RVG Interviews - John Mathieson.
RVG's latest interview is with industry legend John Mathieson, John is one of the people behind the Speccy, Konix Multisystem and Atari Jaguar.
John has been around the industry for many years starting out at Sinclair Research where he would test out the Spectrum's BASIC interpreter and find bugs in it, before going on to found Flare with fellow ex-Sinclair colleagues Martin Brennan and Ben Cheese.
After working at Flare on the Flare 1 and its development into the Konix Multisystem, he went on to work for Atari developing the Atari Jaguar with Martin Brennan. John moved to California and worked on the Jaguar 2 which never saw the light of day.
Hello John and thanks for agreeing to take part. Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi, I am John Mathieson, a UK expat who has lived in California for 20 years now. I was born in Dundee almost 55 years ago, went to college in Cambridge, and found my first job with Sinclair at the time of the Spectrum's development in 1981. I have worked in the electronics industry ever since, mostly on gaming products and closely related stuff. I have two kids and am lucky enough to be married to a gorgeous California blonde. "I wish they all could be California girls"...
What products or gear have you worked on?
Tegra – the NVIDIA Tegra SOC, used in multiple great products
AP10 – PortalPlayer’s first low power video-capable SOC, used in the Sandisk Vue
NForce 3 250, and NForce 3 150 – NVIDIA’s first two generations of Athlon-64 PC chipsets
NUON – VM Labs’ revolutionary media processor, used in Toshiba and Samsung DVD players
Atari Jaguar – the world’s first 3D game console
How did you first get started within the gaming industry?
I got started with the Spectrum. My first job was to be the tester for the Basic interpreter, and then I moved on to working on the hardware itself. We got review copies of all the games and I started playing them. I will never forget Manic Miner! So frustrating, and so rewarding.
How long did you spend working on the Jaguar, and did you work on the Jag CD as well?
I took us about 3 years to get the Jaguar design from concept to the launch. I was not personally involved in the Jaguar CD, though I worked closely with the guys making it, as I was by then working on Jag 2.
How much contact did you have with the Tramiels, and what was it like working for them?
I worked with them all, and liked and respected them all. Jack was a fierce boss, his three sons were all great guys in their different ways. I worked closely with Sam, he recruited me to come to America and work for Atari directly.
How far into development was the Jaguar 2, and what would the specs have been like compared to the original Jag?
We had silicon of the video chip before Atari died. It was intended to be compatible with the original Jaguar, but adding much better graphics. The GPU natively supported full speed lit texture maps. I have the Technical Reference Manual for it if you have not seen that, it lists the changes.
The Jaguar has a pretty big cult following these days and a lot of homebrew games are being made for it. Do you follow this at all, and how does it feel to know the console you designed all those years ago is still being programmed for to this day?
It is cool - hardware was different back then. Simple enough that you can understand the whole thing, and one or two guys could put together a game. I understand the appeal. The NVIDIA Tegra chips I work on now are insanely powerful, but also insanely complex. Moore's Law has done this to us.
Do you find it sad there isn't more companies like Sinclair and Flare today that innovate with cutting edge hardware in the gaming industry?
It is just not possible any more. Because Moore's Law has so massively increased what you can put on a chip, it has also massively increased the development costs. You need hundreds of people, beyond the scope a what a few smart guys can get together and do. The world has changed.
On the same theme, producing great hardware in the 80s and early 90s, do you think its possible for a small company to create such a leap in this era, and if not why not?
Same answer. Here in Silicon Valley the era of hardware start-ups is over. All the chip development now is done by huge corporations. The endless advance that Moore foresaw has made this an incredibly exciting few decades to work through, but the wild west era of hardware development has slowly come to a close based on the sheer cost of modern chip development.
Having worked at Atari, Sinclair, and Flare, how would you characterize each of the companies from your perspective during your time there?
All very different.
Sinclair was run by a genius with no interest in mass production, always moving to the next great idea. Great for innovation, bad for running a business. But an amazing place to work.
Flare (both of them) was my own company along with Martin and Ben (on Flare number one). Also exciting, though not having a steady paycheck could be nerve-wracking.
Atari had all this history, and an interesting family running it. Jaguar was doomed because Jack did not want to spend money on advertising.
Do you have any insights as to what led to the low level of third-party support for the Atari Jaguar?
I think we all underestimated how much harder 3D games are to develop compared to 2D. It meant that the games were late, and therefore Jaguar did not sell well enough to survive once the Playstation emerged.
What were some of the difficulties you had to work through during the development of the Atari Jaguar? Any particular challenges because of requirements by Atari?
Atari gave us a lot of freedom. Working in the UK for a US paymaster is really a great way to operate, as they are far enough away not to bother you much. It only became a challenge as we moved close to production, and Martin and I ended up spending a lot of time flying to California and back.
To this day I believe the Jaguar is a console that has never been pushed to its limits, even by the homebrew community. Many blame the difficulties with programming for the console as the reason. What do you believe is the reason for this issue?
I thought that games like Iron Soldier pushed it to its limits, we worked closely with the developers and I think they got all Jaguar had to give. And of course Jeff Minter got all sorts of results that Jaguar was never intended to give!
Lastly from all at RVG a huge thanks for taking part John.. Its appreciated.
- RVG Interviews Mark Hardisty.
- RVG Interviews - Nick Burcombe.
- RVG Interviews - Matt Gray.
- RVG Interviews - Jon Ritman.
- RVG Interviews - John Mathieson.
- RVG Interviews - Jennell Jaquays.
- RVG Interviews - Garry Kitchen.
- RVG Interviews - Dino Dini.
- RVG Interviews - David Perry.
- RVG Interviews - Darryl Still.
- RVG Interviews - CollectorVision.
- RVG Interviews - Fred Gill.
- RVG Interviews - Elite Systems.
- RVG Interviews Steve Hammond.
- RVG Interviews David Crane.
- RVG Interviews Chris Shrigley.
- RVG Interviews Allister Brimble.
- RVG Interviews Billy Allison.
- RVG Interviews Bill Harbison.
- RVG Interviews Brian Fargo.
- RVG Interviews Sam Dyer (Bitmap Books).
- RVG Interviews Jim Bagley.
- RVG Interviews Andrew Hewson.
- RVG Interviews Anthony Guter (Mastertronic).
- RVG Interviews Rebellion.
- RVG Interviews Elektronite.
- RVG Interviews Ian Stewart.
- RVG Interviews John Romero.
- RVG Interviews Coleco Holdings CEO Mark Thomann.
- RVG Interviews Bob Jacob.
- RVG Interviews Cronosoft.
- RVG Interviews Senile Team.
- RVG Interview SKYCURSER Dev's.
- RVG Interviews Ed Magnin.
- RVG Interviews Mike Montgomery.
- RVG Interviews Aetherbyte Studios.