For consoles, developers have a hardware set for each brand (Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo): a processor, graphics chip, preset memory, input capabilities, and other standard hardware components.
It’s still very difficult to make games run on a variety of graphics cards, motherboards, etc.
Developers today have decent hardware at an affordable price, piracy is low, and developers have virtually direct access to hardware when programming their software.
The latter is critical because developers can squeeze every gram of performance out of the hardware and take advantage of the built-in component features. That’s why Microsoft’s DirectX is so important for PC games.
What is DirectX?
DirectX is a software developed by Microsoft that communicates with the hardware components of a PC. Specifically, it is a collection of application programming interfaces or APIs developed for tasks related to displaying 2D and 3D vector graphics, displaying video, and playing audio on the Windows platform.
Nvidia: The focus of DX12 is to dramatically increase visual richness by significantly reducing API-related CPU overhead.
It competes with OpenGL, another graphics oriented API suite introduced in 1992, which is open source and in constant evolution by the Khronos Group’s technology consortium. And while OpenGL is a cross-platform API, it does not have the advantage of running natively on the Windows platform.
DirectX first appeared on Windows 95, when most PC games ran on the old DOS platform, so developers could “talk” directly to PC components such as audio cards, graphics cards, mice and more.
Many experienced PC players should remember the old days of editing the Config.sys file and the Autoexec.bat file to set up the right settings environment for a particular game to work correctly (IRQs and DMAs were also edited, but that’s another story).
Windows 95 did not have this direct line of communication – until Microsoft developed its DirectX suite of APIs.
At first, DirectX hadn’t got off the ground, as the developers at that time relied mostly on OpenGL and programmed efficiently in the DOS environment. Microsoft’s Graphics API suite gained momentum over time after developers found it would never disappear again.
DirectX OpenGL seemed to have been removed from the PC gaming scene until the release of version 9 (alias DX9) in 2002. Windows XP may have accelerated the growth of DirectX, as this particular platform was very stable and is still in use worldwide. Windows 10 is said to be just as popular and so comes the latest in the DirectX series, DirectX 12.
What a benefit DX12 has.
The disadvantage of DirectX before this latest version is that it still didn’t provide low-level access to hardware components like the consoles. To fix this, AMD has released its Mantle API Suite to help developers better optimize their software for AMD chips.
We saw no reason for Microsoft to introduce DX12 support for older versions of Windows.
Essentially, graphics chips have become as powerful as the main processor and perform other computing tasks than rendering graphics.
AMD’s Mantle allowed developers to use this power in compatible Radeon graphics chips. Mantle was apparently well received and spectacularly performed, but it was short-lived because Microsoft quickly released a version of DirectX that finally gave developers better access to hardware.
“The focus of DX12 is on dramatically increasing visual richness by significantly reducing API-related CPU overhead,” said Henry Moreton of Nvidia last year. “In the past, drivers and operating system software have managed memory, status and synchronization on behalf of developers. Inefficiencies, however, arise from an imperfect understanding of an application’s requirements. DX 12 gives the application the ability to directly manage resources and states and perform the necessary synchronization. This allows developers of advanced applications to efficiently control the GPU and take advantage of their in-depth knowledge of game behavior.”
By dumping more tasks onto the graphics chip, the main processor has less to do, so the game is not blocked by what is going on in the background of the operating system. The more cores, the better, i.e. a processor with two cores is not quite as lively as a processor with four cores.
The same is true for a graphics chip and you can get a speed boost by installing two of the same graphics chip into a system (known as SLI over Nvidia and CrossFire over AMD). With DirectX, games are likely to perform better as the load is shared between the multiple cores at the same time, rather than sharing loads between each core.
That’s a big deal because DirectX 11 doesn’t use multiple cores in this way, so a single core does all the work while the others remain idle. The days with a single CPU core and a single GPU core were numbered very quickly and Microsoft is finally up to date with this latest DirectX version.
Consider it this way: computers have moved from a one-lane to an eight-lane highway, so the CPU can throw rendering and computing commands to the GPU faster than ever before. For the gamer, this means better frame rates and better image quality.
Do you also want DX12? Then switch to Windows 10.
The nice thing about DirectX 12 is that it is a native API from Windows 10. Windows 10 is used on a variety of devices, from desktops to laptops and tablets to smartphones on Xbox One. DirectX 12 is also backward compatible to some extent, so PC gamers can play their favorite tracks without having to rip out their graphics card for a new “compatible” model (in most cases).
If you want a detailed explanation of the three main areas of DirectX 12, read the DirectX 12 blog from Microsoft, written by Matt Sandy. In summary, he sketches a so-called pipeline state representation, work transfer, and resource access.
It also provides a diagram that shows that DirectX provides a 50% improvement in CPU utilization over DirectX 11 and a better distribution of work across multiple sequences of programmed statements or threads.
The good news here is that there are a number of PC games that already take advantage of DirectX 12. These include Ashes of the Singularity. The Elder Scrolls Online, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and Hitman among others. Quantum Break is expected to support the new API as well as Deus Ex: Mankind Devided, Star Citizen, Forza Motorsport 6: Apex and several others.
Please note that this is a very simplified explanation of what DirectX 12 brings to the PC gaming table. Essentially, this API should provide better performance in games it supports, but it also means that developers will probably need to filter out patches to bring their titles to DirectX 12 speed if possible.
GPU vendors AMD and Nvidia are already very far in supporting their drivers, so it’s only a matter of time before we really see the benefits of DirectX 12.
If you haven’t upgraded to Windows 10 yet, DirectX 12 is as good a reason as any to do so. We also saw no reason for Microsoft to introduce DX12 support for older versions of Windows. So if you want to play the latest games at their best, you may not have a choice.
It’s free and an evolution of Windows 7, so the transition shouldn’t be too complicated.
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