On Wednesday, video-game fans got a double treat. First, they got a look at the new Unreal Engine 5 thanks to a demo shared by its creator, Epic Games. Second, the demo was run on PlayStation 5 hardware, making it the first look we’ve gotten at what the next-gen console from Sony is capable of. The results are unbelievably tantalizing, and as Inverse reports, will affect filmmaking as much as videogames.
The demo uses a game created expressly for the purpose of showing off the new engine’s capabilities dubbed Lumen in the Land of Nanite. “Lumen” is Unreal Engine 5’s new dynamic lighting solution, while “Nanite” refers to the part of it that allows for increased geometric detail, The Washington Post reports. Watching the demo video above a couple of things are clear: There’s still plenty of room for improvements in the realm of CGI. And the graphics of next-gen games are going to be off the hook.
What am I looking at? — In the demo, a character starts off spelunking through a cave where the light is coming from a hole above. The narrator moves the light source to show off how the objects in the scene react using what’s called dynamic global illumination. The engine makes it possible to move the light source and have every object — whether solid, translucent or reflective — and its shadows respond to the change accordingly.
Meanwhile, the ability to handle more detail means the option for designers to create insanely detailed objects. The example in the demo is a statue consisting of 33 million triangles, and then, later, a room with hundreds of the same statue, making for a collective triangle count in the billions. The new engine makes it possible to have a billion triangles in a frame but losslessly compresses them to around 20 million, so characters can move around seamlessly without melting the console’s processor.
Umm, cool, but why? — Building graphics engines is hard. Really, unfathomably, tear-your-hair-out sort of hard. And that makes it expensive, too. This is why it’s possible for companies like Epic to build them and sell them on to other game developers or movie studios who want to focus their resources on making content, not on struggling to get lighting effects or physics to behave correctly. Even if you’re not a gamer, if you’ve seen Disney’s The Mandalorian, you’ve seen the Unreal Engine at work. Unreal does for developers or filmmakers what digital spreadsheets did for accountants. Change one thing and everything else updates accordingly.
Unreal Engine 5 enables people to plug in “film quality assets,” as the demo puts it, meaning highly detailed textures or even photogrammetry, and natively supports things like “convolution reverb.” In other words, a developer can record audio in real spaces and then render it in virtual spaces. In the demo that means measuring the reverberation characteristics of a real-world cave and then using them to create the echos in the in-game cave. Make the cave bigger or smaller in the game and the audio changes accordingly. And that means a more immersive experience for the player.
Small studios benefit, too — Small studios will benefit just as much as large ones from these new capabilities in Unreal Engine because it’ll allow them to create near-photorealistic environments without the giant team of engineers and designers that would normally entail.
Even more helpful is the change Epic Games has announced in how it charges for the use of its engine. Previously, studios had to pay royalties for using the engine after making $3,000 in a quarter. Now using the engine’s code will only incur fees once a game has reached and breached $1 million in gross revenue. For small studios, that could be a genuine game-changer, and one Epic hopes will prompt greater experimentation.
Coming in 2021 — Unreal Engine 5 is only launching next year, though, so don’t expect to see it in action for a while yet. With Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X only slated for the holidays, that’s not really surprising. But when it does arrive, we’ll notice. And it’ll eventually show up in one of the world’s most popular games Fortnite, which is owned by Epic Games and currently uses Unreal Engine 4.
The line between games and movies is going to get blurrier thanks to the increased detail, clarity, and photorealism Unreal Engine 5 enables. It’s also potentially going to make deepfakes more convincing than ever. But that’s the price of progress. An engine is merely a tool. What we choose to use it for remains up to us. While it might mean more convincing falsehoods and propaganda, it's also going to mean more immersive video games and virtual reality environments. And considering the current horrors of the real world, we're here for that in a big way.