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Interview: Welcome To The Id Experience

Interview: Welcome To The Id Experience Exclusive

May 14, 2009 | By Chris Remo

May 14, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Seminal Texas-based Doom and Quake creator id Software has diversified a great deal over the years, with AAA titles like Rage and Doom 4 in internal development, plus iPhone and mobile remakes of titles like Wolfenstein 3D.

The company now works with different publishers, rivals Electronic Arts (publishing Rage via EA Partners) and Activision (which is making a Wolfenstein update at its Raven studio), after a long history of working only with the latter. And alongside all this, says CEO Todd Hollenshead, the company still manages to stay lean.

In this in-depth interview, which adds to his recent comments to Gamasutra about the studio remaining "games first, licenses second" on id Tech 5, Hollenshead explains the state of his company.

Topics discussed include plans for Rage and Doom 4, Quake Live's debut, the company's mobile/iPhone game initiatives, working with EA Partners and Activision at the same time, and how the company so deftly juggles so much at once:

How much have you grown the company in the last several years?

At the end of 2007, we had 46 people. By the end of 2008, we had 86 people and had hired, through turnover and things like that, 45 additional people. And now we're at 97 or something like that.

For me, there -- John [Carmack] talks about this, too, but certainly it has become more and more evident to me -- are now people at the company that I don't know. And I started when I was, like, employee 13 or something like that. It's a vastly different world.

It does seem that like for a company making two AAA games, that has their hands in all these other places, you're not bloated.

I would say we're actually quite small. Our average team size... We're around the 35 range on the Rage and Doom teams, exclusive of our animation department, which is like seven to nine guys. The Quake Live team is only a dozen guys or so. And Wolf mobile is like five or six people. Our numbers might not add up there because I internalize them a little differently.

You're talking a handful of level designers on each project, a lot of artists relative to programmers and designers. We do have to rely on management structure to keep everything going.

Do you deal much with outsourcing or contractors, or do you keep it mostly in-house?

Mostly in-house. We'd like to outsource more stuff, because that would allow us to reduce some of our time to market. There's stuff that you have to do inside, your key art, your characters, and things like that that you can't outsource. But, you know, trees and dirt? Do you really need that to be a gating factor on shipping a game?

In a perfect world, every little pixel would be completely perfect in a game, but in the real world, it doesn't happen like that. In the real world, if it did happen like that, games would never ship because art is one of those things that's arbitrary in terms of when it's done.

id's Major Internal Projects

So you're not likely to ship an internal product until 2010, right?

Right. Wolfenstein is When-It's-Done, but I think there'll be an expectation that's going to be created pretty soon about when that range of date and time is going to be.

Rage is not this year, and Doom is obviously not this year, since we started it up last year. In addition to work on all these things, we did a significant amount of work on Enemy Territory: Quake Wars internally at the company, in addition to Quake 4.

We did a lot of work, actually, on the multiplayer for Quake 4 when it came out. After Doom 3 shipped, we did a whole lot of work with Vicarious Visions on the Xbox version. We've been quite busy on all these projects, and getting Rage done.

How focused are you guys on engine licensing this time around with id Tech 5?

Well, our philosophy really hasn't changed from what it's always been, which is games first, licenses second. And so, working on Rage, and working on Doom 4, which are both id Tech 5 games, are certainly our top priorities.

We have seeded tech out to a few licensees. We're kind of not in the mind that we need to go and talk about in press releases who all is using our tech, so we'll leave that up to those people for when they're ready to make those announcements.

We are continuing those efforts, but our philosophy on that has been that we'd rather have a small number of good fit, high-quality developer licensees than a bunch that aren't really good fits or that may not be that bright of a licensee anyway. Because we think that the licensees, for us, given that that's our strategy, are going to have an impact on how the technology is perceived. And so we'd rather have those be really good fits.

That's presumably pretty similar to when you work with Raven and Activision, for example?

Similar to that, yeah. very similar.

Publishers: Activision Vs. EA

You guys worked with Activision for years, and you're now simultaneously working with EA [which is publishing Rage] simultaneously. How has that situation been after years of a one-publisher arrangement?

And the Doom stuff is still up in the air. We haven't chosen anybody about that. In fact, we haven't even shown the game to prospective publishers. We'll probably be doing that later on this year.

But it's been good. The EA guys are good to work with. A number of the EA guys that we work with used to be at Activision at one point, or we worked with them in some capacity in one form or another.

We have a lot of respect for those guys, but at the same time, I've got a ton of respect for the Activision guys... I mean, the Raven guys are obviously enthusiastic about their own project, but even the guys at the Activision level, not at the Raven Studio level, they're like, "Hey, we want to get Doom. We want more id games."

In all honesty, there was a little friction at first, but at this point, we don't have any animosity towards Activision. They've been a great partner over the years. They've sold tons of games for us. I think we've made them lots of money. So, okay, we're doing one game with EA. We're independent. That's kind of our prerogative. They don't own us, so that's sort of their risk, too.

I imagine from an independent perspective, there is probably a utility to having those two publishers feel like there is some element of competition for further titles. That probably is something that benefits you to an extent.

Yeah. One of the downsides of being independent is you may not necessarily know where your next check is coming from, and there's sort of some element of risk there. But the upside is that you really want to be able to maximize your opportunities, and the key to that is getting competitive marketing deals.

And so you do think that there is an element of, "If you never go out and test the market, you're never going to know what it is."

EA Partners seems more actively interested in independent development partnerships than any of the other major publishers right now -- I've got to assume that was a pretty big factor for you guys.

Yeah, it was. They really are a separate operating division within EA, so -- at least, the idea is -- the reason why EA Partners is set up separately from their internal stuff is that they can actually service external developers, independent developers like ourselves, like Valve, et cetera, as if they don't have the rest of the internal competition for resources because they are separate.

And that way, you kind of stand on your own merits in that regard. Because they're separate, because they have their own P and L, the responsibility, they fight for that stuff just like they're an independent company, but they're able to leverage the power of the organization.

Now, when we did the deal with EA, that was prior to... Or kind of concurrent with the sort of Activision Blizzard merger coming down... and Activision Blizzard wasn't actually bigger than EA like they are now. There was some also consideration that EA has a superior worldwide distribution network than Activision. They gave us some compelling arguments on that, and we figured we'd let them give a try to find out ourselves.

So Rage and Doom are made by you, an independent studio, whereas Wolfenstein, although the IP is owned by you, is published and funded by Activision and developed by an internal Activision studio. I imagine that by default leads to more control on their part.

Exactly. And we take a smaller share because they're paying the bills, and it's their studio, and all that.

id And Mobile, iPhone Games

What's going on for you right now in the mobile arena?

Todd Hollenshead: I think there's been maybe a little bit of confusion, and I can understand it, too, but we have two Wolfenstein mobile games -- and then of course the big Wolfenstein game. So, there's actually three separate things going on.

So, there's Wolfenstein, which is a separate project, and Wolfenstein RPG, which was initially released on handsets last month. But then, that's also coming to the iPhone.

I'm not exactly sure where the status of that project -- is because I was a little confused myself -- but John [Carmack] did the primary work on bringing the handset version over to the iPhone, and I think EA has to do some functionality polishing and things like that.

That, I understand, is coming soon. And I guess just yesterday, somebody had some program that was going through our web servers or whatever we had, something that was left up, which was actually the source code... I think somebody posted: 'Oh, you can get it for free if you jailbreak your iPhone.'

But all you're getting is the source, because John used some GPL code in the Wolf 3D port to iPhone, so he actually sort of staged the source to be uploaded as soon as the App store went on. And I guess somebody just found it, and everybody's like, 'Ohhh.'

I'm kind of surprised it... I mean, I thought it would be good, but I didn't think the controls were going to be that good -- just because I was kind of skeptical about it.

But John really did a pretty awesome job. Good compliment on that, which shouldn't surprise anyone. He was the one that came up with the controls, WASD and all that stuff for the keyboard and mouse anyway. It works pretty slick. It takes a little bit getting used to, but once you get it down, it feels quite natural. And there are a lot of different ways you can customize it, too, so it's pretty cool.

It sounds like you’re going all out for the iPhone. You've got Wolfenstein 3D, you've got Wolfenstein RPG, and when I talked to John last month, he hinted at the possibility of Quake 3 on the iPhone.

Yeah, I think there's still probably some networking stuff that needs to be worked out on that. John really likes the iPhone... he's a graphics aficionado and a technophile and all that stuff, and the problem with making mobile handset games is you really have to go for wide market penetration, which does limit what you can do from an innovation standpoint, especially in terms of graphics.

We do four versions, a low-end Java, a high-end Java, a low-end Brew, and high-end Brew, but they all have to basically use the same assets, whereas the iPhone is more like kind of a high-end console to program for, where it can really take stuff.

I can't remember what his analogy was, but it was something like, 'the iPhone is more powerful than the PCs we were using X number of years ago', so it's a cool thing for him because he can absolutely max out.

The State Of Quake Live

It does seem like id is really going just headfirst into different revenue streams. I traditionally think of id as a company that produces a big game every few years -- but now with all of this iPhone work, and Quake Live it's relatively new for the company, isn't it?

Yeah. John has been working on the mobile stuff going all the way back to... Let's see, we first released Doom RPG in 2005, so he was working on it probably in 2004, so kind of after Doom 3 came out, then he was working on that stuff.

Wolf RPG kind of took several months of development, but Wolf 3D for iPhone, John basically did with the help of a few people over the course of a couple of weeks. So, it just worked really well. And Quake Live, we've been working on that for over a year. That was a strategy -- to take the risk with a smaller game, and try to do something different there.

So far, Quake Live has worked out. Our problem has been too many people, which is the good problem to have.

How successful has it been for you? Can you give any indication?

Well, we don't want to get into hard numbers yet, but I can say that we had some projections that we thought would make it a huge success for our first month -- just literally, the one-month anniversary was yesterday -- when I left the office on Monday, we were 50 percent ahead of what our target was for the first month.

We have the people we need. The economy being as it is, it's a tough market for advertising and things like that, and there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with advertising and games, as we've learned, which is that advertisers are reluctant to put up money until they know what the demographics are and what the reach is.

And so now we have data that we can give them. It's really probably primarily male, 18 to 34 years old. The thing that's been surprising for us is that probably only about 30 percent of the players are from the U.S., and the top four markets are U.S., Germany, UK, and Poland. And in the top 25... I mean, did we sell a copy of Quake 3 in Poland? Not that I know of.

And in the top 25, that includes, in addition to Poland, Russia, China, and Japan... I don't think we sold a copy of Quake 3 in Russia or China. We maybe sold a few thousand in Japan, or something.

As for Russia, you'd think realistically, someone probably pirated that thing over there, but at some point...

Yes. Somebody sold lots of copies. [laughs] I said we didn't sell it.

Japan is interesting, because frequently that's tough for PC developers. That's not a region that has as much historical familiarity with the PC as a hardcore gaming device.

Yeah. We've done no localization either, for Asian characters or anything like that. And there are no servers over there, so these guys are playing on either American servers or Western European servers. Now, the roll-out plan is that Mac and Linux are priorities, and they should come out at about the same time, sometime soon. I don't have a date on that... but it's not too far off in the distant future.

I think that what's inside the package is really good. And people responded to it, too, and liked it a lot. That was really what we wanted to see from getting the beta out there. The queue is good, and we queued the stats, and we still don't have leaderboards turned on and things like that just because we're not actually capturing all the data because it would choke the game down.

We know we have some chokepoints that we have to work on, but those are things that I know we can accomplish... it's just a matter of leaning on it, scrubbing it down a little bit.

Do you think you might try Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory after this, as some people have speculated?

I probably can't underscore this enough, people always want to know, "What's next? What's next?" And yeah, to me personally, Wolf ET would be something that's cool. But our priority now is to finish Quake Live, really get it to where all the stuff is working like the way we want it to work, make sure that that works out, and then kind of figure out what we're going to do next there.

But from a proof of concept point -- does this work and will people show up? -- I have little doubt that that would work for Wolf ET. It's more work than what we anticipated it would be when we started off on Quake Live, but we've learned so much now, applying those lessons would be a lot easier the second time around.

From a studio perspective, you've had the Wolf stuff going on for a few years, you've got Quake Live now -- I would imagine that this allows you to really broaden the areas in which id is investing without losing your overhead the way you would by adding another team for an AAA game. Is that the case?

Yeah -- That's exactly the strategy. I mean, we do have the other team that's working on Doom, but we are trying to be conservative about how we grow the studio and be smart about it, because especially in times like these, a lot of things are uncertain and unpredictable.

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