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Interview: Epic's Capps On Bringing Hardcore Flavor To iOS

Epic Games president Mike Capps tells Gamasutra about the impressive tech behind the iOS version of Unreal Engine 3 and why "it would not be smart" to try to compete against more casual iPhone games.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

September 1, 2010

9 Min Read

Epic Games is best known as the hardcore developer behind games like Unreal Tournament and Gears of War, but in formally moving its popular Unreal Engine 3 to Apple's iOS devices, the studio hopes to bring hardcore flavor to iPhones, iPads and iPods. The developer on Wednesday was front and center at Apple's latest media event, showing off a sharp-looking UE3 demo dubbed Epic Citadel (available free) on an iPhone. Also on hand was Epic subsidiary and Shadow Complex developer Chair Entertainment, which revealed Project Sword, an iOS action adventure RPG that uses UE3. The projects could be the beginning of a significant change at Epic. Here, studio president Mike Capps talks about how porting large games to an Apple iOS device can be done, gives details on licensing plans, and why "It would not be smart for us to try to get in and compete with the Bejeweleds and Angry Birds of the world on the iPhone." You put the Citadel Demo out now, and it represents a full game that's coming down the road for you guys? Yeah, and this is -- basically the environment, the castle space and everything which you saw there -- it's basically a "no, this isn't fake, this really is real, it really does look this good" kind of thing, because the game won't be out until later this season. So Chair is developing the game? Exactly. They're the primary developers on the game side, and then Epic of course we're working a lot on the tech with the Unreal Engine team. Does Unreal Engine 3 now, for external developers, have iOS tools in it? Well, we've got them internally, and we're just starting to work with a few guys now, but yeah, absolutely, we'll be putting them out to all of our Unreal Engine developers. Do you use all of the exact same back-end tools, like Kismet and everything? Yes. Everything's supported. The difference of course is that it's not quite as powerful a graphics processor as on the Xbox 360, so you'll probably do some custom content work, but you're using the same tool chain of UnrealEd and Kismet and the same phsyics tools and everything. The Citadel demo is for 3GS and up. Is that also the specs for the engine, or is that up to developers? That's the current plan, because of the various shaders and things we have support for, that's what we need a 3GS for. Is there anything in the tool chain about scaling down products that are developed on console platforms, or is that something that people are going to have to do manually? I think it's going to depend on the title. I mean, if you're really pushing the PS3 to the limits, then you're going to need to do some rework. But we've got some automated tools to help customize how draw calls are met for iPhone, but I think it's probably going to be a mix of the two. Some people's games are going to work just fine, and other games you're going to need to do some custom work. Obviously, art, particularly seems like it would be an issue. I mean, the character models for Gears of War, specifically, seem like they'd be very hard to translate. It actually turns out that we get really high-resolution textures, which is the first thing you'd think about how "we're going to have to dumb that down." But you don't, because you've got so much memory on an iPhone. You've got 16 gigs of flash memory, which is way better, faster memory than what most people have generally on a home PC. So that stuff works really well. It's the big environments that get really complicated on the rendering tools for iPhone. But yeah, we've got some tricks for it. Do you see this as becoming a big area for the use of your engine? Do you see it becoming a big new space? I do. I mean, with the expansion of the Unreal Development Kit, we've got hundreds of thousands of folks who are messing around with the tools doing smaller projects. So we're not really just about giant triple-A console games anymore. Those are the ones -- Mass Effect gets press, but there are lots of small hobby groups or casual gamers using Unreal Engine. I think it's perfect for them. It's what they've been missing. It doesn't take a whole lot of leaps of faith to say, "Right now, I can display from my iPad to my Apple TV on a big screen TV." How far away are we from "that's my game console, and it's displaying wirelessly to my television set?" It's not far away. Yeah, I think that's an obvious question for our space, when I was watching the Apple TV demo [on stage]. Is there going to be any game application? So far not, but like you say, it's easy to imagine. I wish I could say we knew, but this one was a surprise to us, too. It's what we wanted to see happen, so I can't wait to throw our engineers at it and see if we can get the latency we need to be able to play a game interactively over that wireless link to the Apple TV. I sure hope so. Have you guys done a lot of messing around with Game Center so far? Oh, yes. Absolutely. That was a big part of our demo today. What do you think about it? Well it's enabling tech, right? I don't have to worry about friends lists, I don't have to worry about "How do I make achievements work, and how do I share them between titles?" I don't have to worry about the interface. Which, as a developer, is huge, right? That's something Xbox Live gave us. You don't need to skin it. It's good, it's there, and it's done, and you don't have to do that part of the job. And for us, that's what Game Center does. It solves all of those problems. Basically, they got the benefit of seeing what everyone else did with the social networking space on game consoles, and they took all the best ideas and re-implemented them better, so I'm very happy with it. How closely have you been working with Apple on getting Unreal Engine into the device? We've been working with Apple for years, back-and-forth, on "How can we do something together?" But the hardware just wasn't there for what we were doing with DirectX 9-based graphics, that sort of thing. So, it's only recently, since the 3GS, that we really started to take it seriously. It kind of surprised us how fast the iPhone tech moved, really, so when we saw what it could do, we've been moving ever since. Obviously [Project Sword] is a very "Epic looking" game. It's got a characteristic Epic feel. It's a role playing game, right? I don't know what it is. It's a "role playing action adventure," I think is the phrase we used, so it's a little different than our normal shooter-chainsaw game. That's true, but it's definitely a high-power, high-3D kind of experience. Yeah. It's a game for guys. Or folks who enjoy it. People who like Xbox. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it's a core gamer game, right? Do you see that as a new direction of this market? I hope so. It would not be smart for us to try to get in and compete with the Bejeweleds and Angry Birds of the world on the iPhone. They're doing a great job. For me it's about, can we take the gaming experiences -- not just Gears, but like Shadow Complex that we've done on other platforms, and bring that kind of quality to the mobile devices, and right now I feel like we can. And you feel like, right now, the mobile devices have caught up with what you need to do that. Absolutely. We can make a really solid, fun experience. The one thing we're still working out is that your fingers are in the way of our beautiful game all the time. So if we can figure out a way to do mental interfaces, then we'll be happy. Have you guys thought of bringing Unreal Engine to [Nintendo] 3DS or other competing platforms? Well, I guess the right way to say it is that I'm at an Apple press event, so right now, all I'm thinking about is Apple. Yeah, I know. And I guess the same would go for Android, and stuff like that as well, right? Yeah, I mean, of course we pay attention to where the other tech is going and we have support for Tegra-based devices, and a lot of Androids are Tegra-based. But I just shook hands with Steve Jobs, so right now, I'm pretty high on Apple! (laughs) Are you going to soft roll out the iOS tools into Unreal Engine? That's the plan. We've got a few of our licensees using it now, who've been testing it with us. So we'll roll it out to existing licensees and then start opening up. I think [Epic VP] Mark Rein has a big plan for how they're going to roll it out and make sure everybody's using it. Have you gotten a lot of demand and stuff from people you've talked to? Some of the publishers that have worked with it? Oh, really, really, absolutely, yeah. It kind of surprised us honestly, that we'd be talking to one of the big-tier publishers, I don't need to say who, and they're porting games and they're making tens of millions of dollars making fantastic games on iPhone. We had no idea that business was growing so fast, and they were so excited to be taking existing IPs built on our engine over to the mobile space, so we were like, "Gosh, we really need to get on this right away." That's really how we're looking at it. This is really a Mark [Rein] question, but I'll ask you since he's not here at the moment. For people who are interested in doing something smaller, more phone-oriented games launching at a 99 cent price, are you going to have licensing plans? I think generally we're going to be in the same range as the UDK, for folks who are just doing mobile -- where, we don't even want to know about until you start making money, because I don't need 2,000 business relationships where I make 38 cents. It's not worth it. But once folks get successful, we take a percentage off of that. Because the UDK is targeted to a certain audience. I had a feeling this would be like that. Yeah, free up front. If I could convince the Mortal Kombat guys to give me no money up front and 20 percent on the back-end, I'd do it, right? So that's an absolutely fine deal. I think it'll probably be royalty-based, so that it makes it easier for folks to get in and start using the tools and not worry about some big sticker price.

About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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