The 2016 Game Developers Conference provided the perfect platform for Epic Games to present new, groundbreaking technology alongside significant expansion for Unreal Engine. A range of announcements introduced innovations in key areas including real-time rendering, mobile and VR platforms, automotive design, space exploration and more.
This year’s GDC was also more inclusive and diverse all around, with developers both big and small having the opportunity to engage with one another while being enlightened by leaders from a variety of fields.
Despite the show having so much to offer attendees though, we at Epic are well aware that not everyone can make the trip to San Francisco. So, as part of our ongoing effort to remove barriers for developers, we held our second annual Post-GDC Briefing, this year at the Ace Hotel in London. The aim was to bring a serious conversation about the latest trends and developments that have unfolded, led by a few of us who were there on the frontlines at GDC, to more deeply engage the regional development community.
As Epic Games European Territory Manager I chaired proceedings and was joined by Iain Dodgeon, Broadcast, Games and Film Manager at the Wellcome Trust; White Paper Games Co-founder Pete Bottomley; and Ninja Theory Product Development Ninja Dominic Matthews.
Innovation and Collaboration
Dom and I kicked off the proceedings by discussing the collaboration between Ninja Theory and Epic Games that led to the show-stopping, real-time performance capture for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice at GDC. In case you missed it, a live performance by Melina Juergens was streamed through Unreal Engine and rendered in real time as it was happening, with the game’s protagonist appearing emotional and animated on the screen before a stunned audience.
While this was a big moment for gaming, the implications of such technology are enormous. In fact, they extend well beyond interactive entertainment to enable animated characters from a variety of media to genuinely convey real emotion. What’s more; Pete was quick to point out that free access to Unreal Engine and the collaborative nature of the Unreal community means anyone can make use of this pioneering technology.
Now, the scope of projects that small teams can undertake can finally be be expanded. For example, while White Paper Games is only an eight-person team, the support from the wider Unreal community means solutions to problems are being figured out by many more people, with results being shared quickly for faster iteration. Techniques and technologies that were once unattainable for smaller teams are now accessible and entirely useable, which is serving to streamline the development process and broaden the developer base.
But just because GDC focuses on the application of such technology in video games doesn’t mean there aren’t other possibilities, as the successful launch of Unreal Enterprise shows.
Simon Jones, Director of Unreal Enterprise, shared details on incredible projects “nonfiction” companies such as NASA have achieved using UE4, such as creating a replica of the International Space Station to train astronauts in VR, thus overcoming numerous practical issues of low gravity training.
Additional examples of Unreal Enterprise in action include Rotor Studios’ Toyota Showroom and Hammerhead VR’s immersive world creation for brands. This exciting aspect of Unreal development is just getting underway and will provide a whole new ecosystem in which artists, designers, programmers and engineers can pursue their passion.
During the ongoing discussion, Dom pointed out that while previous years had seen GDC dominated by either large, triple-A companies or those focused on the free-to-play and mobile markets, this year saw the resurgence of smaller teams looking to release titles on console. There’s a number of reasons for this which include the increased openness of platform holders and ease of digital distribution, but an increased sense of collaboration within the development community also plays a significant role.
The type of games that are emerging are also increasingly varied. Thanks to the Unreal community working together to create new tools, Blueprints, and creative solutions to problems, costs are also now lower than ever before. This in turn reduces the pressure of needing high sales numbers in order to justify a project and also provides the opportunity to explore ideas more freely. While publishers may be reluctant to invest in a niche idea or one that tackles a taboo subject, such as Hellblade’s exploration of psychosis, this increase in collaboration means the previous barriers to content creation are crashing down.
The prospect of only working on projects that you passionately care about without having to compromise your vision is an exciting one. Of course, while these areas of progress are of prime importance to developers, there was one topic in particular at GDC that had everyone talking: virtual reality.
Making Virtual A Reality
Though VR dominated a large portion of last year’s GDC, this year’s show marked the first time that consumer headsets were actually available. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that a serious chunk of the Q&A section of the briefing was dominated by questions about how to make the most of this new medium.
Pete pointed out that while listening to talks about VR can spark your own creativity, when it comes to discovering the “dos and don'ts” of design, the best thing you can do is get your hands on a dev kit. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t through first-hand experience is incredibly intuitive and, as with trying to explain VR to someone who’s never tried it, it’s often fruitless to pursue an alternative approach.
That is why the release of the Unreal Engine VR Editor at GDC 2016 was so important. The tool, which is available now on GitHub (and coming to the binary tools), provides developers with the capability to create VR while in VR - something that has never been possible before in Unreal Engine or anywhere else. This level of immersion instantly impacts the development process and empowers designers to experience what they intend for the end-user in real time.
The importance of this intuitiveness was expanded upon by Iain, who discussed with me how a sense of presence is maintained by making things easy to figure out. Should a player have to stop and think about how to interact with items in VR, it seems to jar the brain and ruin the immersion. To solve the issue of movement, many developers are experimenting with the mechanic of telekinetic powers, with good results, which is a relief considering multi-directional treadmills and their ilk aren’t likely to become commonplace any time soon!
Going Beyond The Game
During the briefing, Pete pointed out that consumers aren’t the only ones set to benefit from the increased availability of VR - as a level designer, the potential to get inside environments and get a better sense of scale is an exciting one.
An impressive number of non-games development teams attended the event. We’ve heard for years that the potential for VR is near-limitless, but it really was quite something to be in a room with individuals planning to create virtual museums while others were wondering about its application within big data and engineering projects. Obviously, gaming is just the beginning for all things virtual reality and it will be exciting to see where and how the world around us is impacted by VR.
Reaching The Masses
But while most developers seem focused on creating content that’ll awe and inspire, Dom points out that we should be more focused on transferring the current excitement felt within the development community to the consumers themselves. That’s the challenge for the hardware makers - to get Joe Public to experience VR and understand it.
Numerous suggestions were put forward, from handing out Google Cardboards at train stations and supermarkets to the portable nature of devices like Gear VR increasing accessibility.
While studios like White Paper Games have an incredible opportunity to receive well-deserved exposure when they release a title on PSVR, there seems to be general consensus that word of mouth and YouTube videos will be the true catalyst of the VR movement.
In the meantime, developers must focus on making exciting experiences for players that will push VR forward. Iain points out that we shouldn’t be thinking about what already exists that can also be done in VR, but rather those things that can only be done on this platform.
Since announcing Unreal Engine 4 is free to use a year ago, we’ve had more than 1.5 million developers join the Unreal community, and that makes events like this Post-GDC Briefing all the more important.
The Unreal community is continually growing and Unreal technology is ever-evolving, blazing trails for new career paths and opportunities for success. The result is a vibrant ecosystem that will impact the realms of gaming, VR, enterprise and more. Of course, we look forward to hosting even more global events to foster collaboration with the developers wherever and whenever we can.