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Epic's Mike Capps

On Make Something Unreal and the pros and cons of user-created content

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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... 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.

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