Developers on Unreal Engine 3 and the Silicon Knights Lawsuit

By Chris Remo, Jul 23, 2007 12:35pm PDT Last week the internet--or at least the video game-related parts of it--exploded when Epic Games quietly announced that it had been sued by developer Silicon Knights. That quiet announcement quickly turned into a frenzy as the full text of the lawsuit surfaced. To recap, the Too Human developer claimed Epic had failed to deliver versions of the licensed Unreal Engine 3 by its contractual deadline, resulting in demonstrable damage to the reputation of Silicon Knights and Too Human.

After the news broke, Shacknews contacted several developers with personal Unreal Engine experience. The developers spoke on topics such as their reactions to the lawsuit, their studios' track records with the tech, and their own opinions on Epic's level of support. Opinions ranged from positive to negative, though negative responses tended not to hold Epic to the same level of fault as does Silicon Knights' suit. Understandably, some respondents chose to remain anonymous, though Shacknews vouches for their authenticity.

"UE3 helped me get my shit done."
Josh Jeffcoat, a former Gearbox Software level designer who worked with Unreal Engine 3, admitted that during his tenure at Gearbox--which, notably, ended last May--the package had its issues, but that none of them kept his team from exploiting the engine to great effect. Significantly to this lawsuit, he did not feel Epic deliberately acted outside of developers' interests.

"UE3 isn't perfect by any means, but I don't feel Epic misrepresented it in any way when we licensed it," said Jeffcoat. "It's not that UE3 is the best at any one thing it does, because it's not. It's just better at more of them than anything else, and the ten-plus years of maturity it's been through has yielded a better-than-average art and design pipeline. I've heard plenty of tirades and I've given a few of them myself, but at the end of the day, UE3 helped me get my shit done. And it did a better job than any tool set I'd used before."

Jeffcoat also commented more directly on the situation at hand. "I am unable to account for the engine's current status, but as I left, I was aware of several of UE3's limitations--the lighting model is dog slow for anything dynamic, the streaming support has issues; I believe SK mentioned these--but most of these were apparent from the day we first got the code, and we designed accordingly," he explained. "The almost gratuitous level of flexibility in other areas allowed us to accomplish a great deal, even without additional code."

"It just wasn't the best releationship for us."
Independent Postal series developer Running With Scissors has worked with Epic engines in its past games, but elected not to licensed UE3 for Postal III. Product manager Mike Jaret cited his company's experience with the licensor as the reasoning for the change.

"Epic does make a great product and while I don't hold anything against Epic personally, we are a small indie developer and we are at the mercy of the licensor," said Jaret. "It just wasn't the best relationship for us."

Running With Scissors has licensed Valve's Source engine for its upcoming Postal III.

"Epic was very late in delivering key features."
A programmer at a major developer working with Unreal Engine 3 corroborated Silicon Knights' claims that important parts of the engine came to developers late, which caused problems for his team. However, he also countered Silicon Knights' claims that Epic held back features deliberately, pointing out his belief that Epic was testing and polishing the features by implementing them into a real-world setting in its own game. The source also claimed that Epic was honest about its doings.

"It is true that Epic was very late in delivering key features to UE3 during the development of Gears of War," he said. "They had promised one of the most important feature of UE3, the multi-threaded renderer, many many months before it was finally delivered. Since the key to having fast performances on the Xbox 360 is multi-threading, it made the engine somewhat subpar if you wanted to run your game with good graphics on a console."

On Epic's tardiness: "I can understand why some features were delivered late to the UE3 licensees. Some of them were very complex while others would cause a ton of headaches to licencees if they were unstable or unfinished. This was also the reason why GoW had some UE3 features implemented and tested first before they were introduced to the official codebase. There is no better way to know if your stuff works. The Epic programmers were always upfront about the situation and never hid themselves or stopped answering questions to licensees."

On his team's experiences: "In our case, we ended up having to choose between shipping late or implementing the missing features ourselves. We chose the latter, because we had the talent and the resources to do so, but it did add many more programmers--and work hours--than what we had initially planned. It also greatly soured the reputation of UE3 within [our company], a reputation that was already not very high because of the high licensing cost of UE3."

"We have found Epic to be an extraordinary partner"
Some developers claimed to have had no rocky roads with Epic or its tech, and were happy to come on the record to say so. Independent studio Chair Entertainment Group, currently working on the Xbox Live Arcade game Undertow and the multi-medium property Empire, uses UE3 for all its projects. Chair's Laura Heeb Mustard commented on the situation.

"We have been following the news of this lawsuit since it broke," Heeb responded last week. "Our team has been working with Unreal technology for several years and have been using Unreal Engine 3 exclusively for the past two years. We have found Epic to be an extraordinary partner and the UE3 engine to be exceptional. Epic has always been very supportive of our efforts and their technology has been instrumental in allowing our company to develop high quality products."

Lending support to SK--with a caveat
One developer source with firsthand knowledge of Unreal Engine 3 development, who preferred not be quoted directly, corroborated allegations from Silicon Knights that certain features were late in being delivered to licensees. He also pointed to several other studios of varying levels of experience--which he requested be kept nameless--which had seen trouble with the engine. However, the source noted his belief that these difficulties were not due to intentionally malicious action on the part of Epic, but rather a partial byproduct of Epic's own workforce being divided between development on the engine and its own internal projects.

Furthermore, the developer lent support to Silicon Knights' allegations that the PlayStation 3 version of UE3 has under-delivered in terms of Epic's original claims, with the significant divergence between Xbox 360 and PS3 hardware contributing to the issue. Such concerns may have prompted Sony's recent announcement of an agreement with Epic to optimize UE3 for PS3 development.

Finally, the source speculated that a significant factor behind Silicon Knights' legal action may be the expense the studio has put into its own modifications of Unreal Engine 3--in most situations, such modifications would remain with the owner of the engine itself, but if Silicon Knights performed significant alterations for what it calls "The Silicon Knights Engine," it likely wants to keep them in-house.

Shacknews spoke with a number of other developers who declined to go on the record, some of whom had additional negative experiences and some of whom simply did not wish to comment on the situation.

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