PAX Notes: Is Minecraft NVIDIA’s RTX silver bullet?

RTX GPUs have been off to a slow start but that's about to change

Category: Features, Gaming

I’ll be the first to admit it, I didn’t get Minecraft. I was too old when it first hit and the inner-hipster in me has a penchant for avoiding the popular. That meant the little-game-that-could flew over my head faster than a rational thought over Elon Musk’s.

That all changed after this year’s PAX. Treated to a hands-on demo of a new Minecraft version developed by Nvidia & Mojang I walked out of my appointment ready to do two things. First, buy an RTX GPU literally the next day and second, beg the Nvidia guys to send me a release of the RTX enabled Minecraft to explore!

What is RTX?

Available for almost two years the RTX moniker is only now becoming more known. Historically costly, they’ve only been available at the top end of Nvidia’s range.

RTX refers to a range of Nvidia GPUs that have the capabilities to render ray-traced light on the fly. That is a very, very big deal. Ray tracing itself is nothing new, but the ability to do it in real time very much is.

Animation studio Pixar uses ray-traced lighting in its films. Their films are rendered frame by frame using gigantic render farms in a process that takes weeks for an 1.5hr film. Nvidia’s RTX Series on the other hand is able to calculate light paths and render them with ray-tracing to the user in real time.

RTX On/Off example in Minecraft is literal “night & day”

Then and now

Before ray tracing made its way into GPUs game developers and engines would use tricks to handle light reflections. Pasting in flattened reflection textures devs would simulate what happens in the real world. Looking into a puddle on the ground what “reflected” back was a bitmap texture placed there by an artist.

Real time ray tracing changes all of that. First seen in last year’s release of Battlefield V metal materials and water made reflected light as it would in the real world. The light generated by flames in a burning building or the explosion of a grenade are now accurately bounced back to the player’s eye and adapting based on the light’s true movement.

The reflected flames are rendered in real-time in Battlefield V

‘Ray Tracing’ is here to stay

Ray tracing may feel like a buzzword for the new generation of gaming, but it’s a tech very much here to stay. Both of the new major consoles next year will be sporting GPUs capable of the tech. It makes sense they will too, the tech brings a more realistic method of drawing a scene to the player whilst at the same time removing some potential work for developers.

Major game engines such as Unreal, Unity and EA’s Frostbite all support ray tracing functions capitalised on by RTX GPUs now. Microsoft have added support to DirectX as well as the more recently announced Vulkan (OpenGL replacement).

But why is Minecraft so important?

Minecraft has provided a gateway to gaming like nothing else before it. The world’s most popular title its played across more platforms than you knew existed. A leap in Minecraft this big is a leap for all of gaming.

It doesn’t matter how phenomenal ray-tracing and RTX support are in my game of the year “Control“, that is a game that unfortunately only a handful of people will have a chance to see. Minecraft on the other hand is generations of players, viewers and streamers that will all be clamouring for a PC decked out with an RTX GPU. I’m sorry parents!

They’ve gotten cheaper don’t worry!

Thankfully an RTX enabled GPU no longer costs a small fortune. The introduction of a new ‘Super’ 20-Series by Nvidia has meant enabling ray-tracing delights are now more affordable than ever. Super 2060, 2070 & 2080 GeForce cards are now available from a variety of manufacturers starting from as low as A$650.