Interview with id Software's Tim Willits

Interview with id Software's Tim Willits

Our chat with one of the most influential developers in the world.

Last week, Tim Willits from id (pronounced "idd", not "eye dee") Software presented a special event at the Opera House in Sydney. A retrospective look back at the history of the company that invented the first person shooter, it was also a deeply personal insight into the mind of a man who has been so influential on our pastime and look ahead at the company's next game - Rage.

After the event, we sat down with the man himself to quiz him on what Rage is all about, the challenges of developing across the ever expanding divide between PC and console platforms, and why on earth we can't buy any id Software games on iTunes in New Zealand. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us - could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Tim: I’m the creative director on Rage and I’ve been with the company for 17 years now. I started out as a community guy making doom levels. I had the fortunate luck of being noticed by id Software and worked my way up from basic designer to creative director now as well as studio director as well.

As creative director my job changed throughout the course of development on Rage. I used my idea to work with other designers to come up with the entire story, then we broke down the story into missions and what kind of things we wanted to achieve with the game. And then during the course of production, my main job is to make sure that the programmers and the artists and the designers are working together so that everyone is on the same page. Then at the end of production I work closely with the marketing group and the PR group to make sure the message for Rage is correct.

Then it’s going on tours and talking to people like you. So as creative director it’s really exciting because the job changes throughout the development of a title. I hope to be making games for a long time to come. What would your elevator pitch version of the game be specifically? How would you describe it?

Tim: That’s actually quite tricky, hopefully the elevator ride is a long ride because its not simple. Rage is more that a first person shooter with guns, demons and corridors - that’s Doom. We have these other aspects of the game that really break open the gameplay with vehicle combat and vehicle racing, with more of a story and really cool characters, so I call it the complete first person experience. It’s an id Software game at heart, but it’s like nothing else out there. Multi-player has traditionally been a strength of id games, right back from the very beginning. However it seems, much like Doom 3, to not be so much a focus of Rage - was this a conscious choice, or more of a natural outcome of the overall game design?

Tim: For Rage, we really wanted to not do that classic id Software death match experience. We wanted Rage to truly be different from all our other titles. We wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with those titles but we wanted it to have a unique feel. It would have been easier to do a classic death match multi-player experience in Rage, we know how that works, we do it well, but we took a chance, took a risk and we did the vehicle component of a multi-player, and of course co-op. With the vehicle multi-player game mode, we definitely introduced different issues and problems. It would have been easier just to stick with [traditional] multi-player but sometimes the right decision is not always the easiest decision. How do you tell the story in Rage? You're famous for not wanting to shove narrative down people's throats...

Tim: In Rage the story definitely unfolds as you play through it. We don’t have much of a story in the beginning, we purposely keep you in the dark because once you explore and learn about the world and focus on surviving you progress through the experience. The story tends to open up to you through the unique characters. They tell you why you’re important and what your overall goal is and missions and things. Its more of a story through experience rather than a story through cut scenes and non-interactive in-game cinematics. I think it works well because it takes most people about 14/15 hours to get through and there are plenty opportunites to give you the story without shoving it down your throat. During the event in Sydney, you spoke about some of the hidden details that are in the game, like nods to Breaking Bad (a TV show that Rage recently appeared on), nods to earlier id Software and that sort of stuff. Are you able to give us any additional hints and indicators to other cool secrets that may be hidden away in there?

Tim: Well there are [also] Doom and Quake areas that people will have to look for. We also have a Dopefish somewhere in the game. But the other secret things, people have to find on their own... Talk to us about the challenges of launching a new IP in a market packed with big-budget sequels... What sorts of difficulties do you face?

Tim: It’s definitely tricky. We are the only original IP in the most anticipated games of the year. It is a crowded market with lots of sequels and you’re right - it’s difficult to get people's mindshare and to pay attention. But luckily for us we have Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein where people say, yeah, those games are great. If it wasn’t for those titles and the id Software brand, it would be much more difficult to launch a new IP.

We developed an iPhone game as a way to kick off the marking campaign of the big title. It was something that John had some cool stuff he was working with, the guys put some really neat things together and we created a 99c Rage app that would get people aware of the title, thinking about it, talking about, maybe even going online and checking out what the main game is going to be like. It was purely a marketing tool. You really need to do things like that, things outside the box, to make the buzz you need to get attention. Because heck, Modern Warfare 3, Diablo III, Uncharted 3, Gears of War 3, I mean there’s some big old games coming out this year and those guys are making their own noise. Speaking of that iPhone game, and every other id Software games - including Wolfenstein RPG; do you have any idea why none of them are available in New Zealand?

Tim: Really? I’m actually very surprised. I’ll ask someone about that, I have no idea. Do you have a rating system that is different? We do but it’s pretty relaxed compared to the one in Australia, and those games are available in Australia. As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing in your iOS games that would come even close to contravening those standards.

Tim: I wonder if every country has to pay separately and there’s just not enough people in New Zealand? But I have no idea, I’m quite curious myself. Considering your complex publisher / ownership structure, with Bethesda and ZeniMax Media both involved, are there any extra challenges as a result of that?

Tim: No, not really. We’ve had a really good relationship with them and they let us do the game we want to make and they’ve been great about not interfering or having us change things for the sake of changing things. The folks at ZeniMax are comfortable with letting developers make the game that they want to make. It really hasn’t affected us that much. Things aren’t that much different now, than they have been in the past so it’s really not much of a consideration. You mentioned that Rage is a “true multi-platform game,” can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Tim: All textures, assets, vehicles, characters, number of guys in a level, they’re all exactly the same in all the systems - PS3 to PC. So when they level designers make a map, they check it in to the build system and the build system, every time it makes a build, it makes 3 conversions. And all the game logic, A.I., physics, sound, and all that stuff, it all uses the exact same code. It’s only the graphical API that is really different. There are some sound issues that are different but its really just on hardware level.

When the designers make the levels and the characters, they don’ t make them for each platform and just tweak them differently, they’re all the same. But on a PC of course you could run high resolution but that doesn’t really effect the game at all.

It’s been really nice, being able to push one button and have the engine go to the build server and have the build server kick out three builds for two different platforms, it’s pretty slick. Is that a feature of Rage, or a feature of the id Tech 5 game engine?

Tim: Tech 5, so any title with id Tech 5, will have that built into it. Is it true that Tech 5 is not going to be made available to companies outside of Bethesda / ZeniMax?

Tim: Yes, you are absolutely correct. It was the something the company wanted to keep in house and to be honest, it saves us a lot of extra work. We never actually had a single employee dedicated to supporting our engine business. And you know, our technology has been used in some great games, but it was never really a huge part of our business. Yes, we licensed it of course, but it was never the main focus of our company, which is great now, because we can focus more on games. The impression that a lot of us get from the outside, and we all know that it’s not true but it’s still the impression, is that the engine tech is basically John Carmack beavering away in the dark or in a hotel on his honeymoon, cranking out this crazy cool high tech stuff. How much of that stuff is true in 2011?

Tim: Most of that is still pretty true! I’ll be honest with you, I’ve worked with him for 17 years and he comes into work, grabs a diet coke on the way to his desk and gets a medium, deep dish pepperoni pizza for lunch and he codes all day.

He made a joke one day, that he no longer has to pretend that he’s an executive, he can just go back to programming.

So yes, John is basically the same but he does more design work than people think though. That’s one urban legend that John just does programming and doesn’t care about design, but that’s not true. He cares very deeply. He’s really big on cutting down on latency and making sure that the game is always really responsive.

There are more programmers of course, Robert Duffy, he’s the lead programmer on Rage. Jean Paul is our junior John Carmack and he’s a brilliant guy. He does all the physics and the NAV technology for getting characters around the world and a lot of trans-coding textures. But John is basically John. Everyone around the world knows him. He is actually a lot like you just explained. You mentioned the other night that you worked on a completely different game for 18 months before you decided that it wasn’t the way you wanted it to go, chucking it all out to start on Rage. Are you able to give us some sort of description about what that game was all about?

Tim: It was more of a survival horror type of game. It was kind of like Doom meets Resident Evil. and it would have been cool and I still think the idea is great and the story is cool but when we saw what we were able to do with this technology, it was completely the right decision. That’s one great thing about id, we were able to do that, take that risk and at the end make a better product. This one is from one of our Facebook fans: what is your favourite beer?

Tim: I actually don’t drink beer. Like I went to a German Hofbräuhaus in Germany and there were about 6000 people there and I was the only one drinking wine. A highlight of your show the other night, met with rapturous applause from the audience, was an amazingly geeky picture of John Carmack with a sword. What are the chances of getting a copy of it?

Tim: I think you can actually google that. I think it’s actually on the internet so do a google search of John Carmack and keep clicking.

We did just that - we couldn't find the exact image, but this one isn't far off:

id Software's innovative Rage is headed to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and - of course - PC on October 7th. If you're keen to find out more about how the game plays, be sure to check out our recent hands-on article, based on our lengthy experiences playing the game in Germany.


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