Epic has taken a break from hosting hip hop concerts to announce the next major version of their popular software development kit, Unreal Engine. Following on from Unreal Engine 4, is the creatively named Unreal Engine 5.
The last major updates to Unreal Engine have coincided with the release of new consoles, and this is no different. Whilst Unreal Engine 4 didn’t quite achieve the ubiquity of Unreal 3, partly due to many of the big publishers shifting to their own internal development tools, it has been a popular game engine, powering titles like Street Fighter V, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Kingdom Hearts III, Octopath Traveler & Soulcalibur VI.
The announcement trailer shows a few scenes demonstrating some of the technologies they’ve been developing, and perhaps gives a taste of what type of changes could be coming for games made with future hardware in mind.
The two big features at the center of this Unreal Engine 5 announcement are “dynamic global illumination” and “virtualized geometry”.
Epic has a dynamic global illumination system called Lumen, that they can offer new ways for developers using their engines to approach implementing lighting systems into their games, and speed up development:
“Artists and designers can create more dynamic scenes using Lumen, for example, changing the sun angle for the time of day, turning on a flashlight, or blowing a hole in the ceiling, and indirect lighting will adapt accordingly. Lumen erases the need to wait for lightmap bakes to finish and to author lightmap, UVs—a huge time saving when an artist can move a light inside the Unreal Editor and lighting looks the same as when the game is run on console.”
For virtualized geometry, their new system called Nanite can let developers use extremely high polygon assets, either from scanned objects or digitally created models and assets, and insert them directly into the game. This has been possible for some time, but developers would have to carefully tune the level of detail with which to render each asset during gameplay, something that Nanite takes care of itself.
“Nanite virtualized geometry means that film-quality source art comprising hundreds of millions or billions of polygons can be imported directly into Unreal Engine—anything from ZBrush sculpts to photogrammetry scans to CAD data—and it just works. Nanite geometry is streamed and scaled in real-time so there are no more polygon count budgets, polygon memory budgets, or draw count budgets; there is no need to bake details to normal maps or manually author LODs, and there is no loss in quality.”
Unreal Engine 5 is scheduled for release in 2021. It’s not going to be a hard break with older hardware, as the latest update to Unreal Engine 4 will be adding support for newer consoles on the horizon, and Epic will be updating their own game Fortnite to support newer consoles on Unreal Engine 4, before eventually migrating it over to Unreal Engine 5.
Unreal Engine 5 is going to be looking both forward and backward, with support for PCs and shiny new games consoles, but also with support for current generation consoles, and even smaller-scale devices like Android and iOS phones and tablets. It’s not yet clear to what extent the footage that is shown in the announcement trailer would be representative of other devices: Epic says it’s running in realtime on a PlayStation 5.
They also hope to be able to let developers bring existing Unreal Engine 4 projects over to Unreal Engine 5, but the precise details of that process haven’t been revealed in any depth.
Time will tell how popular this engine is with the industry at large. It’s going to be interesting to see if they can tempt publishers like EA, Ubisoft and Activision to drop their own in house engine’s in favor of Unreal Engine, and if they’ll be able to tempt smaller studios away from competing options like Unity.
We likely won’t be seeing games released for players to get their hands on using these tools for quite some time, especially with the lengthy development process for many games, but this is an exciting glimpse of one vision what the future could hold for gaming.