I’m sitting in the reception area, giant Smarties cookie in hand, waiting for my turn to interview the creative director of id Software, Tim Willits. The cookie is for Mr Willits, who turns 40 on the day of our interview. While I’ve come prepared with the obligatory list of questions about his new game, RAGE, there’s something else I’m curious about, but I’m not sure how to ask without seeming impolite. So when it comes time for my interview, I hand over the Smarties cookie and hope that a delicious biscuit will guide the way.
“So... many people consider id Software to be the father of the first-person shooter,” I say.
“But nowadays when people talk about first-person shooters, they don’t necessarily think of id games. They think Halo or Call of Duty or Battlefield. How do you feel about that? Are you OK with letting these new games dominate the genre?”
I half expect Willits to dodge the question or at least get defensive, but he doesn’t.
"You can't play Halo or Call of Duty without thanking id," he says.
"Heck, every time I launch Modern Warfare 2 and on the legal screen it says 'Technology Provided By id Software', I'm like 'Ooh, yes, look at that!'. Any time a game sells 25 zillion copies, it's good for everyone. To be a part of that and to see how the industry in the first-person genre has blown and expanded is a very exciting thing," he says.
To better understand where Willits is coming from, it is perhaps necessary to look at his 17-year career (and counting) at id Software. In his time at id, graduating from level designer to creative director, Willits has worked on some of the most influential games of our time, including The Ultimate Doom, Quake, Quake II, Quake 3 Arena and Doom 3. It is without hyperbole when people describe id as the father of the first-person shooter, and many of the games that Willits has worked on continue to be incredibly influential today.
"If you look at the internet back in 1996, Quake was the first true 3D game," he says.
"Quake was the first real action game that had a client-server architecture — at the time people found it weird that someone would let their computer run a server so strangers could use it and play games together, but now it’s just common place."
"Modding really took off with Quake and there were so many people who started in the industry making Quake levels. It spawned competitive gaming, it spawned web pages dedicated to gaming, it really made death-match a more mainstream word, it gave legitimacy to cyber athletes and opened that door to that kind of career. The things that Doom and Quake did were huge — heck there are still people whose friends call them by their Quake name not their real name. I think Quake has done more good for the industry."
Willit's sense of security is one born from understanding his achievements and contributions to the world of gaming. Having paved the road for the first-person shooter and reaching such high levels of critical and commercial success, id Software could have gone down the path of being overprotective of their ideas, denying people access to their technologies and monetising their existing franchises. But they didn't. They were always motivated by something else.
“We could have made Doom 1, Doom 2, Doom 3, up to Doom 15, we could have trademarked death-match, we could have developed a whole army of people to license the technology and just made an empire of the FPS out of Doom and Quake, but that's not really what John [Carmack]and the rest of us wanted to do,” he says.
“We wanted to take risks, we wanted to make different games, we wanted to stay small, we've never had a technology group, we've never had a producer who was dedicated to helping our licensees work on the game. I believe that we followed the passion of making games more than we followed the passion for the easy buck and I think gamers have always appreciated that."
For Willits and the team at id, game development isn't about setting goals, conquering them, and calling it a day. It’s an ongoing process of making things that excite them and then sharing it with the world.
Willits describes the studio's success as being an organic process — they simply kept making things they believed to be cool and players responded accordingly. By the time Quake clans and dedicated web pages had spawned, it took them by as much surprise as anyone else, but there was never a Beatles-like rockstar moment that signalled that they'd made it, that suddenly changed their mindsets and made them feel like they could rest on their laurels.
“Quite the opposite, actually," says Willits.
"After Doom, myself and a number of guys went into CompUSA (an electronics retailer in the US) to sign Quake. We walked into the store and the store manager says ‘Are you the Doom guys?’, and we said ‘Yes!’, and he said: ‘I thought you’d be more exciting. I thought you’d be different.’”
Willits jokes that id developers are much cooler in the virtual world than in real life, and that while their games have changed the world of gaming, they are ultimately a team of developers who constantly feel the need to challenge themselves.
“When we set out to create RAGE, we knew we had to make it different to Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein — we could not follow the same formula,” he says.
“We could not have Wolfenstein: Nazis in corridors. Doom: demons in corridors. Quake: aliens in corridors, and then make RAGE mutants in corridors. We really had to do something that was bigger, deeper, richer.”
Willits says that there are elements in RAGE that they would have never put into an FPS in the past such as driving and story, but he believes it’s no longer about ticking the boxes of a genre.
“I don’t even like the word genre,” he says.
“Why can’t you just make a game? Is it a fun game? Yes. What genre is it? I don’t know, but it’s fun. Sometimes when you put labels on games like that you kind of put them into a shoebox and it’s hard to get out.”
My time is up before I’ve even asked any of my RAGE questions, but that’s OK. I leave the interview knowing that the team behind some of the most important games in history hasn’t lost any of their passion and enthusiasm for making things that excite them, and that gives me a great sense of appreciation and respect for their newest release, which has so much riding on its shoulders.
I thank Mr Willits for his time. He thanks me for the giant cookie.