id's Hollenshead on Licensing id Tech 5

With id Software slowly unveiling more of its internal projects, including the Mad Max-esque Rage and the id Tech 5 engine that powers it, the studio that once led the PC engine licensing game is sending a clear message that it intends a return to form. As part of a longer discussion at QuakeCon, the rest of which will be published on Shacknews in the coming days, I spoke with id Software CEO Todd Hollenshead about his company's revitalized push into the high-end tech licensing world--a world most would agree is currently largely occupied by Epic and its widely-licensed Unreal Engine 3.

The CEO spoke on the flexibility of the technology, id's changing attitude towards developer support and tools, when the engine will be ready--and he even painted a striking contrast to rival Epic, which has been in the news lately for licensing-related matters.

Gentlemen, start your engines
Hollenshead was quick to note that id Tech 5 isn't quite ready for distribution. John Carmack expects the engine to be in a state deliverable to developers by the end of the year.

"We definitely feel there's a lot of flexibility in the technology, probably more flexibility than maybe any engine that we've ever done just in terms of style of gameplay decisions," said Hollenshead. "As John said, [Rage] is a 60 hertz game. A technology licensee could make a game that looks entirely different in 30 hertz, and have twice the detail in half the framerate. It's entirely possible that within months after we release Rage that from a purely visible standpoint, a licensee could come out with a game that looks twice as good. It's just a gameplay decision. We made the decision for fast action that we're going to keep the framerate up fast on multiple platforms."

Hollenshead pointed out that the bar being set at 60 frames per second also opens up possibilities for significantly scalable PC games, particularly PC-only games with no multiplatform siblings with which to be compared. Even without dropping visual fidelity, performance could be improved by retargeting the framerate at 30 fps, and improved further by taking visual hits.

You wanna take this outside?
I suggested that, while id employees have frequently spoken of a desire to branch out to other gameplay design avenues, Rage's open, sun-drenched, post-apocalyptic wasteland might also serve the convenient secondary purpose of convincing potential licensees that id's tech isn't just about corridors.

"If I sat down and said, 'John is working on the rendering engine, and it's awesome, and you'll be able to do amazingly high detail on indoor environments,' you'd be like, 'Well, I'd like to see it, but I can believe what you're telling me,'" replied Hollenshead. "Now, if I told you we were going to do that stuff with vast terrain rendering, and I didn't show it to you, I think there would be more skepticism about it. What we tried to do, especially at the WWDC thing, was to show things that would be surprising."

(Notoriously, old guard PC studio id unveiled its ambitious id Tech 5 engine, and its more powerful iteration of John Carmack's MegaTexture technology, at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference.)

"At any time [in Rage] you can get out of your car, and look around, and one of the artists may have carved his initials in the back of a rock," he pointed out. "They can do that literally at no cost to performance or stability of the game."

John Carmack does not deal with tools
In an attempt to get with the times, id plans to distance itself from its reputation for rudimentary development tools, which have traditionally been a byproduct of Carmack's time schedule.

"One of the complaints in the past about id technology has been that the tools weren't as robust as people would like," admitted Hollenshead. "Some of the tools are just a function of John's prioritization of his time. When he was touching all code in the engine, he was working on tools as well, and he would say, "I can spend a month of my time working on tools that save the artists time, or I can work on something that makes the game look more glorious, and have the artists devote more man-hours and frustration with the tools." That was just a decision that John made within id."

Now, id has hired full-time tools programmers working with artists and designers to produce useful development aids, and the company has taken on support staff to serve as liaisons to licensees.

The circumstances are Epic
When asked about id's plans for licensing as compared to other major players, Hollenshead was direct. "In terms of an engine licensing philosophy--and you can read this anywhere, I'm not going secondhand here--Epic has a philosophy to license to everyone they can," he pointed out. "That will not be our strategy. We will go with a lower number of what we think are high-value licensees and games, and try to service those, and not overcast our resources in providing support."

id will have an internal review process for determining what games and developers will be worth supporting. Hollenshead recalled past licensing successes as historical vindication for such a strategy: "If you look at Quake as a reference point, we would rather have Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and Half-Life as our licensees than thirty games nobody remembers."

Check back on Shacknews early next week for an interview with Hollenshead and lead designer Tim Willits on the company's internal project Rage (PC, PS3, X360).

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