Can Unreal 4 fix the industry’s growing “engine problem”?
Unreal 4 has been making headlines lately, and with good reason. Epic has created a powerful, versatile engine that allows for effortless editing power within a fully functioning game environment. But what does having that kind of power mean, and how might it affect the industry? Contributing editor Steve Haske and managing editor Andrew Fitch discuss the finer (speculative) points of U4 on the industry.
Steve Haske, contributing editor: With all the hype (understandable, but still hype), I wasn’t as shocked by Unreal 4’s visuals as I thought I would be. I found it interesting watching a real-time tech demo that essentially looked like CG—though, surprisingly, not as interesting as the fact that I could still pick out the slight differences between something prerendered and in-engine. Agni’s Philosophy, the Square Enix tech demo that debuted yesterday to show off their new proprietary Luminous Studio engine, was the same way. Is this a bad thing? No. In fact, it just makes me wonder what games will possibly look like in a few years on consoles.
Andrew Fitch, managing editor: I think the proliferation of engine licensing must be one of the major themes of the coming console generation. Japanese developers, in particular, completely botched the beginning of the PS3/360 generation, with so much time spent figuring out the hardware and building engines that they didn’t have the time, budget, or manpower to deliver the type of games that we’d seen on the PS2. I think Square Enix would be far better off licensing an engine like Unreal 4 instead of building their own. Spending all that time building the Final Fantasy XIII engine completely borked the development process and crippled the final product. Developers just can’t be investing that kind of time and money into their own engines like they have in the past—and, after seeing Unreal 4’s mostly impressive features and visuals, I’m even more convinced of that now.
Steve: Although I’d argue that it’s certainly possible as we thunder toward the impending new console generation for other developers to come up with technology that’s more or less on par with U4 at the same time (in fact, that’s healthy—because that, to some degree, is a preventative measure against the threat of complete aesthetic homogeny throughout the industry), what Epic’s created is pretty impressive, particularly with its dynamic lighting that reacts to everything in the rendered level. It was a little surreal that, following the video, they walked us through the tech demo’s environment, showing off various effects and systems embedded under U4’s formidable skin. For whatever reason, I wasn’t expecting that.
Andrew: Oh, I absolutely agree that “aesthetic homogeny,” as you so eloquently put it, isn’t what the industry needs at all. In fact, I think it’s one of the bigger problems it’s facing right now. But we’ve also still got developers building engines that have no business even attempting it—and, if Unreal 4 helps prevent even a little of that, I think it’s a good thing.
My first impressions were actually a little more subdued than yours, though. Epic’s presentation started off with a video segment where we watched a demon rise from his cavern somewhere in the snowy mountains, and it definitely looked impressive—the Epic presenter, senior technical artist Allan Willard, pointed out that well over a million particles could appear onscreen at once, and that was evident as we saw the falling snow. But didn’t it strike you as a bit surprising that, in a video ostensibly highlighting the best of Unreal 4, we saw very noticeable choppiness and stuttering? Shouldn’t that have been taken care of and cleaned up before E3?
Steve: Actually, I didn’t notice any choppiness, really. If I’d noticed any, I’m sure I would have asked about it. We were the two people that asked the most questions after the presentation—I was particularly interested in how much extra horsepower it would take to add the necessary coding for AI, action scripting, and everything else that goes along with games. It’s hard to say exactly how things will end up rolling (and whether or not Epic design director Cliff Bleszinski will succeed in his bid to get Sony and Microsoft to make their next consoles powerful enough to accommodate U4. Regardless of whether or not there are still hitches in it, though, we’re right on the cusp of that visual leap. But what really interests me about U4 is the “blueprints” system it uses. Basically, it compartmentalizes any element of coding—whether it’s physics, lighting effects, or how the game environment interacts—and puts it in a giant tree that can be categorically edited in seconds. If it’s as simple as it sounds, that idea could theoretically redefine the way games are made, which is far more exciting than damn-near-CG visuals. Though I won’t complain about them, either.
Andrew: Yeah, I think we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns when it comes to pure graphical horsepower—I’m much more interested in ease of use for developers, since that’s far more important to the industry as a whole. And Willard mentioned that one of Epic’s artists created four small demos with U4—an alien-hovercraft fighting game, a biplane fighting game, a pirate-ship game, and an archery game—all on his own in a couple of weeks. And this is a guy without any proper programming background! That bodes incredibly well for indie developers, I think. One of the major differences between book authors and game designers is that anyone can write a book—all you need is a Word document. Not everyone can make a game, though, even if they have great design ideas. If U4’s ease of use is truly on the level Epic claims, it could be a breakthrough on the barrier of entry for game design and development.
Steve: I wonder if indies can afford U4, though… Homebrew stuff’s usually made on the cheap, and though, technically, Epic is an indie, I have to think development tools like that would likely be out of a lot of smaller teams’ price ranges. Still, we saw real-time item manipulation from within the U4 editor (not to mention day/night cycles and the effects of those types of things on the dynamic appearance of the environment) while the game—such it was—was running. Whether from U4 or not, the power of this kind of technology is continuing to grow exponentially—though it remains to be seen if the benefits of something like the (theoretically) overhead-cutting Blueprint system will offset any potential leaps in price mandated by hardware of this magnitude.