You're reading about games on the internet, so along with Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright, we can take for granted that you know about John Carmack. Once a year at QuakeCon, Carmack addresses the fans of games made by the company he founded, id Software, and for which he's still technical director. That job means he can pick his programming assignments, and spend time driving the company's research and development, occasionally being called upon to fix bugs that entire companies have been unable to squash. His legend is such that his support is coveted by console platform holders and computer giants like Microsoft and Apple.
Now in its 13th year, QuakeCon also gives us the opportunity to talk one on one with Carmack about what he's up to, and what he makes of current trends in hardware and software. Id's currently hard at work on first-person action/driving hybrid Rage, and free-to-play, web-based Quake 3 Arena revamp Quake Live; tooling up to build the next generation Doom; and diversifying into fields like mobile phone games and development for Apple's iPhone. So there's a lot to cover as we take our seat in a vast meeting room in the depths of the Hilton Anatole in Dallas opposite the man who, as cool as we so obviously are, still makes us wish we'd been a proper nerd.
Eurogamer: So, you still believe keyboard and mouse is the best interface for FPS. I still believe that. How do we get these damned kids to stop using joypads?
John Carmack: It's just a plain superior thing! Kinaesthetically it's just the right interface for that, but it comes down to what environment you play the games at. You're not going to have your living room with a little desk table in front of you to play usually, so different controls for different environments on there. That's why I'm happy that we can have a game now that we're looking at, we're pushing, that is going to be this precision, high-speed, fast-paced action stuff on there.
Eurogamer: You mean Quake Live, and it seems like that could almost provide a kind of Trojan reboot to the multiplayer-only FPS.
John Carmack: I hope it can be [that] on the PC space, because gamers are migrating off of the PC. But it's still, for a lot of these things, a perfectly wonderful platform, better in many ways than the console because if you're going to do things - wrapping it in a web-page, having all these statistics and tracking stuff and events - the PC is just far better at that. The PC is a better internet device than the consoles are - the mouse and keyboard are better.
Eurogamer: In terms of multiplayer FPS games, if you look at the success of COD4 and Halo 3, the infrastructure expectations are now absolutely huge. You couldn't rely on someone to invent QuakeSpy these days. Looking speculatively ahead to Rage and Doom 4 multiplayer, do you think that's what you will try to deliver?
John Carmack: Rage it won't be anything like this for sure. Rage is going to have co-op play - it's basically a separate mode to the game using the same assets on it - it's intended to be a jump-in-and-have-fun, not so much a ranking-and-leaderboards type of game there, but a way to have fun with your friends. There'll probably be a lot of split-screen play but also a lot of internet play on that.
With Doom we haven't made final decisions yet, but I would expect it to wind up being a larger focus than it was with Quake 4. It's still not going to be the central focus. It's still going to be a single-player experience through that that's going to be a finely-honed and crafted experience for people to get pulled through - but multiplayer will be there as a significant asset, and I would hope that we can leverage some of the Quake Live infrastructure, certainly a lot of the lessons that we learned, because we're going to be really in the thick of the evolutionary stew as we go through this. We'll learn a lot from all of it.
Eurogamer: Historically, id's games have been gameplay and technology driven rather than trying to be particularly "literary" like a BioShock or something of that nature. Is that something you've ever wanted to change? Does it bother you that your games are sometimes regarded as brainless fun?
John Carmack: No, it doesn't bother me at all personally. I don't care what the equivalent of a literary critic thinks about this stuff on there. The fact that people are still playing Quake Arena, the original game, nine years after, means that we did something really right there, and while there were games that came out contemporously with Quake 3 that sold a bunch more copies - we got much more play-hours out of our game all told over that.
It is true that Rage and the next Doom are designed much more as a game that has a story arc that people can go through that we make sure that you're going to have fun through the whole thing. It's going to be balanced so that we never want to frustrate the player, you never want to make them do something where they're upset, pissed off at the game, whatever, which fundamentally means that you can't challenge them too much because there's a big trade-off there between coddling the player in a bubble of entertainment that moves through all this wonderful media, versus something where...Only a subset of the people who buy games want a challenge, and we know that games like Quake Arena, which are competitive, fundamentally there's a lot more losers than there are winners, which is why team games were always more popular than kind of free-for-all deathmatch games, because half the people wind up being winners, and the thing about co-op games is that everybody playing can be a winner because you work together to beat the environment on there.
So I don't think that the Quake Arena basic design is the broadest appeal of games, but I do think there's still many millions of people that will appreciate that type of gameplay, and that we can get them on. There's no barriers to entry, [Quake Live's] free, they don't have to guess in coughing up 50/60 bucks for a high-end game on there, and while there may well be 50 million people that might love the cocooned-in-a-bubble-of-entertainment type gameplay going through some big-budget blockbuster, I think there's 5 million or more people that can really appreciate this type of game.
Eurogamer: Given your personal in-depth understanding of the architectures of the competing console platforms - the 360 and the PS3 - do you think one will have a significant technical advantage over the other in the years to come?
John Carmack: You know right now they're both really good, and that's why any time that people make comments one way or the other about the consoles it's easy to leave aside of the fact that it's the best that it's ever been in any generation in terms of support capabilities and all that, but what you can say really quite clearly and not get into too much argument about it is that the 360 is much easier to develop for, it's easier to get the performance out of it that it can deliver, and the rasterizer, the GPU side is generally faster than what the PS3 has.
If you were doing a whole lot of simulation, you can in theory get more performance out of the Cell processor than out of the two other dual-thread processors on the 360, but that's a big 'in theory'. You could design a game where the PS3 would be the superior platform, but you'd have to go out of your way to do it. If you're doing a game like people just want to do games now, the 360's the better platform.
But, the fact that Blu-ray won the format wars on there is a huge feather in Sony's cap, and then we wind up with cases like what we're seeing right now where having all the extra space on the Blu-ray may be a useful thing for us above the fact that the hardware's not quite as good in terms of what it can do with the processing but being able to just have more data available there.
Eurogamer: Given that PSN and Xbox Live are competing for the same dollars as iTunes, could this generation's killer apps be Netflix and DRM-free licensed video rather than Halo or Gran Turismo?
John Carmack: I think that it's doing surprisingly well and most people are very happy with how Xbox Live is rolling out on there, and I think that there is every chance that the next console generation will just be kind of a network broadband device maybe with optional optical media or something on there.
I'm probably not the most clued-in media prognosticator about all that kind of stuff, about what the consumers are going to be adopting as far as changing in viewing habits and different media and things like that - but in the larger scheme of things it's a great efficiency for any producer of content to have a direct distribution method and to not have the whole boxed-goods distribution chain between us and the consumers, so it's a positive-looking thing on there.
Right now though when you're developing multi-DVD titles and everything it's still...Even there, I guess there's a lot of people that are downloading enough movies that would be the equivalent of downloading that much content on there, but we don't yet have the existence proof of somebody investing 30 million dollars on a title that's going to be distributed electronically on there. We are doing one of our lower-key bets with Quake Live to see if we can take a different distribution method on there, but we're not at a point where we're willing to have the mainstream development on something that's non-traditional.
Eurogamer: Nintendo's out in front, but gamers regard Wii as the "second system" behind a PS3 or a 360. How do you think Nintendo overcomes that? Do they even have to or care to?
John Carmack: Yeah! Do they have to? They're selling more, making more money selling more units. Good problem to have! I would chalk that up to not a problem. We're checking our bugs off - not a bug!
Eurogamer: What's your philosophy on DLC? Do you see it as a good business opportunity, or do you feel as Valve does that if you've bought the game you should get all the add-ons free?
John Carmack: Yeah, I'm dubious about [DLC]. That's been certainly a hope for a long time that incremental content - stuff like that - would be a win. We see things like in the Korean markets - all the things that they have with the micro-transactions and all the things that are a huge success over there - but we know some people that have worked on some of the little episodic content, some stuff through Steam, and it's all been not successful so far, and I can understand some of the feeling behind that.
You know, people are happy to buy Call of Duty or Guitar Hero or whatever every year if you have to stage development patterns and everything on there, to bring out massive wonderful things, but keep following it up like that. That seems to be doing pretty damn well as a big plan, with new content every year, because it certainly is true that it'd be great if we weren't four years between our titles or more, our mainstream stuff at id. That's a problem and that makes you want to do these smaller things, but the market seems to be responding best to not smaller things but more, bigger things. It's a big play, and that does favour the big publishers and developers that kind of make those monstrous investments.
Eurogamer: Turning to the iPhone, how do you do an FPS on a machine with a motion sensor and touch-screen and nothing else? Don't you need tactile button feedback? Is dragging your thumb around a screen really an acceptable analogue for aiming?
John Carmack: No. There's obviously a few FPSes out there - Quake ports and stuff like that - and they're trying out different things and none of them are good yet.
What you have to do when you're looking at a new platform is not take your favourite thing and try and cram it onto the platform, but you need to look at the platform and see what you can do, which is what we did on our conventional mobile devices. We didn't try and take over some game that we had that wasn't going to work well there - we said, well, these are the limitations of the platform, you really kind of want to play with one thumb on here, these are the SKUs we may distribute on there.
We came up with a really completely different game-type for what we're doing on there, and I think that's going to be what we look at at the iPhone as well. We have some ideas but until they get more to the point of having something to show people, we don't want to speculate too much about it, but we are seriously thinking about what we can do that will be cool on the platform.
Eurogamer: Last night you said Apple doesn't really "deeply get" games. What did you mean by that? And, like Nintendo, do they really need to?
John Carmack: Over the years I've been through a number of initiatives where Apple wants to get serious about games, and we've done things with them. The idea way back with Quake 3 on there, that was my deal with Steve Jobs: if Apple adopts OpenGL rather than going off and doing QuickTime3D or something else of their own which was going to be a bad idea, then I'll personally port the Quake 3 stuff rather than working with a partner company on that. And we went through all that. All of our Apple ports have been successful - they've all made money - but it's marginal money, and we have worked with Aspyr usually on all the other ones after that, but I do think it kind of comes from the top.
The truth is Steve Jobs doesn't care about games. This is going to be one of those things that I say something in an interview and it gets fed back to him and I'm on his s***head list for a while on that, until he needs me to do something else there. But I think that that's my general opinion. He's not a gamer. It's difficult to ask somebody to get behind something they don't really believe in. I mean obviously he believes in the music and the iTunes and that whole side of things, and the media side of things, and he gets it and he pushes it and they do wonderful things with that, but he's not a gamer. That's just the bottom line about it.
There are people at Apple who want to support all this - and there's no roadblocks for us right now, we're going to support the Mac on Rage, we hope to get a version of Quake Live going up on the Mac there - but it's just that's not what the Mac platform's about, and I don't really expect that to change because it's a tough equation now that you've got everybody dual-booting their Macs and everything: why would you want to go to the extra trouble of [developing games for Mac]?
But I think the iPhone is a potentially extremely important platform for a lot of reasons, and I think it could be the type of thing that really makes inroads into...does it kill the PSP. There are structural reasons why it's not going to kill the DS in there, but it certainly should be in there in the running there as a device that you can get modern, quality games for something, and I think it's a great platform for content and new talent on there.
One of the best opportunities for years right now is for two guys to make a project - you know, an artist and a programmer - to go make something on the iPhone, and I think there are people that can make a couple of million dollars probably by having some breakout success that nobody's ever heard of, and I think that that's a really awesome opportunity right now.
Eurogamer: Given your background and the fact that you continue to dabble in cell-phones, would it be safe to say you're fairly envious of that artist and programmer duo?
John Carmack: There's the part of me that...We had this decision point several months ago where we're like, okay, we've brought up a proof-of-concept of some stuff - so Orcs & Elves 3D rendering stuff on the iPhone - and we had this decision point where we could have pulled the guys off the Wolf RPG work and said get heads down on the iPhone and we can be there for launch, be a launch title, and we had a big debate about this - and this comes down to me and my wife [Katherine Anna Kang] arguing basically since she's the head of that project on there. We'll see how everything comes out, but I still think that...I was pushing for we should have pushed back our development on the other stuff and got something out there...
Eurogamer: You lost the argument then.
John Carmack: Yeah [laughs], I lost the argument. So it was stick to the plan on here, get the Wolfenstein stuff out there, which is a known quantity, we will definitely be successful with that, we think it's a better game than anything we've done before there. We have a sense of what we'll do in that market. It should be okay. But I think if we had rushed something out on the iPhone that it would have been worth doing.
John Carmack is president, technical director and co-founder of id Software.