Epic released UDK today. It is the next step in their plan to completely dominate the game engine licensing market place. They've been doing a pretty good job of that so far. To all the other companies trying to compete I'd suggest following in their footsteps. The reason I believe they are so successful is because they do everything they can to get the engine out there and in peoples hands. You can't be scared of people looking at or stealing your stuff. If devs can't look at it they certainly won't plunk down major money to buy it. Epic has been powering their freight train of engine licensing with visibility of their product. With UDK now they have a brand new group of students and indie developers who are going to be familiar with unreal engine as well as make the barrier to evaluate the engine for commercial purposes practically nothing. You get to see all the tools and a major portion of documentation without even having to talk to someone at Epic. You can see engine updates whenever they release a new build. If you want to know more they will send you more than enough stuff to make up your mind in the form of an evaluation version. Compare that to most of the other engine providers. Many will never let you see any code and require all sorts of paper work to see private viewings of just an engine demonstration. As expected they are also not getting very many licensees. Stop being so paranoid and let people see your stuff.
On to the tech stuff. I haven't spent a ton of time looking at it yet but I've noticed some new things already. Of coarse there's the obvious stuff like Lightmass that they've talked all about. There's docs on all that which is great. I'm going to talk about what they aren't talking about. First they changed the way they encode their lightmaps. Previously it was 3 DXT1's that stored the 3 colors of incoming light in the 3 HL2 basis directions. They still use the same concept now but instead only have 2 DXT1's. The first stores the incoming light intensity in each of the 3 directions as RGB. The second is the average color of all 3 directions. The loss in quality may be small as the error is mainly bumps picking up different colors of light. The memory is 2/3's of what it was so it seems like a smart optimization.
What impressed me though was their signed distance field baked shadows. Previously they stored baked shadow masks as G8 or 8 bit luminance format textures. This was used simply as a mask to the light. Now they are computing a signed distance field like this paper. It's still stored in a G8 format texture so there's no difference in storage. The big difference comes from the sharpness and quality from a relatively low res texture. The same smooth lines that are useful for vector graphics for Valve's use also work well for shadows. After I read this paper when it came out I thought the exact same thing. This is perfect for baked shadow textures! I implemented it then but I was trying to have another value in the texture to specify how far the occluder was so I could control the width of the soft edge. The signed distance field could be in the green channel of a DXT1 and the softness could be in red. If that wasn't good enough softness in green and distance field in alpha of a DXT5. The prototype was scraped after it didn't really give me what I needed and was being replaced with a different shadow system anyways. I am really impressed with Epic's results though. For a fairly large map they get good quality sun shadows from only 4 1024x1024 G8 textures. That's only 4 mb of shadow data. I bet it would still work well from DXT1's too with the data in the green channel. That would bring it down to 2 mb. The only down side is it is unable to represent soft shadows unless someone can get my encoding softness as an extra value idea to work which would be cool. Apparently I should have given that experiment more consideration.