Last week at the Develop Conference in Brighton I sat down with Epic's vocal vice president Mark Rein, the day before the studio announced Unreal Engine 4 title Fortnite, to chat about the next generation, the Wii U, mobile development.
Q: Epic has just opened a new studio in Baltimore. Will that studio be developing its own titles, or has it been set up to assist with other Epic projects?
Mark Rein: I'm not sure we've fully said what they're working on yet. But they're working on stuff for us. Is that correct, [Epic PR]?
Epic Games PR: We haven't announced the name yet. We are working on their new identity. We've said that we've hired at least a couple of dozen folks and so far that's really about it. We've just been working on getting their infrastructure set up.
MR: Yeah, it's just early days there. We've just got them an office, I believe. I saw an email last night, 'the internet speed there is too slow!' So, you know, just stuff like that. We're in that early kinda, getting everybody a chair and a desk.
Q: The general impression at the moment is that the industry is in this odd transitional phase between hardware generations, where no one is really showing their cards.
MR: Yes. We've shown our cards! [Laughs]
Q: Yeah. And there are also multiple emerging business models coming in, like free-to-play and crowd-funding. Do you think we'll see any major changes to gaming and its industry in 2013?
MR: I think we're constantly seeing changes to gaming. I mean, just some of the stuff you mentioned [and] the rise of mobile. Remember, iPhone just turned five the other day, and we didn't really get apps on the iPhone for I believe was a year, year and a half after iPhone came out, when they finally got us a native app store. So the rate of change is very quick, yet a lot of things stay the same. We still have the big awesome console games like Gears - we're doing Gears of War: Judgment and it's really, really good. People came and played it and I think came away like, 'Wow, this is the best Gears multiplayer we've ever seen'. And they really liked the story and saw the changes that PCF [People Can Fly] have made.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. There's no 'one size fits all'. We're definitely seeing a lot of innovation and a lot of success in things that people have been doing. Free-to-play games have been going now for quite a while. Cross Fire over in China has been huge for many years, and the success of those types of games is starting to hit its stride in America, especially with Zynga doing so well and League of Legends from Riot. There are so many business models that I hate to say, 'Oh, this is the one new one, this is the one that works'. They all work, and they all work for some people. What's cool about Epic is we're kind of involved in all of them. We have Infinity Blade in the mobile, we have Gears of War and Bulletstorm in the big AAA console space, and we're providing engine technology to a lot of the big MMOs.
In January we announced the biggest deal we'd ever done in Korea with NCSoft. And so we have a lot of those guys. We did a deal with Tencent but Tencent was already a customer using Unreal for games. The SmileGate guys who created Cross Fire, we just announced a license with them. So we have our fingers in all these different pies either directly through efforts we're doing ourselves or indirectly through working with licensees.
Q: Have you had many licensees already sign up for Unreal Engine 4?
MR: Have we announced any licensees for Unreal Engine 4 yet, [Epic PR]?
Epic Games PR: We have not, but we will very soon.
MR: Well I can tell you, yes.
Epic Games PR: We've definitely signed deals. We're just working through the announcements.
MR: Exactly. I can tell you we have licensees for Unreal Engine 4 but I don't think we've actually identified them. And we certainly have licensees for Unreal Engine 4 that are identified as licensees but we haven't made a specific Unreal Engine 4 announcement.
Q: You said recently that we would see something released next year using Unreal Engine 4.
MR: Which year was it referring to? 2013?
MR: For sure, absolutely.
Q: Will that be an Epic game, or will that be from one of your licensees?
MR: We're planning to bring a game with Unreal Engine 4 next year.
Q: Epic is?
MR: Mm-hm. But remember [laughs], we may not be talking about a big huge massive game here. If you saw the really cool stuff that we released on GameTrailers, Shane Caudle [Principal Artist at Epic Games] put together a whole bunch of little mini-games in Unreal Engine 4 in like, a day each. So while it's easy to think, 'Well, Unreal Engine 4', because what we showed was this giant graphical powerhouse demo, the most valuable, most incredible and most innovative features of Unreal Engine 4 have very little to do with graphics. They're all to do with the kind of stuff Shane showed, about how powerful Kismet is and how easy it is for a coder to be able to put things in, how cool the tools are, and how much more productive the tool chain is, being able to actually play your games right in the editor the way we did with the big graphics demo. So I'm not saying there's going to be a big huge massive production necessarily, but yes, we'll put something out for sure. Sorry, we're hoping to put something out. For sure is not the right thing. We won't put out something bad. Jay Wilbur had a great saying: 'You can have it right, or you can have it right now.' Our goal is always to get it right as best we can, so putting a date on something is scary. But a year is a very large target to hit.
Q: Cliff Bleszinski said recently that it was up to Epic to "motivate Sony and Microsoft not to phone in" the next-generation of consoles. Has Epic played an influential role in shaping the next-generation? Is there that dialogue between yourselves and Microsoft?
MR: Yes, and it's not just us. I don't want to make it sound like Epic has any special relationship. Obviously we work closely with Microsoft, but we work with Sony as well. But so do all developers. In determining what the next consoles will be, I'm positive that they're talking to lots and lots of developers and lots of middleware companies to try and shape what it is. I'd say the answer is yes, we've certainly been talking with them and we've been creating demonstrations to show what we think. Samaritan was a demo to show what we think the consoles should... what we would like the next gen consoles to be able to do. And obviously the Elemental demo, same thing. We're certainly showing capability if they give us that kind of power, but so is everybody else.
Q: Do you think Crytek could be a greater competitor in the next generation?
MR: Let's pass on questions about other companies. [Laughs]
Q: I'll explain why I asked you that. Cevat Yerli [Crytek CEO] recently stated that "CryEngine 3 already exists at the quality of Unreal Engine 4", and that "it already exists for three years now".
Q: I'm presuming you don't want to comment on that?
MR: What's the point? You can judge that for yourself, right?
Q: Okay. There's a lot of confusion at the moment whether Wii U will or won't support Unreal Engine 4.
MR: We have Unreal Engine 3 running on Wii U. You saw games at the Nintendo press conference again this year - a fantastic demo by our friends at Warner Bros. showing Arkham City running on Wii U. And Aliens: Colonial Marines is coming on Wii U, that's also Unreal. There's, I'm sure, several others. Mass Effect was announced for it as well. So we're certainly playing a role there with Unreal Engine 3. I'll state that I don't think it's our intention to bring Unreal Engine 4 to Wii U, but Unreal Engine 4 is going to be supremely scalable. We'll run on mobile phones and a wide variety of things, so if a customer decides they want to port an Unreal Engine 4 game to Wii U they could, but Unreal Engine 3 is a really good fit for that platform.
Epic Games PR: Beyond the PC we haven't confirmed any other platforms for Unreal Engine 4.
Q: Michael Pachter suggested recently that the lack of console announcements and Microsoft/Sony's decision to prolong the current console cycle had negatively affected businesses, mentioning EA in particular. Given that Epic is a particularly tech-heavy business, has that decision to drag the consoles out directly impacted your business?
MR: Well, first of all, I wouldn't characterise what Microsoft is doing as 'dragging something out'. I have no idea what their plan... we're not privy to, 'how many years are you planning to keep making this console or not'. It's something we have no idea [about]. But we're very happy with the state of the console business with Xbox 360. We've made successful games on it. Gears of War 3 did extremely well as you saw and Gears of War: Judgment is fantastic. So I don't really have anything negative to say about what they've done. We're grateful to have Xbox 360, and we're grateful that they supported it so well and created so much cool innovation on it so late in its life-cycle. We're happy with Xbox 360.
Q: Do the console cycles dictate when you roll out the new Unreal Engines? Obviously Xbox 360 was focussed on Unreal Engine 3 and I understand that Unreal Engine 4 has been in development for a long, long time. Have you been waiting to roll UE4 out with the next console cycle?
MR: It takes a long time to develop a whole new generation of engine. Since our very first Unreal Engine 3 game shipped – Gears of War – we've added a massive amount of improvements to UE3. You can go see it through the UDK change lists: thousands and thousands of new features, improvements, optimisations, new tools, new middleware and new this and new that. To get to the point where we are now, obviously it took years of development prior to the console and years of development post the console, and I don't think anything changes with Unreal Engine 4. It's years of development prior to shipping the first game, and years of development post shipping the first game, so that's been consistent since Unreal Engine 1. This is why people license Unreal Engine technology because we're pouring tens to who knows how many millions of dollars into R&D and into making this great engine technology. We're not just going to start when a new machine shows up. We've been working on it for years and it's going to be spectacular. There's no question in my mind that Unreal Engine 4 is leaps and bounds, by far the best engine technology we've ever created.
Q: Do you think the industry is ready for the next generation now, and do you think a new generation is necessary to revive market interest?
MR: I assume you're talking about consoles?
MR: Because if you look at the iPad, Apple is doing a new generation every year and it's spectacular. Other mobile devices are falling in lockstep maybe eight months behind, but we're also seeing Tegra 3, soon I suppose we'll see Tegra 4, and things like that. But if you're talking about the console you plug into the wall at home, I think that needs to be a really big jump. I think it needs to be a really good justifiable, 'Oh my gosh, look what you can do now that you couldn't do before'. And to do that at a reasonable price it just takes time. It's going to come out whenever it comes out, and again, the whole do it right versus right now thing, I'd much rather get a massive leap in performance and capabilities than get something today.
Q: Do you think that jump comes purely from that performance and capability, or is there more to it than that?
MR: Well, if you were asking me to make a little crystal ball prediction, I think you're already seeing the console manufacturers making leaps and bounds in the services they provide on the console. For example, you've seen Sony make lots of improvements. They added lots of new entertainment related things and new features to the XMB; cloud services and things like that. Same thing with Microsoft: they now have cloud saves and Hulu and that awesome NBA stuff they showed. They're just layering and layering on really cool services already, so I think that you will see a big improvement in services. The new consoles will do something even more profound with that than they do today. I think you're seeing them getting ready for that, slowly creeping up a little bit to a point that when they get hardware that has new capabilities they will take advantage of them. And then I also think we will get a big bump in graphics capability and memory and the things that we need to push our games forward.