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 1920×1080. 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:
RTX ON Video #minecraft pic.twitter.com/Ji7hRnCk37
— Dr. Ian Cutress (@IanCutress) October 22, 2019
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.