About a month ago, Kyle Bennett at HardOCP broke a story on Nvidia’s GeForce Partner Program (GPP), alleging that Nvidia is using the program to systemically disadvantage AMD GPUs. According to Bennett, all companies that wish to be part of GPP must have its “Gaming Brand Aligned Exclusively With GeForce.” The controversy has been simmering quietly in the background for about a month, but recent GPU launches from Asus may indicate the rumors about GPP’s restrictions are true.
Here’s how HardOCP described the problem last month. The Asus example below was hypothetical at the time it was written; it may not be so hypothetical after today:
If Asus is an Nvidia GPP partner, and it wants to continue to use Nvidia GPUs in its ROG [Republic of Gamers] branded video cards, computers, and laptops, it can no longer sell any other company’s GPUs in ROG products. So if Asus want to keep building Nvidia-based ROG video cards, it can no longer sell AMD-based ROG video cards, and be a GPP partner.
Nvidia will tell you that it is 100 percent up to its partner company to be part of GPP, and from the documents I have read, if it chooses not to be part of GPP, it will lose the benefits of GPP, which include: high-effort engineering engagements, early tech engagement, launch partner status, game bundling, sales rebate programs, social media and PR support, marketing reports, and marketing development funds (MDF). [The latter] is likely the standout in that list of lost benefits if the company is not a GPP partner.
As you might recall, we have seen onerous terms such as those contained in GPP to have many similarities to Intel’s once monopolistic business practices (versus AMD) in withholding MDF to partners. The results of that situation were huge multi-billion dollar fines for Intel. GPP has some striking similarities.
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. 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.
The program doesn’t prevent Asus or another AIB from building an AMD GPU, but it does prevent Asus from building an AMD GPU under its premium gaming brands. If these allegations are accurate, the restrictions Nvidia is levying aren’t as draconian as Intel’s marketing rebates, which placed hard limits on the amount of AMD hardware an OEM could ship in desktop and mobile. Instead, it apparently means AIBs have to either launch a new, AMD-specific brand or ship AMD GPUs under a generic name. But this also represents a loss of profit for the AIB; it takes time to build a high-end gaming brand, and cards marketed under said brands tend to sell for higher prices than their generic counterparts.
Fast forward to today. Asus is launching a new line of Radeon partner cards under the AREZ brand. As PCWorld notes, these GPUs are all debuting under a new name. They look like ROG-branded parts with ROG-style coolers, but the only AMD GPUs launched under ROG are the RX 580 and earlier GPUs. And the AIB companies are anything but interested in talking about the GeForce Partner Program. PCWorld’s contacts have been silent on the topic. So are ours. But Asus used links like this to sell ROG-branded Vega GPUs. Where are those parts when you click on the ROG lineup now? Gone. ROG, now, is NV-only.
AMD’s blog post announcing the new GPUs isn’t pulling any punches, either. The company has pledged to reignite (its word) freedom of choice in the gaming market, including, “The freedom to tell others in the industry that they won’t be boxed in to choosing proprietary solutions that come bundled with ‘gamer taxes’ just to enjoy great experiences they should rightfully have access to. The freedom to support a brand that actively works to advance the art and science of PC gaming while expanding its reach.”
Elsewhere in the post, AMD refers to working with its AIB partners with “No anti-gamer/anti-competitive strings attached.”
There’s other evidence of strategic realignments as well. According to the Wayback Machine, MSI used to sell RX 580s with labels like RX 570 Gaming X, as shown in the image below. Visit MSI’s webpage today, and the AMD GPUs are now labeled “Armor.” The “Gaming X” label is now reserved entirely for Nvidia. The old RX 580 Gaming X page is still live — but the site no longer links to it or shows those cards as part of its AMD lineup. MSI has used the Armor brand for several years, but it used to launch AMD cards under the Gaming X brand. It did so last year. Now those cards are gone.
Gigabyte appears to have taken a similar step with its recent marketing, although not to the same degree. While it still sells Aorus AMD GPUs, its Aorus Gaming Box external GPU chassis is only available under that brand name in an Nvidia flavor. If you want the AMD flavor, you can buy it — but sans Aorus branding.
HardOCP openly admits that AMD brought them this story in the first place, but just because a company alerts you to a story doesn’t mean the story isn’t true. A month ago, HardOCP alleged that Nvidia had kicked off a marketing campaign that required AIB’s to push AMD GPUs out of their premium brands in order to receive various benefits, including marketing dollars and GPU allocation. Today, we see evidence that more than one company has either launched a new AMD-specific brand (Asus), removed AMD from its top-brand gaming products (Asus, MSI), or is choosing to sell an identical product without its top-end branding, where the only difference is the presence of an AMD GPU as opposed to an Nvidia card (Gigabyte).
This evidence doesn’t automatically confirm HardOCP’s story is accurate, but it suggests that such strategic “realignments” are indeed taking place across multiple companies at more or less the same time. Given that companies don’t normally launch all-new brands with no reason given, and the fact that nobody seems to want to talk about the GPP in the first place, the evidence thus far supports HardOCP’s story, at least in broad strokes. And while some customers will scoff that this represents a meaningful restriction, this represents an area of disconnect between how companies think about branding and how consumers tend to think about it. Smart companies take brands very seriously. By conspicuously linking the top gaming brands from various AIBs to Nvidia and Nvidia alone, Team Green would win a major marketing coup — not by literally telling AIBs they can’t sell AMD GPUs, but by ensuring that the top marketing spots from a given partner company always held by GeForce.
Nvidia has written a brief blog post about the GPP. It does not go into much depth about the program and mostly reiterates points we’ve covered. It notes that the program isn’t exclusive (no one says it is), that partners can join and leave at any time (no one says they can’t), and that there’s no commitment to make any monetary payments or product discounts for being part of the program (no one said there were).