id Software finally unveiled its new game, Rage, and made a number of crowd-pleasing announcements during a densely packed QuakeCon press conference led by CEO Todd Hollenshead and the show's keynote address from John Carmack.
Rage, which is built on id Tech 5 and will be released for PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Mac, blends first-person shooter elements and driving in what Carmack said would be a much brighter setting than a lot of id's previous titles.
No release date was announced, which is par for the course - id being well known for its "when it's done" mentality.
Equally of interest was the news that while one part of id works on Rage - a game so vast it will come on two DVDs or Blu-ray disc - a new, second development team is being created with an initial remit to create a browser-based version of Quake 3 Arena called Quake Zero.
Quake Zero will be completely free, funded by advertising. During his keynote, Carmack explained that the team making it would be built up gradually and eventually work on a fuller Quake Arena title built on id Tech 5.
If those were the biggest announcements, there were still plenty more headlines for the Texan developer to grab. Its games will now be available through Steam, Valve's digital distribution service, starting tonight. And not just some of them, but 24 archive titles that have been updated to run on modern operating systems - everything from Commander Keen to Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil.
Hollenshead, who whipped the crowd into a frenzy with almost every slide he clicked through, also revealed that Return to Castle Wolfenstein would become a major Hollywood film, written and directed by Roger Avary and produced by Samuel Hadida. Their respective credits include Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction and, in videogame adaptation terms, Silent Hill and Resident Evil on Hadida's side, and Hollenshead described them as "a team that will be capable of making the movie come up to the level of quality we've always been able to achieve with the videogames".
Castle Wolfenstein, the game announced way back in October 2005 at a Microsoft press conference, featured only peripherally, with Hollenshead clarifying that Raven Software is developing the single-player aspect while Threewave Software handles multiplayer. The latter company is best known for Quake modification Threewave CTF, and this tidbit drew cheers of appreciation from id's die-hard fans, many of whom had queued for nearly 45 minutes to attend the product showcase.
Other announcements included a release date for Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (2nd October in the USA) and confirmation that a Quake title, Quake Arena Arcade, will be released on Xbox Live Arcade in future. Interestingly, Carmack later said that Microsoft seemed to be against retro projects for Live Arcade most recently, and that id had had to work harder than it did with Doom to convince the platform holder to host its new Arena title. He confessed to not really understand Microsoft's "strategic meanderings", but acknowledged that, as the biggest software company in the world, he was prepared to defer to their logic to some extent.
Prior to that though, the discussion of new products gave attendees a demonstration of Orcs & Elves on DS, as well as some information on its mobile forerunners like Doom RPG, which id announced has sold 1 million copies worldwide. Orcs & Elves DS is expected to be "available for the holiday season" according to Katherine Anna Kang of development partner Fountainhead Entertainment, who demoed the game to a receptive audience.
The press conference element of id's Friday showcase then concluded as Hollenshead made an impassioned claim for id Tech 5's relevance in a world of technology licensing perceived to be dominated - at least on PC and 360 - by the strength of Epic's Unreal Engine 3.
"There's another option out there," he declared, prior to introducing Carmack's keynote. "Because of the way the technology works, it is really platform agnostic, which means Mac, PC, 360, PS3, so you don't have to have console hate if you're a PC player because we're focusing on the console, and if you're a console owner you don't have to wish that your version was as good as the PC because the technology does all that stuff.
"So if you're a developer or a publisher that is considering a third-party licensing solution, and you don't take a very close look at id Tech 5 among the choices of what you consider, I really think you just don't understand what your job is and you must be in somebody's pocket - and all you guys in the press can write that down," he declared to rapturous applause from fans who, in fairness, probably didn't need much convincing.
Rage's video unveiling was used to segue into Carmack's seemingly unscripted keynote, which began with a discussion of the game's history. id had finished Doom, he said, and wanted to do something new. Initially this resulted in a project codenamed "Darkness" - a dark, serious survival-horror title set on an island "with magic and creepy monsters".
However, after a year of development id took the decision to reject Darkness. It wasn't going, Carmack said, "in a winning direction". At this stage they reflected on their love of "apocalyptic road war" films and ended up with the concept for Rage - half racer, half shooter.
What structure the event had then disappeared as Carmack, in t-shirt, jeans and trainers, moved into a wide-ranging, crowd-pleasing series of interlinked sermons that touched on an incredibly broad range of topics.
One area of focus was the "degrading" process of porting cherished projects from high-end platforms down the chain of lower-end hardware, handhelds and eventually mobile phones until they were "pale shadows of something that was great originally". Given the tens of millions of dollars it would cost to develop something like Rage, Carmack posited that an alternative approach - developing a half-million-dollar mobile title to found your IP and approach, and then moving onto other platforms, as id is evidently doing with Orcs & Elves' passage from mobile to DS - could be preferable. "Instead of porting down, it's porting up. It's wonderful...We took a game that was already fun and made it more fun."
DS development, he said, made him reminisce about older projects, and programs he had coded many years before. "The DS is almost exactly one one-thousandth of the high end platform we're running Rage on," he explained, and yet moving between the nascence of Orcs & Elves and coding on Rage had been "amazingly seamless" for him, and something that he evidently took a lot of pleasure in.
It was during this section that he mentioned a desire to work on Nintendo Wii and a Quake DS title he hopes to get developed. One of the great things about being a private rather than publically owned company was his ability to make all these aspirational statements out in the open, he said.
Topics flew in from all over the place. He next spoke of how id's next mobile game would "step up a little bit on the minimum system requirements".
This took him in the direction of the first of several uncompromising observations about game development. "A high end cell-phone should kick the crap out of the Nintendo DS," he said, "but you're really hamstrung by the APIs". He called Java "a way to make things a tenth as fast as they should be," to laughter from the crowd. "Java on a resource-constrained device - that decision never made much sense to me."
He also revealed that he had been disappointed by Apple's announcement that iPhone would not allow for open development. "I had a pretty serious argument with Steve Jobs after the Worldwide Developer Conference [where id Tech 5 was unveiled] about the iPhone," he revealed. He joked that when the announcement was made that development was to be restricted to third-party "applications" via the Safari web browser, with no full programs from anyone besides Apple, he had been sitting in the front row booing and hissing. He said he was "totally not buying" the argument Apple made about security. "If you can't make a UNIX-based computer, which is effectively what the iPhone is, secure, there are bigger problems," he said.
A discussion of Quake Zero and the growth of team two followed, before an interesting section dedicated to something Carmack perceives to be an untapped strength of his earlier nemesis, Apple Computer.
He wants to work closely with them to ensure an incredibly responsive gaming experience, and believes their control over every link in the chain - hardware, device drivers and all - will allow an almost inconceivably deep exploration of where lag originates in the user experience. To illustrate the depth he believes he could go to, he talked about using oscilloscopes to explore the latency inherent to subpixels in LCDs, and other components. Your jetlagged correspondent was a bit out of his depth at this point, but many of the audience were lapping it up.
If that juxtaposition of anti and pro Apple commentary gave attending journalists (some of whom shamefully slipped away when the going got technical!) something to scribble down, there was more fodder deeper in. Following a lengthy section on id Tech 5's intricacies and megatexture evolution, Carmack - whose primary development platform is known to be PC/360 - spoke frankly on some of the difficulties he's encountered with PS3.
"The PS3 and 360 are far closer than any two gaming platforms have ever been before," he began. "[But] there's no doubt that when you have a problem moving over it's going to be the PS3 - it's just the way it is."
The PS3 version of Rage will take more effort to get right, he said, although he doesn't imagine the end product will suffer in any noticeable way.
Right now though, the developer is "suffering through" problems relating to the way PS3 and 360 respectively deal with memory on Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, which is in development at UK-based Splash Damage. "The PS3 version is lagging quite a bit behind in terms of getting it up to the same quality and experience," he said.
Elsewhere in his speech, there was terrific fodder for fans - he said he wants to make a Smartphone application to fly his Armadillo Aerospace spaceship via Wi-Fi, and that he built the 3D engine for Nintendo DS by holing himself up in a hotel for two weeks. Later he joked about how he can legally make his spaceships fly around the world after someone asked if they could function as ballistic missiles and hit North Korea. It was quite surreal.
In all, Carmack spoke uninterrupted for an hour before opening the floor to questions for close to another hour. Some of it was astonishingly hard to follow for anyone with a less than professionally technical background. "When I started off the new generation of technology, it was a pure shadow buffer renderer, and you could at least initially choose between lots of different sampling parameter levels, and the conclusion I reached was four-tap sampling is acceptable, not spectacular," he said in one of his more understandable comments.
Plenty of it was accessible though, and he won big cheers during the Q&A for saying that he would continue to put out open-source programs. Doom 3 will become open source, he said, although he wouldn't commit to a date, and even id Tech 5 will at some point.
He also won a spontaneous round of applause when he attacked patents, calling them "reprehensible" and "a sham". They are, he said, "a parasitic tax on those who do creative things".
Towards the end, he admitted that the decision to go with Steam for digital distribution was partly because he didn't want to become a publisher. "I don't think you're going to see id take on any massive, infrastructural sort of changes [that would lead to that]", he said.
He was self-critical too, talking about inherent flaws in Enemy Territory (the tick-rate for animation is 30Hz and the frame-rate is 60Hz, apparently, although he reckons this is acceptable in-game now), and denying a suggestion that Havok physics were going into id Tech 5 by commenting on Raven's decision to use Havok for Quake 4. "I thought it was a bad decision - I still think it's a bad idea."
Overall, despite falling behind Epic (to whom he paid tribute) in engine sales and deferring to Valve for digital distribution, Carmack was relaxed about id's profile. He said a business-orientated id Software would have been different, but concluded that he's quite happy how it's wound up.
For id's fans - particularly the die-hards who sat through all three hours of announcements, keynote and Q&A - that view found great reflection, and objectively few could argue with the fact that in a handful of minutes at the start, id announced more initiatives, products and plans than Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft put together managed in three lengthy press conferences three weeks previously at E3 in Santa Monica.
It may have been long, and some of it may have been utterly impregnable to many in the audience, but Carmack and id were nevertheless spellbinding, and if the projects announced tonight enjoy as much care and indulgence as has been heaped upon the company's fans at QuakeCon, they will be of merit considerable enough to demand the attention of a far wider audience than the one that packed itself into the Hilton Anatole to listen to their heroes declare their ambitions for the next half-decade.