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Hands on with Minecraft RTX - the most astonishing ray tracing demo yet?

DF delivers a guided tour of the stunning Gamescom demo.

We've been following the evolution of hardware-accelerated real-time ray tracing for some time now here at Digital Foundry - and one of the most spectacular demos we've seen actually took the form of Sonic Ether's RT shader mod for Minecraft, which brute-forced full path-tracing into the Java version of the classic Mojang title. It's brilliant stuff, and although slow, it will work on any modern GPU.

But as good as it is, we had to wonder - what kind of improvement would we see with full hardware acceleration? What if Mojang itself incorporated full path tracing into the engine itself? The developer duly delivered at Gamescom 2019 and my colleagues John Linneman and Alex Battaglia played the early code, handing in the extensive deep dive into the demo found on this page.

Similar to our own work with the mod, the developers put together their own custom maps to showcase the effects of full path tracing within the Minecraft engine. In our video, you'll get to see both of these creations. One of them showcases how the new technology interacts with the existing, older-style textures - which are typically based on 64x64 textures - but the video kicks off with a look at path tracing combined with higher resolution block art, reaching a maximum of 1024x1024.

Nvidia's Gamescom trailer reveal for the path traced Minecraft was impressive enough, but in this extended playthrough, DF's John Linneman and Alex Battaglia guide you through the entire content of the demo, showcasing various effects and explaining how they work.

In all cases, light interacts accurately with the materials and conditions in place, to the point where the developers accidentally discovered that the classic camera obscura pinhole effect could be replicated in-game. But this is just one of many remarkable phenomena path tracing brings to the table - and in the embedded video below, you'll see John and Alex run the gamut of the demo, experimenting with its various effects, and even pushing the implementation beyond its current limits.

And hitting those limits is easily possible right now, most because Mojang has only been working on Minecraft's official path tracing implementation since April (coincidentally (?) when Sonic Ether's Minecraft mod first appeared), so there's still a long way to go before the RTX support rolls out generally. However, as a taste of how transformative full path tracing is, this is the most impressive demo we've seen - it's a more total, more complete implementation in a game than anything else out there, even more so than the impressive Quake 2 RTX.

All of which is to say that checking out the video above is highly recommended! The DF Gamescom team sat down to talk with the developers in more depth, and we'll be bringing you that interview soon, along the more coverage from the show.

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About the Author
Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.