FS: In some ways, don't you think Dungeons and Dragons is just a program that you put yourself into, with words and tables, etc? A structure to tell stories in, like the Quake engine?
John: It's a similar thing about being able to create things completely from scratch, a media where you don't have built-in limitations.
In fact, the original story of Quake was supposed to be an RPG, well not an RPG exactly, but a fantasy game. It completely diverged from that because of Quake's sordid development process. Since then we've been much more honest about our goals from the beginning on what we're doing. They've been very different games but I've been happy with the results. It's unlikely that we'd ever go and do a fantasy/role playing game type thing.
FS: I've heard that you've cut back on your personal dungeon mastering
John: Up through Wolfenstein, the entire company played every weekend. It tailed off basically in Doom. We ran a couple of games last year just for fun. It takes so much time though. To do a good job you spend a day playing and a day preparing, but there's no way now that I can sacrifice 20% of my hours for anything now.
FS: You have a special focus, an inspiration - how you can improve an algorithm or something. How often do these epiphanies come to you?
John: Well, I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on the epiphanies. Epiphanies are there, you do get them where you see clearly into something and all that. But it really is true that most great works aren't a result of epiphanies, they're the result of lots of hard labor. That is a trap that a lot of people fall into where you think that the epiphany is the important thing. Sometimes it is, but in 95% of cases it's just a matter of smooth, calm integration of everything you know.
It's not the one brilliant decision, it's the 500 smart decisions that really make things good. It's more a matter of being able to keep making smart decisions. Making one brilliant decision and a whole bunch of mediocre ones isn't as good as making a whole bunch of generally smart decisions throughout the whole process. And there's so many of them that have to be made.
Even at the end of Quake 3, I had a to-do list of a thousand things that could potentially be improved on. So it's a matter of going through and knowing all these things that could be done, and prioritizing what the "sweet spots" are. Like "This amount of effort would get this batch of things done and it would have this side effect." Or "it would take all day to do this thing but it would probably destablize something else, so I'm not going to do it."
I definitely enjoy the epiphanies when they come - when I can be working on something and just realize that there's a much better way of doing it. That's very rewarding but I can't say that those happen every day. To a lesser degree, there's some insight where I can actually come home and tell Anna, "I figured something new out today!" That happens fairly often, and that's good.