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Editorials

Cheatin' Video Card Companies

Thursday, May 29, 2003 by Helly || [0 Comments]

I may not be an out-and-out Ayn Rand follower (Objectivism…I don’t like “isms”), but I believe that companies have a right to make a profit. However, I’m enough of a democrat (*shudder*) to believe that companies should make their profits honestly and not at the expense of their employees or consumers. This goes for cutting employees salaries or jobs while executives get pay raises; outsourcing work to foreign countries while our unemployment rate is soaring; and deliberately marketing dangerous, shoddy or defective merchandise to consumers.

With that in mind, the recent debacle with nVidia, ATI and their manipulation of Futuremark’s benchmarking tools seems to fit right into the realm of ‘screwing over consumers to make a profit’.

All gamers know how competitive the video card market is right now. nVidia has been at the top of the heap ever since 3DFX closed up shop years ago. The GeForce chipset has constantly been the highest performing video card chipset and GPU on the market, and the quality of game visuals has increased at an amazing rate over the years. But within the last year or so, ATI has pulled out all the stops and developed a card that finally knocked NIVIDA out of the top spot. That card is, of course, the Radeon 9700 Pro. nVidia has come back with their new FX chipset, ATI launched their Radeon 9800 Pro and they went after each other’s throats for the dollars of the gamers.

I’m a big believer in competition being good for the marketplace. If Pepsi-Cola had failed back in the 20’s and 30’s, we wouldn’t have nearly the choices in the soda market that we do now (as Coca-Cola was the undisputed king and put most other companies out of business with a slew of trademark infringement cases). If nVidia didn’t have ATI for competition, there would be little incentive for nVidia to innovate and develop better GPUs and cards (beyond that of profit potential). The problem arises when, in the midst of competition, companies cheat in order to rise above their competition. It’s a simple concept that most of us learned as children: cheating is bad. It seems that neither nVidia nor ATI learned this lesson particularly well.

The commotion started when an independent site, ExtremeTech.com, discovered that, by tweaking the way Futuremark’s 3DMark 03 benchmarking tests ran, they encountered serious glitches with nVidia’s Detonator drivers. It turned out that nVidia had taken advantage of the static nature of 3DMark 03’s tests to optimize their 44.03 DetonatorFX drivers to increase their performance results, thus giving them an edge over ATI’s drivers. Unfortunately for nVidia, they had dropped out of Futuremark’s beta program and no longer had access to the developers tools (which ExtremeTech.com did have, and which they used to go beyond the bounds of what nVidia was using for their tests, thereby discovering severe glitches in graphics and performance once off the beaten track of the test, as it were). Once Futuremark introduced a trivial update to their benchmarking tests negating the driver optimizations, nVidia’s performance decreased by 25%.

Shortly after this bombshell was dropped, ExtremeTech.com put ATI’s drivers to the same tests for their 9800 Pro card and came up with a performance decrease as well, indicating that ATI was also optimizing for the tests. The performance decrease for ATI was significantly less than nVidia, but still worrying. ATI then released a statement acknowledging that they had, indeed, optimized their drivers to handle several tests more efficiently and that they would remove those optimizations with the next driver release. ATI has a troubled history of manipulating their drivers to perform better in only specific games, but in this case they claimed no wrongdoing. Futuremark also came out to back ATI’s claim of innocence, but then the impartiality of Futuremark was brought into question as ATI was part of the beta program while nVidia had dropped out.

Regardless of the rationalizations, both companies have admitted to cheating to improve their scores. Regardless of how deep the cheating went, or who cheated more subtly, both companies should be ashamed of themselves. But shame has little place in the business world, and chances are they won’t be ashamed to have cheated, but ashamed that they got caught.

What REALLY stews my juices about this scandal is that neither company really loses. The group that gets screwed is the gamers. We’re the ones who have bought into the belief that keeping on the bleeding edge is the best way to immerse ourselves in the games we love to play. That belief, and that willingness to upgrade, is what allows companies like nVidia and ATI to charge upwards of $500 for their latest cards. That’s quite a chunk of dough for any person to spend on a single computer component in this day and age, and most regular users will never have the need of such high-falutin’ cards. So why would nVidia and ATI risk offending their prime demographic by cheating so blatantly?

Maybe they feel that we don’t have a real choice. In order to play the latest games with the best settings, we have to use either an ATI or nVidia graphics card. There aren’t a lot of options available to the gaming public. However, we do have one power that neither of them necessarily counted upon our using – the power of our cash. This obvious lack of ethics by both companies demands that we, as a group, refuse to spend our money on their latest cards until they clean up their acts. We can make do with the cards we’ve already got for a while, albeit we may need to run some games with fewer eye-candy elements. Were the gamers to do this, we could really influence their business practices. Remember, the game companies will develop their games for their consumers, not for video card companies no one buys cards from anymore.

What nVidia and ATI need to realize is that they can’t blatantly lie to the public about the abilities of their products. They can’t manipulate and cheat in order to get another sale. They need to rely upon the merits of their actual work, their actual technological inventiveness. If they’re going to expect gamers to shell out the kind of cash they’re asking, then they had best step up and prove to the gaming public that they are worthy of our money. We need to remember that we, as the consumers, have the ultimate power over these companies. We need to step up and demand that they represent their products accurately and fairly so that we can make informed decisions as consumers. Both nVidia and ATI should publicly apologize to their customers for their behavior and vow to perform in an ethical manner from now on. We, as a powerful block of consumers, should realize our power and demand nothing less of these companies. Cheating and manipulating results is, after all, a demonstrable lack of respect for their customers and should not be tolerated.

Ayn Rand may have believed that companies have a right to be responsible only to themselves, but she also believed that part of the way in which a company became successful was by behaving in an ethical manner and respecting the customer (at least I think that’s what she was saying in Atlas Shrugged).

And don’t forget to thank the watchful sites like ExtremeTech.com who catch and report on these kinds of issues. They have some great advice for gamers in the wake of this ridiculous scandal: don’t rely on benchmarks, but rather which card has better visuals with similar settings at a set FPS.

The initial article: http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,3973,1086025,00.asp

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