Mark Rein, Vice President of Epic, was kind enough to sit down and chat with us at the Develop Conference in Brighton. During this fairly lengthy talk we discuss, among other things, UT3's performance on the PS3 the Unreal Engine's development and how that relates to other licensees. Find the full interview after the break.
How long will it be before a fully optimised PS3 version of Unreal Engine 3 is released to developers?
It's constantly being released to developers. How it works is, when you license Unreal Engine 3 you get access to our development server where we do all of our source control. So you can see everything that we put into this server. It's completely transparent to licensees.
What we do then is, and I'm guessing here as I'm not directly involved with this, but about once a month we'll put a build through quality assurance testing. This is then an approved build, or a "blessed" build as we call them. We advise our licensees that they might find a specific bug fix on our development server, but if you want something that's gone through testing you have to wait and use a "blessed" build.
How long before you no longer need Sony's help optimising the engine for the PS3?
Sony's helping everyone optimise their code. The one guy that came to us from Sony worked on our stuff for a couple of days then went to work at another publisher's stuff for a few days. Then another. That's the thing, console platform holders generally provide lots of assistance to lots of developers. They have whole teams of programmers and specialists who go around and help everybody do these kinds of things. This isn't abnormal.
But Unreal Engine in particular has had some trouble recently from Silicon Knights saying that they received incomplete versions of the code.
I can't comment about any of that, but I can tell you how we're doing with our PS3 development of Unreal Tournament 3. We've got it running quite well now on the system. We showed it at E3 last week, did you get a chance to play it?
I didn't go to E3..
Oh, that's too bad. It runs beautifully. Performance is good. It's a good sign, but we're certainly not done optimising it. We always stated that a year after the console launched we'd ship a game. That's what we did for the Xbox 360, we shipped Gears of War. The point at which we release it is the point at which it passes the "this kicks ass" bar, if you will. It will be no different with PS3. A year after the platform ships, we'll have released Unreal Tournament 3 and it will have crossed the "this kicks ass" bar and all of our licensees can benefit from that.
If people are trying to ship their games ahead of us then yeah, they'll have to do some of those optimisation steps on their own, or wait for us. That's just the way it works. It's always worked that way. It took us a year after Xbox 360 and here we are less than a year after PlayStation 3 and I'd say that today Unreal Tournament 3 runs better on PS3 than Gears did on Xbox 360 at the same point in its development. So, that bodes well for how well the engine will run on PS3 as we're already ahead of where I thought we'd be in terms of optimisations.
And how well will it run? Any word on a resolution or framerate?
You'll have to ask the people who came and played it at E3. IGN gave it runner up for "best PlayStation 3 shooter" and they played it, so they must have thought it was pretty darn good.
But no-one has been able to pin down an exact resolution or frame rate from you guys.
720p resolution, which is what we planned to do, and it was running at least 30fps when I last saw it.
Are you planning anything for PlayStation Home?
Oh yeah. We'll definitely do an environment in Home, no question. We'll let you go into Home and enter the game, like Phil Harrison showed at E3.
Okay. On to mods, which will play a big part in the PlayStation 3 version. Will the PS3 support total conversion mods?
Yes. Anything you can put in a level. "Level" is a little deceiving now because, with the streaming system that we have, a level isn't just one map anymore. But anything you can put in there, which includes maps, models, Unreal Kismet scripts, Unreal Script, textures, shaders, matinee instructions. Anything that we can do, you can do.
Will the editor be available for download for people who buy the PS3 version, so that they don't have to buy both versions if they want to create content?
I doubt it. The editor is one of the selling points of the PC version. PS3 owners will need to buy the PC version as well, if they want to make mods. Not if they want to play mods. But, they would anyway because that's where the content is. Are we going to release the whole game for free? You need it for the content. Well, you don't need it if you're going to make 100% new content, but no mod does that.
You need access to our scripts, access to our library. Most people will still use our static meshes and our textures to populate their map. They're going to grab our trees, not make their own. Just a blank editor wouldn't be a good start for making a mod.
Do you not see that as a bit harsh? You're asking PS3 users who want to create content for the PS3 to buy two versions of the game.
Well, they have to make it on a PC anyway. How else are they going to do it?
Will you not lose out on PS3 sales, or 360 sales in the long run, because of that?
No, I don't think so. It just makes sense. People who create content have to buy a modelling package if they want to create models. They have to buy a Photoshop equivilent if they want to make textures. They have to buy audio recording software if they want to edit audio. Or video editing software if they want to edit video on a PC.
But if you want to edit a video on a PC and then play it on a PS3, you simply have to convert it. You don't have to buy the software again for the PS3. If you can see where I'm coming from.
Not really. It's not like our game is $500. Our game is not the cost of 3D Studio Max or Photoshop.
Are mods going to be gimped on the 360 due to the closed nature of Xbox Live?
We have no idea what we're going to do yet on 360.
So there may not even be mods on the 360?
We don't know. We're talking to Microsoft and still trying to figure that out. Worst case scenario would be Epic bringing popular mods onto the 360 and putting them through the certification process. Because that's the way it works today. Or selling them in Marketplace, or convincing Microsoft to let us give some away for free. That's the worst case scenario. Hopefully it will be better than that, but we know nothing yet about how that's going to work and that's why we're totally concentrating on the PS3 right now, in terms of consoles.
Will mods on the PS3 be checked or monitored?
No. It's user created content. We don't check mods today on PC, why would we check them in the future? I mean, we check them out if we hear "here's this awesome mod" or they are entered in our contest. We had a big million dollar nVidia "Make something Unreal" mod contest so all those mods were checked because they were submitted to the contest. Somebody had to judge them and decide which ones the rest of the judges should check out and things of that nature. But there's no way to check every single mod that's placed out on the internet.
People have suggested that they would like to see some sort of Web 2.0 mod ranking system. Especially for the PS3, because it's console based so you won't have to scour the internet looking for them, they'll all be in one place, presumably.
Yeah, there's no question. We'll have to work with some partners to help identify what the best mods are. That's part of the reason we will do another contest. Because it comes to light through the contest that there are some mods that you really need to play because it won this phase or came second or third. There are lots sites out there where you can put up your own mod and have it ranked. The PlayStation 3 has a web browser so it's easy to do that.
But what about a LittleBigPlanet style system so that people can create levels, put it up, have others download it and rank it. All within the game itself. Would that be possible?
I have no idea. It's a good idea. I like it. I don't know if we would be able to get around to it before we ship.
Would it be possible to implement something like that after release as a patch or upgrade?
Oh, sure. Unreal Tournament is one of the most supported games in the history of supported games. We've demonstrated that over and over again and we've maintained some versions for well over a year. We don't have an exact plan with what we're going to do after we've shipped the game, but history shows that we will do stuff with it. We do mods and bonus packs and add functionality and we listen to the fans to try to do what makes the most sense.
But that is a good idea. We will definitely have that for the contest, so as long as a mod is submitted to the contest there will be a site with user votes regarding what's good and what's not good. We had that for the last contest three years ago. We didn't use them in the judging, but they were available for ranking.
So how long do you think it will be after Unreal Tournament 3 ships that we will start seeing Halo mods for the PS3?
Master Chief on the PS3, just because.
[Laughs] Well technically that's prohibited by our EULA. Technically you're supposed to have permission for any IP that's not your own. I imagine we will have a way to turn off IP infringers, because that's bad. Microsoft might come after us, even though it's not our doing. However, we had a Star Wars entry in our last mod contest and we told them "you need permission from Lucasarts to do this."
Well Lucasarts gave them permission. What they said was that any money that was won should be donated to charity, but if they win computers, which were big parts of the prizes, they were allowed to keep them. We thought that was fantastic. I was very impressed. So, you never know. Maybe Microsoft will do the same thing. It's not our decision
What about if a mod is made for satire or parody? You know, the loopholes.
We're not the content police any more than Youtube can do that. I'm sure that if we get objectionable content then we'll do our best to take it down, if we can. To be honest, though, we've never had problems with that. Of the 1800 entries submitted to the last contest I don't think we had any IP issues. There's certainly the idea of paying homage to something you love and fans want to do that sort of thing, but I don't recall it being an issue. I don't recall having it being an issue with pornographic content either. That's not to say it doesn't happen, but I don't remember seeing that being a problem in the past.
I think the guys who are serious about making the mods want to eventually have careers in the industry. They want to show that they can make retail quality content, so doing silly things like that is not going to help them.
Is there anything concrete on PS3 to PC cross-play?
Nothing concrete. We're looking into it. I think we'd like to have it, but there are a couple of problems. We were talking about supporting and doing updates and adding the functionality earlier, right? Well, on the PC, we can come up with an idea on Monday and release it on Monday night. Assuming we code it in time. On the console, you don't have that luxury. They want to put everything through certification, so if we want to make a change to add new functionality or fix a bug then we have to go through the process. The process is complicated enough and difficult enough so that it's not something you want to go through every three days.
So you want to stack up all your fixes, updates and add ons and release them a couple of times a year. Not a couple of times a month. So the problem is, if we decide to do something that changed compatability then it would be very difficult for us to co-ordinate the two updates to happen at the same time. That's one potential concern. There are other concerns as well. We want to make the best experience for our audience. You used the word "gimped" earlier, right? We don't want our PC guys to think we gimped UT3 and made it slower because it's harder to play it on a controller when the game is moving at super lightning speed.
Likewise, we don't want our PS3 users to think they're getting a twitchy mouse and keyboard game because we didn't want to slow down the PC version. Consequently, the game runs at slightly different rates. Playing the game on the controller is a little different from playing on a keyboard and mouse. So, if we allow cross platform play then what do we do? Speed it up on PS3 or slow it down on PC? I'm not talking framerate, but rather the movement speed of characters and vehicles and turning responses. There are some things you can do easily with the buttons on the controller that you can't do with keyboard and mouse. So how do we handicap it to make it fair?
So we don't know. We'll probably try it. Technically, today it works. But that's in the lab where we can change it every three minutes. But the other question is, do the users really want it? I'm not so sure. I haven't seen any great demand for it. There's no question that users do not want us to - your word- "gimp" the game to have that feature. The real benefit of the cross platform strategy is the mods. There is huge benefit there. The other benefit is being able to use your PC as a server. That's another huge benefit and we're definitely having that.
Using a PC as a server for PS3 games?
Yes. Absolutely. There's no question that that's something that people want and which we want. We want to be able to tell our publisher "hey, we want you to go out and host a hundred servers for the PS3" so that there are loads of high bandwidth dedicated servers on day one. So they'll go to a hosting service which has racks and racks of Linux boxes and they'll host the servers and they'll click the box which says "advertise to PS3." For sure, that's a benefit. People also ask us whether we'll support keyboard and mouse on PS3.
I was just about to ask that very question.
We might already, I don't know. Actually, I've never asked our engineers the question. [Laughs] There's no reason why we couldn't, except for the problems I mentioned earlier. Is that fair to the people who won't be playing with keyboard and mouse?
What about some sort of manual calibration in the options menu which allows you to set the game up for either a controller or keyboard and mouse?
I don't know. The other problem is, you have to look at what options are worth delaying the game for. We want to ship the game as soon before Christmas as possible. So an option like that isn't very high on our list of priorities. I'd be interested to see if people really wanted it or not.
Do you see yourselves releasing a lot of updates like that? Not necessarily gameplay updates, but options and expanded interface functionality?
We have in the past. I wouldn't say "a lot", but we've definitely added options to the game in the past. It wouldn't be unusual for us.
What's the maximum number of people that can play together at once?
I don't think we've actually decided that yet. I'd be careful not to say a number.
What about a safe number? A minimum.
Oh, safe? Fifteen. Sixteen. I think we're aiming for twenty. I play it all the time with eight bots and it's great, so I don't see any reason why we couldn't do a lot more than that.
Will that change with dedicated PC servers?
We'll have separate setting for dedicated servers. Different maximums. There's no question that with dedicated servers you can support more people. The biggest thing people don't realise is that most people use cable or DSL modems and have very throttled outgoing bandwidth. Outgoing bandwidth is the biggest limiter. Many times when you play an online game and someone is hosting it out of their home, people complain that they're really lagged because their outgoing bandwidth is maxed out.
You see people on UT2004 setting up huge 32 person servers hosted out of their home, that won't work very well. Unless you have a very good internet connection, which varies wildly. Nothing to do with us, we don't own the internet. [Laughs] That's why we're putting so much stock in dedicated PC servers for PS3 games. Not just PC, but Mac and Linux as well.
Will the release date be simultaneous for Europe and America?
Yeah. No reason to be any different. We're shooting for November, but we don't have a specific date yet.
Do you have anything to say about rumours that a game set in the Gears of War universe could be coming to PS3?
That's not going to happen, because Microsoft own the license to that series.
Will the extra content in Gears of War for the PC be ported over to the 360 at any point?
Probably not. The problem there is that the PC version was developed using a different version of Unreal Engine 3. A much later iteration, simply because it came later. The engine is constantly being improved, as I said. So the content just isn't compatible.
Any plans for games post-UT3?
Once we've finished supporting Unreal Tournament 3 we'll start working on something else. What that will be, we don't know yet.
Thanks very much for your time.