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Interview with id's Graeme Devine

With a game development career that stretches back over twenty years, Graeme Devine has been behind some of the most successful games of all time. Carless catches up with Devine and finds out how things are going at his new digs in Mesquite.

Simon Carless, Blogger

September 17, 1999

10 Min Read

For many, it was quite a surprise when Graeme Devine was hired as id's in-house game designer a few months ago. The designer of the popular but hardly hardcore-gamer-friendly 7th Guest was going to be muscling in on the design for Quake 3? Good golly, Miss Molly.

To be fair, Graeme Devine's experience in game design stretches back over 20 years, and 7th Guest is but one example of his work. Gamasutra jumped at the opportunity to conduct an interview with the elusive Devine, who discussed the past, present, and future of id software, as well as that of his own career.

Coming to id from Trilobyte, people think of your background as being primarily 7th Guest. But you worked in the gaming industry for a long time before that. I've seen it quoted that you helped develop the classic fighting game Double Dragon – is that true, or was it more of a conversion that anything else? Also, what did you work on pre-Trilobyte? Did I hear a rumor about something related to Pole Position way back in the 80’s?

I worked at Atari, Lucasfilm, Activision, and Virgin. I've been in the industry since the late 70’s and worked on a lot of titles in just about every genre you can imagine. I worked on the PC port of Double Dragon, and the various ports of Pole Position. I've owned three of my own companies, and now work for id software.


7th Guest was clearly a landmark title in gaming – how and why was it devised and why do you think it was so successful?

Hmm. Right technology, the game design, and the timing. CD-ROM was just coming into its own, and people wanted something other than a text based encyclopedia to show off their system. It didn't hurt that 7th Guest wasn't a bad family game either.

Extreme Warfare was the title you were developing before Red Orb got grabbed by TLC, and the ensuing political machinations prompted the project to lose its funding. Could you explain the situation around the canning of Extreme Warfare and the (presumable) dissolution of Trilobyte? How hard did this turn of events impact you, and how close to being finished was Extreme Warfare when the plug was finally pulled?

Very, very hard, and I think I, along with all the other Trilobyte lost souls, am still recovering in many ways. I think you see parts of X-War (Extreme Warfare) in games like Halo and Tribes II. You can also find the innovative ways in which we constructed worlds with numerous players in X-War in many newer game offerings. I don't think TLC quite grasped that the Internet was quite what it was, nor that they had the developer who made 7th Guest, which had given MYST, one of the reasons that they purchased Broderbund in the first place, a good run for its money. They could have had X-War and future 7th Guest games, but alas politics makes for strange decisions.

But from this relatively unhappy position, you're then hired as a designer at perhaps the most famous game company on the planet. How did this come about? And do you think it surprised people in the industry?

I've known John for a long time, and we're both very technology orientated (I feel compelled to point out that he's just a little bit better in 3D than me, but I can kick his ass in FMV). id wanted a designer, and it seemed like a good time. It was either that or start another company, but starting again at that point was not something I had the energy to do, and frankly, working with the best of the best on some kick-ass titles was pretty appealing, especially if I was going to be designing some of them.

Now you're at id, and you're working as a coordinator, friendly company spokesperson, and designer. Do you think id was lacking this in the past, and if so, do you think it negatively impacted their previous titles in that that they didn’t have the kind of coordination you now provide? And, on the other hand, what do you think you can bring to id that will really make them better as a company?

I bring the scapegoat position to id. Quake 3 Arena fails, and zip, all fingers point to me. I don't know, I think id is like a cross between Dr. Who and a rock band, in that it's constantly changing. Only three people at id have been here since the beginning, and I think they've matured a lot since the company started. It's always hard to define or defend a managerial/design position, because basically, there are 14 points of view in the company. I'm just the lightning rod who happens to walk around muttering loudest. I don't know. Is id better since I arrived? Who the heck knows? It had better be, or else my ass is grass.

Your self-described goal at your new company is to 'push id out past the current first-person shooter design and redefine this genre'. Obviously, telling us exactly what you intend to do would give away some your trade secrets. But when Half-Life seems to marry plot, set-piece and action in such an accomplished way, where do you see the FPS genre going in the future?

FPS is still very tech heavy. We're basically the rocket launcher plus the current greatest technology. I think for the first time in Q3A we've got technology to the point where there are very few constraints on the designers and artists (no 200 polys in view, 256 colors max, software rendering, or the like), and we can use this for more than just the indoor warfare we have right now. We've also followed a very fixed path in world construction using the BSP tree throughout the last 5 id products, and that has led to an industry wide acceptance of BSP as the correct way to represent a world. This in turn has influenced game design to make very rigid and confined worlds (something BSP is very good at), and we need to loosen that up.

Quake III:Arena is due out pretty soon now. What does it offer that other similar multi-player titles don't? And are you or the guys at id amused or even annoyed at the amount of similar tournament-type titles due out at a similar time?

I think the brand new engine is not only great at rendering the players view, but the networking code also allows the player to enjoy an unparalleled game experience. We're the only ones out there with an open public test that's allowed us to tweak and correct the network code to get it right on the Internet. While small scale testing does fix some of the problems, there is nothing like a million people bashing on a test all over the world 24/7. Right now there are four games of Q3Test starting every second, playing on around 1200 servers. This is just the test, a tiny window into the product and what it offers. From that the customer benefits greatly and we all win with a better, cleaner, product.

What are your favorite five games of all time, on any platform, and why?

Darn. I don't know. Dungeon Keeper series because I love being evil and I think the game design is awesome. Mario games because I love the worlds. Warcraft II because I own (as in rule) that game. Adventure, because text still rules (otherwise the books would go away). Darn - there's more than five I love, so I'll stop there with those four.

Going forward, is id always intending to stick to developing a single game at once with a relatively small amount of staff? And are you convinced that this is the best way to develop games? Will it get to the stage when a single coder such as John Carmack is incapable of coding a game engine on his own simply due to the complexity of each individual part of it?

I like this method, and if id changes away from it, then it'll be time for me to go find another small team elsewhere (Adrian, Kevin, John - listen up!). John is an awesome coder and thinker. He's not alone in the office, and for the foreseeable future I think we can handle the technology curve that we think exists in front of us. It's the artists that scare me.

What were the most impressive titles you saw at E3 this year?

Sorry, but I only saw the inside of my little 12x10 meeting room. I did want to go see lots of titles though! I'm looking forward to Diablo II, Amen, the new Putt Putt (those games are awesome), and Wipeout 3.

What do you think about the merits of using focus groups to comment on games, much in the same way that preview audiences are used on movies? Or is that what releasing Q3ATest amounts to?

I think they can be misleading. Personally, and here's where my future with the big guys goes away, I'll trust the convictions I have inside me rather than take the opinions of 14 people off the street who represent the average gamer. Dammit, though, I'll miss those Microsoft stock options.

Being an ex-Brit, which do you miss most: soccer, decent beer, or fish and chips?

Lots of things. Family. The weather. The BBC. Tube. France.

Where do you stand on the issue of game violence and censorship? Do you think it impacts as deeply on youth as some people suggest, or is this concentration on the gaming industry as a possible source for violence in society a storm in a teacup?

Personally, I don't think we influence the youth of the world to do bad things. Look at the world as a whole and I think you'll see that. As a father myself, I wouldn't work on games if I felt otherwise.

What's the biggest misconception people have about any of the staff at id?

A lot of people don't realize just how ordinary we all are. We're just a bunch of geeks.

The developer/publisher relationship seems to work in a number of different ways across the gaming world right now. How did the relationship Trilobyte had with its publishers contrast to the relationship id has with its, and do you think there's a model relationship that all developers and publishers should aim for?

I think the relationship id has with its publishers is very similar to the relationship Trilobyte had with Virgin when we were selling millions of units of software every year. I think the lessons from that are something I bring to id, both good and bad. Activision is an awesome publisher and goes the extra mile to make sure id is happy. Working with Marty Stratton over there is great.

Finally, have you got anything to say to the assembled computer game developers of the free world regarding our discipline and the work we're all currently doing?

Ummm… drink more coffee. Don't believe any of the above. The owls are not what they seem.

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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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