Graphics Arms Race Costs An Arm & A Leg
There's been plenty of predicition lately that the age of supermegapixelshaderooed blockbuster games on PC might be drawing to a close, in favour of lower-spec, lower-profile inventiveness from the indie, MMO, browser-based and casual scenes. What there hasn't been is much hard data that reflects this possible sea change. The news that current 3D card king NVIDIA recorded an eyewatering $30 million loss last year (that's after a $797.6m profit in the preceding year) could have something to do with it.
Of course, it could also have something to do with the general worldwide moneypocalypse, or of eejits shouting about the death of the PC potentially having something of a point. Nah. I suspect it's to do with the lack of a game that really demanded a system upgrade last year. 2007 was the year of Crysis, and despite that game's debatable merits, it was a waving flag for a new graphical generation - a spur to buy a better graphics card even if you weren't interested in that game specifically. 2008 lacked such a game - the PC's biggest titles were either less graphically ambitious or reworks of console titles. Poor optimisation may have meant that half the time the latter did need a powerhouse 3D card anyway, but that's not a card-shifter in the way LOOK AT THESE AWESOME GRAPHICS is.
I wonder if NVIDIA's investment in Physx, and (presumably) expensively rolling out physics-via-GPU support as a result, is an experiment that really didn't help. It's not something that's proven its usefulness to Johnny Average Gamer - until there's an NVIDIA physics killer app, it's not likely to sell many cards. In other words, it could repeat the failures of Physx back when it was Ageia's struggling baby.
Here's NVIDIAn emperor Jen Hsun Huang's thoughts on the bad news:
The environment is clearly difficult and uncertain. Our first priority is to set an operating expense level that balances cash conservation while allowing us to continue to invest in initiatives that are of great importance to the market and in which we believe we have industry leadership. We have initiatives in all areas to reduce operating expenses.
Which sounds worryingly like it could mean job losses, always upper management's sucker punch response to money problems. Let's hope not. Whatever they do, can the big N pull it back, or are 3D card upgrades only going to go more out of fashion as integrated chips grow ever more capable and the bulk of new PC games less demanding? ANSWER.