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What is Ray Tracing and Why You Need it for Gaming?

4 Mins read


2020 is the year when ray tracing technology became mainstream. From PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, to NVIDIA and even AMD graphics cards, it seems that nowadays all consumer electronics devices support ray tracing. However, many gamers and ordinary folk are still confused about what ray tracing really is, and why it matters? In this article, well give you the answers to these two questions.

In an essence, ray tracing is just a form of rendering 3D computer graphics scenes. Ray tracing technology can be used in making movies, commercials, and, of course, video games.

What ray tracing really does is that it enables computers to trace the path of light from the camera throughout a particular scene until it hits back the source from which it came. This allows computers to render staggeringly realistic 3D scenes with amazing lightning effects. The whole process, involves a ton of math and computational power. Each pixel you see on the screen must be individually rendered. For example, if play your games at 1080p resolution, this means that your graphics card has to trace each cast ray for the 2 million pixels it display per frame. Now multiply that by 60 if you want to achieve comfortable gaming experience, and you may now see why this technology is so demanding, and why GPUs that support ray tracing often cost a lot of money.

Ray tracing has been around for quite some time. First raytraced CGI films started appearing in the early 1980s.

Interestingly enough, ray tracing has been around for quite some time. First raytraced CGI films started appearing in the early 1980s, and ray tracing became mainstream in film-making industry in the 1990s. What made ray tracing so appealing was the fact that it allowed rendering of natural lighting bouncing effects, more realistic screen space reflections, as well as precise rendering of translucent objects and materials, such as glass. However, ray tracing rendering for films was never done in real-time. Most of these rendering procedures took weeks, and even months, until a certain scene was completed.

With the appearance of powerful graphics cards, real-time ray tracing became a reality. Thanks to various AI technologies, developed by NVIDIA, Intel, and other companies, the process of rendering raytraced scenes is becoming much quicker each day. In late 2018, NVIDIA released its first generation of consumer graphics card that supported ray tracing rendering. Although their performance improvements were mediocre compared to the previous generation of NVIDIA GPUs, their ray tracing performance was absolutely astonishing.

Reflections Real-Time Ray Tracing Demo | Project Spotlight | Unreal Engine

In a collaboration with NVIDIA, Disney, and Microsoft, Epic showcased a video titled Reflections at GDC in 2018. The Reflections showcased real-time raytraced reflections on the armor of few Stormtroopers from the Star Wars universe. In this video you can clearly see how rays of light accurately reflect form different surfaces, and that the overall ambient lighting is much more realistic compared to scenes that don’t feature raytraced lighting effects.

Both NVIDIA and AMD graphics cards support ray tracing these days.

The DirectX 12 API, which was developed by Microsoft, allowed computers for the first time to render raytraced graphics. Despite being an open source software, NVIDIA created their own hardware-based technology to accelerate rendering of ray traced effects. This is why NVIDIA GPUs feature so-called RT cores, or ray-tracing cores. In 2020, AMD released its first generation of GPUs that were able to support ray tracing. AMD also uses proprietary hardware technology to accelerate ray tracing rendering, however, its more software-independent compared to NVIDIA’s ray tracing tech. This is why performance of AMD’s GPUs in ray tracing tasks is still worse compared to NVIDIA. With time, and with certain software optimizations, this will surely change.

Many game engines are nowadays starting to support ray tracing rendering. Some of them worth mentioning are Unreal Engine, Unity, and CryEngine. Since new consoles, such as PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, are also coming with full support for ray tracing, many more game engines will adopt ray tracing techniques in the future. Down below you can see an example of ray tracing rendering using the REDengine in game Cyberpunk 2077.

Right now, there aren’t many games that support ray tracing. Most of the games that support it, only support it partially, while very few offer full support. However, with widespread adoption of graphics cards that support ray tracing this will change very soon. More and more games are nowadays being updated to support ray tracing, which is why in the future almost all new games will come with the native support for ray tracing. Here is a list of most notable games that currently support ray tracing rendering:

  • Battlefield V
  • Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare
  • Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  • Control
  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • Dirt 5
  • Doom Eternal
  • Fortnite
  • Godfall
  • MechWarriror 5: Mercenaries
  • Metro Exodus
  • Minecraft
  • Quake II RTX
  • Shadow Of The Tomb Raider
  • Watch Dogs: Legion
  • World Of Warcraft

Not all new graphics cards support ray tracing. Only the cards from NVIDIA’s RTX 20 and 30 series support ray tracing rendering, as well as AMD’s cards from RX 6000 series. Most of these cards are also very expensive. However, NVIDIA’s RTX 30 series cards were able to bring outstanding ray tracing performance to masses for a reasonable amount of money. Unfortunately, a new cryptocurrency surge occurred in 2020, and many miners bought all of the available graphics cards which made them impossible to buy.

Despite the fact that ray tracing has many applications in video games industry, it is also very useful in film-making, product development, architectural design, and animation. Real-time ray tracing is still a young and expensive technology, and it will take some times until it becomes affordable to mainstream consumers. Until then, we can only dream about endless possibilities this kind of technology will bring to 3D graphics.

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Frank is the Editor-in-Chief at ViCadia. He is an avid PC gamer, as well as a tech enthusiast. Besides being a tireless writer, he is also ViCadia’s web developer.
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