Gamechanger – The Original Voodoo Chipset by 3Dfx Interactive
Often, timing is everything. In late 1996, the timing was perfect for 3Dfx Interactive, a developer of 3D video acceleration technology. As prices for EDO memory were crashing and id Software‘s Quake was becoming a massive hit with gamers, while kicking-off online gaming as we know it today. By turning the pseudo-3D game-space of Doom into actual 3D, Quake was pushing the limits of what was possible with a CPU and SVGA Accelerator card. To solve this problem, John Carmack created a 3D accelerated version based on the OpenGL 3D framework – GLQuake. Unfortunately, the only OpenGL compatible video cards were professional-grade, normally used for rendering film-quality computer graphics and cost thousands. But 3Dfx saw an opportunity and leaped. Quickly creating the MiniGL driver, with just enough OpenGL compatibility to run GLQuake, 3Dfx partnered with several PC hardware companies, most famously Diamond Multimedia, and released their 1 cards on a completely unsuspecting world.
Plugged into a PCI slot, the Voodoo featured a pass-through connection so your SVGA accelerated card’s ‘Monitor Out’ cable would plug into the Voodoo, which would then plug into the monitor via it’s ‘Monitor Out’ port. In this way, when software, such as Quake, would require the Voodoo or MiniGL driver, it would take over as the computers primary video card. The chipset certainly had its limitations; it would only run full-screen, so no 3D boost within Windows, and it only had 4MB of RAM – and only 2MB available for textures. But, what it did do was utterly and totally astonishing.
When Quake was originally released, it was technically impressive – creating a real 3D virtual game-space to play in. But, in order to achieve that, trade off’s had to be made, and the games graphics were left with a murky palette, lots of grays, browns and olive-drabs, and very different from the bright colors of Doom. In early 1997, I was particularly into QuakeWorld and online multi-player (loved Capture The Flag back in the day). I had read about the Voodoo and GLQuake, and, as hard-core gamers will do, bought a Diamond Monster3D Voodoo card without ever seeing GLQuake first hand. When I first loaded the game, I could not believe my eyes. The murky colors were smoothed out into textures, and the lighting was dynamic and realistic – for the first time ever. I remember thinking, “Wait… is this right? A $200 video card does this? This can’t be right.” I actually believed that Diamond had packed a professional level FireGL card in my box by mistake… I took apart my PC, pulled out the Voodoo and examined it to make sure it was right. People, that’s how damned unreal this video card was.
The technology that, just a year before, had been limited to high-end workstations and arcade games, was now affordable and sitting in your PC, allowing for a level of realism within games that was impossible before. It’s the kind of quantum jump in capabilities that the industry really had not seen since the Amiga and Defender Of The Crown, but even more profound – like going from black-and-white TV to color. Although what it was capable of on release was incredible, the real legacy for 3Dfx and the Voodoo is what it unleashed – the creative minds of game developers and mass-market adoption of 3D acceleration. Gone were the days where action, first-person, games were stuck in buildings because of computing horsepower. 3Dfx kicked that door down, and the lush open environments of Halo, World Of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls would finally possible. CPU’s were unburdened from rendering graphics, allowing developers to incorporate better AI, and more interaction between player and the game environment into their games. That’s what we call a gamechanger, and that – without a doubt – is what the 2 is.
3Dfx followed up the Voodoo with Voodoo 2, DJ has a great write up on his working rig, which refined and enhanced the chipset, while also adding the brute force potential of SLI. But the company got a little heady from their incredible and very fast success, and tried to push their proprietary API – GLide – over Microsoft’s Direct3D. Regardless of opinions of Microsoft, going to battle with them in the mid-to-late-90’s over a Windows API was foolish, to say the least. By the time they realized their mistake, companies like nVidia and ATi had worked with Microsoft on Direct3D video cards, reaching feature-parity, and 3Dfx’s reign as “3D King” lasted 2 generations of Voodoo technology.
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