AMD touts unified gaming strategy


GCN and x86 everywhere
— 2:49 PM on April 1, 2013

Last week at GDC, AMD held an event for the press highlighting its commitment to gaming and graphics while dropping a series of newsy bits along the way. We've already reported on some of the news items, but the firm had a broader picture to paint that we've not yet conveyed.

One of the most noteworthy messages coming from AMD was simply the firm's reiteration of its dedication to the gaming business. This is, after all, a company attempting to transform itself under the direction of a new management team, in the context of a shifting landscape, and it has some tough choices to make about where to commit its very finite resources. AMD has been consistent about emphasizing its commitment to gaming, even in the face of the news that the Radeon HD 7000 series won't see the expected refresh until the end of 2013. That emphasis is noteworthy because we haven't been hearing the same sort of noises related to, say, high-end desktop processors or even Opteron—not to this degree, at least.

One reason AMD is committed to gaming, of course, is because it's a very big market. Matt Skynner, the firm's Graphics GM, shared some projections based on data taken from analyst firms IDC and JPR, alongside AMD's own internal numbers. Those projections peg the PC gaming hardware and software markets at about $40 billion per year and growing—an eye-opening number.

As you can see in the slide above, that makes the overall PC gaming market roughly the same size as the console gaming market—and both are several times the size of the various mobile gaming segments. We keep hearing that much of the growth in the PC gaming market is coming from non-traditional sources like free-to-play games, MMOs, and regions like APAC. Still, the sheer size of the overall market is more formidable than PC gaming's profile in the U.S. media would seem to suggest.

From there, AMD's ensuing presentation was built around an alliterative collection of four "Cs": cloud, content, console, and client, all pillars of its "unified" gaming strategy.

The "cloud" portion of the picture is AMD's response to the opportunity presented by services like OnLive. In this model, computationally intensive games run on a remote server, and the audiovisual info they create is streamed to a relatively thin client over a network. AMD's rival Nvidia has taken an end-to-end approach to cloud gaming, developing a turn-key solution that includes everything from GPUs with hardware virtualization to a hypervisor software layer and a rack-mounted chassis. True to its usual form, AMD has taken a more partner-centric approach where it provides the hardware and lets other firms handle the integration work.

To enable those partners, AMD announced the Radeon Sky series of graphics cards. These are fanless graphics cards with big heatsinks intended for installation in high-density servers. The headliner of the series is the Sky 900, which packs two of the Tahiti GPUs that power the Radeon HD 7970.

AMD has lined up several partners for its cloud gaming efforts—probably not hard to do, since Nvidia has essentially chosen to compete against them. The most visible of those partners to date has been CiiNow, whose VP of Marketing and Publisher Relations, Chris Donahue, was on hand to talk about his firm's Cumulus cloud gaming platform. His message focused on the the number-one question about Internet-based cloud gaming services: input lag, or the gap in time between a button press and a visible reaction in the game world. Donahue claimed Cumulus can achieve about 17% lower end-to-end latency than some Xbox 360 games do locally. The keys to this success? One, CiiNow has optimized every stage of the process to reduce latency. Two, today's consoles have input lag on the order of about 120 milliseconds, by his numbers. Yikes.

Neal Robison, AMD's Senior Director of Software Alliances, took the happy job of highlighting AMD's success in the console market. With the PlayStation 4 spec already announced and details on Microsoft's next Xbox expected soon, we may see an unprecedented unification of underlying hardware architectures shortly. The two major consoles and roughly half of the PC market will be based on x86-compatible processors and GCN-derived GPUs. Robison argued this trend will be positive for all involved because it should let game developers focus on creating content, not on worrying about architectural limitations or differences.

Analyst Rob Enderle then took the stage to elaborate on that point. He claimed the gaming market has been negatively impacted by the current generation of consoles outstaying their welcome. However, with the move to x86 processors and Radeon graphics, Enderle believes the console makers could introduce new generations of consoles more often while maintaining compatibility with older software. He also thinks the use of a common graphics architecture across platforms will reduce the cost, and thus risk, of creating AAA games with rich visuals, mostly because a large chunk of development costs today goes to porting between platforms.


AMD's new Chief Product Architect for Graphics, John Gustafson

Up next was John Gustafson, AMD's new Chief Product Architect for Graphics. Gustafson's background is in high-performance computing; he joined AMD last August. He briefly reiterated AMD's GPU-related goals and offered a sketch of the short-term product roadmap, which includes more GCN-based notebook and desktop GPUs in the first half of 2013, followed by new GPUs and APUs in the second half of the year. Longer term, Gustafson expects AMD's graphics chips to enable much better physics simulations and new levels of realism in games. As an indicator of the potential there, he claimed that today's best GPUs could render films from a couple of years ago in the time it would take to watch the movie.

Both Gustafson and the next speaker, AMD Director of Developer Relations Ritchie Corpus, underscored AMD's commitment to optimizing games for its hardware, but doing so in a way that keeps faith with industry standards. As examples, Corpus cited the use of DirectCompute to implement some value-added features it contributed to recent games, including the global illumination lighting path in DiRT 3 and the TressFX hair simulation used in Tomb Raider. Both features will run on any DirectCompute-capable GPU, a contrast to the proprietary approach Nvidia has taken with its PhysX and CUDA value adds, which only run on GeForce cards.

Corpus then introduced a succession of game developers who spoke about the ways they've partnered with AMD. Brian Horton, Senior Art Director for Crystal Dynamics, explained how AMD handed off its TressFX technology for integration into Tomb Raider. By video, Ken Levine and Chris Kline from Irrational Games talked about how they added contact-hardening shadows, HDAO, and multi-monitor support to BioShock Infinite with the assistance of AMD. And Nick Button-Brown from Crytek told the story of AMD engineers coming on-site to Crytek's studios during the development of Crysis 3. Button-Brown also revealed that the next patch for Crysis 3, coming this week, will include "full Eyefinity and HD3D support," which could be pretty amazing considering the astounding quality of the game's visuals.

The session ended with a couple of sneak peeks. First up, folks from Crytek and Illfonic gave a quick preview of a project they're working on for AMD: a new graphics demo featuring the "Ruby" character whose real-time demos used to headline each Radeon launch. The new Ruby demo will use CryEngine and TressFX, and it will be directed by Hollywood director Simon West, who did The Expendables 2, among other films. Ruby looks very different—she's clearly been rebooted. Unfortunately, the demo was too short and quick for us to snag any decent pictures of this work in progress. Judging by the current state of things, we'd wager it's being prepared for the launch of the new generation of GPUs due at the end of 2013.

Finally, AMD Product Manager Devon Nekechuk held up a video card that's coming soon: the Radeon HD 7990. With dual Tahiti GPUs and three large fans onboard, Nekechuck claimed it will be not only "the world's fastest graphics card" but also "whisper quiet." There are dual-Tahiti cards on the market now from a couple of board makers in fairly low volumes, but this card will be AMD's own reference design. AMD teased the possibility of the 7990 over a year ago, at the Radeon HD 7900 series launch, by showing a slide with the outline of New Zealand (the "southern island" code name for this dual-GPU part) alongside the words "Coming soon!" Now, it seems, the 7990 is being reanimated as a means of plugging the gap until the next-gen Radeons arrive at the end of the year.

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