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Q&A: id's John Carmack on Mobile Development

Q&A: id's John Carmack on Mobile Development

May 2, 2006 | By Frank Cifaldi




Earlier today, Electronic Arts announced Orcs and Elves, the second cell phone game to be developed simultaneously by Fountainhead Entertainment and id Software co-owner and technical director John Carmack. The game is a follow-up to last year's Doom RPG, using what is essentially the same pseudo-3D environment, coupled with turn-based play.

Gamasutra sat down with John Carmack to discuss just what in the heck the technical director of Doom 3 is doing making mobile games, and where he thinks the future of the industry lies.

Gamasutra: Why mobile? What was it that brought you into mobile game development?

John Carmack: "It actually was sort of a random set of events. I've never been a cell phone guy, because I'm not a chat on the phone person. But a year and a half ago, my wife gave me a new phone. It had a nice color screen, but really bad games. I thought, 'Oh, these are awful.' So one night I wondered how much trouble it would be to do a real decent game. I poked around a bit, and found out that I could download all the devkits. So I downloaded them, and made a little 'Hello World' program on the phone and thought, hey, this is kind of neat."

"It's like the old days. So I gave a little bit of thought to, okay, if I wanted to make a product, what would be a good thing to do on a phone? The problem is that people aren't looking at it as a unique platform, they're thinking, 'what other IPs can we shoehorn over here?' And if you do that, you wind up with an appallingly bad game. 'Well, this sort of has the power and capability of a Nintendo, so let's try Nintendo games.'"

"I came up with a half dozen different things that I thought would be good titles, with the limited interface. In general cell phones have a good screen, decent memory, good audio, but the input is definitely the weak point. And again, sort of by random happenstance, one game I was playing at the time was Baldur's Gate on the GBA, which I enjoyed. Fun little game. So I was thinking in RPG mode, and the thing I settled on doing was a sort of quasi-3D RPGish genre."

GS: [The previously Jamdat-published] Doom RPG?

JC: "Right, though it didn't have the franchise attached initially. It had a 3D engine so you can render around in any given point. But rather than controlling it like you'd control a first-person shooter, or say EverQuest, it's turn-based. So you get the kind of immersion you get in a 3D world, instead of just slapping tiles on the screen. And the final step we had...when I looked at it I was thinking, with a Doom movie coming out that year, it was a shame that we didn't have a product coming out at the same time. And there was no way to have a console or PC game ready in time, but I thought hey, we could do this mobile game in six months."

GS: And did you have it ready in six months? How large was the team?

JC: "Yes, we got it done, and with a tiny team. I did the render engine and proof of concept, and a demo of basic movement, over the course of two retreats, basically. And then after that, the core staff at Fountainhead was four people. That's it. It's been of course interesting and mildly depressing that with the sequel, Orcs and Elves, we have almost twice the staff and twice the time working on it. The thing is though, even at twice as long, it's a fraction of the time of PC or console development."

GS: In the past, you've expressed frustration for the limitations of the Java platform. Having now finished two games that run in Java, have your feelings changed?

JC: "I generally like developing for BREW a lot better, I feel much more directly in touch with it. It doesn't have stupid abstractions that Java does. No doubt about it, Java is not a good platform for resource-intensive programming. Having said that, an interesting apsect of the mobile platform as it's evolving is that the power is advancing at a really rapid rate, much more so than PCs or consoles. The mobile may not be as competitively resource constrained on these phones. It may mean that the whole issue of Java may not be as important because resource constraint may not be important."

"On the console and PC, you really do have to try to wring out whatever you can, even if it means a $20 million dollar development cost. On the mobile platform, you're looking at this and saying you're not going to make millions. If you have more power than you can take advantage of, it's a novel sort of development challenge for people used to working on PC. And that may turn out to be the saving grace of Java. If mobile really takes off, and you start getting super competitive development cycles, which would be different tha all the platforms we've got now, that gives a really significant advantage to BREW."

GS: What is the transition like between being a programmer and being a designer? Do you feel that the two are co-dependent?

JC: "I don't just blindly make technology. It's not like I'm sitting here saying, 'What is the coolest technology I can use?' It's about what technology I can use for a game design. I'm always looking at and rejecting technologies. Maybe it won't be conducive to the type of game I like to do, or maybe it would just make a really great looking screenshot."

"So certainly I had more gameplay involvement in this than with Doom 3, where I was not that involved in the development process because I was intentionally backing off from that, since I hadn't been as involved in the hardcore gaming scene as I used to be in the earlier days, and we had people there I thought were more in tune with our market. But certainly the early RPGs, the old Ultima-s and Wizardry-s, are a genre I'm still really fond of, so it was fun to go back and revisit all of that."

GS: What is the one thing that the mobile games industry needs right now, more than anything?

JC: "The thing that would make the most difference, in terms of really making the games really good, are some changes in input capabilities. I've seen prototypes where you can turn them sideways and it looks like a Nintendo pad. That would do worlds for making the games a lot of fun, you can do the really great sidescrollers and stuff like that."

"That would make the types of games people are used to playing accessible on the platform. But it is still potentially the case that there are novel new types of games, that don't require phones to be a tiny little console, which might make the platform a success. It's always impossible to predict a paradigm shift, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that there may be breakthrough titles done without massive changes in the infrastrucutre."

GS: Are mobile games good business yet?

"JC: Doom RPG has been a good success so far. We'll be collecting royalties on the next check. One of the neat things is that the market isn't frontloaded like PC or consoles - it's accelarating. so I think it's good business right now. But we're certainly not laying off the console work."

Further information on Orcs & Elves was by Electronic Arts earlier today - the game will be available exclusively to Verizon Wireless customers on May 9, 2006, and nationwide in July.


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