Epic Achievements

Mark Rein on Gears, game engines and next-gen.

At the recent DICE Summit, Gears of War scooped no less than eight awards - including Game of the Year. More than 2 million copies have now been sold, and according to Microsoft it's the fastest-selling next-gen console game to be released so far. caught up with Epic Games vice president Mark Rein at the summit to discuss the success of Gears and what's next for the studio. Here, in part one of our interview, Rein reveals Epic's plans for its proprietary game engine and company strategy. Part 2 will be published tomorrow. Has the success of Gears of War helped with engine licensing?

Mark Rein: Definitely helpful in that we proved you can make a great next-gen game using Unreal Engine 3 for a moderate amount of money and sell a decent amount of units. Not only does that prove the merit of Unreal Engine 3, it also sends the signal that you can make serious profit from next-gen games with this technology and thereās no need to sit on the sidelines.

As Playstation 3 builds up its install base the next-gen opportunity will only get better and better so publishers should now feel confident investing more heavily in next-gen. That confidence helps us because we make great technology for next-gen games that helps reduce costs and get you to market sooner.

Q: Is there a limit to the number of companies who can license the Unreal Engine 3 technology?

Unreal Engine 3 is being used in a very small percentage of next-gen titles being created so there is still lots of room for growth. The biggest limitations we face are that people think of us as an engine for making large scale games and first-person shooters. While weāre certainly good at those, our challenge is to spark developersā imaginations so they donāt think of us as engine suitable only to certain types of games.

You donāt have to make "big" games with UE3. You can also make Xbox Live Arcade, Sony EDI and PC-downloadable games as well, and the savings on making some of the smaller games are even more dramatic thanks to tools like our Unreal Kismet visual scripting system.

We have great licensing terms designed specifically to make it affordable for developers who want to make those sorts of games. Roboblitz, which shipped on Xbox Live Arcade, is an early example of what can be done in that space and there are some other very interesting smaller projects underway as well.

On the shooter front, Stranglehold from Midway looks absolutely amazing, but seeing them reveal that theyāre doing Mortal Kombat - one of the most successful fighting game franchises of all time - with Unreal Engine 3 is even more exciting to me from the standpoint of busting the stereotypes of what our engine can be used for.

Q: Why havenāt you done digital distribution? Why havenāt you started a Steam competitor?

Weāre not a publisher. Weāre a developer. Publishers are the ones that sell our games; itās their job to figure out how to make money from them.

There are a few Unreal Engine games on Steam, such as Red Orchestra and Roboblitz, and weāre thrilled to see that area being explored with our technology.

Q: Are there other directions you would go in, or are technology and development the two key areas?

I think these two areas of focus are what we'll stick with for the next little while. I think you have to figure out what youāre good at, and then work hard to get better at it all the time. Weāll get better and better at making games in the future, and weāll get better and better at making engines over time as well. I think we have to be careful not to spread ourselves too thinly.

Q: Do you think cross-platform is the way to go for developers?

If youāre not a major first-party title, definitely I think being cross-platform is a smart strategy. With respect to next-generation having three target systems - PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 - to sell on, that should help you be able to achieve good results even if you never manage to sell the "magic" million units on any of those platforms.

So clearly this means greater potential for financial success. Publishers will generally spend more marketing dollars if they feel they can amortise the money over multiple platforms.

This shouldnāt be a secret however as the big publishers have used this model for many years, and there are lots of highly successful cross-platform titles. What excites me about the cross platform opportunity is the role we get to play as technology providers.

At GDC weāll be demoing Unreal Tournament 3 on both PC and PlayStation 3 and the game runs great on both of those platforms. Weāre also going to release UT3 on Xbox 360 but weāll show Gears of War as our 360 demo because it has sold a few units on that platform...

There are, however, some special cases to be made for not doing cross-platform. Clearly Gears of War is a title that benefited from the fact that it is a first party console exclusive game on Xbox 360. Microsoft gave it a huge marketing push that wouldnāt have happened were it not exclusively on Xbox 360 and, as a result, it was able to achieve high sales numbers.

But thatās a special case and most first party games will be built by internal, or platform-holder-owned, studios.

Q: How does Epic develop its strategy?

Our direction comes mostly by figuring out what our strengths and weaknesses are, and then building on those strengths while also trying to constantly be facing our weaknesses head-on and trying to fix them.

We love games and we love game technology and therefore thatās what we do. I donāt think we have an overly complex strategy.In a nutshell our strategy is to build the best possible team, work hard to build great products while having fun and pushing ourselves all the time to get better.

Q: id Software starts with the technology, and then comes up with a game for it...

I think it would be much more difficult to be a technology provider if youāre not also building your own games with your technology. The games very much drive the technology forward. They push the feature-set, performance and reliability. They push the toolset and they help test every corner of the engine.

The games also keep you honest in terms of making sure you donāt develop features that sound great on a marketing sheet but drive down performance in a real game environment. Gears of War is a great engine-proving game and Unreal Tournament 3 will be an even better one because it does more with vehicles and environments and will run well on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

So I think weāre in a great place as a technology provider specifically because weāre building games that help prove that the technology can deliver.

Mark Rein is vice president of Epic Games. Interview by N. Evan Van Zelfden.

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