Eighteen months ago, one of the biggest games engines in the world made an industry-changing move: Unreal Engine went free.
It was a sign of the times both for Epic Games’ iconic tool and the developers using it, as the previous $19-a-month subscription model was ditched partially in order to keep pace with relative whippersnapper Unity, which had surfed to success on a tidal wave of indie support.
“The biggest surprise has been the huge influx of new customers – over two million developers have chosen Unreal Engine 4 over the past 18 months,” reveals Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney. “We’ve never experienced anything like this in our earlier, triple-A-focused engine generations.
“Most interestingly, these new users are incredibly diverse: indie developers, artists, filmmakers, architects, industrial designers and, of course, veteran game developers. This new trend is heavily influencing our engine direction.”
Among the additions made to Unreal to satiate its burgeoning userbase are technologies that aim to take the engine beyond the games industry into completely new territories.
We’re five years away from attaining the level of engine features and hardware quality to build something like the Metaverse, a simulated reality where people can interact as in the real world.
“We’ve been pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with digital humans, with realistic facial animation, skin shading, hair technology, eyes rendering and body animation tools,” Sweeney says. “We’ve advanced the state of the art in immersion and photorealistic 90fps rendering for VR, including releasing the Unreal Editor with full support for VR editing.
“UE4’s Sequencer cinematic tool has come online and is powering a wide range of in-game and film-class storytelling efforts.”
With the tool now catering for a far wider breadth of creators, should devs be concerned that their requirements may now become an afterthought? Sweeney insists that isn’t the case.
“The most interesting fact about these new categories of users is that their needs are 90 per cent the same as those of game developers,” he retorts. “They need the same physically-based rendering, editing tools, simulation features, and so on. 10 per cent of their requirements appear to be custom: CAD file format importing, specialised material rendering for car components, workflow automation.
“Every day, we’re discovering new synergies with these industries. There is much we can learn from them.”
THE INDIE QUESTION
Despite its growing efforts to attract smaller studios to the platform, Unreal continues to be regarded by many indie developers as an engine out of their reach. Sweeney presses Epic’s achievements in improving its standing among smaller studios, but admits that work remains to be done.
“In this generation we’ve scaled our engine from supporting 10,000 veteran game developers to over two million indies, but I feel that’s just the beginning,” he explains. “Look at Minecraft, for example; it’s partly a game and partly a 3D world creation tool, and has introduced 50 million new users into the field of digital content creation.
“Many of those users started as kids, and are now moving up to higher-end tools. There’s a huge opportunity for engines like Unreal and Unity to serve their needs. Efforts with our VR Editor are inspired by this; CAD software is complicated, but building worlds in VR by reaching out and grabbing objects with your hands is vastly more approachable.”
One controversial factor is Unreal’s business model, which asks devs for a five per cent royalty once a game’s revenue passes the $3,000 mark.
“I believe it’s a fair deal,” Sweeney responds when asked about criticism of the deal. “You can download the world’s most powerful engine for free and build any project for any supported platform.
“It’s also possible to negotiate a custom licence with Epic, paying upfront in exchange for a lower royalty or no royalty. But most triple-A teams choose the royalty option, recognising that it’s fundamentally a sound business decision.”
We’ve scaled our engine from supporting 10,000 veteran game devs to over two million indies, but that’s just the beginning.
Sweeney’s confidence in Unreal’s business model comes as the engine’s closest competitors revise their own approach to developer reimbursement. In March, Crytek released CryEngine V with a ‘pay what you want’ model. Meanwhile, Unity has headed in the opposite direction, introducing subscription tiers alongside its free Personal edition. There’s also newcomer Amazon Lumberyard, which offers a free engine backed up by paid Amazon Web Services.
“We strongly believe in our business model and will stay with it,” Sweeney reiterates. “It perfectly aligns Epic’s interests with those of Unreal Engine developers, in that we succeed when they succeed. It’s a solid, independent business foundation that has existed since 1996, and doesn’t depend on the fortunes of an ancillary service, advertising business or exit strategy.”
Sweeney’s expression that Epic sees its own success in that of its users continues in the firm’s initiatives, including the $5 million Unreal Dev Grants fund to support innovative projects built with the engine. He adds his belief that such programmes serve to close the gap between Unreal’s emerging users and prominent flagbearers.
“Our goal is to help developers grow from the hobby-scale development of the early days to the business-scale development that’s required to compete today,” Sweeney outlines.
“It’s still possible to power game development on Mountain Dew and ramen, but some things require money: hardware, marketing, contracting, events. Unreal Dev Grants are designed to help with this.
“We’ll continue to seek new ways to help developers build their businesses.”
PERPETUAL MOTION ENGINE
Unreal Engine made its debut in a time before high definition resolutions and virtual reality. Despite being fewer than five years old, its fourth iteration is already having to embrace major technical advancements.
“We’re on a great track with performance optimisation and features for 4K,” Sweeney says. “The bigger mid-term tasks are in digital humans, world-building and content pipeline improvements. With high-end facial motion capture technology on its way to consumer hardware, engines will need to replicate realistic humans in far greater detail than ever before.
“VR will open up entirely new possibilities for world building, and we’ll need tools for that. We need to deliver higher productivity than ever before, not only for games, but also for film and other industries. The scale of new technology required is unprecedented in the history of engines.”
Sweeney remains optimistic that once extreme visual fidelity and the immersive technology unite, Unreal will lead the way in creating experiences that are indistinguishable from real life.
“I feel we’re five years away from attaining the level of engine features and hardware quality to build something like the Metaverse, which transcends today’s game experiences to create a simulated reality where people can interact as in the real world,” he predicts. “There is no question that is the ultimate goal.”