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Anyone can help build the next Unreal Tournament, even you

I met Epic Games’ Jim Brown in a large booth – elevated above the crowded and noisy GDC show floor. He’s beaming. “You’re going to be excited when you see this stuff,” he tells me. “It’s really special.”

As a series, Unreal Tournament has always been driven by a dedicated community of modders and fans. It seems fitting then that Epic is ushering in what it claims is a new era of game development by democratizing everything. The company’s Unreal Engine 4 development tools, which ditched expensive up front fees for subscriptions in 2014, is now free for people to try. That’s certainly an unexpected step. And given the studio’s open, community-driven approach to creating the next Unreal Tournament, it’s downright ludicrous.

In an era when many creators are turning to crowdsource platforms for funding, Epic is applying that same thinking to recruitment. All interested fans have the ability to track progress and share ideas of their own about the game — which, once finished, won’t cost anything and won’t include microtransactions — on the company’s website. Unreal Engine users can even submit code for the core team to review. Previously, that sort of contribution required an Unreal subscription. But subscriptions are no more.

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“We were worried at first,” Brown says. “We had no idea if it would work, but now, we can’t imagine it any other way.”

As part of Epic’s commitment to transparency, the studio has been posting every change made to the game’s code on Github – a site that’s essentially a Wikipedia for programmers. It means that anyone can grab the code and mess around with it to test new ideas or mechanics. “This was a really important step for us,” Brown explains. “It’s a return to our roots. Most of our staff got their start in games by making mods in Unreal, and now we’ve given them the opportunity to help [other fans] make our next game.”

Brown sees this as the best move going forward. Unreal Tournament 3 failed to live up to the expectations of audience, but it taught the team that development is experimental and experiential. New ideas can be tested and studied with feedback from the community. Mechanics that don’t work, or that simply aren’t fun, are left behind, distilling the final product into something beautiful. Brown’s optimism is infectious, but it’s hard not to be skeptical. Marketers and PR folks love to spout optimistic nonsense about how everything is always changing and improving. These are finely crafted and tuned messages made to build up the all-important hype.

When I told him of my skepticism, he said, “Just play it. You’ll know what I mean.”

I was floored.

Unreal Tournament, the new one, that is, revives of the best parts of 1990s shooters. The unrelenting speed, the complete disregard for realism or restraint, and the undiluted hilarity of watching your enemies explode into millions of tiny, meaty pieces when you kill them. I’d forgotten how satisfying it could be to seamlessly move through an environment at impossibly fast speeds, all the while dodging and shooting strange, fantastical weapons.

It’s an unusual experience that few modern shooters even begin to approach. Titanfall had a solid mastery of movement systems, giving me a feeling of power and control over my environment, but Unreal is a whole different animal. It’s responsive and pure in a stunningly unique way. For all of its ludicrousness, it’s tangible just because it’s so damned comfortable.

The community has built out some tutorials to teach some of the more complex concepts — like slope dodging — to newcomers. It might not sound like much, but that extra bit of help is huge. I hadn’t played any of the older Unreal games for quite some time, and even with my refresher I still died every four or five seconds. That’s not as much of a problem as it might initially seem, though. Respawns are almost instant, so I never felt as if I was missing out on any of the action.

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That distinction is important, because death is so costly in many of today’s military shooters. A few seconds to spawn, a few more to find your weapon, and then a minute or more to get back into the thick of things. Unreal, while still very early, was perfectly content to let me try, screw up, respawn, and try again almost immediately. It’s an all-around different approach to multiplayer and the relationship it builds with its players. Where Call of Duty is punishing, Unreal is jovial. It wants you to laugh and enjoy yourself. Frustration over minor mistakes doesn’t really exist because you always get a quick glance of your own body exploding into a bloody mess. That helps take the edge off.

Epic has done something truly special here. Taking the recent trends of crowd funding and early access games to their logical extremes, the Unreal team wants players to be a part of the game from beginning to end. So far the results speak for themselves. Jim Brown and the rest of the folks at Epic are guiding it, but only with gentle nudges to make sure that the result still ultimately comes out looking and feeling like Unreal. For many, that’d be an extraordinarily risky decision. But Brown thinks it makes a lot of sense.

“Our old business model meant that we would be in development for years, honing and crafting something we thought played well. That just doesn’t make sense anymore. We have thousands of playtests and we can have QA running from the very beginning. That keeps us closer to our fans, closer the people we’re trying to serve. It’s all about the community. If we don’t have them, we’re lost.”