John Carmack – interview

TouchGen talks with John Carmack, Technical Director and Co-Founder of id software on the release of DOOM classic for iPhone and iPod Touch, and the future of id games on the platform.

Read on to hear John’s thoughts on DOOM’s controls… including 3rd party controllers… online multiplayer… his dream game project for the platform… Quake classic… online multiplayer… the AppStore… and more.

The full  transcript is below. Alternatively you can listen to the interview in full in the player at the bottom of the page, or click here to visit our podcast page on iTunes to download it, or here to subscribe directly.

TouchGen: In its time, the original Doom defined the First Person Shooter; were there ever any plans to modify or add content to Doom for its iPhone release?

John: I was keeping little notes to myself about things that I would like to improve in the game, and I went through a tough design decision on there where my minds racing ahead on how I could make the game so much better, but it eventually dawned on me that I didn’t have the time to do all these things that I wanted to do, and it was better to have the game as classic, and so I’ve only change things that are sort of hidden. For example I’ve added a lot of auto aim, that no one notices and would usually complain about, but makes the game a lot more fun… But I did not change anything overtly obvious… What I’d been hoping to do was take a lot of these thoughts that I had and build a brand new game which I was calling DOOM plus plus. I was actually talking to Escalation Studios (iPhone developer on DOOM resurrection) about maybe funding the development of this and trying to take that level of technology, but with a modern game design ethic to it… and I think that would have made a spectacular game. However, I kind of ran out of scheduled resources to pursue it. There’s lots of things such as head kick damage feedback, and lots of little stuff that we can do that isn’t that expensive in terms of technology, and would make a good improvement in the feedback of the game play…. but, then it wouldn’t be DOOM! Part of that was seeing the response of when I made a few minor changes to Wolfenstein Classic that there was a bit of a backlash from people saying “well it’s not classic now that you have put in higher resolution graphics”.

TouchGen: There will always be naysayers!

John: Yeah, and the funny thing with the DOOM classic right now is that there is already an installed base of compatibility that I need to worry about. I made changes to the control system that I thought were solid improvements, but because a whole lot of people played a lot of Wolfenstein they already had a set of expectations, so a total overhaul upsets them. I regret not putting in a Wolfenstein compatibility mode on there, because while I think that some of the new control schemes are better options, people have already logged 10-15 hours of time into Wolfenstein and they may want to continue playing in the exact same way.

TouchGen: Do you feel that there is or will be one “perfect” First Person Shooter control solution for the iPhone and iPod Touch? Or do the inherent limitations when dealing with First Person Shooters mean that developers will never quite be able to replicate that PC or console experience?

John: Well personally I feel that the console experience is a huge compromise anyway, when compared to the direct action of the PC mouse and keyboard interface. With the iPhone you can play it like the console with the dual thumbsticks but without the tactile response. So I’d say it’s even a step down even from the consoles. But we’re still experimenting with things such as having the auto centering sticks in DOOM classic, which I think are a solid improvement. The rotor control is an interesting option, where I’m already getting feedback from players saying that it’s their favourite way to play, so were still figuring things out on the platform, but I spent a lot of time trying to make the controls as good as i could. There’s an interesting opportunity you don’t usually get with development. There was a version of DOOM ported over to Jail broken Iphones, which had essentially no effort put into control systems but the game played, and that can be contrasted with DOOM classic effort where I have put a lot of effort into the control systems, and it really does highlight how important it is to think about the platform and tune the controls to that rather than just worry about getting the game up and running.

TouchGen: Yeah, I actually like the default single stick option, but as I mention in the review this takes away strafing in favour of an easy to reach fire button. I read on your blog that you had experimented with using the volume control as a fire button?

John: I had people send me hacks that enabled that to work, but it’s a gimmicky thing that if you are just playing shotgun it works ok, but you can’t use it continually to fire the chaingun. It would be nice if Apple gave us direct access to those in the SDK, but I think there would be an almighty gasp to repurposing that control for it.

TouchGen: DOOM classic almost instantaneously rocketed to the top ten of the App Store; knowing that there is already a fanbase for id’s games on the iPhone, would you consider releasing, or supporting a 3rd party physical control solution to appeal to the hardcore?

John: You know, I probably would. The source code for DOOM classic is open source and should be available soon, so people will be able to use it as a base for experimenting with external control devices. So if somebody wound up developing something like that and they sent me an innocuous patch to add in, then we probably would ship it!

TouchGen: Online multiplayer is an omission that may upset some fans, could you explain why this was left out?

John: Originally I had hoped that I would be able to play over the 3G network on the iPhone, but the ping times were not acceptable. The way DOOM was originally written has no prediction ahead on it, so you can’t really tolerate a lot of latency in there, but it would be possible to play over broadband if you have a decent enough ping, but then you need a whole front end infrastructure for setting up games, and I just didn’t have the time do that. I wouldn’t be surprised though if that kind of structure for setting up games isn’t included in a future point release. Or maybe fool the game into setting up a game using a DNS service, and I wouldn’t be opposed to setting up the console to connect to an IP address…. but that’s really a gimmick.

I did spend sometime talking to the Quake Live team about what our longer term plans could be for the iPhone and iPod Touch for really nicely supporting multiplayer over the internet. But, you know, I don’t think we’ve got the right game for doing that right now. DOOM classic, as it is now, is never going to be a great internet game unless you have a spectacular internet connection on there, it’s more to be done because it’s neat, and not because it’s an awesome experience at network level. But if we did take something like the Quake 3 engine games and tuned the interface to the IiPhone and we wanted to do something great like a Quake Live iPhone league, rather than building somehting from scratch then that could work… but it takes a lot longer than people think to build a really high quality multiplayer interface. God knows we’ve spent millions of dollars on Quake live. So it’s not coming out in this product (DOOM classic).

TouchGen: So speaking of Quake are we looking for a Quake classic or a Quake 3 arena release in the future?

John: Yes, Quake Classic is the next game. We’re going in chronological order.

TouchGen: Jumping back to controls, what is your thinking on implementing the look up and down of Quake, add a touch of auto look perhaps?

John: That’s the big question. While it’s obvious you could set up using the dual sticks and have look up and down like a current console controller, you then have to do the ugly claw approach to firing. That’s the obvious way, but the least user friendly way to control an FPS. So I’m hoping there is going to be a way I can get the game running pretty much like the current games, with enough auto looking, auto aiming intelligence going on. Right now that’s a research question yet to be answered.

TouchGen: With the creative opportunities that the iPhone platform affords, do you have any plans to move outside of your core franchises of Doom, Wolfenstein, Quake and the upcoming Rage? Is there a long term plan for this growing platform?

John: Probably not. I have other ideas that I would like to do, I would love to do a platformer game, something teen themed but a completely different game, just because I love platformers and think that I could do a good job on the iPhone and iPod Touch, and I’ve got some novel technical and design hooks for it, but I don’t think I’m going to have the time to do it. What with being stretched thin with DOOM 4 and Rage on PC and consoles, as well as the iPhone development here, Armadillo Aerospace, and a baby on the way…. i’m a little frazzled! So I’m not taking on any more projects right now.

TouchGen: So you are passing the torch onto another team perhaps?

John: Yeah, we’ve got a couple of people here that are going to be dedicated to the iPhone, and we are going to see if it works out where they do the leg work on Quake classic and I can can just come in work on optimisation and control systems, while they deal with all the user interface, the distribution, testing and all that stuff. That’s how I think I can still be involved in this next year. I took a few solid months out of this year to do iPhone stuff and I think that it’s been commercially successful enough that I can justify it, no matter what you value my time at, but I don’t think I can sustain that when the console pushes are coming up for the big titles.

TouchGen: Speaking of commercial success, what do you think of the AppStore and it’s pricing structure?

John: I think the way the AppStore has been managed and ran is the biggest reason for the success of the iPhone and iPod Touch for gaming. It is really a sign of things to come in larger markets. The low price point, or slush pile of Apps on there, where people think that $0.99 is what you should pay for a game will limit the type of games that people can expect. You know you can get novelties, gimmicks, and ports of games and stuff, but you are never going to get the equivalent of a Zelda on DS budget for that price point… it just cannot be supported. I think that adding the top grossing list on there was a great move, as it partitions the market and allows people who want a gimmick to look in one list, and people looking for a seriously produced game can look at a different list. So I think that was a great step.

We’re seeing how the market goes, we’re gauging future development results on how things are doing. DOOM Resurrection for example was a bit of a gamble for us, as it was the first title that id software had privately funded, with everything else we’d produced previously through getting the publishers to cough up the money for us. It was hundreds of thousands of Dollars, so we were glad that that game turned out to be successful. However, we really couldn’t hold the $0.99 price point for a long period, as it’s just not effective in the long run, so it means that the scope of the games in future will not be any bigger than say DOOM Resurrection was.

TouchGen: What other games on Iphone and ipod Touch, if any, have you played?

John: Let’s see I don’t have 20 pages of apps like Thomas at Escaltion Studios. But I will ask him now and again what everyone is into or what the big thing is. But I’ve played racing games, several gimmick games, a lot of retro classic, like Frogger and Galaga. But I’m sure I’ve put more hours into my own games, playing Wolfenstein and DOOM Classic than I have of all the other games put together.

TouchGen: What do you thing of ngmoco’s Eliminate? Have you played it?

John: Nope. But everyone is talking about it, so I’m going to have to go check that out… but of course it’s built on Quake 3 technology so that’s very  interesting to me!

TouchGen: Thanks again John, for your time

John: Great, thank you!

DOOM classic is out now for $6.99 (£4.99). You can read our review of the game here.

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  • http://www.pyrosmile.org Matt Dunn, USA

    Fantastic interview. Great answers by John as well. Man that is one busy dude! Ironically I just watched a playthrough of Doom 3 the other day. The had to have put a ton of work into that game!

  • Nathan Mustafa, USA

    A John Carmack platformer?! Yes, please!

  • Torbjorn Kamblad, Sweden

    This man is a living legend, a genius and one of the reasons I got into gaming in the first place come to think of it. Playing Wolfenstein 3D on an old 286 PC got me hooked. Great interview.

  • legend.inc

    awesome interview guys.

  • Nigel Wood, UK

    Thanks Legend, glad you enjoyed it :)