Tim Willits is an id software veteran. In 1995 he joined the Doom developer. The best application portfolio is likely to have been all the maps that he created as a hobby for the infamous Mars shooter, despite his completed computer science and business studies. The 47-year-old is now a studio director and oversees and coordinates the development of new games from well-known brands such as Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein and Rage.

Willits gave the opening keynote at EGX Berlin. A good opportunity to have a chat with him on the sidelines of the event. What would it be about? With almost a quarter of a century in the industry, I couldn’t really say that beforehand. Which is why I started directly with the most obvious.

Tim Willits, Studio Director, id Software.

You have been in the industry for a very long time …

Willits: Yes, I’m either the “last man standing” or too stupid to run away.

But that gives you a good look at the industry as a whole. What amazes you the most?

Willits: How big the industry has become. It’s just huge. The film industry, for example, makes about ten billion dollars a year, we make 100 billion. I think a lot of people don’t understand how big games actually are.

The comparison is not entirely fair, games generally cost significantly more than a movie ticket …

Willits: Right . But seriously: I love how everything is always changing, new technologies keep appearing and the world is getting smaller. Video games have brought the world closer together. I always joke whenever we bring out something new: Whatever we say reaches people across the globe. It’s just something that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years.

20 years ago you would probably not have bet that at some point a Swedish studio would be entrusted with the implementation of one of your games …

Willits: … even two of our games! We love the Swedes in case you haven’t noticed. Machine Games has been fantastic for Wolfenstein and the partnership has been really excellent.

You, the corridor and two auto shots – nobody else.

That’s such a thing with these Swedes right now, isn’t it? All the games just seem insane.

Willits: You know, I always say that I’ve never met a Swede that I didn’t like. It’s like the Canada of Europe. They are all so nice, even if I am assured again and again that there are definitely a few Swedes I would not stand.

But I think it’s because the government subsidized school computers for years, and that led to this PC culture, which in turn caused people to start making games. This proves once again that if you enable your people to succeed, it will pay off in the years to come. I know that sounds very socialist to an American.

But I believe that it is. Young people in Sweden had good access to computers for a long time, which is directly related to the number of good development studios in Sweden.

But why are the games so crazy?

Willits: Maybe because the sun shines so rarely. I think it’s a creative culture with people that are very well accepted. You grow up in an environment where you can be yourself and that is reflected in the games. But we were also very lucky. We really did. The machine games people are geniuses.

At wild moments, Wolfenstein’s action was not poor.

When I went to Machine Games while they were working on The New Colossus story, they said to me, “ok, there are some crazy things in the game … wait and see”. When he started talking, I said several times, “Oh, so you mean that !?”, to which he replied, “Oh, no, no. The crazy thing is still to come”. And so it went a little further.

Wolfenstein Youngblood, which we already announced, should also be very, very funny.

The first Rage was not received with such a roaring positive and many players were a bit surprised that a new one should come out. Can you talk about why it goes on after all this time?

Willits: The first sold well enough to warrant a successor. This morning at my talk at EGX Berlin, I said we did a lot right with Rage. But because it was so separated, with all the loading times that broke the game up, it felt disjointed. In our work with Avalanche, with their real open world technology, all of the gunplay, the vehicles, the characters exist in this seamless, never-reloading level. So we are now fulfilling the promise of the series.

We always liked Rage, we were big fans. If you look at our four big titles – Machine Games with their Wolfenstein, the fantastic new Dooms, Quake Champions is also new … Rage 2 fits in well. It is clearly different and unique, but it has this id software DNS that connects everything. We had the right partner, a world that people were more or less familiar with, but which at the same time gave us a lot of freedom for the successor. And Avalanche was really looking forward to working on this game. We didn’t impose any limits on them. If they wanted to implement any crazy idea, we jumped right on it and told them, “yeah, let’s definitely do this”. They really enjoyed this creative freedom.

Rage also goes very well with the brand of Spiel that Avalanche has made so far, that free-spinning mayhem action.

Willits: It was great for us to work with them too. I’ve learned so much about open world games and how to design around them. That was new territory for us.

In Rage I mostly liked individual passages, the individual elements existed side by side, but didn’t flow so well into one another. That seems to be the case with the second part …

Willits: Exactly. You hit the nail on the head.

Talk a little about working together. Who is doing what, what is your job?

Willits: Well, Avalanche is the developer. We set the creative direction and let their experts fly in for the various systems – be it animation, control, physics or something else – and exchanged ideas with them. The efficiency of modern, digital meeting technology finally enables fruitful collaboration . Video meetings work as they should today. Overall, the time difference is a smaller problem today than it was then.

I work with these people every day. It’s going very well. But they’re the developer, doing a lot of the work.

But you regularly check out new builds of the game …

Willits: Of course. In fact, some of our people at id Software in Dallas are working on Rage 2.

The latest Sweden-Dallas collaboration: Rage 2.

Can you give an example of what you guys do in Texas?

Willits: Yes, characters, animations, some of the control stories for example.

That surprises me. Was that the same with Wolfenstein 2?

Willits: It was the same with Wolfenstein. We also took care of the level design and other things.

Interesting, I don’t remember seeing your logo there, but I’m probably wrong. However, it doesn’t help that neither the Steam Store nor Wikipedia mentions you.

Willits: But they should. I hate Wikipedia. You are welcome to quote me. Do you know why? Because any can edit it . Jon Stewart once deleted Christmas on the Daily Show to demonstrate the problem with Wikipedia.

But that was undoubtedly quickly reversed.

Willits: Yeah, probably. But back to the question: yeah, we got some people working on the design, the levels and so on. id Software has an office in Frankfurt, which is mainly technically oriented and is located in the same time zone , which works really well. Plus, we’re all Bethesda, so we’re all part of the family. Brothers and sisters in a sense.

Avalanches Magnus Nedfors, Game Director von Rage 2.

Let’s go back to the beginning. I asked you earlier what surprises you most about the gaming industry today. Is there anything that annoys you, something that you could do without thanking you?

Willits: You know, yes. I could do well without outside people to judge everything we do …

… that’s my job somewhere.

Willits: I meant the medium in general. This is the hardest criticized by people who don’t understand. For example, those of us who have children and work in industry are much better at paying attention to what our offspring are playing than people who are not in that industry. I am partially shocked. I talk about people who live on my street and let their kids gamble things that are not appropriate for them. But my co-workers and I, everyone who is parents, appreciate it being much better.

And we gamers still have to grapple with the unfair prejudice that we’re all just anti-social boys who live in the basement with our mothers. Players are very social and gaming brings the world closer together, I believe in that. Someday, when every head of state grew up with a PlayStation at home, the world will be a better place. I commit myself to that.

The average gamer?

We have learned to solve problems and work with people around the world. No matter what country you come from or what religion you belong to, you solve the same problems. These young people will eventually become our leaders. Maybe I’m too naive about that. But I believe that because of video games we will eventually live in a better world.

Is there anything that we in industry don’t have enough of?

Willits: We, as an industry, the game developers – we still have to ensure more diversity. Our player base is incredibly diverse, unfortunately the people who make the games are by no means from as diverse a background as their addressees. We also have an age problem, we are gradually turning gray. I think we are improving in terms of diversity, but we still have some way to go.

I guess there we are again with the kids in Sweden who get access to computers early on in school. The earlier you lay the foundations for it, the better.

Willits: Right.

Quake Champions’ Slipgate mode picks up on some of the design paradigms that people love about Battle Royale.

Wolfenstein 2 was probably my favorite game last year, but despite great reviews, it didn’t sell as well as one might think. Then there are games like Unreal Tournament and Quake Champions, which a few years ago I would have bet that they would be bigger than they are right now. Any idea why these traditional shooter concepts are not getting the usual rush? That can’t all be due to PUBG and Fortnite.

Willits: No, no. These are trends, shifts in … If a game developer tells you that he is making a game that will be incredibly successful and sell tens of millions of units, then he is lying. Nobody has any idea what people will like or what they will ultimately be drawn to. As a game developer, you just do your best to be stable on shaky ground. Don’t try to chase a trend, you will never win …

There are some who are trying to do just that …

Willits: Yes, there definitely are. Oh yeah …

At least I heard …

Willits: I mean, you know that, these people have always existed.

Stichwort Doom-Klon …

Willits: Exactly. I’ve been in this industry for 23 years and I’ve learned: do the game you want to play yourself. And if you do it well, other people will want to play that too. But you never really know. It’s a creative field. And I mean, it’ll all come back. I am often asked if I know a good Battle Royale game and then say: ‘of course: it’s called Rocket Arena or Clan Arena’. Each player only one life, last man standing. In short, we never know . We’re just trying to make good games.

Duke Nukem 3D, next to games like Witches or Dark Forces, the epitome of a Doom clone back then. Today one would say ‘first person shooter’.

Do you ever worry that people don’t like this kind of game anymore? Wolfenstein 2 was such a good story and there hasn’t been a really good tournament shooter for a long time. Something like that can’t go extinct, can it?

Willits: We’re trying to make it … Yeah, we’re doing our best. Quake Champions is the fastest FPS game out there right now, and when you watch it, it’s super exciting. But it is so skill-based that taking the threshold to entry is not easy. We’re working to improve that. As for The New Colossus, that was the best action game last year. Point. Everything about it. I do not understand that.

I believe that accessibility is what makes battle royale games so popular. It’s hardcore and beginner-friendly at the same time, because many factors soften the skill differences a little. And then there is the other, fundamental difference: Compared to the traditional shooter, the motto “when in doubt, shoot” does not apply. Hiding, evading, lurking – all means equally valid. I’m asking you about it because I want to know if you think that the games can learn more from Battle Royale than just copying the rulebook one-on-one?

Willits: Yeah, definitely. One of the lessons we’re learning right now is: Streamers. My kids – I have triplets, 14 years old – and they watch people play. I always say if you turned around you could play the game yourself. But they just as enjoy watching. That is one lesson.

The other is what you’ve already pointed out: Have something for every type of player in your game. The fact that you can run around, don’t have to shoot, hide. They don’t have to be Rapha or Clawz, two of the best Quake players, if you want to win. You just have to be lucky enough to have someone run into you while you’re hiding. And the third element is that the concept must be easy to grasp.

More factors than the mere rules of the game make battle royale games such crowd pullers.

Another element that you can already see intensified is the lack of respawns. I think that’s why people like to watch these games: it’s just exciting because something is at stake for the duration of a round.

Willits: Yes, that’s true. The tension is different and people have time to talk. Quake Champions just got the Slipgate mode. In the attack-and-defense interplay, you only have one life. We have integrated Rocket Arena and Clan Arena into one goal-oriented mode. It’s not about Frags, but about the triumph of the team and reaching the goal. These are some of the lessons we have learned from current trends that we are now applying to Quake.

Do you still work on designs from time to time?

Willits: Yes, unfortunately I’m doing more administrative work these days. But when I get the opportunity, I love it. Especially level design. I can still design dizzy kids today . Sometimes when I’m at Avalanche they call it Willits University. Then we all sit in one room and I say, ‘Okay, let’s talk about corridors!’ or time-controlled events, how long an NPC should talk, how big a level can be. I try to convey such things to the youngsters. And I shouldn’t call them offspring. “People younger than me”.

Let’s talk about Doom. When I started playing the 2016s I wasn’t sure what to make of it. At the latest when the Doomguy in the elevator loads the shotgun to the beat of the music, I knew that I had to love this game …

Willits: It’s a bit like going on a water slide. You look at it, look into the water, maybe stick your foot in and feel the current. ‘Oh, I don’t know, should I?’ And then you jump and just let yourself be carried away and it’s awesome.

At Doom, the team made the right decisions.

What do you think took so long to get this game right?

Willits: Game development is difficult …

… but some games seem to have been easier for the developers than this.

Willits: That’s true. But a lot has happened over the years. Now that it’s out and people have played it and the first reactions to Doom Eternal are circulating, you can say the team made all the right decisions. It’s always good to end up being right. It took a while. But great things take time.

Speaking of great things, when is the Commander Keen game coming out?

Willits: When is the Commander Keen game coming ?!

You’re on the reboot train right now.

Willits: Yeah, we probably do. My entire speech at EGX Berlin was about the need to capture the spirit of a franchise in the new games and why they are so popular. Let’s see what happens to Commander Keen .

When you reboot a game – and believe me, I need to know – you have the benefit of having a built-in community. On the other hand, you have the downside … of having a built-in community. A game means something different to everyone. Take Quake, for example. For some people this was their first multiplayer experience. “I played Quake with my dad”, “in the college dorm,” “I played it alone and it was insanely scary”. Everyone has different memories of why they love this or that game. And then a developer makes this game. And if that doesn’t evoke memories, remind you of how you played it with your father, then some see it as an attack on this memory.

That is always a challenge. An existing community is fantastic, but not always easy either …

But I don’t see the problem with Commander Keen …

Willits: … I think you’re right!

Wolfenstein: Order The New Order from Amazon