"If the patent holds, then it is disturbing for a lot of companies," said Jon Peddie, president of multimedia technology watcher Jon Peddie Associates in Tiburon, Calif. "It hits right on a component of graphics that is supercritical."
That component - a technology called single-pass multi-texturing - lets 3-D game makers create realistic looking fires, lasers and lighting effects.
"All of the new greatest games tend to have multi-texturing -- Unreal is one of those," said Steve Schick, a spokesman at 3Dfx Interactive (Nasdaq:TDFX) in San Jose, Calif. "So doing it as efficiently as possible is very important. That's where our technology comes in."
Lighting a fire under games
By including the feature in its latest 3-D graphics chipset, the Voodoo2, 3Dfx Interactive can handle multi-texturing without breaking stride. That's a big plus for gamers.
So it's no surprise that up-and-coming Nvidia followed suit. Its newest product, the Riva TNT, includes single-pass multi-texturing, and for the first time, another company's chips are seriously challenging 3Dfx's elite reputation in the market.
Little wonder then that 3Dfx Interactive is striking back. "We see litigation as an unfortunate last resort," said Greg Ballard, the firm's president and CEO, in a statement, "but it is imperative that we protect our technology."
Nvidia had not been served with the suit as of Tuesday morning, according to Lou Paceley, vice president of corporate marketing, but the Santa Clara, Calif., company already has an opinion about it. "We believe this to be a nuisance suit," said Paceley.
Analysts said Paceley may be wrong.
"Multi-texturing is a significant quality enhancement," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at semiconductor watcher Mercury Research Inc. "The reason it hasn't been used in the past is that it is a performance hog, but when it's in hardware like the Voodoo2 or TNT, that's no longer an issue."
Furthermore, 3Dfx Interactive has a good chance of successfully defending its turf.
"In patent litigation, it never ceases to amaze me how thin the baloney can be sliced -- how thin the newness of the invention can be and still get a patent," said Rich Gray, a partner at the San Jose, Calif. law firm Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady & Gray.
If the patent holds up, it could put a hex on the industry. A successful suit would mean the entire graphics community could find a significant feature literally owned by one company, said Peddie. "If (the patent) sticks, it's going to make everyone's lives lousy," he said.