The Race for a New Game Machine: Eight is Beautiful (Book Review, Part 2)

It's not a perfect book, but those interested in the story of how the current generation of consoles came to be will find plenty to capture their interest.

The Race for a New Game Machine

Publisher: Citadel
Subtitle: Creating the Chips Inside the Xbox 360 & the PlayStation 3
Author: Mickie Phipps
Price: $21.95
Display Artist: David Shippy and Mickie Phipps
Length: 256
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780806531014
US publication date: 2008-12-30

Note: This is part 2 of a book review I started over a month ago. Personal life got in the way of good intentions, and I never got around to posting this until now.

"Eight is beautiful".

This is where The Search for a New Game Machine caught me. Those three little words capture the ridiculousness, the arbitrarity nature of working for a customer driven by the vision of a single person. Because, you see, to that single person, the very idea of something like "eight is beautiful" is not even close to arbitrary; it makes all the difference in the world.

In The Search for a New Game Machine, the processor that would someday run the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox was designed to have six "synergistic cores" -- basically, the part of the processor that does math operations -- and those would have to be meticulously designed such that they would all fit on a single chip. When narrator David Shippy presents his final design to Ken Kutaragi, however, Kutaragi is pleased but not satisfied. He wants eight cores. His reason? "Eight is beautiful".

Shippy is, of course, furious, but what can he do? He has to acquiesce.

(Of course, word is that the extra two cores are dummy cores, there only for the purpose of satisfying Kutaragi, but still -- at the time, it must have felt like an unanswerable request.)

The Search for a New Game Machine is full of stories like this, which is what makes it a worthwhile read for anyone interested in not just game hardware design, but game history in general. It's so easy to take for granted the little boxes that make our favorite games run, but most of us have no idea of the circuitous paths that the chip designers, producers, and management teams take in order to actually get them made. All we read about here is what would become both Sony's PlayStation 3-bound Cell processor and the processor that would eventually run the Xbox 360, but one can imagine how the rest of it came to be by extension.

Of course, the real drama here is how a chip commissioned for the PlayStation 3 ended up in the Xbox 360 as well, a year earlier no less. Shippy's matter-of-fact tone throughout the story somewhat minimizes the drama that comes about when Microsoft enters the picture, but he does do a fine enough job of relaying just how uncomfortable he was with the whole situation, on top of being excited in the knowledge that no matter what happens, his chips are going to be running the game machines of the future. Still, there's very little "drama" to be found, other than the shift in workplace attitude that came about once the Microsoft guys showed up.

There are small tragedies, there are triumphs, and there's a lot of talk about chip design, most of it specifically designed for a lay audience. Shippy and Phipps have crafted an interesting book, if not really an exciting one, at least in its narrative structure; it's the type of thing that any corporate drone will recognize, told from the point of view of middle management. If you're okay with the fact that it is by all means told from the point of view of a hardware guy (which did get in the way for me an awful lot), and you're interested in the history behind the game machines you play, The Search for a New Game Machine may well be your cup of tea.

Unfortunately, the infuriating bits too often get in the way, and Shippy's matter-of-fact tone tends to grate on the reader. For these reasons, despite the informative and dramatic nature of the tale being told, it's just not that enjoyable. A book doesn't have to be enjoyable to be fulfilling, however, and The Race for a New Game Machine actually just manages the latter in spite of its failure in the former.


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