Unreal Engine developer Epic Games has long been one of the world’s biggest game engine middleware outfits powering many of today’s top triple-A games.
From Epic’s own titles such as Gears of War and Infinity Blade, to the likes of Mass Effect, Xcom: Enemy Uknown, Dishonored and Dust 514, its mark on today’s development landscape is significant.
But what about the indie scene? Despite being used in a number of titles developed by smaller teams, such as Toxic Games’ Q.U.B.E. and Adhesive’s upcoming mech shooter Hawken, Epic has struggled somewhat to break out of its reputation as a triple-A powerhouse.
Develop spoke to Epic’s European territory manager Mike Gamble to discuss what Unreal Engine can offer indie developers, and what plans it has in the future for UDK and Unreal Engine 4 to help accomodate small studio development.
How is Epic working with indies and trying to change its perception as solely a triple-A engine outfit?
Mike Gamble: The Triple-A very expensive technology for the triple-A big studio, that’s been eroded somewhat with the mobile stuff but I still think that’s an attitude that’s fairly prevalent.
I don’t think what’s widely recognised is the fact that we can be licensed to developers of all sizes, but moreso the programs we have in place to actually nurture that development.
So in reality we have, in Europe, about 65 developers actively evaluating across all sizes and in a lot of cases we’re prepared to keep those evaluations going for in excess of a year whilst they build their vertical slice, their prototype or whatever it is they’ve got to build in order to get their funding sorted or their publishing deal, or whatever their route to market happens to be, and that’s at absolutely zero cost to the developer.
They get the same technology as the licensee and the same support as the licensee. The only thing they can’t do is ship the product until we’ve agreed and done the license.
We’ve found that is essential in the way the game industry is now, because routes to market are so very different. It’s not longer necessarily just traditional publishing deals.
There’s investor type funded projects, Kickstarter funded projects. Funding is coming form so many different places that the developer needs to be secure in their use of the technology.
They’ve got to know they can build whatever they want to build to secure the funding without risk of suddenly being hit with a bill that they can’t pay. That’s not a business model that’s sustainable for them, and it’s not a business model that’s sustainable for us.
We need to have developers using the technology confidently and securing the deals for the money when they can. So that’s something we’ve done increasingly, and it works across from tiny studios and right to huge studios.
On the new studio pro-am, amateurs going into professional like Toxic and Coffee Stain to some extent, although they’re probably a little bit beyond that monika now. But then at the other end we have other teams like DontNod with Remember Me who had the technology for probably two years before they got their publishing deal signed. So they essentially developed a massive amount of the game at no cost in terms of the license.
How does they work for you?
Obviously there’s a call on our part, but what we tend to do is when we first state an evaluation it’s for three months. At that kind of three-month point you kind of know who is and isn’t actively developing.
If a team is actively developing and pushing toward a demo or a prototype, then we’ll continue to renew that for as long as it takes. But there is almost a natural falling out point that a team that isn’t really using the technology won’t renew their evaluation anyway.
It’s a combination experience; each territory has a territory manager. We’re all very experienced game veterans, we know when a team is capable of developing what they’re talking about and is developing what they’re talking about. Through our support system we can track what questions they have been asking so we can get to know who is and who isn’t serious about what they’re doing.
And it works because probably 80-to-85 per cent of the people we extend that ability to evaluate over a long period of time to do get their products signed and we do eventually get the license fee. And not only do we get the license fee, but we get the good will having worked with them over that length of time.
How closely do you work with these teams?
Depends how close they want to work. I will talk to every single team that is evaluating probably once a month. Some I’ll talk to a lot more, some I’ll maybe talk to once at the beginning of the evaluation, then a month into it, and then they’re autonomous, they know what they’re doing, they don’t need me to meddle.
They just get on with in and I’ll just touch base every few months just to check that they’re doing fine and do they have a schedule where they think they’re going to get license funded or just that kind of stuff. It’s very light touch. We’re very keen on just giving developers the ability to develop.
They’re not beholden to us; beyond the legalities of confidentiality there is no requirements on them for us. They can evaluate and eventually decide they don’t want the tech, that’s fine, that’s their choice.
You know, we’ll do everything we can to persuade them to use the tech but technically and from a license perspective if they choose a different technology, that’s fine. There’s nothing they have to pay. If they suddenly decide they don’t want to use it and they haven’t licensed it, they’ve just been evaluating it, that’s fine, everyone just walks away.
How much of a success do you think Epic and Unreal Engine has been with indie developers? Like you said, you are known for being the big triple-A powerhouse, and that’s how you advertise it a lot as well.
We’ve had some great success with indie developers, we’re not particularly well known for it, but I think particularly we’ve been very successful with indies on Steam. So PC development teams, very successful. And actually they’ve been very successful let’s say, we’ve got teams that have made some very good money there.
Do you that’s something epic is missing out on?
In what way?
If you’re not bring more indies in do you think you’re missing out on not being as heavily in that market?
Well it’s a focus. It’s a little bit chicken and egg. One of the reasons we don’t get indies, is they consider Epic to be outside of their reach, so communicating that message is hard. I bang it in every conversation I possibly can and every presentation I possibly can.
But it’s still a difficult message to communicate because we are very well known for the triple-A big project stuff. Which is brilliant, that’s absolutely fantastic, but it’s just getting that known that we are equally as accessible to the independents is quite a tough job.
How is that working? Unreal Engine 4, is that indie compatible?
Technically yes, perhaps it’s worth dialling back a bit. In terms of licensing, there’s three streams of licensing for Unreal and that remains the same for UE4 at the moment and for UE3. So there’s UDK, which is $99, and 25 per cent after $50k. It’s a lovely introduction to the technology, you can do lots with it, that’s been taken up by large numbers of developers. Some have transferred into UE3 and some have not.
Then we have a digital licensing scheme for digitally distributed titles, so that’s Steam, iOS, Android, any digital platform, and that’s considerably cheaper than the full retail-licensing scheme, which is very much the traditional console, less so PC nowadays, but the $60 boxed game.
So we have these three distinct strands of licensing. And the digital licensing, which is where the independents live, is incredibly affordable. We have a licensing structure that allows any independent no matter how much money they do or do not have to license.
What exactly are you doing to make things easier for indies? Unity have their asset store, would Epic consider something like that?
Dana Cowley (Epic Games’ senior public relations manager): There’s a lot of big news coming for UE4 for sure. There’s some stuff that we can’t talk about yet.
Gamble: I mean, Unreal Engine 4 has kind of allowed us to take a good look at how we license, a good look at the technology in terms of the pipeline, the toolset and the efficiencies there, but also take that same rigorous attitude to the licensing of the technology and the support to the licensing.
If you think about the way the industry has changed over the seven years that UE3 has been in the market, you know seven years ago when we released there wasn’t a channel for independent developers largely, we were firmly in the console boxed retail product era.
What we’ve had to do over the last two or three years is learn how to deal with the new reality, adjust our licensing to fit that. And all of that knowledge now we’re applying to UE4, so from the get go UE4 is set up to take advantage of and be accessible to all of those developers from top to bottom, and if that means implementing new systems and stuff, then that’s what we’re looking at.
So you’re considering allowing developers to create and sell their own assets?
All sorts of things we’re considering. Ultimately we’ll do what we consider as the best thing for the business that will in many respects be the best thing for the developers too.
There’s stuff coming that we can’t talk about yet.
Has support for indies and where they are developing today been quite difficult to do with Unreal Engine 3? Because you said you built it for the industry landscape of seven years ago.
Technically it’s not been difficult because we’ve built titles on the platform, so Infinity Blade has proven iOS works, etcetera. And actually internally Epic is a very nimble company so if you explain within Epic what an issue is and what a solution is then there is a 90 per cent chance that that will be adopted as the solution.
I’ve been on the ground in Europe for nearly two years now, and that’s allowed an information flow into Epic and on-the-ground intel which has allowed us to then do some of these things which have been a little different.
And that’s the beauty of the system we now have, where we have a territory manager in each major territory so that means all that intel is fed back to HQ.
And it differs. So the environment in Japan and South Korea is different than the environment in the US and Europe. And so it helps inform the larger strategy, rather than America assuming everyone might work and react in the same way as the American industry.
So do you see the future of Epic and Unreal Engine as still with triple-A but with a push to democratise the toolsets?
Totally. That’s what we’ve been banging on with UE3, and it will come into full fruition with UE4.
And reaction in the industry has been very, very positive. All the people here are European and using UE4. It’s been very well received and people are excited to use it, and there’s some really amazing stuff being built already, and we’re only eight or nine months into actually giving it out to developers. The longest we’ve had it out to a developer is eight months probably.