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The Future According to Epic's Tim Sweeney

Epic Games founder and Unreal Engine developer Sweeney discusses what he'd like to see in future game consoles, what direction the company is taking Unreal Engine 4, and dreams about the next frontiers in artificial intelligence.

Kris Graft, Contributor

May 7, 2012

13 Min Read

Epic Games has made its fortune with games that feature surly, grunting men whose adeptness at blowing people in half with powerful weapons greatly outweighs their negotiating skills.

In an interview with Gamasutra earlier this year, Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of the Gears of War and Unreal Engine 3 developer, did not seem surly, he was not (visibly) armed, and he did not grunt once. He's pretty much the anti-Marcus Fenix.

For someone so soft-spoken and unassuming, Sweeney gives a fascinating interview, effortlessly opening up about the game industry and the technology that will drive it in the future.

I'm interested about the work dynamic at Epic. Are you just holed up in an office coding all day?

Tim Sweeney: Yeah, largely. The great thing about Epic is that from the beginning I've had a philosophy of finding the best people for all of the key areas of the company, and then one by one, my expertise has been replaced.

The first game I wrote was all my own, and then I brought in an artist who was much better than me, and from then on I was not doing any artwork. And Cliff Bleszinski took over design, and then Mike Capps and Rod Fergusson took over the management of the company and production. Mark Rein took over sales.

And so I'm not needed as a critical path resource on any project at Epic right now, which is really cool; it enables me to go around and participate wherever I can add input. So I've been mainly involved in every team, and direction with Unreal Engine 4, their technical strategy, and making sure all our systems are going in the right direction. Not being in the critical path, I think, is really helpful, in being able to maintain the big overall perspective of the company.

At your DICE Summit presentation in February, you talked about video games simulating life with advanced graphics and technology. Is that some kind of holy grail or ultimate goal that video games can accomplish -- an exact simulation of life?

TS: Well, there are two separate challenges. One is having a lifelike graphical realism, and that's something that we know how to solve given enough computing power. And so largely it's a matter of developing, coming up with innovative new graphics algorithms and waiting for the hardware to increase in performance every year.

The other area of computing [AI] is much, much more difficult. Trying to simulate human intelligence in the game -- realistic character AI and realistic conversations -- something like that relies on algorithms that nobody has invented yet, because nobody knows how to simulate human thought. I expect over the next few decades, really, there's going to be an incredible innovation there.

I expect that to happen because we're seeing some companies really starting to address that -- that core problem of human thought. I can pick up my iPhone now and ask Siri for directions to someplace, or ask it some really complicated query, and it'll parse it correctly and give me a result. So really, computing is on the cusp of grasping the human world, and that's a really exciting thing.

What kind of breakthrough is it going to take to accurately simulate how people think and react? Or is it going to be more of a gradual building-upon of everybody's work?

TS: It's hard to predict. The one idea is that there's going to be this singularity -- that someone in the future will trigger this judgment day where somebody creates a breakthrough in computer intelligence that suddenly changes the world. And that could happen, but what we've seen is much, much more gradual and incremental progress towards that.

Google, with its search algorithms, has come up with some really impressive mathematical notions to represent knowledge, and be able to search it efficiently. That's one of the things that's impressed me in that area. The other is a Siri, with voice recognition. It turns out that they some smart algorithms, but they also have a gigantic dataset of queries and responses to help steer it in the right direction.

So I think the most likely scenario is a path works, and progress over the next few years will continue piece by piece, advancing in isolated areas that go on over time slowly, building up into something bigger.

How much emphasis on AI is there at Epic? Because a lot of people, when they think of Epic's tech, they think of nice graphics. What about the AI side?

TS: Well, the gameplay team at Epic puts a lot of thought into simulating characters in our games -- you know, your friends in the game and enemy opponents -- and so we've developed a lot of interesting solutions that help with AI.

There's a navigation mesh which gives each character an overview of how to walk through the level, and how to understand different parts of the level. If an enemy decides he needs to fight you then he'll realize, "Oh, I need to run up these stairs, and then fight him from above where I have a better angle to fire on him from."

There are a lot of basic systems like that, but ultimately it comes down to the gameplay team designing custom AI for each character and the various actions and scenarios that are carried out. It's a pretty special case; it's not a general simulation of intelligence by any means.

Is there any tech that you see happening outside of the games industry that inspires you with your own job?

TS: What's really impressed me? In the last decade, Google search and its uncanny ability to find what you actually mean that you're looking for; there's Siri's voice recognition.

Word Lens, this iPhone app; it's magic to me. You take out your iPhone and you point it in some direction and basically the camera takes a live feed, a video of the world, and it projects it onto the screen in front of you with all of the words translated from one language to another. But not just translated with captions at the bottom, it's translating like if you have a big red stop sign it's translating "Stop" to Spanish and putting it in the proper perspective with the proper lighting in the scene.

And that's a crazy advancement. Just seeing that makes me think that we're on the cusp of seeing a whole generation of augmented reality apps over the next few years that will change the way we interact with computers. Just a few pieces of growth algorithms have shown through like that over the last few years.

Google Goggles lets you do a search by taking a picture. So they're working on image-based inquiries as well.

TS: Oh yeah, and Amazon had a service like that, too; I thought, "Wow, that's an amazing algorithm there!" What you do is there is an Amazon app, you take a picture of an object and a few seconds or a few minutes later it sends you a link to that product on Amazon.com. When I saw that it's like, "Wow! They're doing some amazing image recognition tracking technology!" But no, they have an army of people who watch your pictures and then look up the appropriate thing on Amazon.com and email it to you.

What?! [laughs]

TS: I know! It's the joke about Siri, right? That the real trick is that that they have a warehouse full of people in China who are typing away at your translations.

So what about the browser? That's something that relates more to something specific that you guys are working on with Unreal Engine. Where do you see the future of the browser in games?

TS: Well, we would like to see the web browser as another platform. You should be able to take any game -- a PlayStation 3 or iOS game, for example -- and just go to that and play it from any web browser.

We're slowly heading in that direction as an industry. One thing that's happened recently is Adobe Flash. For a decade or more, Adobe Flash was a little scripting language for creating more interactive webpages using a proprietary browser plug-in, but more recently Adobe created a translator.

You give it any C++ program, like Unreal Engine 3, and it translates it to a platform-independent application that can run within Flash, within any web browser or on any platform where Flash runs.

And so now any browser that supports Flash can play any web game that's built with Unreal Engine 3, or any other engine that's cross-compatible with Flash. That's an awesome breakthrough; it shows you the possibilities.

But I think the next step in that is cross-compiling games from C++ or whatever and directly running them as native HTML5 and JavaScript applications within any standard web browser. And you can do that in theory today, but it ends up being slow and unstable just because of the early state of JavaScript implementations, and limited performance, and current web browsers.

In another few years, I think that's going to be a very realistic scenario. And so the web will generally be a platform, and you can have a real application with a full feature set that runs within a web browser; that'll be very welcome. The web is a fairly awkward experience when you use a platform that's not the majority of the install base, and I think we're going to see big improvements there in the next few years.

I know it's under wraps, but you guys are probably feeling pretty okay about Unreal Engine 4.

TS: Yeah, we're starting a behind-closed-doors showing of the engine to developers; this is part of our very early ramp-up cycle. We went through this cycle with Unreal Engine 3 starting in 2003 and 2004. At some point we'll make public announcements and ramp up to the point where developers are shipping games, but it's very early right now. We're aiming very high, and the intended platforms this is aimed at haven't even been announced.

So here's a theoretical question for you -- even though I'm sure that this situation has happened in real life. Say Microsoft or Sony come to you and ask, "What do we need to provide you, with our next generation of consoles, to help you make games better?" What would you tell them?

TS: Really for us, there are two things that are going to be essential for the console market going forward. One is that to bring together all of the features and expectations that gamers have built up from all the great platforms out there today, right?

There are great games with Facebook integration that enable you to hook up to social network sites and find your friends in there. To be able to do that from next generation games and consoles will be really valuable.

To be able to go and easily buy and download games like we do in the iOS App Store on future consoles will be incredibly valuable to us as developers, and make it that much easier to get our games out without over-reliance on manufacturing a whole bunch of pieces of spinning plastic to ship to consumers.

So having all of the things that you expect from the game industry as a whole and the best that's been done elsewhere, and to bring that together on a console platform is really important. We saw with the current generation, we went from consoles as a little fixed, TV connected device to an online network of gaming devices where you can play with your friends over the internet, get updates, even watch movies on Xbox 360.

We love that, and I think a huge portion of the business opportunity in the next generation is extending that concept even further forward. So this is a mainstream computing device that hooks into all of your social circles as well.

Number two is raw performance. The thing that separates consoles from FarmVille is the fact that consoles define the high-end gaming experience. When you look for the best graphics available in the whole game industry today, you look at Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and those games are the best out there, bar none. And so the big opportunities for future consoles is to bring that to an entirely new level by delivering a dramatic increase in raw computing power.

We measure that in floating-point operations per second, and now we talk about teraflops -- trillions of floating-point operations per second. What we want is as many teraflops as is economically possible to deliver to consumers, because that enables us to create the best quality experience as possible, and that will drive people to buy a new machine. That's a big challenge with a new console -- that you reset your install base from millions and millions of what you have today with current consoles back to zero. Then you have to convince everybody to buy the new hardware.

To do that you need awesome games that provide a level of graphical fidelity that people have just not seen or even imagined previously.

Developers have told me that they don't want a completely open console, but they were hoping that next-gen consoles would be more open than current consoles. A lot of new games are going to rely on communities, and being able to react to and interact with players more easily, through a console. But there's a decent amount of bureaucracy involved when dealing with consoles. Should the new consoles be a little bit more open than they are now?

TS: Well, you have to draw a fine line in there. If you look at the most open platform today -- that's Android -- Android is anarchy. It's extremely hard to ship a game that actually works on a large number of Android devices, because there's so much variety and so much openness and a lack of cohesive certification process for applications. We do not want open as in Android -- that would be a disaster for the business.

So you certainly want an ecosystem that's curated. The question is, how much do you want it to be curated? iOS is an interesting medium point in between the anarchy of the world and the highly-curated approach of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, where Apple certifies all apps, they verify if the app isn't terribly buggy, but it's a less rigorous process than we have on consoles today.

I think it's an interesting direction, especially for smaller products, because it reduces the overhead of bringing something to market. I think you certainly want something somewhere in the spectrum between current consoles and iOS, in terms of curation. Somewhere in there, so it's a healthy medium.

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About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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