The next generation of Xbox and PlayStation are on the horizon, and today Epic Games published a preview of what devs can expect from the next iteration of the Unreal Engine running on next-gen hardware.
In a blog post the company offered a preview of two new dynamic rendering systems coming with Unreal Engine 5, which is expected to debut next year.
Alongside those previews Epic also debuted a multiplatform SDK for its Online Services toolset that's free for devs to use right now, and announced plans to retroactively relax its royalties scheme such that as of January 1st, 2020, Epic is waiving royalties on the first $1 million in gross revenue every Unreal Engine game earns.
That last bit is especially significant for Unreal devs, as Epic had heretofore expected a 5 percent cut of everything you made on an Unreal Engine product after the first $3k in gross revenue it earned each quarter. Now, it's conceivable many more Unreal Engine games will hit the market, turn a profit, and go through an entire lifecycle without ever requiring their creators pay royalties to Epic.
Epic can afford it; the company owns one of the major PC game storefronts, licenses one of the biggest game engines in the business, and operates one of the biggest multiplayer games in the world. Fortnite's success has pushed Epic to build out systems for multiplatform friends lists, lobbies, matchmaking and more; now the company is hoping to push these systems out into the industry broadly enough that they become standards.
"Our aim is to enable developers to have the capability of doing what we did with Fortnite without needing a huge team, without needing to make a huge investment, and just have the ability to use all these online services to connect users across all the different platforms, to be able to not worry about whether your game can scale up to 12 million players," said Epic chief Tim Sweeney in a recent call with Gamasutra and other media.
"We lost a lot of sleep over that ourselves, and we did it so that you don't have to as a game developer. And similarly with Unreal Engine we built this technology because we were making this funny game called Unreal back in the day. It turned out other companies wanted it, and so we've been building a business around serving them as we build our own games."
"Build higher-quality, higher-fidelity environments with less work"
While Unreal Engine 5 isn't expected to launch until mid-2021, the two new components of UE5 that Epic showcased today may help developers get a sense of where the engine's capabilities are expanding to meet the capacities of next-gen hardware. Alongside some demo footage running on a PlayStation 5, Epic today unveiled the Nanite and Lumen components of Unreal Engine 5, which are intended to give UE devs new ways of generating virtualized geometry and dynamic real-time lighting (respectively).
Curious devs can find more technical details over on the Unreal Engine blog, but put simply: Nanite is a system intended to help devs stream in and scale geometry in real time, without worrying about polygon memory budgets or baking normal maps, while Lumen is a dynamic global illumination technology that allows light to react in real time, eliminating the need to create or bake light maps.
"Previously where we would have had to bake lighting in order to get high-quality GI, now it can be fully dynamic, and so you can construct buildings, you can blow holes in the wall, you can have large-scale destruction, and the lighting will update in real-time," said Epic VP of engineering Nick Penwarden.
"Another area where this really helps is that Nanite enables developers to have effectively many more draw calls. Previously developers were limited by the number of objects they can have in a scene; maybe you can have a couple thousand objects in the frame at once," added Penwarden. "Now...we have scenes in the demo that have more than a billion objects; so as you're laying out and building your scene you can kinda just build it out organically, the way that feels right, the way that you want to, and you don't have to go through this complex optimization pass of optimizing the scene to try and get under a draw call budget of a couple thousand."
Together, Nanite and Lumen may help elucidate where devs can expect next-gen hardware to allow new possibilities in game design. Both seem to make it easier for creators to dynamically stream significant amounts of data into a game in real time, and Epic CTO Kim Libreri says that's possible because a console like the PlayStation 5 has been specifically designed to optimize storage bandwidth.
"The detail is so high on this stuff that thankfully, Mark [Cerny] and the team at Sony did an awesome job with the storage architecture that means we can actually stream this stuff in," said Libreri. "It's funny because there's been a little bit of people thinking things weren't going to be that different for this new generation, and I think the opposite is true. I think we've just reached a tipping point...lighting can now become part of the storytelling, in a very very interactive, gameplay-like way, as opposed to being something that never changes throughout a level or scene."
It's a reference to a key bit in today's Nanite and Lumen sizzle reel, when a character shines a light around an underground chamber and watches swarms of bugs dynamically skitter away from the beam. Epic is keen to push these new tools as novelties to be turned to your own unique game designs; what could you or your designers do with what seems like a turnkey dynamic global illumination system, for example?
"I think the real time global illumination is also really interesting because it means you don't have to spend so much time setting up lighting and limiting the behavior of your game to ensure that lighting be efficient," said Sweeney, outlining the rosy near future in which game makers could count on being able to build all sorts of games, from physics puzzlers to dynamic action games to sandboxes of user-generated content, and "not have to worry about the lighting specifically" because it "just works".
"As [devs] think about the game design behind what they want to build, being freed [up] by not having such static environments is, I think, a key component of thinking through what their games can be," Penwarden added. "In a lot of cases, this is sort of a pure workflow win. It's easier to build higher-quality, higher-fidelity environments with less work."
As Epic builds its business on the back of Fortnite, Sweeney sees a Metaverse
Epic is of course encouraging devs to carry on making games on the current version (4.25) of Unreal Engine 4, with the promise that you'll be able to move your projects onto Unreal Engine 5 in the future. The company is holding up Fortnite as the bellwether, as it plans to continue proving out Unreal Engine features in the process of porting the game to next-gen hardware for launch and UE5 in 2021.
"We'll be able to actually make sure the engine is ship-ready at launch, so that any developer on Unreal Engine can be confident in their ability to ship on the next generation of consoles," said Penwarden. "With us migrating Fortnite to UE5, we will be supporting all of the platforms we currently support as well as next-gen platforms on UE4 and UE5. So we will be shipping our own game across all at that point 9 platforms on UE5, early on in UE5's lifetime. Which means from the start UE5 is shippable and ready to use for developers. There's not going to be a long timeframe where it's not ready; it will be ready from day one."
While devs wait to see what the future of Unreal Engine brings, Epic is aiming to continue building out its game services ecosystem with the rollout of its Online Services toolkit. The pitch is a powerful one: free access to a cornucopia of tools for implementing everything from matchmaking to achievements and friends lists, all cross-platform and intended to be integrated into any major game engine.
"What we get out of Epic Online Services is building up a persistent userbase that transcends platform boundaries, right," Sweeney confirmed. "The bargain is we give every developer access to the full Fortnite player base and social connections, and that way when people who have played Fortnite come into their game they can immediately connect with all their friends. [And] not have to rebuild a friend system in every multiplayer game that launches."
This is well in line with Sweeney's ongoing public crusade against walled gardens in the game business. He memorably took to the stage at DICE in Las Vegas early this year to declaim (among other things) the "huge chasm of interoperability" he sees in today's game industry. Now he's hoping the lure of free, Fortnite-tested online game services will help devs knit their communities together across platforms -- and bolster Epic's business along the way.
"Epic's benefit is, hey, we operate games. We're one of the biggest in the world and we get more Fortnite friends as a result of it," said Sweeney. "We also can really help build up the industry as a group of companies that cooperate together and collaborate together to reach users, as opposed to fighting each other to...this is the worst term that's ever been invented in the history of the internet, to 'own the customer.' The customer owns themselves, I'm sorry. Read the Magna Carta. Our aim is to help all game developers do that in the way that we've done with Fortnite."
There's a common theme of accessibility which runs through all these announcements. Across the board, Epic is pitching would-be game makers on the ease of getting into its ecosystem. The new Lumen and Nanite tools promise easy-to-use geometry and lighting systems that work without a lot of baking or scoping; the new rule that you only need to pay royalties once your Unreal Engine game's revenue breaks $1M gross will almost certainly encourage more devs to use the engine; and the new free Online Services SDK seems likely to see widespread use, especially among small devs who don't have the time or expertise to roll their own solution.
That last bit is reminiscent of Core (pictured below), Manticore Games' downloadable free-to-play platform which promises to let players play, create, and "remix" multiplayer games using an intuitive toolset built on Unreal Engine 4. One of Core's big selling points is the platform's support for fast multiplayer game development; players can effectively build multiplayer games and publish them for online play without having to worry about creating things like a friends list or networking code.
"[Core] is awesome. I think it just demonstrates no one company in the whole industry is going to figure all of this out on their own," said Sweeney. "It's going to take everybody working together and building on top of each other's efforts to really get to where we need to be. I'm super happy to see that.
"I think that whatever form this medium ultimately takes, our biggest hope is that we can play a role in it," he continued. "Whether we're the creators of the big thing, or our technology's a player to it, or even better if it's a decentralized, distributed system that combines everybody's efforts and connects them in a much more open way. I think [of it like] we're trying to brainstorm about what the Internet should be, back in the 1960s. You have this general impression that it's coming, but you don't know exactly what it's going to be. And that's really exciting, because it means over the next decade this thing is going to come together."
For Sweeney, the video game has yet to achieve its final form. He's publicly mulled the question of what a significantly large, shared virtual space (or Metaverse) might look like, and when we might see one form. Now, with Fortnite big enough for Epic to compare its playerbase to a social network and enough industry clout to push significant networking tools out across all major game platforms, Epic's founder sees a potential Metaverse in the colocation of large groups of people playing, sharing, and creating games and other interactive content across multiple platforms.
"You know right now there are two very discrete ways of building content using our tools, right; there's the Unreal Editor there which is super powerful but also pretty complicated, and then there's Fortnite Creative Mode which is...literally 100 million users have used it," said Sweeney. "Right now these are just two points, two extremes; we aim to build a much more of a continuum between these two spaces over time. And to make it possible for users to use as much of the sophistication and the tools available as they choose, but not be forced to deal with the whole complexity of it. There's a lot of work going on in these directions to kind of converge the different ways of editing and managing content.
"I think the Metaverse is going to happen," Sweeney added. "You know, there are a lot of different sci-fi analogues and predictions and you read the books a lot of them written before social networks even existed, and it's funny that they made some very impressive predictions but also some hilariously wrong ones. But yeah, I think the whole industry is going through this process of discovering what that new medium is going to be. We've done a lot of experiments in Fortnite such as the concerts and Creative Mode Minecraft has done a lot with user generated content, Roblox has built an economy around it. I think if you look at each of these experiences nobody is there yet. Each has made valuable contributions in that direction but it's gonna take a take more time to really figure it out, but uh certainly everybody at Epic is thinking about this topic and how to make...how to empower all creators. There's triple-A, there's indies and then there's the, you know, hundreds of millions of users who want to build stuff digitally. But aren't professional artists or programmers, and want tools for them too. So that's gonna be one of the really exciting journeys of this next generation."