This afternoon, in an empty conference room inside the Hilton Anatole—a bizarre amalgam of hotel, conference center, and shopping mall—John Carmack sat alone in an uncomfortable metal chair, staring straight ahead. The technical director and co-founder of id Software, the company that invented the first-person shooter genre that now dominates much of the hard core video game industry, patiently waited to give the opening keynote of Quakecon 2011, a fan conference held annually in Dallas, Texas since 1997.
A reporter leaned across the red banner that separated the press seating from the general seating area and blithely asked Carmack if the conference organizers were making him sit in place so that they wouldn't lose track of him.
"I just want to see what they're going to show at the beginning," said Carmack, referring to the marketing and general conference housekeeping announcements that would open the keynote. Once the stage was set, Carmack would be ushered on to impart the wisdom, both anecdotal and specific, that comes only from twenty years of being one of the world's most clever—and certainly most famous—graphics programmers. He would also answer questions from the audience after his talk, "as long as the questions remained smart."
The fans were allowed into the general seating area. An especially ardent vanguard pushed their way to the front of the conference room, sat down, and began to cheer. They had just caught sight of Carmack, the man who had been the guiding force behind games like Doom and Quake, games into which they had poured hundreds or thousands of hours of their lives. (Not to mention the dozens of games not programmed by Carmack that were derived directly or indirectly from technology developed at id Software.)
Carmack explains how best to break the idTech 5 engine in its least powerful version on the Xbox 360, when there is no hard drive installed: Walk in reverse in backwards into a high detail area like a town, then spin your character around as quickly as possible and watch as the world's textures stream in from the DVD. Carmack noted he "might get in trouble" if he was misquoted.
Carmack's dispassionate, thin-lipped rictus wavered for a moment. One could almost imagine his highly methodical brain analyzing the situation and determining the most appropriate behavior: sit where he was sitting, waiting on a known process, or fork out a new response?
Carmack rose calmly from his seat, turned ninety degrees to face the predominately male crowd, and walked towards his fans.
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It is a testimony to the culture of id Software that years after video games evolved beyond as refuge of disenfranchised geeks and became one of the pillars of modern entertainment, their keynote speaker remains an engineer with a gulping, hesitant speech pattern and a tendency to spend minutes explaining technical minutia that flies over the heads of most of the rapt fans who play their games.
id is the ur computer game company, with an emphasis on computer, although its last few games have been available on home consoles and even, in quality increasingly on par with other platforms, mobile phones. It's no longer a scrappy team of a less than a dozen programmers and artists, but a mature company of 200. id may have become the elder statesmen of the industry, but they've got a lot of life left in them.
As Carmack noted during his speech, one of the milestones the company hit this year was that it turned 20 years old—and he turned the ripe old age of 40.