Over the past decade some of the most exciting developments in processors have come not from the CPU makers but the graphics guys. Graphics hardware has evolved significantly from the original dream of implementing OpenGL in hardware to the multicore parallel processing chips that drive today's offerings.
The big question that hangs over the industry is whether gamers actually need the kind of performance delivered by the latest hardware such as NVIDIA's long awaited Fermi GPU.
Despite constant delays, the Fermi architecture, also know by the GF100 moniker, is getting closer to release. With current estimates putting it around April 12th, this is a generational shift in NVIDIA's hardware design. At the moment a huge number of details are still up in the air, such as card speeds and the number of processing cores that will ship. This hasn't stopped the hype machine as excitement builds over NVIDIA's offering in the DirectX 11 space.
A solution without a problem
As has long been the case, graphics hardware outpaces games development. Historically this has been due to game developers wanting to sell as many games as possible. Because of this they tend to target the mid range hardware rather than the bleeding edge.
We have seen many times in the past that new hardware features just don't get supported until years after they are introduced. Even then product specific optimisation has never really worked as a selling point - developers want as many people possibly playing their game and arbitrarily cutting out an entire brand of GPU is not the way to do this.
The insidious console influence
Nowadays the situation is even more extreme. The past few years have been a dark era for PC gaming. Concerns over piracy had driven the PC to become an afterthought for game developers and publishers, who have focused upon the Xbox 360 and (to a lesser degree) the PlayStation 3 as development platforms. This has led to all sorts of side effects in the PC versions of the games, like poorly thought out controls and long delays with game releases.
But the most important influence exerted on PC gaming has been the graphics hardware contained in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Inside the Xbox 360 sits an ATI Xenos graphics chip, a DirectX 9c based chip that bears similarity to the Radeon X1900 series of graphics cards (cards whose age means that they aren't even officially supported in Windows 7). The PlayStation 3 uses an NVIDIA 'RSX' GPU. This is similar to the DirectX 9 based Geforce 7800 cards.
Therein lies the rub. The vast majority of games being made for PC start out life as console titles. This means that, unless a lot of PC-specific time is dedicated during development, games are targeted at five year old DirectX 9 hardware. So despite the fact that we have ATI's RADEON HD 5000 series and NVIDIA's Fermi now supporting DirectX 11 most game development lags behind.
|The recently released Aliens vs. Predator is one of the few games on the market with support for DirectX 11
Same, just faster
So despite the heavy focus that is still made on the internal architecture of these graphics processors, the reality is that real world performance revolves around other things. As always this is the ability to pump out high resolutions while applying serious image quality enhancements like anti-aliasing and texture filtering.
Even selling points such as NVIDIA's hardware PhysX acceleration aren't as impressive as they sound. Again, because developers need to target a wide range of end users they cannot integrate technology like PhysX too heavily into their games.
Make the game too reliant on NVIDIA-flavoured hardware accelerated physics and the huge number of people who own ATI cards are excluded from the customer base. This has led to PhysX being a means to add a little bit of extra eye candy to a game in the form of flowing cloth and extra debris, rather than being an integral part of the game's design.
What to keep in mind
As always, the important thing to take away from the state of the GPU market is that performance is king. A card's feature set may be impressive, but the games it will be driving are generations behind.
With no updates to the console platforms on the horizon this situation will continue to stay the same - and despite the fact that the PC has returned to favour as a gaming platform (thanks largely to tight online integration of games to combat piracy) consoles are still the target for most developers, and still provide the major limitations on the technological sophistication of game graphics.
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