If you're curious about what the future of real-time graphics and next-gen consoles will look like, Epic Games has just announced Unreal Engine 5 (UE5) with a great demo running on a PlayStation 5 that will put a lot of PC games to shame.
A video says more than a million words, so take a look before going into how technically impressive this is. You will probably want to increase the quality to 4K.
If you want to read about it, you can watch Epic's full announcement here.
Nanite Puts An End To Polygon Budgets
When designing a virtual game world, there is one thing you should always consider: performance. Games are designed to run on a wide variety of hardware, from $ 2,000 enthusiast gaming PCs to $ 300 consoles. This optimizes games around counting polygons or polycount.
Even all these years later, computers are still very bad at drawing polygons. Granted, they are much more powerful than a decade ago, and multi-million dollar game scenes can be played out many times per second. But if you add too much of it, your game will slowly start to look like a PowerPoint presentation.
This soft limit of polygons is known as the polygon budget, and everything shown on the screen should fit this budget.
Of course, like all things in the game industry, there are hacks to get around this somewhat. Almost every game nowadays uses some form of Level of Detail scaling or LOD. Things far away from the camera are swapped for lower detail models. Usually this goes fairly smoothly, with 4 or more different models made in advance. This way you don't have to worry so much about objects that are displayed far away, because only the stuff next to you (what you are actually looking at) is displayed in full quality.
 LOD 0 is the highest resolution model and that is what you get when you get very close and put your face next to a stone. If you drive away a bit, the engine will replace that for LOD 1, and so on. All of these different LODs usually have to be created by the artist in advance, although Unreal Engine 4 has a very good tool for generating them automatically.
But even LOD 0 is not the full quality real, ] mesh. For example, when an artist is working on a stone, he works with meshes that contain hundreds of times more polygons, often up to tens of millions for individual objects. Of course, one of these resources would fill a large part of the polygon budget.
With UE5, Epic Games is convinced that it has completely removed this concept with a new technology called Nanite . The claim is that with Nanite " there are no more budgets for counting polygons, budgets for polygon memory or counting budgets; there is no need to bake details on normal cards or manually write LODs and there is no quality loss. ”
In the demo, at 2:20, they show what the real jaw dripper was to me, each triangle is shown with a different color and there are so many that it looks on an old CRT I had to convert the quality to 4K and display the video in full screen, and even then the YouTube compression algorithm couldn't process that much detail in motion In a normal game we would call this overdraw , where you are far enough away from an object that the polygons become obsolete, and you have to adjust your LOD settings because they are usually excessive.
With Nanite, they enjoy the excess. You can do it directly from a 3D model Learning program like Zbrush or Maya add a full movie quality mesh and you don't have to worry about LOD levels at all or worry about an optimized LOD 0 mesh and bake the extra details in regular cards. The engine controls it all for you automatically. This leads to insanely realistic games, such as the demo, that resemble scenes straight from a Pixar movie. Always perfect quality.
Under the hood it probably uses something similar to LOD levels, since the hardware it runs on hasn't improved that much . They still can't tell your GPU to start rendering a billion polygons without going up in flames. But it can convert those billion polygons into something more reasonable in real time and only display what's really important, allowing artists to create beautiful scenes with great performance.
Although in practice You probably still see artists baking giant polycount meshes into something more suitable for Nanite, but the polycount budget now seems to be more of a suggestion than a rule.
Of course, huge assets come with huge file sizes – games of the future are measured in hundreds of gigabytes. However, since you probably don't need to save multiple LOD copies of the same asset to disk, the problem won't be that serious, and with both next-generation consoles equipped with fast SSDs, loading times probably won't suffering
Lumen is next-gen lighting
Nanite is crazy enough, but Lumen manages to get the cake here. Games have had good lighting for a while using baked lightmaps. These are generated (very slowly) in the editor, on the game developer's PC. When the game is running on a console, it can use these lightmaps to speed up the display considerably. A tradeoff of disk space for performance.
There is one drawback: it is static. Dynamic lighting, where you can move the lights around, is quite difficult to do. Current gene games can of course handle it, but with a lot of concessions. It was only recently, with hardware accelerated ray tracing, that fully dynamic lighting became possible.
With Lumen, Epic Games claims that it has completely replaced the need for static light cards. Lumen is a fully dynamic global lighting system that works in real time and is presumably fast enough to be more pleasant than a slideshow.
Take a look at 5:15 in the video. The character walks into a dark corridor and the lighting of her model smoothly blends into the environment. Then she takes out a lamp and the images next to her shine with beautiful metal reflections. It doesn't have to be a mirror to take advantage of reflections – everything reflects light, thus ensuring that environments always look lifelike.
What you end up with is a lighting system that, like Nanite, removes the performance headaches from developers who are concerned with how to properly illuminate their scene.
It also plays very well with Nanite. At 5:55 we get to see an incredibly complex image, consisting of 33 million polygons imported directly from Zbrush. Shown with fully dynamic lighting. Somehow, like it's magic, the PS5 doesn't burst into flames.
I suspect this uses some form of ray tracing under the hood. Both next-generation consoles – the PS5 and Xbox Series X – will be built on AMD's upcoming RDNA 2 architecture, which will fully support ray tracing at very high speeds. Nvidia's upcoming Ampere lineup of graphics cards is rumored to significantly accelerate ray tracing performance, a generation leap from current RTX cards that can barely perform raytraced scenes at 60 FPS.
When powered by ray tracing, you can say goodbye to great performance on most current generation graphics cards. Games will likely have to rely on current rendering techniques for users with older (or, more accurately, now obsolete ) hardware.
Ray tracing is definitely the future, and if that wasn't clear enough, these next-gen consoles are there to prove it. It's a great thing for PC users to get features on consoles as it means PC games are likely to get these features too.
Niagara VFX, Chaos Destruction Engine, Epic Online Services
Nanite and Lumen are the two major features announced today that are already generational improvements over UE4. However, they also mention Niagara and Chaos, two features already available in UE4 that work well with Nanite and Lumen.
Niagara is a particle system engine that runs on the GPU and handles very complex particle simulations. Particles are not limited to smoke or fire; in the video, they use Niagara to simulate the movements of clouds of bats and beetles running across the ground. It's quite impressive and a great addition to UE5's toolkit.
Chaos is an destruction engine that handles everything about breaking things. Presumably this works very well with the new Nanite technology, apparently without exploding your own computer. It's pretty cool, take a look:
The only new feature it announces is finally the release of Epic Online Services. These are designed to compete with Steam, including features such as friends list and attendance, lobbies, matchmaking, P2P connectivity, data storage (save games), leaderboards and stats, and with voice chat later. It announced this a while ago, but hasn't really lived up to this point.
Unreal Engine 4 is now free for up to a million dollars in revenue
Currently, Epic Games is charging a 5% royalty with Unreal, a price worthy of (in my somewhat biased opinion) the best 3D game engine out there. However, with retroactive effect from January 1 this year, UE4 is now completely free to use for the first $ 1,000,000 in revenue, making it a much more attractive choice for Indie developers.
It is not clear whether this pricing model is the same for UE5, but judging by Epic Game's current direction, that is likely to be the case. The transition from UE4 to UE5 would be fairly streamlined, so there shouldn't be much reason not to switch.
Source: Epic Games