Tim Sweeney: 'Refreshing consoles every several years keeps everyone happy'

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As founder and CEO of Epic Games and one of the minds behind the Unreal series of game engines, Tim Sweeney is one of the most recognizable and revered names in game development today. 

You can’t work and be so successful in an industry like gaming for as long as Sweeney has without forming some opinions on how things ought to work and how they might look in the future. Fortunately, he's not shy about sharing them.

At this year’s Gamescom we got the chance to sit down with Sweeney who was giving a keynote at the more developer focused Devcom running at the same time.

We took the opportunity to chat with him about the current gaming landscape and how it’s likely to evolve over the next few years. Our conversation covered everything from the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One X and the current debate over cross play to VR, AR, AI and the inevitable rise of the metaverse. 

On the first page of our interview you'll find Sweeney's thoughts on the current state of gaming while on the second you'll find the part of our conversation where we gaze slightly further into the future.

We discussed a wide number of topics but one thing that comes across strongly when Sweeney speaks about all of them is his firm belief that gaming should be open and democratic for both players and developers in order to achieve its full potential as a medium.  

On Xbox One X and increased iteration

It’s for this reason that Sweeney seems to feel fairly positive about what Microsoft is doing with the Xbox One X and iterative console development: 

“The amount of hardware performance there, and especially the graphics performance, is really awesome. It’s gonna be such a great step forward for games, especially those games that push high-end graphics and photo realism. 

“We’re able to create stellar graphics on that machine and overall I’m very happy with the trend of incrementally improving consoles rather than starting over and breaking all compatibility every seven years. 

“Refreshing hardware every several years, keeping compatibility with the whole base of games I think that’s a really great way of keeping people happy in this industry in the future.”

Microsoft has always been bullish with its backwards compatibility offerings but it’s been really emphasising it now that the Xbox family is larger than ever. According to Sweeney “there’s a huge value in it.” 

It’s great from a developer perspective, he told us, because “it means a game developer can build one game in a very straightforward manner and reach a much wider audience” but there are also benefits to the player, too. 

“I think one of the major areas of wisdom that’s emerged over the last decade is that there’s huge value to taking a user, a happy customer base you have today, and growing it by introducing new devices that are cross-compatible. It doesn’t create a haves and have-nots situation. 

If you tell every console owner that they need to go out and abandon their current console and games and go out and buy a new one it’s going to make buying a new console a much more onerous process. I think we should maintain backwards compatibility as long as we can with new console introduction. I can’t see any natural barrier that would stop that being possible for at least a generation.”

“I think we should maintain backwards compatibility as long as we can with new console introduction”

Tim Sweeney

Even though it feels like longer, it’s only been around a year since the Xbox One S was released and just over three years since the original Xbox One was first launched. 

This is a significantly smaller gap than the eight years that passed between the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One so it’s clear that the console life cycle has shortened significantly. 

When we asked Sweeney just how often would be too often to release new consoles even if with backwards compatibility he leaned towards every three or four years being the ideal time frame but added that “the key is to update the hardware when there’s enough potential gains and advancements in graphics performance to make it a really meaningful step.” 

“I wouldn’t do it just for 40% more power,” he said, “but for two times or four times more power that’s really exciting and worthwhile. I’d say every three or four years.”

When we pointed out that phones manage to release a new and incrementally improved handset every year, with some of them even selling for the same price as brand-new consoles, Sweeney nodded: 

“Well every year could work but if you update that frequently developers would face difficulty. You’d have so many different performance levels and be unable to focus on any one. 

“The good thing about consoles is we have discrete targets and we can really make our games shine on each one.” 

Because it’s promising PC-level power, incremental improvements and the elimination of traditional console generations, there have been rumors that Microsoft is trying to move its consoles in the same direction as PCs. 

On the need for choice

A popular theory is that consoles will end up with removable upgradable parts and a variety of graphical settings to choose from. Sweeney is less convinced here, largely because such a change would lock out users who don’t want what PC offers:

“PC is a very hardcore audience and users expect to have so many different knobs that they can tweak to get the right trade off between performance and detail and features”

Tim Sweeney

“PC is a very hardcore audience and users expect to have so many different knobs that they can tweak to get the right trade off between performance and detail and features. 

I think console has a more mainstream focus of trying to get developers to create a game that really excels at that one hardware configuration and to define the settings themselves. PC is for people who like to open their computer and replace different bits of the hardware. They love that complexity.”

On the Nintendo Switch

The new kid on the console block that has absolutely no intention of trying to go toe-to-toe with PCs in terms of power is, of course, the Nintendo Switch and Sweeney seems to be very pleased with what Nintendo has done with the console.

“We’re really happy with Switch. The level of performance it delivers in a mobile form factor is amazing and Nintendo did an astonishingly good job with Zelda, which is really kind of re-defining people's expectations of games in that form factor. 

It just shows Nintendo thinks on a completely different level to everyone else that’s in the industry. They really like being creative and finding ways to deliver devices people just love.”

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“Nintendo thinks on a completely different level to everyone else that’s in the industry”

Tim Sweeney

While PlayStation and Xbox fight it out in 4K, it does seem like Nintendo is forging an entirely different path by prioritizing a high-quality mobile experience over the highest-quality home experience. 

When we asked if this is a move that only suits Nintendo or whether the other big console manufacturers would benefit from prioritizing these kinds of accessible convenient experiences over high-end 4K Sweeney was confident there was room for both approaches.

In the way that PCs and consoles meet different needs for different consumers, Sweeney seems to see that as something to be remembered within the console world too: 

“Nintendo seems to be really looking at the world where people are playing games on the go now. I mean, in Japan most people ride the subway to work and have downtime to play there. I guess horses for courses is the answer – there are benefits to both. 

“There’s some benefits to a piece of fixed function hardware that’s always wired and plugged into a power supply for maximized performance but there’s great value to portability too.”

On cross play

With different consumers being drawn to different consoles to play the same games, cross play has come up time and time again as a bone of contention. In fact, it was raised again not long after we interviewed Sweeney at Gamescom. 

At the moment, while console manufacturers are happy to play nice with PC, they’re less keen on working with one another. Sony in particular is known for being resistant here. 

“I guess there’s a bit of Game of Thrones going on in the way that console makers deal with each other” Sweeney acknowledged, “but ultimately there’s huge value in enabling gamers to connect with all of their friends. 

“There’s a bit of Game of Thrones going on in the way that console makers deal with each other”

Tim Sweeney

“If you look at any gamer, whether they’re an adult or a kid, every gamer has a lot of friends and each has a different device. 

“In any circle of friends there’s going to be PlayStation, Xbox and PC users and all of these platforms would benefit greatly from being open and enabling all of these different gamers to play with their friends. I’d love to see some diplomacy. Nations have diplomacy, so maybe console makers could have diplomacy too.

“They’ll find that even though they’re competing on the hardware front there are actually areas of mutual benefit that we should all work together to break down those barriers, for openness and cross play between all platforms. I think all multiplayer games would be better for cross play.”

By putting the current console scenario in the context of modern mobile and social networking use, Sweeney succinctly highlighted how ridiculous the separation is:

“I mean, just imagine if there were several different social networks and one of them only worked on iOS, another only worked on Android, so you could only socialise with your friends on the same platform as you. I mean, how ridiculous would that be?

But that’s the case on console right now.”

On VR

VR, on the other hand, is much more open than it initially was. Manufacturers have been increasingly open to the kind of cross-play we can only dream of on console in an attempt to grow the headsets as a platform and we asked Sweeney if the VR industry is where he thought it’d be this time last year.

“I think we need to be very patient with VR”

Tim Sweeney

“Well it’s slowed down quite a bit in the last six months,” he admitted, before adding “I think we need to be very patient with it. It’s an entirely new kind of platform that requires entirely new applications. It requires new games to be invented. I think we’re moving along […] The next generation of VR is going to be much more mainstream and much more attractive to users. We might see the user base double, triple or quadruple with each new hardware hardware release. I remain confident in it. I think it can still grow to reach tens of millions in the high-end PC and console space.”

Tens of millions, he told us “is likely the natural size of VR market.” AR, on the other hand, Sweeney said “will ultimately prove the version of that technology that can reach billions of users.”

When we asked if he thought setting VR and AR up in opposition to one another was a reductive approach and whether we’d be better combining the technologies to develop something that incorporated elements of both Sweeney agreed:

“Yes, I think that exactly. I think the best AR developers of the future are going to be the developers who are building VR games right now and learning those lessons early on.

“AR is a superset of VR and a superset of everything else. Once you have AR glasses you can put on your head and have a very high quality display seamlessly combining computer images with the real world, then you don’t need a TV or a monitor because the glasses can project one wherever you like. 

If you black out the background in AR you could make an immersive VR experience and if you make the view translucent so you can see through it you just have an augmented view of the real world. I think that's the ultimate and best form of display tech we’ll have.”

On VR's next steps

Until we get to that next stage, however, Sweeney listed a few things that VR is going to need to improve upon in terms of hardware in the meantime: 

“First of all we need improvements to consumer convenience. It’s a fairly lengthy process to set up a VR hardware installation and fiddle with drivers and all these different things. It’s definitely not an experience for everyone yet. I think once we improve ease of use and set up it’d be awesome to have wireless so you don’t have to have a cable to keep track of. It’d be great to have inside out tracking so you don’t have to have outside cameras to track your motion and the headset can do it in a self-contained way. 

“It’s definitely not an experience for everyone yet”

Tim Sweeney

It’d be great to have a lighter form factor so it’s much more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. It’d be great to have increases in resolution so we can create higher quality graphics and have experiences that have more text and other user interface interaction.”

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As far as software, Sweeney was happy to see that AAA titles such as Fallout and Doom were beginning to appear on headsets.

“I think it’s very good,” he enthused, “When you look at the way the game industry develops you have to look at the economic side of it too. Games are expensive to build, we need sources of funding and publishers can be a great means of allowing developers to create games that they wouldn’t be able to create on their own. VR needs that right now. I think we’ll see a lot of innovation in game design and business models in the future.”

On games as services

A business model that’s grown exponentially over the past few years is the idea of games as a service. Massive multiplayer online worlds such as The Division and Destiny that are constantly evolving, changing and selling are becoming increasingly popular. Phil Spencer of Xbox said these kinds of games are the future and financially viable. 

As far as Sweeney is concerned these kinds of games are also massively beneficial from a developer perspective as “there are major benefits to building a game once and improving it over a long period of time based on user feedback and behavior. It’s kind of depressing to have to build a game once, take all the user feedback and then spend the next 3 years building another game. Every 3 years there’s improvements – much better to improve it every day right?

Multiplayer games are especially perfect for that model because they don’t rely on a fixed base of single player episodic content.”

For those who prefer their games single-player and story-driven he was certain that “we’ll continue to see story-driven single player content continue with its current business model. Different games can adapt in different ways.”

On AI

In the future, though, Sweeney believes the kinds of online multiplayer games we play could change significantly both in terms of the breadth of experiences they offer and the way we play them.This, he says, will be the result of developments in motion capture technology and AI.

“[Real-time motion capture has] been very rapidly adopted and it’s improving the productivity of game developers but I think its next step is going to be in AR and VR hardware with inward facing cameras that capture your face in real-time. We’d love to see that technology in the hands of all users so that while you’re playing a game, the game can scan your face and your emotions and you can be in a multiplayer experience and see other players. 

Right now multiplayer is so low fidelity that you can mainly just type to each other and shoot. Sometimes you can have voice exchange, but the avatar faces just have blank stares. 

“[Multiplayer games are] so brute force oriented, but they could become much more social in the future if you had the nuances of human interaction incorporated into them”

Tim Sweeney

It’d be awesome if you could see an actual players faces projected onto an in-game character in a multiplayer game. Imagine how realistic that would feel. I think that could also really change the dynamic of multiplayer games right now. I think they’re so brute force oriented, but they could become much more social in the future if you had the nuances of human interaction incorporated into them.”

Even without real-time motion capture, Sweeney thinks advancements in AI have the potential to greatly improve the way game characters move and express themselves and create something that’s much more realistic and natural. 

“I think there’s a lot that can be gained from incorporating more advanced and modern forms of AI into our game processes. Especially in the areas where we can use a huge amount of data to have algorithms figure out how humans act in the real world and extrapolate that in the game world. 

For example, the way we do facial animation for humans in games, especially AI controlled humans, is very basic right now. I think if we had thousands of hours of footage of people interacting where we could scan their faces and then take that and map it onto game characters would be really interesting.

We could see more human emotion. Most games have a character animations driven by several hundred canned animations that were motion captured and they use a very old school algorithm to piece these chunks together. What you’d really like to do is scan thousands of hours of people walking around in the real world and use that to figure out how to get a game character from one location to another. Because it’s not always turn walk in a straight line and stop, right? There’s a lot of interesting possibilities to it that can be discovered through deep learning applied to a huge amount of data.

That will really make games improve hugely in terms of visual quality over the next 10 years in some unexpected ways.”

On the metaverse

With developments in AI, VR, AR all progressing neatly together just as massive multiplayer worlds take a more prominent place in gaming, it certainly seems like we’re hurtling towards the creation of a metaverse, where people exist and interact in a reality that’s a simultaneous combination of the real and digital worlds. 

Sweeney has said before that he thinks is what we’re heading towards and although it’s easy to imagine it taking a very dystopian turn (Ready Player One anyone?) Sweeney thinks it’s going to be much more positive than that:

“It’s funny that so much of virtual world metaverse fiction is dystopian but I don’t think that’s necessarily going to be a part of it. I think that’s the great things about games becoming more social in nature.”

“It’s funny that so much of virtual world metaverse fiction is dystopian but I don’t think that’s necessarily going to be a part of it”

Tim Sweeney

Sweeney explained that while parents see their kids at home playing games as a bad thing right now, “in a few years these kids will be wearing AR glasses and running around outdoors and playing these video games in the real world together. It’ll be a social experience. So you won’t be able to complain at that point that video games are isolating.”

“They’ll be social and empowering,” he said, “and the fact that there’ll be some computer generated pixels on the thing as you’re doing it isn’t going to mean you’re playing a video game. It’s you in real life and there’s computers helping make real life better.”

Unfortunately, we have a tendency not to be particularly kind to one another when we go online but there’s a good chance an improved sense of each other as people in the digital space could change that.

“Ultimately, I’m an optimist. I do think that once you can see other people's’ faces and you can see them as real human beings you’re going to be much much more polite and much more of your real world instincts and understanding of social conventions will kick in in a way that they simply don’t when you’re reading a bunch of text online and typing a bunch of angry comments into a comment section. I think that’ll greatly improve.” 

With dystopic visions of our automated digital future being so commonplace it’s somewhat refreshing to hear such a prominent industry voice speaking so confidently about the positives that are coming. To Tim Sweeney, the gaming industry needs to be open and accessible to everyone to flourish and that’s something we’re more than happy to get on board with. 

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