We’ve finally glimpsed our first real look at next-gen gameplay as Epic Games revealed Unreal Engine 5. Epic’s demo was shown as part of Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest, a moment that Keighley previously touted as “one of the more important moments this summer.” The tech demo Epic used to show off the upcoming engine was also running completely in real time on a PS5. “It’s replayable and it’s slightly different every time.” Before we start talking about the nitty-gritty details, take a look at the complete Unreal Engine 5 demo, showing our first look at PS5 gameplay:
Though the next iteration of Unreal Engine won’t be here until 2021, just after the launch of next-gen consoles, its suite of features and tools is a window into what we can expect from the next-generation of games as a whole. The demo is definitely just an aspirational tech demo—not an actual game that players will one day get to play—but it’s still a real-time slice of PlayStation 5 gameplay. The central theme is dynamic and detailed worlds with no loading bottlenecks and ease of use that can unlock developer creativity. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, Epic CTO Kim Libreri said:
We felt that, for too long, games relied on static environments, not dynamic events, and everything felt a little bit pre-canned. So we started to think about what we think a next-gen game is going to be about. And it’s fully destructible environments, fully editable environments, lighting that changes, time of day that changes, and details that look like a movie. This is the culmination of getting that all together in a tech demo that basically sets the ball rolling for all the amazing things we’re gonna put into UE5.
While we’ve heard the term “ray tracing” tossed around as a next-gen buzzword, the Unreal Engine 5 demo gives us a great look at the new Lumen dynamic lighting tool, which plays with the Nanite texture system (more on that in a moment) to offer more realistic and dynamic global and point lighting that reacts with the environment. No more pre-baked lighting or developer tricks required. Epic also hinted at how the Lumen system can change old gameplay tropes like having a flashlight beam in a dark space and will allow developers to more creatively play around with lighting their game worlds.
Nanite is the polygon rendering system, which allows for higher polygon models and textures with more triangles than ever before. Not only does it open the possibility of better-looking games than we’ve ever seen (and our first real look at what “next-gen” graphics can be in a gameplay setting), but on the creative side, it’s much easier for developers to create an asset and implement it without jumping through hoops, lowering its quality and spending time making sacrifices to make it work in their game. Unreal Engine 5 is designed to ease the burden on developers, allowing them to embrace creativity rather than get hung up on technical bottlenecks.
And that’s where Unreal Engine 5 will really change things up. While it might open up the possibility of pretty looking textures, models, and lighting, Epic’s new tools have the power to change the workflow of game development itself. Shorter development times, additional time for creativity or adding more content, empowering healthier working conditions. Unreal Engine 5 means that devs don’t have to get hung up on technical optimizations or making hard choices on how to pare down content, make sacrifices to fit those limitations. It means more time spent on worldbuilding and gameplay (which itself will be changed through new capabilities).
In the interest of empowering developers of all sizes, from AAA studios to independent operations, Epic Games announced that all royalties on the first $1 million in revenue for any game made in Unreal Engine 5 would be waived. That effectively makes licensing the engine more or less free to all prospective devs without risk of failure putting them in debt to Epic for the use of its engine.
Epic Online Services
It’s also launching Epic Online Services, a developer kit for cross-play that unleashes the depth and breadth of Fortnite’s cross-play functionality to all devs. While we probably won’t see huge publishers utilizing this service (Activision, for example, already has its own thing for Modern Warfare/Warzone cross-play), it once again puts the power in developers’ hands and allows even small creators to create multiplayer games with a unified player pool across every platform their games launch on.
Epic Online Services gives developers access to the complete Fortnite community and all pre-made social connections there, so if you play a game that uses Epic Online Services, all of your friends are already imported and available without any extra work.
What we get out of Epic Online Services is building up a persistent user base that transcends platform boundaries. The bargain is we give every developer access to the full Fortnite player base and social connections. Now, when people who play Fortnite come into their game they are immediately connected with all their friends. [Before], you had to rebuild a friend system for every multi-platform game that launches — if you play Fortnite and Call of Duty and Rocket League, you’ve had to build up these systems.
Ultimately, Epic’s Tim Sweeney hopes that creators across the industry can work together to grow the medium of gaming to new heights instead of attempting to have “walled gardens” or “own the customer.” He wants to enable freedom all around, whether that’s developers making the games or the players playing them.
It demonstrates that no one company in the whole industry is going to figure all this out on their own. It’s going to take everybody working together and building on top of each other’s efforts to really get to where we need to be, and I’m super happy to see that. Whatever form this medium ultimately takes, our biggest hope is that we can play a role in it, whether we’re the creators of the big thing, or technology supplier to it, or even better, if it’s a decentralized distributed system that combines everybody’s efforts and connects them in a much more open way.
And while we continue to wait for Sony to lift the curtain on the PS5, we now have a much better window into what next-gen gaming is going to be, not just from a graphics perspective—which is incredible—but from a standpoint of development and newfound togetherness that will drive innovation across the industry.
Right now, the Unreal Engine 5 showcase is just an aspirational tech demo, built out by about 24 people over six months to demonstrate what’s possible. It will be up to developers themselves to unlock those capabilities themselves when they are able to get their hands on this set of tools next year.