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Interview: Jason Kim talks RAGE

Kevin Kelly

What does a video game producer do? Well, the brutally honest Jason Kim from id's RAGE summed it up for us. "I'm just a producer; I don't make anything that actually shows up in the game." So there you have it! Okay, we're kidding (slightly). It's a producer's task on a game to make sure everything is running smoothly, that schedules are being met, budgets being adhered to, all so that one day the game can end up on your system of choice. That's no small task.

Kim has been working on RAGE at id for the past several years, and has seen the project move from EA, to being an internally developed project at id, and now on to Bethesda. He's definitely enthusiastic about the project (and the word megatexture), and you can read on beyond the break for the full interview with him were he talks about the game, and why a lot of developers seem to be using the post-apocalyptic realm as a backdrop.

Gallery: Rage (05/04/10) | 5 Photos

So tell us your name, and your role on the project.

Jason Kim. I'm the senior producer on RAGE. I've been working on that game ever since I started at id.

So you started with RAGE was under EA?

I started at Id, and we didn't start development on RAGE until maybe a year past when I started, because we were working on another IP that's completely different from RAGE that we may still approach again in the future. But we decided that once the tech actually started getting some good momentum, where, "Hey, let's really maximize the technology and utilize the megatexture. So what can we do to really make this a rich experience for the player with that tech?" That's how we got to the outdoor experience in this vast megatexture and used that as the basis for an environment that the player has the ability to enter into different combat environments and also interact with various other things, like drive a car, go into a town and talk to different settlers. That whole evolution was based on what John (Carmack) was working on and what we felt could best explout out of that tech was what RAGE is now.

Switching from EA to Bethesda, did that change much of the game?

It didn't change anything on that, actually. Our partnership with EA was great. Our eventual acquisition by Zenimax to be part of the Bethesda family had nothing to do with our discontent or anything. I don't know what people are talking about in that regard. We actually enjoyed working with EA.

I don't think I've read anything negative about that relationship.

Yes. Those guys are just awesome. This just made a lot of sense for the co-owners, the directors now, and obviously Zenimax to have the Bethesda guys. This was just a great fit, having id. I think we're really good at making FPS games, so it seemed like a nice fit. We make FPS games. They make RPGs. We're not stepping up on each other, and we're both good at what we do.

Have you guys gone through graphical tweaks before you got to where you are now? When you showed it at QuakeCon and Gamescom, has it changed much since then?

Surprisingly, I don't know if people can really understand, especially people that aren't in our development cycle maybe can't really understand. We always go through different generations of technology, because it's always in development. But the core rendering technology of what you see onscreen has not changed ever since John had the first inkling of wanting to do this megatexture stuff and the virtualized texture system. Nothing's changed ever since even before we got RAGE running. That system has been pretty much the same since its very inception.

Can you talk some about the mechanics in the game, particularly in two different areas. I noticed when he was aiming with the pistol, it seemed like he was actually pulling up a scope or a monocle to his eye to aim with. Is he meant to be holding that and aiming a gun at the same time?

Yeah. The item that you get early on is a monocular. It's basically something that you can see great distances with and be able to identify objects in the wasteland. What we decided was, the pistol's fun, but it's missing a little something. Why don't we combine the monocular and the pistol? Yeah, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the real world, but this is a game. Let's make it fun for the player. So I can zoom in with the monocular, because I have that as an item, and shoot distant objects with it. We still need to balance out some of the characteristics of how that works, but it was fun, so we kept it in.

It's actually an interesting addition for all the other weapons you have. Because we do have a sniper rifle, so we don't want to make it exactly like a sniper rifle. But it actually gives you this added benefit to having this monocular in hand all the time. If you decide, "Well, the monocular is useless. I don't want to deal with this thing. I don't need to see that far," or whatever, you can sell it. You can get rid of it. Maybe you can buy it back again; maybe you can't. But if you don't have it and you want to do the zoom, you won't be able to do that.

The other mechanic was the quick-use items. We saw the remote-control bomb car, the sentry bot. How big a part of the game are those items?

I think those are a really big part of the game because we can do the weapons with our eyes closed. What we wanted to do is add this meaningful new layer of ... I think Matt (Hooper, design director) called it the player's tool box, or get some new toys for the player to be able to kill all the bad guys with. When we were first thinking about these engineering items, it was just a cool idea. "Hey, why don't we make a little car that has a bomb on it, and it just becomes another grenade that you just control?" But it was fun. We got it in. It was like, "Oh yeah, you can drive this around. You drive around the corner. The guy's like, 'What?' and it blows up." It's just gratifying. So then we take it a step further, and we add these turrets and these sentry bots. We'll have more and more of these engineering items that just work with the fiction, because it is post-apocalyptic and we'd kinda be out there.

You'll get these little plans for things that you can make that become your engineering item list. You can utilize whatever you feel is going to help you in combat. You may not want to do any of it. You might just be fine using your machine gun, your shotgun, your pistol, and all the different primary weapons, but it really adds to the depth of game play between what your interaction is with the AI and the gunplay that you'll have. You can make the AI actually do some different things by introducing a turret, like when you saw in the demo. We try to control it as much as we can, but we can't really control the AI. So when they come in, they were going after the turrets. We actually wanted to show more of the turret firing at the guys, but what we ended up getting was those guys came in and took all those down really quickly. This is the kind of dynamic action experience that we want the players to have.

You could go in there guns a-blazing, but you could also set up little defensive perimeters and send in a sentry bot. If you're one of those guys like, "I'm never going to get hit ever in this game," you might get an achievement for that. That's because you were crafty, you used your RC bomb car, you used your turrets, and you were good at taking cover. These are just kind of nice ways for the player to use these engineering items. It is part of the game that's a core part of the game, but it's not the be-all, end-all of the game. The weapons and the whole system is just wrapped around together with the fiction.

Is your character meant to be an engineer? Does he have a background in that?

We purposely keep the character's story in the background ambiguous, because we want you to feel like that's you and project what you feel you think the player should be through just your own creative thought process.

He didn't really say in regards to the Ark, but are you in some sort of suspended animation in those things?

You are, actually. It's a cryosleep or suspended animation. I don't have the exact date, but years into the future after Day Zero, the Arks are supposed to come up. You don't want a bunch of senior citizens coming out of the ground or dead people because of just the aging process, so they are suspended. Even though your Ark is damaged, it goes through this process of reviving you, and that's where you get some little tutorials about the standard thing: Do you like your look inverted or not? How advanced of a player are you? Should we set the difficulty to be medium, hard, easy? And then shoot you out into the wasteland as soon as possible.

Do you see your own character ever, à la Fallout's third person? Because when one character was remarking, "Oh, you're wearing an Ark jumpsuit," I was immediately wondering, what does that look like? Because I can't see my own character. It's not third person. Is there ever a time where you see your own appearance in the menus or anything?

We haven't solidified whether we will actually have something to be able to view your player in the menus. But we're still working on the actual look of the inventory system that has all of your different items, all of your different weapons, and even all of your vehicles laid out for you. There's a possibility that we've been throwing around. "Well, why don't we make this dynamic?" It depends on how convincing it is of a feature that makes it compelling for the player. But we're a first-person shooter. We have really no need to see the player. The Ark suit mechanic in the story is we want to be able to give you bits of the story as you make your way through town. So when people are telling you this, it's not just, "Hey, I want to look at myself." It's, "Hey, you're in that Ark suit still. You have to go and change your clothes, otherwise you're going to stick out like a sore thumb and the authorities are going to get you."

When we first started getting emails from Bethesda about this event, they were calling it BFG 2010. The term BFG exists because of id and Doom. Is there a BFG in RAGE? I'm imagining there will be rocket launchers and stuff like that, but anything beyond?

Yes, we do have a rocket launcher. We have just a good selection of weapons, not millions of weapons, that you can upgrade and things like that. But we really want to keep it concise. We want to keep it more directed, but also open it up for action for the players. So we do have bigger, better weapons as you progress through the story. Whether we call it a BFG, who knows? But we definitely want to hearken to some of that. We take references from our own games as well as other games we have, even movies and pop culture. We get influences from everything that all the developers actually read, play, watch. It's interesting to see how Tim (Willits, creative director) and Matt are able to collect all that information, figure out if it actually fits within the concept and the scope of what we're able to accomplish. It is really that flat. People can throw out ideas and say, "Well, that's cool, and that's doable. Let's do that," and then try to prototype it. If it's a good enough idea, and it stands the test of time or even analysis by your peers, then maybe it's something we do for DLC. Maybe it's something we do for RAGE 2.

Speaking of millions of guns, it's hard to see this and not think Borderlands. t's a post-apocalyptic setting. You've got cars that can shoot. You're interacting with towns that are post-apocalyptic. Then Fallout: New Vegas is set in that same space. Is it just a space that developers are getting comfortable with and feeling like we've got a lot of stories to tell there? Why do you think these games are all using that setting?

Well, I can't really speak for the other developers. [laughs]

Well, sure.

I've maybe talked to Todd Howard a little bit, not exactly about that. But for us on the RAGE team, it really afforded us that opportunity to be out there and still make it fit. It also goes back to what can we do with the technology that's going to be convincing and compelling? We wanted to do something that looked destroyed, because if we start making space stations and all these clean lines, then it's a completely different game, visually speaking. Even though we can still do that, the artists really wanted to push on the ability to use the technology where you have everything is unique. So we want to dirty up everything. You saw down in the well in that level, the guy was just down holding his arm. He was bleeding out, basically. That does not add any more data to what we already have in that level for texture space. We can go in and unique everything in that level, and that's what the megatexture allows us to do. It's just one big megatexture. You can stamp up a big blood pool throughout the entire section of that area, even the entire map. This is just something that the artists were thinking, "Well, it'd be cool if we did something destroyed, something post-apocalyptic."

At the outset when Tim was thinking about story and how to really push on this stuff with the directors, it was already in that vein, and how far we go depended on what we were able to push on with the technology and what the artists were going to be able to execute convincingly. Hopefully it comes out, and from what I'm hearing from various people today, I guess we really hit the mark. Because even when I play it -- I'm just a producer; I don't make anything that actually shows up in the game -- but it's awesome for me because I can sit back and see what all is being worked on, making sure that it gets done in a timely fashion. But when I actually get my hands on the controller from time to time and look at the game, I'm just amazed by the amount of detail that's in there. I wonder if people see the same thing that I see. It's really cool to hear some of the nice things that people are saying about it, not just today, but we've heard at QuakeCon. I really feel that this was a good decision for us to go this post-apocalyptic route.

You've said the word megatexture a few times. What does that mean? Obviously we know what textures are, but what are you guys meaning when you say megatexture?"

It's essentially that if you saw this pillow as a world, that's one texture. Instead of this procedurally drawn thing, you have a texture that's 64x64 that's being drawn everywhere and repeated. This whole thing can be entirely unique. We start off with some tiling textures, but then we go back in, and just like the blood that we can stamp on the ground to show that the guy is really hurt, we can put grass. We can put erosion. We can basically go down to the pixel level and that can be a unique texture, color, everything, and that still does not increase the size of the texture limit, because that's what the megatexture is. It's just the name that was chosen by John.

We saw Wellspring. We saw the Dam. Besides those, how big is the scope of this game? Is it pretty massive? You do have vehicles, so I'm imagining there is some size to it.

It's hard to say in one word or two what the scope of the game is. I think what we're trying to hit is that the scope of the game is just right. We don't want it to be too long, and we don't want it to be too short, because we've been there. We're consumers, too. We actually buy games and play games, and when you play a short game, it doesn't feel like you did anything. Then it sucks, because games aren't that cheap these days. If it's too long and you don't have the right emotional moments to carry that through, then it just feels like you're doing things over and over again. So we're very cognizant of this nice balance between long and short, and then trying to hit that sweet spot is what our goal is.

Tim was touting the game as being "Open, but directed." For instance, when he was in Wellspring, and that alarm started going off, and he went into that office and started a mission. Could he have just ignored that if he had chosen to to go on to do something else?

You could have ignored that and gone on to do some other things, but there is still this feeling of openness, and the directedness part comes when you're on this ... you are basically in a movie scenario, for lack of a better phraseology. When you get to a certain point in the story element, if that's something that has to be done as part of your growth into the story, then you may be able to go and do some other things. There may be some side missions and things that other settlers may need that you want to do before you do that, and you could definitely do those things. But until you do that, you will not actually be able to progress along the critical story path.

Well great, thank you for coming.

No, no problem. Thank you very much.

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