The release of the Unreal Engine in 1998 provided a base for game developers and allowed them to focus more on their content rather than spend a lot of time building the backbone of their game.
After more than 20 years, we’re finally seeing the fifth iteration of this engine. So, let’s look at what Unreal Engine 5 offers and how it will change gaming for developers and consumers.
1. Photo-Realistic Lighting
One of the most challenging things to develop in a game is realistic lighting. If you look at games released until the late 2010s, you’ll find that they’re easily distinguishable from reality. That’s because it isn’t easy to recreate realistic lighting in virtual scenes.
The film industry has started using ray tracing to create global illumination in their scenes as early as 2013. However, gaming hasn’t caught up with this yet, as it takes a lot of time to render a single frame. That’s why it was impossible to apply ray tracing to fast-paced games that ran at 60FPS or more.
Nevertheless, in 2018, Nvidia released the first commercially available ray-tracing video cards in the RTX series. Soon after, Unreal Engine 4 began natively supporting the technology.
Unreal Engine 5 furthers this support with the release of Lumen. This system is a fully dynamic global illumination and reflection engine that allows scenes to render realistic lighting in real-time.
It also features Virtual Shadow Mapping, allowing 3D items to create high-resolution shadows as they should look in real life. It’s also designed to replace the many existing shadowing techniques, thus reducing the load on the system.
2. Dynamic Level of Detail
In 3D modeling, each item consists of different polygons to create its surface. The greater the detail on an object, the more polygons there will be. However, this also means that it will consume greater resources, especially if you simultaneously load many highly detailed objects.
One way around this is to create different levels of detail for one object. For example, if you create a virtual car, you can have eight different objects representing that one car, with each object reducing its detail until you only get a shape that vaguely resembles a vehicle.
When your point of view is near the vehicle, the game will load the best, highly-detailed version of the car. And as the car drives away, it will load the car’s less-detailed versions until it’s so far away that the game only needs to load the car shape.
This technique allows open-world games like Grand Theft Auto 5 to have a highly-populated world that computers can reasonably load. However, this also means that developers will have to develop four, five, six, or even more objects with differing levels of detail for each in-game item.
However, Unreal Engine 5’s Nanite will automatically do that. Instead of creating individual levels of detail for each object, the game engine will reduce the number of polygons on an object as it’s farther away from the camera. This technique reduces the complexity of the scene the computer needs to load while simultaneously reducing the workload of the game developer.
3. A Massive Asset Library
It is challenging to create custom scenes in virtual worlds, especially if you have to build everything from scratch. Suppose a game developer wants to create a chaotic scene where players can interact with almost every asset, like hiding behind junk, getting hit by flying debris, or even being stopped by a wall. In that case, they’ll have to create every piece in that location from scratch.
This is where the Megascans asset library comes in. Created in partnership with Quixel, developers now have access to over 16,000 different and unique assets. They can even use a built-in tool to mix and match different assets to create a new one from scratch.
Furthermore, if the object they need isn’t available in the library, the game developer can use Quixel’s mobile app to 3D scan an asset in the real world. They don’t need specialized equipment, lighting, and experience to make a high-quality digital object, and neither do they have to create it from scratch.
The Unreal Engine 5 also includes Metahumans, allowing developers to create realistic humans quickly. You can customize facial features like cheekbones, facial hair, eye color, wrinkles, and more. Furthermore, this tool prepares the virtual human’s body, making it easy to animate in the game engine.
Finally, if the game developer wants to recreate a scene in the real world, Unreal Engine 5 partnered with Cesium, which lets you download highly-detailed 3D geospatial data from any mapped surface of the Earth. So if you’re a game developer and want to recreate a specific area, you don’t have to fly there and record the place yourself. All you need to do is to download the mapped area from Cesium.
4. Optimizing New Hardware Tech
While Nanite allows almost all objects in a scene to be rendered quickly, there would still be a point when a system’s resources would simply be overwhelmed by the number of objects. This is especially true for games that offer fast refresh rates, as the computer would have to load the scene 120 or even 245 times per second.
But with the advent of ultra-fast NVMe SSDs, the game engine can take advantage of this technology to stream the visual assets a scene needs to render from the SSD to the RAM. With this, game developers can remove loading times altogether and quickly pull up the needed texture and polygon data on the fly as the player moves and looks around the scene.
5. Forward Compatibility
Many games are made using Unreal Engine 4. As such, it’s not unreasonable to think that developers would want to port their games over to Unreal Engine 5 to create better versions. They might also want to do this to create sequels, and it’s much less work if you can move your Unreal Engine 4 assets to Unreal Engine 5 without much problem.
That’s why Epic made Unreal Engine 4 easily convertible to Unreal Engine 5. Furthermore, the UI/UX in Unreal Engine 5 remains mostly the same, so developers don’t have to relearn the system all over again.
6. Open Accessibility
Finally, one of the best things to happen to Unreal Engine is its free-to-use system. First employed under Unreal Engine 4, Unreal Engine 5 is free for all developers with less than $1 million in revenue. Once your game exceeds that, you have to pay 5% of your gross revenues to Epic for using the game engine. However, this fee is waived for all games released on the Epic Games Store.
This payment system allows indie game developers to create games without paying for expensive software or worrying about massive royalties. And if they put their game on the Epic Games Store, they won’t have to worry about making any payments for the game engine.
Unreal Engine 5 Marks the Future of Digital Visualization
While increasing computer power allows game developers to create more advanced and photo-realistic games, they still need new game engines to harness this hardware. The Unreal Engine 5 allows both giant and indie game developers to create realistic, high-quality titles.
As game engines become smarter and more efficient, developers can make more games in less time. And by harnessing the raw computing power that new hardware delivers, titles blur the distinction between the virtual and real worlds, allowing us to consume the highest standard of entertainment.
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