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Everything You Need to Know About Real-Time Ray Tracing

Everything You Need to Know About Real-Time Ray Tracing

Dwight Pavlovic
Reading time: 8 minutes

Warning: Some of the video games listed below are not suitable for younger viewers. Please use caution and check each game’s ESRB rating before allowing children to play them, especially those rated M for Mature. M-rated video games may contain content that is inappropriate for children and/or unlabeled content that exposes younger viewers to explicit messages and themes.

If there’s one constant in the gaming industry, it’s that it’s always rapidly changing and growing. As a result, staying on top of new tech and games can feel like its own full-time endeavor. But for 2019, it’s becoming clear that real-time ray tracing is one of the most significant changes in the industry, and it offers a long-anticipated performance boost for games and developers.
Designed to improve accuracy and deepen a player’s sense of immersion for gaming, real-time ray tracing has been in the works for years. So what prevented it from crossing over to the gaming space sooner? Several obstacles stood in the way, but ultimately it was processing power. Thanks to big improvements from manufacturers, the latest graphics cards and video games are increasingly designed for authentic real-time ray tracing.

What is real-time ray tracing?

Real-time ray tracing is a system that leverages improved graphics and processor technology in order to support more realistic simulated imagery. It uses algorithms to accurately predict and recreate environments, scenes, and interactions with more complexity and detail.
Developed initially for use in film, ray tracing uses a simulation to recreate the physical behaviors of light. Simulated rays of light encounter virtual features and objects, changing the rendering and representation accordingly. The nature and impact of each interaction is determined by programmed environmental or physical characteristics: wind speed, time of day, texture, material, the weather, etc.
How accurate the simulation can be is a question of its complexity, which requires large amounts of processing power. Since gamers play in real-time, until recently high-accuracy systems simply required too much power to support games and components. The introduction of more powerful graphics cards and processors has changed that. The wait for real-time ray tracing looks like it’s finally about to end, with plenty of games, developers, and manufacturers already touting loads of new features to look forward to.

The difference between real-time ray tracing and conventional ray tracing

Now that you understand the basics, let’s take a step back. To understand the evolving technology, you need to also know what ray tracing is in general, and how it’s distinguished from real-time ray tracing. The difference is fairly simple and again; it all boils down to processing power.
Ray tracing has been viable in the film industry for many years because it’s essentially done behind the scenes. For conventional gaming experiences, outside of cutscenes and cinematics, achieving the same effects is just too cumbersome for the average device to handle in real-time. This is why the gaming industry needed to wait for better components and more processing power.
The algorithm used in the simulation is trained to recreate real-world physics as closely as possible. The complexity of the problem demands a lot of power, only now becoming available from the latest graphics cards. In this way, real-time ray tracing is helping game producers bring cinema-quality visuals to smaller-screen experiences.

The advantages of real-time ray tracing

How does it all add up to a deeper, more realistic experience? Ultimately, the main consideration here is capacity and processing power. Now that PC gaming hardware can deliver better performance, ray-tracing systems can produce more accurate simulated renderings across a variety of situations.
By offering a more rigorous simulation of light, real-time ray tracing helps games simulate depth and detail of reality like never before. If that sounds like a limited purview, think about the way in which lighting impacts so many situations. From reflections on metallic surfaces to light passing through glass, there’s so much potential here.
In short, the advantages of real-time ray tracing are only limited by your imagination. And it almost goes without saying, but more realistic and efficient simulations can improve the gaming experience. Once the relatively exclusive purview of motion pictures that feature CGI or special effects, real-time ray tracing is likely to become a big part of how we all consume new game titles.

Real-time ray tracing in current and upcoming games

A growing demand for more immersive gaming experiences means an equal demand for new technologies. Since real-time ray tracing is such a watershed for the gaming industry at large, adoption has moved quickly, particularly for big developers and top-tier titles.
Here are some of the most popular current and anticipated games with ray tracing to watch out for if you want to see it in action. Developers have a diverse and growing catalog of titles that support the technology. Some you’ll recognize from long-standing franchises, but others are unboxing totally new concepts to explore.

1. Atomic Heart by Mundfish

In development by Moscow-based Mundfish, Atomic Heart is a first-person shooter set in an alternate universe Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War. Trailers have showcased a range of bizarre imagery while teasing elaborate, incredibly detailed effects and environments. You play as Special Agent P-3 as he tries to make sense of what happened following a blackout event at a secret research laboratory.
Real-time ray tracing adds substantial detail to the Atomic Heart experience, improving your sense of shadows and overall lighting, among other elements. According to NVIDIA’s announcement of the technology, the game’s real-time ray tracing will “add accurate, real-time reflections to Atomic Heart’s curved objects and surfaces, to its super shiny labs, to its water, and to numerous other game elements [1].”

2. Battlefield V by EA

Set during the events of World War II, Battlefield V continues the long-running FPS franchise with an episodic single-player campaign and several multiplayer modes. It takes you on a tour of the European theater, offering a variety of new perspectives to play from. Step into the shoes of a Norwegian resistance fighter or a member of the Senegalese Tirailleurs, a French colonial division active through both World Wars.
The first game to offer real-time ray tracing support, Battlefield V introduced the system through a sequence of updates. Developers haven’t only added support though, because you can now control your consumption and performance with real-time ray tracing settings. If you’re on a less powerful device, you can use the Low setting, while performance users can get a bigger boost with Ultra.

3. Control by Remedy Entertainment

Produced by Finnish development studio Remedy Entertainment, Control will have some immediate appeal for players of their other unique titles. Games like Alan Wake and Quantum Break revealed a strong interest in exploring physics in new, but still entertaining ways. That carries through to Control, which offers tantalizing hints of how improvements like real-time ray tracing will provide a more immersive experience.
Control centers on the Federal Bureau of Control, an agency that ostensibly investigates and manages paranormal phenomena. Events take place in the Oldest House, the FBC’s physics-defying headquarters as you come to grips with a recent crisis and your role as the agency’s director. Based on their past accomplishments and the prospect of novel gameplay and storytelling, plus the latest graphics support, it’s well worth getting lost in this house.

4. Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Projekt Red

Because of their great track record with the popular Witcher series, Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 is very highly anticipated. Set in a hyper-developed California megalopolis and slated for release in spring of 2020, the game revolves around their vision of a cybernetic-enhanced dystopia.
With such strong reviews for the third Witcher game, expectations are high. The futuristic setting and emphasis on new technology foreshadows how easily real-time ray tracing may contribute to the experience. But if the trailers are any indication, CD Projekt Red is looking to build a deeply immersive world with their latest title. Even the game’s initial launch trailers went on to win industry awards [2].

5. Metro Exodus by 4A Games

Already well-received by critics and fans alike after its release in February 2019, Metro Exodus is the third installment in 4A Games’ Metro series. Spawned by the novels of Russian author and journalist Dmitry Glukhovsky, the games are set in a post-apocalyptic Russia, with Moscow carved up into different competing factions. Metro Exodus shifts the action from Moscow for the first time to give players an opportunity to explore various locales across the country.
The Metro series has always played extremely well on the transition from big to small spaces, channeling you through underground passages into bigger showcases. The basic premise relies on immersion, and real-time ray tracing helps deliver a dynamic experience of a changing environment.

6. Minecraft by Mojang

Chances are you already know the behemoth that is Mojang’s incredibly popular Minecraft. It’s easily one of the most popular games of all time, and even has a growing list of spin-offs like Minecraft: Story Mode. The premise is to build, explore, and have fun. The basic game has no stated goals or plot, with only minimal additional structure outside the physics of night and day.
With the gameplay depending on exploring and creating your own environments, real-time ray tracing has a lot of potential to elevate every detail. NVIDIA touched on the improvements in their support announcement: “With ray tracing, nearly everything is visually improved. Lighting is upgraded to real-time global illumination, enabling light to realistically illuminate blocks and buildings as the world is modified. Emissive blocks like Glowstone and Lava can illuminate environments, along with other dynamic game elements [3].”

Growing significance and potential impact

The continuing growth of the gaming industry has kept the pace of development high when it comes to new graphics technology. With a more and more impressive slate of new technology and titles planned for the coming years, expectations are high and the initial results are more than encouraging.
From legacy titles like Minecraft with endless staying power, to now much-anticipated titles like Cyberpunk 2077, the impact of real-time ray tracing is being felt in a big way. Expect to hear more about it in the future and if you haven’t already, consider taking a look into which graphics cards and other games already support it. You may be surprised at how much variety is already available.

About the Author

Dwight Pavlovic is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Dwight is a music and technology writer based out of West Virginia.

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