The Unreal Engine is already well established as one of the most powerful engines on the market, but creator Epic Games upped the ante considerably with the recent release of UE4.
First revealed in 2012 and in development since 2003, the engine was finally released to developers this year – and it came with a few surprises. Not only did it contain an update to the toolset making it easier to create high-end games for PC and the new generation consoles, it also included the entire Unreal Engine source code and was made available for a low monthly fee of $19.
Barely a month later and Epic has refused to let the dust settle, continuing to update and tweak the newest version of its game-making flagship, with Unreal Engine 4.1 unleashed last week.
And the update is particularly good news for console developers. Anyone currently registered as an Xbox or PlayStation developer, including members of Microsoft's ID@Xbox program, are able to recieve the Unreal Engine source code for their respective consoles absolutely free.
"That's the biggest news of 4.1," says Ray Davis, general manager for Unreal Engine. "Along with that there are major improvements to our mobile workflows for iOS and Android, support for SteamOS and Linux, and literally hundreds of other improvements and fixes.
"Also with the 4.1 update we’ve released the Elemental demo content for developers to use as they want in their own UE4 projects."
Meanwhile, with all the buzz around virtual reality devices Oculus Rift and Project Morpheues, Epic Games has confirmed that the former is now supported by UE4. Davis says the decision to add VR support was a no brainer.
"We actually launched with Oculus support back in March," he says. "We are continually impressed by the innovations coming from developers working with virtual reality, and it seemed only natural to make sure UE4 is a great toolset for that innovation."
Unreal Engine 4 has been a significant step forward from its much-used predecessor, with many triple-A developers using it to power their next-gen blockbusters. Additionally, the expansion of Epic Games' Blueprint visual scripting system and the Marketplace makes it much easier for devs to share the assets and scripts they have created for their own titles.
It's a model Epic was confident would be popular, but the reponse has been better than the firm could have hoped.
"The community that has quickly grown up around UE4 has surpassed our expectations," says Davis. "Not only in terms of the number of developers who immediately jumped in and started building, but also the amount of contributions they’ve started to make back to the engine itself via the GitHub network we have for subscribers."
The UE team is monitoring feedback from the release of both UE4 and 4.1 very closely – in fact, Davis reveals the latter incorporates more than 100 improvements based directly on developer comments since the initial release.
"We’ve made it a point to incorporate as much of the feedback and issues found from UE4 developers into our next releases, and so with 4.1 we were able to directly address many of the requests," he says. "This includes engine features, bug fixes, and even updates to our EULA to better accommodate what developers are trying to build."
And then there's the new subscription model, an approach also taken by the rival CryEngine. Epic founder Tim Sweeney told Develop at GDC that the firm is all too aware about "the permanent decision we've made about the future of Unreal Engine" but firmly believes this will pay off – and the development community seems to agree.
"So far the feedback on the subscription model has been very positive," Davis says. "In fact there was some initial disbelief and shock that anyone could get their hands on the engine and entire source code for only $19. We wanted to find a way to get our technology into the hands of as many developers as possible, and based on the initial response it looks like we’re on to something."