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Joystiq interviews id Software's Todd Hollenshead

Just minutes before he takes the stage, along with John Carmack, to deliver the QuakeCon keynote address, we bring you our E3 interview with Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software. We had a chance to ask him about id Tech 5 and id's future in engine licensing, that new IP they keep talking about (and will be showing off any minute now), the Games for Windows initiative, their announcement of a Nintendo DS game, and more.

You guys have been laying low for a while.

Laying low, but busy.

I'm quite certain. At WWDC you guys come back out swinging, and I'd like to find out what your goal was there.

Probably a good discussion of that would start with all of the projects that we're working on that are sort of announced just so you get up to speed. And I think some of these things, people forget this is actually id working on this stuff.

You guys are working with Splash Damage and Nerve over here and then you've got ...

That stuff is all going on at id too, because we have internal resources that are devoted to that. For example, the guy who is programming all of the AI bot work for PC, 360, and PS3 is actually an id employee and he's devoted full time to the project. Of course, Kevin McCloud is the executive producer for id so he's overseeing not only the Splash Damage work but also others. So there's a significant amount of id effort that goes into a project like Enemy Territory because we're working hand in hand with all of the developers, and Activision trying to coordinate stuff.

It's resources and managerial?

Managerial? I guess it depends on how you define that word. It's design input, it's working with Activision and Splash Damage to make sure the workflow stuff that is set up is something we think is achievable and doable and is working towards the right direction. So, yeah, there is a lot of what ends up being management but not like what I would call production management work. Nobody is sitting down and going, "I've got twenty people and this person is working this many hours on this little thing and he needs to be done with that by Thursday at noon."

Well, I guess more of a producer/manager role, where you're overseeing a much larger picture.

Yes, exactly. Yeah, so we've got Splash Damage working on this. Their top five goals for the next two weeks need to be these things. Okay, Activision, you and Splash Damage figure out the best way to accomplish that is and come back and let us know what plan you've come up with. "Alright, that sounds good, go to it" or "There's no way because you forgot about this one thing over here." And then literally, to actually working on resources. Like our programmers working on optimizations to get performance up. Then, like I said, our guy who does all the bot stuff is a full-time id employee working full-time on the project. For the last couple of weeks, we've had a guy from Activision Foster City who's working on the PS3 version of Quake Wars actually at our office, working with our programmers, coordinating with Splash Damage. And the guys at Nerve, who are also located in the Dallas area, are doing the 360 version. If anything is really telling about how involved we actually are in the project, it's that the programmer working on the PS3 version comes to Dallas and not to London.

Okay, so that's Quake Wars. What about Orcs & Elves II and Orcs & Elves DS. You guys just announced these yesterday.

Yeah, so you're dialed into this stuff, way more than most people are.

That's our job.

To kind of start back at point zero, you may have heard of a little game called Doom. John's first foray into mobile phone gaming was Doom RPG. I've got it on my RAZR ... but I just transferred to an iPhone. I wonder if it'll work on that ... I don't think so.


So, John wrote the technology for it, worked with his wife's company, Fountainhead, to do the development work on it. It's basically a first-person turn-based, action, shooter game that you can control with one thumb on the phone.

Also unique as being one of the few mobile phone games to actually get well reviewed.

Yeah, two Game of the Year awards, Jamdat was the original licensee and they were of course acquired by EA. And we're way ahead of where their projections were on sales. I think we're like at a million worldwide downloads on it. I think we're over that and I think they're forecasting sales of over 2 million ... and I hope I'm not violating some stupid SEC thing with those numbers . But anyways, that was phenomenally successful for them and I thought, wow. Certainly from our standpoint as a test case, I thought, "Alright. We've legitimized that it's worth spending time on it." And of course, we coordinated that to come out at the same time as the movie came out. And we had Doom marketing and the Xbox and all that stuff, and obviously the Doom brand itself is big and it recognizable by almost anyone into technology. Especially if you have a mobile phone that's capable of playing games, and if you're a game player you probably know what Doom is.

So, Orcs & Elves uses the same technology. So we thought, let's try something that's a new brand without the leverage of Doom – which is almost cheating – and try something that's got to stand on its own merits. It's a new brand, it still has John and the same development team working behind it. And Orcs & Elves got Game of the Year on mobile as well. So, the strategy there has been to take this success, extend that into Orcs & Elves II, which we're now developing on mobile phones – we're still working on finalizing that deal with EA but I expect that's where it's gonna be – and then take all the stuff that was cool about Orcs & Elves on the mobile phones and add all the stuff that you can do from a UI standpoint like use the stylus, use the shoulder buttons on the DS. I'm not really a DS player, but I've played through a good portion of the front section of Orcs & Elves on the DS and the test is, can I pick it up, does it hold my attention – I get quickly frustrated with controls – and it's a fun little game and I know DS fans are gonna love it.

Can you comment on the irony that a company like id who, for over fifteen years now, been pushing technology. That's been your modus operandi. Doom, Quake, and now Orcs & Elves DS. It's the exact opposite. It's targeting a mass audience, similar to Nintendo's strategy.

We're all fans of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings too and, hey, in terms of mindshare of people like those sort of games, if you can be in this neighborhood, that's a pretty rich neighborhood.

So, we were just talking about a game like Quake Wars, which is being developed for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. Amazing graphics. New texture technology. A really technologically advanced game. It looks like you guys have almost started a two-pronged approach where you're going after multiple markets.

Well, certainly on the Orcs & Elves side, I think is something that John worked with and started as sort of an interest, almost a hobby, and it sort of made a business case for itself.

He's got a lot of hobbies!

Yeah, yeah he does. (laughs). But, programming is, I would say, the main one. John's initial interest in it was, Hey. Here's something I can almost go back to the sort of good ol' days when you could make a game in six months and your budget wasn't in the millions of dollars, and a small team could work on it and you could see it, literally birth to completion within the bookends of a calendar year, no question. So that was kind of what was behind Doom RPG and it's sort of the same thing with the DS project as well. That's John's attraction to it.

Make a big triple-A PC, 360, PS3, Wii title – whatever, any of the main big platforms – and you're making a multi-million dollar multi-year, 20, 50, 100-person headcount commitment to it. So the idea of going off on a lark and experimenting, and saying, "Hey, I wrote this new little engine. I think I can make a fun game out of it." You go broke if you couldn't make every one of those a success and that doesn't really lend itself to a trial and error model. But, with small compact things, if Orcs & Elves DS is a failure I'll be really sad – I'd be surprised, but I'd be sad – but it's not like we'll say, "Well shit! How are we gonna make up for that? Because now we're gonna have to think of some way to get ourselves out of this financial bind." If it doesn't sell well, we'll say, "Alright, that was a failed experiment. Let's figure out a better way to do it next time."

It's no secret that id has been quiet on the engine licensing front, the technology licensing front, for a couple years. Doom 3 was the last big game you guys had, with engine licensing, and in that time we've seen Epic and Unreal Engine obviously. We've seen companies like Crytek pop up out of nowhere, stuff like Project Offset. You guys had the id Tech 5 announcement, obviously, but is the DS announcement in any way a rejection of the huge, triple-A, bloated budgets of game development.

For me, that's sort of the world in which I live. That's really the sort of bigger question for me, that's what we spend a lot of time on. But I do think that John laments the lack of just being able to get in, play around, and make something cool in the course of months as opposed to years. So he wrote a cellphone engine! He lacks no accolades as a technology writer, but what people don't appreciate really where technology rubber meets the road, in terms of games is, it has to have an application. It has to be able to make a fun game on. and John really has a brilliant mind as well for how these things apply.

Our games have been on cell phones for a long time and they've been ports of the original games. And I've never really liked that. People come and do something of a technical novelty, but it's not built for that platform. So the first thing that John said is what is absolutely the most ridiculously cool looking thing I can put on this. Then it was, Why is it that cell phone games suck? They suck because ... well, they suck for a lot of reasons, but foremost is because they're not designed to be played with one finger. Because when someone is playing a cellphone game, they're basically playing with their thumb.

So I need to be able to make a game that I can play with my thumb that is going to be fun, so, you know, why not make it new? In the Doom RPG, the Orcs & Elves engine, was built around that sort of constraint that I want it to be from a first-person P.O.V., but it can't really be real-time because you only have sort of one button and you have to be able to move and look and stuff like that. So what's the issue there? OK, let's make it turn-based, but make it feel like you're actually walking through in first-person like Doom, like a true FPS game where you move around and stuff like that. Those little small slices of genius in my opinion, are really sort of what, in many ways, in addition to just his brilliance on the coding side, are the secrets to his success.

At the same time, literally, John can say "I'm only going to spend five hours a week working on this for four weeks to get it up and running, then I'm going to come back at it again." I don't know if that's a realistic amount of time that he spent on it, but I think the original Doom RPG engine he basically wrote over a weekend.

I paint a room over a weekend.

At the same time, with the id Tech 5 stuff, the big sort of paradigm or philosophy change that we have internal that John mentioned at WWDC but maybe wasn't being picked up because it was like "Oh my gosh it's the new id Tech, oh my gosh it's John Carmack, oh my gosh it's on the Mac." But what we weren't showing is "Oh my gosh, it also runs on PC, 360, PS3 across all platforms simultaneously, and that's what we've basically been pitching to potential licensees at E3 with respect to the technology is just showing them that today it runs with the same assets across all platforms.

You just jumped right to my next question really seamlessly, thanks for the segue. Number one, why WWDC? You guys also famously showed off Doom 3 at an Apple keynote.

There's a few things there. I think happenstance. There was a bit of, I don't know, serendipity to it, I think really is the best way to describe it. WWDC was coming up, we happened to be talking to the Mac guys and were complaining that even though we've been supporting their hardware for years and years they never give us any free stuff. And they said "well, if we're going to give you some free stuff, we'll scratch your back if you scratch ours." That's sort of how the idea came up. It wasn't up and running on the Mac at the time. It kind of became a test case for how Apple's been touting their new Intel chip set and how OS X can do all these things. We basically took a month and went from zero to running. We had targeted a long time ago, previous to that, to have it across PC, PS3, 360 by E3. It was sort of like starting the pebble at the top of the mountain that ended up being a landslide by the time you got the the bottom, with everything coming together all at once.

The Mac platform, by all accounts, seems to be growing phenomenally, perhaps not as a gaming platform. Are you guys kind of taking a gamble that with something like id Tech 5 you can maybe reinvigorate the Mac as a gaming platform or hope to get some more attention on it?

I'm going to doing something unusual. I'm going to be real frank with you about this stuff. My honest concern about that is that I think a lot of people who are gamers and have Macs will run the games in Windows. So is OS X, is their operating system going to be a platform? I don't know. Can their hardware be a platform? Now, I think, yes.

I think it remains to be seen, i think Apple is saying all the right things and so far they've been doing all the right things to address the long-standing complaint from people, whether they're Mac addicts, the hardcore, the people who will defend Jobs and all the decisions he makes to the death still complain about the Mac as gaming platform which all gets redirected to "Well, developers don't support the platform. I think id has been far more supportive than any random developer or publisher you want to pick, but I think the reason that the reason developers and publishers haven't supported the platform is because the numbers have been tiny. I think there's some push-pull that goes on there, but I think that Apple, to really make the platform grow into something from a gaming standpoint that is going to be something where people are like "I can't wait to play my new Mac because there's all kinds of games I want to play on it," I think there's a lot of work to be done before we're there. But at least, as of now, we're headed in the right direction.

It was unique for Apple to bring up EA who is doing something a lot different from what id's doing in terms of what they're porting and the technology they're using --

That's truly a difference in philosophy there, we're saying we're going to make everything work natively , and they're saying they're going to make everything work but they're basically going to be using basically the universal translator.

So that's a big part of the id Tech 5 philosophy, just saturation in terms of platform support?

Well, yeah. But you have to understand where some of that stuff comes from, which is, we're targeting our next game to be multi-platform for the new IP. We haven't announced that, but we'll have some news about that coming up probably in about three weeks at Quake Con. But for us, from the start, we've been saying that our next game is going to be multi-platform at that we're going to develop it at iD. To do that, that means we either have to figure out a solution that allows the team that we have to work on multiple platforms simultaneously. Or we have to make the work sequential, but that's not a simultaneous release, which is not what we've been talking about. We'd have to hire other companies, which isn't something we want to do, or we have to triple or whatever the size of the company. So really, out of necessity, we just came up with an approach that just magically works, has massive efficiencies in terms of being able to work with the same team of artists. And they become platform agnostic, they don't know whether the assets are being used on PC, 360 or PS3, and I know some of our artists back at the office probably have never really seen the technology or the stuff that they've created running on the PS3 or really took a chance or really care to look at it.

A lot of people have multi-platform technology solutions but it's a solution for PS3 then a different solution for 360 or maybe a different solution for PC. Or maybe the PC and the 360 because the architecture is similar and then they have a different solution on PS3. I'm sure you know that the machinations the industry goes through especially like the big publishers when they've got their movie-licensed game trying to get all three, four, however many platforms and certainly the big ones, PC, 360 and PS3 the same date of the movie. They're hiring massive amounts of artists all these resources trying to land on this date. And a lot of that is because what you work on really doesn't translate to the next, it has to be cut down or pared back and then you have to do a whole different over here. They're not all working in concert. You're not all pushing on the same stone to try to move it. I think really just the potential from an efficiency standpoint is to have all your resources pushing on the same stone, and the fact that you go from PC to PC plus 360 to PC plus 360 plus PS3 doesn't add any mass or weight to the stone. It doesn't add to the task before you. I think it's hard to over state how significant that is.

Microsoft's putting a lot of money and marketing muscle into Games for Windows, is that something you guys are going to be supporting?

You know, I don't think there's any plan not to support it, but I wouldn't say that we're evangelical about it either. I think there are some good things about it, Microsoft has made a few mistakes about it, they've done some things that wouldn't be the way that I would do them if I was Bill Gates, but I'm not. So I kind of say "alright it's your money, it's your company so you get to make those decisions." I think there's good and there's some stuff that they've executed not as well on. I think some of the stuff that they do does make people paranoid, like Microsoft is trying to take over the universe again. And maybe they are, I won't try to read their mind or whatever. But for us, if the hassle is worth the end result, then it's something we'll do.

How about Games for Windows Live as another component of it?

That's interesting, but what I would like to see is more openness rather than more restrictions on that sort of stuff. I'm not dialed in to what the latest stuff on it is, because we have our focus which isn't on that right now. With Enemy Territory we're not doing that because we're doing some things a little bit different on the PC than we are on the 360. One of the things on the 360 is that you have to have the listen server, so you have some player limit issues that come into play there just because you don't have the same sort of processing power as you would with a dedicated server. We didn't want to sort of to hamstring the PC with that sort of requirement. So it's not really something that we really spending any resources against at this point, but I think if it was the right game, and maybe if you had a rule that you had to plug in your USB 360 controller into your PC, at least if it was an FPS because I think people playing with a keyboard and mouse are going to have an advantage over people playing with a console controller, frankly.

I think a lot of people we wondering, when John showed off id Tech 5 at WWDC, he said that the level he was showing had 20 gigabytes of textures. Obviously, storing 20GB of textures for one level isn't going to be feasible. Was that some sort of procedurally generated data?

No, it was all artist-generated. So the trick is texture-streaming off of the hard drive and ultimately it will be off of the optical media, either the Blu-ray or the DVD for the 360, and then also just sort of massive amounts of brainpower applied to good compression so we can take what at a raw data size is enormous and make that into a memory buffer that is 120 megs, or something like that.

That's pretty impressive. Thanks for your time.

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