John Romero led Quake's design from its inception as an open-world, exploration-heavy game to its release as the spiritual successor to Doom. Over the game's development from 1995 through the summer of '96, he spent dozens if not hundreds of hours making maps and deathmatching fellow id developers John Carmack, Adrian Carmack (no relation), Tim Willits, American McGee, Sandy Petersen, and others. Despite his sizable investment, he was surprised and delighted to learn things about his game he never knew were possible, such as rocket jumping, a trick discovered by players who sent a recorded demo of them performing the now-standard navigational trick to ascend to greater heights than Romero and his cohort intended.
If the Icon of Sin himself still had things to learn, even the world's most devout Quake players probably do, too. Romero answered 25 of my questions about the landmark shooter's creation. The answers may reveal things you never knew, or expand on what the community believes is true.
Why, for instance, was the beginning of episode one's third map (aka E1M3) chosen as the first demo for the game's attract mode? How did id fashion underwater areas that didn't suck the fun out of the game as underwater areas are wont to do? Why was the Shambler, arguably Quake's most frightening eldritch horror, found so early in the shareware episode instead of held back for the demo's final encounter, much like Doom's Baron of Hell? Is the shotgun really as terrible as players say?
Step into the slipgate to wade deep into the trivia of id's groundbreaking FPS.
Author's note: Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
25. Attract Mode
I wanted to show those zombies at the beginning, and show grenades versus the normal pew-pew weapon. I wanted to open up with explosions. People don't watch all the demos when they run a game. They want to just get into it. By putting that demo first, I was teaching the player that you get rid of zombies with grenades. The zombies always get back up if you kill them with non-explosive weapons, and it's like, "Oh my god, how do I get rid of them?" If you watched more than three seconds of the demo when the game runs, you found out.
24. Early-Game Shamblers
We already had Chthon as the boss of the first episode, and we wanted to show something scarier than the Fiend, which was a pretty cool reveal when it jumped straight out at you. We wanted to show another monster, so we put it in the first episode to make that episode really crazy. We held the Vore back for the boss of the second episode, and the third episode had its own boss. It was like, "Put a couple of really cool things in the first episode to get people to want to buy it," because it was still a shareware game.
23. Shareware Content
It was pretty easy to delineate by episodes. That was already pretty set. For us, it was like, if we put more monsters in the shareware episode to get people excited, they're not just buying two more episodes' worth of levels, but three episodes' worth. That was more value that we'd had since we started doing shareware in 1990. Quake had the most value because you got four episodes when you bought the whole game. That value of gameplay can be offset by putting more stuff in the first episode.
22. Smooth Swimming
We wanted to make it easy to control, and we wanted it to feel natural. You could actually use the mouse to move up and down, something you couldn't do on solid ground; you could only jump. Using the mouse to move made movement fluid and easy, and it wasn't hard to do. People didn't feel like they lost control in the water; we wanted them to feel totally in control. You actually have more movement freedom underwater, but you also have a time limit.
21. Tricks of the Trade
For people who experimented a lot with water--which only happened if you were a deathmatch player--if you are pressed up against a wall underwater and you need air, there's a way to press against the wall to come up and take a breath without other people hearing you. There are so many crazy secrets like that in Quake. Normally, when you drop from one floor to another, you make an "ungh" sound when you hit the ground. That happened when you went down stairs too fast, too. In deathmatch, people will slow down as they go down stairs so they don't make any noise.
There's also a way to wedge yourself into the corner of a platform you're on and slide down the wall so you don't make a noise when you hit the ground, as long as you don't fall too far. You're clipping into the wall, so the game barely registers the drop. There are so many little tricks pros use in deathmatch.
20. Lightning Snipers
The way the game runs a check for whether you can hit somebody, such as if the way the lightning gun checks for geometry is off by just a little bit from where you're looking from, there are ways for players to be in an area where they can shoot someone and that person can't see them shooting them with the lightning gun. That's because there's a small, fractional difference between you and where the lightning blast comes out. That can be exploited in deathmatch to hit people without them knowing you're there. We didn't know that.
19. Hippity Hop
We didn't know about bunny hopping, which is the most insane trick. That's crazier than rocket jumping. Your speed while bunny hopping can be unbelievable. Normally, you move at 320 units--that's just a generic measurement--while running. You can move over 1,000 units while bunny hopping. It's wild the speed you can hit if you get really good at it. Good players can start bunny hopping almost immediately after they begin running. They just have to do a specific wiggle, which is based on your angular velocity while moving. It's totally wild, and it's this expert-level move. We never knew that skill ceiling existed, and that skill ceiling was raised by bunny hoppers.
18. Bunny Strats
I'm no good at the bunny hop, though I practice every once in a while. It's really good to know how because you can get out of situations really fast. If you're playing against someone else and they're bunny hopping too, the match gets to be pretty crazy. But if you're not a bunny hopper and the other person is, you have to be more strategic. They can rely on this crazy tactic, so you'll need to plan what you're going to do while they're circling the place, like, "I'll fire... now!" so they'll run into your rocket. You have to get good at those strategies against bunny hoppers.
17. An Axe to Grind
The axe was basically a replacement for your fist in Doom. In Wolfenstein 3D, it was a knife; we originally had a bayonet. In Doom, we had the fist. For Quake, we used an axe because of the medieval setting, and an axe is better than just a fist.
16. Nailing Balance
I think it's really close to Doom's weapon balance, but it's not the same. I feel the lightning gun is probably a little overpowered; it has that BFG effect when you jump into water and zap everybody. The nailguns are not balanced as well as other weapons, so people don't use them as often. The double-barreled shotgun hits really hard, and people use the regular shotgun for really long distances. We call it plinking. You could be totally out of ammo for your other weapons, or so far across the level, and still go, plink, plink--just ticking away at their health.
The regular shotgun is great for long distances while the double-barreled shotgun is good for close-up fighting. It doesn't have the same heavy sound or animations as Doom II's, but it's pretty comparable. The two nailguns don't have that balance.
15. The Name Game
We didn't give him a name. We were going to call him Quake, but then we said, "You know, 'Doomguy' worked out pretty well." Anybody could be Doomguy since he didn't have a name. So we thought, why don't we leave the player unnamed and "Quake" is the enemy? We purposely didn't name you for the reason of allowing anybody to be this character.
14. Less Time, Fewer Bosses
There were more bosses designed, but we didn't have time to make them. All the characters and their animations were all done by Kevin Cloud--one person. Adrian Carmack did all the textures in the game and the 2D artwork. Those two were an art factory, and they were working as fast as they could. But this was a brand-new experience for all of us, to create 3D models, animate them, and put them in a game. We were developing the game on NeXTSTEP. The models were done on an SGI Indigo machine using Alias Wavefront. And the game was running on DOS PCs. We were using three different operating systems and computers to get this game going. That, and dealing with new techniques and processes, was a lot to handle. How do we do this? What are the limitations of making characters?
We learned we couldn't fully skin them, so we had to have a seam on their sides so textures could get to that point; without a point, characters would have smeared textures on their sides because we couldn't generate skin for that part. This was the first time we'd skinned anything. We talked about other bosses, like, "Can we have the Duke of Sheol [from Lovecraftian fiction]?" Kevin said, "I don't have the time." I said, "All right, for some bosses, I'll use multiples of some other character."
We got Shubby at the end. He was invulnerable, and that was progression for me. In Doom II, we had a boss that was a wall, basically. The Icon of Sin was this giant wall that was spawning death. It was a really difficult boss. For Quake, I thought, why don't we use the physics of this game to kill the boss? Nothing can kill an Old One--except teleporting inside of him, or tele-fragging. We'd never used tele-fragging as a way of killing enemies. It was used to kill players in deathmatch, but never an enemy. I thought, we'll just telefrag the boss.
I came up with the idea of having a path with the weird, purple, spiky things on it. I said, "When the spiky thing goes inside him, you'll teleport, and that will end the game." It was a really easy boss. It doesn't even move. It just sits on its island. It'll be a hard enough level just trying to get to the boss. That design was us asking, "Can we get the game done now by doing this?" It was all about the minimum amount of stuff to finish the game because it was a really hard game to make.
12. Movement Speed
I wanted the movement speed to be faster, and it was. Then it got slower. Even though Quake's movement speed is faster than Quake II's and Quake III's--probably even Quake 4's--it's still a lot slower than Doom's. I wanted more speed because deathmatch feels really good with really fast movement speed, but Carmack wanted to slow things down because that basically amounted to more gameplay per level. You'd spend more time getting through a level if you moved through it slower. It wasn't that movement was so slow we didn't feel skilled as we played. For me, though, it was probably the minimum amount of skill.
You could still circle-strafe, so that was still valid. But we had a self-imposed limitation of 1.44 megabytes per level, per BSP file. That meant whatever we did had to fit in that space. A level could be massive but have a simple design, or it could be small but dense with design and polygons. It was up to the designers to balance that, which came down to their style. But no matter what types of levels we made, they'd be finished too fast if players moved at Doom's speed. The way to keep to our limitation but still feel you had good gameplay was to slow you down. John wanted to do that, so that's what we did.
11. Recommended Specs
We didn't have a problem with that. Pentiums had been out for a little while. We were developing on Pentium 90s; the P60 had been released the year before. In fact, Michael Abrash used a P100 when he was making his stuff. I felt that when Origin Systems came out with a game, it was slow if you didn't have the best machine. The game felt better when machines got faster, so you could play Origin games at good speeds later. But they never limited the speed of their games.
Now, older games move at speeds that go into the stratosphere if you didn't write code to slow them down on later processors. We always coded our games according to internal timers so no matter how many gigahertz your processor has, our games always run at locked frame rates. The most common reason your computer would have been too slow for Quake was because Quake used floating-point instructions.
10. Split Processing
I don't believe 486 processors came with a 487 co-processor chip in them. The 386s definitely didn't. A 486 SX absolutely did not have the connection between the 487 and 486. That was something Intel did and everyone got pissed off about because they discovered their chip had floating-point processing in it, but they severed the connection between the processor and co-processor to manufacture it for cheaper. We'd used fixed-point math in previous games, so if your processor did not support that, Quake's compiler's runtime would use software-emulated floating-point math; that's why it would have been slow. Pentium chips already had everything integrated. But we weren't worried about shutting anyone out because of computer speeds. We knew that soon, video cards would take all the calculations off the back of the CPU.
9. The Grenade Launcher
We wanted one because we'd never had one. What we could do was use explosion code for the rocket launcher, and have really cool physics movement for the grenades. We didn't have a bouncy weapon, and we thought it'd be cool to have something bounce around in the world. We'd never had that, and we were doing everything else in this game. Quake's engine was so rock-solid, it felt like a real location. We could get a sound effect that sounded great when grenades bounced off walls.
When we got the grenade launcher in, its physics and that sound made the world feel even more solid. It turned out to be one of the most fun weapons to use against people. That's how Thresh won all the time: He'd teleport in, throw grenades, and teleport back out, and everybody had to deal with what had just happened. We did that when we played, too. Someone would be in a room, and we'd pop in, throw grenades in, and have fun dodging that shit.
8. Designing Spaces Around Grenades
DM3 has a bunch of areas for that. The rocket launcher room is great for it, and any underwater passage is bad news with grenades around. If you're up inside the window looking down at where the pentagram spawns, and people go through the water to get it, you'd throw grenades into the water from where you stood in the window. Also, the center circle area was the hub of DM3. DM6 has that central hub area, too. Just throw grenades out there.
Or, also in DM6, when you know someone's coming for the red armor down the long walk and up the ramp, throw grenades so they bounce toward them. There are so many great places to use the grenade launcher.
7. Q for Quad
We needed some cool power-ups because we didn't want to just replicate Doom's power-ups. We didn't have slime to run on like in Doom. We wanted something different that would be cool. The Pentagram was thematically cool to put in the game versus the invulnerability sphere in Doom, but we tinted the screen instead of inverting the colors. That was a cool change. We'd never had something that multiplied your damage. That seemed an obvious item: The Quake symbol, and "quad."
I have a sketch from when I came up with what the Quad Damage artifact should look like. It was an X and a 4; that was before we had the "Q" for the game's logo. When we finally got the Q, I said, "Uh, that has to be the Quad icon. It's perfect: Our logo will be the coolest power-up." It was designed before the logo, and it worked that it was a Q for quad. If we'd had an X3 power-up, we would have changed it to X4 because using the Q logo was too perfect. We'd played thousands of hours of Doom deathmatch, and the Quad Damage changed so much in Quake. The balance of everything changed. It made every weapon an insta-gib gun, basically. Everyone else would run away.
There was the Quad Damage timer, and the five-minute timer on other power-ups. People were using the clock all the time; they never did that in Doom.
4. The Sound of Damage
That was me taking a guitar and another sound effect and smashing them together. The Quad Damage sound effect most likely came from our library of sound ideas. It just had to be that sound. There were so many to listen to, thousands and thousands. I was looking for something more abstract. It sounded amazing. You knew it was bad news when you heard it.
The Pentagram sound was badass, too; it sounded like it meant you couldn't be touched. We played this map Tom Hall made back in '97 called CY2A. This was while we were at Ion Storm. That level has a Quad Damage up in the air on top of a Q. It's in the center, so people will want to camp up there, but the area is open to the rest of the level. Everyone could fire rockets constantly at anyone sitting up there. If you got the Pentagram, you could teleport up there and sit and wait. No one could hurt you. If someone tried to telefrag you, they were dead, because you had the Pentagram. You could sit there and watch people die as they try to teleport into you.
3. Q for Quake
The logo was created by Sasha Shor at the Virtuous Group's R&D division. That was the creative agency we used for all of our packaging. Before Quake came out, we had them do some test runs on other stuff. They did packaging for Final Doom and Hexen, and even produced commercials for those games. 3D Realms really liked them, too; they used them for Duke Nukem 3D, the Atomic Edition, the Plutonium Pack, all that stuff. They were the hot new agency, and they were in Dallas. I think I worked with them putting together the id anthology. I did that on-site at their agency with all my photos and scans to put together the book of id.
What we told them for Quake was, "Before anything, take the id logo and mess it up. Make it look disturbing," because we had the clean blue-and-yellow logo. We said, "Mess it up, because this is what Quake is. It's iron." They did that, and it was great. Id still uses it now, and it was made early in 1996. Sasha was going to be the main creative on Quake's packaging, so she needed to know what the game was about, see some screenshots, all that stuff. She invented the pixel font--the cubing, the special Q character, the Q for the box--the really nice foldout cover for the CD case, the black CD, and a special edition that was in color; we all signed that.
She did a great job. Coincidentally, she did the "John Romero's going to make you his bitch" ad. She invented that as well. Long before that, she did the Quake stuff, and it was all really good. I loved that we could use her font in the game.
2. Romero's Favorite Levels
Every episode has at least one really good map. Tim had some really good detail in levels. E4M1, his one base level, had swimming between sections that felt really good. That was probably one of his best levels. I loved the physics of the Wind Tunnels. I enjoy having control of my character, but the Wind Tunnels felt really good because they were different and they took me to new places that could be really far away. The Wind Tunnel sound--everything contributed to a really cool feel.
American did some really cool stuff, like the crazy gravity of Ziggurat Vertigo. Sandy's levels had such great gameplay. I was always excited to play a new Sandy level because whatever happened would be some crazy shit. It looked wild, and it was wild, and it was super-fun to play because he's such a great game designer. He knew: The player's going to think this, so I'm going to do this to them instead. His levels were great to have at the end of the game. If you were an expert FPS player, you probably flowed through the first three episodes. Now, you think you'll finish the game normally. It's not gonna happen. I think it was really fun for the end of the game, for people to experience a completely different way to progress.
For my levels, it's funny because I love Termination Central (E3M1) a lot, but I also love E2M5, the Wizard's Manse, because of how big it was. You came into that central room and took the scariest elevator ride underwater, and you couldn't get out of it.
1. No Menus Allowed
The start level in Quake is a very simplified version for Quake's original design. It was going to have a hub area that placed you outside. You'd be in this open area with a bunch of forking pathways. You could go down one, and that might take you through a forest; another might take you behind a giant gate that destroyed you as soon as you went through it, so that would teach you not to go through it until you were really powerful. Each path led you to a point where you'd have to judge, "Can I handle what's beyond here or not?", kind of like in World of WarCraft when you travel from zone to zone. I wanted Quake to feel open world-ish even though you'd be transported into a level. There was gameplay before you'd go into those levels, which was the original idea for Quake's hub world.
For the final game, I still wanted a hub selection for you getting through the episodes, and I wanted a big surprise at the end. You'd start in the main area to choose a difficulty, and you could go through there multiple times. That was cool. The way it was designed, you could go through the first episode on one difficulty, then come back out after you finished it and switch difficulties before starting another episode. It was handy if you found one difficulty too easy. Each hallway reflected its difficulty. The Hard hallway had you jumping over lava with fireballs jumping up. The Normal hallway had you crossing a bridge. The Easy hallway made you think, this is nothing. It's brightly lit.
When you come through the teleporter, you're in the same location each time. You've already selected your difficulty. Now, which episode do you want to go through? So the Start map was me doing what I wanted to do, but in the design's context we ended up with. That allowed a fluid changing of difficulty, and to choose an episode to play, without menus.
When you finished all four episodes, you thought, isn't the game done? I just finished the fourth episode. You go through the teleporter to return to the hub, and now the floor's gone and there's a stairway to hell. You're like, "What? It's been here the whole time!" People were surprised that it was under your feet the whole time--tens of dozens of hours you've been playing, and you had no idea. You'd descend, and you had to jump around and then fall into the final level and you'd land in water. You were like, "They're trying to kill me at the very end." You had to shoot the fish, get out, and pass this gauntlet to the end where you could telefrag Shubby.
- Shacknews Long Read – Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters, the definitive account of the making of id's Quake trilogy and an exploration into the dysfunctional creative culture at id Software.
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David Craddock posted a new article, 25 Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About Quake
That was a fun read. It's always interesting reading about id Software back in the day.
I totally didn't know about the silent breath tactic. The tip about the shotgun-sniping seems super-obvious to me becuase I played so many single-player Quake levels. In weapon-limited 3rd party levels, your only effective long-range hitscan weapon is the starter shotgun.
Neat info about Sasha Shor creating the Quake 'Q'. So iconic!
Stalking her there's this page hidden on her site:
"GAMING — SASHA SHOR" http://www.sashashor.com/new-page
She worked with Ion Storm as well apparently, and did the Deus Ex cover. Great stuff!
David, I smell a follow-up article talking to Sasha and similar creatives about their work on iconic brand imagery!
Yeah, I’d love to hear their insight into the nuances of the font and design choices for the titles they worked on.
Haha I forgot about Anachronox. Hmm it’s 97 cents on this Steam sale..
What a good article, thank you!
Cool read -- thanks!
Read that in the CineFix dudes voice.