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The Unreal Man: Mark Rein Speaks

In a new in-depth interview, Gamasutra sits down with Epic's famously effusive VP Mark Rein to discuss the state of Unreal Engine 3, Unreal Tournament 3's mod-infused debut on the PlayStation 3, and a host of other intriguing topics.

Epic's Mark Rein is a famously effusive, opinionated, but smart exec, one that leads the public face of the key Unreal Engine 3 creator and Gears Of War developer. Recently, Gamasutra had a chance to speak with Epic Games VP as Unreal Tournament 3 prepared to launch on PC.

In the days before it definitively revealed that the game would ship in the U.S. on PlayStation 3 this holiday season, the discussion turned to the progress of Unreal Engine technology on that platform, the game's ability to embrace user-created content, and much more.

Brandon Sheffield: A lot of people have been talking about the look of Unreal Engine 3 games, and how there's a distinct kind of look to it. It looks like an Unreal game.

Mark Rein: See, I don't see that. I think if you look at our two games, yeah, they share some styles, because we're one company with the same art director between the two of them. We like making those big, bulky, beefy guys, but that doesn't mean Mass Effect is going to look that way. BioShock doesn't look that way, and Undertow sure as heck doesn't look that way. If two games look similar, it's because they're intended to look similar.

I don't necessarily look at...if you go look at Crash Course -- which is a cute little Xbox Live Arcade game coming out -- and you look at Undertow, you can't look at those and say, "That's Unreal Engine!" And Lost Odyssey doesn't look like this game. That's the thing -- there's so many different looks to the games. That's really the decision of the art directors that are using the technology, as opposed to the technology itself.

BS: It depends on how much you want to alter it, right? BlackSite, for instance, does look very Unreal-y.

MR: I think it's just a matter of how far you want to go with materials, lighting, and level design. I don't think that two games necessarily have to look that similar at all.

Epic's Mark Rein, the man behind the myth

Christian Nutt: You referenced an Xbox Live Arcade game that's coming out with Unreal Engine. Maybe this is common knowledge, but is there a licensing program for XBLA games that makes them more financially sound?

MR: We don't give out the details of that, but we work with developers of all different size and games. So absolutely, we definitely have a bit of a push in that area. People are making games for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade -- some more casual-oriented games. We've also done things with guys making MMOs. Have you seen The Agency? Does that look anything at all like the other games? We work with all different sizes of teams and situations. We're pretty flexible.

BS: Having a look is not necessarily a bad thing, either. I'm not trying to peg it as a negative.

MR: I'm very sensitive about that.

CN: It makes me think of how back in the 16-bit days, when the SNES games had a certain look and Genesis games had a certain look. You could identify them. They had a certain character to them.

BS: We were talking about this earlier, personally. You could tell what platform something was on just from screenshots, just because it looked like something. We were thinking in a way that engines were the future of that. Like, "This looks sort of like it's got that Unreal look."

MR: Like I say, when you see some of the games people are doing, they have a completely different look. I think it's absolutely an artistic decision. Take Stranglehold and Gears of War, for example. I wouldn't say so. Each has its own stylized look.

 


BS: I was going to ask you a long time ago about the PC and PS3 thing -- making the versions have network interoperability.

MR: We have the capability to do that using GameSpy, because it's the same online system between the two. We decided close to the end of Unreal Tournament 3 that we weren't going to do that, because for us, it meant keeping compatibility between the two different versions of the game on the PlayStation 3 and the PC.

I don't know if you're aware of this, but when you go to create a game for a console, you have a rather lengthy certification process. Which is a good thing. I'm not criticizing that, but it means that it would be very difficult to bring in a change to the game, or hunt down a cheat or exploit -- things of that nature. It could take weeks or maybe months to ship that update on the PlayStation 3.

So what do we do? Do we sit on the PC version for a couple of weeks or months while we go through this process? We really didn't want to hamper our PC players with that kind of responsibility to the console. We really wanted to make sure that we had a really great -- and I'm very proud of the guys who have made what you played tonight -- a great PlayStation 3 game. It feels just right when you're playing it, and there's enough subtle differences between the PC game and the PlayStation 3 game that making the two compatible would be a challenge.

We would definitely have to change some things on each platform to make them similar enough that we could have cross-platform play, and we didn't want to sacrifice our PC audience -- our tried and true customer that's been with us for a long time. We felt strongly that we didn't want to make them suffer for our art.

BS: Certainly that is true, but Guitar Hero III is releasing a patch day-and-date with the 360 proper release, because there were some co-op problems.

CN: That is true, yeah. Guitar Hero III released a patch the same day that the game came out. The patch was ready for the game's release date.

MR: Oh, sure. That's not uncommon. We did that with Gears of War. A lot of guys do that. A day-one patch is almost a necessity these days!

BS: I was just saying in terms of that being a limiting factor.

MR: Remember, they sent us the game before that. Weeks or months earlier, it went through cert, got put on a disc, manufactured, and shipped around the world. Quite a bit of time elapsed from one to the other, whereas an online patch is a different story.

Epic Games' Gears of War, powered by Unreal Engine 3

BS: So in terms of being able to make mods and maps and stuff on the PC and then play them on the PS3, is that still happening?

MR: Absolutely, yeah.

BS: How did you get that to go through? It seems somewhat technically difficult.

MR: No, I mean, we have Unreal Editor on the PC version of the game, and the content is compatible between the two. That's the thing that people don't realize. When you take a level in Unreal Tournament 3, you build it on PC. The exact same levels you're running between the PC and the PS3.

The things that are different between the games aren't really the levels. They're the speed that certain vehicles move, the firing rate of weapons, the turning radius for the player camera. Things like that are tweaked specifically between PC and console. But the levels and the content itself is 100 percent compatible. It's really no big deal. You make something on the PC, and say, "Oh, now I can go test it on my PlayStation 3," right then and there.

What we do to finalize it, make sure it makes the most efficient use of memory, and runs the fastest, is we bake it down to the PS3 version, but that's just like saving a file in Word in a different format. If you save it on a PlayStation 3 format, you can stick it on the Internet, and someone can download it, put it on a memory card, and import it into their PlayStation 3 version of the game. That works really well.

BS: Level files are pretty small, in general.

MR: Not always! There's more than just levels we're talking about here.

BS: Is it also possible to do graphical mods?

MR: Absolutely. You kind of have to divorce yourself from the idea that levels are just maps. Let's say you have something called the level. A level can contain maps, vehicles, models, static masses, materials, UnrealScript code, our digital scripting tools, matinee cinematics, and cascade particle systems. That's what our game content is. Pretty much what any gamer would want in a level.

BS: To me, that's surprising. You don't have to comment on this, but people have had trouble developing things for the PS3 because of the way it deals with certain types of data. If a modder is creating a mod, obviously they're not going to be as savvy as PS3-committed developers. It seems like it would be...

MR: I don't understand that logic.

CN: Well, the engine's already running on the PS3.

BS: Right. The engine's running. That's the hard part.

MR: A mod maker doesn't have to be any less savvy than Epic Games. That's what we do. We get the engine up and running on the platform, get it to run fast, and get everything to work. It takes a while to learn the system and do that, but once that's done, any content that runs on a PC that's roughly equivalent to the performance of the PlayStation 3 should run pretty much the same on the PlayStation 3. It's a breakthrough. I know it's hard to wrap your head around.

BS: I'm thinking about new assets kind of stuff.

MR: Yeah, people create completely new assets. It's a wonderful thing.

 


BS: To me, that seems to be a bit of a conceptual leap, in terms of how people are trying to run stuff. Maybe I've got it all wrong.

MR: No, that's what's so special about this game. We're enabling people not just to move the furniture around in the levels we give them. You've seen in-game level editors, and that's essentially what they do. They let you move blocks and stuff they already created around, and in the most sophisticated one, maybe it lets you make terrain and things like that. We're divorcing ourselves from that kind of ridiculousness.

This is the full power of the Unreal Editor. The same editor we used to create the games is now available to you. You want to import your objects you made in 3D Studio Max or Maya? Bring them in! You want to code an UnrealScript? Code an UnrealScript! All those things you can do. If they fit on our map, you can stick them on the PlayStation 3 and they'll run!

BS: How does exactly that go through you?

MR: It doesn't go through us.

CN: Does Sony not care?

MR: It's user-created content! It's fantastic! I can't understand why people are so nervous about what Sony... no, Sony's wonderful. When they embrace user-created content, that's what it means to be an open system. That's why we're on PlayStation 3 first -- because they are embracing user-created content. It's not just moving the deck chairs around the boat. They are embracing real art.

CN: They have technical requirements for people who make packaged games. Someone could make a giant map that says "F*ck Sony. Microsoft rules!" or something like that, or even something that's just offensive to other players.

MR: If you're going to allow user-created content, you're going to allow user-created content.

CN: It's not going to be... I bet they're going to police LittleBigPlanet and other stuff.

MR: Well, LittleBigPlanet is more of an example of rearranging chairs on the deck, right?

CN: It's pretty robust.

MR: This is the real thing. You can't import your own models in LittleBigPlanet. You can't write script code in LittleBigPlanet.

BS: I think it's kind of like baking the stuff so that it's proper for release. Is there going to be any kind of...

MR: We have nothing to do with that process. Users do that themselves. It's user-created content. This is amazing! It's a little tough to get your head around. We don't know how deep people will take it, or how players will embrace it. They could do lots of things or littler things. We're going to encourage it, because we're going to create a mod contest. We're basically going to throw money at people to take a chance at it.

CN: You're saying that Sony understands and they're really into it. This isn't going to be happening down the road on the 360 version, will it? Or can it?

MR: We'd like to. That's one of the challenges in figuring out how to bring this game to the 360. Right now, Xbox Live is a closed system, so when we finish the PC and the PS3 one and maybe take a little break for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we will sit down with Microsoft and have a dialogue with them and say, "Here is what we want to do. How can we do it?" They may or may not embrace it. We don't know. That's why we've made the game for the PlayStation 3 first, because we knew exactly what the boundaries were going to be.

BS: I feel in a way like the PlayStation 3 -- in terms of downloads -- is kind of like the Wild West. Since they haven't set up a specific structure, it's "every man for himself," in a way.

MR: That's what user-created content is. I'm always shocked when I talk to media, and it's like, do you want to censor people? I know it sounds incredulous to say that, but that's kind of what I hear you say.

The PlayStation 3, the "Wild West" of downloadable content?

CN: I never came from a PC gaming background, so that sounds totally weird.

MR: "Why aren't they putting chains on people?!" Why do you want that?

BS: It's not like that with YouTube.

MR: When YouTube finds questionable content, they take it down. We'll have a mechanism do that too.

CN: Well, if it's an open system, how can you take it down?

MR: We have a way to blacklist mods that do bad things.

BS: It's not that we want chains, it's just that it's so...

CN: I mean, look at all the different console systems. They've always been like that.

BS: Sony is very conservative with what they will release on their console in a package.

MR: Again, I think it's really clear. If you want to make a DVD and play it on your PlayStation 3, you can. If you want to make a DVD of whatever it is -- whatever questionable, crazy, ridiculous movie you want to make -- you can burn it on a DVD-R and go play it on your PlayStation 3. If you want to record music on an MP3 CD or a memory card or play it off your computer, you can do that now on PlayStation 3, right? If you theoretically had a Blu-ray burner, you could do the same thing with Blu-ray. If you want to have your movies or photos on the PlayStation 3, you can do that. It's your content! There's really no difference.

CN: But it's point-to-point.

MR: It's not point-to-point. They're going to let you show movies to other people in Home, for example.

CN: Yeah, but your house is locked or open as you choose.

MR: That's not that much vastly different.

CN: I don't disagree...

MR: I have to make the choice to go and download the mod.

 


CN: I guess I feel like console users just might not be aware of what they're getting into.

MR: At least in the beginning, the way it's going to work at launch is they're going to have to go and get it themselves, and make the choice and put it on their console. They're going to go to some website, download a mod, and make the choice to actually install it on their console.

CN: That surprises me more -- "some website." Not the fact that they're even allowing downloadable content, but the fact that it's from anywhere.

MR: It's great!

CN: Yeah, we're not being negative about it.

MR: You are!

BS: No no no, we're...

MR: I know, and I get what you're saying. It's hard to fathom the fact that, because the console business has been so tightly closed in the past...

CN: Like suing the existence out of people who tried to make games about paying licensing fees.

MR: But remember, this is content for a game for which they bought the game. You bought the game. You're entitled to run your content. It's not like you have to own Unreal Tournament 3 to play these mods. I think Sony's going to have a good Christmas this year. Games like Unreal Tournament 3 will hopefully get out the door.

CN: Yeah, will it be a Christmas with Unreal Tournament 3?

MR: Well, I hope we do. [Rein subsequently confirmed that the title will debut in December for PS3.] Regardless of that, they've got a lot of good games coming, they've dropped the price of their system, and they're embracing this kind of openness. I think this is going to work out positively for them in the long run.

Unreal Tournament 3 for the PS3, now a reality!

BS: I think there's been some kind of message shift from some companies recently, like Rockstar for instance. Manhunt 2 came out, and some Russian kid figured out how to hack it to get unblur some of the censored content and make it normal again. In the past, they would deny that that ever existed. Now they're saying, "Yes, someone did that." It seems like there's a different attitude forming toward user-created content, where people are realizing, "Yes, this is users!" and claim responsibility for users. Is that...

MR: Of course. Companies themselves... with pens and pencils, what you write or draw with those pens and pencils they have no control over that.

CN: Senators believe in the whole-hearted necessity and usability of pens and pencils.

MR: And they should, and they can't believe in censorship.

CN: But they do!

BS: That situation's pretty rough. Those folks don't understand the industry, for one thing, and also..."If it exists in a game or can be done with a game, it's the responsibility of the people that made that originally."

MR: Well, that's silly.

BS: I agree.

CN: I think we all agree, but right now...

MR: They might as well go after companies that sell paint, because some people make objectionable paintings, as opposed to the people who make...

BS: And they used to! I was going to ask, what would you think about someone selling a mod?

MR: The end-user license agreement for the game...

BS: Ah, there we go. Makes sense.

MR: And the law. The fact that it's our IP.

BS: Did people used to sell CounterStrike before it was a proper Half-Life mod?

MR: No.

BS: Okay.

MR: We haven't run into any problems like that. People are pretty respectful. They know they're using our tools, and they've read the end-user license agreement when they installed that says, "You can't use our tools for commercial purposes." But while we say that, we would very much like to have the ability, down the road, to sell mods. That's something we're actually working on behind the scenes.

We could set up a store where users who create mods have a way to monetize them down the road. We think that's definitely a good goal to have. We're looking into that. That's not some new revelation, but we think that is a good thing for us down the road, but in a controlled way, so that we get some reward for the fact that they're using our technology.

 


BS: So if somebody wanted to be incredibly insane and try and create a racing game using the hoverboard or something like that, that would be...

MR: Well, as long as they make it as a mod and give it away for free, that's fantastic. We love it. And then if they want to sell it, they should just come and talk to us. Red Orchestra's a perfect example. It's out there being sold on Steam and at retail, and it was a mod. We embrace that. There's others that we would have happily done the same thing with. Some of the others that are in the contest actually have licenses and publishers doing it, so you'll see some events on our retail service. But there's nothing wrong with that. It's fabulous.

BS: Do you think Unreal Engine 3 running on the PS3 now is going to help people surmount the difficulties they've been having?

MR: I think that's generally how it works. That's part of the reason why we build a game -- to prove out the technology, and iron all the kinks out of it and make it good. As I've said before, a year after the Xbox 360 was on the market, we had a really good game -- Gears of War -- and that kind of became version 1.0 of Unreal Engine 3 for the Xbox 360. That became a roadmap. It was well-optimized, and licensees could go look at that code. We released it so they could say, "If I want to do at least what Epic's doing with Unreal Engine 3 and get that kind of framerate and performance and visual look or move some of those levers up and down to be different, I can do that."

I think it's the same thing with Unreal Tournament [3 on PS3] so absolutely. I think now, people can see, "Okay, they've got the engine running with this much content." Everybody's mileage varies, because not everybody's making the same game. But, "They have the engine running with this many characters, explosions, and vehicles, and the level's this size, and if I follow that idea, I can get that kind of performance, and if I do less of this, I can do more of that. If I do more of this, I can do less than that." So, absolutely, I think we're at that kind of version 1.0 on PlayStation 3 a year after the PlayStation 3 shipped, the same way we were with Xbox 360 a year after the Xbox 360 shipped. That was a pretty predictable thing, and was what we expected that was going to occur and what we've been telling people.

BS: Some have said things like Unreal Engine 3... I mean, generally, they've just started using it, but, "It likes certain things more than it likes other things." To me, it seems like that's kind of the nature of an engine, that there's certain things that it's suited for, and other things you've got to attack on your own.

MR: People are doing a lot of a pretty large variety of things with Unreal Engine 3. We're pretty proud of that. People are making huge MMOs and tiny little arcade games, and they've making action games like Unreal, BioShock, and Mass Effect and things of that nature. We're pretty excited that people are doing so many different things with the technology, and we're always encouraging them to do more. I think you're going to see more and more variety, especially when you see some of the mods. You just go back to look at the things people did with mods, and it's pretty clear it's the engine to do all kinds of things.

Sometimes imagination is the biggest limitation to what people think a technology can do or can't do. An engine's just an engine. People are saying, "This is a shooter engine," or "This is an RPG engine," and then you see RPGs being made with a shooter engine or a shooter being made with an RPG engine. In some cases, it's really just opening your imagination and understanding the limitations of the hardware and how a particular piece of technology is going to perform on that hardware.

BS: So when people do push those boundaries with the engine, do you ever push back on them and try to incorporate those into your build for things?

MR: We ultimately only have control over the features that we're going to use all the time. If we put something in that we're not using and stressing and testing, sooner or later, it will be broken. There's something called code rot. If we don't touch the code for six months, it just breaks, because other dependencies have happened. So you've got to be very careful to make sure that you're keeping things clean and stable.

That's what our games have accomplished. They've become that test spec, because every day we're playing our games and testing them so that as we break something we can fix it. If we put in a lot of features in the engine that we ourselves couldn't use in the game, we would end up testing a lot of features that we're not using. It would also be hard to guarantee that those features were done in a way that delivered consistent performance all the time. I think that's true of any codebase. I don't think it matters which one you're looking at.

CN: How's it been working with...I could be wrong, but this is probably the first generation you've worked heavily with Japanese licensees, so how's that been?

MR: There's always a challenge working with people that don't speak the same language as you. That takes some getting used to, and we're certainly had some growing pains there, but that's the case with any American company working with Japanese companies. You've seen that in the console business. So that's a challenge, but we're having some pretty good successes, actually. The guys at Square are... there's a game that doesn't look anything like our games, but the guys at Square are doing some really incredible stuff.

CN: I'm zipping my mouth shut!

MR: You've seen it?

CN: Yeah.

MR: But they're doing some pretty neat stuff that's different. We've tried to work around the language barrier as best we can, and we are looking to expand to work with more people in Japan, as well as build our own presence there. That will ultimately help us in the Japanese marketplace -- to have a little bit of an Epic presence. We have a little bit of a direct Epic presence in China, and that's going very, very well. So we hope to repeat the kind of thing we're doing in China in Japan at some point.

 


BS: I've been talking to a lot of Japanese developers for a while about the fact that they are kind of falling behind on technology in games.

MR: I wouldn't say that.

BS: Well, I would say that, and a lot of them would say it too. I was talking to someone recently, and asked if Unreal Engine 3 completely localized in Japanese would help bring people up to speed. And he said, "If that happened all the way, I would be really excited. It would help us a lot."

MR: Yeah. We've localized the tools in Japanese, but that's difficult to support in Japanese. All of our support goes through a translator, and you know what happens when things get translated. It does make a layer of fog between us and them. We're working on that. We've had some successes and some setbacks, but I think overall, there is definitely a will there on both sides.

We'd love to be working with more Japanese developers, and I think we definitely have seen -- especially from the Tokyo Game Show... we had a very good Tokyo Game Show, in that respect. We're discussing a lot of interest there, and are talking with potential licensees -- some small developers and large developers -- and it's definitely interest there.

It's just a matter of making sure that we support them properly. As the tools get more mature, and as we ship Unreal Tournament 3, for example the PC version travels around the world, and people start playing with it, and they'll develop their own support structure, much in the same way we've had the Unreal Wiki in the U.S. Hopefully the Japanese people will gradually embrace it and learn it and share with each other.

CN: That's the problem with Japan. The Japanese development industry... people who work at different companies or even different departments in the same company don't talk to each other.

BS: That's the trouble.

CN: But that's not your problem.

MR: I think you'll see some changes there. I think that this is a very, very smart people, and there are some amazing companies there. We would love just so many Japanese companies to be working with us. Where there's a will, there's a way.

CN: Emergent actually started a partnership with Acquire to localize their tools. Is that going to put pressure on you guys, you think?

MR: No, I wouldn't think so. That's not our style to go through a middleman or a distributor. What would be ideal for us would be to hav

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