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UE4: 16 Principles - How to Start Learning Unreal Engine 4

Category: Unreal Engine 4
September 23, 2015
Full Text Tutorial and Notes:

Learning a new game engine as a complete beginner is very intimidating. There are a lot of tutorials, documentation and advice already out but how do you start and proceed with learning Unreal Engine 4 is unclear. You get pulled into many different directions and end up confused and overwhelmed.

I have spent a lot of time deconstructing what it takes to learn a game engine from scratch. What it is that you should focus on first and what you should avoid until later.

Unreal Engine 4 is a complete game engine. It is an extremely deep and complex piece of software that can be used to create variety of games, environments, cinematic and visualizations.

So how do you learn UE4 from scratch?

In this tutorial you will learn 16 principles/guidelines to follow that will give you direction to learning Unreal Engine 4 easier.

1. Get Unreal Engine 4

First, download and install Unreal Engine 4. It is free. Follow this tutorial on how to download and install. Make sure that your computer hardware is up to specifications.

Recommended Specs are: (source)

  • Operating System: Windows 7/8 64-bit
  • Processor: Quad-core Intel or AMD, 2.5 GHz or faster
  • Memory: 8 GB RAM
  • Video Card: DirectX 11 compatible graphics card
  • DirectX Version: DirectX End-User Runtimes (June 2010)

2. What Do You Want From UE4?

Most important part in learning any game engine is to know what you want from it. What is the outcome you are after? Why do you want to learn and use UE4?

Is it:

  • to create a game?
  • to use it for arch viz?
  • to use it for game environment art?
  • to create playable levels for a game?
  • to create cinematics?

You might be thinking, all of the above - and that is fine. But as a complete beginner learning Unreal Engine 4, you want to narrow this down to an essential single focused outcome. You can expand on your knowledge later once you have become proficient with the engine. But this early in the learning process, decide on a single outcome.

I've made this mistake too many times as I wanted to a make full open world environments when I haven't even opened the software.

My primary focus has always been to create game environments and level designs. So everything I learn about a game engine tends to be very focused on helping me become a better level designer and environment artist.

I cannot stress this principle enough:

  • Why do you want to learn UE4?
  • What outcome are you after?

Decide on one single aspect of why you want to learn Unreal Engine 4, because this will dictate what you should and should not focus on.

3. Do Not Create a Game or Custom Environment as Your First Project

I know this is going to be very tempting. Especially with all the amazing work you see being done with UE4.

Creating a game or a custom game environment contain many different disciplines and skills. Each skill will often require its own time to learn and develop outside Unreal Engine 4. For example 3d modeling, texturing or C++.

So keep the big idea in your mind as a goal you want to do, just resist creating something that complicated for your first project.

Later in this article I will outline 5 recommended projects for you to start with. You can infuse each of these projects with your own ideas. But as you start out, don't create a game or a custom game environment as your very first work inside Unreal Engine 4.

4. Steps of How Games are Created in UE4

As you learn UE4 or any other game engine, it helps to have an overview of how games and game environments are created. It helps to have a top down view of the entire process.

So, here is a simple overview of how games are created. This isn't a definitive list to follow but only to be used an example to demonstrate various steps of the process.

  • Idea
  • Concept Art: visual style of the game (drawings, digital paintings, photo references)
  • Gameplay Concept: how will the game play; gameplay mechanics; game design document
  • Gameplay Prototyping (Blueprint or C++): simple playable game with core mechanics integrated into it and placeholder items
  • Continue to Refine and Finalize Gameplay Mechanics
  • 3D Static Mesh Creation (3d models, UVing, texturing, Materials, export/import
  • Animations
  • Effects
  • Level Design (BSP prototyping, gameplay mechanics, scripting, AI, play testing, detailing with Static Meshes, lighting)
  • Optimizing/Performance
  • Packaging
  • Release

Many of these steps would overlap during the production. Also testing and bug fixing would be a constant process step throughout the entire production.

As you can see, there are a lot of disciples and skills that are involved. As a beginner with UE4, you will be quickly overwhelmed at attempting to create your own game without learning the fundamentals of the editor.

Now, let's cover what it takes to create a game environment with Unreal Engine 4.

5. Steps of How Environments are Created in UE4

Just as with creating a game, creating a custom 3d game environments contain a lot of different skills sets.

Here is an overview of how custom game environment are created. This is not THE pipeline; but one of many. Depending on the environment some steps may not be necessary.

  • Create 3d model: high poly mesh first or low poly mesh first
  • UV low poly for textures
  • UV low poly for lightmaps
  • Optimize low poly (reduce poly count, set up smoothing groups)
  • Bake high poly to low poly
  • Bake other textures if needed
  • Create LOD (level of detail)
  • Create custom collisions
  • Export from 3d modeling package
  • Import Static Meshes into UE4
  • Create/paint textures
  • Export/Import all textures into UE4
  • Create materials in UE4
  • Finalize all Static Meshes and Materials in UE4
  • Prototype/Block In the level with BSP brushes in UE4
  • Set up Blueprint for gameplay mechanics (if required)
  • Construct the game environment inside UE4 with final Static Meshes replacing BSP brushes

Many of these steps would overlap during the production. Also testing, re-baking and exporting/importing would be a constant process step throughout the entire production.

6. Your Goal as a Complete Beginner

Your first goal as a complete beginner is to learn the most commonly used functions and techniques. These are the fundamentals of UE4 and becoming an expert user. This doesn't sound as exciting as creating a full game or open world environment but it is what will make that possible.

These beginner techniques and functions include knowing how-to:

  • Create and manage your projects
  • Viewport navigation
  • Use the Content Browser
  • Place and work with objects and static meshes
  • Use BSP to block-in a level layout
  • Use static meshes to construct environments
  • Inserting and using lights such as Directional Light, Spotlights and Pointlights
  • Manage your scene
  • Inserting required/needed level objects such as Lightmass Importance Volume, Player Start, Fog etc
  • Building to scale and proportion
  • Building All function
  • Play testing from the editor
  • Various shortcuts to speed up all of these processes until they are automatic

These are some of the essential basics you should know to become proficient with UE4.

7. Set a Side At Least 1 Hour Each Day for the First 14-28 Days

Set up a system of learning UE4 on daily basis. For the next 2-4 weeks, work for at least one hour per day, every day learning the engine.

One hour is be enough to start with. You can do more, but one hour should be your minimum.

I would also recommend to work in 60-60-30 sessions.

8. Start with UE4 Project Game Templates

Creating your first Unreal Engine 4 project, make sure to use these 3 things:

  • First, use one of the available game templates. There are over 10 to choose from, such as First Person Shooter, Third Person Shooter, Top Down or Side Scroller template. Using any of these will give you the basic gameplay mechanics to use with your project. You could reverse engineer them for learning and build on the existing functionality by adding your own changes.
  • Second, select to use Blueprint. Blueprint is a visual scripting language inside UE4 and does not require you to have any C++ programming knowledge in order to incorporate custom behavior in your project. Blueprints are extremely powerful and you can use it to create your own games and game types without having to learn C++ just yet.
  • Third, include Starter Content with you project. This will give you a few assets (Static Meshes, textures and materials) to use with your work.

Using these 3 elements will set you up on the right track.

So, what should be your very first project with UE4?

9. First Recommended Project: Small Environment with Starter Content

The key to your first UE4 project is to keep it very small. Your goal is to learn UE4 functionality, the fundamentals and principles of using the game engine.

So, the first recommended project for all complete beginners to start with is to create a small environment such a single room, hallway or exterior area with Starter Content.

Small environment will keep the scale of your project down to a reasonable level while you learn UE4, and most importantly - you will finish your project.

Pick a simple idea that supports the Starter Content assets and create a simple environment while focusing on learning the fundamentals of UE4.

Check out this first recommended project as a full tutorials guide series "UE4 Fundamentals", which will take you through all the steps you need to know to learn Unreal Engine 4.

10. Set a Small Project to Learn a Skill

The key is to create a small project that incorporates you learning a new skill. The first recommended project does this. It set up boundaries of self-imposed limitation with Starter Content and creating a small basic environment while learning the fundamentals of UE4.

Each project that is recommended in this article uses the same principle. It defines a small project that can be completed in short amount of time to acquire a certain skill set.

For any new additional skill that you want to learn, follow these steps:

  • Set up a small project
  • Define a clear outcome that you want to achieve at the end of the project - what is the result you are after
  • Work for at least 1 hour per day to complete this small project
  • Have something to show at the end, such as a screenshot or a video of what you have done

As an example if you want to learn Blueprint, you would set up a small project and define a clear outcome. This could be "Complete 3 Blueprint Scenarios" -  create intractable door, switchable/toggleable light and set up player camera for top down gameplay.

You are training yourself to finish what you start. Once you take on a larger project, you've built momentum and experience for completing. At that point you would just be increasing the scale of the environments you create and complexity of games you design.

11. Focus On Learning Skills That You Need Right Now

You want to learn only what you need right now, to finish a project. Do not try to learn everything at once. This is why you don't want to create a game or custom game environment as your first project - too many skills and steps all at once.

The key to learning any game engine, especially UE4 is to set self-imposed limitations.

In order to focus on learning a specific skill it requires you to break learning into skill chunks. Just as you read Principle #4 and #5 of what it takes to create a game or a custom game environment, you would break the large project into a smaller projects, sessions or skill chunk.

Do not read all the books, tutorials and watch all the videos you can find and then sit down and start working on your project. Don't take all of the UE4 information at once. Focus on 1-2 skill areas to accomplish a project.

If you run into a problem, watch a video or read a tutorial - fix the problem and continue with your project. Focus on 1-2 skill chunk at a time.

Here is a quick overview of focusing on what you need right now:

  • Set a project
  • Find tutorials
  • Follow each tutorial and put what you learn into practice right away
  • Learn that skill
  • Have a result to show
  • Move on to the next skill

12. Second Recommended Project: Environment with Custom Content

Once you are more proficient with using UE4 and created your first Starter Content environment - next project is to create a slightly larger environment with a set of new custom static meshes.

These custom static meshes should be either something you already have or something you downloaded from Marketplace/Learn sections.

Don't create your own custom Static Meshes yet.

You want to expand your UE4 knowledge and experience beyond the beginner by forcing yourself to create larger and more unique environment while using a set of Static Meshes already created.

The focus is to construct a game environment with a custom set of Meshes. You are free to explore any idea you want, as long as you find a set of Static Meshes that support it.

Take a look at "UE4 The Corridor Project" tutorial series, which focuses on using a set of custom Static Meshes to construct a game environment.

13. Third Recommended Project: Learn Blueprint to Create Basic Level Interaction

Your third project is to start learning Blueprint.

Blueprint is the visual scripting language inside UE4. So instead of having to learn programming in C++, Blueprint will do the work for you. This means you can script most of the gameplay and game mechanics inside the editor without having to write and compile code yourself. It is possible to create a game using nothing else but Blueprint.

Learn basic functionality with Blueprint to create interactive gameplay elements. Moving platforms, open/close doors, light switch, cause and effect - pick something up and then something happens.

Learning the basics of Blueprint, such as:

  • Opening/Closing a door
  • Toggleable light
  • Moving platform
  • Trigger an event (such as a door to open, light to turn on, object to move)
  • Activating certain events or actions on level load or on player spawn
  • Adding interaction via a button or text on screen

Blueprint is extremely powerful and it is essential to learn it, especially if you are a level designer or game designer.

14. Fourth Recommended Project: Deconstruct and Re-Create Any Blueprint Game Template

Your fourth project is to deconstruct one of UE4 game template such as first person shooter, third person, top-down or any other. Reverse engineer how Epic used Blueprint to create the game template then re-create it yourself.

Pick any of the Blueprint Game templates; learn, take notes and reference it in order to learn as much as you can - then start a new Blank Template and re-create the same functionality.

You can go back and re-open Epic's Game Blueprint template to double check at any time. But don't actually copy/paste anything from the game template, insert each node yourself and re-create it manually.

The Blueprint game template you choose should be similar to the type of game you want to create. So if it is a first person shooter you are after, then re-create the FPS Game Template.

15. Fifth Recommended Project: Model Your Own Static Meshes and Import Them Into UE4

Fifth recommended project is to learn what it to create your own custom Static Meshes and import these models into UE4.

This is where you would need to learn 3d modeling software such as Maya LT, Maya, 3dsMax, Modo or Blender. Then, model, UV, texture, lightmap, create materials and export/import everything into UE4 to construct the environment.

If you want to be a game environment artist, then you have to learn 3d modeling package. If you are a level designer, a programmer or texture artist then learning 3d software is optional. In many game studios and game design teams you would have a specific person dedicated to creating 3d environment art. But depending on the size of a studio/team, many non-environment artists are expected to know how to create and texture their own models.

My own personal take on this topic is if you don't want to become a 3d environment artist, you should still learn to use 3d modeling package. You don't have to master it but knowing how to if you need is a great skill to have. There is only upside to you knowing how to use 3d software. The time it takes to learn it is an investment and it makes you a lot more valuable as an artist.

16. Ask For Help

Throughout all of these projects, do not hesitate to ask for help. But if you get stuck, spend time figuring it out first.  Exhausted your own problem solving skills before turning for help.

Here are places to visit for answers:

What's Next

After you accomplished five recommended projects, you are set to explore UE4 in more advanced topics.

You are now in a great position to explore in starting your own game, creating your own custom environment and go deeper into more advanced UE4 topics.

Recommended UE4 Tutorial series

Here are two recommended premium tutorial guides for Unreal Engine 4:

UE4 Fundamentals: this is a complete beginner guide to learning and using Unreal Engine 4. Highly recommended if you are a complete beginner with UE4. Click here for more info...

UE4 The Corridor Project: this is a bit more intermediate tutorial guide in which you construct a game environment with provided custom Static Meshes, then light it, post-process it and create a fly-through video to show it off. An in-depth guide for putting together an environment from start-to-finish. Click here for more info...

UE4 Fundamentals: Essential Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started with Unreal® Engine 4

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