Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

Everything changed with Quake

Many games are claimed to be “revolutionary”. Quake was one of the few that truly was.

On June 22, 1996, id Software released Quake. While the industry in 1996 was only a fraction of the size of today’s indie sector alone, it seemed the hype for Quake had seeped into every corner, and rightly so. In a PC gaming era when the first-person shooter was king, Quake was set to push expectations beyond what anyone dreamed.

With the names behind the game, it’s impossible to imagine the hype being anything less than immense. id Software had practically invented the genre (at least as the market then recognised it) in 1992 with Wolfenstein 3D. Then in 1993, Doom sent the genre and themselves soaring into fame that transcended the industry, receiving wider media recognition not usually afforded to game developers. This came with a degree of infamy as well — Doom was a blood-soaked, heavy-metal romp through Hell itself, and it terrified a society that still hadn’t grasped the future significance of the games industry’s meteoric rise.

By mid-1996, the FPS genre had fallen into a steady release pattern. Doom was followed by games like Heretic, Hexen, Star Wars: Dark Forces, Duke Nukem 3D and Marathon, and while not strictly an FPS game, Descent was heavily influenced by the genre.

The release of Quake in June 1996 wasn’t a surprise to anyone. The game had been in development since at least 1994, with lead designer John Romero posting on a BBS forum responding to speculation on what sort of game Quake would be. And that wasn’t always something that was completely clear. Take this preview that was included with Commander Keen, released in 1990:

The “previews.ck1” file in the Commander Keen /base1 directory — have a look!

This early preview foreshadowed the creative differences that would lead to a major rift id Software, with John Romero leaving to found Ion Storm. But that was still years away — games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were yet to play their part in shaping the future of Quake.

1992 can be considered the prelude to id Software’s meteoric rise. Wolfenstein 3D took the established concept of first-person perspective action games (such as Catacomb 3-D and Ultima Underworld) and shaped it into the first-person shooter formula that came to define the genre: multiple weapon selection, fast paced violence, keys, switches, secret doors and labyrinth levels.

18 months later, id Software shifted the benchmark even further with Doom. Doom needs no introduction, and it is almost impossible to talk about game history, particularly PC gaming history, without talking about Doom. It is the foundation upon which generations of shooters were based, and it was only in the 2000s when the FPS genre began to radically depart from the fundamental gameplay structure it established. Doom is justifiably hailed as one of the most influential games of all time.

Despite the size of the monumental shadow Doom has cast over the industry, it was still mostly an incremental improvement on what had come before, albeit a very well executed one.

Gameplay-wise, Quake didn’t break too many barriers. The gameplay is excellent, but it is ultimately a safe evolution of concepts introduced in the previous generation of shooters. In fact, the real innovators in this regard were 3D Realms with the vast, interactive levels presented in Duke Nukem 3D.

Quake’s legacy isn’t significant for its impact on singleplayer game design. Rather, it is the way that Quake changed the mindset of an entire generation of gamers, and pushed the industry onto a course upon which it still sails today.

A Technical Marvel

The most obvious thing to point out is Quake’s technical impact. Game programming is by no means a one-person-show, but since John Carmack had first seen the scrolling backgrounds of Super Mario Bros. and said “I can do that on a PC", he had been the technical genius behind id Software’s technical achievements. Time and time again, Carmack’s fluency with computer code had pushed boundaries. Where he wasn’t innovating with his own ideas, he was taking things that other developers were doing and doing it better.

The Quake Engine, known retrospectively as “id Tech 2", incorporated Carmack’s personal innovations from the Doom Engine (id Tech 1), and thrust them into a fully 3D world of polygons and Z-axes. Quake was one of the earliest true 3D games on the PC, at least in an optimised sense. This optimisation was thanks to several more technical innovations by Carmack, in the way that levels were rendered.

Of course, technical complexity means nothing to the average gamer. All the average gamer cares about is that a game looks good and plays well; this is how and why Quake made its technical impact known.

Quake is, for a game from 1996, incredibly well-optimised. The original release didn’t even support 3D hardware acceleration, which at that time was a burgeoning consumer technology. While you needed a decent PC to play the game, the tech required wasn’t necessarily out of reach.

Quake was one of the early games to show that aesthetically pleasing and smooth 3D graphics were within reach of your average PC gamer. Almost immediately, the sprite-based graphics of other shooters like Duke Nukem 3D and Doom looked dated. Quake was part of the new generation, the 3D generation, that within 12 months would sweep the industry by storm. Everyone tossed aside sprites and began cramming their games with what we thought at the time were life-like 3D models, but in hindsight looked like a geometric nightmare.

Quake was a technical marvel, for sure, but it wasn’t the only 3D game at the time. So why was it special? It was Carmack’s Quake engine. The sheer scope of influence that the Quake engine has had is hard to fathom. I’ll refer specifically to this “family tree”, that you’ve possibly seen before:

As you can see — there’s a lot of history in there. Believe it or not, even in later id Software titles like Doom 3 and Rage, there are still lines of code that can be traced all the way back to 1996. But it isn’t just Quake’s descendants to point out here. Hexen II, Heretic II, The GoldSrc Engine and subsequent Source Engine (of Half-Life and Counter-Strike fame), Soldier of Fortune, SiN, the Call of Duty series — all these games and engines can trace their roots back to the Quake engine. There’s a reason why Quake is regarded as the “elder god” of modern shooters.

Another interesting point about that family tree is the sheer number of Quake offshoots, otherwise known as source ports. As late as Doom 3’s id Tech 4 engine, id Software made it a tradition of releasing their engines as open source when a subsequent engine released. Open sourcing their work was always one of id Software’s greatest acts of supporting the industry, and they no doubt created generations of game programmers who cut their teeth manipulating Carmack’s famous code. Unfortunately, with the acquisition of id Software by Zenimax Media and the departure of Carmack (who was always the driving force behind this practice), id Tech 5 has not and probably never will be open-sourced.

WASD + Mouse

Quake’s move into 3D environments where you could be attacked from any direction, together with the frantic pace of gameplay, meant that the old arrow keys and look up/down buttons didn’t cut it anymore. Especially in multiplayer, where Quake thrived, a player needed every advantage they could get. While the mouse-and-keyboard style of gameplay had existed before, Quake was the game that buried the old ways for good. It is simply not possible to play the game any other way (believe me, I tried my best back then).

Today, the mouse-and-keyboard is the go-to control scheme for shooters, so much so that consoles have been increasingly supporting them as peripherals — the Xbox Series X supports mouse and keyboard for games like Call of Duty and Halo now. “WASD” is an instantly recognisable sequence of letters to any gamer, and they have largely replaced the arrow keys, even in games that don’t require it. Obsidian Entertainment’s RPG Pillars of Eternity defaults to using WASD for screen panning, as does Creative Assembly’s newer Total War titles. It’s a key mapping that emerged from the multiplayer servers of Quake’s early days, and is now an industry standard.

Did you want a Ferrari with that?

Quake is an absolute blast in multiplayer, and even today it is hard to beat the raw entertainment provided by its frantic, minimalist style. It is deathmatch in its purest form, and the skill ceiling of the game is astronomical. So it probably comes as no surprise that Quake had a major part in the early days of eSports, and that is thanks to the active support of id Software’s staff.

For many years, until the arrival of games like Quake III Arena and Counter-Strike, Quake was the go-to game for competitive FPS multiplayer, in some cases even more than its sequel Quake II. id Software actively supported this through in several tournaments, and two of them have become legendary moments in eSports history.

In 1997, E3 hosted the “Red Annihilation” tournament, one of the first nation-wide eSports events in the US. Over 2000 participants took part in the event, with the top spot going to Dennis “Thresh” Fong. Then only 20 years old, Fong surged through to the final (shown in the video above) where he emerged victorious. What makes this event such an iconic moment in eSports history, however, is the prize — John Carmack’s very own Ferrari 328 GTS. This was one of those moments where the industry began to recognise that games weren’t just a fun little diversion anymore. This was an industry that would one day see corporately sponsored teams competing in front of thousands, leading to an industry that today is worth billions.

Thresh sits at the wheel of Carmack’s Ferrari. Carmack is also pictured in the smiley shirt.

Taking second place at Red Annihilation was Tom “Entropy” Kimzey, and while he too made his own impact on the eSports scene, it was his then-girlfriend Stevie “KillCreek” Case whose own Quake exploits have become legend, and sadly also highlight one of the industry’s greatest failings that persists today.

As part of the Impulse 9 eSports team with partner Kimzey, Case made a name for herself as a deadly competitor, and gained the chance to meet the developers of Quake. She took part in a multiplayer match against game designer John Romero, who after defeating her, created a website sledging her skill. Case said in a later interview that she didn’t know Romero well enough to recognise it as a joke, and she publicly demanded a rematch, one in which she convincingly defeated Romero in the third round, 25–19.

Case’s win gained huge coverage, but it also highlighted a darker side to the industry. It seemed incredible that Romero had been defeated by “some girl”, and responses alternated between using this as an opportunity to sexualise her as the ultimate “gamers’ girl” and (or sometimes, also) Case being the target of some vile accusations about how and why she had managed to gain such a prominent position in the spotlight. To an industry that was almost entirely dominated by adolescent males, Case was seen as a novelty to be taken advantage of.

She transitioned into game design herself, contributing as a level designer for SiN, Daikatana, Anachronox and others. However, by the early 2000s, she began to move away from the games industry, stating that:

“There was a ton of harassment and hate and sexism and abuse. People would send me hate email all the time. … The benefit of connecting with people was so drowned out by how bad it felt to be in the spotlight.”

Conversely, Fong’s post-Quake career was significantly more embraced by the industry. His eSports career allowed him to invest in several businesses that would have varying degrees of success in the games industry, and unlike Case, his success was not viewed through the lens of who he was dating, or what he looked like.

Quake’s huge impact on the early development of the eSports industry is impossible to ignore, and it is also impossible to ignore the early clues that it gave of the huge disparity in the way that women in the games industry have been treated. Of course, Quake can’t be blamed as the reason for this — it is just a game — but it’s unfortunate that the game’s community didn’t take a more active stance against it.

Gone in 19 minutes and 49 seconds

Of all the legacies left by Quake, few probably could have predicted the speedrun. Again, Quake wasn’t the game that created the speedrun, but it is one of the main games to popularise it, thanks to the Quake Done Quick series. In 1997, in a group of Quake enthusiasts collaborated to defeat the entire game in 19 minutes and 49 seconds. Even when you consider that the QDQ videos are spliced together (rather than traditional speedruns), the level of expertise displayed in the series is simply astounding. Speedruns are, today, one of the most popular cul-de-sacs in gaming media, with annual speedrunning events raising thousands for charity.

The popularity of these Quake speedruns in the early days of the world wide web also saw the emergence of another trend — machinima. Machinima is the name for movies that are created by recording scenes within games. Red vs Blue is the most famous of these, but many of the early classics were thanks to Quake, most notably Diary of a Camper by the Quake clan Rangers.

Everybody’s Game

Once again, while Quake was far from the first game to support modding, it played an enormous role in the growth of the mod scene. id Software, noting the popularity of mods for Doom, built Quake specifically to support modders. Quake’s file structure is modular and easily altered, and the game used its own scripting language that was easy to learn.

Quake’s modding scene gave birth to many popular game modes, with Threewave Capture the Flag essentially becoming a core gameplay mode supported by several servers. Then, of course, was a mod that will be familiar to many modern gamers: Team Fortress. What is today one of Valve’s juggernaut multiplayer games began its life as a humble mod for Quake.

Telefragging?

Quake’s influence is immense, and playing the game in isolation, it might be hard to see why. However, everything has a context, and viewing Quake in context is how to best recognise its impact. It hasn’t just influenced game design, technology, or eSports — it has influenced the very way that gamers speak, with terms such as “frag” and “rocket-jump” part of the everyday lexicon of modern gamers.

If you haven’t played it in a while, give it a go. You’ll be blown away with how well it has aged, and I can honestly say that it is just as fun today as it was back then, an absolute testament to the developers. If you’ve never played it, then pick up a copy on GOG or Steam and give it a go. Regardless of whether Quake is your type of game, it is one of those titles that has left such a long legacy it is what I would consider essential education.

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Gavin Annand

Gavin Annand

At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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