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IGN64 Interviews Jim Merrick

by Billy Berghammer - December 8, 1999, 9:02 pm PST
Source: IGN64

Jim Merrick gives a revealing interview concerning the Dolphin, his views on PS2 and more! We have the highlights.

Who? Oh you know...Nintendo's Software Engineering Manager Jim Merrick!!! Uhhh..okay. Well he's got a LOT to say Dolphin wise. Most of this we already knew, but there's sort of word of Dev Kits out (or emulators), and some more goodies. Here's the link to the actual IGN64 interview. But here's the stuff that really matters with the Dolphin.

IGN64: Looking at PS2, we see a convergence of technologies. Sony has designed the machine to be compatible with virtually all of its products -- and it has designed everything with the future in mind. To this end, we see expansion possibilities with USB ports, announced cable modem add-ons, hard-drives and the like. Without giving too much away, is Nintendo thinking on the same level with its next-generation console?

Jim: Oh, we've always had expansion capability in our systems. If you turn over your NES, or your Super NES or your Nintendo 64, there is an expansion connector on the bottom. There are lots of things you can do with it. Now Cable modems, that's a simple interface. You can do that through a controller port. It's no big deal. We're certainly not going to close the door on expansion options. When you're creating a system that is inherently as powerful a computer as the Dolphin is, there's a lot of things you could do with it. But from Nintendo's perspective, we are first and foremost a game company. We don't have a massive consumer electronics division out there, we don't own film studios, we don't own a lot of record labels -- we're not really that concerned about having a piece of the online distribution of electronic media. We really want to make a great machine for gaming. That's what we do and that's what we know.

We have an agreement with Matsushita in Japan, which is doing our DVD technology for us, that says they can take the Dolphin board and embed it in another consumer electronics device like a home DVD player. They can then take that path and do other things with it. That's great. They're a consumer electronics company, they can do that kind of thing. We're focused solely on the gaming and that's going to allow us to hit a mass-market price for the consumer, which we think is hugely important. If you look at the sales of PlayStation and Nintendo 64 at $99, you'll see that they've gone way up; you've really hit the mass-market now. We're very conscious of Dolphin's price so we forgo things like the PCM/CIA connector [ed: a PS2 feature]. Sounds great. You can plug in a hard disk through there. You can also plug hard disk through any number of other ports that won't cost you as much as PCM/CIA. The same can be said of USB ports. USB ports are great and offer you all kinds of flexibility for existing devices out there, but they also have an overhead -- both in cost and performance -- that other ports wouldn't have. So, we're going to leave our options open for expansion, but our sole focus is on the game market.

IGN64: Back to DVD for a moment, Matsushita reportedly recently announced that it plans to introduce its DVD movie-player version of Dolphin in Japan, but not in the US. Have you heard about this?

Jim: Yeah, you know, I'm not sure exactly what happened there in that announcement you're referring to because it's really unusual for a company to announce what they are not going to do. I think what was said was taken a little out of context [laughs]. I think that they said they're going to do it in Japan first and see what happens. We don't know what the market is for that type of hybrid device, so we'll wait and see. And that's kind of our attitude. We're going to get the system out there, we're going to get a big market share as a home videogame console and, you know, if we can do something after that, great.

IGN64: If you had to say, "Dolphin will do [blank] better than PS2," what would it be?

Jim: Well, we've purposely not released a lot of specifications and detailed information on Dolphin. Sony did it almost a year ago now, kind of came clean on all the specs. It was the right thing for them to do at that time, prior to the launch of Dreamcast and all those things. And frankly, had they not, we probably would have had to for all the same reasons [laughs]. Now that they have, though, we don't need to. To be honest, all the specifications are pretty much meaningless once there are games. We can argue polygons and textures and all that sort of stuff -- it doesn't really matter. PS2 is a very powerful system and I am sure, as I know a lot of the developers that are working on it, that there are going to be some great games for it. That being said, I think that the Dolphin system will have areas that are noticeably stronger and there are going to be areas where the two systems are virtually interchangeable. But it comes down to the games.

One of the things that Nintendo is really is focusing on is ease of development. We want the Dolphin system to be easy to write for. I want a faster time to market, an easier entry, and I want to know that people can get the performance out of the system that we know it's capable of. And that's really our focus. You've seen announcements about the tools that we're using -- we're using some of the same stuff on Nintendo 64 today. We're a lot more serious about supporting developers; getting the tools out there and keeping them at a reasonable cost.

IGN64: So have developers received kits yet?

Jim: We have a number of developers, first-, second- and third-party working on Dolphin.

IGN64: Do they have actual hardware or are they just designing with specifications in mind?

Jim: No, they've received materials from us.

IGN64: Tell us about S3TC and why it's so important for Dolphin. Does PS2 feature texture compression?

Jim: The S3 Texture Compression -- you know, I think a lot of people get hung up on polygon performance. It's a great number; it's a big, high number and everyone looks at it and goes, "Oh, wow! Look at all these polygons." But the truth is that polygons are useless unless you can texture them, and texture them well. The textures are really the bottleneck in today's high-performance systems whether its PC or console. A large variety of textures, the textures themselves contain more detail. It's more bits per pixel or more texels, or what have you. The textures become the bottleneck. Moving them off of disk, moving them into your main memory, then moving into the texture memory on the graphics processor and then actually going through the raster unit and applying them to the geometry as they go out -- textures are the key. Being able to compress the textures at six-to-one or eight-to-one just improves performance in lots of different places. First, it's just moving the data off of disk. Obviously, I'm moving a lot less data and it takes up less of my main memory to hold those things. Now, Sega has a texture compression library [for Dreamcast] too, but it doesn't run on the graphics processor, it runs on the main CPU. I, as a programmer, have to manually decompress those textures. So now I need to buffers; one buffer for the compressed texture and one buffer for the decompressed texture. You can see, there is a lot of legwork to go through.

The cool thing with the way the S3 Texture Compression is implemented on the Dolphin system is that it's decompressed by the hardware only at the time the texture is actually used. From a game developer's standpoint, it's transparent; he just deals with it, the texture is compressed. If you look at the S3 Texture Compression versus the other compression algorithms, you can see the clarity. Almost all these types of compression are lossy, meaning they do lose some information, but S3TC is really good. We looked a lot of alternatives. We didn't really want to license it, honestly, but hey, they got it right so we're going to get the best we can [laughs].

IGN64: You said you wanted to concentrate on games first and the other stuff later. Considering PS2's approach, is this the right philosophy to have? And where does the Game Boy Advance fit in?

Jim:

Yeah, I mean everybody asks if we're going to have a Web browser for Dolphin and all that sort of stuff, and certainly the system is capable of doing it. It's just not our first priority. We're in a unique position, having such a strong handheld presence. Of course, we want to marry the two systems and bring momentum to both of them by combining their different attributes. It's not rocket science, everybody's fooling around with it. Sony's got their little PDA thing, NeoGeo's out there pushing their new machine, Bandai's WonderSwan, Sega's got the VMS unit and various other units -- yeah. There's lots of things we can do to share games, whether it's taking a mini-level on your handheld and upload it [to console] or if you unlock new areas, or even some of the stuff we've seen for Perfect Dark, which lets us take pictures and integrate them into games. Let's just say we're going to capitalize on it.

IGN64: Nintendo enthusiasts, save for a pre-E3 announcement and a few tid-bits here and there, have been kept largely in the dark about the company's next-generation console. When can we expect more announcements regarding DVD, RAM, and sound technologies? Perhaps more importantly, when will we know more about the ArtX-developed graphics architecture that powers Dolphin?

Jim:

We're going to continue to dish out little bits of information whenever the time is right. Unfortunately, I don't have a schedule where I can tell you, hey, we're going to do this then. But we do have a number of events coming up in the next few months. I think it's pretty safe to say we're not going to announce anything new between now and the end of the year [laughs]. But you know, coming up we've got the Game Developers Conference, Milia in France and, of course, Sony's launch of PS2 in Japan. So, you know, I would think that these are good times to keep your ears open.

IGN64: I'm sure you're very aware that a lot of the press, including is, is very skeptical of Dolphin launching in 2000. What is your take on this?

Jim: You know, our official schedule -- internally and externally -- is holiday 2000. I don't really have any other date to work from.

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