Unreal Engine 4, Kites and Photorealism: An Interview With Epic’s Ray Davis

General manager for Unreal Engine talks about the present and future of the UE4.

Posted By | On 08th, Jul. 2015 Under Article, Interviews

Few companies in the industry have had the kind of experience and mass appeal that Epic Games’ Unreal Engine provides. To think that it debuted at a time when id Software was dominant and managed to emerge as the king is still mind-boggling to think about. Nowadays, Epic is busy making Unreal Engine 4 the definitive solution for current gen game development but is further branching out to appeal to small developers, indie studios and mobile devs. We’re still a bit early for the Unreal Engine 4 revolution, due in part to the relative youth of the PS4 and Xbox One, but it’s already making itself apparent.

GamingBolt spoke to Epic Games’ Unreal Engine general manager Ray Davis on the potential of the engine, especially as graphics APIs like DirectX 12 arrive in the coming months; graphics parity across both consoles with UE4; and of course, the amazing tech demo from GDC 2015.

Unreal Engine 4_GDC 2015

"It’s fantastic that developers have access to so many development options these days, and I appreciate that Unity has helped introduce many new people to game development."

Rashid K. Sayed: Unreal Engine 4 at GDC 2015 blew away our perceptions in terms of what was possible in real-time. What can you tell us about the amount of work that’s been put into optimizing the engine for current gen consoles and future technology?

Ray Davis: It takes tremendous effort to achieve photorealism at high framerates, and although we’re quite happy with the progress we were able to make by GDC 2015, we also understand there’s a mountain of work ahead of us. We believe there’s still a lot of power left to take advantage of with modern gaming platforms, and one of our focuses this year is making sure UE4 is helping developers raise the bar in terms of visual fidelity.

Rashid K. Sayed: Unreal Engine has been credited for its scalability and sheer platform support but Unreal Engine 4 seemingly ups that by providing high quality visuals on mobiles, consoles and VR alike. How does Epic continue to achieve this feat?

Ray Davis: Achieving good scalability across multiple platforms requires architectural considerations upfront along with consistent dedication from our engineering team with every new feature we add. It’s something we’re still learning how to improve upon with every new engine release, and the constant influx of interesting new platforms (especially around VR!) keeps us on our toes. Fortunately there’s a high degree of overlap in functionality for many of these platforms, so we’re able to build abstraction layers that allow us to maintain consistent workflows and remove much of the workload for developers when it comes to launching their projects on numerous devices.

Rashid K. Sayed: What are your thoughts on the rise of Unity, especially with Unity 5 set to go head to head with Unreal Engine 4 in terms of platform support and graphical features?

Ray Davis: It’s fantastic that developers have access to so many development options these days, and I appreciate that Unity has helped introduce many new people to game development. Healthy competition always provides extra incentives to keep pushing that much harder to make UE4 into an even better product which ultimately benefits developers even more.

Rashid K. Sayed: In the past few months, the few PS4 and Xbox One multiplatform games we’ve seen have a rather interesting range of graphical results. For example, some games feature better depth of field on the PS4 but better anisotropic filtering on the Xbox One. How will Unreal Engine 4 help in providing parity of graphics across both platforms, especially given how similar in architecture they are compared to the past generation?

Ray Davis: Where possible we make sure there’s a great implementation of rendering features across all modern platforms, and then we make sure to expose scalability settings so that developers can tailor their projects to best take advantage of various hardware. In certain cases that means trading off a few post-process effects, or perhaps lowering resolution, but those decisions need to be made based on the type of content required. We focus on making all of those options easily accessible.

Unreal Engine 4_GDC 2015_02

"By having source code freely available to UE4 developers it means they’re never stuck waiting on us if they want to build new functionality into the engine or change a system to better suit their needs."

Rashid K. Sayed: With Microsoft renewing its push for games on the PC, how will Unreal Engine 4 help developers get the most out of the upcoming DirectX 12 API? What features and performance increases will it make possible that DirectX 11 couldn’t?

Ray Davis: The most intriguing aspect of DirectX 12 to me is the notion that it’s a concerted effort to remove as much cruft from between the developer and the hardware itself, which means out of the box we’re able to immediately do more for free, essentially. Microsoft has done a great job with the updates, and it’s also worth mentioning that they’ve been a great partner in soliciting feedback from the developers to help guide the future design. Hopefully we’ll see the official launch soon so players can start seeing the benefits firsthand!

Rashid K. Sayed: Microsoft’s Xbox One already has a low level API that resembles DirectX 12. What possible benefits do you think DX12 along with Unreal Engine 4 will bring to games development on Xbox One?

Ray Davis: UE4 already does a great job of showcasing what the Xbox One is capable of and with the advent of DirectX 12 we’re excited to see developers squeezing even more out of the hardware. Several internal Microsoft teams are using UE4 for games development so it’s made it incredibly easy to closely partner with them and to ensure that Unreal Engine is a great development tool for the broader Microsoft ecosystem.

Rashid K. Sayed: With Unreal Engine 4 being free and full access to the source code given, how do you feel this will extend the usability and functionality of the engine in the coming years?

Ray Davis: By having source code freely available to UE4 developers it means they’re never stuck waiting on us if they want to build new functionality into the engine or change a system to better suit their needs. Additionally, by leveraging GitHub we now have a great pipeline to integrate those changes back into UE4 for future release if developers are interested in sharing those changes. When we first discussed the thought of enabling the entire development community to help drive the future development of UE4 it was equal parts exciting and frightening, and after a year of community contributions we’re happy to say the whole process works incredibly well.

Rashid K. Sayed: Though Unreal Engine 4 is making strides to cater to the mobile market, it’s still fairly dominated (though not by a wide margin) by Unity. How will Epic work towards expanding the influence of UE in the mobile space?

Ray Davis: We have two major focuses to ensure UE4 is a great choice for mobile development. The first effort is developing new rendering features and optimizations to further improve UE4’s suitability for the current mobile market. Alongside that we’re also working closely with all the major manufacturers to ensure UE4 is able to take advantage of the latest hardware and API improvements for the next generation of mobile devices. For example, last year we made a push to support the launch of Apple’s new Metal rendering API with Zen Garden which we then quickly made available for UE4 developers to start using for their own projects.

Unreal Engine 4

"We’re very close to reaching true interactive photorealism which will create a new level of immersive experiences, and with that we face interesting challenges around how we effectively create all this content."

Rashid K. Sayed: Unreal Engine 3 had a fairly quick adoption rate on the PS3 and Xbox 360. How long do you feel it will take before the PS4 and Xbox One are dominated by UE4 games?

Ray Davis: Quite a few games in development for both PS4 and Xbox One are using UE4 right now and I expect you’ll get to see a good number of those at E3. With this generation we’re seeing many developers already adopting UE4 for their projects, and we’re already seeing an even larger diversity of games powered by Unreal than in the previous generation.

Rashid K. Sayed: More than a year ago, it was announced that Unreal Engine 4 will be dropping its Sparse Voxel Octree Global Illumination solution. Are there plans to revisit this in the future?

Ray Davis: It’s always possible that someday we’ll have plentiful GPUs with enough horsepower where SVOGI becomes a feasible solution, or perhaps there’s another novel approach that will be discovered before then. In the meantime we’ve focused on a combination of lighting solutions that are capable of running on modern hardware, with the most recent dynamic GI work present in our “A Boy and His Kite” open world demo revealed at GDC 2015. Developers have also been experimenting with the VXGI implementation that NVIDIA announced with the launch of Maxwell last year and it’s showing promising results as well.

Rashid K. Sayed: Microsoft recently purchased the Gears of War franchise from Epic Games. How confident do you feel that Microsoft and Black Tusk Studios will remain faithful the core vision of the franchise?

Ray Davis: Having been through shipping hell with Rod Fergusson on past Gears of War games I can say that I’m absolutely confident he’ll do a great job with the franchise at Microsoft. Black Tusk has assembled a solid mix of Gears of War veterans along with talented developers from other great studios so there’s no doubt they’ll breathe new life into the series while still retaining the DNA that made it so fun to play. Now if only they’d start showing off what they’ve been working so hard on…

Rashid K. Sayed: What is the next big challenge the industry needs to face graphics technology wise?

Ray Davis: We’re very close to reaching true interactive photorealism which will create a new level of immersive experiences, and with that we face interesting challenges around how we effectively create all this content. Emerging platforms such as VR also dramatically increase the compute power needed, between the simple fact that you need to render twice for stereo rendering and more importantly the need to run at ultra-high framerates to avoid motion sickness (90-120fps!). And let’s not forget lighting: While we’ve made tremendous advances in lighting quality and dynamic GI solutions, there’s still a long list of challenging problems ahead before we can truly recreate reality.

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