The Next Generation in Graphics, Part 1: Three Dimensions in Software (or, Quake and Its Discontents)

21 Apr

“Mathematics,” wrote the historian of science Carl Benjamin Boyer many years ago, “is as much an aspect of culture as it is a collection of algorithms.” The same might be said about the mathematical algorithms we choose to prioritize — especially in these modern times, when the right set of formulas can be worth many millions of dollars, can be trade secrets as jealously guarded as the recipes for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s Special Sauce.

We can learn much about the tech zeitgeist from those algorithms the conventional wisdom thinks are most valuable. At the very beginning of the 1990s, when “multimedia” was the buzzword of the age and the future of games was believed to lie with “interactive movies” made out of video clips of real actors, the race was on to develop video codecs: libraries of code able to digitize footage from the analog world and compress it to a fraction of its natural size, thereby making it possible to fit a reasonable quantity of it on CDs and hard drives. This was a period when Apple’s QuickTime was regarded as a killer app in itself, when Philips’s ill-fated CD-i console could be delayed for years by the lack of a way to get video to its screen quickly and attractively.

It is a rule in almost all kinds of engineering that, the more specialized a device is, the more efficiently it can perform the tasks that lie within its limited sphere. This rule holds true as much in computing as anywhere else. So, when software proved able to stretch only so far in the face of the limited general-purpose computing power of the day, some started to build their video codecs into specialized hardware add-ons.

Just a few years later, after the zeitgeist in games had shifted, the whole process repeated itself in a different context.

By the middle years of the decade, with the limitations of working with canned video clips becoming all too plain, interactive movies were beginning to look like a severe case of the emperor’s new clothes. The games industry therefore shifted its hopeful gaze to another approach, one that would prove a much more lasting transformation in the way games were made. This 3D Revolution did have one point of similarity with the mooted and then abandoned meeting of Silicon Valley and Hollywood: it too was driven by algorithms, implemented first in software and then in hardware.

It was different, however, in that the entire industry looked to one man to lead it into its algorithmic 3D future. That man’s name was John Carmack.

Whether they happen to be pixel art hand-drawn by human artists or video footage captured by cameras, 2D graphics already exist on disk before they appear on the monitor screen. And therein lies the source of their limitations. Clever programmers can manipulate them to some extent — pixel art generally more so than digitized video — but the possibilities are bounded by the fundamentally static nature of the source material. 3D graphics, however, are literally drawn by the computer. They can go anywhere and do just about anything. For, while 2D graphics are stored as a concrete grid of pixels, 3D graphics are described using only the abstract language of mathematics — a language able to describe not just a scene but an entire world, assuming you have a powerful enough computer running a good enough algorithm.

Like so many things that get really complicated really quickly, the basic concepts of 3D graphics are disarmingly simple. The process behind them can be divided into two phases: the modeling phase and the rendering, or rasterization, phase.

It all begins with simple two-dimensional shapes of the sort we all remember from middle-school geometry, each defined as a collection of points on a plane and straight lines connecting them together. By combining and arranging these two-dimensional shapes, or surfaces, together in three-dimensional space, we can make solids — or, in the language of computerized 3D graphics, objects.

Here we see how 3D objects can be made ever more more complex by building them out of ever more surfaces. The trade-off is that more complex objects require more computing power to render in a timely fashion.

Once we have a collection of objects, we can put them into a world space, wherever we like and at whatever angle of orientation we like. This world space is laid out as a three-dimensional grid, with its point of origin — i.e., the point where X, Y, and Z are all zero — wherever we wish it to be. In addition to our objects, we also place within it a camera — or, if you like, an observer in our world — at whatever position and angle of orientation we wish. At their simplest, 3D graphics require nothing more at the modeling phase.

We sometimes call the second phase the “rasterization” phase in reference to the orderly two-dimensional grid of pixels which make up the image seen on a monitor screen, which in computer-science parlance is known as a raster. The whole point of this rasterization phase, then, is to make our computer’s monitor a window into our imaginary world from the point of view of our imaginary camera. This entails converting said world’s three dimensions back into our two-dimensional raster of pixels, using the rules of perspective that have been understood by human artists since the Renaissance.

We can think of rasterizing as observing a scene through a window screen. Each square in the mesh is one pixel, which can be exactly one color. The whole process of 3D rendering ultimately comes down to figuring out what each of those colors should be.

The most basic of all 3D graphics are of the “wire-frame” stripe, which attempt to draw only the lines that form the edges of their surfaces. They were seen fairly frequently on microcomputers as far back as the early 1980s, the most iconic example undoubtedly being the classic 1984 space-trading game Elite.

Even in something as simple as Elite, we can begin to see how 3D graphics blur the lines between a purely presentation-level technology and a full-blown world simulation. When we have one enemy spaceship in our sights in Elite, there might be several others above, behind, or below us, which the 3D engine “knows” about but which we may not. Combined with a physics engine and some player and computer agency in the model world (taking here the form of lasers and thrusters), it provides the raw materials for a game. Small wonder that so many game developers came to see 3D graphics as such a natural fit.

But, for all that those wire frames in Elite might have had their novel charm in their day, programmers realized that the aesthetics of 3D graphics had to get better for them to become a viable proposition over the long haul. This realization touched off an algorithmic arms race that is still ongoing to this day. The obvious first step was to paint in the surfaces of each solid in single blocks of color, as the later versions of Elite that were written for 16-bit rather than 8-bit machines often did. It was an improvement in a way, but it still looked jarringly artificial, even against a spartan star field in outer space.

The next way station on the road to a semi-realistic-looking computer-generated world was light sources of varying strengths, positioned in the world with X, Y, and Z coordinates of their own, casting their illumination and shadows realistically on the objects to be found there.

A 3D scene with light sources.

The final step was to add textures, small pictures that were painted onto surfaces in place of uniform blocks of color; think of the pitted paint job of a tired X-Wing fighter or the camouflage of a Sherman tank. Textures introduced an enormous degree of complication at the rasterization stage; it wasn’t easy for 3D engines to make them look believable from a multitude of different lines of sight. That said, believable lighting was almost as complicated. Textures or lighting, or both, were already the fodder for many an academic thesis before microcomputers even existed.

A 3D scene with light sources and textures.

In the more results-focused milieu of commercial game development, where what was possible was determined largely by which types of microprocessors Intel and Motorola were selling the most of in any given year, programmers were forced to choose between compromised visions of the academic ideal. These broke down into two categories, neatly exemplified by the two most profitable computer games of the 1990s. Those games that followed in one or the other’s footsteps came to be known as the “Myst clones” and the “DOOM clones.” They could hardly have been more dissimilar in personality, yet they were both symbols of a burgeoning 3D revolution.

The Myst clones got their name from a game developed by Cyan Studios and published by Brøderbund in September of 1993, which went on to sell at least 6 million copies as a boxed retail product and quite likely millions more as a pack-in of one description or another. Myst and the many games that copied its approach tended to be, as even their most strident detractors had to admit, rather beautiful to look at. This was because they didn’t attempt to render their 3D imagery in real time; their rendering was instead done beforehand, often on beefy workstation-class machines, then captured as finished rasters of pixels on disk. Given that they worked with graphics that needed to be rendered only once and could be allowed to take hours to do so if necessary, the creators of games like this could pull out all the stops in terms of textures, lighting, and the sheer number and complexity of the 3D solids that made up their worlds.

These games’ disadvantage — a pretty darn massive one in the opinion of many players — was that their scope of interactive potential was as sharply limited in its way as that of all those interactive movies built around canned video clips that the industry was slowly giving up on. They could present their worlds to their players only as a collection of pre-rendered nodes to be jumped between, could do nothing on the fly. These limitations led most of their designers to build their gameplay around set-piece puzzles found in otherwise static, non-interactive environments, which most players soon started to find a bit boring. Although the genre had its contemplative pleasures and its dedicated aficionados who appreciated them, its appeal as anything other than a tech demo — the basis on which the original Myst was primarily sold — turned out to be the very definition of niche, as the publishers of Myst clones belatedly learned to their dismay. The harsh reality became undeniable once Riven, the much-anticipated, sumptuously beautiful sequel to Myst, under-performed expectations by “only” selling 1 million copies when it finally appeared four years after its hallowed predecessor. With the exception only of Titanic: Adventure out of Time, which owed its fluke success to a certain James Cameron movie with which it happened to share a name and a setting, no other game of this style ever cracked half a million in unit sales. The genre has been off the mainstream radar for decades now.

The DOOM clones, on the other hand, have proved a far more enduring fixture of mainstream gaming. They took their name, of course, from the landmark game of first-person carnage which the energetic young men of id Software released just a couple of months after Myst reached store shelves. John Carmack, the mastermind of the DOOM engine, managed to present a dynamic, seamless, apparently 3D world in place of the static nodes of Myst, and managed to do it in real time, even on a fairly plebeian consumer-grade computer. He did so first of all by being a genius programmer, able to squeeze every last drop out of the limited hardware at his disposal. And then, when even that wasn’t enough to get the job done, he threw out feature after feature that the academics whose papers he had pored over insisted was essential for any “real” 3D engine. His motto was, if you can’t get it done honestly, cheat, by hard-coding assumptions about the world into your algorithms and simply not letting the player — or the level designer — violate them. The end result was no Myst-like archetype of beauty in still screenshots. It pasted 2D sprites into its world whenever there wasn’t horsepower enough to do real modeling, had an understanding of light and its properties that is most kindly described as rudimentary, and couldn’t even handle sloping floors or ceilings, or walls that weren’t perfectly vertical. Heck, it didn’t even let you look up or down.

And absolutely none of that mattered. DOOM may have looked a bit crude in freeze-frame, but millions of gamers found it awe-inspiring to behold in motion. Indeed, many of them thought that Carmack’s engine, combined with John Romero and Sandy Petersen’s devious level designs, gave them the most fun they’d ever had sitting behind a computer. This was immersion of a level they’d barely imagined possible, the perfect demonstration of the real potential of 3D graphics — even if it actually was, as John Carmack would be the first to admit, only 2.5D at best. No matter; DOOM felt like real 3D, and that was enough.

A hit game will always attract imitators, and a massive hit will attract legions of them. Accordingly, the market was soon flooded with, if anything, even more DOOM clones than Myst clones, all running in similar 2.5D engines, the product of both intense reverse engineering of DOOM itself and Carmack’s habit of talking freely about how he made the magic happen to pretty much anyone who asked him, no matter how much his colleagues at id begged him not to. “Programming is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “Teaching something to a fellow programmer doesn’t take it away from you. I’m happy to share what I can because I’m in it for the love of programming.” Carmack was elevated to veritable godhood, the prophet on the 3D mountaintop passing down whatever scraps of wisdom he deigned to share with the lesser mortals below.

Seen in retrospect, the DOOM clones are, like the Myst clones, a fairly anonymous lot for the most part, doubling down on transgressive ultra-violence instead of majestic isolation, but equally failing to capture a certain ineffable something that lay beyond the nuts and bolts of their inspiration’s technology. The most important difference between the Myst and DOOM clones came down to the filthy lucre of dollar and unit sales: whereas Myst‘s coattails proved largely illusory, producing few other hits, DOOM‘s were anything but. Most people who had bought Myst, it seemed, were satisfied with that single purchase; people who bought DOOM were left wanting more first-person mayhem, even if it wasn’t quite up to the same standard.

The one DOOM clone that came closest to replacing DOOM itself in the hearts of gamers was known as Duke Nukem 3D. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, given its pedigree: it was a product of 3D Realms, the rebranded incarnation of Scott Miller’s Apogee Software. Whilst trading under the earlier name, Miller had pioneered the episodic shareware model of game distribution, a way of escaping the heavy-handed group-think of the major boxed-game publishers and their tediously high-concept interactive movies in favor of games that were exponentially cheaper to develop, but also rawer, more visceral, more in line with what the teenage and twenty-something males who still constituted the large majority of dedicated gamers were actually jonesing to play. Miller had discovered the young men of id when they were still working for a disk magazine in Shreveport, Louisiana. He had then convinced them to move to his own glossier, better-connected hometown of Dallas, Texas, and distributed their proto-DOOM shooter Wolfenstein 3D to great success. His protégées had elected to strike out on their own when the time came to release DOOM, but it’s fair to say that that game would probably never have come to exist at all if not for their shareware Svengali. And even if it had, it probably wouldn’t have made them so much money; Jay Wilbur, id’s own tireless guerilla marketer, learned most of his tricks from watching Scott Miller.

Still a man with a keen sense of what his customers really wanted, Miller re-branded Apogee as 3D Realms as a way of signifying its continuing relevance amidst the 3D revolution that took the games industry by storm after DOOM. Then he, his junior partner George Broussard, and 3D Realms’s technical mastermind Ken Silverman set about making a DOOM-like engine of their own, known as Build, which they could sell to other developers who wanted to get up and running quickly. And they used the same engine to make a game of their own, which would turn out to be the most memorable of all those built with Build.

Duke Nukem 3D‘s secret weapon was one of the few boxes in the rubric of mainstream gaming success that DOOM had failed to tick off: a memorable character to serve as both star and mascot. First conceived several years earlier for a pair of Apogee 2D platformers, Duke Nukem was Joseph Lieberman’s worst nightmare, an unrepentant gangster with equally insatiable appetites for bombs and boobies, a fellow who “thinks the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is a convenience store,” as his advertising trumpeted. His latest game combined some of the best, tightest level design yet seen outside of DOOM with a festival of adolescent transgression, from toilet water that served as health potions to strippers who would flash their pixelated breasts at you for the price of a dollar bill. The whole thing was topped off with the truly over-the-top quips of Duke himself: “I’m gonna rip off your head and shit down your neck!”; “Your face? Your ass? What’s the difference?” It was an unbeatable combination, proof positive that Miller’s ability to read his market was undimmed. Released in January of 1996, relatively late in the day for this generation of 3D — or rather 2.5D — technology, Duke Nukem 3D became by some reports the best-selling single computer game of that entire year. It is still remembered with warm nostalgia today by countless middle-aged men who would never want their own children to play a game like this. And so the cycle of life continues…

In a porno shop, shooting it out with policemen who are literally pigs…

Duke Nukem 3D was a triumph of design and attitude rather than technology; in keeping with most of the DOOM clones, the Build engine’s technical innovations over its inspiration were fairly modest. John Carmack scoffed that his old friends’ creation looked like it was “held together with bubble gum.”

The game that did push the technology envelope farthest, albeit without quite managing to escape the ghetto of the DOOM clones, was also a sign in another way of how quickly DOOM was changing the industry: rather than stemming from scruffy veterans of the shareware scene like id and 3D Realms, it came from the heart of the industry’s old-money establishment — from no less respectable and well-financed an entity than George Lucas’s very own games studio.

LucasArts’s Dark Forces was a shooter set in the Star Wars universe, which disappointed everyone right out of the gate with the news that it was not going to let you fight with a light saber. The developers had taken a hard look at it, they said, but concluded in the end that it just wasn’t possible to pull off satisfactorily within the hardware specifications they had to meet. This failing was especially ironic in light of the fact that they had chosen to name their new 2.5D engine “Jedi.” But they partially atoned for it by making the Jedi engine capable of hosting unprecedentedly enormous levels — not just horizontally so, but vertically as well. Dark Forces was full of yawning drop-offs and cavernous open spaces, the likes which you never saw in DOOM — or Duke Nukem 3D, for that matter, despite its release date of almost a year after Dark Forces. Even more importantly, Dark Forces felt like Star Wars, right from the moment that John Williams’s stirring theme song played over stage-setting text which scrolled away into the frame rather than across it. Although they weren’t allowed to make any of the movies’ characters their game’s star, LucasArts created a serviceable if slightly generic stand-in named Kyle Katarn, then sent him off on vertigo-inducing chases through huge levels stuffed to the gills with storm troopers in urgent need of remedial gunnery training, just like in the movies. Although Dark Forces toned down the violence that so many other DOOM clones were making such a selling point out of — there was no blood whatsoever on display here, just as there had not been in the movies — it compensated by giving gamers the chance to live out some of their most treasured childhood media memories, at a time when there were no new non-interactive Star Wars experiences to be had.

Unfortunately, LucasArts’s design instincts weren’t quite on a par with their presentation and technology. Dark Forces‘s levels were horribly confusing, providing little guidance about what to do or where to go in spaces whose sheer three-dimensional size and scope made the two-dimensional auto-map all but useless. Almost everyone who goes back to play the game today tends to agree that it just isn’t as much fun as it ought to be. At the time, though, the Star Wars connection and its technical innovations were enough to make Dark Forces a hit almost the equal of DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D. Even John Carmack made a point of praising LucasArts for what they had managed to pull off on hardware not much better than that demanded by DOOM.

Yet everyone seemed to be waiting on Carmack himself, the industry’s anointed Master of 3D Algorithms, to initiate the real technological paradigm shift. It was obvious what that must entail: an actual, totally non-fake rendered-on-the-fly first-person 3D engine, without all of the compromises that had marked DOOM and its imitators. Such engines weren’t entirely unheard of; the Boston studio Looking Glass Technologies had been working with them for five years, employing them in such innovative, immersive games as Ultima Underworld and System Shock. But those games were qualitatively different from DOOM and its clones: slower, more complex, more cerebral. The mainstream wanted a game that played just as quickly and violently and viscerally as DOOM, but that did it in uncompromising real 3D. With computers getting faster every year and with a genius like John Carmack to hand, it ought to be possible.

And so Carmack duly went to work on just such an engine, for a game that was to be called Quake. His ever-excitable level designer John Romero, who had the looks and personality to be the rock star gaming had been craving for years, was all in with bells on. “The next game is going to blow DOOM all to hell,” he told his legions of adoring fans. “DOOM totally sucks in comparison to our next game! Quake is going to be a bigger step over DOOM than DOOM was over Wolf 3D.” Drunk on success and adulation, he said that Quake would be more than just a game: “It will be a movement.” (Whatever that meant!) The drumbeat of excitement building outside of id almost seemed to justify his hyperbole; from all the way across the Atlantic, the British magazine PC Zone declared that the upcoming Quake would be “the most important PC game ever made.” The soundtrack alone was to be a significant milestone in the incorporation of gaming into mainstream pop culture, being the work of Trent Reznor and his enormously popular industrial-rock band Nine Inch Nails. Such a collaboration would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

While Romero was enjoying life as gaming’s own preeminent rock star and waiting for Carmack to get far enough along on the Quake engine to give him something to do, Carmack was living like a monk, working from 4 PM to 4 AM every day. In another sign of just how quickly id had moved up in the world, he had found himself an unexpectedly well-credentialed programming partner. Michael Abrash was one of the establishment’s star programmers, who had written a ton of magazine articles and two highly regarded technical tomes on assembly-language and graphics programming and was now a part of Microsoft’s Windows NT team. When Carmack, who had cut his teeth on Abrash’s writings, invited him out of the blue to come to Dallas and do Quake with him, Bill Gates himself tried to dissuade his employee. “You might not like it down there,” he warned. Abrash was, after all, pushing 40, a staid sort with an almost academic demeanor, while id was a nest of hyperactive arrested adolescence on a permanent sugar high. But he went anyway, because he was pretty sure Carmack was a genius, and because Carmack seemed to Abrash a bit lonely, working all night every night with only his computer for company. Abrash thought he saw in Quake a first glimmer of a new form of virtual existence that companies like Meta are still chasing eagerly today: “a pretty complicated, online, networked universe,” all in glorious embodied 3D. “We do Quake, other companies do other games, people start building worlds with our format and engine and tools, and these worlds can be glommed together via doorways from one to another. To me this sounds like a recipe for the first real cyberspace, which I believe will happen the way a real space station or habitat probably would — by accretion.”

He may not have come down if he had known precisely what he was getting into; he would later compare making Quake to “being strapped onto a rocket during takeoff in the middle of a hurricane.” The project proved a tumultuous, exhausting struggle that very nearly broke id as a cohesive company, even as the money from DOOM was continuing to roll in. (id’s annual revenues reached $15.6 million in 1995, a very impressive figure for what was still a relatively tiny company, with a staff numbering only a few dozen.)

Romero envisioned a game that would be as innovative in terms of gameplay as technology, that would be built largely around sword-fighting and other forms of hand-to-hand combat rather than gun play — the same style of combat that LucasArts had decided was too impractical for Dark Forces. Some of his early descriptions make Quake sound more like a full-fledged CRPG in the offing than another straightforward action game. But it just wouldn’t come together, according to some of Romero’s colleagues because he failed to communicate his expectations to them, rather leading them to suspect that even he wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to make.

Carmack finally stepped in and ordered his design team to make Quake essentially a more graphically impressive DOOM. Romero accepted the decision outwardly, but seethed inwardly at this breach of longstanding id etiquette; Carmack had always made the engines, then given Romero free rein to turn them into games. Romero largely checked out, opening a door that ambitious newcomers like American McGee and Tim Willits, who had come up through the thriving DOOM modding community, didn’t hesitate to push through. The offices of id had always been as hyper-competitive as a DOOM deathmatch, but now the atmosphere was becoming a toxic stew of buried resentments.

In a misguided attempt to fix the bad vibes, Carmack, whose understanding of human nature was as shallow as his understanding of computer graphics was deep, announced one day that he had ordered a construction crew in to knock down all of the walls, so that everybody could work together from a single “war room.” One for all and all for one, and all that. The offices of the most profitable games studio in the world were transformed into a dystopian setting perfect for a DOOM clone, as described by a wide-eyed reporter from Wired magazine who came for a visit: “a maze of drywall and plastic sheeting, with plaster dust everywhere, loose acoustic tiles, and cables dangling from the ceiling. Almost every item not directly related to the completion of Quake was gone. The only privacy to be found was between the padded earpieces of headphones.”

Wired magazine’s August 1996 cover, showing John Carmack flanked by John Romero and Adrian Carmack, marked the end of an era. By the time it appeared on newsstands, Romero had already been fired.

Needless to say, it didn’t have the effect Carmack had hoped for. In his book-length history of id’s early life and times, journalist David Kushner paints a jittery, unnerving picture of the final months of Quake‘s development: they “became a blur of silent and intense all-nighters, punctuated by the occasional crash of a keyboard against a wall. The construction crew had turned the office into a heap. The guys were taking their frustrations out by hurling computer parts into the drywall like knives.” Michael Abrash is more succinct: “A month before shipping, we were sick to death of working on Quake.” And level designer Sandy Petersen, the old man of the group, who did his best to keep his head down and stay out of the intra-office cold war, is even more so: “[Quake] was not fun to do.”

Quake was finally finished in June of 1996. It would prove a transitional game in more ways than one, caught between where games had recently been and where they were going. Still staying true to that odd spirit of hacker idealism that coexisted with his lust for ever faster Ferraris, Carmack insisted that Quake be made available as shareware, so that people could try it out before plunking down its full price. The game accordingly got a confusing, staggered release, much to the chagrin of its official publisher GT Interactive. To kick things off, the first eight levels went up online. Shortly after, there appeared in stores a $10 CD of the full game that had to be unlocked by paying id an additional $50 in order to play beyond the eighth level. Only after that, in August of 1996, did the game appear in a conventional retail edition.

Predictably enough, it all turned into a bit of a fiasco. Crackers quickly reverse-engineered the algorithms used for generating the unlocking codes, which were markedly less sophisticated than the ones used to generate the 3D graphics on the disc. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were able to get the entirety of the most hotly anticipated game of the year for $10. Meanwhile even many of those unwilling or unable to crack their shareware copies decided that eight levels was enough for them, especially given that the unregistered version could be used for multiplayer deathmatches. Carmack’s misplaced idealism cost id and GT Interactive millions, poisoning relations between them; the two companies soon parted ways.

So, the era of shareware as an underground pipeline of cutting-edge games came to an end with Quake. From now on, id would concentrate on boxed games selling for full price, as would all of their fellow survivors from that wild and woolly time. Gaming’s underground had become its establishment.

But its distribution model wasn’t the only sense in which Quake was as much a throwback as a step forward. It held fast as well to Carmack’s disinterest in the fictional context of id’s games, as illustrated by his famous claim that the story behind a game was no more important than the story behind a porn movie. It would be blatantly incorrect to claim that the DOOM clones which flooded the market between 1994 and 1996 represented some great exploding of the potential of interactive narrative, but they had begun to show some interest, if not precisely in elaborate set-piece storytelling in the way of adventure games, at least in the appeal of setting and texture. Dark Forces had been a pioneer in this respect, what with its between-levels cut scenes, its relatively fleshed-out main character, and most of all its environments that really did look and feel like the Star Wars films, from their brutalist architecture to John Williams’s unmistakable score. Even Duke Nukem 3D had the character of Duke, plus a distinctively seedy, neon-soaked post-apocalyptic Los Angeles for him to run around in. No one would accuse it of being an overly mature aesthetic vision, but it certainly was a unified one.

Quake, on the other hand,  displayed all the signs of its fractious process of creation, of half a dozen wayward designers all pulling in different directions. From a central hub, you took “slipgates” into alternate dimensions that contained a little bit of everything on the designers’ not-overly-discriminating pop-culture radar, from zombie flicks to Dungeons & Dragons, from Jaws to H.P. Lovecraft, from The Terminator to heavy-metal music, and so wound up not making much of a distinct impression at all.

Most creative works are stamped with the mood of the people who created them, no matter how hard the project managers try to separate the art from the artists. With its color palette dominated by shocks of orange and red, DOOM had almost literally burst off the monitor screen with the edgy joie de vivre of a group of young men whom nobody had expected to amount to much of anything, who suddenly found themselves on the verge of remaking the business of games in their own unkempt image. Quake felt tired by contrast. Even its attempts to blow past the barriers of good taste seemed more obligatory than inspired; the Satanic symbolism, elaborate torture devices, severed heads, and other forms of gore were outdone by other games that were already pushing the envelope even further. This game felt almost somber — not an emotion anyone had ever before associated with id. Its levels were slower and emptier than those of DOOM, with a color palette full of mournful browns and other earth tones. Even the much-vaunted soundtrack wound up rather underwhelming. It was bereft of the melodic hooks that had made Nine Inch Nails’s previous output more palatable for radio listeners than that of most other “extreme” bands; it was more an exercise in sound design than music composition. One couldn’t help but suspect that Trent Reznor had held back all of his good material for his band’s next real record.

At its worst, Quake felt like a tech demo waiting for someone to turn it into an actual game, proving that John Carmack needed John Romero as badly as Romero needed him. But that once-fruitful relationship was never to be rehabilitated: Carmack fired Romero within days of finishing Quake. The two would never work together again.

It was truly the end of an era at id. Sandy Petersen was soon let go as well, Michael Abrash went back to the comfortable bosom of Microsoft, and Jay Wilbur quit for the best of all possible reasons: because his son asked him, “How come all the other daddies go to the baseball games and you never do?” All of them left as exhausted as Quake looks and feels.

Of course, there was nary a hint of Quake‘s infelicities to be found in the press coverage that greeted its release. Even more so than most media industries, the games industry has always run on enthusiasm, and it had no desire at this particular juncture to eat its own by pointing out the flaws in the most important PC game ever made. The coverage in the magazines was marked by a cloying fan-boy fawning that was becoming ever more sadly prominent in gamer culture. “We are not even worthy to lick your toenails free of grit and fluffy sock detritus,” PC Zone wrote in a public letter to id. “We genuflect deeply and offer our bare chests for you to stab with a pair of scissors.” (Eww! A sense of proportion is as badly lacking as a sense of self-respect…) Even the usually sober-minded (by gaming-journalism standards) Computer Gaming World got a little bit creepy: “Describing Quake is like talking about sex. It must be experienced to be fully appreciated.”

Still, I would be a poor historian indeed if I called all the hyperbole of 1996 entirely unjustified. The fact is that the passage of time has tended to emphasize Quake‘s weaknesses, which are mostly in the realm of design and aesthetics, whilst obscuring its contemporary strengths, which were in the realm of technology. Although not quite the first game to graft a true 3D engine onto ultra-fast-action gameplay — Interplay’s Descent beat it to the market by more than a year — it certainly did so more flexibly and credibly than anything else to date, even if Carmack still wasn’t above cheating a bit when push came to shove. (By no means is the Quake engine entirely free of tricksy 2D sprites in places where proper 3D models are just too expensive to render.)

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to fully convey today just how revolutionary the granular details of Quake seemed in 1996: the way you could look up and down and all around you with complete freedom; the way its physics engine made guns kick so that you could almost feel it in your mouse hand; the way you could dive into water and experience the visceral sensation of actually swimming; the way the wood paneling of its walls glinted realistically under the overhead lighting. Such things are commonplace today, but Quake paved the way. Most of the complaints I’ve raised about it could be mitigated by the simple expedient of not even bothering with the lackluster single-player campaign, of just playing it with your mates in deathmatch.

But even if you preferred to play alone, Quake was a sign of better things to come. “It goes beyond the game and more into the engine and the possibilities,” says Rob Smith, who watched the Quake mania come and go as the editor of PC Gamer magazine. “Quake presented options to countless designers. The game itself doesn’t make many ‘all-time’ lists, but its impact [was] as a game changer for 3D gaming, [an] engine that allowed other game makers to express themselves.” For with the industry’s Master of 3D Algorithms John Carmack having shown what was possible and talking as freely as ever about how he had achieved it, with Michael Abrash soon to write an entire book about how he and Carmack had made the magic happen, more games of this type, ready and able to harness the technology of true 3D to more exciting designs, couldn’t be far behind. “We’ve pretty much decided that our niche is in first-person futuristic action games,” said John Carmack. “We stumble when we get away from the techno stuff.” The industry was settling into a model that would remain in place for years to come: id would show what was possible with the technology of 3D graphics, then leave it to other developers to bend it in more interesting directions.

Soon enough, then, titles like Jedi Knight and Half-Life would push the genre once known as DOOM clones, now trading under the more sustainable name of the first-person shooter, in more sophisticated directions in terms of storytelling and atmosphere, without losing the essence of what made their progenitors so much fun. They will doubtless feature in future articles.

Next time, however, I want to continue to focus on the technology, as we turn to another way in which Quake was a rough draft for a better gaming future: months after its initial release, it became one of the first games to display the potential of hardware acceleration for 3D graphics, marking the beginning of a whole new segment of the microcomputer industry, one worth many billions of dollars today.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(Sources: the books Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters by David L. Craddock, The Graphics Programming Black Book by Michael Abrash, Masters of DOOM: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, and Computer Graphics from Scratch: A Programmer’s Introduction by Gabriel Gambetta. PC Zone of May 1996; Computer Gaming World of July 1996 and October 1996; Wired of August 1996 and January 2010. Online sources include Michael Abrash’s “Ramblings in Realtime” for Blue’s News.

Quake is available as a digital purchase at, as is Star Wars: Dark Forces. Duke Nukem 3D can be found on Steam.)


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92 Responses to The Next Generation in Graphics, Part 1: Three Dimensions in Software (or, Quake and Its Discontents)

  1. Paul Dunne

    April 21, 2023 at 3:32 pm

    McDonald’s calls it “Special Sauce”

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2023 at 3:39 pm


      • Lord Gloom

        April 26, 2023 at 4:05 pm

        I’m convinced that it’s simply a blend of ketchup and mayonnaise. Mix them together and the taste is identical.

  2. PlayHistory

    April 21, 2023 at 3:45 pm

    Quake is a game that doesn’t have the pieces come together to make for a satisfyingly cohesive experience. I would never call it a bad game though. Some of the level designs are clever even by the standards of the modern shooters that have gone back to its style. It’s a game that struggled with its own scope as much as because it was new as anything, much like Super Mario 64 does (though that game is fully cohesive).

    I have wanted to look deep into the subject of 3D games on computers in the 1980s. You haven’t touched too much on them because there’s little in terms of narrative expansion in those games, but from a technological perspective it’s something I wish was written more about. Getting the most out of hardware was a long process and clearly showcases that some game creators knew about these early experiments, or at the very least read technical discussions from places like SIGGRAPH.

    On that, I’m interested to see how you will frame the GPU wars. I came into PC gaming at the tail end of that so it’s one of the first video game “stories” that I have some personal memory of. And how these advances reflect in your view of 3D games within the complexity of narrative experiences will be the real indication for where this blog will be going in the future.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2023 at 3:52 pm

      I think you’ll like the next couple of articles, which do exactly what you suggest. As far as where we go in the (more distant) future: I played Jedi Knight recently from first to last and actually enjoyed it. Maybe there’s hope for me yet. ;)

      • Leo Vellés

        April 21, 2023 at 7:15 pm

        Jimmy, since you mentioned it along with Jedi Knight, I wonder if you ever played Half Life yet. I was for more than 20 years an almost only player of point & click adventures, but that game rocked my gaming beliefs, and Half Life 2 directly blown away my mind, to the point that it is for me the greatest game I’ve ever played.

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 21, 2023 at 7:38 pm

          I played some of it, but a long, long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away?) on a far from optimal computer. It’s one I’m looking forward to revisiting. Half-Life 2, on the other hand, I’ve never played.

          • Ian Webb

            April 21, 2023 at 9:29 pm

            Looking forward to that. I still think it’s one of the great narrative experiences in video games, despite the weak third act. It is deeply committed to “show, don’t tell” in way few games that aspire to movie level story telling are.

          • Captain Kal

            April 26, 2023 at 10:57 am

            You may want to try Black Mesa, the Valve endorsed Half Like remake/remaster (

            Even though, I ‘ve twice completed the original campaign of HL (and both of the expansions at least once), I still haven’t finished the HL2 campaign!! I think they went a little to far with experimenting with different genres in this game!!! (Case in study: The Ravenholm Level. Although the Gravity Gun was a clear stroke of genius)!!!

            On the subject of 3D games on computers in the 1980s and early nineties, two companies come to my mind, at the moment:

            Realtime Games Software


            Argonaut Games

            with Digital Image Design


            Bethesda Softworks

            very close.

            And finally on 3D acceleration, one company springs to my mind, without even thinking: 3Dfx.

            Yes, we also had 3D solutions from ATI, nVidia, or even S3, but Voodoo cards created the same kind of dedication that I hadn’t seen since the Amiga days!!

            (And as a matter of complete irony, in early 00’s you could combine a 60040/PPC equipped Amiga with a Voodoo card, to play games like Descent or Freespace!! Even though both companies were defunct by that time!!)

    • Ido Yehieli

      April 21, 2023 at 4:01 pm

      Even though I didn’t enjoy it as much when it was new (my computer was not fast enough to render it at full speed), I’ve returned to Quake several times in later years and on modern hardware it is quite enjoyable from a level design stand point! It’s indeed a very simple game and the visuals are drab but I still quite enjoy playing it & its levels feel more 3d than many modern FPSs!

  3. Sarah Walker

    April 21, 2023 at 3:48 pm

    >Then he and his junior partner George Broussard set about making a DOOM-like engine of their own, known as Build, which they could sell to other developers who wanted to get up and running quickly.

    Might be worth mentioning Ken Silverman here, who actually wrote Build?

    I very much agree with Quake’s single player game being pretty lacklustre (the multiplayer genuinely was excellent, but not very accessible in the 90s). The technology was good enough for me not to notice this for a few months though.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2023 at 3:58 pm

      Good catch. Added.

      • Matthew P

        May 2, 2023 at 6:02 am

        Additionally, Silverman wasn’t part of 3DRealms, they just licensed his engine. I remember reading how it was mostly “tossed over the wall” with little documentation, but I can’t find those details. has a bit

        • Jimmy Maher

          May 2, 2023 at 2:13 pm

          Thanks, but my understanding, which is actually supported by the link you cite, is that Silverman made the Build Engine for 3D Realms as a contractor. This is very different from a licensing deal; the finished engine after Silverman had been paid for his services belonged to 3D Realms outright, who could and did then license it to others. The fact that he was a contractor rather than a permanent employee isn’t really germane to the discussion.

  4. Infinitron

    April 21, 2023 at 3:54 pm

    I’m sure you’ll mention Quake’s modding scene in your next article as well, which gave us the first iteration of Team Fortress among other things.

    • PlayHistory

      April 22, 2023 at 4:01 pm

      It goes even well beyond that. Ahoy’s video on Quake does a great job encapsulating the myriad of legacies that the fan community around Quake had, from machinima to WASD keybinding to the very concept of “total conversions”.

  5. Lhexa

    April 21, 2023 at 4:22 pm

    “But it would do so: as of this writing, just short of DOOM‘s 30th anniversary, that game still enjoys a devoted following who continue to make new maps and tinker with its engine. Quake, on the other hand, has long since been consigned to the status of just another old game that nobody but people like me plays anymore.”

    The site gathers custom maps for Quake. There were 92 new maps and map packs released in 2022. That’s small in comparison to the fan output for Doom, but still larger than you suggest.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2023 at 4:54 pm

      Fair enough. Thanks!

  6. James Schend

    April 21, 2023 at 4:37 pm

    I have to be That Guy and name-drop Marathon as a visionary early 2.5d game. Since it’s a Mac game, it feels almost entirely forgotten (and I bet would be if Bungie hadn’t gone on to make Halo and Destiny).

    In December of 1994 Marathon had a compelling, mature story, the ability to look up/down (requiring you to actually aim at the enemies, unlike Doom which fudges it), LAN play with several different game modes (and built-in voice chat!). And it ran with a pretty good framerate on some pretty awful CPUs, compared to PCs at the time.

    I have now been That Guy and will leave everybody alone.

    • Keith Palmer

      April 21, 2023 at 10:32 pm

      I brought up Marathon here myself back when Doom was being discussed, but did get some “its general design isn’t quite as well-tuned as Doom’s” responses. Afterwards I played through Marathon again using a recent version for its evolved “Aleph One” engine, and wondered if I could see the point that had been made, such that I felt cautious about what I might say now. Still, I appreciate you bringing it up. (I have played Quake, and see the point of finding it “drab.” I’ve also played Dark Forces, and some of Duke Nukem 3D… After that, though, my experiences with these kinds of games may amount to Portal, and a tiny bit of the original Half-Life as a years-after-the-fact port on Steam.)

    • xxx

      April 23, 2023 at 10:12 pm

      Given that Marathon gets very little recognition for how revolutionary it was in 1994, it is vitally important that someone should be That Guy. We thank you for your service.

      Keith is quite right that the level design wasn’t as good as DOOM’s, but it put a lot of effort into a dark, broody atmosphere (Marathon was the Alien to DOOM’s Aliens, for a facile comparison) and it and the contemporaneous System Shock were the earliest first-person shooters to use the medium for storytelling.

      • Destron

        April 25, 2023 at 8:39 pm

        I owned a Mac as a kid, so Marathon felt like a godsend.

        What makes Marathon a bit of a tougher sell these days is that so many of the elements it pioneered were later refined by later, better-known games. It let the player look up and down, and the maps had cells on top of each other (or at least a convincing illusion of this). Some of the level design was intended to show off this quality.

        Unfortunately, verticality in FPS games is such a given that the technology no longer impresses, and what you’re left with are bizarre and cumbersome levels. DOOM levels were typically fairly small and direct, so it didn’t really matter that they had weird layouts. Marathon’s levels tend to be bigger which no longer serves them well. Fans probably remember the bizarro map “The Rose”, or the aggravating “Colony Ship for Sale, Cheap!”

        Of course, the tech wasn’t Marathon’s only selling point. While I’m not sure it can claim to be the first game with alternate fire modes (it seems like Marathon did it contemporaneously with Rise of the Triad), it was one of the earliest. I believe it was the first to have ammo on a clip-based system instead of an ammo pool.

        Plus it did have an actual storyline which was quite abstract but interesting enough to keep people debating it for over a decade afterward. In fact, Marathon’s story is strangely Dark Souls-esque in that it seems to expect the player to piece it together through various computer logs. That was the impetus behind Marathon’s Story Page, which sought to compile all of the various journals and AI chatter to figure out what the hell was going on (particularly in the bizarre final game).

        • James Hofmann

          April 27, 2023 at 11:55 am

          There are parallels between what Bungie was doing and what the Looking Glass games were doing at the start: In Pathways into Darkness and Ultima Underworld, the model was all the previous first-person dungeon crawl games, with technical upgrades to give it some more action, but still kind of in the paradigm of a Dungeon Master clone.

          With Marathon and System Shock they found the refinements, and they looked like Doom: smoother action, less HUD and inventory, more environmental storytelling. Bungie moved more in the direction of blockbuster set-pieces (culminating in Halo) while Looking Glass refined first-person dungeon crawling with Thief and System Shock 2.

          Bethesda also warrants mention in their incremental refinement to what has basically been the same kind of open world design: the first Elder Scrolls game is a procedurally generated dungeon crawl with an overworld. Later games shrink the world and add detail repeatedly, but basically preserve the idea of letting players sample a buffet of experiences rather than railroading a main questline.

          • Anonymous Bungie Alum

            May 3, 2023 at 7:00 pm

            I worked at Bungie during the development of Halo, and it really was not an extension or culmination of Marathon as is so widely believed. It’s more accurate to call it an extension of Myth. Halo was built as a third person RTS (yes really) and was only converted to an FPS as part of the Microsoft acquisition. They needed an FPS for their new (as yet unannounced) Xbox console so they had us make Halo into that.

  7. Pat

    April 21, 2023 at 5:10 pm

    Yeah, I didn’t find Dark Forces much fun when I played it on GOG, though I blamed that on its archaic control scheme. Quake, on the other hand, was much better, even if nowhere near the level of Duke Nukem 3D.

    • The Wargaming Scribe

      April 21, 2023 at 8:56 pm

      I recently (some 4-5 years ago) replayed some of the FPS classics, and some less classic I had not played before like Strife, Outlaw or Hexen II. Doom aged perfectly, as we all know, and I played all the levels and more I had never played. I found out that Dark Forces aged extremely well, and I finished it again.

      After that, a few games had aged OK : Duke Nukem, Hexen were among these. I did not finish them, but I had fun.

      I found out that Quake had aged poorly, and so did Half-Life I. Of all the classics I had played back then, I found out that only Heretic had aged worse, for reasons I don’t understand and are of course totally subjective.

  8. Not Fenimore

    April 21, 2023 at 5:52 pm

    It’s sorta funny that Reznor soundtracked this one game, apparently not so well, and then took fifteen years off to come back as an actually pretty great film composer.

    • Lord Gloom

      April 26, 2023 at 10:18 am

      Trent Reznor admired Quake for its creepy atmosphere. He created a fitting ambient soundtrack, which a few years ago got reissued on vinyl. There’s a picture of the nightmarish open-plan iD office on the back. It’s a fantastic listen.

      The idea that his soundtrack is lacking, or that he was “holding back songs for the next NIN album”, is very misguided. He made exactly the soundtrack he wanted to created – dark ambience to suit the game’s haunted atmosphere. He wasn’t thinking in turns of songs. He was thinking in terms of mood, and succeeded in creating one of dank, unremitting dread.

      The reason he didn’t return for the sequel? Because he didn’t admire the atmosphere so much.

      So I disagree – it isn’t “sorta funny” that he went on to compose for films having composed for Quake. Here lies the roots of his later soundtrack work!

  9. Ishkur

    April 21, 2023 at 6:28 pm

    My favorite 2.5Doom-clone from this era was a unheralded Japanese game called Shogo: Mobile Armor Division.

    It had a unique gimmick where you piloted a mech like MechWarrior, fighting other mechs in a large urban environment, but you could also exit the mech and run around on foot, where it then became an FPS. You could even enter buildings (and some levels required you to clear out some buildings before returning to your mech).

    Most levels were one or the other but a few levels were both, in that the game suggests you use the mech to assault enemy bases, destroy their defenses, then once you get there, climb out and go inside, run down human-sized corridors and root out the bad guys.

    But you don’t have to play it this way. If you truly wanted to up the difficulty level, you could abandon your mech at the start of the level and fight the giant enemy mechs on foot. Not recommended.

    It had a decent storyline for the time, too (with lots of twists and revelations). I had a lot of fun playing it and I did not understand why it wasn’t more popular. Bad marketing, I guess.

    Jimmy do you plan on doing anything on MechWarrior?

    • Sarah Walker

      April 21, 2023 at 7:35 pm

      Shogo is a. fully 3D and b. American ;)

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2023 at 7:47 pm

      I have to confess that I find the whole giant robots thing kind of irredeemably silly, even by the standards of most game fictions. I do want to write about Interstate ’76, a wonderfully unique little game that used the MechWarrior 2 engine, so maybe we get a bit of background there.

      • IJCM

        April 25, 2023 at 5:54 pm

        I remember asking years ago about any forthcoming BattleTech coverage, and I’ve tried to be very careful not to ask again. Heck, I’m still surprised you ‘broke down’ and covered DOOM.

  10. Peter Olausson

    April 21, 2023 at 9:54 pm

    Remember very well when Quake came. It was very good, certainly. But it did lack a certain something. Puzzling.

    Historical note: The wire-frame graphics of Elite is almost the most basic of all 3D graphics. In an even simpler one you draw all the lines, whether they ought to be visible or not. Battlezone (1980) in the arcades is the most prominent example.

  11. Steve Metzler

    April 21, 2023 at 10:24 pm

    I’ve been around a while, having programmed computers for about 50 years, from the time of punch cards.

    Doom was groundbreaking for its time, and I skipped Quake, but Half-Life just totally blew me away. Although I’m generally more into cerebral stuff like adventure games and RPGs, Half-Life remains my fav shooter of all time, mostly because it was so far ahead of its time considering both story and game play. You simply can’t imagine what’s around the next corner.

    And Deus Ex, which came just a few years later, is my fav ‘sneaker’, for the same reasons.

    • Peter Olausson

      April 21, 2023 at 11:22 pm

      I’m already looking forward to a big nice article on Deus Ex. Now that’s a new level of FPS.

    • Andy

      April 24, 2023 at 5:10 pm

      I played Half-Life a couple of years after it came out, at a time when I was mostly playing things like Dungeon Keeper and The Sims and Civ. I was impressed by Wolf 3d and DOOM and Quake, but I agree: Half-Life blew me away for the exact same reasons. Yes, all the scientists at the base are clones of the same two guys and they only have a limited number of things to say and sometimes they say them at very weird times, BUT you could just walk up to them and they’d tell you what they were thinking and they could do stuff for you and react to what you were doing and…. It might have been all pre-scripted, but that world felt more real than anything else I’d experienced in a game back then. It’s old hat now, of course, but my thinking at the time was that this was a massive leap forward. (At the very least, it’s similar to what Quake could have been if they hadn’t fired Tom Hall…)

    • FeepingCreature

      April 27, 2023 at 8:00 am

      Half-Life is even distantly based on the Quake engine! Deus Ex, however, uses the Unreal engine, which was written from scratch. Between them, these two engines basically carried 3D gaming for half a decade.

  12. Sam Barlow

    April 22, 2023 at 3:56 am

    I revisited Quake fairly recently and had a wonderful time. This may be my particular tastes, but the purity & intensity of its mood (comparable to, say, Sega arcade titles, but rather than blue skies and speed; it’s dank dungeons and misery) and the Trent Reznor soundscape were unlike much else that has been seen since. The bosses and minimal story (entirely delivered by slowly printing single screens of text!) were minor hairs in the soup.

    • Brent Ellison

      April 22, 2023 at 10:48 am

      I fully agree on the soundtrack. If people were expecting Nine Inch Nails songs of course they’d be disappointed, but that wasn’t really the goal. Reznor delivered excellent ambience that defines the setting almost as much as the graphics themselves.

  13. Alex

    April 22, 2023 at 6:32 am

    I never played Quake 1, but I read a lot about it´s technical wizardry back in the day. Somehow you just couldn´t escape the terms “Romero, Carmack, Doom and Quake” if you were interested in PC-Games. But this is the first article that really let me appreciate the technology behind it all. After reading so many times about the engine and all its features, this says a lot.

    Speaking about the narrative: I stopped playing games for good circa a decade ago and got back into it just one and a half years ago. I have to say, I´m more than thrilled about the narrative progression in action games during my abscence (Tomb Raider, Batman, Call of Juarez, Fallout New Vegas as well). These are old games by now, of course, but I´m discovering them just as new. It´s a fullfilment of an old dream of mine: Playing action games with a narrative depth. Regarding Deus Ex: In my book, it´s the best game ever made and a piece of art actually.

  14. John

    April 22, 2023 at 6:26 pm

    I respected Quake more than I enjoyed it. It’s a very impressive game that I am very bad at. My aim is terrible. Perhaps more importantly, however, I have a terrible time navigating unfamiliar virtual spaces in first-person. It’s deeply frustrating, all the more so because I have no trouble at all navigating most unfamiliar real spaces. Most real spaces have an underlying and comprehensible logic to them. Far too many game spaces do not, and that problem is compounded in games with a first-person view. It’s relatively easy to remember where all the doors are and which way you’re facing in, say, a top-down or isometric game. It’s much harder to do in a game where all you can see is what’s right in front of you.

    That’s one of the reasons that I liked Lucas Arts’ western-themed shooter Outlaws so much more than many of its contemporaries. Several of the levels in Outlaws, including the second level, which also served as the game’s demo, resemble actual, plausible western-themed locations. There’s a small town, a series of train cars, a ranch, etc. In those levels, I could tell where I was, what other spaces I could access, and how the other spaces I could access related to the space I was in. Unfortunately, some of the levels in Outlaws were twisted, nonsensical nightmares, worse than any Doom or Quake level I ever played. The sawmill level is downright sadistic. Outlaws uses the Dark Forces engine and levels like the sawmill level make me afraid to try Dark Forces. I don’t want to see what Lucas Arts’ designers would do with the free reign a sci-fi theme would give them.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 22, 2023 at 7:57 pm

      I tend to have the same problem, although to be honest I’m pretty bad with orientation in real life as well. I’d say you were wise to skip Dark Forces. I found it hopelessly confusing. (Jedi Knight, on the other hand, gave me very little trouble. Although the levels are equally sprawling, there’s a definite through line to each of them that was missing in Dark Forces.)

      • Captain Kal

        April 26, 2023 at 11:12 am

        Jedi Outcast, is even better, IMHO!!!

  15. Kaj Sotala

    April 22, 2023 at 7:06 pm

    Maybe it was just my social bubble, and you do kind of hint at this, but my recollection is that after Quake turned out to be pretty uninteresting as a single-player game, it established itself as the most popular game for an FPS deathmatch for quite a while. And e.g. Team Fortress was originally a Quake mod. So even though it failed in what people might originally have thought it was going for, it was ultimately very successful. (But again I don’t know if this more generally the case, or if it just happened to be a super-popular multiplayer game among the people that I happened to know.)

  16. Gnoman

    April 22, 2023 at 10:00 pm

    “Duke Nukem 3D was a triumph of design and attitude rather than technology; in keeping with most of the DOOM clones, the Build engine’s technical innovations over its inspiration were fairly modest. ”

    I think you might be selling Duke3D a little short in the technical department here. Despite being 2.5d with some annoying limitations, the Build engine allowed several things that weren’t implemented in other games until Quake – the concept of “underwater” was a big one, as was the closely related flight.

    Probably the biggest one is full free-aim. It is clunky with the default controls (which are a Doom-style arrow key front/back/turn with autoaim, but with the ability to aim up and down with the number pad), but it is not only possible but fairly necessary to aim up and down to complete the game – many levels have you shooting switches well above or below you). Perhaps more interestingly, if you pull out an original copy (not any of the modern rereleases, not the Atomic Edition, not even a later patch) and play it in DOS, you can very easily turn on Mouselook and rebind the controls to make it play identically to a modern shooter.

    In the 90s and early 00s, I didn’t have a computer capable of playing the latest Quake-engine shooters of the time, and I have strong memories of configuring Duke3D as a “poor man’s substitute”, even though I only had the shareware version at the time.

    • The Wargaming Scribe

      April 23, 2023 at 5:35 pm

      Duke Nukem 3Dwas to my knowledge the first game managing underwater, I believe you are right about that.

      Both Dark Forces and Heretic had free aim, better implemented in DF which made perfect use of verticality. Heretic also allowed you to fly with a power-up (same as Duke Nukem 3D).

      • Gnoman

        April 24, 2023 at 7:55 am

        I only played Dark Forces on console, but my memory (supported by every video I can find that isn’t an upgraded version, has it as a straight Doom-style flat perspective.

        I know nothing of Heretic or Hexen (I didn’t even know it existed until relatively recently), but a search says you’re right about it having the ability to look up and down.

      • Josh Martin

        May 17, 2023 at 6:57 pm

        ShadowCaster actually had both underwater areas and flight—curiously so considering that John Carmack developed it before the Doom engine, which in its initial form had neither. It also had slopes, something else that didn’t make it into Doom.

        Truthfully flight wasn’t a rare feature in FPS titles by the time DN3D came out; besides Heretic it was also in Rise of the Triad, Witchaven (one of two games Capstone made before DN3D’s release using earlier iterations of the Build engine), and CyberMage; I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting. There’s also the odd Radix: Beyond the Void, which put the player in the hovercraft that could move up and down but otherwise controlled like a standard FPS of the time, at least until a later patch added Descent-style controls. And then there’s Bethesda’s Future Shock, which not only had flight and underwater areas but full 3D environments and objects courtesy of the comically buggy XnGine.

    • Bogdanow

      April 24, 2023 at 5:33 pm

      At my high school, the Duke Nukem 3D was THE_GAME, the default for multiplayer. I am trying to remember the exact reasons for that. It might be due to lower technical requirements. And for shooters, multiplayer is like sex – more people, more excitement.

      • Sion Fiction

        May 4, 2024 at 12:51 am

        er, what now?

  17. Gnoman

    April 22, 2023 at 10:05 pm

    The melding of 2D and 3D in the 90s is pretty interesting, and even more so is that two completely opposite approaches were used. Games like Doom built a 3D world with 2d character sprites.

    Meanwhile, there were a whole lot of games that went in the complete opposite direction – many 90s-era games, particularly on console, built the world in 2d (either in the literal sense of still being a sidescroller or similar, or in the Resident Evil/Final Fantasy approach of a pre-rendered background painted and barriered to give the illusion of a 3D space) with the characters being 3D.

  18. minusf

    April 23, 2023 at 9:35 am

    Sadly this piece reads more to me like an opinion piece than game journalism.

    • GeoX

      April 25, 2023 at 12:27 pm

      Egads! Opinions! Run for the hills!

    • Get your opinions here

      April 26, 2023 at 9:21 pm

      You’re reading a blog and complaining that it’s got… opinions?

      • Bmp

        May 10, 2023 at 9:36 pm

        While I don’t know exactly what minusf means, I tend to agree with the general direction. I want to express some criticism that I’ve thought about for a while now, though it has to be said that I’m not a Patreon supporter, so I’m kind of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

        I think it would be nice if historic facts, inferences and opinions were a bit more clearly distinguishable. After all, this is a historian’s blog. Often I’m thinking, “Is this actually true?” In your articles about games I know a lot about, I find factual statements that I consider false. Not the end of the world, everyone makes mistakes — but it also seems that you’re trying to find a general thrust, or theme, for each article, and I get the impression that this theme has a too strong influence on the selection and commentary of the facts. Facts sometimes seem to get squished into the shape required by the commentary.

        Also, almost all statements are stated without qualifications like “from what I’ve read about this, it seems that…” or “I haven’t found any solid confirmation, but from fact X I infer that…” This seems suspicious to me — are all these statements really that well-sourced?

        Then I’m wondering whether the situation is similar in your articles for games that I know little about. (The Gell-Mann amnesia effect.) For example, the articles about Doom and Quake really benefit from the disagreements in the comments, such as the great comment by Eden below, and I think the articles are a bit too tendentious to really give an accurate impression about the games by themselves. If all I knew about these games was the information in your articles, I’d say that I’d have gotten an inaccurate impression. Now do I unwittingly get inaccurate impressions about some games from your other articles, where I don’t know the game in question and there are only a few comments?

        As a counterexample, I get the impression that the CRPG Addict always lets the themes and the commentary naturally follow from the nitty-gritty details. I find that his articles are both very accurate regarding the objective facts, and the opposite of tendentious, yet still interestingly opinionated. Statements are often supplemented with appropriate qualifications regarding their certainty. That is, he says when he is not sure. Of course his articles are very different, with a huge focus on plain reporting of his personal experience in his playthroughs. But wouldn’t it be possible to leave those parts out (after all, you do play the games you’re writing on, without reporting on every level) yet arrive at conclusions in a similar way?

        Well, maybe this is not this blog’s intention — I’ve written about my personal preferences, but it seems pretty obvious that your preferences are different.

  19. Nikolai Kondrashov

    April 23, 2023 at 11:20 am

    I feel somewhat justified in my lack of love for Quake after reading this. Still, I would prefer it over Quake 2, for its atmosphere.

    Quake was the first game I saw with 3D acceleration. I can still remember where and how exactly it happened, and how the level looked, I was so impressed and excited.

  20. Steve Nicholson

    April 23, 2023 at 3:23 pm

    I’m guessing “notes and bolts” should be “nuts and bolts”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 23, 2023 at 3:31 pm

      Yes. Thanks!

  21. Alex Freeman

    April 23, 2023 at 4:42 pm

    I hope you elaborate on the Build Engine. It’s based on voxels, which I’d like to read more about. Voxels have certain advantages, such as the potential for destructible environments. I wonder why voxels never caught on.

    • xxx

      April 23, 2023 at 10:23 pm

      Good question! Two words: “hardware acceleration”. Static polygonal meshes were much cheaper and easier to render in hardware than voxel environments.

    • feldspar

      April 24, 2023 at 6:42 am

      Well, I suppose voxels did make a big comeback a few decades later with Minecraft becoming one of the most popular games in the world at least.

      • Josh Martin

        May 17, 2023 at 8:32 pm

        Minecraft uses voxels to represent the underlying map data, but the objects and environments are rendered as conventional polygons. True volume rendering has been used in games for certain objects, as in some later Build games and Westwood’s Tiberian Sun engine, but the number of games using it as their primary approach is vanishingly tiny and limited mostly (entirely?) to the indie scene. Even the “Voxel Space” engine that NovaLogic trumpeted for years rendered terrain via raycasting with heightmaps and had major limitations attached, like the inability to do rooms over rooms without incorporating separate polygonal structures.

    • Joshua Barrett

      April 29, 2023 at 7:35 pm

      The Build Engine wasn’t based on voxels at all. It was similar to Doom in some respects, although it used a portal renderer and generally a portal system for adjacency, allowing for non-euclidean geometry (which aided greatly in mimicking the truely 3D geometry the engine did not support). Build allowed for voxel objects to exist in the world, at least in later versions, so voxels could be used instead of sprites for weapons, ammo, or small bits of detailing, as seen in Blood.

      Voxels were actually used quite a bit because they were easy to render: in particular, Westwood really liked Voxels. But 3D acceleration ate away at the advantages and made voxels a liability because they weren’t accelerated.

      • Josh Martin

        May 17, 2023 at 8:10 pm

        Interestingly, John Carmack was convinced into the late ’90s that voxel engines were the next big thing and that voxel accelerators were just around the corner. Ken Silverman spent a lot of time working on a voxel engine after Build until it became clear that this technique wasn’t the way of the future after all.

  22. Alex

    April 23, 2023 at 5:30 pm

    Since someone mentioned that he can still remember the beginning of 3D-Acceleration: I can still quite clearly remember when Soundcards and CD-Rom Drives happened, but I cant´t remember my first 3D-Card nor my first 3D-accelerated game (Could have been Quake 2). I don´t think it was such a big thing for me. Of course it doesn´t help that the majority of 3D-Action games were quite unremarkable affairs gameplay-wise. Of all the action-games I played back in the 90s, only Resident Evil and Tomb Raider got stuck in my brain permanently for their long-time fun-factor. And of course Duke 3D, which I already mentioned.

    Besides that, high performance-cards were quite expensive already back then and totally out of reach for me. To this day I never owned a really expensive card, so I never got addicted on the “Wow-factor” of optical presentations and never cared to spend big money on the cards.

  23. Mabfred

    April 24, 2023 at 3:35 pm

    I vividly remember being blown away by two demos running on computer screens in our local PC shop in late 1996/ early 1997. It was Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and Quake. When the “player” in the demo went down a dimly lit staircase, entering a large cavern and suddenly the flying ghost-like creatures attacked FROM ABOVE, and he shot them with the nail gun… It was an essential wow moment – the future is here! Being a non-English-speaking kid well familiar with doom and Wolf3D, the narrative emptiness never bothered me.

    And how about Bethesda’s Terminator games? They were also true 3d and contemporaries.

  24. Eden

    April 25, 2023 at 11:20 am

    I hate to say it, but this article’s conclusion feels like a rare swing-and-miss for this blog, insofar as it seems out of touch with not just Quake’s legacy but the nuances of Doom’s. Doom after all has been “rebooted” into a second-wind franchise that continues to command sales and attention; naturally and crucially, this sustains interest in its open-sourced engine, which by virtue of its simplicity is appealing for mappers, modders, and developers to work with. Modern Doom engines like GZDoom now allow developers to script & code their way into making new games that are “Doom” on some primal level, but are otherwise very much their own thing. (Some, like Hedon Bloodrite, are even being sold commercially.) With its daunting model-and-brush-based world, Quake could never offer this level of accessibility, but such popularity has very little to do with historical factors like, say, Doom’s sharper level design, or John Romero’s lack of enthusiasm, or the prominence of brown in Quake’s palette. As touched on here, some of the Build games were perhaps “better” than Doom in gameplay and level design, and Duke3D even could be called a successful “Doom-killer” for its own time: yet for similar technical reasons, the Build engine did not supplant the Doom engine for hobbyists either.

    And that brings around to Quake’s legacy, which is inexplicably depicted here as a forgotten game, a technical footnote. This reads like a “hunch” to me: I am not sure on what metric this is held to be so. A quick search for “Quake” on YouTube immediately turns up a six-year-old playthrough that boasts 3.5 million views, a suggestion of a general interest that can hardly be shared by many other 1990s PC games. One Quake speedrunning video from September 2019 has 1.69 million views; Digital Foundry’s two-part video series on the dry technical details of the Quake engine has attracted almost a million views combined. Also omitted from the article is the 2021 remaster by Nightdive Studios, which is estimated by one website (vginsights) to have since sold 400k units on Steam and raked in a revenue of two million dollars! This all strongly suggests that consumers (even young consumers!) are still purchasing, playing, streaming, and viewing the game even today… proving it not only memorable, but profitable. You can after all immediately purchase and play a revamped, controller-driven, high-fidelity port of Quake for a current-generation game console: certainly not something that could be said for, say Ultima Underworld.

    And it’s not all just about money and clicks! Quake is alive in less crude ways too: a substantial “official” new episode, Dimensions of the Machine, was released by the studio Machine Games in 2021 to accompany the remaster; several breakout modern FPS, like Dusk, Amid Evil, and Devil Daggers, have prospered as self-styled disciples of Quake rather than Doom (one in-development game, WRATH, is even using the Quake engine); a cutting-edge source port, Ironwail, has recently been released out of a necessity to meet the hungry ambitions of the current wave of mappers. Precious few games covered on this blog can claim anything like this level of ongoing-attention. Yes, Quake never has risen to the height of its predecessor, but when that predecessor is potentially the most influential PC game of all time…

    Also, tangential, but I personally did and always have enjoyed Quake very much. Can you tell?

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 25, 2023 at 11:49 am

      Fair enough. I suspect some of the cognitive dissonance here might be that I tend to evaluate these games on the basis of their single-player campaigns, but that’s not really the heart of their appeal for many or most hardcore players. I did acknowledge that to some extent, but perhaps not enough.

      Anyway, I’ve removed the short paragraph about Quake’s modern standing in comparison to DOOM, which didn’t really need to be there anyway. Thanks!

      • Eden

        April 25, 2023 at 12:15 pm

        It certainly is unfortunate that Quake’s original offerings were so disjointed and dreary. I appreciate them as weird abstract spaces, but by-and-large, the levels are only as appealing as one’s appetite for adrenaline. That said, creating (and compiling!) such levels was also much more cumbersome than the usage of those quicker tools that helped Sandy Petersen almost single-handedly map out Doom II, so in many ways Quake was damned by its own precocity.

        Happily, powerful third-party tools have since transformed the environmental narratives to be found in modern Quake maps, allowing for memorable single-player experiences even while running on the same engine, with the same roster, and the same underwhelming weapon-set… but it’s of course this is too little, too late for those who went on to find similar and better experiences in other games. (Or who vanished forever into the labyrinths of Hexen II, never to be seen again.)

        Once again, much appreciation for your thoughtful writing and courteous engagement!

    • Joshua Barrett

      April 29, 2023 at 7:38 pm

      I’m not sure I’d agree about accessibility in level design. At the time absolutely not, but nowadays Quake’s tooling rivals or exceeds Dooms in accessibility.

      Seriously, Trenchbroom is an absolutely fantastic level editor.

  25. Michael

    April 26, 2023 at 10:24 pm

    “now trading under the most sustainable name”

    more sustainable? Or is the superlative intentional?

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 27, 2023 at 4:47 am

      Nope. ;) Thanks!

  26. Jeff Thomas

    April 27, 2023 at 5:06 pm

    I was fortunate enough to work at a small game developer that was invited to bid on the Quake Macintosh port months before Quake was released (we had done the Hexen Mac port). Part of the bidding process was submitting an actual working copy of the game on the Mac (such was ids clout they could demand such a thing), it didn’t have to be perfect but it had to run. This meant we got a full copy of the game code at in its current state, about 95% complete.

    I think one thing worth mentioning about Quake is that, unlike many multiplayer games of the time, you didn’t just have the option to play deathmatch, you could play cooperatively and fight side-by-side through the standard campaign. As soon as we got the game up and running with networking that’s what we did, staying up until dawn as we entered the final battle which hadn’t been implemented yet so the boss was frozen in time.

    But my main memory of it was stepping through the rendering engine. I was not a college educated programmer, nor had I done any research into 3d rendering. I had no idea what a binary space partitioning algorithm was or how it worked, stepping through the code was a revelation, not just how it worked but that I could understand it because it was so cleanly and simply written. Making complex algorithms seem simple is HARD. For whatever faults Carmack may have, his reputation as a highly skilled programmer is well earned.

  27. Kevin Higgins

    April 27, 2023 at 7:25 pm

    Thanks for the piece! Some comments from a Quake fan who has thought about the game far too much.

    Quake was all about modding. As the modder Kell commented, the unfinished, implicit quality of the game content invited creativity.

    But it was the robust tech that made modding enjoyable. In particular I’d celebrate Carmack’s movement physics: idiosyncratic (sliding down gentle inclines? bunny-hopping?) yet solid as a rock, unglitchable.

    An interesting case study in digital culture would be to compare the Quake and Doom scenes.

    Quake was more prominent in the solidifying of an online gamer identity via news sites and forums. The early mods focused on multiplayer gameplay (Team Fortress for example), stupidly OTT weapons and rather conventional level design. But creators interested in pushing technical limits graduated to other games and those gamer sites began to die off in the 2000s.

    Whereas the technically simpler Doom seems to have always attracted a broader base of modders, often experimenting with gameplay or theme, often explicitly artistic. The endless stream of Doom ports has kept it in programmers’ consciousness too. I think the wider audience resulted in a thoughtful, tolerant scene.

    Quake modding, even in its currently ongoing second wave, is not arty. The most highly-worked levels (such as can be seen in the massive Arcane Dimensions mod) are about fun gameplay and attractive representations of standard pulp visuals: temples, space bases, lost cities, castles. It’s a less introspective scene, but again a friendly one.

    Rather amazingly, as the commenter Lhexa mentions, it’s growing, perhaps in part due to advocacy from the likes of NYU design professor Robert Yang, perhaps riding the retro shooter cultural wave, but I think mostly because the base game was good enough, and – helped by a suite of freeware tools and upgrades – it’s just plain fun to make or play a custom level.

  28. Jaina

    April 28, 2023 at 12:58 am

    interactive movies built around canned video clips that the industry was slowing giving up on.” Slowly?

    Quake as a game is, as you mentioned, just ok. I’m not super interested in FPS in general, but Quake as an experience could be amazing. There wasn’t anything quite like flying through those corridors blasting your teenage or college buddies.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 28, 2023 at 5:59 am

      Yes. Thanks!

  29. Joshua Barrett

    April 28, 2023 at 10:10 pm

    The Quake singleplayer campaign is actually rather solid, if not particularly special or exciting. I found it to be rather more enjoyable to Unreal, which was considerably more ambitious in its storytelling and design but suffered with level and enemy design that was very impressive but didn’t feel all that fun to me. But then, Unreal goes against Quake 2, which is a whole other ballgame. id games always just feel good to move and shoot in, and Quake really helped to define what FPS movement should feel like to me. It also had bugs in its movement code that raised the skill ceiling on what you could do with it.

    However, I think this article really, really misses the ball on Quake’s technological and cultural importance and impact in quite a few ways, which I am going to list off now because I couldn’t figure out how to compress them down very well.

    – Quake’s bytecode and scripting language expanded what was possible for modders to do in the engine, resulting in an explosion of inventiveness. Quake was the first FPS to have a (now-standard) Capture the Flag mode, created by David Kirsch as a mod. Class-based FPSes were experimented with through projects like the very first Team Fortress (later commercialized by Valve with alterations as Team Fortress Classic), as were game modes like Rocket Arena, an even odder mods like QuakeChess and QuakeRally. Also notable were the mods that implemented bots to compete with players in deathmatch, another soon-to-be must-have feature.

    – In an age where online video was impractical, Quake’s demo feature (taken from Doom and improved on) was used to create short films, the first instances of what would become known as Machinima. Diary of a Camper ( is widely reported to be the first such film.

    – Quake hosted a notable speedrunning community, which was carried over from Doom, but grew quite a bit, and put attention on speedrunning as a whole with efforts like Quake Done Quick, a segmented run that was spliced together as a single long demo and released online (and subsequently distributed by many gaming magazines). The primary speedrunning sites for Quake would eventually merge together to become Speed Demos Archive, and when it opened the floodgates to other games it became a central hosting site for many speedrunning communities in the mid 2000s (most of which have now moved on to other sites). SDA also hosted the very first GDQ events, although they were eventually spun out into their own organization.

    – And of course the impact of QuakeWorld cannot be overlooked. Quakeworld, a separate client and overhaul to the game engine that changed the way network play worked, made Quake play well over the internet. It wasn’t the first game to use client-side prediction (I believe Descent did it earlier?) but it was among the first FPSes. Suddenly, Quake played better over the internet then just about anything else. This, combined the way that Quake’s gameplay felt viscerally good and a strong community pumping out multiplayer maps, is really what defined Quake’s legacy more than anything.

    It’s also worth noting that, like Doom, Quake has a modding community still going strong to this day, focusing heavily on good single player content, but that isn’t as important to its historical relevance.

    • nisroc

      April 29, 2023 at 1:45 pm

      A fun fact: the very first iteration of Quake’s networking code designed to be played locally over IPX didn’t have the client-side prediction and was thus much *better* since it was more accurate. But adding the csp made it possible to play over the internet, and that was more important obviously.

      • Joshua Barrett

        April 29, 2023 at 7:41 pm

        NetQuake was the retronym for Quake multiplayer prior to QW, and it remains the protocol largely used for playing singleplayer Quake today.

        I would dispute the idea that not having CSP makes a protocol better. If you’re on a connection so fast that you don’t need prediction, prediction doesn’t matter. It just directly makes the game more versatile.

        • nisroc

          April 30, 2023 at 11:51 am

          That is not what we observed playing for hours and hours every day. :D

          Playing Quake over IPX on our local LAN all of us could catch the slight glitches with the CSP when it was added.

          Now, after playing with it for a few weeks and realizing that there was no going back, we all got used to it. But everyone I played DM with initially was like this is terrible can’t we turn this off? :D

  30. nisroc

    April 29, 2023 at 1:40 pm

    Quake Reply

    To echo a few of Joshua’s points:

    1. quakec: not only did it allow for big mods like the ones mentioned (you haven’t lived until you’ve played Rocket Arena), but for smaller toys. A guy in our clan (more on clans later) made a quakec script that rotated amongst various taunts to be used when you fragged someone. Much like talking trash in a sports game, you would be amazed how annoyed, mad, and put off their game an opponent would get when every time you killed him he instantly saw a long taunt and then you killed him again instantly whilst he was trying to reply and taunted again with a different one. Which leads me to:
    2. QuakeWorld and ClanRing. I see from the comments that the author focuses on single-player, which misses — IMHO — the most revolutionary thing Quake did: it introduced gamers to playing FPS games with and against each other, one-on-one or in teams, **online** not just at a LAN party or using one of the few dialup services that existed to let people DOOM DM each other via modem. With iD sponsoring the ClanRing tournaments, a large community of clans (teams of players, like the Brotherhood of the Rocket) formed that would fight other clans to top the online leaderboard. And with online, global rankings of individual players, you had a proto-version of Esports, allowing for fun spectacles like thresh (the guy who taught us all how to rocket jump) winning Carmack’s Ferrari at E3 in Atlanta.
    3. The idea for a game “engine” complete with its own scripting language that could be licensed to make other games and sell them, or just to make mods like Team Fortress.
    4. bots, aka, AI (to use today’s big buzzword): there was an active group of people writing all sorts of bots, which led to better NPC opponents in games and ofc cheaters (anyone who has been in a ClanRing DM and seen a weak opponent turn on Stooge Bot and start playing like a god will know what I mean), which made the earlier online game designers realize that they were going to have to provide better NPCs and deal with cheaters.
    5. And yes, the Machinima. “Diary of a Camper” from Ranger was indeed the first major one, and it launched a whole separate community and then lead to an industry.

    Those are just a few points off the top of my head. I think it is hard to explain to someone who is discovering historical games like Quake now after having first played modern games (and don’t get me wrong, that’s great that people are interested in history) what is was like to experience it at that time. Fingering carmack’s iD account daily to see his .plan detailing his progress (or just hitting one of the websites that did it for you) and discussing things with baited breath — “oh, a lightning gun? what is that gonna be?!” — grabbing QTest instantly, arranging your friends to page you with code 666 (people didn’t have cell phones, they had pagers back then), 24-hour deathmatches on day 1 of the game being out… ahh fun times.

    I played my first FPS in a Mac lab at Duke back in the mid 80’s. It was Maze Wars (support for 31 players that just ran around a maze killing each other) and caught the bug early, which led all the way to Quake, which literally blew me away. :D

  31. nisroc

    April 29, 2023 at 1:46 pm

    [oops, I double-posted this comment]
    Echoing a few of Joshua’s points:

    1. quakec: not only did it allow for big mods like the ones mentioned (you haven’t lived until you’ve played Rocket Arena), but for smaller toys. A guy in our clan (more on clans later) made a quakec script that rotated amongst various taunts to be used when you fragged someone. Much like talking trash in a sports game, you would be amazed how annoyed, mad, and put off their game an opponent would get when every time you killed him he instantly saw a long taunt and then you killed him again instantly whilst he was trying to reply and taunted again with a different one. Which leads me to:
    2. QuakeWorld and ClanRing. I see from the comments that the author focuses on single-player, which misses — IMHO — the most revolutionary thing Quake did: it introduced gamers to playing FPS games with and against each other, one-on-one or in teams, **online** not just at a LAN party or using one of the few dialup services that existed to let people DOOM DM each other via modem. With iD sponsoring the ClanRing tournaments, a large community of clans (teams of players, like the Brotherhood of the Rocket) formed that would fight other clans to top the online leaderboard. And with online, global rankings of individual players, you had a proto-version of Esports, allowing for fun spectacles like thresh (the guy who taught us all how to rocket jump) winning Carmack’s Ferrari at E3 in Atlanta.
    3. The idea for a game “engine” complete with its own scripting language that could be licensed to make other games and sell them, or just to make mods like Team Fortress.
    4. bots, aka, AI (to use today’s big buzzword): there was an active group of people writing all sorts of bots, which led to better NPC opponents in games and ofc cheaters (anyone who has been in a ClanRing DM and seen a weak opponent turn on Stooge Bot and start playing like a god will know what I mean), which made the earlier online game designers realize that they were going to have to provide better NPCs and deal with cheaters.
    5. And yes, the Machinima. “Diary of a Camper” from Ranger was indeed the first major one, and it launched a whole separate community and then lead to an industry.

    Those are just a few points off the top of my head. I think it is hard to explain to someone who is discovering historical games like Quake now after having first played modern games (and don’t get me wrong, that’s great that people are interested in history) what is was like to experience it at that time. Fingering carmack’s iD account daily to see his .plan detailing his progress (or just hitting one of the websites that did it for you) and discussing things with baited breath — “oh, a lightning gun? what is that gonna be?!” — grabbing QTest instantly, arranging your friends to page you with code 666 (people didn’t have cell phones, they had pagers back then), 24-hour deathmatches on day 1 of the game being out… ahh fun times.

    I played my first FPS in a Mac lab at Duke back in the mid 80’s. It was Maze Wars (support for 31 players that just ran around a maze killing each other) and caught the bug early, which led all the way to Quake, which literally blew me away. :D

  32. Jake

    April 29, 2023 at 3:20 pm

    “[but] could do nothing on the fly”

  33. Sebastian Gerstl

    May 6, 2023 at 6:50 am

    One thing I kind of missed in this article (though maybe it may come up at another junction) was GLQuake: John Carmack’s free patch to Quake to include support of 3D acceleration cards, opening the way for the OpenGL standard. Back when I first got Quake I had a (for the time) low-end Pentium PC, not really able to play at the higher resolutions, and the only software-rendered Quake, though exiting for its time, was a very drab and dark (and brown – very brown) affair. The I got a Miro Hiscore 3D acceleration add-on card and the GL patch – and not only did the resolution improve, the lighting, the effects, everything suddenly leagues more impressive and visceral! Playing online Multiplayer this way almost felt like having a cheat mode on, because not only did everything move more fluently, you could see weapon effects from farther away and even see a distinct glow when someone under the influence of a Quad Damage power up was about to come around the corner – it was breathtaking. And all it took for that was a really small-sized patch that, allegedly, John Carmack wrote on his own overnight because he was disappointed with the software support for these 3D cards not living up to their potential. Arguably, GLQuake was essential for the later success of 3D graphics cards from then on out.

  34. Paul Demarty

    May 8, 2023 at 12:13 pm

    A nitpick: Despite the ubiquity of strippers etc, Duke 3D is set in LA, not Vegas.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 8, 2023 at 12:22 pm


  35. Josh Martin

    May 17, 2023 at 8:03 pm

    I think Quake actually has a better reputation today than it did at the time of its release, at least as an actual game. The disjointed style of its levels—the mishmash of sci-fi, medieval, Lovecraftian, and even Mesoamerican influences that clearly point to the developers’ conflicting visions and that the “plot” makes no attempt to tie together—has proved more memorable than the more unified but conventional settings of most of its contemporaries. Any hint of a possible Doom-style reboot/revival brings calls for a return to the original aesthetic and not the more straightforward space opera of parts 2 and 4, and while new levels and mods for the first game are still constantly popping up, the number of Quake II mods released on an annual basis can be counted on two hands.

    But what I find more interesting are the changes in how the game is played. On the game’s initial release I came away with the impression described here, of a great technical showcase that felt slow and lifeless compared to Doom. There’s certainly a lot of truth to that, given the monochromatic look and the more expansive but less populated levels. But now I also think myself and just about everyone else hadn’t come to grips with the different play style the game invited, if not demanded. At that point, mouse + keyboard controls for most FPS games meant using the mouse for turning and fine movements forward and backwards. Marathon and Descent had mouselook, but the former was still restricted to pretty basic “2.5D” environments, and the latter was an idiosyncratic FPS/flight sim hybrid. Mouselook was a non-default option in Duke 3D and Future Shock didn’t exactly light the world on fire.

    In other words, most players of Quake in 1996 weren’t accustomed to what are now considered the mandatory controls for a full 3D FPS, and even if they were, there are some major differences in its physics—particularly with jumping, which in earlier FPS games was either absent or clunky—and the concordant emphasis on verticality. The level design also lends itself well to multiple routes, and once players figured out how to exploit movement techniques like bunny-hopping and rocket/grenade jumps, they started to blaze through levels at speeds that would’ve been unimaginable in Doom. Even as a more casual player, I’m struck every time I go back to Quake by the sort of things I can pull off, even if just by accident. It’s less immediately satisfying than Doom, but I feel there’s more to do at higher levels of play.

  36. Anonymous Mguy

    December 16, 2023 at 5:40 pm

    This article is strangely poorly-researched once it veers off to Quake.

    It uncritically parrots the “har har Romero so craaaaazy” line of thinking that came into vogue during the Daikatana release cycle (“‘It will be a movement.’ (Whatever that meant!)”) but completely neglects the small fact that his comment was completely accurate. Quake was one of the first games to be played in a real “e-sports” sense – past gaming-based competitions were usually serial efforts to gain the highest score on Pac-Man or Donkey Kong. Multiplayer games existed before Quake, and were even popular before Quake, but Quake had actual leagues and “championships” that were a step up from “local arcade or university computer lab decides to call a get-together the ‘world championship’ for lack of objection”. What’s more is that this was entirely organic, with no built-in match-making or player ranking. The publishers of Call of Duty or League of Legends spend millions to foster what the Quake community put together for no cost to Id or GT.

    Quake also may not have been the first game to champion user-modability, but it certainly evolved things far beyond Doom’s levels-and-sprites – with powerful scripting support, modders were able to create mods ranging from kart racing to something called “Team Fortress”, which even a stuffy old antiquarian might be familiar with.

    Furthermore, it’s downright bizarre that Dark Forces, with total PC Data sales estimated at slightly under 900,000, is “a hit almost the equal of DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D”, whereas it is implied that Quake – selling nearly twice that, and obviously experienced by far far more – is, rather than a commercial hit, instead hobbled by Carmack’s “misplaced idealism”. I’d say that whole bit was grinding an axe against the notion of free software and shareware, except that seems like such a weird thing to grind an axe against that I’m really not sure what’s actually going on. I think maybe there’s some context lacking – GT was expecting to make a lot of money selling the retail shareware release for $10 a box, which even in the days of dialup was a somewhat idiotic notion. However, it seems nobody at GT actually understood the shareware ecosystem, which was fueled by free availability on BBS’s (and later, the web) and compilation packs in retail establishments. It’s less “misplaced idealism” and more “facts of life”.

  37. Sion Fiction

    May 3, 2024 at 11:25 pm

    “Carmack still wasn’t above cheating a bit when push came to shove. (By no means is the Quake engine entirely free of tricksy 2D sprites in places where proper 3D models are just too expensive to render.)”

    There are indeed a tonne of cheats in Quakes renderer, but Sprites aren’t one of them. There are only 5 or 6 actual sprite objects in the finished game. Carmack did experiment at one point to have enemies render as sprites at a distance for [as you say] performance reasons. But it’s not in the final game. Similarly, early builds had sprite based pick ups, explosions, & even weapons, but they were ripped out of the game before launch & replaced with polys & particles.

    FABIEN SANGLARD has written an excellent QUAKE ENGINE CODE REVIEW at which highlights some of those Hacky Optimisations that kept Quake performant.

    You can find all Quakes sprites documented here…

    – UI elements, Fonts, Help & Loading Screens are sprites. I’m not sure these even count.

    – The only sprite object in the 3D viewport is a short 6 frame Fireball animation.

    And this sprite animation is not there to keep the frame rate up, its a technical limitation of the IDTech Engine.

    Quakes particle system just wasn’t sophisticated enough to allow textures to be attached to particles. The original Quake Software renderer could only draw particles as single color squares. While GL Quake could give particles a more rounded, filtered particle, but particles were still essential a tiny Blob. So to get a nice fireball trail, they used sprite animation.

    As an aside, Jurassic Park: Trespasser would later take attempt to turn 3d models into sprites on the fly for distant objects with hilariously janky results. I can’t wait for your take on that. Todays games also do this “Spriteifying” to much better results, particularly with distant vegetation & trees.
    Great Read though.


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