Tech Focus: Where Now For PC Graphics Hardware?

Digital Foundry on the challenges facing NVIDIA and AMD in a console-led development environment

The arrival of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 redefined the landscape of games development. Cutting edge gaming software and technology - once the preserve of PC alone - found a new home: game developers that had once pushed back the frontiers of PC graphics and gameplay soon realised that the consoles presented a more profitable, viable market. Creators like Infinity Ward made the switch early, but as the generation progressed, even PC stalwarts like Crytek and id software transitioned across to console-led development.

With PC gaming becoming less relevant, graphics card manufacturers were left facing a big problem: how to make their pricey, enthusiast products more appealing to the core audience when the lion's share of games were mostly console ports. Running these games at ever-increasing frame-rates and resolutions could only go so far - the hardcore gamers wanted more but the development of impactful PC exclusive features could not be justified by the returns. Meanwhile, PC graphics technology continued to improve by leaps and bounds but the standards setting releases like the original Crysis and Doom 3 were becoming ever rarer. There's a strong argument that PC graphics tech was far more powerful than it really needed to be, with precious little to show for the mammoth levels of rendering might on tap.

Entry-level enthusiast GPUs of a few years ago effortlessly out-quaff console graphics tech, while modern day PC hardware is generations beyond. Next-gen is here now, but this hardware is somewhat under-utilised.

Make no mistake - even the entry-level enthusiasts' graphics cards of a few years ago effortlessly annihilate the RSX and Xenos graphics cores in the current generation consoles. The venerable NVIDIA 8800GT - for years an enthusiast favourite, and still capable of running most new titles adequately - has the consoles beaten in terms of available RAM, bandwidth, stream processors and virtually any other metric you would care to mention. It can run the original Crysis in all its unoptimised glory at a fair old lick, even at 1080p - something that the consoles can't match, even running on the more streamlined CryEngine 3.

That was then. This is now. The modern day equivalents of the 8800GT - the GTX560s and Radeon 6870s of the world - are generations beyond that, conservatively offering two to three times the performance level. But with this level of power now in the mainstream, are we genuinely seeing anything that capitalises on the raw capabilities of these mid-level cards? Here's a comparison of Batman: Arkham City on Xbox 360 alongside a fully maxed-out PC DirectX 11 version of the game.

The PC used to capture this Batman: Arkham City footage is inordinately more powerful than the Xbox 360, but this is not exactly reflected by this head-to-head video.

Despite the enormous differences between console and PC architecture, the sad reality for PC gamers is that most releases produced today are clearly targeted at the console audience. PC represents the ability to run with improved resolutions and much higher frame-rates, but the fact is that the base assets of the game are designed with the limitations of consoles in mind and the core rendering paradigms we've seen adopted this generation (deferred lighting being a prime example) are all about extracting more performance from the fixed architecture of the consoles. Any advantages to PC gamers are mostly a bonus.

Environment, object and character detail is all based around the capabilities of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and in most cases, texture quality looks great at 720p - but somewhat suspect when running at a higher resolution (though as it happens, Arkham City is one of the few games that does scale up beautifully thanks to higher detail PC art). In many cases, the enormous vertex-processing power of the graphics cards remains mostly untapped - often relegated merely to less aggressive LOD (level of detail) handling, processing faraway detail that many probably won't notice anyway. PC graphics have become synonymous with higher precision - FP16 framebuffers, soft shadows, superior ambient occlusion algorithms, but there's definitely a law of diminishing returns here. Embellishing console visuals often requires far more GPU processing power, but it's not being translated into a tangibly superior gameplay experience.

Here's a good example that demonstrates this. In this video we're comparing the various graphical modes found in Crysis 2 on PC, ranging from the basic high quality setting - equivalent to console - to the more extreme modes. The impact on performance is substantial, but the question remains: is all that power translating into a game that's tangibly better than the console experience? For Crysis 2, the extra bling is of course welcome, but the fact is that it's still the increased resolution and frame-rate advantages that are the major reason for playing the game on PC, alongside the obvious interface benefits presented by mouse and keyboard.

The PC used to capture this Batman: Arkham City footage is inordinately more powerful than the Xbox 360, but this is not exactly reflected by this head-to-head video.

AMD and NVIDIA perhaps recognised that the advantages of their advanced hardware are somewhat under-utilised, coming up with some interesting new PC exclusive features in the form of EyeFinity and 3D Vision. Both are niche experiences but lucrative in their own ways, mostly because of a hardware tie-in.

EyeFinity allows gamers to connect multiple screens to their graphics cards and to use the expanded real estate to generate much larger views: why limit gameplay to 1920x1080 when a triple-screen 5760x1080 set-up provides a true panoramic "surround" view? AMD can sell higher-end cards (or multiples in a CrossFire set-up) and the display vendors win as more screens are sold. AMD is also busy deploying its new HD3D stereoscopic 3D rendering set-up, but it's safe to say that this is one area where its rival has taken the lead.

EyeFinity and 3D Vision show how AMD and NVIDIA are leveraging their graphics hardware, but PC features and performance may well be 'unlocked' by next-gen console development.

NVIDIA's 3D Vision is arguably an even more ambitious exercise than EyeFinity - the vendor partnering up with screen manufacturers working on 120Hz screens to produce a state-of-the-art 3D gaming system. True stereoscopy requires the ability to process geometry twice and to cope with "painting" twice as many pixels - in an age where games are driven by console-level assets, that's a walk in the park, even for NVIDIA's mid-range products such as the GTX560. It's reckoned that NVIDIA sold around half a million pairs of 3D Vision glasses - a modest success, but enough to see the company launch its new 3D Vision 2 initiative, with new glasses and "Lightboost" technology in advanced new displays that eliminates most of the loss of brightness inherent with active shutter glasses technology.

The fact that Sony has aggressively pushed 3D has only helped NVIDIA's cause - unlike the PS3, there's more than enough raw power in graphics card technology to bring home all the benefits of 3D without the geometry and fill-rate complications that have seen a number of visual downgrades on PS3 3D titles. But these are niche exercises designed to get the most out of top-tier products aimed at gamers with money to invest in equipment - where does this leave the typical core PC gamer?

Details remain sketchy about the form next-gen consoles will take, but it's basically an open secret that Microsoft's design heavily utilises DirectX 11 architecture. This is a double-edged sword. New, powerful, cheap hardware would be a challenge to PC's supremacy in offering the top-tier gaming experience. Alternatively, a DX11 focus could revitalise the platform on which it all began.

DirectX 11 is a game-changer - the API concentrates on the advantages of parallelism, and introduces a wealth of new technologies: tessellation allows for the creation of far more detailed geometry on the fly for example, while DirectCompute shaders open up GPU power to developers for whatever tasks they want. Post-processing effects like anti-aliasing and motion blur would be good candidates, but the sky is literally the limit here.

Unfortunately, few developers have completely embraced DX11, and where it has been deployed, it is once again being used for iterative improvements upon existing renderers, rather than as the basis for the core engine tech. It's another example of how in the majority of cases, PC functionality is being used for embellishments upon an existing console engine ported across to the PC. Indeed, in many cases, there is no support for DX11 at all.

The brave exception to the rule is DICE's Battlefield 3, built from the ground up with next-gen and DX11 in mind, and a phenomenal example of how impressive the API is. What is especially noteworthy about Battlefield 3 is how the game doesn't especially rely upon top-end video cards for a next-gen level experience: a quad core CPU in combination with a mid-level DX11 GPU can produce superb results. This is an example of how DX11 isn't just about performance sapping extra features - when used as intended, it actually delivers significant performance improvements. BF3 also embraces the ComputeShaders exclusive to DX11, in this case purposed towards calculating the tile-based deferred lighting - an effect that looks spectacular.

BF3 is a sign of things to come - on both PC and next-gen console. On the one hand, movement towards a similar style of development could see an enormous range of existing gaming PCs suddenly become viable as next-gen console alternatives - the leap from Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is that pronounced. But on the other hand, the sheer popularity and software support behind the new consoles, plus comparatively cheap price points may well call into question the continued relevance of mainstream PC gaming. How the landscape will change, and how AMD and NVIDIA will react will be fascinating...

Latest comments (25)

Given the amount of cost and time required to create current AAA 360/PS3 titles, I really can't see how the next generation of consoles is going to result in a substancial improvement in graphics: sure they will be have better draw distances, more detailed objects, and more objects visible at anytime - but to the average gamer (or non-gamer), the incremental difference will be tiny compared to last generation.

I'm more than willing to be proved wrong, but I think the DX11 examples highlighted here are a great example of this.
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James Boulton Owner, Retro HQ Ltd5 years ago
Unfortunately, as has always been the case, you develop for the lowest common denominator in cross-platform game development. If you are lucky enough to be able to develop for a single platform you can really milk it for every last bit of performance, but when you have 2 or 3 platforms to support simultaneously optimisation often takes a back seat to cross platform compatibility.

As mentioned, nowadays even an entry spec PC massively out-powers any console, so is going to be the one left sorely lacking. It's a shame, but it's inevitable, it's just good business sense.

Come the next wave of consoles the playing field will even out again in terms of power, console vs PC, and things will become more interesting again. I cant wait to exploit all the lovely things we can do the PC on consoles at 60fps.

I believe there will always be a PC gaming market, though. As is said, it's always the cutting edge of technology, and that's what some people strive to have. And of course I would never trade a mouse and a keyboard for a joypad for playing first person titles, so there certainly are genres which suit a PC better.
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Richard Gardner Artist, Crytek5 years ago
A possible solution to many multi platform issues could be cloud gaming, many people predict it will come as soon as two years (technically its already here). The next generation consoles will possibly have cloud demo's to enhance there consumer portals and encourage spending but I can't see it going mainstream for a while.

But the idea of unifying the industry under PC architecture again could be great for visual fidelity, turning Microsoft and Sony into software portals across multiple devices, with Windows 8 (PC, Console and Mobile) been the stepping stone to Microsoft's multi platform domination with Windows 9. Then Sony buying Ericsson to also compete and stay competitive in the future cloud.

The problem comes into play with when and how the industry transitions, for it to succeed in a business sense a game engine would have to be drastically different than it is today. But how does the whole industry jump onto the cloud together? The simple answer is they won't, much like digital distribution it will take many years, but over time you will begin to see more and more cloud exclusives.

But who is to say this will even happen? Looking at the power of Nvidia, Intel, Microsoft and Sony. If its not in there best interest it will be crushed. Much like the VCR and BETAMAX the best technology doesn't always win.
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Surely there must be an ability to have scalar visual fidelity with the lowest base common denominator as the minimum spec?
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David Spender Lead Programmer 5 years ago
Its not just visual quality that's suffering from this console lowest common denominator effect. The PC's keyboard and mouse interface is becoming a casualty. Skyrim's k/m interface is a disaster. If separate PC development for such a relatively simple thing (compared to a DX11 / HQ texture overhaul) is being tossed aside, what hope is there for improved visuals.

However, one wonders in the case of Skyrim, since (individual!) modders seemingly find it so easy to increase all texture visuals to PC levels and create a brand new k/m interface, why companies don't just invest the time to begin with. Has PC gaming been marginalized that much that it is just left with the scraps? Will that ever change? I almost doubt it.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
To be honest, the mouse has always been a disaster. Two really convenient buttons for your right hand and everything else is cluttered on your keyboard hand. No surprise joypads are taking over, they are just better designed and fit the hands better.

If we had better mice, let's say with four buttons in the style of your car's power windows, we could get somewhere. And not twelve buttons crammed under your thumb, but nice push/pullies for every finger.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
Whilst it adds to costs by some amount, I honestly don't know why more publishers don't go the route of Eidos Montreal and farm out PC development past a certain point. Nixxes created a true wonder with their PC version of Deus Ex:HR, and that should be applauded.
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David Spender Lead Programmer 5 years ago
@Klaus -- However, there's a reason why most games do not allow cross platform multiplayer betwen PC and console. The mouse/keyboard players completely own - that interface is totally superior to the joypad.

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I do prefer the joypad for 3rd person games like uncharted and tombraider, though.
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Dave Wolfe Game Developer, Cosmic Games5 years ago
@Klaus The mouse hasn't been a disaster, it just depends on the type of game you play and how much you're willing to spend on a mouse. FPS and RTS games are much better with a mouse than a gamepad. And there are mice with multiple buttons that are well placed, they just typically don't come included with a new computer so many people just stick with the generic mouse. Check out some offerings from Microsoft, Logitech, Razer. Not all gaming mice have 12 buttons under the thumb.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game5 years ago
"Whilst it adds to costs by some amount, I honestly don't know why more publishers don't go the route of Eidos Montreal and farm out PC development past a certain point."

I'd guess down to the bit about adding to the cost, and more specifically, adding the cost for a platform wherea relitively small percentage of your sales will be made.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
Mmm... Maybe. I mean, yes, you're almost certainly right. But it's a shame that consoles have become the focus of the publishers, to the detriment of the PC, even when they deign to "develop" for it. I could live with games not coming to the PC (I've survived this long without Alan Wake, I'm sure I can survive longer). But to bring them to the PC in such a half-assed manner, like Rockstar's GTA4 port for example... Well, it's annoying, to say the least.

Silly industry.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago

Trust me, I tried them all. And no mouse is satisfactory. First problem is size. My hand is 20cm from wrist to fingertops. Finding a mouse which conveniently rest beneath my hand is borderline impossible. I go with a Lachesis, because it fits best. The rest is made for girls, children, or a combination of both.

Next up are buttons. Obviously, there are the two big ones and you can't argue against them. They work, which is why every game uses them and failure to master those two buttons results in death. All other buttons are plain #+*!##. Press a thumb button and most mice are so sensitive, that you also push the mouse to the right a little. A button pushing in the same direction as one of the movement axis' is a bad idea. You never get precision out of that button. Secondly, you need to cramp your thump to push it, but if you want the mouse to move with better precision, you need a relaxed thumb. Then there are the MMO mice with their 12 buttons for the thumb. Those things are too small and it is hard to push one button only, provided you have a regular size adult thumb. The mouse wheel might be nice for scrolling an explorer window, but other than browsing a selection screen of weapons or zooming, there have been few games making good use of it.

Learn from the joypad. The joypad uses your right thumb for pointing and the other fingers for various triggers. That is convenient. Which is why I believe in the idea of a mouse with a two way switch for every finger. Just like you have in a car, when you play around with your electric windows.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
Urgh... Well Off Topic I know, but I hate the "Right Thumb For Pointing" thing on joypads. Always have. Not saying mice are great, but I can aim on a 3600dpi mouse far easier than I can on a PS3 pad. Which just goes to show it takes all sorts. :)
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Guy Gildersleve Studying Computer Games Design, Staffordshire University5 years ago
The future is cloud gaming. Its just we aren't ready for it just yet, give it 10-15 years and I believe cloud gaming will be the norm and while consoles and pc's will still be around. They will be threatened by cloud gaming or even already adopted it.

One example is Steam, When it first came out it was new, it was different but it was nothing compared to everything else. It had automatic updates and a digital copy of your game, so you didn't need a disc and could potentially throw it away.
Now look at Steam today it pretty much dominates the PC market, If you have your game on PC and not on Steam, your pretty much saying goodbye to a lot of money. Its slowly making its way to consoles, with the PS3.

I believe its the same concept just different beast.
With cloud gaming you could potentially choose to play with the mouse & keyboard or gamepad. The choice is yours.

Until that day arrives, consoles remain kings in gaming.
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Dave Wolfe Game Developer, Cosmic Games5 years ago
@Klaus I agree about the MMO mice, and although I don't have any problems with the size of most mice I can understand where you're coming from...Logitech used to make a really nice and large 4 button mouse before the clickwheel became all the rage. That was my favorite mouse, I used it until it disintegrated.

I have another Logitech mouse I've been happy with that has 4 buttons + clickwheel, and I haven't had any sensitivity issues with it. With the exception of a tiny laptop mouse from Microsoft, I haven't had any issues with side buttons and sensitivity, but the left/right that some clickwheels have tend to be problematic so I leave those unbound. I will take a mouse + keyboard for FPS and RTS games any day, a joypad just doesn't come close. And you have limited input (or awkward at least) since you have limited access to the buttons right next to your thumb that is busy aiming your gun, you can really only get to the trigger buttons. With the mouse you're using your wrist to aim and with a 4 button clickwheel mouse you have at least 7 easily reachable buttons you can use to blow your opponent to smithereens :D
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game5 years ago
I've never met anyone who would argue that joypad controllers were anything but a bodge fit for traditional RTS, but I find it funny how PC a lot of FPS players can't seem to get their head round the idea that some people have tried both mouse and keyboard and controller and have chose controllers, that it is a preference, rather than mouse and keyboard being "clearly indisputably better". You can get a lot more precision on a mouse, my personal opinion (for me) is that the mouse can be a very good aiming device, but this is somewhat damaged for me by how crap I find using the keyboard for movement. I hate not having the analogue, or risking changing weapons and than putting my hand back one key too far to the right, or the fact I get cramp in my wrist, I've always been curious to try one of those half controllers (like a more advanced wii numchuck) with a mouse. But this would mainly for me mainly be for a game built around needing the precision of a mouse, maybe a PC multiplayer, given choice I personally find a pad more fun for shooters, even if it is harder to get a headshot, and at least playing on a console, virtually everyone has the same control advantage/limitation.
I'm not saying this as a "controller is far better" argument, but rather as a "not everyone agrees that mouse is better", it's not as indisbutable as some think, and it's not becuase all console players are stupid and know know better, I have known several people to move from PC to console FPS, and not look back, even as it may also happen the other way too.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters5 years ago
I think the controller/mouse argument depends on whether everyone in the game is using the same device. Yes, it's a matter or personal preference which one you like best, if the choice is playing a multiplayer FPS where everyone is using a mouse vs one where everyone is using a controller. But like it says in that eurogamer article someone linked earlier, in a cross platform game, mediocre players on PC destroyed the best players on console every time. That's what people are really referring to when they say it's indesputably better. It just gives such a huge playing advantage.
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James Ingrams Writer 5 years ago
I think the next consoles will be closer to "entertainment machines" like the Wii, than the "hardcore" consoles of the PS3 and 360. With the advent of "next gen" consoles 7 years ago, we have seen a marked dumbing down of games with more and more hand-holding. PC gamers have complained about this for all of those 7 years and in the last 2 years console gamers have started to complain.

With little graphical improvement in the past 5 years console and PC gamers have started paying more and more attention to the gameplay - and they don't seem to like what they see. I believe the growth in the indie and European PC markets, as well as the rise in interest in retro gaming, through GOG, Live, etc all shows how gamers are demanding more sophistication now. A 15 year old who got a 360 in 2004 is now getting on for 23. The average console gamer is 28 today. So it's not about graphics any more, it's about content.

This dumbing down, I believe, is to prepare us for the generic entertainment machines that will be the next consoles, with their Wii type controllers and "family orientated" game design. Hardcore will be out, other than the PC indie games and mostly European AA publisher's with their intelligent PC only titles STALKER, Gothic, Metro 2033, etc.
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Tony Johns5 years ago
Meanwhile in Japan, the Japanese PC games industry is still going strong, with visual novels and dating sims selling loads with almost saturation and the Otaku audience is supporting that with their hard earned $$$s.

Although those games are cheaper to make and can also be played on any computer dating back to the Windows XP.

I think that the PC games industry in Japan that does not rely on high powered graphics is in a far more healthier position than the western PC games industry that has been relying on mostly Shooters and MMOs for the last 10 years.

I think that Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was perhaps the last real Western game I ever really enjoyed to be honest.

And that was released both on the PS2 and the PC while going to other formats after the SONY contract had ended 6 months later.
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Berislav Jozic Reporter 5 years ago
Related to m/k vs controller: only one of this can be confortably used from couch, comfy chair or bed.
We can argue whatever we like about precision (What use is it anyway? The games are not accuracy contests.) and speed (same argument - go out and compete in running if you want speed) but if people want to relax with the game, they will use the thing that is more comfortable. Relaxing at what is essentialy a workplace (table with the PC on it) just doesn't make sanse for older gamers. And as the gaming population ages, PC gaming will have to go different (tablets) or go niche.
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Kevin Patterson musician 5 years ago
@james - The little difference in graphics is only due to the fact that most games are developed for consoles rather than pc first, otherwise their would be a huge difference in graphics. I kind of miss those days where ID or Epic would release a new game and you would want to upgrade your video card to see it in all it's glory.
Now, everything is dumbed down to work on consoles. Skyrim for instance looks wonderful, but is only Directx9, and doesn't try at all to use modern cards high end features. Even on a high end PC, the textures look muddy up close.
Everyone that says its not about the graphics will be a bit shocked at how impressive the next gen will look if they make high end consoles as before. If they dumb it down, then not so much.
I want a console game experience to look as good as the Samaritan demo from Epic as an example, with bigger and larger environments, more objects on the screen, much sharper textures, larger and more refined animations, etc. It would be great if jaggies were a thing of the past for the next gen as well....
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Kevin Patterson musician 5 years ago
Look at the 3Dmark 11 advanced maxed out settings videos online, those are way beyond the batman and crysis2 videos shown here, and a major advance over anything on console.
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Andrew Ihegbu Studying Bsc Commercial Music, University of Westminster5 years ago
@Berislav Interesting POV, I always thought that FPS gamers - PC or console - were playing a contest of sorts when they played online. Everything within MW3 is oriented towards winning, and that is the method by which everyone enjoyed themselves. Plenty of gamers I know could never relax whilst playing because they would start to lose and stop enjoying themselves.

Back on point, the graphics paradigm is entirely the developers fault. Last generation, lots of games would have thier assets and models created at an FMV level of detail then scaled down for use in the game. This would result in cutscenes with superior visuals, naturally, but it also makes it fairly painless to create another higher LOD for a console. Even textures, which consoles suck at due to their minuscule amounts of RAM( there are phones with more RAM than all three of the consoles) were originally created at a much higher resolution then scaled down to match the resource load. Why not just leave the serious assets in the game?

Ultimately, the Xbox 360 and PS3 used midrange graphics hardware when they came out, and then cut away features and so on to save money. I mean consoles still have pixel pipelines and vertex shaders lol. That graphics hardware came from PC and without it, graphics technology simply wont grow. This is evident when you compare the growth of GPU power from 2004 to now with the growth from from 1997 to 2004. Moore's law failed because there wasn't enough money to best the glass ceilings.
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Richard Gardner Artist, Crytek5 years ago
@Berislav PC games aren't going anywhere, they have just evolved. The Asian market is very much dominated by the PC online gaming sector and some of the numbers from Korean and Chinese games are insane. Nexon one of the leading company's pulls in nearly $1billion revenue a year from pretty much Korean and Japan, I believe that puts them fairly high in the world standings.

The western and asian markets are like chalk an cheese with none of the major developers doing any crossing over. The two cultures are drastically different and each sector is a master in there own art, but its only a matter of time before this widens.
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Rick Cody PBnGames-Board Member 5 years ago
... I don't think this generation has seen it's capacity yet. The increased online presence is the present and future. Make sure all games are available for digital download, increase the scope and ease in which we can share these experiences and make them available whenever, wherever and however we want them. That's next-gen. The graphics aren't a big deal to any of my friends who play games. They're still amazed by Uncharted 3...
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