Epic Games founder talks next-gen tech and the goal to achieve photorealism

(Image credit: Epic Games)

Epic Games CEO and founder Tim Sweeney has spoken about the future of next-gen technology in the latest episode of The AIAS Game Maker's Notebook podcast. 

Hosted by Insomniac founder and CEO Ted Price, the pair spoke about the future and what Sweeney is most excited for when it comes to the next-generation of technology.

"First of all, achieving photorealism. We're getting pretty darn close," Sweeney begins, "but we need one more giant leap to get to the point where you can't distinguish between Unreal Engine powered real-time graphics from CG graphics [or] from the real world… We're putting a lot of effort into next-generation technology to empower photorealism." 

Sweeney started out in the industry with a career in coding and was responsible for creating the Unreal Engine, which is developed by Epic Games. Several of the biggest releases of the year are powered using the engine, including titles such as Final Fantasy 7 Remake from Square Enix

"The hardest part of it [photorealism] is digital humans," Sweeney continues, "because we've evolved very… elaborate brain systems for recognising faces and intent and emotion. So, being able to realistically convey that in games is going to be a huge challenge." 

The pursuit to make games more photorealistic with next-gen tech is a big part of Epic's research efforts. However a big concern is making the technology to actually achieve photorealism economical. 

Sweeney explained, "Even if we can achieve all those things, we haven't really succeeded if it's impractically expensive to actually build a photo realistic game. So, we put huge efforts into content pipelines both for synthetic creation of content, but also of real-world scanning of objects." 

Motion capture has also become a big part of the push for photorealistic graphics when it comes to portraying characters' facial movements and poses. Early last year, Epic acquired 3Lateral studio that specialises in the creation of "digital humans" using state of the art real-time graphics.

Sweeney said this about the acquisition, "The 3Lateral team that's now a part of Epic is driving the digital humans initiative: scanning humans at enormous levels of quality, both facial poses and also animation." 

He also talked about Quixel, who teamed up with Epic Games back in November 2019, and have set out to travel around every corner of the world to build up a library of Megascans (reference imagery) for use in the Unreal Engine, to "build an ecosystem that unlocks triple-A artistry for everyone." 

We're already seeing some truly impressive graphics in the world of video games, and it's exciting to think of just where the next-gen tech may take us in future with the upcoming Xbox Series X and PS5 on the horizon. To cap it off, Price asked Sweeney whether he believes we will see truly photorealistic game characters within the next decade. Sweeney responded, "I think that's within reach. It's not clear that we can do that. But I feel that at the pace of innovation right now, it can happen within that time frame." 

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Heather Wald
Senior staff writer

I started out writing for the games section of a student-run website as an undergrad, and continued to write about games in my free time during retail and temp jobs for a number of years. Eventually, I earned an MA in magazine journalism at Cardiff University, and soon after got my first official role in the industry as a content editor for Stuff magazine. After writing about all things tech and games-related, I then did a brief stint as a freelancer before I landed my role as a staff writer here at GamesRadar+. Now I get to write features, previews, and reviews, and when I'm not doing that, you can usually find me lost in any one of the Dragon Age or Mass Effect games, tucking into another delightful indie, or drinking far too much tea for my own good.