Book Review: Mastering Unreal Technology

Mastering Unreal Technology, Vol 1: Introduction to Level Design ($49.99)
Mastering Unreal Technology, Vol 2: Advanced Level Design Concepts ($59.99)
by Jason Busby / Zak Parrish / Jeff Wilson
Published by Sams Publishing (Pearson Technology Group Canada), 2010

The recent announcement by Epic games that they were releasing the free UDK (Unreal Development Kit), which essentially gives indie game creators/machinimators access to the Unreal engine toolkit, is a culmination of years of effort. Finally, you have full and free access to the tools that Epic used to make Unreal 3. Plus, if you choose to create a commercial game/machinima, Epic has crafted a reasonably priced licensing system that I hope will become the standard for the industry.

I'm not sure how Epic arrived at the decision to craft a scaled license for the Unreal engine, but I can tell you that machinima filmmakers and indie game developers are loving it. In the first week alone, over 50,000 copies of the UDK were downloaded from the main site. What's particularly cool about this is that the UDK is a stand-alone program, so you don't need to have the Unreal game installed to create content.


Unreal UDK screen

"I'm excited about the possibilities the Unreal Development Kit opens to those who are looking to get into the game business but don't otherwise have the means to acquire world-class technology and tools like ours... UDK is Unreal Engine 3, which has been used to create games in a wide range of genres, as well as military simulations, 3D architectural walk-throughs, animated movies and more. Users are only limited by their imaginations. Go ahead make something Unreal!"
- Mark Rein, vice president of Epic Games

And while the documentation on the UDK site is excellent, we are fortunate that Sams Publishing has re-released an amazing 2 volume set of books devoted to the Unreal 3 engine. Originally published in 2004, these new editions have a slightly better layout and photo contrast in addition to CDs packed with tutorial examples and a free copy of Unreal Tournament 3. The publisher's timing couldn't be better.

Both books are pretty hefty at almost a 1000 pages each, but both books are formatted in such a way that you progress from introductory tutorials to advanced particle systems and building custom interfaces. Jason Busby, one of the main authors, is the founder of 3D Buzz, a superb tutorial site. He brings years of experience in presenting complex CG terms and ideas simply and with a sense of humor.

Volume 1 of Mastering Unreal Technology is an overall introduction to the Unreal Engine 3 using a project based approach. You get to see the finished level, and then Jason & Zak guide you through the process of creating the level from scratch. You'll find expert tips and ideas on:

  • Understanding the game development process from start to finish
  • Planning projects for greater efficiency, faster delivery, and better quality
  • Crafting worlds with stunning beauty and clarity
  • Bringing amazing realism to characters, objects, and props
  • Making the most of Unreal Engine 3’s massively upgraded lighting system
  • Scripting complex gameplay quickly and easily with Unreal Kismet
  • Building animated game assets with Unreal Matinee
  • Testing game performance during live gameplay
  • Optimizing levels by improving the interaction between lights and surfaces
  • Using advanced level streaming to create vast, rich, highly playable levels

Volume 2 of Mastering Unreal Technology is focused on the advanced features of the Unreal Engine, such as:

  • Creating advanced materials that leverage the full power of UnrealEd’s Material Editor
  • Bringing levels to life with objects affected by gravity, collisions, and player influence
  • Creating fire, smoke, sparks, and more with Unreal Engine 3’s particle effects system
  • Building custom user interfaces, including Heads-Up Displays (HUDs) that update constantly
  • Using SoundCues to mix, modulate, cross fade, and attenuate sounds
  • Generating real-time camera-based effects, including depth of field, motion blur, and color adjustment
  • Using post process effects to quickly transform a scene’s look and feel without changing existing materials or textures
  • Animating characters and vehicles that move with unprecedented realism
  • Creating in-game cinematics that develop your characters and move your story forward

One chapter that is particularly noteworthy is “Creating Cinematic Sequences,” near the end. Any machinima filmmaker who wants to use the new UDK to create animation films must read this section of the book. It's focused examples and clear explanations will have you setting up dolly shots and moving your actors around like a pro.

Other excellent chapters on the particle system, materials and post-processing effects are equally well done. And even though the topics are complex, if you have read volume one (advised), the concepts are developed logically and clearly. Plus, you get the feeling that the authors just love working in the Unreal Engine. That kind of passion is infectious and should have you working late into the night trying to learn how UV maps work in Unreal.


Face FX Editor

Both books have a complete index and Sams Publishing allows you access to an online version of the book for over a month through the Safari Books online program. Since the books are so large, it can be awkward to follow some of the more complex tutorials, and having access to the same material online where you can bring it up on your monitor makes it much easier. I used a large book weight for my copies to keep the pages open which wasn't too troublesome.

Although I can understand some critics who wish computer books like these had color illustrations, the black & white ones in both volumes are clear and easy to read. Plus, including color would raise the price of the book significantly and they are already somewhat expensive. No, the layout and illustrations worked just fine with both volumes. I think Sams did a very good job in this new version of Mastering Unreal Technology.

Actually, there is a 3rd volume of the series devoted to the Unreal Script, but I didn't have access to that book and can't review it here. However, I have no doubt it was developed and written with the same attention to detail and ease of use as the two volumes reviewed here.

If you are an independent game developer or a budding machinima filmmaker, get the new UDK and both volumes of Mastering Unreal Technology. For a little over $100 you have a movie/game studio on your computer that can produce professional quality work. You are only limited by your imagination.

My thanks to Sams for providing these excellent books for review.


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
December 14, 2009

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Member Opinions:
By: AtharianMedia on 12/16/09
Looking forward to picking this up. I used to work in the Unreal engine full-time, it is an amazing environment.

Thanks for the review Ricky!


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