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'Tales from the GDC Vault': Carmack Lays it Out

Continuing his <a href="http://www.gdconf.com/news/tales_from_the_gdc_vault/">new 'Tales from the GDC Vault' series</a>, digital historian Jason Scott reveals his first full-length digitized video from the GDC archives - John Carmack's fascinating keynote

Jason Scott, Blogger

May 20, 2011

4 Min Read

[Continuing his new 'Tales from the GDC Vault' series, digital historian Jason Scott reveals his first full-length digitized video from the Game Developers Conference archives - John Carmack's fascinating keynote from GDC 2004.] It took a lot longer and was more involved than I'd expected, but the first of the GDC presentations stored on BetaSP tapes and not available for a lot of years is now online over at GDC Vault's free section: John Carmack's 2004 Game Developers Conference keynote presentation. For what are no doubt the usual reasons of opportunity, scheduling, and bad luck, this was the very first time he gave a speech at GDC, even if the work he'd done (including Commander Keen, Doom and Quake) had been the topic of discussion and mention for the previous decade. Describing in deep technical detail the issues I had building the workflow of transfer from Betacam SP tapes to .flv files is probably not the best use of your time, so let me quickly go over the high-level version of it. Pulling the audio and video data from the tapes was not that difficult, but the resulting files were desynchronized, and in the most annoying way: slowly doing so over the course of an hour (this happens when an audio file has a different amount of "frames", and the problem isn't always obvious). It turns out I have to hand-stretch the audio to match the video track, then ensure the synchronization is good across the hour. With a bunch of tests and a huge amount of re-rendering, here we are with the finished Carmack presentation. Clicking on the below image of Carmack at the podium gives you the interface for watching/listening to the presentation, in which the id Software veteran is introduced by Spore and Spy Party veteran Chris Hecker. The video has chapters, lets you manipulate the image size and placement, and gives you a guide as to the main points of the talk. carmack2.jpg Perhaps I should not have been too hasty in trying to shy away from being technical. This is a very technical speech. I don't mean to sound needlessly superlative, but someone like John Carmack has only come into the public eye a handful of times since the Industrial Revolution. I don't mean to say he's the smartest guy on the planet or the most skilled programmer or entirely unique in the history of inventors, although he is way up there on the scale. It's just that Carmack's combination of brilliance, dedication to open standards, willingness to share his inventions and one-step-ahead thinking has gifted not just computer games but computer culture with a shining example of a great way to get things done in the world. It's an alternative narrative to NDAs, secretive processes, misleading statements, and attempting more me-too. Carmack is, at heart, a programmer, and his presentation is about what the future holds for game development from the point of view of the programmer - albeit referencing titles like Doom 3 along the way. It's a speech he's been asked to give on a few occasions, and with good reason - he's got clear, distinct opinions and his presentation style is, to say the least, as forthright and logical as commented code. He does not reference notes - watch him walk on carrying none - and he utilizes no Powerpoint, slides or visual aids. He does not stumble over what he's saying, and he doesn't lose any thread he's discussing - a performance many times more compelling and masterful than many public speakers primarily engaged in development would be able to pull off. The themes he strikes on are complexity and technology as they relate to games and the game experience. He ticks off what he thinks of as "done" and "not done". Audio, advancing graphics rendering, and player freedom are done or on the way to done. Less so, to him, are physics and simulation, and accomplishing what we think of as reality utilizing polygons. From there, he moves onto discussion of the development cycle and its ever-growing complexity, and how priority directed at the end-user is probably the best way to go. (A lot of his worries, in fact, explain his goals with the later Rage environment.) His presentation is a wonderful overview with many high points, but there's one towards the end that I thought particularly insightful - Carmack points out that as a successful company that has not have to worry about licensing and contracts for a very long time, id has much in the way of reward and happiness. But in one way that's not true: id's large size and continuing growth as a company means that it has become more risk averse and unlikely to shift into a whole range of game design. That leaves the field wide open for developers who are willing to try entirely new mechanics and design and go in a different direction that huge, successful id could not hope to enter. Check it out. And know that it's the first of many such talks I hope to get online for you very shortly.

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