In the past few years Epic Games has set a number of benchmarks for aesthetic and gameplay excellence thanks largely to its widely licensed Unreal Engine 3, but also thanks to the studio's ability to make blockbuster franchises. The Unreal Tournament series permanently changed gamers' perceptions of what an online FPS was, just as the over-the-shoulder perspective and cover system from Gears of War has become a convention among action shooters seeking to capture some of that title's success.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Epic's vice president Mark Rein at the GameHorizon conference, where he talked to us about Gears of War 2, the importance of modding, the PC platform and which games push console sales.
Q: How is Gears of War 2 going?
Mark Rein: We had some folks in recently for the multiplayer play test and it was so much fun. I think the new game types are really good, really fun. Gears was always pretty popular online and it's still - almost two years later - in the top ten on Xbox Live and I think that Gears 2 is an improvement on that on a lot of things.
Q: What are your expectations, do you expect it to outsell the original?
Mark Rein: We don't get to decide that, that's for the fans to decide. We just sit by patiently and watch. All we can do is say we're making a great game and that's our job.
Last time that's what we did, we made a game that we really loved and enjoyed playing, very fun addictive multiplayer, we got a good story, and this time around with the experience we have and the base to build on we think this one's even better. So we're going to do our job and it will be up to the fans to decide how well we do.
Q: Do you think Gears of War 2 will push console sales, considering that the biggest launch this year - Grand Theft Auto IV - didn't?
Mark Rein: I think when you get to this part of the life cycle of the console systems, every game helps sells the consoles. So it's hard to say "Oh it's that one game". Plus I also think that for months before a game ships the guys that have really latched onto that game as the reason they're buying the console are probably going to buy the console early and get a game or two.
I think it's a little difficult to always identify that any one game made a spike in console sales or not. Having a great library of games, that's what helps consoles sell. If there's a great game that's coming out, you're probably not going to wait till the day the game comes out to buy the console, because once you've made that emotional decision to spend the money you're probably going to start buying titles.
It's like, back in the day, if you knew a DVD was coming out that you wanted and you didn't have a DVD player you'd probably - once you knew the date it was coming out - buy the DVD player and start building your library before the actual DVD you bought it for came out. So it's the same with games systems.
Q: Ubisoft has said that they're going to be using 3D - or stereoscopic - technology in games...
Mark Rein: That's dumb [in respect that 3D technology is nothing new, it's been around for a while - we've been supporting it for ten years already*].
Q: So there's not going to be an Unreal Engine that supports it then?
Mark Rein: It does already. I have a 3D monitor sitting in my office and stereoscopic has worked on Unreal for a long time. In fact one of the guys pushing stereoscopic sent me the monitor, he said "Your games are great on these monitors," so he sent me one. So Unreal works fine on stereoscopic, it's just you've got to change out your screens to use it - that's a big accessory.
Q: What do you think of the PC as a platform, is Epic going to become increasingly console-focused?
Mark Rein: Well, we make our games on the PC obviously and PC is how we do development and why we have this great Intel million dollar 'Make Something Unreal' competition. Our games are on PC, if we have a game that suits the PC I don't see any reason why we wouldn't release it on PC. It seems like a no-brainer.
Q: And are you still not planning on developing any Wii games?
Mark Rein: No we don't have any plans to make something for the Wii. That's like asking a sculptor when he's going to start painting. That's just not our medium. That's not our area of expertise - our area of expertise is the more high-end consoles and things that push technology higher. That's what we do - there's a lot more water in that well for us, when that runs dry then maybe we'd have to think of doing something else but I don't think that well is going to run dry anytime soon.
Q: Unreal Tournament 3 for the Xbox 360 came out on July 4 in Europe, July 7 in North America. Why is it coming out in Europe first?
Mark Rein: I've always been fighting for years and years to get our release dates as close as possible or simultaneous if we could, which is a challenge always, and I've always been fighting for that because we have a lot of fans for UT in Europe. Maybe even more now in Europe than we do in the US.
Personally I was really pleased when they said it was actually going to be a few days ahead in the UK and Europe, so I hope the fans come out and support us for that.
Q: Are you going to be stepping up your presence in Europe as recent reports suggest there are more gamers here than in North America?
Mark Rein: Well the population is higher here so it kind of makes sense, but the only negative is that the costs are higher here. It costs Europeans a little bit more to play out of the gate than it does in the US.
Generally the cost of living here is a little more expensive so that translates into the cost of everything. But I think we've got a pretty good market here and certainly from the engine licensing side of things Europe is very strong for us, we've got a lot of developers over here and it's growing all the time. From the game side, we've always pandered to the European crowd - that's nothing new for us - they've always been a good audience for us, so we pay a lot of attention to them.
Q: Why did UT3 come to the PS3 before the Xbox 360?
Mark Rein: Well, the PC and PS3 shared the same online library, so it just seemed kind of natural we were always going to release it on the PC first - it's a PC game first and foremost - and both the PC and the PS3 use GameSpy. So, instead of doing two separate online components, it was actually easier to just do the game on both.
Plus Sony got really behind the product and allowed us to do user-created content. So that seemed like a very good opportunity to build something new and interesting - having mods on a game console, no one had ever done that before, not to the degree that we do it. So that just seemed like a really, really good challenge and was worth doing it that way just for that.
So here we are now with the Xbox 360 and a great Xbox Live implementation and we're rewarding the fans with a little bit extra content than the PS3 guys and PC guys got when it first shipped so hopefully people wont be too annoyed that it took this long.
Q: Will you support the Xbox 360 game with any mod content?
Mark Rein: We never have specific plans for downloadable content before we ship the game because we look to see what happens after we ship it. But there's certainly a lot of great mods out there that we could potentially go and choose from, and bonus packs and things like that to bring over and put them out as DLC.
The only negative thing there is that you've got to go through a rather intensive certification process so it's not like we can do it [easily] - it's not like on the PS3 where you can get it online every ten minutes if you want, you have to actually plan that and assign people to it and spend some time on it. We don't have a specific plan made but I suspect there will be more stuff to this game on 360, I just don't know and can't commit to a date right now.
Q: How important do you feel user-created content and mods are to games, do you think they're features games simply must have?
Mark Rein: No, it's not a must-have thing for games, although the games that do have it benefit from it. If every game had tons and tons of mods you'd never get time to play the new games. So I don't think every game needs to have mods but I think it's great that we have them for UT and lots of other games have them.
Like, GTA, I'm not going to feel cheated if I'm never going to get a mod for GTA - there's so much content in that game. I like playing new games and new experiences which is what I love about the mod stuff, but GTA has a lot of content.
I don't think games that don't have it suffer in any way but the games that do have it's a beneficial feature and provides extra value for the game.
*Mark Rein contacted GamesIndustry.biz to clarify this comment, which wasn't intended to cause offense or confusion.
Mark Rein is the vice president at Epic Games. Interview by James Lee.