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Epic Games took the wraps off its Unreal Engine 5 today, showing in a demo video how the game engine behind Fortnite will be able to generate outstanding realistic graphics in real time on next-generation consoles like the PlayStation 5, high-end PCs, and even mobile devices.

Unreal Engine 5 debuts in 2021, and it will be one of the tools that will enable for the entire game industry to take a step upward in graphics quality, said Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney in an interview with GamesBeat.

“It’s a real generational leap in new features. Even though it doesn’t break things that came previously, Unreal Engine 5 will be a straightforward upgrade for anyone working with Unreal Engine 4,” Sweeney said. “It’ll be like going through a few minor version updates. But it has major new graphical features targeted at a new generation of hardware, defined by PlayStation 5. These capabilities are also coming to PC and elsewhere.”

Sweeney emphasized that Epic Games worked closely with Sony on the PlayStation 5 so that games can take full advantage of the next-generation hardware. But he also said that Unreal Engine 5 is designed to make any game run anywhere. Game designers can use it to create their games, and Epic does the hard work of translating it so that it can run on everything, from mobile devices to next-generation consoles to high-end PCs.

The guinea pig for Unreal Engine 5 is Fortnite, which has reached more than 350 million players across seven platforms. This year, Fortnite will debut on the PS5 and Xbox Series X based on Unreal Engine 4 technology, but it will eventually migrate to Unreal Engine 5. And Sweeney said the rest of the industry can piggyback on the pioneering work, and they will pay the same kind of fees for the Unreal Engine 5 license as they do now with Unreal Engine 4: 5% of royalties for games that do more than $1 million in sales.

I interviewed Sweeney and other members of the Epic team — chief technology officer Kim Libreri and Unreal architect Nicholas Penwarden — over a Zoom call, with another writer present. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

GamesBeat: What’s happening?

Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, and Kim Libreri, CTO.

Above: Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, and Kim Libreri, CTO.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Tim Sweeney: This is a first glimpse of Epic’s next-generation lineup of tools and technologies for game developers. 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 real to make content creation much more practical, and the Lumen dynamic lightning technology.

But our goal isn’t just to bring more features to developers — it’s 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. You don’t have to create yet another chair or mountain or rock for your game. The Lumen technology frees developers from having to wait for lighting and build their games around the limitations of dynamic lighting. We want to make developers’ lives easier and more productive so they can build more effective businesses.

This extends to our online services. Our goal since the very early days has been to connect all the players across all the platforms. We pioneered this in Fortnite, which was the first to connect Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Apple, Google devices, every device, and enable everyone to play together. We’ve taken that entire stack of online technologies and we’re opening it up to all developers, including the nuts and bolts game services like matchmaking and data storage. But also the account system and the friends graph we built up for Fortnite, with more than 350 million players across seven platforms, and more than 2.2 billion social connections.

That’s now open for everybody. You can piggyback on all of Epic’s efforts to build up this multiplatform audience and then contribute back to it by using it in your game, having your players add your friends to it. Everybody benefits together by building up this non-walled garden version of things that have existed on each platform and on Steam in a locked-down way in the past.

Above: Epic Games is launching the Unreal Engine in 2021.

Image Credit: Epic Games

We’re opening all of that up to all developers for free. That’s the spirit of all our efforts in the next generation. We’re working to serve all developers and help them achieve what we’ve achieved with our games, and to help them do that productively and effectively.

Kim Libreri: One of the challenges with making content for any game or any interactive experience is the effort that goes into making them massive. 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 (level of detail) for that platform without the usual drudgery associated with making game assets.

For the demo, the environment team was half-classic Epic environment artists, and then a couple of the other people who came in came straight from a movie VFX company. They said, “Wow, this is crazy. It’s like authoring in the metaverse. I just grab a rock. It looks like a rock. I can move it and scale it and light it and adjust the bounds around it and still get results.” It’s a massive quantum leap in artist-friendliness and the visual resources you get. That video really is — it’s basically an HDMI capture device plugged into the back of a PlayStation. That’s the pixels the engine generated. Quality in an easy way, that’s what we’re aiming for.

GamesBeat: The video looks pretty amazing. Do you want to set an expectation for how games will look relative to that on things like, say, mobile, all the way up to the new consoles and high-end PCs?

Sweeney: The aim here is that you can build your content at the highest level of quality possible, and the engine will scale it down to every platform automatically, so you don’t have to worry about texture maps and polygon LODs yourself. You can rely on the technology to do that.

The demo is demonstrating the highest level of quality, which is available on PlayStation 5 and other next-generation hardware. Every other platform that doesn’t have these capabilities will go through a more traditional rendering pipeline, in which we’ll take these assets you’ve built and scale them down to more traditional LODs, rendering them so you can — there will be a version of this demo you could run on Android devices from three years ago. It will have much lower polygon detail, but it’ll be the same scene and you can build the same game.

It has to be this way, because as we’ve said, we’re launching Fortnite on next-generation consoles this year on UE4. We’re moving it to UE5 over the course of next year. Fortnite will continue to support the seven platforms it supports now, plus the two new ones that have been announced. We have to support the game on all hardware, and we have to do that without game developers ever having to build any asset, any content twice.

GamesBeat: In terms of calling it Unreal Engine 5, what mattered in that particular decision? What’s the distinction that you think elevates to being Unreal Engine 5?

Sweeney: It’s a real generational leap in new features. Even though it doesn’t break things that came previously, Unreal Engine 5 will be a straightforward upgrade for anyone working with Unreal Engine 4. It’ll be like going through a few minor version updates. But it has major new graphical features targeted at a new generation of hardware, defined by PlayStation 5. These capabilities are also coming to PC and elsewhere.

We’re enabling a new paradigm for game development in which each generation introduces a new set of problems you have to worry about, and hopefully removes an old generation of problems so you don’t have to worry about them anymore. We’re trying to remove the content scalability problem from this generation and get developers thinking about a new way of building games. It’s building on some of the things we’ve learned with Fortnite. You can build a high-end console game, it can look fantastic, and you can also make it work on smartphones. You can build an audience that’s far bigger than just the hardcore gaming audience by shipping it on more platforms.

The technology can enable that and make it more productive. The online tool set can do the same. We want to help the whole game industry get to this better spot.