In 2018, Nvidia released its RTX graphics cards, which rocked some amazing features for gaming, including ray tracing and mesh shaders. However, Microsoft needed a standard that would support these features in more than just NVIDIA hardware, and it’s here! Called DirectX 12 Ultimate, it hit Windows 10 PCs with the May 2020 update.
What is DirectX 12 Ultimate?
The new version of DirectX mainly collects existing technology under a single banner and standardizes it for PC and Xbox games, which is good news for gamers. Some of the coolest new graphics technologies, like real-time ray tracing, are found mostly on NVIDIA graphics cards. When enabled in games, this feature dramatically improves visual quality by making light behave much closer to how it actually does.
Future AMD RDNA2-based graphics cards, as well as the Xbox Series X, will also be compatible with DX12 Ultimate. Let’s take a look at the highlights of the new API and see what’s new and why it’s important.
DirectX Raytracing 1.1
Ray tracing is an exciting new development in video game graphics. Microsoft calls its version DirectX Raytracing (DXR). This incremental upgrade to an existing technology makes a dramatic improvement to the overall look of games. The secret is to make the light in a game behave more like it does in the real world.
This means more realistic reflections and refraction in the water, rays of sunlight that seem more photorealistic and shadows with greater visual depth. Be sure to watch the video above from NVIDIA. Shows ray tracing in Minecraft, and the difference is crazy.
With DX12 Ultimate, ray tracing effects are supposed to be more efficient. There will also be an option that gives game developers more control over ray tracing, rather than leaving it up to the system.
RELATED: What does real-time ray tracing mean for today’s players?
Variable speed shading
Variable speed shading is another feature that was already in DX12. Shaders tell the system what the color, brightness, and contrast of each pixel should be. However, that process can be computationally expensive, which is where variable speed shading comes in. Shadow important parts of a game scene at full resolution, while less important objects use less GPU power to shade.
Imagine driving a car on the road Forza Horizon or another racing game, for example. It’s important that you see the car in front of you in full detail, but that whipping tree or fence doesn’t need the same treatment.
This is how NVIDIA described it:
“The algorithms created by developers identify pixels that the player cannot easily see and pixels that change or update infrequently, and use VRS to reduce the speed at which they are represented (shaded). For example, the black pixels in a shadow do not look different when the shading rate is reduced. Therefore, by reducing the shading rate of numerous pixels per frame, the GPU workload decreases, which increases performance. “
The overall effect shouldn’t be noticeable to the player, but it makes computer work much more efficient. The improved efficiency promises even better images and faster gaming performance overall.
Similar to variable speed shading, mesh shaders also help the system work more efficiently. This feature allows game developers to create highly detailed worlds without overloading the CPU, as NVIDIA explains in this video.
Determine what needs to be in a scene and how many details you need (the level of detail or LOD). Primary objects will have finer details, which basically means they will have more triangles in their composition. (For those unaware, triangles are the base unit of 3D graphics.)
Objects that are further away are drawn with fewer triangles, as they require less detail. Almost everything you see on the screen is a set of small triangles grouped together to create a recognizable figure or object.
Check out the Nvidia Asteroids Mesh Shaders demo video above to get an idea of what it looks like. This video uses objects with 10 different levels of detail, from objects that are right in front of you, to low-level asteroids in the distance. This is an ideal technique in a scene with tons of random objects, like the asteroid belt in the video above.
The overall result should be that graphics cards can maintain a higher frame rate without sacrificing noticeable detail, since fewer triangles are drawn at any given time.
Finally, we come to the sample comments. Again, it’s about rendering game scenes more efficiently.
“We can more efficiently shade objects that don’t change from frame to frame,” NVIDIA explained. “And reuse the colors of the objects as calculated in previous charts.”
Sampler Feedback also tries to improve how a game is loaded into its textures (the surface details on video game objects). The idea is that the computer can make smarter texturing decisions to “render larger, more detailed textures, while using less video memory.” This also helps avoid problems like stuttering.
Again, we’re talking about a more efficient use of the GPU, which can help increase frame rates overall.
DirectX 12 Ultimate in the real world
The DX12 Ultimate features promise to make games visually more impressive and more efficient in the use of computing resources. However, like all features, it is up to game developers to implement them. Mesh shading, for example, has been supported by Nvidia since late 2018, but has not actually been used. Perhaps now that it’s part of DX12 Ultimate, it will become more common.
The hardware also has to support these features. Microsoft said it will label its new hardware as DX12 Ultimate compatible. That could mean another sticker on a PC case or box, as well as general advertising on store shelves.
On consoles, the Xbox Series X logo will replace the DX12 Ultimate symbol. If you see the DX12 Ultimate or Xbox Series X logo, that hardware supports the new graphics API.
When will DirectX 12 Ultimate games be leveraged?
DirectX 12 Ultimate is being rolled out on Windows 10 PCs now as part of the 2004 version feature released in late May 2020 (also known as the May 2020 update). Of course, to take advantage of the features, you need a modern graphics card that supports it.
If you have a non-DX12 Ultimate graphics card, any game that supports DX12 Ultimate will still work with your hardware. Your PC simply won’t see the visual enhancements that others will. According to Microsoft, “There will be no adverse effects on hardware that is not compatible with DX12 Ultimate.”
This is good news for budget gamers, who fall a bit behind to keep hardware bills low.
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