Interview: Rage producer Jason Kim

By Garnett Lee, Apr 30, 2011 3:00pm PDT

This fall, id Software debuts the next major version of its game engine, id Tech 5, with a brand new IP titled Rage. It boasts a design as ambitious as the technical aspirations of the new engine it showcases. An expansive single-player campaign set in post-apocalyptic wastes, co-op side-quests, and a competitive combat buggy competitive multiplayer mode combine to give the project its massive scope.

After a demo presentation of the combat rally multiplayer mode and hands-on time where I got to play four levels from the campaign and one of the single-player races, I sat down with the game's senior producer, Jason Kim to talk about the decision not to include a competitive shooter mode and how the rest of the design of Rage has evolved.

Shacknews: Why not a shooter for multiplayer?

Jason Kim: It wasn't an answer that we came up with easily. There were of course many people internally who said, "Well, we have to do competitive multiplayer because we're id." And, if you go back even further, when we went about making Rage, we really weren't making Rage; we were making something else. Then, as the technology evolved...when we start making a game, John says, "okay, that's old tech, we're making new stuff and we have to figure out how to make a game around all that." So we have a high level goal at the start, as we start iterating through all that stuff. The question was raised, "are we really exploiting this technology to its fullest?" and when the answer was "no," we decided "okay, what are we going to do?" and that's how Rage came about.

So we said vehicles; we want to drive through the wasteland; we want to put weapons on them; we want to destroy stuff. John pushed the boundaries on the technology; we wanted to push the boundaries on the design and on the art. We took that mentality and we wanted to push it even further into the online component. We've done competitive multiplayer before. We've had some successes; we've had some failures. But we wanted to stick to our guns and say Rage is something different.

We're trying to go deeper on the story; we're trying to go deeper with the weapons; we have different ammo types--we've never done that before. We've had alternate fire for different games that were built externally for us, but never really the kind of choices we have now in Rage. We also have engineering items, which again leads to a lot of player choices on how you approach combat in these combat environments.

So take that idea of what Rage is about, how we want to push the boundaries; let's use the fiction; let's use the vehicles; let's use that to make an online component people aren't expecting. And that's how we came to this vehicle combat rally mode.

It lends itself to the two-way street we have between single-player and multiplayer. We want to take that opportunity with the fiction from the very beginning of the game when you come out of the arc and you're wondering what your role is in the game--from a player going, "okay, I'm out in this wasteland environment, what am I supposed to do? Well, the game shows you what you're supposed to do. We want you to live this kind of action movie experience and you be the hero. So you have to figure out what you're supposed to do by forging a relationship with all the settlers and NPCs.

So when we were pushing on the story, we thought, "People really love co-op; we love co-op." We don't want them to play the entire campaign with a buddy because you're just playing the same thing again with just another guy. And some people like that; some people are going to ask for that, and when this comes out they're going to say why didn't you make campaign mode completely playable with a co-op buddy? The reason why we did that is because there are nice story pockets for the co-op online experience; we call it Legends of the Wasteland.

This almost came about opportunistically because we knew we wanted to do co-op. So while we're putting this thing together and iterating through it we thought, "We should use these story elements because it's really interesting. It's a tall tale." You're being thrust into this little nugget of the story, and there are set parameters. We know what they did, but it was a legend. So now you're playing that role. You're not playing the story of the single-player campaign but it's something that complimented your success through the single-player campaign. So you're seeing what the other side was like. It's almost like when Valve came out with Blue Shift and you were able to play the police force.

We wanted to give you those little nuggets. You play with a buddy, tie it with the fiction, and it's just fun gameplay. You understand how to use the quick use items and the different weapons but we lay out all the parameters; it's pretty well defined. You go in there, and you play with your co-op buddy and do things that you have to do in a partner-type situation--you can revive your friend. We throw in a few extra things to make the co-op experience really interesting and we hope that when it gets out there it's a compelling piece of content.

Shacknews: It's a brave decision. How much of an influence was directly from the story?

Jason Kim: You can take the idea of Rage and the fiction of Rage and create a pretty compelling competitive mode with it but that's another game. We made some hard choices. It wasn't an easy thing to say this is what we wanted to do. It would have been easier to say people expect this; we've done this before; we know we can make a good one. We should just do it. There has been that side of it.

But it was really fun putting together something new and fresh that we haven't done before, and that goes for all the things we're doing in single-player and pushing those boundaries in the online component. It may not be completely new from the standpoint of comparing it to other games but there are so many things that we haven't done with past games that we're doing now that we are actually pushing our own boundaries and out of our comfort zone.

Shacknews: How much of the core of Rage has changed since the first things we saw publicly of the mutants in the wastelands some years ago?

Jason Kim: I think the biggest thing; you know the story was always evolving and we're trying to make sure that the story complimented the actions that you would perform in the game--but we nailed that from pretty early in development. I think the things that actually...when we started iterating and creating the world and creating the AI and all the different combatants, even though we knew what they were going to be--we knew there were going to be mutants, we knew there were going to be bandits, we knew there was going to be the Authority you fight at the end--we wanted to make them as diverse as possible but we didn't know exactly how to do that. We've always had a one-face army that you tackle and that's it. We never had so much diversity in a game before, not just from an NPC and story delivery standpoint, but even the guys you fight.

So we started out with the mutants because that's totally different than what we've done before. They're very organic the way they move. We know there are risks there, and it came out pretty nicely. And we went on to the bandits, and how to differentiate between the different clans--the ghosts, the wasted, the gearheads, the jackals--there's subtle differences in how they present themselves from VO and how we process their voices, even different characters and different actors that we used for that.

But there's also different ways that they approach the character from a tactical standpoint. There are some, like the wasted, who are not too smart. They don't have a grouping plan; they'll come straight at you with a club knowing that you've got a shotgun in your hands. That's just the way they are; they're in your face. Some guys will take cover and never come out because they're too scared, or when you fight the Authority, they'll have the best tech and most militarized tactics for coming at you. There'll be a guy with a shield, a riot shield, but it's energy-based, and if you throw a rocket launcher on that thing, if it takes a full hit, it may come down a little bit but it's energy-based and supposed to take that hit; that guy's not going to die. You use what we give you--an emp grenade and other electric-based ammo types--to be able to take that down quicker. If he doesn't have a recharge station nearby, then he's now vulnerable.

Shacknews: To support that you need a pretty capable AI, how have you developed that?

Jason Kim: It's always iterative because we really don't know how it's going to turn out. Here's what we want to do; let's put a guy in here and let's do this, and if it turns out to be good we polish it. That's how it's been with the AI. It's been this basic "a guy with a gun comes at you" and what can we do to make this better. We just keep on improving and improving. That's what we have now.

We have this very dynamic set of AI and an animation web tree that's pretty complex. When you shoot the guys in the shoulder or the leg they react appropriately. When you finally kill them they don't just slump into a rag doll. That's a good example of how we iterated. They immediately went to ragdoll and we thought that looked kind of rubbery and it's a little weird. They're coming at you and they just immediately slump; it doesn't feel satisfying.

So our animators and our AI programmer thought well, what we could do is we have this animation system, why don't we put a transitional animation there where they could actually do this cool death animation before they go into ragdoll? We had to prove that out. So they do that on their own, put it all together, show a proof of concept, and then that becomes a system. That's how we iterate through getting most of the polish that we have now.

Shacknews: How much has level design changed and how much more are you able to do now in id tech 5? For instance, the abandoned hospital level I played seems more expansive than levels in prior id games.

Jason Kim: It's almost worlds different the way the designers were working with id tech 3 for Doom. That was a totally different way of looking at an environment. Now, with id tech 5, we have artists and designers building environments, sometimes artists building environments straight from scratch and having some prototype gameplay elements that they know that they have to adhere to. That's why I think you feel that serpentine, almost organic element in what the environments look like. We did that on purpose from a design standpoint because Rage is not a space station; it's not supposed to be practical in nature.

But we're still a business, and we have to do things efficiently so we have to reuse a lot of assets. With id tech 5 and the way that we're able to uniquely texture everything it wasn't a big deal to make unique stuff all across everything. It's just a matter of time and resources at that point. So when it came time to make some of the signature levels--and what you're talking about is Dead City--that was built by an artist; one artist made all of that with a designer. Hand built literally from scratch.

It's something that we're able to do because the talent that we have, technology to support it, and the resources to be able to say, "You know what? We need to make this thing the best it can be," and take the time to do it. I think high level philosophy on how we approach design has always been true to what we wanted players to feel. We want to immerse the player.

I think every developer will tell you this. We want to make people happy and we want to immerse them in our world. I think we're doing it in a way that's similar to what other developers want to do but we're fortunate to have the capabilities to execute on that and now the backing of a big company that is partnered with us and we work with extraordinary people like Todd Howard and his group.

There's so many things that we can tap into now that when we talk about different things it really is interesting to see how similar it is to some of the other groups because we really had been insular--even though we had a lot of Dallas developers that we talked to from time to time, we kind of did our own thing. Now we can see a different side of what other developers do and see how similar it is to ours.

Shacknews: How do you keep the balance with all the extras so that the focus stays on being a great shooter?

Jason Kim: We try not to let it be a distraction but we can't help ourselves. We look at the comments, and the forums, and we're all gamers too; what the consumers want, we want too. There's a lot of challenges with a new IP but we do have some tried-and-true stuff. We have Doom; we've already announced that.

We also have other IPs. We have Quake; we have Wolfenstein. If people want that, we have the IPs to deliver it. And we have a different approach now; we're forging a new path. I think we can freshen those things up...we don't have anything in the works right now but I think when we start talking about different things we can do with the other properties that we have I hope people are receptive to what we want to do and what we think would be fun for players to experience coming out of id Software.

Our studio has grown a lot, not just in size but also in design and art process, and even a technology standpoint. John has admitted he can't do everything on his own. There are a lot of smart guys that are required to be able to make a game these days. He can't just lock himself up in a room, come out with an engine, and say okay, make a game with this.

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