Last week, Mojang announced that the Minecraft Super Duper Graphics Pack (SDGP) that Microsoft had promised back in 2017 was canceled, permanently. No additional information was offered on why the update was canceled, or what the team had been working on for the past two years before canceling it. As of today, Nvidia has announced that it will be developing an exclusive ray tracing pack for Minecraft for Nvidia GPU owners.
Mojang’s announcement states: “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).”
Presumably, DirectX R is a reference to DXR, which is the official name for DirectX ray tracing. RTX is Nvidia’s brand-name for its implementation of the Microsoft DXR standard. We imagine AMD will introduce its own branding or simply use the DXR moniker when it launches support. Speaking of AMD, we don’t know if the “future platforms” is a reference to systems like the PS5 and Xbox Next or whether it’s a reference to Big Navi, which is expected to debut next year.
“Ray tracing sits at the center of what we think is next for Minecraft,” said Saxs Persson, head creative director for Minecraft at Microsoft. “GeForce RTX gives the Minecraft world a brand-new feel to it. In normal Minecraft, a block of gold just appears yellow, but with ray tracing turned on, you really get to see the specular highlight, you get to see the reflection, you can even see a mob reflected in it.”
The screenshot above shows the impact of having RTX enabled versus disabled, with the divider halfway down the screen. RTX-enabled is on the right.
There’s likely a relationship between the cancellation of the SDGP and Nvidia’s announcement that it will provide a path tracing solution for Minecraft, but there’s no indication of what the exact relationship was. The SDGP was in development for a long time and Mojang was always very tight-lipped about its progress. Developer communication on this point, when it occurred, amounted to “nothing to report, full engine updates are very complicated and you’ll see it when it’s closer to done than it is now.”
It’s possible that Nvidia saw the work being done by third-party modders to integrate ray tracing into Minecraft, was inspired by it, and reached out to Mojang about the possibility directly. But even if Mojang liked the idea, it’s highly unlikely that the company would cancel two years worth of work on its own overhaul. But all of this is rather confusing because Mojang announced the launch of its own new rendering pipeline as part of its overall RTX graphics card support. The Bedrock version of Minecraft will be updated with a new graphics rendering pipeline, codenamed Render Dragon.
In other words: When Microsoft announced the Super Duper Graphics Pack, it announced that the SDGP would be introduced alongside a new graphics engine implemented in the Bedrock version of the game. Earlier this year, we covered an extensive path tracing Minecraft mod that turned the game into a vision of beauty. Now, Nvidia has cut a deal with Mojang to build an RTX-powered version of the game and Mojang has killed the SDGP, but will still introduce the updated rendering engine the SDGP was expected to use.
If we had to guess, we’d guess that Mojang’s comments about DXR compatibility refer to other consoles, or at least the Xbox Next. Nvidia isn’t going to do any work to provide ray tracing support on a non-Nvidia GPU, but Microsoft is unlikely to invest heavily in a ray-tracing update for Minecraft that can’t run on its own Xbox Next. Whatever gets hammered out between them, it wouldn’t surprise us if AMD GPU customers who don’t game on consoles are out of luck with this one. Modders have already created a path-traced version of Minecraft that looks extraordinary, so at least third-party options will continue to be available.
The RTX-powered version of Minecraft should arrive sometime in 2020. Hopefully, Nvidia will pay better attention to performance optimization than it did in Quake II — that particular game runs quite slowly, despite the age of the underlying engine. Minecraft’s greatest strength is its ability to play on anything, and as great as it is to see features like path tracing, we hope Nvidia can offer them without destroying performance. Features like 4K support, which was a major capability of the SDGP, have not been mentioned.