Unreal 4: the new standard in game engines?

How Epic’s new tech is empowering designers and programmers alike

It’s easy to forget Epic Games’ humble beginnings when you see what the North Carolina-based company is capable of now. At the Game Developers Conference in March of this year, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed the latest edition of the Unreal Engine, and the results were – almost predictably – spectacular. Unreal Engine 4’s features were detailed in a dazzling showcase of technical expertise, giving us a glimpse of what we can expect games to look like in the next few years.

Other game engines are available, of course. The recent – and rapid – rise to prominence of the enormously accessible Unity engine (the latest version, 5.0, was also highlighted at GDC) is one factor which Epic is well aware of, while Crytek recently made the latest edition of CryEngine available over Steam for a reasonably priced monthly subscription fee of $9.90, without demanding a share of the royalties. In that light, Epic’s decision to price UE4 at $19 per month and to claim 5 per cent of the revenues of any games made using it, seemed bold, to say the least.

Yet its confidence evidently wasn’t misplaced. Epic set up a subscription page timed to go live alongside the announcement and within the first week, thousands of developers had already signed up. It’s no surprise, really: UE tech had always been popular, but during the last console generation in particular, the Unreal Engine 3 quickly became the go-to engine for a wide array of publishers and developers. “More than 350 [UE3 games] have shipped,” says Epic’s Dana Crowley, “and I stopped counting a couple years ago. [It’s] too hard to keep up with the UDK in the wild.” Even now, the games keep coming – ambitious crime drama The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Valhalla Games’ long-awaited Wii U exclusive Devil’s Third will use Unreal Engine 3.

Lionhead’s forthcoming Fable Legends is one of the first high-profile Unreal Engine 4 console games.

Rather than offer a range of subscription options, Epic says it has offered a one-size-fits-all package for the sake of convenience. For the price, developers will get access to all of the source code and the tools, said Sweeney. Developers will be able to use the highly scalable engine to publish games using it on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. It perhaps says much about the changing industry landscape that consoles are no longer the focus, but that’s certainly not to say that you won’t see UE4 titles on console – merely that developers will need to be officially approved by Microsoft or Sony before they can start coding for Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

Indeed, one British developer - currently making an Xbox One game - has helped to build one of the engine’s key features. Guildford-based Lionhead Studios, which is working on Fable Legends for Microsoft, recently showcased a system for real-time global illumination with light propagation that it crafted. The latest version of Unreal 4 will now feature that technology.

This is all part of a setup designed to encourage developers to contribute to an evolving service. "You're not getting a version of the engine that stagnates over time,” explained Sweeney to Gamasutra in March, promising frequent updates that would produce a “steady stream” of improvements.

“Epic envisages UE4’s Marketplace becoming the developer equivalent of the App Store.”

To which end, the most technically capable studios will be able to sell their individual creations to other developers via UE4’s Marketplace. Sweeney has acknowledged the influence of Unity’s Asset Store, a place where various different types of content could be sold – after a review process – with creators getting a 70% cut of every sale. Epic has already started the ball rolling, releasing free projects and materials for any subscriber to use as they see fit, but Sweeney envisages it becoming the developer equivalent of the App Store.

It won’t be compatible with Unreal Engine 3, though that’s because Epic has thrown out much of the old code. The move, says Epic, is a necessary evil, as computer technology advances at such a rapid rate. UE4 is designed to cope with up to 10 cores – more than anyone will have inside their PCs these days, though Epic sees its service as a long-term proposition - whereas its predecessor struggled with anything more than two.

Epic’s own Flappy Bird clone Tappy Chicken is the first UE4 game to be released on iOS and Android.

Another upside to the new engine is vastly improved visual scripting. The engine’s Blueprint system is much more accessible to designers, using a simple drag-and-drop interface that Sweeney suggests should improve communication between designers and programmers. Blueprints will, according to Epic, enable creatives to prototype content without needing to touch a line of code, and allow on-the-hoof optimisation.

There are obvious advantages for developers, then, but what will Unreal Engine 4 mean for us players? The reveal trailer highlights “thousands of dynamic lights per scene, full scene HDR reflections, temporal anti-aliasing” and much more. Particle effects will be greatly improved, as well as physics, while fire, smoke, snow and dirt should all look more authentic than ever before.

Much of it essentially translates to ‘better looking games’, but there will be other noticeable improvements, too. The Matinee toolset will offer a greater degree of control over non-interactive sequences, which should hopefully lead to better cutscenes, and even more dynamic cinematography during gameplay.

“The Landscape system should result in much larger sandboxes to explore in open world games”

The Landscape system, meanwhile, should result in much larger sandboxes to explore in open world games, by making it easier and more efficient for artists to create and mould terrain and foliage. And its post-processing feature set offers a variety of effects that should theoretically make for a greater visual variety. Unreal 3 games often had a recognisable look to them that made the engine’s presence a little too obvious. Now it may only be the level of visual polish – and the presence of a pre-game ident - that betrays the UE4 technology powering these games.

Sweeney says that he hopes the Unreal difference is worth the subscription fee and the 5 per cent share. Whether Epic’s engine will be as successful as its predecessor remains to be seen, but in giving developers, designers and artists the tools to better realise their visions, Unreal Engine 4 can only be a good thing for gamers.