Tim Willits on the Past, Present, and Future of id Software

John Carmack might grab most of the headlines, and he still steals our attention when we talk about id Software, but Tim Willits is the man who holds the studio together. Eighteen years and countless job titles later, Tim now sits as studio director, overseeing the entirety of id, including its current “big project.”

It’s been murky for id Software recently, to say the least; six years after the announcement of Doom 4, and several high profile exits have put the studio’s future into question … for the public, at least. I sat down with Tim during QuakeCon 2013 to talk about the future of id Software, and how recent events have impacted the studio’s health.

Devin Connors: What’s your current title at id Software?

Tim Willits: Studio Director. It’s the same title [as before]. I just do more stuff now. I was Creative Director, or Game Director, on Rage. Studio Director works out well because it’s kind of encompassing, but it’s also not very specific. Now that Todd [Hollenshead] is gone, there’s much more clarity. We had some overlap. So everyone knows exactly who needs to do what. It definitely helped streamline our process.

Devin: So now that Todd is gone, who’s the president of id Software? Do you see more of his duties? Are you covering more business development ground?

Tim: Everything that he did I do now. Everything. “NeoTodd” is what they call me at QuakeCon.

Devin: I know you can’t get into specifics about his departure, but…

Tim: It seriously wasn’t anything controversial, which is what everyone thinks. It’s just that he went 18 years here, and it’s hard. And now you’re in a studio that’s owned by another company. So really, he said, “I got stuff I want to do in my life.” People go and leave, and the fact that he’s been around for so long should be more of a news story. And for me it wasn’t — just looking from the outside it’s like, it just kind of made sense. It wasn’t anything bad.

Devin:  I know [Matt] Hooper left, too. Was it the same kind of scenario?

Tim: No. That one I can definitely say I cannot comment on.

Devin: So with these departures, has there been any sort of culture or management ideology shift at id? Or is it just business as usual?

Tim: It’s really business as usual. Nothing changed in production. Of course we’re more streamlined, and we’re all drumming to the same drummer. And like Pete put up, Todd wasn’t involved in the production of the game so most people at work would just … I mean … the only person who has to do anything different is me. So it really all just kind of worked out.

Devin: You’ve worked with John Carmack, one of the most high-profile developers in games, for 18 years. How does Carmack 2013 compare to Carmack from five, 10, 15 years ago?

Tim: Well, he’s married with kids. He’s a little more rounded. He was hyper-focused in the beginning, and he’s still hyper-focused, but he definitely has 20 years of experience, and the industry is so much bigger. Even last night he kind of talked globally at first, and then he drove down into more high-tech things. In the past he would just sit in the weeds and drill into the nuts and bolts of things. So he definitely takes a more holistic approach to the industry, whereas in the past, he would just optimize Quake and “it’s going to run faster than anything else on the planet.” So I think that maturity, time and experience have given him that bigger scope.

“It’s really business as usual. Nothing changed in production. Of course we’re more streamlined, and we’re all drumming to the same drummer.”

Devin: Speaking of optimization, with id Tech 5, now that that’s out in the world. Rage was almost two years ago, so how has id Tech 5 changed?

Tim: Did you notice how cool the characters in Wolfenstein looked? [referring to The New Order demo] That’s been an improvement. Our core tech guys are working with [MachineGames and] Wolfenstein. So some of the tech lessons that we’ve learned we’ve been able to apply to Wolfenstein. What’s been great about Bethesda is that many of the big publishers always talk about, “I want all our sister studios to work together,” but that never really happens. It’s taken a few years, but Bethesda has created a studio organizational-like culture that facilitates sharing. MachineGames is from Sweden and we work great with them. We can pull network builds, we can have usability testing between different studios. We share tech. I’m surprised at how well it works.

Devin: Is there a singular feature that you guys have added or vastly improved?

Tim: No, it’s like John said [during his keynote] it’s a lot of stuff.

Devin: Megatextures are still big in this game, right?

Tim: Yeah, but you don’t have a wasteland, so we’ve done things like made it more conducive to the map sizes. It’s a lot of little stuff like that … that’s not like you turn the lights on and the sign up and this is what we’ve done. But it’s been a heck of a lot of work. It’s kind of organic, but especially the characters look much better than they did in Rage.

Devin: How has working with Hugo [Martin, id Software's new creative director] been?

Tim: He’s been really cool. So maybe we’re still in the honeymoon stage, but he’s awesome.

Devin: I know he bumps elbows with Carmack just occasionally. They’re not working on the same things, but you might be more involved with him just from your position.

Tim: Yeah, but John’s been working a lot with the artist. He brings a lot of energy. It’s good to get some new people that are high up, that have passion. Because you know us, we get tunnel vision, and Hugo will go, “Hey, have you thought about it this way?”

Devin: Granted, he’s worked on video games with Blur and Naughty Dog, but you know he’s — not in any bad way — but he’s a Hollywood guy, having just finished work on Pacific Rim.

Tim: We’re PC guys, we’re video game maker guys. So it’s good to get him.

Devin: I don’t know what kind of hires you make, but are you looking at any more Hollywood talent or was he a cherry pick?

Tim: He was cherry picked. And he can attract other people.

Devin: So are you really letting him fill in the art department as he sees fit?

Tim: Yes, it just makes sense.

Devin: Going back to id Tech 5 for a second, obviously you guys went from a model 10 or so years ago … spreading the id Tech 3 [Quake III Engine] seed all over the industry, to now where it’s very walled off and insulated. Do you think that’s the new model now? Because obviously you are the de-facto tech platform for Bethesda.

Tim: Yes.

Devin: If Prey 2 ever sees the light of day, Wolfenstein, I’m sure other games down the road. You have EA using Frostbite across everything…

Tim: Yes. It works out well because all the work that our studios do feeds into each other. It’d be difficult … John never wanted to create a department that did licensing. That’s a whole separate company. It’s as never easy as it sounds.

Devin: Easy no, but revenue stream, yes.

“John never wanted to create a department that did licensing. That’s a whole separate company. It’s as never easy as it sounds.”

Tim: Yes, it’s great, but I mean, John could design cars if he wanted to make money. It all comes down to, “What does he want to focus on?” And you know John, he’s hyper-focused. It’s a strategic decision at the corporate level to keep it in the family. But it makes it easier to share and integrate between different games.

When we had Quake 3 licenses and id Tech 3 and id Tech 4 licenses it was always — this company did this, so we have to give this feature to that company…

Devin: So we’re a bit removed from Rage … it’s been almost two years like I said before. How has game development changed for id Software in that time?

Tim: We’re a lot more streamlined. Todd Vaughn is the VP of production — he used to write for PC Gamer back in the ’90s. He’s worked with us pretty closely on production methods, streamlining things, we’re definitely more focused, and that’s helped a lot. And that kind of goes along with the whole Bethesda family. If we’re using similar technology, working … we’re not mirrors, but we learn production techniques from other people and it’s helped us.

Trust me, when you make a game like Skyrim, you learn a few things about production.

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