Ray tracing has been the talk of the town since Nvidia’s RTX 20-series GPUs were first announced back in 2018, and it remains one of the most used buzzwords in gaming today. If you like games or if you’ve played any of the modern AAA titles, then you’ve definitely come across the term real-time ray tracing. You see it as a highlight feature these days on both games and graphics cards, and it’s even available on the latest Playstation and Xbox. If you ask them, ray tracing is the future, and you should definitely buy the best GPU possible unless you want to miss out.
Truth be told, even terms like ambient occlusion and anti-aliasing were hyped up at one point before moving on to the next big graphics technology. In fact, there have been a ton of other technological fads over the years, so is ray tracing any different, or is it just another gimmick on our path to the future of gaming graphics?
More realistic lighting in digital 3D environment
Simply put, ray tracing is a way to accurately render lighting in 3D, and is considered to be the best method for creating realistic lighting effects like shadows and reflections. You might think “so what?” when comparing ray tracing to 4K, VR, or AI, especially when good lighting can already be accomplished with traditional 3D rendering techniques such as rasterization. Still, ray tracing is a means of bringing even more realism to 3D graphics, and in that sense, it’s in the same vein as something like 4K.
The simple explanation for ray tracing is that it calculates realistic lighting by doing it the same way our eyes work but in reverse. For humans, light waves from the sun or light bulbs either hit our eyes directly or bounce off other objects until they hit our eyes, and then the brain processes all that information. For ray tracing, the camera sends out rays, and when they hit something, they then travel to any relevant sources of light. If the ray hits another object while going to the light source, it will create a shadow.
Ray tracing entered the gaming community’s collective consciousness in 2018 when Nvidia first announced its RTX 20 series at Gamescom 2018, which were the first gaming GPUs to support the feature. However, Nvidia didn’t invent ray tracing or even the ability for a graphics card to accomplish it. Ray tracing has been around for decades; movies like Monster House and Cars were rendered with ray tracing. What Nvidia accomplished was creating hardware that was so good at ray tracing that it could not only render it much faster than ever before but could do it in real-time, an achievement Nvidia called the “holy grail of graphics.”
We have since seen many other GPUs on the market that can do the same thing, but not all of them offer the same level of ray tracing performance that’s offered by Nvidia’s modern GPUs. In fact, it also has a neat line up of supporting technologies like DLSS and Ray Reconstruction, that promises to enhance how ray-traced lighting effects and shadows look, while lowering the performance cost. Other manufacturers have not been able to achieve similar results, which is one of the main reasons why you’ll mostly see us recommending the Nvidia GPUs to handle things like path tracing in Cyberpunk 2077.
Ray tracing in games
Are game developers taking note?
Although ray tracing isn’t used solely for games, it’s a big-ticket feature for the latest GPUs, so I’ll mostly be focusing on how ray tracing impacts the gaming experience. Because we all like to play games with a framerate of at least 30 FPS, ray tracing was never a thing before the RTX 20 series, and some of the first games to get ray tracing support were games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Battlefield V in 2018. Not all games implement all the possible ray-tracing features, with some only featuring ray-traced shadows or global illumination, for instance.
To date, the only desktop GPUs with hardware-accelerated ray tracing are Nvidia’s RTX 20, 30, and 40 series, AMD’s RX 6000 and 7000 series, and Intel’s Arc Alchemist series. Although the image quality between all these vendors is equal, performance is not. While the RTX 4080 and RX 7900 XTX perform about the same in rasterized scenes without ray tracing, the 4080 is generally faster when it’s enabled. AMD’s cards are usually weaker for ray tracing than Nvidia’s or Intel’s. Additionally, ray tracing benefits from beefier hardware, so higher-end cards can get a higher framerate than lower-end ones. There are some smartphone chipsets that support it too, with Arm‘s Immortalis GPUs supporting it extensively as well.
The one thing that really prevents ray tracing from becoming a video game cornerstone is, ultimately, its lack of support.
One significant problem for ray tracing is that it’s a much, much slower method for rendering, even with hardware acceleration. In the latest titles, the highest level of ray tracing will easily cut your framerate in half. And here’s the kicker: games only partially ray-trace scenes. That’s how slow and intensive ray tracing is. Nvidia pushes DLSS as the technology that makes ray tracing playable at framerates more palatable than 30 FPS, but there’s no getting around the fact that ray tracing is a performance killer.
The other problem is there aren’t many games that support it. While the list of games that support ray tracing has certainly grown over the last couple of years, there’s still a significant number of games out there that don’t support it. According to the PCGamingWiki, there are 197 games with ray tracing, but the list it provides only shows about 90. Some of those games are titles like Minecraft and Quake II, which are definitely great games, but not exactly rich in graphical fidelity compared to modern, AAA titles. Ray tracing is already kind of difficult to implement in games, and when you consider only DX12 and Vulkan support ray tracing in the first place, it becomes easy to see how we only have a few supported games right now.
Should you care about ray tracing?
Is it a gimmick or a genuinely useful feature?
Ever since Nvidia’s RTX 20 series came out, people have argued back and forth about the utility of ray tracing. On the one hand, it’s undeniably the most realistic method for rendering light, and it’s a great way to use a high-end rig with a top-end GPU and CPU. But on the other hand, it’s a framerate killer and there are only like 20 ray tracing games that come out every year, at least right now. So depending on who you are asking, it’s either the best thing to happen to modern games or it’s completely pointless in 2024.
The one thing that really prevents ray tracing from becoming a video game cornerstone is, ultimately, its lack of support, which has been a chronic problem for years now. It is true that we have GPUs and supporting software technologies to enable ray tracing, but the distinct lack of games supporting it remains a huge problem in 2024. Save for a few blockbuster titles that truly take advantage of ray tracing in all possible, we hardly see any that use ray tracing. Ray tracing isn’t even in Atomic Heart, which Nvidia heavily promoted starting in 2018.
At present, even if you have a GPU that supports hardware-accelerated ray tracing, the performance might not be good enough to warrant turning it on. You can take advantage of upscaling technologies like DLSS and FSR to boost performance with ray tracing, but only those with an Nvidia GPU can take full advantage of it as both AMD’s FSR and Intel’s XeSS aren’t quite there yet, in my opinion. That’s not to say the technology doesn’t have a future, but in the here and now, ray tracing is a niche feature that only those with a big budget to spend on high-end gaming PCs can afford to experience. We know it can make 3D scenes look great judging by the latest movies, but that requires ray tracing to be in more games, and having faster graphics cards would be good too.