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John Carmack: Making the Magic Happen

Date Added: May 11, 2009 12:34:22 PM
Category: Games

“It wasn’t intended to come out that way,” he acknowledges, “but when it became possible to create 3D action games, we went with what was most effective in eliciting strong responses from our players. That turned out to be guns and monsters.”

In the process, Carmack helped usher in the age of the first-person shooter, forever altering the videogame landscape.

A Brave New World

“I grew up during the emergence of both personal computers and videogames,” Carmack recalls. “I was fascinated by both of them, so I naturally fell into writing games on computers. By the time I was 20, I was focused on the joy of engineering and trying to do new things that people hadn’t seen before.”

Carmack’s early years were spent at Softdisk, where he worked with future id Software co-founders John Romero, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack (no relation). The group developed a few games before they founded id Software and created the first Commander Keen title, publishing it and most of the subsequent entries in the series through Apogee Software. The games were notable for their use of some innovative programming tricks developed by Carmack.

While 1994’s Doom is considered a watershed moment in gaming, it actually built on the first-person gameplay found in Catacomb 3-D (1991), Wolfenstein 3D (1992), and Spear of Destiny (1992). It’s inarguable, however, that Doom’s success paved the way for not only the Doom sequels and Quake series but also a slew of other publishers’ first-person shooters, many of which used graphics engines developed by Carmack and licensed out by id Software. Doom also introduced multiplayer online gaming, which led to the popularization of the terms “deathmatch” and “frag.”

“Personally, I’ve always been of the sleek and minimalist design school: make sure the core play is consistent and strong, then let that idea play out against different environments and challenges,” Carmack explains. “This tends toward focusing on bio-mechanical twitch responses, audio-visual awe, and leaning more toward general strategy and tactics development over specific puzzle solving.”

For his achievements, Carmack in 2001 was honored as the fourth inductee into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences’ Hall of Fame.

Carmack is also a strong proponent of open source software, having released the source code to many of id’s most popular games. (Apple believes in a similar philosophy.) “Sharing the code just seems like The Right Thing to Do,” he says. “It costs us rather little, but it benefits a lot of people in sometimes very significant ways. There are many university research projects, proof of concept publisher demos, and new platform test beds that have leveraged the code. Free software that people value adds wealth to the world.”

The Innate Magic of Games

Today, id and Carmack continue to dive into new territory, including cell phones, where they’ve released role-playing games (RPGs) based on Doom and a new franchise called Orcs & Elves. Carmack notes: “It was a lot of fun to look at a brand new platform and work out some way to leverage all the hindsight wisdom that I had from the era of personal computers with similar capabilities. There have been huge strides in the storytelling, design, and technology.”

He confirms that “there are lots of things I would like to pursue on the iPhone, which is a very different platform than the cell phones we have designed games for.” In the meantime, he says that his interest in mobile gaming “has happened concurrent with the development of a single high-end title in Rage,” which will take Carmack into yet another new realm: outdoor vehicle racing in a post-apocalyptic world. The game made its debut at Apple’s 2007 Worldwide Developers Conference, when Carmack introduced the engine, known as id Tech 5, that powers it. That technology will also drive the upcoming Doom 4.

Musing on the current state of gaming, Carmack relates: “Recently, playing games with my four-year-old son has brought me back to appreciating the innate magic of games. Games are fabulous today in so many ways, and we have dedicated and passionate designers at id.”

As he and the 80-plus employees at id Software look to the future, it’s clear that creativity will eventually trump whiz-bang technology. “Advances in technology won’t be as significant as they have been in the past,” Carmack speculates. “Most games won’t be materially improved by simulating every drop of water in the pond you are wading through. More resources can be profitably spent to make the creation process easier.”

He adds: “How things will play out with respect to connectivity and where the data resides and processing takes place is still a very interesting question. The overlap and convergence between desktop computers, consoles, laptops, handheld gaming devices, and cell phones is also interesting. It is all still quite exciting.”

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