Epic Games held Unreal University at this year’s East Coast Games Conference to instruct the masses on how to make games with the Unreal Engine.

When you consider the huge number of games coming out today that use the Unreal technology, it can be quite staggering. From Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum to BioWare’s Mass Effect series to Borderlands and Dungeon Defenders, the Unreal Engine is a versatile tool for game designers. Now that the UDK, or Unreal Development Kit, is freely available to everyone, Epic believes that it will soon become the toolkit of choice for all burgeoning designers to learn the trade. Part of that initiative was realized this week at the Unreal University held at the East Coast Games Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. Experts from Epic and other studios gave open courses to all attendees to give designers the tips and tricks of the trade that they couldn’t get anywhere else. Mark Rein, Vice President at Epic Games, believes that the UDK will soon replace the old practice of modifying existing game code as a new designers calling card.

“Once upon a time, over half [of Epic] came from the mod community. People who would take our games and they would modify them, make them do new things,” Rein told me in an empty auditorium after the first keynote speech at ECGC. “We see UDK as the new mod. In other words, people no longer have to take a game and take the tools with it and mod it, they can just go off and build something from scratch with UDK.”

By holding Unreal University and teaching specific courses such as “How to Make a Racing Game for iOS with UDK” or “How to Build a UDK Level in One Hour,” Rein hopes to encourage that kind of experimentation. “Unreal Engine 3 is a very, very powerful tool set, but sometimes I think people get a little stumped, stumbling on how to get started,” Rein said. “So the idea is, get them over that hump, and then they can really open up and do something really creative and fantastic with it. You come to an event like [Unreal University] and you’ve saved yourself hours and hours of the typical trial-and-error that you do when you’re trying to learn something new.”

The Unreal University concept is not new, Epic originally held seminars back in 2003 and had a pilot program at the Dubai World Games Expo late last year. How did the game designers in the Middle East compare with those in the West? “I think the biggest surprise was that they weren’t that different. That they face the same kind of challenges and they want to build really creative, amazing games. I think game developers are more similar than dissimilar.”

Rein is impressed with the young developers who are using the UDK to make fun games quickly. One of the companies that Rein wanted to highlight was Trendy Entertainment, from Gainesville, Florida, that has found great success with Dungeon Defenders. “Here’s a developer that’s taken Unreal to every platform that it runs on and they’re exploiting its capabilities and doing great work. Dungeon Defenders was actually the first game certified by Google for use on Honeycomb and ships preinstalled on the Motorola Xoom tablet. That’s pretty impressive for a little small company out of Florida that didn’t exist 5 years ago,” Rein said.

The mobile platforms are really where Rein sees Unreal growing in the next few years and Infinity Blade for the iOS was the first big push in that direction. Rein spoke to one of his studios, Chair Entertainment, who had made the highly successful Shadow Complex for the XBLA platform. “‘I’d like to see you guys make the Shadow Complex of iPhone.’ They were like, ‘You mean you want us to make Shadow Complex for iPhone?’ I said, ‘No, I want you to make that AAA game that really uses the platform really well, takes advantage of things that it does well, has great production values. Do it in a reasonable period of time at a reasonable cost and show the world that AAA-production-value games can be profitable on this platform,'” Rein said.

“We said ‘We’ll give you six months to get something in the [App] store,’ and they did it in five.” From there, Apple was happy to put Epic’s Mike Capps on stage to display the game and feature Infinity Blade in its advertisements.

But that doesn’t mean that diversifying into a new platform has been a walk in the park, either. Rein has learned a lot from Infinity Blade. “I’d like to say it’s been the best classroom that we’ve ever had in the last couple years to basically learn about this environment and learn about what can work,” Rein said. “We’ve learned a little bit about microtransactions and how to manage that. We’ve learned about keeping the game updated and having new features on iOS.”

The future is wide open for Epic Games and Unreal, perhaps because Mark Rein is so willing to tackle new platforms and technologies so readily. And by taking the responsibility of instructing new game designers at events like Unreal University, it’s clear that Epic Games sees itself as a leader in the industry. So does that mean we might see a more formal institution set up so that Epic can hold courses like this in the U.S. on a more regular basis than every seven years?

“I’d love to do [Unreal University] more often and do it in more places and gradually have an always ongoing Unreal University if we could do that,” Rein said.

I think the games industry would be better for it.

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