A look at Intel’s Latest PC Game Developer Relations Strategy

GDC Watch: We are still in the game, come optimize for us.

GDC, an annual conference on latest trends and software techniques to game developers, held their 2013 event last week. So hardware vendors are giving their best shot at persuading the world to write and optimize gaming code on their hardware. Intel is no exception.

So Randi Rost, Manager of Intel Consumer Application Planning and Marketing Team and the Visual Computing Academic Program at Intel Software and Services Group [Author’s note: Putting it in simpler words, game developer and university relations.] gave “some of the top reasons why game developers should target Intel HD Graphics” in his twitter feed throughout GDC, we have made a nice little table to let you read this list in a less painful way.

#1 Through feb 2013, Intel HD Graphics 3000 has been #1 graphics device on Steam Survey for 8 straight months Link
#2 73% of Steam game players use Intel processors Link
#3 Three of top six graphics products used by game players on Steam are Intel HD Graphics Link
#4 Intel shipped 300,000,000 processors in 2012. 270,00,000 had Intel HD Graphics Link
#5 PC Gaming Alliance revealed yesterday that PC games software market is $20B (capital B!) per year, 8% growth in 2012 Link
#6 It takes Intel 3 months to ship as many processors as any game console has shipped in its entire lifetime Link
#7 PC game titles pay 0% royalties to hardware manufacturers Link
#8 600 million PC gamers (or 1 billion, depending on who you ask) Link
#9 Intel has SOLVED order-independent transparency, and on mainstream integrated graphics! Link
#10 Game PC’s = 722M. Game Consoles = 220M. Why not target a market >3x larger? Link
#11 Because it is part of the Core CPU, Intel HD Graphics is produced using the same industry-leading 22nm mdg tech as Intel CPUs Link
#12 Plan to purchase in 2013: PC = 36%, Console = 7% Link
#13 6 companies had over $1B in PC game software revenues in 2012 Link
#14 >50M Steam users times 13% using Intel HD Graphics = 7,000,000 Steam Intel HD Graphics users Link
#15 [Author’s note: This is an ad to promote their game creation competition in co-operation with Steam.] Link
#16 PC game industry has an industry consortium, PC Gaming Alliance that is looking out for it Link

In a nutshell, this is how these “reasons” are categorized:

“Where the PC gaming market is?”
For Intel processors
“Where the PC gaming market is?”
For the PC platform in general
Valid technical reasons
Irrelevant crap

And the fun starts here, #1, #3 and #14 is only one reason that’s been elaborated or was expanded upon to make three tweets, and they don’t discount gaming notebooks with discrete GPUs as switchable graphics. #2 is not valid for the topic of optimizing using Intel HD Graphics.  This is because the install base of the enthusiast CPUs (for instance, Core i7-3970X processor) is not discounted. #4 and #6 includes every single processor that Intel ships, including the dying Itanium, Xeon server processors, embedded processors for industrial applications and every PC sold to customers for business and productivity applications instead of gaming.

Reason #7 deals with console-only games.  Since many of the console-only games are developed by the game studios being held by the respective console makers, often for the sake of the grabbing the halo for their gaming consoles, so that’s not a direct financial incentive. Reason #11 and #16 made us wonder if Intel is really grasping at straws here, so they have to resort to fabrication technologies and an industry consortium that doesn’t really serves much purpose besides promoting the idea that the PC gaming market is still growing on a year-on-year basis? [Author’s note: NVIDIA is notably absent, but Qualcomm is one of the consortium members.]

Reason #12 ignores the fact that all 7th generation consoles, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii, are reaching a transition period to the 8th generation in the next three years.  This began in December 2012 with the launch of Wii U, and the launch of PlayStation 4 alongside the next Xbox in the upcoming holiday season, in late Q4 2013.  The “desire to purchase” for any informed, avid gamer is naturally low with announcements and launches  of the next generation growing closer.

So reason #9 is the only valid reason on the technical side of what Intel hardware has on the table for the developers.  Intel announced two Direct3D 11 Extensions [PDF file] for Haswell processors: InstantAccess, also known as Zero-copy, which was first available with AMD Llano APUs, and PixelSync for enabling order-independent transparency (OIT) for DirectX 11 games.  These seem to be the only real thing Intel has for devs.

[Charlie’s note: I saw the presentations on this at GDC and felt they weren’t worth an article. One was a copy of AMD’s Zero Copy as AMD points out, and the other is useless without Crystalwell. Multiple game devs were asked about both features at GDC.  Their responses tended to sneer at Intel graphics rather than care about any features it had. I think uptake on these features will be akin to the infamous “unexplained rash after a night of drinking”, and will stay that way until Intel un-borks their graphics driver situation. Don’t hold your breath on that, they don’t care, they have your money.]

And if the companies are firm believers in Steam hardware survey numbers, then reasons #1, #3, and #14 would be the only valid points on the market size for Intel HD Graphics on gaming. So 1 in 16 (or 1 in 4 if you believe the Steam numbers and don’t combine #1, #3 and #14 as one reason) real “top reasons” why game developers should target Intel HD Graphics are valid.

A little background information here. Intel, the world’s largest CPU manufacturer for PCs and servers, wasn’t interested in game developer relations some 15 years ago when Xbox 360 went for the PowerPC architecture [PDF file], and when gaming on mainstream PCs without discrete graphics was just a dream.  Intel doesn’t have capable graphics products, so x86 code optimizations on the game engine for Intel processors would have to be enough.

Only after NVIDIA launched sleaze attacks on Intel did Intel begin to realize this was an issue.  The attacks focused upon how a mainstream Intel system with Intel integrated graphics just can’t play any PC games, same for their CPUs with Intel HD processor graphics. Of course, Intel hasn’t been silent. While there has been some controversy about NVIDIA’s internal benchmarking the on-lookers seem to be aware of most of the game.

The case become a little more embarrassing for Intel when their graphics drivers were nowhere near what they promised time after time. Even with fancy bullet points and all the slide talk on the features, the execution on the graphics driver side was still somewhere between meh to craptastic to utter failure in delivering (for those who are interested in the history of Intel drivers delivery failures, you can read our articles at here, here and here), but we wouldn’t say it’s without any improvements at all. The same case goes for recent Atom-based tablets. Well, on the bright side, at least you can still boot up your machine and do normal tasks like browsing Facebook or launching a point-of-sale application, and that’s what Intel marketeers and PR guys are paid to get you  to believe. [Charlie’s note 2: I asked many devs about Intel graphics drivers at GDC last week, specifically the DX11 implementation. Most said it was complete and didn’t really cheat much, but the hardware, even the upcoming NDA’d stuff, was too painfully slow to bother targeting. Take home message – functional but useless for gaming.]

As their strategy to continues their “MacBook Air Clone” (MAC) project [Author’s note: Though MacBook Air is abbreviated as MBA to most people, the B was omitted intentionally because Intel doesn’t want to admit they are cloning it] with a additional useless features (namely a touchscreen, accelerometer and gyroscope) when it has failed in the market, so they have to do game developer relations too. Remember Intel was pitching for optimizing games for the mainstream platform just a year or two ago? [Charlie’s note 3: Game devs laughed at that too.]

[Author’s note: Intel’s hard push with their perceptual SDK and announcing Havok Anarchy being free on mobile platform demonstrates their strategy to persuade developers to develop for their x86 smartphones and tablets, and thus benefiting the MAC project mentioned above. But it’s another story that we will not be covering here.]

When it comes to game developer relations, if a company is not going to invest a lot into pushing their own technologies (with or without locking out other vendors through subsidizing game development) and hiring at least one on-site software engineer per AAA game title like NVIDIA did for TWIMTBP, it’s best to have some bullet points to persuade game studios and even indie developers to optimize their game on the hardware.  One of the most persuasive points would be the answer to the question “Where is your market?”. Basically, the same market potential talk with fancy CAGR numbers and a very large TAM to the marketing guys. And this is exactly what Intel game developer relations wanted to tell everyone. [Charlie’s note 4: If GDC was any indication, Intel better dust off the suitcases full of cash for game developers from the Larrabee era.]

And that’s probably why we are seeing some of these far-fetched “reasons” above.  With the illusion of a very big market that’s not been explored based on Steam hardware surveys, and only one valid technical reason to justify the move to optimize for Intel hardware Intel needs to make the case publicly. This move seems to demonstrate how desperately Intel wants to convey the “we are still in the game, and leading” message to game developers, but given AMD game developer relations is going bang the PC + console market combined in the next 3-5 years as a result of a clean sweep in console design wins with semi-custom chips and the toolchain optimizations on Jaguar CPU cores and GCN GPU architecture on compute, Intel is nowhere near the “leading” position as what they are claiming right now.

This list is a joke, and this move is really pathetic. [Charlie’s note 5: Not as much of a joke as the “journalists” who repeated it breathlessly without asking any devs what they thought.]S|A

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Leo Yim

Author at SemiAccurate
Leo Yim is our correspondent from the far flung reaches of East Asia. Fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English he'd rather be talking about computers no matter what language. A true detail man he dreams of building gaming rigs from workstation class parts.