The Past and Future of 3D

CPU powered, real time ray tracing. The future of gaming graphics?

History began in 1996. Well,Guest Posting really it began in 1981, when screens ousted printers as the primary way of viewing a computer’s output, leading IBM to release their MDA video card. With a change 4KB of memory and capable of actual electronic text, it was quite the monster.

Skip forward to 1987 and VGA’s eye-popping 640×480 resolution ejobeasy and 256 colors, and PC gaming was finally ready to go large. Add another ten years to that, and there we are at the 3DFX Voodoo graphics accelerator, the card that begat the age of 3D.

Sure, there were 3D accelerator add-in cards doing the rounds over a year prior to the release of the now famous Voodoo board – including NVIDIA and ATI’s first efforts, but it was 3DFX’s opening salvo that changed everything. Prior to 3D cards, we did have 3D games of a sort – but super-blocky, jerky-slow 3D that was painfully managed by the CPU and not the clean edges and natural framerates a dedicated 3D rendering device could offer.

The Voodoo was something every PC gamer craved and – at odds with today’s ridiculously over-priced top-end cards – could actually afford, as a crash in memory prices meant the sporty 4MB of video RAM it carried didn’t cost the Earth. It was a curious beast – with no 2D rendering capabilities of its own, this PCI board had to be linked via daisy-chain cable to the PC’s standard VGA output, only flexing its muscle during 3D games. The external cable meant a little degradation of image quality, in both 3D and 2D, but no-one really cared. They were too busy rotating their in-game cameras around Lara Croft’s curveless curves, awestruck.

The scale of what 3DFX achieved with the Voodoo is less evident from the card itself, and more in how it birthed a raft of competition, and kickstarted the 3D revolution. If you thought the NVIDIA-AMD graphics bickering is bitter, confusing and exploitative today, back in the late 1990s, there were over a dozen 3D chip manufacturers warring for a slice of PC gaming pie. PowerVR, Rendition, S3, Trident, 3D Labs, Matrox… Big names that once earned big money became, come the early years of the 21st century, forgotten casualties of the brutal GeForce-Radeon war. Some still survive in one form or another, others are gone entirely. Including 3DFX itself, but we’ll get to that later.

3DFX also did the unthinkable: they defeated Microsoft. While DirectX, to all intents and purposes, is now the only way in which a graphics card communicates with a Windows game, back in the Voodoo era it was crushed beneath the heel of 3DFX’s own Glide API. Not that it was any less evil. While DirectX was and is Microsoft’s attempt to inextricably bind PC gaming to Windows, Glide was as happy in the then-still-prevalent DOS as it was in Windows 95. However, it only played nice with 3DFX chips, whereas DirectX’s so-called hardware abstraction layer enabled it to play nicely with a vast range of different cards, so long as they conformed to a few Microsoftian rules.

Glide vs DirectX

In theory, developers would much prefer a system which required that they only had to code for one standard rather than come up with multiple Tenderers – and, eventually, that did become the case. In the mid-to-late 90s though, the earliest DirectXes – specifically, their DirectsD component – were woefully inefficient, and suffered very vocal criticism from the likes of id’s John Carmack. Glide may only have talked to Voodoos, but that it talked directly to them rather than through the fluff of an all-purpose software layer made it demon-fast That, coupled with the card’s own raw performance, made the Voodoo impossibly attractive to gamers – and so the industry widely adopted Glide. Glide itself was an extensive modification of OpenGL, another hardware-neutral standard which predated and then rivaled DirectsD. Created by high-end workstation manufacturer SGI and then expanded by a sizeable consortium of hardware and software developers, OpenGL was as close as you could get to an altruistic 3D API. While it continues to this day, had it been more successful in fighting off the Microsoft challenge, we wouldn’t now suffer perverse situations, such as having to buy Vista if we want the best-looking games.