The Unreal Engine 5 demo is gorgeous, but you won’t care as much as you think

Epic Games just tossed gamers a surprise handful of visual treats by dropping a tech demo of its upcoming Unreal 5 game engine. It arrived with an important detail attached – “running live on PlayStation 5.” And with that, Twitter went nuts.

It’s a superb demo, to be sure, showcasing several features that simply aren’t possible today. The way Unreal Engine 5 handles terrain detail stood out to me most, exceeding even its path-traced lighting. UE5’s tech demo displayed insane geometry on nearby objects while also delivering wonderfully smooth transitions in large areas. The “next-gen” label is not undeserved. This demo is tailored to show the strengths of Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X.

Still, I recommend you curb your enthusiasm. The tech demo is a marketing tool for Epic, not a reflection of what matters most to most gamers, and we’re a long way off from its highlights becoming reality.

Most gamers care about gameplay, not graphics

This is an important point that developers, game journalists, and gamers sometimes forget. Tech demos and trailers full of visual treats make for great hype, but they rarely reflect the quality of a finished game, or its popularity.

You can observe this fact for yourself. Just look at the bestseller charts for any given year, the current most popular games on any console, or the current most-played games on Steam. Visually stunning games aren’t absent from these lists, but they certainly don’t make up the bulk of them.

Ironically, Epic owns a prime example of this phenomena. Fortnite is not an ugly game, but it’s a long way from impressive. It is, in terms of polygon counts, lighting detail, and texture resolution, a step behind other games in its genre. Yet it’s hugely popular.

You can find examples everywhere. Counter-Strike. World of Warcraft. League of Legends. Minecraft. These were, and still remain, among the most treasured titles in gaming. There are exceptions, the most notable being Grand Theft Auto V, but they don’t represent the trend.

If that’s the case, then who cares if Unreal Engine 5’s tech demo looks spectacular? The same company that produced this demo also sells a hugely popular game with tepid visuals that can run on everything from a midrange Android smartphone to a $5,000 gaming PC.

Could it be that the tech demo is a brilliant piece of marketing, one designed specifically to get us hyped for Epic’s upcoming product, and not at all in line with the games most of us enjoy?

You don’t want to pay for this

This brings us to another awkward truth. The spectacular visuals shown in the Unreal Engine 5 demo won’t arrive for free. They will come at a price — both for developers, and for you.

This tension surrounds every console release. In a vacuum, gamers yearn for visuals that will drop jaws and challenge the notion of what’s possible. Yet, amazing visuals can only be achieved on powerful, cutting-edge hardware. That hardware isn’t cheap.

Do you crave what you see in the Unreal Engine 5 demo? Great. How much will you pay for it? Would you buy a PlayStation 5 at $450? $500? $550? $600? More?

In the past, you didn’t have a choice. Next-gen consoles made a clean break from prior generations or, if backwards compatibility was available, it often had serious limitations. You might buy a console that’s more than you hoped for because it was the only way to play current games.

That’s largely untrue today and will be even less so going forward. Microsoft clearly plans to continue selling older Xbox hardware as entry-level options. Sony’s path on this issue is less clear, but it is making some effort to offer cross-generation support between the PS4 and PS5.

Want more evidence that gamers won’t pay for maximum fidelity? Just check Steam’s hardware survey. The aging, affordable Nvidia GTX 1060 still reigns as the most popular video card, followed by the even slower GTX 1050 Ti and GTX 1050.

And don’t forget the Switch. Gamers love its affordable price point ($200 for the Switch Lite and $300 for the Switch) and the convenience of playing games wherever, however they’d like. They don’t seem to care it’s less powerful than most modern smartphones.

Even if you pay, you’ll have to wait

Maybe I have you all wrong. Maybe you really do care. Maybe you have a shelf with both an Oculus Rift and an HTC Vive. Maybe you rage out on a 4K monitor with an Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti. You’re ready.

If that’s you, awesome. Still, take a moment to hear me out, because it might save you some disappointment.

Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 tech demo sets expectations way, way too high for the launch of next-generation consoles. Read the fine text, and you’ll see that Epic’s demo literally can’t be representative of launch games on either console. Unreal Engine 5 isn’t due to release until 2021.

Let me repeat that. Unreal Engine 5 isn’t slated for release until 2021.

We’ll start to see the first UE5 titles in mid-2021. This, again, is explicitly stated by Epic, which plans to “migrate” Fortnite to UE5 next year. However, these early UE5 titles will be rare, and very few (if any) will try to use every new feature shown in the demo. Developers need time to familiarize themselves with new features in a game engine and figure out how they can use them in the real world.

Try this. Go watch the tech demos for Unreal Engine 4. Now ask yourself — how many modern games achieve that standard? In truth, only the most talented studios can deliver the level of quality and polish you see in Epic’s UE4 demos, though those demos are now seven years old.

Even Epic only aims for that level of fidelity when it chooses. Fortnite was built on UE4, but it doesn’t reach the quality shown in Epic’s UE4 tech demos. That’s by choice.

What we see from next-gen consoles at launch will look more like what Microsoft showed during its Xbox Series First Look. Most games will look a bit sharper, run a bit smoother, and show fewer signs of objects clipping in the distance. We’ll have to wait years for games to deliver the quality on display in the UE5 tech demo. Even then, those titles are likely to be the exception, not the rule.

Here’s the good news

This may sound like doom and gloom. On the contrary, this is good news. Attaching the quality of games to the quality of their visuals would be ruinous. If games had to look spectacular to be an outrageously good time, well, we wouldn’t have many games to choose from.

Fortunately, that isn’t true. Some games do challenge our expectations and deliver a cutting-edge visual feast. Most don’t, and won’t.

So keep your hype in check. The Unreal Engine 5 tech demo is groundbreaking. It’s also a carefully tailored piece of marketing specifically created to excite you. It suggests everything, and it promises nothing.

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