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Why John Carmack 'frets a little bit' about hardware upgrades

Designing games that require powerful hardware can be a difficult decision, and contending with new hardware is a conundrum that id Software co-founder and Doom programmer John Carmack still struggles with.

In an interview with Wired coinciding with Doom's 20th anniversary, Carmack looked back at the decision to make Doom a 386-only game. That tradeoff made sense, he said, because whatever experience id could deliver on a 286 would have been poor. With every id game that required new hardware, there were a number of technical requirements that reinforced the decision to exclude hardware, like 256-color graphics with Wolfenstein 3D, a floating point with Quake and a GPU with Quake 3.

Those same calculations still apply, even with the now-last-gen Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Their hardware potential has not been fully exploited, but programmers must focus on next-gen hardware. There are benefits to the new hardware, but also drawbacks because developers have to set aside some of what they know to learn anew.

"Even to this day, I struggle a little bit with that; there's so much you can still do on the previous console generation," Carmack said. "The 360 and PS3 are far from tapped out in terms of what a developer could do with them, but the whole world's gonna move over towards next-gen and high-end PCs and all these other things. Part of me still frets a little bit about that, where just as you fully understand a previous generation, you have to put it away to kind of surf forward on the tidal wave of technology that's always moving. That's something that we've struggled with in every generation. And now I at least know enough to recognize that some of my internal feelings or fondness for technology that I understand or have done various things with usually has to be put aside. Because data has shown over the decades that that's usually not as important as you think it is."

Carmack, who resigned from id in late November, also spoke about the perils of lengthy game development. He offered a partial explantation of id's methodology, specifically as it relates to the long-in-development Doom 4, and how his thinking has evolved.

"The worst aspect of the continuing pace of game development that we fell into was the longer and longer times between releases," he said. "If I could go back in time and change one thing along the trajectory of id Software, it would be, do more things more often. And that was id's mantra for so long: 'It'll be done when it's done.' And I recant from that. I no longer think that is the appropriate way to build games. I mean, time matters, and as years go by if it's done when it's done and you're talking a month or two, fine. But if it's a year or two, you need to be making a different game."

For more on Doom at 20, check out Polygon's article exploring its legacy and human connection.

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