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Epic's Tim Sweeney lays out the case for Unreal Engine 4
Epic's Tim Sweeney lays out the case for Unreal Engine 4
March 21, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

March 21, 2014 | By Christian Nutt
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This week, Epic Games announced that Unreal Engine 4 will follow a dramatically different licensing model than the company used during the last generation: For a $19 subscription a month (and 5 percent of gross revenues on any games you monetize in any way developed for the engine) you get full access to Unreal Engine 4, including the source code, and can publish games using it on Mac, PC, iOS, and Android.

Console -- PlayStation 4 and Xbox One -- are a bit trickier. (More on that later.)

To find out more, and also what makes Unreal Engine 4 worth considering, Gamasutra spoke to company founder Tim Sweeney at Epic's GDC booth.

Sweeney Breaks Down the Subscription Model

Why go subscription? "The best way to make it available was to have a very straightforward subscription model," Sweeney says. For that price, you get "all of our code, all of our tools," says Sweeney.

The subscription page (and engine download) went live concurrently with the announcement. So how many have already signed up? "Thousands so far, and it's just the very beginning," Sweeney says.

Of course, there's some pushback -- the fact that you have to pay Epic 5 percent off the top of your game is, at the very least, a serious consideration. Unity hasn't announced its pricing scheme for the pro version of the just-revealed Unity 5 (and its CEO, David Helgason, told Gamasutra "no comment" on that topic at GDC) but Unity 4 is available for a flat fee. Meanwhile, CryEngine is going subscription, too -- but with no royalty.

These facts in mind, how can Epic justify charging so much? "To build it as a long-term business for Epic," says Sweeney, the decision was made "to have a royalty attached."

But he knows the company's decision to charge a premium puts it in the spotlight. He's aware that "5 percent is a lot to ask." How can it be worth it? "It's up to Epic to prove it. If our engine doesn't deliver that kind of value, then of course we would expect to fail in this effort," Sweeney says.

"The only way it makes sense is if Unreal Engine allows developers to make way better games than they can otherwise, or makes them more productive than otherwise," he says. And he seems calmly confident that both of these are the case.

"You can't assume your revenue is some fixed number determined by fate," says Sweeney. He thinks Unreal is the key to unlocking your game's potential. "The difference between having the one game in a genre that's a big hit and the one that doesn't end up in the top 1,000 chart often comes down to small details: graphical features, or polish, or release timeframe, and I think the engine can have a really significant effect on these things."

Sweeney also says that the decision was made because it is been crucial to turn Unreal into a service. "That's the ideal way to build software," says Sweeney. "You're not getting a version of the engine that stagnates over time, and you can expect frequent updates from us in the future, so you're always getting the latest capabilities... What's really valuable to developers is getting that steady stream of capabilities."

The model also "suggests not just a transaction, but a longtime, community-driven relationship between the supplier of software and the users of the software," says Sweeney.

The Advantages of an Expanded Audience

Improvements to Unreal Engine made by licensees have often found their way back into the software -- and this time, Sweeney expects to see those efforts expand to a bigger audience, now that all subscribers can download the engine's source code from GitHub.

It's already been happening with early licensees of the engine, he says.

Microsoft's Lionhead studio "has been a big contributor" to Unreal Engine 4, says Sweeney. "They built the new system for realtime global illumination with light propagation values, and contributed that to Epic -- and we merged it. And now you're seeing it in this version of the engine that we released."

"We're really looking forward to opening that up to the wider community, with thousands or hundreds of thousands of programmers, to use it and contribute."

Not every developer can contribute such a huge piece of technology, but even "a one line bug fix can be incredibly valuable to the community at large," says Sweeney. "It will be really exciting."

He also envisions that the Marketplace (available in the engine right now) will grow to resemble Unity's Asset Store -- "a really brilliant innovation" on the part of Unity, Sweeney says, and "a real inspiration."

At the moment, the Marketplace contains free code, materials, projects, and the like -- all provided by Epic, but that's just the beginning. "Right now, we have these free examples, but the marketplace resembles the App Store and it is headed in that direction rapidly... It will take months, but now it's up to the community to start building cool content."

The Console Access Problem

But the community won't, initially, be building content for the next-generation console platforms, because Epic can't freely offer the version of its engine that can build to them. The version that you can subscribe to can only publish to PC, Mac, iOS and Android.

To get access to a version that can build to the next-gen boxes, developers need to be officially sanctioned by Sony or Microsoft to gain access to the code for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Epic also has to verify that on its end, too, before releasing it to them.

"These are the early days for any development on console; I think in the long run, we'll have a more seamless process for it," Sweeney says. "Sooner, rather than later, we will be able to provide direct access to all it," but for now, it's just not possible. "The first step is to talk to our business team -- licensing@epicgames.com."

A New Breed of Workhorse

Unreal Engine 4 isn't compatible with projects from Unreal Engine 3, because it's been extensively redeveloped -- it's 80 percent new, says Sweeney, and major decisions were made to replace parts of it that were outdated.

"Unreal Engine development began in 1995," he says. "Computers are now about 10,000 times faster than they were then. Fundamentally the way you can build an optimal engine for different platforms changes."

"All of the systems that are performance-intensive have to be rethought," he says. "We replaced really large parts of the engine."

For example, the team has developed new multithreading technology designed to handle up to 10 cores (UE3 couldn't really do much with more than two, he says.) That may expand to as many as 100 if it's necessary ("it's really hard to predict computer architecture a decade out," says Sweeney.)

And there's more: "This generation is about being able to unify the graphics pipeline. Everything from apple's iPhones up to the fastest PC NVidia card you can buy are capable of running the same high-end, shader-based post-DX10 render code," Sweeney says.

Another realization the team had was that the separation between the C++ code and UnrealScript in Unreal Engine 3 held things back for the engine and for programmers of games. "You end up with basically two different programming worlds," says Sweeney. "Each is nice in its own way, but the boundary between is a very messy place."

Every time the team added a new feature to the engine, "we had to decide which side to add it on... and add a lot of interoperability code." What "started out a really nice, happy trade-off" became an Achilles Heel of the engine by UE3.

"Around 2012, we had a big meeting, and everybody got together, and we were debating the future of scripting in UE4, and I came out as the advocate of killing all scripting," Sweeney said. This despite the fact that he developed UnrealScript: "That was my baby there."

"We removed UnrealScript, and went strictly to C++, and we have seen huge dividends from that," says Sweeney. "It would have been almost impossible to get to the point we were today, to release the whole codebase."

Visual Scripting with Blueprint

On the other hand, the new visual scripting system, Blueprint, is much more robust compared to UE3's Kismet.

Kismet "was great for creating one-off actions in game levels" but "it wasn't great for creating reusable behavior," says Sweeney. Blueprint was designed so developers can create "reusable components" -- "a flowchart-based description of how objects should move, and interact, and affect other objects."

The goal, then, is that programmers can focus on straight C++ and artists and designers can concentrate on working with Blueprint.

Blueprints are for "artists and designers who want to control the action within the engine," says Sweeney. "Designers just want to click on objects in their world, place them, drag and drop, and define their behaviors in a visual way."

It not only provides that solution, he says, but "the interface between programmers and designers."

In the old days, he says, a designer would write a document or describe desired behavior to a programmer, who then had to implement it based on that communication. "Now the designer can go in and just create the action," he says.

Of course, once in a while the designer will "run into a stumbling block." For example, say the designer "can't create a weapon that fires with a physics-based response." The programmer can then develop a Blueprint node that gives that ability which slots into the work the designer is already doing.

That Blueprint node can then even be shared back into the engine, so every other designer in the world has access to it, Sweeney suggests.


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Comments


Alan Barton
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@"can only publish to PC, Mac, iOS and Android"

Does that include Steam Consoles? or is Steam Consoles limited the way PS4 and XBox One is limited?

Michael Thornberg
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No, they are open. Essentially they are over the counter computers with their version of Linux on them. But I don't know if they (Epic) support Linux which is the real question :)

Patrik Kotiranta Lundbeg
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(Feel free to correct me if I am wrong, this is just 2nd hand information)

I read somewhere that Linux support was suppoed to be work in porogress and that their priority looked something like this:

1. Linux Server
2. Steam Box
3. Linux Client
4. Linux Editor

At least the information that I have seen was consistent and made sense.

Alan Barton
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@Michael Thornberg ... I was refering to Epic's Unreal 4 licencing deal ... for Steam consoles. :)

That's why I wrote, at: "can only publish to PC, Mac, iOS and Android"

Their licence doesn't include PS4 and XBox One consoles, but its unclear what their licence is/will_be for Steam Consoles and Linux.

@Patrik Kotiranta Lundbeg
I heard they do have an Unreal engine for Linux, but you maybe right, I don't know if its finished yet?, but I was wondering if their licence for $19 includes (or will include) Linux? ... and Steam Consoles?

It will be very interesting to know (in detail) what restrictions there will be for consoles in general?

Michael Thornberg
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@Alan :) I see. Well, since they want to be on as many platforms as possible. I would guess that they will include Steamboxes once they got it up and running there. If not I think it probably won't take long until the community makes it happen, and sends it back to epic via github. Either way, it will probably happen once the boxes are released.

Alan Barton
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I doubt it'll be a technical limitation, but it could be a legal limitation?. I was thinking they may try to keep their console licences a premium price?. Hopefully they won't, but business is business, so its understandable if they wanted to try that.

It sounds like the console companies are restricting Epic's Unreal licence on consoles, but then as Sony sound very open to Indie development, that doesn't make sense not to list PS4 with the other platforms they listed?, unless the restrictions are really coming from Epic and they are shifting the blame for restrictions onto the console companies, because Epic really want to keep the consoles more a premium priced licence?

... I could see them wanting to do that, because consoles could still be where the big licencing money is for them.

Still open on "PC, Mac, iOS and Android" ... and hopefully Linux and Steam consoles?, is still great news. :)

(That's still 6 out of 9 platforms ... not thought of so many platforms at once before, (because I've not had access to an engine that could run on so many platforms!), but anyway, 9 platforms is getting to be a lot of platforms to target!).

Christian Philippe Guay
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Right, some people think that to pay $20 to use unreal Engine 4, to pay another one when you feel like you need an update and then pay 5% of royalties is too expensive when the game engine itself represents over 80% of a game. That's just totally absurd.

What about that other 30% taken by publishers? That's really what you should complain about. And yet, game studios still make games for Microsoft and Sony. What do you think would happen if game developers one day decide to stick to PC and boycott both consoles? Game developers could make their own heaven on PC.

Seriously, I'd rather give 30% to Epic Games and 5% to publishers.

Michael Thornberg
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Are you certain you responded in the correct thread? :)

Christian Philippe Guay
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Quote:
These facts in mind, how can Epic justify charging so much? "To build it as a long-term business for Epic," says Sweeney, the decision was made "to have a royalty attached."

But he knows the company's decision to charge a premium puts it in the spotlight. He's aware that "5 percent is a lot to ask." How can it be worth it? "It's up to Epic to prove it. If our engine doesn't deliver that kind of value, then of course we would expect to fail in this effort," Sweeney says.

"The only way it makes sense is if Unreal Engine allows developers to make way better games than they can otherwise, or makes them more productive than otherwise," he says. And he seems calmly confident that both of these are the case.
--

Yes.

Michael Thornberg
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I c, well if I may make a suggestion. Perhaps adding a small wording to reflect that you are referring to the article would help to negate misunderstandings like I had :) But you're entirely correct. The publishers pilfering of income is a serious concern.

Christian Philippe Guay
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That definitely wouldn't hurt. Sorry for the confusion.

Robert Green
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I'm inclined to agree that 5% doesn't seem like that much. If you think about it in terms of "how much revenue would I have to make before 5% of it is one coders salary?", it seems more than reasonable considering how much programmer time you'd be saving by having UE4.
Not that a single coder working for a year could make anything close to UE4, but even just looking at it in terms of one person it looks like decent value.... until you compare it to CryEngine at half the monthly price and no royalties.

Michael Thornberg
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And limited access to source code. I have yet to see anything that suggest you get full access to source. Actually, I have yet to see anything other than a statement. CryEngines move was a direct result of what Epic did. If you look at their page you'll see 'more information later' and 'soon', which tells you it wasn't even planned. I've got nothing against their move however. I Think it is good that engines like these finally gets into the indies range. But theirs, was clearly only a reaction to Epic. I wonder how long it will take for Unity to react as well. That is one truly walled garden.

Andrew Shaftling
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I am wondering about compatibility of the updates. If you tried to update UDK from few versions back, stuff would often break in unrepairable fashion.

Lance Thornblad
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I am wondering about some of the fine details. There has been speculation that a team could purchase the engine, cancel their subscription and work for a year, and then renew their subscription just long enough to get the latest updates and publish their game.

Is that really the case? Is that also true for CryEngine (but with no royalties)?

Rui Mota
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Its true for Unreal 4 (and they are not hiding it).
Im guessing updates from them and from the middleware apps in the marketplace will make users come for more 20$ pops during development.

Matt Jahns
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I think they're also expecting user contributions on the Marketplace to be significant, which would give you a reason to keep your subscription active.

They mentioned the GoW team contributing an entire global illumination system, which is a huge deal. If those sorts of contributions are common enough, you can see why Epic thinks users will keep their subscriptions up.

Michael Thornberg
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It's true for unreal 4, but why would you? It's really cheap, and you probably spend more money on soft drinks per month :). But once you stop subscribing to CryEngine I don't think you get to use it anymore (at least I got that impression from their webpage, but maybe I am wrong) Also I am not certain you get full source code access either. At least they didn't mention it.

Lance Thornblad
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I generally agree, but I can think of a couple of reasons. Like saving 11/12 of the money along the way. May not mean much to a big developer, but to a small team of kids fresh out of college with loans to repay...

Perhaps a better reason is stability. As any web developer can attest, a constantly evolving platform presents its own challenges.

But what am I saying, this is Epic we're talking about. I'm sure it will always work perfectly! ;)

Yamil Chaar
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It will be something to watch. From my personal experience I have seen companies examine your support details and charge some kind of retroactive fee in order to re-activate.

Details like these would have to be stated in the contract.

Greg Quinn
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Epic doesn't care about your subscription fee.

They are building their business on mass market 5% royalties.

Alon Zakai
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If you don't have a subscription for an entire year, you will have to merge in a year's changes when you get the next update. In a large and fast-moving software project like UE4, that is just going to be impractical. It will take much more effort to do the merge, and you may well find that code you wrote over that year is incompatible with the direction the engine went, and must be rewritten.

And $19 a month to stay fully up to date on engine development is almost free, it's like 2 lunches or so. So I expect most people using UE4 will do that.

Bruno Xavier
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I will start to use UE4 only by 2015 when I'm finished with my current Unity project.
Still I will keep up the $19 sub, is my way of saying 'thank you' for what Epic is doing.

Just open up the Marketplace already!

Greg Quinn
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Three game engine CEO's walk into a bar after a conference...

David Helgason takes a sip of wine in his new popped collar and says "We offer Unity, at $75 per month per platform, our engine has the best workflow"

Tim Sweeney takes a few shots of Tequila, wipes his mouth and says "Bah.. that's nothing, we're going to offer Unreal Engine 4, at only $19.99 a month, with 5% royalties!"

Cevat Yerli comes stumbling out of the bathroom, after having had way too many shots of Raki, overhears this conversation, and blurts out.. "You guys are funny.. we're going to offer CryEngine at only $9.95 per month, with 0% loyalties"

All the game developers in the bar cheer...

T P
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And then Gabe Newell walks in, orders a round for the entire bar and pronounces, "You guys can have the Source engine for free and we will waive all Steam platform fees."

Game. Set. Match.

T P
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double click

Isaac Hsu
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You forgot to mention source code access.

Freek Hoekstra
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I heard you like source so I gave you the source to source....

anyways...
I think this is a great developmet and a big improvement to the traditional battier to entry into the gamesmarket! the UDk and Cryengine SDK were already great, but this is absolutely wonderful...

int he hands of young developers/modders who knows what will happen,
i think this is the biggest revolution in games (starting with Unity and the UDK being free) no more barrier to entry, and I'm quite excited by it's future prospects!

T P
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Note to the editor, Lionhead is making Fable Legends with UE4. It was Black Tusk that recently took over Gears of War duties from Epic.

Christian Nutt
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That's really strange -- originally I had written Black Tusk. Dunno why that was changed... fixing.

Christian Nutt
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Found out what happened: Was originally told the Black Tusk studio contributed the lighting tech, but it turns out to have been Lionhead. However, when that change was made, the "Gears of War" bit accidentally left in. So now the whole statement is correct!

edwin zeng
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So are we going to see $1 mobile games made with UE4/CE4? What about the amount of time needed to do all those fanciful AAA art? As far as we know, the mobile top charts are 95% full of 2D games.

On the flip side, I liked the fact that UE4/CE4 will handle multi-platforms and multi-cores.

I think at least for mobile, most developers won't simply immediately ditch what they are already using, doing simple 2D or even pseudo-3D games allow for fast iteration without the need to bother about AAA art. It is only when there is a clear benefit of using certain AAA features from UE4/CE4 that then would precipitate a transition to cinematic-level gameplay.

Phil Maxey
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It's fair to say I'm pretty amazed that we got to the end of the GDC with no price changes by Unity, having said that I would say it's now inevitable that Unity will lower their subscription fees sooner or later.

But I hope they do it soon because that jump I've been thinking about from native iOS to Unity might actually be native iOS to another engine.

Greg Quinn
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I think this is something they need to think about, not rush into with a knee-jerk reaction during a conference, but they definately need to do something.

I'd like to see the following subscription prices...

$49.95 per month for pro, plus $29.95 per each additional platform is more reasonable than $75 per platform. This is of course with 0% royalties (David is not interested in royalties due to the honesty factor). Photoshop is $9.99 a month, or $49.95 per month for the entire Adobe suite. So $75 per month just for a pro license is immediately sounding expensive.

For the perpetual licenses, $1200 for pro plus $600 per additional platform.

David M
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Epic screwed developers over for nearly two decades with outrageous six figure prices plus a 30% tax for licensing Unreal. Unreal was so expensive it was often a big factor in a game being profitable versus in the red.

It was only after Unity came along a few years ago and offered devs a fair deal that Epic even blinked, and even so, they ended up selling the company to the Chinese because people dropped Unreal like a hot potato once they had a decent alternative on PC.

Now developers are supposed to forget Epic's two decades of predatory behavior by switching to Unreal, because Epic have been forced by the market to basically give Unreal away for PC and mobile. Of course, they aren't giving away the Unreal console licenses because they can still screw those developers nicely.

Does Sweeney think developers have amnesia?

Michael Thornberg
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*edit* decided to drop this comment because you're essentially correct. And my comment really didn't add much :)

Greg Quinn
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Holding grudges against a company because they did what made business sense at the time is pretty pathetic to be honest. They have evolved now and have delivered an extremely polished product, at an attractive price.

Competition is only good for Unity, Epic is doing the right thing, and it is a good move overall for the industry.

Troy Walker
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I agree with David...

Luis Blondet
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I'm tired of the "Business/Economical Sense" fallacious argument.

You know what else makes business sense?

Slavery.

You know what else makes business sense?

Murdering your competition like the drug cartels do.


Being unethical, greedy or an asshole in your business practice cannot be justified or defended. Epic made a decision to be greedy thinking there would be no consequences, and now they are playing nice and hoping people will forget and "stop being negative".

Well, the market forces are not just about price points. If people want to punish Epic for their actions, so be it. Maybe next time they'll consider that being greedy can have serious blowback, and thus, too risky to consider.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Im realy curios about quality of mobile version of U4. Yes, there was few UDK iOS and Android games (but even Epic didnt port Infinity Blade to Android), but in Unity are now thousands games. Crytech have one game, Collectable and nothing.. and support of mobile platforms still isnt avalaible.

I realy didnt got how Blueprint works, its every visual diagram translated to C++ by engine without performance penalties? Because Unreal script, but very slow and it was very limiting usage factor - something more complicated that FPS or 3rd shooter was in UDK almost impossible.
Im also cursion about streaming and big levels support, because U3 cant handle that, even editor was very lagging during creation and Unreal games had everytime very small closed levels with comparision with Crytech, Gamebryo etc..

Last my through real next big thing is multi-user level editing.. this is real feature for rapid rapid development, few renderer features and post process efects is cheap argument now.. nobody cares.. Unigine have those in most advanced form and still nobody cares..

edwin zeng
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It appears that mobile UE4 is more suitable to the more powerful mobile devices, such as iPhone5C and S4, etc. So I would prefer to continue to build for the lowest common denominator for now.

https://docs.unrealengine.com/latest/INT/Platforms/iOS/DeviceCompa tibility/index.html
https://docs.unrealengine.com/latest/INT/Platforms/Android/DeviceC ompatibility/index.html


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