Ever since Unreal burst onto the scene over six years ago, Epic's technology has been at the forefront of gaming, providing the raw power for an increasing catalogue of games from its own Unreal series, then onto titles as diverse as Splinter Cell, XIII and even Harry Potter titles. Now onto the third generation (screenshots), Epic has been touring the globe over the last three months with its latest creation to offer a glimpse of what's to come in future generations of PC and next generation console titles. As part of a three-day stopover in London, Epic's main men Mark Rein (Vice President, the self-confessed business head of company), Tim Sweeney (programmer and founder), and Alan Willard (level designer) spoke to Eurogamer about how the technology is shaping up, their plans for an all-new non-Unreal-related title and the kind of horsepower gamers will require for their next-gen gaming.
Eurogamer: First of all, at what stage of completion is the Unreal 3 (engine) at the moment?
Tim Sweeney: Unreal 3 engine has been in development for [over] 18 months now. It's come a very long way - we've been developing next generation content with it very seriously for our next game for about six months. It's the tools that have come together. A handful of development teams are actually using Unreal Engine 3 for early development work and pre-production for their next games. But the first Unreal 3 engine game is planned for early 2006. There's a combination of next generation PC games and next generation console games in the works. The engine is in a state now where a team can start putting an early development team of 10 to 15 people on a project with the engine, ramping up to a full size team of 30 to 50 people over the next few months.
Eurogamer: Has anyone else confirmed projects using Unreal engine 3?
Mark Rein: No, not yet. No one's announced a single game using Unreal 3, not even us, in fact! So many of the developers using the next generation of technology are focused on next generation consoles, and of course those haven't even been announced, so I don't think you'll see product announcements for another four or five months.
Eurogamer: So, you're saying you're hoping to release early 2006?
Tim Sweeney: The first Unreal 3 engine games will begin shipping then.
Mark Rein: We don't put any restrictions on our licensees. If someone wants to ship a game for fall 2005, that's perfectly possible. We're just talking about our game, right, when we think we'll ship.
Eurogamer: You think you'll ship in early 2006?
Mark Rein: Yeah. Sometime in 2006.
Eurogamer: Will you ship on PC or next gen consoles?
Mark Rein: We don't know what platform we'll ship on first time, it's too early to say. The first game Epic is creating with this technology isn't in the Unreal franchise at all, so it's a little confusing, but this is Unreal Engine 3, the third generation Unreal engine. We have no current plans for Unreal 3, but eventually we'll do one. For sure we'll do another Unreal Tournament game, and we'll do it with this technology, but the big game we're making right now is a single-player-focused game in a totally new franchise, but it'll be a while before we can talk about it.
Eurogamer: How flexible is the Unreal 3 engine?
Mark Rein: I would say the third generation Unreal engine is even more wide open. You could make an RTS, an action adventure, first person shooter, third person shooter. Now we have the general purpose shaders system that you can pretty much not just stylise the materials on people, on characters and objects, but you can actually stylise the whole look and feel of the game very easily. You can easily make a gritty Film Noir feeling, or something that's really bright and colourful or cel shaded with not a lot of extra work.
Eurogamer: What benefits does this relationship with Nvidia bring to the project?
Mark Rein: The best benefit is we now have a card [the 6800] that can run this in real time and do Pixel Shader 3, which is a key component of what we're doing. It's pretty good that Nvidia's come along and is pushing this technology hard. We've had a long relationship with Nvidia and they've done a great job of keeping us on our toes and giving us new powerful toys to play with.
Eurogamer: We're always being told that this relationship doesn't involve any money changing hands, so what's the incentive?
Mark Rein: Nvidia's 'The Way It's Meant To Be Played' programme is basically a quality seal for customers to say if I own an Nvidia card - which the majority of gamers do - and I buy this game it's going to work and when Nvidia releases a new driver they probably would have tested it against it to make sure it still works, and that's really important for us, because it means that when our game shows up on people's screens, regardless of what Nvidia card they have, the best possible way it could run on that card - because they're not all equal in performance. And it also means that it's fewer support calls for our publisher, fewer returns at retail, so it's a very powerful thing that they do. The other thing they do is go and market games, they run ads for games because it's a shared interest - they want to get more people into playing games, and we want to get more people into playing games. The more people that play games the more chance we have to sell games. It's a really fantastic programme - they've been an absolute leader in that area.
Eurogamer: The owners of other cards will be asking what compromises will there be for their cards?
Mark Rein: None. It's not about making the game not run well on other cards. We'd be totally stupid to not run well on ATI cards. There are a large percentage of people who have those cards. We even have a software renderer in our Unreal 2 engine, so we can run on a 2D card! We'd be stupid to deliver a bad experience. We want to make the game run the best it can on every customer's system - that's our absolute goal, and not doing that doesn't help Nvidia any more than it doesn't help us, so that's something we always strive to do. We even run on Linux, we run on Mac. We work really hard to have the largest audience of gamers we can possibly have.
Eurogamer: What system would you have to build or buy to makes sure there are no compromises in an Unreal Engine 3 game?
Mark Rein: This is pretty much it, what we're running here. A really fast high end processor, either Intel or AMD, a GeForce 6800, half a gig to a gig of RAM would be good - pretty much a top of the line system right now. But by the time we ship games with this technology, that's going to be a relatively low-end machine. But the cool thing is, with Nvidia's SLI set-up, as we move into PCI express, even though that would technically, with a single one of those that might be at the relatively low end of the scale. You could just go out and - they'll be cheap by then - just go out and buy another one of these same GT cards and plop it in, connect them together and you've doubled your performance; you've now moved up to the middle of the pack in terms of performance, so that's pretty exciting.
Eurogamer: At the low end of the scale, what's the minimum you would need?
Mark Rein: We're pretty much aiming that if you're a real gamer and you want decent performance of this engine, that's pretty much where we want you to start. It doesn't mean that the game won't run on things that are less than that - of course we'll have some fallbacks for the previous generation of video cards and systems that don't have all that power, but it'll be like playing in software today. It's okay and it works and you don't have to return the game but it's not the optimal experience. We believe in that term 'The Way It's Meant To Be Played' and we really want people to have a good experience.
That's... not all, folks. Check back tomorrow for the second part of the interview, in which Sweeney, Rein and Willard discuss massively multiplayer games, next-gen consoles, licensing issues, and how its new technology ranks alongside Id and Valve.