id Tech 5 Interview
With id Software's Steve Nix
While id Software has already announced their next game using the "id Tech 5" engine - it's called Rage - there's still plenty to talk about with the actual game engine. I got the chance to talk with id's Steve Nix about the engine. This is the first time id Software has been really active in ramping up the marketing for a game engine. Sure, id's older game engines got to power some excellent titles over the years, but let's face it: not much has come out in the last few years using id's technology.
And that's what Steve is going to be working on changing. With a hot, new set of features, id Tech 5 focuses on what he called "next next" generation rendering. He's not trying to create a goofy new buzzword, but he stresses that while this engine does work on the PS3 and 360 as well as current hardware, it changes the way that artists and developers will create the visuals in their games.
So what is the big deal with this? It's referred to as virtualization of textures and art, where the system is able to load up textures quickly for only the things visible on screen at the time. That means that during a close-up on a mountainside, very high quality textures can be loaded up for that and then as the camera view zooms out, they're seamlessly swapped out with lower-quality versions to make space for all the other textures that other stuff coming into view. We've seen something similar since the old says of the original Quake engine, but it's never been to this level.
What this means for game developers is that artists don't have to worry about texture memory constraints nearly as much as before. What often happens in development is that artists make all kinds of textures and models at high resolutions and then the art director has to go in and decide what gets cut down in quality in order to get the game running inside the constraints of whatever platform they're on. Here, they get to leave them at the resolution they made them at, and the game engine figures out the most optimal way to show that art without having anyone worry about what platform they're on, how much texture memory there is, or dealing with all the compromises that many artists have to.
That's not to say that compromises won't happen, just that fewer of them have to be made and that id Tech 5 will be much more helpful than past game engines. When I asked Steve about whether video cards no longer need texture memory for id Tech 5 games, he explained that that's not how their system works. Having a lot of texture memory still is going to give you better image quality in a game like Rage than if you had less, as the engine now automatically puts together the best selection of textures instead of forcing the developers to make compromises. But on a card with less memory, the engine will still show strengths - when you look closely at the world terrain, the best possible textures (which in current game engines and on less-capable hardware often have to be disabled entirely, via a master switch in the Video Options) are going to get loaded and shown, at least while you're looking at that chunk of ground. Having super-high res textures for the whole world is going to cause a huge increase in the file size of game art (and this was confirmed by John Carmack's mention that Rage likely will come on 2 DVDs or one Blu-Ray disc on the PS3), but from the videos we've seen it seems that it'll be worth it.
id Software is also supporting their new technology with a full set of tools and dedicated programmers working just on supporting the engine with plenty of utilities. The focus, however, is on creating a robust set import utilities so that developers can use their favorite software, rather than proprietary stuff written by id, to create art. And if you ask any developer what element of making games has cost more and more time and money in the last few years, most will agree that it's making art. Since id is specifically focusing on the graphics and art with their innovations, this seems like it's a good strategy.
I got onto a bit of a sensitive topic by bringing up the recent lawsuit that Too Human developer Silicon Knights has brought against Epic for their Unreal Engine 3. While Steve didn't want to speak to specifics about the lawsuit or why it happened, he did say that id is going to make sure that they "under-promise and over-deliver" with their engine and will do their best to make sure that they give engine licensees everything they need. Steve said that of course it'd be a bad thing for id to find themselves in the same position later that Epic is in now, but they're committed to more than just not getting sued. They want to actively work with developers who license id Tech 5 and make sure it lives up to the standards - and more - that they promise.
It's been fifteen years since id Software ushered in the first-person shooter genre with Wolfenstein 3-D, and since then just about every new game from them has meant a step up in the level of graphics and realism (plus, there's usually a damn good game in there as well). The teenage nerd in me used to get giddy just reading about the incredible new features going into upcoming id games, and this time I'm getting that same feeling. John Carmack assured us that they'll come back and still do new games in their three most popular franchises, but for id right now, it's all about Rage and what they can do with id Tech 5. Of course, we can also imagine what other new games could be done by the world's many top-notch developers using id's engine. Either way, as gamers we'll come out winners.