id Software: Qualities and Evolution (1991-1996)

December 17th, 2008

id software

So I finally finished a real game (Quake, PC) while over here in China and not that free-to-download, labour-of-love indie stuff clamoring for my attention. I really enjoyed Quake and started throwing all of my thoughts together on the game when I realized that I don’t want to talk about Quake just yet. I’d really like to first preface my ideas by analyzing a chunk of id software’s chronology, a part that exemplifies a greater strength of the game and company as a whole.

The part that I wish to segment is Catacomb 3D (1991) through to Quake (1996).


When I think of id Software, two adhering qualities often come to mind. The first is obviously a technical efficiency to create high quality video game technology -engines and tools- which break through the latest industry thresholds. John Carmack; id’s programmer-extraordinaire and mascot of sorts is a glowing example of a strongly rooted focus on tech within the company. Each of the company’s key titles garners much enthusiasm by players, not just because of their subject matter, but because of the new ground it covers for the next series of high end games to follow, as well as imitate.

The second quality is technically well grounded game design. id’s games feel deeply rooted in the id mindset, which includes a somewhat calculated, mathematically apt approach to game design. Like a well balanced equation, id’s games feel finely measured, with every piece justified. The mechanics all lock into place with tightness, the variation, balancing and types of enemies all play to strengths and weaknesses fixed by the weapon selection. The labrynth styled levels almost play out to a well designed algorithm with increasing complexity. This initial emphasis on mathematical design, has grown into something of a trademark style for the company.

Segmented Games

Now let’s observe the relationship between these two entities over the course of this time period. Some of this is based off memory, so bear with me.

If we are to credit these qualities of the company to the various games in this time period, then it would be safe to say that Wolfenstein 3D should be remembered for most notably for its technical qualities than its overall gameplay. Much of the the groundwork for future first person shooting games was set by Wolfenstein and it’s early predecessor Catacomb 3-D.

wolfenstein 3d screenshot

What I find interesting about this seed in the evolution is that, fundamentally, the technology behind the game is what fuels the enjoyment by the player. Wolfenstein didn’t just reel in new technology for technology’s sake, the technology created opportunity for id to develop new forms of gameplay. Without the elements which define Wolfenstein as a game (the shooting and puzzle elements), the technology itself would be rendered useless. As such, both of these qualities cannot exist without the other.

With much respect though, Wolfenstein in the modern era feels more akin to a first-person Pacman, set in the same oblique, blue-walled, prison. Wolfenstein was a fine game, no doubt, but it lacked the interesting context, variation and playability of games like Doom and Quake. To be fair, this is solely my personal opinion. The claim that Wolfenstein is on equal, progressive footing with the other titles is a very reasonable claim. Still, it lacks a certain ageless-ness that is widely apparent in the other titles. Some of this can be chalked up to a technical level, in that, while the technology was new for the time, it only allowed for a strict amount of variables at any given time, limiting the games flexibility and keeping the gameplay a whitish vanilla.

Doom and Doom II evolved the Wolfenstein formula to the next level, creating a cultural identity for itself and video games as a whole. There are two reasons for Doom’s success and notably, its increased success over Wolfenstein. With Doom, id’s second quality began to step it up, of course, not possible without the technical side.

The first reason is context, unlike Wolfenstien, Doom was wrapped in one hell of a context. Setting itself in a violent, demonic world filled with various goulish creatures, Doom created a brand for itself out of violence. For many (particularly non-players of the game) the environment was the single most important feature of the game. For most people though, it was an eerily well designed setting which added a spark to the game.

doom screenshot

The second reason is due to technology and its implementation with the gameplay. Rooms now had varying height, airing out the core level design. Light and texture draw your attention to set pieces in the level, unifying level and aesthetic design. The aural package weaves throughout this too, with stereo sound indicating an approximate location of enemies, making for some clever enemy placements which alert you of their growls but hinder you of their location. All of these things make Doom a much more progressive an evolved game. The fact that Doom essentially expands from Wolfenstein’s base, seems to indicate that id had much more time to grow their gameplay directive. Much of this can be seen in several of the levels which exemplify gameplay experimentation (the level in which you are entrenched by red barrels is a key example). So with Doom we see the technical and gameplay curve continue to increase.

Quake and Quake II (I’ve just started Quake II), show a continual evolution and formation into a a first person experience similar to the games of today. The fake two dimensional skin is lost in favour of 3D. I think that I will pen it here for today and discuss the Quake trilogy later on as a separate part of this series.

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  • Technical innovation and deep design aside, one thing that Doom did exceptionally well was establishing a sense of place. There was always a feeling that a world existed beyond the claustrophobic confines of each level. You’d occasionally be offered a glimpse of that larger world, usually a window overlooking an unreachable, distant mountain range. While there was a part of you that knew you’d never reach that tantalizing, demon-free paradise, it was nevertheless comforting to know that it existed.

    Doom 3 does this in an entirely different way, by handing over the first 30 minutes of gameplay to routine drudgery. You arrive at the UAC base, wander around and explore as much as you can, occasionally interacting with its inhabitants. It’s a nifty way of establishing a sense of normality before all hell breaks loose, reinforcing the sense of a world that exists beyond your immediate experience.

    Of course, other games before and after Doom have also managed to maintain this sense of place, but id have a knack of doing so within games that don’t necessarily require it. Valve and Looking Glass/Irrational/2K also do this sort of thing remarkably well.

  • Thanks you for for your commens Mark. I look forward to moving onto Doom 3 in due time and will keep your ideas in mind.

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