Epic Games on Unreal Engine 5, and why it has the right building blocks for the open metaverse

As Epic Games makes a statement by greenlighting blockchain-based games, we learn more about the company’s busy road map with Unreal Engine 5’s imminent release, the future of game design and the convergence of gaming and the crypto metaverse

October 30, 2021 04:18 pm | Updated November 01, 2021 12:46 pm IST

A digital render using Unreal Engine 5

A digital render using Unreal Engine 5

“Having been in the gaming industry for a decade, I think the entry barrier to making games has never been lower,” remarks Arvind Neelakantan, Tech Evangelist at Epic Games (India/ASEAN) over a call. He and Sameer Pitalwalla, Business Director, India and SAE, get candid about the country’s big gaming boom.

Based in North Carolina, USA, Epic Games is the company responsible for Unreal Engine (UE), one of the most-used software frameworks primarily designed for the development of video games, of which recent landmark examples include Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Gear 5, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and, of course, Fortnite.

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On October 16, Epic Games created quite a buzz as they announced that they are open to selling video games that use blockchain and NFTs (non-fungible tokens) through their store. This marked a divide in the gaming world as its competitor Valve has banned such content from its marketplace Steam.

Also Read | Explainer: NFTs are hot. So what are they?

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney also clarified through a tweet on October 16 : “Epic Games Store will welcome games that make use of blockchain tech provided they follow the relevant laws, disclose their terms, and are age-rated by an appropriate group. Though Epic’s not using crypto in our games, we welcome innovation in the areas of technology and finance.”

Speaking exclusively with The Hindu , Arvind and Sameer talk about what the decentralised gaming space holds for India, the scalability of Unreal Engine across industries and what local game designers need to do during this boom.

Arvind admits, “It’s still very early but exciting days for gaming and blockchain-backed features in general. We are seeing game developers raise questions around NFT-based products or tokenising in-game assets, towards a decentralised gaming future.” This only seems fair, given marketplaces are an ideal way to test the waters for emerging technologies like cryptocurrency, blockchain and NFTs.

He adds, “Further to our announcement of Epic Games Store opening to games that support cryptocurrency or blockchain-based assets, we will be working with the developer community to navigate this technology. On the creator community’s role in helping build the metaverse, it’s too early to say exactly how the metaverse will take shape but we see it as a shared social 3D space with creation, persistence, discovery, and commerce.”

He continues, “We believe it’s an evolution of the Internet as we know it, with the foundation being real-time 3D. Our ecosystem is unique in that it has many pieces for building the open metaverse: tech + tools + services + creators + experiences + players. We’re introducing millions of creators to the power of real-time 3D – reshaping what it means to be a storyteller across games, architecture, automotive, media and entertainment, and beyond.”

All things Unreal

But the news bubbling under the surface is the wait for Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5. On August 19, Unreal Engine 4.27 rolled out to everyone , with a bevy of new features for creators including a new set of in-camera VFX tools and virtual production features. But the public is keen to get their hands on UE5 which promises groundbreaking new features such as Nanite and Lumen providing a generational leap in visual fidelity, while the new World Partition system enables the creation of expansive worlds with scalable content. Basically, game developers can do more in less time.

At the moment, only developers have Early Access, with the full roll-out expected in late 2021 or early 2022.

Also Read | All you need to know about Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5 Early Access

UE5 presents new frontiers for the data used by game designers, says Arvind, adding, “The data that can be streamed into a game is important. With UE5, we have a lot of features like Lumen and Nanite, as well as many geometry tools including Mega Assemblies which allow you to pack your data (assets, sound files, textures, animations) and frees up the designer so they do not have to worry about optimisation or lighting techniques and can focus on the story they are telling.”

So when the more-powerful UE5 finally does launch, what do these technologists look forward to seeing from the greater Indian game design community? Arvind is quick to respond, “From a technological point-of-view, I’d love to see the merging of media. As mentioned earlier, the visual fidelity you get from a game is what you could use as final pixels in a movie, so I hope to see interactive movies (where the viewer plays as the protagonist). It would be interesting to see those experiences play into everyday life whether you’re hanging out with friends or going shopping. And we are seeing some movement there but time to see some Indian creators there.”

Of other verticals

The convergence of gaming tech with other industries is nothing new for UE.

Sameer expands on this, “There are a few verticals globally for UE: gaming, media and entertainment (comprising feature films, web series such as The Mandalorian , broadcast in India through the IPL from making sets to creating graphics and Augmented Reality, and advertising and marketing), construction and architectural engineering (creating projects in high-fidelity, visualising cities or making digital twins of real cities), and the automotive industry (companies such as BMW, bike manufacturers and EV makers use Unreal Engine to design cars and showrooms and test driving simulations).”

Sameer also points out UE has been integral for simulations in recent years. Space agencies, in particular, have to test the feasibility of their high-risk projects so Unreal Engine is seeing mass adoption here.

Software frameworks such as UE have democratised tech and entertainment ecosystems, creating a larger space for the creator economy we have seen on YouTube. This leans into the indie filmmaking space that may not have the mammoth budgets that mainstream filmmakers have.

Sameer explains “Traditionally, filmmaking is a linear and expensive process, especially when using VFX to create these immersive worlds we often see with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other world-building stories. A large part of these expenses lends to the fact you need server farms to render all these high-quality images, you also need teams located physically close to each other because so much is built from scratch. But a lot of that is being upended with UE.”

“Be it high-quality cinematography or virtual production with in-camera visual effects (which takes the ‘post’ out of production itself), UE is empowering filmmakers because directors and storytellers get a lot of creative control out of using this real-time engine,” agrees Arvind. “So when you talk about episodic animation, both blockbuster and animation studios in India are using UE; fundamentally the workflow allows for a smaller team to get the iterations done faster and you can see your visions come to life in real-time.”

That said, just as we see a lot of indie game developers making AA (i.e. moderate budget) games, the same tools are available to indie filmmakers today to make high-quality features especially in animation and in virtual production. “A combination of real-time rendering, access to cheap hardware, the inherent need for gaming engines to be collaborative and the ecosystem UE provides significantly reduce the cost of production,” concludes Sameer.

What India should do

But Sameer and Arvind agree there is a long way to go. “Gaming in India is under-penetrated where about 6% of our media and entertainment money comes from the gaming industry,” points out Sameer, “Globally, this is in the range of 50%, so imagine the headroom people have to build large firms in this region. And there’s more than enough appetite for stories – indigenous and otherwise – to be told through gameplay.”

Despite what we may perceive as a slow movement, the funding ecosystem for gaming has grown dramatically in India; around five to ten years ago funding was kept to an elite few but now, the ability to pick up half a million to a million dollars in funding is easier if you have a high-quality team with a clear vision of your build. Homegrown companies such as Pune-based Nodding Heads Games (Raji: An Ancient Epic) and Hyderabad-based Gamitronics (To The Light, Chhota Bheem: The Detective) have proven successful in this space.

Looking forward, Sameer concludes how these markers have proven the industry is finally coming of age, “The perception of India being a services-led region that has not been doing many IPs is changing. There’s a new overall wave of telling stories for the local market and the local market having that depth to appreciate such stories and finding a monetisation model around it.”

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