From the movie-like graphics in the action game "Gears of War" to the nearly photorealistic racer "MotorStorm," video games have come a long way since the bouncing blocks of "Pong."
A new breed of visually striking games promises to light up computer screens with even sharper, more lifelike graphics than ever before. But unlike the popular "Gears of War" or "MotorStorm," the games won't be debuting on Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3 or Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 consoles.
Instead, the PC is returning to the pinnacle of video game graphics — thanks to some under-the-hood tweaks in Microsoft's Vista operating system.
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The technology behind these improved visuals, called DirectX 10, is the result of a collaboration among video game developers, graphics card makers and Microsoft. For years, they have been working to streamline and standardize the software used by Windows-based PCs to display graphics.
Improvements could pass consoles
The latest improvements, many believe, far surpass even the very best of what the consoles are capable of. Case in point: the upcoming PC shooter "Crysis," where players take the role of a battle-savvy soldier who has to uncover the secrets behind an asteroid that has smashed into Earth.
Beams of light glimmer through a jungle overgrown with swaying palm trees, and the thick underbrush gets more detailed with a closer look. Gaze into the distance and you can see aquamarine waves crashing on a white sand beach. Zoom in on a soldier to see an emotive face with stubble, freckles and other subtle individual details.
Special graphics card required
DX10 requires a specialized graphics card and there are only a few games today that take advantage of its capabilities.
Though relatively few consumers have yet to upgrade to Vista, dozens of game makers who have been using DX10 believe the benefits of the technology will quickly lure hardcore gamers willing to spend money on the best systems, whatever the cost.
Game players who frequent the Warezabouts LAN Center in Forney, Texas, often ask owner JJ Tarno about Vista and DX10, but most seem to be waiting for more compatible games to come out before they make the switch from Windows XP.
Tarno, 31, said he's looking forward to games like "Crysis" and has been impressed with the video clips he's already seen.
"If you want to play next-gen games you have to have a next-gen operating system," he said. "A game like 'Crysis' comes out and you just say, `How much is that game?' About $1,500 with new video card, RAM and processor."
Game developers excited at prospects
Many game developers are excited at the technology's prospects.
"Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures," due in October, will put players into a persistent online fantasy world of barbarians and mythical monsters.
"What we tried to achieve with the graphics is something that we called 'magical realism,'" said Jorgen Tharaldsen, product director for Funcom, which is developing the game in Oslo, Norway. "With DX10 we can just add a lot more bells and whistles. We can start pushing graphics to the stage where it almost looks realistic."
Bill Roper, whose Flagship Studios is developing the action adventure game "Hellgate: London," said he wasn't concerned that not everyone has Vista or a DX10-capable graphics card yet.
"As with every new technology, the hardcore lead the way and the masses catch up," he said. "Not everyone that has an iPod or a DVD player went out and bought theirs on day one. As with previous operating system and hardware advances, the more products that support it and can show the tangible benefits of upgrading, the more widespread the adoption."
DirectX standard dates back to mid-1990s
The DirectX standard dates back to the mid-1990s when upgrading add-on video cards on home computers was still a hobbyist's pursuit, something hardcore gamers did to extract the most performance from 3-D shooters like "Quake" or "Unreal."
Subsequent versions have added new features to speed up graphics and give game programmers more tools to simulate the movement and appearance of liquids and other complex objects.
As the demands from game makers (and players) have grown increasingly complex, so too have the capabilities of DirectX. The software lets programmers tell the 3-D computer chips in graphics cards whether to simulate a wisp of smoke or a mirror's reflection.
DX10 not only makes games look better, it also promises to improve performance by simplifying how the graphics cards process video information and display it on the screen.
"It means the realism will take a dramatic jump," says Roy Taylor, vice president of content for Nvidia Corp., which makes 3-D video chips for computers. "It's going to look dramatically more real."
Those effects have taken on a cinematic quality with DX10.
"We can create a world that looks and feels more real and is more responsive," Roper said. "We have volumetric fluid smoke that responds to objects that pass through it. We have soft shadows that get softer with distance from the caster."
Of the few DX10 games currently available, including Microsoft's own "Flight Simulator X," differences between DX10 and its predecessor, DX9, are dramatic, with water and atmospheric effects that look more like an actual video recording than a computer approximation of reality.
Still, the slew of DX10-enabled games expected to be released by the Christmas holiday will be compatible with older versions of DirectX. They just won't look as good on DX9 PCs.
Not all chips will be compatible
Of the 76 million video chips expected to be sold by the end of 2007, only about 16 million will be DX10 compatible, according to Dean McCarron, principle analyst at Mercury Research. Yet DX10 chips should account for about half of $2.2 billion graphics chip market this year, added McCarron, whose figures don't reflect the massive integrated graphics chip market.
While he expects the overall market to remain flat for the next five years, he said DX10 chips will grow to account for about $2 billion of the $2.2 billion industry by 2011.
For now, only Nvidia offers graphics cards that support DX10. Prices range from $600 for a high-end model — as much as a new PS3 console — to less than $100 for a less powerful card.
Rival ATI Technologies Inc., which was acquired by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. for $5.6 billion last year, expects to launch its DX10-capable cards sometime in the second quarter.
Chris Donahue, group manager of Microsoft's Games for Windows unit, admits that DX10 is an example of the PC surpassing the consoles. The company's own Xbox 360, for example, uses a custom version of the older DX9 standard that can't be upgraded.
"Consoles are a snapshot of where the PC is at the time they were made," he said. "The consoles are a step that stays flat for five years. The PC is basically a 45 degree angle."
Still, the special effects that take a room of computers weeks to render for movies like "The Lord of the Rings" remains out of the reach of DX10, said Richard Huddy, a member of AMD's European developer relations team.
But PC graphics technology is closing in fast.
"The human brain is one of the most fussy systems when it comes to reality," he said. "When it comes to pure graphics rendering we certainly haven't cracked the problem to give a better, more convincing reality. We think we have the next 10 years before we catch up with reality."