The makers of "Quake Live," a new browser-based online multiplayer game based on "Quake III: Arena," talk about how hard it was getting it to work with different browsers and how they plan to make "Quake" appeal to a much broader audience than the just the hardcore community for years to come.
Earlier this week, id Software's John Carmack gave me an update on the company's upcoming projects like "Rage" and "Doom 4"as well as development plans for the iPhone and Wii.
But the reason we were on the phone was to talk about "Quake Live." Carmack and executive producer Marty Stratton talked about details on their new, ad-supported browser-based game like the challenges they faced and what they hope for in the future.
MTV Multiplayer: Why "Quake Live" now?
John Carmack: Well, there's two aspects to what we're trying to do on this. One thing is while historically for the last 15, 16 years we've been thought of as a high-end PC developer. But recently we've re-focused more of our efforts towards the cross-platform gaming with a larger focus on the consoles. And in many ways, [the] PC has sort of taken a little bit of a backburner for our primary focus. And one of the things that was interesting here was we took a good look at what the PC still actually does better than the game consoles. Because the truth is, for a lot of gaming needs, the consoles are just better than the PC. They're more of an appliance and all the hassles that people deal with and so on. But the PC is still a better platform for fast, competitive first-person shooters, when you've got the keyboard and the mouse, which is just a better interface for that type of game. And it's still better at presenting lots of information through a web browsing interface, which is still pretty painful on the consoles if you're really trying to go around and do a lot of data mining or working around a lot of different things.
"In many ways, [the] PC has sort of taken a little bit of a backburner for our primary focus... But the PC is still a better platform for fast, competitive first-person shooters."
So the idea that we had was to take the older game that we had done like nine years ago, "Quake III: Arena," and do some slight modernization of it but re-target it so that it could run inside the web browsing environment. And you don't have to run it there. A lot of people will go ahead and run it full screen. But the game is still inside a website rather than just being a game that's stand-alone by itself. And we added all of these kind of social networking, ranked gameplay-type things so that people go in and the experience that they've got is very much a web-centric experience that has core elements of it being this game.
The nice thing about "Quake Arena" is that while we released it nine years ago, and when we started development on "Quake Live" last year, there were still at any given time usually a couple thousand people playing it online. We've had a core constituency that have basically played the same game and modifications of it for close to a decade now. So we know the core experience is quite good, and we're taking that core experience and modernizing it and putting it in a slightly different environment. But it really is a grand experiment for us here because nobody's done exactly this type of thing with the same business model and the same presentation before so we're really excited to see how things start turning out in the next few days as we go open beta.
MTV Multiplayer: Do you see a trend in browser-based games like this?
Carmack: Well, when people think browser-based games, they usually think about what are fairly low-end games, like Java games and Flash games. And there is a market there on the casual gaming sphere. Some people have done fairly well with that but that's not at all the type of game that "Quake Live" is. "Quake Live" is taking something that at one time was an absolute top-notch, triple-A, very high-end title. And it is still a competitive action game. It's not necessarily the casual game in terms of what most people would think about a puzzle game or Sudoku or whatever on that.
So a lot of people will be watching to see what we do on this. If it does turn out that we can make good money [with] ad-based revenue and whatever we wind up doing for some extra feature subscription options and things like that, if it turns out to be successful, there probably will be other people that want to take a shot at doing something similar. But one of the big lessons that we learned was it took three times as long as we expected it to get the product to this state. So it looks a little bit easier than it actually is to get it down to this level of quality.
MTV Multiplayer: Why did it take three times as long? Was it the compatibility with the different browsers? What were the setbacks?
Carmack: The things that we planned to do inside the game were pretty much right on schedule. The minor clean-ups that we were doing -- the adaption of the game so that it would work for what we needed and the technical aspects, the game experience -- we had a good handle on. What we really underestimated was two things. The actual web development side of things where -- we're game developers. We're used to the compatibility between video cards, but we didn't really quite know what we were getting into with all the different browser compatibility issues and working through all of that.
"We're game developers. We're used to the compatibility between video cards, but we didn't really quite know what we were getting into with all the different browser compatibility issues."
And then, the backend side of things with the database management and all the information mining that goes on with that. We originally partnered with another company and they wound up going out of business. We picked up all of the development work on that, and that was definitely a little bit of stumbling block and took us more resources than we expected.
MTV Multiplayer: So after all that, can we expect it to work on Internet Explorer, FireFox, Safari...
Carmack: Actually, I don't think Safari is currently one of the supported platforms. Though we are currently under development and support for Linux and Macintosh.
Marty Stratton: FireFox and Internet Explorer. Oh yeah, and FireFox on Mac.
MTV Multiplayer: Could this tech be integrated into other web services like Facebook?
Carmack: You know, it's possible on there but right now... Well, [we're working on] the low level part about embedding the 3D game optionally inside a browser so that it could be re-targeted for other interesting things like that. The larger scope of the project and what most of the development has gone for is this kind of integrated website experience. And that is pretty "Quake Live"-centric on there. ... But it's not a universal thing for all sorts of different games. "Quake Arena" is almost perfect for this because it is a competitive, arena-based sort of game. And 90 percent of the games that are made really wouldn't be very suited for this treatment.
MTV Multiplayer: Why go with in-game ads versus charging a fee? Any plans for additional content that costs money?
Carmack: So the plan that we've got here is, we're going to see how we do with the in-game advertising. Because of the nature of the game, the way "Quake Arena" was set up, it doesn't feel intrusive. When you look at the game, there's big billboards and scoreboards in there, but it's an arena game anyways, and it doesn't seem really out of place there and it fits in nicely with it. We are expecting to offer a premium subscription model that lets people control the game servers directly.
"There's no intention to make it anything but free for anyone that wants to jump in and play."
But we have no plans for any kind of exclusive content or exclusive role changes or the micro-transaction things that other people do to let people gain advantages. The players will stay pretty much as determined by their skill levels. But we're expecting to be able to set something up so people can run private servers and set things up just for them and their friends with whatever rule sets they desire. And that will be coming reasonably soon. At least initially it's going to be ad-supported only, and there's no intention to make it anything but free for anyone that wants to jump in and play.
MTV Multiplayer: I heard that there's a lack of mod support. Is that still the case? Is there any possibility of it coming in the future?
Carmack: That is the biggest thing that people wind up having an issue with. It is a fairly firm decision that it's not going to be a free-for-all mod community. I mean, we paid serious money basically to run all these servers and everything. And we're not willing to have it so that people can upload any random code that they want that runs on these servers and can cause us different problems. We are maintaining control over all of this.
On the up side though, the original game is still out there -- the game that the mod community has been using forever; the entire source code is available through the open-source licenses. And I would expect that "Quake Live" would be a good thing for the modding community, where we expect to attract millions of people, many of which have never played or possibly even heard of this game before, because they'll be able to get in and play it for free.
But we really did spend a lot of time going through and picking up the things that the important mods -- the ones that were generally accepted as improving the games -- and added lots of little changes like weapon damage and different rules in the game. Things like that have been adapted into the main core code base here from what the modders have done. And it's not inconceivable that that could change in the future, but we're fairly firm on that for the time being.
"We expect to attract millions of people, many of which have never played or possibly even heard of this game before."
Stratton: Where we may see some user-generated content is in the map creation, the arena creation. I do see us running a map contest where we allow players or mapmakers to create their own maps, run a contest and maybe publish the top five though the "Quake Live" system as a community map pack type of additional content.
Carmack: And it may also turn out that we have additional game types that could be mod-author created that if they go through sort of a long, extensive beta test in the "Quake III" community on there, and it's something that they specifically want to aim for "Quake Live," that's something that we're open to, possibly bringing in later. But it's going to be a carefully managed process rather than just anything users want to throw up [there].
Stratton: And it's important to note that we have an enormous amount of content. That's why we really feel really comfortable with that decision. As part of just the initial offering of "Quake Live," we provide over 40 arenas, five game types, three of which are team modes and two of which you kind of play on an individual, solo basis. Tons of characters to play. Five of the arenas that we're offering are brand new to "Quake Live." Another six or seven arenas are from "Team Arena," which not a lot of people played. So even for players who've been playing the game for nine years, there's a fair bit of brand new content in "Quake Live" and for new players that are coming to it for the first time, obviously, it's more than what the original players paid 40, 50, 60 dollars for back when it was first released. So it's an enormous amount of content for a free game.
MTV Multiplayer: When this project started, did you have new or old players in mind?
Carmack: For this to work out, we have to attract at least a couple times more users to this free version than ever played the original game. Sometimes there's a little bit of tunnel vision or myopic vision for people that have been in a community for so long and they think that any new product has to revolve around them because they've been keeping the flame alive, carrying the torch for it for so many years. But the truth is that, for an ad-supported game, you need a few million users to wind up coming in and getting their impressions and running through the game. And that's going to be a broader userbase than the original set of people that played the game, which was, again a fairly hardcore, high-end PC title in the early days.
MTV Multiplayer: Are there any plans to develop a new title strictly for a browser? Or will we see other id games come to this format?
Carmack: It's unlikely, and it's a tough thing on this where modern triple-A, state-of-the-art game development is a matter of tens of millions of dollars of budget. The amount of work that goes into our current title "Rage" that's aimed at the 360, PS3, PC simultaneously, that's a whole lot of money, and I don't think we're going to see anybody banking on an ad-supported revenue game being able to justify costs like that. And it's tough to make something that would be targeted just at the PC. That's why this was kind of a neat, sweet spot for us because we had these assets and resources there that we could go ahead and re-target for this to do something that's going to be a highly polished release without having spent the equivalent development money to do it from scratch.
"This is the type of thing that we would hope could be supported still a decade from now."
I think the best case would be if this is successful, we'll continue to have people on it, it will remain a growing organic -- not just kick it out the door but it will have new stuff added continously. We'll support it and that will go on for as long as possible. I can say -- really I'm being fairly serious -- this is the type of thing that we would hope could be supported still a decade from now. That there will still be lots of people that are playing something online in this type of mode there, modified year after year, polished continously. And on top of that, if it does look like it's actually a win then we might take a look at these other titles we have, like "Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory." It could do reasonably well with the same treatment.
"Quake Live" is currently in open beta.