Steve Polge is the lead designer on Unreal Tournament 3, and a veteran of all things Unreal. Last week we spoke to the man himself at Epic Games' HQ in Cary, North Carolina, while checking out the new Titan Pack expansion. Read on to hear his views on the FPS genre, Epic's future plans and the potential of handheld gaming.
VideoGamer.com: Where do you see the FPS genre at the moment?
Steve Polge:Unreal Tournament definitely has a unique position. It's very much the throwback game, which is something we did on purpose - I love old classic deathmatch-style games. We've certainly tried to update it. We've done a lot of things to modernise it, but still at its core it has a lot of very traditional gameplay mechanics and decisions. To some extent, the ones that still feel traditional are because you can't edge away from it [those design principles]. If you have recharging health, which of course we have in a game like Gears of War, that fundamentally changes how you do deathmatch - in fact traditional deathmatch will no longer work in a game like UT. It works in a game like Gears, where you design the gameplay and the flow around it, but in UT it doesn't work.
You can't have fast movement anymore, because then people can just run away and recharge their health when they want. So you have to work the places where you can push forward without breaking the core gameplay that you still want to have, and that was a big challenge for us. On the other hand, I love playing games like Call of Duty and Gears of War, so I'm certainly not saying that everyone should come back to this. We just thought that this was a cool experience that was still worth having. In terms of the future... I think it's really neat to see experimentation like in Mirror's Edge, I think that kind of direction is really cool, and also people doing more stuff with AI. It's come a long way, most impressively in the scripted AI kind of setup. I also really love seeing people take chances with big unscripted AI, where you don't really have a way that the designer expects you to play it. You're given a problem to solve, and you really have a lot of choices in how you solve it.
VideoGamer.com: Have you seen Killzone 2 yet?
SP: I've not played it yet! I have this big stack of games to play at home, but I have a five-year-old who makes me play Lego Star Wars or Lego Indiana Jones at every chance he gets, so every week he's eating into two or three nights of my playing-time. But I definitely want to check out Killzone 2. It looks really cool, and from what I've heard of it, it sounds like a fun game to play. I love story-driven FPSs, at least I get a chance to finish them!
VideoGamer.com: You get more of a chance to play through them, you mean?
SP: Yeah, I can experience at least a reasonable part. Although I hear that Killzone 2 has really good multiplayer, so I plan on playing some of that. But multiplayer games are just so hard to exhaust, you never really feel like you've "done" that game.
VideoGamer.com: What's the likelihood of us ever seeing another single-player Unreal game? The last one was a long time ago...
SP: It was a long time ago! It's certainly something that we would love to do, but it's hard to say. The problem is that you always have more ideas and things you want to do than you have time to do them. I certainly hope it will happen one day, but we'll just have to figure out when the time is right. With the original Unreal, some of the things that were cool about it you really have to time right. At the time it when it came out it did some things, from a technology point of view, that hadn't been done before. It allowed us to have this kind of odd shooter with big exploration. "Oh look at this amazing vista!" You've never walked out in the open before, and now you can look off into the distance and see birds flying. So obviously if we did something like that again, we'd want it to have that same kind of feeling.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think that there's a particular trend for developers to focus on graphics, at the moment?
SP: Well, I like good graphics. You definitely want to make sure that your graphics get in the way of immersing the player. I think that good graphics make it easier for the player to believe in the world of the game, which is especially valuable for a story driven game. For Unreal Tournament we have really bright skins and things like that, because we'd rather have the trade-off of making it clear. And I think that's the second part of graphics, that if you have a powerful engine with lots of cool special effects, you want to use that to make the game clearer rather than more confusing. You want to make sure you use destruction, or whatever to tip-off the player to things, rather than making it harder to see what's going on.
VideoGamer.com: So does that link back to what you were saying about a single-player Unreal? That there's the need to have graphics at a level that will really suck you in.
SP: Yeah. I mean, that's not the Epic position - it's my personal feeling. But right now we've certainly gone away from that for quite a while, and I don't know when we'll get back to it.
VideoGamer.com: What is Epic's attitude to the rise of the iPhone, the Wii and similar tech? Is this something that you guys are interested in?
SP: I think it's something that will happen. The thing is that the Wii as it is today, the Unreal 3 engine simply isn't suited to it. The technical decisions we made are perfect for the PlayStation 3, the 360 and modern PCs. While you could port it there, it wasn't designed for that kind of hardware. But on the other hand, you look at all those other devices and they're getting so powerful. You could run Unreal Engine 1 or maybe even Unreal Engine 2 on a handheld device, and we certainly see that happening. Even the Wii... It's unlikely that there'll be anything by the next generation that can't run Unreal Engine 3.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think the appetite is there for more hardcore games? Would something like UT find favour with the new breed of casual gamers?
SP: I'm not sure. To some extent... I mean, if you look at movies there's the big summer blockbusters, and they tend to be action heavy. There's always going to be the Gears kind of games, the big summer blockbuster, and they'll always be very successful. The Unreal Engine isn't an action shooter engine, right? People can make very different games. We're getting a lot of casual developers, people who've made Xbox LIVE Arcade games and PlayStation Store games using our engine, and that's one of the things we're encouraging people to do. It's just a good engine for making games, and because you can make games very fast it's well suited for making casual titles, if your casual game can take advantage of the graphics and the things that we can offer.
VideoGamer.com: Few people would argue with the notion that Gears 2 is still the best-looking game to use the Unreal Engine. Is there anything that you've seen, perhaps from outside of Epic, that really blows you away?
SP: [Exhales slowly]. So, I guess the problem is that I don't know if I can't talk about the games I've seen! There are some really good-looking games coming out... There have been some Arkham Asylum trailers, and I think that's going to be a good game. I've not gone hands on with it, but I've seen videos of the gameplay and it looks really good.
VideoGamer.com: Is there anything else you can hint at, without being too specific?
SP: Yeah, like I said I've seen some stuff that's really impressive. But there are two things. One, I can't really talk about it, and the other thing is that stuff can look really impressive in its early stages, but then sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you see something that looks really impressive and it falls flat, for whatever reason. But there's definitely some stuff that I'm very optimistic about. Sorry to be so vague!
VideoGamer.com: No worries! Moving on, slightly... Sony says that the current generation of console will last for ten years. Do you think that will be the case?
SP: No-one seems to be talking about next generation console yet, and you'd think that by this point you'd start hearing serious rumours about the next console. So based on that my guess is that this generation will be longer. The fact that's there's an economic downturn right now is also probably a factor; I don't think that anyone wants to bring out a new console during a recession! When machines come out they tend to be expensive - it's hard enough to get people to buy them anyway, even when times are good. So my sense would be that this generation will stretch on a bit.
VideoGamer.com: Is the Credit Crunch something that concerns you guys?
SP: It's certainly something we're watching. I mean, we've been quite fortunate. Gears has done quite well...
VideoGamer.com: Quite well?!
SP: [laughs] Obviously we'd rather there weren't an economic downturn, but the silver lining for us is that we're always trying to hire and we're also very, very picky. It's hard for us to hire, but we've gotten a lot more resumes recently - so it's been good from that point of view! I'm certainly hopeful that it doesn't last too long. We want our licensees to do well. But regardless of the downturn, the games industry is very cyclic. It expands fast and a bunch of projects start, then it re-trenches. Even if there hadn't been a downturn, I wouldn't have been surprised to see some of things that have ended up happening. It's not just the games industry. For some big companies that are shedding people, the downturn provides an easy explanation for restructuring that it would have made good business sense to do anyway. It's the same for games. There's a huge amount of investment, then there's a bit of pull-back. But I think it'll start back up pretty quickly.
VideoGamer.com: So what, if anything, do you think the effect of the recession will be on games? What will we see when we look back on it in years to come?
SP: I think in the short term there will be maybe a smaller number of games, but I don't think there will be less good games. Some of the stuff that's been cancelled were projects I was looking forward to, so I can't just say that it's marginal games that have been cut, but it's the projects that would have marginal in terms of how much their publisher would have given them. So I think it will just weed out some of the games that would have unfortunately not gotten the love they needed, for whatever reason. That's my optimistic view!
VideoGamer.com: Changing topic... Have you seen or played much of Quake Live?
SP: I haven't had much of a chance to play it, though I tried it out once really quickly. It's a cool idea, a neat experiment. We're always looking for new ways to bring games to people, especially on PC, so it'll be interesting to see how it does.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think it's something that Epic might explore in the future?
SP: The problem is that we're a relatively small company, and we have more projects that we'd like to do than we can really explore, so I guess it's hard to say that it will makes its way to the top of the pile of things we want to do.
VideoGamer.com: But as an idea?
SP: I think in the long term... By the time we'd be doing that, there will probably be more of a track record, the right way will be clearer.
VideoGamer.com: Apologies for these next questions, but as an Epic employee I'm afraid I have to ask you two quick Gears-related questions. Firstly, is there any news on a possible PC port of Gears 2?
SP: Ah, there's no news - and I'm certainly not the right person to ask! [laughs]
VideoGamer.com: Okay. Here's the second: If a person were to hypothetically suggest that four-player co-op for Gears 3 would be a shoe-in... would you describe that person as sensible or stupid?
SP: [Long pause.] Um... but we have Horde! That's five players! I guess the only thing I can say to that is that Cliff has answered that question with Gears 2. I don't know if the answer to that question will ever change, but the answer with Gears 2 is that it was something that we thought about, but the trade-offs you have to make... You can only invest so much attention in every part of the game, and the trade-offs you had to make didn't make sense. But it would be fun!
Unreal Tournament: Titan Pack will be released via free download on March 5, for PC and PS3.