With the arrival of high definition, lighting took on a new level of significance in gaming. As 4K gaming truly kicks into gear across consoles, PC and mobile devices, good lighting has never been more critical.
Enlighten, the real-time global illumination technology from Silicon Studio, has been at the forefront of lighting technology in games for many years. Will Joseph is technical lead for the Enlighten project, and the team has been hard at work on its next major update: Enlighten 4.
In this article, Joseph takes us through some of the major features of Enlighten 4. He describes how the technology can help developers, large and small, to create cutting-edge visuals, just like Hellblade developer Ninja Theory has done, and he shares what Silicon Studio's plans are for 2022.
Enlighten 4 and its new features
As exciting as the leap to the next generation has been, what's not exciting is the increased workload that new technology tends to demand. Joseph explains that Silicon Studio has implemented features in Enlighten that are intended to ease these pressures on programmers and artists.
"We have overhauled the entire 3D lightmap pipeline to support extensive use throughout game worlds of any size"
With Enlighten 4, the core technology has been improved to closely simulate, in real-time, the interaction of light within complex nature environments, such as a dense jungle world.
"This is made possible by next-gen 3D lightmap technology, which is an enlightened variation on the classic 2D lightmap data structure first used in Quake," explains Joseph.
"With 3D lightmaps, game developers no longer have to deal with the often painful limitations of lightmap UV unwraps required with 2D lightmaps.
"We have overhauled the entire 3D lightmap pipeline to support extensive use throughout game worlds of any size. The long list of improvements combine to significantly speed up computation and rendering. In particular, this enables more accurate global illumination for dense jungle foliage, and for volumetric effects like fog and smoke."
Enlighten 4 also marks the end of early access for real-time ray tracing combined with Enlighten global illumination within Unreal Engine, says Joseph. Enlighten lighting can now be combined with effects such as real-time ray traced reflections, translucency and ambient occlusion.
Next-gen lighting in practice
Those who've already dabbled with ray tracing will know that the results can be startling. Ninja Theory is one such developer. Last year, it used Enlighten in its enhanced version of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice -- the graphically intensive narrative adventure that tells the tale of a young woman's internal struggles with belief and loss -- for Xbox Series X and S.
Joseph explains how Ninja Theory used Enlighten to elevate their narrative adventure once more: "Lighting in Hellblade provides atmosphere and mood that helps to immerse the player in Senua's mental state. Very few scenes are brightly lit by direct sunlight, so the simulation of many light bounces is essential for subtle and atmospheric lighting.
"The new Enriched mode adds high fidelity reflections rendered using real-time ray tracing. With Enlighten 4, these reflections contain many global illumination bounces global illuminations to further deepen the immersion. Ray tracing is computationally expensive, which means rendering a single reflection bounce is enough to max out the hardware within current consoles. Enlighten 4 enables infinite bounces for essentially the same cost as a single bounce."
It was Enlighten's reliability and ease-of-use that were key factors in Ninja Theory's decision to choose the technology for Hellblade, Joseph adds.
"In Hellblade, the character of Senua is the centrepiece of the game, so having great lighting for the character was a primary concern. As we journey through the Viking underworld, lighting is also an important storytelling tool to convey changes in Senua's state of mind," he explains.
"The seasoned game developers at Ninja Theory understand that good tools and technology are essential to create a AAA experience, especially with a small team. The Hellblade world was built by a very small team, with only one dedicated environment artist. Enlighten's 3D lightmap technology helped to streamline their workflow by eliminating the limitations of 2D lightmap UVs."
Lighting enhancements for all
Through Enlighten 4, Silicon Studios wants to give game developers the power to bring their virtual worlds to life with continuously changing time-of-day transitions, dynamic weather and cloud simulations, and realistic artificial lighting where each light source can be controlled independently.
Physically-based lighting and real-time previews enable artists to quickly experiment over many iterations of lighting and deliver "a true visual spectacle in a fraction of the time", says Joseph.
For those targeting 4K, HDR and current-gen machines, Joseph says: "game developers can use Enlighten 4 to push their lighting to the next level, in a world of any size, and still have the budget left over to include all the 4K HDR ray traced bells and whistles."
What's more, for the millions that are using last-gen machines and devices, he points out that developers will still be able to enhance their games for those customers: "All of the core Enlighten technology does not require the latest hardware and even scales down to mobile devices. Take away 4K, HDR and ray tracing and your game can still benefit from all the improvements in Enlighten 4 that help to deliver spectacular lighting."
How you can use Enlighten in your game
Silicon Studio provides a complete integration of Enlighten in Unreal Engine, with a workflow designed to allow many developers to work concurrently on the same world. It also offers Enlighten as a separate SDK designed to be easy to integrate into any game engine.
"The core technology is extremely flexible: it supports all major platforms and can be combined efficiently with all common rendering techniques," says Joseph.
For example, Joseph's team recently created a level in Unreal Engine to demonstrate Enlighten 4 in combination with physically-based materials (read more about this technique on the Unreal Engine and Adobe Substance 3D documentation pages), a physically-based procedural sky and real world sun intensity and exposure.
"Using off-the-shelf assets, we created a dense jungle tangled with vines, and thanks to 3D lightmaps we didn't need to worry about 2D lightmap UVs.
"Because we used a physically-based approach to lighting, we simply set a realistic intensity for the sun, and the engine automatically produces an image that looks natural and real. Without this approach, the lighting artist has to manually place invisible light sources and endlessly tweak light intensities, just to produce a decent looking image."
The future's bright
Everyone can name a game that has entranced them thanks to its immersive characters and environments. Outstanding lighting is central to achieving such immersion, and Enlighten's latest iteration gives even more developers the power to do just that.
Enlighten 4, the next generation of illumination technology, is available now. Silicon Studio and the Enlighten team are already working on updates for Enlighten, including further improvements to 3D lightmaps, as well as integrating Enlighten 4 into Unreal Engine 5.
Joseph concludes: "I'm excited to see what game developers will create with it, and looking forward to supporting them and hearing their feedback. I hope that it brings game developers more freedom to create amazing visual experiences and helps to unlock the potential of this generation of consoles."