Today, Epic Games revealed the first look at Unreal Engine 5, its next-generation game engine designed with features meant to make game worlds more detailed and dynamic. To show off the power of its new game engine, Epic released a real-time tech demo called, “Lumen in the Land of Nanite” which runs live on the PlayStation 5.
Lumen in the Land of Nanite is a fully playable title made up of Unreal Engine 5’s two new tools: Lumens, a dynamic global illumination tool, and Nanite, a virtualized geometry that lets artists import film-quality art and assets into Unreal Engine.
The demo shows a woman venturing into a rocky cavern and discovering a hidden temple. The demo makes a particular point to highlight how light and objects react dynamically, and the demo ends with a thrilling flight through a crumbling canyon. All of the assets and visuals in the demo are reacting in real-time, meaning the PlayStation 5 is processing the demo as it happens.
“I think a lot of people [will ask], ‘Oh is [the demo] real?’ But you know that demo was grabbed from the back of a PlayStation 5 development kit,” says Epic Games CTO Kim Libreri in an interview with IGN. “An HDMI cable went into a disc recorder and played out real-time — no editing, no tricks, that’s what comes off the box.” Incidentally, Sweeney made clear that the SSD in that devkit is “far ahead” of current high-end PCs.
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Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney explained Unreal Engine 5 is meant “to do things that are absolutely not possible today.” This means offering new levels of photorealism and visuality but also offer these tools in a way that increases the productivity and efficiency of game developers. “Lumen [and Nanite]… are not just order-of-magnitude leaps in visual quality but they’re also greatly simplifying technologies for the artists who build content,” says Sweeney.
The goal, according to Kim Libreri, is to make game worlds as immersive and realistic as modern movies, but where that goal differs from previous game generations is how interactive that realism is.
While games this generation and older are detailed and realistic, they’re also static. The Lumens and Nanite demo showcase multiple instances where changes in the environment happen in real-time, and Unreal Engine 5 is capable of rendering these changes immediately. When rocks crumble, it’s not a pre-rendered cutscene but a high-resolution rock asset moving in real-time based on the player’s actions. When a light source changes, it’s not multiple tricks to simulate a flashing light, but real-time processing power at work.
“If you notice, most video games today are pretty static environments. You know, things don’t change, there’s not a lot of cause and effect. You’re lucky if you can change the state of a game and come back and it’s actually changed. [Unreal Engine 5] allows everything to be dynamic.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CAn%20HDMI%20cable%20went%20into%20a%20disc%20recorder%20and%20played%20out%20real-time%20%E2%80%94%20no%20editing%2C%20no%20tricks%2C%20that%E2%80%99s%20what%20comes%20off%20the%20box.%E2%80%9D”]Epic is quick to point out the quality of the assets used for the demo, which they say are film-quality assets as opposed to the ones typically used for video games. While movie-level visuals are often higher-quality, video game assets are lower-resolution and are buoyed by development tricks to make them seem more realistic.
“The interesting thing is a lot of times artists are having to make those super high-poly models anyways, they just have to take an extra step and build the low-poly model, put a lot of time and care into that and then bake all the high-quality details into a normal map,” says Epic Games VP of engineering Nick Penwarden. “ Now they don’t have to do the extra work of building that optimized low-poly asset and they get higher quality visuals.”
What’s more, Epic says that the level of quality seen in the demo is going to be easier to replicate, especially from smaller developers who previously didn’t have the scale or time to render games at this level. Assets at this kind of level and quality will be available on the Unreal store for other developers to easily use.
“It’s really easy. You go to the Quixel asset store, download the rocks and the mountains, and the assets you want, and you just place them in there,” says Libreri. “It’s actually massively lowering the barrier of entry of how complex it is to make a game level.”
Epic Games also announced that it’s waiving royalties on the first $1 million in game revenue starting today, meaning developers using Unreal Engine will keep more of their profits. Epic Online Services is also available to make cross-platform play easier.
Fortnite will be released on next-gen consoles at launch and will be migrated to Unreal Engine 5 in mid-2021. Sweeney says Fortnite will likely be the first game running on Unreal Engine 5, but there are plenty of next-gen games currently in development using Unreal Engine 4 and even some first-party games will use Unreal Engine, though Sweeney did not specify whether it’s Unreal Engine 4 or 5.
Unreal Engine 5 will be available in preview early 2021, with a full release scheduled for later that year, and will support current- and next-gen consoles, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android.
Matt Kim is a reporter for IGN.