Nvidia wants its new GeForce Experience software to help gamers navigate the technical hurdles common to playing games on a computer. It's easy to see how it could become something more.
In closed beta as of today, the GeForce Experience presently offers two core functions. It can automate the process of updating your Nvidia graphics card software driver. It can also detect your system configuration and apply an optimal set of in-game graphics settings.
As any PC gamer can tell you, keeping your graphics card drivers current is a tedious necessity, but it's also one of the first suggestions for troubleshooting a problematic game. With Nvidia's and AMD's recent habit of releasing a new driver every time a major new game comes out, updating the driver has also become a more frequent activity.
In truth, automated driver updates is remarkable perhaps only because that functionality hasn't existed previously outside of Microsoft's own all-or-nothing Windows Update mechanism. The need to keep drivers current has long been a primary point of criticism when people complain about the complexity of PC gaming. The GeForce Experience software will still allow enthusiasts to micro manage their driver installations, and also download beta drivers, but for those less inclined to want to deal with that upkeep, the automate update process should come as a blessing.
And while optimizing in-game settings might not sound that exciting, if not redundant, Nvidia has put tremendous effort behind this process. I have not yet had hands-on time with the results of Nvidia's optimizations, but if it works as Nvidia has described, gamers should benefit, particularly non-enthusiasts.
It's also here where Nvidia has also planted some interesting seeds for the future.
The idea behind the settings optimizations is that Nvidia wants to help gamers achieve the best possible gaming experience for a given PC configuration. Some games seem to offer a similar feature in their own settings menus, but Nvidia says its data-driven approach achieves better results.
As described in the above image from Nvidia's press deck, the data it's referring to comes from two places: human testers and three hardware-testing facilities. The latter are equipped with a farm of PCs in what Nvidia describes as thousands of hardware configurations.
Nvidia says it can take between two and four days to determine the best set of settings for a given game and a given set of hardware. It has so far qualified 32 titles, and that its goal is to gather optimization data for everything.
For gamers to apply the settings from that data, they simply launch the GeForce Experience, select their game on the list and then click the optimize button. The settings will apply to any GeForce 500 or 600-series graphics chip, laptop or desktop.
Nvidia says it writes the optimized settings directly to each game's configuration file, which means it can also change settings that might not be exposed in the in-game menu system. You can then launch the game itself from within the GeForce Experience software.
Right now you cannot change settings individually within Nvidia's software, although Nvidia says it is considering adding piecemeal options in the future.
All of this should sound great to gamers who don't want to bother with these details themselves. It also does no harm to enthusiasts. You don't have to use the GeForce Experience, for one. And because it will be a free download, the software presents no real risk. You can also still adjust the settings in-game if you find you don't like Nvidia's optimized choices. Nvidia even says it sees an opportunity to allow gamers to trade settings files
If you read between the lines, though, you can see how the GeForce Experience looks like the beginning stages of some larger ambitions.
A few points suggest that Nvidia might have more ideas for its new software. The fact that you can launch games from within the GeForce Experience is one. In its current design, the GeForce Experience sits over services like Steam and Electronic Arts' Origin. Once you're into those services, you can launch your game from within Nvidia's app.
The fact that Nvidia is considering allowing gamers to exchange settings also bears notice, since it implies that Nvidia would be facilitating communication.
If the GeForce Experience is a place to launch your games, and if it becomes a place for gamers to talk with each other, all of a sudden it starts to sound a bit like Valve Software's Steam service.
The GeForce Experience does not have a retail component or communication capabilities currently. You can also argue that with Windows 8 marginalizing competing software retail services, Nvidia would be crazy to introduce such a service now or in the near future. Given Steam's vast user base and its own propensity for collecting data, Valve could also mount a credible defense.
When I mentioned to Nvidia's representative that one can imagine the GeForce Experience morphing into a Steam competitor, I received a smile-and-nod in response, the implication being "Yes, one can imagine that." Nondenial is not confirmation, of course. It's also not denial. [[Update: Nvidia contacted us after this story posted to issue a firm denial that it intends to use the GeForce Experience to compete with Steam.]]
If nothing else, Nvidia says it is open to user feedback. Access to the closed beta will be limited to 10,000 people, but a second, wider beta is due in four to six weeks.
I expect gamers will respond well to the GeForce Experience in its current incarnation. It could be very interesting to see how the service evolves.