Hard Data Proves: SSDs Improve Game Performance

Alex Castle

Having an SSD will load games faster. But your in-game experience will also be improved. The numbers don’t lie.

Hard core gamers know by now that Windows and games will load faster if you’re running from an SSD. Did you know your gameplay will improve, too? Intel has the numbers to prove it.

Adam Lake from Intel’s Visual Computing Group and Glen Miner from game developer Digital Extremes gave an animated talk about the impact of solid state drives on both the gaming experience and how SSDs improve productivity during the game development process. First, let’s look at playing games.

Halting States

First up was Lake, who has worked with game development for years, inside and outside of Intel. He noted that modern game engines continuously stream data to the system. Games today are too large for the assets of a level to be fully cached on a modern graphics card. Main memory is also a limiting factor – not everyone has 12 gigabytes on their PCs.

As you move through the virtual world, the game is making guesses as to where you’ll navigate next. It has some information, like an overall map of the level, or where the next turn might be on a virtual race course. So it will stream in assets – textures, model data, level-of-detail information and sound files – ahead of time.

If the game guesses wrong, however, it has to reload the new data. Think of this as a kind of game engine cache miss – except that it has to go back to system storage to load the right data. Glen Miner calls this the “valley of despair” for a game engine – it doesn’t have the data, needs to get the data and the only thing that can happen is for the game action to come to a grinding halt.

Gamers will see this as brief pauses in the game – something Adam Lake called “hitching.” One example used was a full resolution, uncompressed video capture from an Intel 920 system with a GeForce 295 GTX of an Assassin’s Creed II playthrough. As the character runs through the world, you could clearly see the hitching of the character as new assets would stream in. Another game exhibiting similar behavior is Demigod, a PC only title – so you can’t blame this behavior on bad console ports.

Intel captured storage traces during gameplay – data about reads from the storage medium while the game was being played. Note that they were using 10,000RPM Velociraptor hard drives, so these weren’t slow drives by any means. The company noticed that the hitches corresponded in time with high levels of disk activity – the game was going to disk, finding the needed data and loading it.

This chart shows pointers to the peaks of high disk activity. Every time this would happen, the scene would briefly freeze – only for a moment, but enough to be jarring. In Assassin’s Creed II, the character could actually get through the level faster.

So now we have hard data proving SSDs are better for gaming. What about game development?

More Productivity in a Flash

Glen Miner discussed issues with game development and storage. Individual programmer and artist workstations have relatively small amounts of local storage, and check in their ongoing work onto servers. Some servers are tagged as build servers, and either optimize layouts or handle the frequent trial builds of a game.

Digital Extremes is a multiplatform studio – most of its development efforts are focused on console game titles. However, coders and artists use PCs as their primary development platform.

Touching on just one issue, when games are ready to be mastered to disc (which can happen often during testing), the layout is optimized for most efficient streaming. Servers handle the optimization process. When transferring this optimization process from hard drives to SSDs, Digital Extremes saw a better than 2x speedup in the process.

The speedup in the software build process was even greater, while other speedups were less. But Miner estimates that overall productivity throughput doubled by simply adding SSDs to user workstations and key servers allocated to compute-intensive apps. So although SSDs are pricey, the gains in development productivity more than outweighed the cost.

For more news from this year's Intel Developer Forum, click here!

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