Can you believe it has only been two years since the iPhone App Store comprehensively upended the games industry status quo? By inspiring an app revolution from the grassroots of developers upwards, Apple's impact on games was swift, if unexpected.
The iPhone has made millionaires out of tiny teams almost overnight and changed the perceptions of what mobile gaming can do, all while attracting new audiences. Its well-curated interface and mostly-free distribution pipe has no doubt given the likes of Microsoft Sony, and Nintendo serious pause for thought.
So what on earth is the world’s most popular console game engine firm doing on the most disruptive games platform of all time?
Epic Games finally unveiled the iOS version of its popular Unreal Engine 3 last month, showcasing the technological oomph of UE3 on iPhones through free demo download Epic Citadel and upcoming game Project Sword.
The company was a centrepiece showcase as part of Apple’s annual September product hooplah – a rare enough occurrence in itself; few in the games industry have been allowed to share the stage with Apple CEO Steve Jobs. And the message couldn’t be clearer: mobile gaming has come of age.
The sales pitch behind Epic’s move to mobile is obvious.
“In the mobile games space maximising productivity is even more essential to being profitable,” says Mark Rein, the Epic Games VP in charge of the firm’s engine business. “You’re going to need technology that can deliver a triple-A quality game, but do it efficiently.
"That’s the advantage Unreal Engine 3 has compared with other technologies currently out there for making mobile games.”
And the factors that have enabled Epic to offer its technology on iOS are just as clear.
“Thanks to OpenGL ES2 and powerful hardware we can do things like specular highlighting, bump-mapping, normal mapping and lots of other great techniques you don’t expect to see on a mobile device.
"The 3GS achieved a large adoption rate, and now iPhone 4, 3rd Gen and 4th Gen iPod touch, and iPad are pushing it even further. So the installed base is there, and it runs our technology well. It just made sense for us to be there.”
Rein says that the move is a labour of love as well as a great business move.
“We love gadgets and technology,” he tells Develop – virtually everyone at the studio owns a smartphone device already.
But there really is more to it than Epic and Rein’s usual swagger. The firm is moving onto mobile not just because it makes good business sense and is a technical fit – but because the rate of change is so fast on games-ready mobile devices.
Rather than be left behind the way classic format-holders and publishers are, Epic is getting in on the trend early.
IT'S A SMALL WORLD
But hang on. The big headline successes on iPhone are Angry Birds, Flight Control, and Doodle Jump, all sold for just 59p and made by tiny teams.
What place does a company like Epic Games – famed for the powerful Unreal Engine 3, enabler of high-end games with equally high budgets – have in that world?
“I love Angry Birds, Flight Control and Doodle Jump but there are lots of successes on the iTunes App Store beyond those types of games,” says Rein.
“For a long time, Call of Duty was one of the top iPhone grossing games. It might not have as many users as Angry Birds, but I’m willing to bet it made more money and it proves there’s a market for all kinds of gaming experiences on the platform – there is no right or wrong on these platforms.”
Rein says that historically, all media have proven that people are generally willing to pay for higher quality content.
“What we’re seeing with the success of Madden, GTA and Call of Duty on iPad and iPhone is that big brands and big marketing, combined with high production values, creates mindshare that lets them stand out in a crowd. It’s a natural evolution. When the audience size and expected sales justify a publisher like Ubisoft to spend $15m on a TV advertising campaign for their latest Assassin’s Creed mobile app, they will. This will happen.
"The great indie games will still be there – but the big games will get bigger just like they have on other platforms.”
That’s one of the reasons UE3 is so rapidly relevant to mobile. The engine became the go-to source for so many publishers during this generation because of the immediate look and feel it offered – the quintessential ‘next-gen’ chunky-sexy flavour that Rainbow Six, BioShock, Mass Effect, Batman: Arkham Asylum and hundreds of other renowned games embodied.
For those games’ developers, using UE3 made them immediately competitive – something which will be attractive in the overcrowded App Store.
It’s probably going to irk some of the smaller firms that have embraced and exploited iPhone and want it to remain an unpoliced Wild West of video games. Rein reckons that the supposed ‘destruction of publishers’ brought about by more open digital distribution is a complete myth.
“It’s nonsense,” he says.
“If we’re going to continue to have triple-A gaming experiences, which I’m convinced we will, then publishers are going to continue to play the key role in bringing the majority of them to market.
"They might cede distribution to online marketplaces like the iTunes App Store, but somebody still needs to finance, develop and market the games. Imagine if a few years ago filmmakers all decided the blockbuster was dead. We wouldn’t have The Dark Knight and Avatar – two recent movies that made the list of all-time money-earners.”
He’s got a point. While Angry Birds and Doodle Jump are the aforementioned poster children of the App Revolution, they rose to the top through quality of gameplay – and quality of their marketing (the best marketing tool out there: word of mouth).
For every Angry Birds and Doodlejump there’s hundreds of awful, cheap and nasty games no one talks about. Or worse, cash-ins like Angry Pigs and Doodle Army that try to fool those using the App Store’s crude search.
So as the platform gets busier the need for investment to make better games with enhanced marketing, increases significantly. As much as some developers and pundits are loath to admit it, many publishers are good at that stuff. Most importantly they provide financing for large risk projects, which are going to become more and more common on iOS and other mobile platforms.
ON THE MOVE
Epic’s mobile play is also part of a wider bet on the direction the entire industry is heading in.
“A lot of gaming is going mobile and I believe that console-style gaming is going there as well,” says Rein.
“Imagine a future Xbox 360 that is actually a tablet you carry around. It will have more power than 360 does today, with technology like Kinect built right in. Imagine walking into a bar with some friends, propping it up on the table and playing games like Dance Central or Kinect Adventures anywhere you go.
"Then when you get home that same device will use technology like AirPlay or wireless HDMI to connect to your big screen, you’ll pick up a wireless controller, or use your phone as controller, to play games like Gears of War.
“It feels like there’s a great opportunity for game consoles to cease to be something you plug into the wall and rather become something you take with you. Of course it will be more than just your game console; you can have your productivity apps, your documents, and your media collections on it as well.”
It’s a bold theory from the kings of high-end game technology – the company which is so intrinsic to what the feel of current-gen console games became.
But Rein says it’s not a dream – this shift is already happening with iPad and other devices in the works, and often new devices which were once solely more low-end productivity pieces are built with entertainment in mind.
“Lately it feels like Apple is spending more time and energy marketing games than the gaming console manufacturers are,” he says.
“Today the companies making the hardware going inside phones know that games are important – they are incorporating processors that suit games and are as powerful as a PC or console. We’re turning a corner with GPUs and CPUs that support the intensive gameplay functions we need.
“So we’re going to see really powerful smaller machines emerge – they will be more powerful than a 360. To Epic that’s where our interest lies. We’re not interested in simple 2D games or games for the original iPhone or 3G; we want to bring high-quality, high-fidelity triple-A games to mobile. Epic Citadel woke a lot of people up – they realised it’s real and can be done.”
BEYOND THE HANDSET
‘Mobile’ technology is already propagating beyond handhelds into all kinds of devices such as TVs and set top boxes; Apple TV uses the same A4 chip as the iPhone 4, for instance. Intel and Nvidia have made huge strides in making cheaper PCs more game-capable.
“The phone is just the start – we’ll be looking at other mobile-derived devices as well, as we go down the road.
"The same technology being used in mobile phones is also finding its way into set top boxes, Blu-ray players, TV sets and other embedded applications. Google TV is a good example – they’re going to have an Android marketplace for their devices.”
And then, Rein postulates, is when the industry comes full circle: games have spread like a virus across all these new hardware devices, switching on users to the potential of interactive entertainment. And the triple-A gaming, the broad and rather clunky term that really just means ‘expensive-looking games’, becomes something viable and attractive on all platforms. Of course Epic cleans up – its engine is the essence of that expensive triple-A luxury feel – but so does everyone else, Rein assets.
“Triple-A isn’t going away – it’s going everywhere. The definition of what triple-A is might morph a bit in the mobile space, but Epic and our licensees will be able to deliver a bona fide high-quality experience with the same kind of production values as the industry’s best developers are doing on consoles today,” says Rein.
“We’re not just trying to bring the same kind of experiences users are already playing but rather give them something breathtaking that makes them clamour for more of this higher quality mobile entertainment our engine excels at providing.”
ON THE CONTRARY
So much of what Epic and Rein see as the future of games is contrary to conventional wisdom. Right now, very vocal voices reckon that gaming is going online to live on the web and in browsers, dismantling consoles and destroying publishers along the way. The success of Facebook, Epic’s closest rival Unity, and the shadow overcast by cloud gaming make broad points in this direction.
But the games industry is harder to predict. After all, three years ago who’d have thought that Apple’s move on the mobile market was going to move the target away from voice and music to apps and entertainment?
“The App Revolution caught everyone by surprise,” says Rein. “I don’t even think Apple could predict how incredible it would be.
“For years everyone tried to say that gaming on the web was the way forward – but not so fast, folks – apps are way better and now there’s a huge installed base of customers hungry for the best ones. Apps don’t bind you to clunky plug-ins or confusing interfaces in browsers.
"Apps immerse you into an experience. Apps get closer to the hardware’s capabilities. In short apps trump the web. People are consuming the internet through apps more and more because the experience is better.”
Free app Epic Citadel, which showcases UE3’s capabilities on iPhone – and which the firm is not embarrassed to admit is just a tech taster – has been downloaded over a million times. That itself shows there really is an interest in that high-end content.
Just imagine what will happen when Epic’s Chair studio finally releases the forthcoming Project Sword, the resulting RPG based in the same citadel environment.
In short Epic is well armed for the mobile transition, and wants to be the one handing out the weapons.
Rein concludes: “Eventually these devices will be your consoles – and we’re the king of console game technology.”