New game engines. To live in promise
The Unreal Engine 5 demonstration looked fantastic. There I said it.
Epic unveiled the new iteration of their Unreal Engine with a promotional video on the 13 May 2020. I highly recommend everyone to check out the Unreal Engine 5 demonstration video on YouTube, preferably on the highest settings your TV or monitor can handle. The new engine uses the latest technology in video rendering. As a layman who knows next to nothing about game development, when terminology like “Nanite virtualized micropolygon technology”, “Lumen” and “convulsion reverb” were mentioned, I was lost, but that is not important. All I know is what my eyes and ears were telling me. They were telling me – this looks and sounds stunning!
The demonstration lasted nine minutes in total and in that time, it showed off a Lara Croft-like adventurer exploring a desert cavern and uncovering a vast open space which she subsequently flew across using a special crystal ball gadget. Although it was a short video of gameplay, everything about the video was designed to impress. The cliff rocks looked photo realistic, the light dynamics looked real and the sound was cinema-like with a strong booming base with near perfect clarity. This attention to detail is next level. Epic made the statement that they are striving for film quality assets and they were not joking. This, according to Epic, is the future of AAA game development, this is the reason why the PS5 and Xbox Series X were made. To show off games like this. The intention to show off certainly worked from the overwhelming positive reaction from the gaming community and the game media alike; everyone, it seemed wanted to play that game. The problem is we cannot. It is a demo. A question then comes to mind – how many games are going to be made to look like this and why is short demo of gameplay not a fully developed eight-hour experience? Why cannot I play this now ?
The problem could be because I think we have been here before, unfortunately more than once.
If I mentioned Alien Colonial Marines E3 tech demo in 2011, does that send a chill down the spine? How about the WatchDogs trailer in E3 2013, or going further back, the “gameplay” trailer for Killzone for the PS2 back in E3 2005? That Killzone gameplay trailer was so confusing because it showed something that was literally impossible given what the PS2 could do. The studio admitted sometime after that the gameplay on show could not actually be played on a PS2, they were just showing a concept of vision, er….OK. I am not saying these gameplay demos are bait and switch but there needs to be a caveat when watching tech demos. What we see may not always be what we get. In some cases, it can be argued that tech demos are showing off the limitations of the possible, that these types of games can be made if time or money were not a problem for the developer or publisher. In many ways tech demos are an illustration of what is desirable, or achievable, as opposed to what makes economic sense at the time. By contrast one of the most effective tech demos showcased was the Source Engine Half Life 2 demo in 2003. Almost everything in that revolutionary demo made it to the final game. Valve had delivered a tech demo of the Source Engine in conjunction with the development of the actual game that was going to use the engine. If ever there is a gold-standard on game engine tech demos, the 2003 Source Engine would be it.
As so often is the case with new technology there comes a time when the focus will shift from the attributes of what makes the technology new to what it can offer in terms of actual game experience. The challenge is not what a new game engine can show off, but what gamers want from it. Games today already employ photo-realistic graphics and already have numerous gameplay mechanics that add immersion, just think of VR for example.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is testament to what games can look like if the budgets to build them run up to the $100 million mark (as estimated by analysts) and the resources to build it run into thousands of people from creators, developers and testers. But how many games can you count look as great as Red Dead Redemption 2 ? I would venture a handful at most. Once played, gamers will look to other games to fill their time.
The dichotomy is that although consumer surveys repeatedly show graphics to be the most important part in gameplay experience, we now live in a world where the block-based minimal graphic Minecraft is one the best-selling IPs in the industry. Free-to-play games like Team Fortress 2 and Fortnite have revolutionised the monetisation of games, bringing millions of dollars in revenue. These games employ cartoon-like graphics and although they are built using the Source Engine or Unreal Engine 4 they do not need the “billions of triangles” that showcased the high fidelity of the Unreal Engine 5. On the PC, Counter Strike Global Offensive broke the record of concurrent gamers with over 1.2 million players back in 2016. That game is 8 years old and is created on the Source engine. You know the one that was made back in 2003. At one point the situation for the humble single player game, which benefits the most from graphic heavy engines, got so bad back in 2017 that some analysts and CEOs were anticipating their demise forever. Given the trend that gamers gravitate to simpler, ethereal games, why spend huge budgets on massive single-player experiences? Why invest in an expensive game engine if everyone goes “oohh-aahhh” and then plays Fortnite? Nintendo is the perfect example of ‘keep it simple but keep it fun’, and that can pay huge dividends if done right. Nintendo’s game engines do not require billions or triangles either.
Luckily, we live in a world where some gamers want high fidelity graphics and enjoy single player narrative games, the perfect requirement for graphic intense game engines. Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) is the evergreen game of all time. The best-selling game in the history of games was primarily a single player game set in a huge world that utilises the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE). GTA V simply would not be what it is today if its world building were not of the best on the market. Similarly, massive sprawling single player games like Red Dead Redemption 2 God Of War, Skyrim, Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed Origins all utilise sophisticated game engines and look amazing. Sadly, they are few and far between. At best we get two to three of these types of games a year if we are lucky. The size of development teams and the budgets to make them are huge. This type of investment is beyond the reach of many studio houses and only big publishers will have the capital clout to make them. So, let us be honest here the tech demo of Unreal 5 was really made for them, not for you or me.
With that said the exciting thing about the Unreal Engine 5 is that Epic could be targeting smaller development studios with a new strategy. Previous iterations of the Unreal Engine came with a 5% royalty charge on the gross revenue of the game. That royalty is being scrapped for the first $1 million revenue if the game is made using the Unreal Engine 5. Instead of charging 12%, Epic is also surrendering all royalties if a (PC) game is sold exclusively on the Epic Game Store. These savings could make a big difference to medium-tier sized publishers as another barrier to entry to make a bigger game is lifted. We could very well see many games made using the Unreal Engine 5 than those that were made using the Unreal Engine 4. According to Wikipedia 302 games so far have been made using Unreal 4 Engine and that engine was released just 5 years ago.
Before we get too carried away, we are in a transition year for console generations and this could stop games from utilizing all the benefits of the Unreal Engine 5. Most developers will still be making games for this current generation of consoles. Even when the PS5 and the Xbox Series X launch this November we can expect games in the next 2 years to be in a cross-over phase, games that are playable both on this current generation tech and next generation tech. So many games coming out soon may not use the power of the new generation of consoles to its fullest. We have seen this delay in the release of amazing looking games with every generation of console. Publishers begin to push the limits of a console after years of development. Just compare the games that came out in year one of a new console generation to the games that came out at the end of its lifecycle. So, the jump in graphic fidelity of games between this current generation of consoles and the next will not be as big as some may hope. All the graphic enhancements that made the Unreal 5 Engine tech demo look amazing may not make their way until 2023-2024.
So, what can we conclude from this tech demo of the Unreal Engine 5? My take is be excited, but temper that excitement with caution. Hopefully, we could be looking at technologies of scale where the Unreal Engine 5 can offer developers the tools to make amazing looking games cheaper and faster. Just do not expect them tomorrow, or even the day after, but they will come. Eventually.
Um…another reason to buy that 4K TV.
Consultant and analyst at B2Boost