[IMGW]http://media.1up.com/media?id=3365151[/IMGW]It's right there, staring back from one end of a hidden meeting room here at QuakeCon 2007. The Id Tech 5 demo that captivated audiences at Apple's Worldwide Developers conference a few weeks ago, which quickly spread all over the Internets. In front of me: Id's John Carmack and four identical-looking displays, each showing off what the new engine is capable of doing. Is it a larger-than-life ego, the heights of hubris at work? Not really.
Each monitor shows a different version of the game: One running on a PC. One on PlayStation 3. One on Xbox 360. One on a Mac. All developed internally, all developed simultaneously. So what if John Carmack doesn't see PC as the lead platform for game design anymore? He sees every system as the lead platform. We were on-hand to corner the dedicated coder prior to tonight's keynote...
The id 5 Tech Engine
"God knows that right now we're suffering to get two versions of a game going with Enemy Territory. So you can imagine the big deal that we have the four different versions running at the same time. The standard way that games are done right now, you'd have a separate team, usually a different studio altogether, working on each version of the game. Millions of dollars are wasted just trying to get a simultaneous release. With this game and this engine, we have one set of data assets (textures and such). You're able to see right away if, for example, if the damn PS3 version isn't working [Carmack and other members of id continue to gripe about the wasted RAM overhead involved with a PS3 game]."
The thought of reduced development time and millions of dollars saved is a potentially huge step and a big reason people perk up. For a long time now, Epic has had a free ride as the development engine darling. Their tech. has gone unanswered for years. Is this an attempt to grab back some of that ground? "Honestly," says id programmer Robert Duffy, "we'd be happy with 10 or 20 great games that used the engine." It also doesn't happen to hurt that with today's spiraling game development costs, here's an engine that quickly bridges the gap between platforms.
Carmack continues, "Historically, I always paid attention to making sure that our games were portable to other platforms. One of the things I still take pride in is with open source and earlier codes. I think it's wonderful at Doom and Quake are always the first things that get ported to a new platform. [Wolfenstein 3D] wasn't designed with portability in mind, but everything after that has been. We have a pretty deep-seated direction towards stable, portable programming code. Much more so than any other team. And we carried that up here.
Especially the Mac version. That didn't exist a month before the Worldwide Developer's Conference. [Robert Duffy] wanted to bring it up on a Mac and we started working on it. Then the Apple people were excited to hear about what we were doing. I told [Apple] that they need to fix a lot of driver issues first so on guy came in and literally camped out in my office for a week just to make sure that demo worked. Apple, though, isn't as big a market for gamers. It's not like someone's going to use Id Tech 5 to create a Mac game, but if you just click a check box and get a game out of it there's going to be more likelihood of them shipping it."Then, there's the next generation evolution of the texture engine. You get this wide variety of detail that you can paint into a canyon -- even going down to the individual pebbles. And none of this impacts the game's size, stability, resource utilization, shipping content or performance. "We've never had that before," says Carmack. "It's always been this trade-off of a tight balancing act: we want more textures but we have a finite budget so we have to take something big away elsewhere."
Curiosity gets the better of me, as I wonder how different this is from, say, the texturing in Enemy Territory. The key, according to Carmack, is a paged virtual texture system. "The conventional way you do texture-swapping is say, 'OK, you've got 100 256 x 256 textures and we can keep maybe 20 of them in memory. So we'll try and figure out which ones we want to use and overwrite some of that.' Most games use that sort of system. But what if you want to use some enormous 2,000 by 2,000 resolution texture? If you need to knock down other texture details -- you need to compromise. Here, everything get chunked up into identical-sized pages. And the engine pieces it all together simultaneously.
You can have these 64MB textures, but it's bringing them into the game in these tiny blocks at a time. And it make sure that at moments when you don't need some texture details, it schedules everything that is most necessary for image quality. So, for example, you might not have all the details in the world, but the second you stop moving, the engine loads in more textures and detail. Now you really make something look like a matte painting -- and it requires a whole lot let work to create."
Carmack goes on to tell about an artist that went overboard, creating a 2,000 x 2,000 resolution texture of an old-man's face for this demo. You never get that close in the game to see that detail, but it doesn't impact performance at all. No lousy tradeoffs to make, no cut textures. That isn't saying this is some magic bullet. We've got the texture part licked, but throw too many objects on screen (too many shrubs, cars, and so on) and the engine can stress out.
Quake Wars, by comparison, has an earlier version of this solution that isn't paged. It is our first generation of megatexturing. As a result, there are constant tradeoffs and balancing issues that need to get worked out. How highly detailed can the characters, vehicles, and so on be?"
Aren't you glad I asked?
The chief motivation, in Carmack's eyes, has always been to create what he considers the ultimate canvas, so they aren't constrained by tech limitations. Is it really that simple to use? To the untrained eye, it sure looks simple enough. I watch as the mousewheel quickly adjusts the brush stroke size and proceeds to paint one texture over a base coat already set down in the world. Zooming in to see the details, the engine automatically can feather in the intensity; no broken seams and no extra work to merge the transition areas. Previously rocky terrain now has natural-looking splotches of grass growing.
The obvious goal is two-fold: make it easier for non-artists and releases the professionals to not sweat the extreme details, if it's avoidable.
Carmack is also excited by the scalability of the engine. According to him, you can tell the artists, "Ok, make this look cool." Then, at any point say, "all right, that's good enough. We're gonna stop." You can pack up the game right then and ship it out. "You can't do that with programmers," he adds excitedly. "You can't say, "we've only got 80 bugs left...'"
The New Game: RAGE
"After DOOM 3, we moved on internally to something we tentatively called, 'Darkness,'" says Carmack. "It was going to be another dark, creepy survival horror game. It was going to be cool -- stuck on an island, doing some interesting things. But we eventually reached a point where we said, 'Do we really want to do another dark id game?'
Everybody should know that we're going to be good at interiors, but we wanted to make a game that offered more. Maybe we should do something that's a little brighter. Maybe stretch out a little bit. What we wound up with is this post-apocalyptic Road Warrior-type game. It's still about 50% run and gun, it's got adventure elements, a lot of driving elements as well."
id Software Lead Designer Tim Willits shared some details regarding the new game, and the internal team working on Rage. However, he warned up front what they show during QuakeCon is a tease at what is coming down the road. "I know it's been done before," he says, "but a comet hits the earth and sets off this chain of post apocalyptic events. It allows us to have things grounded in realism but flash-forward with some realism, but also incorporate fantasy in a way that makes sense."
He doesn't want to give away too much -- so I bring him a rum and coke. He continues. "You're kind of like Buck Rogers in a sense that you come to this world that has long-since forgotten about you. The lines between good and evil are a little grey. There are settlers in this wasteland and an evil regime -- a very classic story. I think the key thing here is that everything we're doing has got to be fun. No extras to show off some tech. It has to serve a purpose and make the game fun. With the big wastelands you can get out of your car, you can drive everywhere, go into little caves, talk to people, we have a better inventory system--it has some adventure elements, too -- but this isn't an RPG."
Beyond the graphic engine, beyond the story, the plans behind the gameplay, the one thing that popped out most in my mind is that id is making a "T"-rated game. "We don't need the hyperviolence," says Willits. "We're going in a different direction, but we're not stepping that far out of what we do. It is still a first-person shooter, after all." Are the blood baths a thing of the past as the team matures? "In the past we would have [made it bloody] just because we could have. But we're doing this for 14 years as a company. Does it make the game more fun to have body parts flying around? Again, that goes back to our whole plan for what we want to do with Rage. If it doesn't add to the fun, we don't need it. I don't think we need to turn the streets red."
New Flavors of Quake
Fueled by DOOM being a breakout hit on Xbox Live arcade, Carmack let it slip that Quake Arena is coming as a digital download. He didn't have much to share about that -- but that didn't stop him from also talking about a next-gen Quake Arena. "We've already started this where I've pulled a kernel of a team over and we've begun hiring others to eventually make an Id Tech 5 Quake Arena title where it's back to the high-speed action and..."
Wait a second. Did he just let slip that he's actively planning the next Quake Arena game? Yep. "Quake III: Arena remains my favorite id game because it was so pure a concept. It wasn't our most popular game, but it was popular enough," he says.
One Quake-related development up for discussion, though, is Quake Zero. No, this isn't some low-calorie prequel. It's actually an experiment that'll be completely free. "What we're going to do is take the Quake III: Arena code base assets, strip it down and set it up so that its essentially a free Web application [but would still likely be a separate app]. We'd have a community-based service where the game is an accessory to the Web site rather than being a standalone thing. Chunk it up for easy, quick installs, and see what we can do with sponsorships and advertising in-game. Quake Zero for zero cost. We'd try and polish it a little, but this isn't a flashy game.
Many pro-gamers turn down the settings for improved performance. At this point we've got a game that'll run on every computer. We'll set it up so that it's easy to jump in and try new things. The useful thing is that we're bloodying this team of six coders, deploying Quake Zero and seeing what happens. We're going to lose money on it one way or the other, but this could help us learn even more about what people give a damn about. Personally, I'd like to see five million people give it a try and any lessons learned would find their way into that Id Tech 5 version with all the bells and whistles. This could be a great beta testbed to see what works and what doesn't.
It could be huge...or it could bomb -- but I think it'll be helpful to us in the long run. That's what I care about."
id Gets Steamed
"We're going to be releasing our games over Steam," says Carmack. "Our entire library, DOOM 3 and back, will be available on Steam. There's no doubt that we think digital distribution is the way of the future. In fact, I wonder if the next generation consoles will even have an optical drive -- more likely working entirely off digital distribution." That future-casting stuff is great -- and I, for one, am right there with him. Browbeating brick and mortar (no, I don't want to pre-order a game coming in 2009, thankyouverymuch) stores can't dry up soon enough.
But, back to another point: it's all going to be available on Steam?
"I don't know if you'll see Enemy Territory Quake Wars released day and date with the retail release -- I don't know that side of the business -- but it isn't like Steam or Source is a competitor.
I still take a degree of pride in the fact that there's still a bit of me, a bit of Quake I code, left in the Source engine. Try looking sometime and you'll probably still find comment fields from Robert Duffy and myself." Laughing now, he adds, "I look through it and think, I wrote that 10 years ago." They never started with a clean sheet of paper. They had the Quake I license, built Half-Life on it and just kept building and creating on top of that. They bought out their license with us to have infinite distribution. There's a lineage and a character there and I'm real happy being a part of that."Cell phones, The Saviors of Modding and New IPs
"Seeing people doing something creative with my games -- besides play through them -- always meant a lot to me. It one of the things I'm proudest to have contributed to the industry over the years. Sadly, the modding community is getting driven off because of the media intensity of a modern game.
DOOM was the best time to get started. Everyone was making their own levels and sharing them with the world. With every generation it got progressively harder. Only semi-pro teams go and attempt to make mods these days," says Carmack. Hardly the work of hobbyists, these are people looking to mods as resume builders -- and rightly so.
[IMGW]http://media.1up.com/media?id=3365154[/IMGW] Carmack has other ideas in mind. "People need to look to other platforms. I'm hoping that people who want to build something will consider looking at what we're doing with Cell phone games. I think we could achieve a golden age of cell phone game modding in the not-too-distant future. Someone makes the game on the PC in a little editor and shares it with everyone."
Of course, he's no less ambitious with his mobile work, Orcs and Elves. His plan is try and create an upwardly mobile IP. For example, those walking through the show floor can see his Orcs & Eleves game on the Nintendo DS, and the day of scaling up games to the next available platforms doesn't seem so out of left field. "I'd really like to make Orcs and Elves for the Wii, where you'd start waving the remote to cast spells...and, you know, it isn't unreasonable to think that at the high-end an Id Tech 5 game could be in development."
Plus, there's this little factoid. "You know, Doom RPG on cell phones sold better than Quake IV," says Carmack.
Wow. Return to Castle Wolfenstein
The one topic that nobody has been able to talk about yet is what is happening with the new Wolfenstein. A couple of screen shots will give a head's up, and maybe I'll be able to tackle id software co-owner and artist Kevin Cloud in the busy hallways to answer questions.
One bit that did slip out over the hour: there is still talk of a Castle Wolfenstein movie deal in the works. Scribe Rogery Avary of Pulp Fiction is currently coming up with a workable story.