Epic Games has released a video showing off the first look at the graphics capabilities of Unreal Engine 5, the tool that game developers will use to make video games for consoles of the future like the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and high-end PCs.
The Lumen in the Land of Nanite demo runs in real-time on the PlayStation 5, which has been architected to keep up with the need to feed a massive amount of data to the machine’s processor and graphics hardware, said Epic CEO Tim Sweeney in an interview with GamesBeat.
It’s a big moment for games, and it reminds me of when Epic Games showed off Unreal Engine 4 for the first time in 2012. And among gamers, the unveiling of the Unreal Engine 5 will ignite the same gasps of delight or skeptical scorn from gamers who argued about whether it was just a mirage or final frontier of computer graphics.
But I don’t see anything to complain about here, except that the Unreal Engine 5 isn’t going to ship until 2021, well after the PS5 and the Xbox Series X ship this fall.
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“This is a first glimpse of Epic’s next-generation lineup of tools and technologies for game developers,” Sweeney said. “The graphics speak for themselves. Epic has always pushed the leading edge of what’s possible on 3D hardware. In this generation we’re pushing geometry to new levels with the Nanite technology, also the Quixel megascans library, which produces film-quality assets scanned from the reel to make content creation much more practical, and the Lumen dynamic lightning technology.”
He added, “But our goal isn’t just to bring more features to developers, but to help solve the hardest problem in game development right now. Building high-quality content takes enormous time and cost. We want to make it productive for people to build games at this quality level. Nanite frees developers from having to worry about individual polygons. You just build your highest-quality assets and the rest of it is the engine’s problem, sorting it out and scaling to each platform. It ties into the Quixel megascans library, where we’ve made available a vast and rapidly growing collection of assets to everyone for free use in Unreal Engine games.”
Surpassing film quality
Epic’s ambitious goal in this next generation is to achieve photorealism on par with movie computer-generated special effects and real life, and put it within practical reach of development teams of all sizes through highly productive tools and content libraries.
“One of the challenges with making content for any game or any interactive experience is the effort that goes into making them massive,” said Kim Libreri, chief technology officer at Epic, in an interview. “I second what Tim said about the Quixel megascan library, but also Nanite, this super-dense geometry system we’ve built — it means that now all industries that use our engine don’t have to worry about the traditional authoring process. You can load in a movie-quality asset and it just works in the engine. The engine does all the work behind the scenes. Even if ultimately your target’s going to also cover mobile, the engine will make clever LODs for that platform without the usual drudgery associated with making game assets.”
The demo ran in real-time, meaning it was like a game being processed live on a prototype of the PlayStation 5. It showcases what the Unreal Engine technologies will be able to do for creators of games, films, animations, and other imagery at the highest level of the creative arts. And it is meant to wow fans who were less than excited about last week’s revelation of games on Microsoft’s rival Xbox Series X.
“The next generation of consoles is going to give developers and consumers a quantum leap in their gaming experience. Unreal Engine 5 is another leap on top of that,” Libreri said. “It feels like two generations of improvement in quality, because of this new technology we’ve been able to bring to life. The future is very bright for gamers, and anybody using our engine for any application. I’m pretty sure our friend Jon Favreau, when he sees this demo, is going to be asking if he can have it on his movie sets.”
This demo previews two of the new core technologies that will debut in Unreal Engine 5. The more I look at the video, the more I marvel at how it looks just like a movie or a photograph, and I have to remind myself it is a computer-generated scene. If you notice, nothing pops in at the last second, because data is too slow to load into the graphics or CPU, as happens with current-generation consoles, which have awful loading times for graphics.
Nanite virtualized micropolygon geometry frees artists to create as much geometric detail as the eye can see. Nanite virtualized geometry means that film-quality source art comprising hundreds of millions or billions of polygons can be imported directly into Unreal Engine — anything from ZBrush sculpts to photogrammetry scans to CAD data — and it just works.
Nanite geometry is streamed and scaled in real time so developers don’t have to worry about polygon count budgets, polygon memory budgets, or draw count budgets. They don’t need to bake details to normal maps or manually author LODs (level of detail), and they have no loss in quality. To support vastly larger and more detailed scenes than previous generations, the PlayStation 5 provides a dramatic increase in storage bandwidth. Mark Cerny, architect of the PS5, said earlier this year that the key to this was adding a fast solid-state storage device (SSD) to the PS5.
“If you look at previous generations, you had to deal with magnetic disks, the lowest common denominator,” Sweeney said. “You couldn’t count on a lot of bandwidth supporting scenes like this. You had a beautiful scene and a long loading time, and then another beautiful scene. That disrupted the game experience. Our aim for the next generation is nothing but seamless, continuous worlds, and to enable all developers to achieve that. You can have this degree of fidelity going on for as many kilometers and gigabytes as you want.”
Meanwhile, Lumen is a fully dynamic global Illumination solution that immediately reacts to scene and light changes. It’s like the sun in a scene, shining light on all objects. The rays from the sunlight bounce off of objects and produce shadows or secondary shadows that blend together, and the graphics processor handles all of the necessary calculations to generate precision lighting and shadows.
This sort of technology was a big deal when Pixar used it in 2014 to make the animated film Monsters University, using racks of computer servers that worked for a long time on each frame. What’s impressive here is that the PS5 will be able to do this — a single game console that isn’t tapping a ton of servers in a data center — in real-time. Instantly.
Epic said the system renders diffuse interreflection with infinite bounces and indirect specular reflections in huge, detailed environments, at scales ranging from kilometers to millimeters. Artists and designers can create more dynamic scenes using Lumen, for example, changing the sun angle for time of day, turning on a flashlight, or blowing a hole in the ceiling, and indirect lighting will adapt accordingly. You can see it in the video as the sun pierces through the cavern and illuminates the dark spots.
“You don’t have to create yet another chair or mountain or rock for your game,” Sweeney said. “The Lumen technology frees developers from having to wait for lighting and build their games around the limitations of dynamic lighting. We want to make developers’ lives easier and more productive so they can build more effective businesses.”
Lumen erases the need to wait for lightmap bakes to finish and to author light map UVs — a huge time savings when an artist can move a light inside the Unreal Editor and lighting looks the same as when the game is run on console.
How Epic created the demo
Numerous teams and technologies have come together to enable this leap in quality. The first Unreal Engine 5 work began a couple of years ago. Brian Karis, a young graphics programmer who was in the video, began experimentation with the Nanite technology, as well as Lumen, Sweeney said.
“A couple of years ago we started brainstorming what would be the key features for a next-generation engine, especially next-generation graphics,” said Nicholas Penwarden, in an interview. “We kicked off a number of R&D projects to start working through that and figure out what we could do and where we could really make a generational leap, both in terms of fidelity and workflow. That’s where it got started, with those R&D projects that we built up over time. We expanded the team over time to build up to the demo you saw.”
To build large scenes with Nanite geometry technology, Epic’s team made heavy use of the Quixel Megascans library, which provides film-quality objects up to hundreds of millions of polygons. To support vastly larger and more detailed scenes than previous generations, PlayStation 5 provides a dramatic increase in storage bandwidth.The demo also showcases existing engine systems such as Chaosphysics and destruction, Niagara VFX, convolution reverb, and ambisonics rendering.
The part in the video where Niagara figures is when the woman shines a flashlight on the bugs, and they scatter because they’re sensitive to the light. Those bugs do that automatically.
Unreal Engine 4.25 already supports next-generation console platforms from Sony and Microsoft. Sweeney said that Epic will adapt Fortnite, its hit battle royale game with 350 million players, later this year to run on the PS5 and Xbox Series X on the Unreal Engine 4. Epic plans Fortnite to be ready at the launch of the new consoles.
But the Unreal Engine 5 won’t be available for preview until early 2021, and it will hit full release late in 2021, supporting next-generation consoles, current-generation consoles, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android.
Epic is designing for forward compatibility, so developers can get started with next-gen development now in UE4 and move projects to UE5 when ready.
Unreal Engine royalties waived on first $1 million in game revenue
Starting today, Epic also has another treat for developers. Game developers can download and use Unreal Engine for free as always, except now royalties are waived on the first $1 million in gross revenue per title. The license is free to use, and a royalty of 5% of proceeds is due when developers monetize their games.
The new Unreal Engine license terms, which are retroactive to January 1, 2020, frees developers from worrying about whether they have to make a big engine payment even if their game is unsuccessful.
Epic also said that its Epic Online Services have launched and are now open up to all developers for free in a simple multiplatform SDK. Developers can mix and match these services together with their own account services, platform accounts, or Epic Games accounts.
This makes it easier for developers to add multiplayer services such as friends, matchmaking, lobbies, achievements, leaderboards, and accounts. Epic built these services for Fortnite and launched them across seven major platforms — PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. Now it’s giving the services to all developers.
“Our goal since the very early days has been to connect all the players across all the platforms,” Sweeney said. “We pioneered this in Fortnite, the first to connect Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Apple, Google devices, every device, and enable everyone to play together. We’ve taken that entire stack of online technologies and we’re opening it up to all developers, including the nuts and bolts game services like matchmaking and data storage. But also the account system and the friends graph we built up for Fortnite, with more than 350 million players across seven platforms, and more than 2.2 billion social connections. That’s now open for everyone. You can piggyback on all of Epic’s efforts to build up this multiplatform audience and then contribute back to it by using it in your game, having your players add your friends to it.”
Asked why Epic felt like the technology made such a leap to call it Unreal Engine 5 (coming nine years after Unreal Engine 4), Sweeney said, “It’s a real generational leap in new features. Even though it doesn’t break things as previously–Unreal Engine 5 will be a straightforward upgrade for anyone working with Unreal Engine 4. It’ll be like going through a few minor version updates. But it has major new graphical features targeted at a new generation of hardware, defined by PlayStation 5. These capabilities are also coming to PC and elsewhere.”
Any snake oil?
And asked if the internet was going to pick apart any snake oil here after seeing the video, Libreri insisted, “This is running on a PlayStation 5. It’s running on the hardware.”
And Sweeney said, “It’s all real. The important thing is that this was not a vast new content development effort. These assets came straight from Quixel. We put it together pretty quickly into a scene. That’s the point of the technology, to enable any creator to build this kind of high quality scene without having to create each piece by themselves manually.”
Libreri added, “I’m pretty certain that next-generation games on Unreal Engine can look like that. This is not a smoke and mirrors act. We’re genuinely trying to build technology that we enjoy using ourselves, and then have a game team build the demo, and then get it into customers’ hands. Once the Nanite stuff is in customers’ hands, we’re excited to see what they discover, how they want to evolve it. We’re going through a bunch of the workflows to make sure they’re efficient for all studios, but it’s exciting. Something that looks as good as that, it can’t help but bring joy. We’re excited. The next year is going to be amazing.”
Libreri said the tech will scale well to cloud-deployed GPUs, which means that if everybody is still stuck in their homes they will be able to tap cloud data centers to get their work done when Unreal Engine 5 ships.
Is Epic making some kind of Tomb Raider game
Since the demo setting and character felt so familiar, I had to ask if Epic was making a game based on the demo.
“We’ve done a bunch of cinematic demos in the past, and then the past couple of years we’ve made stuff that was more gameplay,” Libreri said. “We wanted to do that again. We wanted to make something that felt genuinely could be a game. We had the idea that we’d have an explorer — we all like Uncharted and the Lara Croft games. We’ll make an explorer character that’s going to go through an environment. Quixel was around, they were our friends, and they said, “Well, we’ve got some awesome new rocks and all that, some caves that we’ve built.” I went to Malaysia last summer, and I went to see the Batu caves. They look like this. I brought back some photographs and said, “Check this out. Have you got anything like this?” We just riffed on that.”