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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

Ebooks and more as we move into 1994…

So, folks, we’re finally through with 1993! Thanks as always to the good offices of Richard Lindner, an ebook compiling the last run of articles is now available to commemorate the occasion. If you enjoy it, please consider sending Richard a thank you at the email address found on the ebook’s first page.

I’ve already opened the curtain on 1994 with my most recent article, on the adventure game Under a Killing Moon, and I anticipate future articles on the graphic adventures Beneath a Steel Sky (odd naming concordance there, eh?), Superhero League of Hoboken, and Death Gate. Still, adventures in general were in a bit of a lull this year while everyone retooled to jump onto the CD-ROM, SVGA, and full-motion-video bandwagons. Luckily, several other genres definitely were not. This was arguably the biggest year of the 1990s for strategy games, with the likes of Theme Park, Transport Tycoon, Master of Magic, Panzer General, Colonization, and X-Com, all of which will get articles. Ditto space simulations, with Microsoft Space Simulator, TIE Fighter, and Wing Commander III. Origin Systems, the purveyor of the last mentioned blockbuster, also published the disastrous Ultima VIII and the sublime System Shock. In the realm of the slightly more esoteric, there’s Lode Runner: The Legend Returns from Sierra/Dynamix, which will provide me with a sneaky way to shoehorn in coverage of the original Lode Runner, one of the Apple II’s iconic titles that I sadly neglected back in the day. (For that matter, coverage of Microsoft Space Simulator should give me a chance to do the same for the similarly neglected Flight Simulator.)

In addition to all of this gaming coverage, I do want to start to take the second part of this site’s subtitle — the “digital culture” part — even more seriously than before. It seems only appropriate: between 1973 and 1993, the microchip revolutionized the way much of the business world conducted itself and changed the way some segments of the general population entertained themselves; between 1994 and 2014, the microchip combined with the Internet reshaped the everyday lives of all of us. I’d like for those changes as well to become a part of this site’s focus.

The big, obvious story lurking out there, of how the Internet and the World Wide Web came to be, is one that I think I’m going to reserve for 1995, when the Web really began to take off as a mainstream phenomenon. But I do want to work in two other non-gaming articles or series of them this year. One will be on the Voyager Company, an ambitious and visionary initiative to publish curated multimedia content on CD-ROM, with results that hold up better than you might expect today. (I bought a 1999-vintage iMac in order to explore the Voyager catalog last December, and it’s cost me a shocking number of hours since.) The shape of the other series is a bit more nebulous in my mind at the moment, but it will involve the music world’s response to the microcomputer revolution, perhaps beginning with early-1980s albums like Kraftwerk’s Computerworld and Prince’s 1999 that were suffused with the new technology in terms of both sound and lyrics, and definitely culminating in the interactive CD-ROMs released in the early- to mid-1990s by such artists as Prince, Peter Gabriel, the Residents, Todd Rundgren, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, and Billy Idol.

Another article or short series of them which I’d like to write kind of sits in the middle of this site’s two briefs: I’d like to examine the controversy over videogame content which flared up around the games Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, and led to the hasty imposition of the first industry-wide content-rating system in 1994. Also somewhere in that mix will be an examination of early “naughty” CD-ROMs, including both the markets for outright pornography and for relatively more respectable fare like Voyeur.

I’m more grateful than ever to those of you who support this work financially, what with these current tough times of ours. If you’re a regular reader who hasn’t yet taken the plunge, please do consider making a Patreon pledge if your finances allow. In return, I promise to keep delivering an interesting, informative, and entertaining article (almost) every other week — every week if you happen to enjoy The Analog Antiquarian as well! — for as long as I possibly can. It does seem that some of us at least may be in and out of lock downs for quite a while to come. It’s good to have things to read there, right?

Thank you for being the best readers in the world! Here’s to many more years and many more ebooks! See you tomorrow with a proper article…

 

Under a Killing Moon

We couldn’t believe one CD could be filled up so quickly.

— Aaron Conners

Bountiful, Utah, is the second city of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Legend has it that its patriarch, a herdsman named Perrigrine Sessions, exclaimed, “Here at last is paradise on earth!” on the day in 1847 when he first looked down upon the lush valley where the city stands today.

Like so many Mormon communities, Bountiful seems frozen in time, or rather out of time, a vision of a bucolic 1950s small-town America that barely ever existed in reality. The city’s newsletters have a weirdly anachronistic tone, regardless of their cover date. An issue from 1993 notes with alarm that a gang (!) has been formed, whilst going on to add a little reluctantly that it doesn’t appear to have committed any actual crimes yet. (“We hope that gang activity can be stopped before it takes a foothold.”) The same issue looks forward to “patriotic Americana” in the city park with “Utah Voices and the 23rd Army Band.” Somewhere in Bountiful, one senses, a middle-aged matron is still shaking her head disapprovingly over Elvis Presley and those gyrating hips of his — “and yet he seems such a nice, well-spoken young man otherwise…”

She was doubtless doing the same in the late 1960s, when a handful of Bountiful kids started to shoot their own movies on the new Kodak film format of Super 8. Chris Jones, Doug Vandegrift, and a collection of assorted siblings, cousins, and friends spoofed the things they were watching at the local cinema and on television: Batman, Tarzan, Mission: Impossible. Judging from the few fragments of their movies that have survived, they were hopelessly square — it’s hard to believe that they’re contemporaneous with the likes of Woodstock and Easy Rider — but also clever and endearingly cheeky. Typical Bountiful art, in other words.

Inspired by these experiments, Vandegrift went off to university to study acting, while Jones, being of a more practical bent, went out for finance. After university, Vandegrift switched from acting for a camera to drawing for one, landing a job with Hanna-Barbera illustrating Saturday-morning cartoons. He parlayed that gig into an impressive career; he won an Emmy Award in 1988 for his work on Muppet Babies. Meanwhile Jones wound up an accountant at an engineering firm in Salt Lake City.

Jones had a friend named Bruce Carver, who in 1982 bought one of the first Commodore 64s ever sold in Utah. He discovered a latent genius in himself as soon as he began to program it, and founded Access Software to publish his work. Jones initially joined the venture, whose offices would move back and forth between Salt Lake City and Bountiful as it grew, as its part-time sales representative and accountant, but he quickly grew fascinated with the creative potential of the new medium his friend was exploring. Thus he sketched out the scenario for a multi-part action game called Beach-Head, which Carver then proceeded to implement in code. Like virtually everything else Jones would ever do on a computer, this first game was inspired by his love of movies — in this case, by rah-rah World War II movies starring John Wayne and similarly lantern-jawed leading men. Thanks to Carver’s programming chops and Jones’s instinct for cinematic drama, Beach-Head became the breakout hit that put Access on the map upon its release in October of 1983. Raid Over Moscow and Beach-Head II, more games in the same style, did almost as well in 1984 and 1985.

After that, however, Bruce Carver stumbled upon the subject matter that would sustain Access for almost two decades. He and his brother Roger Carver made a golf game called Leader Board in 1986, which begot World Class Leader Board the following year, which in turn begot the long-running Links series in 1990. These games were very, very good for Access in general, but something of a mixed blessing for Chris Jones, who was now working full-time for the company, keeping track of all the money they were bringing in. The reality was that he just didn’t have much to contribute creatively to a golf simulation.

So, he decided to get the old gang back together and make another movie instead. Vandegrift had recently returned to Bountiful to take a job as Access’s art director, and was more than up for Jones’s plan. The two had dreams of showing at Sundance as they wrote a script that combined The Maltese Falcon with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jones took the starring role of a private detective born in the wrong time, who channeled not only Humphrey Bogart but also Roy Rogers, what with his penchant for yodeling cowboy tunes. The detective-cum-cowboy’s name was Tex Murphy.

Tex Murphy the yodeling cowboy, as seen in Plan Ten from Outer Space.

But the film went disastrously wrong. All Sundance ambitions went out the window when someone stole the gang’s brand-new 16-millimeter camera, forcing them to switch back to Super 8, then to videotape because, hey, film gets expensive. Most of the soundtrack got lost, forcing everyone to re-dub their lines. The project devolved into Plan Ten from Outer Space, a ludicrous farce whose only obvious advantage over the awful Ed Wood film it purports to spoof is the fact that it knows how terrible it is. And yet it’s also really, genuinely funny, even when it’s abundantly clear that its creators have no idea what they’re doing. It’s smart in its amateurishness, bursting with a joie de vivre that just can’t be faked. In this, it has much in common with what came later from many of the same creators.

Disappointed to have made a film that could only be shown to family and friends, however much fun he’d had with it, Jones proposed adapting it into a computer game built out of spare parts that happened to be lying around the Access offices. Bruce Carver had been blending real-world photography with computer graphics since making the first Leader Board a couple of years before; for that game and its sequel, he had captured Roger Carver swinging a golf club on videotape and imported selected frames using primitive digitization technology, all in order to give a smooth, realistic depiction of the subject. And Access also had a vaguely Starglider-like outer-space shoot-em-up called Echelon on the shelf, which Bruce Carver had worked very hard on but which had given a poor return on his investment; the game had never sold very well. Now, he agreed to let Jones make an adventure game relying heavily on digitized images, its puzzle-solving scenes glued together by a flight-simulator game that re-purposed some of the old Echelon code. It would move Tex Murphy into the dystopian world of the year 2033, largely dropping his Roy Rogers persona but doubling down on Humphrey Bogart. Cheerfully appropriating the name of a classic Martin Scorsese film without giving it a second thought, Jones dubbed the game Mean Streets.

Today Jones regards Mean Streets, like Plan Ten from Outer Space, as non-canonical, a piece of Tex Murphy juvenilia, and that’s probably a fair assessment. But, as with the movie, auguries of what came later are all over this work. Mean Streets mixes wildly disparate interfaces and modes of play with giddy abandon: the flight simulator you use to fly Tex’s speeder from place to place, the side-scrolling shoot-em-up you get dumped into when negotiations go south, the adventure game of searching locations for clues, the menu-driven conversations with some two dozen witnesses and suspects in the crime you’re trying to solve. It stitches this crazy quilt together using cutting-edge technical tricks from its time: all of the characters you meet are presented as 256-color digitized photographs — Jones once again plays Tex — and snippets of digitized speech pop up here and there, thanks to another of Bruce Carver’s brilliant innovations, a technology called Real Sound that let a game play back just what the name would imply on an MS-DOS computer without an add-on sound card.

Such an overweening focus on trendy gimmicks seldom yields a classic game; no surprise, then, that Mean Streets doesn’t quite earn that label. And yet Jones, working with Doug Vandegrift as art director, managed to bring it closer to that status than one might expect, thanks to yet another quality that would show up again in the future: a thoroughgoing willingness among the developers to put themselves in the player’s shoes, to try to play with her rather than against her. In Mean Streets, you can fly your speeder manually everywhere if that’s what you enjoy, or you can turn on the autopilot and zip to your destination; you can screw around in the desert outside of town shooting bounty hunters all day, or you can diligently pursue the resolution of the mystery with the help of the notepad thoughtfully included in the box. Even when it comes to the gimmicks, one never gets the impression the developers were thinking, “Including real pictures in our game will surely make us market leaders and sell a million copies!” No, it’s rather, “Gee, real pictures… in a game! How cool is that? Let’s do it!”

The “cast” of Mean Streets consisted of colleagues and friends, along with a smattering of fashion models recruited from a local agency. This character, whose name is Sylvia Linsky, would later show up in Under a Killing Moon as Tex Murphy’s ex-wife. (The course of love is never straight and true…) Even these few lines of text are enough to demonstrate the awkward writing that dogged these early games, which would be remedied only by the arrival of Aaron Conners on the scene. “If only I knew how she felt for me…” About me, maybe?

Released in late 1989, Mean Streets sold well enough to justify continuing with adventure games as a sideline to Access’s main business of golf simulations. In fact, Jones, Vandegrift and their colleagues made no fewer than three more games in the same general style as Mean Streets, minus only the flight simulator and shoot-em-up sequences, which most players of the first game had agreed were a bridge too far. The games in question were called Countdown, Martian Memorandum, and Amazon: Guardians of Eden, of which trio only the middle entry starred Tex Murphy. Then, the era of juvenilia ended as Jones and company took things to another level entirely.

Access was flying higher than ever at the time, but the reasons for their success still had much more to do with their golf games than their adventure games. In 1992, the year that Chris Jones made Amazon, Bruce Carver made Links 386 Pro, the first major game of any stripe to require a high-resolution “Super VGA” graphics card. It became a smashing hit, selling to many gamers who couldn’t care less about the sport of golf but just wanted to take in the mouth-watering details of the game’s meticulously recreated real-world courses. With Access thus flusher than ever with cash, Jones sought and won permission to, as he put it, “make the Links 386 of adventure games,” employing not only the new technology of SVGA but also CD-ROM. It was a tremendous gamble — the industry had been waiting in vain for CD-ROM to break through for literally years already — but the money flowing in from Links put Access in a position where they could afford to take such risks.

Although Doug Vandegrift had provided welcome assistance, all of Access’s adventure games to date had been Chris Jones’s babies at bottom, a fact that was perhaps not completely to their benefit. Jones was many things, but he wasn’t a terribly accomplished writer, and it often showed. Luckily, Access had recently hired as a technical writer a fellow named Aaron Conners, holder of a degree in English literature from the University of Utah. He’d become chummy with Jones when he was assigned to write hints for Amazon. Now, Jones asked him to write a full-length script for a third Tex Murphy game that would pull out all the stops.

It was the best move he ever made; Conners brought a whole new dimension to the character, adding not just more layers of humor but a degree of pathos as well. Conners:

He’s a man out of time, which works well because we can put him in an environment that none of us are familiar with, and he doesn’t seem to be familiar with it either. So, we can relate to him.

At the same time, he’s got the sensibilities of the 1940s, which is nostalgic to us. I think it ties in really well together, but it’s inherently humorous because he’s constantly out of place, no matter where he goes. He’s a [private detective], and he doesn’t really have any peers [in the future]. When he goes to the people who hire him, they’re generally higher class and think he’s scum. And yet he thinks that everyone at his level or lower is scum.

Tex’s basic attitude reminds me of the George Carlin line: “When you’re out driving, anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.” That’s kind of the way Tex is. He doesn’t seem to fit in with anyone. Tex has an inherent dislike of people who are born privileged. So he just has to poke them all the time. That’s how I see Tex’s character, fueled by this natural irreverence.

In November of 1992, three months after being given the assignment, Conners handed Jones the story for Under a Killing Moon, then stepped up to join him as co-designer. The two have been professionally inseparable ever since.

The story takes place in the San Francisco of 2042, ten years after Mean Streets. The people of the city, who live out their lives in a Blade Runner-esque nocturnal setting, have been segregated into “norms” who don’t evince radiation-induced mutations and “mutes” who do. Tex himself is a norm, but he feels more comfortable among the mutes who inhabit the ghettos of the city. In the course of the game, his investigation of a petty robbery at a local pawnshop puts him on the trail of a worldwide eugenicist conspiracy to cleanse the earth of mutants and re-constitute the human race from pure stock.

Doug Vandegrift crafted the look of the setting, blending film noir with science fiction in a way whose only obvious antecedents were his and Jones’s own earlier works and the aforementioned Blade Runner. Jones:

The model was old-style, rundown, down and out, seedy, making it feel like the [Great] Depression. In Tex’s neighborhood it could be 1938. Dirty, dark alleys and streets, wrecked buildings, that post-apocalypse feel. Then in the new city, Tex moves through beautiful condominiums and high-tech office complexes and facilities.

Like the Access adventure games that had come before it, Under a Killing Moon would knit together all of the trendiest new techniques in game development. But, in a telling sign of the changing times, the nature of those techniques was now such that this game would necessarily be ambitious — and expensive — on an almost unprecedented scale. At its core, it would be built around two seemingly wildly disparate approaches: a 3D-rendered virtual reality and full-motion video starring real actors.

At the time that Under a Killing Moon was first being conceived, the potential for 3D rendering outside the context of vehicular simulations was best demonstrated by two games with polar-opposite personalities: Blue Sky Productions’s CRPG Ultima Underworld and id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. The former was by far the more complete implementation of a 3D environment, but paid the price for it by running rather slowly even on machines that met its steep system requirements. Wolfenstein 3D, on the other hand, was much more limited — it was more of an illusion of a 3D environment than the real thing — but it ran like blazes on almost any computer made during the last five years. Ultima Underworld let you do all sorts of things in its world, from swimming to flying to casting spells; Wolfenstein 3D let you run through suspiciously uniform corridors and shoot Nazis. As the decade progressed, all games that employed 3D rendering would sort themselves on a continuum between these two archetypes.

Under a Killing Moon boasted some of the most impressive 3D environments yet seen on a computer. This part of the game was a technological marvel in its own right.

Jones and Conners, for their part, were interested in using 3D not as a test of reflexes but to bring their world to life in a way that third-person graphic adventures, including Access’s own earlier ones, did not. Although Tex Murphy must sometimes use stealth to hide from enemies in the 3D sequences, he never shoots anyone at all within them. Even all these years later, Under a Killing Moon and its eventual sequels still stand out as unusual, noble efforts to use the potential of 3D in the service of something other than what the politicians would soon be labeling “murder simulators.” Jones:

When we sat down to create this experience, we asked ourselves, “If I’m a private investigator, what do I want to do?” Hey, I want to look in drawers! I want to crawl around, look at footprints on the floor, pull things out and examine them! And I want to do that stuff myself. I want to control the action. I don’t want some mouse click to take me on a path over there. Give me all the freedom that you can, then let me interact with that environment.

In talking about “some mouse click to take me on a path over there,” Jones is implicitly comparing his game to The 7th Guest, the industry’s first big CD-ROM-exclusive hit, which appeared in March of 1993 and paved the way for Under a Killing Moon by unleashing at last the long-anticipated wave of CD-ROM uptake among consumers. And indeed, at a casual glance The 7th Guest seems like a very similar game to Access’s effort: it too blends 3D environments with full-motion-video clips of real actors, and it too is among the earliest games to require an SVGA graphics card.

Look closer, however, and the differences become stark. The 7th Guest uses a node-based movement system; thus Jones’s disparaging reference above. Your movements from node to node inside the haunted mansion where it takes place are presented via pre-rendered 3D animations. Under a Killing Moon, on the other hand, does its rendering on the fly, giving you a glorious free-scrolling environment to roam as you will — crouching, bending, looking on top of things and under things and inside things. It’s an extraordinary achievement, especially given that it’s almost entirely the work of a single programmer, a longtime Access stalwart named Bruce Johnson. In order to get the speed he needed from the hardware available at the time, he had to write it in pure assembly language — an approach which even as storied a programmer as id’s John Carmack had abandoned by that point as just too much trouble. Access Software is seldom mentioned as a 3D pioneer on the level of Looking Glass Technologies (née Blue Sky Productions) and id Software, but perhaps that’s unjust. Their reputation in this field may have been ironically undermined by their other ambitions — for, instead of being content merely to redefine the state of the art in 3D environments, Jones and Conners used 3D as just one component in their game.

The other side of the equation is, as mentioned, full-motion video, which is used for cut scenes that advance the story along and for your menu-driven conversations with others. Like virtually all such productions from the 1990s, Under a Killing Moon leaves much to be desired by the cineastes among us. Even the most experienced professional actors would surely have struggled to deliver good, natural-feeling performances when forced to ply their trade in front of a plain blue screen, waving around clumsy props that would later be painted over by Access’s artists, being directed by Jones and Conners themselves, who, clever and creative though they were, had never been to film school. But then, much of the cast of Under a Killing Moon are not professional actors, and, believe me, it shows.

A conversation with Beek Nariz, who was played by Doug Vandegrift. He “nose” a lot about goings-on in the criminal underworld, and what he doesn’t know he can sniff out.

Whether that quality of rank amateurishness is ultimately to the game’s detriment, however, is a different question. Under a Killing Moon‘s secret sauce, which makes it work even where it really ought not to, is its sheer likability. Chris Jones deadpans his way through the role of Tex in a fashion that will never win him any acting awards, but it does win the viewer’s sympathy. The same applies to virtually every other amateur who appears onscreen, often in ludicrous homemade prosthesis and makeup appropriate for their mutant personae. Whether childhood friends of Jones and Vandegrift or people who just happened to work at Access, they’re clearly having a great deal of fun with their roles, and they clearly want us to have fun watching too.

Deep into production, Jones learned during a chance conversation with his brother that the latter knew a Hollywood talent agent who was in Salt Lake City casting for a movie. Doug Vandegrift:

She said, “If you guys want to hire Hollywood actors, I can arrange that.” But we really didn’t take it seriously until she called up one day and said, “I’ve got Margot Kidder. She’s got to go to the airport in three hours, but right now she’s sitting in Salt Lake City doing nothing. If you’d like for her to come, you can have her for three hours.” Aaron quickly wrote something, she showed up, and had great fun doing it.

We thought, well, if we can get her, maybe we can get somebody else. Before we knew it, Brian Keith came in for a day.

In an amusing reminder of Access’s essential Mormon-ness, Brian Keith, whose gruff persona in television shows like Hardcastle and McCormick apparently wasn’t affected, became in Aaron Conners’s recollection the first person ever to “drop an F-bomb” in the office. This must mark some sort of record; normally the F-bombs flow like soda inside a games studio…

Russell Means, a supporting player in the recent movie The Last of the Mohicans, also joined the cast. These “stars” who came on such short notice and left just as quickly stand out from the amateur thespians considerably less than one might expect. Like so many Hollywood actors who slummed it in CD-ROM during the heyday of the full-motion-video craze, they used Under a Killing Moon as an opportunity to chew up some scenery and have a little fun playing out-sized versions of the roles for which they were best known. “I don’t think she was really quite sure of what we were doing,” says Chris Jones about Margot Kidder. “Her reference point was Nintendo and Sega.”

Undoubtedly Access’s biggest coup was the casting of James Earl Jones, the iconic voice of Darth Vader himself, as narrator. It was really on a lark that they even rang up his agent — and sure enough, the initial response was, to say the least, not positive: “No way, no way will we do this, no way.” In the end, though, James Earl Jones did agree to do the job, and for a fraction of his normal rate at that, because his son had played and loved Access’s earlier adventure games and had been following the progress on this one closely: “Dad, you’ve got to do this!” Consider: LucasArts had just started making Star Wars games at the time, and yet with all their connections were forced to settle for a soundalike in the role of their Darth Vader. But here he was, performing for Access. Under a Killing Moon truly was a charmed project.

But if its makers were lucky, they earned their luck by doing everything they could to make sure that everyone who played it got more fun than frustration out of the experience. For example, it’s impossible to lock yourself out of victory without knowing it. Another telling sign that this game is on its player’s side is its interactive hint system, which you’re free to use as much or as little as you want. There’s even an “easy play” mode that lets you skip the puzzles completely and just explore the story. The designers plainly aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea — “you’ll enjoy a new level of entertainment” if you only use easy mode to “become familiar with the controls” and then move on to the real thing, says the manual — but, hey, if you really want to play that way, that too ought to be your right.

The travel interface, to which locations are added as time goes on and you learn about them. Under a Killing Moon uses plot time instead of clock time: time advances only in response to you making progress in your investigations. This technique, which had been pioneered by Infocom in Ballyhoo and used to good effect in the first Gabriel Knight adventure in the year before this game was released, was by this point becoming a staple of the adventure genre. And small wonder: it allows for a dynamic, unfolding plot without letting said plot run away without the player. What it sacrifices in realism, in other words, it recoups in practicality and mercy.

Yet another innovation for the player’s sake — perhaps the most enduring of all — is found in the conversation system. Menu-based conversations had been a staple of graphic adventures for quite some time, but Jones and Conners noted how awkward it felt to click on a line of dialog for Tex and then hear him parrot the very same line back. Aaron Conners:

Almost every game at the time would show the full line of dialog. We said, “This is so tedious.” A lot of the wordy games, including some of the best ones, like Monkey Island — fantastic, wonderful humor… but even with that I got tired of reading it and then hearing it. I had to come up with some other way to do it.

So, they implemented a mood-based conversation menu: instead of seeing exactly what Tex will say, you see options like (in the case of a potential love interest) “subtle innuendo,” “lovesick puppy,” and “charmingly curious.” This way, you still feel like you’re directing the course of the conversation, but some element of surprise is preserved. This system went on to influence no less a gaming blockbuster than the Mass Effect franchise, whose development teams included some avowed fans of the Tex Murphy games.

There’s an honesty about Under a Killing Moon, a commitment to its plot and premise that is lacking from most contemporary interactive movies. Again, a comparison to The 7th Guest is unavoidable. The earlier game is the poster child for puzzles that exist purely to give the player something to do, that have no connection whatsoever to a game’s fiction. But, in the words of Chris Jones, “there are no 7th Guest-type things” in Under a Killing Moon: “You know, ‘Here’s a puzzle to solve so you can move to the next room. Move these little marbles around here or whatever. None of that. In Under a Killing Moon, everything is interrelated.” The things you do in the game are mostly the things that a real private detective might be expected to do in order to solve a crime: interviewing people, searching premises for clues, piecing together the evidence to come another step toward the solution. Even those that are thoroughly goofy and would certainly never appear in a detective movie still bear directly on the case you’re trying to solve. And even those puzzles that might initially seem like roadblocks for the sake of roadblocks — like Tex’s urgent need for a new fax machine to replace his broken one — turn out to be useful as background, in this case by establishing just how down and out our hero actually is. At the time of its release, Under a Killing Moon was simply the best, most honest interactive implementation of a mystery — arguably the fictional genre most naturally amenable to becoming an adventure game — to appear since The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.

By the time it was released just in time for the Christmas of 1994, Under a Killing Moon had taken two years and some $2 million to create, making it one of the two most expensive computer games ever made to that point. It was also one of the two biggest games yet made in terms of sheer number of bits: it grew from one CD to two to three to four over the course of its development. In both departments, it was equaled only by the near-simultaneously released Wing Commander III from Origin Systems, another, very different take on the full-motion-video interactive movie. How strange to think that just a year or two earlier developers had been fretting over how they would ever manage to fill up a single CD! Not content with blowing past the one-gigabyte barrier in 1994, these two games had already exceeded two gigabytes in size. It was as frenzied a period of technological change as gaming has ever known.

Under a Killing Moon was greeted with a brutal review in Computer Gaming World, courtesy of Charles Ardai, that magazine’s resident curmudgeon as well as my favorite gaming scribe of the 1990s. His take-down is odd not least because he had previously given Countdown and Martian Memorandum fairly glowing reviews. Nevertheless, his review of Under a Killing Moon makes some very valid points, so much so that I want to quote from it here as the flip-side to my positive take on the game.

With the plot about the cult and the crusade for genetic purity, [the developers] appear to be trying to tell a serious story, with serious threats and grim implications. Yet every time the story threatens to go in an interesting direction, they cut it off at the knees by throwing in lame, inappropriate jokes and cheap slapstick, such as scenes that involve Tex falling over in his chair or walking into walls or getting captured by villains who do Three Stooges-style eye-poking shtick.

This undisciplined willingness to sacrifice the story in order to stick gags in where they don’t belong is typical of amateur writers, and it is deeply unsatisfying. Jones and Conners seem to be hoping that they can make a single game be both a serious thriller and a goofy comedy, both Chinatown and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and it just doesn’t work.

Ardai isn’t precisely wrong about any of this; the game’s tone really is all over the map, in that way all too typical of adventure-game writers — and, yes, amateur writers of all stripes — who lack the courage of their convictions, and seek to head off criticism of their productions’ manifest weaknesses by suddenly playing them for laughs. Normally, this sort of thing irritates me as badly as it does Ardai.

In this case, however, it doesn’t; I recognize the game’s disjointedness, not only in terms of its fiction but in the disparate gallery of techniques and interfaces it uses to present its story, but I’m just not that bothered by it. For me, Under a Killing Moon is a shaggy beast for sure, but also a thoroughly lovable one. When I ask myself why this should be, I find myself tempted to fall back on those vague platitudes that are the hallmark of the amateur critic: that the game has “soul”; that it is, God help us, “greater than the sum of its parts.”

Since that will obviously never do, let me note that it has at least three saving graces. One is a certain cultural sophistication which peeks through the game’s pastiche, telling us that its creators were a bit older than the norm and had a taste for things beyond Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars: the street where Tex Murphy lives is called Chandler Avenue after the beloved crime novelist; the central Mcguffin of the game is a bird statuette, a nod to The Maltese Falcon. Another is its bold spirit of innovation, its willingness to try not just one new thing but a whole pile of them, despite working in the terminally conservative ludic genre of the adventure game, which usually departs from the tried and true only with the utmost reluctance. And a third — probably the most important of all — is one that I’ve already mentioned: its exuberant likability. Just being nice — being the kind of person that other people enjoy being around — will get you a surprisingly long way in life. If Under a Killing Moon is any evidence, the same is true in games.

Here, then, is the ultimate difference maker between Under a Killing Moon and a game like The 7th Guest: the former is generous to its player while the latter is stingy. Although Under a Killing Moon gleefully employs every piece of trendy technology its developers can get their hands on, it’s all done for the purpose of making a fun game of the sort that said developers themselves would like to play; it’s not done merely to make a statement about the alleged multimedia zeitgeist, much less to rake in beaucoups of cash. The money, one senses, was always secondary when it came to Tex Murphy. (Why else invest millions into risky interactive movies at all instead of wallowing contently in the ocean of guaranteed profit from the Links franchise?)

There’s an open-hearted joy about Under a Killing Moon that makes up for a multitude of acting and even writing sins. It’s still bursting with that excitement which Jones and Vandegrift felt as kids — “We’re making a movie!” It’s just that now it’s an interactive movie. Under a Killing Moon is a wonderful tonic in a cynical world. If that sounds odd, given that the game takes place in such a dystopian setting, it serves only to point out how special its personality really is. The game tells us that the best parts of us, the things we sometimes call our basic humanity, will always survive. Chris Jones:

Okay, this world’s worn-out and ugly and partially destroyed, but people are people. People still have their sense of humor. People still have an outlook they can hang onto. Even if the world’s going to hell, it’s the only world they’ve got. To be dragged down in the mud attitude-wise or [imagine] things never improving… well, maybe they will never improve, but there’s got to be some hope that they will.

It strikes me that the most under-discussed aspect of Under a Killing Moon, as well as quite possibly our key to understanding all this, is the Mormon community from which it sprang. There are all sorts of reasons for the silence on the subject, starting with many would-be game historians’ apparent belief that individual games can be understood without taking account of the real-world beliefs and biases that went into them, passing through the way that the people who made this particular game studiously avoid the subject, ending with how loaded any discussion at all of religion has become in our societies. Not everyone who worked on Under a Killing Moon was Mormon — even a community like Bountiful is “only” 75 percent Mormon, with a substantial Catholic minority among its other believers and non-believers — and the game never, ever proselytizes; it wants to entertain you, not convert you. Nevertheless, it has a distinct Mormon sensibility, and is all the better for it.

There is, I think, a tendency among many non-believers who lack experience with religious communities to imagine them as unduly grim milieus, where everyone marches in lockstep as Soldiers of God, where there is no room for warmth or humor or whimsy, no space for secular culture of any stripe. But, as Under a Killing Moon amply demonstrates, that’s not always or even usually the case at all.

Of course, like any dogmatic religion, Mormonism comes complete with a set of Lines That Shall Not Be Crossed, whose nature I won’t belabor here. Yet it’s more forward-looking than many religions, with surprisingly little aversion to modernity within its strict lines of demarcation. Based on my own limited experience, this orientation translates into a genuine desire to see the faithful live up to their individual talents here in the world. You can see this quality manifested in Under a Killing Moon, along with much else that will strike a chord of recognition with anyone who has ever lived among or around Mormons. I recently discussed the subject with Jeff Roberts of RAD Game Tools, a longtime friend of this site who did some contract work on the game’s video-compression system:

Yeah, I joke about how LDS the humor seems to me. It’s super chaste, awkward humor. Very dad-joke humor. I grew up in Utah as a non-Mormon, so I sense that feeling immediately (Book of Mormon nails that perfectly). But yeah, any clips of Access games immediately trigger a “whoa…” in me to this day. They did a “comical” golf game a few years later that really pegs the Mormon meter for me: “Extreme” something… yikes, so bad.

I remember a funny story about Bruce [Johnson] being a henchman that has to grab a girl that was being abducted, but Bruce was embarrassed and it kept filming badly, which led to the actor playing the girl finally just saying, “Look, can you just grab me, so I can go home?”

Tex looks very uncomfortable in this situation…

Under a Killing Moon is the videogame equivalent of Mitt Romney, the whitest man in the world, marching gawkily along with a Black Lives Matter protest, just because, gosh darn it — and Mitt Romney would actually say, “Gosh, darn it,” in 2020 — it’s the right thing to do. As far as the game is concerned, the Right Thing is to try its own earnest, gawky best to give its players the best time ever.

Fortunately for Access, most gamers hewed more to my verdict on Under a Killing Moon than to Charles Ardai’s. In spite of a coveted segment on the television show Entertainment Tonight, the game didn’t become a breakaway mainstream icon of the early CD-ROM era like The 7th Guest or Myst. But it did do well among the slowly expanding audience of core gamers, enough to earn back its development budget and justify another Tex Murphy game. So, one of the most likable series in the history of adventure gaming got to continue on its goofy way, and thus will be making another appearance as part of these histories before all is said and done. In the meantime, give the game a shot if you haven’t already. You might be surprised at how much wholesome fun a post-apocalyptic dystopia can be.

(Sources: the book Under a Killing Moon: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba; Computer Gaming World of January 1990, January 1991, January 1992, August 1994, and January 1995; Electronic Entertainment of November 1994 and January 1995; Commodore Magazine of July 1987 and August 1987; Provo Daily Herald of January 25 1989, August 1 1990, August 21 1990, June 23 1992, September 19 1993, and October 8 1994; various Bountiful city newsletters. Video sources include the original film of Plan Ten from Outer Space, with commentary from the makers; the documentary The Making of Tex Murphy; and Chris Jones, Aaron Conners, and Mat Van Rhoon on the Back Seat Designers podcast. And I owe a huge thank you to Jeff Roberts for sharing his impressions of working with Access Software.

Under a Killing Moon is available for digital purchase on GOG.com.)

 

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The Shareware Scene, Part 5: Narratives of DOOM

Let me begin today by restating the obvious: DOOM was very, very popular, probably the most popular computer game to date.

That “probably” has to stand there because DOOM‘s unusual distribution model makes quantifying its popularity frustratingly difficult. It’s been estimated that id sold 2 to 3 million copies of the shareware episodes of the original DOOM. The boxed-retail-only DOOM II may have sold a similar quantity; it reportedly became the third best-selling boxed computer game of the 1990s. But these numbers, impressive as they are in their own right, leave out not only the ever-present reality of piracy but also the free episode of DOOM, which was packaged and distributed in such an unprecedented variety of ways all over the world. Players of it likely numbered well into the eight digits.

Yet if the precise numbers associated with the game’s success are slippery, the cultural impact of the game is easier to get a grip on. The release of DOOM marks the biggest single sea change in the history of computer gaming. It didn’t change gaming instantly, mind you — a contemporaneous observer could be forgiven for assuming it was still largely business as usual a year or even two years after DOOM‘s release — but it did change it forever.

I should admit here and now that I’m not entirely comfortable with the changes DOOM brought to gaming. In fact, for a long time, when I was asked when I thought I might bring this historical project to a conclusion, I pointed to the arrival of DOOM as perhaps the most logical place to hang it up. I trust that most of you will be pleased to hear that I no longer feel so inclined, but I do recognize that my feelings about DOOM are, at best, conflicted. I can’t help but see it as at least partially responsible for a certain coarsening in the culture of gaming that followed it. I can muster respect for the id boys’ accomplishment, but no love. Hopefully the former will be enough to give the game its due.

As the title of this article alludes, there are many possible narratives to spin about DOOM‘s impact. Sometimes the threads are contradictory — sometimes even self-contradictory. Nevertheless, let’s take this opportunity to follow a few of them to wherever they lead us as we wrap up this series on the shareware movement and the monster it spawned.


3D 4EVA!

The least controversial, most incontrovertible aspect of DOOM‘s impact is its influence on the technology of games. It was nothing less than the coming-out party for 3D graphics as a near-universal tool — this despite the fact that 3D graphics had been around in some genres, most notably vehicular simulations, almost as long as microcomputer games themselves had been around, and despite the fact that DOOM itself was far from a complete implementation of a 3D environment. (John Carmack wouldn’t get all the way to that goal until 1996’s Quake, the id boys’ anointed successor to DOOM.) As we’ve seen already, Blue Sky Productions’s Ultima Underworld actually offered the complete 3D implementation which DOOM lacked twenty months before the latter’s arrival.

But as I also noted earlier, Ultima Underworld was complex, a little esoteric, hard to come to terms with at first sight. DOOM, on the other hand, took what the id boys had started with Wolfenstein 3D, added just enough additional complexity to make it into a more satisfying game over the long haul, topped it off with superb level design that took full advantage of all the new affordances, and rammed it down the throat of the gaming mainstream with all the force of one of its coveted rocket launchers. The industry never looked back. By the end of the decade, it would be hard to find a big boxed game that didn’t use 3D graphics.

Many if not all of these applications of 3D were more than warranted: the simple fact is that 3D lets you do things in games that aren’t possible any other way. Other forms of graphics consist at bottom of fixed, discrete patterns of colored pixels. These patterns can be moved about the screen — think of the sprites in a classic 2D videogame, such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. or id’s Commander Keen — but their forms cannot be altered with any great degree of flexibility. And this in turn limits the degree to which the world of a game can become an embodied, living place of emergent interactions; it does no good to simulate something in the world model if you can’t represent it on the player’s screen.

3D graphics, on the other hand, are stored not as pixels but as a sort of architectural plan of an imaginary 3D space, expressed in the language of mathematics. The computer then extrapolates from said plan to render the individual pixels on the fly in response to the player’s actions. In other words, the world and the representation of the world are stored as one in the computer’s memory. This means that things can happen there which no artist ever anticipated. 3D allowed game makers to move beyond hand-crafted fictions and set-piece puzzles to begin building virtual realities in earnest. Not for nothing did many people refer to DOOM-like games in the time before the term “first-person shooter” was invented as “virtual-reality games.”

Ironically, others showed more interest than the id boys themselves in probing the frontiers of formal possibility thus opened. While id continued to focus purely on ballistics and virtual violence in their extended series of Quake games after making DOOM, Looking Glass Technologies — the studio which had previously been known as Blue Sky Productions — worked many of the innovations of Ultima Underworld and DOOM alike into more complex virtual worlds in games like System Shock and Thief. Nevertheless, DOOM was the proof of concept, the game which demonstrated indubitably to everyone that 3D graphics could provide amazing experiences which weren’t possible any other way.

From the standpoint of the people making the games, 3D graphics had another massive advantage: they were also cheaper than the alternative. When DOOM first appeared in December of 1993, the industry was facing a budgetary catch-22 with no obvious solution. Hiring armies of artists to hand-paint every screen in a game was expensive; renting or building a sound stage, then hiring directors and camera people and dozens of actors to provide hours of full-motion-video footage was even more so. Players expected ever bigger, richer, longer games, which was intensely problematic when every single element in their worlds had to be drawn or filmed by hand. Sales were increasing at a steady clip by 1993, but they weren’t increasing quickly enough to offset the spiraling costs of production. Even major publishers like Sierra were beginning to post ugly losses on their bottom lines despite their increasing gross revenues.

3D graphics had the potential to fix all that, practically at a stroke. A 3D world is, almost by definition, a collection of interchangeable parts. Consider a simple item of furniture, like, say, a desk. In a 2D world, every desk must be laboriously hand-drawn by an artist in the same way that a traditional carpenter planes and joins the wood for such a thing in a workshop. But in a 3D world, the data constituting the basic form of “desk” can be inserted in a matter of seconds; desks can now make their way into games with the same alacrity with which they roll off of an IKEA production line. But you say that you don’t want every desk in your world to look exactly the same? Very well; it takes just a few keystrokes to change the color or wood grain or even the size of your desk, or to add or take away a drawer. We can arrive at endless individual implementations of “desk” from our Platonic ideal with surprising speed. Small wonder that, when the established industry was done marveling at DOOM‘s achievements in terms of gameplay, the thing they kept coming back to over and over was its astronomical profit margins. 3D graphics provided a way to make games make money again.

So, 3D offered worlds with vastly more emergent potential, made at a greatly reduced cost. There had to be a catch, right?

Alas, there was indeed. In many contexts, 3D graphics were right on the edge of what a typical computer could do at all in the mid-1990s, much less do with any sort of aesthetic appeal. Gamers would have to accept jagged edges, tearing textures, and a generalized visual crudity in 3D games for quite some time to come. A freeze-frame visual comparison with the games the industry had been making immediately before the 3D revolution did the new ones no favors: the games coming out of studios like Sierra and LucasArts had become genuinely beautiful by the early 1990s, thanks to those companies’ rooms full of dedicated pixel artists. It would take a considerable amount of time before 3D games would look anywhere near this nice. One can certainly argue that 3D was in some fairly fundamental sense necessary for the continuing evolution of game design, that this period of ugliness was one that the industry simply needed to plow through in order to emerge on the other side with a whole new universe of visual and emergent possibility to hand. Still, people mired in the middle of it could be forgiven for asking whether, from the evidence of screenshots alone, gaming technology wasn’t regressing rather than progressing.

But be that as it may, the 3D revolution ushered in by DOOM was here to stay. People would just have to get used to the visual crudity for the time being, and trust that eventually things would start to look better again.


Playing to the Base

There’s an eternal question in political and commercial marketing alike: do you play to the base, or do you try to reach out to a broader spectrum of people? The former may be safer, but raises the question of how many more followers you can collect from the same narrow slice of the population; the latter tempts you with the prospect of countless virgin souls waiting to embrace you, but is far riskier, with immense potential to backfire spectacularly if you don’t get the message and tone just right. This was the dichotomy confronting the boxed-games industry in the early 1990s.

By 1993, the conventional wisdom inside the industry had settled on the belief that outreach was the way forward. This dream of reaching a broader swath of people, of becoming as commonplace in living rooms as prime-time dramas and sitcoms, was inextricably bound up with the technology of CD-ROM, what with its potential to put footage of real human actors into games alongside spoken dialog and orchestral soundtracks. “What we think of today as a computer or a videogame system,” wrote Ken Williams of Sierra that year, “will someday assume a much broader role in our homes. I foresee a day when there is one home-entertainment device which combines the functions of a CD-audio player, VCR, videogame system, and computer.”

And then along came DOOM with its stereotypically adolescent-male orientation, along with sales numbers that threatened to turn the conventional wisdom about how well the industry could continue to feed off the same old demographic on its head. About six months after DOOM‘s release, when the powers that were were just beginning to grapple with its success and what it meant to each and every one of them, Alexander Antoniades, a founding editor of the new Game Developer magazine, more fully articulated the dream of outreach, as well as some of the doubts that were already beginning to plague it.

The potential of CD-ROM is tremendous because it is viewed as a superset not [a] subset of the existing computer-games industry. Everyone’s hoping that non-technical people who would never buy an Ultima, flight simulator, or DOOM will be willing to buy a CD-ROM game designed to appeal to a wider audience — changing the computer into [an] interactive VCR. If these technical neophytes’ first experience is a bad one, for $60 a disc, they’re not going to continue making the same mistake.

It will be this next year, as these consumers make their first CD-ROM purchases, that will determine the shape of the industry. If CD-ROM games are able to vary more in subject matter than traditional computer games, retain their platform independence, and capture new demographics, they will attain the status of a new platform [in themselves]. If not, they will just be another means to get product to market and will be just another label on the side of a box.

The next couple of years did indeed become a de-facto contest between these two ideas of gaming’s future. At first, the outreach camp could point to some notable successes on a scale similar to that of DOOM: The 7th Guest sold over 2 million copies, Myst sold an extraordinary 6 million or more. Yet the reality slowly dawned that most of those outside the traditional gaming demographic who purchased those games regarded them as little more than curiosities; most evidence would seem to indicate that they were never seriously played to a degree commensurate with their sales. Meanwhile the many similar titles which the industry rushed out in the wake of these success stories almost invariably became commercial disappointments.

The problems inherent in these multimedia-heavy “interactive movies” weren’t hard to see even at the time. In the same piece from which I quoted above, Alexander Antoniades noted that too many CD-ROM productions were “the equivalent of Pong games with captured video images of professional tennis players and CD-quality sounds of bouncing balls.” For various reasons — the limitations inherent in mixing and matching canned video clips; the core limitations of the software and hardware technology; perhaps simply a failure of imagination — the makers of too many of these extravaganzas never devised new modes of gameplay to complement their new modes of presentation. Instead they seemed to believe that the latter alone ought to be enough. Too often, these games fell back on rote set-piece puzzle-solving — an inherently niche activity even if done more creatively than we often saw in these games — for lack of any better ideas for making the “interactive” in interactive movies a reality. The proverbial everyday person firing up the computer-cum-stereo-cum-VCR at the end of a long workday wasn’t going to do so in order to watch a badly acted movie gated with frustrating logic puzzles.

While the multimedia came first with these productions, games of the DOOM school flipped that script. As the years went on and they too started to ship on the now-ubiquitous medium of CD-ROM, they too picked up cut scenes and spoken dialog, but they never suffered the identity crisis of their rivals; they knew that they were games first and foremost, and knew exactly what forms their interactivity should take. And most importantly from the point of view of the industry, these games sold. Post-1996 or so, high-concept interactive movies were out, as was most serious talk of outreach to new demographics. Visceral 3D action games were in, along with a doubling-down on the base.

To blame the industry’s retrenchment — its return to the demographically tried-and-true — entirely on DOOM is a stretch. Yet DOOM was a hugely important factor, standing as it did as a living proof of just how well the traditional core values of gaming could pay. The popularity of DOOM, combined with the exercise in diminishing commercial returns that interactive movies became, did much to push the industry down the path of retrenchment.

The minor tragedy in all this was not so much the end of interactive movies, given what intensely problematic endeavors they so clearly were, but rather that the latest games’ vision proved to be so circumscribed in terms of fiction, theme, and mechanics alike. By late in the decade, they had brought the boxed industry to a place of dismaying homogeneity; the values of the id boys had become the values of computer gaming writ large. Game fictions almost universally drew from the same shallow well of sci-fi action flicks and Dungeons & Dragons, with perhaps an occasional detour into military simulation. A shocking proportion of the new games being released fell into one of just two narrow gameplay genres: the first-person shooter and the real-time-strategy game.

These fictional and ludic genres are not, I hasten to note, illegitimate in themselves; I’ve enjoyed plenty of games in all of them. But one craves a little diversity, a more vibrant set of possibilities to choose from when wandering into one’s local software store. It would take a new outsider movement coupled with the rise of convenient digital distribution in the new millennium to finally make good on that early-1990s dream of making games for everyone. (How fitting that shaking loose the stranglehold of DOOM‘s progeny would require the exploitation of another alternative form of distribution, just as the id boys exploited the shareware model…)


The Murder Simulator

DOOM was mentioned occasionally in a vaguely disapproving way by mainstream media outlets immediately after its release, but largely escaped the ire of the politicians who were going after games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat at the time; this was probably because its status as a computer rather than a console game led to its being played in bedrooms rather than living rooms, free from the prying eyes of concerned adults. It didn’t become the subject of a full-blown moral panic until weirdly late in its history.

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, a pair of students at Columbine High School in the Colorado town of the same name, walked into their school armed to the teeth with knives, explosives, and automatic weapons. They proceeded to kill 13 students and teachers and to injure 24 more before turning their guns on themselves. The day after the massacre, an Internet gaming news site called Blue’s News posted a message that “several readers have written in reporting having seen televised news reports showing the DOOM logo on something visible through clear bags containing materials said to be related to the suspected shooters. There is no word yet of what connection anyone is drawing between these materials and this case.” The word would come soon enough.

It turned out that Harris and Klebold had been great devotees of the game, not only as players but as creators of their own levels. “It’s going to be just like DOOM,” wrote Harris in his diary just before the massacre. “I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy. I will force myself to believe that everyone is just a monster from DOOM.” He chose his prize shotgun because it looked like one found in the game. On the surveillance tapes that recorded the horror in real time, the weapons-festooned boys pranced and preened as if they were consciously imitating the game they loved so much. Weapons experts noted that they seemed to have adopted their approach to shooting from what worked in DOOM. (In this case, of course, that was a wonderful thing, in that it kept them from killing anywhere close to the number of people they might otherwise have with the armaments at their disposal.)

There followed a storm of controversy over videogame content, with DOOM and the genre it had spawned squarely at its center. Journalists turned their attention to the FPS subculture for the first time, and discovered that more recent games like Duke Nukem 3D — the Columbine shooters’ other favorite game, a creation of Scott Miller’s old Apogee Software, now trading under the name of 3D Realms — made DOOM‘s blood and gore look downright tame. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a longstanding critic of videogames, beat the drum for legislation, and the name of DOOM even crossed the lips of President Bill Clinton. “My hope,” he said, “[is] to persuade the nation’s top cultural producers to call a cease-fire in the virtual arms race, to stop the release of ultra-violent videogames such as DOOM. Several of the school gunmen murderously mimicked [it] down to the choice of weapons and apparel.”

When one digs into the subject, one can’t help but note how the early life stories of John Carmack and John Romero bear some eerie similarities with those of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The two Johns as well were angry kids who found it hard to fit in with their peers, who engaged in petty crime and found solace in action movies, heavy-metal music, and computer games. Indeed, a big part of the appeal of DOOM for its most committed fans was the sense that it had been made by people just like them, people who were coming from the same place. What caused Harris and Klebold, alone among the millions like them, to exorcise their anger and aggression in such a horrifying way? It’s a question that we can’t begin to answer. We can only say that, unfair though it may be, perceptions of DOOM outside the insular subculture of FPS fandom must always bear the taint of its connection with a mass murder.

And yet the public controversy over DOOM and its progeny resulted in little concrete change in the end. Lieberman’s proposed legislation died on the vine after the industry fecklessly promised to do a better job with content warnings, and the newspaper pundits moved on to other outrages. Forget talk of free speech; there was too much money in these types of games for them to go away. Just ten months after Columbine, Activision released Soldier of Fortune, which made a selling point of dismembered bodies and screams of pain so realistic that one reviewer claimed they left his dog a nervous wreck cowering in a corner. After the requisite wave of condemnation, the mainstream media forgot about it too.

Violence in games didn’t begin with DOOM or even Wolfenstein 3D, but it was certainly amplified and glorified by those games and the subculture they wrought. While a player may very well run up a huge body count in, say, a classic arcade game or an old-school CRPG, the violence there is so abstract as to be little more than a game mechanic. But in DOOM — and even more so in the games that followed it — experiential violence is a core part of the appeal. One revels in killing not just because of the new high score or character experience level one gets out of it, but for the thrill of killing itself, as depicted in such a visceral, embodied way. This does strike me as a fundamental qualitative shift from most of the games that came before.

Yet it’s very difficult to have a reasonable discussion on said violence’s implications, simply because opinions have become so hardened on the subject. To express concern on any level is to invite association with the likes of Joe Lieberman, a politician with a knack for choosing the most reactionary, least informed position on every single issue, who apparently was never fortunate enough to have a social-science professor drill the fact that correlation isn’t causation into his head.

Make no mistake: the gamers who scoff at the politicians’ hand-wringing have a point. Harris and Klebold probably were drawn to games like DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D because they already had violent fantasies, rather than having said fantasies inculcated by the games they happened to play. In a best-case scenario, we can even imagine other potential mass murderers channeling their aggression into a game rather than taking it out on real people, in much the same way that easy access to pornography may be a cause of the dramatic decline in incidents of rape and sexual violence in most Western countries since the rise of the World Wide Web.

That said, I for one am also willing to entertain the notion that spending hours every day killing things in the most brutal, visceral manner imaginable inside an embodied virtual space may have some negative effects on some personalities. Something John Carmack said about the subject in a fairly recent interview strikes me as alarmingly fallacious:

In later games and later times, when games [came complete with] moral ambiguity or actual negativity about what you’re doing, I always felt good about the decision that in DOOM, you’re fighting demons. There’s no gray area here. It is black and white. You’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, and everything that you’re doing to them is fully deserved.

In reality, though, the danger which games like DOOM may present, especially in the polarized societies many of us live in in our current troubled times, is not that they ask us to revel in our moral ambiguity, much less our pure evil. It’s rather the way they’re able to convince us that the Others whom we’re killing “fully deserve” the violence we visit upon them because “they’re the bad guys.” (Recall those chilling words from Eric Harris’s diary, about convincing himself that his teachers and classmates are really just monsters…) This tendency is arguably less insidious when the bad guys in question are ridiculously over-the-top demons from Hell than when they’re soldiers who just happen to be wearing a different uniform, one which they may quite possibly have had no other choice but to don. Nevertheless, DOOM started something which games like the interminable Call of Duty franchise were only too happy to run with.

I personally would like to see less violence rather than more in games, all things being equal, and would like to see more games about building things up rather than tearing them down, fun though the latter can be on occasion. It strikes me that the disturbing association of some strands of gamer culture with some of the more hateful political movements of our times may not be entirely accidental, and that some of the root causes may stretch all the way back to DOOM — which is not to say that it’s wrong for any given individual to play DOOM or even Call of Duty. It’s only to say that the likes of GamerGate may be yet another weirdly attenuated part of DOOM‘s endlessly multi-faceted legacy.


Creative Destruction?

In other ways, though, the DOOM community actually was — and is — a community of creation rather than destruction. (I did say these narratives of DOOM wouldn’t be cut-and-dried, didn’t I?)

John Carmack, by his own account alone among the id boys, was inspired rather than dismayed by the modding scene that sprang up around Wolfenstein 3D — so much so that, rather than taking steps to make such things more difficult in DOOM, he did just the opposite: he separated the level data from the game engine much more completely than had been the case with Wolfenstein 3D, thus making it possible to distribute new DOOM levels completely legally, and released documentation of the WAD format in which the levels were stored on the same day that id released the game itself.

The origins of his generosity hearken back once again to this idea that the people who made DOOM weren’t so very different from the people who played it. One of Carmack’s formative experiences as a hacker was his exploration of Ultima II on his first Apple II. Carmack:

To go ahead and hack things to turn trees into chests or modify my gold or whatever… I loved that. The ability to go several steps further and release actual source code, make it easy to modify things, to let future generations get what I wished I had had a decade earlier—I think that’s been a really good thing. To this day I run into people all the time that say, whether it was Doom, or maybe even more so Quake later on, that that openness and that ability to get into the guts of things was what got them into the industry or into technology. A lot of people who are really significant people in significant places still have good things to say about that.

Carmack speaks of “a decade-long fight inside id about how open we should be with the technology and the modifiability.” The others questioned this commitment to what Carmack called “open gaming” more skeptically than ever when some companies started scooping up some of the thousands of fan-made levels, plopping them onto CDs, and selling them without paying a cent to id. But in the long run, the commitment to openness kept DOOM alive; rather than a mere computer game, it became a veritable cottage industry of its own. Plenty of people played literally nothing else for months or even years at a stretch.

The debate inside id raged more than ever in 1997, when Carmack insisted on releasing the complete original source code to DOOM. (He had done the same for the Wolfenstein 3D code two years before.) As he alludes above, the DOOM code became a touchstone for an up-and-coming generation of game programmers, even as many future game designers cut their teeth and made early names for themselves by creating custom levels to run within the engine. And, inevitably, the release of the source code led to a flurry of ports to every imaginable platform: “Everything that has a 32-bit [or better] processor has had DOOM run on it,” says Carmack with justifiable pride. Today you can play DOOM on digital cameras, printers, and even thermostats, and do so if you like in hobbyist-created levels that coax the engine into entirely new modes of play that the id boys never even began to conceive of.

This narrative of DOOM bears a distinct similarity to that of another community of creation with which I happen to be much better acquainted: the post-Infocom interactive-fiction community that arose at about the same time that the original DOOM was taking the world by storm. Like the DOOM people, the interactive-fiction people built upon a beloved company’s well-nigh timeless software engineering; like them, they eventually stretched that engine in all sorts of unanticipated directions, and are still doing it to this day. A comparison between the cerebral text adventures of Infocom and the frenetic shooters of id might seem incongruous at first blush, but there you are. Long may their separate communities of love and craft continue to thrive.



As you have doubtless gathered by now, the legacy of DOOM is a complicated one that’s almost uniquely resistant to simplification. Every statement has a qualifier; every yang has a yin. This can be frustrating for a writer; it’s in the nature of us as a breed to want straightforward causes and effects. The desire for them may lead one to make trends that were obscure at best to the people living through them seem more obvious than they really were. Therefore allow me to reiterate that the new gaming order which DOOM created wouldn’t become undeniable to everyone until fully three or four years after its release. A reader recently emailed me the argument that 1996 was actually the best year ever for adventure games, the genre which, according to some oversimplified histories, DOOM and games like it killed at a stroke — and darned if he didn’t make a pretty good case for it.

So, while I’m afraid I’ll never be much of a gibber and/or fragger, we should continue to have much to talk about. Onward, then, into the new order. I dare say that from the perspective of the boots on the ground it will continue to look much like the old one for quite some time to come. And after that? Well, we’ll take it as it comes. I won’t be mooting any more stopping dates.

(Sources: the books The Complete Wargames Handbook (2000 edition) by James F. Dunnigan, Masters of Doom by David Kushner, Game Engine Black Book: DOOM by Fabien Sanglard, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, and Columbine by Dave Cullen; Retro Gamer 75; Game Developer of June 1994; Chris Kohler’s interview with John Carmack for Wired. And a special thanks to Alex Sarosi, a.k.a. Lt. Nitpicker, for his valuable email correspondence on the legacy of DOOM, as well as to Josh Martin for pointing out in a timely comment to the last article the delightful fact that DOOM can now be run on a thermostat.)

 

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The Shareware Scene, Part 4: DOOM

The full extent of Wolfenstein 3D‘s popularity during 1992 and 1993 is difficult to quantify with any precision due to the peculiarities of the shareware distribution model. But the one thing we can say for sure is that it was enormously popular by any standard. Apogee sold roughly 200,000 copies of the paid episodes, yet that number hardly begins to express the game’s real reach. Most people who acquired the free episode were content with it alone, or couldn’t afford to buy the other installments, or had friends who had bought them already and were happy to share. It thus seems reasonable to assume that the total number of Wolfenstein 3D players reached well into seven digits, putting the game’s exposure on a par with The 7th Guest, the boxed industry’s biggest hit of 1993, the game generally agreed to have put CD-ROM on the map. And yet Wolfenstein 3D‘s impact would prove even more earthshaking than that of The 7th Guest in the long run.

One telling sign of its influence — and of the way that it was just a fundamentally different type of game than The 7th Guest, that stately multimedia showpiece — is the modding scene that sprang up around it. The game’s levels were stored in a rather easily decipherable format: the “WAD” file, standing for “Where’s All the Data?” Enterprising hackers were soon writing and distributing their own level editors, along with custom levels. (The most popular of them all filled the corridors of the Nazi headquarters with facsimiles of the sickly sweet, thuddingly unclever, unbelievably grating children’s-television character Barney the Dinosaur and let you take out your frustrations with an automatic weapon.) The id boys debated fiercely among themselves whether they should crack down on the modders, but John Carmack, who had read Steven Levy’s landmark book Hackers at an impressionable age and thoroughly absorbed its heroes’ ethos of openness and transparency, insisted that people be allowed to do whatever they wished with his creation. And when Carmack put his foot down, he always got his way; at the end of the day, he was the one irreplaceable member of the id collective, and every one of the others knew it.

With Wolfenstein 3D‘s popularity soaring, the id boys started eyeing the territory of the boxed publishers greedily. They struck a deal with a company called FormGen to release a seventh, lengthier installment of the game exclusively as a boxed retail product; it appeared under the name of Spear of Destiny in September of 1992. Thus readers of magazines like Computer Gaming World could scratch their heads that fall over two separate luridly violent full-page advertisements for Wolfenstein 3D games, each with a different publisher’s name at the bottom. Spear of Destiny sold at least 100,000 copies at retail, both to hardcore Wolfenstein 3D addicts who couldn’t get enough and to many others, isolated from the typical means of shareware distribution, who came upon the game for the first time in this form.

Even Nintendo came calling with hat in hand, just a couple of years after summarily rejecting id’s offer to make a version of Super Mario Bros. 3 that ran on computers. The id boys now heeded Nintendo’s plea to port Wolfenstein 3D to the new Super Nintendo Entertainment System, whilst also grudgingly agreeing to abide by the dictates of Nintendo’s infamously strict censors. They had no idea what they had signed up for. Before they were through, Nintendo demanded that they replace blood with sweat, guard dogs with mutant rats, and Adolf Hitler, the game’s inevitable final boss, with a generic villain named the “Staatmeister.” They hated this bowdlerization with a passion, but, having agreed to do the port, they duly saw it through, muttering “Never again!” to themselves all the while. And indeed, when they were finished they took a mutual vow never to work with Nintendo again. Who needed them? The world was id’s oyster.

By now, 1992 was drawing  to a close, and they all felt it was high time that they moved on to the next new thing. For everyone at id, and most especially John Carmack, was beginning to look upon Wolfenstein 3D with a decidedly jaundiced eye.


The dirty little secret that was occluded by Wolfenstein 3D‘s immense success was that it wasn’t all that great a game once it was stripped of its novelty value. Its engine was just too basic to allow for compelling level design. You glided through its corridors as if you were on a branching tram line running past a series of fairground shooting galleries, trying to shoot the Nazis who popped up before they could shoot you. The lack of any sort of in-game map meant that you didn’t even know where you were most of the time; you just kept moving around shooting Nazis until you stumbled upon the elevator to the next level. Anyone who made it through seven episodes of this — and make no mistake, there were plenty of players who did — either had an awful lot of aggression to vent or really, really loved the unprecedented look and style of the game. The levels were even boring for their designers. John Romero:

Tom [Hall] and I [designed] levels [for Wolfenstein 3D] fast. Making those levels was the most boring shit ever because they were so simple. Tom was so bored; I kept on bugging him to do it. I told him about Scott Miller’s 300ZX and George Broussard’s Acura NSX. We needed cool cars too! Whenever he got distracted, I’d tell him, “Dude, NSX! NSX!”

Tom Hall had it doubly hard. The fact was, the ultra-violence of Wolfenstein 3D just wasn’t really his thing. He preferred worlds of candy-apple red, not bloody scarlet; of precocious kids and cuddly robots, not rabid vigilantes and sadistic Nazis. Still, he was nothing if not a team player. John Romero and Adrian Carmack had gone along with him for Commander Keen, so it was only fair that he humored them with Wolfenstein 3D. But now, he thought, all of that business was finally over, and they could all start thinking about making a third Commander Keen trilogy.

Poor Tom. It took a sweetly naïve nature like his to believe that the other id boys would be willing to go back to the innocent fun of their Nintendo pastiches. Wolfenstein 3D was a different beast entirely than Commander Keen. It wasn’t remarkable just for being as good as something someone else had already done; it was like nothing anyone had ever done before. And they owned this new thing, had it all to themselves. Hall’s third Commander Keen trilogy just wasn’t in the cards — not even when he offered to do it in 3D, using an updated version of the Wolfenstein 3D engine. Cute and whimsical was id’s yesterday; gritty and bloody was their today and, if they had anything to say about it, their tomorrow as well.

Digging into their less-than-bulging bag of pop-culture reference points, the id boys pulled out the Alien film franchise. What a 3D game those movies would make! Running through a labyrinth of claustrophobic corridors, shooting aliens… that would be amazing! On further reflection, though, no one wanted the hassle that would come with trying to live up to an official license, even assuming such a thing was possible; id was still an underground insurgency at heart, bereft of lawyers and Hollywood contacts. Their thinking moved toward creating a similar effect via a different story line.

The id boys had a long-running tabletop Dungeon & Dragons campaign involving demons who spilled over from their infernal plane of existence into the so-called “Prime Material Plane” of everyday fantasy. What if they did something like that, only in a science-fiction context? Demons in space! It would be perfect! It was actually John Carmack, normally the id boy least engaged by these sorts of discussions, who proposed the name. In a scene from the 1986 Martin Scorsese movie The Color of Money, a young pool shark played by Tom Cruise struts into a bar carrying what looks like a clarinet case. “What you got in there?” asks his eventual patsy with an intimidating scowl. As our hero opens the case to reveal his pool cue, he flashes a 100-kilowatt Tom Cruise smile and says a single word: “Doom.”

Once again, Tom Hall tried to be supportive and make the best of it. He still held the official role of world-builder for id’s fictions. So, he went to work for some weeks, emerging at last with the most comprehensive design document which anyone at id had ever written, appropriately entitled The DOOM Bible. It offered plenty of opportunity for gunplay, but it also told an earnest story, in which you, as an astronaut trapped aboard a space station under assault by mysterious aliens, gradually learned to your horror that they were literal demons out of Hell, escaping into our dimension through a rift in the fabric of space-time. It was full of goals to advance and problems to solve beyond that of mowing down hordes of monsters, with a plot that evolved as you played. The history of gaming would have been markedly different, at least in the short term, if the other id boys had been interested in pursuing Hall’s path of complex storytelling within a richly simulated embodied virtual reality.

As it was, though, Hall’s ambitions landed with a resounding thud. Granted, there were all sorts of valid practical reasons for his friends to be skeptical. It was true enough that to go from the pseudo-3D engine of Wolfenstein 3D to one capable of supporting the type of complex puzzles and situations envisioned by Hall, and to get it all to run at an acceptable speed on everyday hardware, might be an insurmountable challenge even for a wizard like John Carmack. And yet the fact remains that the problem was at least as much one of motivation as one of technology. The other id boys just didn’t care about the sort of things that had Tom Hall so juiced. It again came down to John Carmack, normally the least articulate member of the group, to articulate their objections. “Story in a game,” he said, “is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”

Tom Hall held out for several more months, but he just couldn’t convince himself to get fully onboard with the game his friends wanted to make. His relationship with the others went from bad to worse, until finally, in August of 1993, the others asked him to leave: “Obviously this isn’t working out.” By that time, DOOM was easily the most hotly anticipated game in the world, and nobody cared that it wouldn’t have a complicated story. “DOOM means two things,” said John Carmack. “Demons and shotguns!” And most of its fans wouldn’t have it any other way, then or now.


Tom Hall doesn’t look very happy about working on DOOM. Note the computer he works with: a NeXT workstation rather than an MS-DOS machine. John Carmack switched virtually all development to these $10,000 machines in the wake of Wolfenstein 3D‘s success, despite their tiny market footprint. The fact that the DOOM code was thus designed to be cross-platform from the beginning was undoubtedly a factor in the plethora of ports that appeared during and after its commercial heyday — that in fact still continue to appear today any time a new platform reaches a critical mass.

Making DOOM wound up requiring more than three times as many man-hours as anything the id boys had ever done before. It absorbed their every waking hour from January of 1993 to December of that year. Early on in that period, they decided that they wouldn’t be publishing it through Apogee. Cracks in the relationship between the id boys and Scott Miller had started forming around the latter’s business practices, which were scrupulously honest but also chaotic in that way dismayingly typical of a fast-growing business helmed by a first-time entrepreneur. Reports kept reaching id of people who wanted to buy Wolfenstein 3D, but couldn’t get through on the phone, or who managed to give Apogee their order only to have it never fulfilled.

But those complaints were perhaps just a convenient excuse. The reality was that the id boys just didn’t feel that they needed Apogee anymore. They had huge name recognition of their own now and plenty of money coming in to spend on advertising and promotion, and they could upload their new game to the major online services just as easily as Scott Miller could. Why keep giving him half of their money? Miller, for his part, handled the loss of his cash cow with graceful aplomb. He saw it as just business, nothing personal. “I would have done the same thing in their shoes,” he would frequently say in later interviews. He even hired Tom Hall to work at Apogee after the id boys cast him adrift in the foreign environs of Dallas.

Jay Wilbur now stepped into Miller’s old role for id. He prowled the commercial online services, the major bulletin-board systems, and the early Internet for hours each day, stoking the flames of anticipation here, answering questions there.

And there were lots of questions, for DOOM was actually about a bit more than demons and shotguns: it was also about technology. Whatever else it might become, DOOM was to be a showcase for the latest engine from John Carmack, a young man who was swiftly making a name for himself as the best game programmer in the world. With DOOM, he allowed himself to set the floor considerably higher in terms of system requirements than he had for Wolfenstein 3D.

System requirements have always been a moving target for any game developer. Push too hard, and you may end up releasing a game that almost no one can play; stay too conservative, and you may release something that looks like yesterday’s news. Striking precisely the right point on this continuum requires knowing your customers. The Apogee shareware demographic didn’t typically have cutting-edge computers; they tended to be younger and a bit less affluent than those buying the big boxed games. Thus id had made it possible to run Wolfenstein 3D on a two-generations-behind 80286-based machine with just 640 K of memory. The marked limitations of its pseudo-3D engine sprang as much from the limitations of such hardware as it did from John Carmack’s philosophy that, any time it came down to a contest between fidelity to the real world and speed, the latter should win.

He still held to that philosophy as firmly as ever when he moved on to DOOM, but the slow progression of the market’s trailing edge did give him more to work with: he designed DOOM for at least an 80386-based computer — 80486 recommended — with at least 4 MB of memory. He was able to ignore that bane of a generation of programmers, MS-DOS’s inability to seamlessly address memory beyond 640 K, by using a relatively new piece of software technology called a “DOS extender,” which built upon Microsoft’s recent memory-management innovations for their MS-DOS-hosted versions of Windows. DOS/4GW was included in the latest versions of what had heretofore been something of an also-ran in the compiler sweepstakes: the C compiler made by a small Canadian company known as Watcom. Carmack chose the Watcom compiler because of DOS/4GW; DOOM would quite literally have been impossible without it. In the aftermath of DOOM‘s prominent use of it, Watcom’s would become the C compiler of choice for game development, right through the remaining years of the MS-DOS-gaming era.

Rational Systems, the makers of DOS/4GW, were clever enough to stipulate in their licensing terms that the blurb above must appear whenever a program using it was started. Thus DOOM served as a prominent advertisement for the new software technology as it exploded across the world of computing in 1994. Soon you would have to look far and wide to find a game that didn’t mention DOS/4GW at startup.

Thanks not only to these new affordances but also — most of all, really — to John Carmack’s continuing evolution as a programmer, the DOOM engine advanced beyond that of Wolfenstein 3D in several important ways. Ironically, his work on the detested censored version of Wolfenstein 3D for the Super NES, a platform designed with 2D sprite-based games in mind rather than 3D graphics, had led him to discover a lightning-fast new way of sorting through visible surfaces, known as binary space partitioning, in a doctoral thesis by one Bruce Naylor. It had a well-nigh revelatory effect on the new engine’s capabilities.

That said, the new engine did remain caught, like its predecessor, in a liminal space between 2D and true 3D; it was just that it moved significantly further on the continuum toward the latter. No longer must everything and everyone exist on the same flat horizontal plane; you could now climb stairs and walk onto desks and daises. And walls must no longer all be at right angles to one another, meaning the world needed no longer resemble one of those steel-ball mazes children used to play with.

The DOOM level editor was a much more complicated tool than its Wolfenstein 3D equivalent, reflecting the enhanced capabilities of John Carmack’s latest engine. Most notably, the designer now had variable height at his disposal.

On the other hand, walls must still all be exactly vertical, and floors and ceilings must all be exactly horizontal; DOOM allowed stairs but not hills or ramps. These restrictions made it possible to map textures onto the environment without the ugly discontinuities that had plagued Blue Sky Productions’s earlier but more “honest” 3D game Ultima Underworld. DOOM makes such a useful study in game engineering because it so vividly illustrates that faking it convincingly for the sake of the player is better than simulating things which delight only the programmer of the virtual world. Its engine is perfect for the game it wants to be.

In a telling sign of John Carmack’s march toward a more complete 3D engine, the monsters in DOOM were sculpted as three-dimensional physical models by Adrian Carmack and Greg Punchatz, an artist hired just for the task. (The former is shown above.) The id boys then took snapshots of the models from eight separate angles for insertion into the game.

The value of the simple addition of height to the equation was revealed subtly — admittedly not an adverb often associated with DOOM! — as soon as you started the game. Instead of gliding smoothly about like a tram, your view now bobbed with uncanny verisimilitude as you ran about. You might never consciously notice the effect, but it made a huge difference to your feeling of really being in the world; if you tried to go back to Wolfenstein 3D after playing DOOM, you immediately had the feeling that something was somehow off.

But the introduction of varying height was most important for what it meant in terms of the game’s tactical possibilities. Now monsters could stand on balconies and shoot fireballs down at you, or you could do the same to them. Instead of a straightforward shooting gallery, the world of DOOM became a devious place of traps and ambushes. Carmack’s latest engine also supported variable levels of lighting for the first time, which opened up a whole new realm of both dramatic and tactical possibility in itself; entering an unexplored pitch-dark room could be, to say the least, an intimidating prospect.

This outdoor scene nicely showcases some of the engine’s capabilities. Note the fireball flying toward you. It’s implemented as a physical object in the world like any other.

In addition, the new engine dramatically improved upon the nearly non-existent degree of physics simulation in Wolfenstein 3D. Weight and momentum were implemented; even bullets were simulated as physical objects in the world. A stereo soundscape was implemented as well; in addition to being unnerving as all get-out, it could become another vital tactical tool. Meanwhile the artificial intelligence of the monsters, while still fairly rudimentary, advanced significantly over that of Wolfenstein 3D. It was even possible to lure two monsters into fighting each other instead of you.

John Carmack also added a modicum of support for doing things other than killing monsters, although to nowhere near the degree once envisioned by Tom Hall. The engine could be used to present simple set-piece interactions, such as locked doors and keys, switches and levers for manipulating parts of the environment: platforms could move up and down, bridges could extend and retract. And in recognition of this added level of complexity, which could suddenly make the details of the geography and your precise position within it truly relevant, the engine offered a well-done auto-map for keeping track of those things.


The DOOM automap, an impressive technical achievement in itself.

Of course, none of these new affordances would matter without level designs that took advantage of them. The original plan was for Tom Hall and John Romero to create the levels. But, as we’ve seen, Hall just couldn’t seem to hit the mark that the id boys were aiming for. After finally dismissing him, they realized that Romero still needed help to shoulder the design burden. It arrived from a most unlikely source — from a fellow far removed from the rest of the id boys in age, experience, and temperament.

Sandy Petersen was already a cult hero in certain circles for having created a tabletop RPG called Call of Cthulhu in 1981. Based on the works of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, it was the first RPG ever to convincingly transcend the kill-monsters-to-level-up-so-you-can-kill-bigger-monsters dynamic of Dungeons & Dragons. But Call of Cthulhu remained a cult game even when the tabletop-RPG boom was at its height, and by the early 1990s Petersen was serving as an in-house design consultant at the computer-game publisher MicroProse. Unhappy in this role, he sent his résumé to the upstart id.

The résumé was greeted with considerable skepticism. It’s doubtful whether any of the id boys fully grasped the significance of Petersen’s achievement with Call of Cthulhu; while they were hardcore tabletop-RPG players, they were perfectly happy with the traditional power-gaming approach of Dungeons & Dragons, thank you very much. Still, the résumé was more impressive than any other they had received, and they did urgently need a level designer… they called him in for an interview.

Their initial skepticism wasn’t lessened by the man himself. Petersen was pudgy and balding, looking even older than his already ancient 38 years, coming across rather like a genial university professor. And he was a devout Mormon to boot, washed up among this tribe of atheists and nihilists. Surely it could never work out.

Nevertheless, they decided to grant him the favor of a test before they rejected him; he had, after all, flown all the way from Baltimore to Dallas just to meet with them. They gave him a brief introduction to the DOOM engine and its level editor, and asked him to throw something together for them. Within minutes, Petersen produced a cunningly dramatic trap room, featuring lights that suddenly winked out when the player entered and a demon waiting in ambush behind a hidden door. He was hired.

Romero and Petersen proved to complement each other very well, with individual design aesthetics that reflected their personalities. Romero favored straight-up carnage — the more demon blood the better — while Petersen evinced a subtler, more cerebral approach in levels that could almost have a puzzle-like feel, where charging in with shotgun blazing was usually not the best tactic. Together the two approaches gave the game a nice balance.

Indeed, superb level design became DOOM‘s secret weapon, one that has allowed it to remain relevant to this day, when its degree of gore and violence seems humdrum, its pixels look as big as houses, and the limitations of its engine seem downright absurd. (You can’t even look up or down, for Pete’s sake. Nor is there a “jump” command, meaning that your brawny super-soldier can be stopped in his tracks by an inconveniently high curb.)

It’s disarmingly easy to underestimate DOOM today on your first encounter with it, simply because its visual aesthetic seems so tossed-off, so hopelessly juvenile; it’s the same crude mixture of action movies, heavy-metal album covers, and affected adolescent nihilism that defined the underground game-cracking scene of the 1980s. And yet behind it all is a game design that oozes as much thought and care as it does blood. These levels were obsessed over by their designers, and then, just as importantly, extensively critiqued by the other id boys and their immediate hangers-on, who weren’t inclined to pull their punches. Whatever your opinion of DOOM as a whole and/or the changes it wrought to the culture of gaming — I for one have thoroughly mixed feelings at best on both of those subjects — one cannot deny that it’s a veritable clinic of clever level design. In this sense, it still offers lessons for today’s game developers, whether they happen to be working inside or outside of the genre it came to define.


Subtle DOOM isn’t…

DOOM‘s other, not-so-secret weapon went by the name of “deathmatch.”

There had been significant experimentation with networked gaming on personal computers in the past: the legendary designer Dani Bunten Berry had spent the last half-decade making action-strategy games that were primarily or exclusively intended to be played by two humans connected via modem; Peter Molyneux’s “god game” Populous and its sequels had also allowed two players to compete on linked computers, as had a fair number of others. But computer-to-computer multiplayer-only games never sold very well, and most games that had networked multiplayer as an option seldom saw it used. Most people in those days didn’t even own modems; most computers were islands unto themselves.

By 1993, however, the isolationist mode of computing was slowly being nibbled away at. Not only was the World Wide Web on the verge of bursting into the cultural consciousness, but many offices and campuses were already networked internally, mostly using the systems of a company known as Novell. In fact, the id boys had just such a system in their Dallas office. When John Carmack told John Romero many months into the development of DOOM that multiplayer was feasible, the latter’s level of excitement was noteworthy even for him: “If we can get this done, this is going to be the fucking coolest game that the planet Earth has ever fucking seen in its entire history.” And it turned out that they could get it done because John Carmack was a programming genius.

While Carmack also implemented support for a modem connection or a direct computer-to-computer cable, it was under Novell’s IPX networking protocol that multiplayer DOOM really shined. Here you had a connection that was rock-solid and lightning-fast — and, best of all, here you could have up to four players in the same world instead of just two. You could tackle the single-player game as a team if you wanted to, but the id boys all agreed that deathmatch — all-out player-versus-player anarchy — was where the real fun lived. It made DOOM into more of a sport than a conventional computer game, something you could literally play forever. Soon the corridors at id were echoing with cries of “Suck it down!” as everyone engaged in frenzied online free-for-alls. Deathmatch was, in the diction of the id boys, “awesome.” It wasn’t just an improvement on what Wolfenstein 3D had done; it was something fundamentally different from it, something that was genuinely new under the sun. “This is the shit!” chortled Romero, and for once it sounded like an understatement.



The excitement over DOOM had reached a fever pitch by the fall of 1993. Some people seemed on the verge of a complete emotional meltdown, and launched into overwrought tirades every time Jay Wilbur had to push the release date back a bit more; people wrote poetry about the big day soon to come (“The Night Before DOOM“), and rang id’s offices at all hours of the day and night like junkies begging for a fix.

Even fuddy-duddy old Computer Gaming World stopped by the id offices to write up a two-page preview. This time out, no reservations whatsoever about the violence were expressed, much less any of the full-fledged hand-wringing that had been seen earlier from editor Johnny Wilson. Far from giving in to the gaming establishment, the id boys were, slowly but surely, remaking it in their own image.

At last, id announced that the free first episode of DOOM would go up at the stroke of midnight on December 10, 1993, on, of all places, the file server belonging to the University of Wisconsin–Parkside. When the id boys tried to log on to do the upload, so many users were already online waiting for the file to appear that they couldn’t get in; they had to call the university’s system administrator and have him kick everyone else off. Then, once the file did appear, the server promptly crashed under the load of 10,000 people, all trying to get DOOM at once on a system that expected no more than 175 users at a time. The administrator rebooted it; it crashed again. They would have a hard go of things at the modest small-town university for quite some time to come.



Legend had it that when Don Woods first uploaded his and Will Crowthers’s game Adventure in 1977, all work in the field of data processing stopped for a week while everyone tried to solve it. Now, not quite seventeen years later, something similar happened in the case of DOOM, arguably the most important computer game to appear since Adventure. The id boys had joked in an early press release that they expected DOOM to become “the number-one cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world.” Even they were surprised by the extent to which that prediction came true.

Network administrators all over the world had to contend with this new phenomenon known as deathmatch. John Carmack had had no experience with network programming before DOOM, and in his naïveté had used a transmission method known as a broadcast packet that forced every computer on the network, whether it was running DOOM or not, to stop and analyze every packet which every DOOM-playing computer generated. As reports of the chaos that resulted poured in, Carmack scrambled to code an update which would use machine-to-machine packets instead.

In the meantime, DOOM brought entire information-technology infrastructures to their knees. Intel banned the game; high-school and university computers labs hardly knew what had hit them. A sign posted at Carnegie Mellon University before the day of release was even over was typical: “Since today’s release of DOOM, we have discovered [that the game is] bringing the campus network to a halt. Computing Services asks that all DOOM players please do not play DOOM in network mode. Use of DOOM in network mode causes serious degradation of performance for the players’ network, and during this time of finals network use is already at its peak. We may be forced to disconnect the PCs of those who are playing the game in network mode. Again, please do not play DOOM in network mode.” One clever system administrator at the University of Louisville created a program to search the hard drives of all machines on the network for the game, and delete it wherever it was found. All to no avail: DOOM was unstoppable.

But in these final months of the mostly-unconnected era of of personal computing — the World Wide Web would begin to hit big over the course of 1994 — a game still needed to reach those without modems or network cards in their computers in order to become a hit on the scale that id envisioned for DOOM. Jay Wilbur, displaying a wily marketing genius that went Scott Miller one better, decided that absolutely everyone should be allowed to distribute the first episode of DOOM on disk, charging whatever they could get for it: “We don’t care if you make money off this shareware demo. Move it! Move it in mass quantities.” For distribution, Wilbur realized, was the key to success. There are many ways to frame the story of DOOM, but certainly one of them is a story of guerrilla marketing at its finest.

The free episode of DOOM appeared in stores under many different imprints, but most, like this Australian edition, used the iconic cover id themselves provided. John Romero claims that he served as the artist’s model for the image.

The incentives for distribution were massive. If a little mom-and-pop operation in, say, far-off Australia could become the first to stick that episode onto disks, stick those disks in a box, and get the box onto store shelves, they could make a killing, free and clear. DOOM became omnipresent, inescapable all over the world. When you logged into CompuServe, there was DOOM; when you wandered into your local software store, there was DOOM again, possibly in several different forms of packaging; when you popped in the disk or CD that came with your favorite gaming magazine, there it was yet again. The traditional industry was utterly gobsmacked by this virulent weed of a game.

As with Wolfenstein 3D, a large majority of the people who acquired the first episode of DOOM in one way or another were perfectly satisfied with its eight big levels and unlimited deathmatch play; plenty of others doubtless never bothered to read the fine print, never even realized that more DOOM was on offer if they called 1-800-IDGAMES with their credit card in hand. And then, of course, there was the ever-present specter of piracy; nothing whatsoever stopped buyers of the paid episodes from sharing them with all of their DOOM-loving friends. By some estimates, the conversion rate from the free to the paid episodes was as low as 1 percent. Nevertheless, it was enough to make the id boys very, very rich young men.

Sometimes $100,000 worth of orders would roll in on a single day. John Carmack and John Romero each went out and bought a new Ferrari Testarossa; now it was the turn of Scott Miller and George Broussard to look on the id boys’ cars with envy. Glossy magazines, newspapers, and television news programs all begged to visit the id offices, where they wondered over the cars in the parking lot and the unkempt young men inside screaming the most horrid scatological and sexual insults at one another as they played deathmatch. If nothing else, the id boys were certainly a colorful story.

The id boys’ cars got almost as much magazine coverage as their games. Here we see John Carmack with his Ferrari, which he had modified to produce 800 horsepower: “I want dangerous acceleration.”

Indeed, the id story is as close as gaming ever came to fulfilling one of its most longstanding dreams: that of game developers as rock stars, as first articulated by Trip Hawkins in 1983 upon his founding of Electronic Arts. Yet if Hawkins’s initial stable of developers, so carefully posed in black and white in EA’s iconic early advertisements, resembled an artsy post-punk band — the interactive version of Talking Heads — the id boys were meat-and-potatoes heavy metal for the masses — Metallica at their Black Album peak. John Romero, the id boy who most looked the part of rock star, particularly reveled in the odd sort of obsequious hero worship that marks certain corners of gamer culture. He almost visibly swelled with pride every time a group of his minions started chanting “We’re not worthy!” and literally bowed down in his presence, and wore his “DOOM: Wrote It!” tee-shirt until the print peeled off.

The impact DOOM was having on the industry had become undeniable by the time of the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1994. Here everyone seemed to want in on id’s action. The phrase “first-person shooter” had yet to be invented, so the many soon-to-be-released games of the type were commonly referred to as “DOOM clones” — or, as Computer Gaming World preferred, “DOOM toos.” The same magazine, still seeming just a trifle ambivalent about it all, called it the “3D action fad.” But this was no fad; these games were here to stay. The boxed publishers who had scoffed at the shareware scene a year or two before were now all scrambling to follow id’s lead. LucasArts previewed a DOOM clone set in the Star Wars universe; SSI, previously known for their complicated strategic war games and licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, dipped a toe into these very different waters with something called CyClones.

And then, inevitably, there was id’s own DOOM II: Hell on Earth. As a piece of game design, it evinced no sign of the dreaded sophomore slump that afflicts so many rock groups — this even though it used the exact same engine as its predecessor, and even though John Romero, id’s rock-star-in-chief, was increasingly busy with extracurriculars and contributed only a handful of levels. His slack was largely taken up by one American McGee, the latest scruffy rebel to join the id boys, a 21-year-old former auto mechanic who had suffered through an even more hardscrabble upbringing than the two Johns. After beginning at id as a tester, he had gradually revealed an uncanny talent for making levels that combined the intricacy of Sandy Petersen’s with the gung-ho flair of John Romero’s. Now, he joined Petersen and, more intermittently, Romero to create a game that was if anything even more devious than its predecessor. The id boys had grown cockier than ever, but they could still back it up.

John Romero in 1994, doing something the other id boys wished he would do a bit more of: making a level for DOOM II.

They were approached by a New York City wheeler-and-dealer named Ron Chaimowitz who wanted to publish DOOM II exclusively to retail. His was not an established name in the gaming world; he had come of age in the music industry, where he had broken big acts like Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias during the previous decade, and he was now publishing Jane Fonda’s workout videos through a company called GoodTimes Entertainment. But he had distribution connections — and, as Jay Wilbur has so recently proved, distribution often means everything. GoodTimes sold millions of videotapes through Wal-Mart, the exploding epicenter of heartland retail, and Chaimowitz promised that the new software label he had in mind would be able to leverage those connections. He further promised to spend $2 million on advertising. He would prove as good as his word in both respects. The new GT Interactive manufactured an extraordinary 600,000 copies of DOOM II prior to its release, marking by far the largest initial production run in the history of computer gaming to date.

In marked contrast to the simple uploading of the first episode of the original DOOM, DOOM II was launched with all the pomp and circumstance that a $2 million promotional budget could provide. A party to commemorate the event took place on October 10, 1994, at a hip Gothic night club in New York City which had been re-decorated in a predictably gory manner. The party even came complete with protesters against the game’s violence, to add that delicious note of controversy that any group of rock stars worth their salt requires.

At the party, a fellow named Bob Huntley, owner of a small Houston software company, foisted a disk on John Romero containing “The Dial-Up Wide-Area Network Games Operation,” or “DWANGO.” Using it, you could dial into Huntley’s Houston server at any time to play a pick-up game of four-player DOOM deathmatch with strangers who might happen to be on the other side of the world. Romero expressed his love for the concept in his trademark profane logorrhea: “I like staying up late and I want to play people whenever the fuck I want to and I don’t want to have to wake up my buddy at three in the morning and go, ‘Hey, uh, you wanna get your skull cracked?’ This is the thing that you can dial into and just play!” He convinced the other id boys to give DWANGO their official endorsement, and the service went live within weeks. For just $8.96 per month, you could now deathmatch any time you wanted. And thus another indelible piece of modern gaming culture, as well as a milestone in the cultural history of the Internet, fell into place.

DOOM was becoming not just a way of gaming but a way of life, one that left little space in the hearts of its most committed adherents for anything else. Some say that gaming became better after DOOM, some that it became worse. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is that it changed; it’s by no means unreasonable to divide the entire history of computer gaming into pre-DOOM and post-DOOM eras. Next time, then, in the concluding article of this series, we’ll do our best to come to terms with that seismic shift.

(Sources: the books Masters of Doom by David Kushner, Game Engine Black Book: Wolfenstein 3D and Game Engine Black Book: DOOM by Fabien Sanglard, and Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke; Retro Gamer 75; Game Developer premiere issue and issues of June 1994 and February/March 1995; Computer Gaming World of July 1993, March 1994, July 1994, August 1994, September 1994. Online sources include “Apogee: Where Wolfenstein Got Its Start” by Chris Plante at Polygon, “Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Era of First-Person Shooters” by David L. Craddock at Shack News, Benj Edwards’s interview with Scott Miller for Gamasutra, Jeremy Peels’s interview with John Romero for PC Games N, and Jay Wilbur’s old Usenet posts, which can now be accessed via Google Groups. And a special thanks to Alex Sarosi, better known in our comment threads as Lt. Nitpicker, for pointing out to me how important Jay Wilbur’s anything-goes approach to distribution of the free episode of DOOM was to the game’s success.

The original Doom episodes and Doom II are available as digital purchases on GOG.com.)

 

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The Shareware Scene, Part 3: The id Boys

On December 14, 1990, Scott Miller of Apogee Software uploaded the free first installment of his company’s latest episodic game. He knew as he did so that this release would be, if you’ll pardon the pun, a game changer for Apogee. To signal that this was truly a next-generation Apogee game, he doubled his standard paid-episode asking price from $7.50 to $15.

Rather than relying on the character graphics or blocky visual abstractions of Apogee’s previous games, Commander Keen 1: Marooned on Mars was an animated feast of bouncy color. Rather than looking like a typical boxed game of five to ten years earlier, it looked quite literally like nothing that had ever been seen on an MS-DOS-based computer before. In terms of presentation at least, it was nothing less than computer gaming’s answer to Super Mario Bros., the iconic franchise that had done so much to help Nintendo sell more than 30 million of their videogame consoles in the United States alone.

Yet even Miller, who has been so often and justly lauded for his vision in recognizing that many computer owners were craving something markedly different from what the big game publishers were offering them, could hardly have conceived of the full historical importance of this particular moment. For it introduced to the world a small group of scruffy misfits with bad attitudes and some serious technical chops, who were living and working together at the time in a rundown riverfront house in Shreveport, Louisiana. Within a few months, they would begin to call themselves id Software, and under that name they would remake the face of mainstream gaming during the 1990s.



I must admit that I find it a little strange to be writing about humble Shreveport for the second time in the course of two articles. It’s certainly not the first place one would look for a band of technological revolutionaries. The perpetually struggling city of 200,000 people has long been a microcosm of the problems dogging the whole of Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the nation. It’s a raggedly anonymous place of run-down strip malls and falling-down houses, with all of the crime and poverty of New Orleans but none of that city’s rich cultural stew to serve as compensation.

Life in Shreveport has always been defined by the Red River which flows through town. As its name would imply, the city was founded to serve as a port in the time before the nation’s rivers were superseded by its railroads and highways. When that time ended, Shreveport had to find other uses for its river: thanks to a quirk of Louisiana law that makes casinos legal on waterways but not on dry land, residents of northeastern Texas and southern Arkansas have long known it primarily as the most convenient place to go for legal gambling. The shabbily-dressed interstate gamblers who climb out of the casino-funded buses every day are anything but the high rollers of Vegas lore. They’re just ordinary working-class folks who really, really should find something more healthy to do with their time and money than sitting behind a one-armed bandit in a riverboat casino, dropping token after token into the slot and staring with glazed eyes at the wheels as they spin around and around. This image rather symbolizes the social and economic condition of Shreveport in general.

By 1989, Al Vekovius of Shreveport’s Softdisk Publications was starting to fear that the same image might stand in for the state of his business. After expanding so dramatically for much of the decade, Softdisk was now struggling just to hold onto its current base of subscribers, much less to grow their numbers. The original Softdisk and Loadstar, their two earliest disk magazines, catered to aged 8-bit computers that were now at the end of their run, while Big Blue Disk and Diskworld, for MS-DOS computers and the Apple Macintosh respectively, were failing to take up all of their slack. Everything seemed to be turning against Softdisk. In the summer of 1989, IBM, whose longstanding corporate nickname of “Big Blue” had been the source of the name Big Blue Disk, threatened a lawsuit if Softdisk continued to market a disk magazine under that name. Knowing better than to defy a company a thousand times their size, Softdisk felt compelled to rename Big Blue Disk to the less catchy On Disk Monthly.

While the loss of hard-won brand recognition always hurts, Softdisk’s real problems were much bigger and more potentially intractable than that of one corporate behemoth with an overgrown legal department. The fact was, the relationship which people had with the newer computers Softdisk was now catering to tended to be different from the one they had enjoyed with their friendly little Apple II or Commodore 64. Being a computer user in the era of Microsoft’s ascendancy was no longer a hobby for most of them, much less a lifestyle. People had less of a craving for the ramshackle but easily hackable utilities and coding samples which Softdisk’s magazines had traditionally published. People were no longer interested in rolling up their sleeves to work with software in order to make it work for them; they demanded more polished programs that Just Worked right off the disk. But this was a hard field for Softdisk to compete on. Programmers with really good software had little motivation to license their stuff to a disk magazine for a relative pittance when they could instead be talking to a boxed-software publisher or testing the exploding shareware market.

With high-quality submissions from outside drying up just as he needed them most, Vekovius hired more and more internal staff to create the software for On Disk. Yet even here he ran up against many of the same barriers. The programmers whom he could find locally or convince to move to a place like Shreveport at the salaries which Softdisk could afford to pay were generally not the first ones he might have chosen in an ideal world. For all that some of them would prove themselves to be unexpectedly brilliant, as we’ll see shortly, virtually every one of them had some flaw or collection thereof that prevented him from finding gainful employment elsewhere. And the demand that they churn out multiple programs every month in order to fill up the latest issue was, to say the least, rather inimical to the production of quality software. Vekovius was spinning his wheels in his little programming sweatshop with all the energy of those Shreveport riverboat gamblers, but it wasn’t at all clear that it was getting him any further than it was getting them.

Thus he was receptive on the day in early 1990 when one of his most productive if headstrong programmers, a strapping young metalhead named John Romero, suggested that Softdisk start a new MS-DOS disk magazine, dedicated solely to games — the one place where, what with Apogee’s success being still in its early stages, shareware had not yet clearly cut into Softdisk’s business model. After some back-and-forth, the two agreed to a bi-monthly publication known as Gamer’s Edge, featuring at least one — preferably two — original games in each issue. To make it happen, Romero would be allowed to gather together a few others who were willing to work a staggering number of hours cranking out games at an insane pace with no resources beyond themselves for very little money at all. Who could possibly refuse an offer like that?


The id boys: John Carmack, Kevin Cloud, Adrian Carmack, John Romero, Tom Hall, and Jay Wilbur.

The team that eventually coalesced around Romero included programmer Tom Hall, artist Adrian Carmack, and business manager and token adult-in-the-room Jay Wilbur. But their secret weapon, lured by Wilbur to Shreveport from Kansas City, Missouri, was a phenomenal young programmer named John Carmack. (In a proof that anyone who says things like “I don’t believe in coincidences” is full of it, John is actually unrelated to Adrian Carmack despite having the same not-hugely-common last name.) John Carmack would prove himself to be such a brilliant programmer that Romero and Hall, no slouches themselves in that department by most people’s standards, would learn to leave the heavy lifting to his genius, coding themselves only the less important parts of the games along with the utilities that they used to build them — and they would also design the games, for Carmack was in reality vastly more interested in the mathematical abstraction of code as an end unto itself than the games it enabled.

But all of these young men, whom I’ll call the id boys from here on out just because the name suited them so well even before they started id Software, will be more or less important to our story. So, we should briefly meet each of them.

Jay Wilbur was by far the most approachable, least intimidating member of the group. Having already reached the wise old age of 30, he brought with him a more varied set of life experiences that left him willing and able to talk to more varied sorts of people. Indeed, Wilbur’s schmoozing skills were rather legendary. While attending university in his home state of Rhode Island, he’d run the bar at his local TGI Friday’s, where his ability to mix drinks with acrobatic “flair” made him one of those selected to teach Tom Cruise the tricks of the trade for the movie Cocktail. But his love for the Apple II he’d purchased with an insurance settlement following a motorcycle accident finally overcame his love for the nightlife, and he accepted a job for a Rhode Island-based disk magazine called UpTime. When that company was bought out by Softdisk in 1988, he wound up in Shreveport, working as an editor there. The people skills he’d picked up tending bar would never desert him; certainly his new charges at Gamer’s Edge had sore need of them, for they were an abrasive collection of characters even by hacker standards.

These others loved heavy metal and action movies, and aimed a well-sharpened lance of contempt at anything outside their narrow range of cultural and technical interests. Their laser focus on their small collection of obsessions would prove one of their greatest strengths, if perhaps problematic for gaming writ large in the long run, in the way that it diminished the scope of what games could do and be.

Yet even this band of four, the ones who actually made the games for Gamer’s Edge under Wilbur’s benevolent stewardship, was not a monolith. Once one begins to look at them as individuals, the shades of difference quickly emerge.

Like Wilbur, the 25-year-old Wisconsinite Tom Hall was a middle-class kid with a university degree, but he had none of his friend and colleague’s casual bonhomie with the masses. He lived in a fantasy world drawn from the Star Wars movies, the first of which he’d seen in theaters 33 times, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels, which he could all but recite from heart. At Softdisk, to which he’d come after deciding that he couldn’t stand the idea of a job in corporate data processing, he ran around talking in a cutsey made-up alien language: “Bleh! Bleh! Bleh!” He was the kind of guy you either found hilarious or were irritated out of your mind by.

The 21-year-old Adrian Carmack also lived in a world of fantasy, but his fantasies had a darker hue. Growing up right there in Shreveport, he had spent many hours at arcades, attracted not so much by the games themselves as by the lurid art on their cabinets. He worked for a time as an aide at a hospital, then went home to sketch gunshot wounds, severed limbs, and festering bedsores with meticulous accuracy. Instead of a cat or a dog, he chose a scorpion as a pet. He’d come to Softdisk on a university internship after telling his advisor he wanted to work in “fine art” someday.

Still, and with all due respect to these others, the id boys would come to be defined most of all by their two Johns. The 22-year-old John Romero was pure id, a kettle of addled energy that was perpetually spilling over, sending F-bombs spewing every which way; David Kushner, author of the seminal history Masters of Doom, memorably describes him as “a human exclamation point.” The not-quite-20-year-old John Carmack was as quiet and affectless as Romero was raucous, often disturbingly so; Sandy Petersen, a game designer who will come to work with him later in our story, remembers musing to himself after first meeting Carmack that “he doesn’t know anything about how humans think or feel.”

Yet for all their surface differences, the two Johns had much in common. Both were brought up in broken homes: Romero was physically abused by his stepfather while growing up in the Sacramento area, while Carmack suffered under the corporeal and psychological rigors of a strict private Catholic school in Kansas. Both rebelled by committing petty crimes among other things; Carmack was sentenced to a year in a boys’ detention center at age 14 after breaking into his school using a homemade bomb. (The case notes of the police officer who interviewed him echo the later impressions of Sandy Petersen: “Boy behaves like a walking brain… no empathy for other human beings.”)

Both found escape from their circumstances through digital means: first via videogames at the local arcades, then via the Apple II computers they acquired by hook or by crook. (Carmack’s first computer was a stolen one, bought off the proverbial back of a truck.) They soon taught themselves to program well enough to put professionals to shame.

Romero got his games published regularly by print magazines as type-in listings, then parlayed that into a job with the disk magazine UpTime, where he became friends with Jay Wilbur. After that, he got a job as a game porter for Origin Systems of Ultima fame. Meanwhile Wilbur moved on to Softdisk while Romero was at Origin. When Romero found himself bored by the life of a porter, he came to Shreveport as well to join his friend.

John Carmack, being more than two years younger than Romero and much more socially challenged, brought a shorter résumé with him to Shreveport when he became the only id boy to be hired specifically to work on Gamer’s Edge rather than being transferred there from another part of Softdisk. He had mostly sold his games for $1000 apiece to a little mom-and-pop company near his home called Nite Owl Productions, who had made them a sideline to their main business of supplying replacement batteries for Apple II motherboards. But he had also sold one or two games to Jay Wilbur at Softdisk. Finding these to be very impressive, the id boys asked Wilbur to deploy his considerable charm to recruit the new kid for Gamer’s Edge. After a concerted effort, he succeeded.

Gamer’s Edge was far more than just a new job or a workplace transfer for the young men involved. It was a calling; they spent virtually all day every day in one another’s company. Pooling all of their meager salaries, Wilbur rented them a rambling old four-bedroom house on the Red River, complete with a Jacuzzi and a swimming pool and a boat deck which he soon complemented with a battered motorboat. It was an Animal House lifestyle of barbecuing, skiing, and beer drinking in between marathon hacking sessions, fueled by pizza and soda. Wilbur — in many ways the unsung hero of this story — acted as their doting den mother, keeping the lights on, the basement beer keg filled, the refrigerator stocked with soda and junk food, and the pizza deliveries coming at all hours of the day and night.


Inside the riverfront house in Shreveport. John Carmack sits near center frame, while John Romero is to his left, mostly hidden behind a pillar.

For the first issue of Gamer’s Edge, the two Johns agreed to each port one of their old Apple II games to MS-DOS. Romero chose a platformer called Dangerous Dave, while Carmack chose a top-down action-adventure called Catacomb. They raced one another to see who could finish first; it was after losing rather definitively that Romero realized he couldn’t hope to compete with Carmack as a pure programmer, and should probably leave the most complicated, math-intensive aspects of coding to his friend while he concentrated on all the other things that make a good game. For the second issue, the two Johns pooled their talents with that of the others to make a completely original shoot-em-up called Slordax: The Unknown Enemy. So far, so good.

And then came John Carmack’s first great technical miracle — the first of many that would be continually upending everything the id boys were working on in the best possible way. To fully explain this first miracle, a bit of background is necessary.

Although they were making games for MS-DOS, the id boys had little use for the high-concept themes of most other games that were being made for that platform in 1990; neither complicated simulations nor elaborate interactive movies did anything for them. They preferred games that were simple and visceral, fast-paced and above all action-packed. Tellingly, most of the games they preferred to play these days lived on the Nintendo Entertainment System rather than a personal computer.

Much of the difference between the two platforms’ design aesthetics was cultural, but there was also more to it than that. As I’ve often taken pains to point out in these articles, the nature of games on any given platform is always strongly guided by that platform’s technical strengths and weaknesses.

When first looking at the NES and an MS-DOS personal computer of 1990 vintage, one might assume that the latter so thoroughly outclasses the former as to make further comparison pointless. The NES was built around a version of the MOS 6502, an 8-bit CPU dating back to the 1970s, running at a clock speed of less than 2 MHz; a state-of-the-art PC had a 32-bit CPU running at 25 MHz or more. The NES had just 2 K of writable general-purpose memory; the PC might have 4 MB or more, plus a big hard drive. The NES could display up to 25 colors from a palette of 48, at a resolution of 256 X 240; a PC with a VGA graphics card could display up to 256 colors from a palette of over 262,000, at a resolution of 320 X 200. Surely the PC could effortlessly do anything the NES could do. Right?

Well, no, actually. The VGA graphics standard for PCs had been created by IBM in 1987 with an eye to presenting crisp general-purpose displays rather than games. In the hands of a talented team of pixel artists, it could present mouth-watering static illustrations, as adventure-game studios like Sierra, LucasArts, and Legend were proving. But it included absolutely no aids for fast animation, no form of graphical acceleration whatsoever. It just gave the programmer a big chunk of memory to work with, whose bytes represented the pixels on the screen. When she wanted to change said pixels, she had to sling all those bytes around by main force, using nothing but the brute power of the CPU. All animation on a PC was essentially page-flipping animation, requiring the CPU to redraw every pixel of every frame in memory, at the 20 or 30 frames per second that were necessary to create an impression of relatively fluid motion, and all while also finding cycles for all of the other aspects of the game.

The graphics system of the NES, on the other hand, had been designed for the sole purpose of presenting videogames — and in electrical engineering, specialization almost always breeds efficiency. Rather than storing the contents of the screen in memory as a linear array of pixels, it operated on the level of tiles, each of which was 8 X 8 or 8 X 16 pixels in size. After defining the look of each of a set of tiles, the programmer could mix and match them on the screen as she wished, at a fairly blazing speed thanks to the console’s custom display circuitry; this enabled the smooth scrolling of the Super Mario Bros. games among many others. She also had up to 64 sprites to work with; these were little 8 X 8 or 8 X 16 images that were overlaid on the tiled background by the display hardware, and could be moved about almost instantaneously, just by changing a couple of numbers in a couple of registers. They were, in other words, perfect for showing Super Mario bouncing around on a scrolling background, at almost no cost in CPU cycles. Freed from the heavy lifting of managing the display, the little 6502 could concentrate almost entirely on the game logic.

The conventional wisdom of 1990 held that the PC, despite all its advantages in raw horsepower, simply couldn’t do a game like Super Mario Bros. The problem rankled John Carmack and his friends particularly, given how much more in tune their design aesthetic was with the NES than with the current crop of computer games. And so Carmack turned the full force of his giant brain on the problem, and soon devised a solution.

As so often happens in programming, said solution turned out to be deceptively simple. It hinged on the fact that one could define a virtual screen in memory that was wider and/or taller than the physical screen. In this case, Carmack made his virtual screen just eight pixels wider than the physical screen. This meant that he could scroll the background with silky smoothness through eight “frames” by changing just two registers on the computer — the ones telling the display hardware where the top left corner of the screen started in the computer’s memory. And this in turn meant that he only had to draw the display anew from scratch every eighth frame, which was a manageable task. Once he had the scrolling background working, he added some highly optimized code to draw and erase in software alone bouncing sprites to represent his pseudo-Mario and enemies. And that was that. His technique didn’t even demand VGA graphics; it could present a dead ringer for the NES Super Mario Bros. 3 — the latest installment in the franchise — using the older MS-DOS graphics standard of EGA.

I should note at this point that the scrolling technique which John Carmack “invented” was by no means entirely new in the abstract; programmers on computers like the Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga had in fact been using it for years. (I point readers to my article on the techniques used by the Commodore 64 sports games of Epyx and particularly to my book-length study of the Amiga for more detailed explanations of it than the one I’ve provided here.) A big part of the reason that no one had ever done it before on an MS-DOS computer was that no one had ever been hugely motivated to try, in light of the types of games that were generally accepted as “appropriate” for that platform; technological determinism is a potent force in game development, but it’s never the only force. And I should also note a certain irony that clings to all this. As we’ll see, John Carmack would soon toll the death knell for the era of bouncing sprites superimposed over scrolling 2D backgrounds. How odd that his first great eureka moment should have come in imitation of just that classic videogame style.

Carmack first showed his innovation to Tom Hall, the biggest Super Mario fan of all among the id boys, late in the afternoon of September 20, 1990. Hall recognized its significance immediately, and suggested that he and Carmack recreate some of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 right then and there as a proof of concept. They finally stumbled off to bed at 5:30 the following morning.

A few hours later, John Romero woke up to find a floppy disk sitting on his keyboard. He popped it into the drive, and his jaw hit the floor when he saw a Nintendo game playing there on his computer monitor. He went off to find Jay Wilbur and Adrian Carmack. They all agreed that this was big — way too big for the likes of Softdisk.

In one 72-hour marathon, the id boys recreated all of the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3, along with bits and pieces of those that followed. Then Wilbur typed up a letter to Nintendo of America and dropped it in the mail along with the disk; it said that the id boys were ready and willing to license their PC port of Super Mario Bros. 3 back to the Nintendo mother ship. This was a profoundly naïve thing to do; virtually anyone in the industry could have told them that Nintendo never let any of their intellectual property escape from the walled garden of their own console. And sure enough, the id boys would eventually receive a politely worded response saying no thank you. Given Nintendo’s infamous ruthlessness when it came to matters of intellectual property, they were probably lucky that a rejection letter was all they received, rather than a lawsuit.

At any rate, the id boys weren’t noted for their patience. Long before Nintendo’s response arrived, they would be on to the next thing: an original game using John Carmack’s scrolling technique.



For some time now, John Romero had been receiving fawning fan mail care of Softdisk, not a usual phenomenon at all. His gratification was lessened somewhat, however, by the fact that the letters all came from the same address near Dallas, Texas, all asked him to call the fan in question at the same phone number, and were all signed with suspiciously similar names: “Byron Muller,” “Scott Mulliere,” etc.

It was in fact our old friend Scott Miller. His attention had been captured by Romero’s games for On Disk and Gamer’s Edge; they would be perfect for Apogee, he thought. But how to get in touch? The only contact information he had was that of Softdisk’s main office. He could hardly write them a letter asking if he could poach one of their programmers. His solution was this barrage of seemingly innocent fan mail. Maybe, just maybe, Romero really would call him…

Romero didn’t call, but he did write back, and included his own phone number. Miller rang it up immediately. “Fuck those letters!” he said when Romero started to ask what kind of prank he thought he was pulling. “We can make a ton of money together selling your games as shareware.”

“Dude, those old games are garbage compared to the stuff we can make now,” said Romero, with John Carmack’s new scrolling technique firmly in mind. They struck a deal: Miller would send the id boys an advance of $2000, and they would send him a brand-new three-part game as soon as possible.

The Gamer’s Edge magazine, which just six months ago had seemed like the perfect job, now fell to the back burner in light of the riches Miller was promising them. Since they were making a Nintendo-like game in terms of action, it seemed logical to copy Nintendo’s bright and cheerful approach in the new game’s graphics and fiction as well. This was Tom Hall’s moment to shine; he already seemed to live every day in just such a primary-colored cartoon fantasy. Now, he created an outline for Commander Keen, blending Nintendo with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and old science-fiction serials — the last being perfect for an episodic game.

Billy Blaze, eight-year-old genius, working diligently in his backyard clubhouse, has created an interstellar spaceship from old soup cans, rubber cement, and plastic tubing. While his folks are out on the town and the babysitter is asleep, Billy sneaks out to his backyard workshop, dons his brother’s football helmet, and transforms into… Commander Keen, Defender of Justice! In his ship, the Bean with Bacon Megarocket, Keen dispenses justice with an iron hand!

In this episode, aliens from the planet Vorticon VI find out about the eight-year-old genius and plan his destruction. While Keen is out exploring the mountains of Mars, the Vorticons steal his ship and leave pieces around the galaxy! Can Keen recover all the pieces of his ship and repel the Vorticon invasion? Will he make it back before his parents get home? Stay tuned!

Commander Keen

When Miller received the first Commander Keen trilogy in the post barely two months later, he was thrilled beyond his wildest dreams. He had known that the id boys were talented, but this… he had never imagined this. This wasn’t a throwback to the boxed games of yore, wasn’t even on a par with the boxed games of current times. It was something entirely different, something never seen on an MS-DOS computer at all before, as visually striking and technically innovative within its chosen sphere as any of the latest boxed games were within theirs. Just like that, shareware games had come of age.

All of Apogee’s games together had been earning about $7000 per month. Commander Keen alone made $20,000 in the first month of its availability. It caused such a stir online that the established industry took a casual notice for the first time of this new entity called Apogee with this odd new way of selling games. Computer Gaming World magazine even deigned to give Commander Keen a blurb in the new-releases section. It was “of true commercial quality,” they noted, only slightly condescendingly.

Despite their success in shareware and the big checks that started coming in the mail from Apogee as a result, the id boys continued to make games for Gamer’s Edge throughout 1991. Betwixt and between, they provided Miller with a second Commander Keen trilogy, which did every bit as well as the first. No one could ever accuse them of being lazy.



But making a metaphorical name for themselves outside of Softdisk meant that they needed a literal name for the world to know them by. When they had sent their Super Mario Bros. 3 clone to Nintendo, they had called themselves “Ideas from the Deep.” Deciding that was too long-winded, they became “ID” when they started releasing games with Apogee — short for “In Demand.” The only one of their number who cottoned onto the Freudian implications of the acronym was Jay Wilbur; none of the other id boys knew Sigmund Freud from Siegmund the Norse hero. But when Wilbur explained to them how Freud’s id was the seat of a person’s most basic, impulsive desires, they were delighted. By this happenstance, then, id Software got a name which a thousand branding experts could never have bettered. It encapsulated perfectly their mission to deconstruct computer gaming, to break it down into a raw essence of action and reaction. The only ingredient still missing from the eventual id Software formula was copious violence.

And that too was already in the offing: Tom Hall’s cheerful cartoon aesthetic had started to wear thin with John Romero and Adrian Carmack long before they sent the first Commander Keen games to Scott Miller. Playing around one day with some graphics for the latest Gamer’s Edge production, Adrian drew a zombie clawing out the eyes of the player’s avatar, sending blood and gore flying everywhere. Romero loved it: “Blood! In a game! How fucking awesome is that?”

Adrian’s reply was weirdly pensive. “Maybe one day,” he said in a dreamy voice, “we’ll be able to put in as much blood as we want.”

In September of 1991, the id boys’ lease on their riverside frat house expired, and they decided that it was time to leave the depressing environs of Shreveport, with its crime, its poverty, and its homeless population who clustered disturbingly around the Softdisk offices. Their contract stipulated that they still owed Gamer’s Edge a few more games, but Al Vekovius had long since given up on trying to control them. The id boys decamped for Madison, Wisconsin, at the suggestion of Tom Hall, who had attended university there. He promised them with all of his usual enthusiasm that it was the best place ever. Instead they found the Wisconsin winter to be miserable. Cooped up inside their individual apartments, missing keenly their big old communal house and their motorboat, they threw themselves more completely than ever into making games. Everyone, with the exception only of Tom Hall, was now heartily sick and tired of Commander Keen. It was time for something new.

Whilst working at Origin Systems in the late 1980s, John Romero had met Paul Neurath, who had since gone on to start his own studio known as Blue Sky Productions. During their occasional phone calls, Neurath kept dropping hints to his friend about the game his people were working on: an immersive first-person CRPG, rendered using texture-mapped 3D graphics. When Romero mentioned it to John Carmack, his reply was short, as so many of them tended to be: “Yeah, I can do that.”

Real-time 3D graphics in general were hardly a new development. Academic research in the field stretched back to well before the era of the microchip. Bruce Artwick had employed them in the original Radio Shack TRS-80 Flight Simulator in 1980, and Ian Bell and David Braben had used them in Elite in 1984; both games were among the best sellers of their decade. Indeed, the genre of vehicular simulations, one of the most popular of them all by the late 1980s, relied on 3D graphics almost exclusively. All of which is to say that you didn’t have to look very hard in your local software store to find a 3D game of some stripe.

And yet, according at least to the conventional wisdom, the limitations of 3D graphics made them unsuitable for the sort of visceral, ultra-fast-paced experience which the id boys preferred. All of the extra affordances built into gaming-oriented platforms like the NES to enable 2D sprite-based graphics were useless for 3D graphics. 3D required radical compromises in speed or appearance, or both: those early versions of Flight Simulator were so slow that it could take the program a full second or two to respond to your inputs, which made flying their virtual airplanes perversely more difficult than flying the real thing; Elite managed to be more responsive, but only by drawing its 3D world using wire-frame outlines instead of filled surfaces. The games-industry consensus was that 3D graphics had a lot of potential for many types of games beyond those they were currently being used for, but that computer hardware was probably five to ten years away from being able to realize most of it.

John Carmack wasn’t that patient. If he couldn’t make true 3D graphics run at an acceptable speed in the here and now, he believed that he could fake it in a fairly convincing way. He devised a technique of presenting a fundamentally 2D world from a first-person perspective. Said world was a weirdly circumscribed place to inhabit: all angles had to be right angles; all walls had to stretch uniformly from floor to ceiling; all floors and ceilings had to be colored in the same uniform gray. Only interior scenes were possible, and no stairways, no jumping, no height differences of any kind were allowed; in this egalitarian world, everything and everyone had to stay permanently on the same level. You weren’t even allowed to look up or down. But, limited though it was, it was like nothing anyone had ever seen.

“You know,” said John Romero one day when they were all sitting around discussing what to do with the new technology, “it’d be really fucking cool if we made a remake of Castle Wolfenstein and did it in 3D.” With those words, id’s next game was born, one that would make all the success of Commander Keen look like nothing.


The original Castle Wolfenstein.

Written by Silas Warner, one of the Apple II scene’s early superstar programmers, and published by the long-defunct Muse Software, Castle Wolfenstein was an established classic from 1981, a top-down action-adventure that cast you as a prisoner of the Nazis who must escape, preferably taking his captors’ secret war plans with him. It remains historically notable today for incorporating a significant stealth component; ammunition was scarce and your enemies tough, which often made avoidance a better strategy than confrontation.

But avoidance wasn’t the id boys’ style. Very early on, they jettisoned everything beyond the core theme of the original Castle Wolfenstein. Wolfenstein 3D was to be, as Romero put it, “a totally shocking game. There should be blood, lots of blood, blood like you never see in games. When the player gets really low in health, at like 10 percent, he could run over the bloody guts of a dead Nazi soldier and suck those up for extra energy. It’s like human giblets. You can eat up their gibs!” In other words, Tom Hall’s aesthetic vision was out; John Romero and Adrian Carmack’s was in. “Hey, you know what we should have in here? Pissing! We should make it so you can fucking stop and piss on the Nazi after you mow him down! That would be fucking awesome!”

In early 1992, the id boys came face to face with the gaming establishment for the first time thanks to Wolfenstein 3D. They sent an early demo of the game to Sierra, and that company’s founder and CEO Ken Williams invited them to fly out to California and have a chat. Sierra was one of the three biggest computer-game publishers in the world, and was at the forefront of the interactive-movie trend which the id boys loathed. King’s Quest VI, the upcoming new installment in Sierra’s flagship series, would be so weighted down with multimedia that most reviewers, hopelessly dazzled, could spare only a few sentences for the rather rote little adventure game underneath it all. Williams himself was widely recognized as one of the foremost visionaries of the new era, proclaiming that by the end of the decade much or most of the Hollywood machine would have embraced interactivity. A meeting between two more disparate visions of gaming than his and that of the id boys can scarcely be imagined.

And yet the meeting was a cordial one on the whole. Williams had been quick to recognize when he saw Wolfenstein 3D that id had some remarkable technology, while the id boys remembered the older Apple II games of Sierra fondly. Williams took them on a tour of the offices where many of those games had come from, and then, after lunch, offered to buy id Software for $2.5 million in Sierra stock. The boys discussed it for a bit, then asked for an additional $100,000 in cash. Williams refused; he was willing to move stock around to pay for the Wolfenstein 3D technology, but he wasn’t willing to put his cash on the table. So, the negotiation ended. Instead Williams bought Bright Star Technologies, a specialist in educational software, for $1 million in cash later that year — for educational software, he believed, would soon be bigger than games. Time would prove him to be as wrong about that as he was about the future of Hollywood.

Not long after the Sierra meeting, the id boys left frigid Wisconsin in favor of Dallas, Texas, home of Scott Miller, who had been telling them about the warm weather, huge lakes, splendid barbecue, and nonexistent state income tax of the place for more than eighteen months now. One Kevin Cloud, who had held the oft-thankless role of being the id boys’ liaison with Softdisk but also happened to be a talented artist, joined them in Dallas as a sixth member of their little collective, thereby to relieve some of the burden on Adrian Carmack.

After making the move, they broke the news to Softdisk that they wouldn’t be doing Gamer’s Edge anymore. Al Vekovius was disappointed but not devastated. Oddly given how popular Commander Keen had become, the gaming disk magazine had never really taken off; it still only had about 3000 subscribers.

And so Softdisk Publications of Shreveport, Louisiana, that unlikely tech success story in that most unlikely of locales, finally exits our story permanently at this point. Nothing if not a survivor, Vekovius would keep the company alive through the 1990s and beyond by transitioning into the next big thing in computing: he turned it into an Internet service provider. He was bought out circa 2005 by a larger regional provider.


Wolfenstein 3D

This screenshot of the Wolfenstein 3D map editor illustrates why the game’s name is a misnomer: the environment is really a 2D maze much like that of the original game, albeit shown from a first-person perspective. At bottom, the engine understands just two dimensions rather than three.

If the id boys were worried about how Scott Miller would react to the ultra-violence of Wolfenstein 3D, they needn’t have been. Apogee had already been moving in this direction with considerable success; their only game to rival Commander Keen in sales during 1991 had been Duke Nukem by Todd Replogle, whose titular protagonist was a cigar-chomping Arnold Schwarzenegger facsimile with a machine gun almost as big around as his biceps. When Miller saw Wolfenstein 3D for the first time, he loved the violence as much as he did John Carmack’s pseudo-3D graphics engine. He knew what his customers craved, and he knew that they would swoon over this. He convinced the id boys to make enough levels to release a free episode followed by five paid ones rather than the usual two. On May 5, 1992 — the very same day on which the boys had handed the final version to Miller — the free installment appeared on Software Creations, Apogee’s new online service.

As it happened, Paul Neurath’s Blue Sky Productions had released their own immersive first-person 3D game, which had spent roughly five times as long in production as Wolfenstein 3D, just two months before. It was called Ultima Underworld, and was published as a boxed product by Origin Systems. It boasted a far more complete implementation of a 3D world than did id’s creation. You could look up, down, and all around; could jump and climb ledges; could sneak around corners and hide in shadows; could swim in rivers or fly through the air by means of a levitation spell. But Ultima Underworld was cerebral, old school — dull, as the id boys and many of their fan base saw it. Combat was only a part of its challenge. You also had to spend your time piecing together clues, collecting spells, solving puzzles, annotating maps, leveling up and assigning statistics and skills to your character. Even the combat happened at a speed most kindly described as “stately” if you didn’t have a cutting-edge computer.

Wolfenstein 3D, by contrast, ran like greased lightning on just about any computer, thanks to John Carmack’s willingness to excise any element from his graphics engine that he couldn’t render quickly. After all, the id boys really only wanted to watch the blood spurt as they mowed down Nazis; “just run over everything and destroy” was their stated design philosophy. And many others, it seemed, agreed with their point of view.

For, while Ultima Underworld became a substantial hit, Wolfenstein 3D became a phenomenon. It made $200,000 in the first month, then kept selling at that pace for the next eighteen months. It was, as Scott Miller would later put it, a “paradigm shift” in shareware games. Whatever that elusive “it” was that so many gamers found to be missing in the big boxed offerings — immediacy? simplicity? violence? id in the Freudian sense? all of the above? — Wolfenstein 3D had it in spades.

The shareware barbarians were truly at the gates now; they could no longer be ignored by the complacent organs of the establishment. This time out, id got a feature review in Computer Gaming World to go along with the full-page color advertisements which Apogee was now able to pay for. “I can’t remember a game making such effective use of perspective and sound and thereby evoking such intense physiological responses from its player,” the review concluded. “I recommend gamers take a look at this one, if only for a cheap peek at part of interactive entertainment’s potential for a sensory-immersed ‘virtual’ future.”

Yet, as that “if only” qualifier intimates, the same magazine was clearly bothered by all of the gleefully gory violence of the game. An editorial by editor-in-chief Johnny Wilson, the former pastor who had built Computer Gaming World into the most thoughtful and mature journal in the industry, drove the point home: “What are we saying when we depict lifelike carnage in a game where the design is geared for you to kill nearly everyone you encounter?”

If Wilson thought id’s first 3D shooter was disturbing, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Their next game would up the ante on the violence and gore even as their first competitors jumped into the act, starting a contest to see who could be most extreme. Everyone working in games or playing them would soon have to reckon with the changes — distributional, technical, and cultural — which a burgeoning new genre, born on the streets instead of in the halls of power, was wreaking.

Crashing the halls of power: Tom Hall, Jay Wilbur, and John Romero in black tie for the Shareware Industry Awards of 1992.

(Sources: the books Masters of Doom by David Kushner, Game Engine Black Book: Wolfenstein 3D by Fabien Sanglard, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, Sophistication & Simplicity: The Life and Times of the Apple II Computer by Steven Weyhrich, and I Am Error by Nathan Altice; PC Magazine of September 12 1989; InfoWorld of June 12 1989; Retro Gamer 75; Game Developer premiere issue and issues of June 1994 and February/March 1995; Computer Gaming World of August 1991, January 1992, August 1992, and September 1992; The Computist 88; inCider of November 1989. Online sources include “Apogee: Where Wolfenstein Got Its Start” by Chris Plante at Polygon, “Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Era of First-Person Shooters” by David L. Craddock at Shack News, Samuel Stoddard’s Apogee FAQ, Benj Edwards’s interview with Scott Miller for Gamasutra, Jeremy Peels’s interview with John Romero for PC Games N, Lode Vandevenne’s explanation of the Wolfenstein 3D rendering engine, and Jay Wilbur’s old Usenet posts, which can now be accessed via Google Groups.

The company once known as Apogee, which is now known as 3D Realms, has released many of their old shareware games for free on their website, including Commander Keen. All of the Wolfenstein 3D installments are available as digital purchases at GOG.com.)

 

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