nVidia’s purchase of Ageia signals the dawn of a new era in PC gaming.
For those who didn’t know, Ageia is known for their “PhysX” hardware cards, which use a proprietary API to offload game physics to a dedicated processor. Industry support hasn’t been all that great for the PC, so it has been hard for the average consumer to justify a $200 purchase to get more out of a handfull of PC games.
There have been other fledgling PC gaming technologies over the past several years, which are now minimum features for any serious game.
3d positional audio was once a novelty, and several companies tried (and failed) to corner the market. Aureal was the first company to make boards that processed 3d audio in hardware, even with only two speakers, but their proprietary technology died shortly after the rest of the industry accepted DirectX.
Remember 3dfx? They pioneered the first hardware-accelerated 3d cards for PC games (an area which nVidia now dominates). At one time, 3dfx’s Voodoo cards were in the same position as Ageia’s PhysX boards. It was difficult for the average PC user to justify a $250 purchase for a cards that used a proprietary API and supported only a handful of games. For the hardcore gamers, these cards were a no-brainer because they transformed the PC into a legitimate gaming platform.
As PC games have become more realistic and complicated, there has been a need for advanced processing of physics. A dedicated processor for game physics allow developers to have more particles and more life-like explosions and realistic damage calculations.
The PhysX technology also debuted just before multi-core processors became mainstream, and developers are just starting to utilize these processor’s full potential. A dedicated physics processor may no longer be necessary, as developers can spin off a thread on a multi-core CPU to handle game engine calculations, which in theory would have more horsepower than Ageia’s dedicated solution. This trick is used by the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, which is the entire reason why these consoles have multi-core CPUs to begin with.
If left to their current course, Ageia’s PhysX hardware for PCs could possible fade within the next few years, given the trend of multi-threaded game engines emerging.
Several years ago, nVidia purchased 3dfx at a time when 3dfx was about to be sucked into a black hole. There was no need to purchase 3dfx from a competition standpoint, and nVidia already conquered several problems that 3dfx could not (a series of critical moves which awarded the graphics market to nVidia).
It is puzzling why nVidia chose to purchase Ageia. It all comes down to marketing, and how nVidia will choose to push the PhysX technology. It is clear from their press release that nVidia is planning to incorporate hardware physics processing in their new chips (or possibly a co-processor on the same card), but will this hardware be needed?
What makes this news exciting for PC gamers is that the next generation of cards will probably get the functionality of PhysX cards “for free”. Once there is a sizable marketshare of PC hardware that is PhysX capable, then developers will start to make hardware physics a standard requirement in their games.
Although the press release states that over 140 games use PhysX technology, very few of these are PC games. Most of these games are on the Xbox and Playstation 3, which spin off a thread using a general-purpose processor. If nVidia can create a graphics chip that incorporates hardware physics, then they could easily win a contract for the next generation of consoles.
nVidia’s purchase of Ageia demonstrates the company’s commitment to push gaming technology further. Once an integrated “super-GPU” becomes standard, then nearly every video game (be they PC or console) will support more complex game engines, which will surely make games even more immersive and realistic.