What better way to kick off our series on choosing a game engine than by going straight to the man representing the Big Daddy of the game engine world? Ed Fear tracks down Epic's Mark Rein to talk Unreal Engine 3 and the difficult decision that is licensing an engine.

Epic Choices

What decisions do you think studios face when deciding whether to licence a third-party engine or develop their own tech?

I think what it boils down to is whether they can produce a better game by licensing an engine than they can by creating their own technology. One of the big questions is: how much of your budget do you want to spend on technology compared to how much you want to spend on content and gameplay?

If you licence an engine, you have the potential to be up and running early in the project. You will probably still need to spend some time modifying the engine to suit the specifics of your game, but you should, at the minimum, be able to start to build content and test your ideas.

You can start building environments, you can start bringing characters to life, you can start writing gameplay scripts, you can start building materials and you can be productively working toward your game from the beginning.

Whereas if you’re building your own technology, the first thing you have to do is build tools, and that is a long and costly process during which the productivity of your full team is limited.

Do you think that licensing an engine gives developers more time at the end to focus on fine-tuning their game, which is where a lot of the ‘magic’ seems to happen?

Generally speaking when you licence an engine you get the opportunity to start putting your content in a game environment very early on. That leaves more time later on for the all-important polishing and fine-tuning that makes the difference between a good game and a great game.

Given the rise of the Wii and its relative low power, are tools companies such as yourselves seeing a demand for ‘older’ engines that can be used for the platform (such as comparable PS2/original Xbox technology, etc.)?

From what I can tell, people are reusing whatever technology they used for their Gamecube games because the machines are so similar.

When studios are licensing out their own tech, do you think there is any inherent contradiction in simultaneously being a developer focused on your own game and a vendor of tools for the rest of the industry?

The fact that we’re making high-end games with the technology is a clear benefit to our licensees in terms of features, performance, stability and our ability to provide great technical support. At the end of the process our licensees have access to the source code for one of our games and that acts as an implementation roadmap they can refer back to if they so desire. It also means we can give them support with the frame of reference of having shipped a game and having made the appropriate trade-offs involved in doing so.

The experience of making a game is what makes us come out better on the other side. That experience is invaluable. The experience of us creating a game with our technology, and going through the steps to make sure that it runs well enough to pass certification, is invaluable to both us and our licensees. That’s what our licensees sign up for – they know this in advance.

Is Epic’s Integrated Partners Programme a response to the increased interest of ‘modular’ middleware?

Part of the reason for establishing it was the recognition that Unreal Engine 3 comprises not just our own proprietary technology but also other middleware as well, and that this would likely be a common trend among our licensees too.

The Unreal Engine Integrated Partners Program was designed so that select middleware provides could have direct access to our technology and direct support from Epic Games to make it easier for them to integrate their middleware with ours, keep it up-to-date with the latest engine release, and provide unified support to Unreal Engine 3 licensees who are using their middleware.

One of the many advantages of this program is that the IPP vendors provide support within our established UE3 support channels, so joint licensees benefit from one-stop support in most cases.

Many of the people we’ve spoken to about this feature, who say they develop in-house engines, say that there’s always a peril that an EA/Criterion/Renderware situation will occur again; what’s to stop that happening with Epic and Unreal?

We provide licensees with the source code to our engine, so if Epic disappeared tomorrow they’d still be able to complete their games. Some of our licences have arrangements that would allow licensees to continue using the technology for future projects in that case, as well.

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