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An Epic Interview With Tim Sweeney

The Epic CEO reflects on his career, next-gen gaming, the "holy grail" of shooters and more

Tim Sweeney is one of the gods of gaming. With the exception of id Software's John Carmack, the Epic Games CEO and programming and tech genius is essentially peerless in this industry. He's best known for creating Unreal and launching a middleware empire that provides tools for developers across the industry. Most recently, Sweeney was honored for his achievements by being inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame.

At the Game Developers Conference last week, GamesIndustry International had the pleasure of sitting down with Sweeney to talk about his career, Epic Games' strategy, his thoughts on tablets and next-gen consoles and much more.

Tim is quite the character as you'll see from our full interview below. I was at your press briefing, and it was cool seeing what you guys are doing with Flash now, and just thinking about the possibilities, seeing Unreal Tournament running in a browser and looking better than Xbox 360. As Mark Rein said, if you can get Samaritan level graphics in a browser, it kind of makes you question whether consoles remain viable, or if they're going to go away. Do you see that as the likely outcome in all of this?
Tim Sweeney

I see the two things really as complementary. The ability to play triple-A games on a web browser is amazing, and it really opens up the field to go beyond games like FarmVille and create game experiences like Gears of War in a browser. But, the consumer experience is quite different. When you are playing a console game you are sitting in front of your TV, you're in a quiet place, and you have a booming sound system around you. It's very different than sitting at a computer within a web browser and playing a game that way. I certainly don't see one replacing the other, but just broadening the overall possibilities for experiencing the games.

"The big difference between a console and a tablet is the console can consume 100 or 200 watts of power, while the tablet consumes one or two or three or four watts. That's really the limiting factor of performance there"

Tim Sweeney GI: But with browsers, you can put them on a big screen. You don't necessarily have to be at a keyboard and mouse to have that running a browser on a living room kind of setup.
Tim Sweeney

That's an interesting prospect. A lot of consumer devices that you wouldn't expect now have web browsers built into them, a lot of TVs. I think we're a ways away from the point where they have enough graphics horsepower to play games like Gears of War. If you look at a console, the key thing that they do is deliver a huge amount of computing power in a consumer-friendly form factor. A TV might have one-tenth or one-twentieth or one-thirtieth of the power of a console. So, I really don't see that being a substitute for the console game experience - unless you put in a two or three teraflop GPU in there. I didn't get to speak to you at DICE, so congratulations on the Hall of Fame! Reflecting on all of the achievements you've had in your career to this point, what stands out for you? What is the thing you are really most proud of?
Tim Sweeney

Gosh, there are two things. The most important thing with Epic is I've gone out and assembled a really world class bunch of people. I've always looked for people who do something really important better than me, and then get them to do that and don't mess with them. It really started with bringing on guys like Mark Rein to do business deals for Epic. Then finding Cliff Bleszinski, who is a brilliant game designer, and then finding Mike Capps and Rod Fergusson who can manage the studio as a serious development company. Just being able to hire and build a company out of some of the best people in the industry is the thing I'm most proud of. I'm not sure that's really an accomplishment because all I did was get other people to do great stuff.

The thing that I did personally, 100 percent myself, that I think really stands out is that first Unreal Engine. I wrote, gosh, 90 percent of the code in the engine. I wrote the graphics and the networking, the editor and the tools over a two and a half year period. That was a crazy experience that resulted in an engine that really was up there with anything id Software could create at the time. That was an incredibly busy time, and it is always a thrill reflecting back on the crazy hours we worked and what was accomplished back then. I was at a Microtalks session with Cliff Bleszinski, and one of the things he said that stood out for me was that he doesn't like focus groups. He doesn't seem to see any value in focus groups. Is that something that Epic ignores nowadays? You won't really use any focus groups?
Tim Sweeney

Well, there are really two ways to get feedback from customers. One is to ask them what they want, and you never really get a useful answer from there. They'll tell you they want the current thing they have plus some fixes to it that are fairly obvious. What is really useful is building the game you want to build and building it the way you want to build it, then sitting down a bunch of people in front of it. Then watching them play, seeing where they get stuck, what they think of it and just getting their feedback that way. Customer feedback is extraordinarily useful in fine tuning something that exists. So if you use it to that extent, it's a very healthy and important part of a development cycle.

Too many companies will go and say "So, we're considering building a phone. What do you want in a phone?" So they are like "Gee, I want this iPhone problem to go away." You don't get the wide, forward looking perspective that industry visionaries like Cliff himself can come up with.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat are your thoughts on the new iPad announced this week? Obviously, Infinity Blade has become a blockbuster franchise and Epic is building a larger and larger presence...
Tim Sweeney

I'm continually astounded by Apple's sheer will to push the industry forward. Apple is by far the leading phone provider in terms of profits or any other objective measure of how well they are doing. A company in that position could just rest on their laurels and keep making more and more profit from each new phone. Apple doesn't take that approach. Rather, they push the technology forward as fast, or faster than possible to go from lower resolution displays.

"I'm continually astounded by Apple's sheer will to push the industry forward. A company in that position could just rest on their laurels and keep making more and more profit from each new phone"

Tim Sweeney

Remember, so-called smartphones six or seven years ago right before iPhone had resolutions of 320x240 - less than one tenth the number of pixels you have on the next iPad. Apple has continually pushed screen resolutions. They are going around to manufacturers saying " Build this device that no one has contemplated existing." They've gone through the whole hardware ecosystem to push the graphics vendors, the display vendors and all manufacturers forward, but at a much, much faster pace than is even natural for the industry. That really stands out, that's very impressive for a company. Any company that will sacrifice the opportunity to just sit back and profit, in order to expand the market to bring it into an entirely new direction really stands out in the current age. I've met with Mike Capps a few times, and we've talked about the fast pace at which smartphones and tablets iterate. Every year, or every other year they are doubling in power. The consoles, of course, are on a five-year (or now longer) cycle between upgrades. Do you think it won't be too long until we see something like this Samaritan demo that Epic has shown off a few times? Do you think we're going to see that level soon on a tablet?
Tim Sweeney

We'll get there eventually. What we're seeing is more resolve marching forward with hardware performance doubling less than every two years. The big difference between a console and a tablet is the console can consume 100 or 200 watts of power, while the tablet consumes one or two or three or four watts. That's really the limiting factor of performance there. Just on the grounds of the laws of physics, you'd have to think it is three to four hardware generations, or six to eight years before the current highest end desktop or console performance you can achieve becomes achievable on tablets. To me, that really defines the role of consoles in the world. They define the highest and most impressive graphics experience anywhere in the industry. They focus on delivering teraflops of computing performance in a way that a portable device or an economical computer really couldn't, despite sheer focus on that one aspect. With Microsoft and Sony not too far away from announcing new consoles, there have been all sorts of rumors. One is that Microsoft may be going away from discs and using solid state storage. I'm curious, what is your reaction is from the tech standpoint?
Tim Sweeney

Rumors aside, you can look at different storage devices from a purely technical point of view. You see that spinning optical media has about 250 milliseconds of latency. If you want to get some bits from somewhere else on the disc, you have to wait a quarter of a second for the little mechanical elements to move the head around so they can read it. A hard disc is about 20 times faster than that, and a solid state drive is tens of thousands of times faster. It's basically the speed of electrons that limits the solid state drive.

One of the major things a game needs to do in a world with a large environment and lots of graphical resources is continually go out and pull new textures and sounds and 3D models from different places in the storage media. So solid state drives have a really dramatic advantage from that point of view. It would certainly be desirable for the working storage to be solid state or some other extremely fast medium. But that's a completely separate question from distribution media. Solid state drive costs are fairly expensive.

You couldn't ship a game on a cartridge that's a solid state drive itself. It would terribly prohibitive economically. You could potentially envision downloading a game from the internet to a solid state drive, or taking it off of optical media and installing it on a solid state drive. There are lots of ways to get a game onto optimal media for playing the game. If you look at decoupling the distribution media, whether it's internet or storage from the streaming medium (which is used during gameplay), you see far more flexibility than just in current console games. If all you have is a spinning drive, you just have to go out, load a resource, and wait for a drive to go out and do its mechanical work.

"If you go into the next generation with a budget of $100 million, you are doing it wrong and are being far too brute force"

Tim Sweeney More generally speaking, what are the things you are looking for in next-gen systems, the kinds of things that get you and Epic excited creatively?
Tim Sweeney

Gosh, my list for the next generation; it's really two big things. One is to bring all that's best about other computing devices - the convenience, the access to social media, the connectivity with the internet, Facebook or Twitter - and continue to bring that forward in the console experience. If you look at the console generation previous to this one, these were offline devices. You'd install a game, play it by yourself and you're done. Nowadays you go online, play games, and buy games through XBLA or PSN. I think we've really only seen the tip of the iceberg there. There is a continual challenge for the industry to push forward in order to remain relevant and competitive with the awesome things that are happening on iOS for example.

Number two is to deliver the maximum amount of computing power that is economically possible. Really, that's the reason consoles exist in the future. They have an enormous amount of graphics processing power that delivers an experience that goes far beyond what you can get on a lighter weight device. Pushing forward, we measure that performance in teraflops, trillions of floating point operations per second. When I started programming, you had about one thousand floating point operations per second. Now we have, on nVidia's fastest hardware, two and a half to three teraflops. To push next-generation up to those levels will really ensure that they will remain relevant for another generation, even as other cool consumer devices like iPads and iPhones become more prevalent.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you ever worry about the economics of the business? What you just talked about becomes an expensive proposition for a lot of developers and publishers out there. Epic is an a great position, you guys create good games and have good middleware, but there are a lot of developers out there who could create a game for $40-$60 million dollars, and if it doesn't do so well, that could bankrupt them. As the consoles get more powerful and require more power and more manpower, it's a big challenge facing this industry. What are your thoughts?
Tim Sweeney

That's the big question for the game industry really. We've seen game budgets triple or quadruple with every generation. It's like there's a Moore's Law which says that development budgets quadruple every time you have a new console cycle. That can't continue unless the user base also increased proportionally to that. So the big challenge for all game developers is to develop games as efficiently as possible. And that's always been Epic's secret sauce. It is something that we really built our business around, making the Unreal Engine and making our solution available to other companies to absolutely maximize the amount of work every programmer and every artist on a team can contribute to a game per unit of time.

If you look at Epic building these Gears of War games, we've been very efficient compared to the competition. Starting with 50 developers for Gears of War 1, scaling up to maybe 80 for Gears of War 3, and here are teams that are 200 or 300 people working on some triple-A games. That's really the edge of what's economically feasible. You certainly couldn't have a 1,000 person team in the next generation. It requires continual development of tools and processes to better ourselves. Mike Capps told me last year how he feels that Unreal games have maybe not gotten the attention they deserve recently from Epic. Is Epic looking to revisit that property that obviously is the namesake of the engine? Are you going to go back to doing any more Unreal Tournament games at all?
Tim Sweeney

We don't have any definite plans. I really look back on the first real Unreal game; it was the first game which had really detailed, impressive outdoor environments. Until that point, Doom and Quake were awesome, amazing, genre-defining games, but they were corridor shooters. In Unreal 1, we put you in this little crashed spaceship, and you had to crawl through the air ducts to get out So you are crawling through this corridor and you're like 'oh no, more of this,' and you get to the exit and you're standing outdoors by your spaceship in this huge, sweeping scene with birds overheard and a canyon off in the distance. There is a soft spot in my heart that experience and I always hope that we have an opportunity to revisit that in the future. Well, you're the guy that decides what you do right? You can make the opportunity happen.
Tim Sweeney

Yeah, you can try telling Cliff and Mike what to do, but it doesn't really stick. [laughs] I started out building Epic's first two games by myself, but my game design sensibilities really ended around 1992, and so I rely on guys with far, far more sense and taste to lead the company's design and product strategies forward. First-person shooters have evolved tremendously. Just look at Call of Duty becoming a billion-dollar product. What Epic has done is move a little bit away from that with a third-person shooter, over-the-shoulder view in Gears of War. I talked last year with John Carmack about the growth and evolution of the genre, and I'm curious about your thoughts on the overall genre, and where it has progressed and where you see it going.
Tim Sweeney

It's very impressive and interesting how the genre started out, you know with Doom and Quake, and then Unreal. It branched out in a number of different directions. I don't make that big a distinction between first- and third-person games when it is still sort of the same core mechanics. Gears of War versus Call of Duty to me isn't that gigantic a difference - it's not a genre difference to me, just a perspective difference. It's great to see these enormously cinematic, largely scripted experiences like Call of Duty ranging up to completely free-form games with major exploration elements and everything in between - especially in Asia you have first person shooters branching out into the MMO genre, you know with action-oriented MMOs. It's cool to see the design space fully explored.

"The Holy Grail is the sort of cinematic experience that you have in Call of Duty without the pre-scripting, with a magical path through the level that you can follow where you can see the all cool stuff"

Tim Sweeney

It's hard to predict where that will go forward as more and more games focus more on the online component. I expect at some point in the future that we should see the best of both. I think the Holy Grail, which no one has achieved yet, is a sort of cinematic experience that you have in Call of Duty without the pre-scripting, with a magical path through the level that you can follow where you can see the all cool stuff. If you can create an experience like that that's completely free-form and player directed, now that would be an entirely new experience. And Unreal will make that happen, right?
Tim Sweeney

Well, if you look at where the technology's heading, it's supporting more dynamic environments and more dynamic lights, so we're trying to make the engine more suitable for more absolutely free-form experiences. The reception for Unreal Engine 4 has been very positive from what we've heard, although it's not been shown to press. When are you looking to push forward with that and launch Unreal Engine 4?
Tim Sweeney

Well our engine has been in active development for a long time. It's up and running stably now and a select few partners have and will have access to it shortly. It is already in the early stage of the development pipeline at a number of studios. But we're saving the announcements until everything is lined up for when we can make a really big public splash. Obviously we're trying to line up Epic's roadmap up with a few other roadmaps whose existence we can't even acknowledge. [laughs] I think we know who you're talking about!
Tim Sweeney

So it's a big challenge. In order to be there in a few years, when major games start shipping, we need to be at this stage right now. With Unreal Engine 4, we've made some really broad investments in graphics technology, which we're not talking about yet, but it's there. We're also adding a vastly improved set of tools aimed at maximizing artist productivity and programmer productivity. We see those as the absolute top challenges facing triple-A game development. If you go into the next generation with a budget of $100 million, you are doing it wrong and are being far too brute force. We want to deliver the solution that enables many teams to develop triple-A games economically and build solid businesses around it, rather than throwing in vast amounts of money in hopes of [succeeding]. Thanks for your time Tim.

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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