ATI's Richard Huddy interview on game console graphics (360, Revolution and the competition: PS3)



Q: Please tell us a litte bit about your career and the companies that you
have worked at.

A: I'm very flattered that you call me a guru! But I guess now that I've
been in the business of 3D for so long I probably do count as a guru of
sorts. That certainly explains my grey hair and strange attire. I started in
software 3D working in a research project run by Canon in the UK. Canon is
best known for their photo-copiers and cameras, not for their 3D, so it was
a surprise to me to be offered such an opportunity. Canon set up a pure
research project at that time to investigate the commercial viability of
software rendering on the PC and related platforms. After a couple of years
there the software became RenderWare 1.0 and the company spun off to become
Criterion - and these days Criterion is very well known as the major
middleware provider to the games industry.

After Canon I moved to RenderMorphics who were also involved in software
rendering. RenderMorphics soon went on to be sold to Microsoft and they
provided the core technologies that went into the 3D part of what is now
DirectX. And DirectX is the single most popular way of creating 3D games for
the PC. Then I spent two years at 3DLabs (now a part of Creative Labs)
working on their 'Permedia' graphics chips for the PC. Then I spent four
years at NVIDIA setting up and running their European Developer Relations
Group here in the UK. And finally, my clear favourite, I've been with ATI
for three years. This year ATI will celebrate its 20th year in the graphics
business. And in the short three years that I have been with them, ATI have
moved from being the outsider in a two horse race, to being the leader in
both market share and technology in 3D graphics. Here in the UK I run the
European Developer Relations Group for ATI which means that my group is
responsible for supporting all European developers who use 3D on the PC.

Q: Please explain to us your role in this XBOX 360 GPU project and, in
general, your function in ATI.

A: My role in the project has been fairly limited as I have been focussing
my energies primarily on the PC since that's my number one responsibility.
On Xbox 360 I've been involved in helping developers understand how the
hardware works and how to drive it. I've had the pleasure of presenting at
some of the Microsoft developer events (called "XFests") which they hold
every few months in both Seattle and London. When I'm there I present pure
technical subject matter with no marketing slant thrown in. Xbox developers
tend to be a very smart crowd, so you have to be on your toes at these
events, but the atmosphere is terrific - people are really excited about the
feature set and awesome power of Xbox 360. And when I'm not working with
games developers on Xbox 360 I do my main job. That's working with PC games
developers to make sure that they understand how to get the best out of ATI
graphics hardware on the PC. Luckily for me the job is simplified by the
fact that ATI has the best drivers in the world with better stability and
performance than any others. That means that games developers all know that
it's a great platform to work on. And that the fact that ATI hardware "just
works" makes their job much easier than with some other hardware!

Q: What are the features you're mostly proud of in the xbox 360 GPU? Did you
made any compromises?

A: I think the three key features of Xbox 360 graphics technology are as
follows: First and foremost we have a "unified shader architecture". No
other console or PC chip can boast this. And what, in short, it means is
that the hardware is always able to run at 100% efficiency. All previous
hardware has separate vertex and pixel shaders. That means that that
previous hardware just had to hope that the vertices and pixels came in just
about the right ratios. If you got too many pixels then the vertex engines
would be idle, and if you got too many vertices then the pixel engines would
starve instead. It's not uncommon for one part of the chip to be starved of
work for a large majority of the time - and that's obviously inefficient.
With a unified architecture we have hardware that automatically moulds
its-self to the task required and simply does whatever needs to be done.
That all means that the Xbox 360 runs at 100% efficiency all the time,
whereas previous hardware usually runs at somewhere between 50% and 70%
efficiency. And that should means that clock for clock, the Xbox graphics
chip is close to twice as efficient as previous graphics hardware. Next on
my list is the hardware support for directly accessing memory from within
the shader units. This makes the Xbox graphics chip work in a much more
flexible way than has ever been possible before. Now it's relatively simple
for a games developer to write code to do anything inside the graphics chip
that they could do elsewhere. Accessing memory in arbitrary ways sounds like
a very esoteric thing to do within a graphics chip, but actually it allows
you to do some amazing things which mean that Xbox 360 games will be more
like movies than you ever imagined. It's so powerful that I'd say that this
feature alone makes the Xbox 360 technically superior to any other console
planned for the next five years. Last on the list, but also of great
importance is the "intelligent memory". In cooperation with NEC we've
designed some special memory that knows some of the key operations of 3D
graphics. It's the memory it-self which understand anti-aliasing, Z
buffering and stencilling. These are three operations which normally slow
graphics chips down more than anything else. We designed related
capabilities into the memory for The GameCube for Nintendo, but the Xbox 360
hardware takes this idea to its logical conclusion and means that the
quality of image that you'll see from Xbox 360 games will always be

Q: What are the most important performance numbers of Xbox 360, especially
compared to the original Xbox?

A: I guess there are a few numbers which are just astonishing. First of all
we have 48 unified shaders all running in parallel. That gives us roughly
three times the graphics power of existing high end PC hardware. In this
context 48 is a huge number! The original Xbox had just one vertex shader
and four pixel shader pipes. Then we have a total of 2 Terabits per second
of bandwidth (you can also write this as "256 Gigabytes per second of
bandwidth") into the intelligent video memory. To give you a sense of the
scale of these it's roughly 50 times as much as was available in the first
Xbox, and its equivalent to being able to copy roughly 50 DVDs across the
memory bus every second. Every now and then I have to look at this number
again to remind myself of just how huge it is! And although my focus is
graphics it's worth pointing out that the CPU cores in the Xbox 360 are
seriously powerful too. There are three hyper-threaded cores each clocked at
3.2GHz each. That amounts to almost 20GHz of available processing power (6 *
3.2). Compared to the original Xbox CPU which ran at a lowly 0.7 GHz you can
see that we should have roughly 30 times as much CPU power available. If you
stack up the numbers for Xbox 360 you get a system which is on average
roughly twenty times more powerful than the original Xbox. But it's not the
averages that really matters. What matters most is how well we have
eliminated the old key bottlenecks and in that case I think it's fair to
argue that Xbox 360 is roughly 30 times more powerful than the original
Xbox. Microsoft has set a very high performance target for Xbox 360 and I'm
genuinely delighted at how well ATI has exceeded any reasonable

Q: Will the Xbox 360 beat the PlayStation 3 in terms of performance?

A: What we know about the PlayStation 3 architecture is a little hazy - so
some of the data is really just best guesses. We do know they are targeting
a 550MHz graphics core and we know that it will be based on NVIDIA's
forthcoming G70 graphics chip. That's bad news for the PlayStation 3.
Current informed opinion is that the G70 will have at most 24 pixel shader
pipes and much of the time they will run at low efficiency. It's a PC based
design - which means that all the key customisation for a console is
missing, and it's based on some relatively old PC-based graphics
architectures from NVIDIA, whereas the Xbox 360 is an all new design based
on what console developers have been asking for. Because of all this I think
that in every important way the Xbox 360 graphics chip is better suited to
the task, and more powerful than what we expect in PlayStation 3. But this
is a business that isn't only about technology. In the end the success or
failure of a console is decided by the games that come out on that hardware.
So, we understand that just because the Xbox is better than the PlayStation
3 need not necessarily mean that Xbox 360 will win the next round. But ATI
for its part has given Microsoft everything they need to succeed in the
console wars. And I believe that Microsoft is really serious about making
Xbox 360 the ultimate gaming machine. Microsoft's chances now lie in their
own hands. And I'm very much looking forward to the contest - my money is on

Q: In which way 360 is going to enhance the home entertainment experience?

A: I guess the key future-proofing which Microsoft has added to Xbox is its
native support for HDTV. As the world gradually shifts towards the digital
High-Def TV screens then Xbox 360 games will look fantastic compared to the
old consoles. Along with that if you take into account that Xbox 360 owners
will all get access to Xbox Live services then you can see that Xbox 360 is
thoroughly designed for the future. There are other nice touches too - like
using only wireless controllers, being a full-on DVD player and having a
good-sized hard disk option which make it both powerful and flexible. It's
going to find a place in many living rooms which might have found the
original Xbox too large, too noisy or too cluttered. I'll be in the early
queues to buy one (no I don't expect to get one for free!) because it's also
going to be such an all round media server for my future as well as playing
the best games in the world.

Q: It seems that the 360 will only support the most selling original xbox
titles. Don't you think that the software compatibility issue may have an
impact on the xbox 360's sales figures?

A: As I understand it Microsoft plan to make many Xbox games run on Xbox
360. You'd need to talk to them about exactly how they plan to do this - but
I can see that with a hard disk and a good software emulator for the CPU
side of Xbox games then Xbox 360 should be able to run most, if not all,
previous generation games. So, I believe that great backwards compatibility
will be just another strength of Xbox 360. ATI is working with Nintendo on
their future console Revolution. Why the developing team of the Revolution
VPU has no connections with the other teams at ATI? It would be very handy
for ATI to share this information around between its various groups - but
doing so would undermine the relationships that we have with the individual
console companies. It's important to Microsoft that it they suggest or
request a feature in their graphics chips for their console that this doesn't
automatically mean that Nintendo get that for free too. And of course, it
applies the other way round too, Nintendo need to be able to make their
hardware design without fear that it could simply be copied by Microsoft. No
console company would work with us without these rules.

Q: Which of the innovative features of the Xbox VPU will be adopted in the
PC market? Will we see these features before Christmas 2005?

A: Top of the list in the future is the unified shader architecture. This is
a must-have feature for hardware just two or three years away. Strictly
speaking it's not required from a purely technical standpoint, but in terms
of building efficient large-scale hardware this is key to producing economic
hardware. In future we'll also see graphics chips which are able to make
specialised access to memory - but that's probably something more like three
or four years away before that becomes available. Other things like the
Intelligent Memory really have no place in the PC style business model where
every chip design has to pay for it-self and where this year's high end is
next year's mid-range.

Q: How close do you work with game developers? What influence they have on
ATIs hardware development process?

A: This is my passion. I work with games developers almost every day of
every week and helping them to make ATI hardware run fast and look great is
the core of my responsibility at ATI. I speak at technical conferences about
our new technologies, I visit games developers to look at their games and
understand their experiences, I give email support on all sorts of technical
issues related to 3D to a broad European community of games developers, and
I liaise with the architecture groups inside ATI to help them understand
what games developers want and need. I try to make sure that when games
developers make a game everything goes as smoothly as possible for them. If
I do things that add to their schedule without giving them some kind of
tangible benefit then I'm slowing the industry down. The relationship
between ATI and games developers is a complex one. Sometimes we need to
speak to be heard, and sometimes we need to listen to understand them.
Working with games developers has been my passion for the last nine years,
and I hope I can keep doing it long into the future. ATI hosted a Gaming
Summit late last year at which I gave several presentations. During that
day, and in front of about fifty key European journalists, I was proud to
hear the guys from Lionhead and Crytek say that they enjoyed working with me
and my team. Between them they said that ATI has the best and most
pro-active developer relations group that they work with. That's seriously
flattering! That's what tells me that we're getting things right.




Q: Will the Xbox 360 beat the PlayStation 3 in terms of performance?

whereas the Xbox 360 is an all new design based
on what console developers have been asking for.

Oh Bullshit! Console game developers are some of the laziest, "rush
to get the game out" people I have seen. They NEVER develope a game to
utilize the capabilities of the hardware. Why should they spend
hundreds of thousands of dollars more to develope a good game when
they know people are going to buy their crappy console game anyway
with no chance of getting a refund when they get the game home and
find out how bad it is. You can buy a PC game that requires less
hardware than a console game for the same money, about $50, and have
it look and play 100 times better. I have been in the console
business for years and it is always the same grabage pumped out by the
developers to save themselves money. Game releases for brand new
consoles are the worst when they should be the best. The developers
have plenty of time before the console hits the streets and you'd
think they would want to make a good first impression. Instead their
first games look worse than the games on the previous generation
console. They also need to get real beta testers instead of the kiss
ass ones they use who are afraid to tell them how much the game sucks.
Ever see the add in the console gaming magazine that says "Yesterday
1784 people bought a bad game". As long as people are willing to pay
$50 for crap, that's what the developers will put out, crap. If there
was a refund policy say 2 to 3 days so that you can't finish the game
but can return it if it is crap, you would see these cheap ass
developers get off their lazy ass and start programming to the
capabilities of the hardware of the consoles.

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