I recently had the privilege of representing nV News at the NVIDIA Editor’s Day event held in the beautiful W Hotel located in the heart of downtown San Francisco, CA. The purpose of this event was not only to discuss the technologies behind the fall ‘03 product launch of the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra (enthusiasts) and GeForce FX 5700 (mainstream) GPUs, but also to allow an open forum. An open forum to pose questions to hear feedback from editors as well as, NVIDIA’s top engineers about the rumors that have been circulating throughout much of this year and last, regarding driver optimizations, image quality concerns, internal development processes, and a few other related topics. Several developers from some of the top game companies were also on hand to showcase some of their upcoming titles and discuss their experiences from(or with) NVIDIA's exceptional developer relations program.
As a gamer I will spare readers much of the technical information given about the NV3X architecture (as we already have a well documented article written by MikeC that addresses just that), but will try to point out some of the more interesting highlights from the event.
The day began with an introduction by Kurt Akeley, Graphics Architect and Co-founder SGI, he was then joined by David Kirk, Chief Scientist, Dwight Diercks, VP Software, Ben De Wal, Director DirectX SW Development, and Nick Triantos, Director OpenGL SW Development. They discussed not only the NV3X architecture, but 21st Century Graphics Architecture in general. I’ve outlined a few points below:
Descriptive Application Dev. describes a result. Ex: hidden surfaces not being visible
Procedural Application Dev.specifies actions. Ex: Z buffering
Enable Z buffer
Map Z such that smaller Z values are nearer
Set depth comparison to less-than
Enable depth write mask
16-bit Floating Point although not an IEEE Standard is used by many cg film studios including Pixar, Sony and Dreamworks as well as popular 2D desktop publishing suites such as Adobe Photoshop.
24-bit Floating Point is NOT a recognized industry standard.
Also noted was that as API compilers continue to improve, it will help isolate programmers more to allow them to more easily optimize their products for multiple hardware platforms.
A brief summary comparing the GeForce FX architecture to the Radeon was given:
A summary comparison of the GeForceFX architecture vs Radeon was also given
Before DX9, all shader effects were performed at 8-bit precision, now the problem lies in DX9, there’s no similar precision available that's common to both architectures, as NV3x supports 16bit/32bit while the R3xx relies soley on 24bit precision.
The Software Optimization Debate
NVIDIA’s stance on driver optimization was made very clear; they believed it must improve performance in more than just a benchmark(s), must not contain any pre-rendered images but most importantly, must produce the most accurate image that the developer originally intended. An example was given using a frame from the “Massive Overdraw” test used in AquaMark3 benchmark created by Massive Development based off the KRASS engine. The screenshot comparison between both cards showed ATI’s rendering method did not draw the entire scene with all required layers, thereby resulting in a higher output score. I’ve yet to verify this myself, but will update the article with my personal findings.
GeForce FX Unified Compiler
There’s one optimizing compiler in NVIDIA’s Detonator series drivers for both Direct3D and OpenGL API’s.
The PS2.0 optimizer uses register allocation to minimize the amount of registers being used as well as other “standard” compiler optimizations, adapted to the 4-way SIMD architecture of PS 2.0
The compiler runs twice
Once with all optimizations enabled
Once with non-aggressive optimizations
After first compile, the shader is tagged with which mode is faster and stored in shader cache
Shaders are run through a “shader cycle estimator”
Aggressive Optimizations Defined As – Any transformation which loses register info (register re-packing, re-ordering for register pressure). Any transformation which expands instructions (LRP?ADD/MUL/ADD, etc.). A before and after example of shader code being optimized by their compiler resulted in faster completion time using less cycles and passes. We all understand that one of the main issues faced by developers today with regards to DX9 shaders are the differences between the floating point precisions supported by ATI and NVIDIA so consequently as there’s no one assembly language that is common to both architectures. For an in-depth look into NVIDIA’s Shader Optimization process, I invite you to read an excellent article from the guys over at ExtremeTech.
The main point the engineers were trying to stress, is that the vast amount of versatility, innovation and pure power the NV3X architecture possesses has barely been tapped and that as stronger knowledge for optimizing software on this platform continues to grow through strong developer relations, we will continue to see the benefits of having such a graphics platform.
CEO Fireside Chat
During lunch we had the nice opportunity to have a CEO “Fireside Chat” with Jensen Huang, CEO/Founder of NVIDIA, and Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software. Jensen chose to focus mainly on the company’s current financial standings in the graphics market and their goals for the future. He also expressed a great interest in integrated graphics solutions as they currently appear to be one of the fastest growing areas in the desktop graphics market. On the gaming front Todd Hollenshead announced that Doom ]|[, currently being developed using the OpenGL API, will be hard-capped at an acceptable 60fps. From a gamers point-of-view, this can be seen as a welcome change because it would allow us to shift focus less from the amount of fps we’re seeing and more towards image quality and the overall visual impact the artist are trying to convey when developing these games. Although this will pose an issue in terms of being a valuable benchmarking tool in the future, at present, there’s currently hardware on the market that would push that limit.
The afternoon kicked off with a blast as several game developers showed-off some of the latest builds of their future offerings.
We began with a presentation of one of the more exciting titles that’s taking gamers by storm, XIII, currently being developed by Ubisoft France. This cell shader title gets its name from a very popular comic book in France. Damien Moret and Olivier Dauba of Ubisoft France explained the game uses a comic book style to make its audience feel as if they’re playing through each comic book page. Its sure to change the way we're used to playing a traditional fps.
Ion Storm was next in the line up with a preview of a sequel to one the best fps of all time. Deus EX: The Invisible War, headed up by Harvey Smith, lead designer Ion Storm, will retain much of the stealthy-realistic, RPG style that everyone loved from the original but will add an increased emphasis on the surrounding environment. For instance we were told that if you break a window while trying to sneak up on some guards, they’re more apt to hear you coming, needless-to-say the AI should be very impressive. This will definitely be a must have title for this holiday season especially for those who enjoyed the original.
Randy Pitchford, President Gearbox Software, gave a rather informative presentation on some of the development issues they faced getting HALO ported back to its original platform from the XBOX console version. When questioned about the performance differences between the Radeon and GeForceFX, he claimed ATi’s rendering method did not complete each scene accurately or completely, therefore appearing to out perform its competitor. He also commented on several issues with latest Catalyst drivers (version 3.8) causing BSOD’s on some machines, I personally however have yet to experience any of those issues on my test systems so its a problem that certainly varies based upon the individual specs of your rig. Gearbox Software is currently working closely with both Bungie and Microsoft concerning the overall performance issues that have been found on both platforms and assured us that they should be rectified in the very near future, especially enlight of the recent announcement that HALO:PC has been added as a title to the upcoming Cyberathlete Professional League 2004 season.
The very outspoken Mark Rein, Vice President of Epic Games, showed a trailer of Unreal Tournament 2004, which unfortunately now appears to have been delayed to FEB '04. This iteration of the Unreal Universe mainly introduces vehicles into the mix but, they've also added new weapons, models, maps and have finally resurrected the very popular game type Assault from the original UT. We had the opportunity to play one of the latest builds on some demo machines. If you’re an Unreal fanatic like me, the decision to pick up this one will be a no-brainer, especially for current owners of Unreal Tournament 2003 as you’ll be receiving a $10 rebate off the retail price. Mark also reinterated that teh demo would be released prior to shipping of the final version but that mainly is still focused on finishing the game.
Dean Lester, General Manager of Windows Graphics and Gaming Technologies, spoke regarding Windows being spouted as an excellent gaming OS, and how Microsoft is beginning to put more emphasis on overall game performance/stability of its OSes; this is something that’s evident with the amount of features added and the direct working relationships they had with both ATi and NVIDIA during the development of DirectX 9. Dean was also quick to point out all NV3x GPUs are indeed DirectX 9 compatible, and that it was something NVIDIA has worked very closely with the DirectX development team to insure.
One of the most entertaining demos of the day was put on by the guys from Dice Canada and Electronic Arts, showcasing a hotly anticipated sequel to a title that has gained massive popularity in fps team-based play, Battlefield 1942: Vietnam. A personal favorite from the demo was watching a tank firing overhead after being air lifted by an army helicopter, then both being destroyed in a matter of seconds by a soldier with an RPG. Frederik Lilegren, General Manager for Dice, stressed that the game would continue to keep the balance among weapons so no matter what could be obtained in the game; one would not completely overpower another. Another interesting note came from EA who reported out of the 250 support calls they’d received for specific graphics issues, only 6 were on NVIDIA hardware, which translated into a lot of money being saved on support calls. The game projected release date should be around Q1 or 2 of ’04.
And perhaps the most impressive demo of the day was given by Oleg Yavorsky, PR Manager, GSC Games and Eric Reynolds, Media Relations Manager, THQ. S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Oblivion Lost, will no doubt raise the standard for the fps genre in terms of not only graphics, but overall game physics, playability and realism. The latest build is still in early alpha but, you can find plenty of screenshots and additional info about this game at their site. We should have this gem in our hands hopefully around fall of ‘04.
Our trip concluded with a lovely tour of the NVIDIA Headquarters located in Santa Clara, CA. Some of the highlights from the tour were two almost fully utilized datacenters that housed hundreds of CPUs storing several terabytes of data, with a third currently being built for expansion. We were also able to walkthrough some of the hardware labs including a silicon lab that housed equipment worth anywhere from $200,000 to 2-3 Million dollars used mainly to dissect and refine fresh silicon straight from from the fab. (Just a note next time you’re wondering why their high-end desktop graphics solutions retail around $500) On a side note, during lunch we ran into one of the nForce product managers. I quickly questioned him why the APU/Soundstorm integrated unit that was such a popular feature from the nForce2 chipsets, was now missing from the nForce3 motherboards currently on the market. Rest assured he said, this was an issue they’re steadily working on, so there may just be hope yet!
In conclusion on behalf of the staff here at nV News, I would personally like to thank Derek Perez, Brian Burke and the entire PR team at NVIDIA for inviting us out to the event will certainly be looking forward to returning next year!