Hollenshead Rages about PC gaming, E3 surprises

Q&A: id's CEO discusses his studio's new multiplatform strategy, aversion to Wii development, Quake Live, Doom 4, and unannounced projects.

In late February, id Software launched Quake Live, a browser-based free-to-play remake of Quake III Arena. Currently in open beta, the service will be entirely ad-supported when it goes live later this year--or at least that's the hope of Todd Hollenshead, id's CEO.

Todd Hollenshead.

While turning a shooter from 1999 into a profitable business using 2009 cloud computing is ambitious, it's just one of the many projects on id's plate. The Texan developer is also hard at work on Rage, a postapocalyptic action game that blends racing and shooting with a dash of role-playing. First revealed at QuakeCon 2007, the all-new property will be published by Electronic Arts instead of id's traditional publishing partner, Activision.

Though remarkable for its graphics, Rage is also noteworthy because it will be the first game that id will develop internally for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Mac, and PC. Indeed, Hollenshead told GameSpot that id's technology chief, John Carmack, considers the 360 the game's "primary platform." Such sentiments are surprising, coming from one of the minds that put PC gaming on the map in the 1990s with the original Doom and Quake series.

id's new embrace of multiplatform development is just one part of how it is adjusting to the game industry's rapidly changing landscape. To learn more about the legendary studio's thoughts on its games, the id Tech 5 engine, the Wii's effect on the market, and what surprises id has in store for E3 this year, GameSpot recently sat down with Hollenshead in an upscale San Francisco drinking establishment. Steve Nix, id's director of business development, also popped in for a round.

GS: Now, id was a huge pioneer for PC gaming. But when you announced Rage, it was the first time you guys announced development of a game in-house for the PS3, 360, and PC.

TH: Yeah, multiplatform.

GS: So do you guys still consider yourself first and foremost a PC developer?

TH: Well, actually it's been a fundamental, sort of philosophical shift at the company, is that we really have transitioned from, first and foremost, a PC developer to a multiplatform developer. And so when John [Carmack] developed id Tech 5 (see below), it really was targeted from the initiation as a multiplatform technology solution.

Now, there's no question that our roots are in PC gaming. And when I play a first-person shooter, keyboard and mouse is the configuration that I want to play on. I'm devoting my gaming time right now on the PC to Quake Live. I like a little Rock Band on the console, to be honest about it. But we feel like, in terms of your triple-A, big-budget, big-market title, that you really have to be cross-platform to be successful, unless you're a first party.

So as an independent developer, we feel like we have to be on all the relevant platforms. So we don't really view ourselves as PC first. I think I would say that John says that probably the primary development platform for Rage is actually the 360.

GS: OK. Now, how do you see the PC landscape changing in the next couple of years? Do you see it becoming almost all digital downloads?

id developed its last game, Doom 3, solely for the PC. Vicarious Visions later ported it to the original Xbox.

TH: Well, I think that's an interesting question. I don't know really where it's going to go. But there's a few problems you have in PC gaming right now that cause friction in the marketplace. Piracy is a big problem. And I've gone on and on about that, so I don't think I need to underscore what the issue there is.

The other thing is, is that retailers are more focused on consoles than they are on the PC platform, primarily, I think, because Microsoft is campaigning for the 360, probably to some extent to the expense of Windows-based games. Even though they have their whole Games for Windows initiative today, it's a lot less than it was a year ago. Clearly the 360 is where their big bet is. And, of course, Sony could care less about the PC.

So retailers are devoting less shelf space to PC games than they were in the past, and there's more emphasis on the consoles. And, to get the big huge marketing budgets behind games you need to make them a huge success. If you're on PC, there's World of Warcraft, the Sims--and there's everything else, if you're not multiplatform.

So the question is, what is the solution? If you do an end run around retail, and you deliver it all digitally, is that going to be the solution? Are you going to deliver it through a browser, like Quake Live? Is it going to be a different market? Are you going to do microtransactions? I think the jury's out on all that.

I do believe that for PC games to be successful independently, as our experiment with Quake Live is, I think you have to do something a little bit different. I mean, you have to think about what your market is and where you're going and what you can deliver. Because even though they may have had critical success, games that have been PC-only haven't achieved the same sales success as titles of similar quality in the past would have achieved.

So, yeah, I think that the PC market is in a period of transition. And ultimately what it's going to shake out to be, we're finding out. That's why we're doing things like the grand experiment with Quake Live, to find out if it's going to be viable.

GS: One of the bigger questions is the Wii, because that's dominating console sales now. Your company has been on the cutting edge of graphics since your foundation. But with the Wii's success, do you worry that a lot of bigger public developers are going to take resources away from triple-A development and then move them into mass market, Wii party games, for lack of a better term?

TH: I'm not really worried about that, because if you look at the data, the Wii is Nintendo--and then everybody else. And then among everybody else, it's licensed properties--and then stuff that people lose money on. So, for a really original, game-centric IP, if you're a third-party developer, I would say, "Show me what makes such a compelling case for the Wii." I'm not saying that it's not out there, but there hasn't been anything that's been demonstrated to be a really huge success.

Don't expect any id Wii games anytime soon.

So the game-centric game-based properties are successful on 360 and PS3, and PC, especially if you have a combined launch. They're not as successful on the Wii. In fact, if you're already doing those others, then maybe you add the Wii as your fourth platform. But if you look at the numbers, independent Wii-centric development is not really justified yet.

Now, maybe it's just that we don't know how to exploit it, and Nintendo does because they made the Wii, and they're really that good. And I'm not trying to take away from those guys at Nintendo. Their games are awesome--I'm a fan, too. But as a company that doesn't make Nintendo-type games, the Wii is less of a compelling platform for us to really sink a lot of resources into.

So somebody needs to demonstrate that there's going to be buyers out there that actually would show up and buy the games on the Wii. Even if we make an awesome game, there's still a question as to whether we're going to justify our investment. And also, I mean, if you look at the market, the type of games we traditionally make, those games are selling record numbers on non-Wii platforms. But despite the success of the Wii, and the fact that it's the largest-selling console out there, games like we make are still doing bigger numbers than they've ever done before.

So that doesn't give us a lot of cause to be worried about the Wii. We celebrate it, we love the Wii, but it's not for the type of games we make. I think that sometimes people lose sight of the fact that almost every company doesn't try to be all things to all people. Nintendo isn't trying to be all things to all people either. They have a great console with the Wii, they make great games. But they're really not trying to push the graphics envelope. They're doing other things.

So I think sometimes you have to figure out where you're going to make your bets and then go for it, as opposed to trying to do everything at once. Because the concern would be for us, especially as an independent developer, is that we place too many bets and our attention is spread out all over the place. We're making a focused, measured bet that says, "We really are confident that this is going to pay off." And that's what we've done with Rage. John's made technology that is cross-platform, we've made a game that we feel like we can deliver on console controllers just as easily as on keyboard and mouse. That's what we're going for.

GS: Let's talk about Rage, then, now that we're on the subject. Now, there's been a little confusion. For the record, it is not coming out this year, correct?

TH: No, it won't. Rage won't be shipping this year. I'm not confused on that at all. [Laughs] Let me put it this way, I certainly hope it doesn't ship this year, because if it does, that means someone's stolen our code and game and they're publishing in Russia or something. [Laughs]

GS: OK. But it's coming along pretty well, right?

TH: Yeah, yeah. What John would say is, the technology is basically done at this point. And so we're really focusing in on honing the gameplay, leveraging the technology with amazing art, and all those sorts of things. And one of the awesome things about id Tech [5] is that the artists are gated, not by the limitation of system memory, but more by their imagination.

GS: Yeah, I mean, didn't John say that the Rage art assets alone were 20GB?

TH: Yeah, on our servers it's actually quite a bit larger than that. The game, ultimately, when it's done on our servers, will be huge. I don't know, 100GB? But then we'll have to condense it down to price it down, and then do the passes on actually what goes into the levels. But we fully expect to saturate a Blu-ray disc, and it will be on multiple discs on the 360 and, obviously, multiple DVDs on PCs as well.

GS: Is this going to be as totally open-world as Fallout 3? I've heard you've mentioned that it's going to be slightly different, but I'm kind of wondering exactly how open-world it will be.

Players won't be wandering in a totally open landscape a la Fallout 3.

TH: We don't really conceive Rage as an open world. It's more open environment. So, you're not just going to be going out and doing arbitrary things for however long you want to do them. There are some things that you can do within the game that you can do for an arbitrary amount of time, like racing circuits or whatever, to improve your time or to climb up leaderboards and things like that. It's kind of an activity that you can participate within the game. But the game does have a story, it does have a progression. You can deviate off of that, and there's some things that you can do that, again, don't follow this linear path, and you can go off the path and do different things

GS: So how vehicle-centric is the game?

TH: Well, there's racing, you can go out and fight in the wastelands and things like that. If you go out in the wastelands, there's always going to be bad guys that are out there that are kind of an impediment for you to get from A to B. There's stuff that you do to mod your car, build it up and do pit stuff and that. Those things obviously will get to a point of diminishing returns at some point.

I think there's going to be a limit of stuff that you can put in [Rage], but that isn't necessarily a limit to the amount of fun that you can have doing it. But it's not like "I'll just go out, and I'll do this," or whatever. There is actually a game with a story there that we're going to try to encourage the player to progress along, sort of, this line to completion.

GS: A gentle hand pushing him forward.

TH: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

GS: How big will the role-playing elements be?

TH: Yeah, I'm not a huge hardcore RPG guy, so it may go a little more into the action RPG-type stuff.

GS: Well obviously it will be an action RPG. I'm just wondering how much.

TH: Well, you'll have an inventory system of things that you can hold. And some weapons have some different things that you can do based on what your ammunition is. But you won't be able to "Oh, I'm going to boost my magic up by one, at the expense of my strength," or whatever.

GS: Now, let's talk about the id Tech 5 engine. How hard is it breaking into a middleware market that is pretty much dominated by Epic Games' Unreal engine?

Steve Nix: Well, we don't have to break in, because id was one of the original tech licensees, as is [Wolfenstein-maker] Raven [Software]. There are a number of studios throughout the world who are evaluating id Tech 5 right now, and we don't disclose licenses that haven't been announced for games yet.

However, our goals are obviously going to be different from Epic's. I mean, Epic does a great job with their engine technology license, and they're very dominant right now. There are a number of other engines out there--the Infernal engine, Gamebryo--that are sort of going for a larger market share. But id's goal has always been to work with a small set of high-quality partners who are going to build really, really great games full of technology. It's not to build a large middleware technology organization.

Also, we are primarily a game developer. It just so happens that we create, in our opinion, the best technology in the world, and we occasionally license it out to other game developers. Games like Half-Life, Call of Duty, and Medal of Honor use our technology. But again, our goal is not to be a middleware organization.

The other thing is that, with respect to the way we've always done technology, is we're very careful with what we promise is going to be in the Tech, so that it's actually there when we do it. So we've been guarded about getting it out to people until we knew how things were ultimately going to work out. It's only been recently that all the things that we expected to happen are now working, or demonstrable.

GS: So Doom 4 is still way down the pike, right?

TH: Yeah, I mean, we're in--it's not preproduction, but we're still early on in that. The team is relatively new. We're still actually hiring people for the team as well, so it's not completely built out. But we really just started on that last year. It's very much deep in development. But everything I've seen on it is classic Doom, so I don't really have worries that people aren't going to like it and start talking about it.

GS: And is it a sequel? A reboot? A prequel?

TH: Gosh, that's actually an excellent question. It's not a sequel to Doom 3, but it's not a reboot either. Doom 3 was sort of a reboot. It's a little bit different than those, and if I told you why, I would get my ass kicked when I got back. So I'll just have to leave it at that.

GS: So Quake Live went into open beta February 24. How has the response been so far?

TH: The response is literally overwhelming--we had more people show up than we had slots for people to play in initially. But that was--it's kind of a good problem to have, and we'd definitely rather have that problem than the opposite. We had 60,000 people in the queue to get into the game at one point, but there's no queue now. Anybody wants to come in, we're ready to play.

So now the issue is that we need to find out who's playing and who the people are, so we can actually get demographic data out to appeal to the advertisers. We have the people, now we need to get the advertisers.

GS: Have you guys announced a hard launch date for Quake Live?

TH: We don't have a hard launch date. We'll probably just roll it out. We're in the beta process, because there's a few things that, because of the numbers and the sheer amount of data that we're processing, that we want to get to. Right now, for instance, we have leaderboards turned off. Obviously that's not where we ultimately will be.

GS: So are the ads turned on yet in the game?

TH: We have ads in the games, and some of them will be replaced by real ads later on. Quake Live has an ad now, but we're obviously not going to advertise Quake Live in Quake Live. QuakeCon is another large ad. But those are sort of more just to test things out. But we're actually starting to have ads from Dell and a few other people as well. But all the stuff works, I mean, it probably works better than we even could have expected.

GS: What's the response, then, in terms of users as far as the ads go? Have you heard any complaints?

TH: Not at all. Wen we made Quake III, the game was intended to be sort of a spectator sport. With Quake Live, we made it more into a sort of sport. It's just like if you're watching a hockey game. You see--but you're not bothered by--ads on the boards. Or when you're watching baseball, you've got an ad behind the catcher at the backstop. So I think those things, in terms of a competitive sport, are things that people expect. It almost actually makes it kind of cool that we have real ads in it. It sort of makes it like a real sport.

GS: So do you think the ad-supported, browser-based shooter is going to be a growing trend?

TH: Well, I mean, Quake Live is still a big experiment. When we embarked on the project, we didn't know how much it was going to appeal to people. What we know now is that in one month we're over 50 percent above our target for the first month, in terms of accounts. So that's been a huge success for us.

But advertising, in this economy, it's a tough market, it's a tough sell, and advertising in games is kind of new. It's not your typical TV or magazine ads or things like that. But one of the unique things that Quake Live offers is sort of the new aspect of having these in-game streaming ads, combined with your traditional banner ads across the whole Quake Live site. And so the ability to not only just deliver impressions within the game, but actually convert those into click-through with banner ads within the games as well.

So it's a lot different than what you would normally expect if somebody's saying, "Oh, well, on a console game, a 360 or PS3 game, I'm partnering with advertising agency XYZ or whatever, and I'm just going to get these in-game impressions." But advertisers still, I think, are a little unclear about what all that means. I think we have to make the connection between impressions to actual actionable things.

id A NO-SHOW AT E3 2009?
GS: OK, so one last question. Since id is out of the Entertainment Software Association, what are you going to do for E3 2009?

TH: Our departure from the ESA [in 2008] was simply because we weren't going to have a booth [at E3] last year, and that was sort of the primary reason to be in the ESA. So the story got spun into something that wasn't really accurate. And the timing was just coincidental with other people leaving the ESA. We have no problem with the ESA. I still keep in touch with those guys, and I fully support what they're doing. But it doesn't gate us from being at E3.

But what I expect is, I expect that we'll be showing Wolfenstein at E3, I expect that we'll have some new stuff at E3 that we haven't announced yet. So I don't want to pre-announce it now until I at least get a chance to talk to our partners that we would announce it with. That would be another subject of me getting my ass kicked. But yeah, we'll be at E3; it just won't be an id booth. It'll be games that will be there in other publishers' booths.

GS: Well in the history of E3, id's had one booth right?

SN: Right, and that was just one year when we really wanted to show some early partners what we were doing with id tech.

GS: And you say "new stuff," can you get any more specific?

TH: I'll leave that as a tease.

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