The Gears of War trilogy is perhaps Epic Games’ most demanding contract in its twenty-year history; a punishing creative endeavour that started before the Xbox 360 had even been finalised.
Natural doubts and hopes concerning the success of the franchise have preoccupied the North Carolina studio for more than six years, but now the pressure has lifted. Gears is over. The series may feature in Epic’s future plans, but the studio is – at least for now – free from predetermined paths.
The future is Epic Games’ new obsession. Company president Mike Capps recently revealed his studio is working on five separate game projects, as well as the highly-anticipated Unreal Engine 4. In the second half of his interview with Develop, he explores where Epic and the industry is heading.
[Part one here]
For Epic, it seems the key strategy is to demonstrate new technology with a new game. With Unreal Engine 3 you pushed Gears of War on Xbox. With your iPhone tech you had Infinity Blade. This time with Unreal Engine 4, is the push going to be on PC?
Well, we’ve always been working closely with companies like Nvidia. Unreal Tournament 2003, for example, flaunted their graphics cards pretty well. But our relationship with hardware companies has always been mercenary. I love Nvidia, but when [rival firm AMD’s] ATI cards became faster, that’s what we showed our tech on at GDC. And of course Nvidia will come back harder than ever to build the best tech.
We go where the tech goes, and I hope other companies don’t copy us in over-investing in new technology and leading the way when new systems and graphics cards come out. Luckily, new technology is coming pretty fast; I mean, there’s a great new smartphone every year.
And tablet devices too like iPad 3, which will probably be…
…nine, ten times faster again maybe, who knows? But that requires aiming constantly higher and higher and realising, oh shit it runs! [laughs]
Do you want to engage with the console manufacturers before their new systems come out? Do you want to influence them on hardware specifications?
That’s absolutely our plan. I can’t say much more than that. Okay, let’s say, a year ago that was our plan, and I can’t tell you whether we’ve done it or not yet.
Our Samaritan concept, if you look at PC hardware in two or four years’ time, is something that the next consoles can achieve. It was just that no one knew what a next-generation game would look like – so that was our idea, to show people what we can achieve.
I mean, The Samaritan is a real-time demo that looks like an animated movie from about five years ago – the tech is getting that sophisticated. So our goal was to show off some of the technologies we would like to see on the next-gen platforms, and also to have The Samaritan as the benchmark. We believe what we’ve demonstrated is achievable at a reasonable development cost, so it’s what gamers should be demanding for next generation.
We’ve shown that demonstration to about sixteen hardware manufacturers. Not just the console guys, but companies like Nvidia who give us feedback about how to deliver the tech more efficiently. I mean, that’s the idea, a demonstration to start pushing everything forward.
Unreal Engine 3 has won three Develop Awards for Best Engine. That’s peer-voted. The industry decides who wins it.
And I can’t tell you how much it means to us to get that level of recognition.
Is there anything you want to do differently for Unreal Engine 4?
Well, the thing is, what we’re doing with Unreal Engine now is a lot different to what we were doing about seven years ago when we first started using the tech. There was no Unreal Development Kit even four years ago, and I think it’s been real successful in getting people used to our technology.
Should we have done that from day one with UE3? Yeah, maybe.
I’m not sure if we’re going to do it straight away with Unreal Engine 4, but if you look at what we do now with UE3 – y’know, push a button and your game is built for mobiles – we could have done that before and we didn’t spend much time on it. How much that will figure into Unreal Engine 4 is up to us.
I would like to have a vertical solution – for our tech to be useful for mobile projects and triple-A projects. In the past few years I think we’ve learned a lot about our technology and how it works for indie studios. How our tech works for iPhone games, for high-end triple-A studios and for a couple of guys who make a cool UDK game over the summer.
We’re going to apply all these lessons we’ve learned with Unreal Engine 4, and I think you’re going to see a lot of difference with UE3 within the first six months from launch.
And the other thing I’ll call out; I want Unreal Engine 4 to be ready far earlier than UE3 was; not a year after the consoles are released. I think a year from a console’s launch is perfectly fine for releasing a game, but not for releasing new tech. We need to be there day one or very early. That’s my primary focus.
For us as a game-maker, we aren’t keen on shipping games day one because there’s not much of an install-base, or at least not one as big as it’s going to be. But with engines, that’s a different story. We want to deliver our tech as early as possible even though our first big marquee game might not be on there for twelve or even twenty-four months from a console’s launch.
What do you want from the next generation of systems?
I think it’s very important that a gamer sees an Xbox Next or PlayStation Next and can clearly see the tech is not possible on current consoles. Otherwise they won’t be a success. And that’s a very tall order. I mean, PS3 is still very bad-ass – Heavy Rain looks great. To blow that away we need the hardware to do it.
I think another thing that’s changed is the way people are willing to spend their money. Consoles need to adapt to this. Game revenue has moved to the service model and the microtransactions model. Consoles need to start being comfortable with that. They need to be able to do something where small virtual items can be sold and bought for 20¢ without a long certification process and a price approval process.
Right now we’re not even allowed to change the prices of virtual content. We’re not even allowed to set the prices. I just don’t think this protectionist approach is going to be successful in a world where the price of virtual items changes on a day-today basis.
Double-A games will never come back unless we get rid of this notion of a game being $60 or not released. The console manufacturers need to let this happen. The best way of driving developers to PC is telling them they have no freedom in what prices they can set for virtual items. It would be great to have the level of freedom that, say, Steam gives you.
Unreal Engine is supporting PS Vita, but what about Epic as a game-maker?
I guess the best thing to say is “we haven’t announced anything yet”. I think in the industry there’s a lot of scepticism about PS Vita; y’know, it’s not a smartphone, and PSP didn’t do as well in the States as it did in Asia. But it’s a really cool platform. And obviously they’re making another one so I don’t think the PSP exactly went wrong.
I hope Vita takes off and I hope Sony has massive success from it. But I think we were all a little surprised by the 3DS’s slow start – and right now I’m not sure if you can draw a conclusion from that, because there’s so much going on. I genuinely don’t know if Nintendo’s slow start with its high-priced, high-end, premium handheld is a good or bad thing for Sony.