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Epic's free MetaHuman Creator software is pretty amazing

A virtual woman smiling.
(Image credit: Epic Games)

Epic Games launched MetaHuman Creator this week. It's a videogame character creation tool, essentially, but it's free, it isn't followed by a 140-hour RPG, it runs in your browser (actually in the omnipresent "cloud"), and it can export ready-to-use character models for Unreal Engine projects. To try it, you have to sign up here, and it might take a little while to get your invite.

I'm probably never going to use one of my "MetaHumans" for an Unreal Engine project (which is all you're allowed to use them for), because that seems hard, but MetaHuman Creator itself is easy to use. And fun. Who doesn't love a good character creator? You can sculpt features by clicking and dragging parts of the face, as well as blend the features of included faces together, which is so effortless that it seems obvious—I'm sure the trigonometry under the hood is no big deal, right?

There are also granular options for eyes (how do you feel about sclera vascularity?) and teeth (plaque slider confirmed), skin and makeup options, a handful of hairstyles to choose from, and a few facial hair options.

MetaHuman Creator isn't a fully-featured 3D modeling tool, and doesn't interpret your inputs literally, say, by moving the tip of the nose wherever you drag it. It morphs features according to your input while keeping the face within certain face-like parameters; there are constraints, and you can't use it to make any kind of person. It includes 60 face presets, though, which is more than enough to blend and sculpt unique characters. After tinkering for under an hour I'd created someone who doesn't really look like anyone else, but who does look like a real person. It's pretty wild. 

And there's something even wilder to discover. MetaHumans Creator was built by a pair of Epic-owned studios, 3Lateral and Cubic Motion, the latter of which does facial animation. The software includes three built-in animation sequences. Hit one, and your made-up human starts realistically yawning and puffing up their cheeks. The animations are nuanced enough that you can tell that the character is only pretending to smile at one point—smiling for a camera. But this character, or at least their facial structure, didn't exist an hour ago. 

Sometimes I have to shake myself out of a sort of technology numbness. 10 years ago, I did not imagine that I'd have free access to something like this. I was playing Skyrim and thought it looked really good.

The limited hairstyle options and minimal hair customization will give away that a character was made with MetaHuman Creator, and I suspect after a while you might notice recurring nose and ear shapes and skin textures and so on. But 3D artists can export their MetaHuman characters and edit them in Autodesk Maya or other applications, making them as unique as they want, and then animate them by hand or with their own performance capture, using something like FaceWare.

The one rule is that you can only publish characters you make with MetaHuman Creator in Unreal Engine projects, binding them to Epic's Unreal license. That license is quite permissive for small projects: You can use the Unreal development kit free, and if you publish a game made with it, you don't pay Epic any royalties until you've made at least $1 million in revenue. After that, the royalty is five percent.

To use this early access release of MetaHuman Creator, you have to sign up on a registration page. There are no requirements to register, but it did take me a day to get the email saying I could jump in. 

I hadn't used this kind of cloud-based software before, and I am reluctantly impressed. I've been using it via Chrome, and it reacts very near instantly to my input. Sessions are limited to one hour right now, but you can start a new session right after you get booted, and it automatically saves your work. I had to briefly queue to get back in once, but not for more than a minute.

MetaHuman Creator might be considered one aspect of Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney's long term vision for a gaming "metaverse," a vision that just helped Epic pull in another $1 billion in funding. That vision encompasses lots of different ideas, including stuff like crossplay, but part of the plan is to produce technology that allows more people to make more stuff—growing the "creator economy," in tech industry speak. (We used to call it "indie game development.") Valve and Unity have been big players in making powerful development tools more accessible, too. 

I'm sure I can hardly imagine what small development teams will be able to produce in the future using the powerful technology of big companies like this. At the same time, it feels inevitable that a low-fi, hand-coded and modeled game development scene will continue to exist, and perhaps grow as a countermovement.

Tyler has spent over 1,200 hours playing Rocket League, and slightly fewer nitpicking the PC Gamer style guide. His primary news beat is game stores: Steam, Epic, and whatever launcher squeezes into our taskbars next.