GDC 06: Epic shows off Unreal tools

Epic Games demonstrates Gears of War on the Xbox 360, Unreal Tournament 2007 on the PS3, and talks about taking the programmer out of Unreal Engine 3.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Epic Games is one of the many exhibitors showing their specialties at the 2006 Game Developers Conference in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. The studio is giving updated demonstrations of the latest edition of its Unreal Engine, the popular technology that is on its third iteration. This year, however, Epic is primarily focused on showing the engine's powerful editing tools, which it continues to make available for game development licensing.

Always-upbeat vice president Mark Rein began the demonstration by pointing out the extremely high-end Dell XPS Renegade computer hardware that was being used for the demo. The plug was more than a simple shout-out to Dell, as Rein casually mentioned that Epic has entered into a partnership with the PC manufacturing giant because Dell's influence positions it as a market influencer that can have a positive effect on the PC game market.

After getting the initial partnership announcements out of the way, Epic's Alan Willard demonstrated early versions of Gears of War on the Xbox 360 and Unreal Tournament 2007 on the PlayStation 3. Mark Rein prefaced the Unreal Tournament 2007 demonstration with an explanation that the early build didn't yet have full multithreaded support and the demo level was built in only a week. Frame rates seemed fine, and the high-resolution graphics looked great running on the PlayStation 3 development hardware.

For the remainder of the meeting, Willard demonstrated Unreal Engine 3 tools specifically designed to make creating effects and scripting events easier for game artists and designers. Removing bottlenecks in the game production pipeline has always been important to game developers, but smart project management and efficiency has become even more important now that next-generation game budgets are ballooning into the tens of millions of dollars.

Willard showed off a level whose appearance was easily altered using the engine's ability to link together multiple shader effects with an easy click-and-drag interface to combine lens filters with sepia tones and numerous others. The editor has a multiple-window view reminiscent of 3D Studio or Adobe Photoshop, including a picture-in-picture view that lets users preview their created levels in real time, as well as monitor (and modify) exactly when each section of a level will load, so that areas can be streamed continuously by judicious linking rather than forcing geometric pop-up as large chunks of levels get loaded abruptly.

Epic's postprocessing editor gives artists a simple way to create shader effects without relying on a programmer to implement each effect. The tool is a graphical user interface that lets the artist select and attach prebuilt shader effects to game graphics. Epic demonstrated the tool by adding a distortion effect to the entire picture by selecting the effect from a pulldown menu and linking it to the scene using the graphical interface. Linking yet another effect to run on top of the distortion only required another selection from the pulldown menu and a line drawn between the effects in the GUI interface.

Willard also demonstrated the Unreal Engine 3 Kismet system, a scripting tool that lets the designer schedule game events in a flow-chart-like format. Kismet can script event triggers, like setting damage thresholds for objects before they explode. Willard showed GameSpot a Kismet-built environment filled with destructable objects including boxes, oil drums, a helicopter, and a robot. He then maneuvered a character through the map shooting objects and triggering scripted events. The scripting tool itself has a GUI interface, and a complete script filled with object boxes and events bares a remarkably strong resemblance to a Microsoft Visio flow chart.

The purpose of Kismet is to give the designer the power to design levels without the help of the programmer, but the system doesn't have to be strictly an internal affair. Speaking later with GameSpot, Epic's Rein mused over what game enthusiasts and mod makers would be able to create with such powerful tools. "Maybe someone will create a whole new game genre," he pondered.

For more news from the event, check out GameSpot's GDC 2006 page.

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