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Consoles, Valve and Digital Distrbution

Interview: id Software's John Carmack
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DC: If you could give Sony and Microsoft each a wish list of what you’d like to see in each of their respective next-gen platforms…

JC: So one of the most important things I would say is a unified virtual 64-bit address space, across both the GPU and the CPU. Not a partition space, like the PS3. Also, a full 64-bit space with virtualization on the hardware units - that would be a large improvement. There aren’t any twitchy graphics features that I really want; we want lots of bandwidth, and lots of cores. There’s going to be a heterogeneous environment here, and it’s pretty obvious at this point that we will have some form of CPU cores and GPU cores. We were thinking that it might be like a pure play Intel Larabee or something along that line, which would be interesting, but it seems clear at this point that we will have a combination of general purpose cores and GPU-oriented cores, which are getting flexible enough that you can do most of the things that you would do on a CPU. But there are still plenty of things that are much better done with a traditional CPU core, debugger and development environment. I will be a little surprised if there’s any radical departure from that. I hope neither of them mess that up in some fundamental way. I’m very interested to see what the next gen consoles look like, if they’re even going to have optical media or if they try to strike out without it. Those are the types of big decisions that I wouldn’t want to be in the position of making because they’re billion dollar effects. But this generation, I know most executives were surprised at what the attach rate was on this current generation of consoles.

DC: I know you occasionally make your opinions known to Nvidia, AMD and Intel via email, etc. Have you talked with Microsoft and Sony about their next hardware in the same way?

JC: We don’t have close ties with Microsoft and Sony, but we do have good ties with Intel, AMD, and Nvidia. I thought it was tragic that Intel’s integrated graphics, which are getting to be “non-sucky” at this point, have an address space limitation where everything’s 64-bit. They still have these low order, physical bit limitations. It really strikes me as tragic that you’ve got a unified address space but you’re going to limit yourself to living in this lower area and you’re still managing it like a traditional device. You’re not playing to the strengths of being an integrated part here, and it’s completely possible that that’s going to get screwed up in the next gen consoles – that they won’t have translation on the GPU side of things and you’ll still need to fight with contiguous physical address blocks. It would be really unfortunate if that was the case.

DC: Moving onto digital distribution: How do you feel about developers and publishers striking out on their own for digital distribution? Steam/Valve is the big dog, and now you have Origin/EA, too.

JC: There’s definitely a sense that publishers don’t want to be tied to Valve. It seems like an easy thing, setting up your own digital distribution, but I caution everyone that there is a lot more expertise built up at Valve than you might think. It’s a harder task than just setting up some automated FTP sites with a web front end, and they have a network effect going by having the games download in the background. Everybody thinks, “Well, I don’t want to split my money with Valve. How hard can it be to set this up?” And my advice is: usually it’s harder than you think it is. I think from the consumer side, digital distribution like Steam is doing a really good thing. It’s better than dealing with getting the box and losing the CD and all of those related issues. Everybody knows that this is the way the wind is blowing.

DC:  And Steam didn’t take off until several years after its initial release.

JC: I remember us talking with Valve, and they were trying to get us to release Doom 3 on Steam. Our response was basically, “Are you crazy? We’re not going to do this!” All the props in the world should go out to Valve for having a vision, sticking with it through adversity, and then really coming out of things in the captain’s chair.

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