id's Tim Willits and Todd Hollenshead on Rage

By Chris Remo, Aug 17, 2007 10:31am PDT With Rage, id Software is going in all sorts of new directions. Vehicular combat, racing, adventure components--it seems like a brand new world for the longtime FPS-exclusive studio, but CEO Todd Hollenshead and Tim Willits assure me that the game is grounded in id's existing pedigree.

I sat down with Hollenshead and Willits to discuss Rage's design elements both new and old, gameplay and setting inspirations, new attitudes to development, co-op and multiplayer, how everything in the game interconnects, id's infamous design documents, and more. Read on for this comprehensive interview on id's next big thing.

Shack: Rage arguably combines more divergent gameplay elements than any new id property since Wolfenstein. Some of the post-apocalyptic setting influences are obvious, but did you have any influences from the gameplay side there?

Todd Hollenshead: That's a good question. I don't know how much my answer is in tune with anybody else's. The story creation and everything like that is pretty much on Tim's side. When you get into some of the details of the implementation, there are different comparisons we look to. For our stuff on the FPS aspect of it, it's not like we need inspiration--we feel like our stuff is what's driving a lot of that area.

For other areas, MotorStorm was an influence, and I was a big PGR3 fan, and of course we have some other guys who are racing game fans. But the driving side of it isn't intended to be a racing simulation like PGR3 or Gran Turismo. It is intended to have the feel and response that you would expect, and one of the things we had to prove to ourselves internally is that we had the capability to drive around in vehicles and have that be a significant aspect of the game and fun.

You have to have some higher design concept and some story--those are necessary elements--but the important elements of the game are the moment to moment interactions, and if those aren't fun, the game isn't going to be fun. We wanted to make sure that driving around over the wasteland in the cars is fun.

A lot of that stuff, our very first run was not very good. [laughs] But we worked quickly, and we had some stuff to compare it to, with some fans of the genre. We're not trying to be that [genre], but we need to get the feel and to know it's fun. I think we've now proven we can do an excellent job and have it be a fun activity in and of itself. There's the driving, then you can do actual races--because, as Tim says, in the future only NASCAR fans survived. [laughs]

Tim Willits: Rage's foundation, definitely, is first person shooter, because that's what we do best. But we wanted to change what people expect from an id first person shooter. All our IPs offer something different--Doom is a dark and spooky corridor shooter, but this has larger environments, outdoor environments. In the game, I went through and wanted to do all the fun things in other games. I've always loved the settings of the post-apocalyptic worlds--Fallout, Road Warrior. I can talk about the setting later.

There's obviously the first person shooting, then there are the driving games that are more arcadey. For me, I'm not a big Ridge Racer fan. The driving isn't going to be like that, it's going to be more like MotorStorm, more like Burnout. I really want people, when they play the game, to say, "You know, it wasn't what I expected from id, but I had a great time doing it."

As far as the more open world, it's nonlinear but still story-driven. It has adventure elements, but I hate to say adventure because then people think of Monkey Island, and it's not an RPG. I wish there was some word in between RPG and adventure, where you have an inventory. You'll be able to drive around the wasteland and get out wherever you want. If you see a cave, you can explore it. You might meet a band of mutants. Now, when you're in an actual circuit of a race, we make it so you can't get out--but you could, technically, get out. We don't change the technology.

It just gives us a chance to make a game that has all the fun things we like to play. So far, it's been a heck of a lot of fun. We have these things called Rage Cups. They're like milestones. We have these competitions--Time Rage Cup, First Person Rage Cup, combat stuff. We have a day where everybody competes, and whoever wins gets the Rage Cup until the next milestone.

Shack: Is this in the actual game, or--

Tim Willits: No, no. This is something we do internally, because we want to continually remind ourselves that everything needs to be fun. When you make this internal competition and guys compete against each other, they see what's fun and what's not fun. It helps us focus. It's something we've never done before. Because this is so new--we haven't done vehicle combat before at id, we haven't done racing before--and that stuff is hard.

No game developer should look at another genre and say it's easy to do. They're all hard. We have to continually test and playtest to make sure it's fun, because there's so much risk. Like John said, when you're spending millions on something, and you're making something you've never made before, it's scary. We engineered these competitions to refocus on the fun factor of the game.

Shack: You mentioned you could talk about the setting a bit.

Tim Willits: Oh, yeah. That's important to mention. It's set in a post-apocalyptic world. I know there are many games like that, but the reason we picked that was this: it grounds the game in kind of a modern setting, slightly in the future, and it helps players identify with what's going on, but it gives us the freedom to add some of the fantasy elements. You know how we like the fantasy elements. When those fantasy elements appear, they're larger than life, whereas in Doom it's pretty much all fantasy.

Then I've always loved that Road Warrior stuff, because the lines between good and evil, right and wrong get skewed as people try to rebuild society. It gives us a fun setting. It's funny, there are a number of games coming out in the near future with nuclear war, or Earth is striked by a comet. We were joking at work, "Man, Earth gets beat up in the next few years." [laughs] But it does give freedom to be a little more creative. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Could you speak on what you're doing in the car when you're not racing?

Todd Hollenshead: Yeah. The way the world is constructed--and part of this is part of the story and the fiction, and part is due to what John [Carmack] has given us in order to make these vast landscapes--we didn't want people just walking around in these huge areas wondering what to do. We place these hotspots of activity, these settlements, throughout the wasteland.

The story is that a comet has hit the earth and wiped out civilization, and civilization is rebuilding. There is a foundation of what was left of the government that is this evil regime. Even though in the future, the lines between good and evil have been blurred, you are the hero. You're not the anti-hero. You're sort of trying to help these guys, the remnants of civilization banding together to fight back against the regime. There's also an anarchistic element as you may have derived from the "A" in the logo, in terms of people who are both outside of those settlements and outside of the regime. You're not a member of any of these factions, you're coming in as an outsider.

So part of the time is spent in the settlements, interacting there, and there's lots of action and shooting but also adventure elements with missions you can go on. Your car is an important part of the game. You'll be able to make modifications and upgrades, soup up your car. Part of the name is the last four letters of "garage" are "RAGE." There's that element, and the "rage against the machine" element, then the vehicular combat part--the "road rage" part.

One of the unique things is that as you go over the wasteland, you're not on a rail where you have to go from point A or point B. At any time 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. They can do that literally at no cost to performance or stability of the game. There are no limits to stuff like that, with unique detail all over the place.

Now, we try to put that stuff where people are actually going to see it. [laughs] But it is a game with this expanded environment where you can do a lot of things other than just kill bad guys with guns. We're trying to ensure all the things you can do are fun and interesting.

Shack: And as far as the balance between shooting, adventure, races--

Tim Willits: Well, you need to go to the main towns to enter the races. You may go to the race coordinator, and he tells you that you need a sponsor. So then you go off to a settlement to find someone to sponsor you. Then you have to complete some stuff for them and get sponsored, and you can go back to the town and race in that circuit, or you may get a mission that you have to take out Car 8 in the race.

We haven't actually implemented all this yet, but this is what we're thinking. You could then go back to the race coordinator and race again. So the different aspects are separate, but connected.

Shack: So as far as the world itself, everything is connected?

Tim Willits: Yep. There's the world, and you can go into instances or levels, and those can be replayed, but missions change and so forth. It's pretty straightforward.

Shack: I imagine with that kind of structure, there's side content, optional quests, that kind of thing?

Tim Willits: Yes. Robert Duffy, our programming director, he's really into that. He's come up with a bunch of creative optional things. You can go and just do all the missions in the story, like in Oblivion, or you can go do other missions. I'm not saying it's as big as Oblivion, but it's that kind of thing.

Shack: Has your design process changed with these new gameplay avenues?

Tim Willits: Absolutely. One of the things we've done is we've changed our production pipeline. We're trying to do more agile development. We've organized milestones into scrums, and people who develop games are familiar with scrums.

For example, the guys working on the race stuff get together, they scrum, then we have a race. It may not be pretty, but we're working on physics and throttle response and suspension--I've learned so much about that stuff, I can't even tell you [laughs]. Then for the guys working on the first person stuff, we made competitions for accuracy, shots, time. That's stuff that's not in the game--like our headshot time mode--but we put it in as an internal competition for these sprints to the milestone.

Sometimes you work on a game for two years, and it's just drudge, drudge, drudge, and even if the programmers just hack some rules in to make it fun to play, it really brings the spirit up for the team.

Shack: When I talked to Kevin Cloud and Steve Nix recently, they said people wouldn't be very shocked by this game, that it wouldn't be very divergent from past id games, but structurally it seems very different.

Tim Willits: Well, I hope it's shocking that we don't have demons. We've got mutants! [laughs] But no, I think they'll be surprised. Everybody at QuakeCon, our biggest fans, said it looks exciting, and it looks different. We do need to differentiate our IPs. We can't make Doom too much like Quake, we can't make Rage too much like Wolfenstein. But yeah, I hope people are surprised!

Todd Hollenshead: I think that we kind of break down a game into the high-level concept, and then the low-level interaction, and then there's stuff that goes on in between, and I think that the core of the game is an action shooter, and then we put these additional elements into it. They're not going to be an insignificant piece of it, because we've found we've been able to do them well.

I think there was speculation that this was some vastly different MMO game or racing game or whatever--and there's always speculation, but I think what they were trying to do is get the pendulum to swing away from people saying we're going in a rampantly different direction.

The game, from a practical standpoint, is grounded in the things the company is excellent at from an implementation side, but instead of being constrained by only doing those activities in the game, we're taking some very big risks. The first thing we actually did was make sure the driving was fun, then the second thing was to make sure the shooting was fun, because we were pretty sure we could already make the shooting fun. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: It also, from a different standpoint, seems like it could also serve as a proof of concept for other developers that the tech can support a wide range, not just the kind of corridor fighting id is known for.

Todd Hollenshead: John is confident, and I'm confident as well, that 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."

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. I don't think it would have been as big news if we had just shown things you hadn't seen in an indoor rendering engine before.

If it wasn't explicitly communicated there, it is when you see how the camera works, where you go through the race, then you fly upstairs, then you fly downstairs through the halls and you see the vendor. In the same map, you have the same amount of facial detail on this character as you do on these vast outdoor areas.

Shack: Will the whole game be playable with co-op, and will it be online on consoles?

Todd Hollenshead: I expect that we will be online on the consoles. It is a single-player, story-driven game with co-op capabilities, as opposed to a game where co-op is the way in which it's built then there's a different version of the game that's not as fun by yourself. We're trying to design the game so it's fun to play by yourself, and if you have somebody you're playing with, it's potentially more fun if you like that sort of thing. But it's not designed as a two-person priority.

Tim Willits: You aren't going to play through the entire game in co-op, and the reason is--the game is going to take you fifteen, twenty hours to play through, I don't know--because it's hard to find a friend who will play with you that long. Our plan is to do something along the lines of, through Xbox Live or whatever system, you can find someone who can go on and do some co-op missions. If you finish a few, you can go do something different yourself, then go find someone to do the rest. It's not like you and I are going to start together, then save.

Shack: Is there any kind of versus multiplayer?

Todd Hollenshead: Probably not really. I'm hesitant to talk, because it's not really implemented yet. That question was asked to Tim, and he said it's too early to tell. There's no deathmatch in it now. If you put two people in the same time, they can shoot at each other, but there's a whole bunch of different stuff that goes into that versus a cooperative campaign.

Tim Willits: I'm leaning towards--well, I don't know, I can't say.

Shack: People who have followed PC gaming for a long time are often familiar with stories of early id design documents incorporating all sorts of gameplay elements that ended up being pared away in favor of the core, intense FPS stuff that id is known for. Are there any connections or parallels between those efforts and Rage?

Todd Hollenshead: To tell you the truth, I haven't read the game design document that Tim has put together for Rage, because that's just not part of my job, and honestly as a fan of what we do I just like to see how everything ends up in the game itself.

With game design documents, you really do kind of blue sky things from the start, then you figure out what you can make work. Some of the stuff seems like great ideas, then in practice it just doesn't work. That's why we've learned over time that some of those ideas aren't best to share because they become disappointing to people who think, "That would have been a really cool idea." And you know what? It probably was a really cool idea, but when we actually put it in the game, it either didn't work or it did but it was only fun for five people or whatever.

I've seen--probably the most notorious one is all the stuff that was in the original Quake design. A lot of that stuff just wasn't all that fun. One group of people really wanted that dragon at the end, and because there wasn't a dragon at the end, they were totally pissed off about it. But if they had never heard about the dragon, they wouldn't have missed it. The design decision was, "How does a dragon fit in with this stuff?"

Ultimately, at the end of the day, you can't kitchen sink all this stuff--but at the beginning, you kind of can, then you can throw out the stuff that doesn't work.

Tim Willits: You know, Romero did some crazy interviews long ago about the game design documents. I mean, I've been with the company for a long time, as you know, and there's always stuff--as any developer would tell you--in the initial game design. If you shoot for the stratosphere, you still end up really high. Nobody ever--and if they tell you they do, they're lying--nobody ever gets every feature they planned in.

It really hasn't been that out of control for us. I think historically, if you're referring to the Romero days, that might have been him being, uh...you know what I mean? [laughs]

Shack: As far as the two DVD expectation, is that related to the size of the MegaTextures?

Todd Hollenshead: That's a question for John, primarily. Well, I can say on the size of stuff that if you give the artists an unlimited data budget to use, they tend to soak it up [laughs]. You could put more content in than will fit, and we expect the data size is going to require multiple discs. There are some engineering questions that we haven't yet fully addressed, because when we run on the consoles right now we're going off of the hard drive. I know John has a solution in his mind for all that stuff, but I don't know what it is.

Shack: I know that some PS3 games actually have an install option. Would you use that?

Tim Willits: I don't know how that stuff works because I'm not an engineer, but there will of course be a significant portion of the game on consoles that is streamed off the optical media. To get that streamed into memory is probably more of a compression issue. Just to give you a very general idea, I think the uncompressed data on the WWDC demo was something like 30 gigs, and they actually compressed it into a few hundred megabytes.

There really is a combination of two important technologies working together, which is bleeding-edge compression and John's texture streaming solution. They work hand in hand. If you blaze through the level by slowing down the time scale, you can load everything super fast, it just won't load all the super-high detail right at first.

Shack: Thanks for talking with us.

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