Unreal Engine 4 Tech Demo Displays Ultra-Realistic Graphics

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You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a real photograph of a real flat but you would be wrong. It is, in fact, a screenshot taken from a recent Unreal Engine 4 tech demo by 3D artist and level designer Benoît Dereau. Since it’s unveiling at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2013, scores of demos have emerged that display the graphical power offered by the latest iteration of the Unreal Engine but none have been as shockingly realistic as this piece of fairly mundane scenery.

The textures, reflections, and lighting on display in this demo – available for download at Dereau’s website – are all incredibly lifelike and, when brought together, are more than the sum of their parts. The walls and ceilings are covered in lush patterns, there’s dynamic sunlight flooding in through the windows, and the textures all have incredibly fine detail; it’s almost as if you could reach out and touch it. In short, it’s impressive. Even when the subject matter is as ordinary as a Parisian flat – or perhaps because it’s such an everyday scene – it’s hard not to be wowed by this demo and the potential for high fidelity graphics in games going forward.

It is just a tech demo however and it’s always hard to tell how representative these showpieces will be of the games of the future. With that in mind, it’s also worth noting that this was the work of a single person, not the legions of artists that work on most big-budget games, and this is a very exciting notion indeed. It means that visuals like these could be replicated by small teams of adventurous indie developers, not just by massive AAA studios backed by huge publishers and staffed by an army of professional developers.

The Unreal Engine 4 has also caused something of a stir over its pricing model. For nineteen U.S. dollars per month and five percent of the gross revenue of any games made using the engine, anyone can have access to it. In comparison, a license for Unity Pro will set you back seventy-five dollars per month and you can’t even get a price for CryEngine Pro without signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). This does mean, however, that the company that own and develop the Unreal Engine, Epic Games, stand to gain much more money from those games that do sell well. For example, were I to make a game that grossed one million dollars, I would then owe Epic fifty thousand of those hard earned bucks as opposed to paying only a few thousand for a license up front. The flip side of this deal is that the bar to entry has never been lower. With a little talent and some technical expertise, even someone as skint as I am could scrape together nineteen dollars a month (less than thirteen pounds at the current exchange rate) and start making a game using this powerful software. The potential is astounding.

The featured image is the property of Benoît Dereau and was taken from http://www.benoitdereau.com.

Virtual Reality and the Future of Videogames

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It’s official; we’re living in the future. In Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly and Doc Brown piloted their tricked-out DeLorean time machine from the year 1985 to the distant future; the year 2015. While the film didn’t get everything right about the tech of our time, its depiction of virtual reality gaming might not be too far off the mark.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced their ‘HoloLens’ device during a Windows 10 keynote at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and it looks promising. Unlike the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality devices, the HoloLens creates augmented reality through the creation of holographic illusions – virtual objects – for users to interact with in their real-world surroundings. It’s all very sci-fi and the prospect of immersing yourself in a virtual world is exciting, but haven’t we seen this before?

In 1995, Nintendo gave virtual reality a try with the Virtual Boy headset and after roughly one year it was quickly and quietly taken off the market due to low sales figures. Its failures were myriad and complex but, in short, several design oversights led to hardware that was uncomfortable and impractical to use for any length of time. The jarring red monochromatic graphics that the Virtual Boy presented also caused problems for users. It was harsh on the eyes and many complained of headaches and eye strain. The final nail in the Virtual Boy’s coffin was the lack of worthwhile games that utilised the hardware effectively. With a couple of exceptions – I still think that Mario Tennis looks pretty cool today – the Virtual Boy’s line-up failed to deliver on its promise of heightened immersion; of feeling as though you have actually stepped in to a virtual world.

Given the financial failure of Nintendo’s headset, it’s not particularly surprising that we didn’t hear much about virtual reality in the years that followed. It looks as if that’s all beginning to change however. Virtual reality re-entered the headlines in 2012 when a company called Oculus VR hit Kickstarter to raise funds for the development of their Oculus Rift headset. Almost three years later, it still isn’t readily available to consumers but it shows a great deal of promise. The Oculus has been generally well-received by the press and is often praised for its immersive 3D effect and relative comfort. Additionally, the Oculus promises to utilise original games as well as popular hits and, crucially, many developers seem to have taken to the device. A recent tech demo let players sample last year’s Alien: Isolation and it proved to be an immersive, if terrifying, experience for those that tried it. Having been bought by Facebook for $2 billion last year, Oculus VR also has some pretty heavy financial backing.

Not to be outdone, Sony started showing off their own virtual reality tech at GDC 2014. Sony’s headset – Project Morpheus – also shows promise and first impressions have been largely positive. With global sales of the PlayStation 4 reportedly reaching over 18 million units as of January, there is certainly a large install base for Project Morpheus and many gamers are keen to find out more.

The high level of graphical fidelity that games can offer now and the smart tech behind these new devices means that if they are marketed well and appropriately priced we could well be on the verge of a VR renaissance. Given the failures of the past and the fickle nature of consumers, however, I remain sceptical of – but hopeful for – the future of virtual reality gaming.

Things I’d Like to See From Games in 2015

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It’s unlikely that 2014 will be remembered as one of gaming’s best years; it probably won’t even go down in history as being a particularly good one. It wasn’t all bad but- between the online culture wars, the games that were delayed, and those that simply didn’t work at launch – 2014 proved to be, at best, a mixed bag for gamers. The good news is that it’s 2015 now so all of that nastiness is practically ancient history and, since it’s a new year, I’ve been thinking about the gaming trends that I’d like to see emerge (or continue to grow) over the next twelve months.

Top of the list would have to be games that actually work at launch. Last year was undoubtedly, at least in my mind, the Year of the Glitch. From Halo: The Master Chief Collection requiring a seemingly endless stream of patches to have working multiplayer to Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s nightmarish glitching, a lot of broken games have been released over the past year and it has to stop. A certain amount of bugs rearing their ugly heads is unavoidable and making a fully-functioning game on the scale of many blockbuster titles is extremely difficult but it can be done. Destiny and Call of Duty both managed to launch with very few issues and, at £40-£50 a pop, we need more games that are playable from the minute they officially launch; not weeks or months down the line.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – a game that actually did work at launch – proved to be one of the year’s biggest sleeper hits. While it could, perhaps, be criticised for being derivative of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham franchises, it largely succeeded because the mechanics that it did lift from other games were extremely well-implemented. It all felt remarkably slick and satisfying and, most importantly of all, Shadow of Mordor featured the Nemesis system; an innovative new mechanic that created an army of randomly generated enemies that would learn and grow the more you fought them. There’s no end to the innovation that can be found on the indie scene but big budget games desperately need more originality. In the current era of annualised sequels where the same thing is repackaged, remarketed, and rereleased year after year, developers and publishers need to start taking risks or their big franchises are going to crater. Sales of the Call of Duty series are beginning to decline – despite this year’s entry being a vast improvement over its predecessor – and Shadow of Mordor was referred to by many as “the best Assassin’s Creed game of the year” which, given that there were two actual Assassin’s Creed games released in 2014, illustrates just how stale that particular franchise has become.

Speaking of originality, too many games feature the prototypical white-dude-with-a-big-gun (or some variation thereof) as their protagonist but games have been getting better at representing other groups of people in recent years. Last year, we got to play as an eleven-year-old girl in season two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, as pretty much whoever we wanted in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and even as a piece of bread in I Am Toast. There’s nothing wrong with playing as a white dude with a big gun but, as is the case with gameplay mechanics, many big budget games run the risk of becoming stale and boring if they don’t start innovating in the storytelling department. Creating diverse and interesting characters that appeal to broad swathes of the population is, by no means, an easy task but it’s worth the effort.

So, those are the things I’d like to see from games in 2015 (or the top three at any rate) and I think that this year has a lot of potential. With a bit of luck, my optimism won’t turn out to have been misplaced. 2014 could have been so great, here’s hoping that 2015 truly is something special.