Splinters in the Microsoft Family: Silicon Knights Sues Epic Games

Lest one think that making interactive entertainment is all fun and games, the latest story breaking in the game industry should put all of that to rest. It’s a convoluted and disappointing development, but filled with allegations of sabotage and the kinds of corporate intrigue you might expect to find in a John Grisham novel. The headline is simple, Silicon Knights (Legacy of Kain, Eternal Darkness) has filed a lawsuit against Epic Games (Gears of War, Unreal Tournament) alleging that Epic filed on numerous occasions to deliver a fully-functional version of the Unreal engine to it’s partners, including Silicon Knights. It gets uglier when you start to read between the lines, however. Click on to read the rest!

Silicon Knights had what can only be called a disatrous showing at E3 2006, where their demo of the upcoming Microsoft Game Studios title Too Human was frequently referred to as a slide show or a stop-motion animatic; the game was suffering from severe framerate issues. Denis Dyack, president of Silicon Knights, urged game press to give the game a fair chance, that it was still early and wasn’t yet going through the rigorous optimization process. Behind the scenes, however, it turns out that Epic had failed to deliver a build of the engine that was due in March of that year (E3 was held in May), and didn’t deliver that build until November. Rather than hang Epic out to dry, Dyack fell on the sword himself, as any honorable knight would. Inside, however, he must have been seething, since elsewhere in the Microsoft booth, Epic was showing off Gears of War, running on a build of the engine that they were clearly keeping to themselves, as it was able to do things that were promised to Silicon Knights, but were impossible in the version of the engine they were given by Epic.  Epic’s work on Gears is also what Silicon Knights alleges kept them from offering adequate support for the engine, with the 75-member Epic team spread too thin over two titles (Gears and Unreal III) to support its licensees.

Rumors started to run rampant that Silicon Knights was going to ditch the Unreal engine and build their own technology to power the Too Human trilogy of games, but Dyack would brush these concerns off, clearly wanting to preserve the fractured relationship. Some months later it would be discovered that Silicon Knights had indeed dropped the Unreal engine and moved on to their own technology, a likely reason why Too Human, originally scheduled for release in 2006, has slipped two years out. Up until the lawsuit was filed, Silicon Knights had never publically said anything regarding the performance issues of the Unreal engine.

Also alleged in the complaint is that the PlayStation 3 version of the engine fails to live up to expectations as well. Sony themselves alluded to this problem during the recent E3 2007 Media Summit when they said that they were working with Epic to make sure that the Unreal engine would reach "the best of its potential". Kotaku’s Brian Ashcraft proceeded to list a series of PlayStation 3 games based on the Unreal engine that have either been cancelled or were significantly delayedStranglehold, BioShock, Lost Odyssey, Mass Effect, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Turok, Frame City Killer, Fatal Inertia and Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway.

Dyack issued the following comment: "We stand behind everything in our complaint and believe it is highly unfortunate that Epic forced us into this situation…Epic simply refuses to acknowledge the inadequacies of the Unreal Engine 3 code it provides to its licensees and refuses to accept the fact that its code has caused serious damage not only to Silicon Knights, but a number of other developers in the industry. We look forward to successful resolution of our claims in this court proceeding."

Epic’s Mark Rein denies all of the allegations, and swears to defend against the suit vigorously. However, Epic has licensed the Unreal technology to over a hundred developers, so it’s clear that we haven’t heard the end of the story. It’s possible this could turn into a class-action complaint. What’s unclear at this point is where first parties Microsoft and Sony will stand. It’s clear that Sony knows of the Unreal engine’s performance issues, but Microsoft has been very quiet, and is backed into quite the corner. Microsoft is the publisher for both Gears of War and Too Human, so you know that the developers taking off the gloves and going at it doesn’t sit well, but how can the behemoth choose sides in a war against a massive franchise and another potential mega-hit?

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