Kevin Cloud is the most humble superstar you’ll ever meet. A member of id Software‘s storied development team since before anyone had ever heard of the company, his name has nevertheless been overshadowed through the years by the company’s higher profile designers, both past and present. Less incendiary than John Romero, less flamboyant than American McGee and less cerebral than John Carmack, Kevin Cloud has nonetheless left his mark on the 17-year-old company and the blockbuster games bearing its name.
Starting with id in 1992 as an artist, Cloud has worked side-by-side with original artist Adrian Carmack on the original Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake and most of the installments of both blockbuster franchises since.
These days however, as co-owner of the company that Doom built, Cloud has taken more of a management role, overseeing multiple cross-platform production teams hard at work on Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, coordinating with longtime id partner Raven on a sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and producing a new title they can’t yet talk about. Small wonder he considers a chance to actually make art for a game “relaxing.”
“I still work on artwork,” Cloud recently told The Escapist, “although right now I’m mainly focusing on working with Raven on [the Wolfenstein sequel] and working with the development teams on Enemy Territory. As soon as I get some time I’ll want to do some art work on the new game.
“Unfortunately everyone that’s been hired around me is just so good. … I take on work I don’t think they’ll want to do ’cause it’s so boring. If there are any crates or something like that nobody wants to texture, I’ll jump in. … And actually for me that’s kind of relaxing to get in and do pixel work like that. “
One of the reasons you may never have heard Cloud’s name is that the names you have heard bring to mind the worst aspects of the game industry: big egos, out of control production cycles, Behind the Music-style burnouts and game designers being treated (and acting) like rock stars.
But these days, with the excesses (and headlines) of the company’s early days behind it, id is the company you never hear about, unless it’s talking about games. And the people making those games, with a few rare exceptions, are the people who’ve been making them from the beginning. I asked Cloud what the secret was to id’s success at retaining key talent, a skill just as coveted as technical prowess.
“We’re a small company,” he said. “Everybody who works on the game is really important to the game. There’s nobody who’s lost in the mix. We hire really, really good people and do our best to try to keep them. I think that it creates a real sort of team. A real focused team of people that know each other, know they make a big difference and know it’s going to be a really good game. And I think that keeps people around.”
It also can’t hurt that one of id’s co-founders, John Carmack, is still around, still making top-shelf game engines for id and still pushing the company to the forefront of the industry he and his company helped create in the 1990s. I asked Cloud what it was like working with one of the most influential men in games.
“John is probably one of the most humble people I know,” he said, “but he is a true genius.”
He then gave me the following example: “John went on vacation, [and] I think he got a little bored on the beach. He decided to play with his wife’s cell phone and decided he didn’t like any of the games. He came back and [made] his own cell phone game and did it in his spare time. A little bit later, [using the same technology] we had Doom RPG, which is super successful for us.
“When [John Carmack] works on a new technology path, he wants to create something that’s going to innovate what games can do. I don’t think all games need to innovate. I think the industry, in order to succeed and survive over time, needs developers who want to innovate and push what games can do. In any kind of entertainment you need to differentiate yourself and do something different, what nobody has ever seen before, and that’s what John delivers. It’s great to be on his team, to be able to work on projects that do that.”
“Great” sounds like an understatement. I asked Kevin if working with Carmack was akin to being on the Chicago Bulls, circa Michael Jordan’s heyday; if working in the presence of genius, in other words, meant your own contributions were often ignored.
“When you look at what John delivers,” he said, “it is impressive, and I think to some extent that level of technology can be overshadowing. The revenue generated for the industry was just over a billion dollars from the Quake games and their licenses. [That’s] a huge impact, not just in forwarding games, but basically helping to create companies and helping other companies to be successful. So that’s a big thing and I think it can overshadow the other efforts.
“At the same time, people can’t judge a game by looking at its code. They can only judge a game by looking at what it does. When you look at what id does, in both the art and design space, we’ve been right there with the innovations. When you look at Doom 3, it rated in the 90s … and it sold over 3 million units.”
When you have that kind of track record, when every game you make turns to gold, racks up awards and sets a new standard for the industry, you’re in a bit of a tricky position. A winning trend, after all, need suffer only one loss to be derailed. I asked Cloud how the pressure of being among the best in the industry made it harder to continue being the best in the industry, and how the development of id’s latest game, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, stacked up against previous efforts.
“It’s been good,” he replied. “The Splash Damage team is originally from the community – they’re mod developers. So these are guys who worked on games for free because they loved them and really wanted to create new stuff. So they have a passion for games and a desire to make something super cool.
“As far as me personally … id’s known for getting to a point where we know, in order to get the game to where we want it to be, we’ve got to put in the extra hours to make it better. So that’s not anything new to the guys here, but it’s always a struggle to do it.”
id is also known for bringing mod developers up to the big leagues and sharing its spotlight with some of the freshest faces in the industry. I asked Cloud what the secret was to id’s unprecedented success at finding and elevating new talent, and if it had refined the art of plucking modders from the underground to a science.
He said it all goes back to Doom and the decision to release the game’s code to the community, something most companies wouldn’t have dreamed of doing.
“John was really for [releasing the code,] and I have to admit at the time I was not supportive of it,” he said. “It kind of worried me that we were creating a world of competition out there. But I think it comes from the idea that we’d all liked to have done that when we were not in the industry: to have played with these tools and created things [instead of] creating them on paper or writing the programs from scratch.
“As a company, we’ve been really supportive of trying to foster an online community, a mod-making community. As far as bringing them into the industry, I think that’s not something unique to id. I think a lot of people are recognizing the talents of the developers out in the community. For one thing, they’re working in real-world stuff. They’re making models for games, making art and levels for games, so they have to work within the constraints of the game, which is difficult for people to get used to if they haven’t worked in the industry before.
“Also, they’re doing it out of pure passion. Because they love games and love making games, and that says a lot about the person you’re hiring when they’re willing to do that. When you’re dealing with somebody who’s getting out there and making content for games, you have a lot to see. They can put something up and show you exactly what they’ve done and that makes it easier to pick good people.”
Talking to Cloud, I get the impression he’s a bit of a battle-hardened warrior. After living through one of the most tumultuous break-ups in game industry history, surviving almost two decades of life at the cutting edge of game design and being a part of the design teams behind more than half a dozen record-setting games, I asked him if he ever felt like, no matter what the business threw at him, he’d been there, done that and seen it all.
“No, I don’t feel that [way] at all,” he said, laughing. “Sometimes you do run across things you’ve seen before. For example, on an id game, I really do have 100 percent faith that at the end of the day the game is going to be great. We will work on it and we will push it until it’s great.
“But [when] you’re six months into a game and things are not running smooth and the tech is running slow, people that are new to the industry can get a little fazed by that. But once they’re through one project, they start to see the way a game development cycle normally flows. You do start off and things are all broken, and you have to work through them, and you do get to the point where the design has gotten so large that it only fits into the handful of designers’ minds and everybody else can’t sit there and read enough to understand the whole scope of the design. All these types of things every game crew goes through … and once you go through it once you kind of know it.”
I asked him for an example of a time when he thought designing games wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“I remember back on Doom, we were thinking that we could have textures of any size,” he said. “And so Adrian [Carmack] and I were working on wall textures. The whole game was developed in 11 months, so you make a lot of progress on wall textures in a very short time. So we had really beaten out a lot of wall textures of different sizes, and then we learned that wall textures had to be powers of two. They had to be like 8×8 or 64×64 that type of thing. We had to go back and rework all the wall textures. And that just happens. … That’s just common to games.”
What isn’t common is one company with a repeatedly demonstrated ability to immediately find the pulse of the consumer and release a polished game that meets their demands time after time. Now that id is once again chasing the bleeding edge of multiplayer gaming with Quake Wars, I asked Cloud what challenges the company still had to face, and what the next frontier might be for multiplayer gaming.
“There are aspects of the way players work together and communicate together that I’d love to explore and improve,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with how you define objectives for them and what classes can do the objectives and how you communicate that to the team. And we’ve come up with some prototype ideas for that but I don’t think we’ve really nailed it. I’d like to get that because I think communicating in a team play game is really key.
“I [also] think we need to spend more time focusing on how to bring people together; ways to get people into forums and get them matched by their skill and have them set up automatic tournaments and ladders. Let’s say I’m an average player, and out of a million players, [I’m ranked] 500,000. That’s sort of depressing even though I might be pretty good.
“How do I bring that together? How do I find people who are in the same skill range, localize events and put in a tournament range where I might be competitive? It’s something that you see in sports: My son plays soccer and he loves soccer, but if he played against the high school team he probably wouldn’t like soccer any more. He would get beat. But you don’t have that as easily in the game world right now. I’d like to be able to explore that as we explore online games in the future. And I think we will.”
What does the future hold for Cloud? “10 years from now I’ll be 52, and frankly when I was 32 I could not have imagined making games when I was 52. I certainly hope that I’ll able to do so. Where I want to be is where I am, doing what I’m doing right now. I just hope that I can [keep] playing games and have my ideas remain relevant to people. That’s the biggest challenge.
“Times have changed. You can’t really get anything done in a week [now] because we’re dealing with very complex and detailed things. … But still, on a fundamental level, you’re still creating cool stuff. You’re still bringing things into the world that nobody has ever seen before or thought of before. That aspect is still the same, and I hope that doesn’t change.”
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.