Carmack bitten, smitten by mobile bug

id Software founder follows up success of Doom RPG with original title for mobile phones; teams with Fountainhead (again) on Orcs & Elves.


In what has to be one of the industry's least expected collaborations--one of PC gaming's most demanding and technically savvy programmers is teaming up with a mobile game developer and producing a turn-based fantasy role-playing game.

Electronic Arts tomorrow will announce that id Software founder and technical director John Carmack has allied with mobile game developer and media company Fountainhead Entertainment to bring the dungeon-laden Orcs & Elves--an original title laden with sorcery, trolls, dark elves, and the undead--exclusively to mobile gamers.

Verizon Wireless Get it Now customers will have the ability to download the game beginning May 9, with other carriers falling in line and offering the title on their game decks in July. EA Mobile is publishing the title.

Fountainhead, which is owned by Carmack's wife Katherine Kang, was the developer of last year's well-reviewed Doom RPG for mobile platforms. While the id-Fountainhead alliance for Doom RPG was less formalized than what has been ironed out for Orcs & Elves, Carmack's hand was well represented in that creation. This time around, however, the collaboration is overt.

GameSpot spoke to Carmack--whose commitment to mobile gaming bodes well for the burgeoning game platform--to get some additional information on the title, which combines first-person gameplay with tactical turn-based options. Before reaching Carmack, though, GameSpot was able to corner EA Mobile senior vice president Mitch Lasky, who did his best to address our curiosity. We then got on the phone with John Carmack himself.

GameSpot: Mitch, John Carmack doing a fantasy game is like Barry Bonds swinging a golf club instead of a's just not his element. Our question: In what ways are you expecting John Carmack's focused approached to technology, story, and character to surface in this mobile titles?

Mitch Lasky: I wouldn't underestimate the breadth of id's creativity. One of the benefits of the mobile platform is that companies like id can experiment with play patterns and genres that they might not risk in an expensive, multiyear project. The result--Orcs & Elves--speaks for itself; it's immersive and deep in ways mobile games never have been before. This is absolutely consistent with John's and id's prior work.

GS: It couldn't have been hard to sell this Carmack-backed game to the carriers--but taking a broader look, what games are carriers prone to acquire these days?

ML: The single best determinant of success is, and always has been quality gameplay. It's true for video games, and true for mobile games as well. Carriers are getting a lot more selective and are no longer fooled by poor games tarted up with recognizable brands. I don't think any particular genre is currently fashionable. The carriers will promote the things that their customers will buy.

GS: If someone comes to you with a fantasy game for mobile platforms and his name isn't Carmack, what do you tell them? Can a truly original game--one without a big name or triple-A license attached--get the time of day from a mobile exec these days?

ML: Absolutely. I believe that truly great, innovative games will find their way to market. But I would also say that very few of these games come across my desk. Making a fantastic game in mobile is a lot harder than it looks--the constraints of the platform require perhaps more attention to interface and design than traditional console or PC games. The platform is very unforgiving.

GS: Thanks, Mitch.

GameSpot then reached John Carmack, who further discussed the title.

GameSpot: John, how do you address gamers who might be utterly stunned by the fact that you are designing and programming for mobile games? How did it all begin?

John Carmack: It really started off as a random lark when Anna got me a new cell phone--and I'm really not a cell phone guy, I don't usually carry a cell phone. But she got me a new little cell phone and it had a nice little color screen and there were some games on it that I thought were really pretty bad. The demo games that came with the phone were really unimpressive--a really bad side-scroller and some not-so-interesting puzzle games and things like that.

And to some degree, when I looked at [the games], I was sort of offended by how poor the quality of the things were on this neat little processing platform. So I just started poking around one night online--looking for what it takes to develop for these [games]--what kind of processors did they have, what are the actual resources and capabilities that they have.

The phone I had at the time was a Java phone and I found out I was able to just go download all the specifications and the programming tools to make a test application. So on a whim, in the middle of the night one night, I made a tiny little toy for a "Hello World" application just to see what the development process was like.

And then I started seriously thinking about, 'Well, what would it take, or would it be worthwhile to look at doing a stand-alone game for the mobile platform on this?' I knew that I didn't have the opportunity and the time to spare to go into full development myself. I just didn't have time to spare between everything else.

So I was talking it over with my wife, who runs Fountainhead Entertainment, [and I said], 'Well, what if I went and picked a core direction, did the proof-of-concept demo, and then worked on handing it over to [Fountainhead]?

GS: How did you approach the smaller palette of mobile when you are used to the big guns of PC gaming?

JC: My big thing [isn't] just technology for technology's sake. It's appropriate technology--trying to figure out what the right solution for a given platform is.

What I saw on the mobile platform was people trying to apply solutions that were good for the Nintendo or PlayStation platform and sort of shoehorning it onto the mobile platform. And there are some obnoxiously bad fits there--you know, side-scrollers that have really lousy control because of the nature of the buttons, and games that try to make you believe that you've got a joystick or D pad when you really don't.

I originally made up a list of about a half a dozen different types of games, or genres of games, that I thought would play well on the mobile platform. At the time, there were a few games that I was actually playing. One was a fantasy game...I was actually playing Baldur's Gate on the Gameboy Advance, and so I was sort of in an RPGish-thinking mood at the time. And I came up with the idea that we wound up doing--[an] RPG where it had a 3D engine where you could render smoothly around everything. But instead of trying to make it control like a first-person shooter or a massively multiplayer game, I settled on this sort of interpolated turn-based system. But I still used a 3D engine to give the kind of rendering immersion where you would get a believable world.

At the time, we knew the Doom movie was coming out, and we had talked about it and thought, 'Oh, it's a shame that we're not going to have any product tie-in to do with this at all,' because our development cycle was such that there was no way there was going to be anything for the PC or consoles coming out roughly around the time of the movie.

But [then we thought], 'hey, we can probably put this together in six months and if we want to do this sort of RPGish thing, let's throw Doom in with it and tie it together.' And it became Doom RPG.

GS: When did it occur to you to make this new title?

JC: It was kind of funny the way it all worked, where during the development [of Doom RPG], I had made the offhand comment a couple of times [why not] go from the Doom RPG and make a traditional Orcs and Elves fantasy game...meaning a Swords and Sorcery, Dungeons and Dragons sort of thing.

And it's interesting moving back to a fantasy genre, as id Software's never done a fantasy game--it's all been first-person shooters. But in the early days when I was learning how to program, back when I was a teenager in high school, fantasy games were essentially all the games that I wrote.

GS: In what ways does the mobile platform challenge you?

JC: Well, there's a different sort of engineering effort. When I was doing the early rasterization stuff 10 or 15 years ago, when I was writing the original Wolfenstein and Doom and stuff like that, it was a sense of not really knowing what I could wind up doing because I was figuring it out as I went along. Now it's a different. [Then] it was an exploratory thing, where now it's more of a design issue, where I know I've got this broad set of tools...a toolbox of techniques that I've learned over the decades. And I can pick and choose and make more informed decisions.

It's more a design choice now where I can say, 'Well, I can go this route and this may be better but it'll take longer to do. This will have a trade-off in memory or robustness'...things like that.

It's different in the mobile space because the titles are so much smaller. The budgets are smaller. The development terms are smaller. You just really can't do the best you're capable of [given] the limited resources there. You have to try and choose a much more appropriate level of effort.

GS: So the mobile space is based in an absence of resources, is that it?

JC: No, I actually look at it almost exactly the other way, where in the PC and console space we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of the resources--you're talking tens of millions of dollars of development budget there, and that has a real impact on what you choose to do. There's a sort of a risk aversion for anyone playing with that level of money. It's actually a very positive and exciting thing, that you've got a more limited platform here [in mobile], but people are willing to take chances on new and different ideas and unproven IP.

It's interesting that this may be a very short-lived window because the hardware, at least, is advancing at just a breathtaking pace, much faster than it did even on the PC space when you look at this. Where upcoming phones that are going to be out by next year, looking at things that have more power than a classic Xbox sitting on a mobile platform. So depending on what happens with the market, we may be back within a year from now to these large, many-multimillion-dollar development budgets, if the market sustains it.

GS: How do you split your time between the big screen, PC games, and the little screen, the mobile product?

JC:I was wondering how much dissonance there would be, going between those [platforms]. But it turned out that there really wasn't that much of an issue for me. During my normal work on the PC or console space--where I'm working right now, with very high-end and cutting-edge 3D stuff--where you've got thousands of instructions going on in every single pixel on the screen, and then you move over to this little mobile space, you would think there would be a larger dissonance between it, but there's really not.

It all comes down to: it is still just programming and you're looking at things at the different levels of abstraction. It's refreshing to get down much closer to sort of a bare metal [simplicity], rather than having all the abstract interfaces that you need when you're dealing with a large group of programmers and a million-line code base, or whatever, on the big systems.

So I've taken a lot of positive out of that. But in truth, I did not have to spend that much time on the mobile platforms. Most of the work that I did was done over the course of three little retreats, where I would go and take my computer and go with my wife and son.

I did some of [the work] in Hawaii, and some of it in Vegas. I'd just kind of sit in the hotel room with a laptop and a cell phone and write up the core part of what my responsibility was on [the project].

GS: Do you think what makes a mobile game successful draws upon the same criteria that makes a PC game a great game?

JC: There are different things that you would look at on a PC or console game. You can design it so the intent is to immerse someone and hold them there for a very long period of time, while the purpose of the cell phone game is something that you can do at short bits of time, where you can pick it up and play for 10 minutes or something, without having to get into something really deep. You need to be able to put it down quickly.

I think that there are many more things that [have] yet to emerge from mobile games as people start taking the platform more seriously--as a design platform--and start thinking a little bit more creatively about what really should be done here, rather than what you can just port from your existing set of content.

GS: Do you foresee additional games coming out of this venture with Fountainhead?

JC: Work is already under way on the sequel to Orcs and Elves. It's probably going to be maybe one or two games a year here. We kicked around the idea about maybe bringing on more people and staffing up and doing parallel projects, but things are busy enough as it is.

GS: Is there not a second Doom-based title also in development? I think that was part of the original announcement.

JC: No. There's no official Doom sequel in development [for mobile]. EA Mobile has a technology license; they may do another title of their own design.

GS: Thanks, John.

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