Unreal Tournament 3 And The New Lazarus Effect

By Alec Meer on March 16th, 2009 at 11:26 pm.

We probably should have talked more about what’s been going on with Unreal Tournament 3 over the last couple of weeks. Why didn’t we? Because it’s not a game any of us feel particularly strongly about one way or another, and from earlier comments it didn’t look like you lot did either. Having a famous name and being reasonably fun is no longer enough for a technically adept but fundamentally unambitious multiplayer shooter to grab the attention it once would have done.

Last weekend, that changed dramatically. Unreal Tournament is back, baby, back. And no matter how you or we or anyone else might personally feel about UT3, its unexpected resurgence may signal colossal change for PC games.

The popular perception is that UT3 bombed. Did it? Well, at first it certainly seemed as much – reportedly it shifted just 33,995 US copies during its first month on sale. Epic later claimed that it had shipped 1.2million copies worldwide in four months, but that includes the US PS3 release and, of course, ‘shipped’ and ‘sold’ are far from the same. While there was probably a good deal of exaggeration from both sides of the debate, certainly the half-decade old Unreal Tournament 2004 continued to enjoy a visibly larger regular playerbase than its higher-tech sequel.

Now, traditionally it’s the case that when a multiplayer game stumbles, it doesn’t get back up again. UT3 seemed destined to go gently into that good night, save for the occasional antagonistic comment about PC gaming from Cliffy “Cliffy B” B and Mark Rein. And yet, as we coast into the Spring of 2009, a game released in 2007 is suddenly the talk of town all over again. On the weekend before last, its players jumped by some 2000%.

The key to it all was taking a leaf out of Valve’s book. There may not be such a thing as a free lunch, but that truism doesn’t mean hungry folk won’t turn up in droves if you stick up a poster promising complimentary punch and pie. The Team Fortress 2 free weekends, many timed to coincide with major updates, drew hordes of players who were delighted to get something for nothing. Come the end of each weekend, a fair few were charmed enough to splash out for a permanent copy of the game.

Epic have done exactly that with UT3, releasing a major patch (complete with new maps and modes as well as more fundamental changes based on player feedback) then offering it free via Steam to all comers for a long weekend. Once the first free weekend was over, its 2000% extra players didn’t all disappear – the game (heavily discounted) jumped straight to the top of Steam’s bestseller list. It did so well that there’s just been another free weekend, though observers reckon that’s partially by way of apology to the people who, as a result of higher-than-anticipated interest, couldn’t download the game first time around. Who knows if it’ll truly reverse UT3’s long-term fortunes, but it’s almost definitely earned a big pile of money from a game we all thought had died in the water a year ago.

It’s an incredible precedent to set: making a game a success almost 18 months after a poor launch. It’s something that could only have happened now, and with a system like Steam. Something that can go far beyond a mere demo by delivering a complete game straight to your hard drive and automatically deactivating it at the distributor’s discretion. Something that silently updates a purchase with patches and extra content automatically, so you don’t have to make the decision to seek out some exciting new feature: it’s just there anyway. Something that, if you don’t already own it, advertises that game to you at an agreeably reduced price whenever it loads. Something that enjoys a vast community who are in turn plugged into a sea of smaller relevant communities.

It’s incredibly sinister. It’s also incredibly exciting. UT3 may never be a cult classic – or indeed any sort of classic – but it’s no longer a failure. Think about what this could mean for other, better future games in similar danger of being lost to uncaring history. There is now a mechanism to save them: if something with as negative a reputation as UT3 can come back from the dead, surely anything can. The next Planescape: Torment or Beyond Good & Evil will be less of a risk, less of a tragedy waiting to happen. It’s not Steam or Impulse specifically as much as it is game distributors finally realising how to leverage the internet, and that a game doesn’t stop existing once its initial print run disappears from store shelves. Game retail and traditional advertising alike have never seemed such dinosaurs.

I mean, really. How any other platform could possibly think it can rival PC gaming’s staggeringly vast, fast-evolving, hyper-connected community in the long-term is beyond me.

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110 Comments »

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  1. gulag says:

    RARRGH! Internet Game Gods From The Future Ate My Pre-Historic Business Model!!!

    Stomp stomp stomp.

  2. Robin says:

    It will be interesting to see if this is sustainable, and if the game has turned a profit. (I knew it had done badly at launch, but 33,000 – yee-owch.)

    If so, I can think of some other PC games that could do with having a few thousand volts put up them. ETQW for starters.

  3. rocketman71 says:

    UT3 may be better now (don’t ask me, I wouldn’t know), but Cliffy and Mark are still dicks, and my wallet is closed for them.

    I’ll download the patch. But I still won’t be forgiving them after I paid full price for the consolized POS that they gave us to start with. They have much to atone for.

  4. apnea says:

    As long as there still is that vast… community on the PC, that is, we’re not all segmented in monopolistic, hardware-locked markets, yes of course Glory is Us.

    But then, I think that is one more reason to react strongly against unifying initiatives à la PCGA and WLive. In a better world, PC gaming would be just that: PC, not strictly Windows.

  5. Gap Gen says:

    According to the BBC, a New Era has been predicted for the gaming industry. Apparently, “every day millions of people play a video game without switching on a games console” such as the “Play Station”, “Box of ‘X’es” and “Nintendo thingy with the tennis game”. Apparently, people may even play “casual games” on some kind of “personal computer”. (link)

    Personally, I think it’s witchcraft.

  6. Dave Gates says:

    I bought UT3 when it was first released and to be honest I wasn’t impressed. It seemed tired and uninspired, a drop in price may do something to improve that but I think removing poor plot and dialogue and spending more time making something a little more orginal would be far more profitable. Oh, how wonderful and revelutionary the orginal was.

  7. FernandoDANTE says:

    I still didn’t care for it. UT3 has no heart, if you know what I mean. The first UT had a heard – as did UT 2004.

  8. Erlam says:

    Is anyone else having a problem where the BSOD whenever they try to boot the game?

    I surpass the ‘recommended’ specs (in most cases, by far), and this game has managed to be the only one I’ve ever played to BSOD me on XP64bit. Ever. And it does it every time.

  9. Fat says:

    I really enjoyed the demo, but i think i was too busy playing other things at the time of it’s release. I tried it again this weekend on Steam (the free trial thang) and i have to say i was bored after 15 minutes.

    Whatever drew me in to the demo wasn’t there anymore. I think it was just too bangbang fragfesty. I mean, i did really enjoy the demo and almost bought the game back at original release… but i’ve always been more of a Op Flashpoint kinda guy. Spacebar respawn battles in close quarters kinda bore me. Give me a long range rifle and a lot of grass/trees to hide in any day. Fun fun.

  10. Hunam says:

    I downloaded all the updates, ran it through and as far as I could tell, all that’s changed is there are new gimmick heavy maps that seem to be the core of Epics multiplayer design lately. Stopped playing it after a couple of hours and haven’t returned since.

    It’s just a case of a bad game with a big name that had a clever marketing push. I bet World of Goo did great with it’s weekend sale too.

  11. ArtyArt says:

    Finally a reason to play that thing! The singleplayer campaign is a sad joke and you were extremely lucky if you could get a multiplayer game with 4 people going… so now, at least multiplayer plays like it should. And it’s reasonably entertaining. I feel like somebody just gave me a free, shiny (all that bloom! my eyes! hurgh!) new game. If I ignore the fact that I spent money on it ages ago, that is. Still, I’ll be returning to the original UT before too long, because, yes, UT3 has no heart.

  12. Tom Camfield says:

    If PC hardware evolves, coolio, but if not, what a drab future for the world; sat behind a desk, curled over a keyboard and mouse.

  13. Down Rodeo says:

    I bought it for the money off and would call it a good catch. It’s scratched the itch left by faster-paced shootygames quite well. A bit disappointing that some things were so similar (to previous incarnations). Though it’s nicely presented and the new gamemodes are a laff.

  14. Ben Abraham says:

    This is why I read RPS.

  15. mandrill says:

    I hope Mr ‘B’ and Mark Rein are man enough to eat their words after this and realise that PC gamers aren’t all oneyed, peg-legged nere-do-wells. We will pay for games, but don’t expect to compete at anywhere near the same price point as the consoles when there is so much good gaming to be had for nothing or close to it.

    @ Rocketman71 I think Epic have done a good thing here and will gladly pay £8ish quid to persuade them to keep doing it. The bottom line is all that ‘B’ and Rein understand and if they see that there is money to be made releasing this way on the PC then they’ll do it. I personally don’t care much for their attitude either but they have made some cracking games in their time and I’d like them to do it again.

  16. BJ Blazkowicz says:

    Well worded and true. Good article.

  17. Tomo says:

    Nice article. I was mildly tempted by the recent UT3 offers but declined mainly because my PC is too gash. Good to see this work though.

  18. Rich_P says:

    I bought the Unreal Deal pack during Steam’s holiday sale and discovered, to my disappointment, that my favorite UT2k4 servers from early 2007 were dead. (I somehow misplaced my original discs.) UT3 never interested me, but I finally installed it to check out the update. My first reaction: it’s UT2k4 with a crappy art direction and clumsy interface.

    The Big Picture, as Alec eloquently pointed out, is that digital distribution is fundamentally changing how games are sold, marketed, and played. If you follow Valve’s strategy of frequent updates and generous sales, your game will stay relevant for years instead of months; the days of shipping a $50 game and forgetting about it should end. Now if only digital prices would come down across the board. How come buying a new game from eBay and shipping it 1500 miles is cheaper than buying it from Steam? (Example: CoD4 for $22 vs $50 on Steam.) I want to support the industry by buying digitally, but not if it will cost me an extra $28. Apologies to European Steam users; in comparison, I’ve got nothing to whine about.

  19. Oak says:

    I love the art direction, but it seems counterintuitive to use it in a game like this. It could do with more color, too.

  20. Po0py says:

    I’ve held on to the original retail ut3 and activated it on steam when they announced that retail cd-keys could be used to download the entire game (saving me the effort of opening a jewel case; thanks, Gabe).

    I was kinda dissapointed at UT3 when it came out because it felt like a console port with all its cumbersome menu systems and what have you. The game itself was solid but ever since Onlaught/Warfare you got the impression that the game just didn’t know what the fuck it wanted to be anymore. I was always a hardened DeathMatch guy who dabbled a little in CTF and of course some InstaGib. That’s pure UT right there. DM, CTF and InstaGib. But all these new kids jump streight into Warfare and find a kind of unbalanced, unfocused, chaotic mess of too much vehicles and shite to learn and oh my head hurts and then they think: “Is this it?” And then they leave.

    It seams standard ol’ Deathmatch just isn’t the cool thing anymore. People don’t know what they are missing.

  21. Rob says:

    Well, I realise I’m in the minority here but I loved UT3, having loved UT (over Q3) and having been indifferent to UT2K3/4. I accept that what Alec posits is true – it’s not a classic – but to my mind at least it does what it does very well.

  22. Y3k-Bug says:

    What a great article. Kudos.

    A question Alec:

    I mean, really. How any other platform could possibly think it can rival PC gaming’s staggeringly vast, fast-evolving, hyper-connected community in the long-term is beyond me.

    Why do you feel that way? That staggeringly vast, fast-evolving, hyper-connected community can be boiled down to one word in this example: Steam. Otherwise known as a single, unified platform. If the xbox 360 can muster up a fast and easy payment system (which they may or may not have, I don’t own one), why couldn’t Microsoft do the same exact thing themselves? They are a unified platform as well.

  23. FernandoDANTE says:

    ^^ Have you seen Games For Windows Live? It’s like hell’s version of Steam. No, Microsoft can’t get their shit straight – at least not as well as Valve.

  24. Po0py says:

    On further thinkage: Ever since they introduced Onslaught/Warfare and all the vehicles that came along with it, UT has just felt like a big ol’ advertisement for Epics shiney new warfare engines.

    I’m in the same boat as what Mandrill says; some of the things Mark Rein and the Cliffster has said about PC gamers are fucking unforgivable. They really do know how to bite the hand that feeds them, it seems.

  25. Kunal says:

    At a smaller scale, services like MochiAds’ version control allow the same sort of thing for a flash game. In fact, the flash swf could be present on multiple websites and each time it gets played the game is updated to the latest version.

  26. 357SIG says:

    @Oak
    Try turning your post processing down to muted. I’m serious, it seems completely stupid but if you turn it to muted it gets rid of a lot of those colour sapping fullscreen effects and saves you a few frames (if you’re stuck with a dinosaur of a processor like mine)

  27. runcrash says:

    @FernandoDANTE
    I’ve used Games for Windows Live. You can’t use anything except the Marketplace outside of a game (so no messaging your friends to start up a game, I guess you’ll just have to use Steam for that) and the only thing to buy on the Marketplace I could see was the Fallout 3 DLC which RPS has already written about and the problems with Microsoft’s funny money. If they had followed through with the promise of Live Anywhere and I could be playing Co-Op L4D and Call of Duty with my friends on their 360s they really could have had something special. But they killed it with the Gold service and lack of features. You can however send an offline message to your friends which I don’t see you can do in Steam.

    On another note it’s interesting to see how Valve and Epic are experimenting with online pricing in a totally different way than other publishers are on the consoles. Instead of cutting stuff out of the shipping game and selling it back to us later as DLC, they are periodically releasing expansion packs, slashing the prices on their games, and achieving bigger sales numbers that they did their all-important first week in the retail channel.

  28. WarFalci says:

    I bought UT3 as soon as I could (which wasn’t on launch thanks to Midway having poor representation here in Brasil), played through the campaign and did little effort into bot matching (I rarely ever play online).
    I guess my not playing it much has more to do with me; and my hundreds of legal games, quite a few awayting to be finished on my desktop; than the game itself. It feels like an improvement over UT99 gameplay wise, but I guess the visual part of it just feels a bit too much directed to 15 year olds…

    That said, I’d like a little more cohesive universe to the game too. Characters change appearance (Barktooth became Blacktooth, as an example) and teams from one version to another out of nowhere, popular characters just go missing and new ones rarely look that cool.

    I’m still waiting for official Malcolm, Xan and Brock in the game.

    That said, How come the game lags so much under Steam? I had little to no problem with it before!

  29. Brad Root says:

    This article is way off base. UT3 got a lot of impulse buys due to a free weekend and a low price. It’s not a sign that brainless deathmatch is back on the rise. UT was great in 1999 but in 2009 it’s way old news, no matter how you slice it. I wouldn’t expect it’s player count to last very long at all.

  30. Rich_P says:

    they are periodically releasing expansion packs, slashing the prices on their games, and achieving bigger sales numbers that they did their all-important first week in the retail channel.

    In a way, Ubisoft is doing that with WiC. The Gold Edition is $30 (the same price as the original) and it includes the new Soviet missions. WiC is now one of Steam’s top sellers.

    Interestingly, Valve announced that Steamworks now supports DLC; The Maw is the first game to take advantage of this new feature. Too bad this didn’t exist when Fallout 3 was released. Why even bother with GFWL and MS funny money now?

    @Brad: I agree, but $12 for a few weeks of mindless deathmatch isn’t that bad. So even if the game dies, most people would’ve got their money’s worth.

  31. Lord_Mordja says:

    Glad lots of people are playing it. I actually liked the demo but never bought it because I heard the servers were practically empty.

    More importantly, there are actually quite a few mods being developed for the game and it would be a shame if they don’t get played.

  32. MarvintheParanoidAndroid says:

    I don’t regret buying UT3, but this still isn’t enough to tempt me back. Playing it for a bit just made me yearn for UT2K4 again – as soon as I find the discs, I will probably re-install it. I do love what they’re doing though, and will probably check out what’s new whenever the Make Something Unreal contest finishes up and there’s tons of awesome mods to play.

  33. jackflash says:

    Steam’s sales decisively show that demand for pc (and, presumably, console) games is, indeed highly elastic. I would not pay $50 for UT3, a game that looks decidedly mediocre, but I’ll drop $11 on it. Even if I play it only a few times and then shelve it, $11 for some cheap novelty seems a fair bargain to me.

    Hopefully publishers will come to realize that, in modeling their financials, the first six weeks is not all that matters any more.

  34. Y3k-Bug says:

    FernandoDANTE says: Have you seen Games For Windows Live? It’s like hell’s version of Steam. No, Microsoft can’t get their shit straight – at least not as well as Valve.

    Great point, I got my first experience with GFWL in DoW2, and all I could say was… why? Why did Relic even bother going with that system? I would imagine its because Steam’s matchmaking system isn’t as robust as the GFWL one, as thats the ONLY reason I could see for using it.

    That said, I was referring to the 360 implementation, which is really quite good. My point was, why is the PC being heralded for this, when the 360 could do the same if MS so chose to.

  35. Alaric says:

    I bought DoW-II and upon trying to install it discovered that it requires online activation, Steam and Windows LIVE. Needless to say I was livid.

    I don’t expect anyone to agree with me here, but I subscribe to the idea that once purchased, a game is mine. I recognize that Steam is convenient, but I think I should be able to play my game when I want to. Yes, that includes playing it on a computer with no Internet connection. I fail to see how this scheme is any better that StarForce or SecuROM.

    To make a long story short, could some proponent of Steam and similar services, please explain to me why I should be denied access to a piece of software I bought when my connection is down. Or non existent. Or more importantly when Steam ends it’s service.

    And if someone here thinks that Valve and Steam are forever… well… ah nevermind.

  36. Rich_P says:

    You bring up valid points, Alaric. Impulse and Gamersgate don’t require active internet connections or background clients, but both need to up their game if they want to seriously compete with Steam. (Gamersgate’s website, for example, is atrocious and amateur.)

    Steam’s been absolutely wonderful for me thus far, but I treat it as a rental service. Every game in my account was purchased during a sale, with the exception of The Orange Box, because I refuse to pay full price for games I don’t own and can’t resell.

    Uncompetitive pricing and a crappy offline mode are Steam’s biggest flaws; the former is partially rectified by generous weekend and holiday sales.

  37. TheSombreroKid says:

    @Alaric Valve have said that if they go down they will patch the service to work without them.

    it is anoying that you have to plan yor disconnection, especially as thier seems to be no consequence to having 300 offline accounts, anyway, what is this planned disconnection shit helping.

  38. Pantsman says:

    @Alariac: It’s called Offline Mode. Learn it. Use it.

    And it’s better than Starforce and SecuROM because it poses no risk to your computer’s stability or functionality.

  39. Urre says:

    Didn’t them developer peoples do something like this with that Witcher game? As in, a sort of relaunch due to not so great success.

  40. Optimaximal says:

    There’s one problem with this whole UT3 shebang – GOG is carrying UT2004 ECE for essentially the same price and it’s a better game.

  41. Optimaximal says:

    It’s also worth noting that UT3 was the first developed without any input from Digital Extremes – no matter how horrendously awful Pariah was, is it pretty clear that they were the creative force behind the earlier games rather than Epic’s ‘Beefcakes in Power Armour’ model.

  42. Optimaximal says:

    gah, third post… Bring back a ‘convenient edit function’!

    Didn’t them developer peoples do something like this with that Witcher game? As in, a sort of relaunch due to not so great success.

    They relaunched due to middling success that was marred by bugs – they fixed said bugs then pushed for a successful re-release.

  43. Urre says:

    The point being that they actually attempted and to some degree succeeded in reviving a game considered dead

  44. Turin Turambar says:

    So the lesson here is don’t release your game without polishing it first and release it at 15$ instead of 50$.

  45. Tei says:

    My theory:

    I make sense to re-launch titles. You sould ask why as not worked before. I think because new titles where visually better ( Bioshock more eyecandypowerfull than System Shock). But with today standards, the visuals are soo good now, that is hard to notice a giganteous enhancement on visuals. And… anyway, you can always re-pack your game with high-res textures and maybe even models. Hell… theres a High-Res Textures and Models proyect for Quake1 that has done that to Quake, and the result look gorgeous.

    My opinion:
    The Witcher as done that, has relaunch using his sucess to make the game avalaible to more people..

    My glass sphere:
    I think more games *may* do that. Has the doors are open. Anyway If this is done in digital download services, is plartically invisible and seamless. In some sense, all games on GOG are “relaunching”.

  46. Jon says:

    A game relaunch has another, massively important prerogative – it doesn’t have to match online prices to retail. Many retailers refuse to stock games that are undercut from retail price by online stores. Witness Gamestop arguing that it’s not afraid to compete with online distro – as long as the prices are matched –

    http://www.edge-online.com/features/gamestop-not-afraid-compete-with-publishers

    Steam sales, etc. let digital publishers undercut – by considerable margins, it seems, without worrying about real stores not stocking their products.

  47. ILR says:

    Stepping away from the particularities of Unreal Tournament for awhile, the more interesting thing in this article is Alec’s assertion that there just might be emerging a new business model that would benefit initially overlooked cult hits, such as the referenced Planescape:Torment or Beyond Good & Evil. The list could be continued with Grim Fandango, Lost Express, Citizen Kabuto and other such games. They are not too hard to think of as good candidates to multiply their sales via discount-priced digital distribution a year after release.

    How that model could be transferred to a game that doesn’t have a significant online component is beyond me, though. I mean in UT3’s case, the importance of a free weekend is huge while an eager player has no problem breezing by BG&E in that time. Good luck getting any money after that.

    So how to leverage the long tail? Would internet buzz be enough to boost Grim Fandango’s sales in Steam weekend discounts were it released this year? Does there need to be a free component for this to work?

  48. DMJ says:

    Steam super-sales are the best thing to come out of Steam so far. Money is tight at the moment, yet I’ve partaken of the gaming goodness which comes with this aggressive pricing policy.

    Although… Empire: Total War price in shop: £30. Price on Steam:£40. Given that they’re the same product, I get to spend an extra £10 for the publisher NOT having to ship me a physical medium with their bits on it? By Grabthar’s hammer, what a saving! I’ll walk to the shop instead and spend the difference on… um… lemonade. Yes. Lemonade.

  49. Blaxploitation Man says:

    I liked it. But then again I don’t have a hate-on for Cliffy B and Epic.

    LOL at the guys talking about it “having no heart”, the only reason UT99 seems so good is because you were 13 when you played it and wouldn’t be able to buy anything else for for a few months. UT2004 was lucky it had 2003 around to make it look good.

  50. Spiny says:

    I hadn’t played it for ages, but since the patch I’ve been having a blast. The new game modes are great. It’s good to see the return of Darkmatch (from Unreal 1 iirc), greed is a nice twist on CTF and Betrayal will be an absolute scream at out LAN party in the summer – the amount of backstabbing & resultant bleating will be pure gold :-D

    I think it also helps that probably more people have a graphics card which can run it well at high settings than when it came out too.

    There’s one thing that really needs fixing though and that’s hosting a game to play the co-op campaign. There’s a lot of faffing about required. Not just the usual port forwarding trickery but also needing to run a local STUN server unless you’re the 1% of people with a special sort of router. See here for details: http://www.lanpartyguide.com/ut3.html Have they not heard of UPNP?

    But at under 9 quid, you really can’t go wrong.