GM206 is Maxwell for MOBAs

When we met with NVIDIA to discuss the GTX 950 it was made incredibly clear what the target market was for this card and price range: mainstream gamers running at 1080p and in particular, MOBA fans. For those of you that might be unaware, it’s time to wake up: multiplayer online battle arena games like League of Legends and DOTA 2 are two of the most popular games in the world with the latter recently holding a tournament with a prize purse exceeding $18 million. Yes, you read that right.

The market fits perfectly: MOBA gamers and players of other games that are not particularly stressful on modern GPU hardware don’t need to buy $300+ graphics cards to get maximum enjoyment and a smooth gaming experience. You can play DOTA 2 at 1080p just fine on the $150-200 cards that sell today but NVIDIA believes that it is able to improve the experience for these users with the GTX 950 launching today. Even with rather modest minimum hardware specifications that these games list, the truth is that there are ways to improve quality, decrease latency and ensure competitiveness through updated GPUs and drivers.

If you are like me, you might be wondering how that is possible, other than just improving frame rate and the ability to run at higher image quality settings. Here is the slide that summarizes what NVIDIA thinks is the key:

Compared to the GeForce GTX 650, NVIDIA claims to have improved the response time in DOTA 2 from 80ms down to 45ms with an upgrade to the GTX 950. It’s important to understand that in this context, NVIDIA is referencing response as the time between a mouse click and the beginnings of that action occurring on the gamer’s screen. How do you magically get 35ms of additional time dropped from your game loop? A combination of faster rendering time (higher frame rate) and latency optimization from the driver that NVIDIA has specifically targeted for DOTA 2.

We can all understand the lowered render time – with an average FPS in DOTA 2 of over 130 FPS for the GTX 950 and 50 FPS for the GTX 650, you get significantly faster gameplay immediately. But NVIDIA is using GeForce Experience and some little known driver settings to improve things even more.

If you have never modified the pre-rendered frame settings in the NVIDIA control panel, you would be forgiven. But as it turns out, in this game and under these circumstances with the GTX 950, changing this setting from the default of 2 down to 1 does something interesting. While changing this setting can sometimes lower the maximum frame rate and average FPS slightly, it removes an entire DirectX queue stage from the pipeline, taking out as much as 5-8ms of additional time from the mouse-to-monitor loop. That doesn’t seem like a big change on its own, but when you are playing for $6.2M in a DOTA 2 tournament (and aren’t we all these days), that can mean the difference between winning and losing.

NVIDIA has also found a few other tweaks that specifically help DOTA 2 gameplay experiences. For one, even with high refresh rate monitors, the game defaults to using 60 Hz frame limiting, even if Windows is set to a higher refresh rate. NVIDIA’s GeForce experience now adjusts that setting automatically when optimizing the game. Also, NVIDIA found that enabling VSync in the control panel is better than doing so in DOTA 2 options as the game engine has some eccentricities that add some latency to the loop. GFE now sets that as well.

The result is an experience that NVIDIA believes is better for DOTA 2 than anything they have had at this price range before. All of these settings and options get set and used for buyers of the GTX 950 when they load GFE and choose to optimize the game. There is even a secondary profile for DOTA that lists “low latency” as the target.

I likely know your next question? Can’t I do this already with the control panel and a little manual labor of my own? Absolutely. You can set VSync, change the pre-rendered frame count and you can adjust the refresh rate in the game itself. And can’t you do this with other cards as well, not just the GTX 950? Yes again.

NVIDIA says that they picked the GTX 950 to launch with this feature first because of its target audience and price point but that it wants to roll out the feature to other cards and other MOBA games in the near future. It might seem a bit gimmicky, I give you that, but what we are seeing is essentially a dedicated and specific optimization for an incredibly popular game. In the future I would expect the company to roll out functionality like this for non-MOBA games as well and to further expand the reach and draw of the GeForce Experience application.

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