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Why would a game god care about mobile?

Id co-founder John Carmack is lending his clout and his company name to his wife's mobile-game efforts. But hard-core "Quake" fans needn't fret: The game god isn't spurning the high-end for cell-phone games.
Image: John Carmack
John Carmack is revered by gamers the world over for titles like "Quake," "Doom" and "Wolfenstein."id Software

John Carmack has made millions pushing the high end in video games.

As the technical director at id Software, he’s responsible for the coding wizardry behind such massive brands as “Wolfenstein,” “Quake” and “Doom.” The game engines he builds have made the company, which he co-founded in 1991, millions in licensing fees.

Recently, Carmack and his wife, Katherine Anna Kang, announced that her game development company, Fountainhead Entertainment, would be renamed id Mobile, with plans to release up to four new mobile and handheld titles in just one year. The former Fountainhead has already seen success with “Doom RPG,” a mobile-phone title that riffed off id’s blockbuster “Doom” franchise, as well as an original title, “Orcs and Elves.”

But hard-core “Quake” fans needn’t fret: Carmack isn’t spurning PC games for mobile. Rather, he hopes his efforts will cover both ends of the spectrum, with brands such as “Doom” and the upcoming “Rage” at the top end – and less ambitious, less expensive titles like “Orcs and Elves” at the low end.

Carmack also says that the name change makes it easier for id Mobile, which has Kang at the helm, to deal with mobile carriers. It also helps her attract talented people — read programmers — who might otherwise turn their noses up at mobile.

“When people go into game development, they envision themselves working on the latest and greatest 360 title,” he says. “When you try and convince them that mobile games are cool…that hasn’t gone over very well.”

I spoke with both Carmack and Kang in advance of their announcement. The following is an excerpt from that conversation, where the duo discussed the new company’s aggressive development plans, whether new intellectual properties might emerge first on cell phones — and whether marital sway played a major part in id going mobile.

Will you guys be developing new IPs on mobile first and then porting to PC and console?

Carmack: Our first experiment with that is ongoing right now. Our first mobile title was “Doom RPG,” which used the highly popular “Doom” brand. But we also pioneered a new style of gameplay with that. “Orcs and Elves” was the first new IP for id Software since “Quake.” We’re working on a big new IP with “Rage,” on the cross platform stuff. But while we’ve been stuck on the “Rage” development for a couple of years, we just went out and did something brand new on the mobile side.

There’s a lot of people who are really watching closely how ("Orcs and Elves" on the DS) is going to go over. If it turns out to be even a modest success there, in a land normally dominated by first-party Nintendo titles or toy or movie licenses…that would be a really positive sign that you really can bring something in from the bottom up.

Id is well known for its shooters. Is id going to continue to develop shooters for the PC and the console, or is that ceasing to happen after “Rage?”

Kang:  Id Software is going to be a completely separate division [from] id Mobile. Id Software is going to continue to focus on the triple-A, top-of-the-line, pushing-the-envelope technology. But the idea behind… id Mobile is that John has so many game ideas, and it’s not so great to get one idea in every four years. With id Mobile…we’re able to possibly get four games within a year and possibly try out different game ideas and see how they work in the public eye. And he’s able to really maximize the experimental, “these are the games I wish I had time to do…” with…mobile.

Carmack: I’m really pleased with the fact that…as we’ve gone from “Doom RPG” to “Orcs and Elves” to “Orcs and Elves 2,” if you run through and play the games back to back, you’d see this really solid evolution of quality in all the game play experience as you move from one to the other. All of that happened during the same time that we were toiling away on our one big game on the high-end.

So, your fans shouldn’t necessarily look to what you’re doing on the mobile platform to see what your new PC and console games are going to be.

Carmack: We know sort of what’s going on over the next six years on the high-end space just because it takes so long to develop these things here.  But inside the space of six years that we‘ve got mapped out on the high-end stuff, we might have 20 or 30 little mobile projects of varying degrees of success, and one of those might be the spectacular breakout hit that sells 20 million units on mobile.

The way I look at is we’re doing good business on mobile right now. We’ve sold nearly 2 million units on the different things, it’s profitable, it’s paying for all its development. As we step up our mobile focus, we’ll about double our effort, we should be doubling our revenues and more than doubling our profits. It should continue, in the worst case, to be this really nice addition to the business.

Mobile gaming hasn’t really caught on here in the United States. What perfect storm do you think has to occur for mobile gaming to catch on?

Carmack: Well, “caught on” is somewhat relative. The numbers we’ve done on our games, there’s a lot of game developers on a lot of platforms that would like to see those numbers anywhere. But yes, it’s certainly a tiny fraction of the people that have mobile phones.  To some degree, I don’t expect that you’re ever see the penetration numbers you’ll see with “Halo 3.”

The major problems right now in getting great games on [cell phones]… are a couple technical things. One is the over-the-air transfer limit that the carriers impose…you’re only allowed to download a relatively small game. So there’s only so much you can do inside that.

[Another]major technical thing is really the diversity of platforms and the ways we try to bridge over that. Using Java is one thing that severely hamstrings a lot of the efforts. Qualcomm’s BREW platform is much, much better for developing games, but unfortunately, two-thirds of the U.S. market and even more in Europe is stuck with Java. … I can’t say that I have super high hopes of the Java environment vanishing in the next five years.

John, you’ve been known to push the envelope for PC gaming – real high-end stuff. What then appeals to you about mobile gaming?

Carmack: The truth is, any engineering task you’re setting out to do is really about looking at resources at your disposal and the limits that are placed around your decisions. And it’s almost exactly the same thing when you’re working on a tight set of limits with smaller resources as with these really grand things.

This question is for both of you. You’ve made no secret of the fact that you’re married, and Anna, I know that mobile is an area that you’ve been passionate about for some time. To what extent is this marital sway, or John, do you really share this enthusiasm with her?

Kang:  In many ways, my excitement is about the possibility… there’s just a huge potential there.

From the perspective of business… there’s no real downside in investing in this industry. Of course, if it does hit big, there’s a possibility for a big payout, and that’s always a nice silver lining to hope for. At the end of the day, the experience of being creative and feeling proud of what you do and feeling good about the results is really what matters. In addition to that, there’s the possibility that you’ve gotten ahead of the crowd, and you have a few years advantage.

From John’s perspective, primarily, it has to be an engineering and an exciting thing for him or else no matter how much I sway him one way or another, he wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Carmack: She’s certainly the bigger backer of all this as a major element than I am right now. But if you did an analysis of how much PR work I’m involved in for other id projects, versus mobile, you’d find out that Anna gets me to do more interviews and support stuff for the mobile side of things.

So, you’re working both ends. You’re working the high end at id Software, and the lower end with mobile stuff with the hope that that will hit the jackpot?

Carmack:  Yeah, although we’re content to carry through just as it is. It’s good business, but we think there is a jackpot to be had there.