At the beginning of March 2018, NVIDIA published a blog post that flew under the radar for most websites and tech writers, including yours truly. It was short and didn’t say much about what NVIDIA was really going to be doing, but it has attracted enough attention from gamers and the media that people are now wondering if NVIDIA is getting ready to abuse their defacto monopoly on the PC market.
In a blog post titled “GeForce Partner Program Helps Gamers Know What They’re Buying” , GeForce marketing manager John Teeplelays explains why they think the GeForce Partner Program (GPP) is needed:
“In our latest effort to better serve gamers, we’re introducing our GeForce Partner Program.
“The GPU and software of a gaming PC make all the difference in a gamer’s experience. And together with our add-in card and system partners, we’re dedicated to building the best PC gaming platform bar-none – this is the GeForce promise.
“The GeForce Partner Program is designed to ensure that gamers have full transparency into the GPU platform and software they’re being sold, and can confidently select products that carry the NVIDIA GeForce promise.
“This transparency is only possible when NVIDIA brands and partner brands are consistent. So the new program means that we’ll be promoting our GPP partner brands across the web, on social media, at events and more. And GPP partners will get early access to our latest innovations, and work closely with our engineering team to bring the newest technologies to gamers.
“Partners are signing up, fast. They see the benefit of keeping brands and communication consistent and transparent.
“The program isn’t exclusive. Partners continue to have the ability to sell and promote products from anyone. Partners choose to sign up for the program, and they can stop participating any time. There’s no commitment to make any monetary payments or product discounts for being part of the program.
“GPP ensures our engineering and marketing efforts support brands consumers associate with GeForce. That transparency will give gamers the confidence needed to make their purchase, whichever products they choose.”
The need for such a program may be real, however there are some issues with NVIDIA’s press release that are unrelated to the reason why people are angry. In it, they talk about the need for transparency when buying GeForce products, and that’s something that needs to be elaborated. What does that transparency mean for consumers, and for NVIDIA? Is it the guarantee of driver updates, or a minimum level of performance? Is it the assurance that you’re getting the product you thought you were buying? Because these things have already been solved through NVIDIA’s partnership with AIBs and retailers.
HardOCP’s editor-in-chief Kyle Bennet picked up the story before NVIDIA dropped their blog post, and he writes that the company isn’t just preparing to make the GeForce brand stronger with its partners and consumers – he alleges that they’re preparing to use their power in the market to strong-arm smaller players out of it and reduce consumer choice. He writes that NVIDIA’s requirements from their partners are a bit more substantial than they reveal in their blog post:
“The crux of the issue with NVIDIA GPP comes down to a single requirement in order to be part of GPP. In order to have access to the GPP program, its partners must have its ‘Gaming Brand Aligned Exclusively With GeForce.’ I have read documents with this requirement spelled out on it.
“What would it mean to have your ‘Gaming Brand Aligned Exclusively With GeForce?’ The example that will likely resonate best with HardOCP readers is the ASUS Republic of Gamers brand. I have no knowledge if ASUS is a GPP partner, I am simply using the ROG brand hypothetically. If ASUS is an NVIDIA GPP partner, and it wants to continue to use NVIDIA GPUs in its ROG 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’s post does include the line “keeping brands and communication consistent and transparent”, which might lead one to believe that the main aim is to have separate brands that are aligned with the GeForce lineup and made separate from AMD’s Radeon family, with different marketing strategies. Currently, this isn’t the case – graphics cards in MSI’s Gaming family, or the ASUS Strix family, or Gigabyte’s all share cooler and shroud designs as well as targeted marketing strategies, and it’s often difficult to tell them apart by eye. NVIDIA took the first steps to rectify this when they worked with partners to put glowing GeForce logos on the sides of their products, to more clearly call out the differences compared to their competitors.
NVIDIA says there’s no committment requirement from partners to stay inside the GPP, and that no monetary payments or product discounts are part of the program. Bennet alleges that this isn’t the case:
“NVIDIA will tell you that it is 100% 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 — Marketing Development Funds (MDF). MDF is likely the standout in that list of lost benefits if the company is not a GPP partner.”
The GeForce Partner Program has some similarities to Intel’s Ultrabook Project, which was a multi-year campaign to get Ultrabooks into the hands of reviewers and consumers and change the perception in the market that slimmer laptops were more desirable. Participants in the program were given preferential access to Intel’s designers and engineers, enjoyed a closer partnership to Intel’s marketing department, and were awarded a marketing budget that came with no strings attached.
At the time, rumours floated about that the market budget was intended to offset any price increases from adopting these products, allowing the notebook vendors to maintain their profit margin if they so choose.
GeForce users are also questioning the move on the NVIDIA subreddit, bringing up the memory of XFX being shunned by NVIDIA. This isn’t the first time that NVIDIA has booted out partners or tried to align the market to suit them; multiple times they’ve had the opportunity to do this (and in some cases, threats behind the scenes worked to pull partners together with more cohesive strategies), and at least one GPU partner chose to walk away from NVIDIA’s offering, namely Club3D in 2013.
Elsewhere, Forbes writer Jason Evangelho reached out to NVIDIA about the story and received the following response:
“The program isn’t exclusive. Partners continue to have the ability to sell and promote products from anyone. The program is transparent and beneficial to gamers, and we have nothing further to add at this time.”
Reaching out to AMD this morning, I received the following response from an AMD spokesperson familiar with the situation:
“We are aware of a new Nvidia partner program for PC and add-in board partners that we believe could limit consumer access to competitive graphics technologies. While we are not commenting on any of the specifics that have not been disclosed publicly by Nvidia at this time, we believe consumers should ask for full transparency around the program.”
The saga continues.