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Carmack on Rage

August 19, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[The legendary programmer speaks to Gamasutra about finishing up work on id's latest game, what's going on with Doom 4, his mistaken predictions for the technology landscape, and the advantages of coding for iPad and consoles over PC.]

John Carmack is synonymous with hardcore game programming. Having always pushed the technology boundaries, his latest brainchild -- "MegaTextures" -- are about to get their most prominent push into the wild with the launch id's latest game, Rage, which launches in October.

In this extensive interview, he speaks about the advantages and disadvantages of the id Tech 5 engine which powers Rage, how it is to be under the same banner as Bethesda (and puts to rest as to why the id Tech 5 engine wouldn't work for the developer's upcoming Skyrim).

He also discusses the pros and cons of PC development, how working on the iPad has lead to some technological breakthroughs for his future mainline development, and how he was wrong about the evolution of console and PC gaming technology.

So you're finishing up the game.

John Carmack: We are at that point now where I'm looking back at the things we could do better and the things we will do better with Rage 2.

You're already thinking about that stuff?

JC: Yeah.

How many programmers do you have on Rage?

JC: It's like 15 or 18 on Rage. Which is a large team. Actually, one of the things that I've been spending a lot of time [with] recently is static code analysis of everything. It's interesting when you've got a multi-million line code base with 15 to 20 programmers, plus another dozen on the Doom 4 project. They're all kind of working on the same code base.

One of the humbling things that you find is that, no matter how good of a programmer you are, you write code, and you make stupid mistakes. And I am getting to be a huge proponent of really, really rigorous code analysis, because I have been going through pioneering these things, just squeegeeing through our code base, and every single programmer -- from our best to our worst -- they all make stupid mistakes, and they are unavoidable. So, we need to have more automated checks on these things.

So, you're doing that kind of thing manually?

JC: Well, I'm using tools, obviously.

But they're not automated enough.

JC: Yeah. This is a really interesting thing. So, Microsoft has got some pretty good static analysis tools, and normally they make you buy, like an $8,000 professional edition of Visual Studio, but they give it for free to all Xbox developers -- which I think says an interesting thing about this stuff. Where Microsoft figures that, well, nobody blames them for crappy software on Windows, but they do blame Microsoft a bit for crappy software on 360, so it's in their best interest to put more static analysis tools available there.

I swear, any 360 developer that's not using that is making a mistake. It will find problems in your code base. But after we got through all of that, we made it so it's warnings as errors, nobody can check in anything that doesn't pass that. We've been going on adding additional tools like PVS Studio and PC-Lint.

They start changing the way people program, because some programmers will be like, "That's perfectly legal code. What the hell is it complaining about?" It's complaining about that because it's seen a hundred cases of somebody doing it like that and messing up and doing something wrong afterwards.

You're still very hands-on with all this stuff.

JC: If anything, since the ZeniMax acquisition, it's been great. I don't even have to pretend to be an executive anymore. I don't have to go to board meetings. I don't have to do anything! I can just sit in my office and work.

My core is defined as being an engineer. I take resources and a goal, and I try and put them to the best use to get us there. That's what I do. I don't want to be doing anything else.

Let's talk a bit about "MegaTexture."

JC: One of the coolest things with the MegaTexture stuff is, at the end of the project, of course, you're always worried about breaking things. You know, any time you add a feature, you have a chance of causing a regression of some kind.

We've got this whole team, our "stamp squad". They use the MegaTexture tools, where they just fly around and they can start sort of painting in the world. As part of the game development process, that is so magical, because it guarantees it doesn't take up any more space, it doesn't cause any slowdowns, and it doesn't cause any bugs. So, we've got this whole corner of the office of guys, and they're just going through to make the game look cooler, and it doesn't have any drawbacks whatsoever. That's been a really awesome part of it.

The real benefit of the direction we took on this is it allows us to be -- at least arguably -- the best looking game. I think we've got vistas that are among the coolest things anybody's seen.

But the key point is, people might argue pro and con relative to another game, we're running at two times the framerate of almost all the competition, and that's something that I'm really personally proud of, because that was a hard-fought battle internally. Because life is just easier when you've got 33 milliseconds instead of 16, but I think it matters. I think I could have made the game look better at 30 hertz. We could have had some more design freedom.

Why is that so important to you?

JC: It's that subtle feel of that... In fact, it's interesting; I did a number of experiments during this, where we say, "Okay. 60 is better than 30. Is 120 better than 60?" And I did some test cases on there, and interestingly, almost nobody can tell the difference between 120 and 60. A few people, like high-end professional gamers, can tell the difference.

I have a buddy who swears he can tell the difference between 120 and 60.

JC: Yeah. There are some people that can tell. But the difference between 30 and 60, there are some people who can't even tell that. "Eh, it looks about the same to me." But most people get at least a subliminal feel about it. It's more responsive. It's crisper. It's smoother.

But it is interesting that that next doubling, going to 120 makes almost no difference, which means that we've got this benefit curve on here, and 60 is kind of right at the knee.

And there's other areas where we're approaching that. You talk about resolution. An iPhone 4 display, that's about at visual acuity on there, where going much higher doesn't make much difference. So, it's kind of a cool thing that in many ways, we are approaching sort of the biological limits of what betterness we can display.


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Comments


Benjamin Quintero
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Good read. I think Nintendo would be smart to court id Software into porting Rage to Wii U. They will need this kind of muscle if they are gunning for the core gamers.

warren blyth
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always cool and inspiring to hear/read carmack's words.



Very curious if the next frontier he'll push will be related to input devices, in-game animation or AI.



Rage looks insanely great (except for maybe some of the fluids pouring out of pipes/necks in the gameplay vids released so far). But everytime I see footage it pains me to see wooden character animation. I wonder if they agree? ... and I wonder if the quality of facial animation in LA Noire will scare other devs away from even trying to compete in animation/performance?

... but it'd be a great one-two punch if carmack set a new bar for in game interactive character animation fidelity, just in time for a new fallout or elder scrolls game to adopt it.



He's mentioned an interest in Kinect, and recent research into various other input devices experiments. hope he'll champion those (like TrackIR woo hoo!). But that feels like a side step footnote, ala mobile gaming.



... I have this simple view of the world that he made mega textures because he was tired of people always saying id games were claustrophobic corridor shooters.



and really, meaningful character animation seems like something others are already well ahead on (team bondi or Valve). input devices require some reliance on other companies (to make them, and the major platforms to allow them). I feel like AI in FPS games is just sitting there sucking balls, and it would be awesome if a genius like Carmack walked in an turned it on it's head.



just wishing and praying (and babbling online, hoping it'll seep into someone's mind).

warren blyth
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p.s. it occurs to me that his brief mention of focusing on running Doom4's MP at 60 fps, is likely a hint that they hope to return to id's former glory of ruling online gaming. that Doom4 will have a notable MP focus.



If Doom4 reviews claim just one thing "best multiplayer gaming experience since Quake3arena" then they'd probably sell gazilions. And it kinda makes sense that they'd want to focus on this after the limited/slow/simple multiplayer in Doom3. (and quake4) (...and rage seems to have some MP as an afterthought). hrumf.



I still hope someone will revolutionize FPS AI. damnit. :)

i feel like the main reason we crave multiplayer FPS gaming is that AI just isn't offering enough in solo.



(looking at the huge number of people who complain about horrible experiences in online games with racists/druggies/kids/etc., I'm not convinced people actually want MP gaming. they just want something more complex than classic single player crap. and maybe something that supports play with a small group of people they actually like).

(... how cool would it be if you could record a great game of mount and blade, or Left4Dead, and have it analyzed by AI - so you could simulate a replay later? Not a rigid recording, but a living game session, based on elements of the great session you noted you enjoyed. but this time it's run by AI instead of humans. I think there's tons of possibility there.)

Jeremie Sinic
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Nothing to add to the debate here but I just find your idea of the Real-gameplay-session-based-AI system very interesting. It also reminds me of the definition of the Elder Scrolls series that sum it up best to me: an MMO without the annoying players :)

Rafael Brown
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@Warren - Maybe people also like to play games online to socialize and play with their friends? You do realize that it's going to be a long, long, time if ever and likely never, before AI can replace a closeknit group of friends that one plays with and enjoys online and offline interactions with? What about playing with family members? Siblings separated by distance playing together. Parents playing with children? Spouses seated next to each other playing together?



Do you expect an AI to share stories of their family? Do you expect an AI to have an 'on' or 'off' day. Do you expect an AI to surprise you with all the complexities of human behaviour and personality?



I am actually convinced that most people DO want to play with other people, maybe people of like minds, maybe folks they can get along with. With friends, with new people, with unscripted spontaneity ... No one wants a horrible experience, but it is a ridiculous generalization at a time when multiplayer is exploding in possibility with higher numbers than ever before to say that multiplayer is made up of horrible experiences.



At a point when humans are more social and networked and interactive, the notion of going completely inward turning and interacting solely with AIs seems claustrophobic to me, even if it were a realistic possibility, which I don't believe it is, anytime soon. That doesn't mean that innovative AI isn't worth pursuing, but it should be done in conjunction with greater facilitation of social interaction.

Bart Stewart
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"[O]ne of the biggest mistakes I made in this generation, was at the beginning, five or six years ago, looking and saying, 'Consoles are basically as good as PCs,' at the time, and developing the workflow so it worked across both of them.



"Looking back now, we have PCs that are an order of magnitude more powerful, and if our workflow is instead focused on explicitly on just... you build and develop on the PC, and you decimate things into a target for the consoles."



One of the most incredibly frustrating things is that it's not just workflows that are being held back. There are actual design possibilities that are being lost.



The importance of order-of-magnitude improvements in foundational technologies is that they don't just let you do the same old things faster -- they enable you to do some kinds of things you simply could never do before. PC games could be designed to do incredible things, right now, if more developers would heed the advice given by a highly successful software engineer: stop pre-crippling the design of your games so that they run identically on consoles and PC. Start designing your games instead to take advantage of the PC's power, optimizing them (including featurectomies if necessary) to run on targeted consoles.



I'm familiar with the objections. "There's more money in consoles!" "We don't want multiple code branches!" "Console gamers would feel cheated!" But those objections don't (or shouldn't) automatically win the day just because someone says them. The possible costs have to be weighed against the potential benefits of creating games that grow the entire market because they enable incredible new kinds of features that can attract new customers.



I like BioWare and Bethesda. They make games that take some advantage of the PC's power. But even they are still designing down to the console instead of starting with the PC and porting to consoles.



Surely there's one substantial developer who will be willing to open the door and lead the way out of the console design jail? Maybe... id?

Adam Bishop
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This is a genuine question that I don't know the answer to - how large is the market for high end PC games?



Since it costs so much money to develop a AAA game, there has to be a large enough audience out there that you think you can make your money back. When a game has to sell 1, 2, 3 million units just to make back development costs, it's hugely risky to put it into a market that isn't tens of millions of gamers large. I think that's a big part of the reason you don't see it much anymore. Even PC-centric developers like Valve and Blizzard have realised that it's more important to have a game that can run of lots of machines than it is to push boundaries.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Honestly Carmack doesn't have a clue about the FPS issue. 60fps is a console thing, I assume an old tv issue. If you're on a computer, change the resolution/hertz from 60 to the max value. Stay there for a while, then revert to 60. More than likely you'll notice it, because it hurts to look at.



Most games are playable at 30/60, but any player that knows about FPS will ask for much greater than 60. If not 99 and above. You -will- notice the difference in a First Person Shooter at some point, because your skill will seem that much greater.



It's hard to explain, but if we're stuck in 60 fps that's crap. It might be more equal among players, but all you've done is lowered the skill of them.

Jacob Pederson
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Just want to jump in and say that 120 fps is not only for First Person Shooters. The greater refresh rate is actually extremely helpful on Super Meat Boy. The timing in that game is just nuts, and doubling the precision of your display certainly can't hurt :)

Adam Bishop
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Carmack pretty clearly says that they *did* test at 120FPS and that most people couldn't tell the difference.

Ajax Pliskin
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They may not have been able to tell the difference... but their brains probably did ;)

zed zeek
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I think what youre seeing is this -> often the physics etc is tied in framerate, even id's quake3 done this, thus at higher framerates players had an advantage eg they could jump furtherer.

Now carmack is talking about something else, visual framerate only.

zed zeek
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also Curtis Turner what monitor did you do your testing on?

Andrey Karpov
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"... We've been going on adding additional tools like PVS Studio and PC-Lint. ..."

Free license for the PVS-Studio static analyzer: http://www.viva64.com/en/b/0092/

Dave Endresak
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I respect John Carmack for his experience, knowledge, and dedication, although I am not a huge fan of his games. I just think that his insights are technical and can be applied to many different areas, most of which are not or have not been explored by id in the past.



Bart's comment PC gaming is important, though. It's important because PC hardware and software capabilities constantly evolve, but consoles do not, at least not until a new device or platform is released. However, it's also worth keeping in mind that using the highest level of power is not important for making a good, enjoyable game. That said, it's silly to cripple yourself by forcing design elements into console requirements when certain elements may be much better tuned for PC interfaces and hardware options. The same thing applies to mobile touch devices, of course. For example, the Japanese manga publishing industry is being forced to evolve to meet the demands of publishing on mobile devices because those devices offer different elements and challenges than the traditional print format. In fact, this is also true for areas such as academic book publishing - the publishers of textbooks and other academic writing largely continue to resist offering their products on ereaders and other mobile formats. Professors who support this stance for whatever reason only earn the wrath of students, and this does not bode well for a positive learning environment. The cost of a good gaming PC is very low now, even for a budget model off the shelf at Best Buy.



As one recent example of the possibilities, Alice:Madness Returns is great on the PS3, but it is even better on the PC with Nvidia PhysX effects. The real problem, of course, is that so-called professional "reviewers" didn't even bother to review the PC version and offer an informed, side by side comparison of the different versions, thus leading to the consumers being rather misled, to say the least.



Whether most people can detect a difference between 60 and 120 Hz may be a moot point if 3D becomes the norm, as the industry is pushing. You need 120 Hz for 3D, although that is really 60 Hz for two separate streams.



Of course, it's also important to realize that other elemens such as sound are at least as important as graphics. In fact, I would argue that there is a lack of focus on innovating sound on PCs, specifically for laptops. Offering powerful 5.1 or better sound on gaming laptops should be the next standard goal, I think, because relying on a stereo headphone jack and some sort of manipulated sound (especially headphones) is just not the best answer.

Bob Johnson
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It is sad. I am worried about battlefield 3. Is it really going to be that much better than on the consoles other than more players and bigger maps and jets?



It is getting more difficult to keep a gaming pc around these days. Fewer great games. And a gaming pc takes up so much room compared to today's other computing options. And because of those other options I do not use my gaming as a computer as much as I would have 10 years ago.



Plus the hassles of pcgaming get old.



On the other hand love the m & k controls. And sitting right in front of the monitor for fps gaming. And pcgames have always seemed more intelligent to me.

Nick Harris
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Don't worry, the Xbox 1080 will be out soon enough.



;-)



What I find sad is the first comment in the glowing Ars Technica review of Deus Ex : Human Revolution (a game many, including myself, have been eagerly awaiting for over ten years), should be this:



"Hmm... Wasn't planning on buying another game this year other than Battlefield 3, but now I'm intrigued. Steam sale for me for sure."



What? Not a pre-order?



No. How stupid of me... Why should game developers be encouraged to continue creating original quality games?



These spoiled consumers are ruining the PC gaming market as much as the Pirates - who, it is often argued wouldn't have bought the title if that was the only choice (therefore, no lost sale)

Guy Costantini
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Cloud gaming will bring it back. PC hardware I fear is doomed however.

Tej S
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Carmack is very right about using good static analysis tools to ensure that the code base is problem-free. I wonder if he's looked into Parasoft's Static Analysis tools... http://www.parasoft.com/jsp/capabilities/static_analysis.jsp?item
Id=547


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