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Last Updated: Monday, 1 September, 2003, 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK
Online sci-fi shooter listens to fans

By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

Online gaming is here to stay and will continue to be compelling, as long as you evolve with your community.

Character in Unreal Tournament 2004
Several new characters join older ones in UT2004
So says Jay Wilbur, Epic Games developer of Unreal Tournament 2004, the latest multiplayer online game from the Unreal family.

As broadband becomes more readily available, the population of online players is growing and they need to be fed great games.

The challenge developers face is how to improve on an existing game and keep the huge community of committed players hooked.

No messing

Billed by games giant Atari as "the next evolution of the greatest competitive computer game ever created", the futuristic, multiplayer PC title prepares for combat this autumn.

It comes less than a year after its smash hit predecessor UT2003.

But UT2004 offers improvements which have clearly been influenced by what their dedicated player community of thousands want.

Character from Unreal Tournament 2004
How do you change football? You bring in players, you do different things, but you don't mess with the underlying aspect of the game
Jay Wilbur, Epic
"Because broadband access is not so uneven, the online gaming population grows, so companies will need to feed that marketplace with product," Mr Wilbur told BBC News Online.

What is important is game makers ensure they go through a step by step process to make the game even better, he said.

That means having a good idea of what will be fun, talking about it, brainstorming it and improving on it in "evolutionary steps".

Part of this process has been to post comments on player forums and it is not uncommon to see the developers playing in a match.

"We took everything the community said was good and we made it better and everything they said was bad, we worked to make that better too or eliminated it completely," said the Epic developer.

No messing

The key is not to mess around with the core value and idea of the game, in an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' kind of way.

"How do you change football? You bring in players, you do different things, but you don't mess with the underlying aspect of the game," said Mr Wilbur.

"We're a little bit more open than that because we are in a fantasy world, so we can do what we want. We can bring in different weapons and we're not limited by stadiums. We can set things on a corner of a rock flying around Mars if we want," he explained.

Ultimately, the Epic team have stuck to the gameplay that works, but added some new features into the mix.

One for UT2004 is voice over IP (VoIP). This lets players talk to each other online using headsets and increases the tactical ability of the team.

Before this innovation, he and his sons used standard telephone headsets to communicate to each other which made them an unbeatable team.

As more players take up broadband, Epic believes VoIP will give them enormous benefits and make the games even more fun.

End game

The new version also comes with two new game types, Assault and Onslaught, new weapons, maps and characters, which all build on UT2003.

Tank form Unreal Tournament 2004
UT2004's new mode make the most of vehicle action
The game demonstrated at London's ECTS video games show looked amazing, with players feeling fully immersed in the futuristic landscapes and battles.

Pick your character, your team, the game you wish to join, then it is a matter of seek, destroy and win.

Or you can sit back and watch the game from afar using UT2004's new feature, UnrealTV.

UTV is a software process called a spectator proxy that allows many people to connect to games in play and watch the battles. Thousands can be watching, live, with only a few seconds delay.

It is a classic example of user-generated innovation which came from the developers listening to players. It was originally a mod developed for the Unreal Tournament by two Swedish players.

As broadband gets better there will be more to come, perhaps video screens where you can simultaneously see or map peoples' faces, mused Mr Wilbur.

"Who knows? But the key, world changing innovations are going to come from some place you never expected and are going to be delivered in a manner you'd never consider, from people you thought would probably never have made it."

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