Rage Interview: id's Tim Willits and Matt Hooper

The first title out of famed Doom and Quake creator id to be simultaneously developed for PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Mac, Rage almost immediatelyre-ignited the Blu-ray vs. DVD debate between PS3 and Xbox 360 loyalists when it was first revealed.

And as that debate raged on, PC gamers were dragged into another one after the once PC-centric developer said that the platform was "more of the junior partner."

Even the debut of actual gameplay details did little to quell the vocal internet mob, with concerns about regenerating health, the game's keyboard and mouse controls being tainted by console controllers, and well, just about everything.

However, this doesn't seem to have fazed the folks at id. "The stuff that we've done before, I'm not worried about, and people shouldn't worry about that either," creative director Tim Willits told me after a demonstration of the game at QuakeCon 2009.

Then Willits and his cohort Matt Hooper, who's serving as lead designer, attempted to explained why. In the process, we touched on everything from the game's controls to stealth, downloadable content , the iPhone, and even the chance of a Fallout 3 nod or two.

Shack: What's the difference between a creative director and a lead designer?

Tim Willits: Basically, Matt does all the hard design work, and I do all the easy design work. Like, "make game fun, Matt." And he goes and makes it super fun.

Matt Hooper: He lays down all the ground work.

Shack: So who do I blame for the Xbox 360 version not stacking up because it's on multiple discs?

Matt Hooper: Not stacking what?

Shack: I'm kidding, I'm kidding. We've talked to Tim about that stuff before.

Tim Willits: One of the great things about the id Tech 5 stuff, and Matt can talk more about this, is the level designers, artists, animators, they only have to make one asset.

In the past, when we did the original Doom 3 for Xbox, there was a lot of rearranging of the assets. Having one unified asset base, one unified game code base, and then just having the separate [builds] has made life easier for us.

Matt Hooper: The biggest thing is just not having to worry about porting or taking out little bits of quality or anything like like that. From the design side and art side, we don't have to worry about that. I mean, we've been running well for a long time, and that's a big deal. Normally, when you develop a new tech, you run well near the end of the project. We haven't had to worry about that, so we can concentrate more on making the game fun.

Tim Willits: Yes, the id Tech 5, like John says, draws a lot of polygons really fast, and it does it in a very efficient manner. It's our job then to balance the AI algorithms to the effect system to the physics system to all that. The id Tech 5 engine is very efficient.

Matt Hooper: We've never had a design goal that, "oh the tech won't allow us to get there." What we're trying to do, the tech works exactly for what we're trying to push through. BOOM video 2382

Tim Willits: The biggest challenge, for us, between the different systems, is getting the Live integration and PSN integration, and I'm not sure what, if we're going to go with the Windows Live stuff or go more traditional with that--that is actually the biggest thing that I worry about right now with with the game.

That's the one component that isn't the same on all, the network integration and the friends lists and all the different stuff like that.

And then making sure, I mean, thank God that the PS3 and Xbox 360 both have two shoulder buttons and thumb sticks in the same spot. Remember the GameCube controller?

Shack: Even the original Xbox controller versus the PlayStation 2. They both had the same amount of buttons, just in different places.

Tim Willits: So glad that it's all the same. It makes our job way easier.

Shack: It makes games, just from my standpoint, better. Did you guys ever play SSX?

Matt Hooper: Mmmhmm.

Tim Willits: Yes. Great game.

Shack: The Xbox versions of SSX ran and looked so much better, but since it was designed around the PlayStation 2's shoulder buttons, it just didn't play right on anything other than the PS2.

Matt Hooper: And a lot of your readers play with mouse and keyboard, and I read a lot of comments about--it's funny, because they think we abandoned that. Tim and I have been making games for that for thirty-plus years combined. It's not like we forgot about that, we've got that covered. That's the easy part.

The reason we mentioned the controllers is because that's the thing that's a little new for id, making sure it's right on all the consoles. The game will play awesome on mouse and keyboard.

Tim Willits: Yes, people definitely overreacted to that. To think that we would not make an awesome first-person experience and control interface is kind of silly.

Matt Hooper: Yeah.

Tim Willits: For us, we need to be practical in how we approach this. We knew that we would get the first-person down, we're not stressed about that. We've never done the vehicle stuff, so we did that first and we made sure that was awesome. We've done a lot of console work, but the internal team has never done a multi-platform simultaneous release before. So we need to make sure that we nail down the controller, because we haven't done that before. We need to focus on getting that done.

The stuff that we've done before, I'm not worried about. And people shouldn't worry about that either.

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Shack: What about the optional stealth component? If you want to talk about overreactions, some people were a little harsh when they found out about that.

Matt Hooper: What does that mean? Is it a negative thing?

Shack: One of our readers insinuated that optional stealth is a result of laziness, writing that "when a developer says 'stealth is an option too,' it means it was a second thought, and wont really be a viable option."

Matt Hooper: It's more about opportunity than how the weapons work. We're not making a stealth game, but we're making a game that--we're always trying to point out what's different for id, that kind of evolution of gameplay. We have a wide scope, right? I mean, we have vehicles and what we're trying to do there, then the shooter experience, what's new there and we talked a lot about the engineering items and some of the new weapons.

You can play the game guns ablazin' and run through it, but there are these pre-combat scenario and bandits are making their homes in these environments. It's more of a story-telling mechanism that fits well with the gameplay mechanic, and less--it's really not something to worry about.

Tim Willits: The fact that people would say we're too lazy--I mean, I've been working at id developing new technology and games since '95. I have never run into a situation where I was too lazy to do something. That is insulting beyond insulting.

Like, one day I come to work and like, "yeah, I could make this game fun, but eh, I'm just too lazy to do that." That's the most ridiculous thing. I know that you're just the conveyor of the message, but it's just like, come on, give me a break.

Matt Hooper: We're almost, we're the same guys. Like, if we were posting in the forums, I don't know, maybe we'd say the same thing. We play these games, we like these games, and we're making the games.

It's more about getting the experience right. I'm really not that worried. When the game comes out, people will get it. It would be nice if you could explain it. but we have so many new parts, it really is a difficult task to get the whole message and make it completely digestible.

I certainly wouldn't worry about those aspects. There's just a lot of cool little nuances, but we're still making that action game first. That's what we do. I think that's the biggest part. It's an action shooter.

Tim Willits: Definitely.

Shack: Would you say it's open world?

Matt Hooper: Our little catchphrase is "open but directed." The reason that fits so well, Tim and I both we say this all the time--I think a lot of game companies do this. It's almost like, if you have a white board, you write up the main things. Never getting lost is one of the main things. We just don't like that, we're not trying to make a complex RPG, we're not trying to confuse players. We want them to know exactly what they should be doing.

It's kind of like an action movie versus an indie flick. We're making the action movie and making the little decisions as you go through the action movie. But, at the same time, we want the world to feel big and open and we do encourage the player to look around.

We actually entice the player, we tease the player, we put little points of interest around the wasteland that we expect the player to go and visit. At the same time, if they ever feel lost, there's always somewhere to go to know exactly "where am I on the main story, oh, I can go there."

Tim Willits: That's something important to us. The fact that Matt and I, we love to play games, both of us, we hate when we have like twenty quests to do. It's like, "ugh, where do I go?" I want to do this one, I want it to end here, and hopefully I can pick up the next one, it starts there, right? Because I've got too much stuff to do to be walking around in the wasteland looking for a job.

We really want to keep it focused.

Matt Hooper: We actually make a conscious effort too--we talk about memorable characters and what that means, everything from that concept to how they fit in their location to their voice acting, we want that to be as unique and diverse as possible.

"I have to go talk to the sheriff, I know exactly where the sheriff is. I'll go up there and talk to him."

Shack: Even the sheriff's door was distinctive, with the rounded sheriff's badge sticking out.

Matt Hooper: There's a lot of that kind of thing in there. The bar, we're not trying to hide the bar. There's a lot of richness and depth to the world, but at the same time we're trying to make it not confusing.

Tim Willits: That's actually pretty sharp, most people wouldn't pick that up.

Shack: What really stood out is that it wasn't just a flat star on the door. It came out of the door, it was rounded, it was a distinct design but still instantly recognizable.

Tim Willits: During the demo, did you explain that normally you would have to drive back to town after the RC Bomb Base?

Matt Hooper: Yeah.

Shack: And that you wouldn't have to backtrack through the entire base, there would be an exit.

Tim Willits: All of the areas are designed in such a way that they come back into each other or something new and exciting happens on the way out.

That's another thing that we hate. "Argh, are you really going to make walk through this entire thing, and it's empty?" No one likes that either.

Shack: Speaking of things we hate in games, I know that you can revisit the various locations and such, but will you be forced to work back through the same areas time and time again?

Matt Hooper: Well, you're never forced to do anything. Every experience, when you're playing that main, just going through the jobs and moving through the story and things are developing, everything in there is...I would say it's well crafted. And by that I mean, it's not procedural, it's not happenstance, it's done for a reason. And everything, from the VO to the AI to what new tools you get, all of it is a crafted experience. We want that. That's the whole foucsed action game we're trying to make.

There'll never be this time where "oh I gotta go back there and do that." That's fine for other games, but it's not what we're trying to do.

Tim Willits: Yes, yes, yes. Some of the areas will repopulate with mutants, so, if you choose, you can go back.

Matt Hooper: I like that as an option.

Tim Willits: The game is separated into two chapters. And Matt said, "you know, this game is so big, we have tons of gameplay in chapter one. If we actually made people go back through the same maps over and over again, heck, people would never get this thing done."

We want people to have fun and get through it and experience everything.

Matt Hooper: There's definitely a lot of game. With all of the diversity, there's a lot of stuff, and we do have to keep the story moving.

Shack: How does that break between the chapters work? I mean, on Xbox 360 in particular, once you insert Disc 2, what if you want to go back to some Chapter 1 stuff?

Tim Willits: For the PC and PlayStation 3, it's the same way. There's no reason to go back. The story has a nice end, like, "okay, I'm done with this, now I'm moving forward."

Shack: So that's the part where we go to space and eventually the moon?

Tim Willits: It's not as far as space, but yeah. You don't need to go back at all. It's a sane, logical break. It won't feel that, 360 people are like "well, if I go back through this door, I need to put the other disc in." They don't have to worry about that.

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Shack: This is going to be the question you always get about Rage on Xbox 360. I just talked to id CEO Todd Hollenshead. He said it's still uncertain how the disc situation will work out--the entire game might fit on two DVDs, or the multiplayer might need to come by itself on a third disc.

Tim Willits: Exactly right.

Shack: Anything to add there?

Matt Hooper: No.

Tim Willits: No. That's pretty much it.

I always get nervous when Todd starts answering questions on production stuff, but he nailed it on the head, yes.

Shack: This next one goes back to something you said a few years ago, Tim.

Tim Willits: A couple years ago? I'm much smarter now.

Shack: When Rage was first announced, someone asked when Rage was coming out--2009? 2010? 2011? You only responded to 2011, saying it's "not that far out." 2011 is a bit closer now. I'm not asking if there's a specific release date, I know it's "when it's done," but just to clarify, is 2010 still possible?

Tim Willits: Things are always rosier in the beginning. When you have new technology, [d technical director ] John [Carmack] is "yeah I get this stuff done, next week you'll be rocking and rolling!" and I'm "oh cool, we're gonna rock and roll."

Shack: Then the iPhone is announced and John goes missing for years.

Tim Willits: You must have a spy at id [laughs].

Tim Willits: I can say that production is going well. You've probably looked at a lot of games, and you've seen a lot of first looks and things like that. From what you saw, do you feel that it's coming along well, or do you feel like "oh man these guys got a long ways to go?"

Shack: Both. It looks like it's coming along well but you still have a ways to go.

Tim Willits: Yes.

Shack: Please correct me if I'm wrong, I'm not in your position and I don't have your experience, what you're showing is very polished, but it seems like there's a lot of work and polish left.

Tim Willits: Multiplayer.

Shack: Yeah. And other stuff, like the spider-bots. Yesterday, when Matt when to salvage the parts from a damaged spider-bot and it backed away, I asked if it was possible to heal it instead. He responded, "no, but everyone always asks that." He also mentioned how some other things are turning out to be pretty fun, so there may be more missions built around then.

Tim Willits: And we need to get the physics improved a bit, so they don't look silly when they die.

Matt Hooper: He's talking about the fun stuff, the little iterative design decisions you make on that side.

Shack: I like how, currently, corpses seem to have a seizure when you loot them. That's cool.

Tim Willits: That's neat, but sometimes it's ..."oh can we get this fixed."

Matt Hooper: We went back and forth on that, because I like it. Pinch 'em on the butt, do a little wiggle.

Shack: What you need is make it into a story mechanic. "oh, you have a device that zaps a corpse with electricity and uses a magnet or something to draw the items to you, because they're all conducive or something."

Matt Hooper: It sounds like torture. The ESRB won't like that.

Shack: They're dead!

Tim Willits: Actually, the ESRB, one of the issues they have is what you do to dead bodies. Or people on fire.

Matt Hooper: Or peeing on people after they're dead. Like Postal.

Tim Willits: [laughter] We digressed. So yes, there are the subtle, like Matt said--well, multiplayer is the big one, and then the subtle nuances [that need to be done]. The level designers have most of this stuff constructed. You know, the wasteland--

Matt Hooper: That kind of stuff is geeky and fun.

Shack: Well, I know you don't have the first level built. During his keynote, John mentioned that would be one of the last things done.

Tim Willits: That's true, we don't. That is--

Matt Hooper: --John throwing me under the bus.

Tim Willits: [laughter] That is Matt's job. Matt is personally responsible for--

Matt Hooper: I just keep arguing. "No, that one's gonna come last," but John and Tim keep pushing me.

Shack: I like that idea. I think it's better to do your first level last instead than to make a ton of early mistakes in the very beginning--

Tim Willits: --and then have a great map at the end that no one plays.

Matt Hooper: But we've always done that, so this is not something new.

Tim Willits: [sigh] I know.

But yes, you are right. Those are the things we have to wrap up, but it is a much longer first look [that we showed]. Most first looks are like, you play a map and you go, "okay, that's kinda it."

But there was too much to kinda describe and too much to--we did struggle, trying to get the message out [about] exactly what this game is.

The first trailers we made were a little too stylized, and people were like, "I don't get it." So, we really needed to sit down with you all, show you guys a long presentation, kind of explain things, so we can get the press familiar, "okay, this is what the game's about," and then you guys can go communicate that.

The trailers, the first two, just didn't do a good enough job. They were awesome looking, but they didn't explain things well enough.

Matt Hooper: Yeah, they were teaser trailers. That last trailer--environments in the game, where you do what's being done in the video, and you're using real weapons and there's nothing scripted.

Tim Willits: We had [players] record a bunch of stuff [for the latest trailer], and then we went "oh, that's cool, we'll use that."

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Shack: I have to ask, what's the other half of the word from the teaser trailer that came out about a month back? "How do you feel about killing pe--"

Tim Willits: That's... I'm not sure if it came across right, G2 was working on this, but it was for the Authority enforcers that are stationed in that part of the wasteland--you could go and get information, kind of a little promotional thing.

It was gonna go into taking care of Resistance, and they actually show a picture of one of the Resistance leaders for a second. Thing was, "yeah, you're human too, but when the Authority needs you, will you find the Resistance and root them out?"

That's basically what it was supposed to be. So [the word] was people, yes. But that was just a video component of that website.

Shack: I have to say, I did like that video.

Tim Willits: Oh, you liked it? I was a little...it's not something that we normally do at id, but it's been enjoyable working with EA Partners and putting that website together and having fun with them on that kind of stuff.

It's kinda different for us, and I'm glad that people liked the website. They sent the stats to us, about time people spent on it, I think it was what, eight minutes, the average person spent on it, so that's awesome for us.

We've been really happy with the "After the Impact" stuff that EA's done. I was a little nervous with that little video clip, but it worked out well.

Shack: I dug the stylized look of the video. It's interesting how a slight tweak to how you present things can draw a lot of attention to something that's been known for a while or glimpsed before. Advertising is a very interesting beast.

Tim Willits: Yes, it is very tricky. You know what's funny, when people talk about viral videos. You're not really supposed to tell people that you're making a viral video, that kind of defeats the whole viral purpose. And now it's become such a catchphrase.

"Oh, we need a viral video!" That defeats the purpose.

Shack: To me, a viral video for Rage would be, like, a mutant popping up in the background of some home movie on YouTube, with no links, and then more and more of that kind of thing starts to appear.

Tim Willits: Yes. BOOM video 2289

Shack: To start to wrap things up, John Carmack's been talking about wanting to do a Rage-y iPhone project.

Tim Willits: He has mentioned that, yes...a Rage-themed game [for the iPhone]. Now, Rage of course won't run on the iPhone. It would need to be some type of very smaller Rage thing.

We haven't even talked about it, like what would this be. He just says, "we should think about this, it may be an opportunity." That is as far as John and I have talked about it.

Shack: I've had bosses like that.

Tim Willits: You know exactly, you feel what I feel.

Shack: That's a lot of what goes through my mind when I listen to one of John's keynotes.

Tim Willits: "Sounds like my boss, sounds like my boss."

Shack: "This sounds familiar. I bet I know what the other person is feeling."

Tim Willits: [laughter] That's true.

Shack: On the subject of downloadable content, John mentioned that id's newfound sister studio and Fallout 3 developer Bethesda has...

Tim Willits: ...really pushed some of the stuff and they've done a great job with the Fallout 3 stuff. Yeah. That is an area where EA, id, Bethesda, ZeniMax, we are all in alignment on this.

[Downloadable content] does help keep the disc in the console. If people can get some cool stuff that they like, they're more inclined to keep it. And if we can offer then additional stuff along the way, they feel better about it.

Shack: What do you think about the use of free downloadable content as an incentive to buy a game new, like what BioWare and EA are doing with Dragon Age: Origins?

Tim Willits: If it doesn't affect, if it doesn't reduce the experience for anyone else, and it adds to it, then I don't have an issue. But if you take away a bunch of your core stuff, then we run into a problem.

Shack: So you're saying, don't cut anything out of the main game?

Tim Willits: Exactly.

Matt Hooper: We've been very clear on that. Whenever we have the discussions, nobody's going to get ripped off. We're not going to hold anything back.

Tim Willits: For The Sims 3, a new city [available for free when you buy it new], that makes sense. But if you've got no females, you've only got little men then ...you know what I'm saying?

Shack: What was that, there was a game that was intentionally broken and incomplete if you pirated it.

Tim Willits: Mass Effect. It had these subtle things, like something's not right.

Matt Hooper: It would fall apart if you stole it. But that's different than buying used. People should get kicked in the nuts for stealing it.

Shack: Yeah. A lot of mainstream retailers like GameStop have stopped selling used PC games, and digital downloads can't be easily resold on the customer side of things, so appraoches like "free DLC with purchase" feel more like a piracy deterrent on the PC.

Tim Willits: Yeah. If you don't do anything silly, like take half the population away, and it does bring additional content, then [that approach is] a win-win situation.

Shack: So, what's that mean for Rage DLC?

Tim Willits: For us, 100% of the guys are working on getting the game done. Trust me on this one. But we have started conversations with everybody on what works out well. One of the great things about being in the Bethesda family is they've had success, they've been able to do good downloadable content without alienating people.

Matt Hooper: And the tech and the design to accommodate, you know, have all the hooks in place. The thing you want to do is through focus testing, beta testing and followup, you want to identify the parts of the game and additional content that people will want.

You don't want to just give them, here's some stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense. It's almost like multiplayer. We want to pick the right battle. That's why we'd be foolish to announce, "this is going to be the downloadable content."

Tim Willits: We can learn from [Bethesda]. And it's great, being in the same group.

Shack: Is there any chance that the Rage and Fallout universes will cross over?

Tim Willits: I asked [Bethesda game director] Todd Howard if I could take the Pip-Boy bobblehead and stick it on my dashboard in one of my cars, and he was like "yeah, that'd be awesome!" So, hopefully, if you are very savvy, and you love Fallout 3, you might find some stuff in the wasteland.

Shack: Thanks guys.