Ray tracing is gaming’s next big thing

15 May 2020

It’s impossible to talk about the cutting edge of game development today without including ray tracing. It’s a new technology that is driving graphic card development and game design while creating excitement among gamers eager to see just what ray tracing can bring to the player experience. You’re going to hear a lot about ray tracing in the coming months, especially as we approach the debut of the latest generation of consoles, so let’s dive in and see what this mini-revolution is all about. 

What is ray tracing?

Generating images written in computing code onto a screen, or rendering, is a foundational component of the visual arts, including gaming. The speed and accuracy of that rendering is limited by the computational power of the processors and graphics cards used. Technological advances in their capabilities and performance mean better images, which is usually understood as a more faithful recreation of real life. Each generation of consoles and graphics cards offers better, more impressive and more life-like graphics since more power equals more and better rendering, which in turn allows game developers to pack more detail and realism into their work. 

We’ve now reached the point where the hardware used for rendering can handle the software needed to achieve what has long been a kind of Holy Grail for game developers—perfectly realistic recreations of the natural behavior of light. 

While improved resolution and increased frame rates have dramatically enhanced the appearance of games, capturing just the right feel for how light works in three-dimensional spaces has always been tricky. Light creates shadows, it reflects off various surfaces differently and multiple lighting sources in the same space present even more challenges for game developers. Getting all of this right is key to maintaining the realism needed to immerse players in a believable world.

That’s where ray tracing comes in. 

What it does

The clue is in the name. It’s ray tracing as in “ray of light”. Ray tracing makes it possible to follow, or trace, virtual beams of light from their source as they travel through space. The technology allows the rays to behave normally until they reflect, bounce or just continue outward, including into the game camera. Think of it as automating the way light works in a space. 

Before ray tracing, processing power had to be diverted to making calculations about how light reflected on different surfaces, which slowed the processor down generally and limited its overall performance. Very demanding scenes, in terms of lighting, could either cause things like frame rate issues or some compromise in the quality of the rendering. Rendering light properly takes lots of processor calculations, and that often means a drop off in performance.

Ray tracing not only supports the natural illumination of three-dimensional game environments, but in doing so it adds an incredible level of detail and realism. The surface of a shiny new car, a rain puddle, glass, room interiors and more—they can all now interact with light in virtual worlds with a level of accuracy that is identical to how they look in the real world. The same with shadows, low-level ambient light, the bright sunshine of morning, gloomy afternoons and any other setting you can think of. 

Our new upcoming release, Ghostrunner, is the perfect example of what ray tracing can do to deepen the immersion in a digital world. Its cyberpunk-inspired setting is full of transitions from low to bright light, reflected lights, wet surfaces and shadows are a key part of its visual design. The implementation of ray tracing in Ghostrunner and the use of the RTX standard from NVIDIA is described in detail in this interview with one of its developers.

We’ll leave a deep examination of the more technical side of ray tracing for another day. In the meantime, here’s a very informative video from NVIDIA, pioneers of bringing ray tracing capabilities to hardware with their RTX video card, that explains the technology in an accessible way.

Coming soon to a console near you

As with most innovations, ray tracing found its first gaming applications in the PC format but it’s the new generation of consoles that will drive it into the mainstream. Both Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X will feature ray tracing support. Although we don’t have too many details to work with at the moment—Sony and Microsoft aren’t sharing too much with anyone just yet—it’s expected that ray tracing will be even more advanced on those consoles than it is now on PC. 

In fact, ray tracing is already widely available on the current console generation, although in a limited form. The latest titles in the Call of Duty, Battlefield and Tomb Raider franches all use ray tracing in some way, although not necessarily throughout the game. One of 2020’s most anticipated releases, Cyberpunk 2077, is expected to feature it more prominently to enrich its vibrant world and will almost certainly push the boundaries of ray tracing even further. 

No matter what the next generation of consoles brings, ray tracing is another asset in the toolbox of all game developers. All indications are that, while not necessarily a quantum leap, ray tracing will add a noticeable layer of realism to the gaming experience and help in transporting us all to our favorite virtual worlds. 

Everything about Ghostrunner: