One of the games industry's best-known figures is also one of its most-travelled - Epic Games VP Mark Rein puts in a remarkable number of miles heading to various events around the world, evangelising about the company's Unreal Engine - one of the reasons why it's proven to be such a popular purchase for many developers.
At last week's GameHorizon in Newcastle, UK, we caught up with him to talk about the company's ongoing business philosophy, and why mobile is playing an increasing role in the future of games.
Q: Why do you make the time to come to events like GameHorizon and other regional English conferences, given some of the deals you must be making back at home?
Mark Rein: The first year I guess they invited me, and I hadn't been to this area - we had some licensees near here that were using Unreal technology. So I just came to see what it was like and I just found it really fascinating. There's a lot of people here talking about really smart things, it's a little different than what you're going to hear at GDC and other conferences. And I just think they're talking about the issues of the industry... plus it's a nice place and I think they do a really good job.
Q: I was talking to Carri Cunliffe who heads up the conference about the importance of a chance like this for UK developers to meet big international fish, especially given the loss of the tax breaks. Is there another way for them to do that, or is pressing the flesh still vital?
Mark Rein: We launched the Unreal Development Kit pretty much with the idea of making the engine accessible to everyone, outside of just modders who already had a particular game, and to make it easier for people to get our technology, start playing with it, and start to build something that could be the precursor to that conversation.
We're easy to approach - you can always email me, I answer my email. I don't think it's really the only way you can meet, but the face-to-face interaction can spawn ideas, has spontaneity, you can see someone's idea of what they're doing. A bunch of times I'll come to a conference, someone will be on their laptop, show me their game idea... So I don't think it's the only way, but it's a way, and it's a good way.
Q: Word has it that you handle almost all of this stuff, the licensing and the sales, yourself... Is that a quality control thing?
Mark Rein: I hope you heard that in a good way... I just love the industry, I love games, I love games developers, I'm very fond of the whole process of development. I used to be a programmer years and years ago, I never wrote a game or anything like that, but I have a huge amount of respect for people who do. I just wanna touch 'em all [laughs]. I just want to play whatever role I can in helping everybody succeed. That means personal contact.
Q: Why do you think there aren't more developers in Epic's situation - why have relative contemporaries like id and Bungie largely stayed as pure studios and not gone down the massed licensing route to the extent you have, almost to the point where you're trying to be a games industry unto yourself?
Mark Rein: That's a good question. I definitely made that conscious decision to be a middleware company, not just a game developer. And that takes a certain amount of effort, and considerable expense and... that was just in our DNA. I don't know if you're aware of this, but our very first game shipped with an editor, in 1991. That was just what we did.
Everybody talks id and Doom, and that started modding, but our fans started doing mods for ZZT long before Doom was even an idea. So that's just our DNA, we just want to share our tools and technology, we invest a lot of the money we make from our games into them, and hopefully that brings revenue from there as well. I just think it's not just something you can do lightly.
Q: Is Bulletstorm quite calculated in that regard, to prove that you're whoever you want to be on whatever platform you want to be on?
Mark Rein: No - but it does demonstrate our strength on all platforms. You can't make games with an agenda. You can make tech demos with an agenda - you've seen what I was showing up there [at GameHorizon], our tech demo on iPad and iPhone and with Google's Android device. We have an agenda to demonstrate a technology on that.
But games you have to make out of a pure passion. I think people who make games to try to check off an itch or something like that, customers see through that. They want passion, they want a game you really love to play. So I think anytime we make a game it's because we love that game.
My point is that Bulletstorm is going to be a great game on three platforms, and demonstrate that. Unreal Tournament was a great game on three platforms.
Q: You've got this evident personal enthusiasm for games you want to make on these mobile platforms, but is this just fooling around or is it endemic of a real push on Epic's part?
Mark Rein: We're going to make a game for mobile and tablet. We haven't announced anything yet, but it's due.
Q: Is this something of a change in development philosophy for you? Historically you've been pushing the Unreal engine forwards, forwards, forwards, but now you have to go backwards, to some extent, to work on a much lower-spec platform.
Mark Rein: Actually that's the thing, we're not going backwards at all. This technology, Unreal Engine 3 - first of all it's the same engine. Unreal Engine 3 on iPhone uses the exact same pipeline and process and what I'm fond of telling people is you can preserve the 'three Ps' - your people, your pipeline and your process, and when moving from using Unreal Engine 3 to make an Xbox 360 or PC game or a PS3 to making one for the iPhone.
Yeah, the hardware spec is different in the same way you can have a high-end PC or a low-end PC or a mid-range PC. But the people that you have that are trained and know how to use this technology, the pipeline for getting content to it and the process for creating content is the same. That's 100 per cent preserved.
Q: Do you think that people haven't noticed where this is going, that in spite of all this talk of the current console model being dinosaurs, you guys might end up way ahead because a lot of your peers are clinging to the old ways?
Mark Rein: I think that's something that we've always been really good at, is kind of reinventing ourselves as new technology comes out. You've seen we're on our third generation of Unreal Engine technology, and I think every time we try to predict what that next piece of technology's going to be, and how we fit in on it, and how we port to be ready when it shows up... I think we've just done a good job there.
The nice thing is people don't have to worry about this, they don't have to keep on building new engines every generation, they can just license technology. And we're not the only ones. There are other middleware developers. I think that as the platform changes more and more, there's just a better opportunity for middleware to be involved.
Q: I notice you keep saying "middleware", while others are careful to say "engine" - as if middleware's a dirty word. Is that something you've always done, or endemic of a change in perception?
Mark Rein: Well, we make a game engine - that's our middleware. Our middleware is a game engine, but not everybody's going to like the game engine. There are lots of different kinds of middleware you can license, you can Frankenstein up your own game engine just by buying lots of different pieces of middleware. And in fact we have at least 15 or 20 companies in our independent partners programme which our middleware which works with our game engine.
There are lots of different ways to build games - you don't have to buy just an engine like ours, you can buy APIs and SDKs and you can buy pieces and interchange them… But we make middleware. I doubt there are many games that don't use any middleware, at least in terms of high-end triple-A stuff. Certainly you can build a game with no middleware, but, I don't know.. is your compiler middleware? Is the platform providing middleware?
Q: So how popular have you found the UDK to be?
Mark Rein: We're over 250,000 installs on UDK now.
Q: How many games will be coming out of that, finished products, do you think?
Mark Rein: I don't know. That's the beauty of UDK - people can go take it and do whatever they want with it. We have a great business model, lots of people coming to get a license, but the truth is you don't need to come and get a license until you decide that you want to make a game commercially.
If you want to make it non-commercially, you've already signed the license when you click through the installer. So it's hard to get a feel for the size of the market, but we do encourage people to come to our community forums and show off what they've made, and there is a ton of amazing stuff.
Q: Is there a risk with UDK games that, like the App Store, you end up with five games that people download in droves, then behind that this vast mass of titles no-one's playing?
Mark Rein: Absolutely. And that's what I was trying to address in the talk [at GameHorizon] - distribution without marketing is just distribution. You have to have marketing, you have to have a conversation with the customers.
Q: Do you think IOS and Android is a two-horse race for gaming, or is Apple going to stomp Google on this one?
Mark Rein: I don't know - I don't think you have to place a bet right now. I certainly wouldn't bet Microsoft out either. Right now we're not terribly interested in Windows Mobile 7 because it doesn't allow native code to run, which means it's a proprietary platform for all intents and purposes. I think they're going to change that - they haven't even released that platform yet.
I mean, they know that if they want to get a plethora of great apps they're going to have to do something, and people don't really want to develop for managed code environments. And so I wouldn't count them out. They've got a lot of money. Marketing is hugely important. Microsoft could easily take some of that cash wad and spread it around the carriers, and the carriers do the majority of the advertising for these mobile platforms, so if the carriers get behind it could easily be as big as Android and IOS - so it's a just a question of what Microsoft wants to do.
Q: In terms of the iPad, do you think top-tier, triple-A games are definitely coming to that platform, given the kind of stuff that currently dominates it, like Angry Birds?
Mark Rein: It's inevitable, because once the genie's out of the bottle, it's out. You can't un-shoot a gun, right? Once people get a taste a something higher quality, they can't go back. You're not watching a lot of black and white, 4:3 television at home, are you? Sure there's some nostalgia factor there, but for the most part people aren't going back and playing 20 year-old games because the technology surpasses them and now they have much better experiences that are more immersive.
And once you have a taste of immersion, your suspension of disbelief that you had before when you had clunky 16 bit pixels on the screen, it goes away. You just don't go back and watch silent movies in black and white. I'm not saying there's no market for that, but it's not mainstream.
Q: Though you could argue we're watching low-resolution, tiny-screen YouTube videos, despite the move to huge HD tellies…
Mark Rein: But they're not. They're still with produced with decent cameras... Actually most of the videos I watch on YouTube are in HD. The only reason you watch a video on YouTube that isn't in HD is because you want to watch it right now, but a lot of things I want to see, especially if it's a game demo, I click HD, and I watch it in HD.
Let's not kid ourselves - these are much higher resolutions than what you used to watch on TV 20 years ago, and you just don't go back. I think it's the same thing with games, it's the same thing with movies. You know, why would they have bothered making Avatar? They had perfectly good technology, users were quite happy... Once you get a certain level of technology, you just can't go back.
Mark Rein is VP at Epic Games. Interview by Alec Meer.