Editor’s note: “Gears of War 3” is already a smash hit one week into its release, but the latest in the Epic Games’ franchise is not the only hot-selling product for the Cary company. Its Unreal game engine is used by companies worldwide and across multiple platforms.

CARY, N.C. – Gears of War 3 is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Unreal Engine 3 games. Every year, many of the top video game releases run on Unreal Engine 3 technology. Tim Sweeny, founder, chairman, technical director, and CEO of Epic Games, talks about this now-ubiquitous technology and how Epic is making it easier for aspiring game developers, and even amateurs, to get involved in the burgeoning video game industry. Sweeney talks about games, technology and 3D in this exclusive interview.

For those who aren’t familiar with Unreal Engine 3 game technology. What is it?

The Unreal Engine is a toolbox for building games and other 3D software. It provides all of the mechanics you need for creating 3D environments. There are two kinds of artists used in building these 3D worlds, and then there is code that runs in these environments that produces the pretty pictures on the screen and handles sound effects, artificial intelligence and all of these other pieces of software that you need to construct a game. The Unreal Engine, alone, though isn’t a game in itself. It’s a tool kit that people can use to build games. Over 100 companies around the industry use Unreal Engine 3 to create games of all different types. There are role-playing games, action games, massively multiplayer games. It’s a general software foundation for building all of these cool things similar to movie cameras and computer-generated art in Hollywood movie production.

How does Epic divide its team between new games like Gears of War 3 and Unreal Engine 3 technology?

Epic is divided up into several teams. We have an engine team that is responsible for creating all the core technology, the graphics, the sound, the artificial intelligence technology that powers all those games and our partner’s games. We have a team that’s dedicated to Gears of War. And then we have pre-production teams and early development work on new projects which haven’t been announced.

What are your thoughts on Hollywood utilizing Unreal Engine 3 in projects like “Chadam” and Stan Lee’s “The Guardian Project”?

Unreal began as a game development platform, but it turns out there are a lot of things that make game development great, very productive tools enabling designers to create game scenarios really quickly. They’re also beneficial to Hollywood. The big thing about the Unreal Engine compared to other tools is that it is very quick and productive. You can build a set quickly. You can slap some of the textures in the walls and create a realistic looking scene, throw some characters in, have them carry out some behavior that you specify, and you can do that very quickly and all in real time. The tool sets used by Hollywood are more focused on quality, but as a result they end up being very slow and unproductive. If you want to build a movie quality scene you can do that, but it takes months to set up.

Can you talk about the free Unreal Development Kit and how that is delivering this technology to consumers?

For years, the Unreal Engine was only available to professional game developers. You had to come in and sign a big business deal with us, have all the lawyers agree to the terms, and then you’d have access to this really powerful tool kit. But now we’ve taken all of these tools and made them available to the general public as the Unreal Development Kit. This is a complete download of a tool kit that you can get from the Internet without any hassle at all. You can download the full Unreal Engine and start going to game scenes or movie scenes. You have access to our full animation tool and the full scripting capabilities and the full graphic capabilities. You can do that without purchasing anything or without signing any agreements or anything. Besides the tools, there’s a full documentation website and community forums to help people get online and learn quickly about Unreal and start getting productive fast.

Gears of War 3 and Bulletstorm are both stereoscopic 3D games. What are your thoughts on the 3D gaming craze?

All the recent efforts to create stereoscopic displays make for very interesting technology, but it’s not clear whether this will become mainstream or not. 3D certainly enhances the level of realism in the game when both of your eyes are seeing views from the proper perspective and you can see the paralaxing and all the other effects that simulate depth. It’s definitely a step forward.

What has been one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned during this console generation?

Over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate that launch day is just the beginning! In the three years leading up the Xbox 360 launch, we worked incredibly hard to build the generation’s most successful engine. And in November 2006, we shipped Gears of War and felt we’d crossed the finish line. But ultimately we’ve added more to Unreal Engine 3 in the years since we shipped our first Unreal Engine 3 game than in the years leading up to the launch. As game developers, we’d all do well to think of the coming generation as a 10-year effort, and to make plans and decisions accordingly!

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