The humbling of Epic: A giant turns around
It's strange to see Epic Games humbled. For years, in my work for Gamasutra, I was a regular visitor to the company's annual engine demos at E3 or GDC, always chaired by a bombastic Mark Rein.
Rein loves Unreal. At an industry event you can hear his enthusiasm from halfway across the room. "Hey Mark," I'd say, "let's talk about procedural generation and spline deformation!" "I love
it," he'd roar. You'd have someplace to be, and he'd grandly wave you over to a sofa, a big high-definition monitor and declare, "Just look! Just look at this! Isn't it awesome
Usually the PR wouldn't even be present, like they just trusted his energy. Or had given up trying to put a lid on him. I started calling him the "Reinmaker," a half-joking nickname that I like to think I made up.
It was always an entertaining, even an intimidating spectacle. It was sort of like going to see a face-melting, apple-red muscle car, where the guy just loves to open the hood and turn the engine on and talk to you about every little part. Then my annual visits to the booth stopped. The last time was in 2011, maybe, when I went to talk to Cliff Bleszinski about how triple-A would never
Cliff doesn't work there anymore. He admires games like Rust now
. The market's undeniably changed. The high-tech arms race has taken an unexpected left-turn into fragmented but flourishing markets: App development, Steam, open-source stuff, Unity. You know. For the past couple of years I haven't been invited with the same kind of enthusiasm to look at Unreal Engine updates.
At GDC, the company announced an interesting about-face: its arms race was effectively over, and it would offer new features and a new business model geared at capturing the Unity audience -- those are my words, and the words of everyone else who buzzed about the news during GDC, not Epic's, of course. What Tim Sweeney said at the announcement's unveiling
were things like "outdated model" and "now, absolutely anybody can gain access to Unreal Engine 4."
So I decided, during GDC, to ask Epic if I could come and talk to Mark Rein again. Instead of Rein, the company offered me the chance to speak with Paul Meegan, its relatively newly appointed VP of product development. Meegan founded Epic China, did a brief stint as LucasArts' president, and returned to the company in 2012, a year which also saw the retirement of Epic president Mike Capps and the departure of production director Rod Fergusson.
When I arrive for my appointment, Meegan immediately strikes me as a different type of guy. There is a diplomatic grace about him, and a genuine warmth. He's in a tough position, having to talk about the humbling of the game industry's longtime muscle car -- to accept responsibility without negative self-talk -- and he knows what I want to talk about and he meets my eyes with a certain dignity.
"We became part of the big industry machine. I think there are good things about that, but there are also a lot of things that prevent you from doing the right thing by the people who use your technology."
"There is a purity and simplicity to saying, 'What do we think is the right thing to do,'" he tells me. "And, 'How do we restore having a direct relationship with the people who play our games and use our technology?"
"We became part of the big industry machine," Meegan says. "I think there are good things about that, but there are also a lot of things that prevent you from doing the right thing by the people who use your technology."
What are the things, I say. What are the problems with the infrastructure? What has Epic done wrong? Meegan pauses, and answers carefully but, I don't think, disingenuously: "Any time you are balancing complex relationships, or you have a lot of people who are all trying to accomplish slightly different goals, it is an extra layer of sort of distance and abstraction between you and gamers, or you and developers," he says.
"We wanted to stick a really simplistic approach: If we were on the other side of this, what would we want to have happen?"
"We said," he continues, "'We need to make it accessible, so that everybody can use it, and it's not just the tool of well-funded large teams. We need to make it easy to use, we need to support platforms, we need to be really generous, and make sure we succeed when developers succeed -- so we don't front-load the cost, and then we have an incentive.'"
"If we're going to have a subscription model, then let's make it so that if you don't like it you can cancel without any penalty, at any time, and you can keep using the engine, if you're a student, or you're an indie, and you don't have the funds to pay every month," he continues.
The Unreal Engine 4 source code is also now available. "It's risky," says Meegan, "because we're putting ourselves out there."
What does it feel like, I ask. I don't really often ask that of tech execs, at least not expecting a real answer.
"It's a little scary," Meegan says. "We... have to become vulnerable in a way, and we have to be willing to put ourselves out there in a way we haven't in a long time. We've gone through a period where everything felt very managed, and we had to let go of that, and be willing to be vulnerable and take risks."
Is it going to be hard to re-learn and understand a new audience? Meegan shakes his head gently: "We're
game developers. The gap is small. We make games every day, and many of the people who work at the company do all sorts of their own projects," he says. "It does feel like we're going back to our roots."
Meegan says he sees the company's founder, Tim Sweeney, as 'the original indie.' At the company headquarters is a wall of Sweeney's work through the years, Meegan says, dating back to the time when Sweeney programmed his own games
, did all the art, wrote the manual, released his work as shareware. Sweeney loves to show the wall of history to visitors -- it's important, then, for him to remind everyone that at some time, he put floppy disks into a mailbox, he alone.
Since then, the company has made, over the years, a painstaking investment in good code, Meegan believes. The company's been quiet the last couple of years because of a redoubling of that investment -- "as we looked at how we get the engine out to everybody, we felt we should play to our strengths," he says.
"Philosophically, we believe that if we're generous and we provide value to people, that value will come back," he continues. "The biggest challenge that we recognize is that we have to earn the trust and respect of the people who use the tech... to scale it in a way that it works for a whole lot of indies is a different challenge. That's now, for us to contemplate and it will keep us honest, but we get up every morning and we are all incredibly psyched to come to work."
It takes deliberate effort to adapt a company and a product that's historically focused on big teams and triple-A and make it suitable for the new climate, says Meegan. He says the company's "first effort" -- the Unreal Development Kit -- has been a learning experience. "We didn't do everything right," he says. "I'd say we were still between worlds, and we weren't able to make it available in a way that was realistic to anyone, and it wasn't easy to use. So we learned from that."
The announcement of a new direction has seen a tremendous response, Meegan says. Since then, according to social media, execs have been falling asleep on couches and staying up all night to answer emails. "Now it's time to earn that trust," he adds.
There's a long pause. "I think," he says, "sometimes it's about the bell you're not ringing. The transition we've been through, reinventing the way we operate and think, had more to do with, 'We're game developers'... Obviously we have Fortnite
in development, we're going to be bringing that out relatively soon, and we have more games in development behind the scenes."
"But we're taking the same approach we're taking with tech: humble, a direct relationship with players... humble, and bringing people together."
To find out more about the nuts-and-bolts, tech and business behind Unreal Engine 4, don't miss Gamasutra's interview with Tim Sweeney