Epic Games develops hit games such as the Gears of War franchise, with more than 19 million copies sold. But they don’t stop there. They develop award-winning game engine technology, such as Unreal Engine 3, which holds more than 20 tech awards. They are always working towards something new and exciting. As Senior Online Architect, Joe Graf supports that mission. He was the Lead Engine Programmer and Lead Gameplay Programmer for the third installment of Gears. Now, he works on Epic’s online and social features.
Gamesauce: What made you passionate about video games?
Joe: Without games, I might never have become interested in computers. When I was a teenager, I used to copy programs out of magazines (yes, that’s real and that’s how old I am). Then you could tinker with the code to make it behave differently, and I spent countless hours experimenting. Telengard was the first commercial game that I ever experimented on by manipulating the code. I made all kinds of changes to scale up monsters, change text, loot drops, etc. Those were the first “mods” I ever worked on. Being able to touch the game and see the changes immediately made me want to be a programmer when I grew up. It was like learning magical incantations that summoned something on screen: very powerful.
GS: When did you decide to start a career in video games?
It’s funny that with the early experience I had modding games as a teen, it didn’t occur to me to be in the games industry until much later in life. I had been a consultant in the “real world” for more than a decade. I was very burned out and took some evening time to play Half-Life multiplayer. When Valve released the SDK for Half-Life, I downloaded it and started where I had left off in those teenage years—I tweaked their existing weapons to make entirely new ones. My favorite was what I called the Snark RPG. I changed the RPG’s shell to spawn a set of Snarks instead of doing splash damage. It was super fun to drop Snarks into a bunker via the RPG laser guidance and watch as the enemy fled from them. Then I discovered Unreal Tournament and UnrealScript. That opened up a whole world of modding to me. After creating a bunch of mods for my clan and some crazy weapon mods (translocator mines and laser-guided Eightball), I saw an ad for a programming role on the Epic website. I applied immediately, only I was too late. Epic had already filled the role. However, that led me to an opportunity to do contracting for them and eventually I joined Scion Studios, which became Epic during a merger.
GS: Which past career experience has been most memorable to you?
Wow, there’ve been so many. Shipping any product tends to be a memorable experience, so I’d have to go with all of the products I shipped before and during my tenure at Epic. The first Gears of War was an especially profound experience due to the intense media scrutiny and the tight time constraint of having a fixed ship date.
GS: Can you tell us about working with Epic Games? What skills have proven useful to you in your current position?
Working at Epic is truly an epic experience. Every person here is motivated to make the best products they can. It’s pretty inspirational to walk around and get a glimpse of what others are working on.
Perhaps the best skill I have, I developed as a consultant. When you are a consultant, you see many different organizational structures, company cultures, and ways of approaching problems. You are constantly adapting to change on every project. As a result, the pace of the game industry seems natural to me. I wake up expecting change and can get used to the notion that what I am doing today may not be best for the company tomorrow. When I joined Epic, they were known for PC games, then console games, and now mobile games. Learning to love change is a great skill in an industry that moves much faster than most.
GS: How has the social factor affected game development?
Historically, games have always been inherently social. Well, except for solitaire. As I was growing up, even pickup baseball games had a social element to them: “I have to pick my best friend or he’ll be mad” or “don’t pick him because he’s not part of our group.” When many people say “social,” I think they are really saying “social networks.” Social networks bring awareness to your product, but including them as part of your game design doesn’t necessarily make your game more social. For it to be social, I feel a game needs to bring groups of people together to have a shared experience, whether that’s a cooperative or competitive one. When you think about it that way, the social components of a game are not new. Clans have been around and are one form. Halo’s party system is a fine example. Infinity Blade II’s ClashMob system is another approach. And so is picking your friends to be on your baseball team.
GS: What difficulties may developers face when integrating social components into a game?
I think this biggest difficulty is in making sure the social components enhance the gameplay. Ideally, the more interactions you have, the more the gameplay is enhanced. If you can pull that off, then you’ll have a very social game that people will want to evangelize on your behalf. If you incorporate social interactions poorly, it will feel like you bolted the features on in order to meet some kind of marketing checklist. So with that said, plan the features from the beginning with an eye toward making the game experience for players better the more they participate in social interactions.
GS: What is one lesson Epic Games learned by creating Infinity Blade series?
Continue to take risks. Shadow Complex was a huge success for ChAIR. Naturally, people thought that Shadow Complex 2 would be their next game. Instead, our board decided they should take a risk and try a mobile game. In hindsight, it wasn’t much of a risk.
GS: What traits do you believe help create a good social game?
As I suggested in the previous response on difficulties of adding social components, I feel that a good social game has fun gameplay, but is more enjoyable when shared with others. The more the social hooks support the gameplay, the better the experience for the player.
GS: What do you predict for the future of the market?
Constant change. We’re at a unique point in games history. There have been multiple disruptions from business models to platform choices. The pace of these disruptions feels like it’s accelerating, at least for the next few years, so I expect lots of change in business models, gameplay, and player behavior/preference.
GS: Can you tell us about what we can look forward to from Epic Games?
We don’t talk about unannounced projects, but you can expect us to build on the social features that we’ve created to date. We’re really looking to make community an important part of your gaming experience.