Commentary > Game Over
Doom and rocket science
id Software's John Carmack tackles - and conquers - both
August 25, 2003: 4:17 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - John Carmack is widely viewed as the most brilliant mind and one of the most influential developers in the gaming industry today. He is the Mozart of computer coding, creating graphical engines that consistently push the industry forward. Heck, this is a guy who spends his Tuesdays and Saturdays building an honest-to-God rocket ship.

Which makes it all the more surprising that he quietly longs for the early days of gaming.

Though he's widely regarded as an innovator, Carmack is a big fan of old-school arcade games. He's also an unlikely supporter of Nintendo's recently announced philosophy that games have become too difficult.

id's John Carmack  
id's John Carmack

"I agree strongly with that point of view, but I'm in the minority in the PC space," he told me last week at QuakeCon the annual Woodstock-like gathering of "Doom" and "Quake" fans. "I want a game you can sit down with, pick up and play. [Role playing games], for example, got to where they had to have a book ship with the game."

Lest hardcore gamers fear Carmack is going soft, he notes his fights to simplify "Doom 3" haven't always been successful. He admits the id Software developers got into bitter arguments about whether to include "crouch" and "use" keys in the upcoming game. (He lost the debate over "crouch" which now appears but convinced the team there was no need for a "use" key.)

"To simplify a game, you have to not listen to your customers," he said. "They know your product and really know what they want to add to it. ... It's always easy to convince someone that adding something is a good idea. Saying 'less is more' just doesn't go over well."

It's even harder to convince a fanbase as loyal (and opinionated) as the one id has amassed. More than 5,000 made the journey to Dallas last week to mingle and play with the people who created their favorite action games. The price of having fans that devoted? The company isn't afforded the chance to branch into other genres.

If you see a pinky demon in Doom 3, run!  
If you see a pinky demon in Doom 3, run!

"Since we're a single title company...we're constrained to do something that has a high probability of success," said Carmack. "It's unlikely id will come out with something that's off the wall."

That's not to say it plans another remake with its next game. While work continues on "Doom 3" and the team is supervising Raven Software's work on the upcoming "Quake 4," id is already kicking around ideas for its next project.

"We're not doing another sequel next," said Carmack. "We will do a new title. It will be a shooter, with a different antagonist and protagonist. ... People who have been working in the company for a long time don't want to continually rehash their old work."

With the new game will come a new engine, meaning Carmack's oft-rumored retirement will remain a rumor for the next few years.

"In the coming years, I have things I want to do," he said. "The next generation of hardware and the next engine is very exciting. There's little doubt I'll be doing that."

Armadillo aerospace consumes two days a week for Carmack  
Armadillo aerospace consumes two days a week for Carmack

Hardware advances ultimately determine what graphic engines can do. Carmack's talents lie in being able to visualize where technology will be when the game comes out. Work on the "Doom 3" engine started three years ago, based on nVidia's (NVDA: Research, Estimates) GeForce 1, technology that is now five generations old. The game, though, is a visual leap that is worlds beyond anything on store shelves at this time.

"In the computer industry recently, if you wind up leaving capability idle, it's just throwing away opportunity," he said.

It's Carmack's growing interest in those rocket ships he spends two days a week building that launched the retirement whispers. He's part of a team competing for the X-Prize, a $10 million bounty promised to the first amateur team that builds and flies a manned craft into space.

Carmack leads Armadillo Aerospace, a group that has been quietly researching rockets for three years now. It's not about the money for Carmack, who is a millionaire. It's the chance to explore and learn a new field.

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"I'm kind of at the top of my field [in gaming]," he said. "When I started reading about aerospace, I realized there was an incredible level of things to learn. ... There's this mytholigization of aerospace that it's the hardest thing you can do. That's just not true. In terms of actual difficulty, it's not that hard. Aerospace is plumbing with the volume turned up."

It also holds the appeal of being something new. And after 10 years of envisioning and creating first person shooter video games, that's a big lure. On the other hand, said Carmack, he's still thrilled when he sees the impact his titles have on the gaming community.

"Aerospace is more exciting now because I've done the game thing seven or eight times now," he said. "[But] walking around Quakecon is the point of maximum pride in the gaming process. You see people still playing a game that was made several years ago."  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an e-mail.

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