CHAPTER 1: WE ARE THE WIND
Fighting for Justice… Later
In the summer of 1996, Quake became the fourth jewel in Texas-based developer id Software's crown. Yet in a way, Quake had also been the second.
Commander Keen, a trilogy of smooth-scrolling platform games developed on PC, put id on the map in 1990. As Keen caught on, a buzz grew around id's next game, The Fight for Justice, teased by selecting Preview from Keen's main menu.
"The Fight for Justice was a top-down RPG," said John Romero. Along with John Carmack, Kevin Cloud, and Adrian Carmack (no relation to John), Romero was a co-founder of id Software and one of the company's most prolific level designers.
Id's design for The Fight for Justice stemmed from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign ran by John Carmack, dungeon master and technical wizard responsible for writing the engines that powered id's games. Carmack had hosted his D&D campaign for the other id developers since they had founded the company in Shreveport, Louisiana, back when they had been cranking out a new game every two months for Softdisk magazine's Gamer's Edge subscription disk.
Every weekend, the id crew would take a break from developing their latest game and gather around a table where Carmack directed their latest adventure. As his campaign unfolded, Carmack paired up his friends' characters with bands of heroes such as the Silver Shadow Band, who rode on the back of a silver dragon and scouted for monsters and other perpetrators of injustice. "You wouldn't be able to see them because they were above the clouds, and they would dive down and solve a situation, and then get out. They were all insanely high-level characters," Romero continued.
Quake, the leader of the Band, was, as Romero put it, "a really amazing badass." In The Fight for Justice, players would assume control of Quake and wield the Hammer of Thunderbolts—think Mjolnir, the mythical hammer carried by Marvel superhero Thor, only ten times more powerful.
Romero and the others had a vision for how Quake's adventures should play out on the screen and got to work on The Fight For Justice in January 1991. Unfortunately, the technology of the era did not measure up to their imaginations. Rather than press on and release a game they weren't happy with, the team mothballed The Fight for Justice and got to work on Dangerous Dave and the Haunted Mansion, a 2D platformer built using Commander Keen's tech.
The guys at id had dropped their RPG-inspired romp in less time than it would have taken to change a t-shirt. No one gave it much thought. Among the team, such changes of heart were known as bit flips, a programming joke referencing a state in computer's memory that could only store one of two values: on, or off.
"We used to just say, 'We are the wind.' We'll change our mind like that on anything," Romero explained. "We did that so many times: We made a decision that would immediately and absolutely change the course of the company."
Preparing to Leap
Four years and a string of best-selling games later, id Software sat perched at the top of the games industry. Commander Keen had been a big hit, but Wolfenstein 3D and Doom had forever altered the course of the studio, and the gaming industry.
Inspired by Castle Wolfenstein, a stealth game on the Apple II where players crept through the corridors of Adolph Hitler's Nazi fortress, Wolfenstein 3D had traded sneaking around for blisteringly fast run-and-gun action from a first-person perspective in 1992, popularizing the first-person shooter. When Doom's shareware episode uploaded to University of Wisconsin's servers in December 1993, online deathmatches brought network traffic to a standstill on college campuses and in offices around the world.
Artifacts, awards, and other memorabilia from the awards display case in the reception area of id Software's Dallas, Texas-based headquarters.
Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom. Three big hits, the latter leaving an indelible mark on popular culture. The studio's reputation and deep coffers combined with its status as an independently owned and operated studio afforded id the freedom to pick and choose what game to work on next.
Romero and the other designers harnessed Doom's toolset to build maps for a sequel. Doing so was not an arbitrary decision. They had made a sequel to the Commander Keen trilogy and a prequel to Wolfenstein 3D, Spear of Destiny, by harnessing each game's respective engine and toolset. Because the team was familiar with an inaugural game's technology when the time came to make a sequel, they were able to deliver follow-ups in record time.
Where id had taken nearly one year to develop Doom's engine, the DoomEd level editor, and the game's twenty-seven levels, Doom 2: Hell on Earth blasted onto store shelves nine months after the original game and featured more of what fans had loved: more maps, more weapons, more monsters, more speed, more weapons, more power-ups, and, inevitably, more custom levels built by Doom's community of fans thanks to free editing tools that enterprising users would base on id Tech 1—known as the Doom engine until it was retroactively branded the first generation of id Tech in order to more easily classify subsequent versions of the technology that powered id's shooters.
Meanwhile, Carmack set about researching and writing a brand-new game engine. Although Wolfenstein 3D and Doom let players move freely through their environments, they were not truly three-dimensional, nor were they strictly 2D. Instead Doom's engine is pseudo-3D, referred to by many as 2.5D. Under the hood, Carmack had pulled off a high degree of artifice to generate the illusion of 3D movement and terrain.
A screenshot from early in Quake's development.
Although levels are rendered as three-dimensional spaces, Doom's action takes place on a 2D plane, like graph paper with X and Y coordinates. The engine plugs in height information to apply textures to walls, floors, and ceiling on a two-dimensional plane, then stretches and projects them. The rendition is convincing: Stairs connect higher and lower floors, and elevators run players up and down shafts.
However, id Tech 1's sleight of hand came with limitations. Floors and ceilings cannot be sloped. Players climb staircases to different floors, but they should notice that those floors never overlap. The reason is that objects such as rooms and bridges cannot be placed directly above or below one another. Because all data exists on a two-dimensional plane, any rooms or corridors stacked vertically would occupy the same space on the grid even though they appear to be distinct locations.
Carmack's goal for id's next game was to write a bona fide 3D engine featuring six degrees of freedom: The ability for objects to move in any direction over three axes. Instead of returning to Wolfenstein, Doom, or Keen, the id developers dusted off The Fight for Justice, which they would call, simply, Quake.