Immediately after sitting down for a surprising hour with id's forthcoming shooter Rage, I collared creative director Tim Willits for a quick chat. Covered: how close to finishing the game id are, how they hope to do DLC right, how people are playing the game in different ways, how... noteworthy he found some of the game's female voice actors, and Rage's 'imperfect is good' approach to character design.
RPS: So you’ve finished Rage, more or less. How does that feel after all these years?
Tim Willits: Er, well we’ve mostly finished. We’re working with Sony and Microsoft to wrap up our cert issues, but because we’re Steamworks on PC, which is really nice, we get to keep working on our executable so the guys are back doing some last-minute tweaks on the PC version. It’s always been solid, but there’s some things they want to do like better automatic machine configuration, get more cores to transcode the textures and stuff like that. So the guys are finishing some cert issues and doing some last-minute optimisations on PC, but when you authenticate on Steam for the first time, that’s when you’ll actually get the executable, so we can work on that until we have to ship it.
RPS: Does that mean you’ve got most of the team off on holiday and just a few very grumpy guys left locked in the studio finishing things up?
Tim Willits: Actually, the programmers are all very, very, very busy, but the level designers and the artists are starting to work on some DLC. But we want to hold off a bit and find out what people like.
RPS: That does seem like the smarter way to approach it – I think the Borderlands guys did something similar.
Tim Willits: Yeah, because you shouldn’t just assume people like that then find they want something else. So we wanna find out what they actually like for the DLC.
RPS: It must be pretty exhausting compared to how you used to make games – you can’t just sit back and relax once it’s shipped now, you’ve got to start working on extra content and community stuff right away.
Tim Willits: Yeah. Well, it’s good too because, when people buy the game, they spend a lot of money on it. To them it’s an investment. If they feel like the company that made it doesn’t want to invest in it, then they don’t want to invest in it. That’s why I think DLC’s important. We’re the patch kings, you know, so if there are issues that come up we’ve got to patch them. I think those things are important, to let people know that you still care about that franchise, and you want to support that franchise. Then you can make them say ‘okay, I’ll put my money down on this franchise.’
RPS: Do you think people have got the right sense of what Rage is? Playing it just now, I had some of my own expectations subverted quite a bit – it’s a lot more measured and relaxed than I’d expected.
Tim Willits: That is the biggest issue that we’ve had, and that is why we did the big, three hour previews recently. Unfortunately at Gamescom you’ve only got an hour, but when we did some stuff in Europe and in the States, we were like ‘listen – just come in, play it for two or three hours and do whatever you want.’ And then the journalists were able to get their minds around it. Because honestly, it’s not the easiest game in the world to explain to somebody, plus people have preconceived notions of id, first-person shooters…
The first-person shooter landscape in our industry is definitely shifting. We have games that sell 25 million copies, which means that’s about 15 million people who may never have even played a first-person shooter before and are new. So they have their preconceived notions, and then you have the id legacy and they have their preconceived notions, and then we’re going to do something else. It’s not the easiest landscape. So I think the best thing for us is just letting people play. I’ve always said, you play Rage for two hours, you’re going to like it.
RPS: Last time I played, I was just dropped into random missions, so I had it pegged as more of a straight-up action game.
Tim Willits: Yeah, you feel disconnected. The problem is we’re time-constrained, we want to give a sense of all the stuff, but you don’t really get it unless you just play it.
RPS: I never thought I’d be saying ‘the new id game is one of the classiest shooters I saw at Gamescom’, but I’ve seen a bunch of games here that are just noise-noise-noise, death-death-death, then this was a chance to sit back and soak up a world somewhat.
Tim Willits: Yes, we try to have our pacing. Historically, we’ve been a bit… frantic. We hit the gas pedal and never let up, but in Rage when you’re in town, it’s okay, I am in a town. There’s no combat, I take my time, play some mini-games, buy some stuff, build some stuff. Then you’re like ‘okay, I’m going to go find the bandit hideout, so now I’m in the wasteland.’
So you get in your car and you go find it. So you’re in that mindset, and then when you get into that area you think ‘I know when I click on this and it loads, then I’m ‘id’, the classic id, and this is the mode I’m in now.’ I think by putting everything in its own little compartment, it’s really helped the pacing.
RPS: Watching people play it here and at the other media sessions, did they in general follow your expectations? Were they tending towards playing it in a linear style, mission-by-mission, or were they wandering off and trying to do their own thing?
Tim Willits: People miss a lot of stuff. Especially the sewers – sewer missions are included with the retail purchase, and only one guy so far came up to me and said ‘ooh, I’ve found this mission, but I said that I needed to download something.’ But most people just totally miss that. Wingsticks, people miss that…
RPS: Oh, I found that – the wingstick training mission with the girl, yeah?
Tim Willits: But you found it on the way back, yeah? Cos you got your [main] mission, you jumped in your ATV and took off?
RPS: No, I did it before I left, cos I had this packrat mentality, so I was searching every bit of town to see if there was anything to pickup or buy.
Tim Willits: Yeah, that is the right idea. Most people, it’s just boom, they’re gone. We also found that most people… at first, we had no map, and then we had a compass, and people still couldn’t find where they’re going. Then we had the map with the dot, and people couldn’t find where they were going. Now we had the map with the dot and a line to it, and we still get people that go left [out of the first settlement instead of right, to the first mission], so we bring up a sign that says ‘look at your minimap’, because if they keep going left there’s a bandit blockade with a rocketguy who just fucks ‘em up. I saw a couple of guys doing that, so I’m going ‘you’re gonna die! You’re gonna die!’ and then BOOM. ‘I told you you were gonna die…’
RPS: It’s the Bartle gamer psychology – the fighter, the explorer, the socialiser, the collector… I suspect those guys were fighters. ‘I must enter combat, no matter how obvious it is that I can’t win.’
Tim Willits: Which is so funny, because we’ve seen it in people at work. We’ve got the ammo types, and there’s engineering items and then just the weapons. For me, I’m all about ammo types: I get pop-rockets, fat mommas and then I’m [makes a noise I can only describe as ‘Robocop-y’]. Some guys at work are all about turrets and spider-bots and RC bombcars. When I get an RC bombcar part, I sell it. Then there’s some guys at work who just use the shotgun. All this stuff and they’re just ‘I just play the shotgun.’ It’s so funny.
RPS: It was the shotgun for me just now, actually. I was trying to use it like a pistol or a rifle, which I knew was stupid, but I almost couldn’t be bothered to change. I just quite liked the feel of it, it was comfortable.
Tim Willits: What’s cool is the pop-rockets. Wait until you get those. It’s a shotgun round that explodes when it hits, and it has a little of an arc. So the guys without armour, like the Ghost bandits and the mutants, they just blow up when you hit them. It’s awesome. [Happily makes explosion noises for a few seconds.] Guys at work are like [puts on sulky voice] ‘these are too powerful!’ And I’m ‘that’s awesome!’
RPS: Another thing I liked was that when you went and talked to an NPC, they say a little line or wisecrack first, they don’t just drop straight into quest dialogue.
Tim Willits: Yeah, so we have Approach VO, which is automatically triggered when you get close to them, then you have the job description, which is ‘hey, can you help me?’ and then at the end they pop up the text so you can read it, and there’s actually some more information in there, and then the ending VO, like ‘can you do this for me?’ So if you go up to the guy and read it, then you click away, he’ll repeat that last line or if you go back and the mission is still in progress there’ll be a reminder, like ‘did you kill those guys yet?’ Then when you finish there’s a completion dialogue, like ‘good job’ and then it goes into the next thing. That’s how that functionality works.
RPS: I was really, pleasantly surprised by the character designs, especially the faces. The Wingstick girl…
Tim Willits: [Interrupting] She’s pretty hot, isn’t she?
RPS: [Blushes]. I'm not usually a lech towards videogame characters, but I kept going back up to look at her because the detail in the face was fascinating.
Tim Willits: Yes, yes. That’s Loosum. We want to maybe make her sister or something sometime and maybe call her Finesome. And Amanda Troop is the actress, she’s been in Mad Men and she’s done commercials…
RPS: Is that her face as well as her voice in the game?
Tim Willits: No, but we try to pick people where their voice fits how the character looks. So we audition a lot of people and go ‘ooh, that one works!’ And then in real life, she is as cute as a button.
RPS: Are you a little bit in love, Tim?
Tim Willits: [Laughs] Inside I was thinking ‘I’m always going to hire her.’ And then Claudia Black, she’s in it too, she’s from Stargate and Farscape, and she’s hot. When I was watching that show I thought ‘man, she is cute’, then I saw her on the list and I was ‘we’ve gotta hire her! We’ve gotta hire her!’ And then in real life she’s tall too – she towers over me.
We have John Goodman too, which is awesome. He was great. He showed up early to the VO session – stars never show up early. They’re always late. He was early. Then he walks up to me and says ‘hi, I’m John Goodman.’ [Shakes head in disbelief].
RPS: I’ve heard many times that he’s pretty much the nicest guy in Hollywood.
Tim Willits: Yeah.
RPS: The way you’ve done the faces, even on the nominally sexy girl character, is fascinating – the nose looked a little crooked, the mouth slightly wonky, then the guy next to her had these embarrassingly large ears…
Tim Willits: Yeah, she’s not perfect. No-one’s perfect in the game. We really tried to make everyone a bit different. Like, they’re all sunburned, their skin’s a bit dry…
RPS: And you manage to keep that up throughout the game? It doesn’t become Generic Desert Man Number 4 later on?
Tim Willits: Yes. Actually, we do have some generic guys in some of the towns, but they’re all pretty cool. Our character guys are really cool. Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds – you remember the big guy, ‘Nerrrrrrrds!’? – he’s in the game, and then JK Styles… And Mick the Mechanic in Wellspring, he’s awesome. Actually we’re hoping we can get a lot of these characters back in Rage 2. You want to spend time with them, but they say like four things to you and that’s it. You’re ‘that guy’s so cool, I want more of him!’
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Rage will be released in the first week of October this year.