id Rising: Despite Underwhelming QuakeCon, Carmack and Company Are Poised for a Comeback

Midway through the second hour, even most of the die-hard nerds started to leave.

On stage was a man who, by all accounts, did not need to be there. Wealthy, successful, busy programming rockets and enjoying family life--id Software president John Carmack has plenty of excuses to be a recluse, not the least of which is his admitted lack of "people skills."

But there he was regardless, lecturing away on a Thursday night, professor to his students. Seemingly undeterred by his thinning class, he moved from topic to topic in Picard-like fashion, holding the microphone as the rock king of computer programming.

Though the overall scent noticeably improved with each departure, the buzz within the ballroom also noticeably quieted. Near the end you could almost hear the soft death rattles of fizzling laptop batteries, exhausted journalists resorting to pen and paper, or just plain giving up. Still he rolled on. And on.

Through hour one. Hour two. Hour three.

And then he took questions.

As an event, QuakeCon 2008 was disappointing. The vendor floor seemed littered with more plastic guitars than keyboards and mice. LAN gaming, while still carrying a certain attraction, has naturally lost some of its novelty with the advent of robust internet gaming. The sponsor and feature attraction, Carmack's id Software, had almost nothing new to announce.

But there was Carmack anyway, giving the crowd what he could, speaking with the kind of pure, blunt honesty that few in the industry have the freedom to match.

Patent trolls are bleeding the industry. Linux is not a factor anymore. Rocket science is a cinch compared to computer programming.

Only Carmack.

Backface Epsilon What?
By the time he was covering the pros and cons of saltwater nuclear propulsion, most had tuned out.

Even still, at the end of his address, the man who likely drove in on a Ferrari stuck around to meet with fans. By the next morning, he was facing the press in closed door interviews, one after another, speaking plainly--as plainly as a Ph.D-level programmer can--on any number of talking points. Never impolite, and rarely unengaged, he gives a straightforward interview. He is the kind of untouchable, outspoken and unpredictable icon that causes public relations managers to practically quake in fear.

In fact, Carmack comes off as being so uncompromisingly honest with his opinions that you never suspect his motivations--something that he cleverly played to his advantage.

Somewhere in the second act of his keynote, the programmer very flatly told the crowd that his company's upcoming shooter rage Rage will look worse on the Xbox 360 due to the space restrictions of the machine's DVD format. Microsoft demands millions in royalties for extra discs, he said, before expressing hope that the console manufacturer would lower its premiums to compete with Sony's superior Blu-ray technology.

The statement predictably incited a small riot on the internet, with fans quickly taking their typical sides in the console warzone. And because the programmer's views on technology are taken so seriously, his comments were seen on the surface as honest criticism of the Xbox 360 hardware rather than political maneuvering.

Later, Carmack quietly admitted that this was the plan all along--to coax Microsoft into dropping its prices by way of a proxy war, waged by his devoted internet army.

Impressive.

Engineering A Return
With all this talk of console releases, id is finally beginning to diversify its portfolio, moving away from exclusively supporting the platform that it once helped build.

In fact, judging from the headlines, there are many companies that arguably do much more for PC gaming than id these days. Valve's Steam software is driving the shift to digital distribution, as its employees constantly speak out on the strengths of PC gaming. Stardock's lenient piracy policy is a rallying cry for platform hopefuls. Blizzard's pure cash flow serves as a giant yellow exclamation mark above the industry.

But while id has been out of the public eye for some time, the PC-centric id has survived the rise of the consoles, while managing to retain its enviable independence. And though QuakeCon was generally devoid of new announcements or developments, it was easy to see that id is on the verge of a significant resurgence.

Rage, the company's first original property since Quake, is expected to release sometime late next year. What little we've seen and heard of the game paints a very different picture than we are used to seeing from id, and not only from the artistic side of things.

A post-apocalyptic, cooperative, Teen-rated shooter? With economic systems, populated towns, and racecars? Instances and quests? Who knows what Rage will look like when it's in playable form, but it will at the very least be something new for id.

Following Rage, a big-budget Doom sequel is on the fast-track, aimed to hit within this console generation. And while another Doom at first seems a no-brain, predictable project, it instead is shaping up to be a significant change to the company's typical development process.

Carmack's plan is to hand the id Tech 5 engine over to the Doom team with few changes, allowing production to focus almost entirely on the creative side of things. While it will target a lower framerate than Rage, and look three times better for it, the pure design will receive the most attention. Hints at a return to the action-heavy style of Doom II already have fans feeling optimistic.

Meanwhile, the company is even beginning to explore iPhone development, with id Mobile planning to warm up to the platform with a port of Wolfenstein RPG.

Alone in the Dark
Despite the rapid growth, Carmack remains conservative in his appraisal of the company he co-founded in 1991. He helped kill the company's Doom 3 follow-up, a game called Darkness, in part due to a fear that it wasn't enough of a new direction for the team. He has turned down offers to turn the Quake series into an MMO. And while he expresses high hopes for his most radical project, the web-based Quake Live, he concedes that the market simply may not bite.

Though clearly outspoken, Carmack remains level-headed, fully aware that his areas of expertise are limited to the technological wing of the studio. He is far more comfortable winging a speech on the future of mind-controlled gaming than reading company propaganda from cue cards, and is happy to defer that responsibility in favor of the freedom to get his hands dirty in the lab.

"There's this old law about people getting promoted past their point of competence," said Carmack to his crowd. "I'm trying to avoid that by not trying to be a manager and do a poor job of that."

However, the iconic programmer's idealism can still overcome his self-imposed restraints.

In responding to a question of whether id will continue to release its engine code as open source, Carmack noted that he recently brought up the idea of releasing id Tech 5 as open source--before the engine was even released. The idea, he said, was to help out university researchers and the like get up to speed, giving them fresh technology to use for study while simultaneously promoting the engine.

Apparently mortifying his fellow executives, he eventually backed down, acknowledging that something which is given away for free is consequently valued less.

But he had to give it a try. He just couldn't help himself.