Long time readers know I’ve been a fan of first shooters since the game genre was invented. No company has had a greater impact on these games than Id Software, and among its many important achievements stands Quake, which was released 20 years ago this week.
There’s never been a game like Quake. And that’s true for both the broader games industry. And, as it turns out, for me personally as well.
Looking at the earliest shooters, we see some important milestones, such as DOOM, of course, and Duke Nukem 3D. But it wasn’t until Quake that Id’s genius platform maker, John Carmack, was able to bring us into the world of real time 3D. Every shooter that’s been made since, including the Call of Duty titles I now prefer, could not and would not exist if it weren’t for Carmack, and for Quake.
Quake’s history is interesting—and I strongly recommend the book Masters of Doom, which Amazon will sell you in paper, Kindle, and Audible formats—for the best overview of that. But what I recall are John Carmack’s plan file updates, John Romero’s over-the-top boasting, and then the initial, weird first test level, with its blocky brown graphics. Where DOOM was fast and frenetic, Quake, initially, was … slow. Almost ponderous. That was quickly fixed.
We later learned—and you can find out for yourself, via Masters of Doom—that Quake followed a circuitous route to release, with many of the initial ideas—it was an RPG of sorts, at first, and then your player character was allegedly only going to have a single weapon, a giant hammer—tossed aside so that it could be contorted into a more traditional shooter.
But it was the core technology in Quake that put it over the top, helped it evolve into something superior over time, and set us up for the next 20 years of gaming. Quake was the first fully 3D game. The first to use polygonal models instead of sprites. The first to support hardware accelerated graphics rendering. The first with multiplayer-specific levels.
Quake had Trent Reznor for music. It had Microsoft graphics guru Michael Abrash working as John Carmack’s muse. And it of course had Romero’s level designs. (And those of others, like American McGee.)
I jumped all over Quake when it was released, but later in the year I purchased a 3DFX Voodoo graphics card so I could play the game with hardware acceleration. This changed everything: Those blocky brown graphics were smoothed into clean edges, both on the level surfaces and on the animated characters you fought with. The effect was similar to what we experience with VR today, where an additional dimension is added to the game.
Having met the challenge of 3D graphics, Carmack turned his attention to Internet-based multiplayer. The result was QuakeWorld, which used technology called client-side prediction to help ease latency issues on the dial-up connections that were common at the time. QuakeWorld was glitchy in weird ways, but I fondly remember the skinning capabilities of this game, and I’d hop online with friends and run around levels populated with every manner of strange characters, shooting each other into the early hours of the morning.
Over time, Id also shipped WinQuake—incredibly, the original games were DOS-based—GLQuake, which brought hardware rendering to OpenGL-based graphics cards, and various mission packs, all of which served to extend the lifetime of this title and usher in the modern era of DLC (downloadable content) we enjoy on today’s consoles. There were numerous mods, including a Rune Quake variant I adored. And then of course, there were many sequels, none of which had anything to do with the original game in the slightest: Quake II and Quake IV (an Xbox 360 launch title) took place in the same “universe,” while Quake III Arena and Quake III: Team Arena, and Quake Live (and an upcoming Quake do-over), were pure multiplayer shooters akin to the Unreal Tournament games.
I enjoyed them all, played them all repeatedly, beat them all. But none had the impact—again, on me, or the industry—of the original.
A couple of personal notes.
In the early 1990s, I was an Amiga user and advocate, and was generally unimpressed with PCs, Microsoft, and Windows. But seeing Id’s early shooter, Castle Wolftenstein 3D, run just fine on my wife’s sad little IBM PS/1—the thing couldn’t even run Windows 3—opened my eyes to the beginning of the end for the Amiga. The Amiga excelled at arcade-style 2D scrollers, but John Carmack had figured out a way to make (pseudo) 3D happen in early 1990s … on the lowly PC. I never looked back.
In 1996 or 1997, I was on a plane traveling between Phoenix and San Francisco, and I pulled out my laptop—which was running Windows NT 4.0, of course—and started playing Quake, which could only run at very low resolutions and with software-based graphics on that machine. The woman next to me got very excited and was talking to me, so I took off my headphones to see what was up. “Is that virtual reality?” she excitedly asked, and I then spent the rest of the flight letting her experience the thrill of virtually walking through a new world.
With the 20th anniversary of Quake upon us, there are a few recent developments of interest too.
First, a game developer called MachineGames—they’re making recent sequels to the Wolfenstein series of games, speaking of long-lasting shooters—has literally just released a new level for the original Quake.
And Quake co-creator John Romero has started celebrating the 20th anniversary of Quake by sharing a set of 20-year-old Quake planning documents that show the earliest peek at a game that would later change quite a bit.
“Where has all the time gone?” Romero asks. I wonder the same.