In 2018, Nvidia rolled out its RTX graphics cards, which rocked some killer features for games, including laser tracing and mesh shaders. However, Microsoft needed a standard that supported these features on more than NVIDIA hardware – and here it is! Called DirectX 12 Ultimate, it arrived on Windows 10 PCs with the May 2020 update.
What is DirectX 12 Ultimate?
The new version of DirectX mainly brings existing technology under one 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 mainly on NVIDIA graphics cards. When enabled in games, this feature dramatically improves visual quality by making light behave much closer to reality.
Future AMD graphics cards based on RDNA2, as well as Xbox Series X, will also support 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 the exciting new thing in video game graphics. Microsoft calls its version DirectX Raytracing (DXR). This incremental update of an existing technology significantly improves the overall appearance of the games. The secret is make the light in a game behave more like in the real world.
This means more realistic reflections and refraction in the water, sun rays that look more photo-realistic, and shadows with greater visual depth. Be sure to watch the NVIDIA video above. It shows the ray tracing in Minecraft, and the difference is crazy.
With DX12 Ultimate, ray tracing effects are said to be more effective. There will also be an option that will give game developers more control over ray tracing, rather than leaving it to the system.
Variable rate shading
Another feature already present in DX12 is variable rate shading. The shaders tell the system what the color, brightness and contrast of each pixel should be. This process can be costly in computation, however, this is where variable rate shading comes into play. It shades important parts of a game scene at full resolution, while less important objects use less power GPU for shading.
Imagine driving a car on the road at Forza Horizon or another racing game, for example. It is important that you see the car in front of you in great detail, but this whipping tree or fence does not need the same treatment.
Here is how NVIDIA described it:
“Developers’ algorithms identify pixels that the reader cannot easily see and pixels that change or update infrequently, and use VRS to reduce the speed at which they are rendered (shaded). For example, pixels Blacks in a shadow are no different when the shading rate is reduced, so by reducing the shading rate of many pixels per image, the GPU workload is reduced, which increases performance. ”
The overall effect should not be noticeable to the player, but it does make the computer work much more efficient. Improved efficiency promises even better visuals and faster gaming performance overall.
Similar to variable rate shading, mesh shaders also help the system to function more efficiently. This feature allows game developers to create very detailed worlds without overloading the processor, such as NVIDIA explains in this video.
It determines what should be in a scene and how much detail it needs (level of detail or LOD). The main objects will have finer details, which basically means that they will have more triangles in their composition. (For those who don’t know, triangles are the basic unit of 3D graphics.)
The most distant objects are drawn with fewer triangles because they require less detail. Almost everything you see on the screen is a set of tiny triangles grouped together to create a recognizable figure or object.
Check out the Nvidia Asteroids Mesh Shaders demo video above to get a feel for how it looks. 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. It’s 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 notable detail, as fewer triangles are drawn at any given time.
Finally, we come to the sampler feedback. Again, it’s about making the game scenes more efficient.
“We can more effectively shade objects that do not change from frame to frame,” said NVIDIA. “And reuse the colors of the objects as calculated in the previous images.”
Sampler Feedback also involves improving the way a game loads in its textures (surface details on video game objects). The idea is that the computer can make smarter texturing decisions to “make textures larger and more detailed, while using less video memory”. This also helps to avoid problems such as stuttering.
Again, we’re talking about more efficient use of the GPU, which can help increase frame rates, overall.
DirectX 12 Ultimate in the real world
The features of DX12 Ultimate promise to make games more visually stunning and more efficient in the use of computing resources. However, like all features, it is up to game developers to implement them. The shading of the meshes, for example, was supported by Nvidia since the end of 2018, but has not really been used. Maybe now that it’s part of DX12 Ultimate, it will become more common.
The hardware must also support these features. Microsoft has said it will label its new hardware as compatible with DX12 Ultimate. This could mean another sticker on the box or case of a PC, as well as in 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, this hardware supports the new graphics API.
When will games take advantage of DirectX 12 Ultimate?
DirectX 12 Ultimate is now deployed on Windows 10 PCs as part of the functionality of the 2004 version published at the end of May 2020 (also called 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 improvements that others will see. According to Microsoft, there will be “no negative effects on hardware that does not support DX12 Ultimate”.
This is good news for players on a budget, who are a little behind in reducing their hardware bills.