Carmack on ZeniMax, Apple, and new 'triple-A' game

Q&A: id Software's technical guru explains shock buyout by Bethesda parent, talks about new project, and doubts the Mac-maker will enter the console wars; new wave of iPhone games explained in detail.

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Before the global news apple cart was upended by the tragic death of pop icon Michael Jackson, the biggest shocker of the week (for gamers) was ZeniMax Media's acquisition of id Software. After years of being courted by the biggest publishers in the business, the iconic Texan studio surprised the industry by selling out to the corporate parent of Bethesda Softworks, developer of The Elder Scrolls series and last year's smash hit, Fallout 3.

John Carmack
John Carmack

The move was quite a coup for ZeniMax. Though it has a long-term development deal with Splash Damage and will publish Wet and Rogue Warrior via its Bethesda label, the privately held media company became a first-person powerhouse overnight. It now owns three of the most storied shooter franchises--Wolfenstein, Quake, and Doom--as well as Rage, the forthcoming driving and shooting action hybrid, which Electronic Arts will publish under its EA Partners program next year.

After Rage, ZeniMax will publish all future id Software titles, including Doom 4 and a third mystery title. (See below.) But as John Carmack sees it, it's not ZeniMax publishing the games--it's id. The technical guru sat down with GameSpot to explain in detail why id, which has been a beacon of independent development since its foundation in 1991, would sell out now. In fact, Carmack doesn't see it as selling out, but buying into an organization where id will be more of a partner than a subsidiary. He also discussed his feelings on developing new projects, Apple and his iPhone projects, and Microsoft's controller-less motion-sensing camera, Project Natal.

THE BUYOUT
GameSpot: id has been proudly independent for 18 years. Why sell out now?

John Carmack: Well, certainly things have been evolving in the landscape of video games over the last 15 to 20 years. There was certainly a lot to be said for the early days when you have six or eight guys working in a lake house making a video game that's going to go on and make an impact. But that's just not the reality of the situation today if you want to be making AAA cross platform titles. It takes tens of millions of dollars and lots and lots of people and many years to go through all of this. And we were managing all those processes fine. Maybe we had some strategic changes in our direction, knowing that we need to spread our risk across a couple projects, which is why we bulked up our internal staff for Doom 4 and Rage.

But the reason we were making these decisions is because we were an independent company. Successful, sure, but still small compared to a lot of companies we are working with around here. And we've been doing smaller projects, like mobile projects and Quake Live, as we go through our development cycle on the big projects.

The plan of record had been we were going to take Doom 4 to a pretty good level of development--a kind of vertical slice--before we even presented it to publishers. That was with the expectation that we would be signing a publishing deal next year--kind of like we did with Rage, where we put a couple years into it ourselves before we were even talking with publishers about it. That worked out really well for us in terms of the deals we were able to cut.

But since the very beginning, even before [the first] Wolfenstein was published, id has gotten a lot of offers to be acquired by various companies, and there were always pros and cons to it. It's always nice when somebody offers you a lot of money, but then again, you have to trade it for the idea that you wouldn't completely be your own boss. You may have to do something you wouldn't do in a different company, and that becomes a statement about their corporate culture.

I mean, we had to wonder how we would be if we were acquired by Sierra, Activision, EA or any of the potential publishers there. The other aspect you have to look at with the larger publishers is that there's almost always some competitive interest. Activision and EA already have developers that do first-person shooters. If we were to come into the fold on one of those, then we would be competing against the brother and sister companies under that umbrella. We'd be fighting for attention for the marketing department to get positioned.

So, for a while, we were happy to be on our own. We have some great titles coming up, and we were happy to carry on as we have been. But then, sometime last year, ZeniMax approached us about this, and it was sort of a surprise. And, frankly, at the beginning, I didn't even know who ZeniMax was. It was only when they mentioned Bethesda that some things clicked together and I knew who we were talking about.

That said, when most people heard id Software was being acquired, they asked, "Is it EA or Activision?" It's like those were the only two things that possibly could've made sense. But with ZeniMax, it was really interesting. When we started getting down to it and thinking how it would be to be part of these other companies, it was the case that they had done some spectacular work with Bethesda in the role-playing game space.

How Fallout 3 rolled out was also extremely important to us. These guys took a second- or third-tier IP that some old-timers had a fondness for, and they turned [it] into a real triple-A brand that's got legs and is still pushing forward.

GS: I know. I just bought Point Lookout.

JC: Yeah, we're hearing that a lot! (Laughs) I really think Bethesda did as good a job as they could with that. And when we think of that, we think of what they could do with Doom 4. Sure, there are certainly some advantages that the really large companies have. But we think the relative advantages that ZeniMax has will outweigh that and allow them to do a better job with some of these titles.

So we looked at all this, we met with the Bethesda people and talked to [Fallout 3 design lead] Todd Howard, and really felt there was a good fit through all of this. There's no competitive nature whatsoever between the companies under the corporate umbrella. That's a neat thing. That's one of [the] more important things here. We're not another small cog on the gears as we would be at Activision or EA. Sure, with them, there'd be a good press release saying, "id Software becomes part of Activision or EA." But in terms of the business, the fraction we would be wouldn't be that huge. Whatever we would do wouldn't move the ocean liner, as it were.

However with ZeniMax, they're doubling the size of their development staff. Bethesda's about 100 people, and we're about 100 people. So we're looking at that as everything we're doing is critically important. If we really screw up, it's going to hurt the entire organization. But contrary-wise, if we do something spectacular, it's going to give us twice the benefit of what it would have before. I mean, yes, you would have a good title, and you'd make money from the sales and royalties on there. But if you're also the publisher, you will always get this other value from it.

And that's the way we look at it--we are the publisher now. We're not some little studio amongst many studios; we're a large chunk of the [ZeniMax] business, and the publisher is us.

ID's FUTURE
GS: So that means that Doom 4 will be published the same way Bethesda publishes things? They have a big "Bethesda Softworks" screen come up before the credits with a little "A ZeniMax Media Company" subtitle underneath it.

JC: Exactly.

GS: And that will apply to Doom 4?

JC: Yes. The current deal is that Wolfenstein is still slated to come out with Activision soon, and Rage is an EA Partners title. But all things going forward will be under our own title and label there.

GS: So will you be sharing technology with Bethesda and vice versa?

JC: There's not going to be any wholesale exchange--any adoption of technology. But because we are sister companies that are very interested in seeing each other succeed, we'll do anything to help. We'll give advice about anything, whether it’s a technology-sharing level or submission processes or downloadable content; it's in all our best interest to see everyone succeed. That's because when the next Fallout or the next Elder Scrolls comes out, that's helping us. That's going into the bonus pool that's paying all of the employees. So we will be doing everything we can to make every title as good as possible.

GS: Do you think going with a publisher like ZeniMax that favors studio independence is the future for other triple-A independent developers? Do you foresee other top devs banding together under a loose publishing arrangement? I know ZeniMax is famous for having a hands-off approach, and it's obviously worked with Bethesda…

JC: We'll I’d say there are too few data points to support a trend on anything like this. The pool of available triple-A independent shops is not all that large...

GS: And getting smaller by the minute, apparently.

JC: (Laughs) Right. And there's a reason for that. Even when you are successful, you've still got 100 people and their families that are dependent on how well your next title does. There are many, many tens of millions of dollars involved in all of that. So there's a little bit of comfort knowing that all of that is no longer resting on your shoulders alone. That was certainly some of the incentive of partnering up with a really strong development team--it really adds a strong sense of security. I mean we do the best that we can, but there are some things that go on that are out of your control, and there are always the whims of the market to deal with. So having a little bit more size and scope there does alleviate some things that can sometimes keep people awake at night.

GS: So this basically frees you from having to pitch games and gets rid of, for lack of a better term, all the chores innate to being a independent operation?

JC: Well pretty much all the aspects of the business side are staying the same. Todd [Hollenshead] is still staying on as president of id Software, managing all of our interaction with the parent company.

GS: But he's no longer CEO?

JC: Right. His new title is president. I'm still chief technical officer, and both Todd and I report directly to [ZeniMax Chairman and CEO] Robert Altman. But that means I have less board meetings to deal with and less contracts to look over, which means more time to program. So that's a benefit there, even though I had insulated myself from a lot of that even when I was president [of id].

That's not to say things won't be done responsibly. In fact, this deal will let us grow a lot faster than our previous plan. I mean, we were inching our way toward a third team. We were building the Quake Live team and planning on adding some more people so that they could do multiplayer for Rage and Doom 4 and planning even more people so they could do another triple-A title. [Emphasis added.] That's probably going to be advanced a year because we don't have to wait and see how some of these things pan out. We'll be able to just hire people as they become available.

GS: That was my next question. Is this going to accelerate id's production pipeline? I mean you guys are very famous for producing high-quality games, but you're also very famous for releasing them only "when it's done."

JC: Yeah, there's a couple aspects to that. In terms of the "when it's done" thing, another key advantage about ZeniMax is that it's a private company. They do not have quarterly reports that have to go out, and they don't have to worry about making their publicly stated targets. I mean, our contracts with Activision and EA always said that we didn’t have to push out anything out over our objections. We were never in a position where something would get pushed out. But that doesn't mean that there is not some level of…well, let's just say, they convey their desires to us.

Now ZeniMax can look at the long-term business prospects. They want the entire product to be successful, which may not be the same as making your third quarter guidance. Pushing out a game a little bit early may help you make one number in one quarter, but it can hurt overall during the lifespan of the product. There's none of that coming from ZeniMax.

APPLE AND THE IPHONE
GS: Now id just released the all-new game Doom: Resurrection for the iPhone. While you guys have done ports and spin-offs before, this is the first game built from the ground up for the iPhone, right?

JC: Well in previous interviews when I talked about the iPhone, I had made reference to sort of a mystery project, and that was the Doom Resurrection project. We were committed to having great games [on the iPhone], but it was an experiment. We really didn't know until all the way through whether or not it was going to turn out to be fun. We were looking at it as speculative. We were putting a high-quality effort and lots of resources behind it, but if it didn't turn out good, we were just going to kill the project and nobody would have ever known we were working on it. So we didn't really talk about it until we were ready to release it.

GS: Yeah, well this is a marked departure for id and its forays into mobile, with the Doom RPG and Wolfenstein.

JC: Yeah, it's funny how that all came about. This project's been going on for about eight months, and it was right in the middle of that, I got the bug to go in and do the Wolfenstein Classic thing. We've also got Doom Classic coming, and then we've got an iPhone version of Wolfenstein RPG.

So we've got a lot of stuff coming for the iPhone, which I can categorize into three branches. We have the classics, which we are doing internally, and I've been doing the bulk of stuff on Wolfenstein 3D and Doom Classic, which is probably coming out next month. Then we'll go through Quake and Quake II--probably all the way up to Quake Arena. And then we have the traditional mobile stuff, which we're moving over, starting with Wolfenstein RPG, which is done.

GS: Sounds like you're keeping busy.

JC: Yeah. I'll admit EA was a little bit spooked by me programming classic stuff off on my own. They're sitting on the Wolfenstein RPG for a little bit, so there's not too much mental overlap [with Doom Resurrection]. We've also got the Doom RPG sequel, which is in development right now for traditional phones, and there will also be an RPG version.

Our third prong is brand new, from-scratch iPhone titles, of which Doom Resurrection is the first. There's also a good chance we're going to [do] something with Rage that's iPhone-specific for our second major from-scratch, iPhone-specific title...

PR handler: (Interrupting) But we don't want to talk about that right now.

JC: Right. That's in the conceptual phase right now. But the iPhone is a big thing for us, and with Doom Resurrection, we're going out saying that here's a game developed solely for the iPhone. I mean the App Store is a wonderful place to be doing business, certainly compared with the other mobile platforms and compared to just about any other development platform for games. You get the daily feedback, and you can tweak and tune and update. I really think it's the shape of things to come across a much broader set of markets.

The downside is that the price point makes original development a much dicier proposition. I mean, you look at DS and PSP titles, and you're talking a $20, $30 price point. But on the app store, a $10 game is considered super-ultra premium. So while the numbers are good in terms of sales, you certainly couldn't put in a Mario or Zelda-like development budget and expect to have a great chance of getting your money back.

GS: Do you think the iPhone can compete with the DS and PSP in terms of gaming functionality?

JC: Not in terms of complete, dedicated titles. That is probably the biggest difference between the two. We're going out on a limb with Doom Resurrection. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the most expensive iPhone game ever developed so far. But it's still a new market, and we expect it to [be] great, and the reception of Doom Resurrection will certainly inform our efforts.

GS: Do you see its lack of buttons as restricting it as a platform?

JC: Oh, definitely. There is no doubt. I would desperately love to use the volume clicker on the side to fire in the classic games. It does not offer perfect ergonomics. Touch screens have lots of limitations. There's no question that a dedicated input device with physical buttons is going to be a superior input device. But that's the trade-off. You don't want to carry around a PS3 controller you have to answer your phone with.

That said, there's a lot of hardware inefficiencies they could fix in the future that would make software better for it. Hardware-wise, it really should be a better game machine than the PSP. But the PSP games are much more sophisticated right now, and a lot of that has to do with decisions that Apple has made, and we can only hope that they change course.

GS: Well everyone's wondering what Apple's plans are for gaming. Do you foresee them getting into the market with a dedicated console?

JC: Well, I don't have any inside information. However, I do think that Apple has a pretty good game plan with their iPhones and iPods at the bottom and Macs at the high end. I think they're evolving from both sides and approaching from both ends around the console, and I think that's the right thing for Apple. I would be surprised if some Apple TV thing took off to compete with the Wii. The iPhone is the Apple platform that I've been most excited about ever. I've had an up and down, roller coaster relationships with Mac and Apple, but I love my iPhone, and we're making good money on it. Life is great.

NATAL AND ROMERO
GS: Now you mentioned how important dedicated control schemes and buttons are in gaming devices. What are your thoughts on Project Natal?

JC: Yeah, I don't have detailed opinions on that. But there are a lot of people talking about "smoke and mirrors" in all of those demos and how it was somewhat PR manufactured. But I have no first-hand experience with any of that.

I do think that what Nintendo and, to a lesser extent, Apple has done with evangelizing devices as a way to differentiate from just fragments and vertexes and flops is a great thing. That's going to be more and more important as we go through the next generations and the next decade down the line. I mean getting us 100X flops and pixels and things will be useful, but we're going to see a larger difference in input devices.

GS: Right. But you couldn't play a game like Doom without a controller, right? I mean, are you just going to pull your trigger finger to shoot?

JC: Yeah, I don't think that's the type of game that lots of people would be interested in. I think there's lots of novelty stuff to do with that. But, hey, the Wii's doing great with what a lot of people would consider unusable control schemes.

GS: OK, last question. On his Twitter feed, [id cofounder former employee] John Romero called the ZeniMax deal "disgusting." What's your reaction to that?

No Caption Provided

JC: (Long pause) You know, it would take me a long while to formulate a real answer to that. John likes...well, let's just say he's probably happy people are mentioning his name so much. That's all I really have to say about that.

[NOTE: Romero has since apologized for his comments. "i am positive about the ZeniMax deal," he said in a subsequent tweet. "My initial reaction was harsh."]

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