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Xbox 360 2: What Epic wants

Cliff Blezsinski and the Gears of War household talk next gen consoles

Our week-long look at what developers want from the next generation of Xbox continues with a word or two from Epic Games, fresh from the launch of Gears of War 3.

Gears isn't just what Epic is best known for: in the absence of new Halo titles, it's the game Xbox is best known for too. Whether the publisher chooses to follow on directly from Gears 3 or take the franchise in a fresh direction, you can bet planet Sera will play a decisive role in the next gen console battle.

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Epic's intimidating Samaritan tech demo, shown off at GDC 2011.

As, indeed, will Epic's middleware toolset the Unreal Engine, a firm fixture of current generation software development. In a bold move, Epic called out Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo at the Games Developer Conference this year, terming the latest version of Unreal Engine 3 a "proposal for the next generational leap in gaming".

Senior technical artist and designer Alan Willard points out that the ingredients for Xbox 720 gaming are already there. "The tools to build that stuff are available in the Unreal Development Kit for free, now. And the hardware to run it is available if you're prepared to drop two and a half grand on a PC. It's just not clearly available in any other form or factor. The intent with Samaritan was just to put it out there and say: 'this is the kind of thing we can produce, if you build the hardware'.

"If you can give us something that has this minimum spec, then this is the kind of quality that we can produce. And obviously since we license the engine other studios will be able to produce that level of quality too."

More powerful hardware can mean back-breaking work for programmers, of course - but not necessarily. Manufacturers don't just raise thresholds when they create new consoles; if they've got their heads screwed on, they'll also iterate within those thresholds to make developer's lives easier. "There's always, with every generation, you generate more content to get the higher quality bar, so there's always going to be more development work that goes into making environments.

"But there are some built-in optimisations you get, like being able to do high polygon characters and not having that additional work of making a low polygon version, which solves a few problems. And you're always going to have demands - you know, more texture memory means you make more textures, more memory for meshes means you make more meshes."

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As any Silverback driver will tell you, techno-power's only worth what you do with it.

As a middleware publisher, Epic feels a responsibility to bridge the gap between what designers want to achieve and what coders can squeeze from a machine. "There's always going to be some increase from generation to generation and title to title, we just hope to make more efficient tools that allow us to counteract that increased art generation cost."

Another Epic man, the legendary Cliff Blezsinzki, offers a plainer-spoken take. "I'm sorry, do you think graphics are good enough? No they're not! The Xbox 360 is great, we've pushed it further than we ever have with Gears of War 3, but I want Avatar in real-time and beyond, I want fully realistic CG, and are we there? Absolutely not. I think there's absolutely room for improvement.

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"Do graphics make gameplay? No. But when I fire up my projector back at my house, put Avatar on - it still makes your jaw drop, it's like a giant portal to another planet. I think we still have a long way to go before we get there, and I want us to get there."

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