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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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?"
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
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.
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.
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.