The Road to Main Street

To reach the mass market, game companies should consider the benefits of custom publishing

If there's one next generation trend worth mentioning, it may very well be the widespread adoption of Unreal Engine 3. This was apparent at E3, and it's apparent just taking a cursory glance at the list of games that will utilize the engine.

Of course, you have Unreal Tournament 2007 and Gears of War, both from Epic Games. But there are many more titles using UE3, including several high profile games: Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway (Gearbox), Stranglehold (Tiger Hill), Mass Effect (BioWare), Lost Odyssey (Mist Walker), All Points Bulletin (Real Time Worlds) and Huxley (Webzen Games).

That's just to name a few of the announced titles. Many have yet to be revealed.

So what exactly is the appeal of UE3, why do many think the utilization of the engine makes good business sense, and what are the implications of adopting the engine across your entire company?

Best of breed

Epic VP Mark Rein said that the main attraction of UE3 is efficiency.

"The number one advantage is how much time it saves. We have best of breed tools, there's no question about that," he said. "We do a really good job of supporting that, and they'll get better over time. Tools are really what make the engine. Those tools in turn save you a lot of time in the content development space. We all know in the next generation of games, the biggest cost is content. There are some huge cost savings there."

Rein continued to describe UE3 as a one-stop-shop for all your next generation development needs.

"There are two kinds of approaches you can take, maybe a third, but to me there's two," Rein stated. "You can license a complete engine like Unreal Engine 3, or you can go off and license small individual components of engines and kind of build your own. The big alternative to something like Unreal Engine 3 is going off and building your own and licensing a physics library, licensing a graphics library and maybe some other libraries for kind of a Frankenstein process. A lot of people do that. It's not right or wrong, but [a matter of] whether or not it makes sense for them."

So for some companies, UE3 makes sense. Not only is it a proven graphics powerhouse (you only need to look as far as CliffyB's E3 Gears of War demo for enlightenment), but it's convenient, and gives game makers more legroom to concentrate on actual gameplay design rather than engine-building.

Still, many are concerned about whether or not developers' use of UE3 will lead to a multitude of games that look similar. Rein offered an analogy to illustrate that the flexibility of the engine will help game companies avoid this trap.

"Well, we've all been using polygons all these years, and do all games look the same because we use polygons?" he asked. "We've all been using shaders since Xbox 1, so do all the games look the same because we're using shaders? We all use pixels. Everybody uses Photoshop, and that hasn't had an impact in making games all look the same."

He continued, "But when you're talking about art style, that's exactly--exactly--one of the key things that Unreal Engine 3, even more so than previous versions of Unreal Engine, lets you customize the look and feel of your game. We have vastly different looking games. You take a look at the little Monster Madness game from SouthPeak and you compare it to Gears of War, nobody would believe for a second if they didn't know otherwise that those are the same engines.

"[Games will] absolutely not [look the same]. We put so much power into the hands of your designers and artists that you could create something completely individual."

Reemergence day

Midway is trying to return to profitability. Just last week, the company posted a $31 million net loss, but has actively been pursuing what president and CEO David Zucker called a "reemergence" of the company.

UE3 is going to play a notable role in that pursuit of reemergence. Midway decided that multiple studios creating multiple engines for multiple games just wouldn't work in the costly next-gen development environment, so it will be using UE3 across all of its next generation games ("new" generation Wii and handhelds not included here).

Top Midway executives believe that by having a solid foundation for its games in the form of UE3, more time and money will be spent on perfecting other aspects of the game, such as that one element some forget about: gameplay.

"A lot of developers on the PS2 console cycle had different teams and different studios making different engines for their games," Zucker stated. "You could kind of get away with that in the PS2 console cycle.

"We decided a couple years ago that we would never get away with that on the PS3 and Xbox 360. We had to develop a comprehensive approach to product development. ..."

The decision to adopt UE3 is already exhibiting increased studio efficiency.

"[During the PS2 cycle,] you were making games for $5 or $10 million, but you could spend that much just to make the engine," Zucker said. "A lot of people, from Activision to ourselves, we had different teams with different engines. We made Psi-Ops here, with an engine for Psi-Ops, and  it was never really used anywhere else. We made Area 51, with an engine for Area 51, and we spent a lot of time developing that engine used for Area 51, but not anywhere else.

" We've announced Wheelman. The team out in New Castle got Vin Diesel up and working in the environment up in Barcelona driving a car, pulling his gun, walking around in a couple of months. In the old days, that would've taken a year-and-a-half. We think we'll really start seeing the savings in the second batch of games. We'll have cost savings, or be getting better games with the same amount of money."

Midway Core

According to Matt Booty, executive VP of worldwide studios, Midway has actually made some enhancements to tailor-fit the engine to studios' needs.

"The thing to understand is that we're starting out with Unreal Engine 3," Booty said. "We're making significant add-ons and additions and modifications on top of that to create what we call 'Midway Core,' which is our core engine."

Like Rein, Midway acknowledged--then basically shot down--concerns that games using UE3 will have a similar look or feel. Midway is using the UE3 (or Midway Core) for Stranglehold (a great looking action game in its own right), Wheelman and TNA Wrestling, for starters.

Chief technology officer Michael Weilbacher echoed Rein's claim of UE3 flexibility. "I think people are going to be very pleasantly surprised to see the variety of environments and the variety of art looks that we come up with. Comments that we're getting here a lot are, 'Wow, it looks different than Unreal' or 'This doesn't look like your typical grungy sci-fi shooter.' Even with Stranglehold, the environments are going to blow people away because they look so different than what a typical first-person shooter level looks like.

"... There are a lot of things you can do with the Unreal Engine right now to give you different results," Weilbacher said.

The cultural implications

Perhaps an overlooked aspect of adopting a single-engine philosophy across all of a publisher's studios is the cultural impact of the decision. Within game companies, there are employees where engine-creation is "their thing." Booty said that the move to a unified engine was a bit tough to swallow at first, at least for some Midway tech-heads.

"I think it's human nature that technology guys like to work on technology, and they all get a kick out of it. ... It's just human nature to spend your time on the stuff you're good at. But, I think they all realized they'd rather spend their time and energy on the cool stuff that really adds new gameplay features as opposed to building an engine from scratch.

"So, yeah. Was there a cultural hurdle we had to overcome to get everybody on the same page? Yeah. I think that's going to be true with anything. But speaking from my part, I'm very pleased with how our entire organization [has dealt with the change]. A development group of 625 people has really become aligned on the same mission here."

Booty made an important point for companies that would consider the single-engine setup, pointing out that it's not as easy as picking up the rights to use an engine and neatly grafting it over multiple studios.

"A lot of people would conclude that [a single-engine setup] is a good idea. ... But technology is only a part of it. There's a lot to adapt to in terms of infrastructure. It also impacts the art and the development pipeline. It's a major cultural shift to get that many studios aligned with each other. We're spending a lot of time working on that stuff as well. ... You've got to look at the big picture as to how you're going to build your organization around it."