Epic Games: The next generation

Epic Games: The next generation

By Rob Crossley

March 31st 2011 at 1:00PM

Before everyone said triple-A is heading to mobile, Mark Rein said it. Develop quizzes the Epic boss on the industry's future

Even so soon after Epic Games unveiled its show-stopping ‘Unreal DX11’ trailer, the most important questions to put to company still revolve around mobile games development.

That in itself speaks volumes, particularly about the scattered paths the industry is progressing along.

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata’s recently warned, in a manner extraordinary for a leading Japanese businessman, that the flood of mobile games could drown game development.

For Mark Rein, the indefatigable vice president of Epic Games, the outlook isn’t so bleak. The future of the industry, he believes, is in both on mobile and in living rooms.

And, he says in the interview below, that the mobile space is accelerating – both in terms of technology and business acumen - at a rate that will soon blur the lines between mobiles and home consoles. Between ‘disposable’ and ‘valuable’.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Rein was first to say “triple-A is coming to mobiles” before the rest of the industry agreed. The Unreal Engine vendor needs to live in the future in order to thrive, and this was the basis for Develop’s Q&A with the industry luminary.

The Unreal DX11 demo took a lot of developers by surprise, particularly because recently Epic has focused on expansions into the mobile space.
That’s Unreal baby! We’re going from mobile all the way to next gen. Our focus is all devices. That’s what we’re about. We want to run on everything where our development partners are going; where they make money and where they can be creative.

But the DX11 demo itself, that’s our love letter to hardware manufacturers. We’re able to give people another road map. If companies are building new consoles – and, who knows, I mean Apple just released an iPad that’s nine times the power of its predecessor.

If Apple continues on this scale, they’ll have a device that can run this [points to Unreal Engine DX11 demo] in a couple of years.

But, that demo we’ve shown is aimed at the game console makers. We’re telling them that this is the big leap that we think justifies that new piece of hardware you’re going to build, and we’re telling them that this is what we need next-gen consoles to be capable of, because we can’t build a more powerful PC than the one that’s running the DX11 demo! [Laughs]

For us, now when we sit down with various companies and talk about the future, the discussion is no longer theoretical. We can show them this.

We can say ‘here’s our demo, try it on your hardware’. And we want feedback – let us know what we can simplify, let us know what we can improve.

What we saw in the DX11 demo was created with the same Unreal Engine tools, yes?
Yes completely, this has been made with Unreal Engine 3. It’s not a new engine, it’s not a mobile games version. The point being, there are not different versions of Unreal Engine 3 – you get out how ever much you put in.

You say it’s a love letter to the hardware manufacturers. I expect this is also a message to your competitors.

You know what, it’s actually a message to our customers. We’re saying that they can be ready for next gen, and they can build for it right now if they want. And, this is just a snippet of what we think we can do, this is just the first taste.

You mentioned the iPad 2, and I’m sure Epic’s already working on optimising the engine for it. Speaking on the device itself, what do you think it represents in terms of opportunity for developers?
Well, firstly, iPad 2 is a [sighs romantically] shockingly beautiful device. It’s so much smaller than the original – I have no idea how they pulled that off with all the new additions like the extra CPU cores, double the RAM.

Unreal Engine is ready for iPad 2 today, by the way [smiles].

And I hate to talk negatively about the original iPad, because it was a brilliant device, but the iPad version of Infinity Blade is probably our least exciting version of the game, because the iPad took the iPhone and stretched out over entirely different resolutions, without offering a vastly improved CPU or GPU. So we had to make compromises on the game. When the iPad 2 comes out, we’ll make sure Infinity Blade is pushed even further.

There’s confusion about where Epic stands on the Android operating system. I was hoping you could clarify.
Ah, Android. [Rein hands over an Xperia Play, and a Motorola Xoom, both running content made with Unreal Engine]. Actually, with the Motorola Xoom, Dungeon Defenders was the first game to run on its Honeycomb OS.

I can also show you Dungeon Defenders Second Wave running on the Xperia Play, where you actually use the controller. It’s a great neat little device, obviously not as powerful as the NGP, which of course we also support.

You must be stretching your resources to optimise your engine on so many different Android devices, and new Apple devices, and DX11.
Well no, all the phones use Android so once you’re running on the OS it’s just a case of figuring out how to optimise it for each device.

I’ve said this to Develop before; the challenge is that there are so many different Android devices out there. It’s not like shipping one product, you have to test a game on about twenty different devices, all with different CPU, GPU and memory. So it is a challenge. I think we will eventually ship one of our own games on Android – but right now our mobile strategy is based around Infinity Blade, and iOS is the best place for that.

But it’s not like we haven’t done anything – our Epic Citadel demo is on Android devices.

What did you make of Iwata’s GDC keynote, where he warned of the mobile market being flooded with disposable games?
I think there are some ‘disposable’ experiences on mobile devices, and you don’t pay much for them, in fact they usually cost $0.99. But you can certainly make fun disposable experiences with Unreal as well, if you want.

I mean, going with Unreal would certainly be a more efficient way of making disposable games than any other piece of technology. It’s just that, people don’t usually licence our tech to do that. But now we have UDK I certainly think we’ll see more of those.

Do you think disposable mobile games are dangerous for the games industry? If consumers are constantly told they can pay $0.99 for a capable game experience, does that not devalue games asking for $40?
I’m not sure I agree. Look, about the whole issue of app stores flooded with cheap games that keep the others from being noticed, sure, there is a problem there.

But eventually we’ll bust out of the idea that the App Store will be the only place iPhone developers can promote their games and tell customers what’s going on.

You’ll eventually see iOS games being marketed outside of the App Store, the way retail games are advertised, and people will buy them because they’re interested – not because a developer has found a trick to be number one in the charts for a single week.

I really do think this whole issue is temporary. As better quality mobile devices come through, developers will make better quality games. A lot of mobile phone games are small experiences right now, but we will see the Avatar of App Store games eventually, and that game will be equally as relevant to the industry as the triple-A games – games like Bulletstorm – that we see today.

Our goal is to raise the bar on mobiles. Our goal is to be about the higher quality experiences, and when people see those higher quality experiences, they will gravitate towards that and less so much on the more trivial games.

Epic’s still independent.
Absolutely. I find it strange when people think we’re not! We’re independent and we help other independent studios.

So there’s no temptation to change?
No, there’s certainly no plan to change that. I mean, who knows? But we do well, we’re satisfied with our freedoms and financially we’re doing okay. We love what we’re doing, and our goal is to put money in the pockets of people who work with Epic, not public trade.

Finally, you’re edging closer to a veteran status in the industry. You’ve worked in this business for over two decades and you now run a company at the top of its game. What would be your ultimate piece of advice to aspiring developers?

Yeah it’s been a ride. I’ve been at Epic Games for 19 years now. I actually started working in Tim Sweeney’s basement in the early days of Epic Games – I guess we’ve built a pretty cool company.

My advice? You’ve really got to build something you love. Publishers are so anxious these days to build something they think the market wants – they should build what they would love to play. If you really love a game, so will someone else. It’s always been this way.