NVIDIA’s Ampere Architecture Is a Game-Changer

From long-requested quality-of-life improvements to massive gains in performance, Ampere more than delivers.

Since the inception of 3D graphics, achieving photorealism has long captured the imagination–through the work of iteration on graphics processing architectures, it first made its way to offline renders aimed at mass theatrical consumption, but none of it was really achievable in any feasible capacity for gaming. The calculus is simple–to render physically-accurate scenes, path-tracing needed to be on the table, but because it was impossible to fit into a tight rendering budget (typically 33ms at 30FPS on the lowest end) through the pure use of programmable shaders, no developer could ever justify the proposition.

That would soon change as NVIDIA released its first-ever consumer-grade GPU with dedicated hardware ray-tracing capabilities back in 2018–the support was sparse at first, but as developers familiarized themselves with the technology, the standard has been set for what will soon be the future of gaming. Long gone are the days when artists would have to manually bake instances of global illumination to simulate the appearance of indirect lighting, or resort to static scenery to curb the steep budget of dynamic shadows and real-time ambient occlusion–if those hefty processes are calculable in a reasonable rendering budget, the burden on artists to recreate realistic lighting conditions is bound to be greatly reduced.

If ray-tracing does indeed serve a logistical purpose in a time where game development amid a global pandemic isn’t exactly forthcoming, NVIDIA’s latest breakthroughs have massive implications for the end-user experience. From the increase of ray-tracing performance two-fold gen-on-gen to providing the production value of a multi-thousand dollar setup for the average content creator, the general theme of the RTX 30 series is that it brings what was once already a palpable proposition for game developers and end-users into something they can both justify investing time and money into–more people get to play games at higher graphical fidelity, and more developers are compelled to seize that market opportunity so they can satisfy that demand at no significant extra charge.

That’s what confounds most about NVIDIA’s latest announcements–the general upheld notion about technological progress is that cost scales linearly with capability, but for many of the ray-tracing and standard rasterization improvements enabled by the Ampere architecture, it means even less barrier to entry for those who wish to take advantage of it. It’s no surprise then that major publishers like Activision and EA have already hedged their bets on greater ray-tracing support–democratizing this technology will be the next step to achieving ubiquity.

When NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang appeared on last night’s presentation to sing the praises of their newest produce, he came prepared–from real-time footage of upcoming high-profile releases, to demos that thwart what Turing was capable of, the improvements are hard to miss. Turing was saddled with the warts of a first-generation product where the ray-tracing implementation hadn’t yet been fully refined, but with a process node shrink coupled along a growing body of research on best practices for optimal rendering performance, the company hopes to make Ampere the no-brainer of ray-tracing GPUs–convincing players to sacrifice framerate for graphical fidelity was always a tall order, and it’s clear that NVIDIA’s goal through this new architecture is to make that consideration a non-factor.

If this so far has sounded like a marketing spiel and not a show of what is truly possible, a reconsideration is in order–Digital Foundry got to test out the RTX 3080 early, and even barring driver optimizations which are yet to come, they were able to yield some gargantuan gains for a fraction of the price of last gen’s proposition. The second-hand market for RTX 20 series GPUs will no doubt find renewed interest in the next few months, but what should be more interesting to observe is the potential exodus of players who’ve long held off on an upgrade from their Pascal and Maxwell GPUs onto the new platform–to have 4 year-old cards reigning absolute dominance over Steam’s hardware survey was an obvious deterrent from further adoption of ray-tracing, but if the price of Ampere cards manage to stay reasonable through inevitable shortages, this might soon change.

Since next-gen consoles were announced, the question has always been what exactly does the PC have to counter the lofty promises made–at NVIDIA’s launch event, so much of that was largely put to bed. If consoles will enjoy the advantages of closer-to-the-metal coding, they seem to have been vastly outpaced by the sheer performance gains of NVIDIA’s upcoming architecture–if it looked at first like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X triumphed above a significant chunk of the graphics card market in terms of performance, Ampere and Big Navi are poised to shift that balance back in favor of the PC platform.

Market considerations aside, the question about photorealism seems to be for the first time a matter of volition rather than ability. In yesteryears, rendering anything approaching the fidelity of a VFX-lathered movie in real-time was firmly the domain of fantasy, but now it looks like the only thing preventing developers from going down that route might be purely a matter of artistic choice–if it’s indeed well within reach to make life-like characters more of a frequent fixture, the clear separation between interactive entertainment and live-action content often presents itself as a necessity. Still, that it is at all possible is a big leap forward from where we were even two years ago–it’s impossible to understate just how deep the implications are for the gaming industry.

It then stands to reason why NVIDIA chose to lead their presentation with footage of ray-tracing in Fortnite–if the most ubiquitous gaming experience in the world can have it, other less-inclined developers may yet follow in their footsteps. AMD’s counter-proposition is still on the horizon, and if both manage to drive the momentum of real-time ray-tracing forward, the entire gaming ecosystem is in for a good treat. Whether the promises of a radical transformation will pan out in subsequent years is still very much up in the air, but preliminary indications show great promise.