Every day at this year's Eurogamer Expo, Tim Willits takes to the stage in our massive auditorium to show and talk about RAGE, the latest first-person shooter to issue forth from the legendary id Software. To understand how exciting we find this, it is worth noting that without id's games Eurogamer literally would not exist - several of the founding staff only do this because they grew up on Doom and Quake.
Not everyone can be at the Expo of course (although we did invite everyone), so we spoke to Willits on the phone a few days beforehand to get a flavour of his session and give you a special Expo insight into how work is going on RAGE, what it's like being a famous game developer and why inverting the mouse is for losers.
Eurogamer: Thanks very much for coming to the Expo, Tim! I've discovered during my extensive research that you are so famous you have your own Wikipedia page.
Tim Willits: Yes, which I have absolutely nothing to do with. The biggest problem that I have with that thing is that my stupid relatives try to edit it. Everyone in the world can edit it, so my silly cousins edit it and I have to call them up and yell at them. Even though I didn't create it I have to police it.
Eurogamer: You're described on there as the lead designer and co-owner of id Software, implying that you designed id Software.
Tim Willits: I know, and I'm not even an owner any more. So actually, if you wanted to fix that... all you have to say is "creative director at id Software".
Eurogamer: Consider it done. So you're not the lead designer of id Software, but if you could redesign id Software, what would you change? Bigger desk? More frosted glass windows?
Tim Willits: Well we are definitely running out of space. As you know we've been over in Mesquite, Texas, a little suburb of Dallas, for many years and unfortunately we have outgrown our space. We've gotten so big that there's actually a guy whose desk is the old printer table. It's time to move so we're looking around Dallas for a bigger living arrangement.
Eurogamer: There must be perks that come with longevity too, I guess. I mean, how big is your PC monitor at this point?
Tim Willits: It's 30 inches. And I was sad that Apple is no longer going to make the 30-inch cinema display, they're going down to 27.
Eurogamer: That's rubbish - they should be getting bigger, not smaller. Anyway, before I get carried away, tell us about your session.
Tim Willits: I will be talking about RAGE! I'm doing a presentation that we showed at QuakeCon using the Xbox 360 version. [Check out our QuakeCon RAGE preview for a full runthrough. -Ed]
We're going to present the game, do a little Q&A and I'm doing it every day, so if you miss the first one don't worry about it. We do change up the presentation a little - we're not as consistent as we'd like to be! So for hardcore RAGE fans, if they go to different presentations they may hear different things.
We're going to talk about why we think RAGE is great. One of the reasons we're going to every show is because it's a brand new IP. We've been talking about this game for a while but we still need to keep talking about it so it can become embedded in people's mind next September.
Eurogamer: Do you enjoy doing these presentations? Do you have any special showbiz tips for avoiding stage fright?
Tim Willits: I enjoy it! It's always exciting to go to a new place and show off the game. The game demos well and id Software has some of the best fans for any company, so it's always fun. Everyone always gets nervous in the beginning - you can usually tell I'm more nervous at the start than I am at the end - but as long as it doesn't crash then I maintain a nice even keel!
Eurogamer: Does it crash?
Tim Willits: Well at QuakeCon we had the 360 fail to load on us.
Eurogamer: That's the 360 for you. I expect we'll have quite a few PC people in the audience at the Eurogamer Expo, so I wanted to ask: do you invert the mouse in FPS games? Answer carefully.
Tim Willits: I do not! What I do is I tease the people at id Software who do invert the mouse for being Duke Nukem fans. Way back in the day when there was Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem, people who played Duke had it inverted because it was default, and we have a few people at id who used to work at 3D Realms too.
Eurogamer: Surely that should be a prerequisite for moving to id - that you have to learn how to play without inversion.
Tim Willits: Exactly. You are right about that. John Carmack did not invent first-person shooters to be played inverted.
Eurogamer: I firmly agree. So RAGE is the first new IP you've done in over 10 years. How do you start a new IP? What's the first step?
Tim Willits: Do you want the truth or the marketing spin?
Eurogamer: Let's go with the truth.
Tim Willits: It's not actually as exciting as the marketing spin.
Eurogamer: Okay well if it sounds rubbish I'll delete that bit of the tape and we can do it again.
Tim Willits: So after Doom III we were working on another game which was also a new IP, but it was really following the id Software paradigm. It would have been great, but, nyah, it wouldn't have been anything that new or different.
So John [Carmack] was working on his virtual texturing system and he needed a ton of graphical landscape data, and, you know John, he went to NASA and they had tons of terrain data to download for free, so he did that and he was streaming this landscape, this huge megatexture, and I was watching it and thought, that's cool! We can add that into a game! We could have all these large outdoor areas that are all hand-painted and uniquely textured! And if we have outdoor areas we have to have cars. And if we have cars they have to have guns on them.
Tim Willits: Yes. But we also want to have muscle cars, because muscle cars are cool. But if you have muscle cars with guns then you start thinking the Road Warrior, post-apocalyptic... That'll work, because we also like to do sci-fi elements like BFGs, laser guns, etc. So if you want muscle cars with guns and sci-fi elements, you can only have one setting.
And yes we could have put it on an alien planet, but then all the effort of having people understand this alien planet and these alien people would have been way more work than it's worth. So that's how we came up with setting. Then we said, okay, we can't do nuclear war because it's been done too much, so let's do an asteroid because it's been a while since the Earth has been destroyed by an asteroid. So we picked that, and then we built the story from the ground up.
See, not very exciting.
Eurogamer: I dunno - I like the idea that you decided not to go for nuclear war because the world hadn't been destroyed by a meteor for a while.
Tim Willits: Really that was it. And that's how games actually come about. Talking to some of my friends at other companies, that experience is pretty much the same. I know people would think it would be more glamorous, but it's really not.
Eurogamer: It's just John Carmack going on the NASA website one day.
Tim Willits: Which inspires. It's these elements of inspiration. Once we had that premise, we had to art-direct to get the style and feel, and that really is the essence of a game. It's not the setting; it's what you do with the story that really makes the experience.
Eurogamer: Are you worried that now John's on Twitter that some of these amazing ideas are going to be hoovered up by your competitors, or are you confident nobody understands what he's talking about on his Twitter?
Tim Willits: Well, John's always been very public. Do you remember the .plan days?
Eurogamer: I do.
Tim Willits: You're old-school if you remember the .plan days. I always tease John Carmack for inventing the blog but never getting credit for it. So many people emailed him that he decided to update his .plan [a text file other people could access over the internet], and just post things there and people could hear what he was working on. So John has been doing it forever, since before blogging and tweeting.
Eurogamer: He just accidentally invents things. He probably accidentally invented Facebook in the bath once and never did anything with it.
Tim Willits: That is probably true. So yes .plan files existed before John, but he made them popular, so I give him credit for inventing blogging.
Eurogamer: So I know you had the survival horror concept going for a while then moved into RAGE, but did you ever consider going in a wildly different direction like a platform adventure? Or a puzzle game?
Tim Willits: No. You know, getting the driving stuff done has been really difficult, and I have way more respect for driving guys and vehicle combat guys because that is tricky. For us, we are known for first-person shooters. I will always make first-person shooters. But if we can do other things to expand the gameplay, then that is where we can evolve and iterate and do new things.
Eurogamer: Will there be any nods or winks to other id games like Doom and Quake?
Tim Willits: Oh yes definitely. There are Easter eggs all over the place.
Eurogamer: You're the Easter bunny.
Tim Willits: We even have some nods to our brothers up in Maryland [Bethesda Game Studios]. So you have to keep your eyes open for that stuff.
Eurogamer: Ooh. Speaking of your friends, Gearbox recently took over Duke Nukem Forever, and I know from my extensive research on Google Maps that they're like 30 miles up the road in Plano. Have you been invited round to see what it's like yet?
Tim Willits: Oh no. The Gearbox guys are really great guys, I've known Randy for years, we see them at the bar and they see us at the bar, but we definitely keep the games separated from our normal conversations.
Eurogamer: So they don't get drunk and you tease information out of them.
Tim Willits: No, I think sometimes people may try, but we're all professionals. Those guys have a great track record and I think they'll do something very cool.
More on Rage
Eurogamer: At QuakeCon - another fine gaming expo - technical genius John Carmack was showing off RAGE on iOS at 60fps. How's work going on that?
Tim Willits: One person asked me why should he spend 60 dollars on the 360 version of RAGE if he can get the iPhone version of RAGE for cheaper. So it's very important for everybody to know that the iPhone version of RAGE is not a replacement! It's an additive experience.
One of the things I try to do with RAGE is make it more of a universe. The story is a larger story than just what the player encounters or experiences. In some of our past games there was a beginning and an end and you really felt that was it. With RAGE, you can expect to believe that events happened before you arrived and events will happen after you leave.
What we've done with the iPhone games is you don't actually play the same character - you can play someone who wasn't an Ark survivor, someone in the resistance, someone who's a traveller, etc. Because we try to make the world as rich as possible, that gives us the chance to do other people. So I encourage people to pick the iPhone game to get a sense of the RAGE universe and that will hold people over to the big launch of the main game next year.
So just because you paid a little for the iPhone game doesn't mean you can skip the real one!
Eurogamer: So you're launching next September. You've got a year left. What's left to do?
Tim Willits: Make it as awesome as possible. The technology, as you saw, is pretty much wrapped up. There's still performance and load-time stuff - we want to make it as solid as we can get it. We want to get the multiplayer as solid as possible. There's definitely a RAGE feel to that, and hopefully we'll be able to talk about that in short order, although not before Eurogamer, sorry...
Eurogamer: Damn you.
Tim Willits: So we want to put the finishing touches on the tech, we want to get more of the content of the gameplay - especially the second half of the story - and then we want to fine-tune the multiplayer to make it as enjoyable as possible. Because again, brand new IP, brand new game, we haven't put anything out for a while - we need to hit the nail on the head.
Tim Willits is creative director at id Software, despite what it said on Wikipedia before I edited it last week.