Exclusive: The John Carmack Interview

Doom screenshot

id Software

When it comes to games, John Carmack is about as legendary as is gets. The longtime game creator, programmer, and head of id Software essentially created the first-person shooter genre with Wolfenstein 3D. His later work included the Wolfenstein series, Quake games and, one of the most influential and controversial games ever made, Doom.

As of late id Software has been going hard on the iPhone/iPod Touch, releasing Wolfenstein 3D Classic, Doom Resurrection and other classic titles. We talked with Mr. Carmack about his newest release, Doom Classic, his love of Super Mario Bros., and why he’s abandoning every mobile but the iPhone.

Damon Brown: Apple leans towards a closed development system, keeping a tight reign on what developers can do with the system, while traditionally id Software has been super open, release the actual game source code out to the public. Is working with Apple a conflict for you?

John Carmack: Not really, but I see what you mean. We covet the iPhone for a bunch of different reasons. We’ve looked into Nintendo DS gaming, but we’ve also done development on Java-based phones for years. I’ve worked on other phone platforms and there is an amazing difference between, say, a Brew-based phone and an iPhone. [With traditional phones], most of the people involved are software guys or, worse, carriers, while Apple has decades of experience working with hardware and software. The SDK (software development kit, which helps game creation) is in a different league. Besides, the other phones aren’t much more open than Apple’s.

The issue is more Android versus iPhone. Android really has the support and the flexibility, but I’ve been talking with the Electronics Arts people (who publish some of id's products) about Android, and many folks are saying the money isn’t there. Also, with games, they don’t have a universal Open GL [graphics platform], standardized multitouch, and so on, so Doom Classic would need software rendering… different control schemes, different pricing for each version and, in the end, we’d probably make a lot less money. If Android takes off, it would be appealing to have a truly open platform, but we probably wouldn’t be able to utilize the different Android phones in the same way.

I have had a rollercoaster relationship with Apple for years, where we’ll be good, and then they won’t talk to me for six months because I said something “bad” in the press. But they have excellent engineers and good thinkers.

Damon Brown: What’s the biggest gaming limitation with the iPhone/iPod Touch?

John Carmack: Right now the most frustrating this is the shifting software problem: When you have two thumbs onscreen, about one-third of the processing is focused on reading their location – when there are other things that need to be monitored. It’s a stupid thing. [iPhone software version] 3.1 evidently had a small fix for this, but the real fix will be feedback taking less energy from the phone. It’s been surprisingly stable with Open GL (the foundation of the graphics). When I transfer Open GL to a new platform, it usually breaks! Now Open GL is being optimized, too, and will be even more robust.

Damon Brown: As you mentioned, there has been very little, if any, id Software development on the popular Nintendo DS and Sony PSP…

John Carmack: Actually, we got the SDKs and the hardware specs, but we never got around to producing.

Damon Brown: Why?

Damon Brown: As you mentioned, there has been very little, if any, id Software development on the popular Nintendo DS and Sony PSP…

John Carmack: Actually, we got the SDKs and the hardware specs, but we never got around to producing.

Damon Brown: Why?

John Carmack: Why? I carried my iPhone with me all the time! We have a few DSs at home that my son loves, but I don’t really have an interest. It is business, but it helps to work on a system that you would personally use. My guess is that dedicated game systems won’t be here much longer – we’ll have devices not committed just to gaming. We’re not there yet, as the dedicated game machines still have the better specs, but it will be easier to make the iPhone and similar devices into a cool gaming machine than it would be to, say, turn the PSP into a phone.

Damon Brown: I think they already tried that! Now, game companies are beginning to take their big, complex console, PC or Mac games and doing smaller, portable versions for the phone. Are you considering bringing a little version of (your upcoming title) to the mobiles?

John Carmack: Yeah. We’re hoping to have a Rage-themed racing game next year. Not like kart racing, but more of a smash and combat game. I’m not positive it will happen, but that’s what we have slated for 2010 alongside a couple more classic updates and another RPG.

Damon Brown: What about a Commander Keen update?

John Carmack: [laughs] I get asked about that more than I would expect. People still remember Keen – it wasn’t huge back then – but 20 years later they remember. I would never port the original – first of all, I can’t even remember where all the assets are – but I do love platformers. I love playing Mario with my 5-year old son, and I even have a graphic hook and ideas for controls if I did do a platformer, but I have no time. Maybe I’d play game development with my kid and put what he draws [onscreen]. I have a lot of things I’d like to do that would be successful products and fun to do. I have a dozen things like that. But no time.

Damon Brown: The iPhone is clearly a solid gaming platform, but it has no joystick. How have you reconciled that with your fast-paced shooters? How hard was that hurdle?

John Carmack: The control system, starting with Wolfenstein 3D Classic, was originally an experiment. I originally thought we couldn’t do it, so that’s when we started working on Doom Resurrection, which didn’t require first-person shooter controls.

It wasn’t until I worked with Electronic Arts to get Wolfenstein RPG back on the rails that I started experimenting with controls. I know people have taken Doom Classic to the jailbroken iPhones way before the official version, but this is an example of putting the [original computer] code into a new machine and leaving it at that. It’s a novelty. But with Doom Classic, you see how much time we put into the controls.

Damon Brown: Like you mentioned, you’ve dabbled in RPGs, at least on the mobile.

John Carmack: We’re bringing Wolfenstein RPG to other phones (which use the Java and Brew code), but that will be the last we deal with traditional mobile phones. We’re leaving them for the iPhone. We actually did a great deal of money in the mobile space before the iPhone, probably more than other companies, but developing on them kind of sucks right now with the carriers, cramming a whole game into 600K, and so on. It’s so offensive, it’s absurd. The iPhone development is so much smoother.

Damon Brown: Finally, what other genres do you want to explore?

John Carmack: If I had the opportunity to do another genre, it would be a platformer. We were talking about bringing more people in from EA and using the resources to make different games, but that has been held off for now. It’s not happening in the interim.