Interview: Epic's Tanya Jessen Talks UT3 X360, Gears of War 2, Wet T-Shirt Contests and More

While attending Midway's recent Gamers Day event in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to sit down with Epic associate producer Tanya Jessen and discuss a number of assorted topics.

Want to know if the upcoming Xbox 360 edition of Unreal Tournament 3 will include mod support? The possibility of an Epic game on XBLA or PSN? The studio's thoughts on complaints that the lead characters from Gears of War and UT3 look alike?

What about the possible effects of Valve's Portal on Gears of War 2? And just what does Epic think of the UE3-powered wet t-shirt contests in Surreal's This Is Vegas? Read on to find out.

Shack: Will there be mod support in the Xbox 360 version of Unreal Tournament 3?

Tanya Jessen: Quite simply, we aren't doing [mods] for the Xbox 360 version. This is because, Xbox versus PlayStation 3, Xbox is a closed platform. That's the big reason we're not doing it on 360.

Whereas PS3 is an open platform, that makes it a lot easier to bring the mods to the platform.

Shack: Epic Games VP Mark Rein had previously stated that if need be, Epic would release some of the mods as Xbox Live Marketplace downloads. Is that still in the plans?

Tanya Jessen: Microsoft, as far as I know, is very interested in the potential of the mod community. So it is a possibility always, but it would require some upfront process and things set up by Microsoft for how they would do it.

They're very concerned about the security of the hardware. They would want to make sure that whatever was put out on their platform would meet all of the requirements that they have.

We're looking forward to being able to bring mods eventually, but there's a lot of business decisions that need to be made.

You have so many pluses and minuses to having that kind of system. You have so much good stuff, like Xbox Live Arcade and Microsoft is totally invested in getting that out there. But at the same time, you have a quality bar that has to be reached before anything can be put out.

Shack: And then there's this whole XNA community games thing...

Tanya Jessen: I know. I'm really curious to see what they do with XNA, because I think that XNA could be the answer to the mod community.

Shack: Chris Satchell was saying something similar, that the XNA thing will lay the ground work for user-created mods. Still, there are a lot of specifics that Microsoft hasn't discussed yet.

Tanya Jessen: It's one of those things where, at least, it's getting the ball rolling. All it takes is for someone to take the ball and run with it.

Shack: I can see that. Just compare Xbox Live now to when it first launched.

Tanya Jessen: I think [XNA] will definitely build itself, it's the way of the future. [The user community] is such a big reason why we are so attuned to what people on our forums are saying. We know that what the community says is cool is what they want, and the mod community knows that better than anyone.

We're always looking forward. That's why we do the Make Something Unreal contest, because we really want to see just what our users come up with and bring to the table.

Shack: Do you have any thoughts on the use of Unreal Engine 3 to power the wet t-shirt contests of Surreal's This Is Vegas?

Tanya Jessen: This is the games industry, right? Whatever people want, they should get. If there's a market for it...there's a market for it, right?

Personally, I'm in no way offended by it. I think it's really interesting that they're using our engine for it. It looks great. I was watching it and I kept saying to Dana, our PR person, "You know, if I could play as a woman in this game and do all these exact same things, this would be incredibly awesome."

To me, [This Is Vegas] reminds me of The Sims, but with raunchy mini-games.

Shack: I was just playing it a couple minutes ago. In the game, you save some old guy and ask him if he's alright. He responds, "Fuck you kid. I eat meat and shit bullets."

Tanya Jessen: [Laughter] That's awesome. You know, games kinda are a function of our society and the things that we want, our fantasies, our desires, the way we see ourselves.

Shack: So what's next after UT3 and Gears of War 2? More Unreal? Something new?

Tanya Jessen: We've got a few secret projects that will be talked about I'm sure in the coming time. We love the Unreal franchise and I assure you there's more to come.

The guys are working really hard to continue to support it because this, I mean, Epic wouldn't be Epic without Unreal. This is definitely something that we're continuing to work on and continuing to improve.

But Gears 2, yeah! Our company is really focused on it right now.

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Shack: Speaking of that, when the Unreal Tournament 3 trailers started coming out, a lot of people saw the tag line "From the makers of Gears of War" and took that as a sign that Epic was abandoning its PC heritage and old die-hard fans.

Tanya Jessen: Gears is a game that we all worked on and that we're phenomenally proud of. It's hard to really describe, but when you spend 16, 18, maybe 20 hours a day on this game to get it out on time, knowing that it would do well because it was awesome but not ever expecting it to reach the level [it did]--you can expect that we want to bring UT to the same people that loved Gears.

That was one of the things for us. We don't want to alienate anyone. As much as we love our hardcore [fans], we want to bring [UT3 to] the rest of the people that have never played Unreal, that never grew up with Unreal.

Turn the page for word on the similarities between the lead characters of Gears and UT3, Epic's love for Portal, and the prospect of an Epic-produced XBLA or PSN title. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Any comment on the similarities between Gears of War lead Marcus Fenix and the main protagonist of UT3?

Tanya Jessen: We have a small team of amazing artists. I don't think that [any similarity] was intentional.

Most of us look would look at it and be like, "They don't look anything alike." But people definitely had some stuff to say about that. We have a specific design that comes through based on the story, and then the artists concept based on that. Then it's modeled exactly based on the concept art.

We were just trying to make the coolest looking badass character that we could, really.

It's really interesting seeing the comparison between Gears and UT, because to us, it's like comparing apples to oranges--the gameplay, the speed, the weapons, the use of HUD, all of these things.

We just went over 100 employees last week, so we're really small. Literally ten of those employees are in QA. People can wear lots of different hats. It's kinda like one big happy family. Maybe dysfunctional, but...

Shack: Well, you do have creator Cliff "CliffyB" Bleszinsk promising that the enemies in Gears 2 will make those of the original look like baby pandas.

Tanya Jessen: We are so excited that we're starting to get more press about Gears 2. All the stuff that we've been tucking under our hats, just waiting to explode onto the market. So much good stuff in store.

Of course, whoever's working on a game is never gonna say, "Oh yeah, that crap is bad." But there is some really awesome stuff in store for Gears fans.

Shack: Any plans for a Gears of War 2 demo?

Tanya Jessen: No, no plans for a demo.

The reason being that it's been such a fast turnaround. A two year production cycle, for a game of this caliber, is really short. Our focus is always on putting out the best possible game we can.

Whenever you do a demo, you have to basically ship a whole separate product. As far as our plans after we ship, I can't really speak to that.

Shack: What about an Unreal Tournament 3 demo for 360?

Tanya Jessen: No plans right now. There's definitely potential for one once the game ships.

Shack: Unreal Engine 3 has even made its way to Xbox Live Arcade in the form of Chair Entertainment's Undertow. Does Epic have plans to produce smaller Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network titles, or will it continue to focus on big blockbuster games?

Tanya Jessen: Right now, our focus is on blockbusters. We want to focus on what we do best.

I'm not ruling out the possibility of anything. We do have quite a few people at Epic who are passionate about the casual games space and XBLA space. So who knows?

But right now, definitely our focus is on UT and Gears.

Shack: You know, if UT2K4 was released on XBLA...

Tanya Jessen: Hey, it was just released on Steam.

Shack: I know. I rebought it even though I still my original DVD, just because it's so much easier to install from Steam.

Tanya Jessen: You know what's funny is, I play most of my shooters on Xbox 360 because I am an achievement whore, but I always buy them on Steam anyways.

I think I've purchased Half-Life 2 at least four times by now. I played it all over again on 360. It's the third time I've beat Half-Life 2.

Shack: And to think I considered myself lucky to beat all of the HL2 games once.

Tanya Jessen: Team Fortress 2 and Portal, they're great. Portal was a big hit at the office.

Shack: Does that mean that Gears of War 2 will feature a sarcastic robotic companion?

Tanya Jessen: That's Cliff's territory. He has a universe to uphold.

Shack: A universe that includes cake?

Tanya Jessen: How can you not have a universe that includes cake, really? How is that possible? You have to have cake.

He does have a plushie companion cube though. He brought it to my office and [dangled it] in front of my face. They sold out for a little while. As soon as they got the new stock in, he bought immediately, and as soon as it came in, he brought it to my office.

Keep reading for nostalgic reminiscing of the old PC market, some of Epic's favorite UT3 mods, and the possibility of more community map packs. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: A few weeks ago I was cleaning out my desk and I found the insert from the first Unreal with the note from designer CliffyB. It made me feel kinda old.

Tanya Jessen: I have these perfectly vivid images of playing Unreal in a LAN party with my high school crush. Or wait, was I in junior high? I think I was just about to enter high school.

To look back on that and to think that I'm working for that company--I played so much Unreal. It was the bleeding edge. You needed an uber-massive PC to run it, and you have to have a PC that had a 3Dfx card. It was so awesome.

I was still playing Duke Nukem 3D when it came out, so it made me buy a new computer. It's crazy to think that I work for this company now.

Shack: And to think that Unreal is still around, and Duke is still around in some form.

Tanya Jessen: It's great. All these franchises that get built--you can never get rid of Super Mario Bros. or Zelda. These are things that are just going to exist in people's livelihood forever and ever.

Shack: It seems like classic one-time PC franchises are starting to appear more and more often on consoles. How do you feel about the closing gap between PC and consoles?

Tanya Jessen: I think it's really great. Like I was talking about earlier, reaching out to the mainstream audience and introducing them--giving them the same kind of feeling that I had when I was playing Unreal so many years ago, which they may never have had.

I mean, we had Unreal Championship on Xbox and we had Unreal Tournament on Dreamcast. Being able to bring that to the mainstream and have them experience that has been what it's all about for us. We always want to include everything the hardcore loved about it but yet make it look really awesome and feel awesome and fast-paced.

We always said that we didn't want to change the formula for UT3. We knew it worked. There's so many shooters that have moved away from the super fast-paced shooter model.

I read a lot of comments on blogs about, "oh, it's just the same UT," but that's what makes it so great.

One of the cool things is that we were trying to take everything that we had learned, every iteration of a game we do on a console, this is a great thing about having a small company. The lessons that we learn from every game that we do gets moved to the next version.

One of the guys who did the control system for Gears worked on the control system for UT3. We knew that the controls for Gears just worked, and so we wanted to bring the same kind of feeling, even it's a completely different type of shooter, to UT.

Shack: With the Xbox 360 edition of UT3 packing two new characters and five new maps, are there any plans to release that content for the PC and PlayStation 3 versions?

Tanya Jessen: Right now, there's no plans to do that.

Shack: What are some of the favorite UT3 mods floating around the offices at Epic?

Tanya Jessen: Every time something really cool comes out, it goes around the office.

The one we absolutely love is the LEGO mod. It's amazing. It's got such a good use of the physics engine--the destructible environments, it's great.

Shack: I'm not sure if this was addressed in the latest patch, but while the mod support in the PS3 edition of UT3 is really nice, being able to only store mod on a memory stick at a time and being forced import them one at a time really annoying.

Are there any plans to fix that?

Tanya Jessen: I don't know if we fixed that or changed that. This is the thing I was talking about with community. We're very attuned to what's going on on our forums and the mail that gets sent in.

It's definitely one of those things where if people want it, then it's something that we will potentially feature. There are other things that we have our eyes on that we're looking to address.

Shack: Are there plans for more free community map packs?

Tanya Jessen: I can't really speak to that.

Shack: If there were going to be, would they still be free for the Xbox 360 edition?

Tanya Jessen: That's up to people that are higher up than me. It's a different model. I talked about the difference between an open platform and a closed platform.

One of the reasons that Xbox Live is so successful is because of the closed platform. But at the same time, you have to deal with that, the certification, the business model that Microsoft has built.

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Shack: I actually can't imagine working at Epic. I don't understand how it just doesn't turn into a giant LAN party every day.

Tanya Jessen: It does become a giant LAN party, that's what's so great about it. There's guys that still play UT2K4.

The Xbox 360 edition of Unreal Tournament 3 arrives later this summer, with Gears of War 2 hitting the Xbox 360 exclusively in November.

Chris Faylor was previously a games journalist creating content at Shacknews.

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