Twenty years of Unreal and the engine that changed gaming

Unreal's legacy has brought us indie superstars and battle royale phenomenons.

Epic Games’ original Unreal needed to be something super special to turn heads in 1998, the year of Half-Life, StarCraft, Baldur’s Gate, Grim Fandango and Thief: The Dark Project. Well, it did even more than that; building foundations upon which an entire era was born.

Brief snapshot of history, for those of you that weren’t around, or recently arrived on earth. The 1990s were an agile, almost breathtaking period of time for games. The most incredible ideas were realized. A ton of the longest-running franchises premiered. Graphics cards had cool names like Voodoo. It was okay to be overstated since so many projects overdelivered.

Epic MegaGames named its debut FPS Unreal, because that was the only name for it. And Unreal has smashed expectations ever since, often in guises that we don’t always expect.

Unreal driving force

As tech demos go, Unreal stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of F-Zero (Super NES), Mario 64 (Nintendo 64) and that dinosaur puppet thing on PlayStation as a moment in time. Reportedly inspired by the groundwork achieved by id Software, whose legendary FPS titles DOOM and Quake had propelled PC gaming into an unprecedented dimension, the Unreal Engine beneath the hood made an immediate impact in terms of visuals via the story-driven FPS designed by Clifford ‘CliffyB’ Bleszinski (Gears of War) and James Schmalz (Warframe). The vision for Epic Games founder and coder Tim Sweeney, to originate a multi-generational engine, keeping ahead of the technology curve, was off to the best possible start. Reviewers praised Unreal for its market-leading graphics, although the multiplayer needed some work.

We wanted it, we got it

© Epic Games
© Epic Games

The hottest multiplayer act in the world arrived in 1999 in the form of Unreal Tournament. This is the game that we most fondly remember playing, very much deserving its multiple Game of the Year accolades from just about every major media outlet, while crucially this included Best Multiplayer recognition too. Hands-down the finest Capture the Flag mode ever designed – Facing Worlds – was introduced via Unreal Tournament. UT popularized Assault and Domination modes, the latter a firm favorite in many iterations of Call of Duty.

The stupendous Redeemer guided missile made its first appearance in Unreal Tournament. We have such fond memories of this, laughing almost as much as we were loudly yelling. Unreal Tournament also found its way onto PlayStation 2, a milestone by itself, which also allowed for mouse and keyboard support for the true FPS experience, albeit missing online. Ion Storm’s Deus Ex was among earlier titles that drew wider attention, showing potential.

Branching out, breaking records

© Epic Games
© Epic Games

Unreal Engine 2 launched in 2002, after which the trend for UE-powered games accelerated. Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy series that includes Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six, 2K Games’ BioShock, and Epic Games’ own Unreal franchise all argued the case for an engine that was obviously comfortable with action-oriented escapades. However with the arrival of Unreal Engine 3 in 2004, Epic Games could point to a who’s who of AAA across PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.

Starting with Epic Games’ Gears of War released for Xbox 360 in 2006, our recollection of Unreal Engine 3 experiences are mainly along the lines of how consoles really started to punch their own weight with PC, of course owing to hardware capabilities, but a diverse range of publishers now licensed Unreal Engine to enable landmark RPGs such as The Last Remnant (Square Enix) and award-winning action-adventures that included the seminal Batman: Arkham Asylum by Rocksteady for Eidos. Bethesda’s atmospheric Dishonored is yet another Unreal Engine beneficiary that set itself apart visually, speaking to UE3’s versatility. EA’s Mass Effect 2 is also graphically worlds apart from any muscle-bound hero associations.

Rocket League could’ve been the most surprising phenomenon to have been fueled by Unreal Engine 3, but with Android and iOS titles also being supported, resulting in the spectacular Infinity Blade developed by Chair Entertainment (published by Epic Games), adaptability was proven beyond doubt at this point. By July 2014, the Unreal Engine had earned a place in the Guinness World Records as the most successful videogame engine.

The great Unreal free-for-all

© Ninja Theory
© Ninja Theory

It was remarkable to say the least when in March 2015, Tim Sweeny, now Epic Games CEO, announced that Unreal Engine 4 was “available to everyone for free,” including “all future updates.” In his address to the development community, Sweeny cited “an unprecedented time in our industry, amidst revolutions in virtual reality and augmented reality, and in the presence of the largest community of indie developers that has ever existed, all facing a crowded market and seeking the opportunity to stand out from the crowd.”

The new licensing agreement basically came down to paying a 5% royalty on gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product, per quarter. “A simple arrangement in which we succeed only when you succeed,” Sweeny said. Since March 2015, we’ve seen the release of fighting game giants Street Fighter V from Capcom and Tekken 7 from Bandai Namco Entertainment. There has been BAFTA award-winning success in the form of photo-realistic, psychologically challenging Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from Ninja Theory. Rare’s MMO Sea of Thieves set sail under the fair wind provided by Unreal Engine 4.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ rise to notoriety showed the new business model making perfect sense, but this didn’t stop Epic Games from entering the Battle Royale arena with its own, and currently the most well-known, Unreal Engine 4 showcase in existence: Fortnite.

Considering the Unreal future

© Dontnod
© Dontnod

This past 20 years have rocketed by, but the trajectory of Unreal Engine is not only climbing higher but tracking twists and turns that we didn’t see coming. Epic Games is lately involved with the worlds of education, architecture, film and animation – UE4 helped create Disney’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Finding Dory. You’ll spy Unreal Engine supporting titles on platforms as diverse as Samsung Gear VR, HTML5, and Nintendo Switch. Although we could sign off this article with something along the lines of “from humble beginnings…”, the fact of the matter is that we always kind of suspected this Epic journey to be, well… Unreal.

Writer

Paul’s first videogame was Space Invaders in 1978, which gives away his age a bit. We put his encyclopedic knowledge of the beforetimes to good use in our Retro coverage. If you want to reach Paul, you can email or tweet him @FutureKick.

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