It's been a few weeks since DICE 2010 wrapped up, but this week's events concerning Infinity Ward and Activision have sadly delayed me from publishing some of the interviews I conducted there. One of the most fascinating was with Epic Games president Mike Capps, who I caught up with after he'd finished awarding the winners of the latest Make Something Unreal contest. We talked about the state of PC modding, its decline and what can be done about it, whether Epic Games is really interested in working on the iPhone, and when we can expect to see Unreal Engine 4.
To see the entire lineup of winners for Make Something Unreal, check out the official page.
G4: So talk to me about what the "Make Something Unreal" contest here at DICE was, who won, and how did you guys go about picking those winners?
Mike Capps: The contest is basically a way to get folks making lots of different content for Unreal Tournament. We started almost two years ago now and five different phases of competition, where it was best character model, best school entry for [a] capture-the-flag level -- I mean just all certain ways to get folks using tools, seeing what can be done with it, because we like being able to show this isn't Epic's brilliant character model, this is kids at home who are starting school or haven’t done any professional work and [show] what they can do with our engine. It's for us to show how easy the engine is and also keeps that mod community alive because it's certainly, as PC gaming has been dipping, the mod community has kind of been dipping with it and we think it's vital. So many our best hires came from the mod community. I need those guys. Even if I don't hire them, my licensees need them, so I want that mod community to still be going.
The judging process has mostly been our guys at Epic, so our best character modelers are the ones sitting there looking at the characters seeing what's good and bad about them. I think the most frustrating thing for us has been playing these games phase after phase and we haven't been allowed to give any feedback, and it's just so painful 'cause we see somebody biting off too much, or just polish that one thing really well instead of taking on both things, and it's like it can be so much better, I mean, of course we got a lot of ego...we think we know what we're doing in game design, right?
But the best thing about having this contest, part of it is seeing the looks on those guys' faces when they're like, "Wow! I'm talking to Mike Capps and all these other people in the industry." But it's to be able to give them all the volumes of feedback for all those guys. I think The Ball came in number two and that's a really neat game, its got [Xbox] Live Arcade written all over it.
G4: I saw that video, it did have something you could see as a downloadable experience.
Capps: Yeah, it's a neat puzzle game. It's not multiplayer, [but] I mean it could have a really neat horde mode where you take the ball and you’re slamming it around as monsters are coming in all directions. And I played it for like 30 minutes, when they're like, "We have to keep judging, stop playing!" Which is what you just want -- that little addictive experience. So I can't wait to give them some feedback and see these guys really go commercial release, that should be awesome for them. I mean, Tripwire has done really well. They did Red Orchestra and they won the last one and we've kind of created a game company with Make Something Unreal that's a really neat feeling. We do a lot of getting an engine to a new studio and say, "Yeah, okay, it's some developers that have never worked together as a team before," but we know these are solid developers...we'll sneak them a copy of the engine and help them, maybe introduce them to a few publishers. We're all game nerds, so it's nice to see new studios be created.
G4: You want to us to play cool new games, and any way you can somehow foster that....
Capps: Sure, that's part of what the engine does for us. Mass Effect 2, those guys know how to write tech, they've got their own engines, but they can start with our stuff and make a better game because they don't have to worry about physics and sound systems and whatever else. They can make a dialogue engine on top of Unreal Engine 3 and make it a much better game as a result by starting a couple steps higher, so to speak. So as a gamer nerd, I'm playing Mass Effect 2 and I love it and I'm really glad to see that we can help that. They don't have to re-write cover systems because we already have a good cover system.
G4: To that point, I was talking to Randy Pitchford and one thing he was getting excited about was that this generation of hardware and technology seems to be extended out a couple years longer, and right about now they should be talking about whatever new piece of hardware that we're going to buy. It's made him very excited that he can plan out a 2-3 year game and not worry about the technology anymore, because everyone is mostly over that hurdle and can just focus on the game.
Capps: Yeah, from a gamer's perspective, this is the sweet spot, right? That maybe from a year ago, everyone knows the tech, no one's trying to figure out how to use shared memory on the Xbox 360, nobody is worrying about how to use Cells, it's now "let's make another cool game" and the gamers win from that. The one thing is 20 years from now, that machine is going be kind of old, so we're going need an upgrade eventually, but right now I don't feel like the 360 or PS3 are slowing us down in terms of what we can do.
G4: It seems like a number of new games that are coming out lately have impressed me in some new way, and now it's maybe not leaps and bounds technologically, but it's the more simple things that people can do with it when they are left with their imagination.
Capps: That is totally true. As a gamer -- and mostly as a developer -- it's a huge investment to spin up the whole team on new technology. In Unreal Engine 3, I don't know how many hundreds of man hours were just put into that and thinking about Unreal Engine 4. Obviously, we're already working on it -- we have for a few years -- but that's going to be another big scary step, where we take one of our franchises and try to get it on a new Unreal Engine.
G4: Is it frustrating that it seems like iPhone games or indie games, where you can make a small game, rather than modding or hacking existing games, has become more popular?
"That's going to be another big, scary step, where we take one of our franchises [onto Unreal Engine 4]"
Capps: That's a great point. If you're kid at home that wanted to hack three years ago, you thought -- let me download Source or UT3 or whatever else and build something on top of it, and now you're thinking, "Should I make a quick little casual game or a Facebook app?
It's not frustrating because I'm glad to see more people making games, because that's what's happening, right? 35,000 iPhone games? I don't know, I haven't checked in a week [laughs], but they're all making games, which is great...[but] most of them aren't making any money. But they're making games and are good experiences with how the process works.
We were a little sad to see fewer folks making mods but that's part of the reason that the contest has been so successful for us, is to see teams working together phase after phase making better mods and improving those and improving those and now we've got some really cool, fun games that maybe we wouldn't have otherwise. So maybe we encourage them to stay with the technology. Unreal Development Kit -- that's kind of our next step. Unreal Tournament 3 was a success, but we didn't sell 50 million copies of it, and whenever you are thinking of making a mod, you're thinking "I'm limiting myself to only the people who own Unreal Tournament 3 when I do this." And so Unreal Development Kit [means] now anybody can make a mod and give it to anybody anywhere for free, and that's perfect. That's just where I wanted to be.
G4: Has anything been published using it yet?
Capps: Oh, sure, yeah. There's been a lot of development going on. We had a couple of the winners from the Make Something Unreal contest port over. I guess The Ball is ported. I think it was The Ball and Prometheus who were the finalists who ported over because it's different, but not that different. We've got a few coming, we've have done some development internally where we put a few teams together to do projects just to kind of show what could be done with the technology. There is a really cool tower defense game that just came out called Dungeon Defense. It's a lot of fun. Definitely folks are on top of that. And, again, when you're looking at the market, if I were making a mod today, I would be using UDK because anyone can download it, my mom can download and play it -- it doesn't need a copy of Unreal Tournament 3.
G4: I think that's one of the interesting things that happened with UT3 on the PS3, where you guys encouraged for the first time open-ended user-generated content.
Capps: Forget LittleBigPlanet, we were first! [laughs]
G4: With LittleBigPlanet, you are creating within a structure, with Unreal you could pretty much do whatever you wanted.
Capps: You could write code on a PS3, which you could never do before.
G4: Exactly, but as you pointed out, one of the limiting factors was that you had to have the game.
Capps: And now it's "find and copy a two-year-old game," which is a little tougher to do, right? For a PS3, it's even tougher to find. It's totally true. But, yeah, I would love to see Unreal Development Kit on the consoles, that would be great. And we may or may not be talking to certain console manufactures about that, because I think that would be really great.
G4: You've watched the evolution of this contest. Despite mods becoming more of a niche marketplace, where would you like to see the contest go?
Capps: That's a great question. We don't have a plan for rolling out the next Make Something Unreal with the UDK or something like that right now. I have been really happy to see casual game developers looking at UDK as an option. The pricing is zero upfront and we're going to do a small royalty on the back if your game makes a lot of money -- if it doesn't make any money, don't call us, we don't care -- which is perfect that way because we don't have to do the accounting, and they don't have to do the accounting. But once it starts selling in the tens of thousands dollars, then we get a cut on the back and I think that's where we get back to that [space where] two guys can make something completely ubiquitous that anyone can download as a casual game faster than they can do it on their own ... [and] having to figure out Flash and whatever else.
I think we've gotten the barrier of entry back down comparative to what you saw on casual games. I want them all on UDK, right? I'd love that. I want to see everybody using it because you're going to get better games. You can make a match-three game with UDK, it's going to be badass and if you spent the same amount of time as doing a match-three game re-writing the code yourself, it's just not going to be as good of a game because you're starting at a lower point.
G4: I know Mark [Rein]'s been running around with the Unreal Engine you guys got running on the iPhone now...
Capps: Maybe. It’s still secret, isn't it? [laughs]
G4: Oh, yeah, very secretive, having seen 20-to-25 pictures of him pulling out of his pocket. Is that just like sort of a toy experiment for you guys?
Capps: It's very skunkworks for us right now. We don't have a game we're building on it. Generally when we support a platform with the engine, it's because we know the platform back and forth because we're shipping a game there. Since we don't have Unreal Tournament for iPhone in development or anything, we haven't really figured out how the product ties in. What I want is for the EAs [Electronic Arts] of the world who are licensing our tech for a ton of products anyway to say "Gosh, I could start using my assets for 'Your-Name-Unreal-Engine-Game-Here.' I could start making an iPhone game with the same tech instead as opposed to having to write something from the ground up."
G4: You can just layer it down so it works...
Capps: Exactly. Pull out some objects, reduce the complexity and that's what we are working on right now: tools to make that complexity jump easy to do, so that you can push a button on deck 17 and bang, deck 17 works on the iPhone without any intervention. Then, I think it would be really obvious how quick it's going to make games.
G4: It's kind of what you guys were able to do on the PS3, right? Couldn't you just export a file to PS3 and it did the back-end work for you?
Capps: Yeah, I mean, UDK on the iPhone would be awesome, I would love to have it. But I'm not quite ready to support general the masses with an engine that we're not supporting...
"We may or may not be talking to certain console manufacturers about [UDK] because I think that would be really great"
G4: I was going to say that would be a big leap.
Capps: Yeah, a very big step, so we will start with maybe making it to consoles. I think that would be a really good step for UDK, but what I'm watching right now...we had a hundred thousand users -- like actually users, not just downloads. We're tracking use in a couple weeks, which, you know, that's triple what Unity had in their lifetime. That's huge. So I’m not so sure how much I need a contest to encourage development, right? I'm just going to stand back and see. It's nice to have a contest [for] highlighting the best, but I'm not sure if we need it in order to kind of get the community going. It's kind of taking off.
G4: But to bring up the iPhone example, it's hard to sort through everything. You've got something like over 35,000 iPhone games -- how do you find ways to figure which is good? Word-of-mouth is one thing, but having a contest that you know some guy just won a million bucks...I feel like I want to pay attention to what that guy is doing.
Capps: No, I think that's totally true. I think that you're going to see The Haunted's downloads go up a lot as a result of this, right? I think The Ball will get more attention just because of this contest. The sad thing is what we see on iPhone is the guys making money are the guys who are making money -- that is, if you are already in the top five and everybody sees that, [consumers] will say, "Oh, this must be good," and they buy again. Not that Call of Duty might not be great on the iPhone, I haven't played it, but because it got there from its name and it stays there.
Talking about needing content filtering; this is the problem that [Xbox Live] Arcade has now that it didn't have it first, because they were doling [games] out so slowly and you know it was good if it was there. Now you want to name your game starting with three A's, right? It's like the phonebook now.