San Francisco, California

The Black Triangle

In his first week at SingleTrac, a video game company that made cult classics like Twisted Metal, Jay Barnson discovered the “black triangle” – a way of describing problems that are giant in engineering scope but don’t tend to be all that impressive to anyone else.

Jay writes:

It was sometime in my first week possibly my first or second day. In the main engineering room, there was a whoop and cry of success.

Our company financial controller and acting HR lady, Jen, came in to see what incredible things the engineers and artists had come up with. Everyone was staring at a television set hooked up to a development box for the Sony Playstation. There, on the screen, against a single-color background, was a black triangle.

“It’s a black triangle,” she said in an amused but sarcastic voice. One of the engine programmers tried to explain, but she shook her head and went back to her office. I could almost hear her thoughts… “We’ve got ten months to deliver two games to Sony, and they are cheering over a black triangle? THAT took them nearly a month to develop?”

What she later came to realize (and explain to others) was that the black triangle was a pioneer. It wasn’t just that we’d managed to get a triangle onto the screen. That could be done in about a day. It was the journey the triangle had taken to get up on the screen. It had passed through our new modeling tools, through two different intermediate converter programs, had been loaded up as a complete database, and been rendered through a fairly complex scene hierarchy, fully textured and lit (though there were no lights, so the triangle came out looking black). The black triangle demonstrated that the foundation was finally complete the core of a fairly complex system was completed, and we were now ready to put it to work doing cool stuff. By the end of the day, we had complete models on the screen, manipulating them with the controllers. Within a week, we had an environment to move the model through.

Afterwards, we came to refer to certain types of accomplishments as “black triangles.” These are important accomplishments that take a lot of effort to achieve, but upon completion you don’t have much to show for it only that more work can now proceed. It takes someone who really knows the guts of what you are doing to appreciate a black triangle.

I see so many parallels between this story and my work – I spend so much of my time trying to figure out the right way to build things. And I often struggle trying to build the black triangle instead of painting over an issue haphazardly.

Oh and thanks to Matthew Ström that pointed to this story a while back.