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The Old Guard: An Interview with Tim Sweeney

March 22, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

A reprint from the March 2013 issue of Gamaustra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this article finds is a brand new interview with Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney.

You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

Sometimes we reach greatness by standing on the shoulders of giants -- and anyone who has ever made a game with the Unreal Engine knows that Tim Sweeney is just such a behemoth. He wrote a quarter-million lines of code in the original Unreal Engine, and though he's founder and CTO of Epic Games, he still actively codes every day.

It's a curious exercise to think about where the industry would be today if not for the Tim Sweeneys and John Carmacks of the world. Luckily, we work in an industry where most of our legends are living, working, and still pushing us forward. Many of them are shuttered away from the world, either working diligently on their next project, or shielded from the press by concerned public relations staff.

As luck would have it, I caught Sweeney in Taiwan after giving a talk, unencumbered by handlers or hangers-on, and was able to have a candid discussion with him about the future of game consoles, code, and, as it happens, John Carmack.

What does it take to be five years ahead of the game industry, so you can have tools ready when developers need them? What problems do we still have to solve? Who will be the guardians of triple-A games, as much of the world moves to web and mobile? Sweeney doesn't have all the answers -- but whom better to ask?

Let's start off with a big sandbox question. What do you see as the next big thing the industry needs to tackle graphics-wise and computationally in games?

Tim Sweeney: Oh, wow. The industry's advancing on a bunch of fronts simultaneously. One is just advancing the state of the art of lighting technology. We've really added to that with sparse voxel octree global illumination stuff -- basically, technology for real-time indirect lighting and glossy reflections.

That's really cool stuff, but it's also very expensive and only suited for the highest-end GPUs available, so having a family of solutions for that that scales all the way down to iPhone with static lighting is a big priority for Epic -- the ability to go to a game that scales in a dramatic factor from low-end to high-end.

We're really concerned -- I think it's our number-one priority, really -- with productivity throughout the whole game development pipeline, because we're looking at companies like Activision spending $100 million developing each new version of Call of Duty, and that's insane!

We can't afford that sort of budget, so we have to create games with fewer resources. Any way we can tweak the artwork pipeline and the game scripting pipeline to be able to build core games more quickly with less overhead is better. We put a lot of effort into visual scripting technology to greatly improve the workflow.

It does look a lot more intuitive for a less tech-savvy person.

TS: With Unreal Engine 4, we really want to be able to build an entire small game on the scale of Angry Birds without any programming whatsoever, just mapping user input into the actions using a visual toolkit. This technology will be really valuable. We're also expanding the visual toolkit for everything: for building materials, for building animations, for managing content when we have a huge amount of game assets. We're just greatly simplifying the interface so that it's basically as easy to use as Unity.

On one hand, you have the Unreal Engine having by far the largest and most complete feature set of any engine, but also with Unreal Engine 3 it was a big, complicated user interface. With Unreal Engine 4, the effort is to expose at the base level everything in a very simple, easy-to-use, and discoverable way and to build complexity on it so that the user can learn as they go without being terrified by it in the form of a huge, complicated user interface.

That's a problem all applications have to deal with nowadays. If you look at an iPad app that does 90 percent of what the world needs really easily, versus a Windows version of the app for something like Photoshop -- I spent an hour and couldn't even figure out how to draw a picture in Photoshop; it's that bad. (laughs) There is a lot to do there and a lot to learn from.

Epic Citadel

Going back to voxels, I've always been kind of fascinated by them because they're less expensive with higher fidelity potential, but you can't texture them and you can't really animate them well. Do you ever foresee a future in which that might be possible? It would be a total industry shift away from triangles, but...

TS: It's clear now that voxels play a big role in the future.

Certainly for lighting, right?

TS: Well, that's just one way we've been finding to use them effectively. [John] Carmack did a big write-up about voxels and the virtues of sparser representations of the world. It seemed crazy to me at the time, but now it's becoming clearer that he had a lot of far-ranging insight there.

The thing about voxels is they are a very simple, highly structured way of sorting data that's easy to traverse, whereas any other form of data, like a character stored as a skinned skeletal mesh, any time you want to traverse it, you have to do a gigantic amount of processing work to transform it into the right space. You need to figure out what falls where and rasterize it or whatever, but voxels are just efficiently traversable. I feel like there's a big gap.

The data representation you want to use for rendering your scene differs greatly from the representation you want to use for manipulating your scene and basically moving objects around and choosing how they interact. It's not clear which representation wins. In the sparse voxel-oriented approach, one neat thing is we can update it dynamically; as objects move around, we can just incrementally change those parts of the voxel octree that are relevant. You can figure out the extreme edge case of the algorithm, so that instead of the voxel octree being fixed with its orientation to space, all you have to do is align it to screen and arrange it objectively so you're seeing a 2D view of this voxel octree, whereas the other dimension is your z dimension.

You basically have this projective voxel octree, stick everything in the entire scene into it, every frame, and then that unifies all of these screen space techniques like screen space ambient occlusion with the large-scale world effects that we're using with the sparse voxel octrees. Imagine rasterizing your entire scene directly into a representation like that -- using that for real-time lighting and shadowing and then rendering that result out the frame buffer. It's hard to say whether that has merit; that's an algorithm where you need 20 or 30 teraflops as opposed to one or two.

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Benj Edwards
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Great interview, Brandon. It's always interesting to see what Tim Sweeney has to say.

Bob Johnson
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Yeah interesting to see what happens as graphics get good enough.

I just tend to think that in terms of pure visual fidelity the brake should be applied a bit so it gets into balance with the rest of game design.

Johnathon Swift
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Carmack's sentiment aside, if you think about it, were a loooong way from "good enough" on the high end. Can you tell the difference between a game and reality? If so we're not at "good enough" for the very highest games.

We're there for other things though. Farmville doesn't need to look any better, nor Angry Birds nor a DOTA clone nor... etc.

Bob Johnson
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Well good enough doesn't mean they can't get more photo-realistic looking. It just means the tradeoff is making less and less sense.

There are more interesting things to do in games than to reach for the best looking visuals possible.

I guess I think of BF3 and destructible terrain and imagine they could have done even better visuals if they didn't have buildings blow up when you hit them. But that wouldn't have been as interesting.

Or I think of Minecraft and how interesting they made it and how much fun it is to play it despite the really low visuals. I mean imagine if they made that game but started with 1080p photo-realistic visuals? They would have never gotten anywhere on the same budget never mind they would have a smaller install base to deliver the game to.

Or I think of games that were fun to play 20+ years ago with crap visuals. And all because the decisions you made were interesting.

I like graphics, but seems they tend to get in the way of interesting games. Maybe the same as Hollywood blockbusters and special effects.

Jakub Majewski
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I would have to disagree on that "we're far from good enough" bit. I think we've been at "good enough" for at least a decade now. Let's consider what "good enough" means - it doesn't mean that this is as good as it gets. Nor does it mean that further improvements are so costly that this is as good as is worth doing. No, "good enough" just means - this is acceptable to our customers.

A good benchmark would be World of Warcraft. The game has improved in graphics a bit since initial release, but not that much - because around that point, the graphics were already "good enough". This is precisely the lesson that Asian developers took to their hearts - that really, if you're making a 3D game, all you need is 2003 graphics. The better you can do, the, uh, better - but not necessary.

Of course, there are very notable exceptions. Nobody buys Call of Duty for the engaging storyline or revolutionary gameplay. People buy these games, knowing exactly what they will find inside - an extraordinary tour-de-force of what game developers can do with the latest graphics. The gameplay? Well, that was already stale ten years ago when the very first Call of Duty came out. But the visuals and cinematic aspects of the game keep improving, and this is precisely what people come back for. So, for Call of Duty, there is a gameplay "good enough", but there will never be a graphical "good enough".

Amir Ebrahimi
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Loved this part:

We came into 3D game development really seat-of-the-pants. When id Software created Doom, I looked at that and said, "Oh my god; they've invented reality. I'm giving up as a programmer. I'll never be able to do that." But, over the next few years, as they started to build Quake, I started to think, "Hmm, maybe I can figure out this texture-mapping stuff."

I never would think to hear these words from Sweeney; I appreciate his humility even at this late stage in the game.

Christian Philippe Guay
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Quote of the year:
''TS: Some of Epic's most valuable people aren't in leadership roles.''

Wylie Garvin
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On the last page, did he really say "building better schools and technology" or is that a typo ("tools" and technology) ?

Brandon Sheffield
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whoa, yeah, definitely a transcription error. how that made it all the way through multiple revisions (including by sweeney), into the magazine, and then onto gamasutra is the stuff of MYSTERY.

thanks for the catch.

Benjamin Quintero
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I wondered that myself when first reading the magazine... But I guess better schools are important to.

Caulder Bradford
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As a graphics programmer and also a gamer I am not chiefly interested in photo-realism, but in more general quality, fidelity, and richness in visuals. I think we're at the point now where the rendering itself has gotten very very good, but the challenge now is just to really push the complexity of scenes. We have the quality, let's bring on the quantity. Not just clever batching techniques so we can see thousands of the same shrub populating a scene (albeit translated, rotated and scaled individually). I'm only laterally interested in photo-realism, I think of games and graphics as a way to show people things they've never seen or experienced before.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Bruno Xavier
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They try to incorporate some Unity concepts in Unreal 4, nice.
But, they aim these smart tools on giant companies that doesn't really need them... Kinda weird.
By the time a UDK based on UE4 is out there, indies are still all happy with Unity 5,6... 7.
Maybe Epic don't really care about Unity... If there were me in charge I would at the same time push all those 1.5m lone wolves to under my belt with a newer UdK and try to stop Unity from porting to every single platform out there.

Babak Kaveh
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... sooo... when will we get to play with Unreal 4 features in the free UDK?

Kevin Reese
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The Unreal Engine is such an all-around success story. Performance on it has always been so tops. Haven't used the SDK but assume by its popularity that its pretty damn good too.

In a perfect world anyone from that programming team should always have beers bought for them any time they walk into a bar.