Gaming & Technology

Lexington native helped develop Xbox 360, PS3 chip

This week, the Manifesto ­introduces you to a Lexington native and University of Kentucky graduate who helped lead the ­development of the chips that power the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3.

David Shippy, a 1979 Lafayette High School graduate and 1983 UK graduate, served as technical leader of the development team. He and colleague Mickie Phipps, the project manager, have written The Race for a New Game ­Machine: Creating the Chips Inside the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 (Citadel Press, $21.95).

The two detail how the IBM-led ­project ­started out with only Sony as a ­customer, but then the team found itself also ­building a chip for Microsoft’s rival console, ­creating tension with the ­engineering teams devoted only to Sony.

Shippy, whose father is a retired UK engineering professor and still lives here, answered the following questions:

Question: What was your initial reaction when your superiors informed you that Microsoft would also be seeking a chip for the next iteration of its Xbox franchise?

Answer: “My initial reaction was shock. We’d been working for over two years on a start-from-scratch chip design for Sony’s PlayStation 3, and my entire focus was on making them successful.

It was the kind of rare, dream job you only get once in a career.

“The top-notch Sony and Toshiba employees who worked side-by-side with me and my IBM team were my friends and partners. ­Supporting a Microsoft mission made me feel like I was ­betraying my partners, but I was also very proud that Microsoft had confidence that IBM ­possessed the right talent to take on such a complex chip design task.

“I suddenly found myself with two dream jobs. The shock wore off pretty quickly, and then I realized just how much work was loaded onto my plate.”

Q: Describe how the work environment changed after the Microsoft entrance, knowing that some employees would no longer be privy to certain information?

A: “We’d worked hard to incorporate the ­Japanese culture into our IBM workplace, to make friends with our co-workers, and to develop transparency and trust between these three giant corporations. That all changed with Microsoft’s entrance.

“Suddenly, there were more IBM-only ­meetings as we secretly started the initial design process for the Xbox 360 chip.

“Our Japanese partners began to ­suspect what was going on with ­Microsoft and a new air of distrust settled onto our design center.

“Some people on my team felt as I had initially — that we were betraying our partners. I explained to them that Intel didn’t worry about delivering the same microprocessor to Dell or to HP. Like them, we needed to change our viewpoint to include the grander vision where multiple customers wanted our PowerPC core (the brains ­common to both the PlayStation 3 chip and the Xbox 360 chip).”

Q: What changed about the ­design process? Since you had another ­customer, did that significantly impact what could have been done on the chip design had you just had one customer to focus on?

A: “We put down a solid foundation for a high-performance microprocessor design the first two years working on the Cell chip for the PlayStation 3. This included industry-leading frequency in a very small power budget.

“When Microsoft came into the picture, we added additional features to the common core such as wider instruction issue and new vector processing capability. However, I don’t feel like we compromised the design for either customer.

“We worked long hours and added ­additional engineers to the team to accomplish our ­amazing results.”

Q: What’s your favorite game on both systems (assuming you game), and which games on both systems do you think best harness the power of the chips?

A: “My kids and I like to play Halo 3. It’s fun and exciting and really taps into the processing capability of the game console. We also like to play Guitar Hero.”