Xbox and Epic Games working together to build a future-proof foundation with Unreal.
After unveiling one of the first examples of a next-generation experience for Xbox Series X|S with The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience, we’re excited to share a deeper look at our technical partnership with Epic Games as part of today’s “State of Unreal” event. The Coalition’s latest Unreal Engine 5 demo, The Cavern Cinematic Tech Test, shows how movie-quality assets – featuring tens of millions of polygons – can be rendered in real time, a massive 100x leap forward in detail.
This is the latest in the long history of collaboration with Epic Games and Unreal Engine. In fact, this year we are celebrating 20 years of Unreal Engine on Xbox, dating back to the release of Unreal Championship and Splinter Cell in 2002.
We spoke with Kate Rayner, the studio technical director at The Coalition, about her team’s collaboration with Epic Games, developing in Unreal Engine 5, and what players can expect from next-generation experiences on Xbox Series X|S.
The Cavern Cinematic Test Demo
Today, you debuted a new Unreal Engine 5 demo during Epic Games’ “State of Unreal” presentation. What can you tell us about what we just saw?
First off, I have to give credit to the whole team, as this was truly a studio-wide effort to create our first ever cinematic in UE5 – as well as our first time using Sequencer – and we had a lot of fun making it. A couple things we’re really proud of are the facial animations and just the overall quality of the character model.
We were able to utilize a preliminary version of our next-gen face rig and hire an actor wearing a head-cam to capture performance, and partner with Cubic Motion to bring it all to life. That, coupled with Control Rig, helped us create someone who looks and moves in the most realistic ways we’ve ever done, and it’s incredibly exciting to think where we can go next. We also utilized Chaos cloth physics to get to a really high level of visual fidelity, and we’re extremely pleased with the results.
The coolest part is that we’ve got all these great visuals and animations running on an Xbox Series X, so that just gives you an idea of the visual fidelity and quality we’re going to be able to create. Demos like this allow us to learn a great deal about the performance of UE5, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to be able to create some pretty incredible things with this new tech.
The Coalition, Xbox, and Gears History
How will Unreal Engine 5 impact the future of the Gears franchise in both the immediate and long-term future?
We gained access to UE5 very early on and quickly saw the benefits to moving development for our future titles to utilize the new tools and feature set, which enable higher-quality visuals, larger and more interactive environments, and a host of other aspects which we are excited for in UE5.
How has The Coalition contributed to Unreal Engine development over the years?
We have been having constructive conversations with Epic since The Coalition’s founding – before it was called The Coalition – all the way back in 2010. Throughout that time we have shared feedback from a AAA perspective for our specific use-cases; we have also contributed pull requests to the Engine directly, everything from bug fixes and optimizations, to collaborating to ensuring the Xbox platform support is as optimal as possible.
Working with UE5
With the full Unreal Engine 5 toolkit available soon, what are some of the specific tools you’ll be leveraging in creating your next game?
We’re not ready to talk about our next game. But we are excited for things like Lumen and Nanite, which have opened new doors for us.
You can see the impact of Nanite already in our cinematic tech test, which enables full-quality movie assets to be rendered in real time. This means that our artists can create assets with tens of millions of polygons, scalable to scenes with billions and billions. The details are just incredible, more than 100 times what was possible before. Just looking at the eyeball detail the number of vertices and polygons are the equivalent of what an entire character would have been in the previous generation of games.
You also see how we’re doing new things with light. Fully dynamic real-time global illumination lighting has been a long sought-after feature, but up until now, it’s not been possible on console. Lumen is a total game-changer.
How does your expertise with Unreal Engine benefit other teams within Microsoft that are also working with the tools?
We’ve been really privileged to share our knowledge and best practices with others across Xbox Game Studios, and learn from them as well. In addition, we work really closely with the Xbox ATG (Advanced Technology Group), giving us the ability to optimize on a system level.
How long have you been working with UE5?
We have been working with UE5 for over a year, since before Early access, staying up to date with the latest code, experimenting with content, and running lots of internal tests. This has empowered us to provide early feedback to Epic as a AAA studio with deep Xbox and Unreal Engine experience.
What were your initial impressions of UE5? Were there any surprises?
First, it was very exciting to get access, everyone at The Coalition was jumping in. That’s when we began the work to create Alpha Point. The biggest surprise to me was how finished the engine was, and how easy it was to bring UE4 content into UE5 seamlessly.
How was your experience in transitioning from Unreal Engine 4 to Unreal Engine 5?
Overall, it was very smooth, it only took us about two weeks to get the team switched over. As of now, our full studio has transitioned to UE5. The Alpha Point demo which we showed at GDC last year was originally built in UE4. We migrated the demo to UE5 early on, and that was quite seamless. As we were building this demo in UE4 with next-gen content and adding more and more assets to it, it was really starting to bog down and run slowly, but once we brought it into UE5 it snapped to life immediately. We never looked back.
Were there any features to UE5 that made transitioning smoother or more simple for your team?
The architecture of the engine is really quite modular, and we have embraced plugins as a structure to extend the functionality and modify the engine to our needs. Plugins being able to contain content – not just code – has been a revelation. When we worked with UE4 we would make a lot of changes to the engine over time, and so those integration costs would get higher. Now, the integrations are much smoother, the engine is a lot more modular, and allows us to give more flexibility to devs.
Can you speak to some often-overlooked features of Unreal Engine? What are some aspects you would like to call out to other developers?
Unreal Insights are worth mentioning since they allow developers to gather real-time data on anything during the development process. Also, Temporal Super Resolution (TSR) – the ability to render 4k for the cost of rendering at 1080p – is an incredible feature that can sometimes be overlooked.
As you have moved from UE4 to UE5, how has the way you approach ideation, experimentation, and production shifted?
UE5 has rapidly increased our iteration time because working within the engine is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get experience. There is no more guesswork. The tech is all there, and now all we have to do is familiarize our content creators to it.
What is the “Alpha Point Demo?” What lessons did you take from its development?
The Alpha Point Demo is our UE5 Early Access demo which includes an environment technical test and abbreviated character cinematic and an early large world technical test. It allowed us to get proficient with the new workflows and tech and also provide feedback for improvements and recommendations to Epic.
The Matrix Awakens Experience
The Coalition was also instrumental in bringing The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience to Xbox Series X|S. Describe the significance of this work and its wider implications for the industry?
This is one of the first examples of a next-generation experience that is simply not possible on the previous generation. It was a massive learning experience that showed us exactly where the bar is for next-gen games, and the workflow needed to build them.
Can you detail The Coalition’s involvement in the creation of this experience?
It was very much a collaboration with Epic, The Coalition and the Xbox development team, to harden and optimize Epic’s vision, first on Xbox Series X, and then on Xbox Series S.
Would you describe The Matrix Awakens as a success? What are you most proud of?
Absolutely! The fact that we shipped this next-gen experience on Xbox Series S with all the same features including ray tracing that we have an Xbox Series X at such an incredible level of quality is really amazing. This collaboration resulted in improvements to the Xbox development software, with runtime optimizations, bug fixes, and tools improvements that benefit all developers.
With the introduction of Unreal Engine 5, how close are we to having game universes entirely indistinguishable from reality?
If technology has taught us anything, it’s that we are always going to continue to see its further improvement. We are very close to real-time, life-like renderings; however, we will never stand still and claim that we are “done,” and we are going to continue to see games teams working on and refining the medium.
What are you most looking forward to with the launch of UE5?
UE5 enables developers to take the handcuffs off and truly create the content we’ve always dreamed of making. No more compromises! It also creates the removal of friction points in workflow – with Nanite we no longer have to manually create low polygon versions of models, and with Lumen, not having to see “the lighting needs to be rebuilt” and waiting for offline static lighting to be re-baked – greatly speeds up the development process.
Thanks so much for your time, any final thoughts?
Xbox and The Coalition will continue to partner with Epic to push the boundaries of what is possible with modern gaming, we cannot wait to show you more of the future.