E3 2011: John Carmack talks Wii U, PlayStation Vita, and next-gen Rage
Q&A: id Software's technology chief discusses the possibilities raised by Nintendo's new console and how a sequel to the postapocalyptic shooter might be "cross-generational."
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LOS ANGELES--As the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo was winding down, John Carmack was getting ready to leave. Having been flown in for a day on a private jet from Texas--courtesy of his bosses at ZeniMax Media--the chief of id Software's technology department was holding court Wednesday at the extravagant booth of its corporate sibling, Bethesda Softworks.
Bethesda is publishing Rage, the next game from id. The postapocalyptic action title--which features both on-foot shooting and car combat--has been in the works for the better part of a decade. It's also built on an all-new engine, id Tech 5, that Carmack created specifically for the game.
Rage ships for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on September 13--the first simultaneous console and PC launch in id's history. GameSpot caught up with Carmack at E3 to talk about the challenges of multiplatform development, the future of the Rage franchise, and his thoughts on the two platforms announced at the show--the Wii U and PlayStation Vita.
GameSpot: id announced the launch date for Rage over a year before it was even done. Normally you're used to "When it's done" being your deadline. Is it strange developing not only with a hard deadline, but one that is so far out?
John Carmack: Well, the game development has taken too long, and we have to take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again because you can't be open ended about that. You can't just have a game take 10 years to develop. When you're paying so many people, eventually reality does have to intrude. But I mean, we were frustrated internally that we weren't able to push things together as quickly as we wanted to. So having the deadline was useful for us. We had to have some focus to it.
But it's done now. We still have several weeks of polish before the final touches are on there. I mean, we're collecting good notes from just watching hundreds of people go through and put hands on the game here [at E3] right now. But it's a different thing from like in the old days when something takes 18 months and you want to take six months more for it, then you know, something's taken four years and you want to take two years more for it.
GS: Is that because of the scale of the way development is now? That so many people are involved?
JC: It's also I think about the fact that when we started Rage, the iPhone didn't exist. Things change so much over such a period.
GS: When was it exactly?
JC: It was over six years ago…seven years, practically. So it's been a really long time and you just should not take that long on any product. We need to make sure that we don't wind up taking that long again. We're not going to tear up that much of the code base probably ever again. Of course, it used to be that we could afford to say, "All right, every new generation, we're going to rewrite everything from scratch." That's not tenable anymore, and it's not necessary either because a lot of our stuff really serves pretty well.
Even if I do write a brand new render or something for the next generation, there's no reason why we can't continue to use much of our animation and decoration systems, voice tracking, and all this other stuff. But we did an awful lot with Rage; it was completely unprecedented technology. We had to spend years for me to gather the whole mega-texture content creation pipeline, and the ways that we would build things and the different strategies with the artists and designers would use to take advantage of this. For just about the last year, a lot of it is just doing the final work to make sure it actually runs like it's supposed to on all the consoles.
GS: Was that a big challenge? Doing multiplatform development?
JC: Well, we built it from the beginning, so everything was working [on all platforms]. But it was easy for the designers to kind of slide into just working on the PC, and that left us to cram things at the end, you know. Programmers found the memory that they could and then designers go back and cut some of the things out or put some of the things up on there.
We know that wasn't our best. We didn't do the best possible job on that. We're trying to make sure that with the Doom  project…that we get it running on the consoles early and it stays running on there.
GS: Do you find yourself pushing up against the limits of the consoles' technology? I mean, right now, we're six years into the Xbox 360's life cycle…
JC: The interesting thing is, I don't feel at all that the consoles are tapped out right now. It's different than back in the old days when you're looking at Super Nintendo or something where many programmers would know every single register in a device like that and they really have at least thought about just about every possible way you might choose to exploit a platform like that. But the current platforms are so powerful and so sophisticated. I don't think there's any person anywhere that can really honestly say they know everything about one of these platforms. I'll randomly page through documentation on the 360, reading articles that I haven't read before realizing that, "Oh, there probably are smarter ways to use that vector processor."
So, that is a different situation than previous generations where there's still a lot that can be exploited in there. I mean, we did know up front, "Here's the memory we have, here's the amount of processing cycles we have." [But] there're still plenty of alternate directions that we could wind up looking at. It is interesting that on the PC side, we have systems that are 10 times more powerful than the consoles. But it's frustrating in that a lot of the PC systems that are many times more powerful still have trouble holding the same 60 frames-per-second rate because of API overhead, API clocking issues, and things like that. We're working with Intel and Nvidia on all these issues, but it is kind of frustrating when I know that the hardware is vastly more powerful but because we don't have quite as tight control over it, a lot of power goes to waste.
GS: So are you already thinking about Rage 2?
JC: The exciting thing about that is that we set out with Rage to do something that was different than our previous games. We really didn't want it to be Doom 3 plus one. So we have the combat stuff, we have the driving stuff, we have the economy, and the items and the engineering work, and all these other things. But you know, when we come to look back at the beginning, at the original decisions, there's a couple of things that we think proved to not be as valuable as we would have hoped for the game.
But then there're some things that don't detract a bit from the normal fun that we're used to producing on there, and they add a lot to it. And they're things that we're pretty excited about devoting more resources, more programming resources, more media budget, more time developing to it…to make some of those things just a lot cooler in a lot of ways.
So, yeah, the team morale is really good right now, as we get to the final end of this. We feel good about the product that we've got out here. We think it's going to be well received, and it should review well. We're going to have a ton of fun with the game. And we know we've all got our personal list of the things that, if we get to go back and revisit these decisions, we're going to do to make it that much better in the future.
GS: So that's a "yes"?
JC: Yes. I mean, I guess we don't have a formal, official announcement, but, yeah, it's certainly heading that way.
GS: That's great. And in terms of Doom 4, what's the status of that?
JC: I know we're not supposed to talk about it, but I'll tell you a couple of things. (Looks at media minder across the table.) So, as soon as Rage ships, the core tech team moves over to start making things happen on the Doom 4 project. There's me and the systems programmer types that have been on Rage for so long. We're going to move over to the Doom team and a lot of resources are going to migrate over there. And that's a necessary and key aspect of being a larger company; it gives us this ability to migrate people between the projects because it was something that we were really feeling the pinch before this. If you've got 50 people working on a project, it's not useful to have all of them on day one on there; you really want to have a smaller team building things. Then at the end now, we would have a hundred people on the team.
That's the model that we're moving toward…being able to migrate parts of the company between projects on there kind of makes for a better schedule. And the only thing I've really talked about on Doom 4, technology-wise, is that we did make the decision that…well, my biggest pride and joy about Rage is that I won the fight for 60 frames per second on there, but it involves significant trade-offs. You can't have 30 guys crawling all over you at 60 frames per second at this graphics technology level because it's painful. It's a lot of effort to do that. But, we did make the call that for Doom 4, the single-player is going to go 30 frames per second on the consoles. So we can have 30 demons crawling all over you on there. But the multiplayer is still going to be 60 frames per second, so it has the quality feel that Rage has.
GS: A quick follow up on Rage 2. Given that it's coming out after Doom 4, is that so far out it's going to be for next-generation consoles?
JC: We don't have any kind of release date on any of that. The expectation would be that it's not a brand new engine for Rage 2, since you want people to be able to concentrate on the design. There's a lot of value that we can add relatively quickly based on our experience with getting this product out the door.
I am, obviously, looking at the next-generation consoles and what we're going to be doing on there, [and] which titles wind up being crossovers. But it's clear that when I'm talking about next-gen consoles, there's no way somebody that's not basically an appendage of a first party will do something that's solely for next-gen consoles because so much of the expense is developing the media to target these things. It's obvious what you do if you got a title on this current generation; the next one you go ahead and you run a 1080p instead of 720i. If you're a 30 hertz game, you try to push up to 60. Actually, most games will run out of power on the new consoles even before they've added all those things onto that.
But I am working on next-generation engine technology…about what we'll do differently in graphics when we start really thinking about it. It's likely that the project after Doom 4, the next major one, will be designed to be cross-generational. So we want to have a media strategy session…that we can have something that ships in the quality of Rage on current platforms but actually takes advantage of the next-generation platforms.
GS: Have you had any chance to look at the Wii U at all?
JC: They made a big presentation to the ZeniMax companies and I said, "Do I want to fly up there?" This was just last month or something. But I said, "No, I really need to stay here and just work on Rage right now." But you know the technology level on there brings it up to parity with the other consoles, which is nice for us. Previously, the Wii was not a target. Id Tech 5 was just not suitable for the Wii at all. We seriously talked about possibly using the iOS Rage technology that I built for that for a Wii game. It would fit perfectly from a technology standpoint, and I think would have been really pretty cool as a Wii game, but we decided that it wasn't the right time to jump into the Wii market.
But now that we're looking at another platform that is eminently suitable for the technology, I'm sure we're going to try and bring it up on there. But it will become a market question of do we think that there will be people there that won't be served by one of the other SKUs? If you're going to have a serious hardcore game on there, the Wii is usually the hardcore gamer's second or third console. Even if we could have shipped Rage in full glory on the Wii, it probably wouldn't have made a whole lot of sense because people that want Rage probably also have a PC, 360, or PS3 that could do the game better justice.
So we'll be seeing how the market plays out on there. I'm kind of excited about the touch-screen aspect on there. I think that probably has broader general utility for games than most of the motion control stuff, where you really have to design a game around motion control and you can't just tack it onto a finely crafted FPS. But I think the DS has really shown what the extra little touch screen can do--almost any game can do something useful with that.
GS: Speaking of touch screens, did you get a chance to look at the PlayStation Vita at all?
JC: No, but I think that Sony learned a lot from the PS3, and they've gone out of their way to make sure that the development is as easy as possible on there. However, I wouldn't want to be the executive making the decision to launch a new portable gaming machine in the post-smartphone world. I think that they've picked as eminently a suitable hardware spec as they could for that. They're going to have you program for it like a console, so it's going to seem twice as powerful as a smartphone with the exact same chips in there.
But of course, by the time they actually ship, there may be smartphones or these tablets with twice as much power as what they're shipping with on there. And a year or two after that, it's going to look pretty pokey. The key to their success, if there's going to be a success there, is allowing people to more or less directly move over the console development engine to technologies on there. Because you know, you don't have people making $50 million budget iOS games. You make a game that's fun and quick to do, and you grab low-hanging fruit with the technology there. So, even if that plays out, such that people find that they can easily bring over their full-on, full-blown AAA console titles and put it on [the Vita], that's going to give it a reason for existence.
GS: But right now, id's mobile efforts are going to be focused on iOS.
JC: It does come down to just our total manpower on there. I made the decision finally, that OK, we should start doing Android stuff, but then we hired a guy to work on Android and wound up putting him on iOS stuff. I think we can make pretty good money on any of these things, but our iOS stuff, to a large degree, is ZeniMax humoring me because the ZeniMax strategy is to look for the home runs. They want the AAA titles that are going to go out in many, many millions of units. And I'm like, "Hey, we made a half a million dollars here, a half a million dollars there, it pays everybody's salaries," and it's a little bit of a technology for me to prototype new directions. And it's fun!
But you know, I don't think that there's a lot of big feeling that it's going to be a major business arm. But I think as long as it's profitable…and I think it's a useful release on a lot of levels, and I'm still excited by the prospects. I mean, one of the things that I fret a little bit about is that we see more and more people that are just happy playing these games on here, especially amongst the middle-aged developer crowd. I can't go sit in front of my Xbox all weekend, but I can play a little bit here and there.
But, the data certainly isn't showing AAA doing well on iOS. And the counter-argument that some people make that I find interesting is it's great to have 50 million people playing Angry Birds or whatever because it's easier to sell a AAA title to somebody that's had fun in some gaming experience than somebody that never even thinks about games.
GS: When id was bought by ZeniMax in 2009, you basically said that it felt like id was becoming its own publisher. Now that you're about to ship Rage, do you guys still feel that way?
JC: It's been better than I could have expected. On a personal level, I don't have to pretend to be an executive anymore. I don't have to go to board of directors meetings or talk about board strategy things. So, I've actually gotten to program more in the last year and a half than I did the year and a half before that.
So, it's been personally good there. And one of the things that was really unexpectedly pleasant is being part of a larger family. In December, we have this big get-together where everybody shows the games in the theaters and talks about everything. And there was this sort of unexpectedly pleasant sense that this is really nice to be part of a larger family and to be able to cheer for somebody else's effort. It's awesome being a sister to [The Elder Scrolls V] Skyrim on there. So, I don't have a negative thing at all to say about how it's gone. I couldn't be happier.
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