A view from a Creative Technologist: Democratising Unreal Engine
A roundup from GDC 2023 and how Unreal Engine is paving the way for the creator economy.
Bora Demirbilek
Creative Technologist

As all the industries undergo rapid transformation, it’s clear that we are at the cusp of a new era of creativity and innovation, especially in gaming and digital media.

William Gibson once said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Indeed, recent developments at GDC 2023 demonstrated Epic’s efforts to do just that as well as raising important questions about our future and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Here, I want to give you an overview of everything they’ve demonstrated from the perspective of a creative technologist who uses Unreal on a day-to-day basis.

Epic are upping their game (once again) with Unreal Engine 5.2. During the presentation, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney and Unreal Engine head Nick Penwarden revealed some of the new features. They showcased the Procedural Content Generation Framework (PCG), an advanced suite of in-editor and run-time tools designed to help artists quickly populate vast, intricate spaces. Substrate, a powerful new material system that gives developers greater control over the look and feel of their materials. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Epic also announced new animation tools and finally, their big move toward making Unreal accessible to a wider audience by introducing Unreal Editor for Fortnite (UEFN).

Boasting impressive features, UEFN can be used alongside Fortnite’s current creative toolset to facilitate the design, development, and publishing of games and experiences within the game itself. One of the highlights of UEFN is the introduction of “Verse,” a new scripting language packed with an array of powerful customisation capabilities.

Epic Games explain that Verse allows players to effortlessly manipulate or chain together devices, as well as craft their own unique game logic. According to my understanding, Verse is not meant to replace Blueprints or C++. Instead, it is being marketed as a “programming language for the Metaverse” and is intended to facilitate the addition of user-generated content to games on a larger scale.

This move works, in particular by lowering the barriers to access in order to pull not only Fortnite players but also outsiders (Hello Roblox users) to enrich their gaming experiences. This move is part of a broader strategy to augment what they call The Creative Economy 2.0 and pave the way by democratising the use of their toolset. The initiative is aimed at creating a better economy for Fortnite creators. The goal is to distribute 40% of Fortnite’s net revenue to eligible creators who publish games in Fortnite, including Epic itself.

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

Before, the creators participated in Epic’s “Support-A-Creator” program, which issued individual codes. If somebody used a creator’s code when buying something in the Fortnite store, that creator would receive 5% of the purchase. However, the downside was that creators had to promote their codes.

As part of Creator Economy 2.0, Epic plans to pay creators retroactively based on engagement starting from March 1st. Payments from the pool are based on the performance of the island, considering factors like island popularity, engagement, retention, and attracting new players. According to Saxs Persson, Epic’s EVP of the Fortnite ecosystem, Fortnite generates “billions” of dollars of revenue per year from purchases of outfits and items from the game’s in-game shop. The new plan is designed to create a more equitable system for creators.

Meanwhile, the launch of a new procedural content generation framework promises to streamline the way content is created, enabling designers and developers to work non-destructively. This is a major announcement for Unreal users, as it allows for the creation of complex designs and environments in a more efficient manner.

This means that designers can create intricate 3D content with greater ease and speed, making it a valuable tool for game developers, designers, and architects alike. The new framework bears resemblance to Geometry Nodes system in Blender, which was created to compete with Houdini’s node-based workflow. As tech trends connect, it’s always exciting to see how it’s interpreted. See below the procedural systems by Houdini, Blender and finally Unreal.

Another announcement was made with the help of Ninja Theory, the renowned creators of Hellblade. They revealed how they are leveraging the latest advancements in Unreal Engine to bring characters to life. With just an iPhone or a stereo helmet-mounted camera, we can now capture the essence of any facial performance and transfer it onto their MetaHuman characters with astounding precision and fidelity. Epic Games promises that this breakthrough feature will help creators to infuse every detail and nuance of their actor’s performance into the game, allowing their characters to truly come alive.

Finally, Epic Games has announced that it will be consolidating its various marketplaces, namely Unreal Engine Marketplace, Sketchfab, Quixel Bridge, and the ArtStation Marketplace, into a unified platform under the name ‘Fab.’ The aim is to provide a one-stop-shop for creators to explore, showcase, purchase, or sell digital assets, drawing on the extensive library at their disposal. The platform offers an impressive range of content, including 3D models, visual effects, sound, and more, and sellers stand to benefit from an impressive 88% share of revenue. While the official launch is set for later this year, an alpha version of the Fab plugin has already been included in Unreal Editor for Fortnite.

On a social level, these advancements are likely to have a significant impact on the way we are engaged with the idea of the Metaverse. The democratization of Unreal Engine and the introduction of the Creator Economy 2.0 initiative may enable more people to become creators and participate in the industry, leading to a more diverse range of voices and perspectives in the games that are produced. From an economic standpoint, it has the potential to create a more equitable system for creators, enabling them to earn a larger share of the revenue generated by their creations.

Overall, while the developments showcased at GDC 2023 are undoubtedly impressive, they also raise important questions about the future of the industry and the potential risks and drawbacks of such advancements. There is an ongoing debate about the emergence of creative AI tools and how they raise the quality of accessibility whilst lowering the base level mediocrity of content it creates. There are parallels to the efforts made by Epic to give more opportunities to a wider audience. I’m of the opinion that any decision made to give power to the people will always be the right one.