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
QUAKE’s DEVELOPMENT WAS a seven-month sprint tacked on to the end of almost one year of creating, scrapping, and restarting the project.
Feedback from Qtest caused ripple effects. The UI was recolored and expanded to more neatly fit information such as health and armor. The rocket launcher's chunky barrel became a steel cylinder. Numbers were tweaked, maps were polished.
There was work to be done outside of the game itself. Copy had to be written for the box and manual. A text file explaining how to install the game was written and bundled with the shareware episode and retail package. An installation program needed to be written in order to unpack Quake's data onto hard drives.
As summer drew nearer, the team gradually ran out of gas. Still, Quake's developers opted to sleep under their desks instead of going home. "It was still four months before shipping, and there were massive improvements in those four months. Remember, we were in crunch mode. It was seven days a week, as many hours as you can survive," Romero said.
"The way it usually goes with a multi-year production cycle is you're tired of each other," said Adrian Carmack. "You haven't been home much, so it gets really quiet in the office. Everybody's got their headphones on. If you're talking, it's generally work related. But it's also kind of fun, in a way. All that time you spent on a project, when you see it finally come together and it's almost finished, you think, We're getting close. There's some relief, and pride as well."
Crunch was perhaps the biggest factor that plagued Quake's development, but there were others. "Quake had three issues," said Petersen. "One was the constant crunch. One was the lack of a central, guiding designer. The last was that it was the time of the rise of Tim Willits to power. All of those things made Quake much less fun to do than Doom and Doom 2."
Petersen held Willits in high regard as a level designer. His maps looked fantastic, and were the ideal levels from which to generate screenshots used in marketing materials. As an employee, however, Petersen viewed Willits as bad for the team. "Basically, my opinion is that with Tim, we got the first guy in the company whose rivals weren't other game companies, but other guys inside the same company," he said. "He wanted to succeed by rising above the other guys in the company, whereas everyone else up to that point wanted to rise by making our company the best."
"Tim Willits came in, and he essentially wanted to take over," agreed McGee. "That created this sort of split."
According to various developers, Willits acted differently around certain colleagues. Petersen remembered Willits showing him deference and politeness, perhaps because Willits had no reason to fear for his job: Petersen had been at id for over two years and, though his maps were not the flashiest, his sense of challenging gameplay and exquisite pacing made his designs unique.
Willits was always willing to lend a hand. Near the end of development, McGee, perhaps afflicted with burnout from the grueling schedule or caught up in partying with Nine Inch Nails, missed a few days of work. When Romero asked Willits to put finishing touches on a couple of McGee's maps, Willits obliged with alacrity. "I had to have Tim finish American's levels because I was still working on them. He just did it, and did a good job with it," Romero said.
Then an incident occurred. According to Romero, Willits told him one version of a story but reported another to Carmack. (Romero declined to go into detail.) Romero went to Carmack and mentioned the story Willits had told. Surprised, Carmack noted that the version he had heard was different.
"We confronted him about it in person," Romero said. "It was like, 'Hey, don't do that again.' Other than that, I was already gone before he went into full-on politics mode."
At least one other incident, chronicled in David Kushner's Masters of Doom, purportedly transpired. Near the end of Quake's development, Willits had become so efficient at making maps that John Carmack announced his levels would comprise the game's first episode. The other level designers were reportedly shocked, with Romero voicing that he, as lead designer, should be the one making such decisions. Once again, Carmack overrode him.
Willits has shared the anecdote in many interviews, including one given for this book. "Luckily for me, my collection of levels was pretty cohesive," Willits told me during our interview at QuakeCon 2017. "They all kind of had a similar theme and look to them. Carmack said, 'That's the shareware episode.' That was quite a funny conversation because some other people were not happy with that, but [...] it was kind of crazy when Carmack put his foot down and said, 'Willits has the shareware episode.' That was an intense conversation, for obvious reasons."
Shortly after QuakeCon, Romero published a blog disputing, amid other claims, Willits' assertion that he had made Quake's shareware episode. Of the episode's eight levels, four had been made by Willits. Romero made the first, the base level, while McGee contributed the sixth, seventh, and eighth.
To Romero, id needed to change the way it approached projects both within the studio and without. "That was basically how the company was broken, [Quake's] cycle," he stated. "No one had ever told us how to run a company. We didn't know, hey, a really smart strategic decision might be to have an engine team and a game team, and let the engine team take whatever amount of time they need to build an engine while the game team uses the previous generation [tech] and makes games. We worked 18 months on Quake, which to us was, like, forever. If we would have extrapolated from the timelines of what we were doing, we might have seen, hey, it might be really tough for the team to spend time doing something they can't [make]. We were just doing things the way we had been doing them."
AROUND FIVE O’CLOCK on June 22, a rainy Saturday, Romero sat at his desk. Quake was finished. Everyone else had gone home to sleep and reintroduce themselves to friends and family.
Romero was at the office to check off the last item on Quake's to-do list: Package and upload the shareware episode. To his complete lack of surprise, he was having trouble—the last in a line of potholes on Quake's road to release. PKZIP, the program id had used to compress Doom so it was small enough for users to download over phone lines, wasn't working. He had to search out another compression program that included support for directories so that Quake's file structure survived being compressed.
Romero worked fast. He was logged on to IRC and chatting with players eager to get their hands on Quake. "There were hundreds of people on IRC. If you've ever been on IRC, when there's too many people on a channel, the channels just start splitting. It was constantly splitting apart into all these different fragments of Quake on IRC, this one specific server. It was insane. I could barely get any messages out because people were typing tons of shit, and the channels were splitting. It was crazy."
By five-thirty he had found a solution, compressed Quake's shareware, called over a friend for company, and hit upload.
He sat back. Within the next hour, two at the most, Quake would be available and downloading to computers all over the world. When his friend asked him how it felt, Romero took a moment to respond. "Nobody else was there. They were all just mentally destroyed. This was the first game we'd made where everyone wasn't there to ship it. Normally, if it was 4:00 in the morning, the whole team would be there while we uploaded it. It was 5:00 in the afternoon when I put it up on the University of Wisconsin's server. I was on IRC, and [fans] were going crazy. Everybody was ecstatic. On our side, we were just like, 'Man, this was a tough game to make.'"
Outside of id, few players and critics seemed to care that Quake was, on the surface, a Doom clone. "Quake was 3D. It was the evolution, which gave it a huge amount of press legs," said Rob Smith, then editor at PC Games magazine. "There was a leaked demo with a dragon model, which never appeared in the final game. There was Trent Reznor, and a Nine Inch Nails gun. There were contests, the earliest days of eSports."
"You know a game is great when most of the Jedi team would take a break at 6:00 pm, and compete with the Grim Fandango team in Quake," said Justin Chin, an artist at LucasArts and one of the lead developers on Star Wars: Dark Forces.
"It goes beyond the game and more into the engine and the possibilities," Smith continued. "Quake presented options to countless designers. It opened the doors for modders who didn't know what a mod was when they started. The game itself doesn't make many 'all-time' lists, but its impact would as a game changer for 3D gaming, for selling engines that allowed other game makers to express themselves."
After recovering from over a year of crunching, id's developers reflected on finally launching Quake. McGee was unsurprised at the fanfare that greeted the game’s arrival. "There was a naive, giddy innocence about it seeming to happen quite effortlessly," he reflected. "That products were being built even with no one being in charge, and they were being embraced. It all seemed to happen magically. I think everyone had the sense of, 'This is just what we do. This just naturally happens.' That sense of the ease and fun of it is what started to go away in my last year there, as politics and internal rivalries manifested. But prior to that, I think everyone was living in this funny dream state of just making cool stuff and having people really enjoy it."
Petersen felt differently. "I guess I'll have to say I have mixed emotions. It was not as fun to do. And, ultimately, I'm not sure it was a better game."
"There was a lot of relief. I was ready to move on to a new project," Adrian Carmack admitted. "That was a long project for us. I was glad it was out, but I was ready to move on. Ready to work on the next thing."
However he felt in June 1996, Willits points to Quake as a milestone for id, and the industry. "We had no clue what we were doing. No one planned the awesomeness that came out of Quake. It was just a bunch of guys working hard, having fun, living the dream. Doom was super influential to our industry, but I actually believe, if you look at the games today, and back at what Quake did and the path it set us on, Quake was more influential to what we play today than even Doom. Quake really set the direction of the industry for years."
It's hard to argue with Willits' stance. Quake gave the industry one of the first true-3D engines, beat to market by Descent but more widely played because of the popularity of id’s previous titles. It was one of the first, if not the first game to support multiplayer using a client/server architecture that let players host their own servers where they could change the rules and run custom maps. Deathmatch, created by Doom, became a global phenomenon when Quake players formed clans, teams that traveled and competed together, and led to the genesis of modern-day eSports. Quake's soundtrack had been composed by a genuine rock star. Major gaming outlets such as Shacknews, founded as sCary's Sugar Shack, a website devoted to Quake coverage before founder Steve Gibson broadened coverage to gaming news at large, came into extant because of the game. QuakeC made creating mods easier than ever.
"There's so much that Quake did. It's truly a remarkable game that has shaped history over the last 22 years," Willits concluded.
Petersen and Romero, however, both prefer Doom to Quake. "Quake spawned clans. That was a first," admitted Petersen. "That led to things like guilds in World of WarCraft. Quake was hugely influential. In a sense, Doom is more influential because without it, there would not have been a Quake. Doom put id on the map, and Quake colored it in."
While Romero shares Petersen's mixed feelings, he is proud of Quake. "We knew that when Quake came out, all the things about it that were really amazing were going to have been done first by our team. I felt those parts were really great, but I also felt that if we would have spent more time exploring design, maybe we would have created something else cool. We could have advanced FPS more on the design side versus just the technology side. That was the main disappointment for me, but Quake is awesome. I think Doom is a little more [special] to me than Quake, just because Doom turned out exactly the way I wanted it to, while Quake didn't."
EARLIER THAT YEAR, Romero had phoned Tom Hall. Hall was working as a designer at Apogee and had spearheaded Rise of the Triad, a first-person shooter built on Wolfenstein 3D's technology, before joining a splinter team working on another FPS called Prey.
"I called up Tom Hall and said, 'Hey, after Quake is done, I want to leave and start another company if you're interested,'" Romero said. "Tom was at 3D Realms working on Prey. He basically said, 'Hell yeah, let's do that.' He kept working on Prey while I made Quake."
That August, Romero called GT Interactive, the publisher that had brought Quake's retail version to stores. Speaking in confidence, he told his contact that he would be leaving id and starting a new game studio.
The next day, Romero entered the office to find Adrian Carmack, Kevin Cloud, and John Carmack waiting for him. The bit had flipped. Adrian, Romero's friend, looked uncomfortable, as if he didn't want to be there but had to be present as one of id's co-founders. "I'm not going to go into a lot of detail, not going to talk about what was said, or the decision process, or anything," he said. "But I can tell you I was certainly very upset. I was very unhappy. It was a sad day for me, and a sad day for Romero as well. I fought against it for a long time."
Romero recalled the incident with perfect clarity. "They just called me into a room and said, 'We're asking for your resignation. Here's your letter.' I looked at it and said, 'I was on my way out anyway.' I signed it. It was five minutes or less."
Although proud of Quake, Romero regretted that his team had passed opportunity after opportunity to pioneer in game design the way they had with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. He also admitted he deserved much of the blame for how his relationship with id Software, and especially John Carmack, came to an end.
For over 20 years, fans have crossed their fingers hoping the two Johns would mend fences and team up to create another first-person shooter. It has yet to happen. Romero and Carmack remain civil but distant acquaintances, leading fans to believe that the id Software of the 1990s, the small and scrappy team responsible for four of the most influential games ever created, had been a lightning bolt of personality and circumstance never destined to strike twice.
"Romero and I worked great together in the beginning," John Carmack said. "I wish things had turned out differently."