August 23, 1993. The consumer electronics industry
tuned in as Silicon Graphics and Nintendo announced a partnership
to build the world's most powerful game machine. Speaking to a crowd
of analysts, news media, and industry pundits, Silicon Graphics
founder and CEO Jim Clark outlined an ambitious project, Project
Reality, which would revolutionize the consumer electronics industry.
Never one for understatement, Clark declared that Project Reality
would harness the "combined computer power of hundreds of PCs"
for less than $250. The pundits were convinced that the Silicon
Graphics/Nintendo powerhouse could deliver it. Apparently, were
the analysts--3DO stock dropped $4 that day in heavy trading--and
children around the world, whipped to a frenzy by the glowing reports
in the news media, began to lobby their parents for their Christmas
'95 presents. By all indications, Project Reality would be a tremendous
success. Only one small task remained--building it.
The plan called for Silicon Graphics to design two
chips that would be at the heart of the system: R4300i processor
and the Reality CoProcessor (RCP). The R4300i processor, the low-cost,
low-power MIPS RISC CPU, would handle the interaction with the game
player and manage the game's control tasks. The RCP, the media processing
engine, would handle all the high- performance graphic and music
synthesis tasks. The R4300i processor team was already in place
at MIPS and staffed with experienced engineers. However, the Project
Reality team, which would design the RCP and write the software,
had to be built from scratch.
"Only hire superstars" was Senior VP Wei
Yen's mandate. Staffing was going slower than expected and this
was a tall order. Surprisingly, internal recruiting was difficult.
Many people inside Silicon Graphics were suspicious of the hype
surrounding the project. "Onyx caliber graphics and music synthesis
in a $250 box? You're crazy," came the protests. "Maybe
so, but that is what we're going to do," was the team's response.
Most of the early Project Reality team, with the exception of a
few burnt-out old-timers, came from outside Silicon Graphics.
With few people on board, Project Reality team members
wore many hats in the fall and winter of '93. But one by one, lured
by the prospect of designing a system that would ship millions of
units per year, top hardware and software designers signed on. As
winter turned to spring, the team reached critical mass, and it
all began to come together. The product plan crystallized and the
first milestone became clear: RCP TapeOut.
The Road to Tape Out
TapeOut is, to a chip design team, the ultimate
milestone. By the end of 1994, the team was exhausted. Working nights
and weekends away from family and friends was beginning to take
its toll. The tapeout tension mounted each day. Finally, early in
1995, the tapeout was complete. And that meant...
what a party! After the toast and the obligatory management speech,
two engineers summarily christened the director with the tub of
ice water, starting what may go down as the wettest indoor celebration
in Silicon Graphics history. By some fortunate coincidence, one
of the nearby conference rooms contained a bunch of balloons, which
were quickly pressed into service for the mother of all water balloon
fights. After thoroughly soaking team members and not a few innocent
bystanders, the team decided to share its celebration with others.
Packing tubs of water balloons, the team stormed building 10, where
in a blaze of glory, it ambushed an unsuspecting Wei Yen.
|Re-armed with Super Soakers, after
thoroughly soaking anything that moved in building 8, the team
went in search of more executives in building 6. They continued
up the management chain and finally set up an ambush for the
company president, in his office.
NEC fabricated the RCP chips on a totally new, state-of-the
art chip fab line in Japan, built at a cost of more than a billion
dollars. The chips in Nintendo 64 were the first microchips produced
in volume using .35 micron semiconductor technology! Nintendo's
partners, Silicon Graphics and NEC, had succeeded in getting the
world's most advanced semiconductor technology into a consumer product.
Over the next two weeks, Project Reality staff worked
nearly around the clock with engineers from Paradigm Simulation
to polish a demo which Nintendo would show to key developers and
distributors in a whisper suite at the E3 show on May 10.
Just prior to the show, however, Nintendo dropped
a bombshell--it would delay the release of the Nintendo 64 until
April 1996. According to the press release, Nintendo wanted to give
developers more time to develop their games. Regardless, the team
Out of the Lab
Almost before the E3 dust had settled, development
systems were whisked out of the lab and into the hands of waiting
developers. Thanks to the Reality Engine emulator, many of the games
were already well into production, but there is nothing like running
games on the actual hardware to tune the sounds, images, and game
play. With development systems in hand, developers could begin this
Making it Real
The fall of 1995 saw Nintendo 64 mature from prototype
to real system as the software team optimized, added features, fixed
bugs, and brought new game developers up to speed. The fall of '95
also saw it begin to take on a life outside Silicon Graphics.
The marketing machine awakened as Nintendo prepared
for a November public introduction in Japan at the Shoshinkai show.
While the world got a taste of the power of Nintendo 64, the Silicon
Graphics team got a taste of what it means to ship a consumer product.
E3 surpassed expectations. The official unveiling
occurred at a press conference on Wednesday, May 15. "It's
over; it's sooooo over," drooled one member of the press corp
watching the live demonstration of real games on the large screen
monitor. The folks at GamerX were even more ebullient:
- "Today's a beautiful day, mostly because
I just left a splashy Nintendo media briefing, where two Nintendo
of America upper-ups rolled out their 64-bit wonder, Nintendo64.
I gotta admit--this baby smokes. With Silicon Graphics hardware,
no CD-ROM slow-down (the N-64, as it's been nicknamed, will use
cartridges, not CD-ROMs), and several games that look to be top-shelf
quality, Sony and Sega had better watch their backs. I can't wait
to get some hands-on experience with games like Super Mario 64,
which looks absolutely incredible. And,judging by the reaction
of the assembled crowd, neither can anyone else."
- "Render me speechless. Kudos to Silicon
Graphics and its sweet console implementation for Nintendo. Super
Mario 64 on the Nintendo64 is a joy to behold, and besides creating
a platform that makes the PC look like an Atari, Silicon Graphics
brought new life to the MIPS processor under the hood. [This]
shows how location can make all the difference. Suddenly MIPS
is mainstream and hot--and we're not talking heat dissipation
- Even the mainstream Time Magazine joined the
party. In a two page article on the Nintendo 64 in the May 20
edition, Time's Michael Krantz says,
- "What matters is that the Silicon Graphics
chip-fueled Nintendo64 puts the fastest, smoothest game action
yet attainable via joystick at the service of equally virtuoso
- And how did the team feel? For most of the team
members, the E3 show summed up the emotional total of almost three
years of hardwork, of friendships, of teamwork and personal
growth. And as they stood before this finished product, which
would convey the sum of their ideas to the world, each team member
likely felt intense pride that said, "This is what I can