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AMD at GDC 2013: FirePro, Radeon, and Gaming Unified
Author: James Prior
Editor: Sean Ridgeley
Date: March 30th, 2013
The three C's
This week at the Game Developers Conference 2013, AMD provided details of their leadership strategy known as Unified Gaming. The essence of this is described in the four C's: Content, Consoles, Cloud, and Client. Over the course of two days I had the opportunity to talk with various AMD personnel, including Senior Fellow and Chief Product Architect for Graphics, John Gustafson; Neal Robison, Senior Director, Consumer Developer Support; David Cummings, Senior Director & General Manager, Professional Graphics, and Mohamed Jivraj, Product Manager, all to find out what the four C's mean and how they affect you, the enthusiast gamer.
A new product was shown for the first time at GDC 2013, representing the Client portion of Unified Gaming program: the AMD Radeon HD 7990. This Dual-GPU card features two Radeon HD 7900 series GPUs, on which more details will be available soon.
AMD took a different approach to their high end launch, putting New Zealand from 2012's Southern Islands series into High Performance Compute (HPC) first with the FirePro S10000 card. This card powers the number two SuperComputer on the Green 500 most energy efficient list, something AMD say that they have achieved without really trying -- they have not yet begun their assault on the HPC and GPU Compute markets in earnest. This seems contrary to previous messaging, but is backed up by AMD's internal shuffling to create a new and high-power cloud and HPC compute sales and PR team.
The AMD Radeon HD 7990 made its first public appearance at the GDC press event, powering the AMD Ruby demo preview and also providing the horsepower for DICE's Battlefield 4 announcement; quad fire is already working and scaling. Physically, the card is a full-length dual height product with five display outputs and two PCI-E 8-pin power inputs; cooling is provided by triple axial fans over a large fin array, with an AMD promise of whisper quiet operation.
This segues nicely into AMD's second dual-GPU product seen at the press conference: the Sky 900, available now as part of the FirePro Sky line up (the Sky brand name was chosen to evoke its cloud usage). The Sky 900 is joined by two other single GPU cards to provide cloud gaming provider companies with the foundation for a great experience.
You need a set of broker software to do this, so naturally, AMD had their CiiNow partner on hand to exemplify. Cloud gaming powered by AMD Radeon was available to try out first hand in the AMD GDC booth; you could play on a tablet or notebook and see for yourself the smoothness and fidelity being promised. It's surprisingly low latency despite the congested network at GDC and the off-site server farm (Sunnyvale, running FirePro Sky 700). CiiNow used their solution, Cumulus, to talk about how cloud gaming can offer lower latency response times than seen in console gaming.
The FirePro Sky series offer up to six 720P streams at 30fps, per Tahiti GPU; the final hardware is down to the gaming cloud provider to decide upon. The new Video Codec Engine is leveraged to take the render result and squeeze it into H.264 codec packets which can be decoded by anything that decodes H.264.
AMD's approach provides flexibility of platform size and choice to the cloud gamer startup; it's not hard to see how a LAN host or Steam cafe provider could move into offering local streaming services and scaling out the back end as they grow. The other benefit is all the expensive hardware is hidden away from sticky fingers and the end user machines can all be the same, with no special high end reserved hardware boxes, but rather, just commodity boxes. Cloud gaming of this type makes regional tournaments simpler to organize -- "run what ya brung" doesn't mean rich kids always win. The pricing of the FirePro Sky line is very interesting in that it's way under competitor solutions and seriously attractive to fledgling cloud gaming providers.
Consoles were a big focus of the AMD press event and GDC itself. With the Radeon-powered Xbox 360 and Wii U and the AMD semi-custom APU-powered PlayStation 4, AMD is claiming dominance over the console market.
Microsoft didn't make any announcements about their next gen console and none of the AMD guys gave away any secrets, but they sure seem pleased with themselves. At the AMD Press event, Neal Robison talked about how it's rare to find a multi-billion dollar industry dominated by three players (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo), and repeated the sentiments "It's safe to say AMD are dominating consoles" and will continue to do so with "Customized SoC's provided to customers like Sony". Three players, and we're talking about customers like Sony -- hmm, wonder who that could be.
Analyst Rob Enderle took the stage to talk about console hardware and how nobody expected the refresh cycle to stretch to nearly 10 years. The reason for this is simple: economics. The consoles cost so much the shelf life had to be vastly extended to get the expected return to cover costs, be profitable, and let companies continue operations for the next product cycle. Rob went on to say "Cheaper consoles mean faster refresh cycles. AMD's platform means consistency between platforms." This again drives down costs, speeds up development time, and makes for what Rob calls a "huge advantage for AMD", going on to say, "if they are dominant on the console side, they have a chance to dominate on the PC side."
The final 'C' is common across Client, Console and Cloud: Content. AMD's Gaming Evolved program has effectively become the dominant force in modern PC gaming, providing seed hardware to developers and on-site resources to development houses big and small. Recently all the big titles launched have featured the AMD Gaming evolved logo, and special effects that not only work great on GCN hardware but more importantly are not vendor locked, instead leveraging common or de facto standards like DirectX 11 DirectCompute, OpenGL, and OpenCL.
The last time we spoke with Neal Robison, he said AMD were increasing their spend on seed hardware and on developing techniques to share with the developer community -- for example, Global Illumination in DiRT Showdown, which appeared just six months after the forward render technique tech demo was shown for the Tahiti launch, and now with games like Tomb Raider where TressFX was in-game before the tech demo for it was completed. AMD aren't paying developers to do this: they want to do it because it's simple and easy and uses their existing tools to do it.
AMD's presence at GDC 13 was partnered with many premier names in the gaming industry -- both developers and technology providers.
Kicking it off was the new Ruby demo, developed using CryEngine 3 and codenamed Project Phoenix. This was the subject of one of AMD's GDC sessions, where AMD and Crytek discussed how they used the power of CryEngine with specific extensions -- optimized for use with Graphics Core Next features -- to provide high fidelity visuals. The approach was not unlike crafting a cinematic experience, leveraging choreographic motion captured models -- including facial motion capture -- for Ruby and her robotic foes.
Lighting was a big feature of the new demo, only part of which has been previewed so far, namely point source to area lighting. Area lighting increases specular effects, provides better shadows, and with addition of raycasting allows reflections to include textures. Effects such as orbs, streams, coronas, and flares can become more artistic instead of programmed, leading to a more natural and diverse look and feel to each game despite using the same engine.
Crytek's Nick Button-Brown announced a forthcoming new patch for Crysis 3 that enables AMD Eyefinity and HD3D support. Crytek want to bring in new features and technologies to push the boundaries, which is why in the Ruby demo they brought TressFX and the associated render techniques like order independent transparency using per-pixel linked lists to provide transparency, and applied lighting technologies with innovations in shading and rendering like area based lighting, screen space directional occlusion, and real-time local reflections, all to push visual fidelity into cinematic realms.
To celebrate 10 years of Ruby, established partners Digital Domain, Art Bully, and The Graphics Film Company came together to work towards a cinematic feel to the demonstration. Using CryEngine 3 is a departure for AMD -- usually they put together an executable that demonstrates the technical aspects being shown off. Here however, AMD want to highlight how well the tool chain works; this demo is to sell developers on using these advanced techniques in meaningful ways -- a critical element for great content on both PC and console using AMD Graphics technology.
AMD's hour long GDC session about the technology in the Ruby demo was well attended and received, and underscored the new close relationship AMD have with Crytek under the Gaming Evolved program.
I spoke with John Gustafson, AMD's Senior Fellow and Chief Product Architect for Graphics at some length. In the press event on Tuesday night he spoke about how as gesture recognition, eye tracking, and realistic physics become key features in consumer computing, we will need greater performance per watt to drive it.
Graphics Core Next (GCN) is the graphics architecture of choice for the foreseeable future for all AMD product lines, but that doesn't mean there aren't going to be tweaks to it rather than just the configuration choices and process technology improvements we saw in the recently released AMD Radeon HD 7790 'Bonaire' series. The graphics design pipeline is long and a new set of eyes can reveal 'blind spots' ready for optimization -- John indicates he's seen two areas for find significant performance per watt improvements: memory and precision. He talked about how the need for precision varies and that while double precision is necessary in some segments, others don't even need single precision. If it were possible to offer dynamic or stepped precision capabilities between the current 32-bit and 64-bit modes, physics (for example) could be made less 'expensive' as fewer transistors and therefore less power is used to deliver the results. The long pipeline means we'll see the fruits of John's guiding hand come in the Pirate Islands series, ostensibly due around late 2014 or early 2015.
AMD aren't done with the Radeon HD 7000 series, and still have new products to come in 2013. They are currently operating on a cadence of three new chips a year, which is very fast. I talked with John about how integrating into a company like AMD -- with obvious turmoil -- is working out for him and he was overwhelmingly positive. While AMD could be accused of building a mole network by seeding their former Fellows, officers and engineering boffins into their competitive companies, this leaves opportunities inside AMD. John believes this has been a good thing for him, as the natural cliques and old-boy networks have been disrupted from the top down, leaving a company to be molded by the leadership team, something they are doing by starting with clear, simple communication that shows how execution in key areas will deliver the winning results the company needs. The cynic in me wants to say 'what else would he say' but John is not a PR guy's dream, just sticking to the script and shying away from the sensitive areas -- he speaks from what appears to be a place of genuine excitement and trust that AMD are going to succeed. Which is nice.
So, are the days of high performance high end graphics over? Not according to John. In fact, he offers the belief AMD are going after the high end like they never had before -- everything starts with designing for the PC gamer first. Effective HPC products from AMD can differ from their consumer counterparts by about 3% in terms of design, meaning the difference between a HPC massively parallel processor and a consumer high end graphics chip could be just some commented out 'includes' in the Verilog. Well, not quite, but you get the idea -- there's no HPC tax or walking away from graphics with the big performance products to satisfy other markets.
I walked away from AMD's broad presence at GDC 2013 with confidence restored in them, so objective achieved by the PR team. More than that, the impression is lasting, as while some of the guys doing the real work may have changed from the familiar names we met before, that doesn't mean AMD isn't bringing in new and experienced talent. Rather, they are, and at many levels. AMD in 2013 are aware of their opportunities and are working hard to address their shortcomings. Oh, and they're all out of bubblegum, so it must be time to kick ass.