Epic’s Mark Rein makes no bones about the company’s attempts to insinuate itself into the hearts and minds of young game developers. Like an old-fashioned tobacco company, Epic wants to get them hooked young, and keep them for years and years to come.
But unlike the evil cigarette companies, Epic’s attampts to woo young talent – through its million-dollar Make Something Unreal contest and through the release of the Unreal Development Kit – is a proven path to something good, commercial and career success.
He says, "We get them hooked on our technology and hopefully, when they build games or get a job in the game industry they are going to use Unreal Engine 3."
The Make Something Unreal Contest wound up recently at DICE, with winners receiving fat checks (up to $50,000) and licenses to Unreal Engine 3. The winning entry was The Haunted by Michael Hegemann and The Haunted Team.
Epic has organised three such events during its long association with modders, with this last co-sponsored with Intel. Modders enter the contest by creating new games experiences from Unreal Engine 3 technology.
Rein says, "one of the things I’ve noticed is that we’ve done each contest with newer versions of our technology. Each time I expected the numbers to go down because the bar is higher. You’re dealing with higher levels of technology and higher level tools. The visual acuity of these types of games is much higher. But the numbers get higher and the guys just get better and better. These guys meet the challenge."
For Epic, modding isn’t just about community outreach, it’s an integral part of its culture and its corporate body "At one point in time half our company was made up of people from the mod community. Some of our most senior people came from the world of mods, making modes for Quake way back in the day."
Modding is a highly competitive way for young developers to prove themselves and make their way into game development as a profession.
Rein says it’s getting more and more challenging to stand out from the crowd. "In the past modding was fairly simple. It would either be a programming mod that changed the way the game worked or they’d make weapons or they’d make levels or they’d make art. But I think now we are seeing modders make complete games, right down to the user interface.
"What stands out is people taking our game and making it completely different, just like a licensee. There’s a great mod called Unwheel 2 that’s a racing game with stunts and it’s totally different than what you’d expect from Unreal Tournament."
With the release of the Unreal Development Kit, mods and homebrew games are also being seen as a straight route to commercial success.
"Instead of just making mods for our game and trying to make money by winning a contest, developers can go make complete games that stand on their own, and they can sell those games themselves without much interaction from us above and beyond signing the license agreement, which is $99.
“A lot of the guys in the mod community are talking about taking their mods and converting them to UDK and releasing them as commercial efforts."
And the UDK isn’t just a tool for garage developers, says Rein. "We’ve seen major game companies, who build samples and prototypes on UDK and then, after they get the green light, they are licensing the engne to make full console games."