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Unreal Engine 4 - First Look

Epic is making some major development philosophy changes in UE4

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Unreal Engine 4 - First Look

Press screenshot from the GDC demo of UE4

Image © Epic Games

UPDATE: Epic has released videos on Gametrailers unveiling UE4 publicly.

The first video is the full demo shown to licensees and media at GDC mentioned below.

The second, shows Alan Willard discussing the technical details of the new engine revision.

Original article follows.

Epic has raised the curtain on the secret Unreal Engine 4 in a presentation given at GDC 2012. Revealing a few key features of their next-generation engine to Wired, Epic suggests that the engine will significantly change the way games are made.

Background

The first version of Epic's engine formed the core of the 1998 PC game Unreal (and later, Unreal Tournament). It contained:
  • 3D renderer, supporting software rendering, 3DFX cards, OpenGL, and Direct3D
  • Scripting language, UnrealScript
  • Network communication system
  • Sound engine
  • Animation system

Unreal Engine 2 saw a rewrite of the several key engine components and the renderer, and added a physics system.

Unreal Engine 3 was a significant jump in feature set, although it was still based on many of the same core design philosophies.

  • Significant improvements were made in the content production pipeline.
  • Visual scripting engine, Kismet
  • Improved particle editor system, Cascade
  • Visual material/shader compiler
  • Support for Xbox 360 and PS3

With these, and a number of other under-the hood features, it became the go-to engine for AAA studios seeking a development shortcut. (This version is still being iterated on, Flash support, as well as iOS, Android, and Vita support are active points of development.)

There were (and are) some inherent issues with UE3; however, the largest problem isn't limited to Epic's technology. The manpower and computational requirements for building a AAA 3D game have become enormous.

On UE3, Epic implemented Swarm, a feature that allows the lighting process to be distributed among multiple computers in a render farm, returning a good amount of time back to the LDs, but at the very tangible cost of expensive server hardware, or using the resources on coworkers' machines. (Note: this can also be achieved with cheap hardware laying around for users of the free UDK, but corporate users are less likely to risk their productivity on low-end hardware.)

Advances Found in Unreal Engine 4

Dynamic Global Illumination

One of the most important developments in Unreal Engine 4 is the use of a system where all lighting is dynamic. Every light, shadow, and bounce. By doing this, it will no longer be necessary to spend time time waiting for lighting to rebuild, and it removes the guesswork of fine-tuning level lighting. As the screenshots from the demonstration show, the results are dramatic and impressive. Even more incredible is that the demo is running on a single Kepler-generation NVIDIA GPU (the GTX 680). That being said, this is an engine demo, and not a full-featured game. They are likely pushing the hardware to its limits, but the promise is there.

The Pros:

  • Many, many hours of time will be no longer wasted by developers waiting to get back to their project.
  • Costs spent on electricity and hardware for computation will drop.

The Cons:

  • It takes some serious hardware to get the results we're seeing in the demo. This cost gets passed onto the consumer.

GPU Particles

Particle systems have been the bane of game optimization ever since their inception. Either they didn't look good, or they reduced framerate to a crawl. Ask any professional game FX artist how he feels about being able to make "things that look cool", and how often his toys get taken away in the name of speed. UE4 looks to change that significantly with a drastically-improved GPU-augmented particle system. The system is capable of simulating over a million particles (compared to previous-generation's hundreds, at best), and is designed to allow real-time design interaction, as well as vector fields. The results are once again, very impressive, and it should be interesting to see more when more information goes public at E3.

So, you may think, "That's all well and good, but graphics don't matter to me." That's where the next change comes in.

The Evolution of Kismet

Unreal Kismet is being evolved to a far more powerful system. Epic claims that you will be able to create a mod entirely using the updated visual scripting system. The next generation of Kismet now allows for scripting of object behaviors, as well as the previous functionality for levels. It includes a system for visual debugging, as well as a template system referred to as blueprint, for placing of objects with pre-defined behaviors in the world.

For those wishing to customize further, programmers can click on a property and edit the C++ code directly, with no rebuild time required.

In the past, gameplay code existed in UnrealScript. UnrealScript is the scripting language which forms the core of current community mods, and much of the gameplay code of all previous Unreal Engine titles.

However, UnrealScript is being removed.

In its place, the engine will be 100% C++, and highly optimized. DLLs will still be supported on PC, but this is a significant change for almost every Unreal developer operating today, whether hobbyist or professional. This may have some very interesting ramifications in their development community.

What Does Unreal Engine 4 Mean For Studios Developing for Next-Gen Platforms?

Epic claims that their goal is to make it easier and more cost-efficient to produce next-generation titles. If able to deliver, they will once again own the majority of the engine market for AAA-level console and desktop games, albeit for what are currently off-the charts hardware for the average consumer.

Of course, UE4 titles won't be hitting retail until this power is far more commonplace. The real issue is for Microsoft and Sony, as they establish the specs for their next-generation Xboxes and Playstations. They have to make the cost decisions now (if they're not already made). Epic has made it clear this is their way of convincing the big console makers what they need to do to take things to the next level. (Epic already won this game with Microsoft once, for the Xbox 360).

Update 2:

Unity technologies has announced Unity 4, targeted for current-gen technology.

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