Exclusive John Carmack Interview: The Godfather of Frag's Plan to Save PC Gaming

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We interviewed John Carmack back during this year's E3 when id first announced a partnership with EA to publish their next shooter, Rage. We had a chance to sit with Carmack again at this past weekend's Quakecon, where we followed up on our earlier discussion to squeeze more details out of the legendary game developer. Carmack dished out more details about their plans for Quake Live (including their high expenctations), the technology powering Rage and the next Doom, their cancelled Darkness project, and his thoughts about the current modding community.

Maximum PC – At E3, we talked about Rage and we talked about EA. Today, we’d like to go over the stuff you were talking about last night about the kind of future of PC and the state of PC gaming.

John Carmack, Technical Director at id Software – And obviously that’s our roots, so we have pretty strong feelings about all of that. But at the same time, we don’t want to try to swim too much against the tide of a larger market shift.

MPC – Of course, as a business, you need to make money. What are the challenges facing PC gaming? What do you see as the biggest challenge? Is it piracy?

JC – Piracy is a part of that. [Multiplatform development] complicates the development process but not the distribution process; we just need to make sure it works on the bunch of different things. A lot of it though is just market migration where a lot of the people who would’ve bought our previous games, you know Quake 2, Doom 3, whatever sort of high end PC-based titles on there – a lot of them just prefer to play games on the consoles now. They moved on to those platforms.

It’s always hard to say how real the numbers people tout out for piracy are. Because for one, how do you estimate how many people are actually playing? We do have lots of cases where the download numbers from one piracy site is more than the retail sales numbers for Quake 4, and obviously that’s a just fraction of the pirated copies, so many times more people are at least trying a pirated version.

The question then becomes how many of those are lost sales of a real title, and it gets even really kind of ugly when you think about a cross-platform title where you have console sales and if anybody is pirating on the PC who might’ve bought a console version you start getting into this case of “well, maybe selling a few hundred thousand units on the PC is a good thing but what if we lost more than that many units off of console sales?” So that is tough. It’s going to be interesting to see how the numbers play out on Quake Live because if we do wind up with five million plus people or something playing, that means market demand is still there and it probably speaks toward the idea that piracy is a real problem.

MPC – Games are expensive now and a lot of times we’re seeing games hit shelves that are $60 on consoles. It’s a kind of scary decision if you had to buy one game a month you want to make sure you get something that’s fun out of it.

JC – Yeah that was kind of like my comment about how, you know – games that are $60, that’s a lot of money, so games are expected to have everything. They’re expected to have incredible amount of media, all these kinds of gameplay modes and it just forces everything to this “everything and the kitchen sink” sort of mentality for game development. And that’s why we really pretty much decided when we were looking at our next game for over the last year that we didn’t think that a new Quake Arena type title was particularly suited for our modern cross-platform high end game. While technically, we think we could do a great job on it – we’d make it an id tech 5 base, 60 fps, and add in all this other stuff, do great avatar modeling and lots of things we’re excited about doing -- there’s not a lot of pull from the publishers for doing a game like that and their recent data points just don’t look that good.


And we don’t want to try and ram something down publisher’s throats that they don’t really want it. We want it to be something that everyone’s happy with and the exciting thing about Quake Live is that it’s still something that caters to the PC’s strengths as a platform. It’s still mouse-keyboard on there, the best way to play that type of game. It’s something that you will be able to play at any PC, really, high-end or low-end. We think that, even though it’s not a modern graphics game, it still looks and plays great and it’s the opportunity to show, if we wind up with five million plus users, then there will be all the incentive to look at a [similar] PC-based title.

MPC – So if the users come then there’s potential for something in the future.

JC – Yeah because we would like to do that. I mean I can appreciate on some level the story-driven movie-like games that draw people through an experience, but personally I appreciated just the game activity. You know it’s something that you do just to have fun that’s not the type of game that’s going to be a modern development project. But our bet is that it may be possible to create a really successful little niche with Quake Live. We’re going to find out in 6 months or so.

MPC - And it’s safer to spend 6 months than $30 million and 4 years.

JC – And it wound up being a year. We thought it was going to be 6 months but yeah.

Tim Willits, Creative Director at id Software – But again I mean Quake 3 was released in 1999 and still, it’s still the best on-foot, 1 on 1, pure deathmatch game and has lasted the test of time. We still have a great following, if you look at the Gamespy rankings.  We want to get those fans and some people that have never tried it and just put together one community.

JC – The one part where you won’t see quite yet (in the Quake Live beta) is the matchmaking, because we don’t have a large enough body of people to properly get that going. But within the next month that should be there. And we want that experience to be about saying to a friend “hey go check this out” and not saying “go pay $60 bucks for this brand new game,” which is a bigger decision. It’s just go to this URL, spend 15 minutes, download it, play through the game and see if you think it might be kind of fun.

And I think that there are a lot of people that can fall into that market. It’s a focused, fairly pure game, but it’s something that has legs that people can and have played for 9 years in a row.  And with this little bit of an extra level of polish making it easier for people to get into the game, there’s every chance in the world that more people are going to wind up playing and enjoying Quake Live than they will Rage and Doom 4, because well, being free is certainly a big asset.

TW – And no updates and weird patches you have to do; it’s all just there.

MPC – So how does the service work? Is it kind of like the Halo model with different ladders or channels or something you sign into?

JC – The servers are a resource that is managed by us. That means starting them up and shutting them down. That was one of the big decisions over the year about trying out independent game server providers or letting people run it themselves, but they ended up being managed by us. They’re all fungible so the system can be started them up and shut them down remotely when needed. And I don’t know what exact rules they’re using for determining how to start things up but there’s a lot of thought that’s gone into it. You don’t want dead servers; you want to make sure that there are servers where people like to be playing. People can of course start up specific ones for their friends, but we’ve spent a lot of the time has creating the rules for the servers.

Quake Live's Chat Module (click to expand)

The chat module is built into every web page of quakelive.com.  Once a player creates an account, logs in, and adds other players to their friends list, they can then always see which friends are online, chat (with friends on the site as well as friends in game), see which friends are in a game, easily obtain information about the game a friend is in, and join them with one click.  The illustration demonstrates rolling over, and clicking the icon next to a friend that is currently in a game.

MPC – It sounds like all the kind of good stuff of like the Halo 2, Halo 3 style match making without the host advantage.

JC – Yes.

MPC – Very cool. Ok so, Rage and id Tech 5. You guys are going DirectX 9, which we completely understand and we think most people understand the reasons for doing that level.

JC – Well on PC we’re actually still OpenGL.

MPC – Right but DirectX 9 level of shader. Do you really think that Directx 10, and 11 now, are even necessary?

JC – They really aren’t. The things that you get in there are the geometry shaders and a few other things. There’s not a huge draw off that and that’s the danger of leaving an API that’s kind of reached a good stable level. DX 9 is a nice mature setup technology. It’s kind of the natural evolutionary peak sort of the old OpenGL model. It’s really taken that and it’s better. It’s cleaner and better defined.

So you got a whole bunch of people at Microsoft that make APIs. They have the idea that “we made this API that seems to be doing everything everybody really needs but we need to keep doing a new API every year or two because that’s what we do, otherwise they might dissolve our department” or something. So it’s not the same as where up through DX 9 everybody obviously knew what needed to be in the next version. Now, it’s a lot more blind groping around [for new features] and we still don’t feel a strong pull. There’re things [in DirectX 10] we can do with the hardware. I mean any hardware that has a capability, but we can find something useful to do with it. But it’s not worth cutting off any of our market. I just looked at the recent Steam survey numbers and [DirectX 10 card adoption is] just not very good. So I mean eventually it will just be driven by the hardware option and eventually we’ll make a point to [adopt DirectX10]. But I think it’s clear that the Doom project won’t use DX 10 class hardware. We’re going to keep that engine the same with what we got right now.

MPC – With Rage and Doom 4, if you have a PC with a high-end DirectX 10 class accelerator with a lot of memory and a big GPU and a lot of stream processors, will you actually get a different experience – a better looking experience?

JC – Not as much different as used to be, the case where when we released Doom 3 most people’s cards would be playing it at twenty-something fps and eventually you could upgrade to the top of the line system and run 60fps.  It’s a little worse now because we’re designing [Rage] to run at 60fps on consoles.  While you would think that the consoles are basically equivalent to a 6800 in a 512mb PC the reality is that all layers of inefficiency on the PC and the drivers mean that you really need twice the PC to get the equivalent play of the consoles. But when we have PCs that are 4 or 8 times as powerful as the latest consoles, it’ll help.

But what that means is obviously the game will still run at 60Hz, but you’ll be able to run at higher resolutions. On the PC, things stay at higher resolutions faster as you move around. You’ll be able to install everything onto the hard drive on the PC so it’ll page in better as well. We’ll probably have a couple of optional shader things to just turn on. Say, if you got the graphics power to burn, we can do better sampling on some of the textures but none of them are world beater changes. None of them are things that really make you say “wow I’m glad I paid $500 for my video card.”

It’s unfortunate because I always love being the kind of the application that people thought was important enough to go out and upgrade their hardware for. And old previous games were of a great generation where it’s this clear thing when you buy a high-end graphics card and it’s just so much more awesome. With the Doom project it’ll be a case where we’re going to be throwing a whole lot more through the same pipe so the consoles will be down to 30Hz, but the high end PC s will be up at 60hz and that’ll be a case where the PCs will have a clear advantage over then the console generation because by that time it’ll be 10x faster on the high end.

MPC - so one of the things from our last conversation that people had a lot of questions about is that the next Doom was going to be a 30Hz game. Does that mean the input is running at 30Hz as well?

JC – Yeah I would expect it’s going to be 30Hz. It’s possible we could have the playing input run at the higher tick rate than the base game and frame rate, but that’s probably not going to be the case. And essentially no games, you know, no modern games will wind up doing that type of thing.  Most of the games are 30Hz although it’s great to see Call of Duty 4 being a 60hz game. It’s an interesting question. We can’t do scientific studies on this but how much does that superior feel contribute to people enjoying the game more? And certainly, we’re going to be catering that feel on Rage. It’s going to be this perfect silky smooth experience across all platforms as well as having really awesome visuals.

TW – I mean consistent framerate is also very important like John said. But with that, we still have some of the greatest artists in the world so the game will look beautiful.

JC – and that’s the great thing. That’s all stuff set up for 60Hz gameplay. But what we didn’t want was to have people look at Doom and say is Rage re-skinned? So we want to be able to take that extra step and it’s a hard fought battle to be a 60hz game and we’re going to be struggling with that all the way through to shipping we have to keep it at 60Hz when the artists add some more stuff to the game. We have to keep optimizing through that. We’re not going to fight that same battle through Doom. We’re just going to say it’s going to run at 30hz but we’ve got three times the resources to throw at it.

MPC – How much do you think the tools for artists are kind of holding back gaming in general?

JC – On the traditional modeling side we’re basically all using the movie industry tools so you can’t really say that that’s holding them back because you can build movies with the same sets of tools. I do think that the stamping stuff that we’ve gotten – that is a pretty fundamental new advancement for what we could do with gaming and it lets us bring a look to our games that you don’t see in others. Like after you’ve looked at Rage stuff for a while you start looking at other game trailers and you’ll notice they’re mostly these big flat areas of repeated textures. Those look more like a game than like the lived-in world that we’ve got in Rage.

But when you think about the core code development that runs this stuff, it’s a page of code to do the megatexture lookup. And even the management of it all is two files of code or something. But here it is three years of work later and now our challenge is all about making everything work in production and getting the production processes together. So we’re at least preparing ourselves to go through that same set of challenges as we extend the stuff to geometry hopefully in the next generation.

TW – But as far as tools go, the challenges that the mod community have faced, even in the Doom 3 generation, have gotten much more difficult.

JC – And that’s unfortunate, but it’s one of those courses of history. I’d say that the golden age of the mods passed on the PC because it used to be anybody could make something that at least resembled the commercial product, and a talented person could make something that could even stand in for a commercial product. And that’s just not the case anymore. I do have hopes that there may be other kind of platforms that it migrates to like the mobile platforms where you may have a similar kind of modability.

MPC – There are user-generated Team Fortress 2 maps that may not have the level of polish and the props and all that stuff that you guys or Valve or anyone might add, but they are fundamentally very playable maps that Valve is picking up and bringing into their game. What do you guys think about that?

JC – It’s great.  [I’ve] always been a big supporter of that type of thing. We’re going to have a lot of that with Quake Live. While we will eventually support some other completely different mod game types, early on the plans are that we’re going to be advocating development of fresh new levels.

It’s really suitable on Quake Live because given the distribution method, hopefully the large number of users that are going to be playing there it gives people a big stage to play on. Lots of people will get to see the content. It’ll be trivial for people to download it and rank it. Just making the whole user-content experience isn’t something that you have to kind of know the quirky lore to know how to access.

MPC – And it’s an option if one of your friends is playing, you hit the button and join?

JC – It just goes and gets you in the game automatically.

TW - I was actually talking to a reporter last night. We’re talking about the history of modding and I thought “wow, that’s really interesting. When Doom came out John allowed the game to be modded and changed and that has affected id [as a company]. Because myself, our lead designer, our art director, and our programmer director, all came from the mod community. Modding has actually shaped what id is today based on our modding games in the beginning.

JC – And it’s the best way to do it. I remember being a teenager and sending a letter to EA saying “here’s the game that I want to create in pascal record structures” and obviously they blew me off because they had no reason to think any other way about me. But mods are just the best way to do it because it’s a way for people that are outside the industry to put something together to show why they should be in the industry and it lets the people on the other side to actually judge new talent fairly.

MPC – Would you say that id Tech 5 is a more general purpose kind of game engine? Up to this point you’ve been kind of well known for making awesome first-person shooter engines. Are you trying to make id tech 5 more general purpose?

JC – Well because we knew that we were doing outdoor stuff in Rage it shaped all the internal decisions about the engine where there’re really no optimizations for interiors like portals. Everything is done in a way that will work for the outside stuff so the indoor stuff, which is the easier case, just falls out of it. But there’re difference between id Tech 5 vs. id Tech 4.

It’s an interesting thing where I was so happy with id Tech 4 where everything became completely universal in general. What I mean is all the lighting on all the surfaces, and it seemed like we were moving towards this general purpose thing and away from all the special case hacks. But Rage forced us to do at least a 90 degree turn and say “ok, we’re leaning on the pre-generated, pre-rendered stuff for the megatexture and we’re doing a lot of the game-ism classic design type things not unifying the lighting and shadowing but dimming things down with shadowmaps and brightening things up for lightmaps rather than doing true proper lighting.

The game actually runs in 2 modes. There’s a development mode which is very similar to a Doom 3 type renderer that gets slower the more lights you have on. But then we go into the production mode with what we call combo maps where it takes everything and digests everything down, cuts it all up, analyzes everything. And at that point it’s running in this much more specialized mode which is several times faster and that’s how we have a chance to get up to 60Hz.

And it wasn’t the direction that I thought id Tech would be going toward at the end of Doom 3. The direction we had started with the [cancelled] Darkness project was still doing these more general purpose things, in some ways, adding more ambient volumes and stuff we could do in different ways. But we made a real strategic change in the kind of implementation in Rage to just say we’re not about being pure or being correct or being mathematically elegant in some way.

We’re going to do the things that make the game good – that cater to the things that we made possible [with the technology]. The big play was the megatexture stuff which is how we think that we can differentiate ourselves from all the other games out there. We’ve spent a lot of effort to go do this. I’m sure there are lots of people working on copying it right now but there’s a lot of work for them to catch up and it’s something that just so different.

There were a whole set of techniques that I looked at post Doom 3, for example things that shaped area lights, special shadowing, different ways to do specular highlights, displacement bump mapping, and a whole raft of things. And the real takeaway that I came away with was most of these are things that you have to point out to people.  You have to be able to say “isn’t it cool that that highlight there is square instead of circular?” Things like that that really don’t make that much of a difference.

The difference that you want to make is somebody walking by outside your office looking in and seeing something on the screen from there that looks cooler than what they’re use to seeing. Some people are of the opinion that you could put together a thousand of these little things and make something that becomes “next gen” that looks like a new technology. While the megatexture technology would allow us to look different than what people are used to seeing and will have a qualitatively different perspective.

TW – One of the great things that it does is allow us to have true unique areas and that help enrich the story and the setting and it makes you feel like you’re more inside the world. When you walk through some of the towns and places that we’ve already made and finished you may not consciously realize “ok everything is unique” but it feels different. It really does and that really helps the story in-game.

Check back later for the second part of our exclusive interview with John Carmack, in which he gives his thoughts on Nvidia's Cuda, Intel's Larrabee, and ATI's rumored Fusion!

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