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Epic Is(n’t) All About Pop-Tarts

When Epic President Dr. Mike Capps took the podium for the first keynote address of the inaugural Triangle Game Conference, he began by warning the audience that the presentation would be rated “M.” After all, Epic – from its humble beginnings as ten people across six countries creating Unreal – is known today partly for the ultra-violent Gears of War and Unreal series. More than that, though, there wouldn’t be any prettying-up of the language, Capps said, apologizing in advance to the legal staff in the audience.

It isn’t just blockbuster games that put Epic on the metaphorical map. Epic’s Unreal Engine is the most widely licensed engine in the world, powering everything from first-person shooters to MMORPGs to television shows aimed at children.

While Dr. Capps admitted that he would like to call Epic the top development house, that’d be a tall claim to make – still, they’ve received enough awards that he was confident about saying that Epic was “at least in the top 5,” and that he believed people recognized that. The combination of the prestigious Epic name with the Unreal Engine’s massive popularity, says Capps, means that Epic needs to treat its employees “like they’re volunteers.”

To clarify – most companies would kill to have a member of the Epic team working for them, says Capps, and both he and his employees know it. When your employees can virtually waltz into any games company on the planet and be automatically appointed as Director of Unreal Technology, they’re staying where they are out of their own volition – They’re volunteers. So, Capps posed the question: How do you manage volunteer staff, and ask them to be more productive than normal?

Not with Pop-Tarts, as it turns out. Capps used the delicious pastry to illustrate a point: You can’t inspire excellence with rewards alone. Maybe you can coax someone to work late fixing a problem with the promise of dinner and tasty Pop-Tarts one time, but “you can’t do it five times, and you certainly can’t do it a hundred times,” he said. Instead, you need people with genuine passion – but not to the point where they sacrifice things like family. “It isn’t about working longer hours. Be more productive during the hours you have.”

Which means things like not squabbling over what types of Pop-Tarts are in the break room (and there are lots and lots of varieties of Pop-Tarts). “In a triage room, when you have two patients with ruptured arteries, you aren’t going to quibble about the Pop-Tarts, you’re going to get started on work. Pop-Tarts aren’t dire.” Even if you screw up, you don’t complain about it and work to assign blame, you move on to the next task. Developers can’t afford to be possessive, Capps argued. A trauma surgeon isn’t going to say “That’s my patient, I saw him first,” nor should people argue, “That’s my code!” None of that helps a developer ship a product, said Capps. “That’s bullsh*t. ‘It doesn’t help us ship-‘ That’s where it should end.”

The absolute best motivation, believes Capps, comes from “almost-impossible” tasks. “If you have talented people who really give a sh*t about what they’re working on, then they will deliver.”

Capps thinks that the numbers reflect this philosophy – they have a 1% voluntary turnover rate year-on-year: On average, only one person chooses to leave Epic every year. That’s staggeringly low, compared to the 22% average turnover rate for US-based companies in the IT field. Epic’s other employee survey numbers are impressive: over 95% of the company’s employees believe that their pay reflects their work and that they are being paid on fair and objective criteria. These numbers – and others – have been steadily climbing since 2006, but Capps acknowledged that they weren’t perfect, and could “still be better.”

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On the other hand, Capps says that this results in an odd problem: An employee who is unhappy with the work or the location may choose to stay because the benefits are so good – “Tarydium Handcuffs,” he called them, referring to the Unreal mineral. If there’s a perception that being fired is the only way to leave Epic, that fosters an environment of “hey, keep your head down,” but that isn’t a good thing. “You want people to take risks,” affirmed Capps. “If you succeed at everything, every time, you’re aiming too low.”

Competing With Yourself

If Capps and Epic know about anything, they know about not wanting to set their sights too low – especially when given a high bar to clear. The original Gears of War won thirty Game of the Year awards from various sites – the marketing won awards, too. Capps played the famous commercial with Gary Jules’ “Mad World,” and then admitted that he’d originally hated the advertisement the first time he’d seen it. “That’s why I have smart and creative people around me,” he laughed.

Beating Gears of War was difficult because of what gamers expected, and what the media propagated. “Gamers want your sequel to be twice as long, twice as good, and they want it for free.” Still, Capps doesn’t see that as a bad thing – beyond being game developers, the Epic team is made of gamers themselves, with their own expectations. “They want God of War 3 to be three times as long, three times as cool, and have three times as much full frontal nudity.”

To best the first Gears, said Capps, the team looked at three categories: “New, Better, and More.” New – features that simply weren’t in Gears of War that they wanted to be in the sequel, like Horde mode. Better – taking things that didn’t work as well as they’d have liked in the first game and bringing them up to where the developers wanted them to be. More – hey, it was great in the first game, we just need to have more of it in Gears of War 2! “I think we had a really cool ladder-climbing animation, but it came too late in the development of the first Gears to use more than once … so we used it about a thousand times in Gears 2,” laughed Capps. “It doesn’t all have to be new – just emphasize what was good about the first game.”

But even that doesn’t assure greatness. Capps pointed out that even though Gears 2 had a campaign mode that was approximately 50% longer, shipped with 50% more multiplayer maps than the first, and had been completed in half the time … its reception was almost identical to that of Gears of War. “That kind of hurts,” Capps admitted, but then said that it wasn’t unexpected, either, in the industry – you need to move ahead to stay where you are, reflecting the theme of the Triangle Game Conference: “Innovate or Die.”

Capps said he was excited to see the gaming scene in North Carolina’s Triangle area growing as it was, swelling to five times the size that it had been only a few years ago. With some of the country’s most prestigious universities supplying no shortage of bright and talented young minds, Capps took a minute to speak to the students who would be game developers, who might someday dream of getting a job with one of the Triangle’s gaming companies like Epic, Insomniac, or Red Storm: “There’s no better way to get started than by modding. Make something Unreal,” he laughed, referring to the Unreal Engine’s thriving mod community.

“Prove that you love games by making mods.”

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