All The Rage
id Software's Tim Willits talks hooking talent to work on Doom, establishing Rage and nurturing the modding community
Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein and now Rage. There a few developers that can match id Software for pedigree, and even fewer can compete when it comes to cutting edge technology and massive guns. id Software is currently at work on Doom 4 and preparing to launch its new post apocalyptic IP next month.
Grabbing a moment inbetween his packed out Developer Sessions at the Eurogamer Expo, GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Tim Willits, creative director and 17 year veteran of id Software. He spoke about the release of Rage, why franchises are essential and why the future of games is like iTunes.
Q: You seem to really embrace your community, both fans, other developers and modders. Is that a business decision or are you just good people?
Tim Willits: It all really starts with John Carmack. John, all the way since the beginning, has had a philosophy of giving back to the people that made him successful. And it's really been his attitude that's really kind of helped us all get in line and share that vision. Because really we make games for fans, and so why not give them the tools? Why not share the source code like John has done?
And it's helped so many people, I got my job that way, Matt Hooper, Robert Duffy, all the leads on the Rage project, we all started out as modders. There's guys that worked at Infinity Ward making Call Of Duty that started out as Quake modders, the lead programmer for World Of Warcraft started out as a modder. It's just such an opportunity, and it's just so easy to do that that everybody should. Everybody should give back.
Q: GamesIndustry.biz is holding a Career Fair here, is that the advice you'd give to guys who want to work in games? Is modding an essential part of it?
Tim Willits: Yes. Every time I talk at high schools or colleges I have a few bits of advice. The first one is find your favourite game, it doesn't matter which one, download the SDK, download the mod tools and make something. And finish something. I have so many people that show up to interview that have made ten levels but they've never finished one, or they're working on this great mod, but they never finished it. Those are not the people that we want. You may be creative but you need to finish something.
If you want to make levels, make levels in you spare time, all the time. If you want to be an artist you always have to be drawing. If you want to be a programmer you need to make small apps. You have to have a passion to do it for free if you ever want to really get paid for it.
And you need to work harder than all your friends, that's really important too. Those are the three things I tell people when I work at colleges and high schools.
Q: Are there ever any drawbacks to being so involved with your community?
Tim Willits: Yes, the community. We love our fans, we do but you know how people are. The one's that love you the most are usually the ones that you upset the most. Living up to everyone's expectations and making everyone happy is impossible, but usually we make most people happy, and that usually works out for us.
Q: From a business point of view has your success in the past given you more freedom to experiment and develop?
Tim Willits: Definitely. Especially now. It is so difficult launching a new IP that if you were a start up company and you were trying to do what we're doing with Rage, it would be nearly impossible. Even for us, it's hard to get the attention and hard for people to pay attention and to read the articles. But luckily we have Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein, and we can stand on those shoulders for people to take notice. But it is very difficult to launch any new IPs these days.
Q: Zenimax seem to trust you to do your own thing too?
Tim Willits: That's exactly what they said when they approached us a few years ago. "We will market it really well, PR, you guys focus on the game, and we'll focus on selling it." They're used to working with Todd Howard and he works very similar to that way that id does, so they were like "we know Todd, we know the way it works, you guys kind of remind us of Todd, we'll trust you too." So hopefully that will continue, but they've been great.
Q: Is that true of time as well? Because you started work on Doom 4 in 2008...
Tim Willits: We started hiring people in 2008. We had to say that we were hiring folks, so we had a long internal debate and we were like "why don't we just tell people?" So we said we were hiring, but at that point we only had one guy working on it. But it was the best way to get resumes, because everybody wants to work on a Doom game. So I think it was the right call. And you know how John is, very honest, and he was like "yeah, let's tell people we're hiring people to make the next Doom!" And we got a tonne of resumes. It was definitely a good call, but yes, we had person that was actually working on it at that time.
Q: I'm guessing no one is putting pressure on you for a specific release date?
Tim Willits: No. They've been great, even with Rage. The executives at Zenimax and Bethesda, they came to us and said "when do you think it will be done? We will create a marketing campaign and a distribution strategy around when you will have it done." And that's been great.
Q: When you started it was guys borrowing computers to get a business up and running. Do you think it's harder to launch a company now?
Tim Willits: There's three approaches. There's the mega hit where you have your Gears Of War, Rage and Batman, and that's definitely one path. It would be very very difficult for someone today to go down that path, but luckily we have the mobile path, that's opened the doors for a lot of garage band developers, and we have the social path, like Facebook apps and things like that, that have also given people a lot of opportunities.
So you may not be able to make the next Call Of Duty game, but you can make an iPhone game, or a social game, and work your way up to one of the big mobile titles.
Q: Like social games, casual free-to-play games are too big a trend to ignore, but is seems opposed to what you're known for. Is there ever any chance we'll see an id game like that?
Tim Willits: We had success we our Rage app, but that was really a thing we used to launch the marketing campaign. We're definitely on the mega-title-hit side. They're fun, John likes to do it, they don't really make that much money. Yeah, we'll have to wait and see. There's no new IP that we're creating on the mobile space, but we have a lot of back titles that we can still support. It's a fun little niche for us, but we're definitely the mega titles.
Q: When I came to see you for the Rage announcement you were already talking about it being a franchise, can developers just not afford to make standalone titles in the current climate?
Tim Willits: You need to make a franchise, especially for us. We're doing everything we can to turn it into a franchise, "please let it sell so we can make another one!" Even from the beginning when we talked about the story and the setting, we said we need to make it rich, we need to have deep environment, we have the comic books that we've used to support the game, we have the book we use to support the game, the iPhone - heck, the whole iPhone game was about Bash TV, which is only a ten minute experience in the overall game.
So we definitely, from the get go, planned to make this a much bigger franchise, a much richer world, that allows us to have different games, and we can make more mobile games, heck, we could make a social game with Rage if we wanted to. And hopefully we can make a Rage 2. Hopefully.
Q: So by putting all the tech and creativity into the first one, it gets cheaper to make future iterations?
Tim Willits: Absolutely. It's huge investment in new technology, its taken us a long time to make the engine, we're definitely leveraging this technology of course with the next Doom game and hopefully with Rage 2 and some of our other titles, from a business standpoint, making a part two is always smart.
Q: Your technology is what you're known for, is it a passion or a business thing?
Tim Willits: Well John loves making technology, let's be honest. If the company was focused on making as much money as we possibly could, we would have just made Doom games. We would still be using the Quake 3 engine, all the decisions we've made have been following our vision and doing what excites us. John has been there for 20 years, I've been there for 17 years, if we didn't love it we wouldn't stay this long. And we've always done things that excited us.
Q: id has been a big part of the industry for a long time, what have been some of the biggest changes that have affected the company?
Tim Willits: There's a lot. Even just releasing a game. When we released Quake, this is true, John was like "alright Tim, why don't you play it through one more time, that works, send!" And then we went home. Now it's a months long process, distribution and advertising and strategy guides, and market television. That was not the case, we just sent and went home.
The way that you just need to plan so far ahead, with other titles and making sure you have a good window, it's like releasing movies, and the tours the events and the hands on, the previews and the covers. It's much more complicated. No more send.
Q: Is that just because there's more competition?
Tim Willits: Yes, there's more competition, there's millions of people that play games, the market is huge, everything has to be organised, planned, otherwise you're just rolled over by the next big thing. Consoles, first you have to submit, and they have to make sure it works, can't we just patch that in later if it's broken?
Q: Surely consoles are a little frustrating for you, you're committed to cutting edge technology, and the 360 came out in 2005?
Tim Willits: Actually it's really exciting to take a finite closed system and develop something so awesome inside of it.
With Rage we were optimising the code and game at 60Hz, and we have the different cores, especially on the PS3, and the guys were taking sound threads - because there are 16 milliseconds in a frame, 60 frames in a second, so we have to do everything within those milliseconds, and we were moving threads. Like the sound thread from this frame can go on this core, and we can take the AI, and we add plus one millisecond.
It takes a heck of a lot of brain power to put all the pieces together to fit on this system to make it run so fast. It was a huge technical challenge that I think was very mentally stimulating for the big brain groups at id. So yes, it's different, the fact that the CPUs are not as fast as they used to be. But to do what we do, in that limited space was a big challenge.
Q: You started with shareware, we've got OnLive here at the Expo, can you see distribution moving away from the boxed copy in the future?
Tim Willits: I don't know anything about the next consoles, but I can definitely see a future where everything is like iTunes. Even Steam, Steam isn't a cloud base system, but it's awesome that you can go on any PC and have all your games. That's definitely the way of the future, I think.
Q: So Rage in October, Doom after that, are you looking to expand, add any new IPs?
Tim Willits: We've grown, but we try to keep that small team spirit. Our immediate plans, of course, are some DLC for Rage, make sure there are no bugs that we have to patch in, and then help the Doom guys get that game done. And then hopefully Rage does well and we can do another one, but that's as far as we're looking.
Q: So no new franchises?
Tim Willits: It would be hard, it would be really hard. I just don't know if we could.