I want to share a few thoughts with you about the circumstances around the release of Unreal Tournament as I remember them. But before I do that, I want to invite all of you to take a look at BeyondUnreal’s UT Anniversary website theme – it’s a real throwback and just our fun way of saying thanks to Unreal Tournament for 10 great years. You can select your theme from the dropdown box on the upper left corner of the page. We’ve also got an Unreal Tournament server in the works – more details on that later – for those of you who want to join us in some good old-fashioned fragging.
It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years, but today marks the decade anniversary of Unreal Tournament. What a success story! Looking back, it’s easy to see what an important game UT turned out to be.
Epic Megagames had already made a solid name for itself through its successful early shareware releases. Unreal was a huge step forward for them and it gave the world a chance to see that the studio was ready to step up into the world of 3D and cutting edge technology in a market currently dominated by id and its DOOM and Quake juggernauts. But if Unreal made the public sit up and take notice, Unreal Tournament grabbed it by the throat, bitch-slapped it and yelled “TAKE IT!”
Unreal was a big success by almost any measure, but it suffered a bit due to early netcode issues (which were later ironed out, but too late to bring back many of the early adopters) and found its critical and public reception punctuated by something of a dismissal. Yes, Epic’s quirky shooter was colorful and charming, the engine tools were deceptively easy to use, the engine was amazing, but… the multiplayer modes were nowhere near as polished as Quake and Quake 2. Online player counts dwindled in Unreal’s second year and it appeared that the all-important multiplayer champ would not be dethroned. Oh, and Quake 3 was coming out at the end of the year.
Buzz about Unreal Tournament began to build, though it always seemed to be filtered through the lens of the public perception of Unreal’s multiplayer experience. Scheduling it for release alongside id’s latest did little to bolster confidence.
Then there was the demo.
Three maps demonstrating the key multiplayer modes: CTF-Coret, DM-Phobos, and DOM-Sesmar. All absolute classics in their own right. I don’t think anyone, despite previously seeing screenshots, was quite prepared for the visual boost in player characters, environments, and those big chunky weapons. The core weaponry was there, but felt and looked so much better than before. Bots chattered and taunted and the music was driving and spot-on. It was as close to a demo home-run as they could have released. You could feel excitement for Unreal Tournament building around the release of the demo and the messageboards began to go wild.
But still there was the underlying public skepticism that perhaps Epic had shown all its best cards, which surely Quake 3 would match and then trump. Release week for both came and even the critics had to admit that Unreal Tournament had a leg up on its competition, even earning multiple mentions and comparisons in its competitor’s review.
Most surprising, for me personally, was that the demo offered but a taste of the amazing game found in the retail package: Assault, mutators and more than fifty levels – each more amazing to see than the last. With its built-in IRC client and community page, UT was a complete multiplayer package. The addictive fun and the endless amount of content made it the game I went to over and over again. In fact, probably two years passed before I gave more than a moment’s attention to other games.
Best of all, the swelling numbers of gamers joining the ranks of the faithful meant that the community had reached a critical mass in terms of warranting competitive attention. Casual gamers found a core community of friendly old-schoolers who welcomed new players to the fold. Level designers and modders benefited from the expertise of those who cut their teeth with Unreal’s editor. And websites like Nali City, Unreal Nation, and PlanetUnreal were all established and ready to cover the communities’ every move. UT was lightning in a bottle.
As far as the engine itself goes… it didn’t take the success of Unreal Tournament to solidify the Unreal Engine as a front-runner choice in the eyes of developers – many were already onboard, including the likes of 3D Realms, Human Head, Dreamworks Interactive, and Ion Storm. But it sure didn’t hurt.
It’s been a real wild ride over the last 10 years (and who knows where the franchise will go over the next ten?), but one thing will always remain true to me: Unreal Tournament and the community that rallied around it will always hold a special place in my gaming list and in my heart.
I share the exact same sentiments as the BeyondUnreal writer of that excerpt. Prior to UT, I’ve played Quake 1 and 2 deathmatch before, plus a little bit of Half-life deathmatch when it was released in 1998.
UT came along and took the entire deathmatching experience to a completely whole new level. The narrative back-story, the spot-on and addictive music, the carefully constructed maps with creative themes (Hyperblast ftw), the challenging and customizable bots, the limitless potential and endless replayability of mutators and custom maps.
To be honest, I’ve never played Quake III: Arena before, which was UT’s biggest competitior at that time. But there was no reason for me to. UT was already the perfect FPS shooter to fulfill all of my fragging needs.
And so, I found great amusement while reading some of the derogatory replies posted in response to my comments about the latest Quake Live news on GameSync.net. The old Quake vs. UT debate rages on, 10 years after UT’s release, and you Quakers haven’t changed one bit.
Unfortunately, the UT series has died down in the past several years, thanks in no small part to the poor mismanagement by Epic Games. What were you thinking when you hired Digital Extremes to develop UT2003? Where was the sense of urgency to release much needed critical updates for UT3’s dedicated servers when it was just released? Screw Gears of War.
UT may be dead, but to quote the BeyondUnreal writer: “Unreal Tournament and the community that rallied around it will always hold a special place in my gaming list and in my heart.”
Happy 10th anniversary, Unreal Tournament. And rest in peace.