Talking Point: The Unreal Engine 4 Gaffe Exposes Graphical Snobbery, Again

The fact it's actually scalable for Wii U should surprise no-one

A number of articles on Nintendo Life really got the community talking last week, one of which was our April Fools for the year. In terms of stories that were real, however, we had high profile comments from Epic Games' Mark Rein, who essentially stated that developers on Wii U shouldn't use Unreal Engine 4, but its predecessor instead; a blow considering the hype around the new graphics engine, its capabilities and its anticipated dominance in the coming years. Nintendo fan's ire was particularly provoked, it must be said, by some rather dismissive comments from Rein.

I just laugh at the question…Unreal Engine 4, we’re not PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or Wii U. It’s next-gen technology. That’s what we’re aiming for.

The truth is, if a developer wanted to take an Unreal Engine game and put it on Wii U, they could. Unreal Engine 3 is kicking ass on Wii U. The best games on Wii U are made on our technology. What more do you want from us?

What was rather strange about Rein's comments, considering he's such a senior figure, was that he was clearly forgetting a key part of his own technology — it's scalable. After a day of the internet getting into a froth about his comments, he backtracked to state the obvious.

You heard the stupid gaffe yesterday about the Wii U. If someone wants to take Unreal Engine 4 and ship a game on Wii U, they can! If they wanna ship an Unreal Engine 4 game on Xbox 360, they could make it happen.

Rein called it a stupid gaffe, not us, and that's exactly what it was. Unreal Engine 4 isn't about visual fidelity alone — video game engines aren't that simplistic — but offers shortcuts and tools to make developer's lives easier. In fact, check out its official web page to read about its technical features; these include rather complex sounding tools such as a Hot Reload code finder, a Simulate Mode to see character's AI act out scenarios and something called Live Kismet Debugging "to interactively visualize the flow of gameplay code while testing your game". If you're a developer, which we're not, we imagine these are the kind of tools that could be attractive, as well as the fact that you can push outstanding visuals on the most advanced tech. But let's get to the chase, highlighting in bold a key point from Epic Games' own marketing material:

The most world-class game engine to date, Unreal Engine 4 gives you the power to do more than ever before. Bring your creative visions to life directly in game without programmer assistance via the new Unreal Kismet.

Unreal Engine 4’s architecture offers fully dynamic lighting features, cutting down on development time and ensuring less iteration on creative ideas. With significant new visual features, Unreal Engine 4 enables you to achieve high-end visuals, while remaining both scalable and accessible to make games for low-spec PCs.

Again, we're not experts, but examples such as the use of PC assets in Need for Speed: Most Wanted U demonstrate that Nintendo's system should be able to handle scalable engines of various kinds.

What Rein's initial comments, and then his rapid u-turn, demonstrate is the continuing role of graphics snobbery, and evidence is building that Wii U will be subject to it just like its Wii predecessor. It's beyond reasonable doubt that PS4 will be able to push more technologically advanced graphics than Wii U, with the next Xbox by all accounts set to do the same. Whether it's a convenient truth or not, in the eyes of some that will differentiate Nintendo's system from its rivals on those grounds — some differences are welcome, such as concepts or first-party content, but graphical grunt isn't. It can be argued with some conviction that differences between Wii U and PS4 are likely to be less pronounced than between Wii and PS3, as both will be scaling engines in HD, but for a number of gamers and consumers that difference will nevertheless matter.

The differences will matter to some publishers and developers, too, which is likely to bring Nintendo the issue of convincing companies to make the investment to scale future products to Wii U. An issue for Wii — though it achieved outstanding sales — was its status as the "other" console, owned in addition to a PS3, Xbox 360 or gaming PC; with the traditional console market showing a steady decline and many gamers having less disposable income, being that alternative console may not be an option to quite the same degree. If more gamers only commit to one next generation system, the numbers that decide graphics are king will be vital to Wii U's fortunes; with major authority figures in the industry, such as Rein, clearing having graphical grunt at the forefront of their mind, that's bad press for Nintendo's system.

It can be too easy to overlook that modern engines are naturally scalable and flexible, while debates about other key areas of the Wii U's technology are often largely unexplored.

Of course games aren't defined solely by their graphics. Some games look like cinematic, stunning works of art but are crammed with quick-time events and fixed camera angles that can be dull to play, while some titles may have polygons the size of your fist but be a delight. When games combine gorgeous visuals with terrific gameplay the experience is undoubtedly exciting, and yet polygon numbers can be over-ruled by outstanding art design. A game's quality and relevance is defined by many things, of which the visuals are just one.

Yet Rein's first statements, laughingly saying that Unreal Engine 4 wasn't for Wii U, show that even those at the coal-face of complex development technology can be liable to focus on one aspect to the detriment of others. It can be too easy to overlook that modern engines are naturally scalable and flexible, while debates about other key areas of the Wii U's technology are often largely unexplored. For example, the PS4 will have 8GB of RAM compared to Wii U's 2GB — the PS4 RAM will also be faster — so how will that affect future potential multi-platform titles such as MMORPGs or other genres that utilise that resource the most? That matters, but these kind of games aren't necessarily about eye-catching "next-gen" visuals, so the issue gets less attention.

We can condemn Rein's comments, but that'd be missing a point. In that first round of interviews he was clearly focusing on building hype for his company's new engine, and what point did he make? Did he talk about how dynamic it is, or the powerful tools that will make developer's work easier? Perhaps he did, in parts, but when asked about platforms such as Wii U his reaction wasn't to emphasize that the engine could be scaled and potentially look great on the system. Instead he shared an opinion that we believe is shared by many, where "next-gen" means millions more polygons, not opening up the industry to new experiences. "I just laugh at the question…Unreal Engine 4, we’re not PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or Wii U. It’s next-gen technology. That’s what we’re aiming for."

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