Epic’s GDC 2014 press conference saw the demonstration of the engine’s technology in-use, with the primary focus centered on accessibility (even to non-coders), affordability, and flexibility. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney started off by admitting the conference wouldn’t be a “Steve Jobs type of keynote, [we’re] just computer nerds,” before then diving into some of the history and advancements of Unreal Engine. Sweeney noted that he was personally responsible for approximately 80% of the original UE’s codebase, but with UE4 there are now entire teams dedicated to the engine.
Unreal Engine 4 GDC Press Conference & Tech Demo
Unreal Engine 4 has taken ambitious steps to up its aggression in the rapidly-advancing engine market. Historically, Epic’s Unreal Engine has been catered to “AAA” studios with millions to spend on licensing; it’s still cheaper to drop a few million on someone else’s engine than develop an in-house solution of similar caliber (there are also time concerns), and so Epic has made much of its fortune in dealing in direct B2B environments with major studios. Bioshock: Infinite, the Batman games, Borderlands, Dishonored, and several dozen other major titles have all shipped on Unreal Engine, giving an idea as to just who has been using the UE tech up until now.
But things are different now.
The games industry has trended hard toward accessibility from a monetary and hardware perspective. Just look at Mozilla’s recent partnerships with Unity and Unreal Engine – running game content from a browser has heavy implications for accessibility (as Nick Pinkerton discussed in his Mozilla article). Indie games have sort of seized the day in a lot of ways, too, and access to the CryEngine and Unity have vastly improved the reaches of what an indie game is technologically capable of implementing. It is no longer a requirement to develop a more limited internal game engine.
And so we see Epic’s new licensing model: $20 per month for full, 100% access to the game’s engine and accompanying tools – and the source code – accompanied by forfeiting 5% of the game’s gross revenue to Epic for the engine. Custom licensing agreements must be negotiated for consoles, so this applies primarily to PC right now.
That’s a big change, but if you look at Adobe, it’s a model that’s seeing attempts by serious developers. Going from millions in licensing (or in the case of Adobe, thousands in purchasing) to a monthly subscription is a very scary, potentially dangerous move; especially looking at Epic, who’ve released their entire accompanying source code alongside the $20 monthly subscription. It shows that Epic is taking risks, but also that they’re confident in their codebase, functionality, and in the community’s ability to support them.
Epic wants to appeal to the open development community and encourage technology sharing among game creators. This is generally a good thing. An expanding codebase and usable assets shared between content creators will further drive movement to Unreal Engine 4 over other technologies, as more support often does. But this also tells us something about Epic: It tells us they’re scared, or at least concerned, about the role of their until-now B2B licensing model. It doesn’t have the merit it used to, competition is too fierce, and games are shipping in such abundance now that AAA developers aren’t quite as relevant as they used to be. The money is in accessibility. Even looking to advancements like the Mantle API, we see Frostbite and CryEngine heavily supporting it, which leads me to question whether Unreal will soon hop onto the train to compete.
Either way, Epic isn’t going to ever make their investment back just on a $20/mo. subscription – they need these games to succeed. “If you succeed, we succeed,” Sweeney repeated a few times. So it’s a dangerous move, but a telling one. The industry’s rather ubiquitous big-game, big-engine model is fading in favor of more iterative development.
Anyway, all this stated, the new UE4 is incredibly impressive from the tech demo (shown above) where Epic showcased its capabilities. Games within games, designer-focused toolsets to allow development without programmers, easy switching between live play testing and building, and all manner of other tools have been brought to UE4. It’s certainly tempting to play with, even as a non-developer.
So what of Unreal Tournament 4?
I asked the question toward the end (that a few other outlets have picked up) about whether we’d see Unreal Tournament 4 with UE4. I noted that Unreal Engine often debuts its tech with a new UT game. Sweeney took a second to understand what I was asking, sort of highlighting that UT is the furthest thing from their minds, and then definitively said “no, there is no new Unreal Tournament.” He said that Epic has a lot of nostalgia attached to the Unreal universe, but that they’ve got their resources focused elsewhere right now – like Fortnite.
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.
- Supporting photography by James "neutron" Vincent.