Epic Games began like most Silicon Valley companies — in a garage by someone who had a dream and the skills to make it happen. Fast forward three decades later and it is the multi-billion dollar company behind Fortnite, a gaming phenomenon that has taken over the world. But behind the game is an engine that’s about to change the future. Options speaks to Quentin Staes-Polet, general manager of Epic Games, to find out why this Unreal Engine is a game changer. 

SINGAPORE (June 26): Nearly 30 years ago, a young Tim Sweeney founded Potomac Computer Systems. The headquarters? His parents’ garage in the US state of Maryland. Having always been fascinated by computers, Sweeney released the company’s first game in 1991. He then changed the company’s name to Epic MegaGames Inc. before finally settling it to Epic Games in 1999.

The latter was successful as a games development company but the arrival of their 1998 first-person shooter game, Unreal, heralded the start of something special: Their Unreal Engine — a game engine or game ‘infrastructure’ — which is a software-development environment designed for people to build video games.

Over the next two decades, Unreal Engine would go on to power ground breaking titles with graphics capabilities never before seen, from the wildly successful blockbuster games like Gears of War (2006 onwards), Bioshock (2007), Borderlands 3 (2019) and the Final Fantasy VII remake (2020) to indie games like Little Nightmares (2017).

The free-to-use, open source nature of Unreal made it palatable and accessible to anyone and since 2015, Epic Games has even made the engine available on GitHub, a software development platform host. In a fine example of being one of the “good guys” in tech, Epic Games also allowed for Unreal’s use in commercial products based on a royalty model, typically asking developers for 5% of revenues from sales.

Recently, they even waived this fee for developers that publish their games through the Epic Games Store, and for revenues up through the first US$1 million ($1.39 million). Today, Unreal Engine is now widely recognised as the world’s most open and advanced real-time 3D creation tool, recreating ever more lifelike scenes, imagery and characters on screen.

Epic Games saw further success when it released Fortnite Battle Royale in 2017, a free-to-play “battle royale” (a style of game where a certain number of players face off against each other to be the “last man standing”) online video game. Powered by the Unreal Engine, the game was praised for its gameplay, style and learning curve.

Today, the game is immensely popular — one of the most successful games of all time, in fact — boasting more than 350 million players as of May, generating well over two billion dollars worldwide. More than just a game, however, Fortnite has become a social and cultural phenomenon — some may say it even formed a unique microcosm of its own. However, Epic Games is now looking far beyond the gaming industry. In fact, it is looking towards a future where their game engine will power other industries and revolutionise the gaming industry.

Future engine

It seems that the future could lie in Southeast Asia where Quentin Staes-Polet, the general manager of Epic Games and head of the company’s Southeast Asia expansion, is based. He joined the company in 2019 and splits his time between India and Singapore.

As part of the company’s expansion strategy into this region, Staes-Polet’s role is to oversee the company’s operations in an area where Epic Games is seeing incredible growth and potential, especially in the use of the Unreal Engine for other industries outside of gaming.

“The objective of the company was initially to respond to many customers in Southeast Asia and India that had started to use the Engine, and we had no support here. And so that’s why I joined, to help build support for our users both in gaming and outside of gaming,” he says. “What’s interesting is that quite a few industries over the past few years have used the game engine, but not a lot of people are trained to it. So my focus is to increase the number of people who know how to use the engine in each of these industries, to leverage the power of the engine and continue to innovate... to help people get their vision and project over the hill,” he adds.

It is Unreal’s potential and rapid growth in use cases for other industries that has received a lot of buzz, and Staes-Polet is clearly passionate and excited about this.

“There are some industries that I feel have reached the tipping point in accelerating the adoption (of the engine). These industries now have a very clear and simple application of the engine that has a very convincing return-on-investment or improves their way of doing business,” he says. “For example, animation, filmmaking, television and broadcasting to even architecture, engineering and construction. Those are the segments that have been pulling us here,” he adds.

One of Unreal’s most high profile use cases (among many) in the film industry has been the latest Star Wars web television spin-off The Mandalorian, created by Jon Favreau (who also directed 2008’s Iron Man, which kicked off the wildly successful Avengers franchise).

“Game technology is [changing filmmaking] by enabling much more sophisticated virtual sets. It’s changing the way movies are being made. In the past, you would have a lot of shots on sets, you’d have to move the crew, or it would be a lot of work to put together in the studios, et cetera,” explains Staes-Polet. “And then a lot of the work after that is in post-production where you have to composite all these together, clean it up, editing, and more. This is changing. What you are able to do now is replace the green screen with an LED panel and get actors to act within the actual environment rather than to create it in post-production. You’d also have much less correction to do compared to when you use a green screen.”

Unreal Engine’s near-lifelike graphical capabilities mean actors no longer have to imagine what the scenery or lighting looks like. Getting all the details — lighting, scenery and visualisation — right from the start also means it moves a lot of the work that has to be done in post-production to pre-production.

The filming of The Mandalorian was done by running the Unreal Engine on four synchronized computers to project the pixels on the LED walls in real time. At the same time, three Unreal operators could simultaneously manipulate the virtual scene, lighting, and effects on the LED walls. The crew was able to control the scene remotely from an iPad, and this virtual production workflow was used to film more than half of The Mandalorian’s first season — where using the engine, filmmakers were able to eliminate location shoots, capture a significant amount of complex visual effect shots with accurate lighting and reflections in-camera — all in real-time.

“Filmmakers can prepare their shots, doing a lot of pre-visualisation where they can be inside the game engine to simulate where their cameras are, where their lighting is, and prepare the smallest detail before the actors even arrive in the studio. You already know what everyone has to do,” explains Staes-Polet.

Film is not the only area where the game engine can be used. States-Polet shares that the Unreal Engine has been used to great effect in broadcasting, where it allows a lot of data to be presented in much more dynamic and engaging detail, recreating weather conditions, for example, without the journalist ever leaving the studio. “It has increased the richness of the data and presentation quite dramatically,” he says.

Physical to virtual

More interestingly, the Unreal Engine is also finding use cases in very traditional, very physical industries such as architecture, construction and automotive.

“Many years ago, I bought a condominium in Singapore, and I bought it just by looking at a plan, a map and some drawings and then the show flat. Today, you can take the architecture files from the architect, move that into the game engine, and create the entire apartment complex and unit for you to look at, without the apartment even being built yet. In construction, you could place your whole Building Information Modelling (BIM) file inside the Engine, and your construction manager in one country and construction manager in another could come together inside the game engine to visit the building as it is designed,” he says.

This means that everything that needs to be done to the building — from construction to maintenance — can be recreated and updated in real-time inside the game engine. It enables the contractors to visualise the building and make decisions more quickly and decisively, and avoid error.

“And then once the building goes in construction, you can use the same model to point for repairs or point of change, and get people from the maintenance team or from the construction team (to work on it),” Staes-Polet says.

“Once you’ve made a digital twin of the building, you can use it for the lifetime of the building, and feed data into it in real time.”

Furthermore, the creation and application of this “digital twin” to the process has a massive impact on collaboration, and every person involved in the process can see the vision from the beginning and see their contribution in real-time instead of in silos. There is also great potential for use in the automotive sector, says Staes-Polet.

Traditionally, carmakers in the design process use a life-size clay model of the car’s exterior design, and this model weighs around four tonnes. It is costly, and is not easy to change if there are modifications to be made. Sometimes, several clay models are needed in the process and it gets even more costly. “If you can create that model digitally, and make it immersive so that people can see it in virtual reality or augmented reality, then these changes and iterations can be done much, much faster.

There is a huge potential, again, for it to make the creative process faster, more collaborative and less costly,” he adds. Most recently, carmakers Audi collaborated with computer-generated imagery (CGI) specialists Mackevision and Unreal Engine to create a next-level digital showroom with a fully immersive experience of their cars, and as of January 2019, Audi had rolled out their Unreal Engine-powered retail experience to over 1,000 dealerships.

Future potential

As their Unreal Engine continues to progress, States-Polet sees much for potential for use opening up. “I think as we progress and get closer to simulating reality (within the game engine) the use case will keep augmenting. What we are, really, is a platform where you can leverage the innovations we have, and use it in your industry. And we won’t even know what our Unreal Engine could be used for in some industries — I believe in the long term, we are going to find more uses for the engine. As a company we believe is that the internet is going to be much more immersive and real-time and three-dimensional,” he says.

“The way we communicate together, the way we cooperate and play together is becoming more immersive and will evolve as devices evolve in ability and power. And it will open up a huge opportunity for businesses to grow and evolve and become better.

For now, Epic Games is focused on continuing to innovate and listening to each of these industry verticals to support them in whatever way they need. “I think for us, it’s now continuing to innovate and, and listen to each of the industry verticals whenever they need, and how we can continue to drive innovation in all those segments and bring down the cost of creation. What was basically a game development platform is now a digital creation platform,” States-Polet adds. “Having people across industries work together is going to unlock a lot of incredible opportunities.”