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Interview: Tim Willits on Rage 2

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I’m not-so-fresh back from QuakeCon, where I had a chance to sit down with first-person-shooter legend Tim Willits—who’s also the studio director at id Software and working closely with Avalanche Studios on Rage 2—to chat about QuakeCon, a one-of-a-kind id ring and, of course, Rage 2.

Read on for our Rage 2 chat, and check out David Hollingworth’s hands-on impressions of the game here.

PCG: How has QuakeCon changed?

Tim Willits: It has definitely evolved from 30 guys in a hotel room with a whiteboard and with everyone’s name and who they played, to find out who the best Quake player was. But that spirit of community and, yes, we are huge this year. If you go out to the BYOC and you talk to people and you see people working together and laughing together, you can still see that sense of small community where people come together and they like to game. Because gaming is so social.

And being next to your friend and being at a LAN party and playing games and yelling at each other, that’s the best. QuakeCon is a great opportunity for people to do this. The LAN events are becoming huge businesses and events but there aren’t a lot of small guys doing it. This is a great opportunity for people to see their friends once a year and have some fun.

With the rise of things like Discord and TeamSpeak and online virtual LAN apps like Hamachi, I always felt it would make the LAN redundant.

TW: No, because people like to be together. That’s like one of these struggles we have with virtual reality. It puts you into a world, but people love to sit together and do something together. They can do that together at QuakeCon.

Are there ways to get around that? VR is obviously something that Bethesda is going into, something that id has touched on as well.

TW: Yes, yes.

Are there ways to touch on that in a way where you can remove that disconnect, or is it an inherent problem with the technology?

TW: You’re either so connected because your virtual person is virtually sitting there. And one journalist was talking about how someone was touching his virtual person in the world and he was uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s so connected and sometimes it’s so not connected that it’s kind of hard to find that nice balance. Whereas here, or couch co-op, you find a good balance. You can be in your zone but you’ve got your buddy right there. It’ll be hard to change that, hard to push people away from that.

Perhaps AR is the answer to that.

TW: Yeah, because you can play together and still be in the world.

[At this point, I notice Tim’s badass id ring.]

Is that an id ring?

TW: It’s actually upside down and it’s quite heavy, too. It’s solid platinum. My sister, she’s the technology director at a company in America that makes all of the Super Bowl and World Series rings, so, yes.

One of a kind.

TW: It is a one of a kind, yes.

And if you ever had to punch anyone, they’d know it was you.

TW: Yes.

We’ll move on to some Rage 2 stuff now.

TW: So you’ve had a chance to play it?

No, but I get to play it later. [Alas, this is sometimes a problem when it comes to events, where interviews are scheduled before hands-on sessions.]

TW: Oh, it’s so much better when you play it. Because a lot of the questions that you ask, you’ll be able to answer yourself.

I was curious as to what the breakdown is for what id is working on and what Avalanche is working on. I know in the demo you’ve talked about that id gunplay versus the open world of Avalanche. Is it as simple as id is working on gunplay and Avalanche is working on the open world?

TW: No, but it makes for a great slide. id plus Avalanche, yay. So Avalanche does the bulk of the work, honestly, and I work with them every day. We have a group of guys that work with them every day, and there’s no real… we don’t have id Software first-person shooter tech that we just plug in and it works.

It’s like some magic recipe and each engine is different, so we’ve had to find induvial guys, like our controller expert, our animators, and some of our gameplay guys, just to look at, ‘How does it feel? Let’s count these frames of animation. Where do guys move and how do they react?’ So it’s more of a magic sauce of id-style gameplay instead of hard-and-fast rules. So where we needed experts we brought them in and we’ve bestowed this knowledge and we’ve guided them but they [Avalanche] do the work.

I’m glad you used the term ‘magic sauce’ because that’s how I think about it in terms of that id-style gunplay. Is there this feeling that you don’t want to hand it over to someone else, or make them sign waivers on, y’know, ‘this is how a shotgun feels like a fucking shotgun’?

TW: There is no magic recipe. It’s just how it feels. We say, ‘Over-the-top, powerful weapons that are situational based, and movement is offence and defence.’ But what does that actually mean? Well, you just gotta feel it. Like, you’re playing and you’re like, ‘I’m playing it and, God, I don’t feel like I’m hitting this guy at the right distance.’ We’ll turn this up and we’ll turn that down. ‘Yeah, that feels good.’ A lot of it is just experience and feeling. Because the numbers and values and how the physics work and how the events in the game work and what happens in each frame, it’s always different, and you’ve just got to feel it out until it feels right.

Having Avalanche work primarily on the game, does it help with differentiating from Doom and whatnot?

TW: Yes.

I know that there’s been talk in the past about making it more colourful to make it visually look like it’s not just Doom in an open-world-type thing, even though it’s got that Doom-esque gunplay. Are there other things you have to do in terms of gameplay to make it feel like it’s its own thing?

TW: No, not really. There are a lot of things that are very similar. Both games have a dash but if you look at all four of our big titles and our big franchises. MachineGames working on Wolfenstein, that is unique. And then Quake Champions is Quake Champions. And then Doom and Rage 2. And they are all very different, but there’s that DNA, that id DNA, that weaves through them that makes them kind of feel like they’re all part of the family, even though they’re all very, very different, so I’m not really worried. If you enjoyed Doom, you’ll love Rage 2 and Wolfenstein and Quake.

Someone is about to have a very bad day...

I’m glad you mentioned that as well, because I see the vehicular combat and I think that some of the quotes that I’ve seen earlier talk about the idea of referencing Just Cause. For me, the vehicular combat looks like Mad Max. I can see that as a foundation, but then how have you been able to take that to the next level?

TW: So [Mad] Max had some of the best vehicle combat ever. It was ridiculous. And when we showed the convoy [trailer] yesterday, a lot of Mad Max fans were like, ‘Oh, good!’ So, guns. Max had, of course, the harpoon but it was more of a vehicle, melee-type combat. So, for us, we’ve added more guns, and we had to build off the experience and not actually code base, so they brought a lot of experience to the table, so we started with a great knowledge base and then our thing is, like I said, the guns. It’s more of a shooter. If you were comfortable driving in those other games, you will be comfortable driving in this game.

You touched on the idea before with the ramps and the mutants turning up in terms of the idea of emergent moments in an open-world. How deep does that go in Rage 2 in terms of distraction off the main path and can you get completely lost and the world is reacting to what you’re doing wherever you go?

TW: It has a high distraction factor, it definitely does. And the way even the missions… you can talk to folks and you can get these locations, and you’re cruising around and that location will pop up because you talked to this person and, ‘Oh, they said this’. And you go there and it says, ‘These are the things you can do here.’ And you’re like, ‘This is fun,’ and then you can just explore the world. Do races. You don’t have to go to… in Rage, too, there was a race menu and you had to load into a race and then you loaded out. This is you just drive over there, talk to the guy, start going. You can find Mutant Bash TV places. You can just do all kinds of fun things.

Were the tech limitations of the original Rage indicative of more of the console cycle at the time?

TW: No, that was just us. That was just id Software. Our engines are deep. When you saw the id Tech 7 stuff for Doom, it is the most insane detail and structure and precision down to the very pixel. But open-world games are massive. So for Rage 2 we’re trying to [find a middle-ground between Doom and open-world games]. And, historically, our engines were very level based. So the wasteland was a big level. And the interiors were a big level, but the detail was ridiculous. Now with Apex [Engine] we basically stream in everything. Everything is coming in and out of memory, so we need to find this balance of this id style that people like but the open-world asset management. So it was just our technology at the time wasn’t architected to this.

Is it safe to then say that id Tech 7 is of the same ilk?

TW: It’s more, but it’s, as you saw, it’s very [explosive sound]. This is an area, it’s fucking amazing, but this is our area.

I also really appreciated the sense of depth that’s happening. I could still see that it’s an arena-based shooter, but when you’re looking in the background and you’re seeing ships.

TW: And the big guns going off.

There’s this sense of scale that was hinted at as way back as Quake II, but the idea that there’s stuff happening in the background, and it doesn’t feel like the old matte painting.

TW: Whereas in Rage 2, there is no matte painting. There is no background. If you see a mountain, ‘I’ve got an hour before dinner, let’s see what’s on the top of that.’ Start walking and go on up there. That’s the difference.

There’s a lot of emphasis on driving, but obviously the Just Cause games have a lot of flying. Is Rage 2 a fly-free zone?

TW: No, no, no, we have a flying vehicle. I thought it shows up in one of the videos.

It probably does, but my jet lagged brain apparently isn’t accessing that information, sorry.

TW: It’s a nap-of-the-Earth thing [very low-altitude flying], so it’s not a rocket, like in Just Cause 3. Yeah, you can fly around.

That’s awesome. One of the bigger things I find with open-world games is the balance between a lot of stuff to do and things happening to the player versus the player impact on the world. More traditional open-world games like Assassin’s Creed or something you feel your impact on the world by conquering areas and ticking off boxes and unlocking more. Have you had to think differently then about how a player will feel their impact on the world?

TW: Yes, and that’s tricky. That’s really super tricky. There are some obvious things where we have some convoys that will open up and some settlements will flip and things, but we’re definitely still working through a lot of that because we’ve got to balance it all. It’s so hard. It’s so easy when… and we wanted to get rid of that formula of, ‘I take these four towers and this whole area is now green. And I take these four towers and’… so we have tried to mix it all up. Hopefully that’ll come across good.

This is an exclusively single-player game, is that correct?

TW: Yes, but community is important. We have some community features that we’ll talk about later. We have a longer tail on the product. So we’ll have some free updates and some paid updates, but we’ll figure that out. Right now, it’s a single-player game. We feel that we are offering players enough content for what they pay for.

And you didn’t toy around with the idea of co-op or something like that?

TW: No, just because we want to be able to do anything and just build a crazy open-world. And if we want to have some game-breaking stuff, go ahead.

In the past I think you’ve referred to it as games as a service for a single-player game, which I think is quite unique.

TW: Yes, and I think that term gets twisted up a bit because most people think, ‘Oh my God. You’re going to try and chase after us and take our money!’ It’s just that we want to support the game more thoroughly after launch. Our players invest hours of their lives into our products and we want to give them depth to continue in this world, and players feel better about investing their time when they know that the game will be supported, so we want to continue supporting the title after launch. It’s important for us, and it’s also as you see a Bethesda kind of initiative with all of our titles. We want to continue to support the game after launch.

Thank you for your time.