The ISA-Bus

One blog to bind them all.

Games and Graphics Hardware

It is mostly, though not completely, a myth that gaming did a lot to advance computer graphics. Sound systems, yes. Roland’s MT-32 was designed as a versatile yet low-cost synthesizer for semi-professional to professional musicians. It was soon embraced by game developers and ended up being bought mainly by gamers who wanted better music with their games. The Ad Lib Music Synthesizer Card was designed for hobby musicians, it came with a software called Visual Composer. It ended up being bought mainly by gamers who wanted better music but shirked from the MT-32’s price tag, or who, on the contrary, wanted better sound effects along with the MT-32 music, some games supported this setup.

It is probably equally true for the compact disc. From about 1992 on, there was a wide range of games available on CD-I and CD-ROM, usually used for red book audio, digitized speech, or even video. But graphics? For most of the time, game developers did not even take full advantage of the existing graphics capabilities of PC hardware. Let’s take a look.

In 1984, IBM brought out the Enhanced Graphics Adapter, which was standard on the new PC/AT. Its 640×350 resolution with 16 colors out of 64 was awesome at the time, better than anything comparable that existed outside Japan. One of the few games that supported the new card, and supported it well, was the PC port of the chess program Cyrus. Another one, but with far inferior graphics, was Sea Rogue. Otherwise, EGA was mostly restricted to shareware games, Russia, and ports of Japanese games.

In late 1985, early 1986, Texas Instruments introduced the TMS34010, the first programmable graphics processor integrated circuit. It had impressive features, and TI tried to interest console makers to write 3D games and create a new market, but without success. The chip was used in a few arcade machines like NARC and the first Mortal Kombat, but mainly in high-end professional graphics cards like Control Systems’ Artist Designer 12 (1988) that displayed 256 colors from a palette of 16.7 million at 1280×1024.

The only game I ever found that supported IBM’s 8514/A standard is Ron Balewski’s Mah Jongg –8514–, and it never got past beta stage.

What really changed things was Quake. Quake was developed on Pentium II workstations running NT, with Intergraph RealiZm cards. These cards were monsters, they took up two PCI slots (here’s a slightly later version), and as far as I know they were not sold separately, only with those workstations, which cost $30,000 a piece. As of March 1997, these were still the only cards that could render GLQuake satisfactorily. A couple of years later, you could probably get similar performance for one tenth, or even less.

This is probably the biggest influx gaming had on computer graphics: At one point, it made 3D acceleration a standard feature. And that’s about it.

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