In 1992, Wolfenstein 3D ushered gamers into the ultra-fast, ultra-bloody third world of first-person gaming. One year later, Doom opened a portal to hell that flooded university and office networks with rocket launchers and cyberdemons.
Then came Quake, sporting slick 3D graphics and Internet-compatible gameplay that popularized competitive gaming and shook the games industry to its core. For some of the developers at id Software, Quake marked the end of an era. Others were just getting warmed up.
Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters explores the making of id Software's seminal Quake trilogy, goes behind closed doors to reveal the studio culture that simultaneously shaped and fractured id Software, and shows how Quake influenced up-and-coming game designers to leave their own marks on popular culture.
●Follow id Software designers John Carmack, John Romero, American McGee, Jennell Jaquays, Tim Willits, and more as Quake grows from a medieval fantasy to the granddaddy of competitive shooters
●Discover how id Software and Quake influenced a wave of FPS games including Duke Nukem 3D, Star Wars: Dark Forces, and Team Fortress
Sit in on the private meetings that decided the fate of legendary game designers
Growing up, Quake was more than a game to me. It was the first virtual arena where I fragged friends over phone lines, the first esports scene I followed, the first time I rocket-jumped to new heights. I sought to recapture that awe and magic in Rocket Jump by interviewing as many developers from id Software—and other influential FPS-game studios—as I could. I hope you enjoy it. – David L. Craddock
"The article grew into a whole book! I’m glad David persisted in prodding me to get thoughtful answers to his questions."– John Carmack, co-founder of id Software
"David does an exceptional job. This epic effort was the result of a ton of research and it shows."– John Romero, co-founder of id Software
"Check out this amazing history on Quake and the golden age of FPS!"– Quake Champions (@Quake) official Twitter account
IN JANUARY 1996, id Software's co-founders signed a lease to extend their rental space. Formerly the occupants of Suite 666, the team spread out across the entire sixth floor of Town East Tower. Almost the entire floor. One tenant, a dentist, was friendly with the developers, so they let him be.
Two months after declaring that Quake would be a first-person shooter, John Carmack made another announcement. All developers were to pack up their essential gear and move into a large central room. "The area was just a big room together with no offices," said John Romero. "We called it the war room, and we all moved into that room."
Petersen made educated guesses as to why Carmack wanted everyone sharing the same space. Maybe he thought being in close proximity would make them work harder. Maybe he was just lonely. Either way, Petersen didn't care for it. "All of us were in the big [room] together," he said. "To me, that made it harder to do things effectively. We couldn't all play our music like we wanted to; we couldn't listen to our levels as loudly unless we had headphones, and we didn't all have headphones. It was just more awkward to playtest and do things."
"It made a lot of people uncomfortable, but we were able to work side by side," Adrian Carmack said of the war room. "It was probably a good thing. We got the project finished faster than we would have had we all had separate offices. People start get delirious; you start laughing and making jokes. It wasn't all bad."
There was another reason for everyone to pile into the same room. Since the meeting in November '95, the team had commenced crunching—industry jargon for working overtime, and a first for the studio. "We did that for seven months. It was the worst time in the company's history," Romero said.
Romero had a unique perspective on the studio's history with crunch. He and the other id-founders had been crunching from day one, but they had never thought of their schedules as crunching. Everyone had been excited by Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. They had pulled all-nighters and all-dayers because there was nowhere else they'd rather be than at the office working on their projects. Quake was different. The team had spent nearly a year experimenting and discarding work as John Carmack's and John Romero's design directions had ebbed and flowed, leaving many of them feeling as if they had been running in circles. Part of their motivation for creating another shooter was because at least they would feel as if they were moving forward.
"As usual, when we made a game, [we knew] it was going to be cool when it came out," Romero said. "But I knew we had more potential than what we were doing. The fact that we were crunching to get it out made it less [enjoyable]. It was not fun because people were in a bad mood that we were doing this full-time, seven-days-a-week schedule."
Romero secretly planned to leave id following Quake's release. Until then, there was work to be done. He performed triage on the grander design he'd had planned by assessing the levels made by Petersen, American McGee, and Tim Willits—hired full-time in December 1995—as well as his own. "Eventually, we decided to theme [the game] by having each of the four episodes be done by one designer," Petersen said. "That's how it was kind of done. There are my levels, American's, Tim's, and John Romero's. Each [comprised] one section that we did. That was the only theme we had."
"Before that point, there weren't any episodes," explained Romero. "If you saw the original names of levels, you'd see we weren't naming them E1M1 [Episode 1, Map 1] or anything like that. It was just JRwhiz3, or DMbase3, or Sandycity1. Stuff like that. We just said, 'Let's create a bunch of cool stuff and we'll figure out how to fit it together.'"1
There was still a problem. Even though each set of levels would be structured as a separate episode, Romero wanted to link them together. Doom's episodes could be played in any order, and were vaguely connected by a screen of text after players killed off an episode's final boss that teased what awaited them in the next chapter. That same narrative device would work for Quake, but Romero wanted to go an extra step in attempting to form a cohesive narrative that would not interrupt the shoot-first-think-later style of games for which id had become renowned.
His solution was to make the first level in each episode of Quake a military base. "I told Adrian [Carmack], 'I think I want to tie together all the levels from a base-looking [environment],'" he remembered. "The player could launch out of those levels and go into new dimensions. I had Adrian create new textures—he didn't have to make too many—then I started making the first levels for each episode: E1M1 [Episode 1 Map 1], E2M1, and so on."
FOR ALL OF Romero's disappointment in the decision to bake Quake in Doom's template, he never doubted the game would be fun. Not only that, following the formula he and his friends had created and perfected came with perks.
"With Doom, it was scary because we were making this huge leap forward [from Wolfenstein 3D], but we didn't know what it was going to look like," Romero explained. "With Quake, we knew what it could look like: A much better version of Doom."
Petersen, McGee, and Willits shared his optimism. All had backgrounds in building levels for Doom and Doom 2. In theory, all they had to do was learn the nuances of QuakeEd and id Tech 2, then apply their design styles to maps. "It was great that we all had different styles because the combination of all the different things was pretty charming," Petersen recalled.
Romero built the starting base for the first three episodes. Episode One's base was simple, a classic horseshoe design that was easy to navigate and featured a smattering of weaker enemies such as Grunts, human soldiers with probes in their brains to turn them hostile, and Rottweilers that sink their teeth into players.
Following in Doom's footsteps, Quake's first episode would be released as shareware, like a free sampler platter that tempted players to purchase the full meal. The designers even shadowed Doom's design process, creating first drafts of every level before circling back and polishing until the shareware episode positively sparkled. "Then it was, okay, let's make sure the scale is correct and everybody's consistent with scale; let's make sure jump-height is set so it's consistent," said Romero. "Then we would get formal about how to go forward: How many levels? Who's responsible for what? Where do these levels go? What are the names of these episodes?"
Ultimately, Quake's shareware chapter showcased the talents of Romero, creator of the base level; McGee, who cooked up the seventh and eight levels, a boss battle and a secret area, respectively; and Willits, the designer who contributed the majority of the episode's maps. Beyond the starting base, Episode One's levels span castles ringed by moats, wooden bridges flanked by flickering torches, and shadowy cisterns flooded with dirty water and inhabited by the undead.
"I've always liked medieval castles and fortresses, brick textures," Willits recalled. "It was probably a lot of the Dungeons & Dragons I'd had exposure to before that. We had enough technology in Quake that it was really kind of neat to be able to make arches, churches, and this gothic [architecture]."
What appealed most to Willits about gothic-style sets was how they contrasted from Doom's milieus. Aside from the occasional hellscape and old cathedral, many of Doom's levels had been set in futuristic military bases. In Willits' hands, Quake's graphics and textures could be combined to create a unique sense of place. "Those textures were so rich, and they had some color and depth and texture to them," he continued.
Castle of the Damned, or E1M2, ranks among Quake's most popular deathmatch levels, and was the first stage to introduce tougher monsters beyond Grunts and Rottweilers. A small castle, the stage features stonework, walkways suspended over water, and long corridors where slits in walls spit nails. One section challenges players to sprint down a metal walkway while dodging nail traps and battling monsters. A misstep can send them plummeting into the drink, where they'll have to swim around until they find their way back onto solid ground. "Back then, level design was part of the character of the game," Willits recalled. "Level design was like an AI, an enemy. We put the traps in, we had lava pits and crazy stuff going on. We created these levels as if they were an opponent, as a creative part of the experience."
One of Episode One's most memorable levels is E1M3: The Necropolis, a series of catacombs. Players come across a new weapon, the grenade launcher, right at the start, and make use of it to blow up zombies around the first corner. "When people slam Quake's single-player [campaign], I'm like, 'What? Have you even played that? It was excellent.' It was so scary," said Romero. "For 1996, it was as scary as it got, I think. It was, turn off the lights, turn up the sound, and play this game. It was super scary, way scarier than Doom."
For all the ways Quake sticks to Doom's blueprint, its zombies are a cut above those of id's previous game. In Doom, all enemies could be killed by unloading on them with any weapon. Zombies in Quake can only be killed by blowing them to bits. "The zombie was made to eat grenades and rockets because that was the only way to kill them," said Romero. "You could knock them down with other [weapons], but you can't kill them unless you waste grenades and rockets on them."
Hitting zombies with grenades or rockets causes them to erupt in a shower of blood and body parts, a violent death the id crew dubbed "gibbing" (pronounced with a "j" sound, Romero insisted). Requiring specific weapons to kill zombies keeps players on their toes. Going up against the undead can be unnerving, such as in E1M3 after dropping into a flooded room where packs of them rise out of muddy water and surround players, ripping flesh from their bodies and flinging it at their targets.
Their terrifying aura was mitigated for players who watched their attack closely. "The only humor we put in [Quake] was when the zombies reach into their ass to throw meat at you," Romero said, chuckling. "The other thing I wanted was for the Ogres to piss on you when you were dead. If you didn't respawn immediately, they would laugh and walk over and piss on you."
The Ogre's victory celebration was left on the cutting-room floor due to lack of time. When painting and rendering 3D models, animating basic actions such as walking and attacking took exponentially more time than creating characters from pixels had for games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. However, with the base models and animations already finished, it may have taken the artists a matter of hours to rig up victory taunts. That, Romero argued, was exactly why id should have made them. "We're talking a few hours to make that happen versus weeks of work to make the other stuff. People will always talk about the parts that took a few hours, and it's because a foundation was already there. But we didn't have time to put those things in because we were just trying to get the game done."
On higher difficulty levels, E1M3 holds a foe greater than swarms of zombies. The Shambler, a towering beast with long claws and a mouthful of fangs set against a blank face, is among Quake's toughest non-boss monsters. Shamblers roar upon spotting their prey, growling as they charge. Up close, it tears through the player's health with its claws. From afar, it fires bolts of lightning. "We wanted to do a lightning-bolt attack versus [fire]," said Romero. "We wanted him to be this big, huge, white thing that had blood all over his face from eating dead bodies. It was something that was referenced in Lovecraft somewhere as one of these crazy minions of the Old Ones."
"The Shambler came from my [book] Petersen's Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters," added Petersen, who wrote volumes of lore and game rules for the Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG during his time as a designer at Chaosium.
"We definitely wanted to do a little mining there," Romero continued, "but make monsters physical versus Lovecraft's more astral plane-style enemies that you couldn't see."
Blood coats the Shambler's furry white chest, standing out against the dirty, dingy locales of Quake. The game's color palette seemed limited when compared to its sophisticated engine and feature set, and especially against the more colorful settings of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. "It's funny because from the perspective of Quake, you look back at Doom and think, Look at this happy, fun game with all its bright colors," said Romero. There was, however, a method to the apparent regression in the color palettes of id's games. "If you go back to our beginning," Romero continued, "we got darker. From Wolfenstein, to Doom, to Quake, we got darker and expanded the shade range of the color. But the colors are more limited because in all three of those games over four years, technology changed."
Almost immediately upon Quake's release, the abundance of drab colors caused many players to joke about id's love of brown. Quake's color palette runs much deeper, but Adrian Carmack understands the criticism. "John Carmack came to Kevin and me one day and said, 'American says he's having trouble with his creativity because we haven't solidified the palette yet,'" Adrian remembered. "Which I thought was pretty ridiculous, but Kevin went ahead and filled out the palette. That's what we were kind of stuck with."
Technology carried as much weight in nailing down the game's visual design. Quake's palette could tap into 256 colors, but choosing one—such as brown—committed the palette to including every shade of that color. Quake's palette consisted of 16 colors. Each shade of every color ate up one byte of memory, for a total of 256. Because the artists and designers chose to create textures based on themes that encompassed lots of earthy tones, the bulk of Quake's levels all appeared hewn from browns, greens, grays, blacks, and whites.
"We were super limited because of this VGA, 256-color mode that was the standard back then," Romero explained. "It wasn't until colored lighting with graphic accelerators from manufacturers like 3dfx came out that we had full ranges of color."
Quake's developers made good use of their limited palette. E1M5: The Gloom Keep is one of Willits' favorite levels. The interconnectedness of its crisscrossing rooms and corridors, which occasionally ask players to retrace their steps to open up previously inaccessible areas, was one example of the designers stepping up their efforts in making maps. Romero reminded all of the designers that one of their main goals was to tap into the engine's potential and channel its power to create levels that would have been impossible in previous games. Thanks to id Tech 2, for instance, players would be able to look down at the floor and up at ceilings.
Therefore, the designers should consider every surface. Details should be added to the undersides of platforms and along ceilings. Walls should incorporate windows, and players should be able to look through those windows to scope out what awaits them on the opposite side. "We thought about lighting," Romero added. "We had a program that could do light tracing, so we could put a light inside of something so that when the light shines out, it casts shadows all over the walls. So players can look at interesting designs cast from lights."
The House of Chthon, Episode One's seventh level, came about almost by accident. "I remember doing all the scripts to make E1M7 work. I seem to recall it was an experiment first and foremost. Then it was decided it would be put in line to be a boss fight," McGee recalled.
McGee had been helping out John Carmack by writing scripts that extended the functionality of QuakeC. He wrote scripts to operate basic triggers such as buttons, and per his scripts, buttons could be placed on walls, floors, or ceilings, and activated by stepping on them, pressing against them, or shooting them. McGee then applied his buttons to an experimental level consisting of walkways surrounding a pool of lava. In front of the pool sits a rune, a key players must pick up to progress. Touching the rune causes Chthon, a giant, devil-like monstrosity, to rise from the lava.
To defeat Chthon, players must race to the far end of the room, avoiding magma rocks hurled by the demon, and ride a lift to the top floor. There they must run across narrow bridges and step on two buttons, one on either side of the pool. Stepping on each switch triggers a pylon that drops down from the ceiling. Once both pylons have been lowered, players must step on a third button to blast lightning from the pylons. One shock is all it takes to fry the demon on Quake's Easy difficulty. On harder modes, players must zap it three times to finish the level and the Dimension of the Doomed episode.
McGee's simple experiment set Quake apart from Doom in a significant way. All of Doom's boss fights had been straightforward: Find the big bad and shoot it until it dies. Chthon changed up Quake's core gameplay loop in a way meant to intrigue players.
"When I was working with the technology and scripting, puzzle-solving was something I thought we could push, making the player do things other than just shooting enemies in the face. I guess because I was in a position to have access to the scripting early on, and able to play around and experiment with that stuff, that's where that came from," McGee said.