Late last Friday, Nvidia said it was cancelling its controversial GeForce Partner Program in the wake of criticism that it was anti-competitive and an attempt to increase the company’s hold on the graphics card market. It’s the latest development in the ongoing saga of Nvidia and rival manufacturer AMD waging dueling PR campaigns in an attempt to win over PC gamers and other potential customers.
Announced at the beginning of March, the GeForce Partner Program (GPP) was billed by Nvidia as an attempt at “full transparency” so that consumers could make educated buying decisions. Basically, Nvidia would give extra publicity, early access to new product information, and extra engineering support to hardware companies in exchange for said companies exclusively using GeForce graphics cards throughout a single product line. PC hardware review site HardOCP was critical of the move and called it “anticompetitive,” while rival tech manufacturer AMD followed up in mid-April with a blog post touting “open standards.” “We believe that freedom of choice in PC gaming isn’t a privilege. It’s a right,” the company melodramatically proclaimed. And now, Nvidia has decided to pull the plug on the whole thing.
Even as it shut down the marketing initiative, however, Nvidia continued to defend it. “The choice of GPU greatly defines a gaming platform,” it said in the blog post. “So, the GPU brand should be clearly transparent – no substitute GPUs hidden behind a pile of techno-jargon. Most partners agreed.” One of those partners was ASUS, which made its flagship “Republic of Gamers” brand Nvidia-exclusive, then in April announced a new “Arez” brand for AMD Radeon graphics cards.
This was exactly the kind of fragmentation that critics of the GPP were afraid of, although as Nvidia has continually pointed out, PC manufacturers like ASUS, Acer, and others were free to leave the program whenever they wanted. What has remained unclear was the potential consequences for companies who did choose to do so. While Nvidia pitched the GPP as providing extra benefits, critics like those at HardOCP have claimed companies who didn’t play ball could risk losing access and getting pushed to the back of the line when it came to chip allotments for new shipments.
“What is disturbing is that we have been told that if a company does not participate in GPP, those companies feel as if Nvidia would hold back allocation of GPUs from their inventories,” HardOCP said in a March 8 article, which disclosed up front that the site had been approached by AMD to write about this. “From all we have talked to, the issue of not allocating GPU inventories to non-GPP partners have not been spelled out contractually, but is rather done on a wink and a nod.” While there were no public incidents of this happening during the two months the program was active, it became a rallying point for critics of the GPP.
With the graphics card industry facing an ongoing shortage thanks to the rise of cryptocurrency, Nvidia holding back inventory is a big potential threat. Neither Nvidia nor AMD responded to Kotaku’s requests for further comment and instead simply pointed back to their previous blog posts on the subject. A vice president of AMD thanked HardOCP for its articles on the subject following Nvidia’s announcement that it was ending the program.
This isn’t the first time the companies have fought in a public way. Back in 2014, there was a lot of controversy over the fact that Watch Dogs ran better on PCs that had Nvidia graphics cards than ones which used AMD’s GPUs. An AMD spokesperson blamed the difference on Nvidia’s Gameworks program, which they called “a clear and present threat to gamers,” alleging it deliberately hurt the performance of AMD graphics cards by encouraging developers to optimize their games for Nvidia’s products and reject any input from AMD’s engineers. Nvidia’s Director of Engineering, Cem Cebenoyan, denied the allegations.
In the years since, the two companies’ heated rivalry hasn’t cooled down much, especially as AMD, often associated with the economy end of the GPU market, has started to approach parity with Nvidia’s GeForce 10 series after launching its own line of Vega GPUs last fall. (Both lines have different advantages and drawbacks, which makes head-to-head comparisons difficult). Nvidia still controls close to 70% of the graphics card market despite slipping a bit in recent months, but at least in this most recent round of the ongoing feud, AMD has come out on top.