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Postcard from GDC 2005: Game Technology and Content Creation for the Next Generation


March 9, 2005
 

Tim Sweeney

Tim Sweeney, Founder and Technical Director of Epic Games, spoke during the lunch hour on Wednesday about Epic's strategy for developing games for the next generation of gaming consoles.

Developing for the next generation can be daunting, Sweeney said, especially for a small development house that doesn't have the manpower of a company like Electronic Arts, who might put 150 people or more into developing a next-gen AAA title.

Using Epic's next generation Unreal Engine as the foundation of the talk, Sweeney presented Epic's strategy for coping with the daunting prospect of next-generation development.

The three keys to developing effectively for the next generation, said Sweeney, are leveraging existing technologies, building great new tools based on the capabilities of the next generation platforms, and developing those tools with a mindset toward enabling artists directly.

Building on Existing Technologies

In 1991, Epic developed its first game, ZZT, an ASCII-based title that was created by a team of just three people. Showing a demo of the now-archaic ZZT to the audience, Sweeney noted that today's computers have 10,000 times the CPU power, and over a million times the graphical power, of that first Epic title.

However, the same principles that went into those early design efforts - including object-oriented programming and built-in scripting - have continued to apply over the years. The proof is in the pudding - Epic's previous versions of the Unreal Engine, which leverage some of the same core concepts as ZZT, have to date been the backbone of over fifty titles, and has supported PC, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, and Dreamcast architectures.

So, in laying the groundwork for the next Unreal Engine, Epic began by determining which previous generation systems were worth retaining for the next go-around. Resultantly, in addition to a plethora of 100% new tools, the engine also contains extended and improved versions of the older engine's networking system, level editor, script programming, and core modularity.

Great Tools for Great Artists

Nevertheless, leveraging the capabilities of next-generation platforms means building a whole new set of tools to make use of new power and new capabilities. For the next Unreal Engine, Epic developed a host of 100% new tools, including new systems for rendering, animation, physics, visual scripting, cinematic editing, and particle dynamics.

But the key philosophy underlying all of Epic's new tools, said Sweeney, was that they were built with a mind for empowering artists to create great content, directly inside the design engine, without needing additional help from the programmer.

Inside The Next Unreal Engine

The new Unreal Engine itself was the focus of the second half of Sweeney's talk, as Sweeney demonstrated and discussed the core features of several new systems within the new engine.

Among the highlights:

Shader Creation. The new Shader Editor has the look and feel of Maya's Material Editor, featuring real-time texture creation, draggable shader notes, and so forth. The interface is entirely graphical, designed for an artist rather than a programmer.

Shadowing. The new Unreal Engine is capable of casting good-looking soft shadows with real-time performance from any object in worldspace. The shadowing system is of an orthogonal design - allowing artists to maximize the tradeoff between performance and visual quality. Shadows (and other data) can be pre-baked for static objects.

Particle Animation. Particle systems can now be created directly within the new version of the Unreal level editor, with artists seeing a real-time visual preview of whatever the particle system is doing. (A picture would be worth a thousand words here - the demo was impressive.) The particle system includes curve editors, timelines, and other GUI features that enable artists to work independently of the programming team.

In-Game Scripting. Sweeney showed a Rube Goldberg style demo of a round cog rolling down a hill, knocking a stone ball down a ramp, and the ball landing on a catapult, but doing nothing. After using Kismet, the new scripting system, to "wire" the catapult in nodal space, Sweeney ran the demo again, and the catapult launched the stone ball across a courtyard. Again, all scripting was done with the level design tools - no code writing involved.

Physical Simulations. Sweeney believes that in next-generation games, literally every object in an in-game environment will be interactive and physically responsive. The new Unreal Engine allows artists to import geometry from an external modeling program, and use the editor to define physical constraints for that object. Sweeney showed off several in-game demos, including a physically responsive refrigerator with breakable and hingeable parts.

Optimization. Lastly, Sweeney talked about next generation optimization potentials. With level of detail and other optimizations built directly into the engine, expansive in-game environments can be rendered on-screen without any visible lag, even from a distance. Using an enormous in-game city as his example, Sweeney demonstrated that next generation games will feature huge, wide ranging environments that can be seen in full without having to cheat in a fog plane - thus allowing greater creative freedom to artists.


The Unreal Engine at work

Developing for the Next Generation

Sweeney's guiding message was that intelligent, artist-oriented tools are the key to harnessing and managing the power of the next generation consoles. Through this core methodology, Sweeney expects Epic to successfully handle the next-gen with development teams under fifty people - less than a third of the number of people being staffed at larger studios.

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