Interview: AMD Talks 'Console-like' PC Brand

Earlier today, hardware manufacturer AMD pulled back the curtain on AMD Game!, a new branding program meant to help mainstream consumers identify and purchase gaming-capable PCs.

In advance of the announcement, I had the chance to talk with AMD desktop gaming strategist Brent Barry about the new initiative, the software behind it, how AMD approaches system-eating games like Crysis, and just what it means for the PC Gaming Alliance since AMD Game! is an independent effort.

We also discussed the confusion that could stem from not branding compatible games with the AMD Game! logo, not to mention the periodic updates to the AMD Game! guidelines that won't be reflected with any sort of name change or modification.

The plan behind AMD Game!, as Barry puts it, is to help the not-so-tech-savvy walk into a retailer and walk out with a system that they know can run today's games. "Basically, to bring a little bit of that console-like simplicity to the mainstream gamers," he noted.

Benchmarks supplied by AMD show that the AMD! Game systems can provide 30FPS performance at 1280 x 1024 within tested games, while AMD Game! Ultra systems match that same performance at a resolution of 1600 x 1200.

"All of our solution requirements are really informed by real-world gameplay," he explained. "We don't use benchmarks, we're not being arbitrary, we're not trying just to sell-up to higher-end SKUs. We're really looking at what do people need to have the experiences that they expect."

Shack: When you update the AMD Game! specifications every six months or so, will you modify the logo or the name? AMD Game! 2, AMD Game! 3, that sort of thing?

We're not trying to get the AMD Game! logo on a box.

Brent Barry: No. It'll always be AMD Game! We looked at a couple of different ways that we could try to identify what you needed. One idea was essentialy to do an AMD Game! 1, AMD Game! 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and keep going like that. Another one was to do AMD Game! 2007, AMD Game! 2008, AMD Game! 2009, those kinds of things.

At the end of the day, we decided all of those pieces ended up increasing complexity. We were trying to solve the simple problem of helping people to buy the right PC for gaming if they wanted to game. The direction that we've chosen is to make a simple program that can help people to quickly identify the PC on the shelf or in the store which is good for gaming today.

Shack:How are customers going to tell the old and new machines apart?

Brent Barry: As part of our guidelines with our customers--the system builders and OEMs and e-tailers--we're going to be changing out what our guidelines are for usage of the logo. So any time you see an AMD Game! PC, it should be built upon the latest platform specifications.

Shack: So then, what happens to the outdated machines on store shelves once the AMD Game! requirements are updated?

Brent Barry: The way that we are able to manage that is, number one, we work well ahead of time with all of our customers. For example, we'll be developing the 2009 guidelines over the next couple months. When you're dealing with a retail piece, you always have to be in cycle with the retailers to make sure that the retailers and the OEMs have time to be ready for any kind of change."

Shack: Will the AMD Game! logo appear on game boxes to steer mainstream gamers towards compatible games?

Crysis definitely was one of those games that gave us concern, as it should with everyone.

Brent Barry: Some of our partners are gonna be using the logo as part of their box and packaging, but that's more of a nod, I think, to what we're doing. It's not a focus for us.

We're not trying to get the AMD Game! logo on a [game] box. It might be a future part of the program. Our focus is on helping people find the right PC.

Keep reading to learn how AMD deals with system-eating games like Crysis and Assassin's Creed, one-button system optimization, and its beliefs regarding mainstream users and configurations tweaking. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Where does that leave the unknowing game buyer, especially if they're looking at a system-intensive game like Crysis or Assassin's Creed?

Brent Barry: Besides some games out there that are incredibly poorly optimized pieces of... software, that don't run well on anything, even a super computer, Crysis is one of the most hardcore, demanding games that's on the market.

You're always going to have outliers, it's just a software problem. But Crysis is an incredibly demanding game, but is actually a really interesting example. AMD Game! is actually one way we have a solution to that mainstream problem.

Our product line, top to bottom, is able to deliver a pretty capable gaming experience. You can play Crysis on our integrated graphics. It might not be the absolute best experience, but it works.

If you add in the HD 3450 card and you're running in Hybrid Crossfire mode, all of a sudden you can have a pretty good experience. You know, running at lower resolutions, you can have a pretty good gaming experience, you know, good enough.

Once you pop up to the AMD Game! settings, with that system level, you get a pretty good experience.

Crysis definitely was one of those games that gave us concern, as it should with everyone. I would love to see publishers and game developers make more informed decisions to make sure games are going to run really well on the PCs that are being sold that are made for gaming.

Shack: You've mentioned something about a program that would optimize the system for gameplay with the press of a button? How does that work? Will it auto-configure a game's settings?

Brent Barry: It's not about the game configuration, it's about the PC. It's all about what you can do within the PC and the OS, lots of low-level options, high-level options, and such. Things that you can set that the really high-end enthusiast already knows about, different ways you can teak your PC.

What we're trying to do is take something that is a pain in the butt and takes forever to do manually and turns it into a real quick easy process. It's even the kind of tool that, as we're designing it for the mainstream, it's also something that's going to be very valuable to the enthusiast."

Now, I know I'm being totally ambiguous about this, but I don't want to get you guys into trying to report on something [you haven't seen yet], I just want you to understand that there's a piece of innovation behind the program as well.

I mean, remember, we make glass, basically.

We're not just trying to attack the point of purchase.. we're also trying to get into how do we turn the PC into a better gaming machine as well.

Shack: Speaking about things that are a huge pain in the butt, how do you going to ensure that these mainstream folks will be able to configure their games to match the expected performance?

Brent Barry: We're really trying to take this and make it ready for the mainstream. When we do all of our testing, we let the game auto-detect and run.

We expect that the mainstream gamer is not doing any configuration. I'm sure that a lot of folks do, they push a lot of buttons to try to see what happens, some of 'em might even use a tweak guide, but in general, I figure that the mainstream gamer just accepts what they get, and so what we want to make sure that what they get is a good experience.

For example, they might put in Crysis, and have just bought their PC at Big Box, and get about five frames per second and just really don't know better. They aren't having the greatest experience, but it's "the latest and greatest in PC."

We want to make sure that what they get is a better experience. Whereas the [software] configurations can really make a big difference, that's not a piece we're trying to address here.

I will say that, within the PC Gaming Alliance, we are addressing those kinds of issues, but I think that's something that the spokespeople at the PC Gaming Alliance should talk about when they're ready.

Shack: How does AMD Game! work alongside Games for Windows? Microsoft has that handy System Ranking feature in Vista that no one seems to have taken advantage of.

Brent Barry: We don't get into any of that. That's not something that we, as a hardware company--I mean, remember, we make glass, basically. We're silicon vendors.

What we can affect are the way that we market position to products. Microsoft, I think they had a very, how can I put this, a really ambitious program for Games for Windows. I think a lot of the things they were trying to do were very inspired, I think they were the right options, but beyond that, I don't think I want to comment on how successful [it was].

What I will say is Microsoft and their Games for Windows folks are partners of ours with this. They're really excited because they think that we are doing the right moves to really make a difference in the gaming industry.

Now, they were doing lots of stuff as well to try to help simplify things, make a better experience, and they're taking it from one angle. We're taking it from another. One of the real advantages, I think, of bringing more people together, have an entire industry that's focused on this, it means we can solve even more problems.

..we always wish that the industry could move faster.

We're trying to bite off what we can chew. We aren't gonna try to save the planet, we're gonna try to tidy up our yard, essentially. We're trying to make sure that, with the platform requirements that we can set, with the marketing initiatives that we can set, the leadership we can provide with our partners, that we can deliver a better experience at that point-of-purchase type of level.

It really is about simplifying and enhancing the experience. We hope that our initiative won't stop just with us, that maybe some of our competitors and partners will also carry forward in trying to help simplify this process.

Turn the page for a frank discussion about how AMD Game! does and doesn't work with the PC Gaming Alliance. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: How does this tie into the PC Gaming Alliance?

Brent Barry: We're very proud founding members of the PC Gaming Alliance, very proud to be a part of it. This is along the same philosophy as the PC Gaming Alliance, we always wish that the industry could move faster than sometimes it does to the benefit of customers.

What we we feel like we have is an opportunity, because we deliver all of these components and we have support from so many members of the PC Gaming Alliance, that we're able to step up and take the, kind of what we wanted to do there, we can step forward and do it with all of our customers, be the innovative leader in getting it done.

It's definitely in the same line as the PC Gaming Alliance, it's just we know we can move a little bit faster. One of our goals is we want the rest of the industry to bring out these kinds of programs. We don't need any kind of exclusive right to this kind of marketing.

We know that if we can make the industry so that it's easier to find and play and have a really good experience, it's gonna be to our benefit, to our competitors benefit, to everybody's benefit.

Shack: I guess I don't get why isn't this a part of the PC Gaming Alliance?

Brent Barry: We're a part of the PC Gaming Alliance. It's an industry-organization-coalition-type thing. We're moving forward by ourselves on this piece with our partners.

It's not really about the PC Gaming Alliance not picking it up. We have our own set of goals and objectives and we want to try and solve this problem right away. We don't want to have to deal with the.. we know we can move fast because we don't have to do the politics, we know what we need to do because we can go ahead and run with this hardware.

We hope to really have a positive effect on the PC Gaming Alliance. The PCGA is the right thing for gaming. We need to come together, we need to set standards. But we also know, as individual companies, we can often affect change very quickly.

The blockages that happen and the siloing of the industry that happens because of those kinds of marketing agreements are something that we have to try to overcome.

Shack: Who else is a part of the AMD! Game initiative?

Brent Barry: We work very closely with lots of software publishers, developers, and such, middleware vendors. We work with them mainly to help them with optimizations, help understand exactly what's coming on the software front, so that we, at the end of the day, can really provide a better experience.

A lot of the way that the software market works these days--I'm not really a fan of how some of this happens--but there's a lot of exclusivity, marketing arrangements, partnerships based on large-dollar marketing agreements. [They] really don't have anything to do about the technology at the base and the experience the end user is going to have.

I don't like it. I don't really want to be supporting of that kind of stuff, those kinds of arrangements. The software developers that we do work closely with, folks like Stardock, NCSoft, Ubisoft, and others, they're all folks who are very supportive of what we're doing with our efforts.

We do not have a piece of this program which is specifically targeted at exclusive marketing arrangements. Now, some of our partners are gonna be using the logo as part of their box and packaging, but that's more of a nod, I think, to what we're doing.

Unfortunately, the blockages that happen and the siloing of the industry that happens because of those kinds of marketing agreements are something that we have to try to overcome. Again, I would love to see our competitors and partners look to make this more about the experience that the end user gets to have and less about trying to silo and cut off end users from a better experience.