It’s been a little more than a year and a half since AGEIA launched the PhysX PPU, and so far it’s fair to say that the product has been teetering on being a dud. As we’ve discussed in pervious articles, AGEIA has been battling both technical hurdles (extra PPU work dragging down the GPU) and software hurdles. When we discussed the issue over two years ago when AGEIA announced the PPU, we highlighted the likely problems that AGEIA would end up having getting developers to use their technology and unfortunately for AGEIA this has effectively come true: we can count the number of AAA titles released that support the PhysX hardware on one hand, in fact we’ve even benchmarked all of them. As the late Rodney Dangerfield would say, AGEIA just isn’t getting no respect.

As the average software development cycle is two-to-four years, the first products designed from scratch with PhysX support are just now emerging. It’s a short list. After a flurry of initial announcements, there aren’t a lot of well-known games on the horizon that are known to be supporting PhysX. And while this would probably be a swan song under any other circumstances, AGEIA has scored just a couple of significant wins as of late that will be keeping them in the game.

First and foremost is that for the time being their biggest competition is dead. GPU acceleration of physics, in spite of operating on a similar time table, has not panned out. The announcement of this technology and subsequent promise has certainly knocked some of the wind out of AGEIA’s operations, and the threat of a real GPU physics solution is always looming on the horizon (especially with AMD’s recent comments on DirectX 11). But with Intel’s acquisition of physics-leader Havok and the disappearance of their Havok FX package under mysterious circumstances, for the time being AGEIA can enjoy the fact that PhysX is the only game in town for hardware accelerated physics when it comes to gaming.

The other and far more important piece of news however is that in spite of drought of games supporting PhysX, AGEIA managed to get a single win some time back which is finally coming to fuition, and that win may very well make everything else irrelevant. That win? Epic’s Unreal Engine 3.

As game development costs have increased, studios have turned to licensing game engines rather than developing their own. For this generation of hardware and engines, there’s no bigger player in the market than Epic, whose Unreal Engine 3 has been licensed at a mind numbing rate. This has been fantastic news for AGEIA, who now is the default middleware provider for a significant percentage of first person shooters to be released over the next few years. With their troubles getting developers to adopt PhysX elsewhere, AGEIA needs PhysX support on Unreal Engine 3 games to be utilized to make or break the hardware.

Although several Unreal Engine 3 games have shipped since last year, Epic has still been hammering down the PC version of the engine and its PhysX hardware support. Only now has an Unreal Engine 3 game shipped with PhysX hardware support, Epic’s Unreal Tournament 3. With UT3 having shipped, AGEIA has reached a milestone: Unreal Engine 3 is finally shipping to developers with full PhysX hardware support, and a AAA game has finally shipped that can use PhysX for first-order physics, and a welcome change for all parties from previous AAA games that have only used second-order physics.

To get an idea of how PhysX will perform under the Unreal Engine 3, we’ll benchmark UT3 with and without PhysX hardware acceleration. While every game using the engine will be different and making strong predictions from a single datapoint isn’t possible, it will none the less give us an idea of what we can expect with future Unreal Engine 3 titles. Furthermore UT3 is a big enough title on its own that it can justify & drive PhysX sales if the performance is there, which with be the other major aspect we will be looking at today.

AGEIA’s Mod Pack & The Test
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  • madgonad - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    If most of the games arriving are enabled with this technology at a minimum it would give an equivalent boost of going from dual to quad core on regular maps using 2nd order physics. For games/maps using 1st order physics it would actually allow you to play them. For a $100 part (I have seen priced at $149) that might make sense if you have room in the case and PCIe 1x cards become available as a working product.
    For most of us, you know, people that build/buy a PC under a budget, this may or may not make sense. A physics processor may fall into the category of sound card since Vista and Realtek has taken great strides in making the previously mandatory sound card irrelevant. They might provide a couple "nice to have" features and slightly improve performance, but that money might be better spent on Crossfire or a faster CPU or better RAM or a mirrored hard disk.
    The physics card is going to have to earn a place and this article does support that ability.
    Heck, if it allows players to chew up the scenery I am all for it!
    Reply
  • kilkennycat - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    nVidia's upcoming dual-function next-gen silicon fully supporting either GPU or GPGPU functionality will finally kill PhysX. Wonder why the 780i chipset supports 3 PCIe16 slots and PCIe2.0? Think 2 GPUs in SLI dedicated to graphics and one GPU functioning as a GPGPU for bleeding-edge gaming. And for the less than bleeding-edge gaming, quad-core computation of bulk physics in combo with spare GPU horsepower for particle-effects will do quite nicely. Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    The funny thing is that at this time last year I'd agree with you, but now I'm not so sure.

    GPU physics has been a bust so far. ATI/NVIDIA made a bunch of noise when AGEIA announced their PPU, but HavokFX never came through and there is no other off-the-shelf solution that can do second-order physics, never mind first-order physics. It always seems like GPU physics in games is just around the corner and it never happens, and I'm not convinced that this misdirection from the GPU manufacturers is unintentional.

    I keep hearing conflicting stories about when we'll get real GPU physics. Now the story is that things will finally be put in order forcefully by Microsoft in DirectX11, which is still years away (MS is still working on delivering DX10.1). This would coincide with some improvements in GPU threading that would help GPUs deal with the split workload, so it's very possible this is the case. Then again, both ATI and NVIDIA are finally delivering mature versions of their GPGPU programing environments (CUDA/CTM) which would allow someone to write a physics package at a lower level than shaders. I'm not aware of anyone working on this for games, though.

    In the mean time the PPU does exist, and we expect we'll be seeing a far more powerful version fairly soon.

    The 780i isn't the only chipset that supports 3 PCIe x16 slots either. I can show you some boards that came through here in 2005 that had the same support, for the exact same reason. Furthermore NVIDIA has a poor track record of supporting >2 GPUs in a system at once anyhow.
    Reply
  • NickelPlate - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    Let's hope so. The last thing PC gaming needs right now is another hardware requirement on the box. Reply
  • Martins - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    So we don't need another Hardware requirement on the Box? In the form of a PPU that is $99 now and that as shown that can be faster them a $400+ dual core right? But you are not against the use of 3 or more GPU's and a new board if you want physics hardware acceleration, just do the math and see who gives us the best bung for ours money. Reply
  • NickelPlate - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    I'm not saying their isn't a performance benefit. But the fact is PC gaming has slowly been taking the backseat to consoles over many years, mostly because it's getting more complicated and expensive for the average user. It's already depressing enough for most people to buy a high end graphics card only to have it chug on new games within years time. What's going to happen when they need a PPU upgrade every year also? Another $100? More? That's probably for the cheap ones. No doubt high end PPU cards will be end up costing hundreds. Reply
  • goku - Monday, December 17, 2007 - link

    No, I think the problem is, pc gaming and well gaming in itself hasn't offered much innovation in a long time. A PPU would add a great amount of depth that is so sorely needed in today's games. What's the point of a high resolution tree if all you can do is cut it down in the same way as any other tree? Or how about driving a beautifully rendered car, but when you crash it, the damage is the same EVERYTIME. Reply
  • rykerabel - Wednesday, December 19, 2007 - link

    wyrd

    I bought a physix just to put my money into encouraging some decent physics in the future.

    I don't care which company succedes, i just want better physics period.
    Reply
  • ChronoReverse - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    Where are you getting this $400 dual core? Quad cores start at $279 now and dual cores can be had for less than $75 (soon even lower when the dual core Celerons come out). Reply
  • michal1980 - Friday, December 14, 2007 - link

    I find that your statement of pc's not needed more new hardware just flat wrong.

    read the dailytech thread about display port. People are throughing themselves at a new port hand over fist. Those same people what physic's hard just because
    Reply

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