John Carmack said he's a reason id Software didn't become more like Epic. He doesn't regret his company's graphics tech no longer being a go-to system for the industry.
"There is a lot of good to be said about Epic and Valve and the tacks that they've taken," Carmack told me during an interview in Dallas last week during QuakeCon. "They've both grown to be much bigger companies than id Software was.
"And, you know, somebody could look at this and say I held id back, because I did not want to grow the company into a really big company at those times. And maybe we would have been better off to do that, but we came off pretty good, so I'm not going to kick myself over any of that."
Today, id largely makes its graphics tech for its own games. It's previous graphics engine, id Tech 4, powered few of the industry's games. The next one, id Tech 5, is first and foremost being developed for id's own next big game, Rage. It's companies such as Epic that make the graphics engines that power so many games on the market.
Earlier this decade, id Tech 3, the graphics technology used in Quake III Arena, was widely licensed in the industry, used in games like EA's James Bond Everything or Nothing and the first Call of Duty. At the time, Carmack told me, id didn't have the support team to handle a wide number of licensees. "Our technology license stuff was, 'Ok you pay this and you can have eight hours of technical support," Carmack recalled. "You can come down and talk to me for eight hours. Mostly it's, you're on your own, because we didn't have support staff."
To do that better and for more game companies, id would have to grow. Carmack didn't want that. "We knew that we didn't want to have the big support staff like they have for things. And I didn't want to give away the kind of freedom. When you have 50 licensees on stuff like that, you are handcuffed."
Carmack couldn't tolerate having to accommodate the need to minimize his own programming efforts in order to not shift code too much and unsettle the other companies relying on the same tech. "The work I'm doing now on id Tech 5 is changing some fundamental class hierarchy stuff across all of our resources, and it's the right thing to do. It's better, because of that. It's incredibly painful just doing it in our codebase. There's no way I would contemplate doing that if I had 50 other development teams that would have to go through and make similar changes on there."
Money left on the table? Perhaps, Carmack said. "It's a good business on there. We did great on the Quake III generation, tons and tons of licenses on that. But it does tie up your arms a little bit technically and it does mean you're out of the game business and you're in the technology supplier business. There are aspects to that that are admirable. There's definitely a part of me that, as an engineer, says it would be great to try and document this really well, try and clean it up and make it as good as you possibly can, because there's always this balance between making something really good code and rapidly exploring as many things as you can on there."
Let the Epics and Valves sweat that stuff, he is happy to conclude. Let them worry about making sure Unreal Engine 3, Source or whatever else works for all the companies that pay to use it.
"I don't gainsay anybody their success," he said. "I'm happy to see everybody doing good work on there. I think it's great to see Epic and Valve doing their thing. I like the industry. I like seeing the industry being vibrant and competitive. "