In The Race for a New Game Machine, David Shippy and Mickie Phipps give the reader some good insight into how the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 were made. This was one part of video game history I didn’t know much about. I’ve read books about making video games, creating arcade cabinets, and running a company. Specifically, some of the books I’ve read involve running a company into the ground. There aren’t too many books about how the hardware was made, or they don’t go as in-depth as this book does.
This book is a beautiful insight into how hard it is to create video game console hardware. It follows the story of David Shippy as he works on the chips for the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360. We hear about the challenges he faced. Some of these were created by IBM, the company Davide worked for, and technical issues caused others during the production and coding processes. About halfway through the project for the PS3, he had to adapt his design for the Xbox 360. This caused other issues as David tried to keep the two teams from knowing about each other.
Our narrator for this book is David Shippy. There were times when I wished we got a different perspective on things. David was involved in more of the high-level meetings, though. Mickie is brought up more in the book’s second half when the Microsoft project gets added. Sometimes it sounds like Mickie is in those meetings, but I get the impression David was more of a focal point of what was being decided.
There are a lot of meetings over the different features and the possibility of adding projects, or the option of adding projects, to the workload. I liked hearing about how these were debated. You see each team involved, or when some people insert themselves into a project, explain the advantages of what they are proposing. David explains how he doesn’t always get what he wants from these arguments. Sometimes a new feature is imposed on him. These decisions don’t always come back to impact the project significantly. It’s interesting when they do, though.
Project management is a big part of this book. It adds a lot to the narrative and helps explain why it’s so hard to finish hardware, not just for a video game console but also for other technology projects. Adjustments to the project’s schedule, issues with finding the right people, management issues, and problems with production are all brought up. Each of these can significantly impact what happens with the project. David brings up something interesting when we go over the hiring process.
When David talks about hiring, he says that you don’t always look for a person from a prestigious school. It would help if you found people who mesh well with the rest of the team. A candidate can be very qualified, but they might harm the project if they’re a jerk. It’s hard to get the right balance of talented and motivated workers. I’ve heard other people talk about this a few times. No one has a clear example of what this is. David talks about how he made some mistakes when hiring managers and managing all the teams he was in control of. There were teams in several different parts of the US, and at times they weren’t qualified, motivated, or had other issues with completing their tasks.
You also hear a bit about some of the quality assurance issues they ran into. I don’t think this gets explained very well, and I did get the impression that the team working on this part didn’t have the management they needed. This is one of the parts where we see how the stress of the project was having an impact. We also see how David would come to meetings like this with a solution to the problem. He seemed to have a good understanding of the problem, or he had people in place who did an excellent job of explaining the issues to him. He couldn’t be as involved with each project as he probably wanted to. David sounds like a few of the good managers I’ve had over the years.
They also had a language barrier between the English-speaking IBM team and the Japanese-speaking Sony and Toshiba teams. This created some problems at the beginning of the project as the three companies tried to get to know each other. I got the sense this created a bit of paranoia when Microsoft joined the project. David mentions how he would think the Sony or Toshiba teams would report back to their bosses in Japan. He wasn’t involved in those meetings, as far as I know. It isn’t mentioned in the book if either of the authors knew whether this was happening or not.
The one part of this which was very strange to me had to do with the Microsoft part of the project. This was a time where money was more important than common sense was. It sounds a bit insane that an IBM-Sony-Toshiba joint venture started a project, and halfway through it, Microsoft joins the project but only works with IBM. This added more stress to the project and added a level of secrecy which David explains was sometimes followed. He talks about how, later in the project, he found himself talking about the Microsoft-specific bugs to the Sony and Toshiba teams.
There are times when Microsoft wanted a feature, like backward compatibility, and Sony wasn’t interested in it at all. David would have to go and convince the Sony and Toshiba engineers to work on the feature and not let them know it was for their competitor. Other times there would be a bug that wouldn’t impact one project but did cause issues for the other. Hearing how David worked through those problems, even if it was brief, was very fascinating.
He brings up how the mood in IBM changed as the two projects got closer to being finished. David talks about how one of his bosses fell out of favor and brought in more management. This complicated things, and it strained some of the friendships David had with other team members. He is very frank about the people he likes and the people he dislikes. Several new managers seem to have just been added to make things harder or give people something to do.
The part of this book that resonated with me had to do with the culture of IBM during this time. It has to do with a “not invented here” mentality in many corporate environments. The best way I can describe this is; if a team didn’t come up with an idea, then the idea isn’t the right way to go. Sometimes they can be correct, but it sounds like the possible solution or technology isn’t even considered here. The people who weren’t running the project or didn’t approve it believed it was a waste of time and resources. This always bothers me a bit. I never understand how people think this makes sense.
Overall, I think this is a wonderful book. It gives people a lot of insight into how a video game console is made. It tells the reader how the PS3 and the Xbox 360 were built alongside one another, at least from a hardware standpoint. You hear about the different issues which David needed to balance. There was so much in here that was interesting to me. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about how video game consoles are made.