Unreal Tournament: Epic keeps it in the community for the return of its arena shooter. - Games Weekly

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Unreal Tournament: Epic keeps it in the community for the return of its arena shooter.

Working with the community’ is becoming an increasingly common refrain in game development. Developers have used internet forums as bug-fixing aides for years, while alpha-development models like Steam Early Access let players provide funding and feedback during a game’s creation. With the new  Unreal Tournament , however, Epic is taking this notion a step further.  UT  isn’t just being built with the community, much of it is being built  by  the community.

“The community has been invaluable to us throughout this project,” says Jim Brown, the game’s senior designer. “Our logo and theme music were created by  the community, and four of the weapons in our current lineup were created by the community concept art, models, textures/materials and audio. The rest are just placeholder art until we get models from the community. They worked on game types, mutators and numerous game pieces. We’ve released a full community-created level.”


All of these community contributions are integrated into UT. Such a heavy emphasis on crowdsourcing assets and systems from a major studio is both a fascinating and slightly worrying prospect. Is Epic sitting back and letting players churn the milk while it skims the cream off the top? And can thousands of disparate contributions result in a game with the cohesion of an internally designed project?

Regarding the possibility of exploitation, it’s important to note that UT is free. Not free to play, not free but covered in adverts gratis . “We plan to earn money to cover the cost of hosting, distribution and our development team through our share of revenue associated with the sale of mods, as well as some sort of competitive season model,” says Brown. But in terms of jumping into a match, playing with all the weapons and exploring all the maps, there is no financial barrier to entry.
Is Epic sitting back and letting players churn the milk while it skims the cream off the top?
The question of cohesion is more difficult to answer, given UT ’s prototypical state. But I can certainly say that what is available right now is already enormous fun. Repeating the title of the 1999 original is fitting, because that’s the game this new  UT most feels like. Partly, this is aesthetic. Character models appear to have dispensed with the chunky design seen in UT 2004 and UT III , which made all the combatants look like steroid abusers. Meanwhile, the community-composed music strongly evokes Alexander Brandon’s original score. Even the new Flak Cannon has a tapered oval barrel reminiscent of the classic industrial mincing machine.

But it’s how the game feels that most reminds me of the late-’90s arena shooter. UT plays wickedly fast. Movement is extremely slick, controls are tight, and the available maps are designed to facilitate plentiful leaping and dodging. The result is that deathmatches are short, sharp and messy; a deadly fireworks display as UT’s array of weaponry ignites the air around you. “We’re targeting a movement system that empowers anyone to get in and have a great first experience, while still providing plenty to master on their journey toward competitive-level play,” Brown says.

Speaking of the weaponry, UT’s firearms are more broadly sourced from the various games in the series. Classics like the Enforcer Pistol, the Bio-Rifle and the ASMD Shock Rifle return more or less as they were in 1999. The Link Gun parachutes in from UT 2004 , while the Stinger Minigun and the Rocket Launcher form UT III ’s contribution. “Each of those titles had its strengths, and we feel that we’ve been able to capture the best of all possible worlds in the current game,” Brown observes.

Of course, as stated earlier by Brown, much of this is placeholder art, the basis around which the team will create new designs for the weapons as development progresses. The same goes for maps. The majority of  UT ’s available maps are boxy sketches still in the process of construction, while classic maps such as Deck 16 and the mighty Facing Worlds exist as pixel-for-pixel copies of their 1999 versions.
Epic’s approach to building this new UT is influenced by its design of Unreal Engine 4
The two maps that are finished, Outpost 23 and the Lea Observatory, provide a glimpse of what the final game will look like. Outpost 23 is a real showcase for Unreal Engine 4, its white corridors displaying UE4’s snazzy lighting effects, while a small outdoor platform gives an impressive view of rolling green grasslands, hinting at the engine’s potential for scale. The Lea Observatory is the antithesis to this, a tight, twisting deathmatch arena, its dark corridors offering little respite from enemy fire. Lea is also the first community-built map to be incorporated into the game. “We plan on developing a few maps for each gametype, and encourage the community to create their own maps, whether they be remastered classics or new content,” Brown adds.

Epic’s close working relationship with the community isn’t simply about letting them create weapons or maps and cherry-picking the best contributions. Brown explains that the designers are actively involved in the community’s creative process. “Our art director may see a piece of concept art for a new weapon and say, ‘That looks great from the side, but how will it look in first person?  How does it animate?’ As they start building, our modellers may introduce them to the process of actually getting it into the game, and rendering in the engine. This is how we’ve been able to introduce our community to the process of development.”

Epic’s approach to building this new UT is influenced by its design of Unreal Engine 4 not as a technical advancement but as a game-making tool. Unlike UE3, which was aimed at experienced programmers, UE4 is intended to be more accessible. Arguably its most significant new feature is the ‘Blueprints’ visual scripting system, which allows non-programmers to design, tweak and implement mechanics without dealing with the fine detail of raw code. So UT acts as a focus for designing in Unreal Engine, an ongoing project that anyone can get involved with, learning how to use Unreal Engine 4 as they do so.

The two are connected in Epic’s new Game Launcher, which also houses the Unreal Tournament  Marketplace (for downloading rather than buying updates) and the upcoming alpha for Epic’s other in-development game, Fortnite. The prospect of installing yet another game-launching program will likely elicit a sigh from anyone who’s experienced the fiascos that are Uplay and Origin. But at the moment, the Game Launcher is simple and cleanly designed. Moreover, given the almost daily updates to UT and how closely intertwined it is to Unreal Engine 4, it makes sense to bring all this under one roof.
Vehicles are in the pipeline, so we’ll likely be seeing some larger-scale UT combat
Ultimately, it’s the end product that matters. All the fancy game launchers, accessible engines and community development are for nought if the resulting game isn’t any good. What I’ve played is promising, but there’s also little that’s complete. Furthermore, while pace, feel and a devastating Flak Cannon are all vital, what raised UT above other multiplayer shooters was its inventiveness. 1999’s UT introduced us to the Assault mode and its sequence of objective-based maps. UT 2004 added fantastic vehicular combat to the game’s repertoire through its Onslaught mode. What can this UT bring us that’s new?

At the moment, it’s difficult to say. Brown is keen to emphasise that they’re still in pre-alpha. “We haven’t even fully realised the core set of features for the game yet,” he points out. “We hope to expand gameplay options in the future, and the community is always encouraged to create gametypes and mods that reflect how they want to play  UT .”

While, at present, nothing completely new has been confirmed, we can point to a few planned features that will reassure long-time UT  fans. On the game’s Trello board, where components being worked on are listed and the specifics of said work Detailed, there are wo game modes specified Assault and Bombing Run. The latter made appearances in  UT 2003  and  UT 2004  before dropping out of favour, so it’s clear that there’s a desire to mine the entire series for ideas.Vehicles, too, are in the pipeline, including the Goliath tank, the Scorpion buggy and the Raptor VTOL, so we’ll likely be seeing some larger-scale  UT  combat. While I’m at it, Epic is also looking to implement more advanced movement mechanics, and new alternate fires for the Biorifle and Stinger Minigun. All of this is open to suggestions and design submissions from the community.

It’s still early days, but already this new UT feels right. The slick movement and snappy shooting, the vivid aesthetic, the sci-fi setting it all brings back fond memories of shooting my brother’s head off across the LAN in the attic of our childhood home. The question now is whether Epic’s blend of professional and community development can push beyond nostalgia, and demonstrate the playful ingenuity that transformed the 1999  UT  from being merely a decent multiplayer FPS into a stalwart classic.

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