Epic Games has revealed a first look at Unreal Engine 5, which promises to provide movie CG-level photorealism in this coming generation of consoles. The stunning demo is running in real-time on PS5 too, making it a key early indicator of the power of the platform – see the video below.
Unreal Engine 5 achieves all this primarily through the use of two key new technologies: the polygon-pumping Nanite and the light-dazzling Lumen. With Epic claiming that Unreal Engine 5 will make such high-fidelity titles a practical reality for both developers and consumers.
The new PS5 tech demo, titled self-referentially ‘Lumen in the Land of Nanite’, shows the incredible potential for both graphics and gameplay from the new engine and the next generation.
We sat down with Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, Epic Games CTO Kim Libreri and Epic Games VP of engineering Nick Penwarden to find out what Unreal Engine 5 means for both developers and next generation gameplay.
THE NEXT GENERATION
While Lumen in the Land of Nanite is a demo, it still offers an exciting first glimpse of what these technologies are capable of, and what next generation gameplay can look like.
There’s often a fair amount of skepticism around demos like this – many feel that they often promise graphical fidelity that the machines themselves never prove capable of. But Epic is keen to stress that the demo is running on Playstation 5 hardware, and that the combined forces of next generation hardware along with Unreal Engine 5 means that the games of tomorrow can absolutely reach these heights.
“It’s all real,” says Sweeney. “But the important thing is that this was not a vast new content development effort. Most of these assets just came straight from Quixel Megascans, and were put together pretty quickly into a scene. The whole point of this technology is to enable any creator to be able to build this kind of high quality scene without having to create each piece by themselves manually.”
“I’m pretty certain that next generation games on Unreal Engine can look like that,” adds Libreri. “This is not a smoke and mirrors act. Once this is out in customers’ hands, we’re super excited to see what they discover and how they want to evolve it. It’s exciting, something that looks as good as that. The next year is going to be amazing.”
The gorgeous geometry seen in the demo is the result of Nanite virtualized micropolygon geometry, which allows Unreal Engine 5 developers to use film-quality meshes as sources, with each comprising hundreds of millions of polygons.
Nanite scales these in real time to the system’s capabiities, eliminating the need for developers to worry over polygon counts, memory or draw count budgets. In addition, developers no longer need to bake details to normal maps or manually author LODs (Level of Detail) in order to maximise the detail its possible to render.
The demo makes use of Quixel Megascans, using movie-quality source art directly from the library. Thanks to Nanite, there is no need for the developers to waste time optimising, or lowering the quality to hit framerate.
The second key technology here is Lumen, which allows for fully dynamic lighting that immediately reacts to scene and light changes. The system allows for more dynamic-looking worlds, enabling developers to blow holes in the ceiling or adjust the time of day in real-time. That can both benefit developers trying to improve their games, as well as make the final title more reactive to player inputs.
Just as importantly, Lumen allows developers to iterate in real time without having to wait for lightmap bakes to finish, saving huge amounts of development time, instead giving them the final result in real-time.
FOR THE PLAYERS
Sweeney is keen to stress the point that this new technology is not a next-gen exclusive, and will scale to work on a variety of both old and new platforms. However, he also reveals his excitement for the potential of this coming generation. In particular, he notes how impressed he is with the Playstation 5’s infrastructure, and what it means for the future of games:
“Sony’s new PlayStation 5 is a remarkably balanced device – an immense amount of GPU power, but also a multi order of magnitude increase in storage bandwidth, which makes it possible to not just render this kind of detail, but actually stream it in dynamically as the player’s moving through the world.
“That’s going to be absolutely critical to entering the scale of detail and bigger open world games. It’s one thing to render everything that can fit in memory, but it’s another thing to have a world that might be you know, 10s of gigabytes in size.”
“That’s really our goal with UE5” adds Libreri. “Huge, complex, large scale worlds can be streamed into into the machine in incredible detail without you really noticing things popping in the traditional way that you would do
“Sony’s really done an awesome job of architecting a great system here” says Sweeney. “It’s not just a great GPU, and they didn’t just take the latest PC hardware and upgrade it, following the path of least resistance.
“The storage architecture in PlayStation 5 is far ahead of anything that you can buy on any PC for any amount of money right now. And it’s great to see that sort of innovation that’s gonna help drive future PCs. They’re gonna see this thing ship and realise ‘oh, wow, M2 SSDs, I need to catch up with this’”
This jump in processing power means more than just graphical leaps, of course. Sweeney theories that the next generation of both console hardware and Unreal Engine 5 will see new innovations in gameplay, thanks to technologies like Nanite and Lumen.
“If you look at previous generations,” says Sweeney, “you had to deal with magnetic disks as the lowest common denominator. And so you really couldn’t count on a lot of bandwidth supporting scenes like this, and so you’d have a beautiful scene and then a long loading time, and that is really disruptive to the game experience. Our aim for next generation is nothing but seamless, continuous worlds and to enable our developers to achieve that, so you can have this degree of fidelity, going on for as many kilometres and gigabytes as you wish.”
He even speculates that the freedom in geometry that comes with Nanite could lead to new genres emerging, pointing to this generation’s success with the Battle Royale genre.
“If you have the same rock used a million times, you only need to load it once. And so there’s really no limit to the scale of the worlds you can build. Even if you say that your game can’t be larger than the sum number of 10s of gigabytes, you can still build something enormously expansive.
“I think you see a lot of growth among the genre of continuous open world games, whether they’re online games or single player experiences. Every time the hardware improves by an order of magnitude you see new types of games take off, right? Battle Royale only took off in this generation because you finally had enough processing power and cloud infrastructure to support hundred player games sessions with a massive amount of action. I think that we’ll see new genres emerge, single player and multiplayer, as a result of this technology being made available.”
Since Unreal Engine 5 won’t be available in preview until early 2021, and in full release late the same year, games enabled by this technology won’t emerge in the first wave of next generation titles. Given the potential demonstrated in the demo, alongside the quality of life improvements for developers, it’s hard not to wish this technology had been released earlier.
But as Sweeney points out, this is typical of console cycles. A platform’s most promising titles are rarely seen until later in its lifespan.
“I think this type of timing is typical,” says Sweeney. Any game that’s going to ship at launch time on this console has been in development for at least the last two years, probably three.This is kind of the lead up in what’s necessary to get fully next generation technology up and running. If you look at the signature games of each previous generation, like on the Xbox 360 generation, it wasn’t until Gears and similar games began shipping in year two that the capabilities of the platform were fully demonstrated.”
Still, while we may have a wait before we see games taking advantage of Nanite and Lumen, the Epic team remains excited about the future of both Unreal and gaming itself.
“The next generation of consoles are going to give developers and consumers a quantum leap in their gaming experience,” says Libreri. “Unreal Engine 5 is another leap on top of that – it feels like two generations of improvement in quality because of this new technology.
“So I think the future is very bright for gamers, and anybody using our engine for any application. I’m sure I’m pretty sure our friend Jon Favreau, when he sees this, is going to be asking, ‘wow, can I have that on my movie sets?’”
“It’s pretty fundamental,” Sweeney adds, “what you can do with unlimited geometry and vast bandwidth for streaming data. It really uncaps games. You can build anything you want at this point. It’s just a matter of a budget, scale and development team.”