id's Tim Willits
The co-owner and lead designer on iPhone, Romero, Carmack, Zenimax and Rage
id Software was one of the giants amongst independent developers a company that publishers went to, rather than vice-versa. The Doom, Wolfenstein and Quake franchises are part of the fabric of gaming history: this was a studio that, surely, could do anything it wanted. So it came as a shock when, in June 2009, id was acquired by Zenimax Media. id's near future plans the release of new IP Rage and a third sequel to Doom appeared unaffected, but earlier this month the studio confirmed it would no longer be licensing its engine to other developers.
At this year's GamesCom gathering in Cologne, GamesIndustry.biz talked with id's avuncular co-owner and lead designer Tim Willits about why he feels the studio is now on surer footing, the dangers of new IPs, how important iPhone development is to it and why id doesn't want any more superstar developers.
Q: [Following an apology for the interview being delayed.] So, you were about to give us the exclusive reveal for Doom 4 .
Tim Willits: [Laughs.] Oh yeah, that's right, yes. I'll get my ass kicked on the way home. But I'll tell you something: the reason that the Zenimax/Bethesda/id family thing works is now that we have fully staffed up our Doom 4 group, those guys are working on id Tech 5, they're learned from our mistakes, they're using our methods and because as you develop a new technology in a game, the first half of what you do always gets tossed out. Because technology changes and you don't know what you're doing at first, so in the past when we were 30 guys it would be okay to spend four or five years making a game.
So we did that, and we helped the other companies, and got a couple of engine licenses, and it was great. But as team sizes have changed and expectations have changed, we could not have followed that paradigm forever. We had to do something. So now that we have the multiple teams, the new technology, we'll get a faster turnaround for id Software. Which is really gonna be great.
Q: How have things changed now you're not licensing the engine out at all what's been the effect on your attitude to your own technology, does it seem more valuable to you internally?
Tim Willits: Historically, there are many times when we would ask John Carmack for something that would be something like "you know, we should add this because licensees could use it." And he'd be like "are you using it for your game?" "No." "Then I'm not adding it in." So the attitude hasn't changed all that much honestly, because we as a company never set out to be the engine licensing mega-corporation. We never had a dedicated team; we never had a single employee that was just hired to help licensees. That was never what John wanted to do.
I mean, it's cool that some of our technology is in some of the biggest games like Call of Duty still uses id Tech, y'know. They added a lot onto it, they called it something different, but at the core Like in Modern Warfare 2, when you turn on the splash screen at the bottom and it says 'id technology' [Beams]. So our technology has been great, but it makes life way easier just to focus on games, make our own games. Easier.
Q: Does losing licensing seriously affect id's revenues?
Tim Willits: No. I mean it's well, it was never really that big a part of our revenue.
Q: The kind of hardcore technical talk Carmack's cheerfully filling his new Twitter account with is this more than just business for him?
Tim Willits: That is true. The business folks really were looking at the id deal, the Zenimax thing and saying "what's John going to do, is John going to make rockets now?", but he is so happy, believe me, just working on stuff and programming away. You can definitely tell there's a sort of peace in his mind and now he can just focus on making cool stuff.
Q: It's interesting that you guys resist pushing anyone forwards as the face of the company these days. How consciously do you buck the trend for superstar name developers?
Tim Willits: Definitely. Heck, we don't need another Romero. In general, myself and John Carmack, we get way more credit than we deserve. That is true. Because we have some of the best guys, super-talented, and I would love to bring everyone here so you could talk to everybody. It's a bit unfair for the guys who sit back at work and think "oh, Tim's in Germany, Tim's in France, and this article's got a picture of Tim on it What does Tim do? I'm the one here making particles, I'm the one here making this model and stuff, and everyone talks about the big giant mutant at the end of demo, but I'm the one who made that big giant mutant." For me, and I know John feels this way, it's got to be 'id', because we don't need any egomania.
Q: Which is driving which now the games or the technology?
Tim Willits: John's more involved in the game design than most people think. His big thing has always been feedback, clear decisions, he helps out with even the story stuff. Early on, I was in draft for scripts and story, high level concepts, and John's been involved. But he doesn't get himself bogged down in business stuff. Does that answer your question?
Q: Partially. Has the importance of technology to your games changed at all?
Tim Willits: Again, I've been with John at id since 1995. I know other people love to say that it's all technology and Carmack is king and we have to do what he says, but even back then, there were things that we would ask him to change and adjust. Heck, his to-do list is stuff that we ask for. I think most people think that he does stuff and we just make a game around it. After we finished Doom 3, he had an idea for the megatexture, he was starting to work towards it there was some stuff that we used in Enemy Territory, and we actually started another game that was going to be new IP, and was going to follow the more traditional paradigm of id games.
But then John worked on a prototype of virtualising the textures, he downloaded all this geographic terrain date from NASA and was showing us moving through this world. And we were like "ooh, we could make a game with that, we can have cars and stuff." So Rage was kind of born of that integration, and from that point on it was "what do we need here, what we do need there." John does the basically kind of rendering and really low-level stuff, but we have totally other programmers that do code and vehicle code. That's not core Carmack.
Q: So you're on a new IP with this one, your first in a long, long time. How worried are you, given we're in a marketplace where non-established names such as Alan Wake and Singularity have seemed to struggle, and a handful of big franchises seem to dominate sales?
Tim Willits: Yeah, it is definitely a risk. But I do think that we're in a good position. Enough people know about id, y'know. It's important to get in front of the new people as much as we can, but Yup. It is risky, but I think if there is any company that can do it, we can do it. There are a handful of companies that can do it Valve can do it, Epic can do it, id can do it Hope it'll work.
Q: Are you prepared for it not to, would you stick with it anyway? It can be that everything's different if you can convince publishers to let you make a sequel, as at least the name's known. I think that's what Activision is doing with Blur, even though the first one supposedly sold badly.
Tim Willits: You have to give those guys credit for that we're gonna establish a franchise. We know that the first one's going to struggle, but you have to stick to it. That's a good mentality, because a lot of publishers are like "well, F that." Yeah, it's dangerous when you don't have two titles that are successful. One is you don't know what the future of one is.
Q: Especially, I guess, when you're staying resolutely in core games in a time when half the world's claiming that stuff's doomed and social games are the future?
Tim Willits: It's a very sad state of affairs when more people are playing FarmVille than Call of Duty, alright. It's hurtful.
Q: We're not going to have 'click here to adopt an Imp" in Doom 4, then?
Tim Willits: John would definitely put himself in a rocket and shoot himself into space. The last thing you'd see from John is this [rude gesture] as he goes into space.
Q: That said, what about the iPhone stuff he's doing? Is that an important business model for id going forwards, or more of a personal project for Carmack, given that he made the QuakeCon Rage demo in a couple of weeks?
Tim Willits: No, a lot of it's John driving it. Which is one of the great things about him only John Carmack could whip out a game in his spare time. We have a digital group at id which we've created, which is another good thing so it doesn't upset the balance we have dedicated artists, dedicated designers. And what our strategy for Rage and the digital platforms is to not be you can play the iPhone version or Rage, but they can both be additive to the experience. Because the Rage universe is more robust and more fleshed out than any other game that we've created in the past.
So we can use other platforms to do prequels, or you can play other characters or you may have a whole game that revolves around racing, or a whole game that revolves around Mutant Bash TV. Because the world is so rich, it's like Star Wars. We can imagine a million different Star Wars iPad games that's what we're trying to do with Rage.
Q: Does the back catalogue, both in terms of re-releases and iPhone remakes, still bring in a lot of business for you?
Tim Willits: That's a Todd Hollenshead question, I have no idea. But we do surprisingly well, and I know the Steam sales on the weekends, we always do well in those. And again, the focus of id is make great games that sell a lot. Licensing was always nice, but nothing ever compares to making a game that sells 10 million copies. That's where our bread and butter is.
Tim Willits is co-owner of and lead designer at id Software. Interview by Alec Meer.