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Epic Revs Up PC Gaming With Unreal Engine 4

Epic Revs Up PC Gaming With Unreal Engine 4

The gaming industry is entering a period of transition, with existing consoles reaching the end of their natural life spans. This lull between generations is a great time for PC gaming to strut its stuff, and Epic Games is launching Unreal Engine 4 with that in mind. "This could also set the bar for the next generation of game consoles from Microsoft and Sony," said tech analyst Rob Enderle.

By Peter Suciu
06/08/12 2:23 PM PT

Epic Games on Friday officially announced its upcoming Unreal Engine 4 technology, which could be the foundation for the next decade of graphics technology in video games. This comes the day after the close of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the video game industry's largest trade show, and it's notable in that the current video game console systems will not be able to take advantage of this technology.

This could open the door for PC games to once again get a jump on consoles.

"It doesn't look like the current consoles can run Unreal 4, so it begs a console upgrade cycle, and it won't run on smart TVs, so the available market is likely mid-to-high-end PCs for the near term," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"The visual power of this engine is impressive and could herald a new age of prosperity for those titles that are well designed and marketed to this audience," he added.

Game-Changing Technology

Unreal Engine 4 could certainly raise the bar for developers, as it includes the Kismet 2 visual scripting editor, which offers the ability for artists and developers to edit their code and see the changes visually in real time. The result could mean faster game development as well.

"For PCs, it means better-looking games almost immediately," said Billy Pidgeon, principal analyst at M2 Research.

While the current generation of consoles, including Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, can't take advantage of the technology, it could help make for a smooth transition down the line.

"It doesn't seem as if Unreal 4 Engine would be useful for this generation of consoles, but last time around there were issues with the Unreal engine and developers getting up to speed," Pidgeon told TechNewsWorld. "So it is to the benefit of the developers to be ahead of it."

Do Graphics Matter?

While graphics, of course, remain a major factor in video games -- as video is really about graphics -- the issue is how long this continued push toward better can continue.

"Consumers, especially the vocal hard-core consumers, have always looked to the graphics as a measure of quality. It's more measurable than other more subtle aspects of a game, like game play," said Mark Baldwin of Baldwin Consulting. "And in the past, graphics quality has changed quickly over time, thus giving this measure some substance."

The development of graphics technology has slowed but not stopped. The Unreal Engine 3 technology, which remains the basis for many games, came out six years ago for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Epic used the technology for its own titles, including the "Gears of War" series, while it also licensed the technology to other developers.

While games have seen a technological leap from the 1970s black and white of Pong to today's near photorealistic graphics, the question is whether there's still room for improvement.

"At some point, there are diminishing returns," Baldwin told TechNewsWorld. "I think we are getting close to that point, although we will still see innovations that make us gasp with glee."

A comparison to the film industry is apt, noted Baldwin.

"In the early days, there was a great deal of innovation in the 'graphics' -- including color -- but that innovation slowed down, and movies moved to other criteria to measure entertainment," said Baldwin.

"Yet still, we see on occasion innovations in 'graphics.' Film's ability to create special effects has been strongly improved over the last 20 years," he pointed out. "Or the current move to 3D movies is another example. So graphics will always be important, but I see it as being less important as we move forward."

Graphic Push for Next Gen

At this week's E3, neither Microsoft nor Sony even hinted at the next-generation systems, but that shouldn't be taken to mean the companies aren't working on it.

"Transition to next generation is tricky," added Pidgeon. "That period is happening right now. It happens in every console generation."

This is the period when PCs and PC game developers get a moment in the spotlight.

"The PC never really goes away," said Pidgeon. "As you start to get to the end of the console cycle and before the next generation comes out, it's a great time for PC games."

It could also push the console developers as they work on system specs for their respective next-generation systems. Given that both Microsoft and Sony have extended the life cycle, it is likely the next-gen systems will be designed to have longevity -- which could mean longevity for Unreal 4 Engine as well.

"This could also set the bar for the next generation of game consoles from Microsoft and Sony, providing a powerful reason for folks to reconsider these platforms," said Enderle. "In the end, when enough customers can run this engine, this engine change will provide a significant opportunity to refresh existing titles and create new ones that potentially can bring a lot of people back to gaming."


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