During the 90s, PC gaming was king. Refute that all you want, but know that whatever you say, you’re wrong. Nowadays, though, hmmm. Not. So. Hot. Consoles are king, while PC games sit in a heap at the King’s throne, wondering where it all went wrong. Mark Rein’s wondering where it all went wrong. And it’s breaking his poor little heart:
When [Activision’s] Call of Duty 4 came out, I heard some of our guys sitting around talking about the great game they’d had last night and I’m like, ‘Hey guys, what server are you playing on? I’d love to come and join you,’ and they said, ‘Just send us a friends request.’ It was at that point I realized they were all playing it on console.
The Mark Rein interview
The reaction has been great. We just got a 5/5 review from Official PlayStation Magazine here in the USA! From what I’ve seen people are really liking the game and they should; it’s a great game, and runs really well on PS3. Personally, I’m very pleased with the game – I’ve played it a lot on PS3. There seems to be a nice groundswell around the mods as well, which is really good because we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do in that area in the long-term.
What sort of mods are proving popular on PS3?
Well, it’s a little hard to tell as we’ve only had the tools out there for a few weeks, but there are some really great mods out there already. There’s one that gives you an over-the-shoulder view, like you’d see in Gears of War; there’s a vehicle mod which changes a lot of the capabilities of the vehicles. There’s a mod where you get the hover board in Deathmatch and other modes, which I think is awesome, because I love using the hover board.
Of course, there are all kinds of very cool custom maps as well. I played a map today that looks like a bedroom, and is scaled up to make you appear very small. This is a recreation of maps we’ve seen in previous Unreal Tournament generations. The trend at the beginning of any new Unreal Tournament generation is to recreated beloved things from the past, which is great fun. But I think people will soon figure out how to take advantage of the more powerful tools we have now and do some really amazing things.
We’re going to have a big mod contest starting soon and I think that will spur on innovation even more. We’re hoping to have a category specifically for PS3 mods. PCs obviously have a lot more memory, so it is possible for a mod to be too big for the PS3, but all of our game levels run on both so we don’t foresee that as a problem.
Do you think people will start to develop mods specifically with PS3 in mind?
Yes, I think they will. Some game types, and control perspective, lend themselves better to using a gamepad so I suspect we’ll see some mods designed specifically for the PS3. The over-the-shoulder view mods have a lot more appeal on a console than on PC, in my opinion, because 3rd person games are so much more prevalent there.
Is a version of UT3 editor ever possible on a console?
No, it’s just not practical. First of all, for many types of mods, you rely on more software than just the Unreal Editor – tools like modeling software (like 3D Studio Max) or bitmap editing software (like Photoshop). Secondly, the editor is a huge program that acts as a front-end to the game, so it eats up a lot of memory, storage and disc space. The memory on the PS3 is hard limited to 512Mb which isn’t really enough to run the editor well.
What about something along the lines of the map editor provided with, say, Timesplitters?
Why would you do that when people can do anything they want with Unreal editor? The modding aspect of that type of editor is just a tiny fraction of what you can do with Unreal Tournament 3. If you want to take one of our maps, make a few changes, and move some stuff around, you can. I mean, we give you the sun, the moon and the earth to play with – they give you a tree.
What’s the future of user-generated content on console?
The beautiful thing about user-generated content on a console is you know exactly what your target environment is. You know exactly what machine people have, what its capabilities are, how many polygons it can handle, how much memory it has, how fast it runs… so you can tune your game to be just right for that environment. You can really push it right to the edge. Whereas when you’re making stuff for PC, the difference in performance from the lowest to the highest end machines requires you to work much harder if you’re trying to address the full audience. Most mod makers don’t aim for the middle, they aim for the top. They tend to be real gaming enthusiasts with higher-end PCs and they’re testing their mods on those uber-machines. We love those guys!
But what elements of the user-gen experience do you think will particularly appeal to a mainstream audience? Map editing? Character design?
At the high-end, for things like people creating highly modified game experiences or completely new content, I don’t see creation of user-generated content to be a mainstream activity. But playing and consuming that content could easily become that.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have games like Halo 3 and Tiger Woods which let you make your own movies of your games and share them. Or you have the ability, in games like Rainbow Six Vegas and Tiger Woods, to put your face in the game, or in Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, to highly customize your vehicle. People who join you in games online are consuming your user-created content even if they aren’t aware of it.
Then you’ve got Unreal Tournament 3 where you can craft entirely new experiences for people. With Unreal, you can push it so far and be totally uninhibited; you can create your own weapons, your own vehicles, your own environments, change the way the game works, write your own code, use Kismet, our visual scripting tool, and create mutators. I mean, there’s just so much you can do that might take a little expertise to pull off – yet no expertise, short of installing the mod, for other people to play and enjoy.
Do I think there’s going to be a user-generated content revolution? Yes, but it will be different things to different people. Right now, we’re barely scratching the surface – we’re just letting users trade little things they made over the internet. Later on we hope to do more with it, make content easier to find, make some of it more official – highlight the really great content and make it much easier to get it onto your machine … so in the future, gamers who buy a game like this are hopefully going to be able to get a whole bunch of free, extra cool content – and hopefully, some of the guys who make that content will become developers further down the road. A lot of the guys here at Epic previously worked on mods.
At some point, I’d like to work with the creators of some of the professional quality mods to help take them to the next level and work with us to build a marketplace where they can make some money off their content.
What’s the most surprising development you’ve seen from UT3 mod community?
They all surprise me! I don’t want to pick out just one as I’ll go on the forums later and find 4000 people are mad at me. But honestly it’s always surprising when I download a mod and see how much work and dedication has gone in to it. I think we’re going to see the rise of websites that aggregate mods, show off the best ones, and let visitors rate and talk about them. There’s a very good little UT3 PS3-related mod blog today at http://www.ut3mod.com/.
Are you any closer to resolving the problem of getting user-gen content into the Xbox 360 version?
Not yet but we’re hopeful. Microsoft hasn’t said “no” yet, but then they haven’t said “yes” either. We need them to say “yes,” and we need them to do it soon.
So it’s technically possible?
Sure. I mean, you can go onto the console and copy your songs on to it and play movies off a memory card – the machine’s capable of allowing you to transfer your content around, and even letting you play your music while playing many games.
So why wouldn’t Microsoft say yes? Is there a fear of losing control of Xbox Live?
Well, yeah and we don’t fault them for that. They’ve got a closed system where everything’s checked, users know the quality of everything they download, and you know it won’t crash your machine. User generated content – well, it can be dangerous, you could theoretically download a mod that uses too much memory and crashes your machine.
I think Sony are real pioneers in this – I think they deserve a lot of credit for letting us do this. They’re really doing something different, and it hints at what they want to do with the PlayStation Network in the future. They’re definitely on the right track!
If it doesn’t work out with Xbox 360, depending on sales of the game on that platform, I imagine we’ll find a few of the best mods and get them on Xbox Live Marketplace. I don’t think 360 users are going to suffer drastically – they’re just going to miss out on a lot of crazy, cool fun stuff and the ability to exchange it among themselves. They may also end up paying for content that is free on other systems because Microsoft now has to host it and certify it. But I’m confident Microsoft will look at what’s happened with UT3 on the PS3 so far and think, ‘Well, we’ll take that baby step with you,’ because what we’ve done so far really is just a baby step if you think about it. You’ve got to go online, you gotta download the mod, and you’re responsible for putting it on your machine yourself. There are some exceptions – there are mutators, which modify how gameplay works, that are pretty small – and we let those auto download, but most of the other stuff you’ve got to go and say ‘I’m going to install this on my machine.’ We hope to change that in the future.
So it really is the user knowing what he’s doing. He’s not accidentally going to a server which has this really horrific mod on it… and if you do find a horrific mod we have a way to make sure that people can’t serve that mod for other users. I think we’re going to do much more with the PS3 version – maybe have an easier way to download mods, a way to auto download some that have been approved, ideas like that. We’re looking at ways of taking the mod scene and making it better and broader.
The game is up and running on Xbox 360 – it has been for a long time, and its running wonderfully – it just doesn’t have any Xbox Live written into it yet so that’s the work that remains.
Were you concerned about bringing an arena-based shooter into the console market where traditionally, narrative/exploration-based FPS titles have dominated?
No, we recognise that there’s a smaller market for multiplayer-focused games – but we love Unreal Tournament – and we have a real passion for it. It’s so much fun to play, and the people who do play it are so passionate about it. So, why not? And we learned so much about making good controls with Gears of War that we decided we’ve got to do this game on console – we just needed to widen the market to make it worthwhile, from a business perspective. I was kind of shocked by how well it plays with the controller; we do support keyboard and mouse with PS3, but I never play it that way when I’m playing on PS3.
What about the future of Unreal Tournament? Can you get many more games out of the arena-based formula?
It’s too early to tell. We’re concentrating on UT3, and we still have some more stuff on the way for that.
Can you tell us what we can expect?
So what else is going on at Epic? What’s Tim Sweeney up to?
He’s working on research for our next-generation engine.
Oh yes, Unreal Engine 4?
Yes, but it’s a one-man research project at this point in time. There isn’t a whole team working on it yet, and it will require a new generation of hardware to power it.
Epic games seem to have quite a singular aesthetic – they have a sort of semi-industrial, semi-gothic look – and it’s all very finely realised and detailed. Where does this come from? When you look at Gears of War and UT3, you can tell straightaway they’re Epic titles…
I think that’s a bit of a coincidence. Really, when you look beyond the military characters – at the female characters, the robots, the aliens and the environments, they’re really different.
But there’s something equally stylised and self-conscious about them…
Well, Gears of War is very stylised… I suppose they both share the same art director, and a lot of the same artists worked on both games, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t come up with a completely different look next time around.
Do you see a future where Epic develops a game completely outside of the first- or even third-person shooter genres and just does something completely different?
I don’t see that happening in the short-term. I’d love to get a small team working on some cool stuff, but the problem is they get sucked in to the larger projects. A big game like UT3 has a certain amount of gravity and it just pulls people in. We love making shooters, and I’m certain there are still countless ways we can improve in that genre. We look at Gears of War and we see the pimples, we look at UT3 and think ‘we should also do this, we should also try that, if only we had more time and more people, we could have done…’ so I think we’re continually looking at our own games and thinking there are lots of unfinished puzzles left to solve before we move on to something else.
And, obviously, all game developers are constantly looking at each others’ work for inspiration. There’s still a lot of low hanging fruit in this genre – we need to pick some more of that.
Do you mean in terms of graphics, gameplay..?
Everything. Graphics, gameplay, multiplayer features, online support, interoperability between the game and, say, websites. We can always make a weapon feel that much cooler, always come up with a cooler weapon idea that people will love even more. You can always improve the look of a character a little bit, you can always make your environments look a little bigger and bolder, you can always get a little more performance out of the hardware.
The really interesting thing is that Unreal Engine 3 performs a lot better now than it did when we shipped Gears of War, so that gives us more headroom. We’re constantly improving. At GDC this year, we going to roll out some new improvements we’re making to the engine – some new graphics techniques, new capabilities – most of them are still in development. But we’re constantly getting better at using the technology we have.
Traditionally the FPS was very much a strong point for PC, but now do you think consoles are catching up?
I’m a real fan of the PC, but yes, consoles are definitely stealing a lot of hardcore gamers from the PC. When Call of Duty 4 came out, I heard some of our guys sitting around talking about the great game they’d had last night and I’m like, ‘Hey guys, what server are you playing on? I’d love to come and join you,’ and they said, ‘Just send us a friends request,’ It was at that point I realized they were all playing it on console. Plus, the sales of the console versions are something like ten times the sales of the PC versions.
So how many people are working at Epic and how many on each title?
Right now, we’re around 95 people in total, I think. Team sizes are quite elastic – at times there were five or six people working on Gears of War; towards the end, we slammed 50 people onto it. I’d say the average team size for our games is about 30.
How democratic is the development process?
Everyone’s opinion is heard. Anyone at the company can speak up about a game design or gameplay issue and they get heard. We have no shortage of good ideas. For example, with UT3 we would have loved to do more game modes, but the decision was made to concentrate on making the core game modes better. I think we accomplished that, and we’ve built a solid base to build on. I think this is the best UT game we’ve ever made. And now we, and the modding community, have a really strong base to work on for the future. So we’ve extended our democracy to the mod makers, and we’re letting them help shape the future of this franchise through their creativity and talent.