If you are an iPhone gamer and haven't tried Epic Citadel yet, you're doing yourself a disservice. Epic Games wowed the crowd at the recent Apple event with the free demo, showing an astoundingly beautiful virtual town running in full 3D graphics on the iPhone and the iPad. Epic's Mark Rein is here at GDC Online 2010 this week to talk to developers about Unreal Engine 3 on iOS and other platforms (he can't keep from showing off the game running on Android, even when you tell him that you work for an Apple blog and don't write about Android anyway), and I cornered him to chat about Epic Citadel and Project Sword, the game it's serving as a demo for.
My first question was what drew Epic to a platform like the iPhone in the first place -- the developer is known for titles like Unreal Tournament and Gears of War, which are big flashy titles that sell Microsoft's platforms, not Apple's. Rein told me that it was "the power of the hardware. It was capable of doing what we wanted it to do in mobile. That's always been our driving philosophy, is when we have platforms that are powerful enough to run our technology, and there's a good business case for supporting them, that we would."
Epic Citadel is most popular on the iPhone 4, but Rein actually says it was the iPhone 3GS that really sold Epic on the power of gaming. "The iPhone 3GS is a very powerful device," he told me, "and it was really the first mobile phone that broke over the line of something we could actually run Unreal Engine 3 on without making significant compromises." Of course, Epic Citadel is just a demo for the game code-named Project Sword, a full RPG title that Epic is releasing soon. And while I did ask, Rein didn't offer up a price or date yet.
However, he did seem to hint that it will be more expensive than your average $1.99 minigame. I asked him if he thought there was a market for higher-priced, premium titles on the iPhone, and he quickly answered with examples of games that had done what Epic seems to want to do. "There have been some pretty fantastic successes -- Call of Duty did extremely well; it's a $10 title on the iPad. GTA. There's lots of big brand, high quality titles that have done well. The Brits have a saying, 'Horses for Courses,' and that doesn't mean people won't make Angry Birds -- and there's a new one called Cut the Rope, which is fantastic."
Rein says that while a lot of customers scoff at the higher prices of triple-A titles on the App Store, quality can actually make bigger-name titles more popular. "We firmly believe," he said. "that now that you can do this kind of quality on the phones that it'll be a big differentiator, and our strength." There is still an audience, according to Rein, that wants to play a "console-like" title on an indie-friendly platform like the iPhone, and "for the guys who want those kinds of experiences, we have the technology to deliver it."
A few big-name developers have been looking at Mac development in a new light, and I asked Rein if Epic was interested in releasing more games on the Mac in the future, but his response was pretty dubious. "I wouldn't say there's no interest," he told me. "We've sold lots of games on the Mac -- Unreal Tournament 2004 won Apple's Design Award on the Mac. So it's not that we have no interest in the Mac, it's just that right now, we're concentrating on the iOS devices." And why is that? "There's a lot more iPhones out there, aren't there? iPhone's a very big market, it's a very big game market, there's a great store to sell your games in, the infrastructure's there, the desire's there, the demand from customers. Clearly, huge, huge, huge, gaming market. And the Mac is a small gaming market."
Finally, since Rein has said in multiple interviews about Epic Citadel that the iPhone can do an impressive amount of processing, I asked him what the limits were -- what, I said, can't it do? But he deflected, saying that there's lots more that developers can do with Unreal Engine on iOS before they find its limits. "I think there's lots we can figure out to do what it does do without worrying what it doesn't do." True enough. There's no word on exactly when we'll see Project Sword on the App Store, but iPhone gamers should be extremely glad to have Epic working hard to get the Unreal Engine running so beautifully on Apple's mobile platform.