Interview: id's CEO Talks Rage, Doom 4, Quake Live Subscriptions and Mysterious Women

By Chris Faylor, Aug 18, 2009 3:31pm PDT All things considered, the interview was progressing normally. id CEO Todd Hollenshead and I were sitting across from each other in the QuakeCon Press Lounge. I had just asked when id's next game, Rage, was coming out. I didn't expect a straight answer.

Nor did I get one, but that's beyond the point. Because, as Todd was explaining why id is so reluctant to provide a date--"we don't work to a time, we work to a quality level"--fate intervened in the form of an extremely inquisitive mystery woman. She wanted to know what kind of press would cover video games. And if we were from Game Informer.

The result? An interview that I, and most likely Todd, won't forget any time soon.

Shack: To start off with, the tale that id technical director John Carmack told about a pharmaceutical conference forcing QuakeCon out of its original venue this year...

Todd Hollenshead: Yeah, that'd be one way to put it. Basically, John had all the facts correct. It was really the hotel that really ratted us around. It wasn't necessarily the pharmaceutical people. John's attitude on it was pretty much similar to what I would say about it.

Shack: The press conference came and went without much on the iPhone release of Doom Classic, despite the press release promising more details there.

Todd Hollenshead: That's my fault. I actually meant to say something about it and missed it and thought for sure that John was gonna talk about it. I think he remembered, when we spoke before the conference, that I was gonna talk about it. We didn't have a prompt for it and just forgot what I was supposed to be talking about.

That [Doom Classic] will be our next iPhone App. We're actually starting work on that now. John's been doing some stuff on it.

Shack: Just starting? During his keynote, John said the game was finished and id was holding off on its release since the Wolfenstein RPG just came out.

Todd Hollenshead: The engine may be done--there's a lot more [to be done] before it's ready to go to the App Store. We wouldn't want to release it right on top of the stuff we have going on now.

Shack: Yeah, John mentioned that as well, along with his uncertainty as to if it's better to space things out or release them whenever.

Todd Hollenshead: It creates some confusion, people, if they want to buy Doom and there's a Doom Resurrection or something.

I think there's still...I mean, we haven't gone into testing with it [Doom Classic] or anything like that. I don't think it would be fair to say that it's done to that point.

Shack: Sorry this is all "John, John, John, John" so far, but you know how he can get going...

Todd Hollenshead: And now, because he doesn't have the pinpoint focus of all the programming stuff, he does shotgun a few things, and sometimes they're a little bit from the hip, and so we have....the next day, we're like, "whoa!" [laughter]

Shack: He also mentioned that the iPhone edition of Wolfenstein 3D will soon support custom levels.

Todd Hollenshead: John likes the idea, just like with the new stuff, just like with the old stuff, of releasing the editor, letting the community make content, having that be part of the game.

I mean this in a complimentary way--John is basically a nerd at heart. I think he has some nerdy concepts that he clings on to. I think they're cool and all that, I think that maybe this consortium of Wolfenstein 3D iPhone developers that's out there across the world isn't as large as John might like to believe.

It is kinda cool, the idea that you give these people these tools and they'll make all this content and they have fun making it and it enhances the user experience for the people that buy it and it makes the game more popular, which sort of turns back around to result in more sales of the game.

Now, in theory, that's great, but I don't know it it actually works as well in practice.

Shack: It's similar to the open source debate.

Todd Hollenshead: Yes. They post on your site all the time, or they used to anyway: "Pokey the Penguin says Linux is free if your time is worthless." [laughs] That was one of my favorite quotes. To a large extent, I think some of that stuff is, you get what you pay for.

Shack: Any idea as to when that Wolf 3D update will hit, or is that more of a John thing?

Todd Hollenshead: I think that's more of a John thing. To be honest, it's not really his focus right now, which is the id Tech 5 stuff and Rage and all that.

Obviously, coming up before the show, we were working on the [Rage] presentation. Literally, we were doing code on that until last week. We may have even been working on it this week too, because we do try to get everything we can into [it].

It is really going to be cool for the fans, I think. The original plan was we'd basically do the same thing we did for Game Informer, wouldn't need any extra work or whatever, but the guys, that would never be sort of "just enough," so they've got some new stuff in the presentation.

Keep reading for more on Rage and Doom 4. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Speaking of Rage, how's the PlayStation 3 version coming along? Last we heard, it was running a bit slower.

Todd Hollenshead: That was actually, who was it, Edge Magazine, I think, took--honestly, they took it out of context. The reality is, it's the same media on all the platforms, so the game is going to look amazing on all of them. It's the same geometry, the same art.

The PlayStation 3 is the last of the three that we work on--it's basically PC, 360, PS3--because it has a little more...you know, tricky to engineer with it, it will typically lag behind in framerate than what the other ones are, because you just don't put the elbow grease into the programming polish to keep it as fast [at that point].

When the game ships, they're all going to run 60 hertz. In fact, there's reasons to believe that, because the way we do certain things, the technology is a little bit better for for the PS3 than it it is for the 360. It's a coin-flip as to any...I think that 99% of people [will] not be able to tell--there's not a nickel's worth of difference between the PS3 and 360 [versions] and most people won't be able to tell any. Nobody knows, it's literally up in the air if you're going to make a subjective call on this one looks better or whatever than the other one.

I mean, run speed, you can put a stopwatch on it and know how many frames you're dropping or running, but both the console SKUS are gonna look great, and of course the PC is not sort of bound by the microprocessor that's in a console box.

Shack: Not to mention hard drive space.

Todd Hollenshead: Yeah. The look-up speed on the PC hard drive obviously is going to be faster than reading off of a DVD or even a Blu-ray.

Shack: What's mod support looking like for Rage?

Todd Hollenshead: You know, we really haven't talked about that very much. I mean, I would imagine that, as we have done with all of our games, and you know, honestly it's something we may [have] to sit down and have a discussion with [id owner] ZeniMax about. We've always released the game source and a sample for people that want to create their own content.

Rage content creation is a lot different than what we've done previously. It is going to be difficult for amateur developers to make art in the game, just like it was difficult for people to make Doom 3 art. Rage is probably even that much moreso--you don't have to do all the normal maps and that stuff, like you did in Doom 3, but just the texture density and variety and being able to use the tools and all that stuff. We do have some stuff that makes our guys fast, but there's a fairly steep learning curve that the mod guys are gonna have to get over.

When everybody was making Doom mod files and stuff like that, it pretty much was like, "oh you do this, you do this" and kinda everybody got it. Then we we switched to Quake, which was true 3D, [and] it was totally different, and it took a while for people to figure out you've got to do it a different way. I think this is probably as big of a difference there, at least, if not moreso.

Shack: What's the DVD situation looking like with Rage on Xbox 360?

Todd Hollenshead: We'll probably have two DVDs for sure, and then the question is, will multiplayer be on a separate disc or not? Will we have to go to three?

We believe may be able to get the whole game on two DVDs. The current fallback is, if we can't, the multiplayer may--you have to come up with logical breaks, well, really, practical breaks.

It makes no sense for a player to swap that disc in multiplayer, right? That's fail. They have to keep one disc in during multiplayer, can you just put all the multiplayer content on one DVD? Even if it's duplicative of some of the content you have on the other single-player DVDs.

Shack: Does the fact that you can install Xbox 360 games to the hard drive help at all?

Todd Hollenshead: Yeah, I mean. People with hard drives, I think, will have better performance on the 360 because we'll be able to save off to the hard drive and the read speed is so much faster. I don't think it really saves us any media, because we still have to play on the Arcade units, the ones that come without the hard drive. Why they sell those, I have no idea. I think Microsoft even regrets it.

We do want to be able to run on all the [Xbox 360] systems, so if you've got an Arcade unit, then we've got to think, "okay, we can't install massive amounts of data." If we can't guarantee that, then we have to make sure that we have a fallback, so that could push us to three. I mean, hell, it could push us to four, I don't know.

Best case, we get it all on two, and then we'd be good. We don't think there's any way to fit it all on one. Maybe two single-player and one multiplayer, hopefully not four or five. At that point, we might have to start making decisions about compression ratios and things like that.

The Rage discussion continues on the next page. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: I know there's no firm release date for Rage, but, a couple of years ago, creative lead Tim Willits was asked if the game would arrive in 2009, 2010, 2011, and so forth. He only responded to the 2011 bit, saying it wasn't that far out. Is 2011 still too far out?

Todd Hollenshead: We hate to throw dates out there, it's not actually what we work to. If you give someone, like, pick a date, Feb-tober 12th [laughs], then it's Feb-tober 13th and people are like "oh they were late!"

The philosophy at id is, we don't work to a time, we work to a quality level. And so that's why we say it's "when it's done." If we start throwing out dates then it's just like--I mean, we have guesses, but shit, they're just guesses. As soon as you say it, then somebody decides "oh, id said this." We don't really know--

[A random woman clad in workout gear notices the "QuakeCon Press Registration" sign and sticks her head in the door.]

Random Woman: Are ya'll from Game Informer magazine and things like that?

Todd Hollenshead: [laughter]

Shack: Um. I don't know if Game Informer is--

Random Woman: What kinda press covers a deal like that?

Todd Hollenshead: The best kind.

Random Woman: I'm serious.

Todd Hollenshead: I am too.

Random Woman: Not just a little gamer magazine?

Shack: There are dedicated websites, the local NBC affiliate is here filming downstairs.

Random Woman: Okay.

[The random woman puts her iPod earbuds back in and departs.]

Nearby Journalist: She did not like us.

Todd Hollenshead: I did not like her interrupting.

id PR: Yeah.

Shack: It'll make a great break, though.

Todd Hollenshead: You guys didn't like my line, only the best? All the best? Come on, get out of here. What kind of girl walks into a room all sweaty and starts talking to people she doesn't know? [laughs]

Shack: Moving on, one of the factors behind the ZeniMax acquisition was to grow, to start handling more id properties internally...

Todd Hollenshead: That was already the philosophy before. We were already heading in that direction, this actually enables us to accelerate the pace of it a little bit without having to worry about, you know, some financial conservatism or concerns that we would otherwise have. They're not capital constrained, whereas, even at id, we were.

We think we can do a better job on our titles than anybody else can. Call it pride or whatever, I think that historically it's borne out. Our brands are important to us and we want to make sure that anything that is from id or Wolf, Doom, Rage, Quake, Enemy Territory, all that stuff, are all top quality games.

The other thing, as John mentioned in the keynote, is that when the publisher you're working with has internal development studios that they own that basically are competing in the genre you're in, especially if they're competing withing a similar launch window, it's unrealistic to expect that there's not going to be some favoritism for the internal property.

You'll never have parents admit that they like their kids better than their step-kids, but come on, we all know what the truth is.

Shack: Even with internal properties there seems to be competition--Activision recently pushed Raven's Singularity into 2010 so that it wouldn't go head to head with Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and those are both internal studios.

Todd Hollenshead: Yeah. Infinity Ward is a great studio, Activision would be fools to neglect that. It's only smart business for them to make sure they look after that stuff before they look after anything else because they own it and they're on the hook for it. Whereas our relationship with them was always title by title, and we basically managed ourselves.

One of the ways I look at it is, opposed to id being acquired by ZeniMax, is that id actually acquires a publisher. Now we're all rowing in the same direction all the time because our titles are their titles, their publishing business is our publishing business, we participate now in the publishing and distribution margin whereas before that was all something taken by a company outside of us that didn't necessarily have totally aligned interests. Now, we don't have to worry about that.

In the environment where it takes well over ten million dollars to develop a triple-A title, years in development, you're putting tens of millions of dollars more just in cost of inventory, and then tens of millions of dollars more in marketing, these capital firms get to the point where really, you need to be like, alright, we have got to--you can't play small ball with big video games. You can't be going for singles and doubles, you gotta be swinging for the fences every time.

For us, we just better not miss [laughter]. That's why we say we work 'til when it's done.

What's going on with Doom 4 and Quake Live? Turn the page to find out. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: How does that philosophy of handling things internally apply to projects such as Nerve Software's Xbox Live Arcade port of Doom II?

Todd Hollenshead: Some people have asked me, is id going to be doing everything internally? Well, all the major stuff we're going to be doing internally. But where it makes sense, these smaller projects that you can't just break off of a team or divert their attention, it's not sort of core to what the business is but it's still good business, then I think we'll still look for teams to work with like Nerve (Doom II), like Pi (Quake Arena Arcade).

We've worked with other companies, Escalation Studios did Doom Resurrection [for the iPhone].

The next Wolfenstein is going to be internal at id. The next big Quake game is going to be internally developed at id. Rage, obviously, and the next Rage, and Doom as well.

But for these projects that don't take that amount of time and resources, yeah, where it's smart we'll look to work with other companies on that stuff.

Shack: Speaking of the next Doom, you said we'll learn more next year?

Todd Hollenshead: I'm certain we'll have a lot more to talk about it next year. I think John basically said it as eloquently as it can be said, which is that it's Kevin Cloud's project. [We] really want him to be able to talk to it--we want to get to our vertical slice before we start really talking about it.

I always feel that when you're talking about something that's new, it's always better to show people, because then you have a point of reference. You can say, "and it's going to look like this" as opposed to trying to describe "it's going to have this, it's going to have that, it's going to be awesome" and then you create, in the minds of a hundred different people, a hundred different pictures above their head. Whereas if you show it to them, everyone has the same picture.

Shack: So no teases about how it's different?

Todd Hollenshead: No. We'll wait to actually have some stuff to show there.

Shack: Internally, are you referring to it as Doom 4? The next Doom?

Todd Hollenshead: All of the above. Seriously, some days we call it Doom 4. Sometimes we call it Doom. Sometimes we call it the new Doom. We haven't settled on a final title yet.

Shack: Yesterday, John spoke of bringing premium subscription services to Quake Live, such as a private server. Do you have any further details or examples? Will there be a fee for things like character customization?

Todd Hollenshead: On all the premium services, we want to have something that's like a value for what people are paying for. Honestly, I think there's lots of ways that doesn't really cost anything to let people customize their characters, just to have some individuality there, so I don't know if we're really contemplating that over than service things people will utilize, like the ability to set up and launch a server, spin it up, do tournaments, all these sorts of things.

We have the functionality and the hooks for that kind of stuff in.

People are already sort of renting their piece of servers all over the place for money, so we're not trying to sell them something they already had for free. It's more like, here's a service we can do efficiently that's seamless within the game and we can actually do it at a pretty efficient cost.

The server stuff is easy, we have some other ideas about some other things, but they're still kind of at the discussion point. Until we get them fully fleshed out, I don't want to go into that stuff and preempt ourselves on that.

I think that [there are] two messages. If you're paying for something in Quake Live, it's because you're getting something that's good. And then the second thing is, the core game is always going to be free.

Shack: Any estimate as to when the premium services will start to roll out?

Todd Hollenshead: We've got to make sure that the leaderboards and all that stuff [work], get it out of beta. That's job one.

Get Mac and Linux out of beta and everything rolling. Once we get that done, which hopefully is a finite time range between now and some number of weeks, then we can roll out the server stuff.

Once we do it, it should work fairly well, we feel like we have it planned out. We're in, I'd say, relatively short order in game development, how long that could be. Maybe a couple months or something like that. I'm not sure.

Shack: With the Quake Live team currently expanding and slated to help with Rage in some capacity...

Todd Hollenshead: Probably Rage multiplayer.

Shack: ...and the team eventually planned to handle its own full-fledged project, how will that affect the future of Quake Live?

Todd Hollenshead: We will keep resources dedicated to support on Quake Live ongoing. We won't have as much ongoing development dedicated to it because it'll be done at that point.

Shack: Lastly, Pi's bringing Quake Arena to Xbox Live Arcade, but is there any chance of Quake Live crossing over and bringing free-to-play shooting to PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 as well?

Todd Hollenshead: It's fairly unique to the PC, the way that stuff works. If we were to do it--I think, there have been discussions about what we would do if we could do that. I wouldn't say there are any plans, but we've kicked the tires on the ideas a little bit.

Shack: Thanks Todd.

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