Epic's Unreal Engine has supported making virtual reality games for some time. Now, it supports making games in virtual reality too.
Today, Epic announced an upcoming VR component to its popular Unreal Editor, letting game developers, animators, and other users create and explore their environments through an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Unreal is already used for some of the best-known virtual reality games, including EVE: Valkyrie and space exploration game Adrift. But so far, these games have been made using tools that all existed before modern VR.
"We're developing these VR experiences while we're sitting at a PC using a mouse and keyboard."
"The industry's dirty little secret with VR development," says Epic founder Tim Sweeney, "is we're developing these VR experiences while we're sitting at a PC using a mouse and keyboard." This isn't actually a secret, but it's something that feels increasingly weird as the technology improves. Things like a sense of scale don't translate well between flat screens and VR; props that feel normal in a traditional PC game, for example, might look outlandishly large or small in an immersive environment. When Epic made the first-person shooter tech demo Bullet Train, its developers donned headsets like welding goggles, pulling them up to edit the world on a flat screen and putting them on again to test it. When VR experiences were mostly passive — or controlled with a gamepad — this compromise was necessary. In the past year, though, Oculus and HTC have both introduced sophisticated motion controllers. Creating things in VR feels not just possible, but natural.
The VR Unreal Editor looks and acts a lot like its flatscreen version, but designers can walk around in physical space to inspect objects, pointing a controller to teleport long distances and changing the world's size to inspect whole scenes like a tabletop model. They can manipulate objects with hand motions — "grabbing" a piece of architecture to move it, or using a two-handed version of the touchscreen's "pinch and zoom" gesture to stretch or shrink them. For more complicated operations, they'll be able to bring up handheld versions of the flatscreen interface, similar to the way that users of the Tilt Brush or Medium art tools can bring up a virtual palette. Ideally, this means that any current feature of the Unreal Editor will also work in VR.
"I think a lot of the future's going to be building content for VR but also supporting non-VR."
Epic has been hinting at a VR-enabled Unreal Editor since releasing Bullet Train last year, and now, it's the latest in a series of professional-grade tools that have appeared over the past week. At the Sundance Film Festival, animation studio Penrose mentioned that they built the new short Allumette partly in VR. More prominently, Oculus Story Studio announced Quill, a sophisticated program for creating three-dimensional art. While Quill produces things that it's genuinely hard to imagine making outside a headset, the Unreal Editor will still be used to create familiar 3D environments — which can be played or watched on any platform that supports Unreal. "I think a lot of the future's going to be building content for VR but also supporting non-VR," says Sweeney. Even if a project won't be experienced in VR, designers might still rather build with motion controls than a mouse and keyboard. Conversely, VR developers may only want to do certain stages of their work in the headset-based editor.
If Epic has spent, as Sweeney says, a year working on a VR-enabled version of its editor, what is it using the new tools to build? For one thing, it's apparently adding new features to Bullet Train, which will appear in an updated form at next month's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. "The team really loves working on that thing. It's hard to tear them away from it," Sweeney says, and "time will tell" whether it evolves from a tech demo into something larger. Otherwise, they're "starting up some early new things," he says. For everyone outside the company, an exact release date for the VR Unreal Editor will be announced at a GDC event on March 16th.