A Level up for GPU rendering: Vulkan has arrived

A level up for GPU rendering: Vulkan has arrived

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I am a console gamer. I no longer bother with hardware specs, software optimizations, or 3D benchmarking when it comes to getting the maximum enjoyment out of the games that I like playing. I boot up my PS5, install the game, and just play. Give me at least 60 fps and I’m happy.

But back in the day, I was a PC gamer. I used to obsess over DirectX, device drivers, and hard disk defragmentation in order to squeeze out every possible ounce of performance from our family desktop computer running on a previous-gen Intel Pentium CPU and whatever NVIDIA GPU. I would notoriously install and reinstall games on the computer, even chronically reformat the hard disk and reinstall Windows just to be able to run as efficiently as possible games like Warcraft 2, Starcraft, NBA Live, and Age of Empires.

I never really understood what DirectX was but I knew I needed to install it and update it to the latest version or otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to run any game. I just knew it had something to do with graphics and my computer’s ability to produce it properly, be it via CPU or GPU rendering. In those days, I'd never heard of the term “API.” 

But now I’ve learned that PC gamers have a choice when it comes to software that allows their machines to produce computer graphics. PC gamers aren’t limited to just DirectX anymore.

Vulkan is here. 

Vulkan is an open-source computer graphics application programming interface (API) that allows games to talk with your computer hardware so that the game can run properly (or at all).

If that sounded like a brain fart to you, allow me to break it down a little bit for some clarity. Before we can understand why Vulkan matters to you as a gamer and/or as a 3D artist, we first need to understand a bit of why you need a graphics API in the first place.

A brief history of graphics APIs

Before Windows, there was MS-DOS. In those days, games were designed by software engineers to give commands and receive responses from computer hardware directly. This means that the code behind games like Doom, Civilization and SimCity interact directly with the computer’s CPU, monitor, keyboard, and speakers to generate the game experience. This required game creators to know the programming language for each piece of hardware. 

It was all well and good for game creators (albeit quite tedious to write game software) until Windows 95 came along. For system security reasons, Windows 95 prevented software (including games) from accessing computer hardware directly; only the operating system (Windows itself) could do that now moving forward. 

So how in the world could games be written for and run on this newfangled operating system if game software could not access hardware features? In fairness to Microsoft, it released a workaround for the limitations set by Windows 95 – DirectX. 

DirectX in fact ended up being more than just a workaround; it revolutionized gaming and computer graphics. If we think of different computer hardware as different people each speaking a different language, then DirectX is the translator for all those languages. Now, game creators only need to learn the language of DirectX and write code for it instead of needing to learn all those other languages spoken by various hardware. 

DirectX standardized the commands that software needed to give to hardware in order to get the hardware to do specific tasks. With DirectX, game creators could focus more on improving their game’s graphics and gameplay and less on dealing with code for all sorts of hardware (note: every new version of each hardware requires new code, so DirectX was truly a godsend for programmers).

Where does Vulkan come in?

As described above, DirectX was created for Windows, and only Windows. A competitor of Microsoft back in the early 90s, Silicon Graphics, Inc. or SGI, developed a graphics API that could work with any 3D hardware and any operating system that wasn’t Windows. This API was called OpenGL. 

In 2006, OpenGL was taken over by Khronos Group, a non-profit consortium composed of big tech companies including AMD, NVIDIA, Apple, Google, Intel, and Valve. 

As opposed to DirectX which was proprietary and therefore closed, OpenGL was open-source. It standardized the language for a base of 250 commands and then allowed GPU manufacturers to write extensions for it as new models of graphic cards came out with more and more advanced features.

In 2016, Khronos Group announced Next Generation OpenGL or glNext, basically a modernization of OpenGL. glNext was eventually renamed Vulkan. Vulkan is now the torch-bearer for open-source and cross-platform graphics API that allows game programmers to design games not just for PC but other hardware as well like mobile phones, gaming consoles, and mobile gaming consoles (Steam Deck is a powerful mobile gaming console from Valve, one of the members of Khronos Group).

So why Vulkan?

The simplest answer to this central question is that Vulkan brings a lot to the table. But this answer has different nuances depending on which point of view you are asking the question from - a gamer’s? Or a 3D artist’s?

For gamers: it’s all about performance. The oversimplified answer here would be that Vulkan is faster than DirectX. Many reviewers report that for a lot of games, switching over to Vulkan from DirectX leads to varying increases in the average frame rate. DigitalTrends reports that for Red Dead Redemption 2 and Strange Brigade at 4K resolution, Vulkan brings an 8% and 5% increase in average frame rate respectively. 

However, reality is a tad bit more complicated than this. Results can vary from game to game, GPU to GPU, CPU to CPU, resolution to resolution, and even which DirectX version you are comparing Vulkan with. 

This comparison by Neo Channel Benchmark indeed shows Vulkan yielding drastically higher frame rates (by around 20 more frames per second!) for Red Dead Redemption 2 on the Low preset graphics setting (possibly 1080p). But when they tested using the Ultra preset, DirectX 12 edged out Vulkan, albeit by around 5 frames per second.

Another nuance to the Vulkan-DirectX performance debate comes from GPU rendering. This comparison by Games Errors tested Vulkan and DirectX 11 for Baldur’s Gate 3. The result: Vulkan performed better with an AMD GPU but DirectX performed better with NVIDIA.

My final word here would be: truly, your mileage may vary. Yes, Vulkan is faster than DirectX in many settings; but also, Vulkan’s performance depends both on the game you are playing and the GPU you are running your game on. There are also reports about DirectX being more stable than Vulkan in some situations. But it’s easy to test and compare, so it’s in your best interest to benchmark and test Vulkan for your games and your machine.

For 3D artists and game developers: Vulkan is cross-platform and this is where it truly shines. This makes for easier porting of games from one device to another. With gaming demand showing an increasing shift towards mobile and cloud-based gaming, the ability to take a great PC or console game and offer it on the Nintendo Switch, Steam Deck, or iPhone more efficiently can potentially make a huge impact in game development cycles (and gaming company profit). 

Valve, for example, recommends that game developers use Vulkan in creating games for the Steam Deck since the Steam Deck runs on SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system. This is significant because Steam Deck lets you play any Steam game on the go; gamers that have school or day jobs don’t need to wait to get home to play AAA games. The Steam Deck is, quite possibly, the future of gaming.

As for 3D graphics designers, Blender has announced that its rendering backend is now powered by Vulkan. While this feature is still in its experimental stages, Blender plans to eventually phase out OpenGL and replace it with Vulkan for its viewport and real-time rendering. (Sidenote: it’s also just kind of cool that an open-source game-changing 3D software has hooked up with an open-source possibly game-changing graphics API.)

Future of Vulkan

Mobile gaming is the industry that perhaps stands to gain the most from Vulkan’s continued progress. Already, there is news that new Vulkan extensions could soon bring ray tracing to smartphones. Read that again: ray tracing in smartphones! I’m under no illusion that playing games on your mobile will ever compete with playing on a PC or console (desktop and console GPUs and CPUs are simply bigger and size does matter when it comes to graphics) but hey, ray traced lighting for Wild Rift or Call of Duty Mobile will definitely be warmly welcomed by all gamers.  

And as a graphics API, Vulkan will impact other 3D industries beyond gaming as well. With Blender as an early adopter, it is highly likely that other 3D design and rendering software will also soon begin their own forays with Vulkan – Cinema 4D, 3ds Max, Houdini, Arnold, Redshift, you name it. Anything that brings more efficiency and better performance to the process of computer graphics generation is good news to archviz firms, film productions, NFT art creators, advertising agencies, and 3D visual art students. 

Closing thoughts

Needless to say, the future is bright for Vulkan. Many tech companies, avid gamers, and 3D artists stand to benefit from the further development of Vulkan and so many are invested in it as well. As beneficial as Vulkan already is, we are in many ways still in its early days. It will only get better, faster, and smoother for Vulkan.

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