The plumber’s apprentice

Guest blogger Tim Van Hook, the former graphics architect of the Nintendo 64 at SGI, opens up about Project Reality and the life lessons he learned from Mario the Plumber.
November 12, 2013


By Guest blogger Tim Van Hook

Back in the early ’90s when videogames featured flickering two-dimensional sprites (remember Pac Man?), Silicon Graphics (SGI) execs sold Nintendo on the idea that they could put the power of their high-end graphics workstation into a home game console.  Since few employees at SGI believed that to be possible, the job fell to me, the new guy.  I had worked in 3D computer graphics and image processing for a while, and figured that the geometry and lighting that worked for military flight simulators was surely good-to-go for children’s games.  With no lack of hubris, we named the program that eventually led to Nintendo64, “Project Reality.”  Along the way, Mario the Plumber and the company he works for taught me a few things.

During our initial meetings with Nintendo engineers, we showed off our best demos.  We flew them through sandstone canyons simulated from satellite data, waved translucent tree leaves in the breeze, and pulverized explosions of fractal polygons.  Our guests watched politely.  Afterwards, we waited to hear just how cool our stuff was.  Their spokesperson told us, with deference, “But.  A game is.  Fun.”  Right.  No matter how whiz-bang and razzle-dazzle your technology, don’t forget what it’s for, especially if you’re a technologist yourself, and had fun building it.  The technology only functions if it makes the entertainment, well, entertaining.

At a subsequent status meeting, with the hardware design well underway, I explained how my clever architecture supported not only graphics, but image processing and video decompression, too.  Imagine the possibilities, kids can play games, watch movies, even watch movies inside games!  Games in movies!  Our Nintendo clients listened to my pitch, took notes, talked among themselves, paused.  “But.  A movie is not a game.  The player plays the game.”  Check.  Remember why the audience connected to the content.  Just because you can show off a lot other capabilities, doesn’t mean they came to you to do that.

After Nintendo64 launched, the SGI team brainstormed about what to do next, since a next-generation console wouldn’t be needed for another few years.  The Internet had exploded by then, and we had this brilliant idea, a game-like, visual web browser for kids, based on Mario’s Castle, where everything would be found by exploring the appropriate place, pets in the yard, email in the mailbox, friends in the playroom, no search strings required, constructed to be safe from child-inappropriate sites outside the Castle walls.  Our Nintendo colleagues looked at our prototype.  “But.  The Internet is free.  And children are not used to being confined.”  True.  You need to get paid.  And probably not for providing less content than the audience already gets for free.

By the time preliminary discussions began about a next-generation console, Sega had dropped out of the business, Sony was the major competitor, and Microsoft was poised to enter.  The latter two companies proclaimed themselves eager to “own the living room,” with a complete home entertainment system: games, television, movies, Internet.  (Never mind that they are still eager to do that, fifteen years later.)  We prepared our all-inclusive competing proposal, a universal “multi-media engine.”  Sure, it would cost more, and early production units might have to be subsidized by game sales.  Nintendo considered our vision.  We waited.  Finally, they explained that they would not be able to proceed in that direction.  “We are a very small game company.  We do not have the resources of these others.”  Yep.  A little humility goes a long way.  Pick your battles, marshal your cash flow, do what you do best.

Those are a few things I picked up from Mario.  Oh, and a free Nintendo64, and GameCube, and Wii, to educate and/or corrupt my own young children.  And later, the opportunity for me to retire to pursue other pursuits.  Then, just this past fall, the patriarch of Nintendo finally captured enough stars to advance to the next level.  Thank you, Yamauchi-San, and I hope it’s fun up there.


About The Author


Brand Menu