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Pre rendered backgrounds and outsourcing processing power

My notes from a round table meeting about social media strategy in the University turned into this. These are my own experiences before all the comments tell me about 7th Guest and Myst or the fact Commodore did CD based stuff well before Sony.

In 1997 the Sony PlayStation was already 2 years old in the UK and CDs, the format that PlayStation games came on, were getting on for 15 years. Even though the PlayStation wasn’t the first CD based console and CDs themselves were older than I was at the time, I sat down, popped in a game and finally really ‘got’ why CDs were so amazing.

Up until 1997 I had ‘gamed’ on Commodore products, mostly the C64 and Amiga, many of these games had 3D characters and environments. I liked these early 3D games but was not particularly wowed by them and will readily admit they have aged badly. An example of this below is one of my favourite games back in 1994 – Zeewolf on the Amiga, it is very primitive by today’s standards, but very impressive at the time, I’m pretty sure it took my Amiga’s 14 MHz Motorola 68EC020 to the limit. Still, you couldn’t do much on screen, and your little helicopter couldn’t see very far.

Zeewolf counts as 3D ok (

I skipped playing early CD games, but I remember they concentrated on content, the aim was they would wow the user by the delivery of content to the user that wouldn’t fit on a floppy disk or cartridge. I remember a good 4 years before the PlayStation playing Sewer Shark on my mates Mega CD. Sewer Shark was a game made entirely of video! How cool is that! Not very cool as it turns out, an on rails shooter where the video is the same each time is pretty boring, much less fun than Zeewolf. But all that content in Sewer Shark would never fit on a floppy disc and it was marketed as a killer application.

From the experiences like playing games like Sewer Shark, I didn’t understand CD for anything other than music. Cartridges were much faster to read data from and floppies were cheap and let you write directly to them. CD’s held lots of content, but it was always all boring! The most exciting CD product I owned before 97 was Encarta, an encyclopaedia with masses of text making and a few videos, not that exciting at all.

In 1997 I was introduced to ‘pre rendered backgrounds’. The idea of pre rendered backgrounds was simple. My PlayStation was not powerful enough to produce 3D visualisations like the movies of the time (Toy Story came out in 1995), so instead the graphics were produced on big beefy machines away from the home (pre-rendered), put onto CD and then shown in the backgrounds of games at home. Thanks to the massive amount of storage space on the CD the little chip in my Playstation  didn’t need to generate super cool nice looking backgrounds, the could be generated somewhere else and the Playstation would rendered the little characters in front of the backgrounds. Final fantasy 9 does not look like a game that runs on a 33Mhz chip:

Final Fantasy 9’s backgrounds were beautiful! (

Looking back it seems really obvious that the increase in data storage should be used to shift most of the processing power from the studio to the home console while still allowing the console to do small dynamic stuff interesting things. In fact the PlayStation is really known for its music, which I guess is essentially the same thing and I was just late to the party.

I find myself thinking about pre rendered backgrounds quite a lot in discussions about technology. When it comes to moving data about CD’s have been replaced by the Internet and we can very quickly ask something to be done on a super computer and get the results sent back to us. I’m sure we have all wondered why we even have local processes at all? One answer may be that internet speeds or bandwidth are never catching up to the things we want to do on a local machine, another more important answer might be simply ‘privacy’. More and more however, I’ve started to think the other way around, why do the super computers even exist? In the room I am sat in now there are at least 6 devices that are not being used and that have processers in them. The one I am using has a word processor open, I’m sure there are plenty of instructions per second going to waste. What a waste of resources, I’d gladly let someone use the idle time of these machines if it meant that someone wasn’t paying Amazon for the privilege. Why does Twitter or Facebook even exist, I assume that we have enough spare storage on all our underused devices for the whole thing to be aggregated across them.  I think that perhaps a p2p approach is an obvious but current technology doesn’t support it. Things like Mastodon, Block chain and the like are approaches that touch on this, but they get deflate me the same way that Sewer Shark did, they are exciting as a selling point, but they don’t get me interested, not like the pre rendered backgrounds of 1997 that made me think “ahh, I get it now!”, 15 years after the CD came out…

Do services gravitate to centralisation because that is where there is cash or because we think that is where the expertise is? A friend pointed out that centralisation gives us the comfort of being able to do ‘analytics’, but why do we even use analytics tools? Why do they feel more powerful coming from a central location? Political and technological trends seem to follow each other, I think ‘do we need these powerful authorities’ or perhaps ‘How can we empower each other through peer to peer approaches’ are the trends we are thinking about politically and technically at the moment, but I can’t stop thinking about CDs.

Sewer Shark:

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