with id Software's John Carmack
id Software’s upcoming shooter Rage has rightfully earned a place atop many gamers’ must-play lists. In addition to refining the lock-and-load recipe the developer’s made its name on, it boasts vehicular combat, an expansive world, colorful quest-giving characters, and an eyeball-melting visual presentation powered by id Tech 5. We recently got the chance to talk with id’s co-founder--and FPS pioneer--John Carmack, who offered plenty of insight into the mutant-infested title’s technical and artistic achievements. To learn how Rage could have actually been made ten years ago, was almost a survival horror game set on an island, and why it’s absolutely not an open-world car combat game, please read on.
AtomicGamer: Rage is obviously quite a bit different from id‘s previous shooters. What are you guys trying to achieve with it?
John Carmack: Well, we went out intentionally to change what we’ve done before, and there were some things that people criticized traditional games for that we really took to heart. Some of the things were about being too dark, being stuck in hallways, being the definitive hallway shooter. There’s a certain type of frantic action that you get in that situation there, but it’s definitely not the best possible way to do an entertaining gameplay experience. We had done a lot of things that way because of the way the technology was working on there. There were certain things that we could do an extraordinary job with, so we limited ourselves to only picking design areas where we knew we could make this huge leap in graphics. The state of the graphics architectures now is that you’ve got much more freedom. You can do a good job visually with just about anything a designer can imagine today, which definitely wasn’t the case 10 years ago; you had to either pick your battles very carefully or be willing to look very bad. So we had the freedom to open up, and there are things that we could do that we think would just make a better game. The previous games were great for what they were, but we think we can make a more fun game by taking in more elements than just the dark, dank, scary hallways.
AG: There also seems to be quite a bit more story elements in Rage than we’re used to in an id game.
JC: Yes, that goes in with the same direction, where there are things that we never did have that type of really good directorial view over in previous games. They were driven by the gameplay, which is still a wonderful way to build games. Gameplay for gameplay’s sake can still be a valid direction to go, but for a modern, AAA, $60 on-the-shelf-type game, you really are expected to do everything and the kitchen sink. You’re supposed to have great gameplay, great graphics, great story, long play experiences…all of that is expected for the sizable chunk of money people pay for these games, and they’d better to able to get lots of entertainment value out of them. So when we started with this game, we knew that we were going to have a bunch of areas that we didn’t have in-house developed experience for. Run and gun action was great for that. We’ve got people who have been doing that for ages. But for things like the driving experience, some of the open-world adventure stuff and economy and things like that…this is the first time that id Software, as a company, has been working on those types of things. In many cases, we’ve tried to dedicate somebody and say, “Okay, you’re the...guy” Instead of saying that one of our normal guys is going to spend 20% of their time on the vehicle physics or something like that, we would say, “Okay, you’re the car guy. You’re going to be working on cars for years to make sure it has somebody really paying attention to it.” Because that’s a problem when you diffuse your focus a little bit…you may not be paying attention when something important kind of slips by. When we had very, very focused gameplay…something like Quake Arena…it’s easy for one person to cover everything important in the gameplay mechanics. But now we have so many things that are going on in Rage, it takes more people to just even stay on top of how the experience is evolving.
AG: In terms of the look of Rage, it seems much lighter than previous id games.
JC: Yes, we do have the brighter, vibrant areas in the outdoors. Honestly, I’m still fighting the battle to get some of the interior areas brightened up even more. I firmly believe that, for the majority of our players here, being able to actually see and appreciate this stuff is going to make it a better experience because some of the levels that are a dark, muddy mess…you brighten those up and you’re amazed at all the details that’s there, and all the personality and crafting that’s gone into it. If it’s all lost in the mud, people can’t see that. So that is an ongoing battle still.
AG: So id can still do dark-and-scary without literally putting players in the dark?
JC: Yeah, one of the lessons we have learned is that if you want to have a feeling of the darker, scarier, cool, awesome, you need to not have it slathered over everything. Like a dark, scary cave will be much more foreboding if you haven’t been immersed in dark and scary for the last 20 minutes. It needs the contrast there. We’ve made great strides, but we’ve still got some room to push on that.
AG: How much has id Tech 5 helped evolve the genre over the last iteration used in Doom III?
JC: This is pretty much a completely different code base. Realistically, this is probably the last time that we make such a clean sheet of paper rewrite of everything on this because it’s taken us six years. We can’t afford to ever do that again. We need to make sure that things are designed so that we can upgrade the geometry render part of things, independent of the animation system, independent of the game logic, independent of the networking logic. There’s millions of lines of code now. We just can’t rewrite everything. But there’s very little remaining that was in the previous generation of technology here. The obvious graphic side of things is completely different with the basis on this unique mega-textured world environment. There’s an interesting story behind that, because if we go all the way back to after Quake Arena, after that project, I did some research and decided where we wanted to go with the next generation. At that time, I thought there were two interesting valid paths to pursue: One was what became the new 3D renderer, where everything was treated universally; you had the normal mapping on there and the lighting and shadows. I knew there was a lot of cool, powerful, dynamic things that we could do with that. And that’s become the standard model for the way most games are done today. But the other direction that I thought was feasible, even then, was pursuing this large-scale data management and unique texturing world arrangement. I did a little bit of work there and I thought that it would be something that could be done within certain limitations, even on hardware back then. But I decided to go with what became Doom III on there.
When we finished Doom III, I was kind of surprised that nobody else had picked up on that kind of road not taken because it was clearly, by that time, something that could be done well on the hardware. When I picked back up on the direction where we wanted to go this time, I thought it was clear that we could do things that nobody else is doing. To a degree, a lot of the games looked very similar. They were all drawing the same triangles and using the same textures. That lends a degree of sameness to the experience that you get. Now there’s wonderful things done by all sorts of companies...for any given scene, you can make what you imagine in any current modern engine because if you just say, “Well, artists, you’ve got the entire budget for this, so make everything with 4k by 4k textures.” So you really can’t differentiate by screen shots because anybody can make any given screenshot if you’ve got talented enough artists on there. And the artists have really hit their strides now, where they’re producing some amazingly good-looking stuff. There’s lots of great-looking stuff here out there…there’s no doubt we have peers. Not to take anything away from anyone here, but I think it’s clear that we are at least arguably the best looking game on the current generation of consoles. The impressive thing then is that we’re also running at 60 frames per second, which is twice as fast as other games that people might hold up as the best-looking console game. So we have that visual richness and wow factor, but we’ve also got the super smooth gameplay experience, which just makes it viscerally feel better in your hands when you’re controlling it. And to kind of loop back around to the technical history there, it was a lot of fun this last year to go and do the iOS version of this mega-texture title because that validated my view that after Quake Arena, we could have done a high-end game that was mega-textured like that with some set of restrictions on there…I was able to pull off a limited version of it onto iOS devices, which are essentially 10-year-old PC GPU hardware.
AG: Rage is being marketed as an FPS, but you guys have a lot more gameplay elements in there.
JC: We actually had to make a pretty strong correction on that because when we first started talking about Rage, it was getting reported as a driving game. We did not want it to be labeled as a driving game. It’s an action game, so maybe we over-corrected a little bit as pushing it as an FPS, but we wanted to make sure nobody just said, “I don’t care about a driving game,” and neglected to look at Rage. It does have those multiple elements of the on-foot, FPS, classic id stuff in there, but also a vehicle-based world around you, traversing the wasteland and doing the races, upgrading your vehicle, as well as the job and adventure mechanisms that take you through the entire story. But if we’re going to hang our hat on something, it’s that it’s got to be a great first person action game. These other things are new elements that we’re bringing to the table that we think people will love and we think we’re doing a great job on, but at its core it has to be an intense action experience.
AG: Of the new stuff you guys are trying, what has posed the most challenging?
JC: On the design side, we’ve struggled a lot with making the vehicles a meaningful part of the game. Obviously, we’re still fighting battles on that to make sure it’s not this disconnected…well, the worst thing would be to have this entire wasteland be sort of an extended loading screen, where you hop in your car and just go to the next place. So we’re figuring out all the interesting things we can do in there…we’ve got our meteor showers and stuff coming down and bandit raids and gauntlets that you run through. Figuring all that out has been challenging. Half of our data set is all this stuff, so it has to earn its keep. On a technical level, that’s the other thing that’s been most challenging…making it fit within our resource limits. If we were to uncompress all the data in here, it would be nearly a terabyte. This has to come down to fit on 3 DVDs or one Blu-ray. So there’s all this profiling that goes on saying, “Here’s where the player can be. This mountain, you’re never going to get close enough to be able to look at the nooks and crannies there,” so that goes down. Then we’re using pretty high-end compression transcoding, the runtime with three levels of caches. There’s a lot of technology in there that’s plumbing work. What we present to the designers is, “Okay, you’ve got all the textures that you want on there, but we have to magically cram all of that down.” It’s not really magic…there are these limitations where if they don’t restrict themselves in some ways, we’ll just say, “Well, it doesn’t currently fit.” We have the big knob…we can make it fit by turning down the compression quality, but you might not be happy with the result if you don’t exercise some restraint.
AG: The expansiveness of the world afforded by the tech almost makes Rage look like an open-world game, and I’ve heard people mistakenly refer to it as a Borderlands-like sandbox.
JC: It’s not like a GTA open-world. As with so many things in games, there are multiple valid paths. The real sandbox open world games that you can sit around and play and do whatever you want for long periods of times, clearly, lots of people love that type of game. That’s not what we’re doing here. It is a big world that’s got vast reaches and lots of stuff to do, but it does have a story arc to it. It’s got a set of things that you move through, geometries, all that sort of stuff. People should not expect it to be something that they spend 200 hours building up their empire in the wasteland or something. That’s not what this game is about. Certainly, somebody could investigate taking this technology and build something like that. We are branching out from our dead, linear, FPS roots on here, but we aren’t making a 180° from it.
AG: Because of its setting, some people are quick to say that it’s just another post-apocalyptic game.
JC: Yes, there’s been a lot of them out there. In broad brush strokes you can have a lot of parallels between things. I think that we have this interesting, quirky, pseudo-retro style that has a flavor all of its own, that’s not reminiscent of the other ones. If you go and take our towns and characters, they have a personality and flavor that’s not just generic Mad Max whatever. I think that the artists have done a good job of carrying thematic elements through there, where it’s an interesting mix of higher technology and retro on there.
AG: Rage adds so much to the traditional id FPS formula, but was there anything that didn’t make it in? Anything you’d originally planned that ultimately had to be cut?
JC: We had to make some changes in direction on the vehicles. We had a vision at the start that the vehicles were going to be more like your personal avatar in there. It didn’t really work out that way, so we’ve had to be open to modifying things. When you set out and say, “We’re going to do something completely different from what we’ve done before.” you have to be prepared to be wrong and make course corrections on there. So there have been a lot of changes in the place of the driving in the game, and how you’re supposed to look at who you are and what your vehicle is and what you do with that. I’m still expecting changes and tweaks in the coming months as we get through to the final push on it.
AG: Where did the inspiration and the idea for the game come from? I mean, did Rage just spill from John Carmack’s mind?
JC: No, Rage is Tim‘s [Creative Director Tim Willits]. The way it went was after Doom III, we started working on a game that was going to be this dark, island survival horror adventure thing. We went a year onto that. We reached this point where we’re saying, “This is going to be another game that people are going to bitch about being too dark, that isn’t going to appeal to a broad chunk of people.” It was going to have some outdoor areas in there, but internally, we were still calling it “Darkness” which another game has come out with that name since then. But we just didn’t have huge faith after a year that this was going to be something that was going to be a worthy successor for a brand new IP for all the other stuff that we had done. We thought that it might be something that could just be compared against too many other things. At that point, it didn’t have the full mega-texture solution for what we were doing. As that technology was coming together, we made this decision that we really wanted to do something that would be bigger and brighter. Rather than running scared from things, wouldn’t it be great fun to be running over things in pick-up trucks or whatever? That eventually merged into the Rage game idea, where you’ve got this big wasteland outside. We’ve got this stuff that can look really awesome with the mega-texture technology and the driving game would take advantage of the higher speeds that we could do now…driving games just feel like crap at 30 hertz. That’s something you really want to have, even more so than FPS action. You want 60 frames per second for that. That was definitely ditching a year’s worth of work on something. When you’ve got a lot of people on it, it’s an expensive proposition, but we were still in a position that we could say that we think this is a better direction to go and turn the ship there and make that change.
AG: And any special meaning behind the title?
JC: We liked the single word short titles. Tim was originally saying, “Rage out of garage and automobiles.” But we’ve had the discussions internally that there’s not enough in the game to tie it to that, but we have a history with that; Quake has absolutely nothing to do with anything on the title, so we’ve gotten away with it before. This, at least, has the subliminal Mad Max ties and whatever. But there’s no really good tie. Maybe we can slip something in in the remaining several months that does ground the game a little bit more in its title. But another good, generic franchise that we can do, we’d be happy with.
AG: And I assume you do see Rage as a sequel-spawning franchise?
JC: Yes, we sure hope so!
We appreciate John Carmack taking some time out of his busy schedule to get us even more psyched for Rage. Better run, mutants--we’re coming for ya’!