If you ask any PC gamer over a certain age to track their hobby through its most significant milestones, you can bet that at least one relates to id Software. For me it's more like half a dozen - the first time I loaded up the Quake shareware, my first network Quake experience, the Christmas morning I got Quake 2, playing it again on my first 3dfx card, Q3Test, actually managing to railgun Rupert more than once on Q3Tourney4. And I was a late developer. Apparently they made other games too. Doom or something. And let us not forget Dangerous Dave! Although that was Romero and Softdisk, really. But I'm getting off the point. Which is: id Software did more for PC gamers in the 1990s than virtually anyone.
Change abounds though, and in 2007 things are very different. The PC's no longer the primary platform for technology, let alone a mature audience. It's provoked big changes at the Texas developer, which will see id Tech 5 - the company's latest licensable game technology - catering to PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 alike. With all this in mind, we sat down with CEO Todd Hollenshead and lead designer Tim Willits at E3 last week to discuss the changing face of technology and game development, the latest news on its games old and new, current trends like Microsoft's Games for Windows and Nintendo's ambition to bring gamers together, and what to expect from QuakeCon.
Eurogamer: How has technology licensing changed since you first started doing it?
Todd Hollenshead: Well, id first started doing technology licensing before I was even at id. Back in those days John [Carmack] wrote an engine, id released a game, everybody said 'wow that's really cool, I want to release a game on that same engine,' and that's kind of the way technology licensing worked.
That worked exceptionally well up through probably the Quake 3 stuff, which was the peak of where we were at from a technology-licensing standpoint. You're talking about Quake, Quake 2, Quake 3, which includes id's games plus all of our licensees' games, but that's a lot. Half-Life, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Jedi Knight, two Star Trek games, right? On a worldwide revenue basis it was over a billion dollars in games that were sold using id technologies. I don't know if anybody else can make that claim, and I'd certainly stack those numbers against anybody's.
But the Doom 3 stuff, because there was a technology transition, the presence of the licensing fell off and I think we also got caught in between the console transition. What we were coming out with was really targeted for the PC and the Xbox, just as the Xbox was transitioning to 360. And the Doom 3 stuff never really worked on PS2 - it was never our intent to run on that hardware - and PS3 stuff wasn't ready, so we kind of got caught in-between.
That approach is completely different for us [now]. We're showing technology - just like when John got up at the worldwide development conference at Apple - showing not the game but the technology first, and talking about it as an implemented cross-platform solution from the get-go. You can see, unless you're blind, that there's a Mac, a PC, there's a 360 and there's a PS3 [in this room], and we're showing the engine running to prospective licensees across all platforms. Not videos, but actually running on the hardware right now.
That's been a big change and a big transition for us, just from an internal philosophy standpoint, and I think it works for the game development as well as the technology side - we've had a far, far greater emphasis on early development of tools that allow us to create all the media and game maps that go with making a game, whereas before John would work on the engine and the tools, and maybe there was one other person to help him out.
Eurogamer: It did seem that way - that you were tremendously dependent on what John was doing with technology.
Todd Hollenshead: And we still are - you know, he's still the genius behind all of it - but we have three, four programmers whose primary focus is on tools and then other guys are on subsets of the engine like physics, and then others are working on the different platforms as opposed to just the main SKU. John's primary development platform is PC/360, right?
Tim Willits: Yeah. We've engineered our development team and the game design and the architecture of the software to work on all four systems. All the content, all the media assets are identical across all the systems. We have dedicated tools people, we have a new support system for potential licensees. We've really geared not just our game toward the licensing paradigm but actually our whole development system. We think we've restructured and rebuilt our team to take advantage of making great games and technology at the same time.
Eurogamer: There's been a lot of controversy about Manhunt recently, and in the past you've been entangled in the press reaction to nasty events elsewhere. How do you feel about the mainstream press and political response to games? Has it changed since the days of Columbine?
Todd Hollenshead: I think the media is always looking for stuff to make headlines, and they sensationalise things. They take something that they know will make news and they run with it and then figure out whether it's true or not later.
When you talk about a game like Doom 3, if somebody is thinking that a six-year-old is going to be playing it, then they might be shocked that it's so violent. But the thing about it is that the games aren't for small children, and id hasn't made games for small children since Commander Keen.
I think that the wider videogame market doesn't understand that they're not just for kids, they're for adults too. That's where paranoia and lack of rationality comes into it. You wouldn't go and get a Quentin Tarantino movie and go, 'Oh my God! I can't believe someone was shot in that film!' because you know there's Disney for kids and there's Quentin Tarantino for adults, or there's Spielberg for everybody.
Eurogamer: So how do we move beyond that, and how do we educate people that games are to be held in that context and not misjudged?
Tim Willits: Well, it takes time. I believe that as our generation and our kids get older and older, eventually we will have a president that had a PlayStation growing up. It's just going to happen.
One of the things that I see with my kids - I have a ten-year-old - is that they love to play online games and get together, and when they play these games, their world shrinks. They're solving problems and playing against each other or with each other, amongst all these different cultures and people throughout the world, and I believe that when our kids get older and become the politicians of the future, it will probably be a more peaceful world because they have grown up knowing that they can just play with people from China or Russia and everyone's the same and everyone solves problems together. So I actually have a brighter outlook on the future based on the social interaction, the social connectivity that we have in videogames in our youth.
Todd Hollenshead: At id, we've always been the first to say that our games aren't appropriate for all people and I'll extend that to say that there are lots of games that I don't think are appropriate for everyone - for small children. If someone's easily frightened or have nightmares, maybe they shouldn't play Doom 3. If they're a fan of Nazis, maybe they shouldn't play Wolfenstein!
But with respect to being able to control that stuff, from a console standpoint being able to lock out that content by the parental controls stuff that's embedded in all the consoles now is...the industry is doing that stuff. Even on the PC platform.
Plus, the fact of the matter is that by and large when you're talking about consoles and PCs, these are activities that are going on in people's homes, which is where the parents, generally, should be and have an opportunity to supervise the activity. It's not something that kids can sneak around - they haven't got a backup generator on their bike!
Eurogamer: How do you feel about the creative side of your games? Is the medium restrictive?
Todd Hollenshead: I think that just, as a medium, games can be anything that people want them to be. It's just a matter of what it is that you want to do, what developers and your creative people are interested in working on. We're sort of the big-budget, action movie studio of the games business. We like the adrenaline-pumping, run-and-gun, boom-blow-stuff-up, look-at-that-happen summer blockbuster kind of thing. That's sort of the games we like to work on. And we have different franchises within how that stuff works. But I don't think there's any limitation on what games can do. They're really only limited by people's imagination and how they go to implement.
Now, as technology continues to progress, the ways in which you can do the things that you can do, and what they look like - the character interactions and the believability and the immersion factor - I think that those are all things that everybody's talking about, that they want to...that's where you have opportunities to look better, feel more realistic, and be more like the Holodeck, right?
Eurogamer: Are you going to return to any of your blockbusters, then, like Dooms or Quakes, or are you looking now beyond that stuff?
Todd Hollenshead: I would never say that we've worked on the last of something on franchises that are sort of the core of the company. There's not really anything specific that we can talk about at this point on those, but those franchises are still alive in idea form.
Tim Willits: We have good brands, we want to expand on those brands, and that's why we're working on a new brand. But we have a really great direction and production team that can work really well with other companies like Splash Damage on Enemy Territory to expand the multiple brands that we do have.
Todd Hollenshead: Yeah, and, you know, like Raven with Wolfenstein. You can put two and two together and see maybe where we might be going with some other stuff.
Eurogamer: What's your impression of Microsoft's Games for Windows campaign? Do you think they're just trying to flog Vista and they'll give up on it?
Tim Willits: No [laughs]. Microsoft sometimes gets a bad rep for being Microsoft. But they really do know how to write software. One of the great things about 360 games - it's the same with PS3 - is you send them for certification, they run it through the gamut of tests, they make sure that you adhere to all the things you need to, and then when the gamer gets it it's going to work. So for Games for Windows you'll have a certification, it'll go through Vista, you'll have the correct ESRB ratings. So that works. You'll have good security, you'll have a link in with Xbox Live...
Some people say it's a little too Big-Brotherish, but it's a legitimate progression of making the PC feel more - not like a console, but like a closed system. For us, if there's a way to link a Live account into your security for your game in a nice closed system, it would help reduce the piracy, which kills us, and is killing the industry. At least Microsoft is doing something, and I think that they're in a position to do it.
Eurogamer: So this is necessary? This is how the PC has to mature?
Tim Willits: I believe it will help us in the future. The whole system's young and Microsoft's made some mistakes, but they're fixing it. As we move forward, if it can help prevent piracy, if it can help people connect together, if it can help things be more uniform, so when end users buy any PC game they know how to connect, they know how to search for games - I do think it will help the games industry, and it's just the way things are going to need to move.
Eurogamer: So you presumably agree with what Satoru Iwata was saying yesterday, which is that the next big thing for games is to - in his phrase - "destroy the psychological barrier that separates veteran gamers from novice gamers"?
Todd Hollenshead: That's a tough one. I don't know that that's a solvable problem, because I think that your tastes change from a novice gamer to a veteran or a hardcore gamer. When you first get in and play with a type of game, everything is a challenge, but as you get experience you want different and greater challenges, which necessarily make a game hard to approach from a novice standpoint. I still think that one of the biggest differences between PC and consoles games is their level of approachability - with console games, it's an industry paradigm that you have to make them more approachable than is required to make a PC game, because you know that most PC gamers are going to be...you can expect some level of this not being the first game that they've played.
Eurogamer: Could we get an update on how you're doing with your new games?
Tim Willits: Well that's really QuakeCon [id's annual fan convention, taking place 2nd-5th August in Dallas].
Todd Hollenshead: Certainly we can talk about Enemy Territory, so that's in beta now and we're showing the 360 out there. We don't have the PS3 here but that is in development. I think the update on that stuff is that we've got bots in all of the SKUs - in PC, and we're working towards -
Tim Willits: AI-controlled opponents, dude.
Todd Hollenshead: Fair point. AI-controlled opponents. Fine me a nickel. And then John continues to work on cell-phone stuff. We just had the announcement that Orcs & Elves is in development for the DS with Electronic Arts, by Fountainhead. I think that came out in the press release yesterday. If it didn't...announcement! Get that little ticker symbol in the background. The big news about the new stuff - I mean, [at E3] we wanted to have stuff we could show, not just talk about, which is Enemy Territory and some of our technology stuff, but we're going to hold off on discussing stuff that we really don't have a lot to show about until QuakeCon.
So if you happen to be in Dallas in about three weeks, you should try and make it out, and if not, stay tuned.