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Unreal Engine’s next job: NPC creation in a fraction of the time

Epic Games, makers of the Unreal Engine that has powered two decades’ worth of triple-A video games, on Wednesday announced another leading-edge development tool: MetaHuman Creator, an application that can create distinctive and lifelike human characters for video games in a fraction of the time it currently takes.

“One of the most arduous tasks in 3D content creation has been constructing truly convincing digital humans,” Vladimir Mastlovic, Epic’s vice president for Digital Humans Technology, said in a statement. Epic says the character-creation process, which seasoned animators and illustrators spend days or weeks getting right, can be reduced “to less than an hour” using MetaHuman Creator’s browser-based application. The video above shows the process at work.

“As adjustments are made, MetaHuman Creator blends between actual examples in the library in a plausible, data-constrained way,” Epic Games says in its announcement. “Users can choose a starting point by selecting a number of preset faces to contribute to their human from the range of samples available in the database.”

Role-playing game fans and sports video game career-mode enthusiasts know how difficult it is to construct a believable avatar, even if they’re using their own face from cloud-based applications, like EA Sports’ GameFace or NBA 2K’s face scanning feature. MetaHuman Creator is a tool for developers, not players, but it’s possible we’ll see this tool’s capabilities filter down to a user’s character-creation stage later on.

MetaHuman Creator builds a character model that is “fully rigged and ready for animation and motion capture in Unreal Engine,” Epic Games says. Additionally, “animations created for one MetaHuman will run on other MetaHumans, enabling users to easily reuse a single performance across multiple Unreal Engine characters or projects.”

Epic says MetaHuman Creator will become available to developers in an early access trial over the next few months, with a fuller launch coming later.

Unreal Engine 4 has been a free development tool since 2015. Developers whose games hit a certain revenue threshold give Epic Games a percentage of their sales. Larger video game makers who use Unreal still negotiate their own licenses and payment structures.

In May 2020, Epic showed a technical demonstration of the Unreal 5 engine on the PlayStation 5. A full launch of Unreal 5 is expected sometime in the second half of this year. Unreal 5 will support games developed for both the current console generation (PS5 and Xbox Series X) and the previous, as well as mobile devices and Windows PCs, and Epic says developers making games in Unreal 4 can port them forward to the next engine when it launches.

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