Epic's Mike Gamble on the challenges of looking after licensees and sticking to your strengths
There's no denying the huge influence Epic Games has on the industry. As well as developing major titles like Gears Of War for Xbox 360 and Infinity Blade for iOS, the studio licenses its Unreal Engine to both independent and AAA developers. Mike Gamble recently took on the role of European territory manager, who works closely with licensees.
GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Gamble at Epic's Unreal University day in London, where Epic developers offered hands on advice to those interested in Unreal technology.
Q: Why are events like today important?
Mike Gamble: It's really important that there's an ecosystem within the games industry generally, but with what we do. We build games and we sell engines, but in order to sell engines you've got to scale from grass roots right the way up to the AAA. To do that effectively you need to do that hands on, face-to-face stuff.
We're not doing it for charity, at the end of the day if you get these guys using our technology now, and used to using our technology, and liking our technology and liking us, then they're going to continue to do so. And a lot of them will go on either to work in the industry at developers, or they'll start their own developers, or they'll publish their own stuff, so it's an investment in the future. It's not purely because we're lovely people.
It's the way you have to do business now. You can't just fire and forget, there's got to be an element of nurturing the community that you're in, and supporting that community.
Q: Do you feel a sense of responsibility towards smaller developers?
Mike Gamble: Absolutely. A lot of what I'm doing in Europe at the moment is working with the much, much smaller developers at the crossover point between amateur and professional where they're releasing their first product, digitally on iOS or whatever, pretty small stuff. And in a lot of cases these guys are not well experienced necessarily, but they're incredibly keen and incredibly creative, and we've got that experience quite beyond just the technical stuff. So yeah, there is a level of... responsibility might be over egging it a little bit, but certainly there's a lot we can offer and a lot that we like to offer.
Q: Have you seen a rise in the number of those smaller developers?
Mike Gamble: Totally. There are a few things that have happened, talking for Europe in particular, we've had a really bad 18 months in terms of a lot of big studios going pop, but the fallout of that is a lot of those guys have gone off and created small studios of their own, and a lot of them are focused very much on staying small, doing the projects they want to do, self publishing wherever they can.
So there is a very vibrant community now, which is growing, of talent who are determined not to become so big that they go pop again, so that they can control their own destinies.
Q: How often do you refuse licenses?
Mike Gamble: There's an automatic level of filter that happens straight away the first time you're contacted. The process is kind of weird, clearly part of what I do and the licensing team do, because we're so connected to the industry anyway, so we're talking to developers and developers are talking to us, and so there's a level of pre-qualification there anyway.
Then we also have the web enquiries that come in and they fall in to three distinct categories. There's the guys that just write "knob" or whatever, there's a surprising number of those, why would you go to the effort? It's filling a void for somebody.
And then you have the students and we direct them to the UDK and the real start up guys who are not even set up as a company yet but the kind of cut off point for us is that we'll talk to anybody who is professionally set up as a registered company and has registered email, and can sign a legal document.
That's the first kind of barrier to entry. And actually to reply to that email and say "yes, provide us with this information and an NDA" and that again filters about 30 per cent of those enquiries because they don't understand what we've asked them or it's like "s***, NDA, what's that?" So that's another pre-qualifier straight out the gate.
So we very rarely get to the point where we're talking to a developer and we say no. Occasionally you get to a point where the business just won't resolve. They can't afford the license, we'll almost bend over backwards to try a licensing deal that works for a company, but we have some hard and fast rules about what we will and will not do. So there's a sliding scale, but outside of that sliding scale we won't go, and there are times when you just can't make a deal. But it's not that often it happens.
Q: How you balance the studio focus between supporting licensees and developing games?
Mike Gamble: It's a very different thing, because the way we support licensees is in a very specific and incredibly well honed fashion. So as such we don't have a support group.
So the game side of the company builds the games and the game technology, and the game technology is built for our games, and then comes out into the public domain as it were.
So it's kind of almost the opposite way round to some other engine developers who are building an engine, building a support structure and a sales force around that engine and then using it in house. It's kind of almost that turned around. The engine is built to build the games and it just so happens that that's really useful for a whole bunch of other people. So the fact that we have hundreds and hundreds of developers actually isn't as burdensome as you might imagine
And anecdotally around that is that I've recently joined Epic, six months, but I've been in the industry 16, 17 years and I've worked at Microsoft, publishers, lots of tech companies. And the structure and the process and the way Epic is runs is the most professional games company I have ever, ever worked at by a magnitude, by a serious magnitude.
The processes for dealing with everything, whether that be developers, external, internal, are absolutely honed to perfection.
Q: You were previously with Crytek, has there been much of a culture shock?
Mike Gamble: It's not a culture shock because I've known Epic way longer than I've known Crytek. We did stuff ten years ago, eleven years ago, so it's not been a culture shock from that perspective. It's actually been a real... well relief isn't quite the word, it's just been really nice to fit into a company where it works the way it should work.
We're making really cool stuff, and the environment is really encouraging for you to do that. Hence doing stuff like this. Basically it was my want to do this, and the company said yes.
Q: What was the team's reaction to Wii U?
Mike Gamble: There's certainly an interest from licensees about what they can do and how they could do it. I think it's pretty cool. It's done the usual Nintendo quirky market thing.
Q: What about cloud computing?
Mike Gamble: It's clearly working. It's an alternative isn't it? It's another thing to look at, another way of delivering content which will work for some people and not for others. I quite like the idea, it's got some interesting applications outside of games as well, and interesting ways of getting Samaritan content for instance, without having to have that hardware. There's issues of game play in terms of lag, etcetera.
It it the Gaikai model or is it the OnLive model? Clearly the technology is right on that threshold of being viable and working, there are people using it. And that can only get better.
Q: You mentioned lag, have you noticed a real shift towards multiplayer?
Mike Gamble: Yes and no. You look at the console franchises and yes, clearly. And then you look at stuff on the iPad and it's clearly not that big an issue, you're getting some engaging single player experiences on this, because that's how people use it.
Clearly a console product or a PC product now almost has to have multiplayer otherwise it's just not considered to be a complete product. In fact it's almost gone the other way where the single player element of it is actually the throwaway and it's the multiplayer which is the critical element.
Q: Looking at the visual quality of the Samaritan are Epic not tempted to go into TV and movie production in the same way that Ubisoft is?
Mike Gamble: At the end of the day we're a games and technology developer, so to go into the games industry would be kind of foolish, because we don't know anything about it. Why should we succeed there? That's kind of arrogant to assume if you're very good at this and it's kind of similar to that then you must be good at that.
Q: Do you think you'll get more approaches from TV and film now that people are more aware of what the technology can do?
Mike Gamble: From a licensing perspective what worries us, if you like, is the distraction of something like that. If we were to engage with any one film company to kind of win that license as it were, it could end up in a very very long process and generally get messy. So we tend to be a little bit hands off. And Jay Wilbur really is the one guy that will look at those opportunities and talk to them seriously. The rest of them, we don't want to get pulled into that mire just yet because we don't know anything about the industry. We don't know how they operate, we don't know what their usual financial terms are and we could end up wasting time, money and spinning our wheels there, where as we know we can concentrate on what we do and we do really well, and there's a massive market still untapped for what we do already.
It's really easy to be distracted by shiny baubles, whether that be pre-vis on films, doing stuff for car manufacturers, whatever it happens to be. In the end you can end up chasing these things and your core business is then neglected.
Q: Do you think other companies are tempted by that because they're nervous?
Mike Gamble: Yes. I think it's very tempting. And I think it's actually to Epic's credit that they keep the company doing what we do, and really focused on what we do. And that's a very difficult thing for a company to do.