After two years of waiting, nVidia has finally announced their new RTX 2000 series graphics cards and it looks like the long wait between generations may have been worth it as today’s announcement shows off some very impressive technology. Plenty of tech sites are covering this in more detail than I can hope to provide to you but I want to apply today’s announcements and think about the future of a couple of titles that many of you play right now.
The short version of today’s announcement
The GTX 1000 series of cards has been the top performers for many flight sim enthusiasts over the last couple of years (along with AMD’s RX Vega cards). The cream of the crop has been the GTX 1080 and GTX 1080Ti cards which command considerable power and an accommodatingly high price point.
During the bitcoin mining rush, these cards were sometimes going for hundreds over their MSRP price and I’ve seen some up in the $1,500 range. Fortunately the rush and the scarcity of those cards has ended and prices are coming back down.
Today’s announcement ushers in a new generation which nVidia is calling their RTX 2000 series with the RTX 2080Ti at the top of the heap, and the RTX 2080 and RTX 2070 filling in the high and middle high end of the range. A 2060, 2050 and other “lesser” variations are expected to be announced in the coming days and weeks.
There are two main highlights starting with vastly improved and increased graphics processing power of these new cards is the first thing that should make flight sim enthusiasts sit up and take notice. The new cards (based on what nVidia calls their Turing architecture) are, according to nVidia, 6-times faster than the previous Pascal-based generation and early indications put the new RTX 2070 far ahead of the previous generations GTX 1080Ti.
The other part and the one that I want to focus on is called ray-tracing and its one of the “holy grails” of graphics rendering. So, what is it and why might it matter to flight simmers?
Tracing those rays
The big change here is how lighting and shadows are drawn in a scene. Until now, developers have used a variety of technologies and tricks to make scenes look pretty convincing but they all use the same basic techniques to make things like shadows and reflected light look convincing enough to pass for real at least some of the time.
Still, these tricks are often only convincing some of the time and there are times where the whole thing breaks down and that’s when you notice how much this is still a video game and not an approximation of real life.
Ray tracing uses a technique where all of the rays of light in a scene are calculated. This method is actually simpler in many ways compared to the advanced techniques used to try and approximate light and shadow in a scene. Ray tracing, in short, uses a technique that is much more like the way light works in real life and that means that its ability to mimic real objects is really good. The problem? It requires plenty of calculations to make it work – and until now it was out of reach. Now, it’s within reach.
Still confused about ray tracing? Check this video out from Engaget for a fairly straightforward explanation.
Ok, so how does that affect us in the flight sim world? Well, at the moment, it won’t have any effect as none of the series that we currently play (IL-2, DCS, War Thunder, etc.) have support for this technology built-in (not that we know of anyways). It will likely require a considerable effort to upgrade their game engines to support DirectX 12, DXR (Microsoft’s ray tracing system) and make necessary changes to their game engine to support lighting scenes in this way.
With the doors now open to this technology via the new nVidia cards and announcements coming from AMD on offering a competing technology soon, it’s only a matter of time before this type of tech makes its way into DCS, or IL-2 or War Thunder. When it does, it will offer visuals and lighting that offer a more physics based approach to accuracy and that means that aircraft will look more real than ever before, shadows in cockpits will be rendered with accurate precision, and reflections off glossy and matte surfaces will look more accurate than ever before.
Sometimes these demos tend to be done in a kind of artificial scenario that tends not to be reflected by real video games. That is kind of true in the demo called ‘Project Sol’ which you can watch below.
But now let’s see what this is like when applied to a real game engine. nVidia has announced that
21 games will be supporting this technology including some blockbuster titles scheduled to launch soon. One of those titles is the World War II themed combined arms based Battlefield V. Check this out to see what the effect can do to a game that is still mostly using the traditional rendering system but has incorporated ray tracing into many of the effects.
Update August 21 at 5:32 pm: Further information has come out suggesting that 21 games will support nVidia’s “RTX” technologies of which only a few of those support the ray tracing features that are part of that collection of technologies.
Future tech now
For a long time now, ray tracing has been that long sough after tech that just wasn’t possible to do in real time with any kind of visual fidelity that would matter. Now, that is changing with software and hardware advancements opening the door to this technology.
It may not happen right away and we’re all going to need new video cards to really appreciate this but I can see some of our favourite combat flight sims take on the challenge of ray tracing in the flight sim world and that it may all happen sooner than some of us think. When it does, we’ll be treated to images that will be more real looking than ever before.
For now, we’re seeing a foreshadowing of what will eventually become common place graphics technology. It’s going to be pretty exciting.