High-budget, high production games and technologies have a bright future, but the way these "triple-A" games are made in the years ahead must evolve.
That's according to Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney, the mastermind behind the widely-used Unreal Engine, speaking at the Gamasutra-attended opening keynote of the Montreal International Game Summit.
Sweeney described the lessons learned in the production of Epic's last two tech demos, beginning with 2011's Unreal Engine 3-based "Samaritan." He said Samaritan was a good proof-of-concept for the upcoming Unreal Engine 4, that pushed a lot of impressive, new UE3 features. But Sweeney said development of the demo was "greatly worrying," as it took a 30-person team and four months to produce.
"The result was just a three minute demo," he said. "We could see costs going up three, four or even five for the next generation, so it became apparent we needed to increase our tools for productivity so we could build our content very efficiently."
As a result Epic tripled the number of people working on tools in the process of building UE4, and produced another tech demo, "Elemental."
In discussing Elemental, Sweeney had high praise for DirectX11 as a way to improve engine efficiency, as it passes general computing processes through the GPU, allowing them to create effects such as real-time direct lighting.
"DirectX 11's compute features enable a huge leap in visual quality," Sweeney said. "The features are limited -- it took a lot of contortion to adapt our algorithms -- but sufficient ... over 50 percent of the GPU flops are in general computing algorithms rather than the standard pipeline, and we see that percentage only increasing."
Although not specific, Sweeney also said that Elemental also proved that their tools investment was paying off, with the demo developed at a "very rapid pace."
"But budgets are always going to continue marching upwards," he conceded. "We are hoping costs at the start of the next generation to only be double the cost of the start of the previous generation."
On the topic of "generations," however, Sweeney wished to make it clear he was not limiting that term to the console market, instead discussing the wider future trends and saying the increased accessibility of games via smartphones and tablets will be a "real revolution" in games, especially in developing markets.
"Smartphone and tablet performance is growing at an incredible rate," he said, arguing that it means "we'll be able to bring more and more of the value of triple-A gaming to these platforms."
Because of the increase in performance, Sweeney explained that it was now far easier to scale products to fit the platform, and that Epic is committed to building technologies that only increased that scalability.
"We think we can scale by a factor of 10-20 from low-end to high-end now," he said, "making it increasingly easy to ship across disparate platforms."
In fact it was in a discussion of these "disparate platforms" that Sweeney surprised himself, amusingly, with his own omission: reading from his slide, "There are three types of platforms. PC online, mobile, web-based... oh wow, I left out console! I mean no commentary by that!"
Of those, he considered web-based game development to be "really interesting," describing Epic's own partnership with Adobe to create a web-based version of Unreal cross-compiled into Flash. He felt it "wasn't quite practical yet" as a delivery mechanism for triple-A experiences, but over the next year improvements in cross-compiling technologies would make it "very feasible."
Sweeney also touched on one of the biggest issues facing triple-A game developers today: the rise of free-to-play.
He argued, "In offering a consumer a free-to-play game via download or web, versus a $60 game available only in a store, the free-to-play game is going to win." He said that it was one of the "major interesting trends to watch as we go to the next console generation": whether the console manufacturers offer a significant uptake of free-to-play lessons and methods will "play a major factor in whether they are going to succeed or not."
Of course, Sweeney accepted that "hardcore" players wouldn't "tolerate that sort of model ... it's going to require a lot of development and iteration" to figure out ways to monetize console experiences without leaving those players feeling like "they're being ripped off or cheated."
Sweeney described Epic's future path as a developer, explaining that while at the start of the last generation they decided "console was going to win" and they considered their major investment to be partnering with Microsoft for Gears of War on Xbox 360.
In the next generation, however, "we are not focusing on any one thing," he said.
"[Epic will] build some games for PC, some games for mobile, and some for console," said Sweeney. "And any time we make something for one, we're going to explore how it fits on other platforms ... we are going to be building a lot of multi-platform experiences."