Interview – id Software’s Todd Hollenshead

Monday, 16th August 2010 14:29 GMT By Nathan Grayson


Anyone who follows VG247 will know Quakecon took place last weekend, so we took the opportunity to catch up with id Software CEO, Todd Hollenshead, to talk Doom 4, Wolfenstein, new technology and more.

Catch the full interview after the break.

VG247: Last year, you said that Doom 4 would be here – at QuakeCon – this year. But it’s not. In the words of black-and-white television, “you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

I thought it would [be here]. I thought it would.

Well, during his keynote, John Carmack said we were supposed to bug you about Doom 4 not being here, so I’m only following orders.

[Laughs]. Well, he said I went up and took the arrows for him, which I figure is fair enough since I did say at [last year's] keynote that there’d be no Doom that year, but Doom the next year at QuakeCon. And I think we all thought we’d be showing it this year at QuakeCon at that time. But, you know, things sort of change. And really, we do really want to wait until we have something awesome to show that’s gonna blow people away.

And the other thing is that, as amazing as the RAGE presentation was, we’re focused on talking about that as opposed to something that’s even further down the road. It’s hard to complain though, because – I don’t know of it being done, I haven’t heard of it being done – the demo on three platforms. Our guys did an amazing job, I can honestly say. I’ve actually seen the presentation, like, 30 times before, but towards the end of it, I even got, like, some goosebumps. I think part of it was the audience being really into it and stuff like that too. Plus, it really did look good and we showed stuff that we have not shown before.

So, can you say that Doom 4 will be at QuakeCon next year for sure?

Ok, I’ve learned my lesson. [Laughs].

I’m gonna let the Doom team speak about when they’re gonna show stuff. I’ll take my arrows for last year, but I’m not gonna set myself up for next year. When they’re ready, they’ll be ready. And I don’t want to speak for them.

id’s been with Bethesda/Zenimax for quite some time now. How is it? Do you ever miss the days when you were independent?

Honestly, I can say that – really – probably 95-99 percent of the way things work is exactly the same. Probably the biggest change we had is from the changes that are necessitated by growth of a company. So, prior to the merger we were at about 80 or 85 people, and now we’re at over 170. So that’s a big change. That’s had far more of an impact on how the company operates and stuff like that than anything related to the merger.

The way we develop games is virtually unchanged. There may be some more paperwork to fill out to get a person’s machine as opposed to just saying, “I need two more machines” or “Look, we need this hardware.” But I think that it’s good to have a responsible system, especially when you get to be the size [we are now]. We needed a process like that.

And so, it’s basically the same, only better.

We’ve see quite a few new technologies take the spotlight over the past year. Let’s run down the list: first up, 3D. What’s id’s stance on that? Do you think it’s a potential way forward for the industry? Do you think it’s just a gimmick? Do you think it could hurt the industry in the long run, seeing as it’s kind of a resource hog?

That’s a good question. Yeah, you know, I don’t know that there’s an “id position” on 3D. I mean, there’s some cool stuff about it. There’s no question about that. But, in my opinion, to game on your TV in your living room with a 3D TV set is expensive. They’re really costly. So I think there is a cost factor that’s going to impact whether it’s going to be widely adopted or not.

You know, there are also some technical issues as well. Like, if you’re playing a game, a lot of people move around and stuff. And I haven’t personally demoed any of the hardware, but what I understand is that you can get glasses out of sync and stuff like that, so you have to be careful. It’s one thing when you’re watching a movie like that; it’s another thing when you’re playing a game. As a game developer, you don’t want to be worried about engaging the player so much that they’re moving. That’s not the thing that you want to worry about. You don’t want to have to stop yourself at some point there. So I think there’s a bit of a trade-off that goes on there.

We’re not developing anything for it currently. I think the strategy for us from, you know, the geeky standpoint is that it’s cool to see that stuff. At the movie theater I saw Avatar at – with the [3D] glasses on –  they had the NASA demo out in space with IMAX stuff. And I was just like, “That is so badass.” There’s no question that there’s an appeal there. But I don’t know if it’s gonna get to a price point where it makes sense, or if there are going to be technical factors – like how still you have to sit and where you play – that actually take away from the immersion aspect of videogames.

So I think there are definitely some concerns. Not that those take away from the coolest aspect of it. That’s just sort of my  scattershot thoughts on it. Carmack may disagree with me. I don’t know what his opinion is on it because I haven’t talked to him.

The other big tech toy is, of course, motion control – which isn’t just impacting the current console cycle; it’s extending it. Where does id fit into that picture?

We aren’t using any of that stuff in our current development. With RAGE, I don’t expect for us to have Kinect controls or anything like that. So, on stuff in the future, it’s an interesting question. I know that John [Carmack] finds it appealing. He’s worked with some facial recognition software, and what he said in his keynote is that he plays more games on the Wii.

The question is, will it give something to our games that will differentiate them from other games? Is it gonna make them better experiences? Because that’s the key thing. It’s not, “Oh, are we gonna adopt this new thing that Microsoft and Sony are touting?” That’s not as important to us. We’re more focused on making our games as good as they can be – making the maximum enjoyable experience for the players to get out of them. And if that means bringing other aspects into them as we go down the road, then that’s certainly something we’re gonna take a look at. But if we feel like that’s not gonna add to the experience – or, on the other side, even take away from the experience – then obviously that would be a concern for us.

With Wolf 3D and Doom, the whole WASD keyboard configuration became the default for how you played shooters. And a lot of people for a long time thought you couldn’t effectively execute shooters on consoles because of UI limitations, and it wasn’t the same as a keyboard and a mouse. Most of the people at id are still PC players who play first-person games. And you can include me in that group. But, you know, with Goldeneye, Halo, Gears and all those games, the UI issue with shooters and consoles has been solved. Part of that is the reason why we’re multi-platform with RAGE. It’s not just that we like consoles. It’s that shooters now have a very strong market on consoles. A fanbase. So that’s where we want to be too.

But the issue with shooter games and [motion control] interfaces is still – in my opinion – that the implementation’s a little janky. It’s not like, “Oh wow, this is the way these games are meant to be played!” Not that we couldn’t put resources into potentially solving that, but if we did, we’d want to make sure that it was awesome and not “Yeah, this is sort of lame.”

Bullet point: our motion control is all right!

[Laughs]. Yeah. We were talking about it at the panels, and I absolutely agree with something that was said on stage, which is that you don’t want to sacrifice greatness to have more mediocrity. It’s better to have your control system be absolutely spot on – have that tactile feedback. And I think, as a company, we’re known for that. You know, John talks at the very weedy level of details about, like, milliseconds of delay with controls and stuff like that. And I think those things are really important in terms of the experience the player has and how much you can immerse them into the game – and how much they separate themselves from the experience you show them on the screen.

We would want to have that same type of interaction experience of the player with the game with the motion controller if we were to put that in a game. We wouldn’t lose something in the translation.

id Tech 5 is now Bethesda-exclusive. Why? What are the benefits of having your own exclusive engine? What were the thought processes that went into that decision?

It’s a couple things. It’s part strategic with respect to the way that we’re building up the company inside of id in terms of multiple teams. And partly, it’s a strategic decision on part of the overall corporate strategies of Zenimax, Bethesda, and now Arkane.

One of the reasons in the past that we licensed technology is that we only had one team working on games, so we couldn’t really leverage the tech to its fullest extent until we licensed it out to other teams to use it. Especially in a tech industry, engines have a fairly rapidly closing window of best use. To some extent, that’s not an issue as much anymore since we have multiple teams.

The other thing is that we really do think id Tech 5 offers us a competitive advantage with respect to what we can do within game development. And so we want to keep that within the id/Bethesda/Zenimax family.

I believe it was Carmack who said id probably won’t design a new IP for another decade. Does this mean sequels to all of id’s major franchises? For instance an id-developed sequel to, you know, the game this convention is named after?

[Laughs]. John is a little more bold in his predictions on things than I am. I mean, I’ve already sort of been burned by my “Doom 4 at QuakeCon 2010” prediction. I’m a little gun shy on it.

I think that the idea is – you know, whether or not it happens, a decade is a really long time. It’s just hard to see. I don’t think I would go that far. I think there are too many things we don’t know. You know, John kind of looks at the empirical and says, “as it has been, so shall it be ever forward” until something happens to change it. Anyway, the thought process is that we have Doom, Wolfenstein, Quake, and RAGE. As much as I have confidence that RAGE is going to be a huge hit, it doesn’t have… we hope it’s going to be popular. I expect it will.

But we don’t know. But we do know that Doom is a popular franchise, obviously that Quake resonates with people, and Wolfenstein is a game that has sentimental value to me purely for the fact that it got me involved in PC gaming. It was the first PC game I played. You know, I played Atari 2600 games. I played some games on my TI-99 480 POS machine, but I don’t know if you can honestly call that a computer. [Laughs].

I expect that we’re gonna be looking at going back to those franchises again. To say that’s the only thing we’re gonna do? I think it’s probably too early to tell.

By the same token, the Raven-developed Wolfenstein game launched last year to sort of middling reviews…

Yeah, I think it’s fair to say we would have liked for it to have had a better reception.

So is id still interested in licensing out its major franchises to other developers? Or are you once bitten, twice shy? Will we see a more internally focused id from now on?

Now with Wolfenstein, Quake, Doom, and now RAGE, we do have four IPs. Ultimately, we have three triple-A internal teams to take care of those properties.

I wouldn’t say that I would rule out that we will never work with another developer just because it’s difficult to predict. But the one thing about working with Zenimax is that it’s a little bit of a different equation in terms of working with someone within the family. Like I said, my crystal ball is very cloudy about things like that, so it’s hard for me to predict. But right now, there’s no active development on any id property outside of the company.

id’s been expanding its business quite a lot recently. You’ve moved into iPhone development, consoles, and free-to-play. Are you looking to expand further? Are you at all interested in – especially – the new horizons of PC gaming, like cloud gaming and Facebook?

It would be a hard stretch for me to see us going into social gaming. I mean, we are really more of a [hardcore studio]. The people who work at the company are gamers. You know, I know people who play Farmville and stuff like that, but I can’t say I like it that much. I’ve never even seen it.

I would totally play Quakeville.

[Laughs]. Now, see, that might be fun. But I don’t know how social of a game that would be. On the social gaming stuff, I would say that I highly doubt it.

On the cloud computing stuff, I know John has a certain affinity for technical, “Gee whiz-y” things. And that is sort of where cloud computing is right now. The issue to me with that sort of stuff currently is that you can build a fairly good example of how awesome it’s gonna be if you assume away problems like that not everyone has broadband. That’s a serious issue. You can process all this stuff on the backend, but there are people in rural US – which is where a lot of the market for that would be – that just are gonna be excluded from it.

Now I don’t know; maybe somebody has done the economic research. But I know that you can think about one  thing, but when you start trying to do it, there are unknown problems you run into. That’s been one of our experiences, like you brought up with Quake Live. You know, we know how to make games. And I think we did a great job with the game part of Quake Live. But what we had to learn a lot on were these things we weren’t thinking about when we were building Quake Live like “We want to build a subscription service,” and “All right, well, we’re gonna make it worldwide.”

We have huge numbers of fans in places you might not expect — like Poland. Seriously, it’s in the top-ten numerically as a playerbase for Quake Live. And we were like, “Wow, well that means we need to have a worldwide payment solution.” That’s something we knew nothing about, and we started into it, and we were like, “Woah, this is a pretty tricky problem!” It really doesn’t have anything to do with making a great game, but it has everything to do with delivering a great experience to as wide a customer base as possible.

As I mentioned earlier, the PC gaming market has been branching a lot recently. Free-to-play, social media, cloud gaming, MMOs, etc. Coming from a PC-centric background, how would you define PC game development at this point? And is a triple-A business focused mainly on the PC still feasible?

Well, I think it is. You know, where the huge opportunity there – just from a financial standpoint – is probably in the MMO market. Because, you know, you have a lot of cases – and one huge case, one WoW case – of where that can be a huge financial success, as well as a critical success and even getting out into the friends of the guys that maybe play one game a year or something like that.

I still think the PC is a good platform. I think the piracy problem is a significant concern, but we still see the PC as a viable platform. RAGE is gonna ship on the PC at the same time as it ships on Xbox 360 and PS3. It was kind of funny watching the RAGE presentation. When you put that sort of presentation together with stuff running side-by-side, and the PC boots up faster…

…and everyone in the audience goes completely nuts?

That’s right. These are PC fans here and they’re cheering for that, even though it’s probably at the level of barely discernible for most consumers. But, you know, you make it a competition and the PC wins, and the PC fans cheer.

One last question about the convention in general. QuakeCon had quite a bit of diversity in terms of panels this year. Will this be a continuing trend? Will we see more talent from beyond Bethesda/id’s hallowed halls?

We’re gonna do our best. I mean, that’s one of the advantages of the merger: we’re able to tap into the resources that Bethesda has for development talent. And not only development talent that’s internal to Bethesda, but development talent at studios they work with that they’re publishing.

As much as it’s still QuakeCon, I think broadening it to make it more of a Zenimax/Bethesda/id/Arkane family event is good for the event. Space pioneer and industry luminary Richard Garriott is here this year. That was one of those things where it was like, “Man, this would be cool.” And John was like, “I’ll talk to Richard!” And he was enthusiastic about coming up here. You know, he’s just down in Austin. And I knew Vince [Zampella] and Jason [West] all the way back from years and years ago in the mid-nineties, and just happened to randomly run into them during E3. It was just like, “Hey man, I know you guys have got your own thing going on, but I’d love for you to come back to QuakeCon,” and they were like, “That sounds really cool!”

Having that stuff is cool for the audience. I learn stuff from it as well. I think [the developers] have a good time. QuakeCon is a cool thing, and it’s a unique experience where people who might be making competitive games can come and be friends too.  

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  1. DrDamn

    #1 4 years ago
  2. mington

    Raven-developed Wolfenstein game launched last year to sort of middling reviews…

    Yeah, I think it’s fair to say we would have liked for it to have had a better reception.”

    We would have liked it to have been a better game

    #2 4 years ago
  3. mington

    Were they responsible for Quake 4 and Quake wars?

    (they were balls)

    #3 4 years ago
  4. LePlatypus

    @3 Quake 4 = Raven software and id
    Quake Wars = Splash damage and some other ones for consoles

    #4 4 years ago
  5. soulburner

    I just wanted to say I’m kind of offended with what Todd said about Poland. I mean, he’s genuinely shocked that we play QuakeLive, just as if Poland was a third world country somewhere on the north pole…

    #5 4 years ago