John Carmack's biggest gift to gaming was Doom, but he keeps on giving, releasing possibly the best-looking game on the iPhone and iPad yesterday. He's been bullish on iOS gaming, but yesterday he was refreshingly realistic.
Here was a game creator who had just released Rage, an on-rails singleplayer shooter with stunning graphics, ones he believes - and can mathematically prove - are better-looking than those of many of today's console games. But he was not without an unusual humility.
"The mobile games that will define the future," the co-founder of id Software said, "are going to be more connected and social and id Software is not likely going to be the company that does one of those titles. We will take targets of opportunity and the low-hanging fruit for it, but I don't imagine we are going to be the revolutionary platform definer that really leverages mobile devices to their absolute maximum.
"We have the skill set and resource bases and vision for what we do and obviously we're tuning our very successful on all of this. But I do think there's something bigger and better that can be done than what we are doing and more than we are likely to wind up doing."
Nope. Id Software is not going to make the next big thing in socially networked mobile gaming. But they will keep forging forward with a dazzling line of graphically rich, grittier action games, a line of releases that have made Carmack one of the most successful pre-iPhone developers who backs gaming on Apple's line of mobile devices.
With Rage out, this is how Carmack sizes up the limits and the opportunities of games on the iPhone/iPod/iPad platforms.
Rage is a beast, but it's not the best the iPad can do. "I definitely don't look at this as maxing out the iPad by any stretch of the imagination." He marks its potential in the middle of today's consoles: "It is great for me to see a lot of people saying this looks better than anything on my Wii and a quarter of the games on my 360, which is about how I would rank the power levels there. You should be able to do something that's on an iPad than anything that's on the Wii. A 360 or PS3 does have several times more integral multiple more power but there's certainly some games where developers don't take much advantage of it. We're nowhere close to maxing out what can be done."
Rage is an on-rails shooter, restricting players from the freedom of movement they'll get from the entirely different console and PC Rage game coming out next September as well as from Doom, Quake and id's other classics. An iPhone and iPad lack the buttons, sticks or cursor control customary for the standard first-person shooter style of games id makes, and it doesn't sound like Carmack wants to pretend they do.
"It does feel kind of like an inferior version when you playthat," he said, referring to trying any FPS game on an iPhone or iPad. "It's cool that it's on there. It's good enough to enjoy and have fun. But clearly you're a step down from analogue sticks, which is a step down down from mouse-keyboard interface. And it just makes me think that may not be the best style of game on these platforms.
That said, he's not entirely against getting players off rails. He wants to bring some from of Quake to the iPhone, mentioning that he'd like to pull from the QuakeLive PC game resources and create a "multiplayer action thing with some minor control limitations".
Besides interface, Carmack says Rage is on rails because it helps keep file size down. The HD version of the game already takes up more than a Gigabyte, something Carmack was concerned would turn players off (maybe not; he says the HD version is "crushing" the smaller SD version in sales). If you keep the player on rails, you only need to have pretty graphics for the things the game will make them look at. If you let them walk around, then more of the game's levels have to look good. The result: "My guess is it would double the size of the download to be able to free-roam around these levels."
Still, given the reception the HD version is getting, Carmack believes iOS users are more eager for big downloads than he thought. The 500MB Myst download had been his benchmark. But if the compressed 700MB download for the HD version isn't holding people back...
Carmack can only do so much. He's been trying to carve out only 10 per cent of his schedule for iOS games. He says he broke the rule for Rage.
He loves the fast turnaround of games on the platform. Of course, it's not gas enough. "There's a half-dozen things I'd love to do on iOS right now, but the most I can possibly manage is help with two of them a year."
Two games on iOS driven by Carmack each year? From a man who knows his limitations? We'll take it.