Every gamer can tell you about how they got hooked. About the gateway drug that transformed them from someone who occasionally dropped a quarter on Donkey Kong or Dig Dug into a maniac with a home-built, water-cooled, dual-GPU personal battle station.
For John Tynefield, it was a Coleco Telstar. Sunil Chaudhari got his start as a gamer on an Atari 2600. Bruce Pember still talks about his Commodore 64. Rouslan Dimitrov started programming on his Soviet-era Bulgarian Pravetz 8d when he was five. Emmett Kilgariff got hooked on Doom played on an early-1990s era PC.
For all of these NVIDIA engineers video games are more than a hobby. “I’m deeply passionate about dedicating every transistor and every picojoule available in a new design toward creating a better gaming experience,” says Tynefield, a senior director of GPU Architecture at NVIDIA.
Bruce Pember began turning his passion for games into a career in his teens. Pember got his start on a Commodore 64. Game cartridges were expensive, so he copied code from gaming magazines. “I learned to type really fast,” Pember says.
He also learned to code. Delete the right line of BASIC, and Pember could give himself extra lives. By his early teens he was already writing code for games: a snippet of his work was used in ‘Beyond Dark Castle,’ for the Commodore 64. Gaming also appealed to his competitive streak. By 1999, Pember was competing on teams such as “Team Goodfellas,” the “Drunk Jedi” and “Area51 Gaming.”
Games were also a big part of Tynefield’s childhood. He can list every gaming machine he’s owned. But what loomed largest for him was Sunnyvale, California, home to Atari. ” Sunnyvale was this mythical place, where all these things that were beyond reason were happening,” Tynefield says. His first job out of college was with 3Dfx Interactive, an early graphics pioneer, and he lived in Sunnyvale.
For Kilgariff, it was Doom that opened his eyes to what was possible. Nineteen years after it was first introduced, Kilgariff — a vice president of GPU architecture at NVIDIA — is still impressed with how much the game’s designer was able to wring out of the hardware of the era. “They stripped it all down to the point where they could still make an interesting game, and still run it at a decent frame rate.”
Getting Under the Hood
It’s an interest not just in videogames — but in how they work — that has driven the careers of all these NVIDIANs. Growing up in Bulgaria, Dimitrov would save his lunch money so that he could buy new graphics cards. He started with an NVIDIA Vanta and went on to own NVIDIA GPUs from each generation, and devise ways to push them harder by replacing onboard components. “I was hooked, I was addicted,” says Rouslan, a GPU Performance Architect at NVIDIA. “Some bought cigarettes, I bought GPUs.”
Following his heart, he joined NVIDIA as an intern. The experience of making games faster was a key in his rise as a GPU architect. NVIDIA released adaptive v-sync earlier this year to make frame rates smoother while at the same time decreasing power consumption and onscreen “tearing.”
Rouslan’s mastery of the sophisticated scripting system built into Quake III helped him and others on NVIDIA’s “smooth gaming initiative,” prototype the technology before it was put into production. “Now I can design hardware that efficiently runs the game engines I was becoming intimately familiar with,” he says.
Sunil Chaudhari got his start as a gamer on an Atari 2600. Back then he played ‘Pole Position.’ Now he’s playing ‘Need for Speed’ on the new NVIDIA graphics processor whose development he oversaw. His favorite car? “The fastest one,” Chaudhari deadpans.
More Than Just Games
Chaudhari is also fascinated by the intersection between visual and parallel computing. He’s been trying out sample programs that use CUDA technology to exploit GPUs for general purpose computing. The attraction: the ability to tackle problems “quicker and more efficiently,” Chaudhari says.
That urge to tinker with the gaming experiences most others simply consume is common among NVIDIA’s engineers. “I’m a connoisseur of the visual quality of video games,” says Tynefield, who puts in most of his playing time these days on his GeForce GT650M powered MacBook Pro. Right now the father of four is putting hours into Starcraft II after playing through Portal 2 with his 11-year-old son.
Chaudhari’s passion for gaming spills into his home life, too. He now owns an Xbox 360, a Nintendo Wii, a Sony PlayStation 3, a Nintendo 3DS, and a PlayStation Vita. His next acquisition: a Nintendo Wii U. His two children are growing up with video games. Homework comes first, though. “Their time playing is limited, but the variety is not,” Chaudhari says.
Same could be said for even NVIDIA’s most passionate video game addicts. While Pember, who helps oversee development of NVIDIA’s next-generation Tegra mobile processor, doesn’t put in the hours he used to devote to honing the perfect headshot in Unreal Tournament, the father of two is still a little obsessed. “You’re not going to work 10 to 12 hours a day if you’re not interested in the market you’re developing,” says Pember.