Epic Games is best known for the Gears of War and Unreal Tournament releases, and its Unreal Engine, used by multiple development studios big and small to create games for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with president Mike Capps at the influential DICE 2010 Summit last week, following the announcement of the winners of the third annual Make Something Unreal Contest. Here, Capps discusses the competition, encouraging new development start-ups, and the pros and cons of user-generated content.
Q: How did the Make Something Unreal competition first come about? What was the thinking behind it?
Mike Capps: Well, the original idea dates back a few years - this is the third time we've done it - and the original idea was to have a contest and see what really cool mods can be made. Then, if we can put some prize money up, especially if we do it in stages, it'll be easier for a mod team to take the summer to work on it - if they win $10,000 maybe they'll say: "Great, let's take next summer off too and spend it in the mod scene."
That was the original idea of the prize money, and the reasoning for giving away an engine license to the winner, to see what happened.
Then the last one went brilliantly for us - we had Tripwire do Red Orchestra for us that was wicked fun and gorgeous, and it sold really well. So we kind of created this company, which is a great feeling.
We do a lot of the talking to independent teams, get them a copy of the engine under the table, help them talk to the guys at Microsoft or other places and try and get studios coming up, because it's a great sales tactic... help them get started and they buy your engine... [smiles]
But you also get to build game studios, and how fun is that? We're all gamer nerds, so the more cool games out there, the better. That's sort of the goal behind the engine, more than anything else, is being able to see a game be so much better because they don't have to worry about all the load-in stuff that we've already done for them; they don't have to worry about writing tools, because we've written those; and they can spend the time to make their game stand out in a special way.
You get - not that Mass Effect 2 wouldn't have been great either way, with us or without us - but they got to skip all that and work on dialogue systems - instead of audio placement, or whatever else.
Q: It's clear that, big as the industry is these days, there are a lot of people out there that could and should be involved in games - but maybe don't have a route in, or know where to start looking. Providing a starting point to allow people to prove their capability is pretty important.
Mike Capps: And so many of our folks were hired right out of the mod community. Watching the PC games market dip meant that the mod community was dipping as well - it's harder to get people to make a mod for a game when you don't have two million units out there.
That's scary for us, because that's our next generation of game developers, and it's not likely to be the guys who made a Match-3 game in their basement and tried to throw it up on iPhone... it's more likely that the people we're going to hire are the ones that made 3D models for characters in a game engine - those are the ones we need for the kind of games we do.
In a way it's a little bit of a species survival for us, for studios like ourselves and Valve - we need that, it's our next generation, and part of the reason for the Unreal development kit. You can't compete against Facebook's numbers if you're a mod built on top of an existing game - you just don't have those numbers.
But with UDK you can make a mod, and a lot of our winners have already ported with the development kit and now you can give it to anyone that's got a PC, which is brilliant, that's just where we need to be.
So I'm hoping that now gives another shot in the arm to mod development - 100,000 folks in the first few weeks downloaded UDK and are actually using it - we track usage - so I'm hoping we can keep the community going, whether or not PC gaming stays on top.
Q: Well, it's the nature of PC gaming that's changing - by revenue it's still a huge platform. With the likes of huge user bases at low price points, like the Facebook side of things, and on the other side the big set piece subscription games like World of Warcraft...
Mike Capps: It's so neat that you didn't say them first, because for the last five years so many people have been saying that PC numbers are skewed because of WoW... and that's it. But now there's Zynga, and WoW is at the other end.
Q: Which is great for the PC platform, because of the variety... but with those download numbers for the UDK kit - clearly you can't hire 100,000 people even if they were all awesome, so clearly there's a healthy community. But people would struggle to do the same thing for, say, Gears of War, because the living-room console there isn't an open platform.
Mike Capps: Well, we did the same thing with Unreal Tournament 3 on the PS3 - that was an open platform, they were really good about it.
Q: But it doesn't happen very often - does it need to?
Mike Capps: I'd love to see that, and I'm surprised it hasn't. Obviously LittleBigPlanet had a big user-created content component - they're game really depended on it because it was a very big game, it was more about the creation.
Q: But that was based on a toolset within the game...
Mike Capps: Sure, it wasn't like taking LittleBigPlanet and now making a space game out of it - you could make a space level...
Q: So you could demonstrate your creativity as a player, as a level designer maybe, but you couldn't be a developer because you understood the language.
Mike Capps: Right - like making it into an RTS. But it's surprising - it was a lot of trouble, because we had to know how to handle it when the first kid made some KKK mod or something terrible like that, whose fault would it be, but it's the same as the internet. If it's an open platform, at some point you have to trust that people are going to complain about it, and you'll fix it.
Q: It's the Giant Penis Theory – give someone the freedom to create and the first thing they do is draw a big penis on a screen and everyone cracks up.
Mike Capps: Yes. So it's disappointing that we haven't seen more of that, but it wasn't a massive community modding on the PS3 for us. Maybe at the end of the day it's because it wasn't a giant-seller on the PS3 for us - it maybe did half a million or a million units - but we'll see. I'd love to see UDK on Xbox or PS3, that'd be fantastic. I'd love to get those guys convinced that it makes sense for them. XNA sort of does that...
Q: Well, Microsoft probably has a vested interest in promoting its own platform - but what would it take to convince them? How much of a risk would it be to open things up?
Mike Capps: That's a great question... you'd have to ask them. Microsoft loves the closed network because it solves a lot of problems. They don't have to worry about somebody posting content that they don't want up there - but that doesn't mean you can't use your Project Gotham Racing car creator to write something with bullet holes on the side of your car that's quite offensive... so as soon as you have user-created content, you have to deal with all that.
Q: Or the Forza vinyls... or let's face it, the message in your Xbox Live gamertag...
Mike Capps: Yeah - it's not hard to make up a leet-speak curse-word that doesn't get caught by the system. But as soon as you allow anybody to do anything, you're taking that risk.
Q: The high score tables in Pac-Man...
Mike Capps: Exactly - you'd never, ever put S-U-X as your name in there... would you? [smiles] Wow, that brought be back.
So I think that's the big one - user-created content has a lot of risks from a publicity perspective. Microsoft is trying to reinvent themselves this Holiday as a family-friendly console, right? So the last thing you want is a giant news story about the Giant Penis Theory, at the same time they're trying to watch Natal.
Q: Although, surely with Natal, the more variety you bring to the input style... well, you see where I'm going. It's basically impossible to limit a person's creativity if they really want to do something along those lines.
Mike Capps: It's just unfortunate that the way the media might - would - jump on something like that, and the way that people would be whipped into a hysteria, thinking: "What? My children are playing on a porn platform?" Fox probably [would do that]. And then they're sunk, which would be terrible, because anybody with half a brain would say: "Well, have you been on the internet?"
Q: Indeed. And that's the difference between something like Second Life - it was clear that some adult stuff went on there right at the outset, so people understood that better, but with games it's different. On the subject of different platforms, do you look at Facebook or the iPhone and wonder if there's an opportunity?
Mike Capps: You mean, if we're missing out on the diamond-shovelling operations over there? We do think about it, but what we think about is how we leverage that userbase into the games that we do. How do we find a way for people who are playing Gears to have a Gears experience outside of the game.
Because they're Gears-heads, but they're Xbox is back at home, they're stuck in Vegas, miserable, with no ability to do anything Gears... how do I level up, or sharpen my chainsaw, or how does my mum do it?
Say my mum plays Gears, and she understands it, but she worries about the life on Serra and the Hammer of Dawn or whatever, and she'd playing an ecological game on Facebook... that'd be great.
Q: Gears of FarmVille?
Mike Capps: Yeah, exactly. But at the end of the day we make Gears, and games like that, and Shadow Complex, and we'll continue to. We'll look at ways to make it more relevant, but I don't want Twitter feeds coming out of Uncharted 2 every 30 seconds saying: "Hey, gosh, Mike just killed another Berserker..."
We're not a me-too company, right?
Q: There's a tendency for future-gazers to take a trend and extrapolate it to an extreme - so look at the popularity of social networking and assume that therefore everybody will want to incorporate some of that into all games... but some people like solo, connected experiences.
Mike Capps: There's a lot of times when I'd have liked to play a World of Warcraft-type game when I'm flying or without a network, so I want to be doing something.
Q: I'm just not sure that social networking has to be a part of everything we do.
Mike Capps: You're not going to watch a movie just to have a Twitter feed while you're watching it... although I do know people who, in a conversation of three people, will just sit there and one of them will be tweeting: "I'm sitting here, talking to Mike..." For those people... I worry for them...
But from our perspective there's a tonne of interest in the iPhone, so we did a skunkworks tech demo to show that actually our stuff works pretty well on the 3GS, it looks good.
It's not a plan for us, we're not diving into iPhone development, but I wanted all our licensees to know that, hey, if they're making a Medal of Honor game and you were going to make an iPhone game anyway, it's not that hard... here are the tricks we did to make that work.
So it's more about that, rather than saying: "Let's get out of this triple-A business and dump that, not at all."
Mike Capps is president of Epic Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.