What Went Wrong?
About This Column::
Good ideas, good qualities...BAD flaws; that's the trouble with many promising entertainment products. Every once in a while there's that one product (movie, television, video, or game) which had it all --concept, sound, visuals-- yet fell like a rock because of a few grating mistakes. Techtite's "What Went Wrong?" commentary examines such titles.
Some Of The First What Went Wrong Columns :
For the current What Went Wrong page, click here.
An Analysis Entertainment Column, by Techtite
The Monthly Opinions on entertainment gone awry
Good ideas, good qualities...BAD flaws; that's the trouble with many promising entertainment products. Every once in a while there's that one product (tv, movie, video, or game) which had it all --concept, sound, visuals-- yet fell like a rock because of a few grating mistakes. This regularly updated commentary examines such titles.
The current entertainment product discussed is:
(Multimedia 3D hardware, ca. 1996-2000)
Who would have thought it? Of all the 3D accelerator companies, few seemed so sure of never going out of business, like 3Dfx. That is, until the company was sold to Nvidia, just a week before Christmas, 2000, What went Wrong?
First, as always, let's consider the positives...
What Went Right? It's easy to know where to begin; 3Dfx, after all, was there at the very beginning (of the 3D acceleration craze, that is). Their original "voodoo" chipset was one of the first decent 3D accelerators ever available. Until then, accelerators were so unreliable in performance, some were even cynically nicknamed decelerators. 3Dfx changed all that, and the game world has only gotten better ever since.
Thanks to companies like 3Dfx, games made out of computer polygons were never "blocky" again. Two of the first games to be compatible with 3D acceleration were Quake and Tomb Raider, and thanks to the original Voodoo cards, they each became legends in gaming (the fact that they were fun games helped, of course). Even the tiniest of game details was a pleasure to see for the first time. The original Tomb Raider, with a 3Dfx card, had a "ripple" effect in the water that would distort the view beyond the water, just like it would in real life. Other versions of this effect were similar, though it was the 3Dfx card where the effect was allowed to shine.
Aside from superior acceleration power, what was it that made the first Voodoo cards so successful? Debatably, it was because of an intriguing, alternate marketing strategy. Unlike other cards, which tried to be a computer's sole graphics option, initial 3Dfx cards were "daughter" boards, which attached to your original card with a pass-through cable. This was an excellent idea; 3Dfx knew a lot about 3D acceleration, though nothing about 2D acceleration. This humility allowed gamers two separate graphics options, in the comfort of one computer; your original 2D/3D card could handle some games, while 3Dfx handled others. It truly was the best of both worlds.
What really showed 3Dfx's superiority, though, were a plethora of free benchmarks sold with every card. Some showed the card's impressive expertise of reflective surfacing, including chrome. Most memorable was the classic "Wizard Benchmark" demo, which allowed you to explore a real-time 3D world, made to look like a medieval wizard's tower. The graphics of this tower --complete with shiny suit-of-armor statues, chandeliers and elaborate medieval architecture-- seemed to rival even old CD-ROM 2D-rendered games, like 7th Guest and Myst. How cool was that?
Indeed, 3Dfx seemed to be the winner in the 3D accelerator wars. Too bad it wasn't meant to last...
What Went Wrong? The first big goof 3Dfx made was the Voodoo Rush. This was their first foray into the standalone card wars --2D and 3D acceleration-- and would prove to be a mistake on many levels. Half the fun of the original 3Dfx cards was how you could choose a separate, superior 2D option, and use 3Dfx as a daughter board, giving the games an added "kick." Yet 3Dfx wanted to be the only graphics card in your computer...and with little knowledge of decent 2D features, it was a very flawed dream.
It didn't help that the "Rush" chip was made incompatible with all prior 3Dfx cards and games! It originally made sense that 3Dfx wanted their "Glide" software drivers to be exclusive to their own cards; did they have to make them so exclusive, that not even their new Voodoo Rush cards were compatible with them...? Barely any 3Dfx games could work on the Voodoo Rush. Once game patches were made to correct this error, it was too late; the Rush was the 3Dfx company's biggest disaster.
This would seem to have scared 3Dfx away from the standalone graphics card wars, and for awhile, it did just that. Cards using the Voodoo 2 chip were daughter boards, just like the original, working alongside your choice of superior 2D cards. The problem: the best features of the Voodoo 2 were not unlike the "SLI" feature on modern-day cards. While SLI graphics on modern-day "super"-computers are totally optional and only require two cards; the Voodoo 2's best features required you to sacrifice three card slots: one for your 2D graphics card, and two for the Voodoo 2 cards. Once again 3Dfx seemingly took one step forward and two steps back: on the one hand they wisely went back to their "daughter board" ways, yet their "SLI" style graphics were impossible to sell to a daughter board world. Who'd buy three separate graphics cards for one PC?
Then came Voodoo 3...with even more sales zig-zags. For awhile, 3Dfx wisely sold its chipsets to third party graphics card designers. Yet Voodoo 3 was sold as a card "directly" by 3Dfx. It would also be the first card sold in different "models," called the 1000, 2000, 3000, and 3500. The problem: even if you coughed up the dough for the pricey 3500 model, you still were given a card whose 2D graphic technology was at least one generation behind the competition. You'd think that during the Voodoo 2 years 3Dfx would work hard to advance their 2D technology. Well...not really. Even ATI's "first" All-in-Wonder card was superior by leaps and bounds, to the Voodoo 3's "2D" features.
Before the 3Dfx fanboys start a flame war: I'm not saying the 2D features of the Voodoo 3 weren't there at all; just not as good. Many reviews at around the turn of the millennium (including TV reviews, like Survivor), have screen captures made via 3Dfx's 3500 TV card...and, at small size, they even look pretty good. However, enlarged, these pics are a pixel-intense joke. 3Dfx felt that people would accept "passable" 2D as long as the "3D" was superior...though what happened, when it wasn't?
Their obsession with being a 2D and 3D company would soon take its toll on their 3D prowess, as well. 3Dfx was taking so much time and manpower to be a 2D graphics company, their 3D technology began to clearly lag behind. When video game buffs make guesses as to why this was so, the spin-doctored answer is often that newer features in graphics "slowed down" performance, and 3Dfx wanted better fps speed, which 3Dfx apparently felt was "most important." This is not unlike an athlete who jumps 5 hurdles, gloating that he's faster than the athlete who can jump 10. All other 3D graphics card options let the gamer decide: they could have all the 3D graphics bells and whistles turned on, or they could turn them off, for superior fps. 3Dfx cards seemingly made the decision "on behalf" of the gamer, with superior fps, only. That wasn't going to sell.
The last year of 3Dfx seemed pretty sad. Was their next card the Voodoo 4, or the Voodoo5? Who can say; Voodoo 4 specs were announced, which were soon followed by specs for the Voodoo 5. Yet such specs did little other than scare gamers from buying the Voodoo 3; the only 3Dfx card on shelves at the time. Once Voodoo 4 was available, most gamers decided to simply wait for the Voodoo 5. This could not have helped the 3Dfx company any, since they had to sell their old cards before they could manufacture any "new" cards. Oops...
In time, 3Dfx was so unconcerned about its rivals, it never bothered to be much competition in itself. It was only a matter of time that 3Dfx was sold in its entirety to Nvidia, their closest competitor. 3Dfx will always be known as the first of the best, though it's still a shame that, upon their last years on store shelves, they were not the best anymore.
Comments? Opinions? Send them to Techtite