Earlier this year at Gamescom, NVIDIA and Mojang showed off an early beta build of the popular game Minecraft with additional ray tracing features. Ray Tracing is a rendering technology that should in principle more accurately generate an environment, offering a more immersive experience. Throughout 2018 and 2019, NVIDIA has been a key proponent of bringing ray tracing acceleration hardware to the consumer market, and as the number of titles supporting NVIDIA’s ray tracing increases, the company believes that enabling popular titles like Minecraft is going to be key to promoting the technology (and driving hardware sales). NVIDIA UK offered some of the press a short hands-on with the Minecraft Beta, and it is actually my first proper Minecraft experience.

We’ve covered ray tracing in depth and at length. It’s not a new technology, and the film industry has been doing it for over two decades.

Truth be told, ray tracing coming to consumers is a function of the availability of ray tracing accelerators – the ability to calculate many millions of rays per second. Back in 2014/2015, I remember seeing a demo from Imagination with custom silicon that could do 300 million rays per second. At 60 frames per second, this would mean a scene could calculate two rays per pixel at 1920x1080. That was just a tech demo, and for the best quality, a ray tracing engine needs to deal with almost a dozen rays per pixel at high frame rates. NVIDIA has been driving this home with the Ray Tracing cores enabled in its latest Turing architecture, as well as enabling compute libraries for ray tracing in earlier hardware (albeit at fewer rays per pixel due to the lack of accelerators).

With the development of ray tracing accelerators now entering into consumer hardware, there is a big drive to enable the software ecosystem for ray tracing, by providing the correct hooks into the main graphics engines (Unity, Unreal) as well as custom engines (Frostbite) across different APIs (DX12, Vulkan) such that users can experience a better visual fidelity in their games.

One of the discussions I had today with NVIDIA was about Ray Tracing as an accelerator for realism. A portion of NVIDIA’s marketing about ray tracing is about increased realism in action games and dramatic titles in order to improve the level of immersion and accurately reflect the artist’s vision. With something like Minecraft, realism isn’t the aim of the game – it is pretty obvious that a game built from blocks isn’t a real world environment. NVIDIA explained that realism is an aspect but the idea here is improving the visual experience: a sci-fi adventure with aliens is similarly a non-real environment (at this time) however by more accurately presenting the lighting and color through ray tracing enables the creative vision of the artist behind the work. The argument then comes whether you can be truly immersive in a non-real world scenario, and NVIDIA believes that ray tracing is a key tool in that arsenal.

Experiencing Minecraft with Ray Tracing

Hi everyone – my name is Ian and I have never played Minecraft. Until today, the most I have ever done is watch speedruns of Minecraft on YouTube for one of the Games Done Quick events, but I’ve never bothered to personally install it and have a go. For anyone reading this under the age of 21, I might seem like some middle-aged out-of-touch human bean who hasn’t yet seen the glory of what Minecraft has to offer.

To be honest, not as a video-game purist or anything, but the art style never interested me. I’m a fan of pixel art, but not the blocky style that has turned Minecraft into one of the world’s biggest franchises. With this in mind, I was understandably skeptical going in to test the Minecraft beta – I had seen screenshots, but I really did wonder if I would experience anything other than the mild annoyance from the art design.

The way that NVIDIA had set up our demo scenario was around two environments that were built for the Gamescom demo. We were able to free fly around the environment, and had access to several keys to enable/disable ray tracing as well as a number of additional effects to compare the original Minecraft experience with what is possible with the best from NVIDIA. The hardware being used was an Intel i9-9900K with a triple-slot MSI based NVIDIA RTX 2080 Ti, with 32 GB of DRAM and a Samsung 970 Pro SSD.

The first environment was a simple hamlet paired with an ice castle. The second used a high-resolution texture pack. Most of this analysis will be subjective picture-by-picture comparisons, rather than an objective analysis.

For full resolution versions of any of these images, click through. The top picture is with RTX Off, the bottom picture with RTX On.

My initial interaction loading into the first scene was in this house hallway, where we can clearly see shadows being created based on the lighting position and anything in its way. The far distance has a little bloom, and the individual leaves on the trees to the right are clearly perceptable.

Moving to the edge of the balcony and we can see a similar aspect here, and with the features enabled the sky looks very bright with the crisp edges of the tree leaf blocks cutting through the scene compared to the background - without the mods enabled, it all kind of blends in regardless of the distance. To a large extent we do lose a good amount of detail of anything in line of the sun, due to the increased brightness of looking at a ball of plasma.

When looking at a more landscape shot with the sun to the rear, we can see more in the distance, as well as more of the sharp edges from blocks up close. The crops on the floor are now partly shadowed due to elements blocking the sun's path, and for some of the shadowed areas we lose detail due to the lack of global illumination.

Looking into a cavern-like structure, and with everything turned on we actually get a sense of depth and mystery from the scene. The vines hanging down in front of the opening are now see through, rather than just blending in with whatever is underneath them. Just to the right of the pillar in the right of show, due to the shadow effect, we lose detail because of a lack of light, rather than just a straight forward equally illuminated scene.

In the underground ice throne room, the illumination effect here is critical to be able to provide a form of ambiance (as much as Minecraft is able to). The textures look unchanged here, but with the effects enabled we can actually determine that the throne is a form of chair, rather than a spike of ice sticking out of the ground.

In this dimly lit castle box room, the effect of the rays coming in the window casting appropriate shadows for the boxes that barely touch the light compared to those hidden in the background. The walls seem to have some form of depth mapping enabled, and in this case the ice block seems to have some additional transparancy which comes through with the lighting effect.

Digging a hole in the box room and looking up at the window shows the effect of having the light in your face - everything else is washed out and the mood is very different.

If we turn to a night scene, the lack of a light source beyond a full moon provides a lot of shadow depth, again adjusting the mood of the scene.

Looking into a valley that is lit by the mood and we can see the effect of the moon light bounding off of part of the leaves in a very weak way, with only a few outlines of things visible elsewhere.

Going back into the house and looking at a tree that is being lit by the moon and we can see the moon light streaking across the sky, providing a stark profile of the tree being illuminated. With all the effects disabled, it certainly doesn't feel the same.

This time we stand in a stream that isn't being lit by the moon, and almost nothing is visible with the effects enabled.

Going into a cave, and here we are walking up some stairs with little light apart from that coming off of some lava. By moving the slide back and forth we can see that while the original shot has some depth lighting in play, when the effects are enabled we get a distinct red and amber glow from where exactly the lava is.

Back outside and in the early morning, we see a panda doing flips. In the effects off shot, we have no sense of the time of day - every scene looks very much like another. With the effects enabled, we have sunlight coming through aspects of the trees with a soft warm glow indicative of an early morning.

With the sun low in the sky, we took it up to the tree tops and looked at the sun. With all the effects on, the change in the scene is remarkable - we've got a bright light in the sky causing washed out detail as the rays streak around the trees and leaves in its path.

For the rest of the playtime, we were shown a tech demo of some of the effects that ray tracing can help with with respect to the scene lighting. The textures here in the on mode are also high resolution, which adjusts the disparity a bit. In this first scene, we're in a dining room and the effects on mode has reflective floors, can pinpoint light sources behind walls, and the sunlight through the rafters. The are to the left of the table has bits of glass in the roof, which now let light in.

Under the stairs we see the effects of different light panels to produce a variety of moods and scene interpretations.

For a more wide angle shot we have the kitchen with its glass roof and lighting, and the stairs with the colored lighting. As this has better textures, the floor gets a sizeable upgrade.

Most of the tech demo was underground, showing the effects of light sources and reflectivity of different types of materials. This first one is a discoball type effect in a mosaic mirrored tiled room, wherein each mosaic tile can get color data from a variety of different sources and then be distorted by the exact shape and angle of the tile.

In another lava-like light scene, aside from the glow of the variety of specific light sources, we also have a series of walled reflections and corridor relections.

Red, Green, Blue. Choose your graphics card.

For a video scrolling through all the images, see here:

Also a short video:

Overall, I give credit that I can fully see the potential in how different the story telling could be comparing the vanilla Minecraft experience compared to enabling all the bells and whistles, one of which includes ray tracing. Viewing an epic scene, a landscape, or just the mood walking through dimly lit caverns. One point where ray tracing seems to work well is in neon lit environments, and the next step beyond this is looking at how rays react differently to curved surfaces and surfaces with different textures.

Unfortunately we were not able to do any frame rate testing of the demo. When asked, NVIDIA's representatives said they didn't want to show the impact of ray tracing on frame rates at this time as the build was still early and needs some performance tuning. I didn't see any visible slowdown in my testing, though I did determine that V-Sync wasn't enabled in our test. This might be one where variable refresh rate monitors that can manage sub 60-fps are going to work well.

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  • DanNeely - Friday, October 25, 2019 - link

    It's an interesting tech demo to be sure; but as a non Minecraft player it doesn't really look like it would be playable in a lot of cases because virtually all the detail in the view is overpowered by daylight glare and featureless shadow. If you could kill the ambient lighting effects and only use to to make the colored light blocks in the second half of the gallery do their magic maybe...
  • michael2k - Friday, October 25, 2019 - link

    Or you design the game around the technology. If your character were given, say, a mining helmet, you would always have a light source with you while underground.

    Likewise, if you were holding a torch you would be able to see much better in the dark.

    If you were overpowered by daylight glare, you would need sunglasses, just like in real life. The other part that isn't modeled in the game is how the atmosphere attenuates sunlight.

    In the morning there is more atmosphere between the viewer and the sun, since the sun is coming in at an angle, and more of the light is blocked by the atmosphere, clouds, dust, and aerosols. So to simulate it you would actually reduce the intensity of sunlight by the angle of incidence; at 90 degrees, or directly overhead, you would reduce it by 0%.

    At 0 degrees, when the sunlight is streaming directly from the horizon, you might reduce the sunlight by a good 30% or so to account for all the extra atmosphere between the sun and you.
  • evernessince - Saturday, October 26, 2019 - link

    I'd rather they stick to ray traced reflections. Not everyone wants realistic GI and not everyone wants to have to ensure they have proper lighting before going into caves. The 80% hit to FPS doesn't help either. Aesthetically speaking, it's certainly not worth the massive performance hit. For many gamers, rasterized lighting is actually preferable to ray tracing.
  • JoeyJoJo123 - Monday, October 28, 2019 - link

    >If you were overpowered by daylight glare, you would need sunglasses, just like in real life.
    Except, I never need sunglasses because I reactively squint (often shutting my right eye completely) to reduce the amount of light entering my retina. So no, I don't need sunglasses, and just because "it's just like real life!" doesn't inherently enhance a game's playability. By that same token, forcing me to watch my player sleep and do nothing for a third of the playtime (8 out of every 24 in-game-hours cycle), and eat, and rest, and poop also often doesn't enhance the gameplay, in say, a typical Mario platforming game. Maybe this might one of many movings parts of the appeal in a survival-genre game, but even in these games, there's a cooperative-competitive multiplayer aspect in which you're trying to manage temperature/hunger/other bodily functions against other players, but there's always a limit to these systems--else the game devolves into a frail human at a PC babysitting an equally frail virtual human in a babysitting simulator.

    Furthermore, I don't get the fascination with trying to blind the player in any game. Is the lighting acting more realistically than other games without dynamic lighting? I suppose, but the glares are overdone, and this is especially endemic and problematic in first-person action-oriented games in the past year or two. If the point of the game is to collect ammo and weapons and neutralize NPCs, then I need to be able to see the environment around me. Can't tell you how many games do this garbage of being inside a brightly lit building 2 feet from an OPEN doorway and being able to see everything clearly outside and then getting forcibly blinded for 3 seconds for walking 2 feet out into the open doorway. Wow, it's so """realistic""", walking outside from a brightly lit room blinded me for 3 seconds which was just enough time to die ingame. Brilliant gameplay! It's enough for me to manually disable most of these excess lighting """"features""""" in the settings just so the game can be played without being hamstrung by these overblown effects.

    Gameplay is king, and in my opinion many of these overblown blinding light effects specifically detract or blind the player from being able to efficiently identify/complete in-game tasks/objectives. Ergo, we're approaching a point where devs are mistakenly prioritizing visuals over good gameplay.
  • GreenReaper - Saturday, October 26, 2019 - link

    Yeah, agreed. I actually prefer the output of the Minecraft mod that doesn't require RTX:

    Of course this is just an early build.
  • psychobriggsy - Monday, October 28, 2019 - link

    Indeed, there's a distinct complete lack of ambient lighting, especially in the daytime outside, where fairly sparse tree cover seems to result in near pitch black ground level lighting.

    I feel there needs to be a middle ground to get the benefits, but not lose the gameplay. More ambient, maybe cut down on the glare, might do it. Otherwise you'll need more levels of reflections, which will likely mean a full set of reflection textures and normal maps for the game to be developed (I think a few select blocks have them).
  • AshlayW - Friday, October 25, 2019 - link

    Uhm... I'm fairly certain the HD Texture pack includes bump mapping for a lot of the textures, which is really unfair comparison with the vanilla game which doesn't use bump-mapping. 99% of this graphical fidelity can (and is) achieved by path traced lighting run on shaders packs for Minecraft, not Ray Tracing. I was talking to someone who plays A LOT of minecraft and he pointed this out to me.

    Example: Take the square end of the wood beam in the first image. The bump-mapping is clearly visible on the "Ray Traced" scene. If we're going to test the merit of Ray Tracing, please install HD/bump mapped textures on the vanilla game with a Rasterised shader effect pack and generally available path traced lighting, so we can see what the actual RT is doing.

    I've had a chance to play with Ray Tracing myself, in Metro Exodus which uses RT GI, and the new DLC uses RT lighting effects for the torch/flamethrower. Whilst very good, it is subtle and really not mind blowing compared to well-made normal lighting, but that's beside the point.
  • michael2k - Friday, October 25, 2019 - link

    Why? The effect is mostly going to be noticed where there are light sources and light bouncing off surfaces, such as underground. Shaders won't do much, and most shaders seem to shine in the overworld where the sun provides plenty of illuminations. Underground, not so much, because shaders aren't doing any work simulating bouncing light.
  • BoboDClown073 - Monday, October 28, 2019 - link

    "Shaders won't do much": Go Google "minecraft shaders" and you'll see what the existing path-based lighting shaders are capable of.

    As someone who both plays a lot of Minecraft and has jumped through the hoops necessary to use various shaders, I only see a few value-adds in the images above compared to existing shaders and UV-mapped textures.

    Having said that, there are plenty of issues with shaders that I would hope ray tracing to address. Accurately rendering a view through a pane of glass, for example, which shaders typically handle by not shading anything seen through a window. And as was mentioned shaders only make reflective surfaces look shiny, the reflective light doesn't contribute to the illumination of nearby objects.

    Caveat: It's a big world, and there are certainly shaders I haven't seen.

    As far as the usefulness of ray-tracing underground, don't underestimate how much realistic shadows could add to the game. Existing shaders are just good enough to provide hints - running down a tunnel placing torches and getting jump-scared by my own shadow when a wall happened to line up just right, for example. Without ray-tracing though, they aren't particularly accurate and, worse, don't behave predictably. I would hope expect ray-tracing would improve this.

    Having said all of that... "accurate" lighting tends to make many aspects of the gameplay impractical. Players depend on the ridiculously generous lighting model in a lot of subtle ways, such as judging whether a room is lit well enough to prevent mob spawning. Hopefully players will be able to selectively enable the effects they judge to have value (like reflected colored light) and disable the ones that subtract value (being unable to see at night, or even the day based on the above images ).

    FWIW, the only shader I enable regularly is the default that ships with Optifine, which doesn't do much beyond bump-mapping.

    TLDR; Unable to judge value-add of ray-tracing without comparing to existing shader mods like Optifine w/SEUS 11 and a UV mapped texture pack. Based on the article images, I worry ray-tracing will make the game unplayable.
  • BenSkywalker - Saturday, October 26, 2019 - link

    It's mint chocolate chip, not ice cream!

    It's interesting seeing the claim in this article they have extensively covered ray tracing and yet your readers still talk about path tracing making ray tracing unnecessary.

    What nVidia does in RT hardware/software is actually more precisely described as path tracing as they are using sparse sample/denoise.

    Path tracing is a modified version of 'classic' ray tracing, less computationally intensive and able to handle things like soft shadows far better than traditional ray tracing, yet noisier with more errata apparent.

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