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Epic's Sweeney: Platform convergence, freemium the inevitable future

In a GDC Taipei keynote, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney discussed how his company is pushing high end graphics, and how Western games need to learn from the Asian market and its business models.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

June 27, 2012

6 Min Read

Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, began GDC Taipei's second keynote with the note that "Being with Epic games, we're a technology company, and very dedicated to console." At the same time, Sweeney also acknowledged that there was a lot of truth to Ben Cousins' view of the future of game technology. "The fact that we're starting to converge on a common view on technology is very interesting to me," he added. Still, Epic isn't looking to only make smaller game experiences. "We're gamers, and we develop the kinds of games we want to play ourselves," he says, which means "big games with guns and chainsaws." "We try to push technology to show what is possible in games," he says, rather than trying to design games to meet the technology. "We try to take a longer-term view of the game industry. ... To be successful with a game engine today, we have to have started that engine 3 or 4 years ago." For Unreal Engine 3, the company spent 4 years building Gears of War and the technology at same time, and put major effort into early adoption of new platform features. "Now we're in the same cycle, leading up to a new generation of engines," he said. "Whereas Unreal Engine 3 was developed primarily for consoles, Unreal Engine 4 has a very different set of goals."

What's possible, what's practical?

The company's first effort toward the next generation was the Samaritan demo, build in UE3. That demo had to run on three graphics cards, in a huge computer -- now it's more practical, a year later, on a single high-end graphics card. "We came to the conclusion that there's the possibility for dramatic leaps in technology," he said. "Some people say, 'oh, graphics are good enough, and we can focus exclusively on gameplay now.' We don't feel that way at all," he added, saying that there's a lot further to go. "We came to the conclusion that in the old days we built engines that would extract the most performance possible out of the PC, and we had to have a large art component to achieve that," he said. Gears of War had 100 artists working on it, including contractors, for example. "Maximizing the productivity of these artists is now the most important cost factor." Thus, with UE4, the company hopes to "Increase the level of visual quality, but also increase the performance and efficiency. ... The tools investment is paying off. Artists are able to build content more productively than before. And with the Unreal Engine as a whole, we found it's much easier to scale down from high end to low end devices than in this generation," he said. "We expect to be able to build games that can scale from a smartphone to a high end PC. ... We expect an unprecedented amount of content portability for the future." "We've been very happy with the game industry's growth," Sweeny said. "For a while we were worried that the divide between the console growth in the west, and the growth of PCs, would increase." Still, and this is where his opinion begins to converge with Cousins' keynote yesterday, Sweeney revealed that "The most profitable game we've ever made, in terms of man years invested versus revenue, is actually Infinity Blade. It's more profitable than Gears of War." This is why Sweeney believes that future growth will be fueled by free-to-play. "Nowadays the high end of the game business is in these console game," he says. "Activision invests almost $100 million per year in Call of Duty." And who can realistically afford to do that? At the same time, he notes that Epic has been "very very surprised to see how fast smartphone and tablet devices are improving." Sweeney says, for instance, that the iPad 3 is approaching the performance of the Xbox 360 and PS3 -- and the pace of improvement is faster than Moore's Law. "We expect DirectX technology to be widely available on these mobile devices in the next few years," he added. "We're also seeing an interesting thing happen in terms of the overall development pattern globally." PC online dominated Asia, but in the U.S. it was mainly just World of Warcraft that was successful for some time, while console was a separate market. "These platforms are rapidly converging, with a set of common capabilities," he said. "The lowest end device [the iPad 2] is still a DirectX 9 device!" Sweeney sees online game distribution coming rapidly to console. "I think the console business we see in the United States and Europe will be just another platform," he says. You should soon be able to ship a freemium game on PC, and on console, simultaneously. "That is a very realistic possibility." Convergence is going to change the market interestingly, says Sweeney, as he points out the two biggest FPS in the world are Call of Duty in the west, and Crossfire, made in Korea, but little-known outside Asia. "I think in the future, these two games will be competing head to head," he says. "It's possible to build one game that has global appeal and ship it in all markets." "North American and European developers are far, far behind the state of the art Asian business models," he cautions. "We've been building these games like Gears of War where you go into the store and you buy a piece of plastic! You just buy this DVD. That is going to change rapidly." He says that Western developers need to learn to change with the times, and put a lot of effort into learning about the free to play market. But also the learning will happen the other way, as well. "Asian online games are far ahead of Western games in terms of business model, but the Western games do have a real advantage in terms of production values," he says.

Unreal everywhere

Epic's new engine strategy is "Unreal Everywhere." "Put this one engine on all platforms worldwide," he says, including PC online, web browsers with Flash, iOS, Android, and console. The most important thing is to build scalable games -- the goal is not have to rebuild for platforms. This interest in free to play and Asia is part of what inspired the company's recent partnership with Tencent, in which the latter company bought a minority stake in Epic. In the past, Epic had worked very closely with Microsoft, but the world is changing. "You might in the future see the Epic relationship span different publishers and different platforms across the world," says Sweeney. "I think like a typical American, in that I just want to buy the game once," he says. But freemium has grown to eclipse the global retail market. "I agree that this is going to be the way that almost all games will be distributed worldwide," he says. "Where is this going in the long-term future? We're at a point in the world's history where we're starting to run into resource limitations. ... The virtual environment is completely unlimited. It makes me wonder if some day the virtual economy could be greater than the economy for physical goods." "All these Western developers spending 30 million to develop these games for dedicated consoles - all of these companies are going to be invading the asian markets within the next five years or so," he says, "and they'll be free to play, worldwide, global products. ... The only way to survive is to go global." "The game industry is the most exciting one on earth," he concluded. "We've seen unprecedented change, just in our lifetimes. It's an unprecedented amount of change, and also opportunity."

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