Tim Willits, creative director of id, discusses Rage, motion control and why everyone needs a Carmack
A new IP from id software is big news. They don't come often, and when they do, they tend to change everything. Rage is the company's first for some time, the first since the studio became part of the Zenimax family alongside Bethesda and the first that id has developed as a cross-platform title from the start - so scrutiny is perhaps even closer than usual.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with creative director Tim Willits to talk about the company's plans for Rage, what it's like being a true cross-platform developer and how they feel about the new management.
Q: So this is the first new id IP for a while, it must be carrying quite a burden. What are your long-term plans for it?
Tim Willits: There is a lot riding on it, we need to make sure it's great. Don't f**k it up! One of the things that we've done, is historically our games have had a start and an end and that's it. So with Rage we purposely wanted to make a much broader universe. So we want you as the player to feel that things happened before you got there and that things will happen after you leave, like a Star Wars universe.
So what that allows us to do is have much more extensions and additive experiences to the game. So for instance, the iPhone version. We have plans for two iPhone releases. The first iPhone release will be this fall. It's not Rage on the iPhone. Some people have been confused about that. It's a smaller subset, you don't even play as the main character.
There's a part in Rage that's almost like a side mission. The whole iPhone experience is centred around that theme. So, in the past if we wanted to do that for Doom or Quake, we had to come up with this whole convoluted story explanation, shove it in there. But Rage all kind of makes sense.
There's other people in the world: a resistance group, they have have their own story that you don't know much about in the big game but you can imagine maybe, a DLC pack that involves these guys, or you could imagine an iPhone game based on the story of this settler I met.
So that was a conscious decision to build smoothly into a sequel if we wanted to, DLC, prequels, we can have side missions. So yes, very ambitious. We want to do something great, and we want to establish a more consistent universe. Quake kind of has an identity issue, where exactly is it? Rage will always fit within this world.
Q: As part of that, are you planning to open up id Tech 5 to the modding community, to let people make their own Rage experience?
Tim Willits: TW: Yes, just like id Tech 4, Doom tech, on PC you can pull the console down and type 'edit' and it will launch the tools - those are the same tools we use. Now content development, actually making models, making the landscape, it's going to be more technical, but we've added layering technology to the gameplay for example. You can go into the Wasted hideout, kill all the waster guys, then come back and it's full of mutants. So you can modify these layers.
So we'll probably find more reworked content, to tell a different story, rather than brand-new content, because that will be easier.
Q: Would you ever consider taking Rage, or indeed any id IP into the MMO arena?
Tim Willits: That's a whole different mindset, different developer skills. Even getting the vehicles working was hard enough. [laughs] I have way more respect for those MotorStorm guys let me tell you.
We would really have to have a paradigm shift - it's a whole different way of thinking about things. That's a service-based game. It would be very unlikely. For us, anyway.
Q: You've talked about how you think keyboard and mouse is still the best way to control an FPS, but you've also said that you play most games these days with a joypad. What's stopping those things co-existing?
Tim Willits: It's still a logistical thing. People don't have a desk in their lounge. We've all used web TV, it was horrible, right? You don't want to play like this. [balances imaginary mouse on knee]
For most people, the mass consumer, having that controller in your hand, sitting back watching the TV, it's intuitive, it's easy. Heck we moved our buttons to match Call of Duty, because hey, you get 25 million people learn where the jump button is, you don't move the jump button! I don't know why games do that!
So people are familiar with it. It's comfortable, there's no trickery. It's going to be a while, or it may never happen, especially with Kinect and Move, there may never be a keyboard and mouse extension for the mass market using a TV. That's why games like WoW do so well on the PC, imagine trying to do a raid with that little keyboard that plugs into the controller.
Q: One of the big things you've pushed about id Tech 5 is the way it's nailed cross-platform parity. Why have people struggled with it so much so far?
Tim Willits: It's simple. All those other games have old technology that was written for one CPU, one thread. They've taken this old tech, a lot of it is old id Tech, and they shove it into the console.
John Carmack and Jean Paul van Waveren and the board group were like, okay, let's stand back, start from scratch and look at the landscape. Taking a game that's single-threaded, and making it multi-threaded - much more difficult than people think.
But, if you start from the beginning, and you architect everything to take advantage of all the cores and CPUs, and they're all pretty much the same, really, apart from a few techniques, but if you plan from the start, it's so much easier. The problem with that is that it takes so freaking long to get the game done. That was one of the reasons why we partnered with Bethesda and the Zenimax family.
We're able to grow id studio, who everyone knows are working on Doom, using id Tech 5, using our content to test stuff. So instead of development time being technology development, then game development, we're able to go like this. [makes leapfrogging motion]
So you'll see games from id software come out much faster than historically.
So, yeah, start from scratch. It's much easier, it just takes longer. And you have to have John Carmack.
Q: So do you think that the projected lifespan for id Tech 5 will be similar to previous iterations?
Tim Willits: No. John has said, publicly, that he feels that id Tech 5 will last a while. Because it's very scalable. He's scaled it down to the iPhone, he feels you can scale it the other way. He doesn't know anything about the next generation of consoles, but he feels that it will be awesome on the next generation of consoles.
Q: You're very much a multi-platform developer now. Does that really penetrate to the core of the company or would you actually prefer to be working on pure PC tech?
Tim Willits: The problem is that the PC market is smaller and piracy is out of control still. Those are the two things that have really moved all developers to be cross platform. Otherwise you're looking at a client-server architecture type game, always online.
People say, the PC market's dead. It's not dying, it's changing. The social aspect of PC gaming is still the richest, but yeah, the user base is small and piracy is out of control.
Q: Do you think Onlive, Gaikai, that sort of tech, will change things much? Do you see, as some people are predicting, the death of platforms, replaced by a single streaming tech?
Tim Willits: That would be nice. Transfer speed is still not there, mass market. Heck, where I live I don't even have DSL. But yeah, that would be nice.
I don't know anything about the next generation of consoles, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was no optical disc. I think that would make sense. And that cuts the whole piracy issue too.
Q: You seem like one of the few developers who are still unashamedly core. You've said you'll not enter the casual market. What is it about that market that puts you off?
Tim Willits: Resources. That's the reason. To be honest, we don't have enough people. The focus of the company is to make the best, triple-A, big titles for the big platforms. Heck, I don't think we'd even do the iPhone game if it weren't for John. He likes working with smaller platforms, experimenting with stuff. It doesn't take too much of his time.
It really isn't our focus, we want to stick to what we do. We're bigger now and it's scary, we don't need to get too much bigger. We just want to make great games.
Q: How many of you are there now?
Tim Willits: Heck, on the Rage team we have about 60. Quake 2 we did with 13. Quake 3 with about 23. Doom 3 with about 38, I think, now on Rage we're past 60, and that's just the Rage team. It's still small, but it's big for us.
Q: What sort of influence has becoming part of the Zenimax family had over the development process?
Tim Willits: What's really great about Bethesda and Zenimax is that they're like, 'you know what, you guys have been really successful. We don't want to mess that up. So you guys do exactly what you're doing'.
I can tell you that if we weren't part of the Zenimax family, we'd be trying to rush this game out. So it's so nice being able to say, let's ship it next year, let's get the multiplayer awesome, let's get the game as great as we can make it. Without their support, I honestly think that Rage would not be as good as it's going to be.
Q: So still very much a 'when it's ready philosophy'?
Tim Willits: Oh yes. And that's one of the reasons we picked it. Historically it's always been when it's ready but, logistically, in today's age, with marketing budgets and advertising and distribution and worldwide, you really need to pick a date. Luckily we're able to pick a date that works for us. So we can support the game at launch, post-launch, do it right. It's been much better, it really has.
Q: There are a lot of big personalities at id, a lot of very well known figures. Are there any conflicts between creative guys and technologists? Does that distinction even exist there?
Tim Willits: I think that's a hangover from the Romero days. [laughs]
The whole thing about John only caring about technology, that's such a myth. He's involved in all of our projects. He's involved in the early stages of the game design, he's always been integral in the feedback, the controls, how precise they are. That's why our games feel so solid.
I was like, let's make it 30Hz, that'll be easier. But he was all, no we need to make it 60Hz, when you drive the car, it feels better. And it really does. That's all John. Even the story, he's come up with some great story ideas. So he's much more involved in the design process than I think people realise.
Q: So you feel you push each other, ask each other 'why not' instead of 'why'?
Tim Willits: Yes. He's changed the engine innumerable times because of stuff we've wanted to do - Rage did come about because we were inspired by what we were able to do with his streaming technology.
Q: You spoke a little bit yesterday in your Rage presentation about the possibilities of Move and Kinect - do you think id will ever support them as control schemes?
Tim Willits: I think it's tricky to work them in. [pause] A funny story. One of our programming guys is tasked with implementing the vehicles. I had my Microsoft steering wheel, and I was like, hey, you know it'd be really cool if we could get the steering wheel to work. So I brought it in, he programmed it all up and I was driving around, and it was great.
But then I realised that when you stop, and you get out of the car, you have to put the steering wheel down and pick up the controller, and I said, s**t! That's not going to work!
So I think that it has to be part of the core design. You try and force it in, you're going to cause problems, it'll feel clunky and weird.
Q: So a game would have be designed purely around them as a control scheme?
Tim Willits: It'd be better, yes.
Q: Do you think that Move and Kinect will ever offer anything to the core market in the way that Microsoft and Sony are promising?
Tim Willits: Well, they say so, they may know more than we do. But again, the best games to take advantage of those controllers will come out after those controllers have matured a bit. I think time will tell.
Q: Having come to consoles from the more scalable PC market, especially approaching the end of the cycle, do you ever feel frustrated with the limitations of what the systems have to offer?
Tim Willits: Actually, no. There's so much that we have to do still on Rage that I never feel frustrated about not being able to do something else. It all depends on what the goals for your game are. For Rage our goal was to make it as fun as possible, to give the player a variety in the gameplay with the vehicles and the first person shooting and stuff, everything that we wanted to do, we've been able to do.
But you need to set up those goals, focus on those goals, focus on the core of what the game is. The consoles are great systems, they're powerful systems still. Heck there are games out there that still sell 20 million copies - that says a lot for the systems. For me personally, I've not been frustrated with any limitations that the consoles have enforced. From the very beginning it's been about, not how far can we push these machines, but how fun can we make this.