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Q&A: Nurve's LaMothe On The Hydra Console
Q&A: Nurve's LaMothe On The Hydra Console
November 24, 2006 | By Jason Dobson

November 24, 2006 | By Jason Dobson
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Student/Education



Nurve Networks is best known as the company behind the XGameStation hobbyist video game development kit, which is described as a "retro-inspired educational video game console designed specifically for both hardware and software hackers."

However, Nurve has now announced a companion product named the Hydra, effectively a custom game console, which the firm bills as a "complete edutainment platform to learn multiprocessing game development, graphics and media applications.” The console ships in circuitboard form with a book that explains how to program it, as well as a large amount of sample games and applications.

Recently Gamasutra spoke with Nurve Networks' CEO and Chief Scientist Andre' LaMothe to find out more about the Nurve Hydra, and what it means to both the company and to aspiring game designers.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us regarding the Hydra game development platform. Could you give us a bit of background about yourself and your company?

Sure, I have been interested in game development my whole life, started writing games about 30 years ago on the TRS-80, and Atari 800. In the last decade or so I have spent a lot of time writing books about game development for DOS and Windows such as “Tricks of the Game Programming Gurus” and my latest “Tricks of the 3D Game Programming Gurus”.

Anyway, in the mid 90’s I started Xtreme Games LLC and took a shot at doing 3D FPS games, but then decided to focus on “value” games since the ROI was better and the turn around time was months instead of years. Now, though my attention has shifted back to hardware and I am interested in console systems and teaching how they work, plus developing “kits” for people that want to know how to design a game system from the ground up. Thus, my new company Nurve Networks LLC was founded with this intention.

So what, exactly, is the Hydra console?

The Hydra Game Console is a simple embedded system with all the pieces of a commercial game system, but scaled down so someone can actually understand every single element. There are graphics, sound, game controllers, I/O and networking all built in. But, you can actually “see” every single chip, and in a day or two more or less understand what’s going on. Writing games on the Hydra is similar to writing games on a Nintendo or Atari 2600 system. The programmer can understand and “own” every single bit. No giant APIs or mind boggling GPUs.

Can you talk a bit about the console's “Propeller Chip”, specifically what it is and what it affords this new development platform?

The Propeller chip was developed by Parallax Inc., a leader in educational embedded systems and kits. The chip was designed to a low cost, high performance, multiprocessing chip to be used in industrial, educational, and entertainment applications.

It’s a 32-bit architecture with 8-processors inside, very simple to program and comes with a built in ROM’ed interpreter than runs a language called SPIN. So very easy to get up and running, literally in minutes, you can build a Propeller based computer!

What is your company hoping to accomplish with the Hydra?

A number of things; pay the bills first and foremost! But, more importantly to open the eyes up of game developers all over the world the other “darkside” of game development which is the hardware of it. There is little or no documentation, books, or articles on how to design game consoles, GPUs, etc. this is top secret information just as software game development was a decade ago. And just like with software game development, I want to distribute as much information about it thru my books, hardware, and other venues.

You can’t imagine the amount of ownership and excitement someone gets from building a small computer and writing every single line of code that controls EVERYTHING on the system including the raster and TV signal. There is nothing like it. A DirectX program has so many layers of APIs that programmers now have very little control of what happens on the screen or knowledge of every single step. The Hydra and similar systems give that control back.

What sort of background is the Hydra geared towards in potential consumers? Could someone with very little programming knowledge get much use of out the platform, or is it more aimed at those with existing experience in the world of game programming?

The Hydra is geared toward beginner / intermediate programmers that have experience in BASIC, C/C++, or other similar language. But, no other game development knowledge is needed. The kit comes with an 800+ page book I wrote on the Hydra and game development, starting off with very simple “plot pixel” programs and ending up with platformers and shoot’em ups and the design of high performance ASM graphics engines.

How complex are we talking in terms of achievable game development projects?

On the scale of Nintendo games, game you saw in 80s arcades, and basic 3D stuff like Wolfenstein 3D, floor casting games like Mario Kart, etc. The main limiting factor is memory, of course. Small embedded systems like the Hydra have only limited amounts of memory. But, this is half the fun; learning to make a system with only 32K or 128K do something amazing.

What sorts of games have been created for the Hydra currently? Have you seen any projects recently that have you particularly excited?

The Hydra was just released on November 17th, 2006. So the only games and demos are the ones that we created for launch which consists of dozens and dozens of games and or demos of games. Everything from pseudo-clones of Breakout, Pac-Man, and Asteroids, to full-on 3D racing games like Pole Position. Of course, all scaled down to fit in the limits of memory.

How does programming for the Hydra take place? Does it use its own specialized programming language? And how does the code finally get propagated to the console itself?

Yes and no. Primarily programmers will use the Propeller IDE to code in SPIN or ASM and then download the code to the Hydra via a USB cable. However, there are already versions of Tiny BASIC and FORTH for the Hydra that are self-hosted and run on the machine themselves. Thus, you just plug the Hydra into the TV, load the language from a cart and program as you would an 8-bit machine with no PC required.

Now the XGameStation console has been around for some time now, correct? How does the Hydra console relate to that project, or are they wholly separate entities?

They are both basic game consoles with the purpose of getting people interested in hardware and learning to make games from the ground up. However, the XGameStations are much more hardware focused. Meaning, you get an XGS and a book that explains how to design and build one from the power supply up. The Hydra is more for programmers that want to understand hardware, but not necessarily make the hardware.

Moreover, the Hydra is a multiprocessing system, so its one of the ONLY systems on the planet that you can learn multiprocessing program on in a simple way, so it’s a great learning tool to understand all the little problems involved with running multiple threads on multiple processors.

Finally, do you envision the Hydra as being more of a hobbyist's tool, or could you foresee retail products being engineered using this new platform?

I designed it to go into retail - its easy enough for a 12 year old to open up and play with and learn game development. So we are hoping to get them in commercial channels like GameStop or Electronics Boutique as soon as possible.


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