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In-Depth: Mark Rein On Unreal Engine 3, The State Of Epic
In-Depth: Mark Rein On Unreal Engine 3, The State Of Epic Exclusive
May 30, 2008 | By Christian Nutt




In April, Midway had an Editors Day in Las Vegas to show off its fall lineup, as covered in detail by Gamasutra.

In attendance was Epic Games vice president Mark Rein, who was there to speak about Midway's adoption of Unreal Engine 3 as studio-wide core tech (as discussed by CEO Matt Booty with Gamasutra earlier), as well as the Midway-published Unreal Tournament III, which is due out of the Xbox 360 in the near future.

Here, Rein shares his insight into this, as well as the current state and future of the engine, and the future of the studio's Unreal Tournament III.

When we last spoke, you were talking about how Sony was very keen to embrace the modding in Unreal Tournament III, and that obviously came off without a hitch, for the most part. At least, it's in there, and it works and people are building content. You were talking about having some difficulty with Microsoft in that regard. The game's coming to the 360 now, definitively, but what about the user-generated content?

Mark Rein: We're still working on that. I'm cautiously optimistic to find a solution. We're still talking to Microsoft about that. User-created content - at least some of it - will play some role in this game on the Xbox 360.

We'll figure out a way to do that. Whether it means users will be able to exchange it themselves, or if we'll have to pick a few of our favorites and bring them in as DLC, we don't know yet. But we're still talking with them, so it's not a dead issue yet. It probably won't have anything in the game when it's shipped, so it will probably be an after-the-fact kind of thing.

A Title Update?

MR: Yeah. Hopefully.

From a strategic perspective, do you think that Microsoft is kind of missing the boat on user-generated content? The N+ team had a similar problem. They originally had it so that you could download maps, and they had to yank it out at the eleventh hour.

MR: Well, I think [Microsoft has] a different philosophy than Sony. That's not to say that theirs is bad or Sony's is better, but we certainly enjoyed a lot of freedom with Sony. It's just a different philosophy. I mean, there's a web browser, for example, on PlayStation 3. That just shows you that they think differently there.

Obviously, things have shaped up with the engine. As you said, it took until Unreal Tournament III shipped on the PlayStation 3 for the Unreal Engine to be fully ready for the PlayStation 3. So, everything is fully ready and the titles we've seen coming out now on the PlayStation 3 are finally getting the full power of the Unreal Engine and everything's working?

MR: Well, Rainbow Six Vegas shipped a long time ago on the PlayStation 3, well before UT3, so certainly it's possible to ship a game before us, but obviously, it's a lot easier if we blaze the trail and get everything in good shape. I mean, we've got to be the number one licensed engine on PlayStation 3.

Now there's tons of titles. It's like a floodgate opened and tons of titles have been shipping on the PlayStation 3. That's really great. We're really proud of that. And I'm especially proud of the things Midway is doing here.

I love walking up to This is Vegas and going, "That looks just like Gears of War!" Truly, it doesn't look anything like Gears of War, right? It just kills me when people say, "Oh, there's that unmistakable Unreal Engine look." Really? Show me that in Vegas. I mean, there was a certain... if two games look the same, it's intentional.

But on the other hand, I've seen a lot of Unreal Engine games - things that are not shipping until this fall - and a lot of them are ripping off Gears' cover system.

MR: Well, what do they say? "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?" I'm sure we've flattered people that have came before us too.

I think they're directly borrowing it from the source code, potentially.

MR: (laughter)

No comment?

MR: Well, we gave them the source code.

It's interesting to see how an engine can or cannot influence a design.

MR: I don't think that's an engine thing. I think that's... and we've seen games that don't use our engine use a very similar cover system to us. I think it's something that we luckily stumbled upon that I'm sure we stole from somebody else, and it turns out to be something people really like and it caught on.

So yeah, I mean, that's great. I was expecting to see that. We used Halo's control scheme, because they figured out how to make shooters work really well on consoles.

Games are always going to build on what came before them, and that's what's going to keep making them better. People are saying, "Oh, are people going to get tired of first-person shooters?" No, because people are going to keep iterating and keep making games better and better and building on things that came before them and just get better.

That's just a natural evolution of this industry, and many industries. Pretty much any industry, for that matter. That's okay.

I want to talk to you about how Midway has embraced the Unreal Engine and has made this the center of this incredibly expensive, elaborate, and multi-year codebase. They've developed a tech-sharing solution, which I think is pretty damn pervasive through the company.

MR: It is. It's foresight. I think... let's talk about the elephant in the room. Midway hasn't been a profitable publisher for a while now, but we thought for a while now that they were putting all the right pieces in place. We knew about some of these games quite a while ago. Obviously, they did a couple of shooters. They did Stranglehold and BlackSite and Hour of Victory.

God, I forgot Hour of Victory.

MR: But you know, a couple of, "Let's get something out," games. But these games they've been working on for quite a while, and this is really the fruit of those seeds that were planted three or four years ago, or whenever it was.

Matt Booty is really that guy. It's great that he's a CEO now, because he was the guy who saw that and said, "We need to move in this direction." There's going to be some pain involved, but nothing worth doing is easy. I think they've done a spectacular job.

I think Vegas looks great. I think Wheelman looks great. And TNA is 60 frames per second and silky smooth. It's one of the best-looking fighting games. And Mortal Kombat, we just saw one sliver of it, but we know it's going to be great. And there's others. Those are just the ones you've heard of.

They've building this code base and shared relationship, and it's sort of all founded on Unreal. Are you licensing this per-title still, or is this a bigger, differently handled relationship?

MR: Well, Midway has what we call a studio-wide license. It's an unlimited number. They can make all the titles they want with it.

And that's something you work out with the studio on a different set of terms.

MR: Yeah.

EA's been using Unreal too.

MR: Well, we just did a big deal with EA. EA is one of our largest customers now, with Unreal Engine 3.

Well, they're one of anybody's largest customers.

MR: You saw the announcement last week, right?

Yeah.

MR: Big deal. We're proud of that.

It's interesting. It seems like now more than ever, Unreal is relevant, I guess. It's always been the bastion of PC gaming, but now that consoles and PCs are on the same page, almost -

MR: There's no question that we were lucky that Microsoft and Sony moved to hardware that was right where we were heading. I call it lucky, but obviously, Tim Sweeney is a brilliant man, and he had a very good idea of what the new hardware was going to be and a good guess of what the consoles were going to be, and he's doing the same thing for five or ten years from now, for the next thing.

There's obviously a lot of skill and preparation there, and there's some luck, in terms of what the console vendors choose to use as hardware. It just worked out really well for us. We prepared and worked hard to get in as early as we possibly could and not be a launch title technology, because launch titles are generally updated versions of last generation's games. I don't think we made any secret about that.

We were planning to be the engine for this generation, not the engine for the launch day. We worked really hard. We have an amazing engine team. These guys are really fantastic. They really know their stuff. They're constantly challenging themselves to do something cooler and better.

As you saw, we introduced a whole bunch of things at GDC, and as Tim said in his speech, there will be a whole bunch next year and the year after that. It's pretty exciting for us to keep this fire burning, and I think it's going to be a strong player throughout this entire generation.

And we're only going to get stronger from here. You're going to see as companies like Midway are in their second-generation Unreal Engine games, they're going to get better and better at using it in the same way that we're getting better and better at using it with each new game that we bring out with it.

Something that interests me is... Lost Odyssey is an interesting example of an atypical Unreal Engine game that's shipped. It was developed in Japan, and supporting that market with your technology was a little bit harder for them to want to -

MR: Japan is tough. It's a tough nut to crack. They have very different development philosophies there, so it's hard to get on the same page with Japanese developers. We've found that's a challenge. There's a bit of a language barrier there.

And Korea... gosh, it seems like every week we're announcing a new Korean licensee. Much less of a problem there. But Japanese developers have been doing it longer, and they're a little more stuck in their ways.

But we're gradually unjamming that. Square Enix is making an amazing game [The Last Remnant], and Lost Odyssey turned out well. I'm sure it wasn't easy for them to do it. We're making good strides here. I'm cautiously optimistic about our future success in Japan.

Are you supporting that market actively with documentation, updates, localization of the tools, and everything?

MR: We worked pretty close with Sony in the Japanese market as well. I'm pretty excited about that. And yeah, all of our tools are localized and we localize our documentation.

But you know, it's a translation process. We would love to find a studio in Japan. You know, we bought a studio in Poland, and we have a joint venture in China, and we would love to have... we're looking for a team in Japan to take under our wing to help push that even further.

But Korea, do you see it as an easier area of growth for you?

MR: I don't know what it is, but we seem to attract the creme de la creme of Korean game developers. If you look at the announcements that we've had recently, we just did some more with NCsoft, and if you look at the partners we have in Korea, we've done exceedingly well there.

We have some really great game developers developing some great stuff. And it's very long-term. A lot of those are MMOs, and they just don't materialize in a year or a year and a half like a console game. These things can take years. It might be four or five years before you see some of these games. They really get it over there. They do a great job.

In terms of making the engine extensible over something like an MMO, is that really on the developers, or do you have tools that are more suited to different types of games?

MR: You know, we really gear the engine to the kind of games we make. That's what we provide to our customers, and it's their job if they then want to take the engine and extend it in all kinds of different ways, like Midway's done and like the Realtime Worlds guys have done with APB, which looked incredible at GDC.

And like the Chair guys did with Undertow - they squeezed the game into 48 megabytes. It was incredible. [This interview was conducted before Epic announced the acquisition of Chair Entertainment.]

A lot of our customers are doing incredible stuff, modifying and extending and expanding the engine in different ways. Our job is to deliver a great base that they know works, has been through the certification process and is battle tested, because then they know what to fall back on.

They know, "Hey, this engine gets this speed on this platform, and we want to make sure we can maintain that or build on it if we can afford to go higher or lower." It's a great starting block and a great roadmap for people, and then they go off and drive down their own roads.

Have you thought about capitalizing on some of the work people have done with the engine to make it apply to different situations, and finding some way to bring some of that back in and make it distributable?

MR: Generally, we're a relatively small company, and we need to work with our own code. In other words, it'd be really hard for us to do that and still be effective, because we don't make those kinds of games, so how would we test that game? How would we test those features?

If we're not using them, shipping them, and testing them every single day, sooner or later, they fall apart and break. That would be a trap to fall into. There's still lots of low-hanging fruit. There's still lots of things we want to do with the technology.

What do you want to do? Anything you can talk about?

MR: Lips kept shut.

Fair enough. That was too easy. There was no way you could give me a gimme like that. (laugh)

MR: Lots of stuff we're going to do with it, though.

Something I've found interesting that you talked about during the presentation was making Unreal Tournament III a game people can play for years. How long is this [Make Something Unreal] contest with Intel going?

MR: It runs two years.

Yeah, that's really long.

MR: But that's the same as we've done last time, as well. We're pretty much distributing what we've done the last two times. And you've got to give people time. I mean, it's a mod contest. They've got to learn the tools.

Remember, this is the first UT title of this generation, so it's new to the mod makers. They haven't touched these tools before. It's not like this is the second game. So we've got to give them some time to learn the tools to figure out what to do to come up with some cool ideas.

Unreal Tournament III is a marathon. It's not a sprint, and we don't expect that. Clearly, in June, we're going to judge the first phase, and that's very much for the early birds, the guys who are already close to releasing mods and have already released mods. You want to reward the guys who went out and did something early. They'll get a good shot at the money in phase one, and gradually, we'll see people come on.

It's funny. One of the mods only entered phase four last time, and I think they came third or fourth. If you're not ready now, that's okay. We understand game development. One of the cool things we've done is we've actually said, "You can enter your mod in every phase, if you want. We just want to see some sign of improvement - it's not always visual - from each...you can't just do the exact same version each time."

The reason is, you want to train people to work just like we do with milestones and with iterating your game and making it better and taking the suggestions of the fans who are playing your mod from one phase - "Ah, it would be really great if it did this" - and maybe suggestions we give people as well.

We really want to make developers out of guys who are mod makers, because a lot of the guys who are working at Epic came from that community.

When it comes to retail, then, keeping a game on shelves for more than six weeks can be a challenge, so keeping a game on shelves for two years -

MR: Well, now we can even get the game on Steam.

Well, on PC, but what about PS3?

MR: PS3 games tend to be available for quite a while. If you go to your local Best Buy, you'll find quite a large back catalog of PS3 games, and eventually, there will be a Greatest Hits or something like that. I'm not worried about that. People will find a way to buy the game.


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