How Unreal Engine is changing for the new generation

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With humble origins in 1998’s Unreal, the Unreal Engine has gone from strength to strength since its inception, recently receiving the ‘Most Successful Videogame Engine Ever’ award from the Guinness Book of World Records. We caught up with the engine’s lead programmer, James Golding, to talk about its success, its journey and its open-licensed future…

After the release of Gears Of War 3, there were a few rumours circulating the industry about Epic pulling out of game development to focus more on maintain and upgrading its Unreal Engine, centring itself more as a provider and consultant to other studios, rather than a creative force itself. These rumours were proved false, though, with the announcement of Fortnite and two as-yet-untitled releases confirmed as ‘in development’ at Epic at the start of the year.

Epic rounded on the idea that it was retracting from development in style, too; announcing a flank-hitting pincer attack on gaming platforms, eager to prove that Unreal Engine 4 is as easy to work with on mobile and tablet as it is on console and PC.

Aside from the confirmed Fortnite (previewed later in this issue), Epic is also working on an undisclosed mobile game and a high-end current gen title – between the three projects, the studio looks set to make a statement about Unreal Engine 4 and its place in the market: it can do anything.

“It might sound trite, but the idea with Unreal 4 was to make it accessible to everyone,” explains the engine’s lead programmer and Unreal veteran James Golding. “The idea was to come up with something that would work with everyone – whether you’re a small studio with a slim workforce, or a larger studio, or if you work in film development, if you’re an architect… there are so many applications you can use the engine for, we wanted people to be able to get hold of it without too much red tape, without too many restrictions in place.”

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With Unreal Engine 4, Epic is moving away from the license-based business model that’s made the company so successful – while the model may have been beneficial to Epic and the triple-A studios that signed up to its license, we’re seeing game development move away from a reliance on the old guard at the minute, with a huge proportion of games development taking place in smaller, decentralised indie studios.

The Unity engine – with its user-friendly UI, huge asset library and open partnership program – is an incredibly attractive option for first-time developers or micro-studios that don’t have the funds to invest in anything expensive (like a license) at startup. Is Epic looking to move into that market?

“We didn’t want to look too much at anyone else when we were thinking about where to take [Unreal],” Golding responds. “Making Unreal more open wasn’t a response to anyone; it was more looking at the product we had from a fresh perspective and thinking about what we could do with it: looking at how we want to price it, how we want to distribute it, how we want to engage with people. We’re just doing our own thing with [the engine], and I think that’s a much healthier way of moving forward.”

The Unreal Engine wasn’t exactly unpopular before Epic decided to make it more open, though; in many ways it defined the last generation’s visuals – Gears Of War was the first real taste of what the Xbox 360 could achieve; a visual example of the power Unreal 3 had whirring beneath its hood.

Since then, the engine has been used primarily for FPS games (the detailed rendering owes itself to the intimate view of the first-person shooter, specifically) but has also been put to great use in RPGs, platformers, stealth games, MMOs and more.

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“We spend a lot of time on the [Unreal forums] or on Twitter, seeing what people are up to, what they’re doing with the engine,” explains Golding, after taking us through some of the myriad games the Unreal community had been sharing with him recently.

“It’s informative about the engine – if you see there’s a lot of people trying to make something like Skyrim, you think ‘maybe we should do something about making larger environments’. We saw a lot of people trying to make games revolving around vehicles, for example, and we were pretty quick in getting support for that in on the engine. It’s both motivating and helpful, listening to what our community wants, and with [the shift with Unreal 4], we’ve been trying to cater to the community and get some actionable information from a very diverse group of people.”

There were over 100 engineers working on the Unreal Engine 4 in the run up to its launch, and over 100 developers at any one time contribute to Epic’s games. With Unreal 4 making this community so much larger, Golding informs us that there’s been a noticeable ‘culture shift’ in the Epic offices, and its having tangible effects on the way the engine grows.

“When the team was really knuckling down to try and get Unreal 4 out of the door, there was a definite shift, and it kind of revolved around three big things,” Golding expounds. “One was ‘being more open’, which we tired in lots of different ways: devs on the forum, Twitch streams, making our road-map and any updates we made to the engine public. This made communication with devs so much easier, because there was never that fear of  ‘oh, are we allowed to talk about this yet?’ Then there’s the ‘generosity’ part, I guess; where (we hope!) we’ve done a pricing model people think is fair, where we try to make sure people get a good deal. We thought about putting DRM in, but it’s restrictive, it’s annoying, people don’t want it.

“We hope this trust will come back and help us out in the future. Then there’s the final thing – more collaboration within the company, getting people to work more closely with each other than we have in the past. That collaborative nature within the company has come about more since the release of [Unreal 4] – it feels like a return to that smaller developer vibe we had back when I joined the company in 2002: you know, in the Unreal Tournament 2002/2003 era.”

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Back in 2006, Epic had a lot to prove with Gears Of War. It stormed onto a new generation with big elbows and a loud voice, proclaiming itself the most powerful graphics engine out there – the vascular meatheads at the game’s core a potent metaphor for the strength of the engine’s power.

Now, with Unreal 4, Epic doesn’t need to focus on graphical fidelity – Unreal is already synonymous with that – rather, Fortnite and the unannounced titles need to showcase the Engine’s versatility: there’s no such thing as niche on this new generation, every genre will find success somewhere, and if Unreal wants to keep its crown, it’s going to have to prove its more than a (very good-looking) one-trick pony.