As GPU manufacturers such as 3dfx and NVIDIA competed for consumer dollars, John Carmack evolved the id Tech 3 in parallel. The first and most obvious upgrade, evinced in screenshots published in magazines and online, was Quake 3's dazzling 32-bit color modes and the deepest color palette yet.
Bricks that made up floors appeared uneven and scuffed, and brick walls employed different textures than those used in floors. Ornate doorframes separated corridors and courtyards. Pillars could be crafted from different types of stone and bore a range of decals—from skulls to granite to sharply angled arteries that glowed like circuits on a board.
While surfaces could take many forms, id Software's artists and designers created order by dividing levels into categories of textures. "We had a limited palette, which boiled down to goth, metal, dark stuff, medieval, and tech," said Jennell Jaquays. "Tech could be varied, because there was room. We all interpreted every theme in our own [ways]."
The id Tech 2 engine had imposed restrictions on design based on mathematical factors such as allotting designers only so many polygons per stage. By handing off graphics processing to a dedicated source, the GPU, id Tech 3 removed many limitations. "By that point, we were getting a pretty good idea of our tech," Jaquays continued. "I don't think we had to rebuild a lot of maps through that first part of [development]. We had to rebuild some, but we ended up locking down a few of them relatively early."
To spice up textures and level geometry, the engine introduced a number of visual and design improvements. Beginning with Wolfenstein 3D, all of id's first-person shooters had featured rooms of varying sizes connected by halls at right angles. In Quake 3, curved surfaces let players follow wending hallways and step through archways. Even teleporters got a visual upgrade, evolving from simple pads and gateways full of dark, swirling matter to mirror-like portals.
"Carmack talked early on, for Doom, about having a teleporter that you could look through and see another area," Romero recalled from id's early days. "They would have been portals, or sectors, that let you look into another part of the level, and [the engine] would have rendered beginning at that point and onward."
One of id Tech 3's most impressive features was also one of its simplest to manipulate. Shaders are text files that contain instructions for how a surface should look and interact with players and the world. Shaders break down into two types. There are surface effects such as RGB (red, green, and blue) color values, transparency for objects like portals, and glowing, pulsing lights. Then there are content shaders, elements that affected how surfaces behave. Water, for instance, slows down player movement and distorts their perspective.
While GPUs offered numerous benefits over pumping out polygons in software, every shader demanded processing time and resources. Fortunately, tweaking visual elements was often as simple as opening a text file and adjusting values, putting more control in the hands of designers and artists.
"I think people saw John's work there as the beginning of, 'Oh, shaders are a good idea. I should take a look at that,'" said Graeme Devine. There are a lot of beginnings in Quake 3 of things that became staples in other games just a few years later."
Pulling from a diverse color palette and a bevy of effects, Quake 3's level designers were able to construct arenas that played to a wide array of themes. Vertical Vengeance plays with verticality by challenging players to control territory across multiple floors. A tower rises between several levels of catwalks. Far below, an acid pit punishes those who get thrown around by splash damage from rockets.
Vertical Vengeance's main attraction is a trio of bounce pads that catapult players from lower floors up to the map's highest reaches, and some of the map's best power-ups and weapons.
"We were working our way up to really complicated play styles near the end," remembered Jaquays. "Platform-jumping ended up being a really complex play style. For the last half of the year, we weren't adding new maps, but we were making changes to the ones we already had: adding, reducing."
Designers took care to riddle maps with multiple points of ingress and egress, hidey-holes where campers could squirrel away, and larger, courtyard-sized terrain that encouraged assertive players to employ a combination of the Quad Damage power-up and powerful, splashy weapons like the rocket launcher to add half a dozen or more frags to their score in a matter of seconds.
Whether a designer favored camping sites, twisty passageways, or big spaces built for shootouts, each level exemplified the Quake franchise's core tenet: territory control. Casual players saunter through maps, picking up armor and ammo as they happen across it, but the best players know each arena's twists and turns.
Temple of Retribution, a hell-themed level brimming with dirty textures and fiery pits, exhibits more traditional elements. Two or three players may roam its wide-open areas and snarl of hallways for relatively long periods before getting into a dust-up, but hosting between six and 10 players—the map's recommended count—will lead to fast and furious scraps for high ground as well as cover and vantage points for those who excel at picking off opponents with the sniper rifle-like railgun.
"If you can master a map, you become a better player, and you have an advantage," Jaquays said. "The Quake games are so skill based that you almost have to think of [level design] that way: What tricks can I put in that someone else can master?"
The Longest Yard is distinguished as one of Quake 3's most popular maps. Visually simplistic, Longest Yard consists of three islands floating amid the blackness of space. Three platforms, two connected by a bridge, make up the main island. Players hop on bouncepads to slingshot themselves to smaller islands and battle over health, armor, weapons, and space. Generally, the first player to claim the railgun can post up on one of the smaller islands and snipe at rivals. There are no hiding spots: The map is completely open, incentivizing assertiveness and a steady aim.
"That was an idea to use jump pads and throw people around," said Jaquays. "Each of the maps was designed to introduce some feature, or at least [promote] a different visual or play style."
While designer Brandon James built the Longest Yard, Graeme Devine, as the game's director, inspected each arena, playing it to get a feel for its pace, layout, and item balance. After playing, he sent feedback to the designer, who put his or her map through revisions to shore it up.
Devine had an eye for level design, but maps went through peer review as well. "Tim Willits is really the man who should be congratulated for that," Devine said. "That man knows level layout like no one else on this planet I've ever known. Everyone would make their own maps and make their own changes, but Tim gave the best feedback."
Throughout its history, id Software revolutionized technology first, gameplay second. With Quake 3, id Software followed the path it had paved.
Valve's Half-Life, released in November 1998 over a year before Quake 3 launched in December 1999, revamped the gameplay possibilities inherent in shooter staples such as shotguns implementing alternate modes of fire. The shotgun's primary mode fired a single shell; its alternate attack sent out a double blast, merging Doom's regular and super shotguns. Epic Games' Unreal Tournament brimmed with ordnances that rewarded strategic attacks. The ASMD Shock Rifle sends out an orb of energy through its secondary fire; shooting the orb with a beam of energy, the weapon's primary fire, causes the orb to detonate like a grenade, inflicting massive damage on players in the surrounding area.
Guns sporting alternate fire effectively served as two guns in one. With Quake 3, id ignored those and other advancements.
"We didn't really play a lot of other first-person shooters," Devine admitted. "When we looked at Unreal Tournament, it was more to look at their tech than anything else. We were really focused on our game."
Quake 3 epitomized deathmatch served in its purest form: single-purpose weapons, territory control, and player skill attained over hours of practice. The game's weapons, inherited from Doom and Quake, were thoughtfully chosen to feel familiar to fans.
"It always seemed like we had the right number [of weapons]," said Devine. "It was always about, 'What's the circle of viciousness that these guns have?' and making them complementary to each other."
Players start each match with the machinegun and a whirring saw blade good only as a last resort. Around each map lie a medley of weaponry spanning a double-barreled shotgun, grenade and rocket launchers, Quake's lightning gun, Doom's plasma rifle, the railgun for sniping, and the BFG10K, a modified version of Doom's big freaking gun.
All weapons underwent multiple rounds of testing. Each implement had to be powerful enough to be useful in its ideal situation, yet not so powerful that finding it translated to domination. The BFG10K went under the knife several times. The original model unleashed a blast of plasma energy that spawned several smaller blasts. Aiming was unimportant: A BFG shot could strike a wall or player and still deal damage through its smaller blasts.
That wouldn't do for Quake 3. The BFG10K fires medium-sized plasma wads at a rapid clip—not as fast as the machinegun or plasma rifle, but quicker than the rocket launcher pumped out explosives. The rub was that blasts had to connect with opponents to inflict damage. This tradeoff helped to ensure that casual players could get their hands on it and stand a fighting chance, but better players could still dispatch them by relying on their knowledge of how to approach players wielding any type of weapon.
Level designers placed the BFG10K on their maps with care, aware that it would be coveted. Consequently, the BFG tends to be located in out-of-the-way spots when it appears on maps at all. Although more nuanced than its Doom incarnation, the weapon stirred up differing opinions among developers.
"There's one map I did where I wish I hadn't put the BFG in," said Jaquays, referring to the Dredwerkz, aka Q3DM12. "It allows players to dominate the map too easily. There's some big open spaces where you can fire it off and kill a lot of players [at once]. That's probably a choice where if I had to make it again, I probably wouldn't include it on that map."
Graeme Devine believes the BFG10K's power is also its weakness. "As soon as you pick up the BFG, you're target number one. It's now you versus everyone. There was balance in, 'As powerful as this thing is, it's painted a target on my back. They'll even stop killing each other for a second to kill me."
Quake 3's developers mitigated the BFG's impact in another, more devious way. Ammo for the weapon is scarce. Not only does that make its ammo as sought-after as the weapon itself, picking up the weapon tends to go straight to the heads of less focused players, who begin firing wantonly rather than picking their spots.
"Unless you were very good with it, it was almost worse to get the BFG than it was for someone else to get it," continued Devine. "People always favor different weapons. My favorite was always the rocket launcher, even over the BFG, because BFG ammo was so hard to get and so hard to keep."
Devine was not alone in favoring the rocket launcher. Since the original Quake, the launcher had been the franchise's heaviest hitter as well as its most versatile tool on any battlefield thanks to its ability to launch players up to higher ground. For Quake 3, Devine scaled its impact so that the rocket launcher complemented rather than superseded other weapons, as had been the case in the past.
"The two variables in that were the speed, the velocity of how fast it would go; and then the damage it would do directly versus damage within a blast radius," he explained. After months of playtesting, the rocket launcher landed precisely where Devine had wanted it: square in the middle of the pack. The lightning gun inflicts damage rapidly, but only when it makes direct contact. The plasma gun is weaker than the rocket launcher, but it fires a stream of energy. At close range, few guns hit harder than the shotgun, while the rocket launcher would deal too much splash damage to the user to be viable up close.
Surprisingly it was neither the BFG nor the rocket launcher that sparked the most heated debates among the developers. "The rocket launcher was tweaked, but we never almost drew blood over it. The shotgun, I remember coming close to blows over several times," Devine said.
Everyone at id knew the value of the shotgun. More than just another weapon, the shotgun was the linchpin of first-person shooters, and with good reason. Although its rate of fire leaves something to be desired, it's not so slow as to be useless in a close-up fight. In fact, some argued that the punch it packs more than made up for its reloading time.
Arguments broke out over every facet of Quake 3's shotgun, from its rate of fire to the spread of its shells to dialing in how much damage it inflicted at any given range. After being put through the wringer numerous times, Quake 3's double-barreled shotgun emerged as a finely balanced tool. At close range, a single shot from its twin barrels takes a huge bite out of an unarmored player's life gauge. Further away, the gun still holds the potential to chew up nearly 40 percent of an opponent's hit points. The tradeoff to high-on-average damage is the cooldown time between shots, almost as lengthy as the railgun's.
"That was the best thing about id. That's where my gray hair started," Devine said proudly of design debates during Quake 3. "Everyone would chime in, absolutely everyone. As much as that was the worst part of my job because it was tough work, it was also the best part because we made something that was so well-balanced because of those arguments that it's still fun to pick up and play today."
Big personalities and flare-ups carried over to free time. At Trilobyte, Devine and his employees would take breaks by booting up WarCraft 2 and teaming up to battle other players online or teams of AI-controlled armies. His colleagues at id expressed interest in playing Blizzard's real-time strategy hit, but with a competitive twist.
"No one wanted to play on teams. Everyone wanted to kill everyone else," Devine remembered. "That's the big difference. At id, there was a lot of independence, a lot of independent thinking. It took a little bit of talking to get everyone into feeling good about everyone else. It was all solvable, but there were days when it was hard."
For the game's programmers, some of Quake 3's greatest challenges centered on network code. Most consumers played online games over phone lines. A growing number were upgrading to broadband connections, but that demographic was dwarfed by those who still used modems. To succeed online, Quake 3's networking protocols would need to be razor sharp. Players should be able to connect to game sessions started by others as well as run dedicated servers that anyone could join, and enjoy fluid gameplay without high latency crippling important processes such as detecting the positions of players and projectiles.
"To me, the networking was the big success of Quake 3: Bringing everyone together in the same place," said Devine.
Devine played a central role in fine-tuning the game's networking. Although Carmack was keeping a close eye on the Internet and related technologies, his focus was on id Tech 3's graphical capabilities. While Carmack coaxed more polygons out of GPUs, Devine wrote compression algorithms to speed up processes between the client computers running Quake 3 and the servers hosting the game's data.
Quake 3's networking was put to the test when id Software rolled out its first multiplayer-only demo in the late fall of 1999. "We had so many assumptions going into Q3test1 of how the Internet worked, and just based on the experience of using it from our homes and the office, that all seemed to check out," Devine said. "Then we launched Q3test1, and oh my God. We learned all about port forwarding, the blocks that some universities used. It was a big learning lesson for us."
Devine rolled up his sleeves and tightened networking code. He received assistance from John Hook, an online-savvy programmer who would go on to Blizzard Entertainment and help launch World of WarCraft. Together, they tightened screws until Q3test1 glided over dial-up connections.
Quake 3's demos opened the studio up to other problems besides poor connectivity. "Q3test1 and 2 were also when we came under attack. People would send us malformed packets that they would use to try and bring down the servers," Devine remembered.
On July 16, id Software launched Q3test1 at ten p.m. Central. The network sagged under a full-on DDOS, or denial-of-service attack, a flood of packets from outside users designed to overload servers. The programmers fought back, building dams out of code, but the hackers broke through. At last Devine went to Carmack.
"I said, 'John, we've got to get a firewall,'" Devine recalled. "He said, 'No, we don't need one.' 'John, we need a firewall.' Then he tried to log in and couldn't log in. He went and physically pulled the T1 [cable] from out of the wall in the networking room and went, 'Buy your firewall.'"
Later, the programmers wrote more encryption on Quake 3's network packets in order to block networking-scanning devices designed by hackers to sniff out certain types of information and compromise it. "It became a constant job to keep up with that," admitted Devine.
As always, John Carmack resided in a communication vacuum. Advancements in the underpinnings of id Tech 3 consumed him. Alterations to facilitate gameplay and basic interactions seemed to mystify him.
"It took some convincing to get him to allow a UI to be added to the game," Devine said. "He didn't really have interest in that side of the game flow: how you start the game, how you select the game [mode], how you select teammates, how you select servers. That was not his part of the game."
For the last nine months of 1999, few developers from id ventured out of the office for any purpose other than to catch a few winks at home. Long hours were inevitable. Their impact on the team varied between disciplines. "I don't think we had the same degree of intensity, but we had fewer level designers," Jaquays said. "There were only three of us at that point, and each of us carried a much heavier map load than on previous games."
Even John Carmack took breaks, after a fashion. The tech guru caught his breath by shifting his focus from one facet of development to another. One evening he came to work and told Devine that Quake 3's cameras should scan areas a thousand times every second. By making that one change, he said, he could learn techniques that would enable him to revolutionize cellphone cameras. Devine, by then already hard at work on Quake 3's Team Arena expansion pack, reminded him that they had a product of their own to ship.
When he wasn't trying to radically reshape ancillary industries or reshaping his game engines, Carmack was building and launching rockets. "Outside my office would be rocket fuel," Devine said. "I'd say, 'John, these containers: Are they safe? Because it's got a big [warning] logo on the side and it's outside my office.' And he'd say, 'Hmm. I should really go put that into the garage.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, you should really go put that into the garage.'"
In Devine, Carmack thought to have found another cohort. A compatriot to work alongside him—right alongside, sticking to his night-owl schedule so they would remain in sync. Devine politely but firmly refused. He was a father, and worked from 10 in the morning until eight at night so he would have time with his family before they went to bed.
"He and I never agreed on [schedules] while I was at id, but after he had his own kid, he wrote me saying, 'You were right about that,'" Devine remembered.
Although the hours were long, id's development team remained characteristically small. Its intimate size incited situations where fuses grew short, but also brought developers closer together. Brandon James went outside every hour or two for a smoke break. Devine often tagged along, chatting with James until he went back to his desk. Around ten each night, the team would head to Starbucks to drink coffee and talk about games, about families, about Quake. At two a.m., they would head out again to grab greasy food from a diner down the street.
"There were no strangers on that crew," Devine said. "I shared an office with Tim Willits for most of the game's development. We were in an office next to the dentist. That led to a lot pranks. Because of that, because of how close we all were, it made that crunch a little bit easier."
Test of Time
Bright and early one Sunday, Rob Smith, executive editor at PC Accelerator, boarded a plane to Dallas. Todd Hollenshead, id's CEO, was waiting for him outside the studio when Smith's cab pulled up to the curb. Hollenshead escorted him into the black cube, walked him down a few dimly lit hallways, and plonked him down in front of a computer. Hollenshead explained that he had work to catch up on, but Smith was welcome to play Quake 3 for his cover story, the game's official reveal.
Smith sat down to play. A short while later—or so he thought—he looked up at a knock. "Todd came in and said he was going to leave, but I could stay. Oh, 'And here’s the passcode to the security on the door so I can make it safe whenever I choose to leave.'"
At four a.m., Smith staggered away from the desk. Around him, the office was dark and quiet. He went across the street to his hotel and collapsed into bed wearing the same clothes he'd worn on his flight and a grin.
"I was in id Software, playing Quake III, and they left me to it," Smith recalled. "As someone working as a fan, this was the greatest moment ever. I’m not entirely sure Todd would agree. But that was my moment. I’d written about these games, adored these games, and now I get to do this. How awesome is that?"
In December 1999, the verdict landed: Quake 3: Arena was indeed pretty awesome. Fans and critics gushed over new features such as curved surfaces and shaders, and praised the franchise's trademark speed, even when playing over a landline. The community of competitive and casual players exploded, flocking to Quake 3 and Epic's Unreal Tournament.
Unreal Tournament received several follow-ups over the years. Through all of them, Quake 3 stood the test of time. "I'm still really proud of it," Jaquays said. "Here we are, almost 20 years later, and it is still one of the premiere games for hardcore, competitive, fast-playing shooters. They just made the graphics a lot better [in Quake Champions]."
"That game is still underestimated, in my opinion," Smith said. "I was still at PCXL and Chuck Osborn, who is one of the best writers and funniest people I’ve ever met, gave it an 80 at PC Gamer. I couldn’t believe it. I gave it a 10. Thing is, we were both right. Not sure either of us knew at the time. But that was what was changing."
By the end of development, Devine and the rest of the team had sworn off going home, packing sleeping bags and curling up under desks for naps. During those moments, working on Quake 3 had felt like work. Bouts of exhaustion, shouting matches over shotguns, fending off waves of hackers. Through all of it, Devine's faith never wavered.
"Some games, when you launch them, you're uncertain," he explained. "Quake 3 was a game where we knew we'd just changed a lot. I think we knew we'd changed the Internet. That was worth sleeping under desks and all of the sacrifice. Very few games I've worked on, I would say, were worth the sacrifice. Quake 3 was worth it. It's just straight-up gameplay. There's nothing about the game that has any message; it's just playing a game on the Internet with lots of other people. I don't think anyone has done as pure a multiplayer game as Quake 3 since then."
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