Tim Sweeney talks about the future of gaming.
Tim Sweeney is the man behind the curtain at Epic Games. Although he's founder and CEO of one of the world's most successful independent game studios, Sweeney often lets others take the spotlight when showcasing new games and technology. A programmer at heart, Sweeney devotes the majority of his time these days working on Unreal Engine 4. He's always looking to the future of technology and how game development can improve with the right tools. Sweeney takes out his crystal ball and talks about the future of gaming in this exclusive interview.
Where did the name Epic Games come from?
As a college kid trying to make it look like I was the center of a major game company, I created this game company called Epic Mega Games, trying to make it sound as big and legitimate as possible. That's the origin of Epic's name. It was only after we shipped on Unreal, our really first mega unit seller, that we changed the name back to Epic Games, realizing that we didn't need to pretend anymore.
What's your day-to-day job like at Epic Games today?
My job today at Epic is varied. At one level I am CEO of the company, which means I'm involved in the high-level management decisions. I'm not the hands-on manager of day-to-day operations here. That's Mike Capps, who runs development, and Jay Wilbur, who runs all of our business development and negotiations. They're really the cores of the day-to-day operations of the company. I'm thinking about the long-term strategy. And then I'm technical director with the responsibility of overseeing our technical direction and making sure we're making the right decisions with Unreal Engine 3 and making sure we're taking advantage of the technology with our games. And finally, my most enjoyable job is I'm a programmer. I still write a lot of code.
How much time do you spend working on Unreal Engine 4?
I spend about 60 percent of my time every day doing research work that's aimed at our next generation engine and the next generation of consoles. This is technology that won't see the light of day until probably around 2014, but focusing on that horizon enables me to do some really cool things that just aren't practical today, but soon will be. Some of our most productive work in the industry was on the first Unreal engine back in 1996, when I wrote a software vendor with a bunch of new features that hadn't been seen before. I feel like that's what I'm doing now on Unreal Engine 4 in exploring areas of the technology nobody else is really yet contemplating because they're still a few years away from practicality. But I see a huge amount of potential there and so it's very, very fun work.
What's the biggest challenge you foresee in shifting from the current engine to Unreal Engine 4?
The big challenge that's going to be coming up in the next decade is scaling up to tons of CPU cores. The way we write software today in Unreal Engine 3 is to have one processor handle all the graphics and it's only a single CPU core with another processor that's dedicated to all gameplay that's running on another CPU core. The next challenge is going to be scaling up to tons of CPU cores. But once you have 20 cores, you can't easily say this one is going to be for animation and this one is going to be for details on the face of the character, because all these parameters change dynamically as different things come on screen and load as you shift from scene to scene. So the big challenge will be redesigning our engine and our workload so that we scale more of these different computer tasks between CPU cores seamlessly in real-time and dynamically so that you're always getting the maximum computing power out with the engine, regardless of what sort of work you're doing.
How do you see game development evolving over the next decade?
I really see two major milestones coming up for games in the very long-term future. Number one is achieving movie quality graphics and movie quality pixels on the screen, which mean no flicker in the visuals, no popping artifacts, no bulky character outlines on the screen at all. I see that actually occurring over the next ten years. I expect I'll be actively programming at the time we've achieved full movie-quality graphics because that's really just a matter of brute force computing power and clever algorithm. We know exactly how to do that. We just haven't been able to do it because we don't have enough terra flops or petta flops of computer power to make it so. I expect over the next ten years we'll a real revolution in that area as we make up this missing gap between where we are today and everything movies are doing.
What's the other major milestone?
The other area is simulation of human aspects of the game experience, simulation of gameplay characters, artificial intelligence, character dialogue and all of these other things which aren't really problems of brute force computing. They require increasingly sophisticated algorithms and simulation of human intelligence. I have no idea when those problems will be solved. I'm quite sure they won't be solved in the next ten years. They may not even be solved in my lifetime, but those are all problems that require understanding how the human brain works and trying to simulate that with varying degrees of accuracy. We've seen very, very little progress in these areas over the past few decades so it leaves me very skeptical about our prospects for breakthroughs in the immediate future.
What are your thoughts on the impact motion controls from Wii to PlayStation Move to Kinect will have on games moving forward?
The trend started by Nintendo's Wii with the motion controller and picked up by Kinect at Microsoft and PlayStation Move at Sony is very interesting. It's not clear to me that it's going to have a significant or sweeping impact on gaming. It could be that these are a great step forward for making games more accessible to a more mainstream, non-hardcore gamer audience, but I think ultimately the difference in input we provide to a game is relatively insignificant. If you look at first-person shooters, for example, you can play these games on a PC with a mouse, where you have very fine degrees of control. You can play with the controller where you have less precise aiming, but more buttons and more immersion experiencing the game in front of your TV. We've seen this one game genre translate pretty well to both controller paradigms without major modifications in the game experience. I can see that transferring over to Kinect, but I don't think that fundamentally changes the gaming experience. Even though you might be standing up and pretending to hold a weapon and pointing it at your screen, that doesn't really change the fact that you're still standing in front of the TV watching a videogame. I think for the foreseeable future the controllers are just an artificial impediment in between you and the game simulation. You'll certainly see very interesting new types of games emerge around different controller ideas, but I don't think it fundamentally changes the roadmap for gaming in the future.