Breaking Down Epic Games’ Shiny New Unreal Engine Demo

Looks good to players; looks better to developers.

A new generation of gaming consoles is coming this year, presuming we don’t all die first. Sony and Microsoft are gearing up their PR machines to tout their pixelly wares (as Nintendo sits chuckling quietly atop a mound of Animal Crossing receipts), and gameplay demos are beginning to emerge. Leading the way, of course, is the inevitable tech demo of Epic Games' Unreal Engine 5.

For the uninitiated, Unreal Engine isn’t a game by itself, but a game engine - a set of graphical, audio, physics, animation, and coding tools - developers can license to build their games with. All those logos you click through when a game opens up? Game engines (and associated software). Others include Unity, Frostbite, idTech, Anvil, and CryEngine; some are open for anyone to develop on, while others are proprietary to specific studios. Though Epic Games is more widely known for its consumer cash cow FORTNITE, Unreal Engine is the company’s backbone. It’s powered countless games from indies and corporate studios alike. Engine demos like this are also a measuring stick for where video gaming technology is at - far more than the latest and greatest graphics card. PC hardware may advance quickly, but consoles are what push developers to create new software to take advantage of it.

The new version, running on a PlayStation 5, looks real purdy:

Outside of the instinctive “ooh, ahh” response: this is promising technology. For players, dynamic retopology essentially means 3D objects will look more detailed, theoretically at any distance. It downscales object detail to suit the real estate it takes up on screen; get closer, and the detail gets greater, up to however detailed the developer made it. Realtime global illumination, meanwhile - a lighting method that calculates light bounces off every object in the scene - simulates light far better than traditional video game lighting, and can create beautiful, subtle effects. You’d be amazed how much realism a nice soft bounce light can add; just look at the recent ray-traced release of QUAKE 2 for an example (and that’s lighting decades-old models).

For all their use in raising eyebrows and selling consoles, though, game engine demos aren’t aimed at players; they’re aimed at developers. For developers, shiny new graphics features are basically pointless unless the tools are accessible, and streamlining the development process is the great unsung benefit of improved engines (just look at DESTINY 2's engine, which while visually similar to the first DESTINE, has a vastly smoother back-end workflow that enables Bungie to build updates at a far greater pace). The more you know about making games, the more you can appreciate not just the games, but the underlying technology.

Having dipped my hobbyist toe into 3D modeling and rendering, I can attest to the fact that those two key features - realtime retopology and global illumination - won’t just look nice; they’ll potentially save developers a huge amount of time and energy. Realtime retopo could vastly reduce the painstaking process of creating performance-optimised versions of detailed 3D models, giving artists more time to actually create their art. Likewise, a fully real-time lighting system means developers can avoid the iterative “baking” process that can slow down workflows, and view in their workspace exactly the player will see. Provided it all works as advertised, this is great stuff.

This is coupled with a marquee feature of the new console generation, solid-state storage, which will allow large amounts of data (like those detailed 3D models) to load much faster. Theoretically, that will preclude the need for “slowly lift this gate” or “slowly shimmy through a crevice” or “slowly ride this elevator” sequences that currently act as cover for loading screens. It’s curious that Epic would include such a sequence in the Unreal 5 demo, but perhaps it’s intended as a fakeout in advance of the impressive flyover at its conclusion.

One welcome new feature of Unreal Engine 5 is something of a buried lede on Epic’s part. It doesn't suit a flashy demo reel: it’s a change in the license agreement for developers. Previously, Unreal was free to develop on until a project grossed $50,000 in revenue, at which point developers had to pay a five-percent royalty fee to Epic. Now, that threshold has increased to a million dollars, which will allow developers $950,000 more breathing room when it comes to royalties. That’s a huge boon for smaller developers whose projects gross somewhere between the two figures.

It’s unlikely we’ll see games looking this pretty for a while: Unreal 5 won’t launch until next year, and with studios already pushing their staffs past their breaking point, it’ll take time to find workflows that take advantage of the new technology in this and other new engines. Additionally, Epic’s demo has very little game logic running in it; an actual game will have much more going on (AI, game logic, more complex action) to sap power away from pure pixels. I want to see a more real-world demo - and I also want to see, in the wake of THE MANDALORIAN's virtual sets, how Epic plans to position Unreal 5 for filmmaking applications.

Unreal Engine 5 will become available to developers next year; it’s hard to tell when games will start using it, but Epic says Fortnite will migrate to the new engine sometime in 2021.