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nterview: Unreality: Epic’s Mark Rein on the Future of Game Middleware

With costs predicted to escalate drastically in the next console cycle, many developers look to middleware to shave the price of development. With this in mind, Gamasutra had a chat with Epic Games Vice President Mark Rein on the future of middleware and why the cost of next-gen development won't be nearly as high as many predict.

Middleware, often a fast-shifting field, has been pushed even further into the average developer’s field of view, with recent developments such as EA’s purchasing of Renderware, and the advent of next-gen technologies and next-gen costs for consoles.

Few have more to say about middleware than Mark Rein, Vice President of Epic, maker of Unreal Engine, as well as the Unreal consumer software, among others. Regarding costs, Rein takes to task the estimates of many large companies. To him, if your costs are going up so significantly, you’re just not working smart.

Gamasutra: Epic moved from keeping tools in-house to licensing them to other companies. How does the focus of the company change as you have to provide tools for other parties?

Mark Rein: It doesn’t really – I mean, we’re the number one customer for our own tools. So we have to provide tools for our own internal developers, and it’s really no different doing that than it is providing the same tools and support for other people as well.

Gamasutra: As a company, how do you balance making engines and making games? Do you have shared members on both teams?


Mark Rein, Epic Games Vice President

MR: Well, we used to do it that way. We used to have one team, but we didn’t really have specific engine people. And since we merged Scion Studios into Epic we now have a larger mass of people – we’ve over 60 people now – so we actually have a dedicated engine team separate from the game teams.

Gamasutra: Do you think it’s important to have multiple choices for physics and audio plug-ins, or do you really want your engine to really be the be-all end-all?

MR: I don’t really know, to be honest. Good question. Audio engines, why do you need multiple audio, I don’t really see the point of that – if you have a good one and it works, go with it. We have audio engines on all the platforms, but we’ve always been a company that’s open to working with others. We have our own audio engine, but some people still implemented Miles, or some other audio engines in their games. We used Karma physics in the past, but multiple licensees decided to use Havok instead. We’re a pretty easy engine to integrate with, so I don’t think if somebody’s really stuck with a particular kind of technology piece, why they couldn’t add it to ours. But I think we do have best in breed solutions to those problems anyway, I mean I don’t think anybody’s going to have a better physics system than Novodex. The Novodex guys are already up and working on next-generation consoles, they were part of Intel’s multi-core demo, they’re like us, they’re already way ahead in terms of multi-core. I can’t see how somebody’s going to come up with a better system than Novodex, but we’re not going to get in the way of what our licensees want to do.

Gamasutra: Do you think the acquisition of Renderware will affect who can use it and who will want to use it?

MR: I know that it affects who wants to use it, because big companies that compete directly with EA don’t want to be paying EA money. We’ve already been the beneficiary of that, so I don’t want to jinx it.


A character created in the latest Unreal engine

Gamasutra: Do you think anyone will be doing a game engine for portables?

MR: I think one of the problems with the handhelds is that they’re all radically different systems. So it’s not like you’re going to take a PSP game and run in on a Nintendo DS. You build custom games for each of those platforms. Whether people use custom or purchased engines, I have no idea, it’s just not an area of expertise for us.

If Microsoft makes a handheld Xbox, we’re in there! I mean – based on the current parts that are in the Xbox. But it’d be awfully expensive to put that in a handheld. The PSP is an awesome machine, that’s a really fantastic device, and I’d love to have an engine for it, but it’s just not our area of expertise.

Gamasutra: What do you think of statements from companies to the effect that the first round of next-gen console games will require exponentially increased budgets?

MR: I guess one of the biggest things we’ve seen that’s bothered us lately is big companies like EA going and tossing out “it’s going to take $30 million to make a next-gen game” and we just don’t see that. I mean we’re making our next-gen games for 25-50% more than our previous generation games, and when we hear those kinds of numbers, we think that’s just bravado, that’s just them trying to scare their competitors out of the marketplace.

We don’t subscribe to that, we don’t think it has to be ridiculously expensive to make next-generation games, and we’ve done a lot of work – like our visual scripting system is a perfect example – in making our tools really optimized so that artists and designers can get the most out of the engine without having to involve a huge amount of programmer resources. And artists are relatively scalable, and designers as well, so we really don’t see the crazy next-gen numbers that they’re talking about, it just doesn’t seem believable.


Unreal Engine 3 in action


Gamasutra: Activision and THQ have both publicly said that their retail costs will go up $10.

MR: I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I’d be very shocked. I think they’re going to try, there’s no question, but honestly I don’t believe that. I honestly think the market won’t bear it! We’re already paying $50 per game, I honestly believe for the majority of games, the market will not pay $60.

That’s just going to drive piracy through the roof, and people are just going to revolt. I think we spend enough money on games, and I just don’t think that’s reasonable. I think what you need to do is make better games, take your time, do them right, and sell more! I don’t think we’re ever going to have 20 million selling games, until we bring the cost of those games down, not up. I think the way to build the market is to decrease the cost of the games, not increase the cost of the games.



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