The original 32-bit PlayStation was a game-changer, but Sony's follow up was even more successful, eventually selling over 155 million units worldwide. Powered by "The Emotion Engine" CPU – developed and manufactured by Sony Computer Entertainment and Toshiba – the PS2 is officially the most successful video games console of all time.
However, things could have been slightly different had Argonaut – the company which worked with Nintendo on the revolutionary Super FX chip used in Star Fox – had its way. When the PS2 was in active development, Argonaut was one of the companies which made a bid to create a chip to the design spec.
"We were working for LSI Logic at the time," Argonaut founder Jez San tells us. "They had just invested in Argonaut and part of the deal was they wanted us to design something for them. LSI were the fabricators of the original PlayStation 1 chip for Sony, and so were well placed to bid for the PlayStation 2 rendering chip, and wanted to compete along with several other designers. They used us to design it for them. LSI told us how Sony wanted it – they told us how many millions of polygons per second it had to do, and so we designed a chip that did that, and it was damn good." So good, in fact, that the chip's internal codename reflected its potency.
"It was something rude," remembers San. "It was either called Tadger or Todger, but it was something like that. It was probably called Tadger, because it was the dog’s bollocks. It was the fastest chip that we knew that anyone had ever designed. It would beat anything else that we were aware of."
The issue was, as far as San was aware, Sony wasn't being entirely honest with LSI Logic – or any of the other companies which had bid to be involved. "They were designing their own chip in-house," San explains. "They designed their own chip to be faster than the spec that they told everyone else to design. If they’d had said five million polygons per second, or whatever, we would have done that."
Why didn't Argonaut smash it out of the park regardless and create the best chip it possibly could? "That would have meant a larger silicon area, which is directly related to cost," says San. "A little bit bigger is a lot more expensive; you don’t put extra silicon in your chip if you don’t need it – you design to your costs. If we had been told to design to that spec, to the correct spec, we would have done it. Or, if they had told us the best chip will win, not the one that is to the spec they asked for, then we would have designed it faster. They had literally sent us off on the wrong direction so their own in-house team would win."
So why did this happen? San can only guess, and is keen to stress that Argonaut had no direct contact with Sony during this period. "There could’ve been Chinese whispers," he says. "We were instructed what spec to hit from LSI Logic, not from Sony. For all we know, Sony mislead LSI Logic, or maybe LSI Logic guessed at a spec and told us to do that. We can't directly blame Sony for it, since we weren’t directly in touch with them."
If Sony did indeed mislead LSI Logic – and, in turn, Argonaut – it's possible that, due to the company's structure, the team behind the console had to show that it had at least explored options outside of Sony's own design lab. This isn't a unique situation and stories of competing designs are commonplace in the games industry. Sega's Dreamcast, for example, was one of two internal projects, the other being the 3Dfx-based 'Black Belt' system, designed in the US. It's highly probable that the PlayStation 2 team had to present more than one option to its board before picking its own in-house design based on its superior performance – which was only the case because it had fibbed about the target spec.
Argonaut – which also created the best-selling Croc series on PlayStation – sadly closed its doors in 2004, but it's tempting to think what could have been, had Sony come clean with the company and given it complete freedom to create the best chip it could.