I can still remember when Nvidia announced its Turing series GPUs and its revolutionary feature called “Ray Tracing,” which was supposed to improve games’ visual fidelity using light sources greatly.
Nobody clearly understood what Nvidia meant by the feature as only professional animators and large film studios used it; however, the slew of “RTX On” and “RTX Off” memes gave it a lot of publicity in the consumer space.
The 20 series did not perform well and tanked the frame rates in games when Ray Tracing was enabled.
However, as the next generation of Nvidia cards rolled around and AMD started selling cards that enabled Ray Tracing in games, we need to, once again, ask the question, Is Ray Tracing still worth it in 2023?
What Is Ray Tracing In Easy Words?
One of the best examples to understand Ray tracing was given by “Linus of Linus Tech Tips in a Techquickie episode” about the topic, so I will give you the same example so that you can get a clear concept of what it means.
Suppose you are sitting in a room (I presume you are as you read this). Now, look at a spot in that room and turn your head slowly at an angle towards the nearest light source.
You just did here exactly what Ray Tracing does; draw lines from the viewer towards the nearest light source.
In Easy words, Ray Tracing is a graphic rendering technique that tries to estimate how light will bounce on objects and implement those estimates, creating an incredibly realistic image.
Ray Tracing is one of the reasons Pixar movies are so realistic, as it can simulate almost every optical effect under the sun, like reflection, refraction, scattering, motion blur, and so many more.
However, Pixar Movies are created on huge render farms where even one single frame requires almost a day to be rendered.
So, how did Nvidia get Ray Tracing to the masses? How did they get Ray Tracing in games that need to be rendered with at least 30 frames a second?
Consumer-grade Ray Tracing is done by lessening the computational load by simply tracing a path from the viewer, which goes through a single pixel to the object behind that pixel and then to whatever light source is being used in that scene.
In other words, the computational load is cut down significantly by not tracing every single light source in the frame, which is then rendered pixel by pixel.
This is how all of us can get Ray Tracing in games. Even though it is somewhat rudimentary, Ray Tracing in gaming still has ways to go. One day, we might have Pixar’s level of visuals in games if companies do not abandon it, which I believe is unlikely.
Ray Tracing Vs Rasterization
One of the go-to techniques games rely on for real-time rendering is the process of Rasterization which has been around since the 60s.
This process has become extremely streamlined with the advancement of graphical processors. Even the 700 series of Nvidia graphic cards from back in 2013 can handle rasterized games extremely well.
Rasterization is the process of converting a 3D image into a 2D image. This is the concept of Rasterization; however, this is not where it ends. Once the 2D image has been created, this image gets sent to the shaders, which try to guess its color and how light from a source will affect it aesthetically.
Rasterization is an educated guess done by the shaders in your GPU to estimate how light is supposed to function. However, this process still falls short of giving us “uncanny valley” levels of graphics, which is why Ray Tracing has become the future of gaming.
Now, what Ray Tracing does what Rasterization fails to do is that it correctly guesses how light should behave by drawing lines from the camera or the viewer towards the object in frame and then turns it at an angle where the light source is supposed to be placed.
Using this simple concept, Ray Tracing can create images that would fool you into believing they were real unless you were not already told they were fake. Ray Tracing in games, however, can be extremely resource-heavy, unlike the games where only Rasterization is used.
By turning Ray Tracing on, one can lose almost half of the frames per second and not even notice particular visual quality improvement levels.
Games like the Witcher 3 have been noticed to drop down to 30 frames a second or even less with ray tracing enabled on a machine churning 70 to 80 frames per second when it was off.
How Does Ray Tracing Work?
The thought behind the development of Ray Tracing was simple, and it wanted to achieve the simulation of the behavior of light in such a way that it mirrors real life. Once this is done correctly, the resulting visual becomes more realistic and true to life.
Rasterization was limited to more of a “fake it till you make it” approach in which the behavior of light was guessed. That is why games and movies that use Rasterization do not produce fully “uncanny valley” levels of visuals.
Now, Ray Tracing works by simulating light rays coming from a light source on the screen using artificial intelligence, which correctly guesses how it should behave.
This is effectively done by drawing lines from an imaginary camera to a point which are then tilted to an angle towards the light source. Repeating this correctly will create more realistic-looking visuals in games and movies.
Even though Ray Tracing as a technology was discovered early on, its implementation in real-time graphics rendering in games took so long because of the computation cost it needed to bear. This is why Rasterization was the go-to and easier approach game developers took and is still relevant today.
That is the reason Ray Tracing will still take some time until it becomes the rule and not so much as an exception when it comes to games, as Nvidia and AMD have a long way to go before their Ray Tracing GPUs are strong enough to play games at high resolutions and high frame rates.
Ray Tracing In Movies & Gaming
Ray Tracing is something I believe most of us have enjoyed without knowing, as studios like Pixar have been using it for many years now.
Why else would Woody from Toy Story look so good at a time when the best-looking game were 2D platformers like Mega Man and Super Mario. Ray Tracing has been at the core of most Pixar movies.
However, as I mentioned before, the computation cost for these sorts of movies is so huge that these movies are rendered in huge server farms with one measly frame taking almost 12 to 24 hours to render, which is huge.
According to the report, Pixar has a server farm with around 2000 computers, all adding to 24000 cores used to render their movies. Monster University from 2013 was so intensive to render that it took this server farm 29 hours for every single frame to render.
To put it into perspective, if you try to render the very same frame on a core i9 processor paired with an RTX 3090, it will take around 10000 years to render that same frame.
But then you might ask, how can they use Ray Tracing in games that run at least 30-60 frames per second? Ray Tracing in games is another story as “selective” Ray Tracing is done there to cut down the computational cost.
This is done by “tracing” only one ray of light from the light source instead of everyone in the movies. Using this selective approach cuts down the computational cost significantly and allows every one of us to enjoy our games at high frame rates.
Does Ray Tracing Improve Your Gaming Experience?
This question can be somewhat tricky because of where we are in terms of consumer-grade ray tracing technology and the state of Rasterization.
As I mentioned earlier, the “fake it till you make it” techniques used for lightening in games have gotten so good that one might prefer it over the current state of ray tracing enabled games.
For reference, I would like to tell you about a game called “The Order: 1886,” a PlayStation 4 exclusive from 2015. Even though this game did not use ray tracing, you would not be wrong to think otherwise, as the lights looked amazing.
This game can be used as a testament to prove that developers have become so good with using Rasterization in games that the next logical step is ray tracing.
However, the current state of consumer ray tracing is not at par with the best of what Rasterization has to offer, and I believe that there are still long ways to go before Ray Tracing becomes the norm in gaming.
Ray Tracing will improve your gaming experience “one day” and not today because of the catching up it has to do with traditional graphical rendering technology and mass consumer adoption.
What Games Support Ray Tracing?
Here are some of the games that have support for Ray Tracing;
- Cyberpunk 2077
- Hitman 3
- WatchDog Legion
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider
- F1 2021
- Far Cry 6
- Battlefield V
- Battlefield 2042
- Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)
- Wolfenstein: Youngblood
- World Of Warcraft: Shadowlands
- Xuan-Yuan Sword VII
- Amid Evil
- Bright Memory
- Bright Memory: Infinite
- Crysis Remastered
- Crysis Remastered Trilogy
- Stay in the Light
- Sword and Fairy 7
- The Ascent
- The Fabled Woods
- The Medium
- The Persistence
- The Riftbreake
- Deliver Us The Moon
- Dirt 5
- Doom Eternal
- Dying Light 2
- Everspace 2
- Stay in the Light
- Sword and Fairy 7
- XJ Online 3
- Lego: Builder’s Journey
- Martha is Dead
- Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
- Mechwarrior V: Mercenaries
- Metro Exodus / Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition
- Moonlight Blade
- Mortal Shell
- Observer: System Redux
- Paradise Killer
- Pumpkin Jack
- Quake II RTX
- Resident Evil Village
- Raji: An Ancient Epic
- Ring Of Elysium
- Ghostwriter: Tokyo
- FIST: Forged In Shadow Torch
- Five Nights At Freddy’s: Security Breach
- Elden Ring
- Vampires: The Masquerade
What Is The Future of Ray Tracing?
Ray Tracing has been used in movies for decades now, and I believe there is no reason or better technology that can replace it for now, so its future there is completely secure, and we will enjoy its application for years to come.
However, I see that Ray Tracing will have mass adoption when it comes to gaming, but it still needs some time to mature.
The computational cost required to support ray tracing is too high, and until we get hardware that can do movie-level ray tracing (which can sound like a pipe dream) on a consumer scale, Rasterization will be preferred for many years.
This, however, does not mean that this future to come will take many decades. At the rate technology is moving and progressing, the future wide adoption of ray tracing in games will take about a decade, which is my estimate. You can make me accountable for it if my prediction fails to come true.
Well, after all this jazz, what is my final answer to the question if Ray Tracing is worth it or not? It depends. Do you have the money to splurge on an RTX 3090 and do not want high frame rates in your games? Then it is worth it, and you might see a slight improvement in your graphics quality.
But, if you are a regular joe like me, buying a Ray Tracing enabled graphics card in a market where they have been marked up to oblivion just for a slight bump in graphics in a few dozen games is not worth it deal for me.
So, I suggest that you wait until more and more games start supporting ray tracing in games and the prices of graphics cards go down and become more affordable.
Frequently Asked Questions
#1 – Do you need Ray Tracing in games?
You do not need a ray tracing in games at the current state. Once it has matured, you might need it, and more games will start adopting it. The hardware needed also needs to become cheaper so that more consumers adopt it.
#2 – Is Ray Tracing only for RTX?
Nvidia RTX lineup of GPUs is not the only which supports Ray Tracing. AMD’s RX 6000 series of GPUs also supports ray tracing. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and S also have ray tracing on consoles.
#3 – Does Ray Tracing affect performance?
Yes! Ray Tracing affects performance a lot when it is enabled. Rasterization is faster when it comes to real-time graphics rendering. So enabling Ray tracing in games will cut down the frame rates significantly.
#4 – Can you Ray Trace in 1080p?
Yes! Ray Tracing is not dependent on resolution. You use Ray Tracing on any resolution from 720p to 8K.
#5 – How good is Ray Tracing?
Ray Tracing in movies has given us some of the best CGI visuals for decades, making it very good. However, it still has a very long way to go in games.
#6 – Can GTX do ray tracing?
Technically, GTX can do some basic Ray Tracing due to the lack of RT cores, so an RTX card is mandatory if you want to play Ray Tracing games at their full potential.
#7 – Do I need a special TV for Ray Tracing?
You need to buy a higher resolution monitor if you want high resolution. However, there is no special monitor for Ray tracing.