Siggraph 2019: Having Experienced Ray Tracing, I Am Now Convinced It Is The Future

By Patrick Moorhead - August 19, 2019
Metro Exodus is the best implementation of ray tracing so far using it for global illumination with low resources

Monday marked the start of Siggraph, the annual graphics conference, and I thought it was time to weigh in on ray tracing. I won’t personally be attending the show, but Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag will be.

New technologies have come and gone for the past 100 years; some stick, most do not. The most successful technologies either solve a known problem or create some incredible experience we didn’t know we needed. The successful technology has to do it without creating new problems and, of course, be worth the investment.

Ray tracing is a technology that has been used by filmmakers and studios to create the most realistic lighting, shadows, and reflections, but it took fleets of server farms to properly batch-process the video, frame by agonizing frame. So when NVIDIA said it had added real-time ray tracing to its new RTX GeForce cards I was more than a little skeptical. After having experienced NVIDIA’s flavor of ray tracing on its new GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, I’m convinced ray tracing is the future of gaming.

Before I dive into my thoughts on ray tracing, I thought it was important to list out some key NVIDIA ray tracing news at Siggraph. Be sure to check them out:

Most games (technically the engine) today do an OK job faking lighting using rasterization techniques, but when you look closely, the reflections of light don’t actually represent what real light rays would do. I believe this is one way humans can spot the differences between video games and reality. Ray tracing is a technique that better simulates the actual trajectory and reflection of light as it bounces off materials that have different reflectivity characteristics. A mirror is different from paint, which is different from gravel, which is different from a car hood. The other thing I will add is that ray tracing reduces the time it takes for developers and artists to create “brute force” effects in many of today’s games.

I tested the following games optimized for NVIDIA’s GeForce RTX cards with ray tracing using an RTX 2080 Ti:

  • Battlefield V
    • Uses RT for reflections.
    • RT settings and capabilities were built into the core of the game.
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider
    • Uses RT for shadows
    • RT settings and capabilities were built into the core of the game.
  • Metro Exodus
    • Uses RT for lighting.
    • RT settings and capabilities were built into the core of the game.
  • Quake II RTX
    • Uses RT for lighting, shadows, reflections
    • Separate RTX version of the game
  • Minecraft
    • Uses RT for lighting, shadows, reflections
    • Capabilities enabled via a separate 3rd party resource and shader pack.

I believe the best RT implementations will be net adder to the gaming experience. Specifically, it’s the best RT implementation if the effects don’t exist in current implementations if the effect provides a noticeable improvement over brute for effects and don’t create issues that could detract from the experience in terms of FPS or value in terms of price.

The best implementations I have experienced so far were in Metro Exodus, Quake II RTX, and Minecraft. In these games, RT effects added significant, noticeable improvements that weren’t faked already through heavy lifting, didn’t take as much of the resources to limit the experience and didn’t create or cause other challenges down the road.

The global illumination effects in Metro Exodus are incredible and add an entirely new level of realism the game never had. Quake II and Minecraft, albeit not very resource-intensive in their non-RT form, are completely transformed through ray tracing and surprisingly look like much more modern games.

This is not your grandson's Minecraft

Battlefield V effects were improved too, and you’d notice it if you had time to inspect everything while fighting. Fire reflected perfectly off of puddles of fuel and water, and the reflections off of vehicles were amazing. The only challenge was that adding RT took many resources, which lowered FPS. Specifically, at 1440P, I was experiencing around 45-60fps on Low RT settings and 30-35fps on Ultra RT settings. When BFV first launched, it was clear that the non-RT reflections weren’t as good as the RT version, but it came at an FPS cost. Hey, there are no free lunches. DICE has since implemented optimizations to improve performance by moving away from one-ray-per-pixel and instead focusing rays at higher-reflective surfaces instead. Why send rays to surfaces that will have no reflective light?

Every lighting effect is improved in ray-traced Quake II Pico Moorhead

The story in Shadow of the TR is similar, to BFV but the RT effect improvements are even more noticeable as the shadows were near-perfect and it took fewer resources. I saw a good 45-60fps at 1440P on the highest RT setting, Ultra, and 50-70fps on Low RT. The flip side is that there were a few graphical issues that I noticed with RT that detracted from the gameplay. With both Battlefield V and Shadow of the TR, I am sure the experience will continue to improve over time.

Based on announcements at E3, it appears we will have many RT games to try out, and I am sure those developers are looking at what was done in the first AAA titles and will improve upon them.

Upcoming titles include:

  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  • Wolfenstein: Youngblood
  • Sword and Fairy 7
  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • Watch Dogs: Legion
  • Control
  • MechWarrior V

I’m looking forward to games like Control which will start to begin to bring multiple RT effects to a game. While RT isn’t perfect right now for every game, don’t be confused- ray tracing is the future of gameplay. I have seen some perfect implementations already, and they’re just the beginning. Developers will be making improvement after improvement into their games and game engines, and RT performance per dollar will get even better. Just look at the improvements made to Battlefield V from its initial RT launch to today. I expect this to continue across titles. I also expect, unsurprisingly, that RT performance per watt will rapidly grow. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see today’s RT capability in a $399 card for $149 in a year, and this is being conservative.

Ray tracing will also be hitting game consoles with the advent of Xbox Scarlett and the PlayStation 5, which includes AMD’s next-generation graphics. It’s unclear what games will leverage ray tracing and which effects will be supported, but I am excited that developers will need to optimize console titles as console chips don’t have as much horsepower as PC gaming chips. This, in turn, will enable ray tracing on PC titles much farther down the discrete GPU price list.

I have to give NVIDIA a lot of credit for driving ray tracing to become a reality faster than I think it would have on its own. Not only has the company driven the standards, but NVIDIA has multiple RTX add-in boards supporting ray tracing available today, there’s support in Windows in the form of the DXR API, and the top three game engines have RT built-in.  We’re at the dawn of a new graphics era with ray tracing, and I am incredibly excited to see how quickly it can scale.

Note: Pico Moorhead conducted system setup and capture for this article.

Patrick Moorhead
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.