Video Games: What is Physically Based Rendering?

Diana Ipacs

November 27, 2023

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Understand physically based rendering with our in-depth article. We cover its principles, advantages, applications, and more!


In recent years, video games have become increasingly advanced and immersive, offering players stunning visual experiences that rival those of blockbuster movies. One of the key technologies driving this evolution is physically based rendering (PBR).

Physically based rendering is a rendering technique that accurately simulates the behavior of light in the real world. It takes into account physical properties of materials such as reflectivity, roughness, and subsurface scattering, allowing for more realistic lighting and shading effects in video games.

PBR has become increasingly popular in the gaming industry, with many major game engines and developers adopting the technique. But what are the origins of PBR, and how does it work? In this article, we will explore the evolution of PBR, its significance in the gaming industry, and its potential for the future.

Key Takeaways

  • PBR is based on the principles of physics and uses complex algorithms to calculate how light interacts with a material's surface.

  • In video games, PBR creates more lifelike textures and lighting effects, making the gaming experience more immersive and realistic for players.

  • PBR is not limited to the gaming industry, with applications in fields such as architecture, automotive design, and visual effects.

  • Emerging technologies and advancements are pushing the boundaries of what is possible with this technique.

Physically based rendering – Bluebird Blog

PBR as a Computer Graphics Approach

PBR differs from traditional rendering techniques in that it takes into account the physical properties of materials and light sources to create accurate reflections, refractions, and shadows.

By using PBR, developers can create highly detailed and lifelike environments that react realistically to changes in lighting and camera angles. This approach to rendering has become increasingly popular in recent years, helping to push the boundaries of visual fidelity in video games.

One of the key benefits of PBR is that it allows for greater flexibility in creating a wide range of textures and materials. This means that game developers can achieve more lifelike representations of surfaces, such as metals, fabrics, and liquids. Additionally, PBR can be used to create more realistic lighting effects, including subsurface scattering, volumetric lighting, and global illumination.

Overall, physically based rendering is a powerful tool for enhancing the visual quality of video games. By accurately simulating the real-world properties of materials and light sources, PBR brings a new level of realism to video game environments, taking them to the next level of immersion and player engagement.

Understanding Physically Based Rendering

Physically based rendering (PBR) is a rendering technique that aims to create photorealistic images in video games by simulating the physical properties of real-world objects. PBR is based on the principles of physics and accurately simulates how light interacts with different materials, resulting in more accurate and realistic lighting and shading in games.


In PBR, materials are defined by their physical properties, such as their roughness, metallicness, and specular reflectivity. These properties affect how light is reflected and absorbed by the material, resulting in more accurate shading and highlights in the game.


PBR takes into account the physical characteristics of light, such as its color and intensity, and how it interacts with different materials in an environment. This allows for more accurate and realistic lighting in games, with shadows and highlights that accurately represent how light would behave in the real world.


Shading in PBR is based on the principle of energy conservation, meaning that the total amount of light reflected by a material cannot exceed the amount of light that hits it. This results in more accurate shading and realistic material appearance in the game.

The Process of Physically Based Rendering

Physically based rendering is a sophisticated computer graphics approach that simulates real-world physics to achieve lifelike visuals in video games. The process of implementing PBR involves several steps that allow developers to create accurate material models and lighting setups.

Capturing Real-World Data

The first step in the PBR process is capturing real-world data. This involves taking photographs of real-world materials and objects at different angles and lighting conditions. The captured images are then used to create texture maps, which are essential in simulating realistic material behaviors such as reflection, refraction, subsurface scattering, and more.

Material Modeling

Material modeling involves creating accurate representations of real-world materials, including metals, fabrics, plastics, and more. Developers use various mathematical equations and models to simulate the physical properties of different materials, such as their roughness, metallicness, and translucency. These models allow for the creation of sophisticated material shaders that can accurately reflect light and create realistic textures.

Lighting Setup

Lighting is one of the critical elements in achieving PBR. Developers use various lighting models to simulate the behavior of real-world light sources, such as natural sunlight and artificial light. The lighting setup involves choosing the right light sources, creating accurate shadow maps, and using techniques such as global illumination and ambient occlusion to achieve more realistic lighting effects.


The final step in the PBR process is rendering. Rendering involves using the captured real-world data, material models, and lighting setups to generate the final image. Developers utilize sophisticated rendering techniques such as physically based shading, depth of field, and motion blur to create visually stunning and realistic images.

Surfaces and Volume Renderings in PBR

 One of the key aspects of PBR is how it handles surfaces and volume renderings. In this section, we explore the techniques and algorithms used to simulate different materials, such as metals, fabrics, and liquids, with realistic textures and lighting effects.

Surfaces in PBR

Surfaces are the outer layer or coating of an object. In PBR, different surfaces can be simulated by modeling the interaction between light and the surface's material properties. This includes parameters such as roughness, metallicity, and specular reflectance, which are used to accurately reflect how light interacts with different materials. This produces realistic lighting effects and textures in video games.

For example, a metallic surface in PBR would reflect light differently from a non-metallic surface. The surface's roughness, or how smooth or textured it is, would also affect the way light interacts with it. By modeling these properties accurately, PBR can create surfaces that look and respond like their real-world counterparts.

Volume Renderings in PBR

Volume renderings refer to the rendering of objects that have density and shape, such as clouds, smoke, and liquids. PBR can simulate volume renderings by using algorithms that accurately calculate how light interacts with these materials. This creates realistic textures and lighting effects that make objects appear more lifelike.

For example, with liquids, PBR would simulate the way light refracts and reflects through the liquid based on its physical properties such as viscosity, density, and surface tension. This allows PBR to create realistic liquids with the appropriate texture and lighting effects.

In conclusion, surfaces and volume renderings are essential components of PBR that help create realistic lighting, textures, and materials in video games. By accurately simulating real-world physics, PBR can create immersive and lifelike environments that draw players into the game's world.

Advantages and Challenges of Physically Based Rendering

As with any technology, implementing physically based rendering (PBR) in video games comes with its own set of advantages and challenges. In this section, we will explore both.

Advantages of Physically Based Rendering

  1. 1
    PBR produces more realistic and accurate lighting and shading effects, resulting in greater visual fidelity and immersion for players.
  2. 2
    It allows for greater flexibility and control over the appearance of game objects, enabling more creative freedom for developers.
  3. 3
    With PBR, texture artists can create assets that are physically accurate, reducing the need for manual adjustment of materials to make them look right under different lighting conditions.
  4. 4
    PBR can improve the performance of games by reducing the number of draw calls needed, which can result in faster load times and smoother gameplay.

Challenges of Physically Based Rendering

  1. 1
    Implementing PBR requires more computational power, which can result in slower rendering times and require developers to optimize their code for performance.
  2. 2
    Creating PBR assets can be more time-consuming and require greater technical proficiency from texture artists.
  3. 3
    Because PBR relies on accurate physical representations of materials, limited or inaccurate data on the physical properties of real-world materials can hinder the quality of PBR.
  4. 4
    Developers must strike a balance between visual quality and performance, as implementing PBR can strain the resources of lower-end hardware.
  5. 5
    Despite these challenges, the advantages of implementing PBR in video games far outweigh the drawbacks. As technology continues to advance, it is likely that PBR will become even more prevalent in the gaming industry, enabling even greater levels of realism and immersion for players.

PBR Game Development Applications: Beyond Just Visual Enhancement

Physically based rendering (PBR) is not only useful for enhancing the visual quality of video games. It has several game development applications that can make the development process more efficient and enhance the overall gaming experience.

PBR for Performance Optimization

PBR allows developers to optimize game performance by reducing the number of draw calls and texture lookups. It does this by combining multiple textures into one and using more efficient rendering techniques. This results in a smoother gaming experience with less lag and better frame rates.

PBR for Memory Optimization

Traditional rendering techniques required developers to create unique textures for every object in the game. However, with PBR, developers can utilize a single set of texture maps that can be applied to all objects and materials in the game. This results in significant memory savings, allowing for larger game worlds and more detailed textures.

PBR for Streamlined Content Creation Pipelines

Creating textures and materials for video games can be a time-consuming process. However, PBR simplifies the process by making it easier to create and reuse textures across multiple objects and materials. This allows developers to create content faster, more efficiently, and with greater consistency.

PBR for Immersive Audio Experiences

Physically based rendering doesn't just enhance the visual quality of games. It can also improve the audio experience. With PBR, developers can create more realistic soundscapes that are tuned to the environment, based on the physical properties of materials in the game world.

As you can see, PBR has a wide range of game development applications beyond just visual enhancement. By utilizing PBR techniques, developers can optimize performance, memory usage and accelerate content creation while still delivering stunning graphics and an immersive gaming experience.

Implementing PBR in Shaders, Textures, and Lighting

Physically based rendering is a complex computer graphics approach that requires attention to detail in every aspect of implementation. Shaders, textures, and lighting all play a crucial role in achieving physically based rendering, making it vital to have a good understanding of these concepts to achieve the desired result.


Shaders are the core of any PBR rendering pipeline. They are responsible for calculating the lighting and color values for each pixel on the screen based on the materials and lighting in the scene. To implement PBR, shaders must be designed to simulate the physical properties of materials accurately.

The two most common types of shaders used in PBR are surface and volume shaders. Surface shaders are used to simulate solid materials, such as metals and plastics, while volume shaders are used to simulate materials like liquids and gases.


Textures are critical for creating lifelike materials in physically based rendering. They are used to simulate the surface properties of materials, such as roughness, reflectivity, and bumpiness. Textures can be created by capturing real-world data or by procedurally generating them.

Texturing in PBR is typically done using a combination of two types of texture maps - Albedo and Normal. The Albedo map determines the color of the surface, while the Normal map provides surface detail by simulating bumps, grooves, and other surface imperfections.


Lighting is one of the most critical factors in achieving realistic visuals in PBR. The lighting setup must be carefully designed to simulate natural lighting accurately. PBR lighting typically involves using a combination of directional and environment lighting to simulate the different lighting conditions in a scene accurately.

In addition to directional and environment lighting, PBR also utilizes image-based lighting (IBL) to simulate the lighting from the surrounding environment. This technique involves capturing a panoramic image of the environment and using it to light the scene realistically.

Best Practice and Tips

  • Use physically accurate values when creating PBR materials in shaders and textures to achieve more realism.

  • Be mindful of performance when implementing PBR, as it can be resource-intensive.

  • Experiment with different lighting setups to achieve the desired look and feel in the scene.

  • Take advantage of pre-made PBR material libraries to speed up the content creation process.

The Origins of Physically Based Rendering

Physically based rendering has come a long way since its inception in the early days of video game development. While non-photorealistic rendering techniques were popular in the 90s, PBR started gaining popularity in the mid-2000s.

The first video game to use PBR was Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2008), which was lauded for its stunning graphics and the realistic interaction between characters and objects. The game used the Havok phyics engine, which allowed for dynamic simulations of realistic lighting and materials.

Since then, PBR has become a standard in game development with advancements in hardware and software. The introduction of physically based materials into game engines has enabled developers to create more realistic and immersive worlds for players to explore.

The Evolution of PBR

PBR started out as a relatively simple technique, focusing mainly on creating realistic metal and plastic surfaces. However, it has since evolved to include more complex materials like water, skin, and cloth.

A major contributor to the evolution of PBR has been advancements in hardware and software. With the increasing power of graphics cards and CPUs, game engines are now able to perform real-time calculations for lighting and materials. This has led to more realistic and dynamic lighting, as well as more accurate representations of materials.

Another key development has been the creation of material libraries, which allow game developers to use pre-made materials for their games. This saves time and resources that would otherwise be spent creating materials from scratch.

The evolution of PBR has also led to more collaboration between game developers and artists. With the ability to create more realistic materials and environments, artists can now focus on the creative aspects of the game rather than spending endless hours tweaking lighting and textures.

The Relevance of Physically Based Rendering Today

Physically based rendering (PBR) continues to be an important aspect of modern video game development. With the constant advancements in technology, PBR has become even more relevant in recent years.

Many popular games have integrated PBR into their graphics engine, creating more realistic and immersive experiences for players. For example, games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Control have all implemented PBR to create stunning visuals.

PBR has also become a standard in game development, with many engines including it as a default option. This has led to an increase in the number of games using PBR, further solidifying its relevance in the industry.

Additionally, PBR is not limited to high-end games. With the increasing availability of powerful hardware, even smaller indie games are able to utilize PBR to enhance their graphics.

Looking forward, PBR is expected to continue to be relevant in the gaming industry. As technology improves, it will become easier to implement and more accessible to developers. This will lead to even more immersive and visually stunning games for players to enjoy.

PBR in Other Industries

Physically based rendering (PBR) is not just limited to the world of video games. Its applications extend to various other fields as well.


PBR is being used to create virtual models of architectural designs. It allows architects and engineers to create digitally accurate models of buildings and structures. The use of PBR in architectural visualization allows designers to test and evaluate their designs in a realistic environment, ensuring that the final product is visually appealing and functional.

Automotive Design

PBR is used in automotive design to create realistic renderings of car models. This allows designers to visualize and test out different color schemes, materials, and lighting conditions on a vehicle before it is built. PBR helps automotive designers create photorealistic images of their designs, allowing them to make more informed decisions about the final product.

Visual Effects

Visual effects artists use PBR to create realistic lighting and materials for movies and television shows. PBR allows artists to generate highly detailed and dynamic environments that are physically accurate and visually stunning. PBR plays a significant role in creating immersive and visually appealing visual effects in films and TV shows.

In conclusion, PBR is not just limited to the gaming industry, but rather it has a wide range of applications in other fields, such as architecture, automotive design, and visual effects. Its ability to create highly detailed and photorealistic images is what makes it an essential tool in various industries.

Pushing the Boundaries of Physically Based Rendering

Physically based rendering has come a long way since its inception, and it continues to evolve at a rapid pace. As technology advances, so too do the possibilities for PBR in the gaming industry.

The Future of PBR

Emerging technologies such as ray tracing and machine learning are already being incorporated into PBR workflows, allowing for even more realistic and accurate simulations of lighting and materials. These technologies will continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with PBR, opening up new avenues for creative expression in game development.

Advancements in Hardware

As hardware continues to improve, so too will the fidelity and complexity of PBR in games. With the advent of new technologies such as NVIDIA's RTX and AMD's RDNA2, developers will be able to create even more immersive and detailed worlds that blur the lines between reality and virtuality.

The Importance of Research

Research in the field of PBR is also crucial in driving the evolution of the technology. As developers gain a better understanding of how light interacts with different materials and surfaces, they can create more accurate and realistic simulations. This research also helps to optimize the computational cost of PBR, making it more accessible to a broader range of developers.

The Role of the Developer

Ultimately, it will be the role of developers to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible with PBR. By experimenting with new techniques and technologies, they can create experiences that are truly groundbreaking and awe-inspiring. With constantly evolving hardware and software, the future of PBR in the gaming industry is bright and full of potential.

Alternatives to Physically Based Rendering

While physically based rendering (PBR) has become the industry standard for creating realistic visuals in video games, there are alternative rendering techniques that developers can use.

Non-Physically Based Rendering

One alternative is non-physically based rendering (NPBR), which uses simplified models to simulate lighting and materials, rather than relying on physically accurate values. This technique is often used in stylized or cartoon-like games, where realism is not the primary focus.


Cel-shading is another alternative that is popular in certain types of games. This technique creates a more hand-drawn or animated look by outlining objects and using flat, solid colors instead of realistic textures and materials.

Procedural Generation

Procedural generation is a technique that uses algorithms to create textures and materials on the fly, rather than relying on pre-made assets. This can save development time and allow for more variety in a game's visuals.

Hybrid Techniques

Finally, some developers use hybrid techniques that combine elements of PBR with other rendering techniques to achieve a specific look or feel. For example, a game might use PBR for realistic environments and lighting, but rely on cel-shading for characters to create a unique visual style.

While PBR has become the industry standard, these alternative rendering techniques offer developers flexibility in achieving different visual aesthetics and styles.

Final thoughts

Physically based rendering has become an essential part of modern video games, revolutionizing the way games look and feel. PBR's ability to create more immersive and realistic experiences for players has made it a popular choice for game developers worldwide.

As we have seen throughout this article, PBR has undergone significant advancements since its inception, and developers continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with PBR. While it does come with some technical and computational challenges, the benefits of using PBR in video games are undeniable.

The future of PBR is exciting, with even more advancements anticipated as emerging technologies continue to evolve. We can expect to see PBR used in increasingly creative ways across various industries beyond gaming, such as architecture, automotive design, and visual effects.

We hope you found our article on physically based rendering useful. If your company is looking for IT professionals and you are interested in IT recruitment or IT staff augmentation, please contact us and we will be happy to help you find the right person for the job.

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