While games certainly benefit from fast storage devices such as SSDs, diminishing returns occur quite quickly; It’s hard to tell the difference between an old SATA SSD and an advanced PCIe Gen 4 SSD in most games. To take advantage of ever-faster SSDs like never before, Microsoft launched DirectStorage for Xbox Series X, and now DirectStorage is making its way to PC.
While DirectStorage is certainly exciting for game developers, what it means for gamers isn’t all that exciting, at least not right now.
DirectStorage is basically a new piece of software that allows games to take advantage of fast NVMe SSDs. However, this is not just to reduce loading times. As games become more complex, better hardware is needed to run them, and it’s not limited to CPUs and GPUs: fast SSDs are increasingly important for good gaming performance.
Modern game engines are built on older technologies designed to load a lot of data in one go, that capitalized on the strengths of hard drives† But today game developers want to load many small pieces of data over a longer period of time. For example, in many games, distant objects are not loaded in detail to make the game run better. SSDs are very good at handling many requests for data, also known as IO requests, and developers are starting to optimize for SSDs.
The main weakness of DirectStorage’s predecessors is that there is a limit to the number of times a game can make IO requests to the storage. Since HDDs were bad at handling many IO requests, this limitation was not important until developers wanted to harness the power of modern NVMe SSDs, which are very good at handling thousands or even tens of thousands of IO requests per second. DirectStorage addresses this limitation, at least for the foreseeable future.
How? A big part of DirectStorage is GPU file decompression. Most game files are compressed to reduce installation size, and your CPU usually handles the decompression work. It turns out that GPUs are For real good at extracting small files, and DirectStorage capitalizes on that. It improves loading times while, according to Microsoft, massive reduction in CPU overhead†
First and foremost, to see the full benefits of DirectStorage, you need an NVMe SSD. However, you’ll probably want a PCIe 4.0 or 5.0 NVMe SSD, since games with DirectStorage are developed with these types of SSDs in mind.
Second, DirectStorage is an API-level technology associated with: DirectX 12, meaning it’s exclusive to DX12 games. Fortunately, for older games it is possible to get DirectStorage via an update. For example, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will receive an update later this year that introduces DX12, ray tracing and DirectStorage.
Most CPUs and GPUs made in the last decade should be able to meet the minimum requirements for DirectStorage, which is only DX12 compatibility. When it comes to graphics cards, Nvidia GPUs since the 900 series and AMD GPUs since the 200 series all support DX12. Upcoming Intel GPUs will also support DX12.
All Intel CPUs since 3rd generation and all AMD CPUs since Ryzen 1000 support PCIe 3.0, the minimum requirement for NVMe SSDs. Intel 11th Gen, 12th Gen, and Ryzen 3000 through 6000 (with some exceptions) support PCIe 4.0, the fastest speed for SSDs currently available. Finally, upcoming PCIe 5.0 SSDs will be supported by Intel’s 12th Gen CPUs and AMD’s upcoming Ryzen 7000 CPUs.
It’s too early to say definitively how good DirectStorage is, as there are currently no games available that use this technology. However, the developers for the upcoming game pronounced recently demonstrated how DirectStorage improves loading times† On NVME SSDs, DirectStorage reduced loading times by up to half a second, while on SATA SSDs, loading times were reduced by just under a full second. While load times were certainly low, it’s very easy not to be impressed by the slight improvement DirectStorage offered.
However, it is important to remember that DirectStorage is brand new and pronounced will be one of the first games to ever use it, so there’s probably some room for optimization. More importantly, DirectStorage is for more than just loading screens: it will be used to make games look better without sacrificing performance and it will make faster storage more meaningful for gaming. Developers can load textures and objects more freely and creatively. This can lead to higher resolution textures and more complex and detailed 3D stuff like people and landscapes, all without frequent loading screens or long hallways obscuring loading screens.
It usually takes time to reap the benefits of new technology at the API level. DX12 came out in 2015 and it wasn’t immediately important to all gamers, but in the seven years since DX12 came out, we can say for sure it was a crucial update because it enables things like ray tracing. DX12 proves one thing quite convincingly: build it and they will come. If game developers can take advantage of new technology, they will.