Jez San
San with some of Argonaut's '90s output — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

You did other chips for other manufacturers, right?

Philips came to us to design CD-i 2. We had, yet again, designed an amazing 3D chip, way ahead of its time. It had perspective, texture mapping, the works. We’d invented this really cool technology to do 3D perspective, which, at the time, wasn’t possible in hardware. So we had that running, and it was incredible technology, for the time. I don’t know why it got canned, but we were getting annoyed with these hardware companies hiring us to do really cool hardware and then it didn’t come out, because we were just the engineers working on their product; we didn’t get any say in how it got launched or marketed or anything like that.

But then Gaston Bastien went to work for Apple and he joined the Apple Pie division, which is the bit that did the Newton, and they started doing a project. They wanted to do a games console. It was a joint venture between Apple and Toshiba. It was a games console to be better than anything that had ever come before, and we designed this 3D chip which was called the VeggieMatic – a very cool 3D chip, way ahead of anything else of its time.

I remember when Apple and Toshiba wanted to have a meeting, they decided the mid-point of Japan and Silicon Valley was Hawaii, and so they said ‘we’re going to meet in Hawaii, so see you there’. And they flew us out to Hawaii for this two-hour meeting in a hotel, and then flew us home. So we didn’t get to see Hawaii! It was the first time I’d ever been and it was just for one meeting – and it’s a long way. You have to fly to either San Francisco or LA, on an eleven-hour flight, and then a stopover, and then another five-hour flight to Hawaii. The time zone change is ten hours! But yet again, that machine didn’t come out. Apple canned it when it was well underway. So, at that point, we were getting very frustrated by hardware companies using us as an incredible 3D-technology resource and then the product never coming out. So, at that point, we had received money from Apex Partners. Actually, their head office is just across the road from where we are now.

They invested in us for two reasons. Firstly, because of Croc, and it helped us to finish the game, get it out and get a better deal from a publisher, all because we could fund the development much further along – we wouldn’t have to sell our souls. We got a fantastic deal from Fox – five dollars a copy – because we had taken the risk out of it and created the thing ourselves, with our own money.

The other thing the venture capitalists thought we should do is spin out our hardware division into a separate company, which was called ARC. And so they gave us the seed money to do that, and then both Argonaut and ARC went public. ARC had a spectacular public offering. It was like a billion-pound flirtation on the London Stock Exchange. That was definitely the right move, because we were a confused company. We were ultimately a video games company that had a microprocessor and a technology division, and no one really understood a company that had both of those things but was still tiny. By separating it into one company that does computer games and one that does microprocessors and 3D, we were able to more specialist, and investors could invest in the thing they cared about.

Around that time, as well, you’ve stuff like BRender coming out?

Yeah. We tried to create a 3D technology that anyone could use and it was called BRender, which stood for Blazing Rendering or something along those lines, and it was an API and a set of libraries that allowed anyone to build 3D games. One of our first customers was Microsoft, which used it on a 3D movie maker, which was like a tool for people to make their own 3D movies.

This aggressive guy from Microsoft went around trying to buy one of the companies. He interviewed all three of us and said ‘we’re going to buy one of you and we’re going to put the other two out of business; whoever we buy is going to be the future and the other two are going to go bust’

So it was one of the first middleware options on the market?

Yeah, it was the first. There were three middleware companies at the time. BRender was the best one and the one that was used in games, and there was RenderMorpics and there was RenderWare. This aggressive guy from Microsoft went around – even after they’d used our tech in a couple of their products – trying to buy one of the companies. He interviewed all three of us and said ‘we’re going to buy one of you and we’re going to put the other two out of business; whoever we buy is going to be the future and the other two are going to go bust’. That was their plan. Luckily, we didn’t go bust. They didn’t buy us, they bought the cheapest one, which was the smallest company – RenderMorpics, that only did a rendering library. They didn’t have a games division. They were the easiest to buy, and that became Direct3D.

Is it true you also made a graphics chip for the PS2?

Yes. We were working for LSI Logic at the time. 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. But Sony were doing their own chip in-house. 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.

So why didn't you make the chip more powerful from the start?

That would have meant a larger silicon area, which is directly related to cost. 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.

There could’ve been Chinese whispers. We were instructed what spec to hit from LSI Logic, not from Sony. For all we know, Sony misled 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.

Were you ever tempted to simply cut out the middle-man and create your own console?

To some extent, the Super FX chip was an entire console on a chip; and we used to joke that the SNES was the power supply for it, because the entire game, pretty much, ran on our chip. And it was the same with the Super Visor we were designing. It was a games console on a chip. And the same with Hasbro MatriArc, the triple ARC, too. We'd always designed our own consoles, pretty much every single time, but they were always for someone else. We never had the money to design our console for us. We only just had enough money to design it. But producing it and selling it, to go to market, you’ve got to partner with someone.

SNES PlayStation
The cancelled SNES PlayStation would have contained a variant of Argonaut's Super FX chip, had it been released

Did you guys have any visibility on the SNES PlayStation?

Yes. When we designed the Super FX chip for Nintendo, It was too late to make it into the Japanese version of the SNES. But with the American version, they were contemplating having it built in, which would have made the games cartridges much cheaper, and would have also meant that 3D was a standard in the console. In the end, we missed out on that. But then, initially, Nintendo and Sony were going to do a PlayStation with a CD attached to a SNES, with our chip in it – ours was going to be the 3D chip inside the original PlayStation. Then Sony and Nintendo fell out.

How did Argonaut evolve as a company through the '90s and '00s?

Argonaut grew very big because we were a public company. We had offices in America, but they were tiny offices – almost all the work was done in the UK was in multiple offices in London, Cambridge and Sheffield.

Because we were a public company, the public market expect continued growth. So that means you have to keep feeding the monster and expanding. We had done well with EA's Harry Potter games. They were the best-selling versions, in fact. So, EA wanted us to save their arse and build the Catwoman game, which they had just signed the movies rights to, and they wanted someone to build this game in record time – something like six months, from start to finish. No one could do that, apart from us, and even then, we had to throw like a hundred people on it to get it done; it was the biggest game we’ve ever done.

Normally you’d want two years to build a game. Maybe three, if you had a bit of luxury. But to do it in six months… We had to have a working engine. We had to have a very efficient team. We had to have all the resources in place, which we did. So, we saved their arse by doing that – and then the movie flopped. It was so bad, people were walking out of the movie. And then the game, which was about to come out, didn’t stand a chance. The rug was pulled from under us.

We’d just built this huge game. All of our people, literally, in the company were working on this one game, which was a massive risk – and then we had no more work. We had to shrink, really fast, to not go bust. We had a couple of projects still on the go, and we tried to restructure the company, and we were negotiating with companies. SCI, at the time, were telling us ‘don’t worry, don’t worry. We’re doing this game with you. You have our support. You can go ahead and restructure. We’ll be behind you all the way’. They were completely lying through their teeth, while they were talking to our team and saying ‘they’re going to go bust. We’ll fund you to start your own team’. They basically screwed us. We weren’t able to restructure the company because with the one project we had in development, they pulled the rug from under us and took the team from us.

I would have loved to have saved the whole company, but it was too expensive. It was about a million pounds a month, salary-bill, for the company, and I just couldn’t afford to do that. So I saved the smaller divisions and funded those founders to be independent

Was it painful seeing the company you'd created die like that?

When Argonaut died in 2004, I didn’t have the funds to save the whole company. So I had to choose which bits I could save and, at the time, I picked two small divisions – Ninja Theory and Morpheme, which is the mobile games company. And Ninja Theory was doing Heavenly Sword, I think, at the time. I would have loved to have saved the whole company, but it was too expensive. It was about a million pounds a month, salary-bill, for the company, and I just couldn’t afford to do that. So I saved the smaller divisions and funded those founders to be independent.

So at least some of the remnants of Argonaut got saved. And some of the other remnants of Argonaut went on to do great things, wherever else they went. There was a really good launchpad for a number of careers. Ninja Theory did really well. They were initially suffering the same problem that Argonaut had in the early days, which is they didn’t have enough money to hold onto their rights, so they would end up selling the rights of their games too early and having to give away the copyright. And Heavenly Sword is a great example, where they built that game entirely on their own and sold it to Sony, and Sony took all the rights. They couldn’t do a sequel, because Sony controlled it.

I kept telling them ‘look, if you want to build value in this company, you have to do original ideas and keep it. Keep the IP, and don’t sell it out’. And they said ‘look, it’s very hard to do that because the budgets for these games are tens of millions, or millions of dollars. And sometimes, tens of millions of dollars, and we don’t have the money to do that’. They kept on doing work for hire, for other people, doing games for Capcom or whoever else – doing those games for other people and building a margin, so that they could take one or two risks and do one or two games themselves, that were original IP. And so they did that. Hellblade was their IP and it worked out really well for them; it was a critical success. It put them on the map. it got Microsoft interested in them. And now Microsoft have bought them, for more than a hundred million. So it was a great deal.

How did it feel to get an OBE – the first in the games industry?

It was quite an honour – literally, because it is an honour! I had helped set up TIGA, which was The Independent Game and Developers Association – I was the one who came up with that name, actually, but they’ve probably all forgot that since then. I was trying to reach out to universities and give talks and inspire kids to join the computer games industry and think that this is actually a possible future direction for their efforts and their talents, and they shouldn’t go into the movie industry or do a boring bank job – they should become computer game developers. I was doing a lot of that, with my peers, and that got noticed by the government. They were looking around for someone to be the first to get an honour for the computer games industry, they had a few choices, and I was very lucky and honoured to be the first one. Since then, obviously, all of my peers have been honoured, so it was only a matter of time before they all got awards.

Well, it’s good to be the first. It’s a vindication, as well, of the industry.

Yeah. It’s quite ironic that only a few years later I left the computer games industry, but I went to the dark side and started making games for adults, which were gambling games, but I would’ve stayed in computer games; the business world of computer games business got a little bit overtaken. The publishers and the distributors got too powerful and the people that created the games and actually were the talent got side-lined and given worse and worse deals, and less and less credit on the box until there was none and it’s just the distributor's name – like 'it’s an EA game.' And EA, they’re just the people that own the trucks and warehouses, they don’t actually design the game.

Unless you're Hideo Kojima, your name is not going on the boxes.

Right. It’s weird, because every other creative industry, whether it’s music, or movies, or books, the author and the talent is frontline, the biggest name on the package. You don’t talk about who distributed it; you talk about who created it, but in computer games, it went wrong, and the creative talent ended up with the least power, and the least say, and the smallest part of the deal.

Do you think indie gaming has changed that, in any way?

Maybe. The thing that probably helped change it to some extent is digital downloads and app stores which enabled the little guy to actually place in the game, albeit now it’s become such a monster marketing effort that now the little guy can’t afford to market their game. It’s a real problem that the talent in computer games is not valued, like in every other creative industry.

That was the writing on the wall for me, and the reason I left the computer games industry was that we could be one of the best game developers in the world, and we’d have no say, no credit, and a very little piece of the action, and sell our souls too early just to afford to create the games. That was just a poor business model, so I thought, 'this is the time for me to leave this industry and maybe I’ll come back one day, or maybe I won’t'.

King Arthurs World Remake
The rebooted King Arthur's World could mark San's return to 'traditional' video games

You're working on an update of the SNES game King Arthur’s World with ex-Argonaut staffer Nick Halstead at the moment… does that mean you're looking to come back now?

That for fun; it’s a hobby project. It’s because it’s nostalgic and we’ve both disposable income into it, and we’ll raise more money somehow, maybe even a Kickstarter or something. Maybe we’ll let the public invest in it in some way. We both loved it and we both wanted to put a little money into resurrecting it and seeing what happens. And if that works out, there’s a whole bunch of Argonaut back-catalogue, like Croc. I did buy all the IP from the administrator so I’m sitting on it all, and one day, you never know. There might be a whole new generation that can play the games that I build for the previous generation, so it could happen – but that’s not where my bread is buttered these days.

What is it you’re doing these days?

I went through a ten-year period of being an angel investor, investing in technology companies. I did pretty well doing that. I was one of the seed investors in DeepMind, which is Google’s AI company with Demis Hassabis, which I obviously knew from computer games. He was originally at Bullfrog, then he had his own company. Elixir Studios.

I’m dipping my toe in the water with Nick and the new King Arthur’s World, and we might do some other games in the future. I get offers all the time to resurrect Croc. One day I probably will

I had a stint as an angel investor, and that did well. I got into cryptocurrencies, and Bitcoin, and Ethereum at a very early stage. I basically went around looking for cool new technology companies to help, and sometimes I helped them just by putting money in, and some of those I helped them by being an advisor and sharing my best advice in whatever way I could. That went well for ten years, and then I got itchy feet and thought that I’m missing out… I want to start a company again.

I combined the things that I know well which is computer games and online gaming, which is the gambling side of gaming, and technology, and Blockchain, and I mixed them all together and it’s what FunFair is today, which I started with two of my founders that came from my old company, PKR: Jeremy Longely, who is also a computer games guy originally, and Oliver Hopton. We’re doing something very cool with new technology and cryptocurrency. I’m dipping my toe in the water with Nick and the new King Arthur’s World, and we might do some other games in the future. I get offers all the time to resurrect Croc. One day I probably will.

It’s got to be one of the bestselling PS1 franchises and it hasn’t been resurrected?

Yes. It sold millions of copies.

What do you make of the Nintendo of today?

I think Nintendo have found their area. They design some unique features like motion handsets or whatever, and they design something unique; it’s not cutting-edge. When they were with me, we were doing cutting-edge. Since then – and perhaps before, too – they’ve never been cutting-edge. They’ve been all about the creative process, and doing unique experiences, especially aiming at the young. They know their market is the family market; they’re not trying to do edgy games like Sony and Microsoft are doing. And so, they’re happy in that niche, but they’re definitely not on the technical bleeding-edge.

This article was originally published by on Sun 1st December, 2019.