Start Your Engines: Introducing Unreal Engine 4

by Matt Bertz on Jul 23, 2012 at 09:02 AM

Like that guest who lingers well after everyone else has left the party, the current generation of consoles just keeps sticking around. Past generations typically lasted five years before technology advances made the jump to a new piece of hardware a foregone conclusion. But with a struggling world economy and the ability to update and enhance their existing platforms, companies like Microsoft and Sony felt no rush to jump into another wildly expensive generation of consoles. 

Developers may be able to squeeze better performance out of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but as the gorgeous PC release of Battlefield 3 showed us last year, the gulf between the current graphics cards being created by AMD and Nvidia and the aging consoles is widening. Couple this noticeable gap with a slowdown in sales, and it’s time to start thinking about the future. 

With the next generation of video games on the horizon, game developers and publishers will soon enter a new technological arms race, each aggressively leaning on their most talented engineers to exploit the power at the core of the new consoles to produce bleeding-edge graphics. Their goal is simultaneously a collective and individual one. They need to convince gamers to make the jump from their current consoles, while convincing them that their game is the one that best displays the next generation’s capabilities.  

One of the first games that captured the imagination of gamers last generation was Gears of War. With its stunning graphics, responsive controls, and a co-op campaign, Epic Games’ sci-fi shooter helped convince gamers to purchase the Xbox 360 and has gone on to accrue more than a billion dollars in sales over three games. Gears of War showcased Epic’s Unreal Engine 3, which has become ubiquitous in the development community thanks to its flexible toolset and advanced graphical capabilities.

Now Epic’s gaze is turning once again to the future. To create Unreal Engine 4, the company talked with hardware manufacturers like Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and Qualcomm to get a clear picture of their technological road maps. Working from some informed assumptions about the next generation’s hardware capabilities, company founder Tim Sweeney then charted out his company’s vision of future game development. With input from its talented engineers, artists, and designers, Epic has created a scalable platform capable of meeting the demands for a new era of game development, from high-end next-gen consoles to the rapidly evolving mobile space. Not bad for a company that Sweeney started in his parents’ basement 20 years ago.

The Modest Giant

Like many game developers of his era, Tim Sweeney’s love affair with programming started with a happenstance encounter with a curious piece of technology. When he was just 10 years old, Sweeney traveled to California to spend a week with his older brother, who had just started his own company. To keep his kid brother busy while he was working, Steve Sweeney introduced him to a state-of-the-art IBM PC and taught him the basics of BASIC, an early programming language. Exceptionally smart for his age, it didn’t take Tim long to see the potential of experimenting with this new language. After a couple days of tinkering at his brother’s side, a love affair was born. 

A self-professed awkward teen, Sweeney spent the majority of his high school years practicing computer programming in solitude instead of socializing with classmates. Over the next five years, Sweeney estimates he spent roughly 10,000 hours honing his craft, learning programming techniques by emulating other applications and making improvements to the baseline code. 

Though he experimented making games on his Apple II, it wasn’t until Sweeney received an IBM of his own that he started his first commercial endeavor. While studying for a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Maryland, Sweeney would spend his nights and weekends programming. Unsatisfied with the PC text editor he was using, Sweeney started developing one of his own. He got bored during the project and decided to make the cursor into a smiley face. Treating it like a character, he then created other characters he could type that would block the smiley face or move around. This mild diversion eventually evolved into the text-mode graphic adventure game ZZT, which shared similarities to Apogee Software and 3D Realms founder Scott Miller’s game Kingdom of Kroz. 

In 1991, Sweeney officially formed his first company, Potomac Computer Systems, and released ZZT via shareware. Even early on, he showed a deft ability to create editing tools that helped others make their own games. ZZT met modest success, but its most popular feature was the packaged editor that allowed the community to tinker and create its own extensions to the game. Sweeney was selling three or four copies a day, which was enough to let him forsake his engineering degree and turn game development into a full-time job. 

Over the next eight years, Sweeney’s modest company grew rapidly. He changed the name to Epic MegaGames (which eventually evolved into Epic Games), released more successful gamaes like Jill of the Jungle, moved out of his parent’s house and into an office space, and hired several talented people who still play key roles in the company, including vice president Mark Rein and design director Cliff Bleszinski.

At the same time, PC games were booming in popularity thanks to revolutionary titles like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake, each of which was built on the back of the technical achievements of legendary programmer John Carmack. Ever the tinkerer, Sweeney saw some areas where he could improve the 3D experience, and he decided to give it a go himself. 

The result was the Unreal Engine, a 3D powerhouse that brought a host of graphical improvements, including colored lighting, software rendering, and detail texturing. Suddenly, the id Tech engine had a serious rival. 

When Unreal Engine debuted in 1996, it didn’t take long for phone calls to start streaming in from other developers interested in licensing the engine. Sweeney and Rein realized the profit potential and started more aggressively pushing their proprietary technology, adapting it for consoles on the way to selling 38 licenses. Epic no longer just had a reputation as a talented game developer; it was also a big player in the engine space. 

The company’s continued influence spread with the introduction of the Unreal Engine 2, which debuted in the 2002 title America’s Army. With completely rewritten core code and rendering engine, Epic positioned the engine to be flexible enough to evolve over time, eventually adding support for the GameCube, Xbox, and PlayStation 2. Developers grew to like the toolset, and Epic’s engine service proliferated; companies shipped almost 200 games powered by Unreal Engine 2, including best sellers like Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six 3, and Lineage II. Two years later, Sweeney’s team showcased Unreal Engine 3, which was quickly embraced by the industry. 

As the visionary behind the engine, Sweeney’s expertise was suddenly in high demand. When planning the hardware specifications for the Xbox 360, Microsoft frequently conversed with Sweeney to make sure the console would give creators the power they wanted for creating a new generation of games. When Sweeney advised them to double the amount of RAM in the console, Microsoft obliged to the tune of an extra $1 billion in production costs. While it may have cost Microsoft more money up front, it helped the system deliver highly detailed games like Gears of War that solidified the console’s reputation as a game changer and convinced gamers to ditch their PS2s and Xboxes.

Now, nine years into the licensing of Unreal Engine 3, Epic is the unquestioned leader in engine technology. The licensee list is a who’s who of game developers and publishers, including Activision, Take Two, Capcom, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Square Enix. Nearly 300 Unreal Engine 3 games have shipped on almost every platform on the market, including all the major consoles, handhelds, and mobile platforms like iOS and Android.

Size Matters

With the dawn of the next generation of consoles on the horizon, Epic is once again at the vanguard. But whereas the transition between moving from the PlayStation 2 era to the Xbox 360 era was relatively straightforward once developers got their heads around using multicore processors, today game makers are facing a wildly different landscape. 

For many publishers and developers, the last generation saw a drastic increase in both studio sizes and game budgets due to the technical mastery needed to get the most out of the hardware. While Epic has kept its development teams at fewer than 100 people, some publishers have gone on aggressive hiring sprees to guarantee their flagship titles ship on time. Ubisoft had more than 400 people from several different studios working on Assassin’s Creed II, and at one point Activision had over 500 people working to keep Call of Duty on track for annual releases.

The increased development times, manpower requirements, and considerable financial backing has also drastically cut down in the amount of creative risks publishers are willing to take. Miss on a few titles in one year like THQ did with uDraw, Red Faction: Armageddon, and MX vs. ATV Alive, and suddenly a formerly stable company could find itself in serious trouble. In THQ’s case, the company was forced to drastically restructure by killing off future projects, laying off employees, and closing some studios entirely. Even then, it barely survived being delisted by NASDAQ. 

Moving into the next generation, having companies continue to grow at exorbitant rates to meet the demands of working with even more powerful consoles isn’t feasible.

“First and foremost you need to have a viable business model for the next generation in order to thrive,” Sweeney says. “If every project costs more to produce than it can realistically earn, then the industry will decline because companies will stop making those investments.”

To create an environment that mitigates ome of that risk, Epic knew it needed to overhaul how games were made. 

“You saw what happened when we went from the Unreal Engine 2 to 3 generation in terms of the complexity of making games and the budgets that came along with that,” says Epic president Mike Capps. “If we don’t want to have 500-person teams on Gears of War 7 or whatever it is, we have to find a way to increase efficiency because you know next generation is going to have cooler graphics, more power, and more memory, and we’re all going to want to compete to be the very best looking. We’re just not going to win unless we find a way to be more efficient.”

Gears of Code

When investigating the bottlenecks in contemporary game development, Sweeney and his team of engineers identified what they believe to be the biggest chokepoint: an over-reliance on programmers. If a creator wants to change something like the way a gun looks when it fires, he or she has to go to the artist to get a muzzle flash, go to a programmer to get the code hooks for the muzzle flash, go to the sound designer to get a gunfire sound, and go to the programmer to get the code hooks for the gunfire. If the designer doesn’t like how it looks after everything comes together, he or she then needs to bother the programmer again to tweak the code. This process is laborious and time consuming, and it makes heavy iteration a fantasy.

When Sweeney began research and development on Unreal Engine 4 right after the Unreal Engine 3 shipped, he started brainstorming how he could streamline the development process to remove this bottleneck.

“The biggest improvement in Unreal Engine 4 is philosophical,” he says. “We want designers and creative people to take charge of as much of the game production process as possible.”

Sweeney and his team of engineers had a lot of experience to draw from to tackle the problem. The median years of industry experience for Epic’s engineering team is 11 years, which allows them to intuitively apply the valuable lessons learned from past successes and failures to their decision-making processes. Having worked on at least two console generations also gives them the mental flexibility to think outside the box and imagine new ways of harnessing the new horsepower afforded by a generational leap. 

“Long before we know where next-generation hardware is definitely going to be we’re making our own projections and building our technology around where we think it ought to be and could be in a commercially feasible way,” Sweeney says. “We went into the Unreal Engine 4 development cycle with a high degree of confidence that hardware would be at a certain level – the teraflop level of performance – in this generation. Of course we don’t know exactly where the numbers are going to end up, but we’re expecting a big leap and designing for a big leap.”

To empower game designers, Unreal Engine 4 creates a clear boundary between the tasks a programmer ought to do and the tasks a designer ought to do. In theory, this makes it much easier to map out a project and rapidly prototype. This revamp started with the interface.

Epic looked at how modern software applications like Adobe Lightroom and the Modo modeling suite created a user-friendly work environment with highly customizable interfaces and a clean layout aimed at improving iteration and workflow. With Unreal Engine 4, the entire creation process is streamlined. Designers can edit and recompile source code without leaving the editor, and take control of the game at any time to see how it plays. The revamped Kismet scripting application even allows users to simulate level and asset scripts to make sure they are working properly, which should drastically cut down the time it takes to debug problems. 

Most importantly, the new interface empowers designers to tweak basic programming without having to call over a programmer. Technical artists will be able to create complex assets, and programmers can expose certain values for designers as needed to give them access to simple tweaks like controlling how the thumbstick reacts or changing hit point values.

“The inability to iterate kills the creative process, because every time you play telephone, something gets lost in translation,” says Epic lead artist Wyeth Johnson. “I think there’s going to be a lot more collaboration where it’s ‘Hey, I’ve got 90 percent here, help me get to the last 10?’ rather than ‘I have an idea and got to 5 percent by drawing a piece of concept art, can you bring 95 percent?’ That’s a whole different conversation. We don’t even know what our development is going to look like this upcoming generation.”

Epic believes that applying this tool to the contemporary game development process could save studios thousands of man hours on a project.

“You’re talking about cutting off weeks to months of your development schedule just because you don’t have to wait for compiles, you don’t have to wait to rebuild lighting,” says Epic senior technical artist Alan Willard. “You see exactly what you are dealing with the whole time.”

The time developers save by cutting out the wait for minor programming changes and code compilations can now be applied to iterating the game experience, which should result in more subtle touches in game interactions and a more polished overall experience.

Shifting Playing Field

As much emphasis as the company is making on streamlining the high-end game develop-ment process, Epic knows meeting those challenges is only one element of catering to modern-day developers. 

“The games industry is changing pretty rapidly,” Capps says. “The way people want to consume content – a minute and a half on the iPhone, or maybe free-to-play for a while before they start committing their money to it – is moving away from a pure $60 console world of six or seven years ago. Our engine is certainly going to follow those trends.” 

Unreal Engine 3 had the flexibility to cater to both the low-end and high-end game development, but after re-writing the base code with scalability in mind, Unreal Engine 4 is far more pliable.

“We want every aspect of the engine and the game experience to scale to a factor of 40 or so in performance between low-end and high-end,” Sweeney says. “This is going to be a key aspect of design decisions we make, not just for the engine but also for our games.”

With browser-based gaming picking up steam thanks to Facebook and a re-energized Flash platform, Sweeney envisions a future of playing any game – whether it be PS4 or mobile – from a browser. Unreal Engine 4 is ready for that reality.

But What About Games?

So how will all of these new tools change the games we play? A lot of that will depend on the hardware Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo settle upon. Given their early exposure to Unreal Engine 4, the team at Epic has a good idea about what to expect. The studio currently has two games in production powered by the new engine.

“I’m hoping when gamers get a first glimpse at the next-generation Unreal Engine 4 title that they’ll see something that looks darn near rendered,” Bleszinski says. “I’m hoping there will be debates online about people claiming footage from the game was faked. That was actually the target goal for the current generation of consoles, and as we’ve seen with a lot of pre-rendered graphics like Blizzard cinematics, consoles can’t quite render that yet. We’re hoping to get right to that point.”

Sweeney sees developers branching out in other ways, as well.

“The next generation will be about a lot of things besides just next-gen graphics performance,” he says. “Today our daily experience involves social networking and being in constant communication with our friends and the Internet at large through Facebook, YouTube, and all sorts of different media. It’s vitally important that next-generation platforms tie into that ecosystem that people are a part of as seamlessly as possible. Not just Epic’s games, but I would hope everybody should have a much greater degree of connectedness in the next generation than in the past.”

When you get Sweeney talking about future possibilities, it’s evident just how much thought he’s put into prognosticating the direction of the industry. His excitement is palpable.

“Unreal Engine 4 is being designed for a decade that starts with the advent of next-generation consoles,” he says. “From there on, the sky is the limit. You ask about whether we anticipate 4K displays being important in that time frame, and my response is why only 4K? Moore’s Law is continuing to push all major aspects of system capabilities forward and I don’t see any sign of that slowing down. Not just in CPU and GPU speeds, but finally there is also competition in monitor resolution. 

“The resolution in an iPhone display right now is just stunning. If you applied that Retina philosophy to a large device that takes up most of your field of view you’d need 8K or 12K. I think in this time frame there will be hardware that is actually capable of powering that sort of thing. We could see a whole lot of upward scalability.” 

If there’s anyone who should know, it’s Sweeney.