The demo game, “Lumen in the Land of Nanite,” isn’t a real game intended for commercial release, but Epic executives tell The Post that the “Tomb Raider”-like third-person adventure game is playable. The demo is named after the two technology solutions being introduced in Unreal 5. Lumen is a new dynamic lighting system, while Nanite allows for greater geometric detail. This means a single statue can be rendered with 33 million triangles, and a room full of dozens of the same statue will feature 16 billion triangles of images.
Epic has been iterating on the Unreal Engine to help developers save time and work. Rather than build and program individual polygons and reshaping environments after small changes, developers should be able to slide in high-quality textures or photogrammetry scans to mimic real-world imagery. It’s right in line with Unreal Engine’s current use in Hollywood studios, most notably Disney’s streaming hit, “The Mandalorian.” Sweeney also said that, like previous versions of Unreal, the new engine could also benefit smaller development teams and studios, as it can more efficiently and affordably produce top-tier graphics than if they try to produce their own engines.
“The biggest limiting factor [in the games business today] isn’t technology or hardware performance,” Sweeney said. “It’s development time and budget. These are really hugely constraining and prevent smaller teams from competing with bigger studios. The other big effort we’re making with these technologies is to greatly improve the productivity in building high quality scenes and being able to build game experiences that looks as good as movies.”
The demo reel is impressive. Compared to “Red Dead Redemption 2,” a graphical high-watermark from 2018, the difference in texture clarity is stark, particularly in the particle effects and environments. Like any good leap to another gaming generation, it’s like putting on a new pair of glasses: The world looks noticeably sharper and clearer.
It is unlikely we will see games using this engine until late 2021, if at all next year. The full release will be available in late 2021. “Fortnite,” which runs on Unreal 4, will eventually migrate to the newest engine, and be ported to the latest consoles.
It’s Epic’s hope that Unreal Engine 5 will further bridge the fidelity gap between video games and film. Square Enix created 2020′s biggest game so far, “Final Fantasy VII Remake,” using Unreal Engine 4, even though the studio spent years creating its own engine. Critics praised the new game as better looking than even Square’s films of the early aughts.
Kim Librieri, Epic’s chief technology officer, said the team learned a lot having worked with Disney on the Star Wars franchise, as well as the auto industry. Car makers like Audi and Porsche use Unreal Engine tools to create realistic car designs and models.
“Jon Favreau [creator of “The Mandalorian”] was very adamant about achieving photorealism,” Librieri said. “A lot of that experience helped us think through this process of coming up with Nanite. It’s the detail, the shadow complexity. ... A TV show definitely pushes the need for photorealism. The car business, they’re so picky on the materials and the way the light glints and hits the surface of the car. It really has helped the engine be a very good basis for producing photorealistic imagery.”
Unreal Engine also featured changing geometry and particles that react to the environment. Librieri hopes the upgrades will usher in a new generation of games with dynamic environments, rather than the still blocks of geometry featured in most games today.
Epic Games also announced a shift in commercial structure for developers who use Unreal Engine. The code will be available for free, as it has been in the past, and Epic will waive royalties on the first million dollars earned in gross revenue per game. Previously, royalties kicked in after the first $3,000 made in the calendar quarter. Sweeney said this move is to level the playing field for small developers who are just starting out, and that he hopes it would encourage more experimentation.
Epic Games also made available its Online Services suite for developers, so more companies can offer similar cross-platform, cross-play features like “Fortnite." The battle royale game gained popularity thanks to a feature that allowed players to maintain the same profile across all platforms, from Apple to Xbox. In his keynote speech at this year’s DICE Summit, Sweeney said that he hoped more companies would allow for cross platform play. Breaking down walled gardens, he says, would benefit all platforms and companies.
In addition to discussing the new engine, Sweeney said the covid-19 pandemic is also speeding up the creation of the Metaverse, the next iteration of the Internet that would live inside a virtual 3D world. Epic Games and Sweeney have been public about their interest in creating one, particularly since “Fortnite” has 350 million registered users.
Travis Scott performed a virtual concert tour in “Fortnite” that was viewed by almost 28 million people over three days. Live concert publication Pollstar speculates that the Travis Scott performance might end up as the biggest live event of the year. The virtual event was so successful, it even caught the attention of Democratic political consultants. The Post asked if Democratic nominee Joe Biden or his campaign had reached out after comments made by former Pete Buttigieg spokeswoman Lis Smith on Monday. Sweeney said no, but added that they wouldn’t stop Biden if he decided to create his own map in the game’s Creative Mode. That kind of organic social activity, he said, only further accelerates this idea of a new kind of Internet. It’s the kind recently seen in “Minecraft” school graduations and “Animal Crossing” weddings and talk shows.
“Remember when the Internet sort of came together between 1993 and 1996? I think we’re in a time just like that,” Sweeney said. “We see part of it here or there. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.”
Just as companies needed to build websites in the 90s, or created Facebook pages in the 2000s, Sweeney believes the future of business lies in living within virtual worlds.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Sweeney said. “We’re approaching a point where every company will have a real-time live 3D presence through partnerships with game companies or through a presence in games like ‘Fortnite,’ ‘Minecraft,’ and ‘Roblox.’ It’s starting to happen now and it’s going to get much bigger than these previous generational shifts."