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AMD's low-level Mantle graphics could mean big things for PC gaming

Brad Chacos | Sept. 30, 2013
On deck: Faster games and easier cross-platform portability—if developers use it.

The API could also stimulate the fledgling, yet promising SteamOS operating system if—if—AMD tightens the tech's ties to OpenGL. Valve is already touting SteamOS's performance efficiencies compared to Windows, and Mantle could just be icing on the cake. Steam Machines, with its focus on a ten-foot interface and gamepad play, would also be a natural fit for console ports. Moorhead expects Mantle to be used mostly by console developers looking to bring their GCN-optimized titles over to the PC.

AMD rival Nvidia, however, has been working closely with Valve to optimize OpenGL support for SteamOS, so Valve might not embrace Mantle enthusiastically. That shouldn't preclude AMD from offering Mantle support for the open-source SteamOS, though.

Roadblocks ahoy
While the promise of tight, nearly metal-level hardware optimization and easier cross-platform development carries a lot of appeal, it remains to be seen whether Mantle and its firm ties to AMD products will be adopted by developers that are used to ubiquitous high-level APIs such as DirectX and OpenGL.

Remember, the majority of discrete PC video cards out there today come from Nvidia, and Intel's integrated CPU visuals are the most-used graphics around, so Mantle support would have to be in place alongside DirectX or OpenGL for PC games. (The next-gen consoles also support DirectX.) That won't be cheap.

AMD told reporters that the Mantle API is open, however, so Nvidia could also theoretically embed the technology in their GPUs as well—though given the animosity between the two companies and the fact that Nvidia's GPUs use a vastly different architecture than AMD's GCN, the odds of that happening are virtually nil.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Nvidia follows suit [with its own low-level API]," says Moorhead.

It's certain that at least one major game maker will embrace AMD's tech. EA DICE's Frostbite 3 engine will default to Mantle—not DirectX—in Windows rigs running GCN-based graphics cards and APUs, with the blockbuster Battlefield 4 set to be the first title to support the technology after a December update.

That's a huge win for AMD, and it could just be the tip of the iceberg. The company claims that developers have been asking for low-level GPU access, and AMD has been working hard to increase its profile with game makers.

"I think a lot of this came out of the Never Settle bundles they've been doing," says Moorhead. "More than just bundling [games], it got them closer to developers. And when you combine getting closer to developers with Never Settle on the PC side, and then getting closer to developers on the game console side, it made sense to bring out Mantle today."

Questions abound
Time will tell whether Mantle proves successful. We've seen proprietary-ish low-level drivers like Voodoo's Glide API before, and they've since gone the way of the dodo in favor of the high-level DirectX and OpenGL. Simply put, low-level APIs are highly dependent on specific hardware, and compatibility issues irked developers enough to drive them into the arms of device-spanning, high-level solutions. DirectX provided a standard (if abstracted) playing field.

 

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