Epic was released recently The first public release of Unreal Engine 5, a sprawling multi-tool development environment for games and other 3D content… was immediately followed by a $2 billion investment from Sony and the Lego family. Why is a new version of a game development tool making such a big impact, and why should you care about it?
First, about the program itself. Engines are a general name for tools that software developers use to create and manipulate the visuals, sounds, physics, and other aspects of 3D production, whether it’s a game, movie, or something less specific like an augmented reality experience.
Not so long ago, you could create 3D models in one program, animate them in another, create sounds in another, and then do the same for game logic, lighting, physics, and dozens of other aspects of what you’re building. Over time, game engines have grown to include more and more of this process in one place, even though specialized tools are often better in any particular aspect.
Unreal Engine 5 (often abbreviated to UE5) is the most capable and integrated engine yet, putting cutting-edge graphics and visual design alongside sound, lighting, animation, and other capabilities.
In particular, UE5 allows for improved graphical resolution by removing the need for developers to separately specify how an object is illuminated, by replacing a global lighting engine, and the level of visual detail, by dynamically shrinking the higher resolution model. These alone make up a great deal of work on making the game look good; Dynamic lighting requires a lot of work to get it done, and designers often have to make multiple copies of each object and character with different levels of detail.
There are also built-in animation and sound design systems that plug directly into the other parts of the engine, so you don’t need to bother importing your work from another tool. Special operations are also provided to impress human faces and bodies, among others.
Why should you care about all this?
1. This is what will make next-generation ‘next generation’ games
One would understandably think from the massive, amazing-looking games like “Horizon: Forbidden West” and “Elden Ring” that “next-gen games” are already here. But the capabilities in UE5 (among other engines in development) are not really used. In fact, games that will use the full potential of Unreal 5 are only now announced as being in development.
It’s not easy to say exactly what makes a next-gen game. But it’s not just good graphics. Think of a game where the lighting is completely dynamic, nothing but what the player makes of it – that would be a good horror title, right? Or how about a game where the environment can be destroyed or built at will, not just as giant cubes but as slabs of wood, mounds of dirt, and sheets of metal? A detective story where every room in the city can be entered, is every person a unique question asked?
There are dozens of approaches that cannot be achieved with today’s tools, or that are too expensive in computationally or creatively. Epic has targeted these difficulties with UE5.
It might be hard to imagine something that sounds more awesome than the aforementioned gaming prospects, but more goes into a new generation of games than best-case scenario screenshots. Fluidity of movement, realistic materials and interactions, and perhaps most importantly freeing developers to focus on gameplay concepts rather than the nuts and bolts of making a massive and complex game feel acceptable. UE5 is a huge step towards making all of that possible, and in the near future there will be a stark difference between games that only look good and games that look like a completely different generation.
2. But it’s not just games
I’ll avoid the M word (you know what I mean), but the simple fact is that Epic is at the forefront of exploring digital entertainment that isn’t just gaming. Concerts (real and virtual), VR/AR features, apps, and other things must be created using similar toolset as games.
Just as improved developer tools made for the proliferation of apps after smartphones became popular, these new types of digital experiences need an accessible toolkit to go from a high-cost promotion (like hooking up an AR movie) to something anyone can make. Unreal aims to be a platform Which Digital entertainment can be built, and you’re likely to see “Powered by Unreal Engine 5” appear in a lot of products big and small over the next couple of years.
A simple example is something like Metahuman, an Unreal tool for creating highly realistic in-game characters. These models can be non-playable characters in an RPG city, of course, but they can also be virtual doctors in a healthcare app, virtual assistants unique to each user, artist-friendly models, and realistic walkers in simulators that you learn from Robots, self-driving cars…Virtual people are hard to build, and Unreal makes it easy. This kind of transformation opens up a lot of possibilities.
As many industries struggle – and find new freedom – in the process of digitizing their traditional personal processes, UE5 offers a unified set of tools that can help. Do you think Ikea is hypothetical because of its famous catalogs – if you could do that and save your company millions, right? Suddenly an idea became more realistic than it was before.
3. It will continue to change the default production in film and television
“The Mandalorian” has proven that a virtual production, which essentially shoots a show inside a gigantic circular wall of shows, is a real choice for prestigious media outlets. Since then, many other productions have switched to VP, with Netflix particularly embracing it to the point of funding a huge rotating group for the next show from “Dark” creators.
Much of this is powered by Epic tools, among them the Unreal Engine. The need for a high-resolution 3D background that can respond in real time to camera movements and other changes (eg changing parallax or focal length) essentially means running a super-complex game on specialized hardware, and projecting it onto a screen the size of a full movie theater.
Although Unity and other Hollywood-focused companies are also looking to make inroads here, Epic has firmly put its foot in the door and has worked closely with several production houses to advise them and solicit feedback. The improvements and additions in Unreal 5 will be very useful for virtual productions, which in some ways are cinematic game environments.
You can bet that virtual production will get a huge boost from Unreal 5, not only improving the quality but also the accessibility to this rapidly developing technology.
4. It’s another move in the world chess game against Apple, Valve and others
It might be hard to believe that the same saga that makes Unreal is the same saga that makes Fortnite, the same saga that deals with Steam through a heavily subsidized play store, and this is the same saga that makes theatrical stands against the tyranny of Apple’s App Store fees. They have a lot of irons in the fire!
One of the Unreal Engine’s secret weapons is the freemium model. Any developer can download and use it, and if you end up launching a commercial product like a game, you only start paying Epic after the first million in revenue or a limited amount under other circumstances. This is very tempting for independent developers who want to reduce upfront costs and simplify their build process.
This in turn provides a pipeline for new users of Unreal, which if successful generate passive income that can be repurposed to support the company’s other endeavours. Sure, Fortnite is the big cash cow at the moment – but with new “Witcher, Tomb Raider” and “Gears of War” games (among dozens of other high-profile games) using technology, which could funnel massive amounts of money to the company.
Epic used this method of cross-industry support to promote a new business model for distributing games and apps, one without onerous “Apple tax” or Steam fees but something smaller, perhaps even something that was waived for small developers. She challenged Steam’s philanthropic dominance in the PC gaming world, and forged strong relationships with the likes of Nvidia, and now Sony and Lego.
What is their relationship to it? The better the graphics, the more sales of Nvidia graphics cards; Lego has been involved in games and virtual worlds but clearly believes that a revolution has yet to happen; Sony has struggled to provide the right tools for developers and the war with Microsoft is really intensifying — if you can buy a solid partnership with Epic, PS5 games could look better than Xbox games for a number of reasons. Epic chooses its allies and enemies very deliberately.
Everyone is betting on Epic’s horse because he’s on top. And Epic is betting that the models who revolutionized the world a decade ago will accept a haircut just to compete.
In short, you should care about Unreal 5 because it is a technology traditionally limited to games that take a big, deliberate step towards the rest of the world and towards you. Even if you don’t end up using it yourself, get ready to get your app, CAD process, retail, video chat, and everything else ready to get more from Epic.