It’s difficult to get excited by a gaming API. Many people are familiar with DirectX, Microsoft’s ubiquitous creation, which is impossible not to run into on both the PC and Xbox. The PS4 has its own in GNM and GNMX. And OpenGL is one that’s withered on the vine somewhat, but was quite popular not that long ago — especially in id games. Bonus points if you remember Glide.
A new challenger approaches though, and it’s going to be good news for everyone. It’s called Vulkan, and brings substantial changes and improvements to how game developers can address your gaming hardware.
First, a little background. Vulkan is being created by the Khronos Group, who made the original OpenGL. In fact, Vulkan was initially known as “next generation OpenGL” before being retitled. AMD donated code from their moderately successful Mantle API (from when AMD were essentially trying to create an alternative to both DirectX and OpenGL themselves), and that eventually became GLnext, which became Vulkan.
Why is Vulkan so attractive? For one thing, it’s built from the ground up to allow low-level access to your hardware. This means finer control over your console or PC, with games able to both run faster and look better. For many, this is the Holy Grail of game development, since you usually have to choose between one or the other. Vulkan is also platform-agnostic, compared to DirectX (Xbox and Windows PC only) or GNMX (PS4 only). Right now, Vulkan supports Windows 7/8/10, iOS, Android, and Linux, with more planned. Companies like AMD, Intel, Nvidia, and Qualcomm are all involved in the future direction of Vulkan.
So why should you care about it? Well right now (at least on PC), Vulkan supports only three notable titles: The Talos Principle, Dota 2, and Doom. Doom‘s support was patched in only a few weeks ago, but resulted in substantial performance gains on certain hardware, particularly AMD graphics cards. As an example, Guru3D’s tests (comparing Vulkan to OpenGL) showed an increase of 23% on Doom using Ultra settings at 1920×1080 (96 FPS to 116 FPS). At 1440p, the increase was almost 20% (61 FPS to 73 FPS). This was on AMD’s new RX 480 graphics card. Not too shabby for a brand new API that developers are still learning with.
The bad news is that if you look again at the list of devices that Vulkan currently supports, nowhere there does it say”Xbox” or “PS4.” Microsoft, for now, has chosen to proceed with DirectX 12, which shares some characteristics of Vulkan (notably better use of multi-core CPUs), and Sony has been silent on its plans for supporting Vulkan. Of the two, it’s more likely that the PS4 will eventually support Vulkan, since Microsoft have seemingly thrown their lot in with DirectX 12. The PC gets the best of both worlds, receiving both Vulkan through AMD, Nvidia, and Intel, and DirectX 12 through Microsoft themselves. That’s not to say that Microsoft may not reverse course down the line and adopt Vulkan on top of DirectX 12, but I don’t see that happening in the short-term.
The good news for PC gamers, at least, is that Valve have already announced support for Vulkan in the Source engine, so all future Valve titles will natively support Vulkan. Dota 2‘s beta implementation is the first step of this. id’s addition of Vulkan support for Doom hopefully signals that the Unreal Engine (used by many games and not just Epic titles) will support Vulkan in the future, which will make it extremely prevalent in the PC universe.
What can you do if you want Vulkan on your console? For now, not much. Perhaps tweet at @PlayStation and @Xbox saying you would like Vulkan support added for your console, to allow game developers to be able to fully unleash the power of your hardware. (No doubt Microsoft would say that DirectX 12 already does this.)
For PC gamers, the future is already here. Hopefully for console gamers, that future won’t take much longer.