Hollenshead & Carmack - Part One
The iconic id guys on new technology and the challenge of piracy to the PC platform
On of the most important developers in the past 15 years, particularly with respect to the development of PC gaming, is id Software.
At the company's recent QuakeCon event, Eurogamer.net editor Tom Bramwell caught up with CEO Todd Hollenshead and lead programmer John Carmack.
Q: Last QuakeCon was id Tech 5-focused, and you said: "if you're a developer or a publisher that is considering a third-party licensing solution, and you don't take a very close look at id Tech 5 among the choices of what you consider, I really think you just don't understand what your job is and you must be in somebody's pocket." Have people responded in the way you'd hoped?
Todd Hollenshead: Technology licensing is kind of an interesting thing. There's a bit of a push-pull that goes on - we have to get to a point where we can actually get it out in developers' hands before they can have the confidence that they are able to use it. We weren't at that point with id Tech 5 last year at QuakeCon. We're at that point now, so I think that probably the uptake hasn't been quite as quick as I might have anticipated at that time, but then it took us a little longer to refine things out. But the pace where it is now is something we're happy with and I think it's going to actually start accelerating as we close in on all the things we need to do to get done and actually have people making games with it.
Q: Have you got any people working with it at the moment?
Todd Hollenshead: We can't really say who we have working with it, but we do have it out in external developers' hands.
Q: Are you learning a lot from that process of having them feed back to you?
John Carmack: I wish we actually had a little bit more feedback on what they're doing because I'm excited to see what they wind up with the stamping, the surfacing and stuff. It's mostly been them pulling information from us and we haven't got that much back from them yet, but our developer support guy's been in daily communication with them on everything that they do.
Q: Is that something you think about a lot when you're working on an engine - how people are likely to want to apply it? Because obviously your needs are quite specific, or at least have been in the past.
John Carmack: That's something we have arguments about internally - how much we should try to make things general-purpose - and I usually do come down on the side that it's more important to try and make it as good as we can for what we need to do, because if you're just trying to do these things and you don't have clear goals and just try to make it good for lots of things, usually that leads to not a particularly good solution. So I push for always just saying, Well, if our game is spectacular with what we're doing on there, it just should be at least a good base for anybody else to build upon.
Q: Probably the thing that went down best with the crowd last QuakeCon was you putting all your games on Steam. How's that performing?
Todd Hollenshead: It's been great. Working with Valve has been really nice. For us, we've always felt this kind of direct relationship with the fans - QuakeCon and then we still have the id Store and things like that - so although this is via Steam, we still feel it's more direct to consumer or the game fan than going through a publisher or that sort of stuff. People who are fans of all the games...the price is right, it can't be more convenient than just downloading to your computer, and Valve's got a great platform with Steam. Kudos to them.
Q: Is the performance consistent? Do you see spikes now and then?
Todd Hollenshead: It was certainly huge after QuakeCon, and then it tails off and it flattens out at some point. Speaking of things we argue about at id, another debate was to how things would do. We certainly over-performed relative to my expectations - I think part of that was on the lift of the announcement at QuakeCon and some of the smart ways we did things.
I got to give some credit to the guys at DOSBox - we had a little bit of a snafu with the way that stuff first went out, but the problem with all of the old games was because they were DOS games they didn't really work, some of them didn't have sound, and so I was reluctant to say we should be making them be a bigger emphasis in order to sell and market these sort of things when consumer experience would be hard to anticipate - but [DOSBox] ended up being a really elegant solution and it's kind of an awesome thing.
With Steam, you don't even have to have all that stuff installed, resident on your machine - you buy the id Superpack and if you want to go play Commander Keen or Wolf 3D or Doom 3 or whatever, you can just start playing.
Q: Steam's great in that it's kind of foolproof but it also allows you to drill down a bit.
Todd Hollenshead: Yeah, and I know there's some guys out there that don't particularly care for Steam, but if you don't like it there's always other avenues to get stuff. It's not that everybody has to buy their stuff on Steam - I don't think even Valve says that. For people who like that sort of convenience and that method of content-delivery, I think it's the best thing that's out there.
Q: Do you think systems like Steam could save the PC platform long-term as digital distribution becomes a more popular avenue for consumers to access content?
Todd Hollenshead: I know that if you go out in the forums that people claim Steam doesn't stop piracy. Some aspects of it are good and robust but there's still people who claim it's been cracked and they can get around it and all this sort of stuff. But every time you have someone who says I have this anti-piracy solution, somebody on the other side says it's been cracked.
At this point I've kind of given up trying to follow all the specifics of the arguments in the tit-for-tat about how these things work or they don't work. Because the problem is that games are pirated and unless you go exclusively to a digital distribution system and require people to authenticate every time that they log on, and you have some way of verifying that - in other words you completely go away from a boxed copy on the shelf - then I think you're always going to open yourself to be pirated because you have the content resident on the disc there.
It is a big problem - people even say it impacts the World of Warcraft stuff, but obviously not to a great extent, and I think that the subscription is one proven economic solution to the piracy situation on the PC. I think part of it is that, to me from a market standpoint, I think of WOW as eBay: the reason eBay wins as the auction site is that's where everybody goes, so that's where everybody want to list their items so that's where all the buyers want to go to shop. WoW is where everybody plays, so that's where everybody wants to play, so the cost of entry there is insignificant relative to what the whole experience is about - playing with all these people.
John Carmack: Well I wouldn't diminish the quality of work that Blizzard do on that...
Todd Hollenshead: No no, I'm not saying that to...Because there are pirated versions of WoW that are being run as renegade servers and all that stuff. It's just that those are incredibly small relative to those who actually pay to play. It's not like on typical PC games where the size of the pirate market actually is larger than the legitimate-goods market in many cases.
Q: It's the barrier-for-entry thing isn't it? It's really easy to pirate PC games whereas console games are much harder to pirate so the returns are better. What can PC hardware manufacturers do to make it harder for pirates?
Todd Hollenshead: There's lots of things that they could do but typically just they just line up on the wrong side of the argument in my opinion. They have lots of reasons as to why they do that, but I think that there's been this dirty little secret among hardware manufacturers, which is that the perception of free content - even if you're supposed to pay for it on PCs - is some sort hidden benefit that you get when you buy a PC, like a right to download music for free or a right to download pirated movies and games.
Q: You think they're secretly happy about it?
Todd Hollenshead: Yeah I think they are. I think that if you went in and could see what's going on in their minds, though they may never say that stuff and I'm not saying there's some conspiracy or something like that - but I think the thing is they realise that trading content, copyrighted or not, is an expected benefit of owning a computer.
And I think that just based on their actions...what they say is one thing, but what they do is another. When it comes into debates about whether peer-to-peer file-sharing networks that by-and-large have the vast majority, I'm talking 99 per cent of the content is illicitly trading copyrighted property, they'll come out on the side of the 1 per cent of the user doing it for legitimate benefit. You can make philosophical arguments that are difficult to debate, but at the same time you're just sort of ignoring the enormity of the problem.
Todd Hollenshead is CEO and John Carmack is lead programmer at id Software. Interview by Tom Bramwell.