When you have a legendary programmer working for you, surprises come with the territory. Todd Hollenshead, chief executive of ID Software, wasn’t even aware that his technical director, John Carmack, was working on an iPhone version of the company’s classic first-person shooting game, Wolfenstein 3D Classic. But Carmack sprung the surprise, and the game quickly shot to the top ranks of iPhone games. That was just one of many new projects underway at the Mesquite, Texas-based game company, which has been making violent hit games for a couple of decades. I caught up with Hollenshead (pictured right) last week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco for an interview.
VB: What’s the newest ID Software game?
TH: We had some accidental news. I got off the plane and all hell was breaking loose because someone wrote about how you could take a jail-broken iPhone and go to a secret web site to get Wolfenstein 3D Classic for free. It was a secret page on ID’s web site. It was really source code that John Carmack had staged to put the game up on the Apple App Store.
TH: One programmer speculated that search programs will do random searches on web sites until they find something. They found it, it got linked to. Then everybody wanted to download the game for free. But you couldn’t do that. It was staged to go up on the Apple App Store. We got it up, and we’re selling it for $4.99.
VB: Is the iPhone a big investment for you?
TH: John designed the user interface for it. You can move forward or move back with one thumb, shoot with your fingers, and look around with the other thumb. It’s the full original game from 1992. People thought you couldn’t do 3D games on the iPhone but here it is running. Last month, we launched Wolfenstein 3D RPG, which is a turn-based game for cell phones. It’s like Doom RPG, for normal phones. Wolfenstein 3D RPG should come out for the iPhone next month. We’ve got an ID Classics label that we’re publishing ourselves through the App Store. The next ones John may do are iPhone for the original Doom and so forth.
VB: Did Carmack surprise you with what he was working on?
TH: The Wolfenstein 3D Classic work was a surprise. I wasn’t even aware of it until last week. It came out of nowhere. I knew he was working on Wolfenstein 3D RPG, which Electronic Arts will publish for us. [Carmack's own blog post on the development of the iPhone game is here.]
VB: He can do this in a couple of weeks?
TH: Yeah, with a programmer and an artist, they can do this in their spare time in a couple of weeks. John is pretty fast.
TH: We’re super happy about it. We went into open beta a month ago. We went to capacity. You may have heard about queues. People made jokes about standing in line. At one point, there were 60,000 people waiting to get into the game. Part of it was the rush of people. We had some bugs that we fixed. There is no queue now. When we hit capacity, we put the stats on hold. When there are so many people, the stats choke the database. If we hit that, we shuffle the stats somewhere until we can put them up. That was a pretty good solution. In our first month, we were about 50 percent above our projections. We aren’t disclosing the number. Our trends are all looking good. We have what we need now. Now it’s going to take some time to gather the demographic data so that we can pitch the advertisers and have them place ads on the QuakeLive.com web site.
VB: A lot of hits on our last story about Quake Live came from Germany. Why do you think that is?
TH: Our stats show that the U.S. is No. 1, with maybe 30 percent of the players. No. 2 is Germany. And No. 3 is the U.K. No. 4 is Poland, which was really surprising. We also have Russia, China and Japan. We sold Quake III in Japan. But I don’t know if we sold a single copy in Russia or China. It shows that, beyond piracy, the brand is global. Brazil is in the top 25 too. Now we have the demographic data to pitch advertisers. We can deliver impressions in the game. We find our players also spend a lot of time outside of the game, browsing stats and chatting. There, we can convert impressions into click-through via Internet browser-based ads. So the advertisers can get impressions on a site as well as click-through on things like movie trailers.
VB: How much can you tailor the ads?
TH: We have a ton of ways to accommodate the advertisers. They can do custom levels. It’s whatever is in the advertiser’s imagination. There are a ton of possibilities. But we won’t do anything to alter the balance of the game. If you get the Daimler Benz uber-weapon, then you can dominate your friends. We won’t do anything about it.
VB: Do you have any impression of the OnLive video-games-on-demand service?
TH: I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion on it. I don’t know how they do it. I wasn’t aware of it at all in advance. The idea is very interesting. Where the rubber meets the road on this stuff is implementation. Latency is always an issue unless they are going to put massive banks of servers around the country and the globe. That would be a tremendous infrastructure expense. Based on our experience with Quake Live, we have to have a diversity of server locations to make sure we have high-quality play for everyone. The more you do that, the more your costs go up. We’re worried about latency streaming data off a Blu-ray disk for a PlayStation 3. That doesn’t have to go over the Internet.
VB: Nexon has a first-person Combat Arms game that is free-to-play. What do you think of other free games as competition?
TH: I haven’t checked it out. Quake Live is one of those games that is a brand. Other competitors don’t worry me so much in the free-to-play space. We are the opposite of World of Warcraft. We do discrete bites of game play. We play for 15 or 20 minutes and then get back to work. It’s one of those short activity games.
VB: What else is in the works?
TH: The big Wolfenstein game for the PC is still in the works. Raven Software is working on that for us. Rage is our next big game, and we have a team working on the next Doom game. We have two big teams now. The Doom team started work last year. We continue to work on those two big projects. We aren’t talking about Doom much yet.
VB: How is the Wolfenstein movie coming?
TH: I haven’t spoken to director Roger Avary lately. The last time I spoke to him, things were going well. Getting the script right is important. He is a very good writer. He can make a good movie. Doom, Rage, Wolf. The iPhone. Mobile projects. Quake Live. We’ve got a lot of work to do.