Retrospective – QUAKE

Released back in 1996, id Software’s Quake is arguably one of the most critical games ever released: not only did it usher in the era of true-3D game rendering, and helped drive the adoption of 3D hardware in the process, , it also popularised online competitive gaming, introduced true-physics gameplay, kickstarted the modern mod scene, gave birth to the Machinima artform, and provided an engine on which other developers could build their own games. Not bad for something originally intended to be a top-down RPG featuring a bloke with a big hammer!

It’s all the more remarkable when you consider the history behind Quake; as the followup to the renowned Doom series, the pressure on id Software was immense and with development timescales stretching further and further some hard choices had to be made. The RPG elements were the first to be trimmed away, followed by a shift from Aztec-inspired graphics to a medieval theme. This extended to the weapons, with a focus on blades and melee combat rather than projectile weapons. However, id Software struggled to make this concept work and John Carmack in particular was growing concerned over the possibility that sword-swinging wouldn’t appeal to trigger-happy Doom fans. So having introduced some Really Big Guns and taking inspiration from HP Lovecraft’s cthonic nightmares, the game that id Software finally released on the world was in many ways just Doom redux, complete with powerups, secrets and the occasional spat between monsters.

320x240 - how most people would have experienced it back in 1996!

In fact, when it came to the single-player gameplay, other games released around the same time often offered a more enjoyable experience; Duke Nukem 3D may have lacked the true-3D graphics engine and darkly ambient soundtrack (produced by NIN’s Trent Reznor, no less), but it did have oodles of personality, sharp level design, colorful graphics, complex set-pieces and the ability to handle dozens of onscreen enemies (the latter being something which simply couldn’t be done in Quake without slowing things down to a crawl). New technology sometimes comes at a price!

However, Quake’s success wasn’t really anything to do with the single-player mode. Instead, it stemmed from the lessons id Software had learned from Doom. Not only had players gleefully dived into the multiplayer mode, but a huge community had sprung up to produce mods – from new levels to full-blown total conversions. So when id Software came to produce Quake, not only was there a heavy focus on the multiplayer experience, but virtually every element of the game was designed to be scalable, configurable and modular.

For instance, id Software thought long and hard about the networking code, which they hand-crafted specifically for Quake. Where other games at the time could only be played on the local network, or via expensive dial-up match-making services such as Dwango, Quake’s network engine allowed people to play against anyone on the internet, for free. Also, Quake was one of the first to use a client-server model for multiplayer gaming (players connected to a central server which handled all the event processing, reducing load on the player PCs and enabling up to sixteen players to battle it out at once).

GLQuake: double the resolution and double the framerate!

Similar applied to the graphics engine; for all that the state-of-the-art visuals were impressive, the best thing about it was that the fact that it could be tuned and tweaked and much of this configuration could be carried out in-game, thanks to the revolutionary drop-down console which let you tweak everything from screen resolutions to texture mip-mapping. Players across the world prodded and poked their settings to eke out the extra frame or two per second. Later when id Software released GLQuake in 1997, people flocked to buy the new-fangled 3D accelerators from companies such as 3DFX. After all, dropping one of these into your machine would instantly double or perhaps even triple your framerate!

The game engine also introduced some new, albeit unintentional, elements to the gameplay The two most notable being bunny-hopping and rocket-jumping. But the most important point about the game engine was that it was completely decoupled from the game assets, making it easier than ever before for modders to create new content. All a gamer had to do was to load the new content into their Quake directory before firing up a whole new experience.

With all these elements in place, the stage was set for a revolution. The 3D-hardware market expanded enormously (and OpenGL became a major rival to Microsoft’s fledgling DirectX technology). Online gamers began to form teams and establish gameplay rules, laying the foundations for modern clans and game ranking systems. The mod community threw themselves into producing new skins, models, levels and total conversions (with Team Fortress being perhaps the most famous). The game engine was licenced out to a few other companies. Valve in particular used a heavily-modified Quake engine for Half Life, which in turn begat Counterstrike. When id Software released the game-engine source code in 1999, yet more spin-offs were generated, such as new standalone games, renderers for Quake which added modern features such as stencil shadows and pixel shaders and ports of Quake itself to a wide range of arcane, obsolete or brand new platforms, such as the Dreamcast, Nintendo DS and Apple iPhone.

Today, engines such as Darkplaces enable the use of modern lighting effects and higher texture resolutions.

Moreover, id Software’s design philosophy was successfully adopted by a number of other companies such as Valve, Epic Games and Bethesda. In fact, it can be argued that its this freedom to tweak, modify and reinvent which has kept PC gaming relevant in the face of competition from home consoles and mobile gaming. Then too, with a bit of squinting, it’s possible to argue that modern DLC systems owe a great deal to Quake’s mod-friendly design.

So the next time you fire up the latest Call of Duty, download a new skin for an Unreal Tournament character or take advantage of a pre-order DLC offer, just remember to say thanks to Quake.

(article by Jamie Mann)

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Andy Brown • 21st December 2014

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