Interview – We got a chance to sit down with one of the sparkling celebrities of the IT industry during the the Game Developers Conference 2008: Tim Sweeney is founder and CEO of Epic Games, creator of the famous Unreal game engines.
TG Daily editor Theo Valich spoke with Sweeney about the future of the PC as a game platform, the role of the next-generation of game consoles, the next Unreal engine as well as the future of Epic.
We have known Sweeney for several years and are always looking forward to his view on the state of the gaming industry, which he is not afraid to discuss openly. In this first part of our three-part interview, Sweeney takes on the PC, which he believes is in trouble and can’t keep up with game consoles, mistakes in Windows Vista and the integrated graphics dilemma.
TG Daily: Tim, Unreal has grown into a big success much because of the PC as a great gaming platform. We have heard about a new gaming PC alliance that wants to promote gaming on the PC versus gaming on the console. What is your view on that, especially on those stunningly expensive gaming rigs?
Sweeney: There are many overpriced computers out there. It’s like sports cars. They are everywhere, everybody writes about them, but there are only a few who can afford them. There isn’t a great amount of people that will spend large amounts of money on that. In the case of PCs, they mostly don’t deliver that amount of performance that you would expect to justify that cost. You pay twice as much money for 30% more performance… That is just not right.
TG Daily: What about those high-end features? Do you think that industry is actually sending the wrong message when it comes to gaming? Do you feel that the hardware industry went with wrong message when it started to talk about 3-Way SLI and other high-end things, while they did not work on expanding the PC gaming message to masses?
Sweeney: Absolutely. That was a terrible mistake. Marketing people believe that there is a small number of people who are gamers and who can afford spending good amount of money on buying high end hardware.
TG Daily: You have to admit, the margin is obviously there.
Sweeney: Agreed. But it is very important not to leave the masses behind. This is unfortunate, because PCs are more popular than ever. Everyone has a PC. Even those who did not have a PC in the past are now able to afford one and they use it for Facebook, MySpace, pirating music or whatever. Yesterday’s PCs were for people that were working and later playing games. Even if those games were lower-end ones, there will always be a market for casual games and online games like World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft has DirectX 7-class graphics and can run on any computer. But at the end of the day, consoles have definitely left PC games behind.
TG Daily: But we mostly talk about conventional retail sales. Do you see an increasing divide between the Pc and consoles?
Sweeney: Retail stores like Best Buy are selling PC games and PCs with integrated graphics at the same time and they are not talking about the difference [to more capable gaming PCs]. Those machines are good for e-mail, web browsing, watching video. But as far as games go, those machines are just not adequate. It is no surprise that retail PC sales suffer from that. Online is different, because people who go and buy games online already have PCs that can play games. The biggest problem in this space right now is that you cannot go and design a game for a high end PC and downscale it to mainstream PCs. The performance difference between high-end and low-end PC is something like 100x.
TG Daily: In other words: Too big?
Sweeney: Yes, that is huge difference. If we go back 10 years ago, the difference between the high end and the lowest end may have been a factor of 10. We could have scaled games between those two. For example, with the first version of Unreal, a resolution of 320×200 was good for software rendering and we were able to scale that up to 1024×768, if you had the GPU power. There is no way we can scale down a game down by a factor of 100, we would just have to design two completely different games. One for low-end and one for high-end.
That is actually happening on PCs: You have really low-end games with little hardware requirements, like Maple Story. That is a $100 million-a-year business. Kids are addicted to those games, they pay real money to buy [virtual] items within the game and the game.
TG Daily: Broken down, that means today’s mainstream PCs aren’t suitable for gaming?
Sweeney: Exactly. PCs are good for anything, just not games.
Read on the next page: “Intel’s integrated graphics just don’t work. I don’t think they will ever work.”
“Intel’s integrated graphics just don’t work. I don’t think they will ever work.“
TG Daily: Well, we do have a fancy new operating system on the PC, which is actually heavily promoted as a gaming platform. What are your thoughts about Windows Vista?
Sweeney: I really don’t know why they kept the 32-bit version of Vista. I was surprised when they decided to keep the 32-bit version, I expected that they would push the 64-bit version exclusively. It would have been the perfect time for that.
TG Daily: Considering that almost all the computers that can run Vista in fact support the x86-64extensions, that choice belongs to The Twilight Zone of the IT industry.
Sweeney: Let’s be clear with it. The switch to exclusively 64-bit would clean up all the legacy viruses and spyware programs that have been plaguing us for years. The requirement for much more system memory cannot be an excuse, because most owners of 64-bit processors have at least 1 GB of system memory installed.
TG Daily: It would have been a soft switch when we compare it to the Mac, right? Almost all of our 32-bit software for Windows would continue to perform as it used to?
Sweeney: Yes, we would have liked something like that to happen. In terms of Apple, there’s a new PC in your future. In the case of Vista that would have gone 64-bit only, you would have ended up with five year old computers that still would have been able to run the 64-bit operating system.
TG Daily: Let’s go back to the gaming PC. What would you think if everyone would pursue a sort of an ease-of-use approach? For instance, in last two years, there were efforts to bring external graphics to life. It was supposed to be a compact box that would have a powerful discrete card inside. But in the end, it turned out that Vista’s driver mode (LDDM) was incompatible with that.
Sweeney: External graphics?
TG Daily: A year ago, the PCI-SIG certified the PCI External standard, which enabled the conventional PCI slot to extend through several different cables. There were several Taiwanese companies such as Asus and MSI that demonstrated products based on different cards. In the end, you simply needed to plug the external box into a notebook or a desktop. Prototypes were using the ExpressCard interface.
Sweeney: Oh… that’s cool. Actually, this would be a really good idea. We always joked that there will come a day when you won’t be plugging a graphics card into a computer, but you would connect the computer into an Nvidia box, because they were quite loud and using a lot of power. But this idea would be really good. I didn’t know there was actually a development in that area. Sadly, this would not solve a problem that we have today, and that is the fact that every PC should have a decent graphics card. A PC should be an out-of-the-box workable gaming platform.
TG Daily: What about notebooks?
Sweeney: For notebooks this could be a really good solution. There is no room to put a fast GPU into that compact form.
TG Daily: With that much background and knowledge about what PCs make sense and which do not, I’d be interested to learn what PC you are using.
Sweeney: My work computers are Dell workstations. Currently, I have a dual-CPU setup, dual-quad cores for a total of eight cores, and 16 GB of memory. We at Epic tend to go to the high-end of things. Until recently, we used to buy high-end consumer PCs, simply because they tend to deliver the best performance. However, as time goes by, we constantly run into stability problems with CPUs and graphics, so we decided to switch to workstations. We just need very, very stable computers and they perform very well.
TG Daily: So, you aren’t really after the highest benchmark numbers obviously.
Sweeney: Part of the problem we see with these systems is that that they are ultra-fast, but often we see our PCs running under full load for 16 hours a day on various projects. We are constantly loading the systems, for instance using Radiosity. These computing tasks are extremely hardware extensive. Most of the high-end systems we worked on are just not engineered to support that.
TG Daily: What are your thoughts on the future of the PC as a gaming platform? Is scalability the future – we hear AMD talking about Spider and Nvidia is selling Triple SLI that will keep us upgrading over the next several years. Or did the industry lose its focus?
Sweeney: PC gaming is in a weird position right now. Now, 60% of PCs on the market don’t have a workable graphics processor at all. All the Intel integrated graphics are still incapable of running any modern games. So you really have to buy a PC knowing that you’re going to play games in order to avoid being stuck with integrated graphics. This is unfortunate, and this is one of main reasons behind the decline of the PC as a gaming platform. That really has endangered high-end PC game sales. In the past, if you bought a game, it would at least work. It might not have been a great experience, but it would always work.
TG Daily: Can that scenario change?
Sweeney: Yes, actually it might. If you look into the past, CPU makers are learning more and more how to take advantage of GPU-like architectures. Internally, they accept larger data and they have wider vector units: CPUs went from a single-threaded product to multiple cores. And who knows, we might find the way to get the software rendering back into fashion.
Then, every PC, even the lowest performing ones will have excellent CPUs. If we could get software rendering going again, that might be just the solution we all need. Intel’s integrated graphics just don’t work. I don’t think they will ever work.
TG Daily: These are harsh words. It looks like Intel has a lot of things coming down the pipe.
Sweeney: They always say ‘Oh, we know it has never worked before, but the next generation …” It has always been the next generation. They go from one generation to the next one and to the next one. They’re not faster now than they have been at any time in the past.
Check back on Tuesday for the second part of the interview, in which Sweeney discusses the future of the PC and game consoles.
Read the third part of the interview here: Unreal Engine 4.0 aims at the next generation console war