UE4 Plugins

Following on from the previous post on UE4 modules, I wanted to briefly cover plugins as another form of encapsulation available in UE4.

Plugins vs modules

In UE4, plugins are simply a higher level unit of encapsulation than modules, rather than an alternative approach. Like projects, plugins can contain any number of code modules within them. They can also optionally contain content.

UE4 plugins are not strictly plugins

UE4's concept of a plugin deviates a little from the norm. A true plugin conforms to and implements a pre-existing interface, thereby extending an application in a predefined way. While UE4 plugins can take this approach, they can also export new types and be used as libraries, with project code having a direct dependency on the plugin. See this excellent AnswerHub post for an overview of this distinction.

Another way in which the UE4 approach differs is that, by default at least, its plugins are linked and their content processed when packaging a release build of a project. The underlying architecture may support delaying this process and loading them dynamically as true plugins (I'd be interested to know if anyone has tried), however it certainly doesn't seem to be the intended usage.

Engine level vs project level plugins

Plugins can exist at either the engine level ([UE4 Installation]/Engine/Plugins), or the project level ([Project Folder]/Plugins). In a launcher installation, plugins at the engine level must be prebuilt. Project level plugins containing source code will always be compiled as part of the project build process, regardless of engine installation type.

Creating a plugin

While the editor has a plugin wizard to automate the process, I'm going to go over the manual approach to detail all the elements of a UE4 plugin. In the following example, the plugin is named 'MyPlugin'.

Here is the basic structure of a plugin. The following would be placed in either /Engine/Plugins or [Project Folder]/Plugins.

- MyPlugin
    - MyPlugin.uplugin
    - Source [Optional]
        [C++ modules here]
    - Content [Optional]
    - Config [Optional]
        - FilterPlugin.ini

The plugin descriptor

The plugin descriptor file lives in the root folder of the plugin, and is named [PluginName].uplugin. In this example, 'MyPlugin.uplugin'. Here is a basic example.

{
    "FileVersion": 3,
    "Version": 1,
    "VersionName": "1.0",
    "FriendlyName": "My Plugin",
    "Description": "An example plugin.",
    "Category": "Kantan Dev",
    "Modules": [
        {
            "Name": "MyPluginMainModule",
            "Type": "Runtime",
            "WhitelistPlatforms": [ "Win64", "Win32", "Android", "Mac", "IOS", "Linux" ]
        },
        {
            "Name": "MyPluginEditorModule",
            "Type": "Editor",
            "WhitelistPlatforms": [ "Win64", "Mac", "Linux" ]
        }
    ],
    "EnabledByDefault": false,
    "CanContainContent": true
}

See the official documentation for more details.

Plugin source

The Source folder contains C++ module code, in exactly the same structure as for a project's Source folder. See my earlier post for a rundown of modules.

In the above example, there would be subfolders for two modules, MyPluginMainModule and MyPluginEditorModule.

Plugin content

If you want to include content in your plugin, the easiest way is to create it in the editor in the context of a project. Make sure you have "CanContainContent" in the plugin descriptor set to true. I generally create a dedicated development project for each plugin I make and do all coding and development in the context of that project. In the editor, ensure you have Show Plugin Content enabled in the content browser view options, and you should see a content folder visible for your plugin. You can then create whatever assets you need there.

Note that the editor's content migration does not support moving assets into plugin content folders, and that copying assets between plugin and project content folders in the content browser is also unreliable when it comes to asset references.

Building a plugin

As noted above, at project level, plugin code will be compiled along with project code. However if you intend to distribute a plugin, the recommended way to do so is with the engine's automation tool. On Windows, run the RunUAT batch file located at [UE4 Installation]/Engine/Build/BatchFiles as follows:

RunUAT.bat BuildPlugin -plugin=[path/to/pluginname.uplugin] -package=[path/to/output/directory]

This will compile the plugin code for its whitelisted platforms (for Development, DevelopmentEditor and Shipping configurations), and output the full plugin ready for distribution, including source, intermediate, binaries and content, along with anything specified by the plugin filter (see below).

FilterPlugin.ini

This optional config file specifies any additional files that should be included when building a plugin for distribution using the automation tool as described above. Note that this is not the same as packaging a project which uses a plugin - that is a later step, and any additional files that should also be copied at that stage must be specified separately via the RuntimeDependencies array inside the Build.cs file of one of your plugin's modules.

For example syntax of the FilterPlugin.ini, just run the BuildPlugin command above. An example FilterPlugin.ini file will be generated in /Config directory of the source plugin.

Conclusion

The vast majority of my UE4 programming is done in plugin form. Just like with modules, the encapsulation encourages good design and less dependencies. Plugins can have content bundled with them when necessary, and can be easily shared and reused. They also offer a way of reducing project recompilation time, by putting infrequently changing code into a binary-only or engine level plugin.

UE4 Code Modules

What are UE4 code modules?

In UE4, a module is a distinct unit of C++ code, with an accompanying C# build file. A game project can be made up of one or more modules, as can a plugin. Under the hood, a module corresponds to a dynamic library, although by default in shipping builds all code is linked together into a single executable.

Why use multiple modules?

It's possible to create a game (or plugin) that is composed of a single module, and for smaller projects that's fine. There are a number of reasons to consider splitting up your code however.

  • Encapsulation and organisation. It's always a good idea to encapsulate code as much as possible. Building a component or system in its own module encourages you to keep dependencies down.
  • Code reuse. A module is a natural unit of code for reusing across multiple projects. Separating logically distinct systems at the code level makes it easier to reuse something, even if initially you didn't envisage it being useful outside the project for which you originally wrote it. One effective approach, if you use git, is to put your reusable module(s) into their own git repository, and then incorporate that as a git submodule in any project repository.
  • Configuration-specific code. If you want to write editor extension code for your custom classes and game systems, you should put it into a dedicated Editor module. While preprocessor definitions (#if WITH_EDITOR) can be used in some cases, any non-trivial amount of editor-specific code should go into an Editor module. It's also possible to create Development only modules, so you can have, for example, debugging code which gets automatically compiled out of shipping builds. The same goes for server/client-only code.
  • Platform-specific code. Again, preprocessor macros for platform-specific code should be kept to a minimum. It's possible to provide platform-specific implementations of project components, each in their own module, and selectively build and package based on the target.

Adding a module

For the remainder of this article, wherever you see 'YourModuleName', regardless of case, be it as part of a filename or in code, replace it with whatever you want to name your module.

Adding an extra module is essentially the same whether you're adding it to a project or a plugin. Inside the source directory, create a new folder named YourModuleName. Within that, you first need the module build file, named YourModuleName.Build.cs. A basic one will look something like this:

// YourModuleName.Build.cs

using UnrealBuildTool;

public class YourModuleName : ModuleRules
{
    public YourModuleName(ReadOnlyTargetRules Target) : base(Target)
    {
        PCHUsage = PCHUsageMode.UseExplicitOrSharedPCHs;

        PublicDependencyModuleNames.AddRange(new string[] {
            "Core",
            "CoreUObject",
            "Engine",
            });
    }
}

Then you will want to add two folders, named Public and Private. The source (.cpp) files always go in the Private folder. Header files can go in either. If they define types or functions that you want to use from code inside other modules, put them in Public. Otherwise, put them in Private for maximum encapsulation.

A bare minimum compilable module requires a source file (YourModuleNameModule.cpp is a good standard) in the Private folder containing the following:

#include "ModuleManager.h"
IMPLEMENT_MODULE(FDefaultModuleImpl, YourModuleName);

To ensure your module gets built with your project, you can add a reference to it in your target file (YourProjectName.Target.cs/YourProjectNameEditor.Target.cs) as follows:

ExtraModuleNames.Add("YourModule");

However, in practice you will generally have a dependency chain connecting your module to the main project module (through one or more PublicDependencyModuleNames additions in .Build.cs files), in which case this step is not actually necessary.

Finally, you need to add a module reference to the .uproject (or .uplugin) descriptor, in the "Modules" array:

...
"Modules": [
    {
        ...,
        {
            "Name": YourModuleName,
            "Type": "Runtime",
            "LoadingPhase": "Default"
        }
    }
],
...

See the engine documentation for information on options for module type and loading phase. The linked page is written for plugins, but is the most up-to-date and also applies for adding modules at the project level.

Exposing code to other modules

In some cases, your module might not need to expose anything at all. It could just define some AActor/UObject types that will be picked up by the engine for use in the editor only, or it might just be registering some editor extensions. Often, however, you'll write a module that acts as a library, providing types and functionality to be used by other module code. In that case, you need to explicitly provide access to those elements.

I'll just detail the standard approach here. There is an alternative that has some benefits as well as restrictions, but I'll leave that for a later article.

In your public headers, add the YOURMODULENAME_API macro to declarations of types or functions that should be exposed.

// Exposed code from module 'YourModuleName', for use in other modules.

UCLASS()
class YOURMODULENAME_API AMyActor: public AActor
{...};

struct YOURMODULENAME_API FMyStruct
{...};

YOURMODULENAME_API void MyFunction();

Then these specific types/functions will be accessible from within the code of other modules. Your other module will need to add a static dependency in its build file. For example, if SomeOtherModule needs to use types from YourModuleName, add the following to SomeOtherModule.Build.cs:

PublicDependencyModuleNames.Add("YourModuleName");

Examples

The repository containing source code examples for other articles on this site has been written in modular form, so is a good reference. Kantan Charts, also on Github, is another example of using multiple modules, this time in the context of a plugin.

Conclusion

Reducing dependencies and keeping code organized can save you some major headaches down the line. Modules are great, use them!

I'll go into some more details, and also touch on plugins, in another article soon.

Details Panel Customization

The UE4 details panel is used all over the editor for displaying properties of actors, blueprint defaults, settings and the like. It's possible to customize which properties are displayed and how they appear, which can really help to make things easier and more intuitive for designers.

You can pretty much do whatever you want within a customization, the API is extensive and you can add whatever Slate widgets you like. This article will focus on the basics of registering a customization and accessing categories and properties.

Setup

The setup requirements are unfortunately a bit of a hassle, especially if you don't already have an editor module in your project. While the customization system is very flexible, it's a little annoying to have to go through this process when you only want to make a very minor customization.

The first step is to add an editor module to your project or plugin. The process for that is outside the scope of this article, but there's a good explanation of it on the UE4 wiki. For details customization, make sure you have the "Slate", "SlateCore", "UnrealEd" and "PropertyEditor" modules added to your dependency module names list in your editor module's .build.cs file.

Next up, add a header and cpp file to this module for the customization class. The header is very straightforward, just derive from IDetailCustomization and override the CustomizeDetails method. Note that you'll want one of these classes for each individual UCLASS that you intend to customize.

// MyCustomization.h
#pragma once

#include "IDetailCustomization.h"

class FMyCustomization: public IDetailCustomization
{
public:
    // IDetailCustomization interface
    virtual void CustomizeDetails(IDetailLayoutBuilder& DetailBuilder) override;
    //

    static TSharedRef< IDetailCustomization > MakeInstance();
};

The MakeInstance static method is just a convenience helper.

In your cpp file, the boilerplate implementation looks as follows:

// MyCustomization.cpp
#include "MyEditorModulePCH.h"
#include "MyCustomization.h"
#include "MyClass.h" // The class we're customizing
#include "PropertyEditing.h"

#define LOCTEXT_NAMESPACE "MyEditorModule"

TSharedRef< IDetailCustomization > FMyCustomization::MakeInstance()
{
    return MakeShareable(new FMyCustomization);
}

void FMyCustomization::CustomizeDetails(IDetailLayoutBuilder& DetailBuilder)
{
    // This is where the core of the customization code will go.
}

#undef LOCTEXT_NAMESPACE

It's also necessary to register your customization, to tell UE4 which UCLASS should use the customization. In theory this can be done anywhere, but generally you will want to add the following to your editor module's StartupModule method:

// Register detail customizations
{
    auto& PropertyModule = FModuleManager::LoadModuleChecked< FPropertyEditorModule >("PropertyEditor");

    // Register our customization to be used by a class 'UMyClass' or 'AMyClass'. Note the prefix must be dropped.
    PropertyModule.RegisterCustomClassLayout(
        "MyClass",
        FOnGetDetailCustomizationInstance::CreateStatic(&FMyCustomization::MakeInstance)
        );

    PropertyModule.NotifyCustomizationModuleChanged();
}

Note you should also #include "PropertyEditorModule.h" at the top of the file.
Ideally, unregister the customization when you're done with it - usually in the ShutdownModule method.

if(FModuleManager::Get().IsModuleLoaded("PropertyEditor"))
{
    auto& PropertyModule = FModuleManager::LoadModuleChecked<FPropertyEditorModule>("PropertyEditor");

    PropertyModule.UnregisterCustomClassLayout("MyClass");
}

Customizing

Okay, with that done, let's return to the CustomizeDetails method of your customization class. This is where you add the code that will change how your class's properties are displayed. We'll assume that the class we've customized is defined as follows:

UCLASS()
class UMyClass: public UObject
{
    GENERATED_BODY()
    
public:
    UPROPERTY(EditAnywhere, Category = "Cat A")
    FString BaseString;

    UPROPERTY(EditAnywhere, Category = "Cat A")
    int32 Count;
    
    UPROPERTY(VisibleAnywhere, Category = "Cat B")
    TArray< FString > GeneratedList;
};

Property Handles

The customization framework is built on the IPropertyHandle type, which represents a particular UPROPERTY on your class, but can potentially be linked to the value of that property on multiple instances of your class (for example, if you are viewing properties of selected actors in a level and have more than one actor selected).

Retrieve a property handle as follows:

TSharedRef< IPropertyHandle > Prop = DetailBuilder.GetProperty(GET_MEMBER_NAME_CHECKED(UMyClass, BaseString));

The GetProperty method takes an FName identifying the property. GET_MEMBER_NAME_CHECKED is not required, but is a useful macro that will protect against possible mistakes when naming properties with strings, by letting you know at compile time if no property exists with the name given.

You should generally check the resulting handle for validity (IPropertyHandle::IsValidHandle()) before using it. Properties can be unavailable in some circumstances, for example as a result of metadata specifiers used in the UPROPERTY macro.

IPropertyHandle encapsulates a lot of functionality. You can use it to get and set the underlying value, register OnChanged handlers, and access child handles in the case of structs and arrays.

Categories

Properties are divided into categories as specified by the Category metadata. You are free to reorganize property categories within a customization, to hide existing categories and to create new ones. You access a category builder by calling:

IDetailCategoryBuilder& Cat = DetailBuilder.EditCategory(TEXT("CatName"));

Note that for UCLASS customizations, any properties that you don't specifically modify or hide will be added to the details panel below those that you do customize, within their default category.

Basic Operations

// Note hiding is done using the DetailBuilder, not the CategoryBuilder
DetailBuilder.HideProperty(Prop);

// Hide an entire category
DetailBuilder.HideCategory(TEXT("CatName"));

// Add a property to a category (properties will be shown in the order you add them)
Cat.AddProperty(Prop);

Dynamic State

Using Slate attributes, it's easy to have property state such as visibility and enabled state determined dynamically. The AddProperty method returns a reference to an IDetailPropertyRow interface that provides this functionality. Unfortunately sometimes you're forced to write some rather ugly boilerplate...

auto OnGetPropVisibility = [] { return /* Query some state here */ ? EVisibility::Visible : EVisibility::Collapsed; };
auto PropVisibilityAttr = TAttribute< EVisibility >::Create(TAttribute< EVisibility >::FGetter::CreateLambda(OnGetPropVisibility));

Cat.AddProperty(Prop).Visibility(PropVisibilityAttr);

With the above code, the engine will call back into the OnGetPropVisibility lambda each frame to determine whether the property should be shown or not.

Accessing the Customized Object(s)

Some simple customizations may not require direct access to the objects being customized, but often it's useful. Remember that the details panel may be displaying multiple objects at any one time.

TArray< TWeakObjectPtr< UObject > > Objects;
DetailBuilder.GetObjectsBeingCustomized(Objects);

In practice, I've found that for most non-trivial customizations, it makes sense to restrict the customization to a single object at a time. The following check (along with the above two lines of code) at the top of your CustomizeDetails override can be used to fall back onto the default details display whenever multiple objects are being viewed.

if (Objects.Num() != 1)
{
    return;
}

You'll then generally want to cast the single object to the class type for which you've registered your customization. Using a TWeakObjectPtr here is useful for being able to safely capture the object in any callback lambdas you may create.

TWeakObjectPtr< UMyClass > MyObject = Cast< UMyClass >(Objects[0].Get());

If you're not a fan of lambdas, you may want to store it in a member variable on your customization class. If you do so, be sure to store it as a TWeakObjectPtr and check for validity when accessing it in event handlers.

Custom Rows

If you're writing a customization, you probably want to do more than just rearrange properties. Custom rows let you add arbitrary Slate widgets to the details panel. Here's an example based on the class definition given above.

/*
Showing a warning message about invalid property values.
(Note that customizations can also be used to enforce validation on user-entered property values).
*/
auto OnGetWarningVisibility = [MyObject]
{
    return MyObject.IsValid() && MyObject->BaseString.IsEmpty() ? EVisibility::Visible : EVisibility::Collapsed;
};
auto WarningVisibilityAttr = TAttribute< EVisibility >::Create(TAttribute< EVisibility >::FGetter::CreateLambda(OnGetWarningVisibility));

Cat.AddCustomRow(LOCTEXT("MyWarningRowFilterString", "Search Filter Keywords"))
.Visibility(WarningVisibilityAttr)
.WholeRowContent()
    [
        SNew(STextBlock)
        .Text(LOCTEXT("MyWarningTest", "BaseString should not be empty!"))
    ];

/*
Displaying a button that triggers editor-time processing.
*/
auto OnRegenerate = [MyObject]
{
    if(MyObject.IsValid())
    {
        MyObject->GeneratedList.Empty();
        for(int32 i = 0; i < MyObject->Count; ++i)
        {
            MyObject->GeneratedList.Add(MyObject->BaseString + TEXT("_") + (MyObject->Count + 1));
        }
    }
    
    return FReply::Handled();
};

Cat.AddCustomRow(LOCTEXT("MyButtonRowFilterString", "Search Filter Keywords"))
.WholeRowContent()
    [
        SNew(SButton)
        .Text(LOCTEXT("RegenerateBtnText", "Regenerate List"))
        .OnClicked_Lambda(OnRegenerate)
    ];

Refreshing

For most cases, using dynamic updates as above is the easiest. Once in a while though, you may just want to force the details panel to refresh and call your CustomizeDetails method again from scratch. You'll generally want to do this from within a handler that you've added to one of your custom controls, or perhaps a property changed event.

DetailBuilder.ForceRefreshDetails();

The above will require you to either capture the DetailBuilder reference in your lambda, or if using method delegates rather than lambdas, store a pointer to it inside your customization class.

Further Info

That turned out to be rather long, and yet it really only touched the surface. For more details, I'd recommend checking out the various interface types mentioned above in the API reference, starting here. There's also the offical docs page here, which has some great info but is unfortunately rather out of date when it comes to the code.

Also, this wiki article covers some aspects of customization that I haven't, for example USTRUCT customization.

Any questions, just post in the comments.

So what is it?

This site will be the hub for all my UE4 related work and projects, both community and marketplace.

I plan to post articles focussed on specific UE4 C++ programming tasks, some covered in depth, others just code snippets. All associated code will be available on my Github page. I may also put up some dev blogs on work-in-progress projects from time to time.

It's my first website so bear with me, and let me know if you have any feedback or requests.

So what is it?
No, we won't go there.