Graphics wars heat up

Creative Labs strikes back at 3dfx, using a new technology that will let its boards run 3dfx-enabled games.

Desperation or deliberate strategy? In a move that is raising eyebrows, multimedia hardware maker Creative Technology Ltd. revealed on Thursday a technology it hopes will eliminate a key advantage of rival 3dfx Interactive Inc.

The new technology, dubbed Unified, will allow games written to run on 3dfx graphics accelerators to also run on competing boards made by Creative Technology Ltd. "Many of our customers have wanted to move over to a new graphics boards, but still wanted to play their old 3dfx-only games," said Jim Carlton, senior brand manager at Creative Technology. "This is only for older games."

The technology camouflages Creative Tech's graphics board, mimicking a 3dfx board. Unified, which is in beta testing, currently runs only on chips made by 3dfx rival Nvidia Inc. Cool? Maybe, but 3dfx believes the move indicates how scared its competitors are. "It's a desperate move by a desperate company," said Michael Howse, vice president of worldwide marketing at the Californian chip and board maker. Howse claimed that last year more than 70 percent, or 5.8 million units, of the graphics boards sold in retail used 3dfx's chip.

3dfx historically has competed with Nvidia, but a recently completed merger with board maker STB Systems Inc. means the new 3dfx also takes on the likes of Creative Tech and Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc., as well. In April, two of 3dfx's three new boards were the top sellers in the retail market, according to market watcher PC Data.

3dfx's lead is due, in no small part, to its Glide interface, proprietary technology that enables games to use the accelerated functions of its chip. In the gaming market, speed counts. So Creative's new technology basically acts as a phrase book, allowing Microsoft's DirectX programming interface to understand Glide commands. DirectX, in turn, accesses the accelerated features of Nvidia's TNT family of chips.

But Unified is not an emulator Carlton said. Emulation typically slows down applications. "We've seen very little slowdown," he said. Of two games tested, one slowed by about 5 percent, another by almost 7 percent.

Of course, 3dfx tells a different story. "We've heard from developers that Unified is slow," said Howse.

Creative Technologies says the move is about customer support, letting its users play a broader range of games. 3dfx is studying the manoeuvre, however, wondering whether to turn the move into a legal battle. There may be a precedent for declaring Creative's move illegal. Last month, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. won a preliminary injunction against a small software firm, Connectix, after saying that its Playstation emulator infringed on Sony's copyrights.

However, Carlton disputes the applicability of the case. "If we were taking their intellectual property, of course it would be actionable," he said. "We didn't. We developed this using publicly available information." Most likely, though, this is the first shot in what could be a heated battle.