Matthew van Sickler is a special kind of bastard, and he's the first to admit it.
Like many teens and college students who acquired their gaming legs during the golden age of first-person shooters, van Sickler divided 1996 unevenly between pursuing higher education and blasting opponents into bloody gibs in high-octane bouts of Quake. He didn't frag alone.
Van Sickler and half a dozen of his friends belonged to a clan known as the Rangers. Based in far-flung countries, they ran roughshod over Quake's then-nascent online scene every time they convened in the game to pincushion foes with nails and ride rockets to victory. "We were fairly competitive since a lot of us cheated by being in college and having access to university T-1 lines," recalled van Sickler, who played under the online handle 'Unknown Soldier.'
Playing over T-1 connections gave the Rangers an advantage. Faster connections meant lower ping rates, translating to their networks sending and receiving data at lightning speeds.
Think of van Sickler and his cohorts as Han Solo: they always shot first.
"Yes, we were LPBs and proud of it," he said, proudly labeling his clan low-ping bastards.
The Rangers prevailed so often and so decisively that Quake's creators, the crew at id Software, invariably took notice. "I remember playing a sort of exhibition match on id Software's own Quake server, with the gods of id watching us play," van Sickler recalled. "I think we played against Clan Dong, not sure though—but I do remember we got our ass beat in front of John Carmack himself. Oh, well. It was still fun."
Van Sickler and his buddies didn't take their gaming too seriously at first. They were just a bunch of Quake addicts who aspired to make games, and who liked dreaming up new ways to play their favorite game exponentially more fun than they liked going to class. Over time, tinkering with ways to play Quake led them to built-in tools that let players capture gameplay and show off demo reels to friends.
Hackers had been recording and playing back game footage since the 1980s. It started as a way to plump their feathers: They'd work out how to crack an encryption, then add their own splash screens or animated introductions to pirated versions to call attention to their handiwork. Stunt Island, a flight simulator published by Disney Interactive 1992, wiped away the line in the sand that separated hackers and users by giving players tools to set up, record, and review stunts.
A year later, id Software's Doom attracted widespread praise not just for its groundbreaking 2.5D engine and deathmatch mode, but for simplifying the work involved in building levels, and in capturing gameplay sequences that users could weave together.
Quake built on Doom's foundation. Not only did it give players the means to record gameplay events, its enhanced array of gameplay possibilities—such as firing rockets at the ground to jump higher, and its engine's ability to render true 3D environments—facilitated more elaborate recordings in the form of demo files that could be played back in the game.
In October 1996, Rangers member Heath Brown (known in Quake circles as ColdSun) got an idea for a story he and the other Rangers could tell by splicing gameplay recordings into a short film. Discoveries documented by fellow Quake player Uwe Girlich would have streamlined his idea of cutting gameplay sequences into movie-like productions possible—if he'd known about them.
Girlich shared much in common with the Rangers. He was a doctoral student based in Germany and was the object of a game of tug-of-war between Quake and attending classes. After some dabbling, he reverse-engineered Quake's demo file format and gained insight into processes such as adjusting camera positions and player coordinates.
However, Girlich's discoveries had not yet been disseminated at the time Brown got it in his head to shoot a movie in Quake. Another Ranger, Eric 'ArchV' Fowler, jumped on board and engineered custom tools to reposition the in-game camera and splice together footage.
Brown dashed off a simple story while Fowler took charge of technical considerations. Other Rangers grew excited by their breakthroughs and pitched in. Van Sickler was appointed director.
"I was only tagged as the 'director' because I had the fastest internet connection and a fairly powerful computer to run the server and record the action. The story and action were all ColdSun's ideas for the first few movies, and I would just give my input as to what looked good from the camera's perspective."
Brown set his story, Diary of a Camper, in a Quake map labeled The Dark Zone, known to Quake diehards as DM6 (deathmatch map 6). Diary of a Camper opens with the Rangers convening in a round room with two levels and a few guns and health packs scattered around. A portal leads to another zone of the map; Brown's character orders two other Rangers to beam through and scout the area. Stepping through, they're immediately ambushed by a camper—a rival player who hides and picks off unwary players as they wander by.
Learning the fate of their comrades, the three remaining Rangers unload a volley of rockets into the camper's hiding spot and blast him into chunks. They move in on his position and identify him as John Romero, id Software co-founder and Quake co-designer.
Diary of a Camper's runtime clocked in at 1:36. Planning and filming took place in a single night, and Fowler's custom tools, while impressive, amounted to a starting point. As director, Van Sickler harnessed a combination of Fowler's tools and Quake cheat codes to float the camera and clip through walls, and disabled the in-game status bar showing health and ammo counters for a more immersive experience. Fowler realized they could add dialogue by sending in-game messages.
"That was actually the genesis of pretty much everything in the early days: ArchV saying 'I figured out how to do X' and so we had to put X in our movie," van Sickler remembered.
Diary of a Camper sparked an immediate reaction when the Rangers—who took to calling themselves United Ranger Films—released it online on October 26, 1996. Lots of players had released short demo files of impressive kills and speedruns through levels, but those were glorified highlight reels. Like replays during a sporting event. Diary of a Camper took demos to the next level by orchestrating events around a narrative.
"As far as I know we were the first to create a Quake demo that told a story," said van Sickler. "Of course, video games have been telling stories with scripted set pieces using in-game assets long before that. It just hadn't really been done by the gamers themselves before we came along. The reception was incredible and a huge ego boost for everyone involved. We were extremely motivated to continue."
Hours after wrapping up Diary of a Camper, Van Sickler and the other Rangers set their sights on loftier goals. Where Diary had told a simple story in a quick burst of gameplay, Ranger Gone Bad would be the first in an episodic series. The story is told from the perspective of an enemy sergeant who makes his rounds through Gloom Keep—a level from Quake's single-player campaign—and inspects his troops in advance of an impending assault by the Ranger clan.
Ranger Gone Bad showcases choreography and staging similar to Diary. The film is shot from Quake's first-person perspective, circumventing the need for fancy camerawork by van Sickler. In-game messages relay dialogue and actions such as salutes. Troops are played by the level's monsters, and are placed exactly where players find them in the campaign. Some patrol corridors, others remain in place; all are made passive (so as to prevent them from attacking the player during filming) by way of cheat codes.
At just over 11 minutes in length, Ranger Gone Bad II: Assault on Gloom Keep upped production values in every way possible. The story picks up with the Rangers launching their assault on Gloom Keep. At the outset, two Rangers coordinate their plans just before another Ranger—given the tongue-in-cheek name of Sgt. Judas—betrays them, firing a rocket from atop the keep's ramparts and killing off one teammate. Knights storm out of Gloom Keep's front gate and surround the remaining Ranger, Sgt. Pedowski, before escorting him inside. Once past the perimeter, Pedowski makes a bid for freedom; he grabs a rocket launcher and clears a path to the exit, but his rampage is cut short when Judas and two squads of knights take him prisoner.
As more drama unfolds, each story beat is blocked out in scenes. "Suddenly I was actually directing: gathering actors onto my server and voice chat, giving them staging instructions, telling everyone when to move and what to shoot," remembered van Sickler. "It would take a while for everyone to learn their parts and execute them properly, so we'd do a scene a bunch of times until everyone got it right."
Camera angles changed as needed, fluctuating from sweeping establishment shots to zooming along just behind a character as he sprints through hallways. The Rangers finagled their slick cinematography with a little help from Steve 'Wedge' Bond and John 'Choryoth' Guthrie, two other members of the clan who spent more time programming than gaming. Taking an interest in their friends' movies, they wrote a camera mod called RangerCam that accepted input from van Sickler and moved according to his specifications.
"It was a remarkable tool and it allowed me to do a lot of great things like queuing up dialog with binds, moving characters around, allowed the actors to change models, skins, and weapons on the fly, and provided me with a sparkly pointer to show people where I wanted them to move. Without that sparkly pointer we couldn't have been able to do some of the complex choreography of our later movies."
Logging on from their respective dorm rooms or campus computer labs, the Rangers met online to film scenes for RGB II at night. When someone had to duck out for work or class, an understudy—usually another member of the clan—hopped in and had to be walked through details like staging and when to send dialogue.
"Imagine you have a litter of Tasmanian Devils who have just taken a massive dose of amphetamines, and you must then instruct them on how to perform Swan Lake, from memory, using a mouse and keyboard and anything from 20ms to over a 400ms connection to the filming server, while each one has to stay in sync with everyone else's movements," said van Sickler. "It was a lot like that. I think a lot of our final cuts got done when everyone was too damn tired to keep screwing around and we just decided to do it right so we could all go to bed."
United Ranger Films published Ranger Gone Bad II on October 31, a mere five days after the release of Diary of a Camper and right on the heels of the first RGB. If Diary could be considered a quaint novelty, Ranger Gone Bad II signified the advent of movie-like cinema in video games.
It's easy to trace any medium to its origins and dismiss inaugural efforts as primitive. The very first movies lasted seconds, lacked audio, were in black and white, and were accessible through tower viewer-like devices called Kinetoscopes that cost money to use. Likewise, contemporary pundits like to criticize Diary of a Camper's short length and elementary narrative, which amounted to a choreographed deathmatch.
Even so, kinetoscopes and Diary innovated in their day and, perhaps more importantly, provided a springboard for United Ranger Films to go above and beyond their freshman effort. The popularity of Ranger Gone Bad II triggered an influx of what became known as Quake movies and later became known as machinima, defined as using real-time computer graphics to create animations. Devil's Covenant, made by Clan Phantasm, is considered the first full-featured in-game film; Clan Undead's Operation Bayshield broke ground by simulating lip synchronization.
United Ranger Films had no interest in outdoing the competition. They were creative types determined to push the envelope of a medium they happened to help pioneer.
"Honestly I never watched a lot of other Quake machinima that came out," said van Sickler. "The creative aspect was what I enjoyed about it, not so much the consumption. I got a rush from seeing what new and cool ways we could abuse the Quake engine to show people something they hadn't seen before."
Ultimately, it was an early showing of one of those cool new projects that led to the collapse—and eventual restoration—of their final project.
In the middle of cranking out Ranger Gone Bad QMovies, United Ranger Films honed their craft on another project called Torn Apart. It was less a film and more a tech experiment: id Software had rolled out a patch that let players assume control of enemies, and the gang thought it'd be a lark to step into the cloven feet of baddies like the Shambler. Trying their hand at a new project also gave them a chance to put RangerCam through its paces prior to kicking off production of Ranger Gone Bad II.
URF rode a wave of Internet fame into 1997, one that propelled them to QuakeCon, the second annual Quake-centric convention where hundreds players from around the world lug their tricked-out PCs to a hotel in Texas for a weekend of sleepless days and nights trading grenades in deathmatch. Ranger Gone Bad was so popular that URF's members had received a personal invitation to show off their work on RGB 3, then in early stages of production, to id co-founder and programming whiz John Carmack.
Ranger Gone Bad 3 was shaping up to be the team's most ambitious project to date. Van Sickler and Fowler spent the better part of QuakeCon working frantically to put finishing touches on their sneak preview. First, they'd show it off to Carmack. Then attendees would be privy to a public demonstration.
Handing off their presentation to reps from id, the team went out to dinner. For them, the convention was doubly worthy of a celebratory feast: not only would they soon breathe the same oxygen as John Carmack, it marked the first time any of them had met in person.
When they got back from dinner, their elation dried up.
"They showed our preview to the convention attendees while our whole clan was out at dinner," van Sickler said. "And from what I heard they showed it on a machine where the timing was off, so nothing synced up properly and it looked like ass. This absolutely killed us."
URF made a few attempts to finish Ranger Gone Bad 3 over the next few years. Each one petered out. Technical snafus abounded, and scheduling became an issue as members finished school and entered the workforce, some as game developers. Bond's and Guthrie's RangerCam tool caught the attention of then-tiny startup Valve Software. The pair went on to contribute to some of the company's biggest games such as Half-Life, Half-Life 2, and Left 4 Dead 2. David 'Zoid' Kirsch gained Internet celebrity status for creating Capture the Flag, a mod for Quake. Steve 'Blue' Heaslip founded Quake-centric site Bluesnews.com, which evolved over time to cover a wider spectrum of gaming news.
"We had travelled all that way and worked our asses off to get that part done, and had our moment of glory stolen from us. The team never really recovered from that hit," van Sickler admitted.
Bryan Henderson (known among the Shacknews.com community as 'CrustaR') walked the path that van Sickler and his friends had helped pave. He went from playing Quake, to idolizing id Software's programmers and daydreaming of writing games, to making his daydreams a reality.
"Right after the Quake demo was first released, there were mods for it straight out of the gate," he remembered. "The mods instantly increased the longevity of the game because there were so many things you could do with the engine: it was no longer about the game out of the box, it was what people could do with the game."
Henderson was as interested in modifying Quake as he was playing the game itself. After learning his way around Quake's weapons and monsters, he loaded up editing software and created a Doom mod that replaced the game's default weapons and demons with those of Quake. From there, he blocked out and recorded machinima in Quake 2, id's 1997 follow-up.
Where most machinima circa late-1990s recycled monsters and weapons, as Ranger Gone Bad had done, Henderson built his own character models, animations, music, and environments from scratch. He brought these pieces and parts together through a technique known as block tree editing. Each demo file started with one empty block that he proceeded to fill with entities such as actors, sound effects or music that triggered on a certain cue, and map coordinates.
"It took a super long time to make. I would get extremely picky about each individual frame and make sure that models wouldn't slide their feet or anything. In hindsight, I probably could have been doing more productive things with my time, but I learned a lot about scripting and animation then."
Between projects, Henderson logged into chat rooms and talked with friends he'd met in Quake. "I used to hang out in all the channels back then. The community wasn't that large, so I had a lot of mutual friends with the Ranger clan. I mainly lurked around back then. I was fairly shy back then and mainly just deathmatched dudes."
One of his friends was Unknown Soldier, civilian identity Matthew van Sickler. As they traveled the same online circles, Henderson was acquainted with Ranger Gone Bad; he just couldn't grasp how, exactly, it had been made, since the Rangers had engineered their movie using custom tools that no one outside of their inner circle would understand.
Henderson gave himself a crash course in building Quake movies. He looks back on his debut effort, Prison of Hell, less than fondly. "It took, like, an evening, and it was bad. A lot of my friends in the Quake movie community always thought I was joking when I say I made that, but it is the truth."
Despite his aptitude with Quake 2's more robust toolsets and his mortification over Prison of Hell, Henderson felt drawn to creating machinima in the original Quake. Several times during the year 2000, he logged into chat and asked for ColdSun's permission to finish Ranger Gone Bad 3. His passion for URF's earlier projects was evident, so Fowler welcomed him into the circle.
Henderson slaved over the film's first 15 minutes, simultaneously struggling to get the hang of URF's editing tools and piecing scenes together. When he finished, he sent it to Fowler, who made it public. No one noticed.
Van Sickler wasn't surprised. There had been other attempts to close the loop on RGB III over the years, and had come to the same result. "ArchV and I worked on it sporadically, and when he finally threw in the towel I found another demo editor to work on it. And then that fell apart. And so on," he said.
For 16 years, Henderson let sleeping dogs lie. In June 2016, his interest in another long-running machinima rekindled his enthusiasm for RGB. "I was drinking some beer one night and wanted to check out the new Machine Games Quake episode. I happened across the RGB3 directory and then messaged Unknown Soldier on Steam and kind of joked about it. Why not just record it to video and send it out as is to people."
"At first I was like, 'Dude that was almost 20 years ago, let it go!'" van Sickler remembered. "But eventually he wore me down and I gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with it."
Finishing Ranger Gone Bad 3 became more than a passion project for Henderson. It was an obsession. "I know it's selfish to think so, but I just really wanted to see the end result of the film all in one piece. I never finished it after all the years, and I wanted to see how the story played out. If people dug the movie, great. If they didn't, I still finally got to see it."
Over June and July, Henderson did little else but work on RGB. When he wasn't working on it, he turned problems over in his mind, grinding away at possible solutions he could implement as soon as he could wrap up his daily duties as a husband, father, and gainfully employed citizen, and rush back to his computer.
He never ran short of problems to mull over. Ranger Gone Bad 3 was in as inchoate a state as it had been in 2000. Demo files that needed to be tied together were scattered across folders. Scripts—files that automate tasks—had been dumped in seemingly arbitrary directories rather than paired with adjoining demo files. Some scenes had voices, some didn't. Some scenes had scripting files written and ready to go; most didn't.
"It was a nightmare. Putting it all back together would take a tremendous feat; one would have to come up with missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle out of thin air."
Henderson pounded virtual pavement to see if some of those jigsaw pieces might exist elsewhere. Online, he hit up other former members of URF to see if they had leads on missing files. To a person, each told him to give up. RGB was dead.
Henderson rolled up his sleeves and exported RGB 3 in its fragmented state. What he got was a raw file that more closely resembled a car freshly run through a junkyard press than one fresh off the assembly line. He loaded it in Windows Movie Maker and got to work—making cuts and adding text where voices were missing, agonizing over each line so that his additions felt appropriate for each character.
Even with dialogue filled in, RGB 3 lacked tension. That was no good. RGB 2 had caught fire because it had been the first machinima to feel like a movie. It had things that RGB 3 still lacked—things like sound. "I don't think it was ever meant to have a full music soundtrack. You can tell from the drum lines at the beginning of each scene that each scene was supposed to start and end with a dream beat. Only the intro had music."
He hunted around online for free percussion beats that would gel with the film's minimalistic composition. None felt right. Instead of looking to music recorded by others, he set his sights closer to home and ended up with a combination of free tracks as well as music from Zombie Slayer, a mod he'd created for Doom 3.
"A lot of the tracks fit perfectly. Some tracks went to silence just at the right time. It was weird how well some of it just fit in place," he said. "I also removed a few of some really long cuts. I don't know why they were there. They may have been an artifact of Unknown Soldier saying cut at the wrong moment. I cut out about 10 minutes of dead scenes where nothing was happening."
Closing the Loop
Over two months, Ranger Gone Bad 3 came together not like a puzzle, but like a quilt. Each time Henderson finished one piece, he had to weave it through three or four others. On August 4, 2016, the quilt was finished: he released RGB 3 on YouTube and credited the production to United Ranger Films.
The final installment of the trilogy runs 43 minutes and is a tapestry of threads old and new. Van Sickler was one of the first to tune in. "I watched it and it made me really happy to see it all put together for the first time. It was amazing. I had honestly forgotten just how much we had done before we gave up all those years ago, and just how much of it there was."
Henderson did his best to drum up excitement. He shotgunned messages to former URF members as well as old friends and rivals whom he had deathmatched during Quake's heyday. Response has been minimal, but Henderson doesn't mind.
"I am happy with how it turned out. I feel like it is the product of all my years developing cinematics and my final farewell to game cinematics. I know a lot of aspects are incomplete, but it's finally done. Finally. It's a huge weight off my shoulders."
Much like working on game cinematics in general, calling a wrap on Ranger Gone Bad 3 specifically was bittersweet for Henderson. Before taking up a torch that had fizzled back in 2000, he'd put together a portfolio showing off his work in machinima and animations, and applied for a position at BioWare Austin as a cinematic designer. He reached out to contacts he'd made in the games industry, hoping a few of them would be willing to put in a good word with anyone they happened to know at the studio.
None of them came through. The bigger slap in the face was the fact that many of them had the gall to tell him he shouldn't bother holding his breath; he was an amateur, and didn't have what it took to hack it in game development.
"I'm not one to be discouraged easily, but when people who I thought were my friends told me they wouldn't help me, it took a lot of wind out of my sails and made me wonder why I was really making game cinematics."
Henderson tried not to let his supposed friends' criticism get him down. He downloaded Epic's free Unreal Development Kit and began work on an adventure game. Months later, he had finished a cinematic that would play at the beginning of the game, introducing players to the world, story, and characters, but retired the game after some soul searching.
Playing video games will remain a cherished pastime, but he no longer nurtures a passion to develop them.
Having a dream taken away is painful. Letting go of a dream because it no longer makes you happy takes courage. Henderson let go of one passion and found another—and with it, a sense of peace. "I have been drawing and painting these past several years on and off just for myself. I'm a huge art collector now. I'm pursuing a few certifications as well. Other than that, I'm glad to say that I don't really have any long term commitments project-wise."
Van Sickler struck out at getting his foot in the door of the games industry as well, but hasn't let it get him down. "I spent just about every waking hour working on that movie for months at a time, and just quit going to class altogether. But I learned a ton about map making, texturing, and I even interviewed at a few game companies—id, Ritual, and Valve—but never made it past runner-up at any of them. So I decided the game industry wasn't in the cards and went down a different path."
Henderson, van Sickler, and every other member of United Ranger Films deserve credit for forging a path of their own. Red vs. Blue, Portal, Time Commanders, A Law-Abiding Engineer—every piece of machinima—indeed, the art form itself—traces back to Ranger Gone Bad, an epic that United Ranger Films started and Bryan Henderson finished, and with exemplary results.
Although he no longer keeps one finger on the pulse of machinima, Henderson likes what he sees as the future of the medium.
"These people basically make 3D movies with full animation. I think I was ahead of the curve on that one because I also used pure 3D animation with my work. In other words, I believe that 3D animators are the future of game cinematics. I'm sure scripting is still there, but many engines now support people exporting cameras and objects directly from the 3D programs. You basically have CGI films at this point, but in real-time."
The following sources were helpful in writing this article: Firsthand interviews with Matthew van Sickler and Bryan 'Henderson, "Ranger Gone AWOL" on Machinima.com, and "United Ranger Films" on Gutenberg.US.