Interview: Epic's Mark Rein

Epic Games is currently developing two high profile shooters, Gears of War (X360) and Unreal Tournament 2007 (PS3, PC), but these days the company is known for a lot more than just its internally developed titles. During last week's Game Developers Conference, Epic held a press briefing that showed off many of the developer tools being used in the company's Unreal Engine 3 middleware. Epic's reputation has been steadily growing in the game industry as more and more developers pick up licenses to its various Unreal engines. The company doesn't show any sign of letting up on its efforts to create more comprehensive tools, judging from what was displayed during the briefing by Epic developer Alan Willard and vice president Mark Rein.

Amongst the chief goals of the Unreal Engine 3 toolset is to separate and clarify the duties of programmers, artists and designers. For example, small tasks that generally require programming that is perhaps too complex for a designer to tackle but still fairly trivial for a dedicated programmer can now frequently be handled entirely by the designer with Unreal Kismet. Kismet is a flowchart-like system allowing designers to script out scenarios and events using a sequential visual guide, meaning programmers need not be involved in such tasks.

There's what was described as a post-processing shader tool, which operates much like post-processing filter effects used in audio and video editing. The difference is that this applies to a realtime game engine. Shader programmers can create a specific shader plugin, which can then be easily applied and reused using a simple GUI. Such plugins can also be chained together.

Unreal Engine 3's level editor displays a realtime fully rendered preview of the level in progress in a window. This allows level designers to quickly see the effects of changes on the fly. The editor will tell designers at what point on the map the next segment of the level will begin to load, and those positions can be modified according to the designer's needs.

So, all impressive and useful stuff. Epic also showed off new demos of Gears of War (X360) as well as the PS3 version of Unreal Tournament 2007, both of which of course looked very nice. Later in the week, I had the chance to sit down with Epic's Mark Rein and chat a bit about the company's current activities.

Shack: As a middleware provider, Epic is working pretty closely with both Microsoft and Sony on tools for the next generation consoles. Do you have any particular feelings on their approaches to the technology, or just how they're approaching the console market in general?

Mark Rein: Well, one thing we've learned from working with both companies is that they both have a clear love of games, they both want to have a great consumer entertainment product, technologically they both have their various strengths, and I guess weaknesses but we don't see a lot of weaknesses in these consoles. I think Microsoft is more about building the total integrated platform and Sony is more about building the open platform. I don't want to pass judgment on which is better. Wait until later to pass judgment on who is more successful. We're just happy that they're both working closely with us, they both have great hardware that makes our engine look really good, and they're both helping us out with optimization and with the hardware. Obviously we have finished hardware on the 360. We're a very lucky group right now to be able to work with such great equipment and great companies.

Shack: Do you see any particular advantages towards the open platform or the more centralized route? Is it good that the market supports both?

Mark Rein: Well, you know, we've been working with Xbox Live for a long time now, and it works really well. I personally love it, I think they've done a great job with that. We haven't really done much on more of an open platform on the console side; we didn't do any online stuff with PlayStation 2. Our licensees did, but we really didn't, we just did Unreal Tournament and moved on. But, you know, we're very experienced with that kind of environment on the PC side, it's something we're very familiar with. We're very happy with it, very comfortable with it. I don't really see a preference towards one or the other. We have to develop those technologies anyway for our PC products. We have to do Xbox Live for Gears of War since it's on the 360, so we're really happy to support both environments and let the consumers decide what they want.

Shack: Speaking of consoles and PCs, there seems to be a shift at Epic towards more console stuff. Gears of War is 360-exclusive and has been a showcase for the system, and UT2007 is being positioned as a showcase PS3 title even if it's not exclusive to that platform. Do you see a move towards consoles in general at your company?

Mark Rein: Well, I think what you're really seeing is just the fact that our engine now fits consoles really well. We weren't a great fit--well certainly no fit at all--for the original PlayStation, a decent fit for Xbox, and a real squeeze for PlayStation 2 and GameCube. But for the new systems, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, they really fit in well with where we were heading and what we were designing and what our philosophies are this time around, so I'm not sure that the emphasis is really any different than it has been. We've always wanted to be cross-platform. We put a lot of emphasis on Xbox with Unreal Championship 2, and I think we made a great product there. It was kind of late in the life in the engine, whereas this time around the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are great consoles that fit in well with the engine.

So I would say yes, there's definitely emphasis to make sure we're doing well on those platforms, but it's just kind of a natural progression to say, "Yes, these are platforms that work well with our engine." Remember in the past, even with Unreal Engine 2, we had it on PC, Macintosh, Linux, Xbox, PlayStation 2, so we've always considered ourselves a multiplatform company even when multiplatform sometimes meant multiple PC platforms. Now multiplatform means, you know, multiple PC and console platforms. The emphasis has always been to be as multiplatform as we can, and now we're just good at it.

Shack: Right.

Mark Rein: We're great at it.

Shack: There you go.

Mark Rein: We're fantastic at it. [laughs] I shouldn't just say we're good at it, we're definitely quite good at it.

Turn the page for Mark's thoughts on growing development costs and team sizes, Unreal modding, and Dell.

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Shack: In terms of next-generation development, you've responded to certain companies' claims that next-generation costs and development time will raise to unmanagable levels, saying that Epic doesn't see as great an increase in team size and budgets. Still, budgets are rising to some extent, team sizes are rising to some extent; how do you see that impacting general development for you and the industry?

Mark Rein: We're certainly doing more complex art now. We have the ability to put a lot more polygons on the screen, we have the ability to put a lot more shaders on the screen, we have the ability to make more expressive characters, which means animations have to be much richer. We have the ability to do way more immersive environments, so a lot more energy gets expended there. So what we've done is develop systems within the Unreal engine, like our Unreal Kismet, like our particle system, like our visuals-based material system, to make us much more productive on the other side of the coin: not just on programming but on gameplay, concentrating on being able to make fun game systems as well. So we've reduced a lot of complexity there, we've taken away a lot of the bottleneck that is programmers. We've moved our programmers to be focusing on the much bigger, much more complex, much more effective problems they could work on.

Instead of little things like--I like to use the example of a bat flying out of a wall. In the past, those things consumed programmers' time, and they didn't want to do it any more than we wanted them to do it. Now, they don't have to get involved in that kind of stuff. The designers can do that, and it's a much more efficient and streamlined process. The programmers now can work on making better AI, and more complex systems, and expanding our technology. Everybody takes our engine and adds something to it. We're seeing, overall, about a 50% increase in cost, because the efforts we're putting in art are much deeper. But, in my opinion, we're making much better games for that 50%. More than 100% better games. So we should be able to recover that money in terms of sales, in terms of quality and great review scores, that should show up in the games that we're making, because our tools are so good.

Shack: Unreal has always been a great platform for modding. How much of the new UE3 toolset will be available to modders, for example stuff like Kismet?

Mark Rein: All of it, that's always been the case. Yeah, we're really excited about the possibilities for mod makers. Kismet, facial animation, all that stuff is going to be there for mod makers. We think mod makers, especially because of stuff like Kismet, are going to be able to do much richer, more inventive, more unique kinds of mods than they've ever been able to do in potentially less time with potentially smaller team sizes even. Yes, if they want to do competitive next-generation art, they're going to have to raise the polygon counts and things like that, but mods haven't always been about that. I'm sure we'll see companies rise up to sell people assets and sell people materials and sell people textures that are higher in quality there, so people with cool ideas can buy those things, or borrow or beg or steal or whatever, to put them in their mods. We are absolutely on pins and needles to see what mod makers can do with this technology when we finally ship UT.

Shack: Related to that, do you have any opinions on the growing trends of digital distribution or episodic gaming?

Mark Rein: Well, distribution is distribution. I don't think I really have anything brilliant to say about it that other people haven't said.

Shack: Fair enough. Just to press that slightly further, do you ever see any of the stuff that people knew from the Epic MegaGames days perhaps making it to Xbox Live Arcade?

Mark Rein: Oh, you mean like Epic Pinball?

Shack: Yeah, and Jazz Jackrabbit, stuff like that.

Mark Rein: It wouldn't be possible to bring Jazz, the old original Jazz code which was a lot of assembly code, to Xbox Live Arcade but that doesn't mean that we couldn't bring the characters and ideas and stick them into Unreal Engine 3. We do have a few Unreal Engine 3 casual game projects under way. Not us, personally, but licensees. We're excited about that, and Sony's service that they talked about, so I think you will see a lot of cool stuff brought to Xbox Live Arcade using Unreal Engine 3. It's certainly a lot more efficient than what people were using before. Whether any of that is old content or not, I don't know. I want to see a new Jill of the Jungle game in UE3. I mean, it's our IP, so who knows.

Shack: What are your thoughts on AGEIA's PPU hardware? Any thoughts about how that's going to take off?

Mark Rein: One thing AGEIA's done that's really smart is that--well, if you've seen our PS3 demo, and this is really version .1, really not a finished performance at all, but we've got some really great cool physics things going on PS3. They've done a really good job of optimizing their library to work well with the SPUs in the Cell processor, which means we're going to be able to get a lot of physics performance out of PlayStation 3. Also on Xbox 360 to some extent, but definitely on PS3 we're going to be able to get a lot of physics capabilities out of that. Which means that, to bring [games using those methods] to a PC, you're probably going to need the hardware. Or you could maybe scale it up even further on the PC, I believe, with their hardware. I think that bodes really well for them if developers go nuts and do really cool physics on PlayStation 3, then if people want to play it to that level on PC, they'll buy the card. So it's a matter of them coming out with great applications, great games that use it. I know Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter will be using the hardware, and Unreal Tournament 2007 will be using the hardware. Not today, but eventually. So I think that's pretty exciting for them, and I think it's going to be pretty cool.

Shack: If I could touch on an area you might not be too thrilled to return to, and I might be answering my own question just by asking this, but are you still hearing about your Nintendo Revolution comments a while back?

Mark Rein: [laughs] No, no, that died down. I always say stupid stuff.

Shack: A little while ago, there were job postings from a major publisher looking for developers to join a project using the Unreal 3 engine, and it listed all three next-generation consoles. It wasn't really clear if they just checked all the boxes on accident, or if there was anything to that. Do you have any comment on that?

Mark Rein: I have no idea. I just don't know. I don't see the Nintendo platform as a likely target for Unreal Engine 3. Nintendo has said they're not going after high definition, and we're definitely--the kind of hardware it takes to run Unreal Engine 3 is definitely the kind of hardware it takes to run HD, so I don't really see that as a likely target for us at this point.

Shack: In your press briefing, you mentioned that one of your motivations--well, maybe not motivations, but at least benefits--of your partnership with Dell is that Epic will have some more leverage in the PC hardware scene.

Mark Rein: I wouldn't call it leverage. [laughs] Dell is one of the biggest companies in the world, and Epic is a small little 70-man shop. Influence, though. To be able to talk to the guy who run Unreal Engine 3 games, to make sure they run on Dell machines, to isolate systems it doesn't run well on and fix bugs, things like that. I think hopefully we'll also have a little influence, be able to say, "Come on guys, think about the gamer, don't put out this system with Intel integrated graphics, or at least offer people the upgrade and explain to them that that's not a great machine for playing games." And I'd love to be able to go to Dell customers and say, "Hey, regardless of your budget, if it's $700, let's find a gaming system that's a great value for $700. If it's $1200, here's a system that would be great for our games. If your budget is XPS600, boy this is great."

That's the thing, I really want to be able to educate Dell customers on what are great systems for playing games, push them a little bit to consider the gamer in the design from the outset. Make sure they are upgradable, they have PCI slots or graphics options, make sure that they're remembering that users are going to laptops and if you stick them with Intel integrated and nothing else they're going to get screwed. That's what I want to do. They bought Alienware, and one thing Alienware does is they make a laptop with a button on it, and you can switch it from Intel integrated to Nvidia graphics. It reboots the machine and comes up with the Nvidia graphics chip. I don't know if that's necessary or not, I've always thought those Nvidia chips were pretty good at power management, but clearly they wouldn't do it if they didn't think it was. Maybe we could convince Dell now to use that technology, to get people more excited about PC games.

Shack: Just throwing in your two cents.

Mark Rein: Exactly. And they're the leader in the business, so where they go, others will follow.

Shack: Speaking of Dell's Alienware purchase, do you have any thoughts about that from the strategic perspective?

Mark Rein: I don't really know that much about it. Obviously, they announced it here [at Epic's press briefing], so I don't really--I just think it's good. [laughs] Alienware is also a great company. We, to be honest, made a choice between Dell and Alienware when it came down to who we're going to work with on UT2007, and the reason for Dell was the market reach they have and the amount of customers that they have, and the systems that they make. Alienware makes great machines, and if it weren't for market size and marketing strength as a consideration, we could easily have chosen them just as well. So to me it's exciting that the two companies are at least aligned. Right now Dell doesn't serve AMD customers, and Alienware makes great systems for gaming, so I think it's great that a company like Alienware has the strength of being owned by a corporate entity like Dell. We know they're going to grow, so AMD will continue to have a great hold in gamer PCs without being at the expense of Dell. Now Dell has a strategic reason for Alienware to succeed! So that's great, that's great.

Shack: Well, thanks for your time, it's been good talking with you.