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Interview: How Will Unreal Tournament 2014 Work? Can It?

Unreal or Impossible

A new Unreal Tournament is happening. Fiiiiiiinally! It feels like it's been eons since the decent-ish Unreal Tournament III brought hoverboards to a shock rifle fight, but Unreal Tournament 2014 is coming to the rescue. This one, though, stands to be a massive departure from previous entries in the arena shooter pioneer series. Epic is keeping its team lean and developing the entire game - from day one - alongside fans. Meanwhile, the whole thing will be free, with Epic making precious pennies off cuts from a user-driven mod/map store.

Sounds pretty neat, right? But it's also a logistical can of worms that could fit 100 of the things from Tremors. How will Epic stop its audience from fragmenting, especially if maps aren't free? Do creators *have* to charge for maps? With source code out in the open, won't it be especially easy for cheaters to meander their mucky fingers into this game's DNA? Will the basic game even have much meat on its bones? I asked Unreal Tournament 2014 project lead Steve Polge all of that and more. 

RPS: Arena shooters have kinda gone extinct on the triple-A side of things, but there's still a hunger for these things. You've just got to know where to look, and your community's been especially vocal. What was stopping you from bringing UT back over the years? Why wait until now?

Polge: Well, I mean Epic is... we have limited resources and we've always had other projects that were demanding a lot of our resources. And really you know, we've been kind of in transition and so it just hadn't been the right opportunity, all the right things hadn't come together, Now we think with the tools, the opportunity and the market place, we've got kind of a unique community of people that are both passionate about the game but also have contributed in the past, and shown that they can create amazing additions to our game. So I really think we have a unique opportunity to explore making a game this way.

RPS: How many people are on the Unreal Tournament team at this point?

Polge: At Epic we've got... I'm not sure [what the final number will be]. We're still building the team. It's about 7 or 8 full time people working on the game, and these are all very senior guys. They have got a lot of experience with Unreal Tournament and we feel like they provide leadership to the community.

As we develop this game of course we're going to be doing a lot of work ourselves. There's a ton of people at Epic that in some cases came from the Unreal Tournament community to start with, are passionate about it, so we have a whole lot of people who are wanting to contribute as they have the opportunity to and they're going to be doing things in their free time or here at Epic. So it's certainly an effort that we're putting the resources we need in to make it successful.

RPS: That's an interesting dynamic though, with people working in various capacities on it - some full-time, others in their free time. In terms of full-time team members how many are you hoping to have when it's all said and done?

Polge: I'm not sure. We want to stay small. We want this to be a joint development with the community and we want it to be something where we have the freedom to be able to make this game and not feel a lot of pressure from the point of view of how much resources we're having to use to make it.

Like I said, we'll put in the resources we know. We've built this kind of game before and the key elements that we need to make sure are taken care of, and that's what we're focused on. We've got some programmers that are very experienced with Unreal Tournament. I've actually been the lead programmer on every Unreal Tournament game we've made, and so we're very confident that we have the right people to lead this project and make sure it's a success. Over time we'll see exactly what we need in terms of resources. So we're going to stay really small.

Frankly in terms of full time guys we're going to grow a little bit more but we're not going to turn into a big team here at Epic.

RPS: I imagine from that perspective it's going to be very different from development on the last couple Unreal Tournaments. Those were more traditional triple-A projects, so I'm guessing that the team sizes were significantly larger. In the double digits, easily.

Polge: Well compared to Unreal Tournament III yeah. In contrast Unreal Tournament III was a very traditional triple-A development with a relatively large team. Although not very large by industry standards, but by Epic's standards, because we try to run very lean.

We're closer to Unreal Tournament 2004, which was already a project where we got a lot of contributions from the community, and actually we had less full time involvement on that project than we will on this project. We had some contractors we were working with that were very talented, we had key Epic people contributing, I was full time on the project.

Of course the difference is we're trying to be even more open and involved with the community more in a really open fashion, both in terms of setting the direction of the game as well as building the final product. And final product is really a misnomer, because it's an ongoing process. We want to make a platform for making this kind of shooter for a long time to come.

I think that the opportunity that we have here with having a lot of community... we want to move the game forward in every direction and all areas that make sense. We want it to still feel like an Unreal Tournament game, but I think one of the opportunities we have with a large community of people who are participating in the design and participating in testing and development is to be able to iterate and prototype on a much larger audience than we did before.

In the past whenever we created a game internally we'd have a relatively small team of people that are testing the game and iterating on it, and so we're really limited not in our ability to implement, but in our ability to playtest and iterate on and really balance and fit into the overall game, new ideas.

And so with the big community of people I think we'll have a real opportunity to try out a much bigger variety of ideas, and then refine those down to something that both is appealing to a different audience but also very well balanced at different levels. I mean if you've got people playing it at all scales and skill levels, and providing feedback on gameplay mechanics and balance, then hopefully we can get something where we can make decisions where we understand the impacts at all levels. I'm really excited for the potential of that.

RPS: The way you're doing that is pretty interesting too, in that you're going to be making your money from the game by taking a cut from community driven maps and mods. Do you know how much of a cut you're looking at yet?

Polge: We haven't really thought through the details of that yet. I mean frankly we're confident and if we're generous in how we provide the game to the community and we build a game that is successful and that we have a passionate community around it, then we'll be able to [find decent success].

We don't know the details of exactly how we're going to do that and what were expecting to get out of that. We're focusing more on making sure we have a platform that makes it easy for mod developers to make cool stuff and be successful with that.

RPS: Will people be required to charge for maps and mods that they put in the store, or will they be able to just give them away completely for free? Modding has a legacy of freedom, of course, but when that's the only way you'll be making money...

Polge: Absolutely mod makers will have a choice of whether they charge or not. I mean the idea is that the market place is going to be a very seamless and easy way for players to get content, and the core UT game that you download will be a relatively small game. There'll be lots of additional content in the store, and we expect that will be free, and basically will allow mod authors to define how they want to distribute what they make with the world.

RPS: If that's the case, are you afraid that people may not have a reason to buy anything at all?

Polge: Well, we're not making this game with expectations that everyone will pay. What we've seen in the industry is if a game is successful, has lot's of people playing it, and lot's of people spending time enjoying that game, then people are happy to pay for the things that increase their enjoyment of that game. And so we're confident we'll figure that out.

Right now our focus is getting the word out to get more people to learn about Unreal Engine 4, and check out the tools that we're using to make this game and to see how they can create their own games and realize their own creative visions with it. The exact details of how much money we're going to make and how we're going to make money is not something that we're too focused on right now.

I realize that.... this is not me with a scripted evil corporate thing where we have this nefarious plan underneath and and we're just saying it. That's really where we're at. We just believe that this type of development scheme can be successful, and its success depends mostly on us building a game that can engage a large community, and from that [community] will naturally follow.

RPS: How much was this inspired by things like, for instance, what Valve is doing? Valve has kind of adopted a similar model with TF2 and Dota - albeit more focused on items than full-blown mods.

Polge: Absolutely. I would say that those are example of our inspiration of... when I say that we've seen it in the market that this can work, certainly Valve has done a good job with that.

I think League of Legends also is an example of a company being very generous with the game they provide. It's a situation where nobody has to pay to play the game, and people only pay if they feel like it improves their experience but they can have a great experience without every spending any money. So we're really relying on the generosity of our fans based on them being so happy that they want to reward us, and not that they feel like we're scheming to take their money.

RPS: Will you let people sell hats?

Polge: [laughs] We haven't really thought about hats. I mean clearly Unreal Tournament supports a wide variety of modifications. There's going to be people making new game types, new weapon sets, whatever. So there will be room for that. There will be new levels. If there's a market for hats, if people want to give away hats, it more depends on what the players want to get. We clearly don't find there being a vibrant market for Unreal Tournament hats, so that's not our basic business model. We're not designing our hat system right now.

RPS: Are you worried that having such an open and vibrant store - one where certain things are free and other things go for oodles of cash - could fragment your audience? In all likelihood there will be countless possible map configurations and rulesets and weapon loadouts and vociferous opinions on the best explosion.

Polge: I agree that that's a challenge and that's something that we're going to have to work with. I think that's a challenge for both us and our mod makers, in terms of choosing whether you charge for stuff, or how you charge for it and how you present it. We'll have to figure that out, because our goal here is we want our mod makers to be successful, because they're creating cool content that increases our players' enjoyment of the experience.

But at the same time I think maps are a perfect example. A map is only valuable to users if lots of other people have it also, and are playing with it. So we'll have to come up with the right mechanisms for encouraging that. That's something we've not figured out yet, so we understand that it's an important issue that we've go to think about.

RPS: How much are you going to look into everything that players are submitting, especially in terms of say, weapons, where somebody could create something that's hideously unbalanced and put it into the game?

Polge: There'll be a core UT that is kind of adhered for everyone, sort of like in the past when we shipped the core game. And that will, we're working with the community to develop that, but we feel ultimate responsibility for making sure it is balanced and a great game.

But on top of that there's never been anything keeping people from, with UT mods and stuff, making whatever they want. And we'll make it clear in the market place when something is a mod that kind of goes off in it's own direction, and we want players to choose and decide what those things are.

So we're not going to ban mods because we think that they're imbalanced. We want our developers to have a chance to create whatever they want to create, and to let the community decide what they want to play. Our job with the market place is just to make it easy for people to get and to understand what they're seeing and how it fits into Unreal Tournament.

RPS: Are you going to going to moderate it at all for objectionable content and stuff like that?

Polge: I'm sure we'll have to do that. Right now we're just focusing on getting the core of the game done. But yes, obviously with the marketplace, we have to take responsibility for the content that is on there. We want to allow our developers as much freedom as possible, but they can't be ripping off other people's work, or.... I don't think we're going to want porn on our market. But again, we're aware of that issue and it's something that we'll have to figure out, but we haven't figured out the technical answer to that yet.

RPS: Awwww, but you could call it Unreal Pornament. Surely a third-rate porn pun will change your mind.

Polge: [laughs]

RPS: With having fans help you develop the game, how much are you going to take their input? Where do you draw the line between your own decisions on the game, and what fans want or even demand? I think that's a very different thing for every developer, especially depending on the sort of game they're making.

Polge: Yes, it's a challenge, but that's really... we feel like the advantage we could get from this in terms of people really buying into the game we're building and also providing a lot of really valuable development effort and design effort.

I mean there are a lot of our fans who really have a great understanding of the mechanics and the design issues around Unreal Tournament. So we see that as very valuable. We want the whole design process to be very open, and ultimately again with the core game we are responsible for making sure that the right decisions filter up. But those decisions, I don't see how we can have a mechanic that goes against what all the people in our community that are asking for this game want.

So for the most part I think it's going to be a matter of consensus building to make it clear to people what all the issues and trade-offs are. While we'll never get complete agreement on any specific design decision, I think we'll make sure the community feels like they participated, their voices were heard, and that it's a decision that fits with what our community wants to build.

Separate from that though, Unreal Tournament has always been known for it's mutators and mods, so we'll encourage the community as well to, if their visions or any developer differs too much from ours, go off and create the game type that really shows what you think Unreal Tournament should be. And so the final arbiter of what is successful will always be our players.

RPS: When you first announced UT 2014, I saw some people express fear that you might take a “design by committee” approach. How is this different from that? Because what you just said sounds kinda like that.

Polge: That's certainly not what is happening, and we understand very much the potential pitfalls of what we're doing, and frankly I think the only way to answer the cynics is come participate in our design forum, see how it's working out, and let us prove to you that we've got a process that's inclusive, that will lead us in a clear direction to a game that we can all be proud of.

Part of that is understanding that at Epic we've always tried to have an open design process where everybody has a voice, and frankly no one ever ends up with exactly the design of game that they dreamed of, right? There's always some level of understanding, taking the value of people's suggestions and understanding what the greater right decision is. I think if people can understand that then maybe, any specific element didn't work out like you wanted, but at the whole it's a game that you can really enjoy and feel like you were part of creating it.

RPS: Epic will still be steering the ship as a whole, then. What do you, as a developer, want to improve from previous Unreal Tournaments? What do you feel like were the most glaring flaws in, say, UT III?

Polge: Well, there's been a lot of changes in the standards for how shooters work since we came out with Unreal Tournament. Some of the mechanics that we have are integral to the fast action shooter that we're making, and we're certainly not going to go away from any of those elements, but at the same time we want to look at and see what game and how we want to evolve Unreal Tournament to fit properly in the modern world.

RPS: Are there any evolutions to the shooter genre in particular that you are most interested in trying out or prototyping in Unreal Tournament?

Polge: We're looking a lot to our community to tell us how and why to evolve. We'll also be providing ideas. Matchmaking for example, Unreal Tournament's basically all about browsing and picking which servers you want to play on. And we still feel like that's a valuable way to go find matches. We're sad that a lot of games don't do that any more because going and finding the server where you like to hang out, where you know you're friends are going to come and hang out, there's always a good match, there's no [trolling or griefing], that server works and you like those guys. That's really great.

But at the same time there's lot of cool things that people do now with parties and grouping your friends and finding a match, and different ways to find a match. We need to come up with a synergy of those approaches that really provides the best of all the approaches, and lets people find matches where they want. I'm sure we'll have a traditional set of browsers that works exactly like it did in the past. But we want to make sure that we do a good job of getting people into the game they want to play.

RPS: On a fundamental level would you say that you're building on from Unreal Tournament III, or is your starting point more generally UT as a whole? Because a lot of people have said, “Man, I remember old-school UT, and my favorite was UT '99, or 2k3, or 2k4!” How do you approach that?

Polge: We don't really have a specific UT that we're building on. We're really trying to understand and talk about what it was that everyone liked and didn't like from the various UTs, and figuring out how to bring the game forward and being together the best elements of each ones. There's very passionate fans from each one, and I would say UT III was our first attempt at sort of merging gameplay mechanics between UT '99 and UT 2K3 and 4, and in some ways I think we did some things right, but there's some things that we know we could definitely have improved on.

Our fans have a lot of new ideas about balance between those two game types. We do too. Again, it's a challenge when you have people who are passionate about each one, but we think we can come up with something that is... we don't expect that what we end up with will be any one of those games, it will be something new, but that feels both new and really familiar and appealing to most of our fans.

RPS: Which specific elements of UT III do you think you could have improved on the most?

Polge: Well at the high level I'd say the things that we could most improve upon in UT III are back end server browsing in our menus when we shipped. I don't know if you ever tried the UT III Black Edition that we put out on Steam about a year after we shipped, where we gave a much truer version of what we wanted to present to out community.

When it comes to gameplay mechanics I think there's things that we maybe tried to do, like for example coming up with a compromise between the double jump movement of UT2K3 and UT2K4 and the movement of UT '99. We had a take that was reasonable, but we think we can do better now.

Other than that I think we've also learned a lot. With UT III there were some art style decisions that we're probably going to revisit in how we want to present the game. Basically we want to be sure that we have an amazing looking game but that what we do serves game play first.

RPS: How much thought have you put into the art direction side of it? People have some really, really strong feelings about what a UT game should look like. If you didn't let them wage virtual wars, I feel like they'd start a real one over art alone.

Polge: We've got an extremely talented artist who's been our art director, and he's a fantastic guy to work with. He's already got some forums set up where we started talking about our thoughts for that direction.

Frankly, I'm not sure. I expect that to end up not being controversial, though. I feel very comfortable with the tools that we have in UE4, that we are going to be able to come up with an art direction and a style that everyone will agree I think, frankly, is an improvement over all the previous Unreal Tournaments. I think we really understand what we need to do to make gameplay uncluttered while at the same time making a game that's visually appealing. And I think our art director's got some great ideas for how to perform like that.

That's an area where I know there are lots of strong opinions about. I'm comfortable that that's somewhere where people will all agree there's a net advance and it will end up not being that controversial.

RPS: Multiplayer's obviously in, but what about a single-player campaign or bots?

Polge: In the short term we're just focusing on the core game, so we don't have any plans at Epic to be involved in the development of a single-player or any other kind of meta game type elements like that. We'll certainly support any efforts to do that. I mean I feel like that's the kind of thing that's a win-win. If people are excited about building that kind of experience, and people are excited about playing that, then we want to make it happen.

Certainly in the longer term, I mean who knows where we'll go? We're figuring out the direction of Unreal Tournament with the community, and if that was what it would be to move the game forward then we would think about it, but we're a long ways right now in terms of building the game, we're not really thinking about stuff like that here at Epic.

RPS: Are you going to allow for LAN support? People who want to play on Local Area Networks?

Polge: Yes. I expect we are going to. We're going to let people run servers, and we will run servers as well. But if people don't want to do that, we still want them to be able to play too. Our goal is to have servers that people want to play on because they're the best servers, not because it's the only way you can play the game. Frankly that's our thinking now. We've got to figure out all the details of that. We want to make sure we're doing a good job of figuring out how to get people in the game, and play the games they way they want to play them.

We're also providing the source and the engine source for the game on Github. So we have to win now, not based on keeping players from doing what they want to do, but making it easy for them to do what they want in the context of the experience we're trying to deliver.

We've set ourselves that bar now. We can't have DRM because everybody has source. They can take it. It's going to allow us to work with the community on a great game, but at the same time we have to give up [total control]. I mean it's never true control you have, and the community will always figure out how to play the game they want the way they want, but it's even more clear now with this developmental approach that that's going to be the case.

RPS: You're providing the source code upfront - which is really amazing, honestly - but are you worried that cheaters are going to declare open season on your game? I mean, that sounds like heaven for them.

Polge: That's a great question. That's certainly one of the things we know is going to be an important issue. We expect we're going to have to use various approaches to address that. We expect there will be both community lead efforts, and probably Epic internal efforts to come up with server side mechanisms for detecting cheating. Probably through a combination of automated detection and taking advantage of having the community admins that can follow up on that kind of stuff.

We also want the community to come up with ways of moderating servers and walling off servers to police their population so you know that people playing on your server are known to be playing by the rules.

Having the source makes it more clear to us what the issues are, but the issue isn't whether you have the source or not. Cheaters are not stopped. They're barely slowed down by not having the source in other games. So we just know that security isn't even an option for us. We're going to have to come up with better approaches from the start, and we're already thinking hard about how we're going to do that.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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