For many, 1996 was one of the greatest years in gaming. It was a year where iconic games like Blizzard’s Diablo, Capcom’s Resident Evil, Core Design’s Tomb Raider, the Nintendo 64 (along with Super Mario 64 and a few other launch titles), and Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria would shake the pillars of an industry and celebrate players’ expectations.
One of the biggest titles that year would also help kick off the 3D accelerator race forever reshaping PC gaming as we knew it then. That would be id Software’s Quake.
Aside from id’s masterpiece, Doom, David Kushner’s Masters of Doom also recounts the story of Quake, pinging id’s cadre of stars, their personalities, conflicts, dreams, and inspirations in the company’s quest to “rule the world”. In it, Kushner tells us that Carmack began the project as he always did — with a lot of research via “thousands of dollars” worth of books and materials which he found to be more academic than revelatory.
What he was planning would be a quantum leap into the unknown with technology that would create the “interactive, real-time, fast-action, 3-D gaming world”. His previous benchmark wasn’t enough, but Carmack being Carmack, he’d tackle it as a problem that simply needed to be solved.
When Carmack shared his idea for what Quake would be with his fellows at id, Kushner writes, “Romero nearly combusted” over the possibilities. Kushner goes on to describe that Quake was actually borne out of Dungeons & Dragons games that they had played — it was the name of Carmack’s character who “possessed a powerful hammer; capable of demolishing buildings, as well as supernatural conjuring object, Hellgate Cube, floating above his head.”
Its history also reached back to id’s Commander Keen days, a game idea that seemed too impossible to realize with the current tech of the day. But now, in 1994, technology had advanced enough to make something like Quake seem within reach. A full 3D game. Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were incredible, but they still used 2D frames for the detailed monsters and props that changed from perspective and action cues. It was still a flat world in a 3D maze. Quake would change all of that by going full 3D with its monsters, its levels, and the decorative bits in between.
Initially the game was plotted out by John Romero as a vast adventure involving “forests”, a “hammer of thunderbolts”, and a version of the Hellgate Cube that fed off of all of the death you would visit to your foes. It would even talk to you as a sort of partner. It was intended to be far more ambitious than Doom — something that would be just as revolutionary, leapfrogging over their own laurels and into new territory.
But in the end, for the sake of the project to see the light of day, the huge medieval role-playing extravaganza was to be a shooter much like Doom. The technology was proving tenaciously difficult to forge even with Carmack putting himself on a “death march” of continual crunch churning out 80 hour work weeks. In the end, however, Quake finally saw the light of day in 1996.
It was a groundbreaking game, not only in terms of its tech, but in other ways. id Software self-published the game as leverage to breaking away from GTI, the publisher that sold Doom and Doom II at retail reaping tens of millions of dollars. id was also getting a nice chunk of change making its owners millionaires but wanted to take a bigger step in making the company independent. Mike Wilson, id’s outspoken “biz” guy, also wanted the same thing, and the weapon they used to make it happen was an old one — shareware. Instead of downloading the first episode of the game, people could buy the CD for “$9.95” and then if they liked it, call in and pay for the rest unlocking the game that was already there in encrypted form. It worked.
However the biggest shockwave that Quake’s landing would deliver to gamers was the deathmatch, pitting 16 players against each other in a head-to-head battle for scoring supremacy. Words like gibs and being ‘telefragged’ (going through a slipgate teleporter and appearing on top of someone, fragging them by teleport) were tossed about like grenades.
Unlike id’s previous efforts, Quake was designed from the ground up to be multiplayer friendly, connecting everyone together in as easy a manner as possible. And like previous games, it was also mod friendly with the community eventually creating tools for level design, sound editing, and a slew of other additions that continue on even today.
Story-wise, Romero had come up with something that set the mood for why you’re going into a mix of gothic and high-tech corridors. An enemy codenamed “Quake” has taken control of slipgate technology at a facility that is now under attack by its forces. You’re called into action to stop whatever this “Quake” is before they can amass their army and send them through these gates to conquer everything. Simple stuff, a far cry from the epic Romero initially envisioned, but it did the job for what Quake would be now.
As for the action, it was good. Very good. Critics loved it and it was a blast to play with a kinetic energy fueled by sound effects and tunes dreamt up by none other than Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. Polylicious enemies would snap back, react to being hit, and growl as they collapsed in a bloody heap. You could also swim! Crazy weapons from lightning guns to ye olde shotty violently injected players’ drive to survive into each of Quake’s denizens. Even today, the game holds up well as a solid shooter backed by a plethora of levels designed by the likes of Romero, American McGee, and newcomer Tim Willlits.
Quake became a transformative title not only because what it did for gaming but for what it would also do to id. From then on for many years afterwards, id Software found itself in the engine business. Having the most bleeding edge polys on the block immediately made it the envy of development studios eager to not challenge id, but stomp the competition who were thinking the same thing in building their own dream games around the same tech.
In a way, those that borrowed id’s engine were focused on making “that game” that would one-up everyone else much like what Romero had initially looked forward to with his first concept for Quake. Over the next few years, collaborations with studios like Raven Software who was responsible for memorable titles like Heretic, Soldier of Fortune, and Star Wars Jedi Knight II (all based off of id’s engine tech) would further entrench the growing idea among some that id was primarily becoming a tech company leaving it to others to show off what that tech could do.
It was also a symptom of deeper changes in the studio. As Kushner notes in his book, the decision to pick tech over design for Quake “created incinerating pressure”. Carmack felt that Romero had drifted away from being a coder. Romero felt that Carmack had drifted away from what it meant to be a gamer. Two distinct design approaches were fast approaching a final resolution, first with an ultimatum during development for Romero to dedicate more time to working on Quake. And then finally, after Quake had shipped, with Carmack feeling that Romero didn’t pull enough of his weight at the end, finally requesting Romero’s resignation from the company they had built together.
It was a shock for Romero, but he took it in stride. The two had eventually developed very different ideas on what made a game great, and what would make a company successful, to be under the same roof at that point. Romero, as he often did, had already been thinking on the next big thing — his own studio, one where the motto would be “design is law”. That studio would eventually become known as Ion Storm.
As for Carmack, he remained at id where he would go on to improve on Quake’s foundation and deliver engine tech iterations that would be used by a score of other iconic games from Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty to 1998’s Half-Life from Valve.
3D accelerator wars would rage in its wake, a fledgling Nvidia would plant the seeds for world domination, animation projects using the game would spawn early examples of machinima, and players would make screen resolutions, frames per second, and mods a permanent part of their lexicon in the years to come on both consoles and PCs greased by the competition such as Epic’s Unreal Tournament or 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem. Pixels would become flashpoints of furious debate, for better or worse, as hardware continued to improve, pushing expectations even further, with online clans forming up as prototypes of the first early deathmatching esport teams. Today, you can still snag Quake from sites like Steam and Good Old Games and check it out for yourself or mod it up for a completely different experience.
But back in 1996, it was a group of guys that just wanted to have fun and put out something no one had ever seen before. And they did, changing the face of gaming forever with everyone hungering for a piece of Quake.