Building videogames is one of those jobs every kid dreams of, but the reality is that it isn’t all fun and games. People who live and work in Silicon Valley know that making the chips that drive a console is a highly specialized, complex profession — and this region contains some of the best and brightest to make it happen.
These professionals at the top of their game annually attend the local Hot Chips conference where they share the latest industry-leading silicon solutions. Among the speakers this year were our own Mark Grossman and Jeffrey Andrews of the Microsoft silicon architecture team, both instrumental in creating the silicon within the Xbox Series X.
After the conference, we caught up with Mark and Jeff to discuss the next-gen console, why the Xbox revolution could only have happened in the Valley, and what the former refers to as their “special sauce.”
(Mark Grossman (left) and Jeffrey Andrews (right) from our Microsoft Bay Area silicon architecture team were instrumental in creating the silicon within the Xbox Series X)
A console like none other
While there are other game consoles out there, Grossman and Andrews are the first to admit there isn’t anything quite like the experience of helping shepherd an Xbox from ideation to fruition.
“The weirdest thing about Hot Chips is that we were updating slides up until the night before,” smiles Grossman, discussing the enthusiasm around the console. “It’s so crazy to see a drawing, and then a few hours later, it hits the press. There’s a lot of buzz around new console tech.”
To receive such buzz, people have to believe that you are making something buzz-worthy. The Xbox Series X has 16GB of memory while packing an unprecedented 12 teraflops of GPU power, enabling new tech and features like hardware-accelerated Direct X raytracing, frame rates up to 120 fps, and Quick Resume for multiple games.
“We also had a desire for full backward compatibility, going back three generations. You can install 360 games, going back almost ten years,” says Grossman, explaining that Silicon Valley’s “special sauce” boils down to four key ingredients: security, audio, graphics, and fast storage.
He adds: “We put in our audio; we have super-talented audio architects and special engines to offload many CPUs of work to keep the costs down and the power in line. We put in other patented performance multipliers in graphics, increasing the visual quality without costing an arm and a leg and other new technologies. At the start of this project, we added solid-state storage, accelerators that let you have encrypted and compressed content, and more overall performance.”
Translation? It’s awesome.
Anticipation for innovation
When you’re getting up in front of the knowledgeable audience at Hot Chips, you need to have something that will not only blow the mind of gamers, but also those who care about what’s inside. So, Andrews began his presentation by showing a packed-full-of-firsts slide with the word “Innovation” as its title.
Grossman, meanwhile, lingered on a subject you can tell is near and dear to his heart: Variable Rate Shading, and the breakthroughs with this new console. “How do we fill ten times more pixels with 4-6 times the raw GPU but no increased power consumption?” his slide read. “Answer: Patented innovations.” If you’re interested in watching the session, the full presentation can be found here:
Grossman elaborated further on the breakthrough during our interview but was modest about his groundbreaking efforts. “It’s always a case of great minds thinking alike, but I pretty much did the patent for Variable Rate Shading on my own,” he explained. “It’s a funny world because you patent something now and want people to use it so that the industry overall can improve.”
Innovation, exploration, anticipation — three keywords that sum up the console-constructing experience of Mark Grossman, Jeffrey Andrews and the Microsoft silicon architecture team.
“We have a lot of fun stuff, a lot of interesting stuff in different tech areas,” Andrews says of his team. “You don’t see this at many companies. I mean, how many companies have game consoles, PC gaming, then world-class audio and high-end AI and quantum computing? We have such a breadth of tech areas, and it all plays into Xbox.”
Only in Silicon Valley
“The great thing about working in Silicon Valley is that we have a much bigger pool of talent to access when we’re hiring,” explains Andrews, whose tenure at Microsoft dates back to the early development days of the original Xbox. “I’ve been so lucky with the people I’ve hired; for example, two of the people we hired were architects back when Creative Labs was big and making audio cards.”
“We have another audio person who used to do speech recognition at Apple and was a VOIP startup person,” he says, citing another crucial hire he would have had a difficult time locating elsewhere. “It’s hard to find people with a diverse background of technology domain experience, then pull them together to work on something different, like a console.”
Each Xbox has followed a similar cadence of creation: Early ideas, lots of hard work, anticipation, release, and sales in the millions. Andrews’ hand-selected silicon architecture team has grown accustomed to it, and he put the right people in place to make sure Xbox Series X will be everything gamers want. Take Grossman, for example.
“When Mark came to us, he was a founder of Silicon Graphics,” Andrews says of his collaborator and Hot Chips co-panelist. “There are things we can do in Silicon Valley and hire for — and even the candidates we have coming out of college now, people know this is a great place for innovation, and people are interested in coming here.”
If you’d like to join the team shaping the future of gaming, local career opportunities can be found here: https://aka.ms/MicrosoftBayAreaCareers