What Unreal Engine 5 Means for The Future of Survival Games

By Shaan Khan

Image courtesy of Unreal Engine 5 on unrealengine.com

In May 2020, Fortnite publisher Epic Games posted a YouTube video revealing their 5th instalment of Unreal Engine—a game engine software developed by Epic Games for all developers to use the platform to create video games.

Game engines dictate our perceptions of video games; your video game expectations will always be limited by the game engine used to create them. It’s the same as turning up to a Ford factory and asking them to manufacture you a Ferrari—the engineers, resources and facility lack the means for your request and game engines are simply the factories of video games—they all differ.

After witnessing the Unreal Engine 5 reveal, you could call it the Tesla factory of game engines. The innovations and performance showcased are game-changing for gaming; finally living up to the ‘unreal’ title in its name by achieving photorealism in video games—deserving a trademarked entitlement of combining the words interactive and cinematic into one sentence when defining the Unreal Engine 5 experience.

Finally, Unreal Engine 5 has launched this month and gamers/developers alike are excited about the future. Still, what hope does this spell for the survival genre?

The Pitfalls of Survival Games on Modern Game Engines

The survival genre has always felt ahead of its time, with game engines weighing down its true potential. Players of the turbulent genre hope for ambition in the following central areas of development:

  • A deeply immersive experience that portrays visuals, movement and mechanics realistically to envisage the sense of survivalism that’s wholly unique to the genre.
  • An unrestrictive sandbox experience to provide you with the creative complexities to mine, base build, establish settlements, set up supply lines and general customisations that cover clothing, weapons, etc.
  • A sprawling open-world experience that’s non-linear in design where you can organically explore to your heart’s desire and uncover places of interest, i.e. lore, loot, easter eggs, NPCs, online players, quests, etc.

The problem survival games face is to combine all three of these core elements and have them work in harmony—it usually ends up a broken mess with game engines going haywire trying to keep up with the demand.

So, survival games have become watered down to the point many new releases feel stale and unoriginal to the survival games that came before them. It’s the same old clichés: bare-bones open worlds with rehashed assets sprinkled around; buggy animations and frame rate drops. To top it all off are the early access releases that get stuck in development hell for years while gamers are stuck with a shell of a game that rarely meets the expectations set by developers and marketing teams.

It’s challenging to get a survival game right, let alone create the perfect one, so what gives Unreal Engine 5 a shot at hitting two birds with one stone—to create an ‘unreal’ survival game?

An Unstoppable Duo

Unreal Engine 5 has everything a survival game needs to thrive. It’s a game engine hard to stress with how it efficiently handles & renders large-scale data unseen in the history of video games. Development is made easier with the smartest artificial intelligence in a game engine to date that replaces traditional manual labour with automation. The new technologies that achieve this include:

Nanite

Screenshot Courtesy of unrealengine on Instagram

The visuals in video games are made up of polygons in a geometric process. The more polygons available, the greater detail can be included in a video game. A high-poly count can attribute to high-fidelity visuals that create photorealism, including a greater presence of objects in the world to give a life-like experience to your exploration.

However, polygons translate to data, limiting how many polygons can be rendered live in-game before instability occurs.

Nanite is branded as truly virtualised geometry that removes the polygon limit in games. Epic Games claims that polygons will no longer hamper a game’s performance. For proof, Epic Games launched a demo of the video game adaption of The Matrix movie that was built entirely on Unreal Engine 5 that utilised Nanite technology.

Impressively, The Matrix demo managed to render on current-gen consoles over 7,000 buildings and 40,000 cars. Your player could explore and interact with this world live with no performance drops, and objects were ever-present wherever you looked and travelled with no objects magically popping in place.

The demo set the bar for geometry in video games, and was it a painstakingly hard task to complete for the developers? Well, not quite. The buildings and cars were procedurally generated, and developers commonly use this method to save time on creating a game. However, the randomisation for each object was extensive enough to break the perception that objects were all simply copied and pasted. Unreal Engine 5 also gives developers significant creative liberty to where it’s easy to manually customise procedurally generated objects.

Future developers working on survival games using Unreal Engine 5 no longer need to worry about limitations to the visuals and world. Also, there are fewer excuses for developers not to make a world rich in detail with how easy it is to create & customise them using Nanite.

Megascans

Screenshot Courtesy of unrealengine on Instagram

With Nanite killing polygon budgets and having textures made up of billions of polygons, then realistic photogrammetry is now achievable in video games—where scanned images of real-world objects and places can be ported into video games as 3D objects without any loss in detail.

Megascans is a database of over 16 thousand photo-scanned assets ready to be used in Unreal Engine 5 for video game development. The Megascans team actively explore the globe and take pictures of objects such as trees and plants. Developers also have the power to customise these photo-scanned assets once downloaded.

Lumen

Screenshot Courtesy of unrealengine on Instagram

The artificial intelligence of Unreal Engine 5 has a realistic physics system tied to lighting. This enables the existence of ‘Lumen’ technology, where light automatically travels and bounces naturally off objects the same way light works in real life.

Reflections and shadows no longer need to be manually crafted and there is no limit to how many rays of light that can bounce around. This technology was once only available in animated movies, not video games where objects are interacted with live. 

Lighting used to be scripted, so if you moved or destroyed an object, the object’s reflection would remain stationary, which was ineffective in destructible worlds.

Developers had to make a hard decision between developing a game around immersive visuals or sandbox elements—now Unreal Engine 5 gives you the best of both worlds, where objects can be entirely destructible without designing every shadow and reflection.

Metahuman

Screenshot Courtesy of unrealengine on Instagram

With how effective procedural generation is with world development, it too is impressive with character creations. Metahumans are playable characters and NPCs created purely with artificial intelligence where no expensive face and body scans of real people are necessary. A Metahuman can be customised however you see fit with a near-limitless potential to the type of faces and bodies you can create. YouTuber, Timo Helmers, showcased himself creating a Metahuman in line with a reference image of himself—in a matter of minutes, the YouTuber managed to make a Metahuman almost identical to himself.

Arguably the biggest advantage of Metahuman technology for survival game developers is the time & cost saving of using a Metahuman NPC—instead of traditional NPCs that require motion capture companies to scan people or animators to work on facial & body expressions.

Other New Technologies List

While the above technologies are the cornerstones to what makes Unreal Engine 5 the saving grace for survival games; some other noteworthy technologies include:

Chaos Physics System – All objects react accordingly to change as close to real-life as possible. A droplet of rain will run down a weapon, or an avalanche of snow crashing into a campsite will displace objects and inflict realistic damage to them that you can inspect afterwards.

Niagara Effect System – Particles can communicate with each other, leading to scenarios when objects such as a flock of birds will never cut into one another despite their close proximity and erratic movements.

Dynamic PI & Cinematography – Cutting between gameplay and cutscenes is done in seamless transitions. Also, moviemakers have used Unreal Engine 5 for their work and produced short movies that rival the quality of animation seen in Pixar films. Even more impressive is the fact the short movies were rendered in-game and can be realistically used for cutscenes in future video games.

The Implications & Current Developments of Unreal Engine 5 Survival Games

Screenshot Courtesy of unrealengine on Instagram

Triple-A video game developers & publishers rarely pick up new IPs in the survival genre. It’s a genre that has been dominated by indie devs who, in the past decade, have been able to turn the tide with releases close to rivalling mainstream games in sales & player counts.

One such example was ARK: Survival Evolved, an indie survival game unique for its world of roaming dinosaurs that managed to pull an unexpected number of 16 million sales.

The success has led the developers to work on a sequel for ARK with a greater budget than the first game, with star talent jumping on board such as Vin Diesel, and the game’s development will take full advantage of Unreal Engine 5.

ARK 2 is arguably the highest-profile survival game known to be developed on Unreal Engine 5, and glimpses into development are thin. Still, Metahuman technology has been showcased where the customisation of characters is fully accessible. ARK 2 could be the first game to set the bar for the most realistic customisable characters in any video game despite lacking the budget compared to what triple-A video game companies have.

At the LIVE Survival Evolved Show, a showcasing revealed how easy it was to develop portions of the game using Unreal Engine 5, inadvertently demonstrating the potential for modding with UE 5 games such as ARK 2.

Some lesser-known Unreal Engine 5 games related to the survival genre that are under development include:

ILL –

Screenshot Courtesy of Team CLOUT on Twitter

ILL is an indie survival horror game with extremely detailed atmospheres, such as office rooms crowded with items you can inspect. It’s clear the developers managed to not hold back with world-building in each tiny space, and this is essential for a good survival game where the core gameplay is about snooping around for loot, journals, lore, easter eggs and so on.

Dreamhouse –

Screenshot Courtesy of DreamhouseGame on Twitter

While technically not classified as a survival game, Dreamhouse is a sandbox, house-building game that shows survival gamers the sheer extent of creativity offered to players in Unreal Engine 5 games. Immersion had not been held back in the slightest, with the animations and particle effects associated with the building being realistic in motion. Furthermore, every building detail is simulated in the game, such as measuring and weighing objects that are Megascanned assets or modelled by yourself.

Rooted – 

Screenshot Courtesy of RootedTheGame on Twitter

This open-world survival game is probably the most underrated indie title on this list despite having graphics, animations and world details on par with The Last of Us 2. In fact, Rooted is heavily inspired by TLOU and wants to combine the triple-A tier visuals with an open-world format that hardcore survival gamers can appreciate.

Rooted provides players with an in-game journal to log the different objects such as fauna found in the world, giving players the knowledge to use a combination of items/objects in crafting weapons/buildings—similar to the hardcore survival game ‘The Forest’.

This feature of Rooted encouraging players to inspect the world is promising because the devs are not afraid of players taking a close look at every inch of their world—likely meaning a lot of effort went into world detail that’s perhaps made possible with Nanite technology.

The Chaos Physics System and Lumen technology have allowed the game to include dynamic weather that impacts the environment and players’ wellbeing—a feature difficult to deploy, especially for indie devs and their average budget.

In conclusion, the common theme all these games share is the empowerment of providing indie devs with a platform and tools to produce the level of graphical and gameplay detail akin to games from triple-A developers such as Naughty Dog. Now picture a triple-A video game company using Unreal Engine 5—a team with the budget and resources to draw the most use out of the game engine to create something spectacular.

While RPG fans are ecstatic about CD Projekt RED announcing the next instalment of The Witcher game franchise being developed on Unreal Engine 5—we survival gamers eagerly await for an ambitious or renowned company to create the survival game of our dreams on Unreal Engine 5.

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