Before Fortnite, Epic Games’ biggest contribution to gaming was the Unreal Engine. It has been six years since a major update, but that will change with the release of next-generation game consoles from Sony and Microsoft. Today, Epic showed off a demo of the new Unreal Engine 5 (UE5) running on a PlayStation 5, and it’s pretty amazing.
The first thing to know about this demo is that it’s not pre-rendered — it’s rendering in real-time on the PlayStation 5 dev kit. That speaks to the power of the console’s hardware as well as the abilities of the engine, which looks almost photorealistic. Epic designed this demo to show off the two new graphics technologies at work in Unreal Engine 5: Nanite and Lumen.
Epic Games says Nanite is a “virtualized micropolygon geometry” technology, which is a fancy way to say it handles polygon counts so developers don’t have to. There are over a billion triangles of source geometry in each frame of the demo, but Nanite compresses them losslessly to around 20 million drawn triangles. Nanite manages the data streams and scaling in real-time without loss of quality. This will allow developers to import film-quality visuals assets including ZBrush sculpts and CAD files and retain all that detail.
Unreal Engine 5 is built from the ground up for 4k development. The triangles rendered in Nanite are so small they’re essentially pixels on a 4k display. There’s no way to increase the level of detail until 8k or 16k resolutions become mainstream.
Lumen is Epic’s new global illumination tool. Like Nanite, Lumen handles a lot of the heavy lifting in real-time. Developers can specify lighting types and angles, and the engine calculates shadows, indirect lighting effects, and so on. For example, Lumen can react instantly when a character sweeps a flashlight across a room. Developers don’t have to specifically plan for that.
Epic Games says that it hopes the tools built into Unreal Engine 5 will help smaller teams create high-end games. Developers will get access to the UE5 preview in early 2021, and a full release will come at the end of that year. Epic will, of course, migrate its extremely popular Fortnite battle royale to the new engine before the final version is public. So, that will be our first chance to see the new engine in action. Epic says it will let developers keep all the royalties on UE5 games up to $1 million. It will take 5 percent of all sales beyond that, but it will waive the royalties for sales on its own Epic Games Store.