Epic is up to something intriguing with the new Unreal Tournament: shortly after it was announced, before it was even really a playable game, Epic made the game freely available for people to download and check out.
At GDC Europe in Cologne today, senior designer Jim Brown outlined what Epic has learned from the experience so far. He pitched the experiment as less of an exercise in getting people to develop a game for free and more of an open-minded experiment that reflects design philosophies at Epic, a company with deep roots in the modding scene.
“We often talk about how games are special because they’re interactive,” says Brown. But it’s a limited interactivity — until very recently, players typically never interacted directly with the people who make their games.
He claims that line of thinking strongly influenced Epic’s decision to develop the latest Unreal Tournament as an open project, and thus its not surprising that the company took a lot of cues from more established community-driven sites — Wikipedia, Metacritic and TripAdvisor — to figure out how to crowdsource game development effectively.
“With a very small team and essentially zero budget on Unreal Tournament, you can see why we want to look at this phenomenon very closely,” says Brown.
When players become developers, developers must become communicators
Of course, Epic is in a bit of a unique situation because it is first and foremost a technology company; at this point its primary business is designing and selling the Unreal Engine, and there’s little doubt that the collaborative nature of Unreal Tournament’s development informs how Epic designs its game-making toolset.
“We were all community modders who became professional developers,” says Brown, referring to his (relatively) small Unreal Tournament dev team. “every single one of us modded UT before jointing the industry, and those roots give us a unique perspective on both modding and community engagement.”
Still, Brown’s UT-focused presentation held some useful learnings for other developers who may be working on (or considering working on) games that have some semblance of open development. Chief among those learnings is the value of good public communication skills — something many developers don’t have tons of opportunities to practice.
“We may be good at developing games, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at talking to and interacting with the public,” says Brown. “We had to learn to communicate better in order to improve our community interactions, and it was arguably the most important thing we did in developing Unreal Tournament.”
For example, the team noticed early on that open Unreal Tournament dev tended to follow a unreliable boom/bust cycle -- people would get excited when new stuff was about to come out, build more content while they were super-excited, and then an unavoidable slowdown or pause in the release of new content would cause people to lose interest in the project.
To overcome this, Epic started releasing weekly build reports to build excitement about what’s coming next. “It’s a stupidly simple fix,” says Brown, “but it had a huge impact.”
But relying on the community for game development tasks has at least one big flaw: you can’t rely on anyone when you aren’t paying them for their time. Brown says Epic initially found itself relying on a relatively small number of Unreal Tournament contributors, and it struggled to coerce more players into contributing to the game.
The answer, at least in part, was to reward contributors by acknowledging their contributions in-game — something as simple as showing someone’s name alongside the weapon they designed was enough to significantly improve their odds of contributing and staying active in the UT community.
Blurring the line between playing games and making them
You also have to set standards for what kind of user-generated content is permissible in your game, which can often be a tricky issue. Epic tried to do this by giving contributors notes on their Unreal Tournament submissions, but that didn't always work out well.
“We’d give a contributor some feedback and ask them to go another round…and another…and another…until eventually they’d get frustrated,” says Brown. Often, they'd give up soon after.
So Epic developers tried to deliver some assets and systems to set a baseline example, but that didn’t really work out as planned either.
“We hoped it would set a standard for what people should shoot for, but instead it wound up intimidating them,” says Brown. Moreover, once Unreal Tournament got an injeption of Epic-developed content, many people put their contribution work aside in favor of simply playing with the new stuff.
Another key lesson learned, says Brown, is to reiterate early and often some critical pieces of information that may seem obvious to professional developers but is less obvious to newcomers; for example, Epic has to constantly remind players that Unreal Tournament is not finished and should not be downloaded and played right now, even though you can.
“Throwing alpha or beta on something sadly doesn’t mean anything anymore, because they’ve been co-opted as marketing gimmicks,” says Brown.
Finally, Epic saw great returns on its time invested building an approachable series of simple tutorials that teach players the basics of content creation with in-game examples.
“We focused on creating a visual tutorial system that taught people not only how to create new things, but how to share what they’ve created,” says Brown. That sharing system was a key part of the game because it wound up encouraging people to create more assets so they could share their work with their friends.
“We deliberately made these two tutorials look as similar as possible, and we deliberately put them both in-game,” says Brown. “We put them both under the same button in the UI, ‘Learn’ — learn to play, learn to create…just learn.”
And then out of the blue, Epic began to notice people streaming the new Unreal Tournament. Not just playing it — developing for it. Streaming game development is still a nascent practice, and Brown believes that Epic’s blatant effort to blur the line between playing a game and developing it is fueling the practice. Where it leads remains to be seen.
“Has this experiment been a success for us? We’re still in the pre-alpha stage, so I can’t 100 percent say for sure,” Brown claimed. “However, I can say that it’s working — albeit very, very slowly.”