The Future Is Solid: Solid-state Drives Revolutionize Gaming

Solid-state drives (SSDs) are revolutionizing storage performance on desktop and laptop PCs, delivering dramatically faster load times than hard disk drives (HDDs). When SSDs are used as boot drives, operating systems initialize faster, applications (including games and compilers) launch more quickly, and projects typically load in seconds rather than minutes.

For gamers, this leap in storage performance also delivers a visibly better gaming experience. For game developers, SSDs accelerate iterations, improving operational efficiency and increasing ROI. Developers can also dramatically increase streaming requirements and utilize high-resolution assets more frequently, resulting in more immersive game play.

Blazing Launch Speeds and Better Game Play

Tests show that SSDs can improve load times by up to 78 percent, compared with a Western Digital VelociRaptor 10,000 RPM HDD. A single SSD can also significantly outperform two 10,000 RPM HDDs in RAID 0. Tests also show that SSDs can speed up the game-installation process.

Other lab tests showed some SSDs improved frame-to-frame coherency during game play. Serious gamers play games at their maximum settings driving HD monitors. Whenever they experience low visual fidelity, they may blame the graphics processor, but the effects could in fact be caused by storage I/O bottlenecks.

Games typically load content in the background as the player traverses a level or progresses through a scene. When that happens, the game has to request data from the storage media. The longer this takes and the more the OS has to intervene, the greater the likelihood is that the user will notice and lose their sense of immersion. The game may appear choppy or contain frames that appear discontinuous as the rendering engine tries to keep up with the actual game-world clock. The game may stall if assets are not already loaded into graphics memory — phenomena developers call it a “hitch.”

Hitches occur whenever 0.1 percent or less of total display pixels change for a duration of at least five frames. By measuring hitch density in conjunction with I/O traces during game runtime, it was determined that hitches are the result of storage I/O bottlenecks caused by the HDD. The tests revealed that the SSD responded with zero hitching, while the HDD yielded hitching 7 percent of the time

Hitch-free game play results in a better experience. Graphic transitions are smoother and, because there are no stalls during the game, players using SSDs enjoy a distinct competitive advantage over their opponents. SSD-enabled gamers will be able to arrive at their intended destination, pick up new weapons and be ready for action, but their less-fortunate rivals (the players using HDDs) will lose valuable seconds while waiting for the game engine to recover from a hitch.

Delivering More Immersive Gaming Experiences

Most games today were developed with HDDs in mind, and tests revealed that game engines aren’t optimized to exploit SSD performance. Games typically utilize only a fraction of an SSD’s full bandwidth.

Tapping into the full bandwidth and reduced latency offered by SSDs allows developers to add more detailed texture maps, higher resolution geometry and more assets within the field of view — all while knowing that players will still experience fluid, hitch-free game play. Streaming more content at higher resolutions when SSDs are installed will result in more immersive game play.

Enhancing Developer Productivity and Creativity

Recognizing that SSDs represented an opportunity to boost operational efficiency, Digital Extremes, co-creators of Epic Games’ Unreal hit series of video games, replaced the 250 GB 7200 RPM hard drives in their programmers’ and artists’ workstations with 160 GB SSDs.

Digital Extremes found that deploying SSDs accelerated Xbox 360 build times by 47 percent, layout optimizations by 3.5 times, editor launch by 5.6 times, and uncompressed level loads by five times. These gains manifested in doubling the frequency of design iterations, giving artists and programmers opportunities to explore additional creative options, and enabled them to add features and make the game more fun.

Game developers are under pressure to contain production costs and meet incredibly demanding production schedules, while tightly managing their available resources. By enhancing operational efficiency, SSDs have had a direct, positive effect on Digital Extreme’s bottom line. Says Peter Alau, Digital Extremes’ vice president of business development: “If we can save a programmer a few minutes each time source code is compiled, we can save thousands of dollars every year.”