One of this year's biggest gaming priorities for the Xbox 360 platform is undoubtedly Gears of War 2 from Epic Games.
Here, Epic's president, Michael Capps, discusses the subjects of social gaming, the new Xbox Live Experience and the company's business plans.
Q: Gears of War was Epic's first narrative game. When you first set out on the project, did you have any idea it would capture gamers' imaginations in the way it has?
Dr Michael Capps: You always aim for that, right? We were actually scared to death, because our numbers for online interest were tracking really, really dangerously big - and we were worried about bring over-hyped.
I mean, we were number one on 1up, number one on Gamespot, everyone was so excited and we were like, "How do we live up to this? Everyone's expecting so much". Inevitably, when you've got sort of interest coming in before you sell it, you've got the folks who are saying, "Well, it isn't perfect" - there's always a little bit of detracting that way.
But [the excitement] was so much more than we ever would have expected. We thought we'd made a really fun videogame, but we didn't know people would have so much interest... I mean, Newline is making a movie! We've never been in that space before.
Q: Do you think there's a key element of the game that caught peoples' imagination?
Dr Michael Capps: We built a really beautiful game. Our technology set the bar, I think, for next-gen gaming. There were a lot of people with brand new HD TVs and Xboxes and they bought Gears of War to show off. I mean, with videogames graphics is what catches your interest and the controls are what keep it.
I think the idea of 'destroyed beauty' really resonated with people, more than just the hardcore shooter owner. The Mad World commercial is a good example - we didn't aim that at 18 year-olds who like to shoot stuff up in videogames, we aimed it at their girlfriends and their moms, people who would see that this is a deeper, more resonant world.
Q: I love the idea that you based the development of Gears around one phrase - 'destroyed beauty'. Is that an ethos you bring to all game development at Epic?
Dr Michael Capps: It is now! We actually had a few statements about Gears - another is 'you never fight alone'. This is a game where it's you and your mates and you're playing as a team together against crazy odds.
You're not one guy going round as a super hero - you're a team of guys. In the second one those relationships between the characters play an even greater part.
Q: Gears, then, is part of this industry trend toward social gaming?
Dr Michael Capps: Yes. I really want to be able to have my girlfriend or my mom play this game. My girlfriend's a gamer, but she's a Nintendo gamer - this isn't her sort of thing at all. But she had a blast, she looked around, saw the pretty settings and love the cinematics.
We want to make it accessible - I mean, that's how you sell videogames. The Sims sells for a lot of reasons: one, because it's great and two, because it's so accessible to everyone. So trying to take a game that's such a niche hardcore title, but open up the controls and the story to make it more widely appealing - so far it's worked pretty well.
Q: What do you think about the New Xbox Live experience? Are you supporting its features in GoW2?
Dr Michael Capps: It's tough, because we really wanted to - and obviously, being first party we work very closely with their tech teams, but they were finishing it after we were locking down a lot of our core feature sets, so we could only do so much. But I love the fact that you boot through the dashboard now - I understand how some gamers might not like it so much, but that's how you join into the Xbox Live experience - your dashboard comes up, you get to see what's new, hey, there's some free stuff you didn't know about - instead of just booting into your game and missing the community.
If you hop right into the game you sort of miss something. And the way they're expanding the Live presence - you know, they're leading right now, they're winning. And the way you continue to do that is to keep adding cool stuff that everybody wants. Netflix is a great example - making me watch my movies on my Xbox!
Q: Is there anything that you as an Xbox developer would like to see more of from Xbox Live?
Dr Michael Capps: Good question. Well, I want it all, faster! We recently acquired a company that makes Xbox Live Arcade games - Chair Entertainment - and they made Undertow, which a lot of publications called best game of the year on XBLA.
But it really wasn't very successful financially because, there's no marketing path, there's no PR path for a really sharp 20 dollar Live Arcade game - it's something you could sell on the shelves if you wanted to, but they chose to go down that route and I think it hurt them.
So I think making that economy work [for new development], rather than saying, "We all love Galaga so here's a new one" or "Here's another retro hit that we've dumped on to Xbox Live Arcade" - making it more like Steam, where it's really easy to go in see what cool games are out and give them a try.
Q: On the subject of the Chair acquisition, was that a straightforward business decision or was it more like "That was a cool game, they seem like nice guys, let's buy the company!"?
Dr Michael Capps: Well, I mean, that's sort of the way we run our shop. We're still very much a garage operation. Everyone in management - except for me - has been there ten plus years. We're a bunch of guys who make games, we're not brilliant businessmen.
With Chair it was, they'd hit a spot where they'd made this great game, lots of people played it because XBLA gave it away free for that weekend - so they had a big player base, fun game... and there's no money in it, so they were in a tough spot.
And they're brilliant - they took our engine and they squeezed it, plus content, to a 40 MB download, or whatever it was. So they're smart guys, their next game looked really cool, so we said, yeah, let's jump on board.
It was really good designers who knew our tech well - and that was the same with People Can Fly in Warsaw - they just blew us away with what they did with out tech...
Q: Isn't PCF more integrated into the whole Gears machine - they handled the PC conversion didn't they?
Dr Michael Capps: Well, they were, but that was their proving ground. Now they're making their own IP. They're working on a game with EA Partners.
Q: And Chair is working on new IP of course...
Dr Michael Capps: Yeah, I mean, the Empire IP they created, they got Orson Scott Card to write the novels - he's the guy who wrote Ender's Game and all that. And Warner Bros has already optioned the movie rights - for this little tiny studio's first game. We want them to create new stuff, not do add-on packs.
Q: Back to Epic, you're still working with comparatively small 20-30 man teams. Do you feel this benefits the games or the development environment?
Dr Michael Capps: Oh both. I mean, most people came to Epic because they wanted to work for a small, family-feel studio. We've grown a lot since I've been there - we've quadrupled in size. We used to be a one-team studio with 20-odd guys making the engine, now we're 100 people spread between two games and the engines, so it's nothing like the giant EA teams or whatever else.
It's both for community because honestly when you have 200 people working on a game it's hard for everyone to get their say. Our systems administrator goes to the playtests and says, "Oh this would be so much better" and that becomes a new game type.
That's how we work at Epic - everyone there loves games. If you have people saying "Oh well you're not allowed to be involved in game decisions because there's just too many of us" it just breaks it. There's a magic at Epic that we're very afraid to break - we don't know how we got it, we just know how to break it! So we're not going to.
We're bigger than we used to be - there's no doubt. And everyone sort of expects that if Gears 2 were the same length, with the same number of guns and same number of characters, we'd get beat up for it. Which isn't fair, right? Because it's new stuff - but it doesn't matter, it's got to be bigger to maintain the same review scores.
So we knew we had to do more and had a fixed time to do it in - we made a target, and it just took a few more guys to pull it off. I mean, we're a tools vendor, right? We write our engine and it's used by hundreds of teams worldwide and so we focus a lot more than most studios do on workflow and doing everything as optimally as we can so we can get away with fewer folks.
Q: So when you sell the Unreal engine to developers do you say, "Here's the engine and here's how we at Epic get the most out of it" or "Here's the engine, goodbye"?
Dr Michael Capps: It's mostly "Here's the engine, goodbye". But they get the examples of our games. We've got a lot of articles on our site about how we re-use things - you see this beautiful city and we're like, "That's actually nine meshes where we've stretched and pulled and re-arranged it, but you'd never know because it's clever useage..."
So we show them everything we've done, then lots of articles on how to optimise, but in the end it comes down to the people who can really make the engine sing, who can do it with as few people we have, or fewer because they don't need an engine team.
But I suppose the downside of having small teams is that you've got people who'll be working on Unreal or Gears for many years. How do you keep them motivated?
It's a tough problem. I mean, with the Unreal franchise, we were on it for ten years before we shipped the last one. Unreal Championship 2 was a nice departure, very different kind of gameplay, but UT3 was more similar to previous games... you know, we try to mix it up, do new things, challenge ourselves.
But there were some guys who were just ready for a break and when Gears came up that was perfect for them - and some of those guys are now excited to go back and work on Unreal - some people really wanted to just make Capture the Flag maps after working on Gears for two or three years; they were excited about working on something nice and simple.
But yeah, you've hit it on the head - we have great ideas and it's tough to be able to exploit them all when we've got two really successful franchises and two teams - all we can do is grow some more.
Q: What's the development atmosphere like at Epic? From what you're saying it sounds like a highly creative environment - is there a lot of sitting around discussing influences? And if there is, what are they?
Dr Michael Capps: Movie-wise it's all over the place. We saw Cloverfield and some of us were saying "Oh that's amazing, that's the camera work we want!" And then someone would say "You're crazy, that's the worst movie ever!" This goes on and on.
So, lots of pop culture from comic books and graphic novels - we have a list at work called Unreviewed, and it's just anything cool - "Hey, I went to see this, go check it out", "Here's a video of a Spectre gunship blowing things up", "Has everyone seen the new Fracture trailer?" We try to keep up with everything as much as we can.
Dr Michael Capps is president of Epic Games. Interview by Keith Stuart.