Tech Focus: The Legacy of id Software
Digital Foundry on how the Rage creators shaped today's gaming technologies
"You can choose to design a game around the specs of a high-end PC and make console versions that fail to hit the design point, or design around the specs of the consoles and have a high-end PC provide incremental quality improvements," says id software's John Carmack. "We chose the latter."
Opting for console as the target platform makes perfect commercial sense in the current climate, but it is something of a shame that the heyday of id software in driving adoption of new gaming technology has now finally, conclusively, come to a close.
id's heyday as the driving force of both games hardware and 3D rendering is over, but its legacy lives on
With Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, id drove the PC platform as the home for new advances in software rendering, but it was the development of Quake that had truly changed the world of gaming from a hardware perspective - the concept of games machines based on CPU and GPU working together arguably only took off owing to the work of John Carmack, who recognised the inherent potential of 3D hardware acceleration and exploited it beautifully in custom versions of Quake.
The most popular PC game of its era, Quake initially shipped with a standard software renderer with no inherent 3D acceleration at all. However, months later as 1996 drew to a close, Carmack and id released VQuake - a version of the game enhanced for Rendition's Vérité chipset, made popular via Creative Labs' 3D Blaster PCI product.
This allowed for Quake to be run at higher resolutions with 16-bit colour, anti-aliasing, per-polygon mip-mapping and bilinear filtering - massively enhancing the look of the game. Carmack added additional dynamic lighting effects to the game too, significantly boosting the visual appeal. The age of the CPU/GPU combination had dawned.
However, while Carmack's enthusiasm for 3D acceleration continued to rise, it's believed he grew exasperated with the Rendition's APIs, concentrating his efforts on a new accelerated Quake off-shoot which utilised the power of the emerging OpenGL standard. A special driver was produced which allowed OpenGL to work with the new range of 3Dfx Voodoo Graphics GPUs - and the rest is history.
id's pioneering work shapes hardware design right up to the present day: the combination of CPU and GPU is now a standard in all computers and consoles (from the PS2 era onwards) and pretty much every attempt to deviate from this basic design has met with failure. Intel's Larrabee architecture came to nothing, while Sony's initial scheme for Cell to cover both CPU and GPU roles in PS3 also proved fruitless, resulting in a hasty deal that resulted in an off-the-shelf NVIDIA part being repurposed for inclusion into the console. Even AMD's APUs - all-in-one CPU/GPU packages - still follow the basic archetype established so long ago thanks to the quality of software from forward-looking developers with id at the spearhead.
While it can be argued that the emergence of the graphics card was all but inevitable, it required a catalyst for mass adoption - and only the most popular PC game of the time could provide the required momentum. The die had been cast, and the new paradigm for gaming hardware design had arrived.
Having defined the modern FPS with Wolfenstein and Doom, Quake also introduced a number of new technologies that persist to this day. The support for TCP/IP networking allowed for multiplayer gameplay over the internet based on the client/server model, but the release of QuakeWorld changed everything. Internet play with Quake was great for those with high-speed connections, but back in 1996, barely any one had anything that could be considered equivalent to a modern broadband connection. The client/server architecture meant that every input from the player was beamed to the host, only registering when the server sent back its response. As Quake would be operating at anything from 300ms to 500ms via a dial-up connection, the impact to gameplay was substantial.
Carmack's next great gift to the gaming world was client-side prediction - a concept that is used in virtually all action games that support multiplayer. The idea here is that the client - the player-side code, essentially - doesn't need to wait for feedback from the server in order to move, or shoot, or animate shots or rockets. Instead the code operates semi-autonomously: once the client receives data on the location of a bullet, its speed and trajectory, it doesn't need to have constant updates from the server on where it's heading - it can be mathematically calculated by the client giving a real-time response independent from the host.
The accuracy of client-side prediction increases as latency to the host decreases and since the widespread take-up of ADSL (which, in the UK at least became a mainstream proposition three years post-Quake in 1999), the technology has helped facilitate an almost seamless performance level for services like Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network and the pioneering work of id software is acknowledged by many, not least its competitors Epic Games in its current Unreal Engine development kit.
Post Quake and its two sequels, development of id tech 4 resulted in spectacular advances in real-time lighting and shadowing - which defined the look of Doom 3 - id's most successful game to date, selling in excess of 3.5m copies with its graphical features propelling a new wave of GPU upgrades. Once again, id defined the bleeding edge of video game graphics on PC, with the developer leaving it to others to port its wares across to consoles.
Doom 3's arrival coincided with the release of Microsoft's Xbox - a console based on an Intel Celeron CPU and a custom NVIDIA graphics core: the core design manufacturers settled upon based in no small measure on the influence of id software and its games.
Arguably Call of Duty only exists because of id and its work. Indeed, even the most modern Infinity Ward titles continue to recognise licensed id code deep within its own proprietary engine
The announcement of Doom 3 for Xbox suggested that id could transition easily over to the next wave of consoles, and that its existing tech would work fine - something that couldn't be said for previous conversions of its work. While id would remain firmly a PC based developer in the here and now, its potential to reach out towards new audiences had increased exponentially. Could id conquer consoles?
Unfortunately when Doom 3 for Xbox eventually arrived eight months later, it didn't quite live up to expectations and the pattern was repeated when Quake 4 arrived as an early Xbox 360 title clearly running in an unoptimised state. The reliance of id on external studios to port across its games was producing sub-par results and the rise of the Xbox 360 and PS3 - combined with their encroachment on gaming markets traditionally associated with PC - resulted in id making its decision to focus first on console. The fixed console architecture had superceded the PC and the company had to adapt.
As Carmack puts it:
"We do not see the PC as the leading platform for games. That statement will enrage some people, but it is hard to characterise it otherwise; both console versions will have larger audiences than the PC version. A high-end PC is nearly 10 times as powerful as a console, and we could unquestionably provide a better experience if we chose that as our design point and we were able to expend the same amount of resources on it.
"Nowadays most of the quality of a game comes from the development effort put into it, not the technology it runs on. A game built with a tenth the resources on a platform ten times as powerful would be an inferior product in almost all cases."
The id heyday in defining both hardware and software for a generation of gamers has now come to a close but despite the tens of millions of dollars worth of development effort that has gone into new game Rage, there is something of a back to basics approach to what id is doing now from a technological standpoint. The company began life by extracting extraordinary performance from limited hardware with its side-scrolling Commander Kean shooters and this ethos is entirely consistent with what id and company have achieved with Rage.
John Carmack's Mega Texture technology makes impossibly good visuals come to life on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 - and it does so at a solid 60 frames per second. Cast as a hibernating survivor of an apocalyptic meteor strike, the player's first experience of the new world id has created sees him emerging from his chamber, blinded by light, with a spectacular vista coming slowly into focus and opening out before him. The Wasteland is an enormous, hand-crafted environment impossibly rich in detail and stretching out way into the distance, and it runs so smoothly that it defies belief. It's a remarkable technological achievement, but as the critical consensus demonstrates, opinion is divided on the overall merits of the game - from a personal perspective, I absolutely love it.
Even if id's influence on the games business has diminished in recent years as console has taken over from PC, it's safe to say that its legacy is assured. The company didn't just define the FPS genre, it created it and with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 almost certain to top the Christmas charts this year, it should be remembered that COD originated on id tech 3 from the Quake 3 Arena era. Arguably Call of Duty only exists because of id and its work. Indeed, even the most modern Infinity Ward titles continue to recognise licensed id code deep within its own proprietary engine.
As for John Carmack's opinion that you can either develop for console and get a better PC version, or instead develop for PC and get a sub-optimal console experience - the upcoming Battlefield 3 vs. Modern Warfare 3 bunfight should definitely put that theory to the test.