Last week, GamesIndustry.biz published part one of our GDC interview with Epic Games vice president Mark Rein, where he gave us his opinions on the next-gen console battle.
Here, in part two, he discusses the success and the criticisms of Gears of War, plus why Unreal Engine 3 isn't just designed for making shooters.
Let's go back to Gears of War. When did Epic first realise they had a hit on their hands? "I think we knew after E3, which was the first time we really let people sit down and play the game. It was only about six months before we shipped. I think that was kind of the wake-up call - it was like, 'Oh wow, people really like this game! We're not the only ones who like it!'."
The secret to Epic's success, Rein says, and high sales of Gears and Unreal Tournament, is that the studio "makes games we love to play. So we know we've got an awesome game when we're playing it in the lab, and we won't stop until we love the game."
Rein is modest when it comes to suggestions that as one of the first triple-A titles for the console, Gears helped to sell Xbox 360 units - "I hope so. I don't have any numbers on that. Microsoft released statements pointing out it definitely helped sell subscriptions to Xbox Live, so you've got to think those were new people who didn't previously have an Xbox 360. Every time a new title comes out, it helps."
Gears may have done well in terms of both sales and critical perception, but not everyone was entirely positive. Eurogamer.net, sister site of GamesIndustry.biz, gave the game an 8/10 score, and was consequently praised by EA executive Alan Tascan for recognising the game's faults. Did it bother Rein?
"Well, you know... You can't win 'em all," he says with a chuckle. "I think Eurogamer just has very different standards to most reviewers, right? Sure, I saw it and went, 'Eight? Come on!'. But then I went and looked at other reviews and they gave Halo an eight, too. There were these other very, very good games they gave eights to, and I thought, 'Well, I get it, for them this is an eight.'"
While Rein says he wasn't too happy that the score pulled down the GameRankings and MetaCritic ratings for Gears, he accepts that overall it was fair. "It's down to opinion. Not everybody's going to love a game equally. When I looked back at the other reviews, I thought you put it in a pretty good crowd. Based on what you've done in the past, I'm happy with an eight... Let's see if you stick to your guns. Just be consistent.
"And next time, we'll have you guys come and play the game before we finish it, and we'll say, 'What don't you like? What can we do better?'. The truth is we read all the reviews and we're looking for what they don't like about the game."
Of course, Gears isn't Epic's only success story. The studio's proprietary Unreal Engine 3 continues to be licensed by more and more companies, with yet more still to sign up. "The day before GDC started we had a big licensee seminar, where we had about 250 folks and a couple of prospective licensees, and it went very well," Rein says.
"For us, GDC is about customer support and acquisition, and these days it seems to be evenly split because we have a lot of guys using the tech now."
Epic is keen to communicate the multi-purpose nature of Unreal Engine 3, with regular seminars throughout GDC designed to demonstrate that it's not just good for developing shooters. But if that's the case, why not produce a game that isn't a shooter at Epic? Surely that would be the best way to show off the versatility of the technology?
"We like shooters, it's what we do well! We certainly don't want people to stop making shooters with the technology," Rein replies.
"But there's lots of times we see a game and think, they probably could have made that with our engine in half the time, for half the cost - it could have looked better, it could have run better... For whatever reason, they chose not to."
One example of a game which could have been made with UE3 is LittleBigPlanet - "Perfect game to make in Unreal Engine 3. You could get that exact same rendering style, shading, light, everything, in a very short space of time."
But there are other types: "A puzzle game is simply about moving a camera around and moving objects around - clearly our engine's very capable of doing that. You can pretty much make any kind of game with this technology.
"The industry thinks, 'Well, if I'm going to make a shooter, I've got to use Unreal.' That's a good start, we like that! Now, we want them to think Unreal if they're making a sports game, a driving game..." A Barbie Horse and Ride game, perhaps? "That would be perfect! A perfect kind of game for Unreal!
"Obviously we're a next-gen technology, so if you're going to make a game for PlayStation 2, you won't use Unreal Engine 3. But any kind of game for next-gen, it's a great technology."
We're coming to the end of the interview but there's time for one more question, so... What can Rein tell us about Gears of War 2? A wry smile: "There's a Gears of War 2?
"We've always said, 'Let's wait and see how people like the game, and if it does well, we'll think about doing a sequel.'" Well, sales of 2 million units would suggest people like the game, and logic would suggest that means a sequel is on the way... But "We're thinking about it" is all Rein will offer. "It still could do better. Buy more!"
And just as likely as it is that people will buy more copies of Gears of War, chances are there will be a sequel - but Rein is remaining tight-lipped. For now, anyway...
Mark Rein is the vice president of Epic Games. Interview by Ellie Gibson. To read part one of this feature, click here.