Ben Kuchera / Dabe Alan

Tim Willits talks Doom 4, John Carmack, and what id learned from Skyrim’s launch

Tim Willits talks Doom 4, John Carmack, and what id learned from Skyrim’s launch

[Disclosure: Penny Arcade paid for airfare to QuakeCon, but Bethesda provided a hotel room for two nights.]

John Carmack kicked off his 2012 QuakeCon keynote by apologizing for Rage. He candidly discussed the driver issues, the marketing challenges, and the end of the game itself, which he characterized as being “not very good.” It was a conversation you rarely see from someone as powerful as Carmack, and it seemed to pull the crowd to his side from the first moments of the speech. It didn’t make everyone happy, however.

“I wanted to strangle him. It’s QuakeCon! Everyone fucking loves Rage here, shut up!” Tim Willits, the creative direct of id Software, told me in an interview the next day. He was laughing, and seemed to take it in stride, but still. Everyone in the room knew this was going to be a big story. “You don’t think everyone in the audience knows that ATI released the wrong drivers? Dude, zip it!”

“John, I love him to death. It’s fine. At least it wasn’t a big sword. He kind of stabbed himself a little bit and moved on. He feels better about it,” Willits said. It was also a public admission that there were problems with how the game was developed.

“The lesson learned is we need to make sure developers have ATI cards. We worked with NVIDIA for so long, we worked with ATI a long time, but we’re definitely a NVIDIA shop. So we said alright, everyone needs to have some ATI cards in here. But really, if it was a DirectX game it wouldn’t have been a problem,” Willits explained.

The problem was that Carmack still likes to work in OpenGL, and Rage “pushes, pushes, pushes,” video cards, according to Willits. “He went right to the edge, and we had those driver issues.”

Next-generation consoles, and Doom 4

“I know nothing about the new generation consoles,“ Willits said, leaning into the recorder. I had to ask about it, especially since Carmack stated that development on Doom 4 had picked up steam since Doom 3: BFG Edition was close to release.

The problem is, as Carmack pointed out when he said the company could no longer work on a game for six years, they need to push product. Doom 3: BFG Edition is a way to benefit from the work being done on existing code and to give an (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) often derided game another chance. Willits was open about the fact that the work being done updated Doom 3 for current-generation consoles would prove handy when bringing Doom 4 to consoles. The question is, which consoles will be running Doom 4?

Willits seemed to want to address the question, if not answer it. “Well, again…” he said, before a long pause. He curled his finger under his nose and leaned forward. “We haven’t quite figured out what the future holds. I need to be careful what I say here.”

It’s hard for people like Willits, who are used to being candid about their business, to be put in a situation like this. It’s likely he’s under the yoke of many non-disclosure agreements, or possibly negotiating deals with Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, or all three. The open secret in the game industry right now is that it’s fairly easy to find out data about the next generation of consoles, but it’s much harder to get that data in a way you can discuss.

“It’s one of those… all I can say is that it’s one of those bridges need to cross if it becomes an issue. But it’s clear we need to look at installed base, that’s the situation we’re in now,” Willits said. “We would love to make PC games forever. We’d make PC games and ride off into the sunset. But we can’t. If you don’t have a subscription based game, it would be extremely difficult to make a AAA game that only exists on the PC. Look at Rage, we had what, less than half went to the PC? Most of it was 360, PS3. You need to go to the installed base.”

I said it must be hard for the company to be so business focused of late. “We’ve always been business focused!” he said. That’s true, but now the company doesn’t have the kind of freedom it used to, the game can no longer be played on terms that id dictates.

“To be honest, this all revolves around John. John always wants to change the technology. He wanted always to completely change the tech. He mentioned that in the keynote. We could have done Doom 3 with Quake 3, and then Doom 4 with modified Quake 3 to Quake to Doom tech, and then Rage 1 with that tech, and then Rage 2 with id Tech 5. We would have had three other games we could have done in the same time frame,” he said. “That’s what everyone else does, do you think Unreal 2, 3, 4 is really that different?”

That’s what most companies would have done, but not id. “But because John wants a clean slate, and a new paradigm, it just takes forever. We worked on heck, Rage, all those assets and maps and landscapes and it stops working. We couldn’t make it like that, we need to make it like this, so we threw it all away and started again.”

“But we were always small, and we were able to leverage our other IPs as income sources to maintain that type of development,” Willits explained. That’s not sustainable in the modern market, however.

“As the size of the teams grow, and you need to have everything these days, players expect a ton, we can’t throw away the engine every time we make a new game like we did in the past.”

The Carmack quotient

Which leads to the next question: what’s it like working with someone like John Carmack? “I always joke that I’ve been raising John for 18 years. I’ve done interviews where every question was ‘John said,’ and ‘John said.’ Yes, having John around is awesome. He is a visionary, he’s brilliant, he’s approachable. Anyone can go and talk to him, he answers e-mails, so I’m very fortunate,” Willits said.

“My wife always jokes, and I joke with her, and I tell her that I’m not that smart, I’ve just hung around people for so long I repeat what they say. But John is wonderful. I’ve been with him for 18 years. I’ve seen him grow and change and he’s seen me grow and change.”

It’s a little odd for a company as influential as id to be working on a project like Doom 4 so openly, without as much as a screenshot or hint about how the game will look. “You know, everyone knows that Valve is working on Half-Life 3, and I think it’s fine. It will be cool when people see it, and they’ll be excited.”

Keeping the game under wraps until they’re ready to show something is a course correction from the marketing of Rage. “One thing we did learn with Rage, one of the thing that changed was going from no publisher to working with EA to working with Bethesda, we learned that we showed stuff too damn early.”

“I’ve said in some talks I was so worried that people would not understand the vehicle-based combat so I talked about it first,” Willits said. “We knew we were doing first-person, we’re id! Of course we’re doing first-person! But [the early talk of vehicles] skewed everyone’s ideas so much we had to play catch up. So we talked to EA and, heck we even talked to Activision originally about it, so it went through the publishers, and we teamed up with Bethesda. So when we’re ready to show stuff, we’ll have a plan.”

He pointed to the near-surgical precision of the Skyrim reveals. “Everyone knew what Todd Howard was working on,” Willits said, and then he listed the order of the game’s reveals, and described how the game was shown at every major gaming event before finally making it to retail.

“And it was perfect. So hopefully we can do that again,” Willits said.

John Carmack was able to give one detail about Doom 4 during his keynote. “Everyone knows what Doom is,” he told the crowd. “There are demons and shotguns.”