Mark Rein on next-gen and setting the record straight.
Mark Rein has been in the news more than he'd perhaps like lately. The Epic Games vice president is a man who likes to talk, and a man who's passionate about games - a combination which can sometimes get him into trouble.
First he was accused of saying next-generation games were all about graphics, then of slating Nintendo's "freestyle" Revolution controller. On both occasions, Rein says, his comments were taken out of context, and his meaning completely misinterpreted.
Now it's time to set the record straight, and explain exactly what he did mean by those comments. But this being Mark Rein we're talking to, that's not all he's got to say for himself. So before we address those stickier issues, let's start with an easy one: how's Gears of War coming along?
"Really well," says Rein. So well, he continues, that the results they're getting are better than expected when it comes to things like the game's AI system.
"We expected to spend more time on it than it actually took, and now the game has really fun AI, and it's really shaping up to be a great game," he continues.
Since it's all turning out so well, is there more likelihood of a PC port, as has been rumoured previously? Perhaps one day, says Rein, but right now all of Epic's efforts are focused on the Xbox 360 version.
"There's no effort whatsoever going into a user interface, or mouse control, or anything that we would need to one day ship a PC game, so it's hard to say.
"That's really Microsoft's decision - they're the publisher, they get to choose. If they want us to do that, great, but we certainly wouldn't even look at that until well after we've shipped the game."
Aha. Which will happen... When, exactly? Who knows, says Rein, explaining that they're still adopting a policy of "It's done when it's done."
"You know, we like the fact that we have the luxury of working on our games until they're done right. We said 2006, so we put a bit of a stick in the sand, but beyond that I'm not sure."
Keeping it unreal
Rein is keen to point out that just because Epic is working on an Xbox 360 game, it doesn't mean the company has forgotten its roots.
"We have a PC heritage and we're very much committed, for instance with Unreal Tournament, to making great PC games as well," he says, adding that it's a good time to be developing titles for both PC and consoles.
"There's a lot of parity right now between where the absolute top end of PCs are, and where the next-generation consoles are - especially with the multiple processors that we're seeing now in the consoles. You're getting a lot for your money with these next-generation systems, and it'll be a while before the average gamer PC surpasses them.
"Four years from now, when a PC has as many processors as an Xbox 360, the work we've done on Xbox 360 will pay off on the PC as well... That's something we didn't have in previous generations. So it's a good time to be doing both."
Rein confirms that Epic isn't just developing for the Xbox 360, either - "We're going to be doing a game for PlayStation 3, we just haven't come out and announced it yet. I think it's pretty clear people know we're going to be doing Unreal Tournament."
It's unlikely we'll see an Epic game on a handheld in the near future, though - at least not one that's been produced in-house.
"We just don't have the technology that fits with those systems. We were tossing around the idea of Unreal Tournament battle game for PSP a while ago, and unfortunately we can't develop it because we just don't have the technology."
Talking 'bout the Revolution
So it's a no to handhelds, and a yes to PS3... But (deep breath) is there any chance of Epic ever making a Nintendo game? After all, at an IGN event recently Rein did suggest that the Revolution controller would inspire developers to produce "gimmicky, crappy, cheap, I-wish-I-hadn't-bought-it games"...
"I actually said Nintendo's going to make amazing games. I never really passed a judgement on the controller itself. I think the controller's cool!" Mark says.
"I wasn't bashing Nintendo, I wasn't bashing the controller, I was really just saying that a byproduct of having a device like this is that people are going to make games that possibly are just there because of the controller, as opposed to being great games of themselves, and I said it badly... I regret that."
There will be plenty of great titles that make use of the controller, too, Rein adds. "Nintendo and some of the best third parties are going to make amazing games for it."
We mention a recent interview Eurogamer did with Nintendo's Jim Merrick, where we asked him what he thought of Rein's comments.
"You know, I read your article and I called him up right afterward," Rein says. "We had a long, very good chat."
So he wasn't, shall we say, a bit cross? "Didn't seem to be!"
And what about Merrick's suggestion that Rein get a Revolution dev kit for himself so he can see exactly what the machine can do?
"I told him we've absolutely love to take him up on that."
That doesn't mean Epic has signed up to develop for Revolution, but it's certainly something worth looking into, says Rein.
"I think Unreal Engine 3 and Nintendo Revolution would be very well suited to each other.
"We don't know right now what the machine's capable of or not capable of, and we've built Unreal Engine 3 to a certain specification. If the machine can run the engine, it'd be fantastic to have it on there."
Rein confirms that Unreal Engine 3 is Epic's most commercially successful engine to date, something which he believes is mainly down to the fact that it enables developers to create games faster and more cheaply.
"The main thing is productivity - we have a great pipeline on which to hang next-generation content. We have a great toolset - we have invested a lot of money in tools, a lot more than most independent developers would.
"We also have a great materials system for creating complex shaders and very cool special effects, and all that power is in the hands of the designers and not just in the hands of the programmers. We just have a lot of very good systems that make our artists a lot more productive than they were in previous engines."
When can we expect to see Unreal Engine 4, then? Rein tells us that he was showing a journalist round Epic's North Carolina headquarters recently, explaining how one of the options for new employees will be working on research projects into the next-generation of gaming.
"The guy said, "So would that be Unreal Engine 4?", and I said, "Yeah I guess it will be." So technically Unreal Engine 4 is in development, but it's for the next generation of machines, not even the ones coming out now."
And there's a lot of development work still to be done, Rein says. "Engines don't just show up overnight... Everything that's going on for the next-next-generation is all research, there's no graphics engine.
"The next-generation engine envisions a time when instead of two processors, we'll have 30 or 40. So that requires a completely new approach, and if we don't invest in research towards that now, then when those things come about we won't be ready."
Time to tackle our second hot potato: Rein's statement that next-generation games are "totally about graphics". It's a question of context, Rein begins.
"People think I said the most important thing in games is graphics, and that's not what I meant to say.
"What I meant to say was the most significant improvement we get, the best new thing about the next-generation systems, in my opinion, is the graphics. And that's a hardware discusssion - not a game discussion."
"I said it badly," Rein concedes, "But that's my feeling. And that doesn't always mean the prettiest pictures. People are always saying, "Well, what about GTA then? It doesn't have pretty graphics."
"I'm like, "Wait! GTA is a graphics landmark! They've rendered these huge, amazing cities, with tons of people in them and tons of vehicles and tons of animation and lots of things going on in one place - that is an amazing use of graphics."
Rein points out that what Rockstar achieved with the Grand Theft Auto games on PS2 couldn't have been achieved if they were developing for PlayStation 1, and that it was only possible due to a huge leap forward in graphics technology.
"We're getting another giant leap in graphics - probably even a larger leap - with this [next] generation," Rein states, adding that the significance of this is that great graphics means better physics, which means the player becomes more immersed in the game. It's not all about "pretty pictures", he says.
"I can foresee someone making a really fun game with 50,000 boxes on the screen that you move around as a puzzle, or that you move round using some kind of physics device.
"That doesn't mean that we're just talking about beautiful graphics, but the ability to use the graphics to do new things."
Hot potatoes, Unreal Engine 4 and the future of Epic dealt with, we nurse our blistering hands and finish off the interview with a brief chat about Rein's favourite game of all time (Unreal Tournament, he says, but only because Gears of War isn't out yet) and which next-gen titles he's most looking forward to (apart from Unreal Tournament PS3 and Gears of War). For your information, the Rein family is likely to be gathered round a big screen TV enjoying four-player splitscreen Call of Duty 2 this Christmas.
There's just time for one more cheeky question (he'll never give us a straight answer, but what the heck): which is the better console, the PS3 or the Xbox 360?
"Which ever one sells the most," Rein says, laughing. As for which one that might be...
"Your guess is as good as mine."