Epic Games has loomed large in the digital landscape long before becoming a household name with the massive success of Fortnite Battle Royale, released in 2017. The company was started by one man alone, Tim Sweeney, to sell copies of his first passion project game, built using a custom-made programming language. This game tactically entitled ZZT, to ensure it would be listed last in catalogues, and grew to reasonable success in modding circles because of the ease that players had to develop their own levels, using the simple to learn editor and language created by Sweeney. The next major success for Epic, then amusingly named Epic MegaGames, came with the 1998 first person shooter, Unreal, which would ship just under 300,000 units in its first year according to PC Gamer US, and go on to sell over a million in the next decade. The framework of systems used to produce Unreal, fittingly dubbed the Unreal Engine, which was licensed out to other companies to use, and later made available to the public. Following the release of Unreal Tournament 2004, the sixth in the series, Epic expanded upon the drive towards user made content that began with Tim Sweeney’s first game, awarding tens of thousands of pounds worth of cash prizes and licenses for newer versions of their engines along with computer systems to developers working with Unreal. Now, it is well into its fourth iteration, the latest being UE4.27 as of writing, in 2015 it was announced that the Unreal Engine would be made free for all users until they had met a specified profit threshold (presently set at $1 million revenue over a game’s published history), this popularised the use of the framework outside of triple-A spaces and solidified it as a viable engine option for small and independent studios.

            Titles developed using the Unreal Engine encompass a vast swath of genres, production budgets and levels of popularity. The Borderlands, Injustice and Gears of War series all netted several hundred million pounds of revenues individually as big budget triple-A games. Hello Neighbour, Obduction and Rime which were produced on an independent budget, or as a small team funded by a larger publisher, also utilised the Unreal Engine, proving that it is both advanced enough to justify large companies working with it and accessible enough for smaller generalists, or even hobbyists, to pick up and get great results from. Moreover, because of its age and high standing in modding circles, there are numerous public discussion boards and communities online dedicated to learning and making the most of the software. Usage extends outside of the games industry and into film and television, with a range of shots from The Mandalorian (2019) employing “virtual sets” with large screens streaming from Unreal Engine 4 that react to the presence of actors in a shot and the position of the camera, thus allowing cinematographers and the director to preview and make changes to an environment in real time, as well as reduce the need for visual effect artists to calculate bounced lighting from virtual props onto real reflective surfaces, such as the Mandalorian’s beskar metal armour.

Unreal Engine 5 is the latest release from Epic Games, coming from a long and reputable series, advertised to “empower creators across all industries to deliver stunning real-time content and experiences.” And judging by what has been released to the public so far, it seems to be meeting that promise, with a range of new systems that will undoubtedly result in games, a couple years from now, looking and sounding more realistic and immersive than ever, as well as making areas previously dense and impenetrable, accessible to hobbyists or independent developers. All these features, however, come with some significant draw-backs, specifically in regards to increased hardware specifications with, according to the Steam Hardware and Software Survey of October 2021, the majority of polled gamers (approximately 3/4s as far as I could calculate) not meeting the minimum requirements for UE5s short demo, making it only really available to be used, in its present early state, by people lucky enough to be able to afford advanced hardware, or by professional developers working with large companies who can provide this equipment.

Nanite, probably the most anticipated feature of the upcoming engine, allows for polygon counts (the combined number of faces of shapes within a game world) and the number of objects, to be monumentally greater than previously possible. Unreal Engine 4 would, with a fair range due to varying hardware, ideally be able to render one to four million polygons, UE5 by comparison, is easily capable of tens of billions of polys without any impact to performance. For artists this means that minute details will not be lost when importing from digital sculpting software to their media, enabling greater fidelity in art without having to worry about time-consuming and potentially destructive methods of compression. Nanite also calculates levels of detail (reduction of detail on an object typically as the camera moves away from it) and occlusion culling automatically (removing information on an object in real time as it becomes obscured). It does this without affecting the appearance of a model in game, in fact most often polygons will be smaller than a pixel in size. It should be noted though, that Nanite, currently, is only shown to work on static objects, not flexible animated characters, the large, animated character shown in their demo is composed of multiple moving units that do not bend to stretch. This is a major limitation, as typical human biology will include joints and expressions that require this. Moreover, Nanite, while able to efficiently render geometry, is not so capable of storing it; with the highly curated demo level that is currently public being larger than many full games at over 100 gigabytes in size.

Alongside Nanite is the World Partition system. Previously in UE4, there was no easy way to work collaboratively on a single cohesive level, this being a particular problem for people designing open worlds, being notoriously vast, complex, and varied across their breadth. World Partition aims to make producing open worlds and level design as a whole, easier. It also works with the “one file per actor” scheme, where rather than information about objects being stored in a central main file that will be altered with every minor adjustment, individual objects now have their information individually stored externally to the main level data, allowing people to work collaboratively with ease. With World Partition, a “world” will be composed of many great smaller levels, arranged in series of cells, that will then be subtly streamed in, at differing levels of detail, based on the camera’s distance from them. In the demo game, published by Epic, an area was shown switching between two forms designed by different studios near-seamlessly. This is a very exciting inclusion for the future of open world design. With Nanite and World Partition, gamers should expect to see more intricate props as well as complex, changing environments that are denser with assets on a scale larger than ever seen before.

Lighting has traditionally been fairly restricted in games development, often relying on pre-generated highlights and shadows baked into the textures of objects in a scene, that cannot respond to moving emitters. Unreal Engine’s new ‘Lumen’ system allows for lighting to move and change in a scene and influence the world on a creative level for up to several kilometres in distance. Lumen also offers infinite bounces for diffuse lighting, meaning that light could hit (for example) the blue-green sea and then reflect upon the hull of a boat, making it appear to be affected by that colour. This will add greater depth to the colour of games, making shadows less harsh (something which is quite common in games that use dynamic lighting) and add deeper complexity to light. The process of baking lighting was often so intensive, that in a larger scene with many objects or complex illumination, it would take hours, effectively, an entire day of work could be taken up solely by baking, making it extremely difficult, costly and time consuming to make even the slightest changes. With Lumen, what would have previously put a project on hold, can now be done instantly. Developers being able to change the arrangements of objects or emitters in a scene and see the result at the same time, will almost certainly result in higher quality, lit environments that use illumination, not just to decorate a scene, but to also use it as an integral part of the level design.

MetaSound is the new procedural sound design system in UE5, that follows up from Sound Cues in the previous software iteration. In the prior system an asset could only play one sound and lacked detailed ways to alter timing of audio. It is a graph-based system (wherein artists can program visually through the use of pre-made function nodes and connecting threads) that lets creators use both synthesised effects and imported audio clips to produce novel sounds. This new system will make it possible for game developers with little programming or sound design knowledge to make a livelier world with sound, as well as, making noises in games more interactive with the world and responsive to the actions of the player. For a gameplay enhancing example, an enemy who has an angry howl sound clip, may play this continually, and when damaged by the player, its pitch could decrease as an indicator of its health, or the click of ammunition loading into a gun may become more resonant as the magazine empties. In addition, for more atmosphere, rumbles from the wind may become more intense if the player is facing into, or away from the breeze.

Ultimately, the latest in this series of engines has the potential to significantly affect the games that we will be playing in the next generation of consoles, with Epic working closely with Microsoft, Sony and other companies on the cutting edge of gaming technology and culture, to ensure this software will be able to produce the best possible experience, on a wide range of upcoming hardware and new systems (such as cloud computing in work environments, so that developers will be able to use UE5 even if their personal computers should be lacking, which is currently being used at their Indian branch). Hopefully, we will see Epic continue to promote communities and services for beginners learning their engine and expand upon customer service. It is important that UE5 will be just as accessible to learn and approach, so that the significance of these new technological developments is not just felt in triple-A development space, but to also include independent and hobbyist developer communities where exciting new experimental ideas in game design are poised to exploit these advances, compared to more profit oriented and risk-adverse groups. Ultimately, if Epic wishes to continue their legacy, they must embrace their varied user base in making the software practical for all, and not just fulfil the needs of their industry sponsors, should this happen, then we as consumers and developers will be sure to see this as a truly remarkable advancement that will be put to use in the next generation games of the near future.

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