Unreal Engine 5 screenshot
Image: Epic

With Unreal Engine 5, Epic wants to transform how games and movies get made

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we’re discussing Epic’s release of Unreal Engine 5 and what it means for both gaming and Hollywood. Plus: Monkey Island is back, and Coca-Cola now makes drinks that taste like pixels? Sure.

Unreal Engine 5 is here

Epic Games is finally ready to put the latest version of its game engine, Unreal Engine 5, in the hands of any and all developers, with a public release today that opens the doors to any individual or company working in gaming or computer graphics.

Increasingly, that target audience goes beyond game-makers and into Hollywood visual effects studios, architecture firms, automobile designers and scores of niche industries now making use of virtual simulation and 3D modeling. For Epic, which has its sights set on becoming a foundational pillar of the metaverse, UE5 is a vital tool in helping the company establish itself as an early infrastructure and creative platform provider.

Unreal Engine wants to push the envelope. Much of Epic’s public pronouncements related to UE5 have cast the platform as a democratizing force for photorealism, simultaneously pushing the cutting edge of what real-time computer graphics can achieve while also making such feats more accessible to developers who haven’t spent literal decades developing custom tools.

  • “We aim to empower both large and small teams to really push the boundaries of what’s possible, visually and interactively. UE5 will enable you to realize next-generation real-time 3D content and experiences with greater freedom, fidelity, and flexibility than ever before,” the company said.
  • Central to this goal are tools like Nanite and Lumen, which help developers create sophisticated lighting systems and highly realistic environmental geometry, and MetaHuman Creator, a tool for creating realistic human faces that can emote and speak in a more believable fashion.
  • Epic first wowed the industry in 2020 with “Valley of the Ancient,” a UE5 tech demo built to run on PlayStation 5 hardware that was among the most sophisticated graphics displays ever made. It followed that up late last year with “The Matrix Awakens,” another tech demo with an interactive open world and Hollywood-level production values.

Epic has made a convincing argument. The promise of its tools, combined with Epic’s marketing savvy, have paid off. The company says nearly half of all games being built for the PS5 and Xbox Series X are using Unreal Engine.

  • Even the largest studios have started abandoning their custom-built game-making tools in favor of Epic’s, despite having to pay Epic 5% in royalties. For instance, major projects like BioWare’s next Mass Effect and CD Projekt Red’s follow-up to The Witcher 3 will be built using UE5.
  • Epic is now pitching Hollywood on incorporating Unreal Engine more directly into not just post-production for visual effects, but also the active filmmaking process, in what’s being dubbed virtual production.
  • Unreal Engine was used during the production of HBO’s “Westworld” and Disney’s “The Mandalorian” to visualize special effects in real time and shoot against the backdrop of all-virtual sets using massive LED walls. Now, a whole new crop of companies is also using game engines to help studios visualize early rough drafts of films and shows using real-time CGI.
  • Epic’s push into Hollywood, alongside its rival Unity, has set off an acquisition arms race for computer graphics talent. Unity made its biggest-ever acquisition last fall by purchasing visual effects studio Weta Digital for more than $1.6 billion, and Epic scooped up ArtStation, Capturing Reality and Sketchfab all in the last 13 months.

Unreal, alongside Fortnite, is Epic’s ticket to the metaverse. For Epic, the latest version of Unreal is less about capturing slightly more of market share than its prime competitor, Unity, and more about setting up the platform for a future dominated by virtual worlds.

  • "It’s too early to say exactly how the metaverse will take shape, but we see it as a shared social 3D world with persistence, discovery, moderation and commerce," the company said in February when announcing that more than 6 million console owners downloaded its “Matrix Awakens” demo. "It will be an evolution of the internet as we know it, and its foundations will be built on real-time 3D technology."
  • “We’re on the cusp of really not being able to tell the difference between reality and the virtual world,” Epic CTO Kim Libreri told Protocol in December. “As we head into the metaverse, think of the possibility of games, experiences, stories that are generated in real time.”
  • As it stands right now, the only publicly available game built on UE5 is Epic’s Fortnite. The game, now almost five years old, is a convincing testament to the company’s vision for a metaverse, blending social networking, communication, competitive gaming and virtual events with transmedia licensing deals across the entertainment industry.

The supposed metaverse is of course many years, if not decades, away from taking concrete shape. But the technical sophistication of game development, visual effects and animation marches forward, and Epic has gone to great lengths to use the success of Fortnite to supercharge its Unreal business and put it at the center of many of these converging technologies, markets and industries.

It’s not hard to imagine the next-generation version of the internet looking and feeling like a video game and approaching the immersive fidelity of real life. And Unreal Engine now ensures a promising future for Epic that doesn’t necessarily require it to develop that game or social platform, so long as its tools are the ones used to build it.

— Nick Statt

Monkey Island returns

Guybrush Threepwood is back: Ron Gilbert's Terrible Toybox announced this week that it will bring back everyone’s favorite bumbling pirate 32 years after he first debuted in The Secret of Monkey Island. We don’t know much about Return to Monkey Island yet, other than that it will come out this year and that it is being developed in collaboration with Devolver Digital and Lucasfilm Games.

That’s good news for Monkey Island fans, but it’s also a bit of a metaphor for the enduring popularity of gaming and its long — and, at times, contentious — relationship with Hollywood. Conceived as an homage to Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, the game was initially developed and published by LucasArts, the gaming subsidiary of Lucasfilm, whose Pixar offshoot at one point even wanted to turn the franchise into an animated feature film.

However, when Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, it decided to shutter LucasArts and give up on in-house game development, effectively putting an end to the franchise. Fast forward 10 years, and Hollywood is as interested in gaming as ever, with Netflix buying game studios left and right. Who knows, maybe we’ll even get that movie if Return to Monkey Island does well?

— Janko Roettgers


Samba TV operates the world’s largest independent source of first party connected TV data helping brands, agencies and content owners to plan, buy and measure all in one place. Our independent currency-grade measurement has future-proofed omni-screen advertising for the next generation, empowering advertisers to connect with their audiences anywhere on every screen.

Learn more

In other news

E3 2022 is off. The Electronic Software Association has fully canceled the event, saying it does not intend to follow through with even a digital-only version of E3 after deciding back in January that it would cancel an in-person gathering in Los Angeles.

Justin Kan wants to take NFT gaming mainstream. The founder of Twitch and Justin.tv is back with Fractal, a marketplace for NFT games.

Roku renews Amazon distribution deal. Roku owners will keep access to Prime Video and IMDb TV apps thanks to a new multiyear deal.

Activision Blizzard workers walk out over dropped vaccine mandate. Activision employees were protesting the company’s decision to drop vaccine mandates yesterday.

Roblox backs Apple in Epic lawsuit. Apple’s App Store review process “enhances safety and security, and provides those apps greater legitimacy in the eyes of users,” Roblox said in a court filing late last week.

Kirby just won a Grammy award. Technically, the award went to Charlie Rosen and Jake Silverman, who turned “Meta Knight’s Revenge” into an orchestra piece performed by The 8-Bit Big Band.

Netflix tells employees to be more frugal. Stalled growth reportedly leads to some belt-tightening at the streaming giant. Makes you wonder what that means for those vending machines with free gadget accessories in Netflix’s offices …

Roblox is not into NFTs. At this point, non-fungible tokens would add nothing useful to Roblox, the company’s VP of Product/Avatar Bjorn Book-Larsson told Wired.

Chug those pixels

No, this is apparently not an April Fools’ joke: Coca-Cola is releasing a limited-edition “Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Byte” drink aimed at the gaming community. The new drink, which is supposed to have a “bright, upfront taste,” is coming to Latin America first and will be available in the U.S. next month. What does gaming cola taste like? Apparently, and I’m not making this up, it is “pixel flavored.” I just hope it doesn’t have an 8-bit aftertaste …

— Janko Roettgers


Samba TV operates the world’s largest independent source of first party connected TV data helping brands, agencies and content owners to plan, buy and measure all in one place. Our independent currency-grade measurement has future-proofed omni-screen advertising for the next generation, empowering advertisers to connect with their audiences anywhere on every screen.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to entertainment@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you on Thursday.

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