I got a chance recently to not only play Rage for over two hours, but also interview president of id Software, Todd Hollenshead. It was interesting to hear the thoughts of a guy who’s seen and been a part of the evolution of the first-person shooter, especially right after I played Rage, and who clearly has learned from the very developers id originally inspired with its own work. The difference between Doom 3 and Rage shows a developer not afraid to re-absorb the ideas it created and which were iterated upon by other studios. At the same time, Rage clearly carves its own path: it is not the scripted, linear experience most major shooters are going with these days. It’s open like a sandbox game, it has resources and character interactions like an RPG, it has vehicle combat like Twisted Metal, and yet it still has that polished FPS core that id always brings to the table.
GR is definitely excited about the game, and so is Hollenshead, who was kind enough to kick back and let me mine his brain for musings.
GR: First person shooters have changed a lot since id invented the genre. Thinking about where they’ve come from and where they’ve gone, what changed in your approach when developing Rage?
Hollenshead: I think that we’ve come a long way baby in the first person shooter genre. The single biggest thing for me in the evolution of the FPS was the adoption of consoles. [Keyboard and mouse] is where we started, but if we just stayed on the PC still, it would be a much smaller market. Halo sort of legitimized [console FPS] and then Call of Duty blew [the concept] out of the water, and now, we even have I think, well FPS were considered more hardcore and now they’re a top-selling genre. We developed a strategy to have the same experience on all three platforms – we wanted to get away from creating a game on one platform and then handing it off to somebody else where it would lose some of the magic. With Rage, regardless of what platform you play it on, it looks amazing.
The way your character acquires and keeps this buggy over the long term reminds us of a Western hero and his relationship with his horse.
If you want to work on making your buggy badass, you can focus on that. You can spend a lot of time just racing and trying to get the best lap times. We like to think of your vehicle as an extension of your first-person avatar. A lot of the inspiration was from the Road Warrior. His car is booby-trapped, no one can take it from him, it's his. If it gets messed up he's screwed because the world is such that you have to travel from place to place. There are these oases of law and civilization and then between there are the wastes full of anarchy. These people are too afraid to go out, so they need a guy to transport stuff between settlements. It's a dangerous world out there.
Speaking of the world, an open, exploration-heavy environment is a bit different for id. Were you consciously trying to change the FPS?
I don't think we're necessarily revolutionizing the genre, but we are going to redefine what these games are like, with the storytelling, and the actors, like hiring John Goodman, we've gone to that level of detail throughout the game. What we like to say is that it's an open, but directed environment. You should always feel like, "I know what I need to do next." Not like you have to do it, but you have the ability to choose what you want to do next. The game may reward you or punish you if you go off the path, but in no way are you locked into it. The game is fairly adaptive to playstyles. A lot of the game is an exercise in resource constraints and economy management. You may think, "Why would I want a crossbow when I can have a machine gun?" Well you learn that the crossbow has an electric bolt that can fry guys standing in water, and then you discover it has a mind-control bolt where you can turn a guy into a bomb and blow up his friends.
[Note: We actually got to see the mind-control bolt in action. One major advantage to the crossbow over say a gun is that it’s silent, so you can go for long-range sneak attacks. But the mind-control bolt is especially cool – fire it into an enemy and the camera shoots across the level and you enter a third-person perspective focused on your victim. You can control him as he staggers and holds his head, and as you direct him near his buddies, they’ll say things like “Hey, what’s wrong with you, man?” Then you can detonate his sorry ass for an especially evil surprise.]
So I noticed you decided to go with the modern FPS mechanic of regenerating health. Why not medpacks?
We actually got a letter from the Red Cross saying we couldn't use the symbol on medpacks. We actually had to sign a deal with them saying we will never use that again. But really it was one of those things that we wanted the player to have choice, because you still have bandages, so you can heal yourself in combat to keep going, or you can hide, take cover and let the nanotrites heal you more slowly. With the defib stuff, we were thinking how people deal with auto-saves - not that you shouldn't save, but that whole system where you die and if you didn't save.
[There are essentially three levels of healing mechanics in Rage: you have nanotrites, which are the typical nanomachines in your blood which heal you over time, you have bandages for instant-healing (which can be crafted), and you have the defibrillator, which takes effect if you die and the defib is not currently on cooldown. It’s a minigame where you follow prompts onscreen as quickly as possible, and the more prompts you succeed, the more health you’ll have when you revive.]
Does the defib release an AOE attack?
Yeah it's like an electric field - when you hit the defib, the electric field kills the guys around you and you get revived, so you won't die again immediately because the guys who killed you will be dead. It will recharge like every 6-7 minutes, so if you're just getting killed over and over you can't keep using it. You’ll still want to save your game regularly.
It's not often you get save anywhere in a console FPS.
Yeah our programmers are complaining about that. (laughs)
So I know you've done console ports, but has id ever worked directly on console?
The last one was Doom Jaguar (laughs).
I'm wondering because you developed the genre on the mouse and keyboard, and originally I was reluctant to play FPS on controllers, but I eventually converted to where I still prefer mouse and keyboard but it doesn't kill me to play on a controller.
Yeah I still see a pretty significant skill drop off between my ability to do what I want to do with a keyboard and mouse versus with a controller. With Rage we knew that we'd have the keyboard and mouse nailed, and we found that it's easier to design with a controller in mind first and then transfer that to the keyboard and mouse. For us it's really important because we hadn't done a purely console game.
With the multiplayer component, why did you decide to go without the standard deathmatch?
We put so much emphasis on single-player that we thought it would be lazy just to say, "Okay, now go around and shoot each other." So we wanted to make something that tied into the universe, so we came up with the concept of the road rage version where it's like vehicle combat with capture the flag and combat racing. With the co-op we wanted to tell a parallel story to the single-player campaign - other characters go through familiar locations but they see different things - it's what we call layering gameplay - you can go into the same place but have everything be in a different state. The enemy positions are going to be different, but really anything can be changed around.
How did you guys come up with the idea for megatextures?
The key challenge we always face is the limitations on textures. That was something [John] Carmack decided was critical to launching on three platforms simultaneously. We basically did a dodge on the whole texture limits by virtualizing them. This is what allows all three versions of the game to look nearly identical.
Can you talk about what you've done to the AI?
The AI and figuring out how to fight them is going to be one of the most fun parts of the game. You have to think about what weapons you're going to use, and what ammo to use with each weapon – am I going to use the wingstick, am I going to use the shotgun. We tried to give the player meaningful choices. Although we call the game directed, you're not on a rail, you're not on a script. To make the world believable you have to have the bandits act like human characters. They're living out in the wastes and terrorizing the settlers. They're not going to be terrorizing the settlers if they're running around like idiots. So they have to have personalities and unique looks and behaviors. The Ghost clan is all about acrobatics while the Gearheads are all about advanced weapons and tactics. It gives the player different challenges as they go through the game.
Personally I loved Doom 3, but it got some criticism for monotony of design. Did you try to address that in Rage?
I think Doom 3 got criticism because it just never let up. [Rage] goes from super intense to placid, which is different for us. You know in our previous games you put your foot on the pedal and you’d go as fast as you can until the end. That was our style and it was great for what it was, but people get fatigued with that, so we wanted to changed that by resetting the intensity by bringing the action down, like now I'm in town and it's quiet so when I go out in the world it's double the intensity.
Aug 11, 2011