For me, and I suspect for many of you, upgrading a graphics card used to be one of the most exciting things you could do to a desktop PC. With a dreamy look on my face, I still remember when I plugged in my first 1MB PCI graphics card, allowing me to bump up my screen resolution from 800×600 to 1024×768 — and then, later, slotting in a 4MB card, the number of colors leapt up from a dithered 256 to a jaw-dropping 16 million.
A few years later, in the mid-90s, primarily thanks to 3Dfx, 3D accelerators emerged. As far as gaming is concerned, the next decade was a blur. ATI debuted its Rage graphics card in 1995, with both 2D and 3D acceleration. Nvidia outed the GeForce 256 in 1999, introducing hardware transform and lighting (TL). In 2000, with the release of the GeForce 2 (and the MX range), 3Dfx had finally met its match; by 2002, the company would file for bankruptcy, and Nvidia would scoop up its intellectual property and employees. By the end of 2000 (GeForce 2 Ultra, my first real graphics card!), graphics cards maxed out at 250MHz core speeds and up to 64MB of 128-bit 7GB/sec DDR RAM.
By 2005, with the release of the ATI Radeon X1000 series (R520) and Nvidia 7000 series (G70), we were up to 512MB of RAM per GPU (and 1GB on dual-GPU cards), effective memory clocks in the 1GHz range, 256-bit memory buses with 50GB/sec bandwidth, and pretty DirectX 9 games such as Battlefield 2. And then the seventh-generation consoles happened.
Designed and conceived in 2003-2004, and released in 2005-2006, the PlayStation 3 (which has an G70-like GPU) and Xbox 360 (R520) had bleeding edge capabilities at the time. When Sony showed the Final Fantasy 7 tech demo (above), the office desks and pillows of gamer geeks the world over raised a few inches. Seven years on, though, and their graphics capabilities are looking a little long in the tooth. Over the same period of time, video game consoles have replaced PCs as the de facto gaming platform. As a result, as I’m sure you’re aware, almost every A-list video game is first developed for the antiquated consoles, and then ported to the PC, usually with scant few changes to the interface or engine. Never mind the fact that the latest AMD and Nvidia GPUs, with over a thousand shader cores, are now considerably more powerful (and complex) than CPUs, and support bandwidths of 200GB/sec to 4GB of RAM — developers simply aren’t interested in spending the time and money to develop games for such hardware, when the bulk of their customers are still using an Xbox or PS3.
All this is about to change, though. Over the next couple of years, the eighth generation of consoles will be released, and nestled within them will be DirectX 11 GPUs. The current rumors are that both the PS4 and Xbox 720 (or whatever they end up being called) will have one or two Southern Islands AMD HD 7000-series GPUs. At long last, consoles will again be comparable to PCs. After 7 years of waiting, we should finally see PC games that fully capitalize on the awesome GPUs that AMD and Nvidia keep pumping out.
And now we’ve finally reached the point of this story: To show you what these next-generation games will look like. Over the last couple of months, a handful of beautiful, rendered-in-real-time tech demos have emerged from Square Enix, Epic Games, and Nvidia. While the Nvidia demo is obviously more of a benchmark, the demos from Square Enix and Epic Games are what we can expect over the next couple of years.
The first is A New Dawn, the follow-up to Nvidia’s rather famous decade-old Dawn tech demo. This video was rendered in real time on two GTX 670 cards in SLI.
The next is the Unreal Engine 3 Samaritan demo, which was recently shown running on a single Nvidia GTX 680 at the Game Developer Conference. It’s worth noting that Unreal Engine 4 has apparently been in development in 2003, and is expected to target eighth-generation console hardware; i.e. the current crop of Nvidia and AMD graphics cards.
Finally, we have Agni’s Philosophy, a real-time tech demo from Square Enix that uses off-the-shelf hardware — but the company hasn’t said specifically which graphics card(s) are being used. If this doesn’t elicit a huge grin and various exultant grunts, I don’t know what will.
Updated @ June 8: Epic Games has finally unveiled Unreal Engine 4! It doesn’t look quite as good as Agni’s Philosophy, but still rather cool.