T H E   G A M E S P O T   N E T W O R K
Blinded By Reality: The True Story Behind the Creation of Unreal
Part One - In the Beginning

Part Two - Virtual Development
- The Pressure Mounts
- Maple Leaf
- The Scalpel Comes Out
- Reality on the Horizon

Part Three - Reality Rises
Behind the Games
Virtual Development
Gradually, the Unreal team had grown from the core group of three in Rockville, MD, to what eventually totaled a dozen-plus developers spread out all over the world. While Sweeney worked on the engine and editor in Maryland, Bleszinski designed levels from his home base in California, and Schmalz worked with his team at Digital Extremes on art, design, and scripting in Canada. The level designers and technical specialists were even more spread out on the globe - some from places as far away as the Netherlands. Although this "virtual development" team worked well together, its face-to-face contact was extremely limited. For instance, Dave Carter, the Chicago-based lead animator for Unreal, was hired completely over the Internet on the strength of a single animation demo. "Believe it or not," Schmalz remembers, "I didn't meet Dave [in person] until we had worked together for two straight years."

"Believe it or not, I didn't meet [lead animator] Dave Carter until we had worked together for two straight years."
- James Schmalz

While the concept of creating a topnotch, blockbuster game with a virtual development team was appealing to Epic and Digital Extremes, it would prove onerous once the project kicked into full gear. "At the start, it wasn't too bad because we all did our separate things," says Schmalz. "But once the team really built up - during the last year or so of development - we realized that the coordination was too hard with more than a dozen people working at different locations around the globe. When I'd be going to bed in Canada, someone in Europe would just be waking up."

Third Time's a Charm
Almost inevitably, progress on the game began to slow. The virtual development scheme was a primary culprit, but other factors also contributed to Unreal's now-legendary delays. As previously mentioned, the fragile work of designing a game based on an unfinished piece of technology was cumbersome and time-consuming. "It's truly the toughest thing for a developer to do," says Rein. "How do you design a monster for a level that isn't even in the game yet?" asks Bleszinski. "It was very frustrating, but also a learning process for everyone involved."

A castle level created for the game, but never used in the final version.
This learning process would lead to much wasted effort. A perfect example was the team's work to create rich visual textures for the levels, similar to the Riven-esque environment it had originally envisioned. "We started off by just taking digital pictures of textures such as rock and stone and using them, but we were pretty wrong about that working," recalls Bleszinski. "We ended up using those as a base but had to do lots of modifications to them so they would look good in the engine." In the end, over 5,000 textures were created for the game. Only about half of them were ever used.

The high standards of the Epic team would also cause delays. "The rule was that only the coolest stuff gets in," says Bleszinski. "If there was a creature that wasn't as good as some of the other ones, it was out. Theoretically, we could have made two or three games out of all the content we created. We just wanted the best stuff in there."

Finally, the game's technical innovations took longer than expected to complete, particularly the scripted, in-game cut-scenes that would eventually produce Unreal's spookiest moments. These dramatic interludes - such as the early level scene where the lights suddenly cut out, the music changes, and Skaarj warriors leap from the darkness and attack the bewildered player - are what truly separates Unreal from its competition. "[This type of] drama is really tough to do," says Bleszinski, "because you have to account for all the possibilities. For instance, if a Nali Alien is scripted to get killed by a Skaarj, you must account for all the possibilities - what if the player goes and stands between them, or what if he kills the Nali before the Skaarj gets to him? I think everyone underestimates how difficult it is to program those elements into a game."

Next: The Pressure Mounts>