TOKYO Designers of video games can pull out all the stops, aiming for the multifunction network console featuring whizzy effects and features. Or they can do what the engineers behind the new Nintendo GameCube did: keep it simple.
Shrugging off competitors' talk about bells and whistles, Nintendo stuck to its knitting by designing a platform focused, at least initially, just on gaming. And its designers said their primary goal was not so much to wow users with novel technology as to make the job of writing games for the system as easy as possible.
But simple doesn't always mean easy. Those very practical goals forced Nintendo's engineers into a struggle to balance a culture clash between engineers in Silicon Valley and Japan while expanding their list of technology partners and selecting two unconventional memory technologies.
The primary goal with the GameCube was to create a hardware platform upon which software developers could write state-of-the-art games with relative ease. That was not the case with the system's predecessor, the Nintendo 64, a "technology-oriented" console, that essentially "asked game creators to make their feet fit our shoes," said Genyo Takeda, director and general manager of Nintendo. He directed the Dolphin project, the code name for the GameCube console that was launched late last month.
The answer to the ease-of-programming question came with an unconventional memory technology: a one-transistor SRAM from MoSys Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.). Nintendo's engineers reasoned that reducing latency was the most important concern for increasing system performance and reducing the need for extensive code optimization the best route to simplifying the job of writing games. That led to their choice of embedded SRAM.
When SRAM was used for main memory in the original Nintendo Entertainment System and its follow-on, the SuperNES, any game developer could achieve the performance that was described in the hardware specifications. However, when consoles such as Nintendo 64, Playstation and SegaStation started to employ DRAM as main memory, game performance became unpredictable, said Takeda. That's because although DRAM seems fast, its time factors for row access select, column access select and latency differ.
So even though peak performance for a game may sometimes match the full specification of the hardware, it is achieved only under the best conditions. The real graphics performance of those systems is about one tenth to one twentieth of peak. Scenes that that require hefty computing resources say, those with many trees or other fine details suffer below-maximum performance.
That meant that game developers had to tune their code to low-level performance to guarantee real-time operation of the game. "We wanted to get rid of DRAM," said Takeda. "But conventional SRAM has six transistors, which makes for a large cell size. Thus we used the one-transistor SRAM technology by MoSys for embedded memory and main memory," he said.
Nintendo's engineers employed the MoSys memory as embedded SRAM in a key graphics and logic system chip and in a 24-Mbyte external main memory. The use of the SRAM reduced latency to fewer than 10 ns for main memory operations and fewer than 5 ns for operations involving the frame buffer and texture cache.
The use of the novel memory may not in itself be flashy technology, but it is expected to help developers turn out new games more quickly or pack higher quality into games developed at the same pace as traditional games.
Although MoSys was perhaps the most strategic partner, the GameCube project involved several alliances. IBM Corp. provided the so-called Gekko CPU, a custom version of the 405-MHz PowerPC with 256 kbytes of secondary cache all made with a 0.18-micron copper CMOS process. Despite the large secondary cache, IBM was able to build the chip on a 43-mm2 die, said Takeda.
The 3-D graphics technology is from ArtX Inc. (Palo Alto, Calif.), which is fabricating the embedded system chip, a 120-mm2 device made with 0.18-micron technology, which contains the SRAM embedded memory as well as the ArtX graphics engine and a sound generator. Volume production of the part is to begin next month at the No. 9 fab at NEC Kyushu. And Matsushita is supplying a proprietary 8-cm optical disk for the games.
Discussion with those partners, mainly in Silicon Valley, started in late 1998. Orchestrating their roles was Nintendo Technology Development Inc. (Redmond, Wash.)
"The most difficult issue in the Dolphin project was the gap between the technology-driven culture in Silicon Valley and our intention to pursue entertainment," said Takeda. Although Valley engineers were eager to show off their capabilities, in a consumer system no one standout technology should dominate. "Instead, each one should work in harmony," said Takeda. "It was most difficult to ask Valley engineers to swallow their pride," he added.
The culture clash was smoothed over by the fact that many of the designers on the project had worked with Nintendo before, some of them as members of SGI (formerly Silicon Graphics Inc.). "Through discussion, we could establish a good relationship with them because the partners in Silicon Valley are mostly the same members who worked for Nintendo 64. We told them, 'Let's achieve what we could not do with Nintendo 64,'" Takeda said.
Howard Cheng, technical director at Nintendo Technology Development, was an SGI engineer who collaborated on Nintendo 64 development and then jointed Nintendo four years ago. He worked as the liaison between Nintendo and Silicon Valley engineers.
"Takeda gave me a very simple requirement, to make a high-performance machine that game developers can effectively work with," Cheng said. "That itself is very difficult to ask as the speed of the processor and everything is so fast today. Balancing everything is very tricky, and it has to have a good price for consumers. That continues to be most challenging." said Cheng.
Spinning a disk
Unlike its closest competitor, the Sony Playstation2, the GameCube does not immediately aspire to play DVD movies or connect to the Internet. "To make it simple, GameCube is a game machine," said Takeda. "We want users to play games, not to watch movies or access nongame Internet sites. Movies and Internet are practically competitors to gaming," said Tanaka.
Naoko Ito, senior analyst at Goldman Sachs Japan Corp., praised the move. He said, "To position GameCube as a game-oriented console is the most efficient strategy to differentiate it from PS2."
However, the analyst pointed to another matter that could hold back GameCube. "The disk capacity is small compared to DVD, so game developers cannot easily port game titles to and from other platforms," he said.
Nintendo has stuck with its tradition of using a proprietary storage technology for game titles, in this case an 8-cm optical disk developed by Matsushita.
When Matsushita and Nintendo announced in May 1999 that they would collaborate on the next-generation game console based on DVD technology, industry watchers expected that Nintendo would move into a DVD-based open platform.
The company adopted an optical disk system, but by using a 8-cm-diameter disk, it severed the game console from the 12-cm-disk world that includes the CD and DVD families used by Playstation and Playstation2.
The GameCube disk has a capacity of about 1.5 Gbytes. The DVD family also has an 8-cm version, but the Nintendo disk does not belong to the DVD family. As Matsushita, one of DVD's promoters, developed the disk system, it shares most technology with the DVD family, but employs its own proprietary copy-protection technology for higher security. Matsushita said that it would develop a box combining a GameCube console and a DVD player and will introduce the product to coincide with GameCube's introduction.
Though GameCube does not support DVD, support of the Secure Digital (SD) card is one result of the collaboration with Matsushita, said Takeda. GameCube accepts an SD card through an adapter into so-called Digicard slots at the side. Matsushita intends to promote the SD card as the bridge medium for audio/video data, and Nintendo expects the SD card to connect to a network.
Sony said when it introduced Playstation2 that it would start services based on broadband networks. Nintendo has not disclosed any network-related business plan for GameCube, but the game's raw hardware makes it ready for network connection. The game console is equipped with two serial ports and one parallel port at the bottom that will accept high-speed interfaces, such as broadband Ethernet, that will link the box to various networks.
Another link planned for the GameCube is a cable that connects it with the GameBoy Advance handheld. That machine will function as remote controller with a color display.
So while Sony talks about becoming a communications and services company, Nintendo so far is taking a practical stance of sticking with its traditional business. "We are an entertainment company. If it is fun and entertainment and within our area of expertise, we will do anything," said Takeda.