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The Tao Of Id - Kevin Cloud, Steve Nix Talk Tech, Future Of PC

Legendary Texan developer id Software is making major plans for engine licensing with id Tech 5, and Gamasutra sat down with co-owner Kevin Cloud and biz dev director Steve Nix to discuss them alongside the future of PC gaming, DS and mobile efforts, and much more.

Though other employees of the Carmack and Hollenshead persuasion get a lot of the attention at legendary Texan FPS developer id (Doom, Quake series), creative director and co-owner Kevin Cloud is one of the key powers behind the id throne.

He's currently working as the executive producer for Splash Damage's major externally developed titled Quake Wars: Enemy Territory, and works alongside key new hire Steve Nix. Nix formerly headed up Ritual Entertainment, and is now director of business development at id, which is significantly ramping up to start licensing id Tech 5, its latest multi-platform engine being created by Carmack and team.

Gamasutra recently sat down with Cloud and Nix at the recent E3 Media Summit to discuss major topics such as the future of PC gaming, the company's DS and mobile phone work, the firm's new desires to externally license its engine, and a multitude of other topics.

So let's start with discussing piracy - I know [id CEO] Todd Hollenshead talks about it a lot, and you are pretty fierce in combating it. Are you still doing the dongles thing? Is that going to go forward?

Kevin Cloud: Well we do dongles for our own internal builds between when we bring things out and things like that. But in terms of dongles for release software, not that I know of.

O.K.That was one potential thing that he was talking about. What have you looked into so far?

KC: Well when you're dealing with something like Enemy Territory, its piracy protection measures are you have to have a code to play online, you register an account, you get a registered account name and to play -- to keep your persistent stats -- you have to be verified to play online with that account. So it's pretty standard things for that.

Definitely in terms of our position on piracy, it's not unusual to id, as a game developer where we don't support piracy. [laughs] But it has to be a balance between stopping illegal use of the software and still keeping it easy for people to use. The whole goal is to make games fun. So we're going to make sure anything that we do still keeps the games fun and accessible for everybody.

Yeah. It seems like the online platform and registration that way is pretty much the de facto way to do this sort of stuff -- the single player box games, those are the big issue really. Is developing for console also a potential solution to the piracy issue?

KC: We're definitely looking more at console, in fact our id Tech 5, our technology that we're working on for our next game, is multi-platform. It's running on the Mac, PS3, 360 and the PC right now. I don't really see that as a "piracy solution", it's just that these are great gaming platforms now for first person action games. They are definitely well-accepted as a gaming platform for those types of games, and we're going to hit them hard. That's a real focus of ours. But it's not really a piracy solution.

Steve Nix: It's just that a lot of people want to play games on their consoles. They're great platforms and Microsoft did a great job establishing the shooter genre on the Xbox and it's really bloomed on the PlayStation as well. So people want to play action games on the console, and we make action games primarily, so it just makes a lot of sense for us to be there. Even Enemy Territory should be shipping on PS3 and 360, and so console is very important to us these days.

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With your new tech, are you considering licensing it?

KC & SN: Absolutely.

You've been a little more selective with partners in the past, rather than all-out licensing, though?

SN: We've had a very successful technology licensing history going way back. I think the first Doom had some licensees even. Some of the best games in history were not partner games. Half-Life used our technology. Call of Duty used our technology. Medal Of Honor used our technology. Bond: Agent Under Fire used our technology. There's a long list of people who licensed id Tech.

KC: Yeah, when we were looking back and just looking at the different games using the Quake 1, Quake II, Quake III technology cycles, we were calculating well over a billion dollars in industry revenue coming from games using that technology. It's something that we've always done and we've been open to licensing our technology. The thing is now with our new technology, id Tech 5, we've just made a strong push to be multi-platform, which I think is a necessity these days. It's a technology solution. We probably spent the first year of development while John [Carmack] was working out rendering solutions; the rest of the team was working out tool solutions to make it easier for people to use. We're definitely giving it a strong push.

SN: Yeah, absolutely. We already have the new tech running on those four platforms at a high frame rate with the identical assets which is sort of unheard of. There's no baking, there’s no packaging process. You just make a change to the game, period, and it automatically applies to all the platforms so it's really a new paradigm.

KC: One of the key elements of it is the unique texturing, the textural virtualization solution. So besides allowing artists complete freedom, they're unrestricted about how much detail and how much variety they want to put in a world. It's also just a very scaleable solution so it works perfect for multi-platform because you're not worried about taking out twenty textures to make it fit on the PS3, it just works.

SN: It turns the traditional development cycle on its head because generally what happens is level designers start making maps. They immediately start throwing textures in that illuminate. They make these great looking maps and what happens is it turns out parts of the maps don't work. They're no fun and they end up having to take out and radically alter parts of the game so they ended up wasting a lot of art resources.

But the way our process works is, you go in, you make the game, you make it fun, you get it nailed down. You can basically apply almost infinite art resources to the world to make it look as good as you want until you're tired of working on it. You need to ship it and you just say go. But with all the texturing the artist can do, in the end it has no performance or stability effects.


Are you trying to eliminate the concept of a lead SKU with this solution?

SN: Yeah. I think the lead SKU in development, you pick a platform or another, and [that] might be mirrored mainly what you're doing your testing on. We are trying to ensure that more people in the studio are working across different platforms simultaneously. We don't have the sort of stepchild platform that's going to be a year behind that you're going to try to pack it onto after the fact. We think about the game and all of the platforms which is what this technology allows you to do.

A lot of people were starting to build on the 360 and they had to go cross platform to the PS3 and were having trouble chopping everything up and fitting it in.

SN: Yeah, you don't have to do that with this technology.

Do you have a dedicated team for the engine side versus the game building side?

SN: No. This is the technology that's being constructed for our next game. It's not a separate team. It's the guys who've been making games for a long time. We kind of understand with next generation where we are at right now, that the tools, the teams need to be effective so those tools that we need to make our own internal titles successful are the same tools that licensees will need to make their titles successful.

KC: That's an important sort of decision from our point, because the idea is that when you're not applying these technology decisions directly to a game solution then the decisions you make on the engineering side become more theoretical than they do practical. You end up having technology solutions that don't really apply to anybody, or have too much overhead, so it's really important for us if we do things that are practical for games. Things like maintain a really super frame rate, and keep the technology more open and generalized for the applications that get added on to a game later, rather than trying to make all these little minute details that we think somebody may want five years down the line or something like that.

But if you don't have a dedicated team, are you able to provide support at all?

KC: Yes. In terms of support side, resourcing, people asking questions, needing help actually working with the technology, things like that, yes.

SN: We have a support department now, which is something we recently added. Their job is only to focus on support to our licensees and technical documentation, so absolutely they get support. But there's a key difference there because we don't have the approach that people say, "Hey I really need this feature in your engine to make our game. Can you write it for us?” The thing is, we have the most well-structured, elegantly written code solution available and this gives you... well, the thing about Quake III, which was a very successful multiplayer game, but at the same time some of the games that came out of that -- Call Of Duty, Medal of Honor, James Bond -- those were great single-player games which were made on a multiplayer engine.

The reason why is because that fundamental core-level code is so well written, so well-structured and so easy to get to, you can really do anything you want. What's so great about that is you're not limited to making a game that looks just like the technology that you licensed. When you have that approach you can actually go in and make better, more creative games because of just the way it's structured.

KC: It's just like with Quake III and Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Wolfenstein Enemy Territory. Super-successful in their own rights, one single-player, one multiplayer focus, using the same base core technology.

SN: We'd much rather give someone advice. They could come to us and say "This is how we were thinking about writing that system" and we could say, "This is what we think about it. Maybe you want to look over here." But we honestly don't think it's in the developer’s interest for us to try and implement this system for them.

Obviously, id's done a great job of building out as a software brand, but I don't often see the name as prominently as a tool. I'm not always aware when someone is licensing with the technology you have. Is that going to change?

KC: Oh yeah. I think in terms of id Tech 5, we're here. We're showing it to publishers and things. We're definitely taking that type of focused approach. I think with when you look back at Quake III, like Steve was saying, it's extremely successful for us. I think the difference when we went to Doom... the thing was with Doom 3 was in a lot of ways PC-focused. We were sort of in that middle ground between the console transitions.

That sort of left Doom behind because I think a lot of developers, rightfully so, want a multi-platform solution. So with id Tech 5, we made the decision when we first started on it, this is going to be... it's not just a technology that has multi-platform because we developed separate engines, it's multi-platform because John took an approach, knowing how all the hardware worked, to make one technology that works best for all platforms.

id_2.jpg

What would be the advantages you would say -- a softball question [laughs] -- over Unreal to use your tech? Because it seems like everybody and their mom is...

SN: Epic has a lot of licensees, no doubt. I'm not familiar with what they're talking to their current licensees about or their road map or anything, but what I can say is that with id Tech 5 that we have a solution that runs extremely well on the platforms today. It runs at a high framerate and it's not really a bifurcated technology approach. Ninety percent of the code runs the exact same in all the platforms. If you put an asset into the game once, it's the exact same asset across all the platforms.

That's obviously a strength of our technology, because with id Tech 4, that essentially had the megatexture approach on the base terrain texture, which allowed you unlimited texture memory. It's only constrained by the physical medium, of how much texture you can put on there. But with id Tech 5, we've actually extend that to the entire world.

Being able to put unlimited textures on the floor, the tables, the models, the characters... really empowers artist because that is the number one constraint you deal with in console development, getting under your texture memory limits towards the end of development. That's totally irrelevant for id Tech 5. Basically there are no texture memory limits, practically.

KC: Plus, the games business, like any other business, where you’re basically want to provide entertainment to people, it's important to differentiate yourself. For John Carmack, the one thing he has done in this industry, over time, is continue to innovate and innovate. He's done things that people didn't think were possible. He's always ahead of his time on those types of things and broken new ground. This technology approach, besides the tools that they're providing, besides the multi-platform solutions, is a really innovative approach to the technology and it's a differentiating element.

Games using this technology, they’re only limited by the creativity of their artist, so people coming out using it can create something very, very different. They're not locked in to the traditional mold that other games have been straddled with in terms of their artistic presentations and their uniqueness.


Speaking of Carmack, Orcs and Elves is his, right?

SN: Absolutely.

Now that that's coming for the DS, are you guys doing that internally or are you having someone else do it?

KC: It's an outside team doing the DS work. All of the core engineering is John Carmack. Same thing with the mobile phone stuff that he's working on, same thing with the DS, that's all John. Frankly, I don't know where he finds time to sleep.

Well I've asked him to be involved in a couple of things every once in a while with Game Developer and he's always said "Nope, too busy."

KC: He is. I was just talking to somebody about this earlier in terms of his mobile phone work. He rarely goes on a vacation so his wife talks him into finally taking some time off and spending time out on the beach and he says, "O.K. I'm on the beach. What am I going to do?” He finds his wife's cell phone and starts playing a game on it and says, "These games suck!" so he goes back, gets on the computer at the hotel and starts downloading some information about it. Comes back from vacation and says, “You know, I started working on the cell phone game."

id_3.jpg [starts laughing] On vacation! That's just John. I think things like the cell phone and DS are intriguing kind of puzzles for him because they're very restricted situations so he can look at them like a lock box and try to maximize their potential. That's one of the things that John's been able to do for years.

SN: It’s an interesting diversion because obviously the games and the technology that he works on takes years. For him to be able to take a project start to finish in six months is something that we don't get to do very much with our primary games at id. It's a lot of fun for him. John really seems to enjoy it and it's been successful. Kevin saying "John says 'I want to write a cell phone engine'" turned into Doom RPG. It was one of the bestselling games in mobile history, having done over a million units.

Is that just in North America?

SN: No, that's worldwide. And then Orcs and Elves has won numerous awards. We won the game of the year from the Academy of Interactive and Sciences using the same technology. Then we just announced Orcs and Elves 2 and Orcs and Elves for the DS. This fun little thing that John was interested in and we worked with Fountainhead Entertainment on for the development has turned into a nice little sideline business.

So it's more of a John Carmack and his satellite brain, than it is an id thing?

KC: No, I mean all the guys are participating and playtesting and giving feedback and definitely stuff like that, but in the same way as Enemy Territory is being developed outside by Splash Damage in cooperation with id Software. I'm working with Raven on Wolfenstein. Then we're also working with Fountainhead on the mobile phones and DS. The same type of co-operation.

Does it feel nice doing something fresh, with [newly announced id title] Rage?

KC: Yeah it does. It's a blank slate in terms of, definitely. We're an action shooter first person game company. So no worries about that. To get a blank slate... Tim Willits is our lead designer and director on that project. He's the man on that and yes, it's going along great.

Excellent. That cell phone engine, are you licensing that?

SN: We just started talking apout that. Honestly, I just started talking to John about that yesterday and were like "yeah, it makes sense." We've just been busy with a few things and we just haven't gotten around to it. But it's good technology and it makes sense for us to license it out so that's probably something that we will start talking about, the cell phone and the DS.

Yeah, because if you do it for DS there aren't really DS engines out there that are licensed or licensable. I think it would be a good thing for those indie types that need to get stuff done.

SN: What's interesting for a lot of people who try to write their own cell phone and DS engines, they make a lot of the same mistakes that the guys were making ten years ago on the PCs and early consoles. When John started investigating those technologies, he said, "Man, I can't believe these mistakes are the same ones that we were beating our heads against the wall with ten years ago."

We solved those problems, but people are still doing it again. So when John went in, it was relatively trivial for him to create a really clean, super nice engine for the smaller platforms.

I wonder how he finds time to build rockets, too. [laughs]

SN: [laughs] He does. He never sleeps, I guess?

KC: John's just basically a genius. Has all the traits and brain power that comes with that, so he's able to do those types of things. Not too many people have a hobby of making real rockets.

Right. Do you think anything will ever be as ubiquitous, game wise, as Doom? Anytime any new device comes out that has a screen all I have to do is wait two months for some port Doom to it.

KC: Yeah, well... Doom sort of captured people's attention because it really brought something new to the industry, this idea. It wasn't the first first person game, but definitely the level of immersiveness was there. That sort of fast-action first person shooter, the immediate interaction between you and the world was there. That captured people's attention. Our goal with any game is to try to recapture that. My hope and expectation is [Rage] is going to do that. We've got a lot of cool ideas with it.

In terms of the open-endedness of the technology, it's just a blank slate for the artist to do with it what they want to, and we have some of the best artists in the business now. Frankly, if I had to go back and get a job at id, they would cut me out. They would say, "No way! You don't have the art chops to do it." Our guys are great. So some of the stuff we're working on is going to capture people's attention in that same way, so I'm expecting a lot of great response from our next game.


The PC market seems to be picking up again. Have you found that to be true? You guys have delved a lot in the space.

KC: I think on the PC side of things, it runs in cycles depending on what's happening on the console side -- that's just natural. A new console comes out, it's leading on the edge of technology and they get out the door. The PC begins to exceed that, it goes that route again.

I think the PC is such an open platform, when you're looking at where cutting edge innovation happens in the space -- and all types of things, entertainment -- running from what's happening just on the game, then going out online, and internet games, and stuff like that. The PC is just such an exciting pioneer space. Yeah, I see that the PC will just have its ebb and flow but it will continue to be a great gaming platform.

SN: It looked like the PC actually had an uptake on sales last year, for the first time in years. We like to see it. We never left the PC at id software. Doom 3 was our most successful game ever and that was about evenly split between the Xbox and the PC. So while the consoles are very important to us these days, we're definitely not planning on leaving the PC. It's still an important platform for us.

It seems to be, in some ways, the secondary level platform, in terms of retailers. They hide it in the back corner. I feel like now it's coming back up to the front again. I guess we'll see what happens there. How many people do you have at id now?

SN: I'm not even sure. We just hired a couple of people, so we're in the high thirties but we're still a miniscule shop, I think, in today's triple-A... considering what we're working on now, you can't even call it next gen. It's next-next gen. So the fact that we're able to do next-next gen content on the new game, and we're talking only thirty people on the entire team. So that high thirties [estimate] includes superfluous people, like myself, [laughs] but we're a small team. Honestly, not to be too much of a sales line -- I think that's the power of our technology. It allows us to create the games we do, because it's a small team. We're not planning on becoming a three hundred-person megastudio anytime soon.

KC: Part of that is a just personal decision, or philosophy, on how to run a company. We want to make a great game but we want to enjoy doing it. When you get your team size too large, the individual on the team doesn't feel like he's making a credible contribution. He feels like he's just one of the names on the list.

Our guys, when they're working on a project, they're really providing a meaningful contribution to the game and they can point to that game and say that they made a significant difference in it. That's important for developers when they look at themselves as being artists. In terms of spending three years on a technology, that's a lot of their creative life. When they're able to point at something and say that they made a big difference in that, that's important.

How are you saying that it's next-next gen? Obviously that can't be in terms of console generation. What does it actually mean?

SN: I would say that it actually is. Because we can, with our new technology, it allows us to reach a higher level of visual fidelity than anything that's shipping right now. If you call the next gen on the console right now, we're beyond that.

But they can only display what they can display.

SN: Right. Primarily because of texture constraints and we've actually eliminated that problem.

id_4.jpg


Also televisions can display only what they can display, if you're considering the console side.

SN: Right. But we can still do higher texture density on the screen. If you were to actually look around you and do the actual textures that it would take to fill that, it's far more than any game in history has ever displayed. We're actually able to approach that level of reality with our new technology.

KC: There's no limit to the variety, in terms of a scene. None of that is an issue for us to deal with anymore. So I would say that a lot of technologies may take advantage of the platform, but the way John approached it has redefined what the platform can do. I think that when you talk to people and say "OK, let's make a game with completely unique texturing. If you choose to, no one space is exactly the same as another.”

Before this was started on, people would say that was impossible. That's a lot of things people have said about when we started talking about real fast action first person shooting when you talk about a real 3D environment, like with Quake series, people thought that was impossible at the time. Then John came out, set his mind to it, and did it. I think it's the same thing for our next game.




How do you build that many textures when you've got thirty people? Or is there some generation that you can do of these things, deviations?

KC: It's a combination of tools. We do spend a lot of time in the tools. Our philosophy on that is to give the artist as much power as we can, rather than relying on a bunch of procedural solutions. But certainly procedural solutions can come into play on that. Fundamentally, at the base level, you're talking about just a really powerful texture streaming solution. How those textures are generated, for us, a lot of it depends on how the artist wants to approach it.

He has complete freedom in how he approaches that and we give him very powerful tools for being able to do it. When you look at what games are doing right now, they take a tiled solution and then they try to cover it up by a bunch of layers of stuff. You layer decals and you layer different types of little brushes and foliage and scratches and things like that, and what you end up with is a procedural solution that has to work in realtime.

Then you have a whole bunch of overdraw overhead and a whole bunch of additional geometrical overhead in order to pull it off. Anything that you can do there, you can do a hell of a lot better before realtime... You can get rid of all that geometry overhead and overdraw problems that come with trying to cover up the fact that you're a tiled solution.

Let's see if there's anything else I need to get into here.

KC: How cool Enemy Territory Quake Wars is? [laughs]

Well, you know we could.. but uh... [laughs] Since we're the developer-focused side I actually haven’t been looking at hardly any games [at E3]. It's kind of bad in a way. I'm going to come back from this as ignorant about all the new stuff as I was when I arrived.

KC: I tell you what, if you do get a chance to hook back around with us on the Enemy Territory stuff, you should get the opportunity to sit down with Paul Wedgwood and Splash Damage. Not here, because the show's almost over. But it's a real cool story because you're talking about a group of developers who started out as community developers, clan players. When we first started on Enemy Territory, we were dealing with a team of less than ten people. They really built themselves up to be a tremendous...

Were they a mod team before?

KC: Yeah, and now they're a full team. Some of the best artists and technology guys that I've worked with, really a success story. When you look at what's going on with Enemy Territory, it itself is a very unique game. It's providing something I don't think people have done, which is the really very focused team-play game.

id_5.jpg

 

People believing that modders make a good team... it goes up and down. For a while, modders or hackers were the people that you hired. Then that sort of took a downturn in terms of them being seen as actual creative people or just a bunch of jerks. It seems like some people are still saying modders are the people you should talk to.

KC: Absolutely. When you look at a lot of the guys at id software itself, these people came from the community. Id, from the beginning, when we started off with Doom, we were the first company to release all our tools out there, and game code, for people to make mods. John's career started off as sort of tinkering with computers and that type of stuff. I think he enjoys providing that same type of access to people. I think he really wants to provide this creative solution. For us, a lot of our guys like Tim Willits is from the community, our lead guy, lead designer. So there's a lot of talent out there to take advantage of.

Frankly, from our perspective, when I'm looking at hiring somebody and I can actually see stuff they've done, to me that pulls more weight than a degree. Although certainly degrees are important as well, but I want to see what kind of things that they've done that are practical, dealing with the constraints that are inside of the game and the tools that are part of game development. Plus guys that work in the community, these guys are passionate about games. This is what they've always wanted to do.

So when you bring guys like that together, I think it really makes a difference. Because to make something entertaining you really have to bring your personality. It is entertainment; it's not like throwing assets together and making it into some kind of puzzle. The personality of the developer really shows through in the better games.

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