QuakeCon 2010: Carmack Ushers in the Age of Optimization


For John Carmack, technology is easy. Most game developers have a love-hate relationship with technology: They realize what it’s capable of conveying, and they struggle daily to make it do what they want. But the chief technologist of id Software seems to glide through technology like a fish glides through water.

At Quakecon in Dallas this year, Carmack delivered a keynote lasting two-and-a-half hours. It’s become a tradition at the show, and he holds an audience of hundreds spellbound for the duration. They are the faithful, worshippers of technology, who see in Carmack someone who has achieved mastery – and enlightenment.

The format is simply Carmack telling the audience what he’s been thinking and doing in his spare time over the course of the last year, the white-papers he’s been reading, and where he thinks chip-makers and hardware companies will push technology next. He does so without pause, cycling through seemingly random tidbits that instead form a mesmerizing tapestry.

Carmack tells the audience he’s done more programming himself this year than usual. “I’ve never done this before at a Quakecon,” he says. “But … I want to show something.” He takes an iPhone from his pocket, plugs it into an AV cable, and the room’s giant screens show an environment that looks like Rage.

It is Rage. On an iPhone. Carmack moves the camera around, showing off the level and talking about the technical details like frame-rates, adding that he’s already optimized it to run on older 2G iPhones.

To the audience, this seems like something of a big deal, but Carmack takes it in stride the way anyone else might not be ruffled by a round of golf or a drive in the country. “There’s my little demo there, which I was kind of proud of,” he concludes.

He likes the idea, of being able to carry the device in his pocket, and then plug it into a big screen. And the performance is there, because he can optimize Apple hardware. “I can kill anything from the previous generation of hardware,” Carmack says about the Xbox-era consoles. He admits that his demo isn’t as high-quality as the current next-gen consoles, but concludes that “it’s an interesting platform.”

Carmack casually announces that the first Rage title will actually be a downloadable for the iPhone a year before the console game version launches. In context, id Software has created some of the most widespread intellectual properties the game industry has seen – Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake. Rage marks their first original IP since the original Quake. Published by Bethesda, the game will be a cross-platform event that brings a new generation of optimization to next-gen consoles.

And for John Carmack, it’s a few nights and weekends to bring it to the iPhone a year before the game actually launches.


He asks the audience how many people have an Apple operating system device like the iPhone or iPad. Half the audience raise their hands and cheer. Then Carmack asks about Android. A quarter of the audience raise their hands, and cheer at an equal volume to that of the Apple users. “A vocal minority,” he laughs.

Which leads Carmack to talk about Google’s phone platform. “It looks like we could deploy some projects on there,” he tells the audience. But the eight megabyte download limit is a problem, he notes. When it goes to the iPhone, he continues, “Rage is going to be hundreds of megs.”

He expresses curiosity to see if people will go out and make some money on the Android platform. “You expect to see Android on everything,” he says. Carmack loves duopolies in the marketplace: nVIDIA and ATI in graphics, Microsoft and Sony in consoles. He sees them as import facets of the free market, while allowing for some standardization and optimization. “I’ll be completely happy if we see an Android and Apple marketplace”

But the heart of Carmack’s talk is optimization – getting the most out of technology. He is always considering different paths, evaluating different solutions on cost and benefit. The man reads voraciously and tells the audience: We can get more mileage from the tech that exists, than the tech that doesn’t yet exist.

“I probably am, first and foremost, a graphics geek,” Carmack tells his audience. He goes into a technical anecdote about id Software’s rendering processing being too slow during production of their current titles. His thought was to add significant graphics processing units. The idea passed the cost-benefit analysis – but didn’t work because id’s office building has already reached its cooling limit, thanks to id’s current equipment load. Which led Carmack to start looking into cloud computing.

Carmack goes on to talk about latency between controllers and displays, pleads with the audience: “Let’s stop rasterizing, let’s ray-trace everything.” And he says head-mounted displays are going to be the next big thing. Later in the talk, Carmack gives the audience an update on the high-definition version of Rage. “It’s an exaggeration to call it in the home stretch, but everything is decided.”

Still, Carmack admits that there is a constant tension between specialization in one topic and having a wide range of knowledge. “It’s impossible to stay on top of all of these broad technology areas, and still contribute something,” he says. But it remains clear to even the most casual observer that, day by day, John Carmack is optimizing the videogame industry.

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