Like that guest who lingers well after everyone else has left the party, the current generation of consoles just keeps sticking around. Past generations typically lasted five years before technology advances made the jump to a new piece of hardware a foregone conclusion. But with a struggling world economy and the ability to update and enhance their existing platforms, companies like Microsoft and Sony felt no rush to jump into another wildly expensive generation of consoles. 

Developers may be able to squeeze better performance out of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but as the gorgeous PC release of Battlefield 3 showed us last year, the gulf between the current graphics cards being created by AMD and Nvidia and the aging consoles is widening. Couple this noticeable gap with a slowdown in sales, and it’s time to start thinking about the future. 

With the next generation of video games on the horizon, game developers and publishers will soon enter a new technological arms race, each aggressively leaning on their most talented engineers to exploit the power at the core of the new consoles to produce bleeding-edge graphics. Their goal is simultaneously a collective and individual one. They need to convince gamers to make the jump from their current consoles, while convincing them that their game is the one that best displays the next generation’s capabilities.  

One of the first games that captured the imagination of gamers last generation was Gears of War. With its stunning graphics, responsive controls, and a co-op campaign, Epic Games’ sci-fi shooter helped convince gamers to purchase the Xbox 360 and has gone on to accrue more than a billion dollars in sales over three games. Gears of War showcased Epic’s Unreal Engine 3, which has become ubiquitous in the development community thanks to its flexible toolset and advanced graphical capabilities.

Now Epic’s gaze is turning once again to the future. To create Unreal Engine 4, the company talked with hardware manufacturers like Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and Qualcomm to get a clear picture of their technological road maps. Working from some informed assumptions about the next generation’s hardware capabilities, company founder Tim Sweeney then charted out his company’s vision of future game development. With input from its talented engineers, artists, and designers, Epic has created a scalable platform capable of meeting the demands for a new era of game development, from high-end next-gen consoles to the rapidly evolving mobile space. Not bad for a company that Sweeney started in his parents’ basement 20 years ago.

The Modest Giant

Like many game developers of his era, Tim Sweeney’s love affair with programming started with a happenstance encounter with a curious piece of technology. When he was just 10 years old, Sweeney traveled to California to spend a week with his older brother, who had just started his own company. To keep his kid brother busy while he was working, Steve Sweeney introduced him to a state-of-the-art IBM PC and taught him the basics of BASIC, an early programming language. Exceptionally smart for his age, it didn’t take Tim long to see the potential of experimenting with this new language. After a couple days of tinkering at his brother’s side, a love affair was born. 

A self-professed awkward teen, Sweeney spent the majority of his high school years practicing computer programming in solitude instead of socializing with classmates. Over the next five years, Sweeney estimates he spent roughly 10,000 hours honing his craft, learning programming techniques by emulating other applications and making improvements to the baseline code. 

Though he experimented making games on his Apple II, it wasn’t until Sweeney received an IBM of his own that he started his first commercial endeavor. While studying for a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Maryland, Sweeney would spend his nights and weekends programming. Unsatisfied with the PC text editor he was using, Sweeney started developing one of his own. He got bored during the project and decided to make the cursor into a smiley face. Treating it like a character, he then created other characters he could type that would block the smiley face or move around. This mild diversion eventually evolved into the text-mode graphic adventure game ZZT, which shared similarities to Apogee Software and 3D Realms founder Scott Miller’s game Kingdom of Kroz. 

In 1991, Sweeney officially formed his first company, Potomac Computer Systems, and released ZZT via shareware. Even early on, he showed a deft ability to create editing tools that helped others make their own games. ZZT met modest success, but its most popular feature was the packaged editor that allowed the community to tinker and create its own extensions to the game. Sweeney was selling three or four copies a day, which was enough to let him forsake his engineering degree and turn game development into a full-time job. 

Over the next eight years, Sweeney’s modest company grew rapidly. He changed the name to Epic MegaGames (which eventually evolved into Epic Games), released more successful gamaes like Jill of the Jungle, moved out of his parent’s house and into an office space, and hired several talented people who still play key roles in the company, including vice president Mark Rein and design director Cliff Bleszinski.

At the same time, PC games were booming in popularity thanks to revolutionary titles like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake, each of which was built on the back of the technical achievements of legendary programmer John Carmack. Ever the tinkerer, Sweeney saw some areas where he could improve the 3D experience, and he decided to give it a go himself. 

The result was the Unreal Engine, a 3D powerhouse that brought a host of graphical improvements, including colored lighting, software rendering, and detail texturing. Suddenly, the id Tech engine had a serious rival. 

When Unreal Engine debuted in 1996, it didn’t take long for phone calls to start streaming in from other developers interested in licensing the engine. Sweeney and Rein realized the profit potential and started more aggressively pushing their proprietary technology, adapting it for consoles on the way to selling 38 licenses. Epic no longer just had a reputation as a talented game developer; it was also a big player in the engine space. 

The company’s continued influence spread with the introduction of the Unreal Engine 2, which debuted in the 2002 title America’s Army. With completely rewritten core code and rendering engine, Epic positioned the engine to be flexible enough to evolve over time, eventually adding support for the GameCube, Xbox, and PlayStation 2. Developers grew to like the toolset, and Epic’s engine service proliferated; companies shipped almost 200 games powered by Unreal Engine 2, including best sellers like Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six 3, and Lineage II. Two years later, Sweeney’s team showcased Unreal Engine 3, which was quickly embraced by the industry. 

As the visionary behind the engine, Sweeney’s expertise was suddenly in high demand. When planning the hardware specifications for the Xbox 360, Microsoft frequently conversed with Sweeney to make sure the console would give creators the power they wanted for creating a new generation of games. When Sweeney advised them to double the amount of RAM in the console, Microsoft obliged to the tune of an extra $1 billion in production costs. While it may have cost Microsoft more money up front, it helped the system deliver highly detailed games like Gears of War that solidified the console’s reputation as a game changer and convinced gamers to ditch their PS2s and Xboxes.

Now, nine years into the licensing of Unreal Engine 3, Epic is the unquestioned leader in engine technology. The licensee list is a who’s who of game developers and publishers, including Activision, Take Two, Capcom, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Square Enix. Nearly 300 Unreal Engine 3 games have shipped on almost every platform on the market, including all the major consoles, handhelds, and mobile platforms like iOS and Android.