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What's the Deal with VM Labs? An Interview With Bill Rehbock

Raise your hand. Who thinks that a small start-up in Silicon Valley can create and find support for a new console platform? VM Labs sure thinks so and it's too busy soliciting partnerships to listen to industry skepticism. Gamasutra talks with the VP of Third Party Development in an attempt to discover more about the secretive venture.

For the past three years the VM Labs (http://www.vmlabs.com) team in Los Altos, California, has been quietly working on Project X-what will be the videogame industry's newest development platform. Project X has been kept under tight wraps. Press coverage has been tantalizing, but limited in details. Trying to fill in the gaps, Gamasutra interviewed Bill Rehbock, VM Labs' VP of 3rd party development. Although cordial and willing to discuss Project X in general terms, Rehbock said he was prevented at this time from revealing technical details due to VM Labs' Nondisclosure Agreements with its partners. However, he promised that any game developer who signs an NDA and attends VM Labs' developers' meeting this spring will learn all they want to know about Project X's processor, media, audio/video, graphics, etc. Therefore, the current mantra at VM Labs is: "Come to the developers' meeting"..."come to the developers' meeting"...

What is the mission of VM Labs?

To bring affordable gaming to the largest consumer audience possible. Affordable means somewhere in the realm of traditional videogame console prices, very mass market, not high end consumer electronics prices--the $99 to $299 price range.

What business information led you to undertake this product; that is, to think that the market--consumers and developers--is ready for a new console platform?

Number one, if you look at the videogame console market, Saturn is for all intents and purposes gone. PSX is generally accepted as being on the backside of its curve. It has just finished peaking and it is pretty unlikely that they're going to continue on an upwardly mobile success, just by virtue of videogame console sell-in, sell-through. Projections cited by Electronic Arts last year showed PSX being in a slowdown mode. All of the above is true.

The other big issue is, When is the consumer ready for the next generation? The answer to that is usually, When it comes. If the next generation is good enough, and the software is good enough, and the price-point of the platform is affordable enough, they will buy it immediately. The core gaming audience has to have it all.

Both Sony and Nintendo are very proud of their "available only on PSX" or "available only on N64." Frankly, the consumer doesn't care. The evidence of that argument is the proliferation of videogame switch boxes in the marketplace today, even by Sony Electronics. What the consumer effectively owns is a $300 videogame system, $150 for the N64 and $150 for the PSX, that plays both games.

The whole argument in the past when the market went from 8 bit to 16 bit was, Is this thing going to be compatible with my old system? That argument is irrelevant. My nephew, who is going on 13 years old, has a PSX, a N64, an old Atari Jaguar from his uncle, and most importantly, he still has his Sega Genesis, which he still plays with his friends on a regular basis.

The biggest questions that really have to be answered, are: Do the existing platforms allow videogame developers, publishers and producers to be as creative as they can possibly be? And be as differentiated as they can possibly be from the next guy?

One of our primary goals with respect to software developers is to re-empower them by allowing them to write code using high level libraries and APIs if they so wish, very similar to PSX, whereby they can get code up and running very quickly, be able to do proofs of theory for their producers, executive producers, venture capitalists, whoever. But then as development progresses, be able to dig deeper into the hardware and do absolutely amazing things.

Absolutely amazing in what way, and how different from what is currently on the market?

Number one, almost unprecedented flexibility, which I apologize is vague, but completely truthful. We will be able to give more specifics later. Prior to the Computer Game Developers Conference in May we will have a by-invitation developer gathering, a one or two-day event for the game developers, not consumers. On our website, we have an interest sign-up form. Any developer who wants learn more should fill out that form and attend. The actual launch time and marketing announcements are planned for around E3.

How do you answer Sony executive Phil Harrison, who was recently quoted as saying: "We do not see any competitive technology, be it hardware or software, that will act as a significant competition to the success of the Playstation worldwide"?

I disagree with Phil. There have been people who have seen our technology who have publicly stated that Sony should watch their back. I have always had the opinion that roller blades, or whatever anybody can do in their leisure time, is our competition. Any video movie release that comes out is vying for the same dollars that Madden Football is. My nephew, whether he buys a new videogame, a new derailleur for his bicycle, new roller blades, they're all competing for his dollars. And everyone has to have a lot of respect for all the competition. Can PSX be the be-all, end-all to everything and everybody? Impossible.

You left a senior position at an established company-Sony Computer Entertainment's VP of R&D and technical support--to join startup VM Labs. Why?

It's more fun. Our technology is different enough to get me to leave Sony. I also believe the relationships we will have with our developers and publishers will be more rewarding. We're creating something new, a compelling technology that allows developers to really differentiate themselves from each other. Whether somebody's writing through DirectDraw or Direct3D on the PC or through PSX libraries and the very structured PSX hardware or N64 hardware, a lot of what's happening there is not the programmer. They're using other people's code, doing things that are very finitely dictated by somebody else in Mountain View, Redmond or Tokyo.

Also, we don't intend to play fashion police. The traditional videogame industry except for 3DO has always been where you have to get concept approval, title approval, this approval, that approval, and then you can start writing your game. Videogame console manufacturers have enjoyed having a lot of control over your game. The PC has enjoyed I think a better evolution and a better growth because there hasn't been that level of iron fist mentality. We're going to be much more like the PC model. (Project X) is an open, controlled platform.

How open? How controlled?

Open as far as we allow. It isn't an open system from the respect that people can write something and put it on the Internet as shareware. It will have to go through us to be released. We encourage developers to go down to the metal, basically be able to program the chip, make it stand on its head.

Controlled in that software, prior to commercial release, does have to go through our testing and compatibility procedure. VM Labs will do all the necessary tests to make sure the software functions properly on every different version and model of the hardware. And the dual of that is, when new hardware gets released from a given manufacturer, it gets tested against the entire software library. It's the same thing that Sony and Nintendo do.

Is VM Labs working in conjunction with an existing game company (Sony/Sega/Nintendo/other) or will Project X be a completely independent new platform?

I honestly can't answer that one.

Is VM Labs developing and manufacturing all the hardware and software inhouse?

No.

Who is doing what?

There are semiconductor partners and there are consumer electronics manufacturing/marketing partners, which we're not discussing at this time. Inhouse, we're doing the complete core technology--actual chip design, library and API and tools development. We are doing a lot of sample code development, some title development. From a functional standpoint, it is difficult for a platform holder to be able to produce tools and not have some first-hand knowledge of how they work on real products. You need to test your own metal. It is the reason that Sony, Sega and Nintendo have always had internal product development.

Are consumer titles coming out of VM Labs?

Yes, there should be one or two around launch time. Jeff Minter is working on a sequel to his last major commercial product, Tempest 2000. Not sure what final form the product's going to take, or what the title will be yet, but Jeff will have something exciting and psychedelic for everyone. He will be done with product number one fairly soon.

What is the first product in Project X and when will it be issued?

Jeff's will be one of the first ones. The actual hardware release dates are up to our manufacturing partners. The one thing I will tell you is that we're not talking long-term. We began having discussions with software developers around November 1997. Because we are not the manufacturer, we're not at liberty to release dates of hardware partners. That's up to them.

Who are the "top half dozen or so consumer electronics companies in the world" that VM Labs is reportedly working with?

I know the game developers want names, but we're under NDA and the competition in the consumer electronics industry is even more competitive than in the videogame industry. In the videogame industry there are only three players--Sony, Sega, Nintendo. Microsoft has not been able to prove they can compete in the living room yet. In the consumer electronics industry there are many more players, and the stakes are much higher. They're very honestly not used to discussing products. With their products, there are no rumors. When products are ready, they are announced. The tradition in the videogame industry has been the exact opposite. Because of the traditions of the companies we're working with, the lack of info, the videogame users are forced to be frustrated, and we apologize for that. But when all's said and done, who's doing it, what the specs are, doesn't really matter.

Don't specs matter? Don't developers have to plan ahead?

Every single presentation we've done, every single demo we've done, I have always said, "I can talk specs until I'm blue in the face, I can show you the most gorgeous demos, but it doesn't matter until you get the hardware in your hands, you start writing code for it, and you start profiling your code, your routines, and your game." They agree. For instance, the original Dinosaur demo that was shown on PSX back in 9/95, there has not been a character in a PSX game that comes close to that quality. Even if you go back to the dawn of time on the Atari 800, Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, or on the PC, demo software that doesn't have to do anything other than the limited stuff you see, does not properly reflect what's going to happen in a game. Even with respect to polygon count, number of textures etc, it's all marketing numbers. I don't think there's a developer out there who will argue with that fact. In every case, so far, where we have gotten a development system into programmers' hands, they have been more impressed with the real thing than the sales pitch. And that's all that's important.

Who is funding VM Labs/Project X?

We're privately funded.

What are the significant technical ways your product will differ from PSX, Saturn, N64?

Number one, we're accomplishing a lot of things in the system using "unconventional" methods. That's really all we can say publicly right now. By all means developers should contact us directly, sign up on the website. We're using the info people submit on the website as a method to send out the invitations for the developer meetings.

What are the significant deadlines for Project X?

I wouldn't call them deadlines, but from a milestone standpoint, CES was one, which was very significant and very successful for us. Number two is our developer meeting which will be coming up in April. Then the months of May-June in terms of both relationships as well as announcements. We're expecting after a developer meeting in April that some people will come on board and we can make some public announcements about partners and timing around E3, perhaps at E3 or after.

What game developers have seen Project X?

They are under NDA and we're under NDA but I can tell you we've shipped out about 20 development systems.

Which ones have signed on as title developers?

That's the interesting part about it. We have not pushed people up against the wall to sign the license agreement. If we were on the fast track to becoming a marketing company and wanting to blow our own horn, we frankly would be making all the announcements weekly and doing the weekly "3DO recap" on how many developers signed up this week. We're a privately held company and have no need to do that. The manufacturing partners know which software people are on board and the software people know which hardware people are on board, and that's all that matters.

Who is actually developing games?

The only public one that's been discussed is Jeff Minter over there in Wales. He is a VM Labs employee who telecommutes from Wales. He is a native of Wales. During all of the critical development stages and library stages he was living in the USA. Very frankly, we're in the process of getting to everybody that's worth getting to. There are some very significant developers out there we haven't talked to yet due to timing and bandwidth limitations.

Will emulators be available for developing games before the hardware is ready?

The hardware is ready. We have been shipping real hardware development systems since the first week of December.

The way our development system connects to a person's PC is through a traditional TCP/IP network, which means you don't have to rip apart your PC, worry about IRQs, worry about memory addressing conflicts. Basically, you go to Fry's or CompUSA, buy a twisted pair cable, plug it into the back of your PC, plug it into the back of the development system, and you're ready to go.

What does your development system cost?

The cost is around $7,500. By comparison, N64 is orders of magnitude more expensive than that. Sony's is at least three times our price. I'm talking about the PSX development system, not Net Yaroze. The one thing you could do with Net Yaroze is a very good game prototype. It can't stream data from the CD. In my humble opinion the pricing of the Yaroze system was insane. $750 is too high for a hobbyist thing.

Given the fact that our development system can be on a network, multiple programmers can share resources very easily. It's the same price, one user or multiple users. The library license is assuming you're going to develop content. There are royalties that get paid on the content on a copy by copy basis, just like Sony, Nintendo, Sega. That's where the primary revenue comes from for any videogame console.

Frankly, the other big thing is we believe our development system is so competitively priced that we will make it up in volume. Every developer in every development house should be able to have one.

Will we see a price war?

Probably not. I believe old habits die hard.

Will anyone be allowed to develop for your platform?

Sure. There are obvious restrictions with respect to trademark usage and things like that, but your title doesn't have to be exclusive to our platform. With respect to a couple of very large game publishers, they have flat out said, "My gosh, traditionally we port a product from one platform to another and expect that it will stay pretty much in parallel. With your platform we can see no other choice other than to have the title diverge away from the other platforms, because you're just going to be able to do so much more."

Who are these very "large game publishers"?

Can't say yet.

What will be the development hardware? What kind of computer(s)?

We support Windows 95/NT and Linux. Linux because for real videogame programmers, it's very popular. And we will also have unofficial support for Macintosh. Once in a while we will do a Mac tools release. If somebody really, really, wants to develop under Mac they will be able to use our compiler and debugger.

What other hardware and software will be required?

We kind of expect that developers will own all the traditional videogame development modeling tools like 3D Studio Max, Multigen, Photoshop, etc. Neither Sony nor Sega nor us provides a 3D modeling tool to create 3D models and paint textures. But the stuff that Jeff is working on uses no tools. It's basically everything he does gets...let's not go there. So, yes, you can do a game using no additional tools. It is possible.

How much will games cost?

Consistent with the rest of the electronic entertainment software industry. It will be the whole gambit. It's going to largely depend on the title. We promise it's not going to be more expensive.

What will the games be distributed on? CD/DVD/Cartridge/other?

We have not announced that yet.

How fast will the access to the medium be?

Not announced yet.

What size (megabytes or megabits on the disk/whatever)?

Not announced yet.

Can audio be streamed off the medium?

That's a loaded question. We cannot answer that because it answers three of your earlier questions! One of the intentions of our developers' conference is to ensure (developers) have real, live hands-on time with the system. Once you do that, you're sucked in.

Can video be streamed off the medium?

Can't answer.

What Graphics API(s) will be supported? OpenGL? Direct 3D? Brender? Proprietary API?

We provide our APIs, both 3D as well as 2D, every kind of API you could imagine. But we allow developers to use them or not, or go right to the metal. The conclusion one could draw from that is, if Argonaut, who created Brender, were so inclined they could easily port Brender to our platform and be able to do their stuff on top of it.

Are you talking to people like Argonaut?

I can't confirm or deny that, but I know Jez San very well. (g)

Is the graphics being done by VM Labs or by a third party? If 3rd party, which one?

All of the APIs and tools have been done by VM Labs. We have publicly said the core technology is being provided by VM Labs.

Editors Note:  We asked Bill Rehbok to go into more detail regarding graphic features (z buffers, shading, fog), resolution, texture memory, and audio capabilities, but were told that such information was still classified.  Mr. Rehbok assured us that answers to some of our questions will be found at their Developer Conference scheduled for June 1998 in San Jose, California.  Visit http://www.vmlabs.com to sign up for further information.

When she's not interviewing games industry gurus, Barbara Walter recruits fulltime staff members for games companies as owner of San Diego-based search firm, Walter & Company. She can be reached at email: [email protected] or on the web: (http://www.sandiego-online.com/forums/careers/).  

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