Tremors: How Quake shook first-person shooters to their core

Shacknews celebrates 20 years of all things Quake: rocket jumps, mods, and 3dx video cards, and more.

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On June 22, 1996, id Software released Quake, an evolutionary leap not only for first-person shooters, but for the industry at large. But before id could leap, it had to learn how to crawl.

In 1991, id released two landmark games that don't get nearly enough recognition today. The first was Hovertank 3-D which, while not the first first-person game nor the most detailed, was easily the fastest. Catacomb 3D built on Hovertank's foundation by applying texture maps to surfaces, transforming flat, single-colored areas into dungeons built from bricks and covered in slime and gore. On a smaller note, Catacomb 3D was the first FPS to show the player-character's disembodied hand.

Then the id crew made Wolfenstein 3D, and their advancement hastened from a crawl straight into a run. Programming prodigy John Carmack rendered corridors and walls in pseudo 3D by using raycasting, a rapid-fire series of tests that cast invisible lines called rays in every direction to detect the location of the next physical object, before painting them with textures. Doom upped the ante in 1993 by stretching Wolf3D's boundaries. Rooms varied in height and width, staircases and elevators connected platforms, and flying enemies like Cacodemons and Lost Souls could swoop over land monsters like Imps... or so it seemed.

Doom's 3D playground was wrought from smoke and mirrors. It was fast, but incapable of executing true 3D environments. Enemies only appeared to fly over or walk underneath one another, and no two platforms could be made vertically parallel. Nevertheless, Doom popularized deathmatch, a mode where two or more players could blast each other to bits over modem or network connections, as well as mod tools that let players build their own maps and campaigns.

Enter Quake, a revolutionary game made by a small team—less than two dozen developers. Yet despite id's small stature, Quake quickly grew into a giant whose technical pedigree and deceptively simple gameplay notions set the standard for FPS and 3D titles going forward.

True Blue (and Brown) 3D

Breaking down the technical obstacles that had curbed Doom's engine, Quake rendered worlds in three dimensions. Rooms and platforms could be stacked; enemies such as the slug-like Scrag could fly over and under actors; lightmaps fashioned through a combination of real-time and baked-in effects like shadows and flickering lights; and physics brought about new ways to navigate levels: rocket jumping, the process of jumping while firing a rocket at the ground to blast off to out-of-reach areas, and bunny hopping, moving at a sprint while strafing and pressing jump in a Twister-like feat of finger gymnastics.

More impressive than any single technical feature was the fact that Quake's engine produced capacious military compounds and Lovecraftian castles on Intel's relatively new Pentium processors. Carmack hired on Michael Abrash, a programmer renowned for making strides in graphics programming in and out of the games business, to help nail down fine details.

Quake may have dispensed with Doom's optical trickery, but Abrash and Carmack employed plenty of shortcuts to blast polygons to the screen. After finalizing a map, id's designers put it through a lengthy compilation that winnowed away excess surfaces. During play, algorithms shaved off yet more surfaces outside the player's view; rotating the camera toward them popped them back into view. At the same time, a separate process determined a line of sight so players could see items and enemies.

The Wide World of Quake

Quake took online play to the next level by implementing TCP/IP protocol, allowing multiple players to join servers through their modem just as if they were connected to a network. When it became apparent to id that players competing over phone lines were hobbled by latency issues, Carmack joined forces with a couple of other programmers to write QuakeWorld, an update pushed out in December 1996.

QuakeWorld used client-side prediction algorithms to iron out issues for players dialing into Internet servers from a modem. It wasn't as silky smooth as broadband Internet, still years away from becoming ubiquitous, but it was more than good enough. So good, in fact, that friends and foes met through the game and formed teams known as clans.

Fueled by nerdy adrenaline and buoyed by Carmack's code, clans led to the advent of eSports, where names like Dennis "Thresh" Fong and Jonathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel earned paychecks by becoming professional players.

Quake Accelerated

Rendered in software like any other FPS, Quake looked great. Fueled by the growing supply of 3D graphics cards, it looked spectacular. Long before NVIDA and AMD competed for consumer dollars, 3dfx's line of Voodoo chipsets made eyes bug out when players got a gander of GLQuake, a free update for the game written by id and optimized to take advantage of OpenGL graphics standards.

Night-and-day differences separated Quake running in software versus OpenGL libraries. Water was transparent, glass textures showed reflections, gun muzzles flashed, and rockets streaked across the screen surrounded by their own glowing balls of light.

GLQuake was at least partially responsible for PC gamers' obsession with framerates and higher resolutions. The update supported resolutions unavailable in the original games such as 1280x800, and switching from 16- to 32-bit color depth sharpened graphics even further. To keep the game running as fast as possible, players spent hundreds of dollars on RAM, processor upgrades, and the latest and greatest offerings from 3dx, which always sported more video RAM than earlier models. 

Look, Mouse!

Quake did not invent mouselook. That honor goes to Ultima Underworld, released in 1992. Descent allowed players to toggle the option, and one could argue it was necessary to properly navigate the game's topsy-turvy world, predicated on offering six degrees of freedom.

However, mouselook was not a given. Some games had it, some didn't. Quake is considered the first game to make it practically necessary: players who flipped the mouselook switch dominated their keyboard-only opponents in deathmatch.

Console-ized

Quake's underpinnings were so flexible that id had no issues letting players redefine them to further shape their gameplay experience. Pressing tilde opened up a text-based console where players could change control bindings, movement speed, gravity settings, and even how far back players should stagger when shot.

Launch Pad

Devotees of Quake can have just as much fun playing the game today as they did 20 years ago today. Still, those who missed the polygonal boat (rendered in OpenGL) might wonder what all the fuss is about. What relevance does Quake have today?

Simply put, Quake, while great in its own right, also served as the bedrock for a litany of new ideas. Carmack, Abrash, and id's other coding gurus wrote the game in a scripting language known as QuakeC, and then passed it along to players. Thanks to its free cost of entry, players were able to put together mods like Team Fortress and Threewave Capture the Flag—modes that became standards in later FPS titles.

Quake also bridged the gap between id's style of FPS—shoot all the things en route to collecting keycards and heading toward the exit—and Valve's Half-Life, the next chapter in FPS design: cohesive environments, scripted events, and narrative- rather than goal-driven directives. Valve, a scrappy company in the mid-90s, used Quake's engine as a springboard for their ideas, drastically overhauling the engine to accommodate larger environments, smarter enemy AI, and other innovative tech considered run-of-the-mill in today's games.

Twenty years from now, like today, Quake will still be sending aftershocks through the industry.

Long Reads Editor

From The Chatty

  • reply
    June 22, 2016 2:50 PM

    David Craddock posted a new article, Tremors: How Quake shook first-person shooters to their core

    • reply
      June 22, 2016 4:08 PM

      I am a fan of the quality of the articles being written here. Good stuff.

      Also, Quake is arguably one of the most important games ever made. I'd actually say that it's one of the most important bits of software ever written, given how much it has affected the gaming industry and computer hardware industry.

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        June 22, 2016 4:41 PM

        Thanks! Glad you liked it.

        Totally agreed about Quake. Such a milestone in gaming and computing.

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        June 22, 2016 7:03 PM

        I've been enjoying Craddock's work, not just here but other outlets too. Just finished his Sit Awhile book about Diablo. Good read (needed a little more on what happened afterwards though)

        But, Shack articles on the whole have certainly been growing up. That's good!

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      June 22, 2016 4:49 PM

      Nice article!

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      June 22, 2016 4:50 PM

      If I could do a gaming time travel I'd go back to Quake. The genre went through a golden age when the mods started coming in. One of my favorite mods was fairly short lived. I forget the name, but essentially the lighting was completely turned off except for the light weapons emitted. Shit was intense using sound to react, and maneuver and if lost firing your weapon or a rocket to trail down an area.

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        June 24, 2016 2:29 PM

        Wasn't that "Darkmatch" or something? I remember it too. Tons of fun & intense.

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      June 22, 2016 4:54 PM

      Photo credits for "deathmatch.jpg" = me. :-)

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      June 22, 2016 4:56 PM

      Very cool article, but Quake could not be run on a 486. I had a 486/100MHz with plenty of RAM, and it was unplayable. A Pentium was definitely necessary.

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        June 22, 2016 5:00 PM

        This is completely correct. I believe they tried to scale it to run on a 486 but on release it required a Pentium minimum.

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        June 22, 2016 5:09 PM

        I seem to remember selling my 486sx and buying a Pentium 90 when Quake came out

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        June 22, 2016 5:20 PM

        Fixed! Thanks for reminding me of this. You're absolutely right: I totally forgot that my 486/66 MHz processor (with 16MB of RAM!) played the game in slo-mo. I too had to upgrade to run it at decent speeds, and I upgraded again after GLQuake came out.

        Memories!

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          June 23, 2016 12:13 AM

          Hmm. That paragraph reads a bit weirdly now. It seems like it was structured originally something like "Quake ran on a 486, which was amazing; id had help from Abrash" but the new "required a Pentium, made people want to upgrade" bit is sort of shoehorned in in a way that makes the direction of the paragraph unclear.

          Nit lower down: "Quakeworld uses" should be "Quakeworld used" to agree with the rest of your tense usage. Arguably, the present-tense paragraphs on GLQuake should change too.

          Final grouse: it'd be cool if the screenshots were actually taken with something close to the original settings, instead of clearly being from far higher resolutions than anyone had at the time...

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            June 23, 2016 3:51 AM

            Thanks for those suggestions. I'm still wiped from E3 last week and from finalizing some other projects, so I appreciate the extra eyes on my work. I actually meant to fix tense usage in the GLQuake section but completely forgot because my brain is fried.

            By the by, I enjoyed your recent write-ups demystifying technical issues for a general audience. Good stuff! In-depth without wading too deep into nitty-gritty details.

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        June 22, 2016 5:24 PM

        It ran... just... extremely poorly. :(

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        June 22, 2016 7:16 PM

        I ran Quake on our 486. In like...320x240 resolution.

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        June 23, 2016 7:28 AM

        I was just happy it would run on my AMD K5

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        June 23, 2016 8:27 AM

        I had a friend who ran it on a 486. I don't know which model, but the framerate was pretty choppy.

        I remember a different guy online who preferred the choppy framerate from his 486, specifically for the Chthon popping out of the lava scene, which he thought felt more cinematic that way (THEY'VE BEEN WITH US SINCE AT LEAST 1997!)

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      June 22, 2016 5:23 PM

      Great article. Quake truly is the Eighth Wonder of the World.

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      June 22, 2016 5:39 PM

      Nice article. Could have mentioned proprietary API's used prior to glquake.

      For example, There was vQuake, which was the very first hardware accelerated version of quake. It was for owners of Rendition video cards.

      When glquake was released card companies (rendition, 3dfx, powerVR) released "minigl" libraries that you would copy to your quake folder. Minigl would implement a subset of OpenGL's functionality

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      June 22, 2016 8:48 PM

      good read. i miss the old Quake/3DFX days.

      Quake 1 and Diablo being the first truly online games i ever played. (outside of dial up Doom and War2) And i played them a lot. ..good ol days..

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      June 22, 2016 9:06 PM

      I remember bringing quake into my after school lan. Everybody there played duke3d.exe, but I tried t playing it like I played quake and the mouselook felt very weird. It felt like the perspective would warp, and besides people who just used the keyboard has the auto vertical aim feature going which ultimately gave them a competitive advantage on most maps.

      I couldn't get anyone to play quake instead of duke3d :(

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      June 22, 2016 9:48 PM

      Another fantastic historical account by David Craddock.

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        June 22, 2016 10:49 PM

        Yeah man I agree ^^^^^ this was hard core quality and for me personally a very cool read, I love stuff like this.

        It is a rad write up that was put together with love and care you can tell.

        Thanks David, keep it up man, we totally dig it.

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          June 23, 2016 12:30 AM

          Dude has definitely made a name for himself as an excellent chronicler of gaming history. And he needs to release that damn X-COM book before I go mad.

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      June 23, 2016 12:07 AM

      There would be no Shack without Quake.

      No Briefcase Man. No accidentally a website.

      No LOLs.

      Quake is very near and dear to my heart.

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      June 23, 2016 12:37 AM

      good stuff !

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      June 23, 2016 3:42 AM

      Thanks David. Well done. Summed up the history very nicely. I have always felt that even Id did not fully understand the phenomenon they unleashed on the world when Quake arrived.. Particularly its impact, as you mentioned, on mouse directed 3D aiming. If you recall, the mouse look command was nowhere to be found in the options menu, but had to be activated from the console or with a config file.

      The all mighty autoexec.cfg.

      Thanks for the memories. A great read!

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      June 23, 2016 7:27 AM

      How many game devs and companies got their start with Doom and Quake mods?

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      June 23, 2016 9:16 AM

      On this note: does anyone still have the BIGASS1 and BIGASS2 demos they could record for YouTube? I remember seeing those and wishing I could join The Gibson and crew in a Quake LAN deathmatch.