How Quake went from a medieval adventure to one of the most frenetic shooters of all time

Quake ascended to Doom's throne as THE preeminent fast-paced shooter, but it wasn't always meant to pick up where 'Doomguy' left off.

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Wolfenstein 3D. Doom. Quake. While none of the three connects narratively to the others, technological and gameplay through lines chain them together to form id Software's definitive trifecta of titles. Each established itself as the premiere first-person shooter of its day, and a technological tour de force that enticed players to upgrade their hardware so they could run and gun at blistering speeds.

But according to an interview I conducted with John Romero, id co-founder and jack-of-all-trades programmer and level designer, Quake, released 20 years ago this week, didn't start out as Doom's spiritual successor.

"For Wolfenstein and Doom, there was stuff we came up with, and we put it in and then took it out because it wasn't true to the essence of the game: run and gun, basically," Romero told me. "When we were doing Quake, we actually had a totally different design for it that was more like a medieval world. It wasn't even a shooter in the beginning. It was first-person, but not a shooter, and we were going to use other weapons."

Shaping quake as a quiet adventure set in a medieval world was an idea that predated Wolfenstein 3D. After wrapping up their Commander Keen trilogy of platformers for the PC, Romero and his teammates put together a design treatment for a fantasy game called Quake: The Fight for Justice. Quake would not only be the game's title, but the name of the protagonist, inspired by a character that John Carmack played in Dungeons & Dragons when the guys took a break from cranking out code and artwork for their games.

"Your main character would have had a big hammer, kind of like Thor," Romero explained to me. "Quake was almost like Thor, but he had a thing called the Hellgate Cube which was a companion that had its own personality. It would orbit you, and whenever you were fighting it would help suck the souls out of the enemies you were beating on. If you didn't kill stuff fast enough, or kill enough enemies, it would get upset and just leave, and you'd have to find it somewhere and get it back. That would have been an experiment to see how cool it would have been, and to see what kind of world we could have made around those types of combat concepts."

Quake: The Fight for Justice went through several design iterations as the id crew grew more experienced at making games. Seeking to change the world's perception of multiplayer gaming once again, they came up with a concept where players could sneak up behind opponents and knock them off of cliffs. From there, the player knocked from his or her perch would have to control his descent as he flailed and tumbled down the mountain.

Romero also outlined id's plans for view triggers, a mechanic best describe as a predecessor to scripted events like those seen in Valve's Half-Life in 1998. "If a view trigger was in your field of view, it would trigger just because you looked at it. Let's say you're going down a path through the woods. There's a cave off to your right. You look over and see red eyes peering out of the cave. Suddenly you hear growling, and the creature starts to come out of the cave just because you looked at it. That could have happened at any point, or it could never have happened because you never looked over there, or there could have been a second view trigger and walking through it would have triggered [the first]."

An image from an early build of Quake, courtesy of John Romero's blog. Click here to read his tribute to Quake's 20th anniversary.

Ultimately, technical difficulties and internal strife caused Romero, John Carmack, and the other principals at id to abandon Quake's design and get back to doing what their team did best. "It took so long to make the engine work at a good framerate, and the company was just too tired to innovate on the design and see if it would work. No one had the stamina to try and push through this possible new gameplay, so we went with the Doom-style shooter and finished it in seven months."

Not that that's a bad thing. Far more than just another FPS, Quake and its underlying tech were the seeds that led to a bountiful harvest of genre-defining technology, new game modes like capture-the-flag and Team Fortress, and online gameplay facilitated through QuakeWorld's graphical UI and methods of reducing latency.


All quotes come from an interview conducted by David L. Craddock for publication in Making Fun: Stories of Game Development, Volume 1, due out in paperback and electronic editions later this summer.

Long Reads Editor

From The Chatty

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      June 24, 2016 3:49 PM

      Cool article, I didn't know the backstory.

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        June 24, 2016 3:51 PM

        I remember all this crazy stuff about what Quake was gonna be and do. Like all the online maps being linked by portals so you could go through a slipgate and end up on another server

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          June 24, 2016 3:55 PM

          I played Doom 2, but for some reason Quake totally snuck up on me. Like it was just on sale one day. Probably because I didn't get an PC gaming mags then, I did have Next Generation and EGM, but I don't think they covered PC games?

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            June 24, 2016 3:56 PM

            quake was really the first big game i really learned about from the internet entirely.

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              June 24, 2016 4:25 PM

              I learned about Quake online, but followed coverage in PC Gamer. This was back when each issue was 300+ pages... 60% of which were ads. -_-

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          June 24, 2016 5:52 PM

          Destiny was really the game that delivered on that. Instanced areas where you'd see other players wandering around.

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      June 24, 2016 4:28 PM

      These history write ups are great. Very cool learning about quake.

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        June 24, 2016 9:33 PM

        Yeah, I really like these articles--it's nice to have meatier stories to read from the front page that are more than just reviews or news.

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      June 24, 2016 4:40 PM

      Romero stated once that his original idea for Quake was more like Darksiders than anything else.

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      June 24, 2016 5:51 PM

      Thanks David, I really enjoy your little historical write-ups. I was always curious what the "justice" was that Quake would be fighting for.

      The wording on the reason for them abandoning the concept is interesting. "We all got real tired."

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        June 24, 2016 6:11 PM

        Glad you like em!

        There was some serious shit going down at id during Quake's development. The company was growing quickly, Romero was burnt out and going in a different direction, and few people got along. Sad stuff.

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          June 24, 2016 6:14 PM

          Yeah reading Masters of Doom, it sounded bad there that whole time

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        June 25, 2016 8:45 AM

        Social justice

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          June 25, 2016 9:37 AM

          Why does Quake mention gender or gamergate in every second fight that he's in?

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      June 24, 2016 6:38 PM

      Quake taught me about PCs, networking, lan parties, modding, typing really fast (since we didn't have
      voip yet) and making online friends.

      Every PC I have ever built, I always install quake.
      Whenever somebody asks me about the best game of all time, I can point back to my younger years and
      think of Street fighter 2 and Quake.

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      June 24, 2016 9:43 PM

      If you all enjoyed this, check out David Craddock's books on the history of roguelikes and the making of Diablo!

    • reply
      June 26, 2016 6:34 AM

      Been liking your stuff, not just here on Shack, but your published work as well. Hope you can call Shacknews home for a good while.

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      June 26, 2016 8:05 AM

      great article

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      June 26, 2016 4:22 PM

      I miss Hexen, Heretic, and Heretic 2 :(

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        June 27, 2016 8:09 AM

        Heretic was a hoot for sure.