We were lucky enough to grab him for an interview, and asked him about his personal influences, how to get into the gaming industry, and, finally, what’s really going on in Rage.
This is what followed.
Tim Willits: “Hi there, my name is Tim Willits, and I’m the Creative Director at id Software, working on Rage.”
Game Rant: As a young man, growing up in Texas, what would you say defined you as a person? Either in regards to game creation, or just your general personality?
TW: “Well, Dungeons and Dragons was pretty popular when I was a kid, before you young people took over — I have kids that are older than you! — and my brother, he was older than me, he liked playing Dungeons and Dragons. I didn’t like playing it that much, but making the maps I found pretty cool, and of course I’ve always been interested in computers — you know, I had a Commodore 64, I took Computer Science at college, and so when ‘Doom’ came out, I was fascinated by the fact that you could take the tools and make your own levels. It was really neat that I could build a map and have other people play something that I created. Back then, this was ’94, when you were one! [Laughs] Back then, and this is what was cool about it, there wasn’t much internet. So there were BBS’s, and software creation BBS’s was something that I was a member of. The mod community was teeny at this time: teeny! So it was pretty easy to actually have people download your stuff and play it, because you’d post it up to this site, this FTP site, and you’d just kinda read the description and you’d download it, and it was really exciting to have people play your stuff and say that it was good.
Then, id Software was looking for contractors, to work on this ‘Doom 2: Master’s Edition’ thing. So, they contacted me for that, I worked on that, and then they were looking for full-time designers to work on a game called ‘Strife’ at the time, and I got hired. But the great thing about John Carmack and his philosophy of giving things away for free, and letting people mod stuff that he’s created with the source code, is that id Technology engines have become great resumé makers. A lot of the key guys that we have at id now — Matt Cooper, Robert Duffy, Jan Paul van Waveren — all those guys came from the mod community. They’re the guys that made their own levels, or Robert Duffy made the editor and the Windows version, and, you know, those are the guys that make the star employees.
So, you know, I always tell young people that, if you want to get into the industry, don’t try and be a ‘Game Designer’, because it’s extremely difficult to be hired as a ‘Game Designer’; you need to have some type of skill. You know, map design is good, animation… we need more animators in the industry. You know, focus on something like that. Use an engine — whether it’s an id engine or Unreal or Source… Whatever! — make a mod, get it done, get it out there, and then go to these interviews and say “This is what I’ve done, this is what I’ve made.” Get a job as a level designer first, then work your way up to become ‘Game Designer’.”
GR: It’s funny you mention that, because when talking with the Media Molecule guys earlier today, they echoed the exact same sentiments – it’s all about making something yourself, proving something to yourself, then working on it and iterating on it, getting better and better, and then eventually you can say, “Look, this is what I’ve done, this is where I started, and this is where I am now.” It’s so much better than going in and saying “Well, I’ve worked at these great game companies, but I have nothing to show to you now.”
GR: So, going back to your childhood again: apart from games, was there anything else that had an impact on you? Any literary influences that perhaps influence the way you make games today? I know that, personally, I always try to insert a ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ reference into anything that I write, because it’s a franchise that I love, and want other people to love as well. Is there anything similar for you?
TW: “Well, it’s funny you mention that. I’ve always been a big ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ fan, and I actually have the CDs of all the original radio broadcasts. You know, I grew up in the 70′s and early 80′s, so that, of course, meant bad movies until ‘Star Wars’; so, obviously Star Wars is an inspiration. Star Trek… the re-runs at that time, before Next Generation started.
We’ve always kind of been a fantasy family; my Mom and Dad was read us ‘Lord of the Rings’ and all the books like that, and so that fantasy/sci-fi influence is kinda what got me started in that whole scene.”
GR: So, if we to look at your past titles, would we see these influences poking through? An element of Dungeons and Dragons in a new level that you’ve created?
TW: “Well, actually, I admit that I still draw all my level design. Even though I’m kinda tasked with the whole game, I still use graph paper, every day. I was actually talking to another game developer recently and he asked “Do you really still draw stuff on paper?!” *Hangs head in shame* “Yes, I still do.” I like the mechanical, manual method of drawing things on paper. You know, doing the little triangles for rooftops with the little line down the middle, and so I think that’s my main takeaway from that time; I still enjoy the ‘manual-ness’ and drawing things on paper.”
GR: So now, let’s start to look at Rage, obviously, it’s a new IP. id has worked before, on the Doom and the Quake series – where did the idea for Rage come from?
TW: “Well, it’s kinda like what I said yesterday at the Developer Session. John downloaded all this NASA data, and he was streaming this demo he made, and I thought ‘We could take this and build something really cool’. We can use this technology, and set it in this world… so, it did just kinda hit me. I like to joke about it, you know, sometimes you have good ideas, sometimes you have million dollar ideas, and once in a while you have hundred million dollar ideas. And you know, Rage, uh…”
GR: Cost a hundred million dollars to make.
TW: “[Laughs] No, thank God! [Leans into microphone] It does not cost that much!
But it was the moment when we were looking at that tech demo that John was doing… we were working on a game that was completely different at the time, I mean, [Rage] was more than a 180 turn from what we were working on, but that’s one of the cool things about id. We have the opportunity to take a game that you’ve been working on for about a year and throw it out the window and start something new. So yeah, basically it was looking at that tech demo that really set what I wanted to do [with Rage] and how I wanted it to play. Then I just had to come up with the setting.”
GR: And, obviously, the world is a post-apocalyptic world that had been hit by a meteor. So, we’ve had Fallout 3, and we’ve had other post-apocalyptic worlds — for example, in literature, we had ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy — obviously, the meteor idea is one that’s actually happened before in the Earth’s history. Where did the idea of using a meteor come from, and how has it affected the world of Rage?
TW: “Well, in regards to how we came up with this… We came up with it a while ago, it just takes us so damn long to make games, it was way before everyone else was destroying the world. It was kinda out of vogue for a while, and now it’s in vogue; you know, we wanted muscle cars with machine guns and BFG-type weapons, so that’s how we got to the post-apocalyptic world. We then just had to figure out how it was destroyed. Then I thought ‘Well, I always liked Deep Impact and Armageddon’ and stuff like that, but what’s neat about the Rage fiction is Apophis. It’s the asteroid that hits the Earth in about 2036, I think it is, and coincidentally — although I guess it wasn’t much of a coincidence — there is an asteroid called Apophis that will come close to Earth! There’s a story that I read that either the Russians or the Chinese are planning on sending a probe to intercept it around that timeframe, when it swings by. So there is a little bit of truth to it; whether or not it hits us… well, it could hit us! I mean, the governments could be saying ‘Oh, it’s not going to hit us!’ but…
So, it’s a real asteroid and it brings a mineral that we call Feltrate. That kinda plays into the story as well, so we’re pushing that Sci-fi element with this very valuable substance that was in the asteroid, and that’s kinda the hook of the story.”
GR: So, how does your character survive this apocalypse? There’s got to be a backstory to this.
TW: “Yes; before the impact, the governments of the world buried hundreds, maybe thousands, of these small little ‘arks’; they only hold about twelve people or so. There were a lot of redundancies, in case a bunch of people get wiped out, in the hope that more will survive. So, you are in that program. You come up, and the ark’s damaged; you’re the only one that survived, and you come out to find this world of mutants and bandits. Some mutants try and grab you when you come out of the ark, and you’re saved by a guy called Dan, and the whole story starts there.
So you’re playing a man from the past, but you have these ‘nanotrites’ within you — these very sci-fi elements — they help you regenerate your health and things, and so you have this juxtaposition of this old, recycled world, compared to the high-tech world from the past (ie. you). So you’re kinda like a Buck Rogers character.”
GR: So how do you explain the mutants and bandits that roam the world? If this truly was an apocalypse, you would expect everything to be dead apart from these arks below the surface.
TW: “Well, more people survived the impact than anyone previously thought, and society struggled forward. The authorities, which you ultimately have to fight against… what they did to survive is part of the story, so I don’t want to spoil that, but yeah. More people survived than anyone expected.”
GR: When we were looking through the demo yesterday, there were a lot of different environments, and you mentioned at one point, “This looks like a Western, but it’s not.” So what sort of influences are there on Rage‘s world? Obviously you have the ‘Man with No Name’ trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, etc. — are there any locations in the world that you might say “Well, this bit was influenced by this Western, and that bit was influenced by something else…”?
TW: “Well, it’s hard to kinda really pinpoint the exact influences. One of the reasons for that is because everyone in the team has their own influences that they bring to the table, but you can see things like ‘Bladerunner’ in the game, with that kinda asian-fusion to it; you can see things like Spaghetti Westerns… heck, when you get to the second wasteland, there’s a lot of Doom 3 influences in some of the authority stuff. So there isn’t any one real influence. Of course, something like ‘Mad Max’ comes to mind, and movies like that, but ‘Rage’ definitely has its own unique spin to it.”
GR: I know this is still very early to think about, but: when creating a game, you’re not just creating a character, you’re creating a universe. Do you think that, say, Doom has had sequels, with another one in the works, do you think that Rage could be an IP that — even if the main character dies at the end or whatever — do you think it’s a world that could be expanded upon in other media?
TW: “Yes, that’s absolutely our plan. The other games — ‘Doom’ and ‘Wolfenstein’ even — their universes were not as solid as our universe. You know, the Doom world was really based on ‘Scientists open a portal to hell’. That’s it. But we cautiously set out to develop a Rage world that was much deeper and richer than anything else we’ve done. This sets us up for prequels, sequels, the iPhone version… The Rage iPhone version is not the full game. It’s an additive experience; the first one that comes out in the Fall is a very small game, it’s almost like a tech demo, really. It’s not even about the character from the ‘real game’, it’s about a small subset of what you play in the real game. So that way, we build this rich world, we put a lot of hooks in it, and we have a future that happens after the game ends, and we have a past that happens before the game starts. That really allows us to have much more flexibility to take stories in different directions, set within this Rage universe. That was a conscious decision, to improve that aspect, moreso than any other game we’ve done.”
GR: This game is set for a release late next year, so how close to completion are you? Is everything there, and now you’re just polishing the game up and getting rid of the bugs?
TW: “Yup. We’re just wrapping stuff up, and trying to make it as awesome as we can make it.”
GR: There’s a lot of stories in the media that we, as journalists, report on about publishers saying to their developer ‘You have to get DLC out within the first two weeks, otherwise we’re not going to publish your game,’ or ‘You have to finish working on game X by date Y,’ which I guess is harsh and not fair. Working at id, you have the luxury of being able to take as long as you like – you know the quote ‘When it’s done, that’s when we ship it.’ Personally, I’m a perfectionist, and if I had infinite time, I’d keep writing the same 5,000 word essay over and over until it’s exactly perfect. How do you guys decide ‘Look, ok. We can’t polish this any more. It’s done.’ ?
TW: “When we run out of money. [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I mean, we always kinda know about when we want to ship a game. That’s why we’ve already announced our date (September 13, 2011), because we’re very confident that we’ll wrap it up before then. But, you know, we always set internal deadlines; you work as hard as you can and you try to make it as good as you can, you know, you never want to ship anything with bugs that you know about, and we’ve never done that, but there’s always some that will creep up on you! Really, our ethos is: set an internal date, work as hard as you can, and try to find a timeframe that works with both marketing, game placement, competitive games; you know, you gotta balance all those things together until you find that pinpoint when you want to release it.”
GR: You mentioned marketing just now. Obviously, until recently, nobody really knew too much about this game at all. Is that a conscious decision on your part? You don’t want everyone to know what’s going to happen in the story, but, up until the game’s release, are we going to see more and more of the game?
TW: “Yes, we’ll keep ramping up our marketing spin; we’ll keep going to all the trade shows; we’re working on new videos, developer diaries… you’ll see all the normal things coming down the pipe.”
GR: I guess my final question for the day has to be: When are we going to hear more about the next Doom?
TW: “Oof! You’ll have to ask Kevin Cloud that! He’s the Doom man. I’m the Rage guy, he’s the Doom man. [Laughs]”
Rage will finally release on September 13, 2011, for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. Believe me guys, it’s one you won’t want to miss.