A First Foray into Rendering Less

In RADV we just added an option to speed up rendering by rendering less pixels.

These kinds of techniques have become more common over the past decade with techniques such as checkerboarding, TAA based upscaling and recently DLSS. Fundamentally all they do is trading off rendering quality for rendering cost and many of them include some amount of postprocessing to try to change the curve of that tradeoff. Most notably DLSS has been wildly successful at that to the point many people claim it is barely a quality regression.

Of course increasing GPU performance by up to 50% or so with barely any quality regression seems like must have and I think it would be pretty cool if we could have the same improvements on Linux. I think it has the potential to be a game changer, making games playable on APUs or playing with really high resolution or framerates on desktops.

And today we took our first baby steps in RADV by allowing users to force Variable Rate Shading (VRS) with an experimental environment variable:


VRS is a hardware capability that allows us to reduce the number of fragment shader invocations per pixel rendered. So you could say configure the hardware to use one fragment shader invocation per 2x2 pixels. The hardware still renders the edges of geometry exactly, but the inner area of each triangle is rendered with a reduced number of fragment shader invocations.

There are a couple of ways this capability can be configured:

  1. On a per-draw level
  2. On a per-primitive level (e.g. per triangle)
  3. Using an image to configure on a per-region level

This is a new feature for AMD on RDNA2 hardware.

With RADV_FORCE_VRS we use this to improve performance at the cost of visual quality. Since we did not implement any postprocessing the quality loss can be pretty bad, so we restricted the reduce shading rate when we detect one of the following

  1. Something is rendered in 2D, as that is likely some UI where you’d really want some crispness
  2. When the shader can discard pixels, as this implicitly introduces geometry edges that the hardware doesn’t see but that significantly impact the visual quality.

As a result there are some games where this has barely any effect but you also don’t notice the quality regression and there are games where it really improves performance by 30%+ but you really notice the quality regression.

VRS is by far the easiest thing to make work in almost all games. Most alternatives like checkerboarding, TAA and DLSS need modified render target size, significant shader fixups, or even a proprietary integration with games. Making changes that deeply is getting more complicated the more advanced the game is.

If we want to reduce render resolution (which would be a key thing in e.g. checkerboarding or DLSS) it is very hard to confidently tie all resolution dependent things together. For example a big cost for some modern games is raytracing, but the information flow to the main render targets can be very hard to track automatically and hence such a thing would require a lot of investigation or a bunch of per game customizations.

And hence we decided to introduce this first baby step. Enjoy!

Written on April 9, 2021