Rage: John Carmack Interview
There was a point where id was PC gaming, but not so much now. Will you guys ever get back to being kings of PC gaming but on console?
I don’t expect that something like that is reasonable to have. At the beginning, we really were inventing this whole genre of what we’re doing now, and when you’re the first there and you’re standing alone, it’s a different situation to when you have a really vibrant ecosystem of competitors here.
There is plenty to do outside of bandit killing – including Speedway races and Bash TV.
And we’re a force to be reckoned with, but there’s a lot of forces to be reckoned with and there’s a lot of people doing great work across the entire industry, so no I don’t expect that there will ever be another case of us standing completely by ourselves, with everybody else wishing they were in our position.
Why did id Software decide to join ZeniMax?
A lot of it did come from the fact that as the industry’s evolved, the projects have gotten so big, so capital intensive and so risky to be a small company that’s doing one title at a time… we never missed on any of our titles, to the point where we had a flop and would suffer for that, but it’s so expensive to develop now, tens of millions of dollars, and the teams are getting larger and larger, 50, 80 people to a project.
If you have 60 people working on Rage, and we went through all of that and then we said ‘ok, it’s time for the next project’, and we’ve got concept people going here, but what are the final polishers going to be doing? The labour distribution really does pay off to have multiple teams going on where you can move people between at opportune times and buy ourselves into a 200 person company.
What’s changed in the FPS scene, and what’s Rage bringing back to that?
It is interesting to look back over all of it, and I do have to be careful in saying my personal views are not the views of the wider audiences we target on Rage. I mean, I come from the software geek side of things while gaming is no longer a geek activity, more so than we probably would have expected twenty years ago.
The level of detail here is to be expected from the legendary coder.
But the key insight to first person gaming in the beginning when we knew that we had something when it was being developed was the intensity and immersion that you got when you put the player into them. I was honestly thinking for a while that there was this growing trend towards third person display because it allows more cinematic behaviour and tools to be applied there, and because there’s such a rich heritage in cinema.
We’d never had that at id – it wasn’t one of our intrinsic characteristics, but I recognised that a third person perspective allows you to use a lot of these well-developed tools from other things, and it seemed like the markets were moving more and more towards that, and it’s been nice in the last five years to see things swinging back towards the benefits that you get from first person perspective.
What are you most pleased with about how Rage has turned out graphically?
The great thing in this generation [is that] the fidelity of what we deliver now is beyond what my personal imagination delivers, and I see this quite clearly when I develop the tech. I have a picture in my mind of how you won’t see repeated texture tiling here, you’ll be able to put dirt in the cracks on this and I’ve got this vague sense of that. But when you look at the muddy shot scenes in Rage, you’re just like ‘this looks fabulous!’ It looks better than I imagined it would and that’s just great, to be able to say that.
Even the AI is showing unparalleled intelligence in Rage.
What specific challenges are there with producing Rage on three platforms?
The biggest challenge we had on here was making Rage a 60hz game. At times I was almost the only voice in the company saying “We really need to do this”. It always seems easy just to think “if we go 30hzm, it’s the easy way out, we can throw more crap around on the screen, we won’t have to optimise as hard.”
When we finally got to a point where we had a locked frame rate and people could sit down and play it and feel it, it did become something that people could recognise. It’s debateable right now on this generation because it’s hard to do something that looks cutting edge while going at 60 frames per second, because I think that an argument can be made that we’re the best-looking game on this generation of consoles, the fact that we do it two times the frame rate of most of the competitors points out how hard that work was to get to that point.
But I really stuck with the fact we’ve got a lot more performance now than we had. I do a lot of these experiences where I do these A and B comparisons and ask “How does this look when we spend twice as much in fragment processing”? etc. and it is my belief that for an intense action game that you get more from going from 30 to 60 than from adding double as much work into the graphics picture that’s drawn there.
The post-apocalyptic landscape has never looked so good.
Now across the different platforms, there were a few things that were easy across the platforms. We do have access to very low level access to the hardware there. Though in many cases we have PCs that should have twice the horsepower of the consoles, at least, struggling to maintain the same performance that we have on the consoles.
Now of course you can get PCs that have 10 times the horsepower of a console now, and you can just club things to death with raw brute force and not worry too much about the internal inefficiencies. But it saddens me when we look at PCs that should be able to do this, but for very logical reasons we’re just not able to get at things at that level.
Now the PS3 in particular, and this has been passed over many times over the years, but the core architectural decisions of having the cell processors versus additional symmetric processors makes life more difficult, unquestionably it’s harder to develop for those there. You have to use a separate tool chain, the debugging is crappier, and all this. The upside of that is, there is more raw performance for computing there than there is on 360.
The PS3 is still far and away better than anything else that’s ever been made… except maybe the 360. It’s a great time to be a developer. It’s not like working with the Sega Saturn of the PS2, where these are really kind of quirky, cranky, architectures that are not, well, architected, I would say.
You famously stated that story in games are as important as in a porn film, do you still feel the same?
It has changed a lot, where it’s almost like we’re using the same name for things that have changed a lot since the early days. What we would call a game in the early days would be like an arcade game, but what we have now is a melding of a movie-TV experience with the gaming elements.
John Carmack has even managed to kickstart another engine war on iPad and iPhone.
And the elements that traditionally thought about in a game, like risk and reward and rationing up difficulty, are in many ways less important now than they used to be because a lot of it is not about challenging the people; it’s our job to entertain the people.
Historically, we were able to get on for a long time at id without addressing story specifically, because it was all about gameplay mechanics, the core experience of what you’re going through, and showing people things they’d never seen before on their systems.
I can say that a lot of parts in Rage look better than anything anyone’s ever seen before. But people aren’t going to get this because it looks really cool now, you need to have all these elements together. You really can’t skimp on anything.
I think we have some pretty memorable characters, stuff that we never tried to do beyond stock central casting roles of “badass marine guy”.But it’s a ton of fun to do things on other platforms that really don’t require that. There’s nothing wrong with Angry Birds for not having a story arc.
With Rage HD on iOS do you see yourself ever working on Android?
Every six months I’d take a look at the scope of the Android, and decide if it was time to start really looking at it. At the last Quakecon I took a show of hands poll, and it was interesting to see how almost as many people there had an Android device as an iOS device. But when I asked how many peple had spent 20 bucks on a game in the Android store, there was a big difference. You’re just not making money in the Android space as you are in the iOS space.
We made more money than people may expect on the Doom RPG stuff. It’s just fun to develop on iOS. We’d show people what we were working on and they’d go “Oh, when are you going to ship that? And I’d say ‘next month’ and they’d go “Aww, I wanna work on an iPhone title.”
It’s hard to make a rational business decision to say I want to take resources from something else and put them on this. We did actually hire a person to be our Android guy, but it looks like he’s going to get stuck on iOS development!
id just celebrated its 20-year anniversary. After all this time and everything you’ve done, what are you proudest of?
I am a remarkably unsentimental person. I really don’t spend much time thinking about that stuff. I get mildly annoyed when the lifetime awards roll around, thinking, ‘Do I really have to go get that?’
I know there are people that think back to the ‘good old days’, but for me the good old days are right now. I am more excited about what I’m doing and what I’m working on than ever before.
There is a legacy there with so many people that had formative experiences with Doom, and the fact that Quake was the introduction to interacting on the internet in a virtual world environment, and the introduction of the FPS genre.
There are lots of brilliant people that come up with lots of creative things, and nothing that I’ve done changed the world in a way that somebody else wouldn’t have, it might just have taken several more years.
The different levels of colour and environments is exhausting.
But if that’s what I’ve brought to the table on any of this – bringing the future a little bit closer for the segment of the population that wants it – I’m proud of that, and happy to have given that experience to a lot of people. But I just turned 40 and I can be programming for another 40 years; there’s a lot yet to do!