I must confess I somewhat naively assumed that the capacity for developers to make a game look better was, automatically, a good thing. Detractors of real-time ray tracing technology have taught me the errors of my ways though. Progress is bad. Old is good. Or so say the proverbial sticks-in-the-mud who would perhaps prefer things stay exactly as they are or, heaven forbid, to even crank us into reverse and shift our industry backward. Back toward the primordial goop as two white paddles thwack a white cube across a dotted white line. The good old days, when everything was better and we didn’t have to worry about what a pesky polygon is. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here wondering how great ray-traced Pong would be.
And so, like much of life, we shuffle off into two camps. Those who adore ray-tracing and the possibilities it brings, and those who abhor it for its demanding ways.
For those who love it, there’s plenty to get excited about. Ray tracing is a huge leap forward to lighting technology in video games. It allows games to achieve a level of realism which was previously unachievable through traditional rasterization methods. Rasterization has served us well but it lacks in certain areas, particularly reflections, shadows, and ambient occlusion. Rasterization can fake these effects but, as DICE producer David Sirland said, this is “very tricky to get it to play right”. Ray-tracing simplifies lighting for developers whilst simultaneously looking far better. It’s a win all round for game development.
A growing number of AAA titles are supporting ray-tracing and support is also beginning to trickle down to smaller games. Control looks absolutely stunning; Cyberpunk 2077 should be a revelation; Quake II RTX breathes new life into one of the most beloved first-person shooters of all time. And this is just the start. Nvidia has opened up its own dedicated Lightspeed Studio specifically geared towards remastering classic games with RTX support. Quake II and Minecraft are the first two on the list but we don’t expect it to end.
Sony has also finally confirmed the PlayStation 5 will support hardware-based ray-tracing. Project Scarlett is expected to follow suit. If you want to pinpoint the moment raytracing will blow up, it’s when those consoles arrive and put a (rudimentary) form of real-time ray-tracing in millions of boxes around the world. Then, it’s go time.
But, like anything in this glorious Internet Age, real-time raytracing also has its fair share of detractors who are keen to let everyone know just how much they hate something. The bit that’s difficult to dance around is that ray tracing is immensely demanding, and we’re not even starting on the way towards path tracing. Whichever way you slice it, turning on raytracing features in games is going to dramatically hit your frame rate. Right now, enjoying the feature is prohibitively expensive. You are footing the bill for the bloated die size. That’s the cost of early adoption, naturally, but year by year, raytracing will become more mainstream.
On top of this, Nvidia probably didn’t overly endear itself to potential customers when CEO Jensen Huang said its customers would have to be crazy to buy a graphics card without raytracing support. Talking down to your customer base ( indirectly) never goes well and it probably got folks’ backs up from the get-go.
On a similar topic, Nvidia’s Morgan McGuire also said earlier this year that he expects the first AAA game to require a ray-tracing GPU will launch in 2023, some four years from now. This is probably the single greatest argument against ray-tracing - forced hardware upgrades. With at least four more years to transition though, it’s difficult to envisage this being a genuine problem at that point.
Ordinarily, you’d think this would be a straightforward discussion. Since the inception of gaming we, as gamers, have all been with the shift forward in visuals. We love to see games look better and better, and ray-tracing provides a genuine generational leap the type of which we haven’t seen on a long while. But this time there’s blowback and plenty of detractors who seem committed to opposing raytracing, at least in the here and now.
So what are your thoughts, do you actually think ray-tracing is bad for PC gaming? Or is the ultimate graphical enhancement which justifies the purchase of a GeForce RTX 20 series graphics card? Share your thoughts below!