id Software has been synonymous with PC game engines since the concept of a detached game engine was first popularised, and with the launch of each successive round of technology it's been expected to occupy a headlining position.
With Doom 3, that didn't quite go according to plan. The engine - these days referred to as "id Tech 4" - pitched up during a console transition that ultimately saw id cede dominance to competitor Epic Games, whose combination of Gears of War and Unreal Engine 3 sold millions of games and sold licences off the back of them in a manner more accustomed to their great rival.
But if the shortfall in id Tech 4 licensing demonstrates anything then surely it's the fickle nature of the market, and with id Tech 5 the Mesquite, Texas-based developer is keen to right wrongs and regain its crown - if not more. Not only is id Tech 5 a multi-platform solution, but business development director Steve Nix believes it's the cleanest multi-platform solution available; and not only does id claim that it takes as much advantage of the present generation of consoles and PC hardware as anyone is likely to, but it also claims to do away with texture memory limits that often diminish a game's latter-stage graphical fidelity in order to secure frame-rate.
Eurogamer: Apart from multi-platform support, how would you summarise the strengths of id Tech 5?
Steve Nix: Clearly it's an entirely new rendering solution. It's a massive extension - id Tech 4 with the MegaTexture approach being applied to the terrain is basically the first cut at it. In id Tech 5, all the textures are virtualised on everything - your characters, your buildings, cars, everything. So you have unlimited texture memory, which is huge, because - particularly when you're developing console games - one of the main things you'll see developers getting upset with each other and fighting with each other about is texture budgets, because one guy wants more texture memory for the characters, another guy wants more texture memory for the weapons or the view models, and it's a huge problem.
What happens is, as the game development goes on, you're trying to get your performance to the minimum specs, and you make the game look worse and worse and worse as you get closer to gold. With id Tech 5, with the virtualised texture system, we completely eliminate that. You can lock down the geometry and the gameplay and put a number of artists simultaneously working on the world and they can just make it look better and better and better until finally you're at the point where the game looks as good as you need to ship. It's a huge paradigm shift in the way game developers can work.
Eurogamer: What's the reaction been to that when you've put that to developers?
Steve Nix: Phenomenal. It's funny - we thought it was cool and that we knew what we were doing, but the more we started talking to people about it, their excitement level was so high we were surprised. Their response was, 'Oh my god, are you kidding me? We don't have to worry about texture limits any more? That's a huge breakthrough. That's our number one problem in development.'
Eurogamer: Was the fact that memory limits are a huge problem the thing that prompted you to take that developmental path - or did it come about more accidentally?
Steve Nix: I think it was a little more organic than that. I know that when we started working with Splash Damage on Enemy Territory they wanted large, detailed outdoor terrains, and they had some ideas on how to dynamically load the textures and everything, and John [Carmack] said, 'Why don't we try this new approach and make the entire terrain one massive texture, and then just load blocks of texture in dynamically that you can see at any one given time?' So John did the initial work on it, got it up and running, and it just so happened that that work was the basis for what we have in id Tech 5.
I don't know whether or not John would have gotten to that result without id Tech 4 and Enemy Territory, but I know it's something he's been thinking about for a while. I think with id Tech 4 that greatly accelerated us getting to that point in id Tech 5.
Eurogamer: Last night Todd made a very impassioned claim for the engine. He called it "another option", and people will assume he meant "besides Unreal Engine 3". How do they compare?
Steve Nix: I don't spend much time looking at Epic's current offering or what their product line is - we've always just done our own thing at id, so we don't spend too much time thinking about them.
When we look at the competitive landscape, of course Epic's frequently mentioned, and you have other sort-of pure rendering solutions and they have some tools too, but the other competitor we have is people who do in-house development, so if people want to start a multi-platform game they ask themselves - should they adapt and alter technology? Should they write their own technology? So there are a number of competitors in the marketplace, but clearly no one has our virtualised texture solution with MegaTexture, and I'm not aware of anyone who runs as cleanly as we do out of the gate across the platforms - especially not the Mac.
We have the PS3, the 360, the PC and the Mac all running at a very high frame-rate - basically all running at 60fps right now - and what's really unique is that when an artist builds an asset they don't know what they're building it for. They build the exact same model, the exact same level, and it doesn't matter what platform they're putting it on. That's a huge breakthrough. A lot of times you'd have your PS3-optimised assets, your Xbox-optimised assets, your PC-optimised assets, and at the end of the project you'd do this ugly Mac port. If not an ugly PC port. We think that the fact developers can cleanly simultaneously develop all four platforms is a huge change.
From the beginning we had seen that multi-platform was the way to go, and when John first architected this new engine he said it's going to work and have multi-platform, and it was built with that in mind and that's why it works so well. Everything from the fact that you can almost instantaneously get new assets into the game, but also crazy stuff, like an artist can be working on a map and you're driving around in the car and, the next time you come around to that part of the track, in real-time what the artist has just done is there on the walls.
It's an amazing piece of technology. John's sort of assessed where game development was going a few years ago when we started working on this new tech and I think he's really knocked it out of the park. As the guy who manages the technology licensing business, he's made life very easy!
Eurogamer: The other part of Todd's quote last night was that if, as a publisher or developer, you don't consider id Tech 5 for your engine, you either don't know what your job is or you're in somebody's pocket. Now, developers might look at it in terms of the cleanness, the multi-platform approach, the virtualisation of textures, but publishers will probably be more mindful of the cost. How are you going to fit into the current technology pricing model? Do you feel you have to undercut Epic or anything like that?
Steve Nix: I don't think we need to really be concerned with anyone else's pricing, because we believe we have the best technology solution available. However, we have a history of very fair pricing for our technology. For our older technologies the pricing's on the webpage - you can look them up. I think we've got id Tech 4 currently at USD 250,000 against 5 points. I'd verify that actually, before you put it! [id Tech 4 page on idsoftware.com] For all the older stuff, we have the pricing up there.
The only reason we haven't been very public about id Tech 5 pricing is because honestly we haven't developed our final plan there. But we have a history of - like I said - being pretty fair, and I expect that our pricing will be...that we're not going to lose business based on price. If our engine's not quite the right engine for someone, for the type of game they want to make, they can make their decision, but I doubt we're going to lose business just solely focused on price.
Eurogamer: Are you talking to the platform holders about stepping inside the circle of their development tools or anything like that? Making yourselves part of their development offering?
Steve Nix: We've talked about the various middleware, officially approved programmes, and we're having those discussions. Obviously we work closely with Sony, we work closely with Microsoft, we work closely with Apple and we work closely with Intel - and even with AMD and ATI and NVIDIA. We work closely with everyone. As far as the support level and our interaction with those companies, we work very closely with them. All the major players in hardware and OS regularly to the id offices and they'll meet with John and talk about their roadmaps and John will say 'here's where I think you should go'. John was a major player in Apple adopting GL as their rendering solution for the desktop. So John's always talking roadmap with those guys, and we have pretty good relationships.
Whether or not we take the more formal approach of being approved middleware providers, that's something we're talking about, but I don't know to what degree it...it'll help to some degree, but publishers for the most part and developers know who we are, they know we make great technology, and getting a stamp of approval, I'm not sure if that's a tremendous Delta Force honestly.
Eurogamer: It must be slightly weird for you personally working at a company where the business ambition is different to, say, a publicly listed company. For example, looking at a business, I would expect you not to tie in with Valve on Steam but to want to crush them. Do you feel that there's a contradiction there, in that you're trying to get the best out of id Tech 5 but actually it's more freeform around you, and a case of 'we'll just do this because it sounds fun'?
Steve Nix: Yeah, I mean, a lot of times we don't think about things at id in pure business terms, and it's this really wicked catch-22 situation because if we did think about those things in pure business terms we would frequently make decisions that aren't as good as the decisions we end up making when we think about being game developers and technology developers. Unfortunately I think what happens is, if we thought about ourselves more in pure business terms we'd end up selling our souls to the point where we wouldn't make good technology and game decisions. So I really like the balance.
id's...clearly we're a healthy company, we've had a history of success, but we also get to do these really cool things just the way we want to do them, and I love that feeling that we're not having to make decisions for purely business reasons all the time.
And a lot of times what happens is, these things that business people - and I count myself as a business-person, that's my background - we say 'oh, what's id's doing there?' but it turns out to be extremely clever business decisions. John has a history of open-sourcing the id technology, and a lot of business people say 'that's crazy - you're giving away the farm', but the thing is that John's saying, 'I'm going to make new cool stuff - I don't care if people look at my old cool stuff'.
What happens though is that pretty much any time someone brings up a new rendering platform, the first thing they do is they bring up one of our games, and so these guys already know how to use our technology, they're playing around with id technology, they have technology on their mind, and also they're going in and showing high-level executives this new hardware that just happens to be running one of our games. So there's really not much value in those older engines, but what a lot of people said was really not a good idea turned out to be a good business decision, and that's just the way it turned out. I mean, John's so far ahead of all of this a lot of times in the way he sees the chess moves play out.
Steve Nix is director of business development at id Software. Part two of this interview (dealing with everything besides id Tech 5) will be published next week. Probably. STOP RUSHING US.