The Making of Quake, Part 2: Degrees of Freedom

Learning the ins and outs of their most advanced game engine yet, id Software's developers follow their muses to create Quake's four distinct episodes.


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 another deep dives into stories of how games are made and the people who make them.

-David L. Craddock - Shacknews long reads editor

Episodic Content

IN JANUARY 1996, id Software’s co-founders signed a lease to extend their rental space. Formerly the occupants of Suite 666, the team spread out across the entire sixth floor of Town East Tower. Almost the entire floor. One tenant, a dentist, was friendly with the developers, so they let him be.

Two months after declaring that Quake would be a first-person shooter, John Carmack made another announcement. All developers were to pack up their essential gear and move into a large central room. "The area was just a big room together with no offices," said John Romero. "We called it the war room, and we all moved into that room."

Petersen made educated guesses as to why Carmack wanted everyone to share the same space. Maybe he thought being in close proximity would make them work harder. Maybe he was just lonely. Either way, Petersen didn't care for it. "All of us were in the big [room] together," he said. "To me, that made it harder to do things effectively. We couldn't all play our music like we wanted to; we couldn't listen to our levels as loudly unless we had headphones, and we didn't all have headphones. It was just more awkward to playtest and do things."

The war room. Seen: Michael Abrash (left), Adrian Carmack. (Image credit: John Romero.)

"It made a lot of people uncomfortable, but we were able to work side by side," Adrian Carmack said of the war room. "It was probably a good thing. We got the project finished faster than we would have had we all had separate offices. People start to get delirious; you start laughing and making jokes. It wasn't all bad."

There was another reason for everyone to pile into the same room. Since the meeting in November '95, the team had been crunching—industry jargon for working overtime, and a first for the studio. "We did that for seven months. It was the worst time in the company's history," Romero said.

Romero had a unique perspective on the studio's history with crunch. He and the other id-founders had been crunching from day one, but they had never thought of their schedules as crunching. Everyone had been excited by Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. They had pulled all-nighters because there was nowhere else they'd rather be than at the office working on their projects. Quake was different. The team had spent nearly a year experimenting and discarding work as John Carmack’s and John Romero’s design directions had ebbed and flowed, leaving many of them feeling as if they had been running in circles. Part of their motivation for creating another shooter was because at least they would be making progress on something.

"As usual, when we made a game, [we knew] it was going to be cool when it came out," Romero said. "But I knew we had more potential than what we were doing. The fact that we were crunching to get it out made it less [enjoyable]. It was not fun because people were in a bad mood that we were doing this full-time, seven-days-a-week schedule."

Romero secretly planned to leave id following Quake's release. Until then, there was work to be done. He performed triage on the grander design he'd had planned by assessing the levels made by Petersen, American McGee, and Tim Willits—hired full time in December 1995—as well as his own. "Eventually, we decided to theme [the game] by having each of the four episodes be done by one designer," Petersen said. "That's how it was kind of done. There are my levels, American's, Tim's, and John Romero's. Each [comprised] one section that we did. That was the only theme we had."

"Before that point, there weren't any episodes," explained Romero. "If you saw the original names of levels, you'd see we weren't naming them E1M1 [Episode 1, Map 1] or anything like that. It was just JRwhiz3, or DMbase3, or Sandycity1. Stuff like that. We just said, 'Let's create a bunch of cool stuff and we'll figure out how to fit it together.'"1

The war room. Seen: American McGee. (Image credit: John Romero.)

There was still a problem. Even though each set of levels would be structured as a separate episode, Romero wanted to link them together. Doom's episodes could be played in any order and their stories were vaguely connected by a screen of text after players killed off an episode's final boss that teased what awaited them in the next chapter. That same narrative device would work for Quake, but Romero wanted to go an extra step in attempting to form a cohesive narrative that would not interrupt the shoot-first-think-later style of games for which id had become renowned.

His solution was to make the first level in each episode of Quake a military base. "I told Adrian [Carmack], 'I think I want to tie together all the levels from a base-looking [environment],'" he remembered. "The player could launch out of those levels and go into new dimensions. I had Adrian create new textures—he didn't have to make too many—then I started making the first levels for each episode: E1M1 [Episode 1 Map 1], E2M1, and so on."

Dimension of the Doomed

FOR ALL OF Romero's disappointment in the decision to bake Quake in Doom's template, he never doubted the game would be fun. Not only that, following the formula he and his friends had created and perfected came with perks.

"With Doom, it was scary because we were making this huge leap forward [from Wolfenstein 3D], but we didn't know what it was going to look like," Romero explained. "With Quake, we knew what it could look like: A much better version of Doom."

Petersen, McGee, and Willits shared his optimism. All had backgrounds in building levels for Doom and Doom 2. In theory, all they had to do was learn the nuances of QuakeEd and id Tech 2, then apply their design styles to maps. "It was great that we all had different styles because the combination of all the different things was pretty charming," Petersen recalled.

Romero built the starting base for the first three episodes. Episode One's base was simple, a classic horseshoe design that was easy to navigate and featured a smattering of weaker enemies such as Grunts, human soldiers with probes in their brains to turn them hostile, and Rottweilers that sink their teeth into players.

Following in Doom's footsteps, Quake's first episode would be released as shareware, like a free sampler platter that tempted players to purchase the full meal. The designers even shadowed Doom's design process, creating first drafts of every level before circling back and polishing until the shareware episode positively sparkled. "Then it was, okay, let's make sure the scale is correct and everybody's consistent with scale; let's make sure jump-height is set so it's consistent," said Romero. "Then we would get formal about how to go forward: How many levels? Who's responsible for what? Where do these levels go? What are the names of these episodes?"

Ultimately, Quake's shareware chapter showcased the talents of Romero, creator of the base level; McGee, who cooked up the seventh and eight levels, a boss battle and a secret area, respectively; and Willits, the designer who contributed most of the episode's maps. Beyond the starting base, Episode One's levels span castles ringed by moats, wooden bridges flanked by flickering torches, and shadowy cisterns flooded with dirty water and inhabited by the undead.

"I've always liked medieval castles and fortresses, brick textures," Willits recalled. "It was probably a lot of the Dungeons & Dragons I'd had exposure to before that. We had enough technology in Quake that it was really kind of neat to be able to make arches, churches, and this gothic [architecture]."

An exclusive image from John Romero detailing the penultimate level layout for Quake's four episodes. (Image credit: John Romero.)

What appealed most to Willits about gothic-style sets was how they contrasted from Doom's milieus. Aside from the occasional hellscape and old cathedral, many of Doom's levels had been set in futuristic military bases. In Willits' hands, Quake's graphics and textures could be combined to create a unique sense of place. "Those textures were so rich, and they had some color and depth and texture to them," he continued.

Castle of the Damned, or E1M2, ranks among Quake's most popular deathmatch levels, and was the first stage to introduce tougher monsters beyond Grunts and Rottweilers. A small castle, the stage features stonework, walkways suspended over water, and long corridors where slits in walls spit nails. One section challenges players to sprint down a metal walkway while dodging nail traps and battling monsters. A misstep can send them plummeting into the drink, where they'll have to swim around until they find their way back onto solid ground. "Back then, level design was part of the character of the game," Willits recalled. "Level design was like an AI, an enemy. We put the traps in. We had lava pits and crazy stuff going on. We created these levels as if they were an opponent, as a creative part of the experience."

One of Episode One's most memorable levels is E1M3: The Necropolis, a series of catacombs. Players come across a new weapon, the grenade launcher, right at the start, and make use of it to blow up zombies around the first corner. "When people slam Quake's single-player [campaign], I'm like, 'What? Have you even played that? It was excellent.' It was so scary," said Romero. "For 1996, it was as scary as it got, I think. It was, turn off the lights, turn up the sound, and play this game. It was super scary, way scarier than Doom."

For all the ways Quake sticks to Doom's blueprint, its zombies are a cut above those of id's previous game. In Doom, all enemies could be killed by unloading on them with any weapon. Zombies in Quake can only be killed by blowing them to bits. "The zombie was made to eat grenades and rockets because that was the only way to kill them," said Romero. "You could knock them down with other [weapons], but you can't kill them unless you waste grenades and rockets on them."

Hitting zombies with grenades or rockets causes them to erupt in a shower of blood and body parts, a violent death the id crew dubbed "gibbing" (pronounced with a "j" sound, Romero insisted). Requiring specific weapons to kill zombies keeps players on their toes. Going up against the undead can be unnerving, such as in E1M3 after dropping into a flooded room where packs of them rise out of muddy water and surround players, ripping flesh from their bodies and flinging it at their targets.

Their terrifying aura was mitigated for players who watched their attack closely. "The only humor we put in [Quake] was when the zombies reach into their ass to throw meat at you," Romero said, chuckling. "The other thing I wanted was for the Ogres to piss on you when you were dead. If you didn't respawn immediately, they would laugh and walk over and piss on you."

The start of Quake's E1M2 level. An ogre trudges along on patrol.

The Ogre's victory celebration was left on the cutting-room floor due to lack of time. When painting and rendering 3D models, animating basic actions such as walking and attacking took exponentially more time than creating characters from pixels had for games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. However, with the base models and animations already finished, it may have taken the artists a matter of hours to rig up victory taunts. That, Romero argued, was exactly why id should have made them. "We're talking a few hours to make that happen versus weeks of work to make the other stuff. People will always talk about the parts that took a few hours, and it's because a foundation was already there. But we didn't have time to put those things in because we were just trying to get the game done."

On higher difficulty levels, E1M3 holds a foe greater than swarms of zombies. The Shambler, a towering beast with long claws and a mouthful of fangs set against a blank face, is among Quake's toughest non-boss monsters. Shamblers roar upon spotting their prey, growling as they charge. Up close, it tears through the player's health with its claws. From afar, it fires bolts of lightning. "We wanted to do a lightning-bolt attack versus [fire]," said Romero. "We wanted him to be this big, huge, white thing that had blood all over his face from eating dead bodies. It was something that was referenced in Lovecraft somewhere as one of these crazy minions of the Old Ones."

"The Shambler came from my [book] Petersen's Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters," added Petersen, who wrote volumes of lore and game rules for the Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG during his time as a designer at Chaosium.

"We definitely wanted to do a little mining there," Romero continued, "but make monsters physical versus Lovecraft's more astral plane-style enemies you couldn't see."

Blood coats the Shambler's furry white chest, standing out against the dirty, dingy locales of Quake. The game's color palette seemed limited when compared to its sophisticated engine and feature set, and especially against the more colorful settings of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. "It's funny because from the perspective of Quake, you look back at Doom and think, Look at this happy, fun game with all its bright colors," said Romero. There was, however, a method to the apparent regression in the color palettes of id's games. "If you go back to our beginning," Romero continued, "we got darker. From Wolfenstein, to Doom, to Quake, we got darker and expanded the shade range of the color. But the colors are more limited because in all three of those games over four years, technology changed."

Almost immediately upon Quake's release, the abundance of drab colors caused many players to joke about id’s love of brown. Quake's color palette runs much deeper, but Adrian Carmack understands the criticism. "John Carmack came to Kevin and me one day and said, 'American says he's having trouble with his creativity because we haven't solidified the palette yet,'" Adrian remembered. "Which I thought was pretty ridiculous, but Kevin went ahead and filled out the palette. That's what we were kind of stuck with."

Technology carried as much weight in nailing down the game's visual design. Quake's palette could tap into 256 colors, but choosing one—such as brown—committed the palette to including every shade of that color. Quake's palette comprised 16 colors. Each shade of every color ate up one byte of memory, for a total of 256. Because the artists and designers created textures based on themes that encompassed lots of earthy tones, the bulk of Quake's levels all appeared hewn from browns, greens, grays, blacks, and whites.

"We were super limited because of this VGA, 256-color mode that was the standard back then," Romero explained. "It wasn't until colored lighting with graphic accelerators from manufacturers like 3dfx came out that we had full ranges of color."

Quake's developers made good use of their limited palette. E1M5: The Gloom Keep is one of Willits' favorite levels. The interconnectedness of its crisscrossing rooms and corridors, which occasionally ask players to retrace their steps to open up previously inaccessible areas, was one example of the designers stepping up their efforts in making maps. 

Quake's Ziggurat Vertigo map.

Romero reminded all the designers that one of their main goals was to tap into the engine's potential and channel its power to create levels that would have been impossible in previous games. Thanks to id Tech 2, for instance, players could look down at the floor and up at ceilings.Therefore, the designers should consider every surface. Details should be added to the undersides of platforms and along ceilings. Walls should incorporate windows, and players should be able to look through those windows to scope out what awaits them on the opposite side.

"We thought about lighting," Romero added. "We had a program that could do light tracing, so we could put a light inside of something so that when the light shines out, it casts shadows all over the walls. So players can look at interesting designs cast from lights."

The House of Chthon, Episode One's seventh level, came about almost by accident. "I remember doing all the scripts to make E1M7 work. I seem to recall it was an experiment first and foremost. Then it was decided it would be put in line to be a boss fight," McGee recalled.

McGee had been helping John Carmack by writing scripts that extended the functionality of QuakeC. He wrote scripts to operate basic triggers such as buttons, and per his scripts, buttons could be placed on walls, floors, or ceilings, and activated by stepping on them, pressing against them, or shooting them. McGee then applied his buttons to an experimental level comprising walkways surrounding a pool of lava. In front of the pool sits a rune, a key players must pick up to progress. Touching the rune causes Chthon, a giant, devil-like monstrosity, to rise from the lava.

To defeat Chthon, players must race to the far end of the room, avoiding magma rocks hurled by the demon, and ride a lift to the top floor. There they must run across narrow bridges and step on two buttons, one on either side of the pool. Stepping on each switch triggers a pylon that drops from the ceiling. Once both pylons have been lowered, players must step on a third button to blast lightning from the pylons. One shock is all it takes to fry the demon on Quake’s Easy difficulty. On harder modes, players must zap it three times to finish the level and the Dimension of the Doomed episode.

McGee's simple experiment set Quake apart from Doom in a meaningful way. All of Doom's boss fights had been straightforward: Find the big bad and shoot it until it dies. Chthon changed up Quake's core gameplay loop in a way meant to intrigue players.

"When I was working with the technology and scripting, puzzle-solving was something I thought we could push, making the player do things other than just shooting enemies in the face. I guess because I could have access to the scripting early on, and able to play around and experiment with that stuff, that's where that came from," McGee said.

Dimension of Black Magic

JOHN ROMERO WENT into Quake's second episode, Dimension of Black Magic, with modest goals. "I didn't decide, for instance, 'I'm going to make long hallways' or anything specific," he said. "I wanted maps to look good and play really well. When I started getting close to the size limit, I knew I needed to figure out how to finish a level and maybe [connect back into] itself more."

E2M2 exemplified both Romero's objectives and the limitations of Quake's tech. However, his levels played to the engine's strengths rather than suffered from its weaknesses. Ogre Citadel, the second map of Dimension of Black Magic, opens in a cave. Players fight their way out and emerge to find a fortress on the opposite side of a moat. To gain entry, they must shoot two switches on either side of a raised drawbridge to lower it, or dive into the moat and swim through lower passages.

Across the bridge and inside the citadel, Ogres and other horrors prowl a knot of corridors. Fighting through them earns players a breather before they are pushed off a ledge and into an arena-like room. The only egress slams shut and a Shambler materializes, forcing players into a fight. The level continues in that vein: Bursts of combat in brightly lit areas followed by brief respites through shadowy hallways as players track down keys and search for the exit.

"That's something that I always do when I'm making levels: creating contrast in every part of the experience," Romero explained. "There wasn't much color in Quake, but textures could [change up] color. There's contrast in exploration, where nothing's happening, and then intense combat. That also creates contrast by setting a quiet setting, and then introducing crazy [amounts of] noise. No fear, and then total fear."

The Wizard's Manse level from Quake's second episode.

With the exit room in sight, Ogre Citadel throws a curveball. To reach the gate, players must jump across a series of narrow stone columns that curve up and around to a ledge. If players jump too far or not far enough, or if they don't control their character by pulling back to halt their momentum after each jump, they'll slip and fall into the water below, and have to climb out and try again.

In 1996, 3D games such as Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider were new and in vogue. One problem presented itself right away: Gauging distance and depth was trickier in 3D than in 2D titles such as Super Mario Bros. 3, where depth was not a factor. Jumping had not come up in Wolfenstein 3D, which contained no pits. Doom contained some gaps that players jumped automatically by sprinting across. Id's programmers took the problem of jumping in 3D into account as they built Quake. "You might fall down and have to take the elevator back up to try again, but the game had pretty good deceleration, so it wasn't like you'd jump onto a platform and then slide off and die," Romero said of the series of hops awaiting players near the end of E2M2. "You just had to tap backwards after you jumped. Being in first-person, it wasn't so hard because you could gauge distance better, and you could look down, so it wasn't as [tricky] as in other games."

Adding a jump function to Quake made sense. A greater range of movement would deepen players' connection to their avatar, pulling them further into the world. "We always looked up to Nintendo and Shigeru [Miyamoto] as the best in design," Romero said. "They represented the best. They spent a ton of time working on and revising designs to see if they worked."

Being able to jump was also vital to rocket jumping, an accidental technique that players discovered shortly after Quake's release. "There probably wouldn't be rocket-jumping if you couldn't jump [normally]," Romero went on. "You'd be killed if you shot the ground. You wouldn't go very far and you'd take tons of damage. That little amount of jumping [beforehand] really decreases the amount of damage you take from rocket-jumping."

E2M5: The Wizard's Manse is another of Romero's favorite maps. Players roam a large mansion full of cramped passageways that weave in and out of large halls. To give the manse personality, Romero carved rooms from blue stone, paved floors in green tiles, and curled stairs up walls next to stained-glass windows. Near the end, he set one of his most devious traps. Players enter a cage and are trapped inside. The cage lowers, submerging them in water. Players begin to choke; their health ticks down. Just when the situation seems hopeless, the elevator rises from the water and players gasp in relief, regenerating their lost health.

The bulk of Quake's maps are set indoors for a reason. Every level is built from objects called brushes. "It's just a solid block that you can do all sorts of stuff with, but it's solid, turns into BSP, and it's permanent. It doesn't move, so light maps can get generated on it," Romero explained.

Entities are a special type of brush. Quake classifies any geometry that moves, such as platforms and doors, as an entity. Carmack's implementation of brushes and entities caused problems. A designer first had to determine the size of an entity, such as a door at the end of a corridor of a specific width and height, then create a brand-new map file with the same entity brush at the exact same coordinates where it was found on the main map. The designer added lights or other adornments to the entity and then saved that map as a BSP, short for binary space partition, a file that holds an area that has been shrunk to its smallest size. Finally, the designer loaded the main level and directed it to the BSP containing the entity brush he wanted to reference. If the entity in the separate BSP lined up with its coordinates in the main BSP, it would click into place.

Quake's color palette. Sixteen colors and 16 shades per color, eating up the game's 256-color maximum.

"It was a horrible way of putting in entities, which means [as a designer] I don't want lots of entities in the game. For monsters it was no problem because you'd just put in spawn points," Romero recalled. "I told John, 'Dude, no. We can't do this. It's an awful idea. We can't be leaving a level, creating a shell, making a totally different BSP where light maps might not even match. It's a horrible idea.'"

Smoothing out entity brushes was one in a laundry list of Carmack's obstacles. "Collision detection was pretty hard," he admitted. "There was a good period where we were making interesting pictures, but movement only worked smoothly as long as you were sliding along walls with obtuse angles—you would get 'stuck' on sharp corners."

Carmack refined code until he arrived at a solution, albeit not an optimal one. Quake's collision detection functions by expanding the size of every object on a map by half the player's size, treating players as a point moving through terrain. "This was robust and extremely efficient, but it meant that each unique size of entity that moved through the world had to have a special version of the map automatically generated for it," said Carmack. "This cost both memory and processing time during level building."

"You had to really think through things, because it took six seconds to make a change to any geometry in the level after you placed it, and you did not want to move stuff around," Willits added. "There was no, 'Let's move this whole room,' or 'Let's take this staircase and shift it.' Especially when it took you six seconds, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it is when you have thousands and thousands of brushes in a level."

Quake's engine presented designers with a series of push-and-pull contests. "John Carmack made this great engine, and it was our fault for not taking advantage of it," Petersen said. "But part of that was we were working with stuff that was [difficult to use]. The final Quake editors on the Internet? We didn't have that. That didn't exist for us. That was finished after we'd done all our levels. We had to use stuff that was much more primitive."

Entity brushes can be seen in action in an early level of Episode One, when players step on a switch that kicks off an impressive but technically laborious sequence: Blocks drift through the air and into openings in a wall. There's a click, then a door flies open to reveal the game's first Fiend, a four-legged enemy that sprints and jumps to get at players with its claws. "That's why in E1M2, when the little blocks come up and you watch them move forward, and they [insert] into the wall, and the door opens, and a demon jumps out—that was really hard to do," Willits said.

Planting secrets in Quake levels was more strenuous than placing them in Doom. "We had to create full brushes of a certain size; we had to make the ceiling; we had to make every wall; we had to light the secret areas; and then we had to somehow open a door that doesn't look like it's a secret door," said Romero.

Zombies, Death Knights, and Fiends greet the player.

Romero mitigated creating secrets by writing a QuakeC script for a door that resembled a wall panel. That enabled designers to obfuscate entrances to their secrets, and defined how the door-that's-not-a-door should open, by sliding rather than raising. "We used it everywhere in the game, so nobody had to write QuakeC code to make a door open in some weird way because design consistency is important. Having the code there and be able to type in 'secret door' on the entity made it easier for everybody to at least not have to worry about the door part of secrets, because that was the hardest part to deal with. You really had to think about doing secrets in Quake versus in Doom," Romero continued.

Another problem was that BSP files containing Quake levels tended to be larger than Doom's WAD map files. Three-dimensional objects consumed more storage. Using binary space partitioning to pack levels reduced file sizes, but id needed to stick to a hard limit so that players could download the game painlessly. "Doom was a pretty small download for people. This was still back in the days where not everyone was on the Internet; lots of people still used BBSes," said Romero.

Consequently, Quake's episodes ranged in size from seven to eight levels, including one secret level per episode. That was compared to Doom's nine-level episodes: Eight regular maps and one secret zone. The developers agreed each Quake level should be no larger than 1.4 megabytes. In most cases, that constraint fueled rather than hampered creativity. "When you put a number of that, like 1.4 megs, it's really on the designer to decide how they're going to approach building a level," Romero said. "To stay within that limit, are you going to use hardly any textures? Are you going to use a lot of really cool textures but make [smaller] levels? The amount of brushes in a level impacts the size of it. Are you going to have a bigger level with longer hallway?"

Another drawback of a BSP file's size, and the reason Quake maps take place indoors, was that maps could only incorporate so many polygons. Likewise, the game could only render a maximum of 350 polygons from the player's point of view. Larger regions such as outdoor courtyards and plains would chew through that count. To keep players from getting bored with running through hallways, the designers pushed themselves to design intricate set pieces involving lots of entities: traps, extendable bridges, cages that submerged players underwater, and elaborate door-opening sequences.

"I really did like the bigger outdoor maps [in Doom], mostly because the game rendered things so quickly, it almost didn't matter how big a map was," said Romero. "It was great because we could build huge areas that felt like you were outdoors."

Even building indoor areas, designers had to be frugal with polys. "If you go back and play Quake, you start seeing these 90-degree corners everywhere. You can now see the level designer, on purpose, putting a corner in there because it constrained visibility," Romero explained.

The game's BSP algorithm rendered only as far as the next corner. What lay beyond it would be whipped up when players rotated the camera to see it. The less geometry within the player's line of sight, the fewer polygons the map had to render each time the screen refreshed, keeping performance smooth.

All the meeting rooms in id Software's Dallas-based headquarters pay homage to the company's titles.

As in movies, Quake's designers used establishing shots of grand mansions or towering fortresses to fool players into believing that the world they inhabited was larger than it appeared, then ushered them inside smaller, but no less intricate spaces. "In the Wizard's Manse, E2M5, when you come out of that first cave and you see the front of the big mansion, that's a big outdoor area for our maximum budget of polygons. We were just limited to not having huge outdoor areas," said Romero.


AMERICAN McGEE MADE big maps by thinking small.

Each level he architected for Quake's third episode, the Netherworld, began as a small space centered on a specific challenge, usually an enemy or a simple puzzle. From there he moved on to building another room, then another, and another, filling his Quake editor's top-down view with irregularly shaped chambers unconnected from one another, like islands.

"A lot of times I would have, in the editor, sections where there might be a trap idea or just a general idea for a room. Once I had a couple of those, I'd work on linking them in some interesting way to create flow," he said.

McGee felt his way through level flow, but he knew what he wanted in other areas of design. Adrian Carmack and Kevin Cloud had spent most of 1995 painting Aztec-themed textures for Quake. Designers could build architecture such as pyramids from sandstone walls. "The artist made a bunch of those textures, and American tried to work with them for a long time, but he just could not get inspired by Aztec temples and Aztec design," remembered Romero. "It just wasn't interesting to him. It was easier to do pure abstract design."

Declining Aztec textures understandably incited grousing from Cloud and Adrian. "I think Romero and American were saying, 'We're not really inspired by the Aztec theme. We're having trouble getting into it and designing our levels,'" Adrian said. "All I could think was, Hey, man, I just worked on this for a year. I've done a year's worth of artwork on this, and so has Kevin. We weren't very happy about it. A year's worth of work, and we're basically starting over. Honestly, it was probably for the best, anyway."

McGee chalked up the loss of textures and time to Quake's development cycle. He'd lost count of how many levels he had designed and thrown away while testing engine features for John Carmack. He steered clear of browns and greens by favoring dark, metallic surfaces, as well as lava for a medley of reds, yellows, and oranges that would pop against metal textures. "We would sit down with the level designers and talk to them about what they were looking for," Adrian explained. "We would also come up with our own ideas, just kind of see what would work, testing the look of the game."

"I think the fact that the level designers were being fed artwork individually by the art team had more to do with the fact that there was no one in charge of, or leading production or design," McGee added. "I could just walk up to the art team and say, 'Give me a bunch of rusted metal textures and some stone textures to go with them,' and they would just do it. They wouldn't turn around to a project manager or a producer and say, 'Does he need these? What chapter are these going into? Why are we creating these?' It was just, 'Yep, sure, here are some textures for you."

Metal and fire gave McGee's levels a rougher material feel. E3M3: The Tomb of Terror leads players through dark hallways bordered by pits of lava. Players must find a silver key and then backtrack through rooms, keeping one eye open for enemies that had not been there on their first visit. "I've never been into garish, bright colors. As a personal aesthetic, I was wearing all black all the time," he said. His goth wardrobe reflected his passion for Nine Inch Nails, his favorite heavy metal band. "When I would ask for texture sets, I would ask for stuff that sort of mirrored the sound and feeling that those guys were contributing to the product, so it all just felt like it fit together naturally."

McGee liked that his palette and level flow conflicted with those of his peers. "When it came to the product, to building levels, there was competition, but it felt very healthy and fun. It was a fun competition. We were riffing off each other. I'd say it was probably more like jazz in how we were creating, rather than something coming off a sheet of music."

Romero appreciated friendly competition, too. He was particularly impressed by Willits' and McGee's levels, which shone with polish and unique ideas. "We'd look at each other's levels and go, 'Oh, that's such a cool combo of textures,' or 'I love that lighting style,'" Romero said. "You'd come up with a lighting style and use it all over the place. We were trying to make the game as great as we could, and compete to make the best-looking levels within the areas that we decided to go after."

Willits contributed a level to Quake's Netherworld episode. Deep underground, players discover E3M5: The Wind Tunnels, a warren of wide passageways. Players drop or step into the tunnels and are propelled forward and through turns by gusts of wind—or so they think. "Wind Tunnels used push brushes," Willits explained, revealing that invisible brushes simulated wind by pushing players through tunnels. "Carmack came up with an entity that allowed you to push, which I think we needed for a trap in one of American's levels. He had [a scenario] where the floor opened and you get pushed into lava, so we needed an entity that pushed."

Episode One's secret level, Ziggurat Vertigo, was born of another of McGee's experiments, this one with gravity. True to form, he crafted it from metal textures and rivers of lava. The centerpiece was a ziggurat that players could climb by jumping. One jump, and they drifted lazily into the air. By modifying the level's gravity using QuakeC, McGee had fashioned a level where players felt like they were bounding around the surface of the moon.

Memorabilia from the display case in the reception area of id's headquarters.

To Willits, simple experiments that generated radical results like McGee's low-gravity level and his wind tunnels stole the show. "Once we found out we could change the way you moved through the environment, we were like, 'This is awesome. Let's try this other thing now.' That was really the design of Quake. Looking back, it was genius."

Introducing Quake

OVER QUAKE’S SEVEN-MONTH crunch, Romero truncated the game's design not once, but several times.

On March 15, 1996, a Friday, Romero attached a 10-page design document to an email and distributed it to everyone at the company. Sending a design document was almost as unorthodox a practice within id as writing one. Tom Hall had written a design bible for Doom in 1992, much of which had been ignored after the guys had flipped their bit and let him go. At id, the modus operandi was to show rather than tell: Talk about a concept, then write code and paint monsters.

Romero collated all of Quake's design bits and bobs to clear the air. "I've been informed that many of you are confused about the state of Quake's game design," his email began. "I can believe that since I've had to reprint the design sheets multiple times, and I've also changed a couple design elements for the sake of simplicity and implementation. Here I will outline the major elements of Quake, what has changed, and where things should go."

His 10-page document collects the bones of a dramatically different game than the Quake that shipped to stores less than three months later. Controlling a "military guy," players would be tasked with infiltrating a base to recover weapons and technology stolen by Shalrath, a mysterious foe. The first level would be a base designed to communicate fundamental skills such as moving, jumping, and shooting. The next level, still a base, would introduce players to tougher enemies such as Ogres; and slipgates, teleporters that beamed players to other dimensions.

Dimension hopping wasn't as simple as stepping onto a pad. Romero wanted to create artifacts that worked like keys, such as an Amber Element that would correspond with slipgates branded with the Amber symbol. Players’ overarching goal was to free the four Old Ones and confront Shub-Niggurath, a Lovecraftian horror syphoning the Old Ones' life force.

In the document, Romero calls for elaborate scenes that show slipgates sparking into life, dialogue recorded by an actor to voice the player-character, and levels with branching paths all tied together by long hallways that load the next area seamlessly while players run along.

As development wore on, Romero whittled his design down to essentials. Instead of cinematic displays, stepping onto a slipgate at the end of a level loaded a high-score screen similar to Doom's carnage report, showing players how many enemies they killed, secrets they found, and time it took them to reach the exit. Instead of arteries linking maps, levels are disparate. Every episode of Quake kicks off in a military base because Romero wanted to include narrative sequences communicating that they were going from a base, through a slipgate, and into another dimension. Without that connective tissue, players were left scratching their heads at the jump from military installations to fantasy castles.

"I had to revise the design a few months later because we were trying to get done pretty quickly and it had too much stuff in it," Romero admitted. "So, I had to simplify it to what we have now."

Quake's Introduction map.

The final version of Quake spans four episodes, a final battle with Shub-Niggurath, and the starting map, appropriately named Start. Of those maps, Start may be the most important. "I made the start map in, I believe, March of '96," Romero said. "It went through a lot of revision during the last few months. It was the last map I worked on. I got all my levels done, then I did the start map."

Doom had players select episodes from a menu. After making their selection, they played through levels one by one, culminating in a boss fight followed by a wall of text congratulating them on their victory and teasing the next episode. In Quake, players would still choose episodes, but not from a menu. Beginning a new game deposited them in the Start map, which doubled as a hub and a difficulty selection menu. "I wanted to remove the extra layer of Easy-Normal [menus], and then selecting episodes," said Romero. "Get rid of those two menus and just start playing. Boom—you're in it. That kind of design let me do some really cool things on that starting map."

Start opens with a view of a wide room and three hallways. The leftmost and center halls end in portals labeled with difficulties: Easy on the left, Normal in the center. On the right, players come to a broken bridge over a pit of lava. A zombie hangs over the lava, moaning and twitching. The portal is marked Hard. To reach it, players must hop across the lava,. a challenge just taxing enough to coax the minimum amount of effort out of players.

All portals lead to a chamber with four archways. Each archway leads to an alternate dimension—one of four episodes. At the end of every episode, players find a rune. Collecting the rune and finishing the level deposits them back at Start and seals off the portal to the dimension they just conquered. Closing all four opens a path to the final level, a battle against Shub-Niggurath who can only be defeated using a tele-frag, a type of kill prominent in deathmatch where one player teleports to a destination occupied by another player, causing the hapless player caught standing in place to explode.

Each corridor is ornamented with details that speak to that episode's dimension. "Each of the episodic [entrances] was made to look like the designer of the episode had made it," explained Romero. "Because I'd played everybody's levels so much by that time, I knew exactly how Sandy made his levels look. I knew how thin his posts were, how he lit stuff. With American, same thing: his metal and his caverns."

The leftmost corridor is futuristic in color and texture. Ahead lies a passage with blue walls and a bridge fashioned from metal beams that zig and zag. Forward and to the right is a hallway that bends before leading to its portal. To the right, a set of wooden stairs leads to a pool of water. Stepping into the water causes players to sink—and then drop out of the air and onto the floor. The fall saps a small amount of life and leaves them perplexed: How, exactly, had a body of water come to hang in midair?

"We were laughing about his crazy ideas because that was just such an awesome thing you could do with the engine: Swim in a floating block of water," Romero said. "Sandy put it in there and it's something we just laughed about because it was like, 'Oh my god. It's floating water. This is crazy."

Laughing, Romero continued, "You don't know that's going to happen because you can't see through the water, so it's not even fair. It's just like, 'Here's your torture!' I was just laughing while I made that entrance. It was so funny because it was so Sandy."

Elder World

"THE QUAKE LEVELS were small, and I was okay with that," Petersen stated. "The thing is that they took me about the same effort to make [as a larger Doom level] because it was a true 3D game, compared to Doom's two-and-a-half-D engine. I still made levels that were big and made the game chug. I was constantly griped at by John Carmack."

Romero, McGee, and Willits made no secret of the fact that their levels looked better than Petersen's. Petersen took their jabs in stride. It was all part of their friendly competition. He also knew they were right.

"I think they put me as the last episode because of three things," Petersen said. "One was that I was using monsters that hadn't been seen before, and it was weird to have monsters appear in an early level but never come back. The second thing was they thought my things were uglier than other people's levels, and there's some [truth] to that. The third thing was that my levels had these convoluted schemes for players to solve. Because mine were the most Cthulian, we were going to [transition] to the final level."

Petersen also knew, as did the others, that his levels in Doom had been some of the most memorable. Among both his peers and Doom players, Petersen became known for exemplary pacing, tough situations, and unforgettable encounters such as E2M8: Tower of Babel, which starts players in a small room where four Barons of Hell—the game’s toughest monsters up to that point—have been impaled on the walls. It was the perfect setup. Observant players would deduce that any monster able to kill not one but four Barons must be an order of magnitude stronger and more terrifying.

Petersen's maps were small in size but big in concept. "One of the things I would do is I would make a level, then I would go back and look through the texture files and say, 'Oh, look at this cool texture. I want to use that.' So, I'd go back to the level and change it to use that texture. We were kind of opposites," he said of McGee.

Petersen and McGee shared something else in common. They both enjoyed abstract design. The difference was that McGee started by mapping out rooms and tinkering with ways to connect them. Petersen's passion for abstraction stemmed from a lifelong interest in H. P. Lovecraft, a horror author who became popular posthumously. His stories were predicated on the belief that cosmic beings too great and dreadful for human minds to fathom existed beyond the veil of reality; his overly curious characters peeled back that veil and discovered eldritch beings and planes of existence that shattered their minds.

Petersen was such a fan of Lovecraft that he took pains to sneak references to the author's work into every game he worked on. Working on Quake, he did not need to make oblique references to his favorite writer. Quake's medieval architecture and dimensional travel lent themselves to otherworldly themes. "It not only informed my [level] design work," Petersen said of Lovecraft's writings. "When I spoke to the artists, Kevin and Adrian, about what creatures to put in the game and ideas for them, some of them came right from Lovecraft. For example, the black blob monsters that hop around and explode? I did a game expansion called Sandy Petersen's Guide to Monsters in 1987, and one of the monsters from that game was almost exactly [made in Quake]. And then, of course, Shub-Niggurath at the end is another monster from that book."

Quake's E4M2 map.

The Tower of Despair, level two of Episode Four: The Elder World, begins by dropping players in a safe area. Once they leave, they cannot return. The walls figuratively close in around them, forcing them to go forward. Dark corridors twist through a derelict building centered on a great hall decorated with stained-glass windows and two large buttons adorned with dagger symbols.

Even on Normal difficulty, Tower of Despair throws overwhelming odds at players, pitting them against Ogres, Shamblers, Knights and Death Knights—both wielding swords, but the latter able to take and dish out more punishment and dole out streams of fiery projectiles—and Vores, spider-like creatures with pincers for legs and spindly arms with which it throws spiked pods that slowly and inexorably track their targets.

The Vore had made its debut as the boss monster of Romero’s episode. Petersen made it a regular enemy in The Elder World, pairing it with mobs of Knights, Ogres, and the occasional Shambler—ratcheting up tension and difficulty as players shoot their way through the game’s final stretch of levels. Petersen pushed players even further by being conservative with the amount of health, armor, and ammunition he placed on his maps. Id's games had a reputation for being shooting galleries: If something moved, players were encouraged to blast it. Dialing back resources was a tool Petersen used to get under their skin.

Petersen also enjoyed making players wait to get their hands on more powerful weapons like the rocket launcher and lightning gun. One of the things that had irritated him about designing Doom was that he could not claim any episode for himself; every designer contributed to each episode. That had meant if he designed a level low on ammo, players might still clear it easily if they had harvested a surplus of ammo on earlier.

The Elder World was Petersen’s domain. He controlled flow and pacing not just through one level at a time, but through all of them. "Not that I wanted to starve you, but some of my levels were more fun, I felt, if you were going through them with the nailgun or shotgun instead of the rocket launcher, or sometimes vice versa," he said.

Petersen's usage of water became legend around the office, and not only because he made trippy regions such as pools that floated in midair. Water, he explained, was one of Lovecraft's Achilles' heels. "Lovecraft didn't like seafood, and he hated cold. Things that were cold or aquatic were major features in his stories."

That knowledge spurred Petersen to use water in ways that would cause players to second-guess their progression. Doom had not contained water. There had been floors covered in slime or lava, but those had been textures that dealt damage. In Quake, water was a 3D space, just like rooms and hallways, except players moved sluggishly and had to come up for air.

"I looked at it and said, 'You know, I can have water that floats,'" he said. "I was thinking, What would be a cool secret to find at the bottom of a body of water? I was thinking of a treasure chest or a pipe that goes somewhere, but I wanted to get back into open air. At some point I realized I could have them fall out of the water and not be able to get back up to it. That would really disconcert them unless they rocket [jump] or something, because you can't jump up into the water. I guess my brain just works this way. It's this chaos theory because you're like, 'Now what?'"

Water could also be used strategically. Throughout Episode Four and on many of Quake's deathmatch-only maps, players find the lightning gun near bodies of water. Firing lightning into water while swimming in it instantly kills any living organism that also happens to be taking a dip. On any level containing water, players quickly learned to get to the lightning gun first, especially when paired with the Pentagram, which temporarily granted players invulnerability. "That was pretty fun in deathmatch. In order to get the goodies, you have to go into [the water], but don't stay in long because someone will zap you," Petersen remembered.

Romero's decision to situate Petersen's levels as the final gauntlet before Shub-Niggurath—always assuming players went through episodes in order—paid dividends. Episode One, the shareware portion of the game, intentionally showcased the work of Romero, McGee, and Willits. Their levels were the most visually impressive, and thus most likely to entice players to open up their wallets and buy the full game. While episodes two and three were excellent, Romero knew that Episode Four was something special.

"The big surprise would be everybody going through Sandy's stuff," Romero said. "If you can make it that far, you're going to get to Sandy's [episode], where everything is insane. When people got to Sandy's stuff, they'd meet a different design mind so far from what they had played before. It would give them a great ending to the game."

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.

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