Creator of 'Doom' has a 'sneaky little plan'
PC programming whiz John Carmack sees a big future in cell phone games, but a lurking disaster too.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - John Carmack's hobbies probably aren't a lot like yours.
He spends two days a week building rocket ships. His idea of a getaway weekend consists of holing up in a hotel room and writing programming code. And he likes to speculate on worst-case scenarios for the video game industry (and believe me, this guy can envision some scary stuff).
These days, though, cell phones are his primary hobby - specifically making games for them. It started as a lark, he said, but it has become something he quietly hopes will revolutionize gaming.
"My sneaky little plan is we might be able to graduate a franchise from cell phones to one of the big platforms," he told me recently at the E3 trade show.
Lack of innovation has become a growing problem in the gaming industry, chiefly due to skyrocketing costs. Creating a top-tier game for PCs or video game consoles these days costs $20 million or more.
Some have viewed episodic gaming - smaller, downloadable "chapters" of a bigger title - as a possible cure. Rather than making big-budget games, the idea goes, developers can test new ideas in smaller bites.
Carmack said he feels the budget for episodic games could still run higher than many might expect, which could ultimately lead to a lot of 'me too' downloadable titles.
Cell phone games, though, cost a considerably less than PC or console games. If a game series can attract a devoted enough following on those devices, making a larger budget version for an Xbox or PlayStation won't carry as much risk.
"It sucks to risk $20 million on a new title these days," he said. "The industry sees maybe one truly new game per year. And we're as guilty of this at id (Software) as anyone. I mean, we have 'Doom 3,' 'Quake 4,' 'Wolfenstein'. It's not a bad thing. The industry likes that reliability and the consumer knows what they like."
Carmack's foray into the world of cell phone gaming can be partially attributed to his wife, who noticed men standing around the mall playing games on their phones as their wives shopped or tried on clothes.
She started approaching them and asking if the games were any fun. The answer, almost universally, was "No, but it's a good way to kill time."
A role-playing adaptation of "Doom" was Carmack's first stab at cell phone games. Now he's created "Orcs and Elves," which is the first new intellectual property from id Software since "Quake" was released in 1996.
Finding the time to create it proved difficult.
In addition to working on id's next major release and assisting with games like "Enemy Territory: Quake Wars" and the next "Wolfenstein," Carmack spends Saturdays and Tuesday nights at Armadillo Aerospace, working on those aforementioned rockets, and he's got a son who's just shy of two years old.
To get "Orcs and Elves" made, he had to retreat to a hotel with no Internet connection, where he worked on nothing but the game for two days.
"I just sat down and programmed for the fun of it," he said. "I thought I'd get like a smoker's tick and feel the need to check e-mail, but I was pleased to find I didn't."
It seems to have paid off. "Orcs and Elves", published by Electronic Arts (Research), got a positive reception at E3, which has led to talk of a sequel. Carmack, though, has his eyes on a bigger cell phone prize.
"We're probably going to have a sequel to 'Orcs and Elves' but I'm really into the idea of a massively multiplayer cell phone title," he said. "I have absolutely no interest in going and competing with Blizzard in the high end of that market, but a cell phone version might be interesting."
The appeal of making games for cell phones, said Carmack, isn't necessarily the technical challenges - something that has long appealed to him on the PC side. Because the field is relatively new and has many limitations that today's gaming machines do not, it actually gives designers more control over how to create the game.
"Developing games for the PC and consoles is all about everything and the kitchen sink," he said. "In many ways, you don't have design decisions to make. You do it all. So I enjoy going back to making decisions about what's important as I'm working on a game."
As gaming becomes more and more technically advanced, the controversy it has created has typically come from content. Games with violent or sexual elements have caused uproars and saber-rattling amongst politicians.
While some laws have been passed on the state level to regulate the sale of 'Mature' rated games, they have all been tossed out by courts.
Carmack said his fear for the industry doesn't revolve around content, but around security.
While he said id Software is especially careful to lock down its game engines, companies that license and make changes to those engines often aren't as focused, which could open the door to disaster.
While it hasn't happened yet, Carmack thinks it's just a matter of time before some clever hacker finds a way to insert a virus into a game engine.
"Security's a twitchy thing," he said. "If anything, the game industry has dodged a bullet because [when a virus does get inserted into a game engine] someone who's playing a game at work will unknowingly let loose something catastrophic."
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Morris is Director of Content Development for CNNMoney.com. Send him an email at email@example.com