As an interviewee, Tim Willits embodies the spirit of id shooters – wired and unpredictable. Sitting in a hospitality room high above the blinking LEDs and self-cooling PCs of QuakeCon 2017, he shifts in his seat, as if barely contained by it.
“Multiplayer maps,” he tells me, “that was my idea.”
The story goes that, back in the ‘90s, Willits had just finished designing Quake’s shareware episode, and the cutting room floor was filled with map fragments. So he suggested to id’s two famous Johns, Romero and Carmack, that these fragments could be salvaged for deathmatches.
“They both said that was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard,” Willits recalls. “Why would you make a map you only play multiplayer? So I said, ‘No, no, no, let me see what I can do.’ True story.”
Back downstairs at QuakeCon, teenage prodigy Clawz has taken the Champions trophy from Quake veteran Vo0. But the real grudge match is only just beginning. I land back in the UK to learn that John Romero has disputed Willits’ account, claiming that no such map fragments existed and the conversation never happened. “As a game historian,” he blogs. “I know it’s very important to get the facts right.”
Then Carmack puts his weight behind Romero’s counter-account. As does Tom Hall, and American McGee, who calls Willits a “serial credit thief”. It’s as if the ‘90s luminaries of the FPS genre have reunited for the first time, all in opposition to a recording on my dictaphone.
Finally, Willits digs into his files from 1996 and, with the help of staff at id, gets a map fragment up and running that looks an awful lot like Quake multiplayer. “I stand by what I said and I’m not wasting my time on this anymore,” he says. “Now I am getting back to working on the newest Quake game.”
The episode leaves me certain of two things. First, that there isn’t sufficient room on Planet Earth to prevent the egos of ‘90s shooter designers from rubbing up against each other. And second, that Tim Willits has been right at the heart of the FPS genre since its earliest days.
What distinguishes Willits from his peers is that he’s remained in that spot – guiding id Software right up until the end of last week, when he left the studio at the conclusion of QuakeCon 2019.
— Tim Willits (@TimWillits) July 27, 2019
Under Willits’ supervision as studio director, id has scrambled back to the peak of its pile of skulls. While shooters will never be the dominant force they once were, the developer stands again at the forefront of gaming culture and design.
That was never a foregone conclusion. Before 2016’s Doom, id hadn’t released an indisputably great game for a decade – arguably for two. The studio had relinquished its independence to Bethesda, and the worry was that it would lose its identity – especially after its last remaining founder, John Carmack, was sucked inside a VR headset and never seen again. But identity is something Willits has paid particular attention to during his tenure.
It was in late 2011 that id made the decision to cancel the Doom 4 it had spent three years developing as a COD-influenced spectacle shooter.
“Every game has a soul,” Willits later explained to IGN. “Every game has a spirit. And it did not have the spirit, it did not have the soul, it didn’t have a personality. It didn’t have the passion of what an id game is. Everyone knows the feeling of Doom, but it’s very hard to articulate.”
What followed was a long and painful wait before id could reestablish its reputation. Rumours circulated that if the team got it wrong, id could be reconfigured as a tech-building studio for Bethesda’s other developers. But when Doom 2016 was finally revealed, it took the roof off QuakeCon. The hard call was the right one.
Of course, in order to stage a comeback, you need to make mistakes. During his reign, Willits oversaw two of id’s most divisive games – Doom 3 and Rage.
The former’s aesthetic of high contrasts wowed critics on release – the last time id would get to astonish an industry with sheer technical fidelity. But its slow pace and horror focus has left it feeling tangential to the Doom series as a whole. Rage, meanwhile, was hamstrung by its own ambition, too early to nail its open world mechanics or its MegaTexture streaming, which proved blurry and inconsistent. Willits told me it was the “dumbest technology thing ever”.
But redemption came this year, when Willits got to collaborate with open world masters Avalanche on a Rage 2 that delivered in all the areas its predecessor fell short. In fact, in one corner of the game you can find a character named Wimothy Tiliits, sat on the toilet, stroking rats and laughing his head off. It’s a fitting send-off for a man who has seen id fall from grace, and kept his nerve long enough to help it rise again.