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GDC 2009: Epic Games shows off new Unreal Engine 3 features

By John Gaudiosi

Epic Games gave Big Download an exclusive first look at the latest advances in its Unreal Engine 3 technology at its studio in Cary NC last week. Tim Sweeney, chief executive officer and technical director of Epic Games, talks about what impact new features like Unreal Lightmass, Unreal MCP and the new Unreal Content Browser will have on both the developers working on new titles and the actual games created by UE3.

To showcase Unreal Lightmass, a new global illumination solver, Epic used a demo of the Sponza palace in Israel. Sponza illustrates how Lightmass renders color bleeding on the screen and illustrates effects like translucent and meshed shadows. The technology also supports emissive materials.

Sweeney said Unreal Lightmass produces high-quality static lighting with next-generation effects, such as: soft shadows with accurate penumbrae; diffuse and specular interreflection; and color bleeding. The result is higher quality lighting, while retaining full compatibility with UE3's existing lighting and shadowing features.

Furthermore, Epic's new Unreal Swarm distributed computing framework enables lighting to be generated up to 10 times faster. Unreal Swarm speeds up the process by telling the computer what jobs to do and when to do them. By delegating the work load, it makes the process of global illumination much faster. Something that could take 20 minutes to rebuild a level with lighting in another engine now takes two minutes using UE3, according to Sweeney. As an example, the Rising Sun level from Unreal Tournament 3 was shown with the global illumination system running and the differences were like night and day.

"We've designed this technology as a massively scalable job distribution system optimized for high-speed networks of multi-core PCs," explained Sweeney. "Swarm is configured and managed entirely through a visual interface that provides detailed information about jobs in progress, including both local and remote agents participating in the job, and color-coded activity per worker thread on all agents. Swarm is an extremely flexible job distribution system that can be used for accelerating virtually any broadly parallelizable job, and it is currently used to accelerate Unreal Engine 3's new global illumination system, Unreal Lightmass, with outstanding results."

Designed in tandem with Unreal Lightmass to accelerate lighting computations, Swarm can manage clusters of computers of mixed brands, configurations, and performance levels, automatically distributing tasks on-demand and employing a transparent distributed cache system that allows for dramatically increased performance.

Borrowing a phrase from TRON, another new feature for UE3 is the MCP, or Master Control Program, which is an innovative online service architecture supporting announcements, settings management, online population tracking, and data collection for hardware, profile, and game stats. Epic has been using MCP to track every fathomable aspect of Gears of War 2 online gameplay. Over 7 million hours of gameplay data has been collected so far, which runs the gamut from which weapons are used to kill the most people to which are the most popular guns to pick up on the battlefield. Sweeney said any type of in-game event can be tracked with this technology, which can be employed both during development as well as once a game has been released "into the wild."

UE3 developers can use the MCP for broadcasting community news and information to players. The technology allows for live update of game features, without requiring a full title update. It also makes it easy to create a party system for any game, enabling players to form groups in a networked lobby, and transition from match to match together.

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