Carmack talks PS3 vs. 360, id's three-game pipeline

QUAKECON 2009: Technical Guru says studio is aiming for a triple-team structure; no Doom 4 news until next year; new Rage trailer inside.

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id CTO John Carmack.

GRAPEVINE, TEXAS--QuakeCon 2009 kicked off today at the Gaylord Texan hotel, where thousands of fans of id Software's various shooters gathered. After the start of registration for the convention's myriad tournaments, including a $25,000 Quake Live contest, the main keynote address began with id's top luminaries taking a ballroom stage. It would be the first time they had addressed a QuakeCon audience since id was bought by ZeniMax Media in a $105 million-plus deal in June.

Following a fusillade of techno beats, now-id-president Todd Hollenshead bounded onto the stage to talk up id's new corporate sibling, Bethesda Softworks, which is displaying Wet and Brink at QuakeCon. After mentioning that the iPhone game Doom Resurrection will be only $2.99 until Sunday, he announced that the browser-based Quake Live will be available for Macs and Linux machines starting next Tuesday.

Hollenshead then quickly deflated many attendees' hopes by saying new Doom 4 details would be revealed at next year's gathering. As a consolation prize, he introduced the new trailer for Rage, id's all-new open-world driving/action role-playing hybrid, shown below.

When the lights came up, id chief technical officer John Carmack took the stage. He began by echoing sentiments he had aired in a June interview with GameSpot. "Really, what we do on the game development side of things, that's not changing at all [post-buyout]," he told the crowd.

In fact, things will change somewhat, given the extra resources id now has at its disposal. "We will eventually be producing three [simultaneous] triple-A titles," the CTO said, up from id's current two-game workload. "The bottom floor of our building is for the Doom team, with the Rage team up top," he continued, not dropping any hints about any potential third projects. He did say, though, that three AAA games would be the most id would ever work on at the same time.

Then, the oft-awarded technical guru talked about the many ups and downs of exploring Web gaming with Quake Live, particularly bandwidth constraints. On the upside, about half of the people who have registered for the Quake Live beta remain active competitors. On the downside, it will take about 12 more months to see if Quake Live will be a success or not.

"In order for Quake Live to succeed, we're putting up a team that eats, breathes, and sleeps network gaming," he said.

Carmack went on to focus on Rage's development process. "You don't want to design by committee," he explained. "You need some kind of guiding vision to make a great game." He said developers were currently working on getting the details right, with the design team fine-tuning such things as the barrel climb of guns. Carmack is a strong believer in late-development polish, which he says is the "difference between a good game and a classic."

Then, Carmack talked about developing for consoles for the first time with Rage. He feels that the PS3 has more processing power but that the 360 is easier to program for. "I know Sony fans might get mad, but all the consoles are so much better than they once were, and are closer together now," he explained diplomatically. As a sop, he said that the 360's space constraints caused a lot of extra work having to go back and streamline textures for the platform.

The technical guru then praised Nintendo for going off the beaten path, particularly with its motion-sensing controls. "It's a shame we're not on the Wii. ... Motion-sensing technology will open incredible artistic possibilities in the future."

However, he does feel there are better motion-sensing solutions out there, calling out the Sixth Sense technology from the MIT Media Lab as an example. (See demo below.) "It is what the Wii wishes it were. I mean, it is the lightsaber," Carmack declared.

Coming back to id's signature high-end visuals, Carmack said he hasn't "really explored any kind of graphical research in the past year or so." Indeed, since the ZeniMax buyout, he said he feels compelled to produce and deliver, rather than working on fun extracurricular projects like Armadillo Aerospace. That said, his rocket company does have a Labor Day launch coming up and turned a "small profit" last year, said Carmack.

Getting more technical, the CTO believes that "the next step in technology is the virtualization of geometry, in the way megatextures have done with textures. Game art these days is built with millions of polygons, then reduced to a low-resolution map. Someday, we won't need that second step, but I guess I'm pretty conservative when it comes to conceptualizing how good new tech will make graphics look."

Speaking about Rage, Carmack believes precomputed lighting has helped its development, though performance is still sometimes a battle between engineers and artists.

"Everyone knows that future high-performance gaming is about parallelism," he explained, referring to multiple core processors like those in the PS3, 360, and higher-end PCs. "The real work is taking advantage of these parallel resources, not how polygons are drawn, but how they're economically rendered."

He called people who advocated using more processing threads "naive," since savvy programmers understand the many roadblocks. "Rendering causes latency to pile up; textures, vertical syncing...and if you want to accelerate in another thread, you have another frame."

Carmack also touted his PC gaming cred, saying, "The mouse and keyboard is still the best and most precise control scheme for first-person shooters." He also said that the continuing work of hardware manufacturers such as ATI and Nvidia means that PC graphics will continue to lead. "It'll be a whole new ball game for next-gen [consoles]," he declared.

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