Epic’s Unreal Engine update delivers on promises made

Unreal Engine 4.21 arrives with updated tools and more options for non-gaming applications.

Epic Games has released Unreal Engine 4.21, an update that ups the ante on Epic’s newfound religion around wireless and also adds considerable power for collaboration and non-gaming applications, especially CAD.

For game development, Epic wants you to know the new release enables you to “work smarter, create faster, and produce world-class results with Unreal Engine.” Speed improvements include up to 60% faster cooking times for content. With the introduction of Unreal Engine 4, developers were also promised a new engine for particle effects. This release includes the Niagara system, which replaces Unreal’s aging Cascade system and is a modern node-based system with much more flexibility for developers. Giving them the ability to modify particle attributes and behaviors with scripting tools. The previous Cascade system was based on hard-wired modules. The system was demonstrated in detail by Wyeth Johnson at GDC 18.

Programmable VFX with Unreal Engine’s Niagara | GDC 2018 | Unreal Engine.

The Replication graph plugin improves performance for multiplayer games and applications with better tools for dealing with the interaction between connected players and replicated actors. As the number of players scale with associated replicated actors, the system continues to operate smoothly.

As noted in our earlier write up of the new Unreal Engine, the latest evolution of the game engine has been heavily influenced by the success of Fortnite. As Fortnite began to become popular, Epic started optimizing the Unreal engine for mobile operating systems, first with Android and as development continued more iOS improvements have come online. Samsung and Epic collaborated to incorporate Vulkan optimizations for the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and says Epic, the engine is 100% feature compatible with OpenGL ES 3.1 as well.

Finally, and this is actually pretty big, Unreal 4.21 offers pixel streaming, which means developers can host an application on a private host or on the public cloud enabling the application to take advantage of the host system rather than rely on the client resources—another boon for mobile developers, but also a new door to enable different types of applications to be developed through the Unreal engine and distributed via the cloud.

Beyond games

Unreal also has been updated to extend the engine’s support for applications outside games. To address the growing interest in Unreal’s authoring and realtime rendering capabilities, Epic has developed Unreal Studio using the Datasmith Toolset (which was acquired in the summer of 2017). The new features include improvements to Unreal Studio’s Datasmith toolkit, which enables compatibility with outside content creation tools including CAD tools.

The headline feature for this release is supported in Unreal Studio for Revit and has added formats including DWG, Alias Wire, VRED, and Deltagen. Also, Epic has improved the import for Nvidia’s MDL and XRite AxF materials libraries. The new release has optimized Unreal’s shading fidelity, a feature that resonates with people using SketchUp. Previously, people have used workarounds to get their content into Unreal using Collada and Blender along the way. This release enables direct import from more programs.

Besides the features added specifically for the enterprise applications, many of the new features of Unreal Engine 4.21 are useful for enterprise applications. For instance, pixel streaming will enable collaborative workflows that could make a lot of sense for designer–client meetings, demonstrations, and sales. Epic General Manager for Unreal Enterprise Marc Petit says they’re seeing customers interested in using Unreal to develop factory automation visualizations and training. Petit believes the most obvious change wrought by technologies like pixel streaming will be the size of bags people carry. “People used to have to go to meetings carrying heavy laptops, now they can carry tablets.”

The tools for managing multiplayer environments can also be used for collaboration, allowing people to virtually co-exist and use tools such as game controllers to point at objects and move them.

New features for working with video and digital in the same environment can enable sims and other interactive tools.

Ken Pimentel, project manager at Epic has written a blog outlining the new features in Unreal 4.21 and how they might come in handy in Unreal Studio.

Did anyone mention XR?

It would be kind of criminal to leave out mentioning the immersive approaches for last, but the business of immersive content creation is fragmenting as it makes its way to relevance. XR, meaning VR, AR, and all its confused cousins, is attracting new hardware development and the applications are evolving. The argument can easily be made that the enterprise and not gaming is the first home for these technologies. Immersive technology fosters exploration, awareness, collaboration, and communication all of which serves the design and engineering industries well. And perhaps more important, there is more money in the enterprise to fund the development of new tools for better visualization tools and in fact, they’ve been funding this development for decades.

Unreal Engine 4 comes with support for Magic Leap’s Lumin-based devices including rendering controller support, gesture recognition, audio input/output, media, etc. There is also support for the Windows Mixed Reality platform which is spawning hardware based on Hololens.

Taken all together, these new tools for game developers, new content developers working in XR, storytellers, industrial visualization toolmakers, and even factory makers suggest broad new opportunities for 3D content.

 What do we think?

Fortnite is expected to generate $2 billion in 2018, which Bloomberg Billionaires Index extrapolates out to a $5–8 billion valuation for the company (gotta love a $3 billion margin of error). The company has built several blockbuster game franchises including the eponymous Unreal and Gears of War. Through the Unreal Engine Epic has helped define PC gaming. And, it might be argued, with Fortnite, Epic may be helping to kill off PC gaming in favor of mobile and cloud-based gaming.

Epic is the company it is because it has been able to look beyond the markets it has created, to find new ones, even if by accident. (I’m not convinced anyone could plan for, or expect the Fortnite phenomenon.)

Once esoteric and obscure, game engines are proving to be the little engine that could and they are taking interactive development into new territory.