When the PS5 and Xbox Series X are released this fall, we may finally see games with visuals that rival the likes of Pixar films like Onward, according to several game developers who recently commented in new advances in ray tracing technology.
Speaking to IGN about next-gen development, Night School Studio (Oxenfree, Afterparty) lead developer Bryant Cannon stressed that the biggest differences between the graphics of Pixar movies like Toy Story 4 and Onward and those found in video games is due to something called ray tracing.
"Ray tracing is probably the biggest gap between what game graphics can do and what high-end VFX and Pixar and movie graphics can do," Cannon said. "[With ray tracing], they're actually stimulating the lights bouncing from light to different surfaces." In simpler terms, ray tracing uses an algorithm to trace the path of light sources, simulating how light interacts with objects in more realistic ways that subtly change based on the color of the light, the intensity, and the layout of objects in the environment.
These statements were backed up by former Naughty Dog Creative Director Bruce Straley, who has worked on games like Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and The Last of Us.
"Something like a Pixar rendering system will rely heavily on subsurface scattering for flesh tones and skin," he told IGN. "We faked it at Naughty Dog. We had all sorts of ways to simulate it, but it wasn’t real. If now I can write a shader that has subsurface scattering on it and hook into the ray tracing system, then more people are going to be able to do that.”
Overall, the added 12 teraflops of GPU power, along with the light-centric ray-tracing capabilities, should refine video game graphics to a point where they start to rival what we see from the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks. One anonymous developer told IGN that they are happy that these kinds of tools are finally in the hands of smaller video game developers too.
"The machine's handling so much of the workload," they said. "A lot of the stuff that we have to do on our side, for a similar effect, is now just given to us."
Despite what that anonymous developer says, other creatives worry that ray tracing may balloon the cost of game development. Detroit: Become Human Director David Cage told DualShockers during an interview in 2019, "We saw in the last-gen how middle-range developers struggled to get their games produced. I fear that it will be even worse on next-gen platforms, where there may only be room for big franchises because they will be the most able to recoup their massive dev budgets." While it could have some negative implications for the wider industry in this regard, developers seemed pleased with the technical improvements overall when speaking to IGN.
The Inverse Analysis
Video game graphics have made some impressive strides over the past decade but still pale in comparison to the stuff we see in great-looking animated movies like Onward or big blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame. The fact that the added GPU power of the PS5 and Xbox Series X will make refined lighting techniques like ray tracing more viable and accessible is exciting, even if it causes budgets to increase. We can't wait to see next-generation titles like Halo: Infinite and Godfall in action to show just how good these improvements are.
PS5 and Xbox Series X will be released fall 2020.