Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters
Based on interviews with the developers, Rocket Jump explores the making of the Quake franchise, the culture that simultaneously shaped and fractured creator id Software, and other developers whose creativity defined an era.
Introduction: Wild Minds
"Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye." –Dorothy Parker, poet, author, critic, satirist
"The important thing is to just use whatever is at your disposal to create new ideas and come up with stuff that's fresh and new. Rather than trying to recreate something, or go over the same old ground, create new things." –Koji Kondo, composer, Nintendo
"A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad." –Shigeru Miyamoto, creator, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda
"You don't make money by working on things; you make money by shipping things." –Dave Lang, studio chief, Iron Galaxy
Developers and fans of first-person shooters look back on the 1990s as arguably the most fecund period in the genre's history. The genre did not originate during that era, but it propagated far and wide. Creators were inspired, and consumers reaped the benefits.
A small team in Texas sat at the epicenter of the age. Although id Software did not create the FPS, the studio popularized it. Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3D were its wobbly but promising first steps. Wolfenstein 3D cemented its reputation. Doom left the world knee-deep in deathmatch and custom levels. What Doom started, Quake advanced to near perfection: a simple story, an array of super weapons, hordes of nightmarish enemies, endless hours of fun trading maps and rockets online, and a sprawling, four-episode campaign that oozes personality (four personalities, in fact).
That wasn't the plan. Not at first. Not even later.
Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters is a time capsule. Continue reading and you'll break the seal, unleashing a torrent of history that recounts some of id Software's boldest ideas, technical achievements, and eclectic personalities. Those breakthroughs stemmed from a culture that was as detrimental to the minds, bodies, and spirits of the Quake franchise's creators as it was motivational. A culture where those involved in Quake could raise the bar for technology and design in the games industry.
Others eyed that bar, and aspired to lift it even higher. Rocket Jump examines many of those developers and their games as well. In chapters labeled "Pause Screens," you'll read interviews, oral histories, and narratives about other developers, games, and fans, and their contributions to the rich history of the FPS genre's golden age. You can read Pause Screens as you make your way through Rocket Jump, or use the Table of Contents menu in the top-left corner of your screen to jump directly to any section that appeals to you.
Shacknews presents the first two chapters of Rocket Jump for free to all readers. If you enjoy the story's beginning, I encourage you to subscribe to Mercury. For $5 a month, Mercury offers an ad-free browsing experience and access to premium content—including all 100,000+ words of Rocket Jump featuring an oral history of the original Team Fortress, a deep dive into Half-Life's GoldSrc engine, an examination of how Rare converted the keyboard-and-mouse-friendly control scheme of FPS games to a controller, and much more. To subscribe, register a free account with Shacknews by clicking the pencil icon at the top of your screen, then open Settings and select the Mercury tab.
Months of work went into preparing Rocket Jump. I'm extremely proud of it and immensely grateful to the developers who gave so generously of their time to talk to me about their careers and accomplishments. I hope you enjoy it.
David L. Craddock - Author
All rights to photographs, images, and other media belong to their original owners.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in Rocket Jump are solely those of the individuals providing them and do not reflect the opinions of the author, Shacknews, or its parent, affiliate, or subsidiary companies. Rocket Jump is a narrative account written from dozens of interviews and hours of research. Recreating a story from so many sources is an exercise prone to inconsistency, especially considering that many events took place over 20 years ago. Scenes were written by drawing from information gleaned from interviews, myriad research sources, and the author's best judgment.
We are the Wind
Fighting for Justice… Later
In the summer of 1996, Quake became the fourth jewel in Texas-based developer id Software's crown. Yet in a way, Quake had also been the second.
Commander Keen, a trilogy of smooth-scrolling platform games developed on PC, put id on the map in 1991. Quitting out of Commander Keen dumped users to a command-line prompt where a splash screen teased id's next game—The Fight for Justice.
"The original idea was that there would be this guy, and the hero would have this cube rotating around his head that he could try to orbit into monsters, and a hammer that he could use to hit the ground and make cracks appear and go out and hit the monsters," explained Sandy Petersen, a level designer who had joined id Software in 1993, midway through production on Doom. "It would be this D&D-ish fantasy game."
"The Fight for Justice was a top-down RPG," added John Romero. Along with John Carmack, Kevin Cloud, and Adrian Carmack (no relation to John), Romero was the fourth of id Software's five co-founders and, alongside Sandy Petersen, one of the company's most prolific level designers.
Id's design for The Fight for Justice stemmed from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign ran by John Carmack, dungeon master and technical wizard responsible for writing the engines that powered id's games. Carmack had hosted his D&D campaign for the other id developers since they had founded the company in Shreveport, Louisiana, back when they had been cranking out a new game every month for Softdisk magazine's Gamer's Edge subscription disk.
Every evening, the id crew would take a break from developing their latest game and gather around a table where Carmack directed the band's latest adventure. Carmack's campaign centered on Justice, a group of heroes that flew around on the back of a silver dragon and scouted for monsters and other perpetrators of injustice. "You wouldn't be able to see them because they were above the clouds, and they would dive down and solve a situation, and then get out. They were all insanely high-level characters," Romero continued.
Quake, the leader of Justice, was, as Romero put it, "a really amazing badass." In The Fight for Justice, players would assume control of Quake and wield the Hammer of Thunderbolts—think Mjolnir, the mythical hammer carried by Marvel superhero Thor, only 10 times more powerful. Quake would be aided by the Hellgate Cube, a sentient artifact with a distinct personality.
"It would orbit you, and whenever you were fighting it would help suck the souls out of the enemies you were beating on," Romero said of his design ambitions for the Hellgate Cube. "If you didn't kill stuff fast enough, or kill enough enemies, it would get upset and just leave, and you'd have to find it somewhere and get it back. That would have been an experiment to see how cool it would have been, and to see what kind of world we could have made around those types of combat concepts."
Romero and the others had a vision for how Quake's adventures should play out on the screen. Unfortunately, the technology of the era did not measure up to their imaginations. Rather than press on and release a game they weren't happy with, the team mothballed The Fight for Justice and got to work on Wolfenstein 3D.
The guys at id had dropped their RPG-inspired romp in less time than it would have taken to change a t-shirt. No one gave it much thought. Among the team, such changes of heart were known as bit flips, a programming joke referencing a state in computer's memory that could only store one of two values: on, or off.
"We used to just say, 'We are the wind.' We'll change our mind like that on anything," Romero explained. "We did that so many times: We made a decision that would immediately and absolutely change the course of the company."
Preparing to Leap
Four years and a string of best-selling games later, id Software sat perched at the top of the games industry. Commander Keen had been a big hit, but Wolfenstein 3D and Doom had forever altered the course of the studio, and the gaming industry.
Inspired by Castle Wolfenstein on Apple II, a stealth game where players crept through the corridors of Adolph Hitler's Nazi fortress, Wolfenstein 3D had traded sneaking around for blisteringly fast run-and-gun action from a first-person perspective in 1992, popularizing the first-person shooter. When Doom's shareware episode uploaded to University of Wisconsin's servers in December 1993, online deathmatches brought network traffic to a standstill on college campuses and in offices around the world.
Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom. Three big hits, the latter leaving an indelible mark on popular culture. The studio's reputation and deep coffers combined with its status as an independently owned and operated studio afforded id the freedom to pick and choose what game to work on next.
Romero and the other designers harnessed Doom's toolset to build maps for a sequel. Doing so was not an arbitrary decision. They had made a sequel to the Commander Keen trilogy and a prequel to Wolfenstein 3D, Spear of Destiny, by harnessing each game's respective engine and toolset. Because the team was familiar with an inaugural game's technology when the time came to make a sequel, they were able to deliver follow-ups in record time.
Where id had taken nearly one year to develop Doom's engine, the DoomEd level editor, and its 27 levels, Doom 2: Hell on Earth blasted onto store shelves nine months after the original game and featured more of what fans had loved: more maps, more weapons, more monsters, more speed, more blood, more custom levels built by users thanks to free editing tools based on Carmack's id Tech 1 game engine.
Meanwhile, Carmack set about researching and writing a brand-new game engine. Although Wolfenstein 3D and Doom let players move freely through their environments, they were not truly three-dimensional, nor were they strictly 2D. Many half-jokingly refer to id Tech 1 as a two-and-a-half-D engine. Under the hood, Carmack had pulled off a high degree of artifice to generate the illusion of 3D movement and terrain.
Doom's action takes place on a 2D plane, like graph paper with X and Y coordinates. The engine plugs in height information to apply textures to walls, floors, and ceiling, then stretches them. Stairs connect higher and lower floors, elevators run players up and down shafts, zombies and Imps snipe from ledges that appear to be far above the player's position.
Id Tech 1's sleight of hand came with limitations. Objects such as rooms and bridges cannot be placed directly above or below one another, because all data exists on a two-dimensional plane. Therefore, rooms, structures, or enemies cannot be placed directly above or below one another because they cannot occupy the same space on the grid.
Carmack's goal with id Tech 2 was to write a bona fide 3D engine featuring six degrees of freedom: The ability for objects to move in any direction over three axes. Instead of returning to Wolfenstein, Doom, or Keen, the id developers dusted off The Fight for Justice, which they would call, simply, Quake.
"The first rumblings were Carmack talking about his six-degrees-of-freedom game," Petersen recalled of starting on Quake. "That was the focus. Then, when we got to the point of designing it, the two Johns sat down and said, 'It's going to be based on this D&D guy.'"
The two Johns were Carmack and Romero. Since before id's inception, dating back to Softdisk, they had been yin and yang: engine programmer and level designer, wellspring of creativity and technical genius. Carmack would write Quake's engine, and Romero would lead the effort to bring their sword-and-sorcery-themed roleplaying epic from the tabletop to computer screens.
"I remember us wanting to explicitly jump from genre to genre to show that we could," John Carmack told me. "We went from cartoons to WWII to space marines, so we wanted to jump to fantasy next. We leapt... and missed."
Order of Operations
By the time Doom 2 shipped in 1994, id Software staffed nine people, then its largest size. John Cash and Dave Taylor programmed alongside Carmack. Romero and Sandy Petersen designed levels and, for Doom 2, welcomed aboard American McGee, a designer who got his foot in the door at id by living in the same apartment complex as John Carmack. McGee came in as game tester before proving his worth as a level designer and contributing maps to Doom 2. Adrian Carmack and Kevin Cloud drew and rendered most of the characters, items, and environmental textures that went into id's games, while Jay Wilbur oversaw publishing efforts and other business matters.
Others had come and gone. Tom Hall, id's fifth co-founder, had been the lead designer on Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D. During Doom's development, Hall had grown dissatisfied after it dawned on him that his coworkers seemed intent on making first-person shooters heavy on action and light on storytelling for the foreseeable future. His peers were likewise frustrated with his work. In a classic example of id's bit flip, the other four co-founders called Hall into a meeting and informed him that he was fired.
No matter how large id's team was at any given time, no matter who had flipped bits or had bits flipped, one practice remained constant. Technology was king.
"We don't say, 'We're going to make this tech, so we have to make this kind of game,'" said Romero. "We knew that tech was a really big deal for us. We knew we could design anything. Designing a game around tech is far easier than making the tech, so we just started with the tech. The tech came first, because there's where John had his fun: Creating this great new tech."
"The whole thing [Quake] was being driven by the tech, by John Carmack trying to solve the issue of presenting a truly 3D environment with six degrees of freedom and at a reasonable framerate," added American McGee.
One of the first items on Carmack's agenda was writing data structures to hold information such as level boundaries. Once he understood what data these structures needed to encapsulate, Romero embarked on creating QuakeEd, the editor he and the other designers would use to build levels.
The first few iterations of QuakeEd, compiled over January and February 1995, were rudimentary. That was because id Tech 2 was rudimentary. Carmack needed to figure out how to represent levels mathematically so that they could fit in memory. While Carmack defined and redefined data structures, Romero added and revised attributes of QuakeEd: windows, walls, surfaces to hold textures such as grime, blood, slime, dirt, stone, metal, brick, moss, wood—whatever the artists and level designers wanted to represent Quake's medieval world.
QuakeEd presented a top-down environment where designers could draw lines and plant vertices, points where lines meet. Carmack added a 3D view so they could get a firm idea of how levels would look in first-person, the perspective that players would see.
"I just needed to get basic stuff working so American could create basic levels that John could use to get the engine [developed] faster and figure out the architecture," Romero explained.
On Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, Romero had been the one experimenting with features and piecing together levels that made Carmack's engine sing. McGee took on that role during early stages of Quake's development.
"There was a lot of work that was built and thrown away, built and thrown away," McGee recalled.
"I could usually count on American to throw a test map together for me whenever I needed it, even if it was throwaway work that would never wind up in the game," Carmack said.
"But it all happened very fast," added McGee. "We're talking a matter of months for him to arrive at the theories which then became the working model for how the engine editor led to [level] geometry, which led to the representation of that data so it could be inside the game."
Carmack and McGee had grown close outside of work. Following the success of Doom and Doom 2, they had bought houses in the same neighborhood, right beside one another. McGee soon gained insight into Carmack's work process: He never stopped working. He barely seemed to sleep. McGee's doorbell would ring at ten or eleven o'clock at night. He would open the door and Carmack would stride in, talking a mile a minute about his proposed solution to a lighting problem that had been gnawing at him for two days, or how to handle ray tracing, the process of calculating the path of a light source and simulating light's encounters with geometry and actors such as characters.
If McGee's doorbell didn't ring late at night, his phone did. "There would be times when I would go over there and I felt like I was a monkey listening to Einstein spout off about the mechanics of the universe," McGee remembered. "He would be talking on a level of mathematics or problem solving that was just so far beyond my comprehension, and yet I kind of felt obligated to sit there and nod my head and say, 'That sounds good.'"
McGee embraced his role as Carmack's guinea pig. The earliest iteration of id Tech 2 consisted of data structures with just enough meat for Carmack to build a working model of a true-3D game and for McGee to put that model through its paces. "It was a lot of just building very simple boxes, and then boxes with boxes inside of them," continued McGee. "At some point we got a player-character in there that was a ball, and then there was another character for multiplayer, so we had two balls running around shooting balls at each other."
"When you're building a new technology from the ground up," Romero added, "it's a ton of work because you're having to decide, how are we going to represent the world in this 3D space? What kind of data describes a surface, and how do I create tools to create that data? You've got to create tools to build a world and generate data that probably gets baked by some programs, so the data the game wants to read in draws the screen really fast."
Planning and implementing Quake's pipeline was the most arduous process Carmack had faced since the studio's founding in 1991. Building Wolfenstein 3D and Doom had entailed sophisticated tech that ultimately boiled down to simulations of three-dimensional spaces. Writing was uncharted terrain. Drawing surfaces loaded with data necessitated the birth of a new process called surface-refresh cache, called into action to redraw areas that were supposed to display light on their surfaces. The lighting was baked in rather than rendered in real-time, but id Tech 2 still needed a renderer to divide the workload.
McGee cranked out testbeds, but he could not converse with Carmack about nitty-gritty elements of 3D engines. When Carmack got stumped, he turned to id's newest hire and one of his heroes.
"What happened is that John Carmack was lonely," said Petersen. "He wanted someone he could talk to, and he was trying to do this new game that was true 3D. So, he hired Mike Abrash, essentially, to have someone [around] who knew so much about programming that he could talk to John Carmack on his level, and also help design things."
Abrash wrote the book on graphics programming—literally. In 1990, Abrash, amateur game developer turned Microsoft coder, published Zen of Graphics Programming: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Fast PC Graphics. The book divulged how he tackled processes such as anti-aliasing, (smoothing jagged edges on polygons), color shading (changing the color on objects from pixel to pixel for a smoother color transition), and how to wring every last drop of performance out of hardware. During their days writing software for Gamer's Edge, Romero and Carmack had deified Abrash. Zen of Graphics Programming was their Holy Bible. The knowledge Carmack had gleaned from the book had formed the backbone of Commander Keen's graphics engine.
In 1995, Carmack wooed Abrash to id Software to assist on writing Quake and id Tech 2. Abrash, long intrigued by the prospect of writing a true 3D engine, accepted. With Abrash digging into ways to optimize id Tech 2's assembly code and devising algorithms to solve myriad issues, Carmack was able to split his focus between graphics issues and other engine components. He wrote an in-game menu where designers—and later, players—could type in commands to change data value as they played Quake.
"You could pull it down, look at variables, change them, all that good stuff," Romero said. "That led to [discussion of], 'How cool would it be to have our own scripting engine in the game as well?' The designers could just modify stuff and not have to recompile [game code]."
Carmack's scripting language became QuakeC, With it, designers could create weapons, modify game rules, even alter logic or physics for specific actors or levels. "The game has gravity because it has physics in it," Romero continued. "Five minutes and a few changes to QuakeC later, you can change gravity. Things like that don't take long to do when you have a [flexible] language and a means of exposing variables to the language. Those were really cool experiments."
QuakeC demonstrated forward thinking. Carmack had made a habit of releasing his source code to game engines such as Doom's and Wolfenstein 3D's. Users could download the source code for free, dissect it to gain an understanding of how it worked, then build on it to release new maps, campaigns, weapons, and features, dramatically expanding the original game beyond what its creators had been capable of making.
"With Doom, there was a program called DHack that knew the locations of variables in memory when the Doom [program] was running," explained Romero. "It would let players create files that would overwrite values in memory to do very slight hacking of Doom, but it wouldn't let you do all kinds of stuff. With QuakeC, after seeing all of the stuff people were doing in Doom, we decided we didn't want people punching numbers into memory while Quake was running. That's why QuakeC was there, and we wanted to use it ourselves as well."
Id's developers recognized early on that first-person, 3D games were the future of gaming. Quake, too, would be a first-person shooter, in the vein of Doom, albeit not viewed purely through the eyes of the player.
As Quake's lead designer, Romero had big plans for its direction. Players would move in first-person, exploring lush worlds and watching their Hellgate Cube drift through the air near them. When they spotted an enemy—or when an enemy spotted them—the perspective would shift, spinning around to display the Quake character and his foe from a side view popularized by fighting games such as Mortal Kombat and Virtua Fighter.
"You could do a bunch of cool combo attacks that you could see [your character performing]," Romero said, "whereas you don't normally see those because in FPS mode you'd look stupid just moving your arms and hands. Also, seeing your character from the side would help you identify with your character better."
Romero intended to put a twist on first-person segments by making them more visceral. "Because we had six degrees of freedom, we thought it'd be cool if you were up on a high area looking around, and someone comes up behind you, hits you, and you're tumbling forward down the mountain all the way down to the bottom," he said. "You'd tumble forward, which would be really crazy."
The idea was tabled after it became clear that id Tech 2 could not handle outdoor vistas well, leading the team to abandon settings such as mountains in favor of indoor environs.
Another of Romero's concepts was the view trigger, spots on maps that would activate when players faced them directly. "Let's say you're going down a path through the woods. There's a cave off to your right. You look over and see red eyes peering out of the cave. Suddenly you hear growling, and the creature starts to come out of the cave just because you looked at it," explained Romero.
Throughout 1995, Romero's bold vision for Quake failed to materialize. There were numerous reasons why the game's fantasy milieu and trappings fell away as the months marched on. One of those, according to multiple developers, was Romero's leadership.
"He was put in charge of designing Quake," Petersen said. "He was the lead designer, but he couldn't give any direction. He just said, 'Just make levels and monsters.'"
"What I remember was design by doing. We all had our texture sets, and we all ran off to our machines and just started building stuff," added McGee.
Like Petersen, McGee could not recall many instances of Romero giving him direction for the types of stages he should be building. Not content to wait, he went to Adrian Carmack and Kevin Cloud to ask for textures he could use in the experiments he conducted with John Carmack.
"I could go in there and say, 'I'd like a tile set of lots of metal, some rusted,'" McGee remembered. "I was really into Nine Inch Nails at the time, so I said, 'Give me the Nine Inch Nails palette.' Meanwhile, Romero went in there and said, 'Give me a space station palette.' As I recall, there wasn't a story for Quake until we got to the part where we had to put text on the back of a box."
"That's why you have medieval castles, and military bases, and weird tech geometry: Because the guys just all started making stuff, and it wasn't really cohesive in any way," said Tim Willits.
Willits had caught the level-design bug after playing Doom and discovering a wealth of editing tools available for free on the Internet. Building Doom levels became his obsession. He would create a map, tweak it, then upload it to bulletin board systems (BBSes) where other fans could download them and leave feedback.
In 1995, to his astonishment, Willits received an email from developers at id Software. They had taken notice of his levels and invited him to submit more for Master Levels for Doom 2, an expansion pack that id would sell to reclaim some of the market share they had lost to companies selling unofficial map packs. Once again, Willits' work impressed id. Not looking to hire at the time, they helped him land a job at Rogue Entertainment, a studio just down the road from id and working on a first-person game called Strife.
By day, Willits fulfilled his duties at Rogue. After hours, he'd pop over to id Software to hang out with Romero, Carmack, McGee, and the others. Near the end of 1995, id had an opening for a level designer. Willits was chosen to fill it.
"That's why we ended up making four episodes, and there were elder gods and different dimensions," Willits continued, speaking to Quake's final design. "It wasn't some great game design that was conceived at the very beginning. It was, 'We have a bunch of stuff. How do we put this [together] in a way that's cohesive?'"
In Romero's defense, Willits had not been around when Quake was rebooted in late 1995, so he could not speak authoritatively the studio's earlier designs or workflow. Even so, Quake's final composition manifested in other ways.
"The discussion was also that we would be using modern weapons, not medieval-themed weapons," said Adrian Carmack. "I can't remember how we got to that point other than that everybody liked modern weapons."
"We said, 'Well, if it's going to be a fantasy game, let's have ogres, but let's have the ogres bleeding into the real world,'" Petersen recalled. "That's why the ogres throw grenades. Then we added zombies. Then we added the death knights, and there were swords. These were all efforts to make [Quake] into a D&D-style fantasy game."
The Two Johns
By late spring of 1995, John Carmack was growing concerned. Id Tech 2 was taking much longer to coalesce than any of his previous engines. Quake's design seemed to be flagging as well.
When the game had not progressed sufficiently by that summer, Carmack took action.
"He sent a big email out, and he was sending out ratings on people's performances, writing paragraphs about that person and their effort, and saying he expects the game to be released by Christmas of '95," said Romero. "The game was nowhere close to being done."
One of Carmack's frustrations had to do with id's traditional approach to deadlines. At Softdisk where the co-founders had met, they had been tasked with releasing one game a month. As their ambition increased and the scope of their projects swelled, they were given two months to release a game. One night, Carmack and Tom Hall had stayed late to recreate the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 using code that Carmack had written to generate smoothly scrolling tile-based graphics on PC. That breakthrough had led to a relationship with Apogee Software co-founder Scott Miller, who gave them a Christmas 1990 deadline to turn in Commander Keen.
For several months the guys juggled deadlines for Softdisk and Apogee until they were able to split from the magazine and work on id Software full-time. By the time they broke ground on Wolfenstein 3D, the guys continued their tradition of writing code and painting graphics in sprints of 12 or more hours at a time, staying up late into the night devouring pizzas and chugging soda.
"We were a small company and needed to come out with stuff because we were dependent on the games we were making," explained Romero. "We had no loans in the history of the company, so we had to make sure we [generated income]. We'd burned up half of '91 making games for [Softdisk] instead of making stuff for ourselves. So, we still felt the startup crunch during Wolfenstein."
Despite all its similarities to Wolfenstein 3D, Doom had been a different beast. The guys had sent out a press release announcing the game in January 1993. Eleven months later, it was done. During that time, however, they had hit a speed bump. The game's levels, most designed by Tom Hall, felt too derivative of Wolfenstein 3D's. The corridors were orthogonal; the levels were bland military bases that didn't flow together.
"That became a pressure point," Romero said. "That felt like, yeah, we should be able to get this done by Christmas, so that's what we did."
Romero had been the one to seize the reins on Doom and set the standard for the types of levels they should be creating. Carmack knew that, and presumed the yang to his yin would step up and repeat the process on Quake.
"I remember partway through, I went to John Carmack and said, 'Look, John Romero is doing really great levels, but he's not giving leadership or design to the game,'" Petersen said. "I didn't try to tank him. I just said, 'He's also doing these other things. Someone needs to be in charge overall.'"
Petersen made it clear to Carmack that he was not jockeying for position. He would remain a subordinate to Romero, the lead designer. He, Petersen, would serve as a producer to get development back on track. "Carmack said, 'Absolutely not. John Romero is able to work like a demon when he wants to. He'll do it all.' I said, 'Okay.' He never became this demon worker on Quake."
Romero had no shortage of ideas. One proposal id had discussed for Doom was building a contiguous, interconnected world rather than advancing stage by stage. Romero wanted to resurrect the idea of building a seamless world for Quake. It would be a dark fantasy world full of shadows, grit, and gore, made up of interconnected zones rather than discrete levels.
"You'd be in a central area with a bunch of ways to go out of it. It's like you're in a hub, and the last level could be right in front of you," he explained. "You could go into that area and be completely destroyed because you're not powerful enough: You don't have all the weapons and you can't deal with the crazy things there, so you'd start back in the [hub] and think, Where do I go in this world? You'd have the freedom of choice to decide where to go and how much of a challenge it would be."
He expanded on the idea by writing up descriptions of a device called a slipgate, a teleporter that beamed players not just to a different area, but a different time. The game would be called Timequake, a name change that lasted approximately one week.
"There weren't any mechanics designed to take advantage of time at that point, but that was a direction we could have gone," he said. "It was already in place because of [going to alternate dimension], kind of like going to a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars. Timequake was a temporary, one-week name."
McGee and Petersen seemed unaware of Romero's master plan. Petersen observed him designing Doom-style levels, so he followed suit. "The whole idea was that at some point, we'd start adding in levels where there was the Quake kind of stuff," Petersen said, "but at that point we didn't know what that was, so we just said, 'Well, we'll just make guns and things.' John Romero spent all his time playing deathmatch and doing his levels, and we never developed past that. Quake became Doom 3, in a sense. There were different monsters, but it was just more of the same: Levels with demons, you fight them and blow them up. No role-playing elements ever got done."
Some developers remembered Romero, whose movie-star looks, flowing mane of black hair, and enthusiastic personality had made him the face of id during promotion for Doom and Doom 2, spending more time out of the office than in. When he wasn't at work, they said, he was out playing in deathmatch tournaments or evangelizing Doom. Some days he would show up in late morning, take a long lunch, and leave before the sun had set.
According to Masters of Doom, a bestselling biography written by David Kushner, Romero's alleged absences became problematic enough for Carmack to code and secretly install a program on Romero's computer that tracked the hours he spent at his desk.
"I was not out of the office all the time," Romero said. "I was in the office most of the time. The logging-of-hours thing, I don't remember that being significant. If we'd had a small meeting of owners where they said, 'You have not been in for enough hours'—I'd remember if any of that happened. I think Carmack probably thought I was out of the office and probably time-logged my machine. Nothing happened from that that I remember, but I know it was [written about] in Masters of Doom."
Romero admitted that the other level designers may not have understood his aspirations for Quake, nor id's development process: A growing wave of momentum that they had ridden from Softdisk through Doom. First, they came up with an idea. Then they coded it off the cuff. No design documents, no laborious discussions. They worked late through marathon programming sessions until a game materialized. "We organically grew our games," he said. "When we had tight timelines, we had to say what [a game] was from day one: 'We have two months to make this game; here's what it is.' Bam."
Quake was different. Romero knew he wanted to make a fantasy game about a character called Quake who carried a giant hammer and palled around with a sentient cube. Until Carmack ironed out his technology, Romero insisted that nothing could or should be set in stone.
"There was no way for us to know what we were making because the technology wasn't there yet," he explained. "That was the idea for the process of development, but for that first year, the details were still being figured out because we didn't know what we were making. We had ideas for what that could be. [Carmack] started working on the tech, which was very difficult, and I had rough ideas about what we could do on the game-design side that were not FPS ideas. We couldn't really do anything with those ideas until we had an engine that could do something."
"American was happy to put up with my flaming early development code, while some of the more senior developers wanted to hang back until things stabilized more," Carmack said.
"The [engine] was changing so much that it would have been dumb for me to do that," Romero continued. "I spent my time making the Quake editor to let all four of us level designers create levels for the game. So I was creating the editor, and because the engine was such a massive undertaking, the artists were generating artwork and American was doing all kinds of levels just for testing the engine."
Romero had plenty of other irons in the fire. He designed some of the maps for The Ultimate Doom, a 1995 re-release of the original game with a fourth episode spanning nine levels. He contracted amateur map makers to make levels for Final Doom, a 64-level sequel to Doom 2. As an extension of his role as the face of the company, he supplied assets to Prima Games so their authors could write official strategy guides for the Doom titles.
He was also one of two points of contact for Raven Software, an external developer working on Heretic and Hexen—fantasy themed first-person shooters built on Doom's id Tech 1 platform. "I'd just got done helping ship Heretic, and I started working on Hexen with Raven," said Romero. "There was a ton of stuff, and I was the only person on the dev team, other than Kevin Cloud, to interface with anything external."
Romero was not the only id developer assisting Raven. "I was actually the guy in charge of managing those projects, but he was in charge of me, so I guess he should get some credit," Petersen said. "John [Romero] and I did a lot of play testing. Pretty much no one else at the company played those games. Just John and I would play them, and we'd send feedback to them."
One claim Romero did not dispute was that he spent many hours at work playing deathmatch in Doom and Doom 2. As enthusiastic about playing games as he was about making them, he sat hunched over his monitor, laughing and screaming and cursing as he traded rockets with American McGee and Shawn Green, one of the studio's tech support reps who shared an office with McGee on the opposite side of the wall from Romero.
On the one hand, Romero asserted that playing lots of deathmatch got creative juices flowing. "That was fuel for making crazy shit: That pumped-up kind of aggression. That's what deathmatch was all about. What formed Quake was what came out of those deathmatches. They were super fun and really loud, and they were providing inspiration for what we were trying to do for Quake."
Most developers would agree with Romero that playing games at work is a vital part of the job. Seeing what peers in the industry are up to can illumine a path to ideas. Famously, EverQuest addiction raced through the offices of WarCraft developer Blizzard Entertainment and Diablo developer Blizzard North like wildfire. Blizzard Entertainment co-founder Allen Adham got swept up in the obsession, but saw room for improvement. In 2004, Blizzard published World of WarCraft, acknowledged as the most popular massively multiplayer online RPG of all time.
But even Romero admitted that he took deathmatch too far. Carmack once got so fed up with the cacophony of laughter and curses from the adjacent room that he packed up his computer and went home to code in peace.
"There's no way the company I have right now—there's no way that anyone would ever do that," Romero said. "No way can you be playing deathmatch before six pm. Looking back now, if I had anyone in my company that was doing what I was doing, they'd be fucking gone."
Romero's claim that minimal progress could be made on Quake until Carmack's engine came together was not without merit. More and more, id's developers recognized that they had to take Carmack's progress into account when planning their days.
"Carmack's progress on other elements such as the AI, doors, platforms, switches—that all dictated, what can we do today?" McGee explained. "Oh, look, we've got doors working now. We've got raytracing and collision detection; that means I can deliver damage to another object in the environment; that means we can make guns. It was almost as if he was providing us toys to play with in our sandbox, then we would come into the office and say, 'What can we do with the toys today?'"
A programmer himself, Romero sympathized with Carmack's troubles writing id Tech 2. When he thought of an idea for the game, he did his best to think through its implementation in a way that would be relatively simple for Carmack to integrate. Over time, Romero became aware of negativity emanating from Carmack. Between frustration with Quake's engine and his deteriorating faith in Romero, Carmack became unpleasant to be around.
"It's just not fun when you're working next to somebody who's really negative," said Romero. "I'm sure he was mad at me. It just didn't go well."
To Romero, getting up to his elbows in other projects was part of growing as a company. Carmack didn't want to grow. He preferred to keep id lean, mean, and focused on the game they were making at the moment they were making it.
"I almost don't judge him as a normal human being," Petersen said. "He's really smart, and he's really weird, okay? Really, I don't have negative things to say about John Carmack. He just really can't be judged by human standards. You know he got his first computer by breaking into his high school and stealing it? I asked him about it: 'What the heck, dude?' He said, 'Well, I needed it.' He saw nothing negative in that."
Another of Petersen's favorite Carmack anecdotes concerned how the genius programmer had handled relocating from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Mesquite, Texas. Carmack had lived in Texas for a while by the time Petersen was hired in 1993, yet still did not have a Texas driver's license. When he asked Carmack why he hadn't registered for one, Carmack just shrugged. "He said, 'Well, it's a pain to go over to the DMV and get it done.' I said, 'Well... yeah. But, you know, you should have one.' He said, 'I'd rather just pay the fine if the cops stop me.' That is not what a normal human would do."
Adrian Carmack respected his fellow co-founder, but admitted John Carmack could be frustrating to work with. "It's kind of funny, and programmers can all be like this: They throw their weight around to let you know who's boss," Adrian said. Like any creative type, Adrian had a process. Working with Kevin Cloud, he would experiment with textures for the characters before deciding on color schemes. Oftentimes his textures paired discordant colors together purely for the sake of experimentation.
"I would often come to work, and people would be really quiet," Adrian remembered. "I'd be like, what the hell? Somebody would ask me [about the weird textures], and I would say, 'No, that's not the final texture. I'm just experimenting. I didn't forget how to paint overnight.'"
Sitting down to his desk one afternoon, he opened his files to discover that the color scheme for Quake's player character had been locked in: green flak jacket, orange camo pants. "I go to John Carmack, like, 'There's some kind of problem here,'" Adrian recalled. "He said, 'Nope. I locked it down.' I said, 'What? I'm not finished.' He said, 'Nope, that's it. We're not changing it.' Sometimes he'd pull petty bullshit like that, but all I could do was laugh, like, whatever, man. Your name's on the game, too."
McGee described Carmack as a creative stimulus. Simply breathing the same air as Carmack motivated him to work harder. At the same time, he found interacting with him to be awkward. "He's the type of person who once he's done with interaction, he turns that off and goes back to work," McGee said. He doesn't have any of the niceties or formalities of typical human interactions. He's more like a Vulcan in that sense. Having a relationship with him was always quite different from the typical relationships you build with friends."
"I still miss a lot of social cues, although my wife has done a lot to file off the roughest edges," Carmack admitted to me.
From Commander Keen through Doom, Romero had matched Carmack's schedule and focus beat for beat. "The funny thing is, we were always together," said Romero. "We would wake up and work together all day. Then we'd go home, and pretty soon after that we were sleeping. Back then, that's all we did: make games. I can see people thinking, oh, you guys must be best friends because you're with each other 24/7."
To Romero's line of thinking, though, he and Carmack were less friends and more coworkers who spent nearly every waking moment collaborating on a shared passion. "I think we had really good chemistry at the very beginning, but I think as pressure mounted with Quake's development, and me not being on it 100 percent, I think that's what got him more on the annoyed side," Romero admitted.
Although he did not express it at the time, Carmack was just as sad to see his relationship with Romero disintegrate. To him, id Software was more than a workplace. It was a home away from home. The people he worked with were more than coworkers, even more than friends.
"For the first couple years, I literally didn't have any friends outside of work," Carmack said. "I had moved away from everyone I knew in Kansas City, and I spent almost all my time working. That wasn't a problem, because I liked everyone on the team, and we did still find time to play video games, Dungeons & Dragons, kneeboard, and watch Star Trek together. I was quite happy."
The Shooter Studio
In November 1995, John Carmack came to a decision.
"I do remember the turning point for me was when American copied a bunch of Doom textures over to the Quake engine and made a little snippet of a level, and I thought it looked amazing with the lighting and geometry," Carmack recalled. "The idea of falling back to 'just' making a shooter didn't seem so bad."
Stepping out of his office, Carmack entered the communal area where most of the others worked. Romero, Petersen, McGee, Dave Taylor, Kevin Cloud, and Adrian Carmack were there, plugging away on tasks. Noticing Carmack, Petersen turned in his chair. Carmack recapped the team's activity over the last several months. Most everything the designers had created, they'd had to scrap. On the bright side, id Tech 2 had gone through a staggering eight revisions and was more or less finished.
The tech was in place. The time had come to lock down a game design. For Romero, the impromptu meeting came with big stakes. "The decision to consider was, now that we've innovated in our technology, are we going to innovate in our game design?"
He made his case. The team had been working long hours for nearly a year with little to show for it. It would be a missed opportunity to apply Carmack's cutting-edge engine to a shooter that amounted to a Doom clone. Quake should include shooting and other action elements, Romero asserted, but why not go further?
Petersen did not remember the meeting in the same light. Due to one circumstance or another, he and the others had been creating levels suited to an action-heavy FPS. All that was left was to formalize the game's direction. "I vaguely remember, at some point, saying, 'Why are we still going to call it Quake?'"
Romero took the room's temperature and felt a pit open in his stomach. There was good sense in sticking with what worked, other developers pointed out, and with what id Software did arguably better than anyone else.
Petersen was aware that some of his peers dreamed of making games besides first-person shooters. He was also aware that whether they liked it or not, id was a shooter studio. When he had interviewed for the job, they had shown him a few work-in-progress stages from Doom before switching over to a second project: a flight simulator. Excited, the guys had outlined their plans. Their flight sim wouldn't be heavy on realism, like Microsoft Flight Simulator. Instead they would let players pilot a plane loaded with bombs and go flying over the world blowing up everything in sight.
Part of the appeal the id team had seen in Petersen was that he had worked on flight games during his time at MicroProse, the company founded by Sid Meier and John "Wild Bill" Stealey and famous for Sid Meier's Civilization and Civilization 2. However, MicroProse had pulled in impressive sales developing flight simulators before Meier had tried his hand at turn-based strategy games.
After finishing Doom, Petersen remembered id's leaders toying with the notion of making their flight game. They shied away. Doom 2, they reasoned, made more sense. They had level editors and an engine ready to go.
"We did Doom 2," Petersen remembered, "then they said, 'Well, let's put the flight sim off once more, and do Quake. It's going to be a total role-playing game, a big change from Doom.' Then, of course, as it was being done, because there was no direction, all we had to go on was Doom and Doom 2, so [Quake] became Doom 2-and-a-half. By the end of Quake, the flight sim was no longer being talked about, but they never got out of that rut."
Carmack put his foot down. Quake would be a first-person shooter. Any assets they had—monsters, items, weapons, levels and fragments of levels—would be worked into a shooter-centric design. Dave Taylor and American McGee, both relatively new hires, agreed.
Romero's enthusiasm deflated. "They basically decided, 'Let's just slap weapons onto it and make it a Doom [clone], and get it done as fast as we can,'" he said. "That was ridiculous to me. I thought, This is just wrong. We're giving equal weight to the word of people who haven't lived game development for 15 years like we have. We're not committing to excellence in design, now."
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Degrees of Freedom
In January 1996, id Software 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 haul essential gear 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 crowded into 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," Petersen 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."
Following the meeting in November '95, the team had commenced crunching for the first time. "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 were at work because there was nowhere else they'd rather be. Quake was different: The team had spent nearly a year experimenting and discarding work, leaving many of them feeling as if they had spent their time running in circles.
"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. In the meantime, he performed triage on the grander design he'd had planned by assessing the levels made by Petersen, American McGee, and Tim Willits, 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.'"
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, E2M1, and so on."
Dimension of the Doomed
For all of Romero's disappointment in the decision to bake Quake in Doom's template, he never doubted that the game would be fun. Not only that, following the formula that 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 that optimism. All had a background 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 featuring a smattering of weaker enemies: 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, a free sampler platter that tempted players to purchase the full game. The designers even shadowed Doom's design process, creating first drafts of every level before circling back and polishing until the shareware 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 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 installations. 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 dirty water, and long corridors where slits in walls spit nails when players draw near. One section challenges players to sprint down a metal walkway while dodging nail traps and battling monsters. A misstep can send players plummeting into water, 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 set deep underground. Players come across a new weapon, the grenade launcher, right at the start, and make use of it right away to blow up zombies.
"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 a zombie with a grenade or rocket 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. 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 held 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 enemies. Shamblers roar upon laying eyes on 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 Guide to Lovecraft 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 associate the game with the color 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 choose a color—such as brown—committed the palette to including every shade of that color. Quake's palette consisted of 16 colors, with each shade of every color eating 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 colors, 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. Set in the titular Gloom Keep, players explore crisscrossing rooms and corridors. That interconnectedness, occasionally asking players to retrace their steps to open up previously inaccessible areas, was one example of the designers stepping up their efforts in level design.
Romero reminded all of the designers that one of their main goals was to tap into an 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 lies 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 that players must pick up to progress. Picking up 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 Chthon, and hop 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 a switch triggers a pylon to drop down from the ceiling. Once both pylons have been lowered, players must step on a third button. That blasts lightning from the pylons, frying the demon on the game's Easy difficulty. On harder difficulties, players must zap Chthon three times to complete the level, and Dimension of the Doomed.
McGee's simple experiment set Quake apart from Doom in a significant way. All of Doom's boss fights had been straight forward: 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.
Dimension of Black Magic
John Romero went into Quake's second episode, Dimension of Black Magic, with modest goals. "I didn't decide, for instance, 'I'm going to make long hallways' or anything specific," he said. "I wanted maps to look good and play really well. When I started getting close to the size limit, I knew I needed to figure out how to finish a level and maybe [connect back into] itself more."
E2M2 exemplified both Romero's objectives and the limitations of Quake's tech. However, his levels played to the engine's strengths rather than suffered from its weaknesses. Ogre Citadel, the second map of Quake's second episode, begins in a cave-like area. Players fight their way out and emerge to find a fortress across a moat. To gain entry, players must shoot two switches on either side of a raised drawbridge to lower it, or dive into the moat and explore lower passages.
Across the bridge and inside the citadel await Ogres and other horrors prowling a knot of tight corridors. Fighting through them earns players a breather before they are pushed off a ledge and into an arena-like room. The room's only egress slams shut and a Shambler materializes, forcing players to fight.
The level continues in that vein: Bursts of combat in brightly lit areas followed by brief respites through shadowy hallways as players track down keys and search for the exit. "That's something that I always do when I'm making levels: creating contrast in every part of the experience," Romero explained. "There wasn't much color in Quake, but textures could [change up] color. There's contrast in exploration, where nothing's happening, and then intense combat. That also creates contrast by setting a quiet setting, and then introducing crazy [amounts of] noise. No fear, and then total fear."
With the exit room in sight, Ogre Citadel throws a curveball at players. To reach the gate, they must jump across a series of stone columns that curve up and around to a ledge. Each pedestal is narrow. If players jump too far or not far enough, or if they don't control their character by pulling back to halt their momentum after each jump, they'll slip and fall into the water below, necessitating that they fight their way back up to try again.
In 1996, 3D games such as Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider were new and in vogue. One problem presented itself right away, however: Gauging distance and depth was trickier in 3D games than in 2D titles such as Super Mario Bros. 3, where depth was not a factor. The issue of jumping had not hampered Wolfenstein 3D, which contained no pits, nor Doom, which contained some gaps that players jumped automatically if they sprinted across.
Id's programmers took the problem of jumping in 3D into account as they built Quake. "You might fall down and have to take the elevator back up to try again, but the game had pretty good deceleration, so it wasn't like you'd jump onto a platform and then slide off and die," Romero said of the series of hops awaiting players near the end of E2M2. "You just had to tap backwards after you jumped. Being in first-person, it wasn't so hard because you could gauge distance better, and you could look down, so it wasn't as [tricky] as in other games."
Adding a jump function to Quake made sense. A greater range of movement would deepen players' connection to their avatar, pulling them further into Quake's world.
"We always looked up to Nintendo and Shigeru [Miyamoto] as the best in design," Romero said. "They represented the best. They spent a ton of time working on and revising designs to see if they worked."
Being able to jump was also vital to rocket jumping, an accidental technique that players discovered shortly after Quake's release. "There probably wouldn't be rocket-jumping if you couldn't jump [normally]," Romero went on. "You'd be killed if you shot the ground. You wouldn't go very far and you'd take tons of damage. That little amount of jumping [beforehand] really decreases the amount of damage you take from rocket-jumping."
E2M5: The Wizard's Manse, is another of Romero's favorite maps. Players roam a large mansion full of cramped passageways that weave in and out of large halls. To give the manse personality, Romero built the manse's rooms from blue stone, paved floors in green tiles, and curled stairs up walls adjacent to stained-glass windows. Near the end, he set one of his most devious traps. Players enter a cage and are trapped inside. The cage lowers, submerging them in water. Players begin to choke; their health ticks down. Just when the situation seems hopeless, the elevator rises from the water and players gasp in relief, generating health.
The bulk of Quake's maps are set indoors for a reason. Every level consists of objects called brushes. "It's just a solid block that you can do all sorts of stuff with, but it's solid, turns into BSP, and it's permanent. It doesn't move, so light maps can get generated on it," Romero explained.
Entities are a special type of brush. Quake classifies any geometry that moves, such as platforms and doors, as an entity. Carmack's implementation of brushes and entities caused problems. A designer first had to determine the size of an entity, such as a door at the end of a corridor of a specific width and height, then create a brand-new map file with the exact same entity brush in the exact same spot as on the main map. The designer added lights or other adornments to the entity and then saved that map as a BSP, short for binary space partition, a file that holds an area that has been shrunk to its smallest size. Finally, the designer loaded the main level and directed it to the BSP containing the entity brush he wanted to reference. If the entity in the separate BSP lined up with its coordinates in the main BSP, it would click into place.
"It was a horrible way of putting in entities, which means [as a designer] I don't want lots of entities in the game. For monsters it was no problem because you'd just put in spawn points," Romero recalled. "I told John, 'Dude, no. We can't do this. It's an awful idea. We can't be leaving a level, creating a shell, making a totally different BSP where light maps might not even match. It's a horrible idea.'"
Smoothing out entity brushes was one in a laundry list of Carmack's obstacles. "Collision detection was pretty hard," he admitted. "There was a good period where we were making interesting pictures, but movement only worked smoothly as long as you were sliding along walls with obtuse angles—you would get 'stuck' on sharp corners."
Carmack refined code until he arrived at a solution, albeit not an optimal one. Quake's collision detection functions by expanding the size of every object on a map by half the player's size, treating players as a point moving through terrain. "This was robust and extremely efficient, but it meant that each unique size of entity that moved through the world had to basically have a special version of the map automatically generated for it," said Carmack. "This cost both memory and processing time during level building."
"You had to really think through things, because it took six seconds to make a change to any geometry in the level after you placed it, and you did not want to move stuff around," Willits added. "There was no, 'Let's move this whole room,' or 'Let's take this staircase and shift it.' Especially when it took you six seconds, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it is when you have thousands and thousands of brushes in a level."
Quake's engine presented designers with a series of push-and-pull contests. "John Carmack made this great engine, and it was our fault for not taking advantage of it," Petersen said. "But part of that was we were working with stuff that was [difficult to use]. The final Quake editors on the Internet? We didn't have that. That didn't exist for us. That was finished after we'd done all our levels. We had to use stuff that was much more primitive."
Entity brushes can be seen in action in an early level of Episode One, when players step on a switch that kicks off an impressive but technically laborious sequence of blocks that drift through the air and into openings in a wall. There's a click, then a door flies open to reveal the game's first Fiend, a recurring four-legged enemy that sprints and jumps to get at players with its claws. "That's why in E1M2, when the little blocks come up and you watch them move forward, and they [insert] into the wall, and the door opens, and a demon jumps out—that was really hard to do," Willits said.
Planting secrets in Quake levels was more strenuous than placing them in Doom. "We had to create full brushes of a certain size; we had to make the ceiling; we had to make every wall; we had to light the secret areas; and then we had to somehow open a door that doesn't look like it's a secret door," said Romero.
Romero mitigated creating secrets by writing a QuakeC script for a door that resembled a wall panel so that designers could obfuscate entrances to their secrets, and defined how the door-that's-not-a-door should open: by sliding rather than raising. "We used it everywhere in the game, so nobody had to write QuakeC code to make a door open in some weird way because design consistency is important. Having the code there and be able to type in 'secret door' on the entity made it easier for everybody to at least not have to worry about the door part of secrets, because that was the hardest part to deal with. You really had to think about doing secrets in Quake versus in Doom," Romero continued.
Another problem was that BSP files containing Quake levels tended to be larger than Doom's WAD map files by virtue of 3D objects eating up more storage. Using binary space partitioning to pack levels reduced file sizes, but id needed to stick to a hard limit so that players could download the game painlessly. "Doom was a pretty small download for people. This was still back in the days where not everyone was on the Internet; lots of people still used BBSes," said Romero.
Consequently, Quake's episodes ranged in size from seven to eight levels, including one secret level per episode, compared to Doom's nine-level episodes—eight regular maps and one secret zone. The developers agreed that each level they built should be no larger than 1.4 megabytes. In most cases, that constraint fueled rather than hampered creativity.
"When you put a number of that, like 1.4 megs, it's really on the designer to decide how they're going to approach building a level," Romero said. "To stay within that limit, are you going to use hardly any textures? Are you going to use a lot of really cool textures but make [smaller] levels? The amount of brushes in a level impacts the size of it. Are you going to have a bigger level with longer hallway?"
Another drawback of a BSP file's size, and the reason Quake maps take place indoors, was that only 350 polygons could be visible on-screen at once. Larger regions such as mountains would chew through the polygon count. To keep players from getting bored with running through hallways, the designers pushed themselves to design intricate set pieces involving lots of entities: traps, extendable bridges, elevators that submerged players underwater, and elaborate door-opening sequences.
"I really did like the bigger outdoor maps [in Doom], mostly because the game rendered things so quickly, it almost didn't matter how big a map was," said Romero. "It was great because we could build huge areas that felt like you were outdoors."
Even building indoor areas, designers had to be frugal with polys. "If you go back and play Quake, you start seeing these 90-degree corners everywhere. You can now see the level designer, on purpose, putting a corner in there because it constrained visibility," Romero explained.
The game's BSP algorithm rendered only as far as the next corner. What lay beyond it would be whipped up when players could see it. The less geometry within the player's line of sight, the fewer polygons the map had to render each time the screen refreshed, keeping performance smooth and steady.
As in movies, Quake's designers used establishing shots of grand mansions or towering fortresses to fool players into believing that the world they inhabited was larger than it appeared.
"In the Wizard's Manse, E2M5, when you come out of that first cave and you see the front of the big mansion, that's a big outdoor area for our maximum budget of polygons. We were just limited to not having huge outdoor areas," said Romero.
American McGee made big maps by thinking small.
Each level he architected for Quake's third episode, the Netherworld, began as a small space centered on a specific challenge, usually an enemy or a simple puzzle. From there he moved on to building another room, then another, and another, filling his Quake editor's top-down view with irregularly shaped chambers unconnected from one another, like islets.
"A lot of times I would have, in the editor, sections where there might be a trap idea or just a general idea for a room. Once I had a couple of those, I'd work on linking them in some interesting way to create flow," he said.
McGee felt his way to level flow, but he knew what he wanted in other areas of design. Adrian Carmack and Kevin Cloud had spent most of 1995 painting Aztec-themed textures. The idea was that designers could build architecture such as pyramids from sandstone walls.
"The artist made a bunch of those textures, and American tried to work with them for a long time, but he just could not get inspired by Aztec temples and Aztec design," remembered Romero. "It just wasn't interesting to him. It was easier to do pure abstract design."
Declining Aztec textures understandably incited grousing from Cloud and Adrian. "I think Romero and American were saying, 'We're not really inspired by the Aztec theme. We're having trouble getting into it and designing our levels,'" Adrian said. "All I could think was, Hey, man, I just worked on this for a year. I've done a year's worth of artwork on this, and so has Kevin. We weren't very happy about it. A year's worth of work, and we're basically starting over. Honestly, it was probably for the best, anyway."
McGee chalked up the loss of textures and time to Quake's development. He'd lost count of how many levels he had designed and thrown away while testing engine features for John Carmack. He favored dark, metallic surfaces to steer clear of the browns and greens used by the other designers, as well as lava for a medley of reds, yellows, and oranges that would pop against metal textures.
"We would sit down with the level designers and talk to them about what they were looking for," Adrian explained. "We would also come up with our own ideas, just kind of see what would work, testing the look of the game."
"I think the fact that the level designers were being fed artwork individually by the art team had more to do with the fact that there was no one in charge of, or leading production or design," McGee added. "I could just walk up to the art team and say, 'Give me a bunch of rusted metal textures and some stone textures to go with them,' and they would just do it. They wouldn't turn around to a project manager or a producer and say, 'Does he need these? What chapter are these going into? Why are we creating these?' It was just, 'Yep, sure, here's some textures for you."
Metal and fire gave McGee's levels a rougher material feel. E3M3: The Tomb of Terror leads players through dark hallways bordered by lava pits. McGee tasked players with finding a silver key and then backtracking through rooms, keeping one eye open for enemies that had not been there on their first visit.
"I've never been into garish, bright colors. As a personal aesthetic, I was wearing all black all the time," he said. His goth wardrobe reflected his passion for Nine Inch Nails, his favorite heavy metal band. "When I would go and ask for texture sets, I would ask for stuff that sort of mirrored the sound and feeling that those guys were contributing to the product, so it all just felt like it fit together quite naturally."
McGee liked that his palette and level flow conflicted with those of his peers. "When it came to the product, to building levels, there was competition, but it felt very healthy and fun. It was a fun competition. We were riffing off each other. I'd say it was probably more like jazz in the way that we were creating, rather than something coming off a sheet of music."
Romero appreciated friendly competition, too. He was particularly impressed by Willits' and McGee's levels, which shone with polish and unique ideas. "We'd look at each other's levels and go, 'Oh, that's such a cool combo of textures,' or 'I love that lighting style,'" Romero said. "You'd come up with a lighting style and use it all over the place. We were trying to make the game as great as we could, and compete with each other to make the best-looking levels within the areas that we decided to go after."
Willits added a level to Quake's Netherworld episode. Deep underground, players discover E3M5: The Wind Tunnels, a warren of wide passageways. Players drop or step into the tunnels and are propelled forward and through turns by gusts of wind—or so they think.
"Wind Tunnels used push brushes," Willits explained, revealing that invisible brushes simulated wind by pushing players through tunnels. "Carmack came up with an entity that allowed you to push, which I think we needed for a trap in one of American's levels. He had [a scenario] where the floor opened and you get pushed into lava, so we needed an entity that pushed."
Episode One's secret level, Ziggurat Vertigo, was born of another of McGee's experiments that played with gravity. True to form, he crafted it from metal textures and rivers of lava. The centerpiece was a ziggurat that players could climb by jumping up. One jump, and they drifted lazily into the air. By modifying the level's gravity using QuakeC, McGee had fashioned a level where players felt like they were bounding around on the surface of the moon.
To Willits, simple experiments that generated radical results like McGee's low-gravity level and his wind tunnels stole the show in Quake.
"Once we found out we could change the way you moved through the environment, we were like, 'This is awesome. Let's try this other thing now.' That was really the design of Quake. Looking back, it was genius."
Over Quake's seven-month crunch, Romero truncated the game's design not once, but several times.
On March 15, 1996, a Friday, Romero dropped a 10-page design document in an email and distributed it to everyone at the company. Sending a game design document was almost as unorthodox a practice within id as writing one. Tom Hall had written a design bible for Doom in 1992, much of which had been ignored after the guys had flipped their bit and let him go. At id, the modus operandi was to show rather than tell: Talk about a concept, then start writing code and painting monsters.
Romero collated all of Quake's design bits and bobs to clear the air. "I've been informed that many of you are confused about the state of Quake's game design," his email began. "I can believe that since I've had to reprint the design sheets multiple times, and I've also changed a couple design elements for the sake of simplicity and implementation. Here I will outline the major elements of Quake, what has changed, and where things should go."
His 10-page document collects the bones of a dramatically different game than the Quake that shipped to stores less than three months later. Controlling a "military guy," players would be tasked with infiltrating a base to recover weapons and technology stolen by Shalrath, a mysterious foe. The first level would be a base designed to communicate fundamental skills such as moving, jumping, a shooting. The next level, still a base, would introduce players to tougher enemies such as Ogres as well as slipgates, interdimensional teleporters that beamed players to other dimensions.
Dimension hopping wasn't as simple as stepping onto a pad. Romero wanted to create artifacts that worked like keys, such as an Amber Element that would correspond with slipgates branded with an Amber symbol. The overarching goal was to free the four Old Ones and confront Shub-Niggurath, a Lovecraftian horror syphoning the Old Ones' life force.
In the document, Romero calls for elaborate scenes that show slipgates sparking into life, dialogue recorded by an actor to voice the player-character, and levels with branching paths all tied together by long hallways that load levels seamlessly while players run along.
As development wore on, Romero whittled his down to essentials. Instead of cinematic displays, stepping onto a slipgate at the end of a level loaded a high-score screen similar to Doom's, tracking enemies killed, secrets found, time played. Instead of arteries linking maps, levels are disparate, leaving players to intuit that each episode begins with a base level that leads to castles and fortresses because they traveled through time and space.
"I had to revise the design a few months later because we were trying to get done pretty quickly and it had too much stuff in it," Romero admitted. "So, I had to simplify it to what we have now."
The final version of Quake spans four episodes, a final battle with Shub-Niggurath, and an introduction. Of those maps, Introduction, a relic of Romero's earlier designs, may be the most important.
"I made the start map in, I believe, March of '96," Romero said. "It went through a lot of revision during the last few months. It was the last map I worked on. I got all my levels done, then I did the start map."
Doom had players select episodes from a menu. After making their selection, they played through levels one by one, culminating in a boss fight followed by a wall of text congratulating them on their victory. In Quake, players would still choose episodes, but not from a menu. Beginning a new game deposited them in Introduction, a map that doubled as a hub and a difficulty selection menu.
"I wanted to remove the extra layer of Easy-Normal [menus], and then selecting episodes," said Romero. "Get rid of those two menus and just start playing. Boom—you're in it. That kind of design let me do some really cool things in that starting map."
Introduction opens with a view of a wide room with three hallways. The leftmost and center halls end in portals labeled with difficulties: Easy on the left, Normal in the center. On the right, players come to a broken bridge over a pit of lava. A zombie hangs over the lava, moaning and twitching. The portal is marked Hard. To enter it, players must hop across the lava. A simple challenge, but just taxing enough to coax the minimum amount of effort out of players.
All portals lead to a chamber with four archways. Each archway leads to an alternate dimension, one of four episodes. At the end of every episode, players find a rune. Collecting the rune and finishing the level deposits them back at Introduction and seals off the portal to the dimension they conquered. Completing all four opens a path to the final level, a battle against Shub-Niggurath who can only be defeated using a tele-frag, a type of kill prominent in deathmatch that sees one player teleport to a destination occupied by another.
Each corridor is ornamented with details that speaks to that episode's dimension. "Each of the episodic [entrances] was made to look like the designer of the episode had made it," explained Romero. "Because I'd played everybody's levels so much by that time, I knew exactly how Sandy made his levels look. I knew how thin his posts were, how he lit stuff. With American, same thing: his metal and his caverns."
The leftmost corridor is futuristic in color and texture. Ahead is a corridor with blue walls and a bridge fashioned from metal beams that zig and zag. Forward and to the right is a corridor that bends before leading to its portal. To the right, a set of wooden stairs leads to a pool of water. Stepping into the water causes players to sink—and then drop out of the air and onto the floor, sapping a small amount of life and leaving them perplexed, wondering how, exactly, a body of water had come to hang in the air.
"We were laughing about his crazy ideas because that was just such an awesome thing you could do with the engine: Swim in a floating block of water," Romero said. "Sandy put it in there and it's something we just laughed about because it was like, 'Oh my god. It's floating water. This is crazy."
Laughing, Romero continued, "You don't know that's going to happen because you can't see through the water, so it's not even fair. It's just like, 'Here's your torture!' I was just laughing while I made that entrance. It was so funny because it was so Sandy."
"The Quake levels were small, and I was okay with that," Petersen stated. "The thing is that they took me about the same effort to make [as a larger Doom level] because it was a true 3D game, compared to Doom's two-and-a-half-D engine. I still made levels that were big and made the game chug. I was constantly griped at by John Carmack."
Romero, McGee, and Willits made no secret of the fact that their levels looked better than Petersen's. Petersen took their jabs in stride. It was all part of their friendly competition. He also knew they were right.
"I think they put me as the last episode because of three things," Petersen said. "One was that I was using monsters that hadn't been seen before, and it was weird to have monsters appear in an early level but never come back. The second thing was they thought my things were uglier than other people's levels, and there's some [truth] to that. The third thing was that my levels had these convoluted schemes for players to solve. Because mine were the most Cthulian, we were going to [transition] to the final level."
Petersen also knew, as did the others, that his levels in Doom were some of the most memorable. Among his peers and Doom players, Petersen became known for exemplary pacing, tough situations, and unforgettable encounters such as E2M8: Tower of Babel, when players start in a small room where four Barons of Hell have been impaled. It was, Petersen explained, the perfect setup. Observant players would deduce that any monster able to kill not one but four Barons, at that point the toughest demon players had encountered, must be an order of magnitude stronger—and more terrifying.
Petersen's maps were small in size but big in concept. "One of the things I would do is I would make a level, then I would go back and look through the texture files and say, 'Oh, look at this cool texture. I want to use that.' So, I'd go back to the level and change it to use that texture. We were kind of opposites," he said of McGee.
Petersen and McGee shared something else in common. They both enjoyed abstract design. The difference was that McGee started by mapping out rooms and tinkering with ways to connect them. Petersen's passion for abstraction stemmed from a lifelong interest in H. P. Lovecraft, a horror author who became popular posthumously. His stories were predicated on the belief that cosmic beings too great and terrible for human minds to fathom existed beyond the veil of reality, and on overly curious characters who peeled back that veil and discovered eldritch beings and planes of existence that broke their minds.
Petersen was such a fan of Lovecraft that he took pains to sneak references to the author's work into every game he worked on before and after his time at id Software. Working on Quake, he had no need to make oblique references to his favorite writer. Quake's medieval architecture and dimensional travel lent themselves to otherworldly themes.
"It not only informed my [level] design work," Petersen said of Lovecraft's writings. "When I spoke to the artists, Kevin and Adrian, about what creatures to put in the game and ideas for them, some of them came right from Lovecraft. For example, the black blob monsters that hop around and explode? I did a game expansion called Sandy Petersen's Guide to Monsters in 1987, and one of the monsters from that game was almost exactly [made in Quake]. And then of course, Shub-Niggurath at the end is another monster from that book."
The Tower of Despair, level two of Episode Four: The Elder World, begins by dropping players in a safe area. Once they leave, they cannot return. The walls figuratively close in around them, forcing them to go forward. Dark corridors twist through a derelict building centered on a great hall decorated with stained-glass windows and two large buttons bearing dagger symbols.
Even on Normal difficulty, Tower of Despair throws overwhelming odds at players, pitting them against Ogres, Shamblers, Knights and Death Knights—both wielding swords, but the latter able to take and dish out more punishment as well as dole out streams of fiery projectiles—and Vores, spider-like creatures with pincers for legs and spindly arms with which it throws spiked pods that slowly and inexorably track their targets.
Most of the designers shied away from enemies like the Vore, preferring Knights, Ogres, and the occasional Shambler. Petersen loved the Vore. He also loved increasing tension by being conservative with the amount of health, armor, and ammunition on his maps. Id's games had a reputation for being shooting galleries: If something moved, players were encouraged to shoot it. Dialing back resources was a tool Petersen used to get under their skin.
Petersen also enjoyed making players wait to get their hands on more powerful weapons like the rocket launcher and lightning gun. One of the things that had irritated him about designing Doom was that he had not been able to claim any episode for himself; every designer contributed to each episode. That meant that if he designed a level low on ammo, players might still be able to clear it easily if they had harvested a surplus of ammo on the level they had just finished. The Elder World was his episode. He controlled flow and pacing not just through one level at a time, but through all of them.
"Not that I wanted to starve you, but some of my levels were more fun, I felt, if you were going through them with the nailgun or shotgun instead of the rocket launcher, or sometimes vice versa," he said.
Petersen's usage of water became legend around the office, and not only because he made trippy regions such as pools of water that floated in midair. Water, he explained, was one of Lovecraft's Achilles' heels. "Lovecraft didn't like seafood, and he hated cold. Things that were cold or aquatic were major features in his stories."
That knowledge spurred Petersen to use water in ways that would cause players to second-guess their progression. Doom had not contained water. There had been floors covered in slime or lava, but those had been textures that dealt damage. In Quake, water was a 3D space, just like rooms and hallways, except players moved sluggishly and had to come up for air every 30 seconds or so.
"I looked at it and said, 'You know, I can have water that floats,'" he said. "I was thinking, What would be a cool secret to find at the bottom of a body of water? I was thinking of a treasure chest or a pipe that goes somewhere, but I wanted to get back into open air. At some point I realized I could have them fall out of the water and not be able to get back up to it. That would really disconcert them unless they rocket [jump] or something, because you can't jump up into the water. I guess my brain just works this way. It's this chaos theory, because you're like, 'Now what?'"
Water could also be used strategically. Throughout Episode Four and on many of Quake's deathmatch-only maps, players find the lightning gun near bodies of water. Firing lightning into the water instantly kills any living organism swimming through it. On any level containing water, players quickly learned to get to the lightning gun first, especially when paired with the Pentagram, which temporarily granted players invulnerability.
"That was pretty fun in deathmatch. In order to get the goodies, you have to go into [the water], but don't stay in long because someone will zap you," Petersen remembered.
Romero's decision to situate Petersen's levels as the final gauntlet before Shub-Niggurath—always assuming players went through episodes in order—paid dividends. Episode One, the shareware portion of the game, intentionally showcased the work of Romero, McGee, and Willits, because it was the most visually impressive, thus most likely to entice players to open up their wallets. While episodes two and three were excellent, Romero knew that Episode Four was something special.
"The big surprise would be everybody going through Sandy's stuff," Romero said. "If you can make it that far, you're going to get to Sandy's [episode], where everything is insane. When people got to Sandy's stuff, they'd meet a different design mind so far from what they had played before. It would give them a great ending to the game."
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