So it was a conscious choice to be ahead of the game with Unreal Engine 3, but earlier, when you realized people needed your technology, was that a tipping point and a change in Epic's mindset? Were you initially envisioning it as this service, essentially, that was going to be sold to people, or was it like, "No, we need to build this game, and this is what we need to build it; so we're going to go that direction."
TS: We came into 3D game development really seat-of-the-pants. When id Software created Doom, I looked at that and said, "Oh my god; they've invented reality. I'm giving up as a programmer. I'll never be able to do that." But, over the next few years, as they started to build Quake, I started to think, "Hmm, maybe I can figure out this texture-mapping stuff."
With the first generation of Unreal Engine, we went in not really intending to build an engine so much as build a game, and the engine was a byproduct of that effort. Then we were a couple of years into development when a couple of developers called us up and said they wanted to license our engine, and we were like, "Engine? What engine? Well, I guess we have an engine."
The whole engine business at Epic was a completely customer-driven idea. As it's evolved, it's become a much more serious effort. More than 40 people are contributing code to Unreal Engine 4. That's a huge effort. It's a team worldwide who works for customers providing support and developing features in Japan and Korea and China and Europe.
We're creating a real significant global business, working closely with all of the hardware companies to determine the roadmap as much as we can. Roadmaps then line up with working with customers to work out various conflicting requirements between different markets and desires. It's a very serious, real business now, completely different than it was a few generations ago. I wrote a quarter-million lines of code on Unreal Engine 1 -- I wrote about 80 percent of the code myself. What could I do now being one person out of 40?
That makes me curious -- how much day-to-day coding do you actually get to do?
TS: I spend at least a few hours a day, but right now I'm not critical path on anything like I was on Unreal Engine 1. My schedule is too unpredictable to contribute to that, but I really try to stay on top of it and talk with all the key guys who are architecting the major systems.
It seems like in some companies -- this is especially a Japanese problem -- people get pushed up and out of doing stuff and into having meetings about doing stuff instead. It's good you've avoided that.
TS: Yeah, we've really put a lot of effort into making sure our key folks at Epic are able to do what they are best at. There are some world-class programmers at Epic who are never going to be leads because they are far more valuable at inventing new ideas than coordinating the efforts of the people who do that. There's a very different set of talents required for leadership versus more individual contribution. It's very important that you recognize the distinction between the two and realize what each person is really best at.
Of course, it's also important to compensate accordingly if you really need someone in that non-leadership position.
TS: Some of Epic's most valuable people aren't in leadership roles.
These days, it feels like there are not very many people trying to push graphic fidelity forward. There are a lot of people who are more concerned with business models and things than they are with graphical fidelity and stuff. Do you feel some kind of pressure to push graphics in the next phase of game evolution? There's you, there's Crytek, DICE, possibly id... Who else is going to fight for graphics over convenience?
TS: Well sure, if you look at EA's DICE studio with Battlefield and Activision with Call of Duty, they're certainly making major investments in graphical quality. I think that's a general goal of the major Western developers -- at least developers of major shooter franchises -- to really push the graphical line.
It's an interesting distinction; when you talk to Asian developers, the overall focus is more on maximizing the customer experience than on maximizing the graphics. A lot of the companies out here are decades ahead of us in that area; every day they look at the stats of what users are doing, whether they're getting stuck, what things they're buying, what things they're not enjoying. They gather massive amounts of data and use it to tweak the games constantly and make it better on a daily basis. I think both of those methods have merit, and the ideal would be to do both of them.
I think that's going to be the interesting thing that happens when you see Western companies trying to move their big game franchises into a free-to-play model worldwide and coming into contact with the Asian companies who are moving their free-to-play games to the West; you get this big clash of production values versus customer experience optimization. That's going to push everybody to improve significantly. That's going to be quite an arms race because it means we need to learn different ways of making our games.
We can't come up with this grand vision for Gears of War, spend three years building it, and then see if customers like it. I'm exaggerating; we actually put a lot of effort into playtesting and getting customer feedback up front, but it's nothing like the scale of what happens in a game maintained by Tencent, for example.
I feel like, over the last five years, many companies have dropped the graphical fidelity and stopped trying to push graphics and have left it to the realm of blockbuster guys. Riot can make League of Legends look good enough, then have [such] a fantastic user experience that it doesn't matter. So I wonder if you consider yourselves guardians of graphics technology for the future, keeping graphics moving forward because you're trying to push the console makers, to some extent, through the chipsets they may have?
TS: Well, Epic's engine programmers and our artists really take it as a matter of pride that we want to have the best-looking stuff available, bar none, on every platform. If we're building a high-end PC game or a next-generation console game, we want to have the best graphics quality possible with however many teraflops are available. If we're building an iOS game, we want that to be the prettiest iOS game.
With every generation, the number of things you need to do right to succeed with your game increases. It can't just be a beautiful game; it also has to be a super fun game. It has to have great multiplayer. It has to have great sound and great controls. Now we're adding all of the user experience maximization on top of that. It's just getting more and more challenging to build a game, and we need to respond to that by growing in team size and really staying on top of all that the industry is trying to do. In the future, we can't just give up pushing graphics. That's not and never has been an option.
If Epic were the last company -- if Unreal Engine 4 or 5 or whatever were the last high-graphic push in games -- would you continue pushing forward graphically if there were no competition?
TS: Sure. We always want to outdo ourselves regardless of where the competition is. The main goal is not to increase graphical quality by just throwing more money at the problem, but to do it intelligently by building better tools and technology that make it possible to do that efficiently. We've been very much focused on not competing by brute force all along.