The Making of Quake, Part 1: We are the Wind

Following the release of Doom 2, id Software wrestles with bleeding-edge technology and internal strife over what type of game to make next.


Shacknews is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Quake--and of Shacknews--by serializing Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters--our flagship long read exploring the making of id Software's Quake trilogy, the culture inside id during development of Quake 1, 2, and 3, and the impact id's games had on the FPS genre. Every week in June, we'll post another chapter offering unprecedented, behind-the-scenes access into one of the most influential games ever made. In today's chapter, the id team recovers from making 1994's Doom II and struggles to define its next project.

You can read Rocket Jump in its entirety in the Shacknews Long Read section of the site, where you'll find more deep dives into stories of how games are made and the people who make them.

-David L. Craddock - Shacknews long reads editor

Fighting for Justice… Later

IN THE SUMMER of 1996, Quake became the fourth jewel in Texas-based developer id Software's crown. In another way, it was the second.

Commander Keen, a trilogy of smooth-scrolling platform games developed on PC, put id on the map in 1990. As Keen caught on, a buzz grew around id's next game, The Fight for Justice, teased by selecting Preview from Keen's main menu.

"The Fight for Justice was a top-down RPG," said John Romero. Along with John Carmack, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack (no relation to John), Romero was a co-founder of id Software and 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 two months for Softdisk magazine's Gamer's Edge subscription disk. Every weekend, the id crew would take a break from developing their latest game and gather around a table where Carmack directed their latest adventure. As his campaign unfolded, Carmack paired up his friends' characters with bands of heroes such as the Silver Shadow Band, who rode 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.

"Teaser for The Fight for Justice.

Quake, the leader of the Band, 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.

Romero and the others had a vision for how Quake's adventures should play out on the screen and got to work on The Fight For Justice in January 1991. 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 Dangerous Dave and the Haunted Mansion, a 2D platformer built using Commander Keen's tech.

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 a 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 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D and 1993’s Doom had forever altered the course of the studio, and the gaming industry.

Inspired by Castle Wolfenstein, a stealth game on the Apple II 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, popularizing the first-person shooter. When Doom's shareware episode uploaded to the University of Wisconsin's servers in December ‘93, 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 what game to work on next.

Artifacts, awards, and other memorabilia from the awards display case in the reception area of id Software's Dallas, Texas-based headquarters.

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 the game's 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 weapons, more power-ups, and, inevitably, more custom levels built by Doom's community of fans thanks to free editing tools that enterprising users would base on id Tech 1—known as the Doom engine until it was retroactively branded the first generation of id Tech in order to more easily

Meanwhile, Carmack set about researching and writing a brand-new engine. Although Wolfenstein 3D and Doom let players move freely through environments, the games were not truly three-dimensional, nor were they strictly 2D. Doom's engine is pseudo-3D, referred to by many as 2.5D. Under the hood, Carmack had pulled off high artifice to generate the illusion of 3D movement and terrain. Although levels are rendered as three-dimensional spaces, 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 ceilings, then stretches and projects them. The rendition is convincing. Stairs connect higher and lower floors, and elevators run players up and down shafts.

Id Tech 1's sleight of hand came with limitations. Floors and ceilings could not be sloped. Players climbed staircases to different floors, but they may have noticed that those floors never overlapped. The reason is that objects such as rooms and bridges could not be positioned above or below one another. Because all data existed on a 2D plane, any rooms or corridors stacked vertically would occupy the same space on the grid even though they appeared to be distinct locations.

Carmack's goal for id's next game 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, adding the depth of a Z axis to X and Y.

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," level designer Sandy Petersen, who had joined id Software in 1993 midway through production on Doom, 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. They had been the perfect team dating back to Softdisk before id’s inception. Carmack was a technical genius able to build game engines from the ground up, while Romero wielded programming savvy and a flair for designing levels that squeezed every drop of performance from Carmack's code. At Softdisk and during development of Keen, Wolfenstein, and Doom, the two Johns had matched each other beat for beat. Everyone at id expected them to work in sync again on Quake: Carmack writing the engine, and Romero building custom tools such as editors, and leading design efforts to bring their weekend sword-and-sorcery-exploits 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 he realized 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 fired him.

A screenshot from early on in Quake's development.

No matter how large id's team was, 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 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 frame rate," 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 Quake's game engine—retroactively named 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 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.

Artifacts, awards, and other memorabilia from the awards display case in the reception area of id Software's Dallas, Texas-based headquarters.

"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 10 or 11 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 comprised 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 can be read in and draw the screen really fast."

Planning and implementing Quake's pipeline was the biggest technical challenge Carmack had faced to date. Building Wolfenstein 3D and Doom had entailed sophisticated tech that ultimately boiled down to simulations of three-dimensional spaces. Writing a 3D engine was uncharted terrain. Drawing surfaces loaded with data brought about 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 test beds, but he could not converse with Carmack about the 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."

From left to right: John Carmack, Adrian Carmack (no relation), John Romero. Image credit goes to its original owner.

Abrash wrote the book on graphics programming. Literally. Amateur game developer turned Microsoft coder, Abrash published articles on assembly language programming in hacker periodical Dr. Dobb's Journal that opened Carmack's eyes to more efficient ways of throwing images onto the screen. But the real breakthrough for Carmack came when Romero gave him a copy of Power Graphics Programming, a tome written by Abrash that divulged how he tackled advanced visual processes. As if the two Johns had not worshipped Abrash already, the knowledge Carmack gleaned from Power Graphics Programming 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 issues, Carmack could split his focus between graphics and other engine components. He wrote an in-game console that let designers—and later, players—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 re-compile [game code]."

Carmack's scripting language became QuakeC. With it, designers could create weapons, change 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 showed forward thinking. Carmack had made a habit of releasing his source code to game engines such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Users could download the 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 made.

"With Doom, there was a program called DeHackEd 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 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 spaces 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.

"The original idea was that there would be this guy," explained Petersen, "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. It would be this D&D-ish fantasy game."

As Quake's lead designer, Romero had big plans for its direction. The player, in the role of 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."

Players would move in first-person, exploring lush worlds as their Hellgate Cube drifted along 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 used 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 mountains and forests in favor of indoor environs.

Artifacts, awards, and other memorabilia from the awards display case in the reception area of id Software's Dallas, Texas-based headquarters.

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 many reasons 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 levels 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 was conducting 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, another level designer and one of id’s newer hires. 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 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. 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 was not hired until much later in 1995, so he could not speak authoritatively on the studio's earlier designs or workflow. 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."

Artifacts, awards, and other memorabilia from the awards display case in the reception area of id Software's Dallas, Texas-based headquarters.

"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 flag 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 to deadlines. At Softdisk where the co-founders had met, they had been tasked with publishing one game a month. As their ambition increased and the scope of their projects swelled, they were given two months per project. 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, working on the magazine’s games by day and pulling late nights to build Keen until they could split from the magazine and work on id Software full-time. The guys were continuing their tradition of writing code and painting graphics in sprints of 12 or more hours on Wolfenstein 3D, 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 in January 1993 announcing the game. 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. 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.'"

An excerpt from Quake's design documentation, posted to John Romero's Twitter, from when the game was briefly known as Timequake. (Image credit: John Romero.)

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 players advancing level by level. 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," Romero 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 roll in late in the 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."

Artifacts, awards, and other memorabilia from the awards display case in the reception area of id Software's Dallas, Texas-based headquarters.

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 crystallized. "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. But until Carmack ironed out his technology, Romero insisted nothing could nor 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 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 id, he supplied assets to Prima Games so their authors could write official strategy guides for the Doom titles. He was also the primary point of contact for Raven Software, the studio 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."

One claim Romero did not dispute was that he spent many hours at work playing deathmatch in Doom and Doom 2. As passionate about playing games as he was about making them, he sat hunched over his monitor for hours on end, 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 his and the team’s 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 light 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.

QuakeEd level editor. (Image credit: Quake Wiki.)

But even Romero admitted he took deathmatch too far. Carmack once got so fed up with the cacophony of laughter and curses 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 had merit. More and more, id's developers recognized 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 ray tracing 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 building 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."1

Another of Petersen's favorite Carmack anecdotes concerned how the genius programmer had handled moving 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. Often 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, interacting with him could 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.

Artifacts, awards, and other memorabilia from the awards display case in the reception area of id Software's Dallas, Texas-based headquarters.

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 made a decision.

"I 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."

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. When he had their attention, 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?"

A screenshot from early on in Quake's development.

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 agreed, but why not go further?

Petersen did not remember the meeting in the same light. Because of one circumstance or another, he and the others had been creating levels suited to an action-heavy FPS the whole time, a motif that conflicted with Romero’s plans. 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?'" Petersen said.

Other developers agreed. There was good sense in sticking with what worked, and with what id Software did arguably better than anyone else. A pit opened in Romero’s stomach.

Petersen knew that some of his peers dreamed of making games besides first-person shooters. He knew also 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 levels from Doom before switching over to a second project, a flight simulator. Excited, the guys had outlined their plans. Their game 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. 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 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."

Artifacts, awards, and other memorabilia from the awards display case in the reception area of id Software's Dallas, Texas-based headquarters.

Carmack put his foot down. Quake would be a first-person shooter like Doom. Any assets they had—monsters, items, weapons, 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."

You can read Rocket Jump in its entirety in the Shacknews Long Read section of the site, where you'll find another deep dives into stories of how games are made and the people who make them.

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at and @davidlcraddock.

From The Chatty
Hello, Meet Lola