Tim Sweeney’s grand press tour talking up Unreal Engine 4, the next iteration of Epic’s hugely successful software framework for building video games, continued this week. In a blowout feature in Wired, Sweeney showed off the first publicly available images rendered in the Unreal Engine 4 demo reel. Images of fire demon knights and snowy mountain plains show off unprecedented levels of detail for computer generated images that can be manipulated by a player in real time, images every bit as stunning as those seen in early Unreal Engine 3 demos nearly ten years ago.
The Unreal name has always been synonymous with cutting edge PC technology. Unreal wasn’t the best shooter of the late ‘90s by any means, but it looked spectacular. Unreal Engine 4 is intended for PCs as well, but it’s also the technology that’s pegged to be an essential foundation for games on Sony and Microsoft’s new machines. Sweeney told Gamasutra earlier this month that the engine is explicitly built in mind for “unannounced platforms.” What’s revealing about his discussion with Wired is that Epic is actually pushing Sony and Microsoft to make the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720 more powerful than they are at this stage of development.
“We’re much more in sync with the console makers than any other developer is. That means we can give detailed recommendations with a complete understanding of what is going to be commercially possible,” said Sweeney. Epic is on a mission to get Microsoft and Sony to make Durango and Orbis aggressively powerful machines.
This was apparently part of the reason it debuted the Unreal Engine 3 demo “Samaritan,” pictured above, at the Game Developers Conference in 2011. This was an example of the current technology being used to make games that PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 couldn’t accommodate. “We used it as an opportunity to make a point to developers. We want 10 times more power; here’s what we can do with it.”
The ubiquity of Epic’s technology should leave Sony, Microsoft, and even Nintendo beholden to the company’s desires, at least to some extent, but given how swiftly the distribution of video games is changing, hardware may not need to be beefed up to much to accommodate Unreal Engine 4-based games. If Orbis and Durango offer streaming services akin to OnLive, then the issue of horsepower would be rendered moot. Super powerful PCs hosting the games would only need to handle the tech, not Sony or Microsoft’s machines. That would severely limit the technology’s reach though. Not everyone plays games connected to the Internet after all.
Game technology is at a crossroads with myriad paths leading into the future. If Epic pushes the envelop too hard, it may find its new engine a flagging heir to the mighty Unreal Engine 3.