Summary: As one of the pioneer's in 3D graphics, 3dfx was at one time considered by many to be indestructible. Its Voodoo Graphics chipset was years ahead of the competition, and the company enjoyed significant brand awareness that continues to this day. So what went wrong with the company? In our latest article, we get the inside story from one of the company's former employees. Read what he has to say and learn about a few upcoming products that never made it to market in this article!
We’ve chronicled the humble beginnings of industry titans ATI and NVIDIA in the past, but for today’s article we’re doing something a bit different. Rather than discuss the origins of a 3D company you’re familiar with, 3dfx, we were given the unique opportunity to learn more about what was going on within the company around the time of its sudden downfall. However, unlike previous industry articles we’ve published, this one comes straight from the horse’s mouth!
For obvious reasons our source would like to remain anonymous, but we’ve known him for quite awhile and can assure you that he is indeed legit. He will briefly go over the early days of 3dfx, before going into detail over each of the company’s products. From the original Voodoo Graphics chipset, all the way to unannounced parts such as Fearless and Mojo, it’s all covered here. So without further discussion, lets listen up to what he has to say!
In the beginning…
It was a sad loss for the entire graphics industry when 3dfx announced they were closing their doors. Within the last year and half there have been several articles on the subject of 3dfx's demise, looking into both what went wrong and the future generation of products that would have been. Unfortunately, these authors were ill informed on the subject, having made errors on the facts and missed key points. This article will attempt to clear up some of the facts. It will not present every single event that occurred at 3dfx, as that would take an entire book. Rather, highlights will be given that took place along the life of the company.
It was sometime in between the Voodoo/Voodoo2 period that Greg Ballard came onto the scene as CEO. He was there for marketing, and he was good at it, though there was something missing when it came to technology. He pushed a variety of 3dfx marketing campaigns that helped bring 3dfx to the top. Problems apparently came from his lack of understanding how the graphics industry functioned. Ballard desired to deliver a single chip 2D/3D solution as the competition had thus far done the same.
With the release of Voodoo Banshee, 3dfx was able to offer a solid 2D/3D solution. Unfortunately, all was not pleasant in the land of 3dfx. Having removed the second texture unit on Banshee's pixel pipeline, multi-texturing performance was below that of a single Voodoo2 solution.
Avenger becomes Voodoo3
Avenger, which later became known as Voodoo3, was 3dfx's follow-up to Banshee. Originally this product was to be named Banshee2, for that is really what it was. However, 3dfx management knew that the Voodoo name provided much greater brand recognition and so they opted for that name. Voodoo3’s feature set was identical to that of Banshee. It was simply a higher-clocked version of the previous chip with a second texture unit installed. Performance was definitely competitive, with NVIDIA's TNT2 and TNT2 Ultra often falling behind in performance, but the lack of new features made NVIDIA's solution more appealing once again. This hurt 3dfx's sales and caused them to further lose market share and developers confidence.
With the oncoming merger almost complete, many at STB were under the impression that 3dfx's next part, Rampage, was all but taped out. This would have been true had 3dfx not decided to make some last minute changes to the design. These were not minor changes either, but major feature introductions. The most important new addition was SLI support. Had SLI not been an included feature, what would be called VSA-100 in its original form, would have been nothing more than a TNT2 Ultra. 3dfx knew this would not be an appealing solution, so Rampage was redesigned to allow for multi-chip boards, theoretically doubling performance (or more, depending on many chips were used). Additionally, 3dfx engineers added FXT-1 texture compression.
unlimited junk food and drinks. Not only was there a large quantity, but a
huge variety as well. Of course the free lunches were nice too.
NVIDIA launches GeForce
While all this was developing, NVIDIA was coming on strong. They had released their GeForce256 chip, which took a nice performance lead over Voodoo3. As a follow up, NVIDIA brought the GeForce2 to market. These two parts offered a considerable number of additional features that 3dfx did not provide with Voodoo5. While 3dfx did offer anti-aliasing that was considerably superior to NVIDIA’s, they had a tough time selling it due to NVIDIA’s aggressive marketing and technology demos. From this, 3dfx lost the majority of their developer support and a considerable amount of consumer confidence.
Voodoo5 6000 problems
In the end, Voodoo5 was a fairly successful product. However, the high-end board, Voodoo5 6000, was forever delayed. There were many happenings with this board, but it boils down to this: 3dfx did not consider the design well enough before the board was announced.
was closing. Few expected the entire company to shut down.
More inside details
3dfx was notorious for spending money. In the last year or so, roughly $30-50,000 was spent monthly on lunches. This did not include the additional snacks and drinks that were provided to employees. Hiring didn’t stop until the last few weeks, with all of us keeping hope that the company would pull through. Of course this did not happen.
Next generation parts
Daytona- 3dfx's first low-end OEM part. Daytona was effectively a VSA-100 part with a DDR memory controller and a 64-bit memory bus. The idea was to deliver a cheaper version of the VSA-100, with the 64-bit bus making a notable dent in cost. Daytona simply could not be finalized though. It would tape out and a bug would be found, then tape out again and another bug would be found. Fortunately, a chip was not made between each tape out with the final number being A7 silicon. In the end, this resulted in considerable delays and final Daytona silicon never coming to life.
Rampage (Spectre) - 3dfx's next high-end graphics part was capable of quad-chip support. Rampage silicon had come back from the fab just weeks before the announcement of 3dfx's demise. Sage, Rampage's geometry processor had recently taped out as well, so expectations were high. The first revision of Rampage silicon was able to achieve 200 MHz clock frequencies without active cooling. Originally, the expectation had been to ship it at 200 MHz, but with this capability, there was nothing limiting it from 250+ MHz clock speeds.
Of interesting note are the two bugs that did exist in Rampage silicon. The first was the DAC being flipped, reversing the color channels. It is hard to be certain how this bug managed to slip through, but it did. One possible reason it was not detected is because this was one of the few places on the chip that had not been simulated. The temporary fix was an interesting little board that was attached between the monitor cable and VGA connector. It flipped all the color channels, making it display correctly.
The second bug was an AGP issue that had initially caused some problems but was corrected for bring up boards by fibbing the chips.
Here are the specs on Rampage, and its companion chip, Sage:
200+ MHz Core
Approximately 30 million transistors
4 Pixel Pipelines
8 textures per-pass
DX 8 Pixel Shader 1.0
50 million triangles/sec sustained
150 million triangles/sec real world
DX8 1.0 Vertex Shader
Approx. 20 million transistors
SIDEBAR: Did Sage ever REALLY tape out? Sure it was finished, but was it ever sent
to the fab? Probably not.
Tantrum- A single chip combination of Rampage and Sage. Targeted at the OEM market, performance would be lower than a Rampage-Sage combination, with considerably reduced cost.
Fear- The first part based on 3dfx and Gigapixel technology. Fear actually consisted of two separate parts: Fusion and Sage II. Fusion was derived from combining 3dfx and Gigapixel technology. This was a part targeted at DirectX8-9 (though the specification was nothing near final). Being from Gigapixel, it was a deferred rendering architecture. At the time of 3dfx closing shop, Fusion was considered RTL complete and tape out was expected in March of 2001. Sage II was slightly behind Fusion, but it was making ground.
250+ MHz Core
Approx 60 Million transistors
4 pixel pipelines
8 texture per-pass via loop back
Deferred Rendering Architecture
DX8-DX9 Pixel Shader
100 Million Triangles/sec Sustained
300 Million Triangles/sec Theoretical
DX8-DX9 Vertex Shader
Fearless- A single-chip Fusion-Sage2 part. Comparable to what Tantrum was to Rampage.
Mojo- The distant future of 3dfx. This was based on an entirely new generation of design. It was considered the next-generation of deferred rendering. Targeted at DX9 and higher, it had a considerably extensive feature set. With Fear's anticipated performance being such a high level, the raw performance specifications of Mojo were actually slightly lower. Mojo was a single-chip solution unlike Fear and Spectre, including the geometry processor with the pixel pipeline.
ConclusionDid 3dfx sell out? Perhaps. Many within the company thought so. Many fans of the company felt let down as well. Members of the board are reported to have received notable perks for the purchase of 3dfx's name and IP, with the dissolution of the company. And of course the end of an era came. Certainly it was a fun era, but as they say, all good things must come to an end.
SIDEBAR: Would Rampage have been enough to save 3dfx or was the STB merger part of the problem? Voice your thoughts on these topics in the comments!
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