BeyondUnreal tracked down Dave Ewing at Digital Extremes to take a look back and a look forward. Digital Extremes started out small. They developed Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Unreal Tournament 2003, and Unreal Tournament 2004 with Epic Games and have now grown into a multi-armed company capable of creating several games simultaneously.

Since this interview took place, details of Digital Extremes' latest project, Pariah, have emerged.

BU: State your name, if you will, and what you do for Digital Extremes.

DE: Dave Ewing, Lead Level Designer, Digital Extremes London.

BU: A year later, how do you feel about Unreal Tournament 2003, the timing of the release, and the reception by the online community?

DE: Making any game is a lot of hard work. We're pleased with UT2003 but realize now that changing too much too fast in an attempt to keep the game fresh may have hurt it more than helped, especially in the eyes of the online community. It's always a risk to try something new but if we didn't take risks there'd never be any innovation in gaming. Fortunately we've had some time to address a lot of the concerns of the online communtiy with UT2004.

BU: Looking back, what (if any) kinds of things would you have changed about UT2003?

DE: A lot of the stuff that I would have changed about UT2003 have pretty much been taken care of in UT2004. With the addition of vehicles and the return of Assault along with the new Onslaught gametype, UT2004 is really hitting the mark. The Bombing Run maps included with UT2003 and the ability to 'pass to yourself' were detrimental to the success of the new gametype, I think. The new tweaks of making the bomb track better while passing and of draining the translocator charge really enourage passing a lot more then the UT2003 version of Bombing Run. Even a bit of coordination between teammates is well rewarded now. The 'one man army' aspect of throwing the bomb and translocating behind to pick it up again in UT2003 Bombing Run took too much away from the original intent of the gametype. Also in UT2004, we've tried to address some of the issues that plagued the UT2003 maps. Play areas are more spacious and easier to manouver in--visuals are not as cluttered which makes the other players more visible. UT2004 maps on the whole are more comfortable and fun to play in.

BU: The Unreal Engine changed dramatically from UT to UT2003. Static Meshes and Terrain were introduced. Model sizes were increased and new character movement increased the movement abilities. I understand that there was a real learning curve to mapping for it. What did you learn about level design for the new game that you put into practice with the Bonus Pack maps?

DE: Yes, all the new technology certainly changed level design! Trying to work BSP, terrain, and static meshes to fit together seamlessly is definitely a tougher job then working with BSP alone. There's also the challenge of showing what the engine is capable of visually, yet still creating environments that are fun to play in. With the Bonus Pack we included maps that leaned more towards fun gameplay and further from eye-popping visual overkill.

BU: The fans seemed to really love the DE Bonus Pack for UT2003. Will Digital Extremes be involved in any type of UT2004 Bonus Packs or add-ons?

DE: We'll see! :)

BU: Do you have any standout favorites for any of the entries in the Make Something Unreal Contest? Maps, mods, or otherwise?

DE: Oh boy... There's a lot of great stuff from that contest. I'm leaving out lots of amazing mods and other content, but being a mapper at heart I'll just mention a couple out of the several great maps that I thought stood out: DM-Aristocracy by Paul 'Taz' Mader was my favourite from the 'Original Content Level' portion of the contest. It had a unique and very atmospheric feel to it, yet managed to be a great playing map at the same time, which is (in my opinion) the holy grail of mapping. For the 'Non-Original Content Level' part of the contest I gave BR-Ringball by Scott 'Silencer' Fredrick top marks. It wasn't the most polished map ever created, but the concept was very cool. It almost made me puke the first time I played it (which, believe it or not, is a good thing for a level to do, in my books!) That was the first time that had happened in a long, long time. :)

BU: Have you had a chance to play Legend's XMP add on for Unreal 2? If so, what are your thoughts about it?

DE: I've just played it a few times, actually. There are some great ideas in it and I thought it was a lot of fun with a large group. Plus, it's free, so you can't go wrong trying it out! :)

BU: (if so) In your opinion, would XMP have conflicted with UT2003 it were released with Unreal 2 as planned?

DE: I don't think so. It's a very different gaming experience than UT2003. UT2003 was a much faster playing game and far less complicated, so in that sense the two games might appeal to different gaming crowds.

BU: Tell us about any new content that Digital Extremes provided for Unreal Tournament 2004. Models, Maps, Ideas?

DE: DE has contributed some new models, skins, and animations as well as a ton of maps and map content. The new Shock Rifle, Linkgun, and Assault Rifle models and skins were all DE creations too. Fourteen new maps were probably our biggest addition to UT2004. We looked at what type of maps were the least prevailent in UT2003 and thus added more Double Domination and Bombing Run maps, and some bigger CTF and Death Match maps. The CTF and BR maps in the demo are DE maps.

BU: Can you tell us anything at all about Digital Extremes' next project, DarkSector? A year ago, James Schmalz told me 'soon'... so c'mon now, cough it up!

DE: Sorry, we're keeping very tight-lipped about DS until we are ready to show you something that will knock your socks off! You'll just have to wait! :)

BU: Digital Extremes have been co-creating the Unreal series since the very beginning. I would imagine that the fans' expectations kind of limit your options when creating an established series. At the same time without the history and restrictions of an established series, you might have more freedom to create. Any thoughts on what it is like working on something totally different now?

DE: It's certainly very nice to be working on something completely different now. There is definitely a bit of burn out when you've been working on one game style and universe for so long. And trying something new in an existing universe can be a dangerous thing. Like you mention, fans and communtiy have an expectation of what each new game should be before it is ever shown and not meeting that expectation can really upset the applecart, so to speak! Dark Sector will be in a whole new universe and completely new gameplay. At this point in my career it is defintely a breath of fresh air! :)

BU: How closely have DE been able to work with its new studio, Brainbox Games? Will they be assisting in any future/current DE projects or are they going to return to focusing on console games?

DE: It's a bit confusing but what we originally called Brainbox Games is now called Digital Extremes Toronto and they are the team creating the new first-person shooter we just announced called Pariah. There is a 3rd separate, much smaller team within the DE Toronto studio that is now called Brainbox Games that has been focusing on games of a much smaller scope to try out new ideas on a less financially risky scale. We've grown quite a bit over the last couple years and our goal is to continue to drive a staggered development process to maximize our production time on projects.

For instance, in the beginning stages of a project there is less for level designers to do as they are often waiting on tools, content and base gameplay to work with, so they might help out with a project that is further along and in need of some level design help. There is of course a shared knowledge base between the two studios as well, as we both work with the Unreal Engine.

BU: Is there any game or new idea in the industry that you find particularly exciting?

DE: Being a MMOG fan and a big Blizzard fan I'm definitely stoked about the upcoming release of Worlds of Warcraft. I'm very interested in seeing how they will meld the elements of the Warcraft world into a massively multiplayer game. Haven't had time to try out the beta yet, but hopefully soon!

BU: Will there be future Digital Extremes and Epic collaborations? Or are there any planned at this time?

DE: We've had a great track record working together with Epic but beyond UT2004 there's nothing else planned at this time.

BU: What do you think about the early feedback on the Unreal Tournament 2004 demo?

DE: So far it's been very encouraging! People seem to really enjoy the new gametypes an awful lot, but we were pretty sure they would be well liked. The tweaked version of Bombing Run seems to be catching on a lot more too, which is very exciting. Perhaps some of the potential we thought it had will finally be met with UT2004?

BU: Among the Digital Extremes team, is there a favorite new addition, weapon, or map?

DE: Everybody here is pretty stoked about the Onslaught gametype. All the vastly different vehicles and new weapons give people of all skill levels and playing styles something to enjoy.

Thanks for your time, Dave! Unreal Tournament 2004 is due out on retail shelves around March 15th. In the meantime, check out the Unreal Tournament 2004 demo.

Essential Links: