It says something about the release of The Matrix Resurrections that when I came to check my facts before, I realised that I had got the name of the fourth Matrix movie wrong. I had assumed, understandably, that it was called The Matrix Awakens, which was of course the title of the Unreal Engine 5 demo released to capitalise on the movie’s release.
It’s understandable why Epic chose to tie itself to one of the hotly anticipated movies of the year, not least because of Keanu Reeve’s enduring cache with gamers, but what’s remarkable is that four months on from what was ultimately a disappointing and misjudged movie, neither time nor association has diminished the impact of Epic’s tie-in.
The Matrix Awakens, while merely a demo, was probably the best thing to come out of the franchise since the original movie. The good news for Matrix fans – and more so for developers – is that the full release of Unreal Engine 5 aims to deliver fully on what the demo only glimpsed at.
“So in 5.0 we are going to be releasing a city sample project,” says Nick Penwarden, vice president of engineering at Epic. “It is the city that The Matrix Awakens happens in, so that developers can jump in and they can see how we actually built the content for that demo. They can dive in, they can build on top of it, they can release their own content set in that city if they like, so they can use it as a foundation for their own creations. And they get to look under the covers at how we built the demo to learn from it.”
UE5 has also launched with a new sample game, Lyra, replacing the venerable ShooterGame that formed the basis for countless doodlings and proof-of-concepts during the life of UE4.
“It is built with best practices in mind,” says Penwarden. “It has all of the framework needed to support a game, so it supports networked multiplayer gameplay, it has a full menu system and menu flow that supports console, mobile, PC, supports matchmaking via Epic online services. And again,” he adds, “it’s intended to be a space that developers can jump in, start extending, start adding to and start playtesting games from day one.”
TRIED AND TESTED
The head of UE5’s engineering team is confident enough with the .0 release that he says it’s ‘production ready’, which is to say in its current state games can feasibly be completed. “It’s really important to us that it be in a state that developers can have confidence in. That they can not only take the engine into production and start building content, but that they can actually ship games and release content from day one.” He makes the point that had it not been the case, The Matrix Awakens tech demo would not have been released in quite so playable a form: “We didn’t just show a video of it, right? We put it in people’s hands so they could play it and experience it themselves. But we also shipped Fortnite Chapter 3 on Unreal Engine 5. We went through the process ourselves of taking Fortnite, this major, triple-A game that runs across console, PC, mobile devices, and moved it on to the Unreal Engine 5 codebase. And then took all of the learnings, optimisations, improvements that came from that process, and we’re able to take that back into the 5.0 release of Unreal Engine. So again, developers can have confidence that Unreal Engine 5 is ready to ship because Epic have shipped Fortnite on it already.”
DRAG AND DROP
Much has been said of UE5’s features, not least in the wake of the tech demo that announced Unreal Engine 5 in 2020. It was ‘Lumen in the Land of Nanite’, which introduced namesake features Lumen and Nanite, the latter of which incorporates micropolygon rendering that allows developers to bring in movie quality assets or actually use film quality assets that have been created via photogrammetry, such as through the Quixel Megascans library.
“Traditionally, the act of creating incredibly high quality photoreal content has been extremely expensive and time consuming and requiring a certain skill set that is really hard to attain,” says Teddy Bergsman, senior director of Quixel, who insists that Epic has been dedicated to creating vast libraries of high quality ready-made content for creators, as well as an ecosystem of tools to make more content quickly and easily. Hence why Epic acquired Quixel in 2019, and why the Quixel library is being integrated into UE5, “so creators can access thousands of assets that they can directly drag and drop into
their scenes instantaneously, without ever having to leave the engine. And the same photogrammetry technology that made
this entire library possible, RealityCapture, is also part of Epic’s creator ecosystem.”
Bergsman takes me through the various assets that are available to creators and developers, both free and paid, and it’s a bewildering selection, but the ease with which assets can be brought into UE5’s cloud-based apps, together with integration with the likes of Sketchfab and Artstation, mean that detailed scenes can be created in a matter of days by just one artist. “It just goes to show what is now possible,” he says. “This level of realism, and the speed at which these environments have been created has never been possible before.”
BIGGER AND BETTER
As well as Lumen, Epic’s new dynamic global illumination system that allows for real-time lighting and geometry changes, the third major new feature of Unreal Engine 5 is World Partitions, which allows for the creation of open worlds with unprecedented verticality and scale, as evidenced in The Matrix Awakens demo.
“With our open world tooling in Unreal Engine 5, developers can start authoring levels just as if they’re one giant world,” says Penwarden. ”They don’t need to think about the details of ‘how do I break this apart for the purpose of streaming’ and all of the technical challenges that one would run into. The engine is able to figure out how to slice up the content for streaming purposes on its own.
“A lot of these technologies are not only about being able to deliver a better final end product, in terms of better games, better visuals, better storytelling, but also to make it easier and more accessible for developers to create that kind of content. It’s really about removing technical barriers and empowering developers to focus on creativity rather than the technical aspects of content creation.”
What have you learned from UE5’s early access period? And how has it changed the emphasis or the trajectory of UE5?
Nick Penwarden: I’ve been really impressed with all of the content that the community has built with early access, and what they’ve been able to do even with that very early version of Unreal Engine 5. One of the things that we were able to use early access for was a way for us to gauge how easy is it for developers to be able to migrate content and projects from Unreal Engine 4 to 5, making sure that the path we created for bringing projects over was as smooth and painless as we were looking for. And so it was a good validation of the work and effort that we put into that.
Aside from that, we were looking at all of the content that developers were trying to create and understanding where we are seeing potential improvements that we can make to Lumen, to Nanite, to workflows. We’re seeing great visualisations made already, but we think we can improve them a little bit better in a particular use case, particularly some of the architectural visualisation samples that we made look beautiful, but we felt we could make them even better.
And so how we use that feedback to further influence the development of those features and functionality. And, of course, we received a lot of feedback from the community, whether it’s crash reports, or feedback on forums of things they liked about the the UI changes, other UI changes that they were interested in, bugs or workflows that that didn’t quite feel done, and then being able to incorporate those elements and feedback into the final release.
When you started on the path to creating UE5, you obviously wouldn’t have foreseen the prevalence of remote and hybrid working, how has “the new normal” changed UE5’s features?
NP: I think with Unreal Engine 5 we were already looking at a future where teams were more distributed. Internally at Epic we have developers around the world. Many of our licensees and those who use Unreal Engine are distributed, so some of the efforts that we have in flight, sort of under the hood, for how the engine manages data, things like when you import a texture, how we cache the compressed result of that and distribute it to developers who need it – as we built those systems, we already had in mind developers that were remote. And that was more for those initially for our internal development needs, as well as seeing licensees who have multiple offices. With the pandemic, having everybody at home accelerated the need to invest in those aspects of the engine, the sort of core parts of the engine. And now we’re seeing a large number of new developers pop up who are entirely remote. And so something that began as a way to support large distributed developers is now technology that I anticipate is going to be important for nearly all developers going forward.
Unreal Engine has always pitched itself at the premium end of the engine market, so to speak. How does UE5 further target increasing numbers of indie, casual and small scale teams?
NP: Well, I think the biggest advancement in UE5 is – this is something that goes across all of our efforts with Unreal Engine and the entire ecosystem – about how we can, not only push what’s possible with what the end visuals can look like, but how we can improve the tools and workflows in a way to make achieving those outcomes simpler. So when you think of a technology, such as Nanite, it’s not just you can render billions and billions of triangles, you can import these high resolution sculpts that an artist is able to make and do less processing on them; not have to yourself go and bake normal maps, and AO maps and go through all these technical steps in order to get good looking results.
When you think about a technology like Lumen, it’s not just about achieving great looking global illumination, it’s about the ability to put lights in the scene and see it light naturally in real time without having to go through a baking process, without having to artificially place fake light sources throughout the world to make it look like global illumination is happening. So it’s removing the need to go through all of these technical hurdles that you had to previously and letting the engine do the heavy lifting.
The same thing was in our mind with World Partitions. Generally, if you want to build an open streaming world, you need to think up front about how do I break content into chunks that I can stream in and out at runtime? How does that influence how I build levels? How does that influence how I collaborate with other developers on the team? And the great thing about World Partition is that you don’t have to worry about that. You can just create one massive level, start adding content to it, build over time, and the engine can take care of breaking it up into streamable chunks. It can take care of the more technical aspects of how to build a proxy mesh to visualise a distant part of the world that has been streamed out. The engine can more or less handle those complexities for you, so that smaller teams without a lot of technical specialisation or large art teams, can build amazing experiences. And I think that really then gets into the ecosystem. It gets into the Quixel Megascan library, MetaHumans, Sketchfab, the ability to get access to all of this high quality content in a free or affordable manner, and be able to bring it into the editor very, very easily, and build up amazing looking content without having to develop every single piece of content yourself.
Whenever new tech is in the hands of users, they start doing stuff that surprises you. Have there been examples of that?
Teddy Bergsman: Well, maybe the first thing that was surprising was the meme of creating lots of bananas in Unreal Engine. There’s a banana within the Megascans library that became widely used. That was a surprise.
NP: Yeah, there are certainly a number of those memes that were surprising, fun and interesting.
A large number of people were figuring out how to have a million crabs, I think was one. I think somebody photoscanned a dog in a bed and then replicated it a million times to get to a billion triangles, so there were a lot of people playing around with what’s possible. But I think going beyond Nanite and Lumen, I started to see a lot of people experimenting with Chaos Physics and some of the new tools around there. So just building environments and starting to blow them up, starting to play around with dynamics and destruction and just starting to put together all of the tools, all the pieces, into an interesting result.
A recent report said that the number of casual games in development has gone up 13 per cent in a year, and casual gaming revenue is up 40 per cent. Cross platform development has doubled in five years. How does UE5 appeal to studios eager to jump on those trends?
NP: One interesting thing with Unreal Engine that was true of Unreal Engine 4 and continues into Unreal Engine 5, is that we always think about how to build content that scales across platforms and how to build tools that allow developers to take content and represent it across
So we maintain a consistent lighting and shading model across mobile PC and console. We maintain tools for LOD and scalability that work across platforms. So, part of it is that as you start building content, you have tools to be able to scale it and work across multiple platforms. So I think cross platform development and scalability have always been important. And also feeling like you don’t necessarily need to make a choice at the beginning of your project that’s going to lock you into only being able to work with one platform or another.
You can use the tools in the engine in order to help scale across platforms
What UE5 games are you personally looking forward to?
NP: It is hard to pick one. It’s sort of like asking parents to pick their favourite child, right? I’m excited about a lot of games that are in development, both ones that the public is aware of as well as ones that other studios are working on. I won’t myself commit to picking a favourite child, I’m sorry.
TB: I think for me it’s Black Myth: Wukong, which was originally developed on UE4. That was actually a surprise to me seeing the team already migrating to UE5 during early access, taking that risk. But it being such a small team creating such a high quality triple-A-looking game is something that makes me personally very excited.