You’d be hard pressed right now to find PC gamers that aren’t touting the #FuckEpic movement. The general consensus towards the Fortnite developer’s platform is that it’s lacking in basic features, making it far inferior to Valve’s dominant platform. However, even though in terms of features it’s anaemic, what it means for developers is anything but. Epic has used the insane success that they found with Fortnite to build a platform which benefits developers far more than Valve can currently offer. Epic is offering a much more generous revenue, with 88% of the earnings going to the developer/publisher of each game sold on its platform, assuming they are using Unreal Engine 4. In comparison, Steam takes 30% of revenue (and then there are the licencing costs for the game engines like Unity and UE4). That’s a lot of lost profit. When you factor in how much money the publisher would take (kind of like how music labels take revenue from signed artists), the earning the developer themselves would make in the end is pretty small. Going even further and looking at games that carry a very low price tag, they’d get virtually nothing.

Naturally, the initial outrage about the Epic Games Store was that people had to download another launcher (it’s not like a majority of people had it already to play Fortnite or anything). PC gamers have grown tired of the endless parade of launchers like Battlenet, Origin (this one especially) and Uplay and have ultimately decided that enough is enough. The Epic launcher was always going to have a tough time getting traction due to the way people love to slam Fortnite for being “a kid’s game” (like that actually means anything). The fact that it is admittedly very lacking in features doesn’t help, but it almost seems like PC gamers are running a smear campaign against the platform so Valve doesn’t have to. There was a conspiracy not long ago that Epic was collecting your information, info from Steam, and giving it to Tencent (a large Chinese conglomerate company) because they had some shares in Epic. These accusations were made without factoring in the point that Epic is still largely independent and Tencent’s very small amount of shares in the company does not translate into control over Epic. Nevertheless, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney came out and stated that the reason why EGS scans through Steam files was purely for friends list importing.

The current implementation is the result of a system that was built quickly and then rapidly modified before launch as the online team identified that we needed to authenticate with Steam on the web (in case there were multiple Steam users on the PC) and make other privacy-oriented changes identified by the online team. It’s a clunky method that we’ll fix… We don’t use the Steam API because we avoid including third-party code in our engine wherever possible, as it often brings its own privacy, security, and licensing complications (though Valve has a fine reputation). – Tim Sweeney

Epic’s image has only taken a battering with some questionable decisions regarding their platform

Epic has also not done themselves any favours with their incredibly aggressive approach to adding to their game library. Acquiring a number of exclusives, both timed and not, like Metro Exodus, Borderlands 3 and The Division 2 has given them an image of wanting to complicate and segregate PC gaming. While their intention is to fundamentally change the standards for PC gaming, both for developers and consumers, their approach has potentially been a little too aggressive (especially this early on). Epic has been labelled as a company that is, and I quote, “ruining PC gaming”. This statement makes me laugh because if Epic are ruining PC, what on earth would you call what Nvidia has been doing?

Now I’ll preface what I’m about to say with this; in no way am I saying that Epic is completely in the clear for their approach to disrupting the PC gaming market. They are restricting consumer choice and shoehorning dedicated fans of some long-standing series’ into using a platform that is under-developed in a day and age where its anaemic state is nigh unforgivable. I’m also not saying that Nvidia’s products are inherently bad. They have had some incredibly compelling products within their stack, like the 1080 Ti, even if those are no longer available. The following discussion will focus more on how the things that Nvidia does, both inside and outside of their products, severely damage PC gaming and perhaps even gaming in general.

For those not in the loop, Nvidia is a multi-billion dollar corporation that designs and creates Graphics Processing Units for both gaming and professional use. They are mainly known for the GeForce line of graphics cards which are focused around the general consumer/gamer market, but they have found success in their other lines of graphics cards like the Titan cards and the Quadro line (which are more focused on the workstation and scientific side of PC use). As of March 8th 2019, they had a market share of 81.2% in the category, which is an astoundingly huge margin. This is due in part to how they’ve led a very long history of sabotage and subterfuge, making their products seem far better by crippling the competition’s functionally through shady tactics and ethically questionable means. The main reason that AMD is their only real competitor in this market is that all of the others were bullied and kicked out by Nvidia, allowing them to dominate the market and create what is essentially a monopoly. Now I could go on for a very long time about how Nvidia employs really shitty behaviour to try and gain the upper hand in the market, but I won’t. Instead I’ll explain how two simple things, in the forms of GameWorks and RTX, make PC gaming much more of an ordeal than it needs to be.

GameWorks, the Misnomer

So we’ll go from the top. Nvidia GameWorks is a set of proprietary technologies that (supposedly) aims to enhance the experience of the end user by way of adding in fancy visual features like more advanced hair rendering, more detailed grass and other arguably meaningless things. Normally, this technology would be fine. In fact, it’s hard to deny that in their best uses, the various technologies look really nice (I can’t deny FFXV looks great with HairWorks active), but the way they were designed and created is far more insidious than you might believe. We’ll start with how they are compiled. While most technologies of this kind are usually open-source (TressFX, for example), GameWorks is compiled and distributed via DLLs. That means that all the files come prebuilt and developers who are tasked with using these technologies often have to rewrite entire portions of their engines to work with it. This is something can be very challenging, especially for smaller studios. There are a variety of consequences of this as well, as time and resources can be fleeting and can result in an engine that works, but doesn’t do much outside of that. A prime example of this is the 4A Engine.

For the uninitiated, the 4A Engine was developed by 4A Games and is used to power the Metro series of games (as well as a VR game for the Oculus Rift in 2017). These games are known for pushing the limits of PC hardware and were previously used for benchmarking (the tech has since become outdated), so there’s a lot of weight behind them and the engine they use. 4A has sided with Nvidia pretty much from the beginning, with all of their games making use of the Nvidia GameWorks suite. On paper, this is a cool inclusion, but it isn’t until you look below the surface that you see where the problems lie. The 4A Engine is known for being relatively restrictive in its functionality with Metro Exodus, a 2019 game, only offering one display mode: exclusive fullscreen (most PC games at least offer a windowed display mode as fullscreen can prove to be problematic for some systems, leading to crashes and such when multitasking). The general consensus is that the 4A Engine struggles with ‘alt tabbing’, and while some people believe it’s because their games are very demanding, there are more demanding titles which have far better functionality in that regard. The engine’s initial release/use was with Metro 2033 back in 2010 (that’s 9 years ago) and it has been used in three subsequent games, so it’s not like they haven’t had time to iron out the issues with the engine (under normal circumstances), but this is where the issue with GameWorks arises. Unlike tools like TressFX and other fancy tech, none of the GameWorks tools are open-source. If they were, the engineers and developers wouldn’t have to tune the engine around these specific sets of tools, but rather mold them to fit in the engine in a (generally) much simpler process. But no, GameWorks is GameWorks and won’t be changed. With every advancement that 4A has made on their engine, there would have been an incredible amount of trial and error to retool it to better work with GameWorks.

Metro may look nice but is it really worth the cost?

Disregarding the fact that using GameWorks instantly locks the features out of the console versions of games (whereas open-source tools can be tuned to work on consoles as seen with TressFX in Rise of the Tomb Raider), the inclusion of these tools would have sucked up any time and resources that 4A could have used on expanding the engine with a more complete set of features. The fact that Metro Exodus has been included on the Windows Store, forcing its integration into the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) means that the problems are only worse. One notable feature with UWP games is how they use cloud saving as well as local saving, so if (for whatever reason) you lose your save file on your PC (or Xbox), you are asked if you wish to use the save file which is in the cloud. A great functionality, this cannot be denied. However it has posed a bit of a problem for Metro Exodus on the Windows Store for PC, as the platform doesn’t ask which file you want to use (if they are out of sync) until after the game has launched. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue as most games don’t mind sharing the screen, but Metro Exodus does not like sharing the screen, so when trying to choose what file you want to use the game takes priority and makes selecting it… difficult. I can only wonder how much more refined the engine would be without the crappy Nvidia tech being shoved into it, and the true reason that GameWorks is shoved into a game like Metro Exodus is far more questionable.

As previously mentioned, Nvidia has a history of bullying its competitors out of the market, whether it be just having decent products, pulling the floor from underneath the competition or manipulating games and performance charts in their favour. It comes as no surprise that GameWorks’ effects come at a bit of a performance penalty (which can often be higher than its open-source counterparts), and while for a lot of people the penalty can seem reasonable, GameWorks was designed and built in a way that purposely makes AMD’s graphics cards look bad because… they can? Nvidia is well aware that AMD actually has the ability to chip away at their insane market share, much like they have done to Intel in the CPU market, and they will basically ensure AMD doesn’t achieve this goal. They want a monopoly and they will stop at virtually nothing to make sure it happens, even going as far as disparaging a new benchmark because ATI’s (now AMD) new GPU was fairing much better than Nvidia’s offerings (see here).

Meanwhile, just as FutureMark was introducing its new benchmark, graphics heavyweight NVIDIA initiated a public relations campaign aimed at undermining 3DMark03’s credibility as a benchmark and discouraging use of the test in the enthusiast press. NVIDIA’s first move was to mail out a whitepaper outlining its criticisms of 3DMark03. NVIDIA asked members of the press not to redistribute this document, only to paraphrase or offer excerpts. The document registered some specific complaints about 3DMark03’s methodology, but its primary thrust was an overall critique of FutureMark’s approach to 3DMark03 and of synthetic benchmarks in general.” – Scott Wasson via The Tech Report

A great example of how GameWorks is designed to sabotage AMD cards rather than properly enhance the visual experience for the player is with the controversial Final Fantasy XV Benchmark from 2017. While it’s fairly common knowledge among the PC enthusiast base that this particular benchmark was all sorts of misleading when it came to the game as a final product, it gives you a really good look at how GameWorks handles on both platforms in a controlled environment, with AMD’s high-end offerings suffering majorly regardless of the fact that they were very good cards. Looking at GamersNexus’ benchmark scores, the AMD RX Vega 56 and RX Vega 64 both sit well below the GTX 1070 and GTX 1070 Ti even though in reality, the Vega 64 would normally sit above the both of these Nvidia cards, often trading blows with the GTX 1080 (but not really the 1080 Ti, which is an excellent card in and of itself) and the Vega 56 only just rising above the 1060 which is a considerably weaker card in most use cases.

Nvidia FishWorks

This isn’t the only case of GameWorks being a saboteur either as admitted by a CD Projekt Red developer, Marcin Momot, when talking to Overclock3D. Momot confirms what most people were assuming was the case, optimisations could not be made for AMD when it came to this technology and so it was always going to perform poorly, a choice no doubt made with this in mind by Nvidia.

It’s interesting how even with a name like “GameWorks”, the technology hampers how games work. Even with all the controversy surrounding GameWorks, Nvidia has continued with developing technology, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it’s recently been a hot topic of debate in terms of its practicality for both consumers and developers alike with RTX.

RTX: An unfinished technology

Nvidia’s latest addition to their admittedly impressive product stack was the RTX line of GPUs. The reasoning behind the new naming convention is solely because of their fancy new tech; RT cores and tensor cores, which allow for a variety of things including Ray Tracing and Deep Learning Super-Sampling (DLSS). In essence, this is a brilliant move forward and could theoretically improve the industry, but it hasn’t really. In fact, with how unfinished the tech is, these new cores can actually do more harm than good.

It wasn’t for a few months after the initial release that the RTX cards got their first worthwhile use in the form of DLSS (so not even the ray tracing technology that Nvidia was touting) in Final Fantasy XV in December 2018. For the uninformed, DLSS is a form of supersampling (which in itself is a more advanced form of anti-aliasing that works by rendering a game at a higher resolution than you have selected and compressing the image, averaging out colours and producing a sharper image) which leverages the tensor cores in the RTX cards and is implemented after months of work. Developers basically run a game in a super-sampled mode and allow for the technology to figure out the best way to apply those super-sampling techniques. The AI controlled tensor cores learn how the game is supposed to look and applies the supersampling accordingly. It’s more or less designed as a way to get cheaper supersampling, performance wise. The reason it worked so well in Final Fantasy XV is that the anti-aliasing present in the game by itself was never very good, so when put next to it, DLSS was a clear winner. It wasn’t until February 15, 2019, that the only game (at the time) which used ray tracing got updated to support DLSS in the form of Battlefield V, and it was… bad.

At least the cooler is not using a blower design this time

As shown by Hardware Unboxed in their analysis of Battlefield V’s DLSS implementation, DLSS was very problematic. DLSS sees two barriers for its usage in Battlefield V, the first being the fact that you must have DXR reflections (ray tracing) enabled and the second being the resolution you can run the game at with DLSS enabled.

If you’re playing at 4K, all RTX cards can access DLSS. However, if you are a 1440p gamer, the option is only available for the RTX 2080 and below, so it’s not available with the RTX 2080 Ti. At 1080p, only the RTX 2060 and 2070 can use DLSS, and there are similar limitations with Metro Exodus.

According to Nvidia, activating the neural network for DLSS takes a fixed amount of time for each frame. As your performance level increase, DLSS begins to occupy a proportionally higher level of the rendering time up to a point where, for fast GPUs, it takes longer to process than it does for the native frame. – Tim from Hardware Unboxed

To put it bluntly, the tensor cores are a bottleneck for the GPU they are tied to, which means that players would have to have even higher settings than they would like if they wish to leverage the proper benefits of the hardware they paid for, especially if they bought one of the higher-end models (RIP 2080 Ti users). The folks over at Hardware Unboxed discovered that for a similar level of performance, you can keep DLSS off, play at 4K and set your resolution scale down to 78%, making it render the game in 1685p. What purpose does that achieve? Well… it actually achieves much better results than DLSS can at the same level of performance. Let that sink in. You can get a better end result by keeping an RTX feature turned off and turning the resolution scale down, because not only does the tensor core bottleneck the GPU, meaning you can’t get high levels of performance, it also doesn’t do DLSS very well. Now with most implementations of technology, it’s all up to how the developer uses it, I’ll concede that. But if you factor in the time it took for DLSS to come to Battlefield V, I can almost guarantee you that those results were as good as they were going to get. If there is one thing I can give DICE credit for, it’s their insane levels of polish and optimisation with the Battlefield games.

Image sourced from Hardware Unboxed’s YouTube

In Hardware Unboxed’s video the 4K DLSS image quality even falls short of 1440p in some scenarios, which is absurd. Most people who buy these cards want high levels of performance, something which gets cut out by the tensor cores for image quality that isn’t up to par. If you watch the whole video, you’ll see that a lot of the texture quality looks muddy, almost as if someone with a greasy hand has smudged their fingers all over the textures. It just looks… bad. Tim explains that the reason it looks so bad is that Battlefield V’s anti-aliasing is pretty good in its own right, so DLSS can’t compare.

The problem, I feel, is that Battlefield V’s regular TAA implementation is too good. It’s not perfect or anything, but it’s pretty good and doesn’t blur out the image like TAA can do in other games. Final Fantasy XV, for example, was quite blurry with TAA enabled. Compare that TAA image to DLSS in that game and, yeah, the image quality is pretty similar. But Battlefield V is sharper overall and DLSS simply can’t match up. In fact, the native and scaled images completely obliterate the blurry mess that is DLSS. – Tim from Hardware Unboxed

So if this technology is so unrefined that it ends up doing more harm than good, why would Nvidia push it out and promote its (lacklustre) features so much? It’s simple. Nvidia would have been well aware that AMD was making good progress with their Navi GPU architecture, as more and more rumours surrounding it showed promising signs of a true competitor to Nvidia’s offerings. So how do they make a product stack look inferior before it’s even released? Point out that your competition doesn’t have the same features as you, even if your implementation of this tech is more or less useless in the consumer space. The sad part is, this strategy worked. While a lot of people were very excited to hear about the Navi GPU line at Computex and E3 (and rightly so), the fact that Navi wasn’t really supporting ray tracing the same way as the RTX line ensured that the announcements fell a bit flat. Mind you, AMD struck back by basically stating that they [AMD] will push the features and hardware when they are ready to be shipped together. They also talked about “driving the ecosystem so that gamers can take full advantage of the features they pay for.”

As I close, I’d like to reiterate that Epic is NOT guilt-free when it comes to the convolution of the PC gaming market. Even though their intent is to disrupt the market and cause a fundamental shift which is supposed to benefit the developers, they’ve ultimately caused confusion for less informed people within the demographic and are restricting consumer choice, on a platform that is supposed to be more open and free than its console counterparts. I’d also like to reiterate that Nvidia’s products are not inherently terrible, in fact, a lot of them are quite good in their own right (I love my 1080 Ti). But when paired with their sleazy and hostile approach to strangling and manipulating the PC gaming market, their contributions add up to something which can be a bit of a headache for a large number of people. In a perfect world, the consumers would hold the company more accountable for their actions, but Nvidia thrives off of consumer ignorance and has been doing so since they formed back in 1993. That is why they can so easily push GameWorks onto developers and people will continue to buy their RTX line of GPUs, even if they’re paying an insane premium for features they’re better off ignoring.