Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you know that CUDA is Nvidia’s take on GPU-accelerated, general-purpose computing. You probably also recognize PhysX, which is the company’s GPU-powered physics scheme. And, at one point or another, you’re likely to have seen a The Way It’s Meant To Be Played logo pop up when loading a new game.
When it comes to branding and marketing various initiatives, Nvidia is about as good as it gets in this industry. AMD, on the other hand, tends to be less vocal when pushing its message. The Stream computing initiative, for example, isn’t trumpeted nearly as much as CUDA. We’ve heard bits and pieces from AMD about physics acceleration over the years, starting with Havok FX and progressing to Open Physics, but neither has been evangelized as extensively as PhysX. AMD did try to answer Nvidia’s The Way It’s Meant To Be Played with its own Get In The Game program way back in 2003. However, there’s been little talk of it since and not even a mention of the program on AMD’s own Game website. In recent years, many of us haven’t heard AMD say much of anything about its dealings with game developers.
That changed last week, when prior to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, AMD assembled a group of journalists to talk about how it works with the folks responsible for the latest and greatest PC games. Chief Marketing Officer Nigel Dessau kicked off the presentation by formally unveiling AMD’s Gamers Manifesto, whose four guiding tenets are listed below.
- We will consult with the gaming community to help align our innovations to their wants and needs.
- Wherever feasible we will move quickly to move our innovations into the industry standards.
- We will provide the technical and business support game developers need to help make their games a success.
- All gamers, those with AMD hardware in their system, or not, deserve the best gaming experience possible.
Dessau then passed the torch to AMD Director of ISV Relationship Management Neal Robison, who pointed out that the company has been working under these principles for “a long, long time.” The manifesto fits under a new branding initiative dubbed Gaming Evolved, which AMD hopes will clearly describe how it works with the gaming community.
The first tenet is straightforward enough, although we should note that the gaming community encompasses developers and gamers alike. AMD consults with the former when crafting new graphics architectures, asking forward-looking developers what can be done to address the graphics problems they’re trying to solve. In some cases, chip architects will sit down with developers for “architecture tours” that have been valuable in producing new features for upcoming graphics hardware.
Of course, AMD doesn’t limit its community engagement to interacting with developers. The company also looks at gaming trends to determine what features are important to the folks actually playing. Robison cited a couple of online polls that recently suggested gamers deem DirectX 11 and Eyefinity support more important than PhysX.
That leads us nicely to the next principle, which affirms AMD’s support for industry standards. Robison listed a number of AMD innovations that have found their way into industry standards over the years, such as the tessellation engine built for the Xbox 360 that eventually migrated to DirectX 11, the 3Dc compression scheme that became BC5 in DirectX 10, and the alternate-frame rendering approach to multi-GPU teaming developed for the Rage Fury MAXX and now commonly used by SLI and CrossFire. Along those lines, AMD intends to pursue an open standard for stereoscopic 3D, which will soon add a measure of depth to Eyefinity setups.
Robison was quick to push AMD’s Open Physics initiative, which, unlike PhysX, offers “free, unrestricted access” with “no proprietary vendor lockouts.” This initiative has already borne fruit in the form of cooperation with the developers of Bullet Physics, whose open-source libraries offer rigid-body simulation, cloth, fluids, and particle systems via DirectCompute 11 and OpenCL. Pixelux’s latest Digital Molecular Matter simulator is also available as a part of the Open Physics initiative. The soft-body physics engine is OpenCL-only, but it’s tightly integrated with Bullet Physics.
AMD couldn’t name any games that will use either physics engine, but it did point out that the Open Physics initiative is relatively new, having only been announced in September. Of course, Radeon owners have been promised GPU-accelerated physics before. ATI was showing off GPU-accelerated Havok FX demos years ago, but the tech never seemed to make its way into actual games.
PhysX, on the other hand, has been implemented in a number of titles, even if it’s just for additional eye candy. The open nature of AMD’s physics approach may appeal to gamers and enthusiasts more than Nvidia’s proprietary PhysX tech, but one can’t deny that the GeForce folks have had much more success with developers. Mirror’s Edge and Batman: Arkham Asylum are good examples of PhysX in action, and given how many new PC games are ported over from consoles, the fact that the PhysX API is supported on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 bodes well for future releases.
Although its physics efforts haven’t been especially robust to date, AMD Developer Relations Manager Richard Huddy pointed out that the company has been working closely with game developers in other ways for quite some timeand not just a few of them. Huddy said AMD is working with all the big studios and numerous smaller developers, but declined to disclose the size of its developer relations team, insisting that results matter more than a head count. According to Huddy, the team speaks nine languages and is spread across Asia, Europe, and North America.
On the technical front, AMD keeps devs supplied with the latest and greatest graphics hardware. When GPUs are released with new capabilities, the company puts a greater focus on educating developers at major events like GDC and with smaller group seminars. Software tools are provided, as well. Huddy said AMD’s current focus on this front is supplying developers with tools to aid with DirectX 11 development, DirectCompute, and OpenCL. Since there are a multitude of different Radeons on the market, AMD also conducts extensive compatibility testing for game developers.
As one might expect AMD engineers are available to lend a hand with coding and optimization, too. In what may have been a back-handed reference to the competition, Huddy claimed AMD is focused on making games better for anyone who plays them, regardless of whether they’re running a Radeon.
Huddy pointed to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky as one example of the company’s efforts to improve everyone’s gaming experience. At first, the game’s deferred rendering engine didn’t get along with multisampled antialiasing, he said. AMD developed a fix that required DirectX 10.1-compatible graphics cards, which only it offered at the time. Rather than restricting its MSAA fix to DirectX 10.1, AMD came up with another workaround for DirectX 10, which then-current GeForces did support. Both approaches were submitted to Clear Sky developer GSC Game World.
In addition to providing technical resources, AMD works with game developers on bundling, advertising, and other co-marketing projects. Developers who implement DirectX 11, Eyefinity, or other technologies that AMD happens to be pushing at the time have greater access to marketing resources and funding than those who don’t. Nvidia takes a similar approach, which strikes me as reasonable even if it leaves the door open for either company to trade feature support for marketing dollars. Both companies are adamant that technical assistance is provided to developers regardless of whether they implement preferred technologies or competing onesor even if they work closely with rivals.
The last principle in the Gamers Manifesto specifically states that AMD’s developer interactions seek to make games better for everyone, even if they’re not running the company’s hardware. This tenet applies to GPUs and CPUs alike; Dessau said AMD’s work with game developers won’t disadvantage folks with Nvidia graphics cards or those running Intel processors. As for those with Intel graphics, well, they’re disadvantaged already.
Putting theory into practice
All this talk of principles and manifestos sounds great, but what about results? To make AMD’s case, Robison pointed to the quick adoption of DirectX 11, which is now supported by a number of big-name titles, including DiRT 2, Aliens vs. Predator, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Metro: 2033, BattleForge and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. That’s an impressive list, especially considering that the first DirectX 11-compliant Radeon launched just six months ago. Convincing developers to take advantage of the latest major DirectX release might seem like an easy sell, but AMD surely deserves some credit for getting so many titles to support the standard so quickly.
Although AMD kept Eyefinity under wraps until the launch of the Radeon 5000 series, numerous developers have started to support the multi-display technology. Alongside all the DirectX 11 games mentioned above, Eyefinity also works with a slew of additional titles, such as Supreme Commander 2, H.A.W.X., Command & Conquer 4, Crysis Warhead, World of Warcraft, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Need for Speed: Shift, and a stack of Source-engine offerings, just to name a few. Getting games working with Eyefinity has apparently been an easy task. Chris Kingsley, CTO of Aliens vs. Predator developer Rebellion, said it only took “a day or two” to implement Eyefinity in the game. Gas Powered Games CEO Chris Taylor echoed those sentiments, joking that the company spent more time setting up its multi-display array than it did actually adding Eyefinity support to Supreme Commander 2.
Despite the apparent ease with which developers have been able make their games play nicely with Eyefinity, Robison admitted that much work remains to be done. An Eyefinity SDK is coming soon, and AMD has a new validation program that will test games for multi-display support.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, Robison thinks Eyefinity is more important for gamers than GPU-accelerated physics. That assumption might make sense if you’re just talking about PhysX rather than an open or at least vendor-neutral GPU-accelerated physics implementation. However, I have to wonder if the number of gamers who would appreciate better in-game physics is really greater than the number who are willing to put together a multi-display Eyefinity wall, bezels and all. Let’s hope that AMD’s apparent focus on DirectX 11 and Eyefinity doesn’t doom the Open Physics initiative to be yet another Radeon-accelerated physics implementation that never quite materializes in games.
As a statement of principles, the Gamers Manifesto hits all the right notes, even if they’re obvious ones. AMD may have been living under these guidelines for a long time, but I like seeing the specifics laid out in writing for all the world to see. Nvidia actually gave a similar presentation during its CES briefings, albeit without an explicit manifesto. While the green team has chosen to push its proprietary CUDA and PhysX technologies, Nvidia Director of Developer Technology Ashu Rege says “do no harm” is a key tenet of the company’s developer engagements
At least officially, then, neither AMD nor Nvidia is trying to gain an advantage at the expense of the other. Unofficially, plenty of accusations have flown back and forth over whether that’s actually the case. However, we’re not going to entertain that particular he-said, she-said debate todaythe legal departments at both companies appear to have successfully sapped the juiciness from all on-the-record comments on the subject.
At the end of the day, I have a feeling the majority of gamers are going to care more about results than behind-the-scenes shenanigans. AMD can point to an impressive list of DirectX 11 and Eyefinity-ready games to make the case that it’s working with developers effectively. I can’t recall any recent examples of new games that performed poorly or otherwise had issues with the latest Radeon graphics drivers, either, suggesting that AMD’s optimization and compatibility efforts are paying off. However, I do wonder whether AMD will be able to get developers onboard with its Open Physics and upcoming stereoscopic 3D initiatives. AMD certainly has the most capable graphics hardware on the market right now; perhaps that competitive advantage will help persuade game developers to embrace its technology agenda.