AGDC 2008: id Software on...storytelling?

Notable tech developer takes time out to discuss how conveying stories goes well beyond the narrative.

by

AUSTIN, Texas--Yesterday, BioWare senior writer Mac Walters and senior cinematic designer Paul Marino held court at the Austin Game Developers Conference, discussing arguably what it does best: creating compelling stories. Today, id Software's Tim Willits took the stage, and unsurprisingly, he was there to speak about what his company does best: creating compelling technology. But he did so in the context of how id's technology balances its storytelling.

This is not a headshot of Tim Willits.

That focus might sound odd, considering that id has never been known for its storytelling prowess. Willits readily admitted that fact as he led off his talk.

"Public perception of the company is sometimes a bit skewed," said the id creative director. "In the past, yes, we have developed games with limited narrative. To say limited narrative equates to bad storytelling isn't quite right."

According to Willits, id's philosophy of storytelling goes beyond the "paper story," or the purely narrative part, and extends to all of the information derived from the feelings and experiences associated with playing the game. Other factors that impact storytelling within a game involve the players' preconceived notions, choices made and consequences, replayability, and player skill. There's also the matter of the player's ability to enjoy a story in the context of a well-balanced game.

"Storytelling through experiences is the cornerstone of id game design," claims Willits, and it is this fact that is key when the company develops new technologies. Although some may say telling stories in such a way is the easy way out, Willits argues that it is much easier to write a great narrative than tell a compelling story. "You can put a great story into a boring game, but the experiences are so limited that you'll still end up having a boring game."

Striking the right balance between narrative, game design, and technology, then, is very important for any game developer that creates all three in tandem. Willits argued that when one reigns supreme, a game is typically very shallow.

So how are these elements balanced?

"How id does it is first start with a solid, straightforward plot," notes Willits. "Start with something that is easy for players to get their minds around. Id likes to focus on good versus evil." Once the top-level story is conceived, Willits advocates hiring a great writer who understands games and how to relate information through experience and player choice, rather than always through the spoken word.

When that story is being created, Willits continued, it is important that the story is dynamic and flexible enough that it can be tweaked and adjusted so as to accommodate technical limitations or design choices.

The design fundamentals thus accounted for, Willits went on to speak on how these principals play out in the publisher's upcoming postapocalyptic first-person shooter/racer Rage. Summarizing Rage's plot, Willits said that the game takes place 50 to 100 years in the future, when the government has learned that an incoming comet will destroy all life on the planet. In response, an ark program was initiated, whereby after the comet hits and the dust settles, those preserved in the arks will reemerge and populate the world. As things turn out, more people survive the comet than was previously estimated, and the survivors built a society with no rules, order, or government. So when players emerge, they find a lawless world in which they first must learn to survive and then help overthrow a malevolent controlling faction.

Willits noted that Rage's story is far more expansive than id's previous storytelling efforts, and the company's intriguing Tech 5 game engine has been built to accommodate this story. To add to the level of immersion, Willits said that the entire world was created as a single texture, aptly named the megatexture, which lets artists create truly unique environments in which every pixel can be something new.

However, one problem with doing this has been media size. Although media size is virtually unlimited on a PC, the PlayStation 3 and especially the Xbox 360 are constrained to what can fit on media discs. As a result, id has tentatively decided to split the game into two acts, primarily so that they could break the megatexture into two. What this would do is let the company ship the Xbox 360 game on two discs to accommodate its limited media space. Willits noted that it was important for the storyline to be dynamic so it could be altered to accommodate this high-level change.

id has encountered a number of other challenges in bringing Rage to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and Mac. Media streaming was particularly a problem on the PS3 due to Blu-ray, and texture compression was used heavily so that distant scenery could be factored into storytelling information. Willits also said that though there were large wastelands, they needed to be economical with level designs, so they created small, modular levels that were also highly dynamic so as to accommodate level designers and tech capabilities.

Other challenges included development time, especially in light of creating new technology, as well as asset development in a large world; AI and animation for a variety of character models; physics, notably in the driving sector; and NPC interaction, which Willits claims has been greatly improved over Doom 3.

Willits closed by teasing the future of Rage. He said that the universe of Rage was intentionally designed so that players were aware that the events they were running through were merely a small part of a reaching story, something along the lines of what LucasArts was able to do with Star Wars. Willits was keen on pointing out that when players finish Rage, they'll know they're done with the game, but will also know there is much more in store for them.

Discussion

85 comments
jean_borrero
jean_borrero

Video game graphics are to the point where I don't care about them getting better... just focus on more solid games. There's really not much reason any game should get low marks because of the basics when it's almost all been done before.

jedifisto
jedifisto

wow i remeber hearing about this game like half a year after doom 3 came out. i forgot about it and wow... haha its still TBA!

john_russel
john_russel

Megatexture is actually just a tool to make textures in the game without the painstaking process of making one pixel for every spot of an object

Adam_the_Nerd
Adam_the_Nerd

HAHAHAHA, made me laugh so hard because iD talkign about story telling? They're about blowing stuff up right? I dind't play much Doom or Quake, but what little I did, the main gist of it was, blow the other guy to bits.

Hekynn
Hekynn

Rage looks awsome I dont mind them putting it on like 3 Dual Layer DVD's since my system can read dual layers :D

MatzeEdend
MatzeEdend

the words ID and compelling story are an oxymoron. I understand they're trying to put a positive spin on their products, but we ARE talking about the geniuses who came up with the *cough* compelling story behind Doom...

Hector_01
Hector_01

@Ek-Andy - MEGATEXTURE! Sounds like some sort of 80's thrash metal band. Still Valve nailed story telling in first person shooters with Half Life 2, and it's about time someone came up to their level when designing games of a similar style. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but i honestly thought that the story in HL 2 was pretty average at best.

ecs33
ecs33

And Doom 4 will probably be the first look at the quality which next gen consoles will have graphically. I remember when games like Doom 3 and HL2 were announced they were similar to next-gen console graphics at the time.

ecs33
ecs33

@K_M82: Actually, the Rage engine is going to make Unreal 3 obsolete. This is the next big thing in game engines. Rage doesn't even take full advantage. Doom 4 is supposed to take up 3 times the horsepower than Rage the game and will fully utilize the Rage engine. Rage will really good graphically but Doom 4 is going to be the next big thing in terms of graphics. It will be the same jump in graphics as pre-Doom 3 to Doom 3. I can't wait to see screenshots. It is going to be insane.

Ek-Andy
Ek-Andy

MEGATEXTURE! Sounds like some sort of 80's thrash metal band. Still Valve nailed story telling in first person shooters with Half Life 2, and it's about time someone came up to their level when designing games of a similar style.

Gadeos
Gadeos

id already knows how to make good gameplay, now it's time they mix it up more with better storytelling. I foresee this one's gonna be awesome.

henry4th
henry4th

ID on story telling? WoW, didn't know they even know what story telling is. Their story telling prowess equals to that of a ten year old.

henry4th
henry4th

ID on story telling? WoW, didn't know they even know what story telling is. Their story telling prowess equals to that of a ten year old.

stevo_360
stevo_360

I'm actually quite looking forward to Rage, having cared little for id's previous games.

Generic_Dude
Generic_Dude

Seriously, what is that a picture of? It looks like Yoshimitsu as the Wizard of Oz Scarecrow.

Destroyeron13
Destroyeron13

Somehow I don't feel iD is qualified to be talking about storytelling in games.

Pinguin14
Pinguin14

dude does anyone know how to become a game writer? i'm a good writer and i think this would be a badass job for me. seriously...

amber_jade
amber_jade

gamefreak3111 "I'd rather blow up stuff than have a story and only blow up what I'm told to... Example: Mercenaries 2, the game just about lacks a story, but ignore the crap people say about the game, and you've got a heck of a game. I like to get on mercs 2 when i have like an hour to kill, I just pop in, blow the HELL out of everything, and nuke stuff. Tell me, does that golden experience need a story? no. Maybe its just me though. I choose playability and fun over a story any day. Now, I'm off to blow up stuff without the limits of a story" If all games were like that the industry would be in trouble...

xMADxDOGx
xMADxDOGx

i rather a good gamepaly and a good story >> RAGE

aj_marquez
aj_marquez

I'd rather a great story than great gameplay; still, a bad story or bad gameplay kills a game, however great the other one is.

Nkenobi
Nkenobi

I actually enjoyed the first half of the narrative in Quake 4. It had a perfect pace of character and action. Once you become a Strog though, the nice pace breaks and the narrative dies..

Methuselah6463
Methuselah6463

99% of the games on the market today HAVE NO STORY..and honestly I find that to be really scary.. because it just goes to show you how brainless and violent people have become.. Don't get me wrong violence is great and all that..but if there is no point to it then why play the game... I mean I played Doom back in the 90's COOL..it worked..and today I can probably name at least 3 games that are coming out that have no Real story.. good Graphics and what not..but are basicly DOOM but with better graphics.. I mean come on people...pick up a book and read.. be creative... not all this copy of a copy of a copy... but whatever... I gUESS thats just how people are...

gamefreak3111
gamefreak3111

I'd rather blow up stuff than have a story and only blow up what I'm told to... Example: Mercenaries 2, the game just about lacks a story, but ignore the crap people say about the game, and you've got a heck of a game. I like to get on mercs 2 when i have like an hour to kill, I just pop in, blow the HELL out of everything, and nuke stuff. Tell me, does that golden experience need a story? no. Maybe its just me though. I choose playability and fun over a story any day. Now, I'm off to blow up stuff without the limits of a story

xMADxDOGx
xMADxDOGx

this game is ok , again > hope it want desepoint us ...

EXxile
EXxile

I love the new engine ID created. Finally some competition for Unreal.

pidow
pidow

Look storytelling and great game play is and should be very important in game development.....if not, no one will buy or rent, not to mention play. So include great storytelling and great game play and you have my money...simple as that.

Autolycus
Autolycus

KaosKetchup Posted Sep 17, 2008 7:34 am PT mega texture= wow game = cool I can understand that it would be hard to get the info off the blu ray, but it's almost a waste of money to port to 360 where you have 2 discs, but then lost odyssey was like four or five so i dunno, I'll be buying it for PS3---- You always find a way to interject your completely skewed and biased opinion on the PS3. This has nothing to do with console fighting. Buzz off...

Autolycus
Autolycus

ID isnt the only one. Isnt that what made Duke Nukem 3D so great and Elderscrolls and Prey?

Hillsy_
Hillsy_

I don't think ID Software were ever about telling a story. Then again, they are a respected game company who revolutionised gaming with Doom and Quake. I agree they should have gone back to there roots, the PC. It will be interesting to see how Rage turns out. I didn't like Doom 3, I thought it was a tech demo for the Xbox 1. I didn't like the fact you couldn't use your torch and gun at the same time. When you shot at the enemies it didn't feel right, like you connected. Also, the cheap enemies magically appearing from behind(probably constraints of the hardware). Quake IV was a better game, by Raven. Final Thought, ID know there stuff though, so fingers crossed on this one. I'm sure it will be fine on either of the current next gen consoles. I would love to say to ID software, here's a quad core, 2 graphics cards and a ton of ram for the PC, show us what you can do! :)

KaosKetchup
KaosKetchup

mega texture= wow game = cool I can understand that it would be hard to get the info off the blu ray, but it's almost a waste of money to port to 360 where you have 2 discs, but then lost odyssey was like four or five so i dunno, I'll be buying it for PS3:D

normsta
normsta

Meh, i can't wait to see the new engine. I'm definitely not putting my hopes up for the story.

uberjannie
uberjannie

after what he is telling in this article it just sounds like they know the story in Rage will suck!

jadefury27
jadefury27

after watching the 5 part video i think this'll be more fun than elderscrolls.

Vasot
Vasot

This game will be best played with a PC Consoles are not good enough for next-gen FPS titles

hazuki
hazuki

The doom 3 engine was more current gen, than anything. Compare even the recently released force unleashed game. It has way too many last gen-like graphics pieces even on the ps3 and 360, that doom 3 actually looks better. Rage is probably going to be the same direction. An early 360 version of the engine, and other games using it on other consoles.

NA3D
NA3D

I love id, but they sold out by making a deal with EA.

darkride66
darkride66

@ grigjd3. It's not me looking for opportunities to dismiss the 360, I like my 360. I think it's a great platform. What bothers me is after using Gamespot for almost a decade now I'm concerned when articles like this are released that clearly obscure the real story (which still means something to some readers) in favor of making the 360 seem better than it is. Having read the interview with Willits it's clear that they've had some issues with the 360 and that's holding back the PS3 and PC version of this titles. The information about them having problems with media and Blu-Ray didn't appear to come from this interview, Gamespot must have grabbed it from some other article. Now, is that getting the whole story? Wouldn't you think the story should be "Developer's admit 360 holding back games," because that's certainly how other sites are accurately reporting what was said. ID felt compelled to release a statement this morning to counter the speech Willits gave. id stated, "There was NO CONTENT removed from RAGE because of the 360--NONE AT ALL. Moving from multiple wastelands into fewer but larger wastelands was a far better decision and is actually giving us more gameplay in the game." Yeah, so we're to believe they removed huge parts of a larger game because they wanted to and it's a better game for it? Come on.

MiltoxBeyond
MiltoxBeyond

Rage isn't late in the game, its just a new engine. There always are new engines in development, its just the way the progression of technology for games works. As better things show up, they'll start using the next greatest thing. Unreal Engine will only last as long as its usefulness does.

K_M82
K_M82

It's too bad Rage is so late in the game engine race. Unreal engine 3 had been around for 2 years now (remember the first game with unreal engine 3 is Gears of War, and not unreal tournament 3), and A LOT of developer license this engine (mass effect, bioshock, the new brothers in arms, even a J RPG infinite undiscovery). i hope rage / tech 5 engine can bring some competition to unreal engine 3!

BloodMist
BloodMist

Umm, for the record, Raven made Quake 4, not ID.

boura
boura

I think they can make a good story, Quake4 was Ok, with litle more effort this can be fine

prasath_amd
prasath_amd

Id Software is one of key driving forces of the FPS genre. they revolutionized the industry with Doom, got insane success with Quake 3 & Doom 3, now they are going to refine the FPS genre it with RAGE........can't wait to get ma hands on it.......

ktwq
ktwq

PC is still king

prasath_amd
prasath_amd

John Carmack & Tim Willits are legends....no doubt........

football_legend
football_legend

Id are kings of game engines, this their Rage Engine will Own Unreal Engine 3 - 3.5. Cant wait for Rage.

migi1688
migi1688

damn i read that... i need a girlfriend =/

cjfuka
cjfuka

ID software is hiring just about every position you can think of on der web page. I wish I had the smarts to work for them.

thebanewolf
thebanewolf

i agree with sentientgames, ditch it for the console Carmack and go back to your roots, the true gaming experience.. the PC D: