Earlier this month, Epic Games teased Xbox 360 owners with some screenshots of the upcoming port of Unreal Tournament III. They failed to summon any interest. It's extremely unusual for such an event to occur. If we take Epic's track record, (let alone the success of the Unreal Tournament series), their games have been at the forefront of Shooter fans' minds since 1999. The Unreal franchise is a legacy, one that even commands a widely accepted graphics engine. Is the reason simple ignorance or is there something more worrying at work? We attempt to find out.
The most obvious place to start is with the Xbox 360 release date. The game is due out nine months after its PC and PS3 counterparts. Anyone with sense would have bought the PC version (due to the superiority of the mouse and keyboard) and the rest, would have made do with the PS3 version. Nine months is a long time to wait for a game, even by the most hardcore of followers.
On the other hand, could it be because of Call of Duty 4? Last year was a gaming renaissance, with Call of Duty 4 taking the top spot in sales and critical success. Is it possible that the Call of Duty 4 revolution silenced Epic's child? When you look at the meta-reviews for Unreal Tournament III and Call of Duty 4 side by side, it's not as bad as you'd think. Call of Duty gets an average 94, whilst the PC version of Unreal Tournament III hits an 83 and the PS3 gets 86. Supporters of Call of Duty will sprout that earlier this week the UK retail chain, GAME, named Call of Duty 4 its best game of all time. The cynics among us will see that purely as a marketing gimmick.
Confusion may be creeping in at this point. Nobody got excited about some screenshots, what's the big deal? The bigger picture is far more worrying, especially now Unreal's got some steam behind it. Everything links to thefor Unreal Tournament III. A quick glance will show a healthy server count of just under a thousand. That clocks in about twelve thousand possible player spaces. The actual player rate is around 500max a day. Emails from Epic Games to server hosts confirms the fact that no-one is playing. Originally this was due to a shoddy server browser and a lack of anti-hacking tools. Six months on, things have improved; patches have been released and stability has been reinstated. The PC version crashed in price, with retailers trying to generate some interest. The game is still available at a rock-bottom cost of ten dollars, yet the player base hasn't improved.
No-one's playing the current versions, is it really a problem? Competition isn't to blame and neither is a poor product. Have Epic simply put Unreal Tournament in a retirement home, with their new love-child, Gears of War getting their full attention? The figures above could be easily interpreted. Unreal was a game of pros. Unreal Tournament, and its follow up 2004 had a gigantic following. It was the game of E-Sports, on par with Quake and Counter Strike. Its modding community was and still is feverishly hard at work. Did Unreal Tournament III just come at a bad time? Fans and purists would have moved back to 2004, where cheaters were controlled and it's possible to play without Lag.
Once again, observant readers will be crying out about 2003. Unreal Tournament III's launch and subsequent failure smells of “been here before.” Unreal Tournament 2003 was released four years after the original. It was bought by thousands and promptly shelved. It failed. 2004 arrived and was heralded a return to form. Fan’s faith was restored. Is it possible that Unreal Tournament IV will complete the cycle? You'd think that the choice of multi-platform would widen its appeal. Maybe multi-platform development was III's mistake; too large a scope. Fanatics will regurgitate the age old argument that PCs are made for First Person Shooters. In III's case, it's exactly spot on. Unreal had been attempted on consoles before (Unreal Championship on the Xbox), and was met with a turning of the back. The controller just cannot handle the fast paced nature of the game.
The key point of this exploration is that the luke-warm reception shouldn't have affected the PC. We expected player numbers to increase steadily once the issues were fixed. It hasn't happened and it's worrying. For Xbox 360 owners, it's the equivalent of Halo 3 being released, but no-one playing it online. For a game made for competitive online multiplayer, it's shocking that it has crumbled. Even more so if you factor in the idea that online is the future.
The main aim of this editorial was to get to a conclusion of what's next. Did Unreal Tournament III come to the party late? Did it fall down to hype? It's unlikely that Epic will abandon the franchise, but it's been done before. Is it another sign that PC-based competitive gaming is declining? You can argue why we should care, as it's just a game, but Epic and the Unreal series have helped shaped gaming into what it is today. It's a situation that has been swept under the carpet by the release of other games.
The solution is not the same as it was in the past. PC-centric development meant that patches or even complete rebuilds could be done within a year as in the 2003/2004 situation. The modern multiplatform development cycle makes it virtually impossible. It's worrying times for one of the most thought-after developers in gaming, and it's about time they sat up, tossed aside their chainsaws and took notice.