How The Community Is Building Unreal Tournament

Unreal Tournament [official site] represents a new and interesting way of developing games. Beyond the Early Access periods now common on Steam or the mostly-advertising open betas used for every major multiplayer game, UT is fully free and developed by its community. Thanks to Unreal Engine 4’s availability, it already has an editing suite that rivals the best, despite not having left pre-Alpha. This means that what would usually be mods put out many months after release are an integral part of the development process, shaping the core game. I spoke to Lead Developer Steve Polge about the influence of the community on development.

The pure amount of stuff the UT community puts out despite its relatively small size and youth is impressive. Every week a developer livestream highlights some new piece of art, weapon model, map, gun design or idea for how movement should function. Diving onto the official site and forums I found even more, including the images peppering this article that come from a particularly lovely set of screenshots by Viktor V, who goes by the handle Polyneutron. I asked Steve whether, when Epic started the project, they thought they would get this sort of response:

We had never done anything like this before, so while we knew Unreal Tournament had a passionate community of fans, we weren’t sure how much community involvement in the development of the new UT we would get. We’ve been very pleased with the level and quality of contributions in every area, and now that UE4 is freely available to everyone and the game is starting to take shape, we’re seeing even more contributions and involvement from the community. Its actually kind of overwhelming – it’s hard for us to keep up with everything the community is working on.

One particularly prolific producer, Gooba, has been hard at work creating concept art for weapons. I’m a fan of his Minigun work, particularly the third one here, a more sleek and futuristic style than we usually see for a bullet-spewer and matching with some of his other designs. However, his most well-received project has been the Rocket Launcher, which is now official and had animation and model work started on it. Once Epic’s in-house art team is finished with their current project, the Link Gun, they will start putting Gooba’s launcher into the game. These guns join the Flak Cannon, Shock Rifle and Enforcer as community created weapons, all three of which have first versions of their models in current builds.

Giving this much influence over to the community, including iconic elements like the design of the Flak Cannon and Shock Rifle, things that players will see thousands of times in the game, is risky. Is there a worry that mistakes will be made, or that their attempts will not match up with Epic’s vision for the game?

Our goal is to make a great Unreal Tournament game that is a great competitive shooter and appeals to a wide audience. While we can’t satisfy everyone’s individual ideas about what is right for UT, having a wide variety of perspectives is extremely valuable. We want to stay true to what is special about Unreal Tournament, but at the same time make a game that appeals to a broader audience than just the passionate fans that are currently engaged with us.

They are getting a broad range of designs: another contributor, Aberiu, had his concept for the Sniper Rifle accepted. It’s much sleeker than other guns used so far, with less cosmetic extras and flair, but clean blocks of colour and an aura of efficiency to it. Part of the strength of this open development platform and, to an extent, the Unreal Tournament universe and genre as a whole is that there is room for alternative designs. If someone feels that this Sniper Rifle doesn’t aesthetically match with other guns, or wants to create their own set of armaments from their imaginary space-guns megacorp, they can. Skins such as this will be available through the already-running UE4 Marketplace either freely or at a small fee from which Epic will take a cut.

Of course, it isn’t just colour choices and inevitable hats that Epic is turning to the community for:

The community has had a lot of influence on the movement system and weapon functionality and balance, both through feedback and by prototyping and testing their own ideas. They’ve also helped us with our direction on performance, readability of gameplay, and how we support community created content on servers. Their contributions and feedback on level design, both in terms of competitive flow and innovative designs, have been invaluable.

That movement system Steve mentioned has gone through many iterations and arguments. It was the primary focal point for the game’s design given its massive influence over how weapons are balanced and maps are made, so naturally it was the first thing the community was asked about. They responded with waves of posts and suggestions, obsessing over even the tiniest minutia of jump distances and speeds. Some of the most significant work came from raxxy, who you may remember put together the free-to-download super-early builds, and another forum user, Sir_Brizz. Together they created a movement system prototyper that allowed anyone to easily test new values and possibilities without the then-paid-for Editor.

The pair’s own work with the tool created a framework that influenced the movement system as it exists now, in a nearly final state. They implemented an option to slide after falling, keeping some amount of momentum from a jump or dodge. It’s a brilliant addition, speeding up movement around a map and making it feel much more natural. A side effect causes there to now be a rudimentary form of wall-running, letting you stick to them for short periods. This specifically is something still being experimented with by the community, finding the sweet-spot of allowing for skill-based movement without wrecking map design.

That has always been one of the main worries. A very contentious early decision was to remove double jumping as it made maps more awkward to build, requiring needlessly complicated calculations on any gaps or vertical climbs. It also solved the issue of UT 2004’s ‘dodge-jump’ which could send players rocketing around at undesigned-for speeds and was faster than simply running in almost all circumstances. However, many saw this as taking away options from the player. It was the first argument to spike such a major reaction, but wouldn’t be the last as everything from Rocket Launcher alt-fire modes to damage values of AoE projectiles are discussed daily.

Developers do take part in these discussions, posting on the official forums quite regularly. You can read all of Steve’s posts here. He is not as talkative as Pete “YemYam” Hayes, a senior modeler who lives on the weapon forums. There he gives feedback on concepts and posts the threads of art he and Epic have decided to turn into official materials. Equally, many members of the team spend time in the official IRC channel, an unprecedented level of interaction for a big studio. I asked Steve if he was worried about the effect this might have on development – could too many disparate elements fail to gel into a cohesive game?

We love Unreal Tournament, and we don’t want to lose what we think makes it special. Most importantly though, we want to make a game that realizes this experience and makes it meaningful and compelling for a large number of players, both past Unreal Tournament fans and new players. Having a large community of players enjoying this game and creating for this game is a vital part of how we define success.

It will be fascinating to see how this open development morphs as the game grows. Can a chat channel be maintained if there are thousands of users there? Will developers be able to post on official forums without being hounded, as they often are elsewhere? Once a larger group of newer players move in, will their ideas for the game integrate with those of the old school fans? Will they even be attracted in the first place or will the decisions made in development, influenced by that smaller, hardcore group, ward off the wider gaming audience?

Unreal Tournament’s open development raises more questions than it answers, but for now it’s fascinating to watch.

18 Comments

  1. DanMan says:

    It’s really cool to see the officials work so closely with the community. I wish I had the time/skill to join the fun.

  2. Kollega says:

    I just want to say this about the new Unreal Tournament: the aesthetic is perhaps the coolest I’ve ever seen among sci-fi shooters. The new Shock Rifle and Link Gun are brilliant examples of how to combine futuristic look with practical sensibilities, and the Outpost 23 map, with its “white is the new brown” interiors and background of desolate plains brimming with rugged charm, feels like an artistic statement. I think this iteration of UT should be a yardstick to compare all other sci-fi shooters against, just because it so brilliantly conveys the feeling of rugged and practical, yet sleek and shiny future.

  3. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    I generally haven’t kept up with the new UT’s development for lack of time, so thanks for this! I’m particularly liking the return of un-American football style character models. There’s room for 300-pound metal-plated gorillas with (exquisite) groinal tapestries, too, I suppose, but it seemed like 3 had nothing but.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Wins the Unreal Tournament.

      Has a heart-attack a week later.

  4. hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

    I wish I were as optimistic about the future of UT as you are. I’ve been doing level design work for the UT franchise since the days of the first game, almost 15 years now, and have never seen the community this inactive before. I’ve been on the forums daily since UE4 went subscription-free in March, and have two nearly complete levels as well as a small texture pack, but the forums feel like a ghost town. Some sections see just a couple posts a month; the level design subforum is one of the most active, but essentially no one who posts there gets any feedback.

    The game itself is also in a relatively tough spot in terms of player count. Whenever I’m online and playing, there are fewer than three servers, and none are ever full.

    It’s a fun game, if not the best installment in the series at this point; but I’m worried that it’s never going to gain the kind of traction it needs. UT is fundamentally a multiplayer game, and if the playercount isn’t there, the game is sunk. Right now, the player count is not there, and I don’t know what’s going to make it materialize.

    • caff says:

      I haven’t looked today, but a few months ago the only links I could find to download and play were hidden within a thread within a forum.

      With a couple of beautiful, balanced maps, and a bit more exposure on places like RPS, it could really take off overnight. I think players are hungry for more UT – particularly if it’s free – but they just don’t know it yet.

      • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

        The website has been rejiggered so that the main page always has a big DOWNLOAD UT button up top, which is good.

        Epic is a big company with the potential to turn this into a big game- they have the advertising reach if they want it, and a Steam launch at version 1.0 would make a big difference. My worry is more related to the fact that they’ve fallen into the trap so many early access games have, where the player group gets split between people who want to get in as early as possible and those who want to wait for it to be done. With singleplayer games, that’s fine; but for multiplayer games, it really is important to gain critical mass of players. The huge injection of people at one time is actually important, more important than having a constant trickle in and out, which just results in people downloading the game, seeing very few people playing, and then leaving again quickly and not telling their friends.

        It also worries me that Epic is hedging their bets pretty steeply here. Last I heard there were less than ten fulltime Epic staff members working on UT, and a lot of the assets are recycled from older UE4 projects by Epic. This suggests to me that they’re not confident this game is going to work out, and they want to put in as little money as possible in case the game flops.

        • crinkles esq. says:

          My basic problem with this new version of UT is that they decided to model the movement on UT 2004, instead of going back to the original (best) UT (often referred to as UT99). All the jazzed-up sports moves they added in later editions of UT just distract from what was a beautiful ballet of guns and gore. There was already plenty of strategy in the original, and the movement and weapon balance was near-perfect. So for me the new one is just not that compelling.

          • Sir_Brizz says:

            The movement is not very much like UT2004. Most of the fans of 2k4 have sadly ditched the game because of it. The few extra moves that TU4 currently has actually make it more fluid than it ever was in the original and with the next build that will hopefully come out early next week the movement should be in a really good place. I would recommend waiting until then to pass further judgement, but to clarify again the movement is really nothing like 2k4 and is in particular not modeled on 2k4 at all.

    • gganate says:

      The game is in pre-alpha with two finished maps. There isn’t much content. I wouldn’t worry about player count.

    • Ben Barrett says:

      I think they got a bit scuppered by getting a lot of attention on their early builds too, from the community making them easily accessible and then people like me posting them on games sites. So the initial Early Access wave came to a very busted way of getting the game that wasn’t even really ready to play. I think it’ll go through phases of attention and, at some point, they’ll do a news push to get the game out there and it will gather a reasonable player base.

      There is quite a lot of competition (with more to follow) in the early access arena shooter genre at the moment though.

  5. caff says:

    Tried the alpha a few months ago and it was barebones but felt good – very “UT”. Looking forward to where this project goes.

    Personally I was a huge fan of UT2004’s vehicular mayhem so I’m hoping it can recreate some of that fun.

  6. DarKcyde says:

    The name Steve Polge triggered a flicker of memory from a long time ago. I had to google him to be sure, but I’ll just leave this here…

    Skill 3 Reaper Bots.

    • Scandalon says:

      Yea, Steve Polge being hired for Unreal (the original, not UT99 I think) to work on the AI was seen as a Big Deal* and one of the first modders-hired-as-professional that made an impression on me. His name (or words in an interview) would show up from time to time throughout the years, and seeing him on the dev videos was kinda interesting to me. I’ve long thought there might be an interesting story there.

      *Source: My fading memories of when I was a slightly-obsessive Unreal fanboy. (As in, I headed/wrote/reported an Unreal website in various incarnations for a few years.)

  7. lanelor says:

    Tried several matches, but UT4 players seams to be predominately old ones, so you must either get good the painful way or stick to bots. Still good for free pre-alpha version.

  8. Allenomura says:

    I think things will work themselves out, when it comes to UT’s visibility (for this edition.)
    It will fall to Epic’s promotion along with community embrace, and timing to get it done. With the appearance of a “1.0” release, which would pull people in, then, you’ll see traffic in UT’s direction. As it stands today, a big issue may be geographical. That people ready to test and/or seeking feedback find they’re not active at the best time of day.
    I think Unreal Tournament has a lot to offer, it’s approaching things in an interesting way.

    What I’d hope to see would be once every month or two, a release trailer of gameplay (if the game’s in advanced enough state) which basically shows to the wider audience what’s on the way, and featuring the hot content of that time..
    This project may have been “radio-silent” a little too long to those not directly engaged in its development.
    Surely, they have something to say, and I have to believe an audience ready to hear and heed; but they (maybe even Epic itself) just need to maintain a connection, beyond the development hub of the game’s forums..