Is ray tracing the key that finally bridges the gap between console and PC?

August 4, 2019

Let’s face it, PCs have always been the superior gaming platform. It’s hard for us console gamers to accept that, but it’s true. And if we’re going to compete, we need something special.

 

We’ve waited patiently, endured their ridicule, even wrapped ourselves in the warm embrace of ‘console only’ content in the hope that someday, some key ingredient might finally reveal itself to be the one that brings us closer to PC parity - and this might be it.

 

The next generation of Playstation and Xbox will be releasing next year - and with it comes more power, more storage and, well, more of the same frankly. But what’s interesting about both, and what sets them apart from their previous incarnations, is that there is a particular emphasis on the inclusion of ray tracing within these models. 

 

What the heck is ray tracing?

 

Unless you work in the animation industry, or are just a keen individual with a thirst for nerd knowledge (if this is you, I give you the highest of fives), ray tracing probably sounds like the inaudible advice your grandfather was trying to give you, as he watched you scrounge around the house for your priceless original trilogy of Star Wars on VHS. Ironically, the process is equally as slow.

 

Ray tracing is a graphic rendering technique which creates lifelike shadows and lighting within a digital scene. It achieves this by focusing on one particular point, tracking the individual source of light that affects it, and repeating this process for however many sources of light are present - spoiler alert: it’s a lot. 

 

This is how animated films such as Toy Story or Monster’s University got such high praise for their photorealism, as each scene, and the loveable characters within, were rendered using ray tracing.

 

The downside for gaming is, unlike their movie counterparts, the current systems (and I dare say developers too) simply do not have the power necessary that allows for ray tracing. 

 

Considering it took Pixar 29 hours to render just ONE FRAME in Monster’s University, I’d hazard a guess and say that most gamers don’t have the zen-like patience to wait for a game that may take 7-8 years. More to the point, it would be extremely unlikely that studios would be willing to fork out the money to buy the kind of rendering equipment needed.

 

How will this work for consoles?

 

To counteract the massive undertaking of tracing trillions of light sources, the easier (and slightly more cost effective) way is to trace a path using a virtual camera. This camera represents the gamers line of vision that shoots through a single pixel to any object behind it, which is then tracked back to the light source. 

 

Instead of having the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) work overtime to trace the trillions, it traces the tens of thousands of pixels; a far better solution for conserving power and cutting down rendering time.  

 

It all seems rather straightforward when someone lays it all out like this but I assure you, much like Australian politics, getting this to work effectively within a system, without it negatively impacting other areas, is a fucking nightmare.

 

Do the pros outweigh the cons?

 

For what seems like an eon, the console community has a demanded only one thing: ultra high definition quality games (4K or above) at a stable 60 frames per second or higher. It’s not unreasonable, as we’ve seen how good 4K upscaling looks thanks to the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X but it seems they haven’t quite figured out how to let us have our cake and eat it too, as the frame rate typically sits anywhere between 30-40 fps. Is it too much to ask for a game to look beautiful AND move smoothly? Not for PCs, apparently.

 

They’ve had the Rolls Royce of luxury for decades, in the form of choice and customisation. If a graphics card comes out that has ray tracing capability inbuilt, they can choose to swap out their old one and give cutting-edge technology a whirl, while we mere peasants of the console have settled for someone else to do it for us. 

 

The silver lining to this is, the developers for Sony and Microsoft get to sit back and analyse (as we’re about to) the pros and cons of placing ray tracing in their new consoles off the back of PC performance. 

 

A good test dummy of this is Battlefield V, the first game to have DXR support - real time ray tracing. This is our prototype to see how it might look within the console medium and, to be fair, the results are mixed at best.

Pros

 

First things first, the difference in quality when the DXR is turned on compared to when it’s off, is staggering; the shadows loom larger and with greater texture, camp fires burn brighter with realistic embers flickering, and the puddles on the ground remain reflective whether you zoom in or not. 

 

These might seem like very nitty-gritty things but what we’re witnessing is the future of gaming. Ray tracing is making it possible for gameplay to be more immersive than ever before; with realistic lighting and shadows, and computational power being condensed for smaller systems, it’s beginning to become clear just how important graphical authenticity is for game developers.

 

Cons

 

As great as this is, and as far forward as this is supposed to push consoles, it is not without its pitfalls. If a fully upgraded rig (PC, not oil) drops from 123fps to 48fps while running the DXR, then prepare for the new console revolution: stagnant gaming.

 

To put this in terms every Australian can understand, this is the equivalent to having a high speed internet that freezes every three seconds. Nobody wants that, nobody would stand for that, and, sure as hell, nobody would pay for that. This is the dilemma, and serious concern, that both consumers and developers face when considering ray tracing in consoles.  

 

One of these graphic cards costs the same as a PS3. Let that sink in for a second, then consider how much of a mark-up the new consoles will have if they use the same card - cringe worthy, isn’t it. The only way around this - and by all accounts, this is what they plan to do - is to use a custom chip that has the potential for ray tracing - potential is the key word here, but we’ll come back to this point a bit later.

 

What’s the point, then?

 

The question you’re probably asking is: if there’s so much hassle with this, why bother putting the bloody thing in at all!? Great question, but there’s a simple answer: because, gamers.

 

Gamers will always want the latest and greatest available to them, no matter the cost. Even a sniff of newer technology can send gaming fans into a flurry of excitement; hounding companies, creating memes and flooding twitter with a sea of gifs until there’s a clear sign of action taken, is the norm.

 

Just look at Spider-Man PS4’s ‘Puddlegate’, for example. A lot of fans were upset over the E3 footage looking more realistic than the release footage, all due to the size and texture of a puddle within a scene. The game dev explained how it was just a shift of lighting and a few astute fans made the educated guess that the E3 footage might’ve been ray traced, while the release footage was not.

 

This kind of thing is important to gamers, so much so that they feel the need to continuously hurl shit at the proverbial fan until they feel satisfied that the stains they’ve smeared have been for the greater good.

 

So, where does this leave us in terms of next gen and ray tracing?

 

Answer the headline, get back to that earlier point and wrap this up, damn it!

 

There are two factors which influence the outcome of answering the headline, and the only reasonable way to approach this is through a pop-culture reference.

No matter how close consoles get to the sun, like Icarus, they will fall because PCs will always have one crucial difference: the ability to replace old hardware with the new. It is, and forever will be, the gold standard of being up to date with technological innovation. Console gamers have chosen to allow a company to decide when to improve their specs, rather than themselves.

 

But, the pressure on Sony and Microsoft (mainly) to find a suitable and cost effective way to have high quality content that does not sacrifice a gamer’s experience is, by proxy, forcing them to find the alternative solution that could see the potential of ray tracing realised, without the negative by-products.

 

By having a custom chip that combines the current form of light tracing, called rasterisation, with the higher performing ray tracing, albeit partially (for a further analysis, watch the guys from GamingBolt explain it here), it enables the manufacturers to keep the overall cost down while still propelling every component into the future, as they have no choice but to rethink how this might affect the power or storage. 

 

Consoles will always labour a few steps behind PCs but that doesn’t mean they can’t work smarter. If the next generation can deliver high quality graphics that doesn’t deter from the enjoyment of gameplay, then they will have achieved that which the master race could not. Finding clever ways to bypass an obvious handicap can be just as formidable as raw power.

 

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