The Developer’s Cry

Yet another blog by a hobbyist programmer

Doomed to code

I read an interesting interview with John Carmack, lead programmer at id Software, famous (1) for creating the game DOOM. In the interview, he talked a little about his game engines with the cool sounding code names “Tech 3”, “Tech 4”, “Tech 5”, etc. To my surprise, there were some very negative comments to this article, people complaining that Carmack is not doing anything innovative at all, as he is recreating the same old game over and again. He is obsessed with his engine and not creating fun games any more.

This made me realize that Carmack is, above all, a programmer, and he is making his code evolve. This is what technical programmers do and what they live for.
In the early 1990s he had a lot of success with his DOOM project, and all he wants is to impress people with a better, faster, cleaner, leaner, more technologically advanced version. Likewise, in the early 1990s, I had a lot of success (although never as much :-) by doing a lot of programming on a BBS (2) and I developed several iterations of this BBS. You wouldn’t believe the amount of time spent thinking up new ways of doing the internals and tinkering with the code.
Not only is programming addictive, so is having success. Trying to recreate that past success can be a great driving force. Deep inside of me there may always be the wish to create a new implementation of the BBS. John Carmack has this dream too, and he’s earning a living with it.

To my surprise, Carmack is not merely striving for visual perfection. He has recognized that today’s popular gaming console (read: the XBox 360) contains 2 year old hardware and therefore needs simpler graphics (like, for instance, tricked shadows rather than compute intensive real shadowing effects) to get more performance.
Kiddies that are complaining that Carmack is only talking about performance, simply don’t get it. The performance of the rendering engine is a very important aspect of a game.
The “60 Hz versus 30 Hz” debate is hyped, but not entirely unimportant; having a 60 Hz engine sounds more technologically advanced, however, it sounds to me that a 30 Hz engine would have tons more time per cycle left for doing other things, like AI. Good AI is what makes games fun to play.

One last thing he mentioned that raised my interest was what Carmack said about mega-textures, a technique developed by him that makes it possible to define the world in one giant unique texture, rather than to build the world from repeating textures.
The interesting thing is that he said “it is only two pages of code”; he is now talking casually about what was presented a year ago as his big new thing. Now that he’s been working with it for many months, it’s not that special to him any more. This behavior is typical for programmers (I do it all the time).
Funnily enough, a lot of cool code snippets are only one or two pages.
It is also a jab at other game developers; the mega-texture technique is apparently not that hard to implement and other knuckleheads should have been able to find out how by now, too.

John Carmack is still a hero in my book, even if id Software’s games are not as shockingly groundbreaking as the original DOOM. It’s not like the guy gathered fame for no reason at all, (Paris Hilton comes to mind …) and as long as he keeps revealing technical details about the inner workings of his engines, he’s got my attention.
As for the complaining kids out there … it’s just like what I always told the users of the BBS: anyone who dares complain should go and write their own. And one day, I even followed my own advice.

  1. Carmack is like a celebrity, lately doing more interviews than a movie star, and spending more time writing keynote presentations than writing code.
  2. BBS: Some kind of (now ancient) online service featuring a message board with forums and interactive chat.