The Race for a New Game Machine

The Hardware/Software Conflict (Book Review, Part 1)

by Mike Schiller

12 March 2009

cover art

The Race for a New Game Machine

David Shippy and Mickie Phipps

Creating the Chips Inside the Xbox 360 & the PlayStation 3


A little background: I’m a software guy.  I grew up tinkering with BASIC, learning programming on PASCAL, taking years of college courses based on C++, and now I have a job programming Java.  I’ve always thought like a software guy, I will always think like a software guy.

I mention this because David Shippy and Mickie Phipps are hardware people.  In fact, they’re the hardware people responsible for the chips that run the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, which is what their book The Race for a New Game Machine is all about.  They live and breathe microcircuitry, while I don’t even know if microcircuitry is a real word.  To them, everything worth doing can be put on a silicon chip; brilliance is measured in gigahertz.

As a software guy reading a book by hardware people, then, I’m willing to acknowledge that maybe Shippy and Phipps are at a disadvantage when I’m the one evaluating their book.  After all, there are passages like this:

When a kid drops $59.95 at Circuit City on Microsoft’s Halo 3 interactive shoot-em-up and launches the game on Xbox 360, more is demanded from this game console than has ever been demanded from any other game machine.  When the player swings a joystick and levels a weapon at a charging alien beast, then presses the button and showers it with lead, splattering it straight back to hell, the quality of the experience depends less on the code written by the people at Microsoft than on the processor brains in the chip inside the box.

That’s from the very first page of the prologue.  For a software guy to read that, it’s an awful way to start.  One, he (and when I say “he” from here on out, I speak of David Shippy, given that the entire book is written in his voice, from his point of view) speaks of the code written by the people at Microsoft, when Halo 3 was developed by Bungie; he actually slights the people who built the game, giving credit instead to those who sold the game.  While it’s an honest mistake—Microsoft’s name is the one splashed on the Halo 3 box, after all—that’s just the kind of thing that can make the hairs on the back of a developer’s neck stand on end.

The other problem with that passage: he actually puts the role of the chip designer above that of the developer.  In that one simple statement, he makes it known just how much stock he puts in what software people do.  Whether that was his intention or not, or whether he even believes it or not is irrelevant.  He just told us that the chip is more important.  As a software guy, I would counter: I’ve seen too many awful games running on these amazing machines to believe that the quality of the experience has more to do with the hardware than the software.

That’s not the only nit I have to pick, either.

So…this never happened, then?

So…this never happened, then?

In a chapter called “Do Your Homework”, Shippy recounts the research he did to get acquainted with the gaming industry, and he does a quick recap of gaming history up to the release of the PlayStation 2.  The problem?  He does all right up to 1984, where he details the doldrums that gaming was finding itself in…and then he skips right to the PlayStation.  As far as he’s concerned, the ten years of the NES, the SNES, the Sega Genesis, the rise of portable gaming in the form of the Game Boy…they never happened.  1984-1994 was a black hole for the industry as far as he was concerned.  While I don’t expect a full, detailed recount of every system that was ever released, the NES, at least, seems to be a bit of an omission, yes?  Shippy actually seems to have a decided aversion to Nintendo in general—the only reference to Nintendo that I recall is a passing mention of the GameCube, and only because a colleague worked on its chip.

Again, I’m being unfair, because none of this has much to do with the story that Shippy and Phipps are trying to tell.  The point, however, is that there is an interesting story to be found in The Race for a New Game Machine, but much of the audience who would be interested in that story is going to be alienated by the assumptions that are made and the history that is overlooked.

That’s why I’m putting this here.  I want to be able to talk about the story told in this book without the bias of a “software guy”.  As such, I had to lay out all my “software guy” problems before I talk about the good stuff—because there is good stuff, and it’s worth talking about without getting sidetracked.  For that writeup…well, you’ll have to come back next week.


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