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Interview with Jez San

Jez San founded Argonaut as a software consultancy firm in the early 1980s. At the ripe old age of 18 he co-wrote his first book, Quantum Theory, and programmed Argonaut's first game, Skyline Attack, on the Commodore 64. How many of you played StarGlider on your Amiga back in the day? Jez San was the developer of that game. The title was a smash success and it helped finance Argonaut's expansion. It is considered by many to be the first popular 3D computer game.Jez also holds the title of "the man who created the FX chip," the chip which made games like StarFox possible on the SNES.

You founded Argonaut as a young man, and it’s grown to become quite a formidable force in the game industry today. Why do you think Argonaut has been so successful, and what challenges do you see for the future?

I think Argonaut’s success to date has been accomplished by blending a few different attributes. First, we have a great team and environment, with some of the most talented individuals I’ve met in the industry. Second, we’ve always pushed the R&D side of the company, to achieve new technologies like 3D rendering and physics, but also to create "enablers" that let our creative people be more creative.

We used to have a corny company motto, "Better Technology for Better Games." The principle is right, but we didn’t mean it to sound like we’ve got the best technology around and no one else does. But being a boss who started off as a "bedroom coder" in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then programmed the first few games, and later became a "biz guy" gives the company a spin that is more technology-centric than a company run by a biz guy first who gets into games later.

There was a time, many years ago, when people said that Argonaut had great technology and lousy gameplay. And, worst of all, this was true. So we set about fixing that a few years ago – we hired lots of creative people, artists, gamers and designers, and then we built the tools to let them do their work as efficiently as possible.

We created engines, editors, and libraries that let the programmers do what they do best, and the game designers benefited from these amazing game development tools. The benefits are some very cool looking and great playing games. As for challenges for the future, well, there’s another platform war coming up, and a company like our has to place bets where our bread’s going to be buttered next.

One thing I find interesting about Argonaut is that the company not only develops software, it’s also a pioneer in hardware development, having achieved worldwide acclaim for creating the Super Nintendo’s FX chip. How has this dual focus helped you create better games?

We got started in the hardware field by first designing "game development systems". But this hardware interest grew one day when we signed a multi-game exclusive deal with Nintendo and we showed the company what we could do with 3D software rendering on the NES and SNES.

Nintendo was very impressed by the vector and polygon graphics we had achieved on what was basically a character mapped display. The company previously thought its system was incapable of such 3D real-time graphics. But we, perhaps arrogantly, told them we could do even better – if they let us design a piece of hardware. They were interested, and we promised them (making wild guesses) that we could make the SNES ten times faster at 3D polygon graphics. So Nintendo agreed to fund it, and we got to work.

We hired a few hardware engineers and designed the chip from the software point of view – a way it had never been done before. First we wrote the software we wanted it to run, and then we designed the dream hardware to run that software. As it turned out, the prototype worked the first time, and it was 40 times faster than the software 3D library on the SNES. It wasn’t just a graphics chip, though. It was a microprocessor built to run graphics software, but it also did other things (like fast math).

We used to joke (internally, of course) that the SNES box was the power supply for the Super FX chip, because the entire game code, including all 3D graphics, physics, gameplay and so on, ran on the Super FX and the SNES simply displayed the results on screen. The Super FX later went on to sell well over 10 million chips and was the first 3D chip for a home game system. More importantly for us, it whetted our appetite for designing hardware/software co-solutions, a concept that we’ve taken much further today.

Now our hardware group, which was formerly a small but dedicated team inside Argonaut Software, has been spun off. It became such a successful a team that we made it a whole company in its own right, and called it ARC.

The Argonaut RISC Core is the world’s first customizable microprocessor. We license it to hardware product designers. Whether a company make game boxes, cel phones, VCRs, or otherwise, any piece of consumer electronics needs a microprocessor and software to make it do something. Our new technology, ARC, is basically an high speed, low-cost microprocessor that can be customized and tailored for any new use. Most importantly, this is done by the client themselves. It’s all point-and-click. A new bespoke microprocessor can be built in minutes instead of months or years using this technology.

ARC is doing very well and will probably go public within a year or two. It has the chance to grow into a mega hardware company, like Rambus, MIPS or ARM. So with the formation of ARC, there are now no hardware designers left in ASL (Argonaut Software Limited). But that doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned technology for games – far from it.. Now ASL gets to concentrate on new software technologies. We have amazing 3D rendering technology with shadows and lights that look like pre-rendered movies, except they run at high frame rates in real-time. We have physics that allows us to construct any mechanical object and have it function correctly within a game environment with no special case programming. Whether it’s a car, person, obstacle – we have our own game programming languages that lets game designers express their gameplay ideas in simple English. And we have editors and tools to let us build worlds that are great to play.

Many people credit your innovation, the FX chip, with injecting new life into the SNES, and making ground-breaking games such as StarFox possible. Can Dreamcast owners expect to see similar magic from Argonaut? How innovative would you say the hardware of the Dreamcast is? Is there anything you wish Sega had included?

We’re busy working away on our first Dreamcast game, and it’s looking very cool, I must say. We are not working on any hardware for the Dreamcast, as this would probably not be a smart move since it already has very respectable 3D performance. Sure, we could improve it, but to be honest, if the machine had two million polygons per second, and we made a chip to make it do ten times that, it would probably be worth bringing out a new machine rather than retrofitting the system with an upgrade. That made sense in the SNES days, where every game cartridge was its own mini-electronic-circuit and we could augment the ROM software with some clever hardware widget that made the machine even more powerful. But these days most games are shipped on a CD-ROM, and to bundle a hardware widget wouldn’t be an easy marketing sell to consumers when they’d probably just buy a new machine.

What can you tell us about your upcoming title, Red Dog?

This game is being created by us for Sega, and that company likes to control the marketing, so it’s for Sega to tell you what, why and when. However, I’ll try to say a few vague things that hopefully won’t piss them off too much. First, I think it’s looking really good, and barring Sonic (which is very special, I think) Red Dog is one of the better looking Dreamcast titles I’ve seen so far. Now, that could mean I haven’t seen that many, or it could mean it’s looking really great. Probably it’s a little of both.

Not much has been released publicly about it, but the game’s pitch is "StarFox in a tank". It’s your advanced, highly-specified futuristic tank travelling on alien landscapes, shooting the crap out of mean alien scum. There’s also a lot of exploring, some problem solving and navigating, a lot of advanced physics, some cool scenery, and some very nice visual effects to make it even more interesting and varied. We’re maxing out the hardware with hand-coded 3D rendering libraries that we wrote, and we’re using hardware features that have been little used so far on other Dreamcast games, like shadows, bumps, procedural textures, and so on.

Suffice it to say the hardware can do a lot more than the first few games have utilized. We intend to eke out as much from the hardware as we can for our first game. Which, to be honest, is what we like to do on any new platform, especially if we get development systems early enough to take the time to really see what the hardware can do!

Role-playing time. You’re the new head of Sega Enterprises, and you’ve got two minutes to summarize the successes and failures of the Dreamcast launch thus far. What do you tell the members of the board? What would you have done differently? Where does the Dreamcast stand compared to the competition?

I think Sega has done a lot of things right in their launch plan so far. Early on, the company was humble about its mistakes with the older system, and it’s trying to get it right this time. Getting lots of development systems to the right developers with enough time for them to make good games is, of course, the most important thing Sega can do.

I think Sega did this successfully in the West, but not so well in Japan, where the machine’s accelerated launch schedule encroached on the time available for the developers to make their first batch of games great. These problems come about because the game console hardware business is very competitive. Sega is betting the farm that being ‘first’ with a next generation system will let it capture market share before the other guys come along later, even though they may have superior systems.

No competitor of Sega will release a new platform after Dreamcast that’s inferior to the Dreamcast. Sorry that might offend some people, but it is just a fact of life. Sega is gambling that the performance and new features found in the Dreamcast will be enough to get some superior games on the market soon. Unfortunately, a game’s gestation period is so long (18 months on average) that the other game systems will be out, or at least shown publicly, before Sega gets lots of great games out on the market.

Technology wise, I think the Dreamcast offers a lot of power for the money, which is, after all, what the Sega wanted. The system was also created within a very short timeframe that meant the company had to choose existing 3D technology providers (VideoLogic’s PowerVR) rather than creating something new and purpose-built from scratch. It is for this reason that I think Sony and Nintendo will have faster and more powerful 3D capabilities and CPUs.

We know from our own experience that if you design something to do one job, you can make it work very well. I expect the other game consoles coming out later will be much more powerful in the 3D performance area. The big question will be, "Can you make just as good a game with 2 million polygons per second as you can with 10 million? And more importantly, will gamers notice the difference?"

There’s been quite a bit of controversy regarding Videogamespot’s rather unfavorable review of Virtua Fighter 3tb, and many die-hard Sega loyalists are looking for blood. How much attention do you pay media publications when it comes to reviews of Argonaut games? How do you react when you feel your titles are given a bad review?

Obviously, we only want to create hit games, and we only want good reviews. But you must be realistic. We can’t expect everyone to like all of our games, much as we’d love them to. When we see a good review of one of our games, we love it. The offending review gets plastered all over our office walls with pride. But we can take bad reviews, too – it makes it easier to take if they’re fair.

What pisses me off are unfavorable reviews of our games that might be out of sync with the market’s opinion. What I mean by that is if we create a game, and the game-playing, game-buying public loves it and buys it, then we consider it a success.

We’re not in business to please the reviewers, though. We’re in business to make games that people love to play, and want to buy. And you’d hope that the reviewers would be of the same mind as the games players – that they would like the same games. But this isn’t always the case.

Sometimes reviewers can be unfair and give poor reviews to a perfectly good game – one that the market enjoys and buys. This has happened to us. It’s the same with movie reviews: How often have you read a review of a movie in which the critic hated it, but you went to see it anyway and loved it? At least with movie critics, you know who wrote the review so you can align yourself with critics whose opinions you trust, but with game reviews, so often they’re anonymous. This doesn’t allow the game-buying public to determine if they have the same tastes as the reviewer or not.

I am personally not into fighting games, so I did not appreciate Virtua Fighter 3tb. But many people I know like it. I am waiting for Sonic (desperately!), which I don’t have yet, but expect to have in my paws within weeks. Sega’s problem is that the first batch of games [for the Dreamcast] is pathetic, and this may hurt their sales in Japan. The West will get a better batch of launch games when their Dreamcasts arrive. so let’s hope Sega fares better in Europe and America.

Who were your role models in the game industry when you started Argonaut? Who are they now?

When I started Argonaut, there weren’t many role models in the game industry. In fact, there wasn’t much of a game industry. But obviously there were the arcade heroes like Eugene Jarvis, and for me, there were some amazing programmers on the Tandy TRS-80 (which I started on in the late ‘70s) like Bill Hogue and Alexander Ackaiou. Later came the new generation of game programmers like Jeff Minter, Bill Budge, Dave Braben, Archer Maclean, and others.

Other role models for me were the Amiga designers who I was friendly with and got inspiration from. People like Jay Miner, Dave Needle, R.J. Mical, Dale Luck, Bryce Nesbitt, and Dave Haynie. Then there were the biz guys who later inspired me, like Trip Hawkins, and Greg Fischbach. Working with the big console companies like Nintendo, Sega and Sony has introduced me to some very bright, very driven people who are also great people to hang out with. Of course, these three companies let me meet and occasionally spend time with the best of the best of the best, like Miyamoto and Naka.

For readers who may not know, tell us why the name Jon Ritman is so important to Argonaut, and why it should mean something to them. (Editor’s note: Jon Ritman, a legendary game developer, joined Argonaut in March 1998)

Jon Ritman was one of the early game programmers on home computers, particularly the Sinclair Spectrum, which was so popular in Europe in the ‘80s. He created some of the early Rare games, and classics like Head Over Heals. Jon, like me, is a self-taught game programmer who’s been in the business for many years. We have similar ideals.

I think it’s good in a company to have balance. We have some hotshot new programmers who have ambition, drive, and great coding talent. But sometimes they can be a little "wet behind the ears" and this prevents them from seeing the bigger picture as clearly as people who’ve been around a bit longer. You also get the "hacker" types who are great at writing one little piece of code very well, but who can’t put a whole game together once it gets beyond their sphere of interest.

To write a piece of code very well requires focusing on it for a given period of time. Given that, you can probably make it hum. But to write a whole game, you need patience and perseverance. There’s lots of interesting and exciting things to program, but there’s also some drudgery and hard slog to be done. Some hacker types are great at writing demos, but not so great at making the real game. With time, we can provide the right experience and get the best out of all kinds of people.

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