Unreal Engine 4 Sends Mass Effect: New Earth Out Of This World

By John Gaudiosi

After decades of bringing video game worlds to life, Unreal Engine 4 is now being used by theme park companies such as Cedar Fair Entertainment. California’s Great America has opened its first video game-themed attraction through a partnership with publisher Electronics Arts, developer BioWare, previsualization technology company Halon Entertainment and Hollywood entertainment company 3D Live.

Mass Effect: New Earth introduces a new chapter in BioWare’s bestselling science fiction video game franchise. The ride is set within the original Mass Effect trilogy, rather than the upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda game. 

Christian Dieckmann, corporate vice president of strategic growth at Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, said guests will be taken on an adventure alongside the Normandy, the iconic starship from the game series, through a Mass Relay and on to the planet Terra Nova, where not all is as it should be. 

While the Mass Effect trilogy was created using Unreal Engine 3 technology, the new 4D theater attraction in the theme park was built using Unreal Engine 4. The attraction features an 80-seat theater with a custom-made 60-foot 3D LED screen. 

3D Live co-founder and CEO Nathan Huber said the theater has been designed to make guests feel like they’re inside the Normandy starship, thanks to motion seats with air blasts, water, smells, leg pokers, neck ticklers, transducers and CO2. The “full sensory bombardment” is complemented with 80-channel atmospheric surround sound arrays.

“We’ve augmented the 3D LED technology in Unreal Engine 4 and combined it with new cutting-edge sound technology with near-form waveform speakers so every person will have a hidden micro speaker array to shoot individual sound to each ear,” Huber said. “Combining all these tools into this ride is pretty ambitious.”

Huber added that because the giant 3D LED screen is super bright, guests get a photo-realistic experience with greater depth on-screen than any projection system, which is used in rides like Disney’s Star Tours.

Jason Choi, lead engine technical designer from Halon Entertainment, said the greatest challenge in developing the original computer-generated storyline for the big screen was trying to match the artistic style of the game because they couldn't actually bring over any of the Mass Effects assets.

“Since they were made for the game they were at a lower resolution than what was needed for the massive 3D LED screens used in this attraction,” Choi explained. “So we had to take the assets BioWare had made before from the UE3-based games and essentially repurpose them and increase the resolution in UE4.”

The team worked with BioWare on the storyline for the ride, but the 4K visuals of the big screen adventure simply couldn’t be produced without Epic Games’ technology.

“With UE4, we're able to do real-time rendering,” Choi said. “At 4K with both eyes, our renders take about three to four seconds per frame. In comparison, if we were doing offline rendering with Maya, Arnold or VRay, it would take hours per frame per eye to match those kinds of visuals with the lighting, shaders and sheer poly-count of the geometry involved. And we’re doing 60 frames per second here.”

Choi added that Unreal Engine 4 is one of the best game engines and real-time renderers available. In fact, before his team made the final touches, he said the product “right out of the box looked wonderful.” 

“With UE4, we are able to achieve a look that is above standard video game quality without having to spend months rendering from Maya, 3DSMax, etc.,” Choi said. “The greatest thing about UE4 is how quickly we can create remarkable graphics; we only need a couple of hours to make something look phenomenal.  Animation imports and bringing in models are all very quick processes. It's also very iterative, so if an animator makes a tweak to a shot we can implement it quickly--it's literally a button click.”

The entire attraction was built from concept to opening in under a year. Dieckmann believes advances in technology will enable exciting new categories of attractions and other ways to enhance the guest experience at our parks.  

“Our strategy is taking digital entertainment to scale,” Dieckmann said. “It’s got to be bigger than life for us. This can’t be something that people can do in their living rooms.” 

Choi admits there’s room for improvement for future rides, although even this Mass Effect attraction could be updated and enhanced in the future thanks to the Unreal Engine.

“While the work we did for the Mass Effect attraction was far from real-time, it is built on the same platforms and will serve us well as the girders for providing future attractions, cinematics and virtual reality experiences,” Choi said.

Dieckmann said with new immersive technologies such as 3D LED screens, virtual reality and augmented reality, Cedar Fair Entertainment can truly transport guests into whole new worlds without the need to build elaborate and expensive physical sets.  

“Content can be dynamic and change over time or adapt itself to each individual guest,” Dieckmann added. “Electronic gaming companies like EA have iconic franchises spanning a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy and horror that could be used as a basis for new attractions.”

Cedar Fair also employed Unreal Engine 4 to bring another EA franchise to life in its Carowinds theme park. Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare: 3Z Arena, which adds interactivity with light guns to the big screen 4D concept, was designed by Alterface of the Americas alongside Cedar Fair and EA-owned PopCap.

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