Epic Games has released a video showing off the first look at the graphics capabilities of Unreal Engine 5, the suite of tools that game developers will use to make video games for consoles of the future like the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and high-end PCs.

The Lumen in the Land of Nanite demo runs in real-time on the PlayStation 5, which has been designed to keep up with the need to feed a massive amount of data to the machine’s processor and graphics hardware, said Epic CEO Tim Sweeney in an interview with GamesBeat.

It’s a big moment for games, and it reminds me of when Epic Games showed off Unreal Engine 4 for the first time in 2012. And among gamers, the unveiling of the Unreal Engine 5 will ignite the same gasps of delight or skeptical scorn from those who argued about whether it was just a mirage or final frontier of computer graphics.

But I don’t see anything to complain about here, except that the Unreal Engine 5 isn’t going to ship until 2021, well after the PS5 and the Xbox Series X launch this fall.

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“This is a first glimpse of Epic’s next-generation lineup of tools and technologies for game developers,” Sweeney said. “The graphics speak for themselves. Epic has always pushed the leading edge of what’s possible on 3D hardware. In this generation we’re pushing geometry to new levels with the Nanite technology, also the Quixel megascans library, which produces film-quality assets scanned from the reel to make content creation much more practical, and the Lumen dynamic lightning technology.”

He added, “But our goal isn’t just to bring more features to developers, but to help solve the hardest problem in game development right now. Building high-quality content takes enormous time and cost. We want to make it productive for people to build games at this quality level. Nanite frees developers from having to worry about individual polygons. You just build your highest-quality assets and the rest of it is the engine’s problem, sorting it out and scaling to each platform. It ties into the Quixel megascans library, where we’ve made available a vast and rapidly growing collection of assets to everyone for free use in Unreal Engine games.”

Surpassing film quality

The Unreal Engine 5 will produce outstanding imagery for the PlayStation 5.

Above: The Unreal Engine 5 will produce outstanding imagery for the PlayStation 5.

Image Credit: Epic Games

Epic’s ambitious goal in this next generation is to achieve photorealism on par with movie computer-generated special effects and real life — and put it within practical reach of development teams of all sizes through highly productive tools and content libraries.

“One of the challenges with making content for any game or any interactive experience is the effort that goes into making them massive,” said Epic chief technology officer Kim Libreri in an interview. “I second what Tim said about the Quixel megascan library, but also Nanite, this super-dense geometry system we’ve built — it means that now all industries that use our engine don’t have to worry about the traditional authoring process. You can load in a movie-quality asset and it just works in the engine. The engine does all the work behind the scenes. Even if ultimately your target’s going to also cover mobile, the engine will make clever LODs for that platform without the usual drudgery associated with making game assets.”

The demo ran in real time, meaning it was like a game being processed live on a prototype of the PlayStation 5. It showcases what the Unreal Engine technologies will be able to do for creators of games, films, animations, and other imagery at the highest level of the creative arts. And it is meant to wow fans who were less than excited about last week’s revelation of games on Microsoft’s rival Xbox Series X.

“The next generation of consoles is going to give developers and consumers a quantum leap in their gaming experience. Unreal Engine 5 is another leap on top of that,” Libreri said. “It feels like two generations of improvement in quality, because of this new technology we’ve been able to bring to life. The future is very bright for gamers, and anybody using our engine for any application. I’m pretty sure our friend Jon Favreau [executive producer for The Mandalorian, which uses Unreal Engine], when he sees this demo, is going to be asking if he can have it on his movie sets.”

This demo shows off two of the new core technologies that will debut in Unreal Engine 5. The more I look at the video, the more I marvel at how it looks just like a movie or a photograph, and I have to remind myself it is a computer-generated scene. If you notice, nothing pops in at the last second, because data is too slow to load into the graphics or CPU, as happens with current-generation consoles, which have awful loading times for graphics.

Nanite virtualized micropolygon geometry frees artists to create as much geometric detail as the eye can see. Nanite virtualized geometry means that film-quality source art comprising hundreds of millions or billions of polygons can be imported directly into Unreal Engine — anything from ZBrush sculpts to photogrammetry scans to CAD data — and it just works.

Nanite geometry is streamed and scaled in real time so developers don’t have to worry about polygon count budgets, polygon memory budgets, or draw count budgets. They don’t need to bake details to normal maps or manually author LODs (level of detail), and they have no loss in quality. To support vastly larger and more detailed scenes than previous generations, the PlayStation 5 provides a dramatic increase in storage bandwidth. PS5 architect Mark Cerny said earlier this year that the key to this was adding a fast solid-state storage device (SSD) to the PS5.

“If you look at previous generations, you had to deal with magnetic disks, the lowest common denominator,” Sweeney said. “You couldn’t count on a lot of bandwidth supporting scenes like this. You had a beautiful scene and a long loading time, and then another beautiful scene. That disrupted the game experience. Our aim for the next generation is nothing but seamless, continuous worlds, and to enable all developers to achieve that. You can have this degree of fidelity going on for as many kilometers and gigabytes as you want.”