Minecraft is charming in its original voxel form, but wow does it truly transform with ray traced lighting cast across its blocks. "I want to live inside of it," wrote Shaun when he played Minecraft with ray tracing last August. The version he played was a demo created by Nvidia to showcase its RTX graphics cards and their ray tracing support. It also came with a custom texture pack to help the ray tracing shine. We haven't heard much about it since. This week, Microsoft showed off Minecraft with ray tracing running on the upcoming Xbox Series X—but it's a new implementation, made to run without Nvidia's RTX tech.
This is where things start to get a bit messy. Both Microsoft's new implementation and the Nvidia RTX demo are based on DXR, or DirectX Ray Tracing, an extension of DX12. That makes sense for this new version—of course Microsoft would be using DirectX for its own games and its new console. But because the Xbox Series X runs on a new AMD chip, it can't exactly use Nvidia's RTX-specific implementation.
If you look back at what Mojang had to say last year, it becomes a bit clearer. The plan has always been to build ray tracing into the new "Bedrock" (the modern, multiplatform, not-Java version of Minecraft) engine, which is named Render Dragon. "We couldn’t be more excited to take advantage of the new ray tracing technology from Nvidia," Mojang wrote. "It’ll be playable on Windows 10 with devices that are capable of DirectX R, such as with an Nvidia GeForce RTX GPU (and we plan to expand it to future platforms that support DirectX R raytracing)."
So ray tracing is a core part of the new Minecraft engine, right? Cool. Except... Microsoft is still being cagey about what this new ray traced demo for the Xbox Series X actually means. Despite that quote about future platforms from last year, the Xbox Series X still doesn't get official acknowledgement. Here's what Microsoft told Windows Central when they asked about the new demo: "Austin Evans saw a technical demonstration designed to show off the capabilities of hardware-accelerated DirectX Raytracing on Xbox Series X. It is not a product announcement."
If Mojang already said ray tracing support was being built into its new Render Dragon engine, hasn't this product actually been announced already? Why is this still being called a tech demo? Is the RTX version still coming out, and if so, will it be identical or involve some custom work from Nvidia? These questions don't bode well for Shaun being able to leave his earthly body and become a cube-headed, ray traced Minecraft man in the near future.
On a more positive note, to my eye, at least, Microsoft's new tech demo looks even better than the RTX video of Minecraft from last year. The shots of dark caves with beams of light coming in from cracks in the ceiling—my god, that makes me want to go exploring. You can see several minutes of the demo in the video above from Digital Foundry, which also includes a crash course in the differences between simple ray tracing and the far more demanding path tracing, which is what's going on here. It's likely too demanding to be used in more graphically complex games, but it's perfect for Minecraft and Quake 2.
Hopefully like Quake 2, ray traced Minecraft will, one day, actually be available.