As a Developer, These Are Some of Unreal Engine 5 Features That Really Excite Me

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Posted May 15, 2020 by Haris Iqbal in Articles, Editorial, Features, Opinion, PS5, Xbox Series X

When Geoff said people were in for a surprise with Tuesday’s Summer of Gaming reveal, he really wasn’t joking around, nor looking to pull any punches as we got our first look at the next evolution of the iconic Unreal Engine. Both fans and developers were impressed with what Epic had to show, with a lot of features that will pave the future of gaming.

For those of you who might not know, other than moonlighting as a writer for this amazing website, I am a game designer currently working for Dambuster Studios, working on the next part of the Dead Island franchise. As I have been using Unreal for the past 6 years now, I thought it would be interesting to talk about what impressed me from both a dev and gamer point of view:

Uncountable number of polygons in one scene

One of the key things Epic talked about was how the demo had statues that accounted for billions of polygons in one scene, and whilst that wasn’t impressive on its own, it’s the demo barely showing any signs of latency that really made the jaw drop. If we were to load the same detail in current setups, the frame rate would barely hit above 1 digit.

An aspect that was mentioned was how developers could basically import models from Zbrush and it would look and run great. For those of you who are unaware, Zbrush is a sculpting program, it’s where most highly detailed characters and models are made. Think of it like sculpting things out of molds of clay.

image: Retopology in progress. Credit:

However, the issue with that is that the models you sculpt, due to their intricrate details can really rack up the polygons, which mostly require artists to export the model into another software like Maya where they have to retopologise, a process where they have to trace the shape with a new mesh which is less complex but retains the look. As you can imagine it is a tough and often time difficult process.

A feature like this basically throws away the need for that (or at least reduces it), speeding a workflow up. Now I know a lot of my fellow developers are smirking at the impossible notion of transferring files directly from zBrush as it is not good practice to do so due to issues with performance and rendering, but I feel like we are still thinking with old limitations in mind. I am sure if a realtime demo can handle this level of detail, Epic would have accounted for it in the actual editor, and we won’t have as many issues as we think.  This has the potential to save time making big budget games whilst creating unique possibilities such as the fact that:

Games will be able to utilise cinema ready assets

Whilst the basics might be the same when creating assets/models for Games and Films, the overall process is quite different. Compared to games, Films both animated and live are prerendered, meaning that a swarm of computers build up each frame and compile them into a film. This means that you can get away with really expensive and visually outstanding effects and models, as visual fidellity is key since you want the item you place in a real shot to match with its surrounding.

However, videogames are different in the sense that they are rendered in realtime, where you are not watching a scripted piece and a player’s action can have you seeing the same object from multiple points. This means that compared to films, you can’t get away with highly detailed items or effects, as that can easily tank the framerate of the game you are playing. So, assets have to be considered differently for each medium, and you can’t easily just move them around.

For example, one of the best plugins for games has to be Speedtree, a name you might have seen show up in basically all major games’ splashscreen. These guys specialise in creating both realistic trees and giving you tools to create trees that transcend the grounded nature. They have a seperate service for games, and a seperate one for films, and let me tell you speedtree for cinema is crazy impressive, with films like Star Wars and Avatar barely the only blockbuster on their portfolio. These are highly detailed trees with lots of intricate detail, a population of which can easily crash games.

But now, thanks to the possibility of having billions of polygon in a scene with a playable framerate, you will be able to get away with using film ready assets in games. Imagine playing Arkham City with a detailed batman and environment that you saw in the CGI reveal trailer, or playing a film based videogame with the exact same assets that you remember from the film. This will make the games look more authentic, and bring us much closer to photorealism in games.

Behind The Scenes: Disney’s The Mandalorian

This isn’t just good news for games, as films will massively benefit as well, since directors and cinematographers will be able to digitally visualise a scene in realtime through their camera with intended VFX, giving them much more control over their art. We already saw the Unreal tech do wonders for creating Mandalorian’s lush worlds.

Lumen Tech moves away from rigid Baked Lighting

As we know, in real life, light bounces across different surfaces with different intensity. The more we mimic this, the more visually pleasing the light in games and films look. However, lighting like this requires a lot of computational power, as you are basically simulating each ray of light and its direction, and there can be tons of rays in a single light source, so suffice to say, that realistic lighting is an expensive process, one that we are currently improving on, most notably with Ray Tracing, which basically gives you better lighting and reflections due to simulating this light bounce.

Even then, currently most games still rely on baked lighting in scenes, which are pre-calculated and don’t require the user’s machine power to update continuously, saving you frames whilst making a scene look good. However, this has an issue, where if you move an item in the game space with baked lighting, the light data that’s on the texture remains there, and you have to rebake the lighting for it to be updated.

This limits a lot of dynamic possibilities, one of the reasons why we don’t see so many completely destructible game worlds and why games like Uncharted, Battlefield and more are lauded for some amazing dynamic scenes. It is basically really challenging to do so!

With Lumen, light won’t have to be precalculated as it runs on the fly, casting realistic shadows and light on any object whether static or moving, something that was evident in the demo. This will not only give us more possibilties to go crazy with videogame environments and sequences, but once again save some valuable time, as developers don’t have to cleverly think of workarounds for moving certain items in a scene.

Unreal Engine 5 projects will be cross-compatible with unreal engine 4

Unreal Engine 4 is easily one of the most used engines currently, not only because it is free to use but also because it has tons of support behind it with a bevy of assets that Unreal gives away each month for free. A lot of developers might be knee -deep in development with the current engine, so it is a nice relief that if they wanted to take advantage of the new Unreal features, they will be able to just move their projects over to Unreal 5 without doing a lot of legwork.

This will be helpful to a lot of gamers as well, as it would mean that old games that were made in Unreal 4 can be more easily remastered now, really making use of features that were not available before, and developers will be able to breathe new life into old games and realise their vision as intended. (This doesn’t mean that it won’t require effort still though)

Developers can now earn up to a million dollars before owing royalty

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This is one news that perhaps got lost in a lot of the discussions, but Unreal will now let people earn up to 1 million dollars from games made in unreal engine, and will charge royalty on amount earned only after that. This is particularly good news for indie developers as they will be able to earn more before giving some of it away.

This works well in Unreal’s favour as well, since now Unreal will be able to really benefit from sleeper hits that are hard to predict as more developers start using the engine, making this a great time for anyone to jump in no matter what media industry they work in.

One word you might have noticed me using over and over was time. One of the best things these new features do is save on time that a developer might require to make blockbuster level of games since the more complex the games get, the more expensive and time consuming they are to make, hence the long wait for a lot of the highly anticipated titles. In turn, this will also let indie developers play with quality usually only reserved for big studios, so we get more games that look better, play better and run better. I am super excited to see the games made in this engine, and to get to try it out myself!