The future of Epic Games

The future of Epic Games

By Rob Crossley

April 6th 2012 at 10:00AM

After a significant GDC for the studio, Develop asks its president Mike Capps what comes next

You announced the next Infinity Blade at the Apple ‘iPad 3’ press event that happened alongside GDC 2012. What’s your reaction to the press conference?
I think our show there went really well. The new iPad is awesome, and with the new resolution and new camera it has all kinds of shit I really want.

I think Epic shocked people at the event with how good Infinity Blade: Dungeons looked. Doing that a third time is hard.

With Apple’s hardware cycle moving so fast, it really must be tough in terms of development cycles. How do you keep up?
It is hard, and they are pretty secretive, so we don’t get as much heads up as we’d like. When you talk about consoles you kind of know even a few years ahead what’s coming.

Stuff gets disclosed a long way out ahead. Obviously Apple don’t do that. I’m not even sure they know what they’re doing in a year. I’m joking, but you know what I mean.

So do you predict what Apple might be doing if you’re not getting told?
We predict further ahead than they tell us, yes. So you can kind of guess what the life time of the iPad 1-to-iPad 2 transition will be, and look at when their press conferences normally come.

We can plan a game based for a certain timeframe and then approach Apple. So we showed them this game as soon as we had something up and running a long time ago and said to Apple: ‘If you have something, this might be really, really good for it.’

So how far can you see the Infinity brand going, because you’re releasing new versions of it every year now.
Well, this game is very different. I’d say it’s more Diablo style, whereas Infinity Blade originally was – well, you could call it ‘Punch Out with swords’. That was about very neat fights and kind of on rails.

Dungeons is more about navigating the areas, exploring and stuff. So it’s within the same IP but it offers a very different experience.

We didn’t know what would happen when we shipped Infinity Blade 2, and then it did better than the first one, which itself is still selling very well. IB2 made us realise that this thing had legs and was a franchise now. So here we are shipping the third one, and we’ll see if everyone’s tired of it.

There’s a lot of rich story behind this franchise now – there’s a lot there – so it seemed silly to create a new fancy IP for this game. Why would we do that? Why create another IP and leave a successful one unused?
We’ll see. Let’s hope people like it.

Has your synergy with Apple become too lucrative to avoid? Because you’re suddenly on hard deadlines again, where you have to show certain things at certain points, that must be quite demanding.
Sure, and I think if we’d kept ChAIR on that rapid release schedule it would have got hard. That’s because there’s a lot of crunching that happens at the end of every game, no matter how much you plan.

But Dungeon we built with a completely different team that has not as a small team built a game before. They’re all guys who worked on Gears of War.

That means that for them it is new and they’re not at all rueing the iPad launch schedule. Instead they know that it will get their work a lot of attention and get them excited about it.

So you’re moving the IP around dev teams?
We do now, and it’s a very nice solution. It seems to be a great way to avoid what’s known as exhaustion.

Proportionally how big is the mobile side of Epic’s business becoming?
It’s getting bigger. Obviously it’s tough to beat Gears of War with an iPhone game. Maybe Angry Birds did that; I don’t know.

The return on investment is higher for these games than some of the big games now. For these small teams, when they’re successful, as we have been with Infinity Blade, there’s a higher return on man-hours than with the big games.

It all feeds into our engine business. Having excellent games on a range of platforms is how we sell our engine, basically. We show off what you can do. You could be on stage with Apple, for example. You can be an industry leader. In that way, it’s a synergistic business.

From what I hear about PS Vita and 3DS, that’s not the case. It seems that on those platforms you have to make an investment that’s not easy to pair with risk.
I would say the same thing for the Infinity Blade games. Those took, say, a 12-man team six months and a lot of outsourcing and stuff. That can get past a million dollars real quick.

That’s not a little development budget to most people. It’s not the mega $70 million Call of Duty-type budget, but it’s big. But for us that’s a lot less risk. And with can take games like that we can be flexible and slot them in to our schedule.

It’s hard to ‘sneak in’ a Gears game into a schedule, right? But it’s easy to sneak in an Infinity Blade game. With that we have enough guys at Epic that we can carve it out; we can hire more people and we can make it in the middle of a big console release development or strategy. That’s the nice thing about mobile.

But as mobile devices get so powerful so quickly, does that not make it tougher?
It’s similar to what happened seven years ago with console. Mobile is moving really fast.

If you think about the new iPad having more memory than the Xbox, which they said at the conference, and than the PS3, then that’s a lot of texturing that you’re going to have to do to fill that up to make the retinal display – which is higher resolution than your TV – look right. That’s a lot of detail.

But the good thing right now is that the expectations aren’t that high, and honestly, the market is not going to support that sixty-dollar game we put a $30 million budget into. That just doesn’t add up right now in this market.

So those expectations are a lot lower. But the ability for us to make a game like, for example, Final Fantasy XIII or whatever, on a the new iPad is there. It gives you the space. It gives you a 64GB hard drive, so that’s bigger than a Blu-ray disk.

There’s room for the game, and then its got more memory than a PS3 or Xbox, and a high resolution, so there’s nothing stopping us making a $50 million iPad game, except for the fact that it would probably be a little silly.

So that’s too crazy is it?
Yes, but for how long? That’s really the question. Just look at the movie industry and how much they spent on Avatar.

Two or three years ago nobody expected mobiles to be where they are today, they are surpassing many people’s expectations. That considered, in terms of Unreal Engine, do you have a roadmap for how long you’ll be supporting Unreal Engine 3?
We don’t really have a roadmap. The general plan will see probably about the same level of crossover as before.

After Unreal Engine 3 shipped with Gears of War we were still updating UE2 for a year or two after that I believe, and we were still licensing it. Even two or three years ago we were still selling UE2 licenses, so I assume there’ll be that kind of crossover.

This time around we need to make some decisions about what platforms we’ll support with the new tech. I mean, if you want to make, for example a Flash game with Unreal tech, that will probably be UE3 for a long time yet. And I can see that we might still be supporting ‘iPad 7’ or whatever they call it with Unreal Engine 4.

So, to cut a long story short, no, we don’t have a plan. I’m joking, but we’ll see. We’ll continue to support UE3 for as long as it makes sense for us to keep doing it.

So we’re talking a few years?
Definitely. Right now Unreal Engine 4 is only a high-end platform. We’ll be adding support for those mid-range platforms later.

The first target is to get this thing going on next-generation consoles. We’ll do that first, so it will be a long time before UE4 is a top-to-bottom engine.
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Is this the most stressful time in your career right now? You’ve got to support UE3, and now sort out Unreal Engine 4, and the iPad stuff, along with everything else that’s going on at Epic. You must feel very stretched.
Well, we are stretched, but it’s not like we’re just embarking on UE4. We’ve been working on it for years.

What’s been the hard thing is while working on a game like Gears of War 3, which was the biggest game we’ve ever made, some of our best engine tech guys were working on UE4. In fact, about all of them were, which meant moving people back and forth between the two.

We had that classic dilemma: Do we invest in the future engine technology or do we keep working on making UE3 cooler and cooler and cooler, knowing that it has a limited life span. That was hard.

I did not like that last night I went to the GDC Game Developers Choice Awards, and for Best Technology, Gears wasn’t in it. We used to always win those.

Why the change? Partially because everything Frostbite is in Battlefield 3, and it’s amazing. But everything we have isn’t in Gears 3, because it’s in Unreal Engine 4 because we’ve been building for next-generation systems.

And to confirm, the Samaritan demo is built using Unreal Engine 3?
It is, yes, but it wasn’t a game. And it did really well. We’re getting tech awards at the moment, but not game awards. That stings me. I want all of the awards.

Do you plan to see UE4 being ‘everywhere’ eventually, in the same way UE3 is on almost every platform today?
Yes.

To what extent?
This is back to that thing we don’t exactly have a plan for yet, but we’d be crazy to say ’let’s wait on that iPhone business’. We first showed UE3 in something like 2004 or 2005.

When did we first show the mobile version of the engine? 2010 or 2011? We’re not going to wait that long this time. We’re going to move a lot faster now, because we have a lot more experience.

And are you internally working on any projects using Unreal Engine 3?
Absolutely. There’s unannounced projects as well as Dungeons, and there’s Fortnite, which we’ve announced but not said much about.

Speaking of Fortnite, it’s not common to see new IP at the end of a console cycle. What motivated creating it now?
It’s partly giving our artists and designers a chance to stretch a bit and have a bit of fun. The game style; well, it started as something simpler with zombies with a different art style. Everybody embraced it, so that meant it was a new IP.

If we had something already similar to it, that might have meant we would have slapped whatever it was on it, but as it is, it’s Fortnite.

We’ve had guys working on Gears for something like a decade, and now they get a chance to do something a little different. It’s the same with Infinity Blade: Dungeons; our guys are having a lot of fun.