company missed design cycles and lost the engineering leadership battle to competitors who did a better job of delivering to their technology roadmaps. Look at the long history of the Intel versus AMD CPU battle, give all the credit you can to sales and marketing, but in the end it is the engineering teams that determine who will gain or cede market share.

Is it true 3dfx spent lavishly on employee perks and lunches?

JG: I would dismiss this type of chatter. How much can you really spend on a lunch anyway? If you maintain a leadership position with your technology and you lead the market in revenue and profits, you can have anything you want for lunch.

Could the next generation "Rampage" project have saved 3dfx?

JG: There are a lot of "ifs" in this one, but yes. If it had come out much earlier, if it had performed much better, and if it had been a clearly superior solution, then yes, it could have saved the company. This is how fabless ASIC developers have always won or lost.

Are you sad to see 3dfx fade away?

JG: All of the technology from that era is gone. The architecture has changed, the bus has changed, the memory has changed, everything has changed, and that is not unique to 3dfx. This happens with all technology in every category. Now mobile is emerging as a dominant gaming platform with an entirely new set of requirements. To its credit, NVIDIA anticipated this a long time ago and is once again incredibly well positioned.

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out Good Gear Guide's complete interview archive.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World
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