GDC 2011: Dragon Age 2 Being Pushed to New Visual Limits with DirectX 11

March 3, 2011

By Jimmy Thang

For decades, videogames have striven for visual realism. While graphics have immensely improved from the days of Pac-Man and Pong, there's still plenty of ways to go before the medium becomes photorealistic. But, as the saying goes, "Rome wasn't built in a day." With DirectX 11, Microsoft's latest application programming interface (API), PC gaming graphics are making huge strides to reach that lofty goal.

While DirectX 11 offers several tools that help bridge that photo-realism gap, it has also proven itself to be quite versatile. In speaking to a panel of student game developers at this year's Game Developer's Conference, BioWare lead graphics programmer Andreas Panthanasis praised DX 11's ability to "enhance the style of any particular look." In showcasing some of the ways DX 11 has improved the visuals of BioWare’s games, Papanthansis displayed Dragon Age 2 images on-stage to illustrate his point.

While the highly anticipated RPG is also available on consoles, Papanthansis made the commitment that the Edmonton, Alberta-based developer would take advantage of newer graphics cards to produce a beautiful-looking PC game. Known for their Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale RPGs, BioWare always had strong roots in the PC gaming community. Regarding Dragon Age 2's art style, Papanthansis made a point of saying it was "rebooted to focus on graphics technology."

While Dragon Age 2 will also have DirectX 9 support, a popular API released back in 2002, one of the main themes regarding Papanthansis' presentations were the realistic graphical qualities that DX 11 could offer. The first DX 11 visual tool he showcased was dynamic lighting effects. Displaying an image of a Dragon Age 2 monster set on fire with dynamic lighting effects, Panthansis subsequently showed an image of the same monster with dynamic lighting turned off. In the image with the effect disabled, the fire engulfing the monster was clearly visible, but on the DX 11 image, the flame provided a much more ambient glow and properly illuminated the surrounding environment. This effect not only made the scene look brighter, but more lively and action-packed as well. Furthermore, Papanthansis said DX 11 "easily allows BioWare to render hundreds of light sources," which he said was very useful, considering their fantasy RPG is full of magical spell effects.

Papanthansis then went onto talk about another DX11 graphical effect that he exclaims will "bring geometric detail to the next level." This effect is called tessellation and it is a 3D rendering tool that breaks down polygons into finer pieces. Essentially, this feature renders extra geometric details to objects and environments, especially when viewed up close. The great thing about tessellation, Papanthansis added, was that it "lends itself to the level of detail naturally, without affecting the CPU or complicating the engine code base." This means the process is nearly automatic and creates little work for artists and programmers. Papanthansis then compared two images of mountains from Dragon Age 2. The images are nearly identical, with the exception that one has tessellation enabled and the other does not. In the tessellation image, the mountain featured significantly greater geometry in the way of bumps, cracks, and details. The non-tessellated image looked rather flat in comparison.

Panthansis then showcased one final DX11 feature: contact hardening shadows. In reality, shadows are darkest closest to the object they mirror and become lighter and blurrier as they stretch out. Using two images of silhouetted shadows, one with the effect turned off and the other with it turned on, it was clear that contact hardening shadows realistically captures this effect. In the image with the feature disabled, the shadow offered the same flat, dark consistency.

With more and more gamers upgrading to DirectX 11 GPUs, Panthanasis said that there is a large demand for next generation graphics. Because DX11 is capable of delivering cutting edge realistic visuals through several new features, Panthanasis believes that the API is the future of modern PC graphics. With that in mind, the future of PC gaming is looking very bright (dynamic lighting pun not intended).