Q&A: Epic Games' Mark Rein talks next-gen

With Unreal Engine 3 technology on board a slew of next-gen games, Epic VP Mark Rein tells us how the company keeps its balance in the midst of such a dramatic technology shift.

LOS ANGELES--Epic Games has been making serious news in next-generation software development with its Unreal Engine 3 technology. The Epic technology is a development platform and toolset that developers can use to create games for next-generation console and PC systems.

After teasing the public with tech demos for over a year, Epic has recently announced its first two games based on the Unreal Engine 3: Gears of War for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Unreal Tournament 2007 for the PC. Several other game developers, including Microsoft Game Studios, Midway, BioWare, and Namco, have licensed Unreal Engine 3 for upcoming next-generation game development.

Epic has also announced that it is bringing the Unreal Engine 3 over to the PlayStation 3. Epic lead programmer Tim Sweeney was on hand at Sony's E3 press conference to give the first public game demonstration for Sony's next-gen system. The demo was based on Unreal Engine 3 technology, of course.

We caught up with Epic Games vice president Mark Rein at E3 2005 to discuss his thoughts on what the upcoming hardware generation shift will mean for games.

GameSpot: Now that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3...

Mark Rein: [Interrupting] Are we talking next-gen consoles? Did you see the first-ever demo for the PlayStation 3? Oh, yeah that was UT 2007 on Unreal Engine 3!

The next five years are going to be incredible, so much better than the last five years in terms of what people are going to be able to do. It's only going to get better from there. We're just generally excited by hardware in general: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and what's coming for the PC as well.

GS: That was a great demo you had at the Sony press conference. Can you tell us what it's like developing on the PlayStation 3?

MR: It's a very normal development platform, something we can get our hands around. We already know Open GL; we've been doing Open GL since Unreal 1. We already know Nvidia graphics. PowerPC? Well, we've won Macintosh game of the year going back I don't know how many years.

We had the dev kit for probably just under two months, and look what we were able to produce. We were able to get Unreal Engine 3 up and running very quickly on it, and we were able to get a great demo going. Part of the reason why we were able to get the demo running isn't just our familiarity with the PlayStation 3 development environment, but also the fact that all of the content in Unreal Engine 3 is 100 percent compatible between the PC and the PlayStation 3. When we run an Nvidia-based Open GL shader on PC, and we go to run the same thing on PlayStation 3, we know it's going to be exactly the same, look exactly the same. There's no surprises, and that's great. It's a fantastic environment for people using our technology.

GS: How has it been programming for the Cell processor? Have you tapped into the extra processing cores yet?

MR: We haven't really delved into the Cell all that deeply yet. All we've done is mostly take advantage of just the normal PowerPC core and the RSX graphics, so we really look forward to getting home and tackling all kinds of cool stuff on the Cell. Ultimately, Cell is like a super-MMX processor, and as you know, Unreal was Intel's poster child for MMX many years ago. We're going to be able to do a lot of cool stuff on it. Especially great physics--the NovodeX guys are going to get their API put on it.

GS: Epic announced a couple of months ago that it is using NovodeX physics in Unreal Engine 3. Ageia, the company behind the NovodeX API, is preparing to release a physics chip for the PC. How will UE3-based PC games take advantage of the Ageia hardware?

MR: Things that you write for the NovodeX API automatically become hardware-accelerated, automatically get faster [with a physics processor]. What's more significant isn't really that. What you get is instead of having 600 rocks rolling down a hill you have to do 6,000 rocks rolling down a hill. So you'll be able to do so much more, do much deeper simulations than what we could possibly do without it. But people who don't have it won't feel completely ripped off--they just won't get the full experience.

GS: Will there be cases where you'll detect physics-accelerated hardware and offer a game mode that includes gameplay that depends more on physics?

MR: We won't do it where it will mess up gameplay. It's a multiplayer game where you can't handicap people that don't have a piece of hardware. You have to scale for them. But in terms of the amazing visual effects and all those things going on, it'll be that much better on the chip.

GS: The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will both have extremely powerful multicore processors capable of doing a lot of physics calculations. Is that going to make it difficult for developers to port console games over to the PC?

MR: The PlayStation 3 Cell architecture is very similar to the hardware design of the Ageia chip, so the PC will be able to get superaccelerated also. The Ageia NovodeX API, when they bring it over to the PlayStation 3, will be very fast, very powerful--similar to the Ageia [chip]. But the cool thing about that is if someone's lead moneymaking platform is the PlayStation 3, they're going physics up the wazoo because they have so much power. That makes it a very economical choice for PC users to just pop a [physics] chip into the PC and then have the full physics effects that will be available on the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360.

GS: The next-generation consoles are going to be designed for online connectivity right out of the box, and we're going to see improved online services for all of the machines. Do you think that the next-generation consoles will make broadband content distribution a real alternative for major games?

MR: No, not in the short term. We just don't have enough bandwidth to people's homes. Unreal Tournament 2004 was a whole DVD, six CDs. Nobody is going to wait around for three days for a game to download off the DSL or the cable modem. I think what we'll see instead is additional content for the games you already have--maybe some smaller games, most certainly demos and movies. That 20GB disk will fill up pretty quickly.

GS: You've had a lot of experience developing Unreal Engine 3 for all the new technology platforms. Can you tell if cross-platform development will be easier on the next-generation hardware?

MR: Development will be easier because the platforms aren't so radically different as they were in the past with customized, specialized platforms. Everyone acknowledges that Xbox development was relatively easy because it shared common components with the PC and Windows, things like the processor and an Nvidia graphics chip.

This industry going forward, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, they share common PC CPU architectures now. They both run those ATI and Nvidia graphics parts that give you Shader Model 2.0. That's a big benefit for the PC. It means all of those games are shooting for the high end--they will run on a PC if you have all the right gear.

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