On Quake

Although I loved playing Doom, Hexen, and Wolfenstein 3D, I loved playing Quake with a deep fiery passion. According to Thurrott‘s article, “20 Years Later, We Still Game in the Shadow of Quake“:

Long time readers know I’ve been a fan of first shooters since the game genre was invented. No company has had a greater impact on these games than Id Software, and among its many important achievements stands Quake, which was released 20 years ago this week.

There’s never been a game like Quake. And that’s true for both the broader games industry. And, as it turns out, for me personally as well.

Looking at the earliest shooters, we see some important milestones, such as DOOM, of course, and Duke Nukem 3D. But it wasn’t until Quake that Id’s genius platform maker, John Carmack, was able to bring us into the world of real time 3D. Every shooter that’s been made since, including the Call of Duty titles I now prefer, could not and would not exist if it weren’t for Carmack, and for Quake.

Quake’s history is interesting—and I strongly recommend the book Masters of Doom, which Amazon will sell you in paper, Kindle, and Audible formats—for the best overview of that. But what I recall are John Carmack’s plan file updates, John Romero’s over-the-top boasting, and then the initial, weird first test level, with its blocky brown graphics. Where DOOM was fast and frenetic, Quake, initially, was … slow. Almost ponderous. That was quickly fixed.

We later learned—and you can find out for yourself, via Masters of Doom—that Quake followed a circuitous route to release, with many of the initial ideas—it was an RPG of sorts, at first, and then your player character was allegedly only going to have a single weapon, a giant hammer—tossed aside so that it could be contorted into a more traditional shooter.

But it was the core technology in Quake that put it over the top, helped it evolve into something superior over time, and set us up for the next 20 years of gaming. Quake was the first fully 3D game. The first to use polygonal models instead of sprites. The first to support hardware accelerated graphics rendering. The first with multiplayer-specific levels.

Quake had Trent Reznor for music. It had Microsoft graphics guru Michael Abrash working as John Carmack’s muse. And it of course had Romero’s level designs. (And those of others, like American McGee.)

I jumped all over Quake when it was released, but later in the year I purchased a 3DFX Voodoo graphics card so I could play the game with hardware acceleration. This changed everything: Those blocky brown graphics were smoothed into clean edges, both on the level surfaces and on the animated characters you fought with. The effect was similar to what we experience with VR today, where an additional dimension is added to the game.

Having met the challenge of 3D graphics, Carmack turned his attention to Internet-based multiplayer. The result was QuakeWorld, which used technology called client-side prediction to help ease latency issues on the dial-up connections that were common at the time. QuakeWorld was glitchy in weird ways, but I fondly remember the skinning capabilities of this game, and I’d hop online with friends and run around levels populated with every manner of strange characters, shooting each other into the early hours of the morning.

Over time, Id also shipped WinQuake—incredibly, the original games were DOS-based—GLQuake, which brought hardware rendering to OpenGL-based graphics cards, and various mission packs, all of which served to extend the lifetime of this title and usher in the modern era of DLC (downloadable content) we enjoy on today’s consoles. There were numerous mods, including a Rune Quake variant I adored. And then of course, there were many sequels, none of which had anything to do with the original game in the slightest: Quake II and Quake IV (an Xbox 360 launch title) took place in the same “universe,” while Quake III Arena and Quake III: Team Arena, and Quake Live (and an upcoming Quake do-over), were pure multiplayer shooters akin to the Unreal Tournament games.

I enjoyed them all, played them all repeatedly, beat them all. But none had the impact—again, on me, or the industry—of the original.

A couple of personal notes.

In the early 1990s, I was an Amiga user and advocate, and was generally unimpressed with PCs, Microsoft, and Windows. But seeing Id’s early shooter, Castle Wolftenstein 3D, run just fine on my wife’s sad little IBM PS/1—the thing couldn’t even run Windows 3—opened my eyes to the beginning of the end for the Amiga. The Amiga excelled at arcade-style 2D scrollers, but John Carmack had figured out a way to make (pseudo) 3D happen in early 1990s … on the lowly PC. I never looked back.

In 1996 or 1997, I was on a plane traveling between Phoenix and San Francisco, and I pulled out my laptop—which was running Windows NT 4.0, of course—and started playing Quake, which could only run at very low resolutions and with software-based graphics on that machine. The woman next to me got very excited and was talking to me, so I took off my headphones to see what was up. “Is that virtual reality?” she excitedly asked, and I then spent the rest of the flight letting her experience the thrill of virtually walking through a new world.

With the 20th anniversary of Quake upon us, there are a few recent developments of interest too.

First, a game developer called MachineGames—they’re making recent sequels to the Wolfenstein series of games, speaking of long-lasting shooters—has literally just released a new level for the original Quake.

And Quake co-creator John Romero has started celebrating the 20th anniversary of Quake by sharing a set of 20-year-old Quake planning documents that show the earliest peek at a game that would later change quite a bit.

“Where has all the time gone?” Romero asks. I wonder the same.

Additionally, according to the NowGamer article, “The Making Of Quake“:

Any 3D action game made after 1996 owes its life, soul, and money to Quake. It’s that simple. Id Software’s seminal shooter revolutionised the games industry, making fully 3D spaces not only achievable, but fast and streamlined.


It set the template that every FPS thereafter would imitate – thankfully, the depressing brown haze has finally been given the axe – and arguably remains one of the purest, most primal action experiences you can have on a PC.

Without John ‘Insomnia’ Carmack’s flawless engine and the game behind it, the industry – not only games but also 3D hardware – would’ve taken a lot longer to advance.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that no one else could’ve come up with an engine as tight as Quake’s. But it’s not just the game’s sublime graphics engine that makes it so significant.

It was the beginning of online multiplayer gaming, the progenitor of all modern first-person shooters, and the end of John Romero’s tenure at the company he helped build – and the place where he made his most well-known games – id Software.

“It was,” Romero says, without a hint of doubt, “super painful.” There’s a reason his words aren’t minced in the slightest: the Quake you know and love had to be assembled in seven months. Seven very tense months.

Why? Well, in the year or so before id crunched down and created the game we’d see on shelves, Quake had a completely different design. Romero explains: “Well, back in ‘91, we’d just finished doing our Commander Keen series, which had put us on the map, with shareware and all that.

“And so we started to use that same engine to test a new idea. “We really liked the name ‘Quake’ because Quake was a character in a D&D world that John Carmack had created, that we’d been playing in for a while.

“Quake was in this secret group called the Silver Shadow Band, and he was just this super-awesome dude with a big Thor-like hammer. And we were saying, ‘Let’s do an RPG! We’ll make the main character Quake!’


“There was only some preliminary work done to see what we could do in that engine, and it was just not cool. A game called ‘Quake’ had to be so much cooler than this; a 2D, top-down RPG didn’t seem right.

“So we were like, ‘Nah, let’s not waste it.’” The idea was shelved. And, in the meantime, id went off to invent and popularise the first-person shooter genre with Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM.

By the time id had completed DOOM II, gaming culture, technology and the company itself were completely changed, and the Ultima offspring that Quake was originally going to be seemed an even worse idea than it did in 1991.

“So,” Romero continues, “we all thought, ‘Let’s do a new game!’ If you look at what we’d done, we’d started with Commander Keen, but after that we did a lot of different things.

“We did Shadow Night, which was a side-scrolling ninja game, we did Dangerous Dave, Rescue Rover, and then Hovertank 3D. Then, of course, Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM.

“So we kept creating new IPs, and this time we were like, ‘We’ve got this cool new technology. It’s time for Quake.’” Little did Romero know when he said those last four words that they would end up swerving his career in a completely different direction.

But at this point, he was too excited about where he wanted to take that awesome name for a game. “By ‘95,” he remembers, “it had nothing to do with the original RPG idea.

“The design had lots of different elements to it, but basically, it was a first-person exploration kind of thing. But when you got into combat, you could choose to go into a side-view fighter mode, or you could stay in first-person, but it wouldn’t be as cool.


“Also, I had the idea of implementing visual triggers in the game, like where having you walk down a dark path in a forest, and you look at a cave, and all of a sudden some eyes appear, and there’s growling. We had a lot of great ideas, none of which actually made it into the game.”

That’s because, in November 1995, Team id assembled and discussed Quake’s future. It was after this meeting that Romero decided his days at id were very numbered; that decision was arguably Ion Storm’s genesis.

“We all had a big company meeting,”he recalls, “because the technology had been developed for a full year at that point, and we still didn’t have a game. We had levels, but there was no clear direction, because we didn’t like hiring up – well, I liked it, but Carmack didn’t want to hire more programmers; he wanted to keep the team small.

“So, he tried to keep a low headcount, but in doing so we jeopardised our ability to prototype new game code. For the whole duration of the company, it was Carmack who did the cool new tech, and I who did the cool new design.”

But things were changing in the Dallas-based company. Carmack’s tech was taking precedence because it was so revolutionary, and when the team worked out what little time they had left to actually make Romero’s game, they didn’t feel too confident.

“But I’d seen the development cycle go up 50% every game since Wolfenstein,” he sighs. “So I was like, ‘Guys, it’s going to take longer! This is more sophisticated tech. It’s not as if we don’t have the money! Let’s do something that’s never been done before.’

“But most of the people who were arguing against it hadn’t been on a full development cycle before; I really don’t think the owner should’ve been listening, because their points were kind of invalid.”

Regardless, the decision was ultimately made to take what the team had established in terms of levels and art design, and rework DOOM. Romero was disgusted. “I was like, ‘That is so lame’,” he laughs.


“But that’s basically when I realised, ‘I’m finished here.’ I went off and redesigned the game, handed everybody out the spec sheets for what they’d be doing with the new, revamped design, and it was all about total execution for seven months.

“In January, after getting it going, I called up Tom Hall, and said, ‘I’m outta here after this game.’ And that was the idea for Ion Storm.” Quake didn’t end up being what Romero had wanted it to be, but that didn’t stop him from making sure that it was the best damn DOOM-spawn possible.

So, for the game’s now-legendary monsters, the team studied Lovecraft. “I had been reading a lot of Lovecraft’s stuff,” he reveals, “and I was just amazed at how messed up it was.

“It was awesome; I couldn’t believe someone back in the Thirties created this jacked-up, disturbing stuff that was way beyond stupid werewolves, Frankenstein’s monsters and Draculas.

“We put a lot of that stuff in there, like Shub Niggurath, the Shambler and Cthon – which was a Cthulhu-type name. We wanted to throw it in there because, really, the palette of the game felt more true to Lovecraft than anything I’d ever seen.

“I tried to come from Lovecraft and fit it into our design. Like, we’d say, ‘What kind of monsters would we want in there? Well, zombies would be cool, but not normal zombies.

“Let’s make them these weird things that pull stuff out of their heads and asses and throw it at you! Make it kinda funny, but also scary.’” Assisting this atmosphere was the excellent ambient music by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, which was a far cry from the bluesy MIDI numbers heard in DOOM.

Romero reveals how the cybergoth ended up making Quake’s music: “Well, John Carmack and American McGee were big NIN fans. And we had an agent at ICM in Hollywood, and we were using that agent to get some book deals, and he said, ‘Hey, I also manage Nine Inch Nails, and they’re totally nuts about your game.


“They play LAN DOOM on the tour bus all the time!’ So we were like, ‘No way, dude! Let’s hook up!’ So the guys came out to hang with us, and we were like, ‘Hey, what do you think about doing some music for us?’ And [Trent] was totally into it, because he was totally into DOOM.”

Of course, there are two reasons why you may not have even heard Reznor’s contributions. The first is that you, like many, played the game without the CD. The other? That you, like a huge slab of the Quake fanbase, didn’t really bother much with the single-player campaign and hopped right into deathmatches and l33t-speak for the very first time.

Romero still adores Quake’s online action. “I was massively addicted to it,” he laughs. “Because of the emergence of the internet, we knew it was going to be popular.

“What happened was that these guys from Houston came and showed me this little, very rudimentary program that got you connected to their server in Houston, and then it would connect you to other players through their server, to play DOOM. And when I saw that rudimentary technology, I said, ‘This is what I’m looking for!’

“The technology was called ‘Dwango’, and I said, ‘I want to make this successful.’ So, I redesigned how Dwango worked. I messed with the communication data, rewrote the whole client, re-factored the whole server to make it more efficient. I knew it was going to be huge.”

Thanks to that technology, and thanks to id’s friendliness towards their fans – “I said, ‘We need to open this game up for the modders!’” Romero enthuses – a massive, unprecedented Quake community emerged.

“Quake gave the community the idea of being able to create these groups of players on teams and clans,” Romero says. “It created E-Sports, too; it gave rise to that entire industry.

“It encouraged people to mod, and start getting jobs for modding. Really, it brought a lot of stuff. You know, just this giant community – people were getting married through Quake, and all that sort of stuff.”

Quake didn’t end up being the experimental, avant-garde piece of game design Romero had hoped for, but it still helped the industry advance in unprecedented ways.

It’s even a bit much to call it unambitious, as few other games have introduced so many new ideas, skillsets, and even sub-industries. DOOM ultimately got more airplay for being more immediately recognisable, but it was Quake that truly set the tone for things to come.

So next time you’re playing the latest, phenomenally expensive FPS epic, just remember id’s little DOOM remix that ended up changing the world as we isolated gamers know it.

According to the GameSpot review:

After generating more hype than any unreleased game in history, Quake is finally here. And it makes good on its promise, big time. With no compromises, no excuses, and no bull, Quake delivers an edge-of-the-seat adrenaline rush that begins the moment you set foot in its darkened halls.

If it sounds like I’m gushing about this game, I am. Quake is a masterpiece on every level, with its ominous atmosphere, silky-smooth animation, incredibly well-balanced gameplay and level design, and unparalleled soundtrack. Once again, the team at id Software has created a no-apologies, ultra-violent gorefest sure to be the new battleground of choice for single and multi-player combatants worldwide.

New Gameplay, New Controls

The most important distinction between Quake and the drove of first-person action games currently available is that it’s set in a true 3-D world. Compared to other titles, Quake’s enemies and objects have an entirely new level of depth to them – you can view any game element from any angle with consistently smooth and realistic results. The architecture of the levels is much more sophisticated than it is in competing titles; so are the real-time animations, which include such effects as explosion particles flying in every direction and enormous, spike-like objects shooting out from hidden compartments. The true 3-D environment also allows totally new attack strategies, like bouncing a grenade off a wall in order to blast an opponent skulking around the corner.

In Quake, you can attack (or be attacked) from almost any angle or altitude. But gone are the days of merely pointing your gun in the general direction of your enemies and blazing away; if you want to hit something, you’re going to have to aim your weapon carefully. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because the Quake interface breaks rank with the standard control set of previous id software titles. The new system takes some getting used to, but once learned, provides an unmatched level of control.

A three-button mouse is almost a must, since it allows you to simultaneously move, turn, and fire in any direction. Although it’s possible to play with the keyboard or a game pad, most players will find that in underwater and Deathmatch situations, only the mouse will ensure mastery over both the environment and unruly opponents.

Killer Weapons, Killer Effects

And speaking of unruly opponents, there’s only one way to deal with them: violently. Quake sports a wicked complement of weapons–grenade and rocket launchers, shotguns, lightning guns, and a nailgun that’s so fun to fire I ran out of ammo just shooting it at the walls. (Note to beginning players: Don’t shoot at the walls and run out of ammo until ALL of the monsters are dead.)

A host of power-ups are also hidden throughout the game, and collecting them can instantly shift the balance of power both in single and multiplayer battles. These items include the Circle of Protection, which gives you 666 hit points, enough to go toe-to-toe with just about anyone; the Ring of Shadows, which makes you invisible (except for the two glowing eyeballs your enemies can spot floating in space); and Quake Power, a true humdinger that dramatically increases the damage levels of all your weaponry (you can open up a family-size can of whoop-ass on anyone once you’ve collected this icon).

All this is backed by graphics that are awesome in their own right. The creatures that fill the game’s four worlds and 28 levels are, as you might expect, sick, twisted, and perverse. The visceral effect of the bloody grimaces and entropic bioforms is intensified by animation that’s unusually smooth and utterly convincing. The first time I was attacked by a hook-wielding enemy, I actually dropped the mouse and backed away from the computer. (Second note for beginning players: Don’t drop the mouse and back away from the computer until ALL of the monsters are dead…)

The graphics are perfectly complemented by sound effects and ambient tunes from the darker regions of Trent Reznor’s musical mind. Simply put, this is the best soundtrack ever created for a computer game. Reznor’s eerie sounds and unsettling background music push Quake’s already dark and creepy atmosphere into the realm of pure evil.

Deathmatch Deluxe

Yes, “kill, and keep on killing” is clearly the message here, and with Quake’s 28 artfully balanced multiplayer maps, it’s a hard message to resist. I spent two days playing against Quake’s design team in Deathmatch mode (third note for beginning players: Don’t EVER play Quake’s designers in Deathmatch mode), and the experience was truly unforgettable. Quake’s designers have created Deathmatch environments that reward skill rather than luck, and are filled with nooks and crannies and other lovely places to hide while you wait for the unwitting opponent to stroll by. And if merely killing your opponents isn’t enough (and for the guys at id, it apparently isn’t), Quake includes a set of extremely debasing death messages – “Player 1 sucks down Player 2’s rocket,” for example – along with an easy-to-use chat system that enables you to add a few custom pokes of your own.

Much more could be said of Quake, but I’ll leave the rest for you to discover. The hype surounding this game has been almost unbearable, but in the end, Quake deserves every bit of advance – and until now, unverifiable – praise it has received. If you’re into action games, and even if you’re not, you should be playing Quake right now – it’s as good as PC gaming gets.



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