Whether he’s making games, building rockets, or just talking about technology, it’s always interesting to listen to John Carmack. Read his ‘All the RAGE’ interview below. And if you missed it, be sure to check out the podcast interview Nick and I did with him back in November.
What do you do at id Software?
I am the technical director. I find and develop the major technology pillars that our games are built on, which involves research, some inspiration, and a whole lot of work.
Do you remember the first game you ever played?
Yes, I remember seeing Space Invaders for the first time on a summer vacation as a child. I also remember the first time I played Pac Man and Asteroids, and many of the first game consoles I played. Considering that I have a lousy memory for a lot of other things like names and faces, that is probably saying something.
What was the first time you realized that you wanted to work in video games?
I knew I wanted to work with computers before I ever saw a video game, and I pored over encyclopedia and magazine articles for years before I ever got to actually touch one. Once I actually started learning how to program, games turned out to be one of the more rewarding things to work on, touching on so many different disciplines – graphics, networking, AI, systems engineering, user interfacing, etc.
How would you describe to a layman the work that goes into building a new graphics engine?
In the old days, there was a clear set of milestones that were ticked off with each new generation – 3D perspective, texture mapping, 6DOF, polygonal characters, colored lighting, shadows, etc. In between major changes, there is always the push for more; more colors, more pixels, more triangles, more frames per second, and more depth complexity.
Games today look incredible, and there are few things that we can’t do a pretty good job of rendering with the available techniques, so it is much more a question of balancing and trading off the development process against the fidelity of the product. We have to be reactive to hardware trends, and there are still large bodies of work in the offline rendering world to consider, but I don’t feel huge pressure to radically rework our graphics architecture right now.
Still, I have done a fair amount of research work this year to help clarify our next generation directions, but so far they have mostly been negative results – I know we won’t be rendering with a triangle intersection ray tracer on the next gen, for instance. I have a couple more research projects to undertake in the coming year, but the technical work I am most excited about doesn’t have anything to do with graphics, but instead with the data management and work flow through the development process.
What specific traits do you look for when hiring new programmers?
I hate trying to evaluate someone’s worth in an afternoon; there is no way to do a fair job at it. You may be able to reject someone as a bozo, but it is hard to tell that someone is a dedicated and conscientious worker with a drive for self improvement by just talking with them for a little while. It used to be that you could look at the games that someone worked on, but it is harder today with the massive team sizes to separate their contribution from the rest of the team.
If I had to pick a single trait beyond basic competence, it would probably be caring deeply about adding value to the end user experience. It is easy to be just a cog in the machine, or obsess about your favorite technical challenge, but understanding that everything is in service to giving the people that buy the games a wonderful experience, and taking personal responsibility for adding that value, is what will make you personally valuable to our team.
I wish I could sample the derivative of an applicant’s skill. Some of our very best employees have come in at relatively junior levels, but rapidly climbed to almost indispensible.
What games have you been playing lately?
I mostly play Wii games with my six year old son. We finished Super Mario Galaxy 2 recently.
If you’ve got a dinner reservation for two and you can invite one game developer to join you?
Hmm. I put Shigeru Miyamoto up on a bit of a pedestal for having done so much work that I admire for so long, but I know I can have an entertaining conversation with someone like Tim Sweeney or Gabe Newell.
How long have you been interested in rocketry?
I’ve been serious about it for almost 12 years now. Before that, it was just the sort of cultural background that most science oriented geeks have, rather than the passionate fervor that some of my contemporaries in the space world have had their entire lives.
Your aerospace company Armadillo plans to send people into space as early as 2012. Will you be on the first flight?
We have a line of adventurous skydiver types that are all more eager than I am to get on the early flights. I have gone on zero-gravity airplane rides twice now, and I am looking forward to suborbital flights, but I’m not our designated test pilot.
What are your non-gaming, non-rocket-related hobbies?
I read a lot, and I am an occasional judo player, but there have been longer and longer gaps in my practice in recent years. There just isn’t much room left in my life after work and family.
Have you ever told anyone, “Come on, this isn’t rocket science”?
No. In fact, the saying “rocket science” is bad in two ways – rocketry isn’t “science”, it is applied engineering, and while it is hard in the sense of having high consequences for failure and a challenging evolutionary cycle, it really isn’t all that complicated compared to many other endeavors. A modern video game is much more sophisticated than an orbital rocket.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I find myself continuously in awe of the progress that has been made in computing, and what we can do with it. I am working on games today using over a million times the processing power of my first game, and my cell phone can do things that no graphics system on earth could do when I started. Processing, graphics, networking, and mobility are all still surging ahead, and there are plenty of exiting things to look forward to.