History began in 1996. Well, really it began in 1981, when screens ousted printers as the primary way of viewing a computer’s output, leading IBM to release their MDA video card. With a change 4KB of memory and capable of actual electronic text, it was quite the monster.
Skip forward to 1987 and VGA’s eye-popping 640×480 resolution and 256 colors, and PC gaming was finally ready to go large. Add another ten years to that, and there we are at the 3DFX Voodoo graphics accelerator, the card that begat the age of 3D.
Sure, there were 3D accelerator add-in cards doing the rounds over a year prior to the release of the now famous Voodoo board – including NVIDIA and ATI’s first efforts, but it was 3DFX’s opening salvo that changed everything. Prior to 3D cards, we did have 3D games of a sort – but super-blocky, jerky-slow 3D that was painfully managed by the CPU and not the clean edges and natural framerates a dedicated 3D rendering device could offer.
The Voodoo was something every PC gamer craved and – at odds with today’s ridiculously over-priced top-end cards – could actually afford, as a crash in memory prices meant the sporty 4MB of video RAM it carried didn’t cost the Earth. It was a curious beast – with no 2D rendering capabilities of its own, this PCI board had to be linked via daisy-chain cable to the PC’s standard VGA output, only flexing its muscle during 3D games. The external cable meant a little degradation of image quality, in both 3D and 2D, but no-one really cared. They were too busy rotating their in-game cameras around Lara Croft’s curveless curves, awestruck.
The scale of what 3DFX achieved with the Voodoo is less evident from the card itself, and more in how it birthed a raft of competition, and kickstarted the 3D revolution. If you thought the NVIDIA-AMD graphics bickering is bitter, confusing and exploitative today, back in the late 1990s, there were over a dozen 3D chip manufacturers warring for a slice of PC gaming pie. PowerVR, Rendition, S3, Trident, 3D Labs, Matrox… Big names that once earned big money became, come the early years of the 21st century, forgotten casualties of the brutal GeForce-Radeon war. Some still survive in one form or another, others are gone entirely. Including 3DFX itself, but we’ll get to that later.
3DFX also did the unthinkable: they defeated Microsoft. While DirectX, to all intents and purposes, is now the only way in which a graphics card communicates with a Windows game, back in the Voodoo era it was crushed beneath the heel of 3DFX’s own Glide API. Not that it was any less evil. While DirectX was and is Microsoft’s attempt to inextricably bind PC gaming to Windows, Glide was as happy in the then-still-prevalent DOS as it was in Windows 95. However, it only played nice with 3DFX chips, whereas DirectX’s so-called hardware abstraction layer enabled it to play nicely with a vast range of different cards, so long as they conformed to a few Microsoftian rules.
Glide vs DirectX
In theory, developers would much prefer a system which required that they only had to code for one standard rather than come up with multiple Tenderers – and, eventually, that did become the case. In the mid-to-late 90s though, the earliest DirectXes – specifically, their DirectsD component – were woefully inefficient, and suffered very vocal criticism from the likes of id’s John Carmack. Glide may only have talked to Voodoos, but that it talked directly to them rather than through the fluff of an all-purpose software layer made it demon-fast That, coupled with the card’s own raw performance, made the Voodoo impossibly attractive to gamers – and so the industry widely adopted Glide. Glide itself was an extensive modification of OpenGL, another hardware-neutral standard which predated and then rivaled DirectsD. Created by high-end workstation manufacturer SGI and then expanded by a sizeable consortium of hardware and software developers, OpenGL was as close as you could get Situs Slot to an altruistic 3D API. While it continues to this day, had it been more successful in fighting off the Microsoft challenge, we wouldn’t now suffer perverse situations, such as having to buy Vista if we want the best-looking games.
Another 3DFX masterstroke in the late-90s was the custom MiniGL driver that brought Voodoo power to OpenGL games -specifically, to id’s newly-released Quake. The card’s close identification with the shooter that popularized both online deathmatch and true 3D gaming – as opposed to Doom, Duke Nukem 3D et al’s fudging-it approach of 2D sprites and a 3D viewpoint that only worked when looking straight ahead – only cemented its must-have cred.
As 3D gaming grew and grew, 3DFX’s dominance seemed unassailable. The Voodoo 2 was a refinement of the first chip, and made a few image quality sacrifices compared to rival cards – notably no 32-bit color support or resolutions above 800×600 – but again offered so much more raw performance than anything else. The Voodoo Rush could handle 2D as well as 3D, and though the latter’s performance dipped, it made for an easy and appealing single upgrade. And SLI, in its original form, long before NVIDIA got to it, birthed the hardcore gaming hardware enthusiast – two Voodoo 2s in one PC, offering yet more speed and, best of all, razor-sharp 1024×768 resolution.
So what went wrong? Unfortunately, riches begat the desire for further riches. As remains the case today for NVIDIA and ATI, 3DFX didn’t actually manufacture 3D cards themselves – they just licensed their chips to third party firms with massive silicon fabs and took a cut of the profits. Come the Voodoo 3,3DFX had other plans – in 1998 they bought up STB Technologies, one of the bigger card-builders of the time. The plan was to then directly sell the highly-anticipated (but ultimately disappointing) Voodoo 3 and earn mega-bucks. Unfortunately, this decision severely marked most of the other third-party manufacturers, who summarily refused to buy future Voodoo chips. The combination of this, 3DFX’s retail inexperience, and the superior feature set (though lesser performance) of NVIDIA’s RIVA TNT2 card caused major damage to the firm’s coffers. NVIDIA added insult to injury with the GeForce 256, whose performance absolutely demolished the Voodoo 3.3DFX’s response to this first GeForce, the consumer-bewildering simultaneous release of the Voodoo 4 and 5, came too late. The superior GeForce 2 and its new arch-rival the ATI Radeon had already arrived, and Microsoft’s Direct3D API was finally proving much more of a developer darling than Glide.