Carmack keynote Rage-s on iPhone

QuakeCon 2010: id Software CTO delivers opening remarks at annual expo/tourney, showing off postapocalyptic shooter on Apple's mobile and teasing studio's future.

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DALLAS--QuakeCon is id Software's chance to greet its community and offer a distilled look at the goings-on within the storied Mesquite, Texas-based developer. However, following its acquisition by Bethesda Softworks parent company ZeniMax Media in June 2009, the event has become more than that, as the likes of Fallout: New Vegas and Brink rub elbows with id Software staples such as Doom and Quake.

John Carmack's technical wunderkind status extends to bringing Rage to the iPhone.
John Carmack's technical wunderkind status extends to bringing Rage to the iPhone.

Traditionally, the festivities kick off with a keynote address by id president Todd Hollenshead and chief technical officer John Carmack, and this year was no different. Hollenshead took the QuakeCon 2010 stage before Carmack to a round of applause. After asking the crowd if they were excited for the BYOC tourneys (they were) and thanking the event's sponsors, Hollenshead recapped the day's panels, coverage of which can be found on GameSpot's QuakeCon 2010 hub.

Next Hollenshead addressed the elephant in the room, saying he knew people were expecting id Software to show off Doom 4 at this year's show. Unfortunately, it's not quite ready for a debut, Hollenshead said, as the developers want to wait until it's ready to make a bigger impact.

The president of id Software then recapped the week's various events, from Quake Live tournaments to car giveaways. He also briefly updated Quake Live stats, saying the game is finally out of beta and now has 1.5 million players.

Hollenshead then introduced Bethesda Softworks' Pete Hines, who took the stage and talked about the various changes being made to QuakeCon, from increased emphasis on panels to streamlined tournament registration and a QuakeCon Done Quick preferred access pass to the show's various events. He also plugged the increased Bethesda presence at the show, starting with a Bethesda booth where attendees can get hands-on time with Fallout: New Vegas, Brink, and Hunted: The Demon's Forge.

Hines then broke a bit more news, saying that ZeniMax has acquired French developer Arkane Studios, and introduced studio founder Raphael Colantonio. Colantonio took the stage and brief expressed his excitement at the arrangement. While Arkane's first project for ZeniMax isn't being talked about just yet, Hines said it would certainly be a significant part of future QuakeCons.

Wrapping up the introduction to the keynote address, Hollenshead retook the stage, thanked the crowd for attending, and introduced "the two most important hours in gaming," the John Carmack keynote address.

Carmack took the stage to wild applause and talked about how the ZeniMax acquisition has allowed him to focus on the things he likes and is good at instead of running the business. He's been spending more time programming as a result, and things on that front are going great, he said. The management of the creative process is important and painful, he continued, saying he wants nothing to do with it.

He also said that he has resisted being drawn in as the lead programmer on id projects, specifically because the lead programmer doesn't actually get to program that much. Instead, that job requires a developer to spend the time making sure 20 other programmers are doing what they're supposed to.

Last month, Carmack started working on a new project, he said, and then he pulled out an iPhone to demo it for the crowd. He shows off Rage on the iPhone 4 and says it's running at 60 frames per second. (The game will also have an option to run at 30 frames per second to preserve battery life.)

The video is blown up on a large screen at the front of the hall, but there are virtually no indications it's running on a phone. He says it even runs on a 2G iPhone. He talks about the lighting with radiosity as he walks around a burned-out building, bystanders cheering around every corner. It's just a tech demo right now, Carmack said, as he'll let other people do the hard work of turning it into a game.

Carmack said he could "kill anything done on a previous console" with the iPhone and said he can imagine plugging it into big-screen TVs to play games. He acknowledged the lack of tactile feedback on the system, but said it's an interesting platform. He said the company is still feeling out the process, resulting in smaller, cheaper titles that customers will use to show off to friends. It should be out this year, with another Rage title coinciding with the main game's launch next year.

Next up is Android. Carmack asked people in the crowd how many people had Androids (a vocal minority, he assessed) and how many had spent more than $20 in the phone's app store. He said he has been checking regularly to see how popular the phones are, and it's to the point where Carmack is starting to think about when the company will bring its products to the platform. It's probably not going to be in the next six months, he said.

Carmack then talked about balancing specialization versus synthesis. He wants to do more iPhone projects, but doesn't have the time. "You can't spread yourself too thin," he said. As for specialization, Carmack said that's what drives civilization forward, and he always has the drive to go in and become an expert in one narrow field. Unfortunately, he said the company is working on a variety of platforms now, and he's not the go-to guy for any one of them.

"I wish there were 20 more hours in the day so I could learn all of those things about all of those platforms, but it just doesn't happen," he said. "It's just not possible."

He said it's a problem that dates back a while. When working on Doom and Quake, Carmack said the answer was to just work as hard as he possibly could, and any obstacle would be overcome. That was around the time he learned his limitations. He had to become more humble about what he was capable of accomplishing when he realized once that there was no way his game was going to be done that year, no matter what he or anybody tried to do.

The upside to that limitation is that there's never any shortage of problems and challenges, Carmack said. Rage is nearing the home stretch, he said. The team knows where things are going and there's a lot of work and polish ahead, but "most of the things are pretty well decided." That means it's time to consider where the company is going in the future.

Carmack said change is a traumatic thing, and technology isn't about to stop changing underneath developers' feet. As a result, id Software is rethinking its processes. He talked briefly about the next generation of consoles, saying that the lack of information from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo about their next systems is presenting id with a problem.

The company has always wanted to be the one on the cutting edge, "out there with arrows in the back on the frontier." While some companies do a great job with safe choices and incremental advancements, Carmack said he was more excited by tearing everything down and starting on something different. That said, it's important to consider the cost-benefit ratio of such risks.

Going from Doom to 3D with Quake, bump-mapping in Doom 3, and mega-texturing with Rage, Carmack said all those steps were disruptive to the development process and admitted they had a detrimental impact to the game design. If they had instead spent the same time working on the games with technology they already knew well, the products would have been better, he said.

Carmack stressed he's taking that to heart as he considers the company's future. But while there are more graphical bells and whistles to come, Carmack said that addressing long load times and other less glamorous aspects of the development process might be more of a focus for the next iteration of id Tech. Doom 4 will still be built on id Tech 5, he noted.

Ray-tracing in games is another technology Carmack expects to see hit in the future. While it might not be the standard in the next generation of consoles even, Carmack did suggest it would be the future, a position he has gradually been coming around to in recent months, after familiarizing himself with the last 20 years of literature on the topic.

He's excited about rethinking software architectures to get better performance on PCs. It wouldn't have been that long ago when 4GB sounded like a lot of memory for a PC, Carmack said, but it's not enough. He said CPUs have been at the limit of scalability for a while now, but with memory, people can still spend more money and get more performance for it.

Looking back on the start of id Tech 5 development, Carmack said the team tied it too much to the platforms it would be deployed on, and not enough to the platforms it would be developed on. That approach no longer pays the best dividends, as high-end PC systems are advancing beyond the current generation of consoles, an observation that received a lot of applause from the PC-friendly QuakeCon crowd. Carmack acknowledged that the people at id Software are still PC gamers at heart, even if consoles do need to be the company's main deployment strategy.

Returning to the iPhone, Carmack said the first thing he does with a new platform is think about what assumptions for development no longer apply. One of the biggest for the iPhone was its flash memory, which opens up possibilities that can't be explored on a system storing its data in a traditional hard drive.

One goal for id's future internal development is to see if they can start levels up in seconds. It's not just for players; it's for development as well. Carmack said while certifications on consoles require levels to start within 30 seconds, that can take several minutes for a developer working with an unfinished game. Cutting that out would make it significantly quicker for developers to tweak things and see how it impacts the game.

He also talked about releasing the source code for Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, something he suggested doing previously, but was put off because it meant dealing with lawyers in order to get it done. In recent weeks, with QuakeCon imminent, Carmack finally did that--rather, he got Hollenshead to do it--and now the source code is available.

Carmack expressed gratitude to ZeniMax for approving the code's release, because there's always a chance that something is unknowingly patented or borrowed from something else. He likened it to a game someone else shipped with Doom and Quake graphics included with it, saying the safe thing to do for ZeniMax would have been to just say no rather than open itself up to risk. He also said that he'd like to see the source code for Doom 3 released sometime after Rage ships.

Getting back to Apple, Carmack said the company has people with a passion for gaming, but it's not a game company "at its core." As a result, he knows he can't lobby Apple for hardware changes to make things more amenable to game developers. Still, Apple understands the user experience better than most companies, Carmack said, and is more receptive to some forms of feedback on their platforms.

The Rage demo on the iPad is fundamentally really cool, Carmack said. But he also knows there's about 80ms of delay when users are moving their fingers around, and he wants to cut down on latency. Cutting that out might not be hugely noticeable, but if every app a person uses is slightly more responsive, that's a worthy thing to pursue, Carmack said.

Carmack also said Apple was in a unique position to spearhead the adoption of high-dynamic range displays, especially in an all-in-one handheld device. Existing cameras can already capture HDR images, he said, and an HDR display paired with that gives Apple the chance to show an image that looks better on the handheld device than on any PC screen or TV, or even in print. That could be the critical mass that gets people behind the formats and would eventually lead to laptop screens and finally TV screens that would be capable of blinding hotspots and other HDR effects.

He talked about modern consumer head-mounted displays for virtual reality gaming, saying that "they're most of the way there" but that "they still just kind of suck." The field of view is still too narrow, but there's still the sense that players move their heads and the view moves after that. It doesn’t feel like wearing goggles with a view to a virtual world so much as wearing a controller. Again, latency is an issue, as Carmack guessed the latest tech still had roughly 200ms of lag involved. He said getting that down to 15ms would be ideal.

Carmack acknowledged motion sensing as a big push in games right now, but didn't have a whole lot to say about it, as most of his ideas focus on output rather than input. If something is finely tuned for one input device, using another input device with it isn't likely to improve it. As a result, id Software doesn't have plans to make use of it. Despite that, he expects someone to make something spectacular with motion sensing, just not id.

Carmack talked about a certain "snobbishness" some people had about 60-frame-per-second games, saying people can be blind to the real value of a feature like that. Would one rather play a 60-frame-per-second flat-shaded game or Doom, he asked. Not everyone agrees on what's important. With Rage, Carmack said the company is divided about post-processor effects. The artists loved it and thought it made the game look more cinematic, but Carmack thought they spent a lot of time making each pixel on the screen, and the effects come in and "turn it all to mud."

In the audience Q&A, Carmack said the company understands why gamers care about issues like dedicated servers and antipiracy measures, but it hasn't been spending a lot of time on those issues. He expects that using dedicated servers will be possible with Rage, but noted the team isn't going out of its way to cater to or scuttle them.

Carmack was also asked about Doom 4, but declined to say much. He was specifically told not to discuss the game, Carmack said. And while he said he wasn't doing much coding on the project, lots of people are working hard on it.

A Nintendo fan asked Carmack about making games on the Wii and the DS. The developer said he plays Wii games more than anything else (typically first-party titles), but thinks an id title on the platform might not make the cut for commercial viability. The company actually passed on the system once already, as Doom Resurrection on the iPhone was originally pitched as a Wii game.

However, Carmack said business-minded people within the company are a little skittish about the Wii after an unnamed first-person shooter launched on the platform and "tanked horribly." As for the DS, Carmack pointed to the company's port of Orcs and Elves, but called it a misstep. They didn't put enough resources behind it to make it stand out, he said.

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