Unreal Engine 5 and the future of games and film tech

Whether you realise it or not, you probably already know Epic GamesUnreal. It is the engine behind ‘The Mandelorian’ on Disney+ and a plethora of games on mobile, PC or console.

Epic’s latest iteration of the engine – Unreal 5 – was revealed this week. Via a tech demo running in real time on a Playstation 5 dev kit, the world finally got its first look at what the future of gaming really looks like. Along with many, I witnessed something I’ve been dreaming of since I was a kid, and something I’ve been hearing about a lot, lately.

I have spent the last couple of years talking to games industry leaders around the world. Our conversations have covered everything from product development and acquisition, to the attraction and retention of team members, to – most recently – coping with the C-19 pandemic.

But a constant theme has been ever-increasing production costs. In large part, this has been driven by the impending launch of Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X as well as emerging streaming platforms, as the games industry struggle to find people to develop across these ever more complex platforms.

This last point appears to be something Epic are aiming to tackle, head-on. As Digital Foundry’s Richard Leadbetter writes: “Epic’s strategy is all about giving easy-to-use tools to all developers, while unifying the tech and the required assets to work from the smallest indie projects to the biggest motion pictures.”

Epic are touting some of the engine’s most powerful tech; Lumen and Nanite are tools which will actually simplify the creative process whilst easing the delivery of the artistic vision.

Nanite’s “virtualized micropolygon geometry frees artists to create as much geometric detail as the eye can see,” Epic explains. Scenes are rendered on a triangle-per-pixel basis and the player is only presented with what they would actually be able to see. This allows more power to be directed to what players need to see, rather than rendering or wastage of GPU and CPU on things which cannot be seen. “Geometry is streamed and scaled in real time so there are no more polygon count budgets, polygon memory budgets, or draw count budgets; there is no need to bake details to normal maps or manually author LODs; and there is no loss in quality.”

Lumen is a “fully dynamic global illumination solution that immediately reacts to scene and light changes,” allowing artists and designers to “Create more dynamic scenes.” and effortlessly drop their models in.

Unreal 5 is cross-platform and cross-generation. It has already been confirmed to run on Xbox One, Series X, PlayStation 4 & 5, most high-end PCs and even Android, iOS and Nintendo Switch, scaling to the individual strengths or limitations of its host. But it was the next-gen consoles which were the focus of the reveal. Epic claims one of its goals for these consoles “is to achieve photorealism on par with movie CG and real life.” If the tech demo was anything to go by, job pretty much done.

Until Unreal 5’s reveal yesterday, many of us were beginning to believe that perhaps with Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X, we were just in for another incremental resolution bump and some faster loading times, whilst developers and studios were set for ever increasing time and financial strains typical of more powerful hardware generation cycles. No longer.

Of course, all this assumes that the reveal is a true representation of what we can expect from the final product. We have been burned in the past by companies who have presented one thing but ultimately delivered something inferior and Epic were very forthcoming in detailing that the reveal was running on a dev-kit, not the final retail version of a PlayStation 5. Secondly, Unreal is just one of many engines which will power the next generation of entertainment. Whilst the engine is the preference of many, I have been told by designers and developers on numerous occasions that they “don’t use Unreal, because everything made in it looks the same.” It will be very interesting to see what other engines become capable of.

Fortunately, we won’t have to wait too long to discover the answers to many of these questions. The next-gen consoles are expected to launch towards the end of 2020, and Unreal 5 releases to the public early 2021. The record-breaking Fortnite is confirmed as one of the first games due to receive an Unreal 5 makeover next year, almost guaranteeing a mass-audience for the new tech.

C-19-related delay concerns aside, Winter 2020 and beyond is looking like a phenomenally exciting period for the creatives and businesses who develop and deliver using this tech, and the consumers who revel in it. I can’t wait.

James Dodd

James@trippassociates.co.uk

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the mediainformationtechnologycommunications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.