Interview: id Software's Kevin Cloud & Steve Nix

This year's epic QuakeCon event is imminent, but for your reading pleasure in the days leading up to id Software's annual bash we have an extensive interview with id Software's Kevin Cloud and Steve Nix. A member of id since 1992, creative director Cloud is a part owner of the company and heads up external development, including id's involvement with Splash Damage on the anticipated Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (PC, PS3, X360). Nix, who joined id late last year after serving as CEO of Ritual Entertainment, is id's director of business development and is at the forefront of the company's renewed emphasis on engine licensing.

Cloud and Nix shared their thoughts on the current tech licensing scene, multiplatform development, Quake Wars on consoles and its formidable AI, id's attitude towards its as yet unannounced new game, John Carmack's interest in mobile and DS development, and much more.

Shack: What thinking went into the recent Mac support announcement? Do you see the gaming market there increasing, or are you maybe hoping to help drive such an increase?

Steve Nix: Well, Apple has obviously been doing well. iPod sales have been strong, and that's driving a new audience of people who have never owned Macs before. There was that existing audience of people who have always been Mac users, but now you're getting new Mac users too. At the same time, with the new Intel architecture, it's really easy to get that code over there. Plus, we use OpenGL, and Macs use OpenGL, so the rendering path was already there. We've been very pleased with the performance results on Mac.

Kevin Cloud: And we've been supportive of the Mac platform for quite a while.

iPod sales have been strong, and that's driving a new audience of people who have never owned Macs before.
Steve Nix: Yeah, I mean if you go into the Mac store and look at the game aisle, a number of games are id games or are powered by id technology.

Shack: You guys are obviously stepping up to take more of an aggressive role again in engine licensing. What are you putting into that?

Steve Nix: Well, as you know we have a history of technology licensing. Some of the best games have been made using id technology. But for a while there, we didn't really have a focus on it. It was a tough spot. Doom was really PC-focused at a time when the industry was shifting to be more cross-platform. Later on, we caught up, and id Tech 4 we have cross-platform support, with Enemy Territory on PS3 and 360.

Really, it just came down to focusing organization and resources. Id's a very small company, and for a while there was really nobody there who could drive the licensing business. I was familiar with id's technology, being a licensee for a number of years, and when I came over one of the first things we talked about was getting more aggressive with the licensing program. Without even talking about it, they agreed. We have the strongest video game technology in the world, and we need to get it out in the nands of select licensees that can make great games with that technology.

Shack: Speaking of being a small company, id has been independent a long time, and these days a lot of small developers are shutting down or being acquired. Have you seen your role in the industry change at all, or the role of independent studios change?

Kevin Cloud: For id, it's been great, honestly. We love our position as an independent developer. It allows us a lot of freedom of choice in terms of our development cycles. We can choose to do what's right for the game. We have that "when it's done" philosophy, and we've kept to that to make sure that the games are the best possible games we can make.

As far as the whole landscape, it is just the nature of things for the publishers to want to bring developers under their roof and have more influence over them, but for id it's just one of the things we've been founded on. That's just not something we're likely to change. We're real excited about what the future technology will bring, we're excited about the console platforms and the opportunities for technology licensing we have in development.

For us, maintaining independence has been easier for us as time goes on. It's hard to know exactly what's going on in the rest of the industry.

"Epic was getting out there in front of people, and they were in a good position competitively--as there were not a lot of other competitors."
Shack: I was speaking with Activision about release dates recently, and they said, "Well you know, id gets to say when it's done," and that extends to the separate developers you work with. We've seen 3D Realms take on a similar producer role with third-party studios, guiding them through the whole process. Are you going to continue doing that kind of thing? What led to that strategy?

Kevin Cloud: Well, one thing, with id titles like Doom and Wolfenstein, there are a lot of opportunities to get those games back into the open market and team up with some great development. We've got Wolfenstein in development with Raven. With something like Enemy Territory, it's a great chance to work with some guys who have a massive amount of enthusiasm for multiplayer games. Splash Damage really came out of community developers with a lot of passion.

It's something fun for us. Hell, these guys want to get a start in the business, and we had this idea for a cool game, and they liked the idea, so let's do it. It's something that a lot of developers don't have the opportunity to do. We do, because we're independent and we maintain control over our titles. For us, it's been a blast so we want to continue doing it.

Steve Nix: At the same time, there's a lot of pressure at publishers with both their internal and external titles trying to put down a set date, but for us quality is number one, especially with our brands. We can't have inferior products coming out with our brand, because ultimately that harms the value of the brand more over the long term than slipping a couple of months. We absolutely have to make sure first and foremost that games are good, and we don't plan to stop doing that with our internal titles or our partner titles.

Shack: What do you think has put Epic in such a strong position in the engine licensing game with its Unreal tech? How do you plan to compete with that?

Steve Nix: I'd say they had multiplatform--at least PC and 360--fairly early in this cycle, and they've gone out and talked to people about their technology. They got in front of publishers and developers, saying, "Hey, we have a solution." But at the same time, the competition has just fallen away, really, with Renderware getting purchased by EA, and the other rendering solutions out there are more specifically rendering solutions than full engine packages. So really I think it's that they were getting out there in front of people, and they were in a good position competitively--as there were not a lot of other competitors.

Shack: Epic is always sure to showcase their extensive developer tools, they show all that stuff every year at GDC, with the streamlined GUI systems and so on. Do you guys plan to compete full-on with that?

"You can lock gameplay and just have artists go to town, with six artists working a map simultaneously with zero impact on performance or stability."
Steve Nix: Yeah. We're not talking about engine specifics just yet, but for sure you can expect we are looking hard at what a modern multiplatform game developer needs to create a successful title with a fairly small team and a reasonable amount of time, and we're addressing those concerns.

Shack: How about less nitty-gritty developer-side things? What can people expect out of the engine on the front end?

Steve Nix: Sure, I mean first and foremost it runs really well across the core platforms we're addressing--Mac, PC, Xbox 360, PS3. We're already at a high framerate on all those platforms with the exact same assets. There's no stepchild platform, it runs equally well across all of them.

We'll share more very soon, but it's also an extension of our MegaTexture solution, to where it's not just MegaTexture on the base terrain anymore. The MegaTexture extends to the entire world, including objects and characters. Really, you're completely eliminating texture constraints, and for console developers it's one of the major constraints they deal with. Everyone makes the game look really good at the beginning--they pile on textures, pile on textures--but then you make the game look worse and worse as you approach ship. You absolutely don't have that concern with id Tech 5. You can make the game look better and better--you can lock gameplay and just have artists go to town, with six artists working a map simultaneously with zero impact on performance or stability. That's a huge win.

Shack: So I imagine you'll release more details at QuakeCon?

Steve Nix: Yeah, as a matter of fact we're going to have a number of interesting announcements at QuakeCon.

Turn the page for thoughts on id's design process, Carmack's cell phone and DS development, and why gamers might not be shocked by id's new game.


Shack: On the topic of id's own internal games, we've heard at various times that you might be looking to do something a little off the beaten path compared to your past work. Any comment on that?

Steve Nix: Kevin can talk better about that, but obviously what we've said is that it's a new IP. It's not Doom or Wolfenstein or Enemy Territory. It's new for sure, and we're always looking to broaden the gameplay, but people aren't going to be shocked. You shouldn't expect an RTS or a fighting game or something. [laughs] People are going to like what they see, but it's not going to be shocking.

Kevin Cloud: Yes, we are doing something different, but it's still going to be fast action. We're still going to be first-person shooters and in-your-face immersive action, but yes it's not, you know, Doom 3.

Shack: At GDC a couple years ago, at the end of Carmack's address there was this little gremlin creature or something that scampered across the screen. I think at the time people thought it was a creature from an upcoming id game or something. Do you know what I'm talking about at all? [laughs]

"We are doing something different, but we're still going to be first-person shooters and in-your-face immersive action."
Kevin Cloud: No... Scampering across? I don't recall that. [laughs] I'd say if you saw some of John's presentations on the Mac about a month ago, you'll get an idea of some of the elements in the technology that might give some hints as to the game. It's not necessarily a reflection on our game, but it pulls from some of the elements.

Shack: With Orcs & Elves and those kinds of projects on cell phones and DS, how much direct involvement does id have, with the game developed by Fountainhead?

Kevin Cloud: Oh, John is completely hands-on, absolutely. He's the guy doing the tech. I don't see where he finds the time to sleep. [laughs] Honestly, with all the development he does for us, all the new technology, all the rocket stuff he's doing, and then this on the mobile phone and the DS, it's just some really kickass stuff.

Shack: So you think he'll keep doing more in that vein?

Kevin Cloud: Oh yeah. There's an interesting story about that. He went off on vacation with his wife and kids, to the beach, and John was like, "What am I going to do on the beach?" He picks up his wife's mobile phone and says, "These games are crap." [laughs] So he goes back to the hotel room, starts getting some dev tools for it, and starts programming a game.

He comes back from vacation and says, "I've got this cool idea for a new game. We could put Doom on a cell phone!" [laughs] That's John, you know, that's what he's all about. The cell phone is a real restrictive system, and he can just wrap his mind around it real quick. So, absolutely.

Shack: It's sometimes strange to think he's still the guy driving a lot of the tech at id, given how much has changed during the company's existence.

Kevin Cloud: Oh yeah. Well, we've got a great tech team. As far as guys who aren't related to rendering, we've got Jan Paul, who if you Google search on texture compression you'll find his name, and he also created the Quake III bots and their navigation. You've got Robert Duffy, who's our programming director. A lot of really good guys that we brought into the team to support what John's doing, but John's leading on the render front.

"John Carmack went off on vacation with his wife and kids, and he was like, 'What am I going to do on the beach?'"
Shack: On the design side, how do you guys work?

Kevin Cloud: Tim Willits is the lead on our internal games, and that guy rocks, so he's handling all the lead on our current internal game, and then I'm handling all the external stuff like Wolfenstein, Enemy Territory, and so on. For those, there's definitely a lot of design input that id gets, so it's kind of a co-design. Obviously Raven knows what they're doing, Splash Damage knows what they're doing.

Shack: Id has always been known for driving a lot in the way of multiplayer, but some of the company's products have been more angled towards the single-player side. Can you comment on whether you're going a particular direction for the new game?

Kevin Cloud: It varies per game. I think there's a lot of interest internally about cooperative gameplay. That's something that's interesting. On the multiplayer side, where we had Return to Castle Wolfenstein and then the Wolfensetin multiplayer by Nerve, we sort of upped the bar on having a kickass single-player game and then having a kickass multiplayer game. It was like, oh my God, where do we go next?

It's a struggle, making a great single-player game then using that technology for a great multiplayer game. It's something where id, with Doom, basically made first-person action multiplayer. We're not stepping away from that. We always want to support that community. Enemy Territory is just an example of that, trying to focus in and do the best multiplayer we can. Even our work on Quake 4, where we thought there was room to support what was out there, and we're continuing to support the Quake 4 community.

Turn the page for details on how Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is coming along on consoles, and why its bots will kick your ass.


Shack: How has it been getting Enemy Territory onto consoles?

Kevin Cloud: You know, for the past two years on Enemy Territory, we actually have had a console controller working, playing with it while eager to get console in development. The main thing standing in our way was making sure we had competitive--well, better than competitive--bots.

With most games that have bots, once you get to a certain skill they just sort of lose their benefit. We wanted to not have that. We wanted enemy AI that's good for day one when you want to learn the game, and good for six months later when you want to play competitively or put bots in your game and have them act like players. That was an important addition for us to drive forward with consoles. And we did.

We went back to Jan Paul, had him work on an expanded area awareness system, which allows us to drop a bot anywhere on the map and it knows exactly where to go and the best way to reach the objective. Then we managed to hire John Dean, who did the FritzBot for Enemy Territory. John Dean has an amazing eye for detail in what clan-level players do--he's a clan-level player himself--and so we managed to get him in and he just hit the ground running.

"For the past two years on Enemy Territory, we actually have had a console controller working."
The bots, from their routing system up to their tactical capabilities, are really unique. Say, for example, in Enemy Territory you have character classes like covert ops. What would a bot do? Usually, the bot would take the disguise and go backstab somebody. The way John Dean handles it with higher-level capability, the bot takes the disguise, moves around, acts as if it's part of your team, tries to find the most critical class--like if there's construction going on, that's the engineer--then goes and takes out the engineer. In the game, when you take on a disguise, you don't change your breathing sound, so a disguised Strogg still sounds like a Strogg, and the bots can hear that.

That level of detail means the bots can still be fun for beginning players--you can tone all that stuff down--but also for advanced players. It's not quite clan-to-clan, because you're dealing with super-organized players pre-planning there, but for comparable level pub players, you should be able to put the bots into that match and not tell the difference. Well, unless you look at the server browser. [laughs]

Shack: At E3, I heard from Epic that 50% of their UT04 users never went online. Have you guys seen similar stats that might be driving this bot emphasis?

Kevin Cloud: We haven't gathered any statistics on that. For me, I think that especially on the console, you want the ability to have players come in that are new to the game and having the training experience, and also for any of these games you want to be able to fill out your servers with really compelling enemy AI. If it's two o'clock in the morning and you've finally got to go to bed soon, you can just put in a few bots. Also, on the console, for people who don't have that online connection, we want to still deliver bots that feel like online players, that might see you as the guy doing the most damage and go after you.

"You should be able to put bots into a match and not tell the difference."
Shack: On the topic of having the controller working before full console development began, I remember John Carmack mentioned at an E3 that he was going to Xbox 360 as the lead development platform. Is that still the case, and how does that tie into Enemy Territory: Quake Wars?

Kevin Cloud: In terms of the console development, it's something we've always wanted to do but when it came to the AI solution, to be honest, we just didn't have someone internally who could take on that job. Getting Jan was really important for us there.

In terms of the controller, id's impact has really been to sit down and play with it and draw some influence for our interface system--things like context-sensitive view systems, a one-button-press mission system, the context-sensitive communication system. All that stuff is designed to reduce button presses and make it easier for people to get into the game. That resulted from sitting down and saying, "What could we do if we got this on consoles?" and then it ended up being good for the PC as well.

Shack: Have you made any plans for downloadable content on consoles?

Kevin Cloud: I can't speak to any plans, but it's certainly something we're interested in doing.

Shack: One more Epic reference. There were some reports that came out that Epic wanted to release free content over Xbox Live Marketplace, and Microsoft simply wouldn't let them. Would that be something you guys would try to do?

Kevin Cloud: Yeah, I can't really speak to any of the plans. I mean I'd be surprised if Microsoft tried to--well, I guess they'd be frustrated with that. But yeah, I can't speak to that.

Shack: Any final thoughts?

Kevin Cloud: We're really confident about Enemy Territory. We're right on track now on the PC, and for people who have got that Christmas spot going, keep an open spot for Enemy Territory on the PC. It's been a great collaboration with Splash Damage, and we're excited to get it into people's hands.

Shack: Got a projection for the console release?

Kevin Cloud: Anything I say would more than likely be wrong. [laughs] It's that "when it's done" philosophy.

Shack: Thanks for talking with us.