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Lower-Level Graphics API - What Does It Mean?
They say that the new, upcoming generation of graphics API-s (like DirectX 12 and Vulkan) will be lower-level, closer to the GPU. You may wonder what does it exactly mean or what is the purpose of it? Let me explain that with a picture that I have made few months ago and already shown on my two presentations.
Row 1: Back in the early days of computer graphics (like on Atari, Commodore 64), there were only applications (green rectangle), communicating directly with graphics hardware (e.g. by setting hardware registers).
Row 2: Hardware and software became more complicated. Operating systems started to separate applications from direct access to hardware. To make applications working on variety of devices available on the market, some standards had to be defined. Device drivers appeared as a separate layer (red rectangle).
Graphics API (Application Programming Interface), like every interface, is just the means of communication - standardized, documented definition of functions and other stuff that is used on the application's side and implemented by the driver. Driver translates these calls to commands specific to particular hardware.
Row 3: As games became more complex, it was no longer convenient to call graphics API directly from game logic code. Another layer appeared, called game engine (yellow rectangle). It is essentially a comprehensive library that provides some higher-level objects (like an entity, asset, material, camera, light) and implements them (in its graphical part) using lower-level commands of graphics API (like mesh, texture, shader).
Row 4: This is where we are now. Games, as well as game engines constantly become more complex and expensive to make. Less and less game development studios make their own engine technology, more prefer to use existing, universal engines (like Unity, Unreal Engine) and just focus on gameplay. These engines recently became available for free and on very attractive licenses, so this trend affects both AAA, as well as indie and amateur game developers.
Graphics drivers became incredibly complex programs as well. You may not see it directly, but just take a look at the size of their installers. They are not games - they don't contain tons of graphics and music assets. So guess what is inside? That is a lot of code! They have to implement all API-s (DirectX 9, 10, 11, OpenGL). In addition to that, these API-s have to backward compatible and not necessarily reflect how modern GPU-s work, so additional logic needed for that can introduce some performance overhead or contain some bugs.
Row 5: The future, with new generation of graphics API-s. Note that the sum width of the bars is not smaller than in the previous row. (Maybe it should be a bit smaller - see comment below.) That is because according to the concept of accidental complexity and essential complexity from famous book No Silver Bullet, stuff that is really necessary has to be done somewhere anyway. So lower-level API means just that driver could be smaller and simpler, while upper layers will have more responsibility of manually managing stuff instead of automatic facilities provided by the driver (for example, there is no more DISCARD or NOOVERWRITE flag when mapping a resource in DirectX 12). It also means API is again closer to the actual hardware. Thanks to all that, the usage of GPU can be optimized better by knowing all higher-level details about specific application on the engine level.
Question is: Will that make graphics programming more difficult? Yes, it will, but these days it will affect mostly a small group of programmers working directly on game engines or just passionate about this stuff (like myself) and not the rest of game developers. Similarly, there may be a concern about potential fragmentation. Time will show which API-s will be more successful than the others, but in case none of them will become standard across all platforms (Vulkan is a good candidate) and GPU/OS vendors succeed in convincing developers to use their platform-specific ones, it will also complicate life only for these engine developers. Successful games have to be multiplatform anyway and modern game engines do good job in hiding many of differences between platforms, so they can do the same with graphics.
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