Author and historian David L. Craddock, who serves as the features editor of Shacknews, loves telling the stories behind his favorite games. Last year, he wrote a book-length feature on the making of 2016's acclaimed Doom reboot, titled Stairway to Badass; he also recently published Break Out: How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution. Now he's set his sights on id Software's beloved Quake series — the spiritual successor to the original Doom — with the massively ambitious Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters.
Rocket Jump began as an account of Quake's development for Shacknews but quickly grew into a comprehensive survey of the entire genre's '90s heyday. "Quake changed the landscape of shooters and gaming technology, but not without taking a toll on its creators," Craddock writes, noting the series' crucial role in the rise of esports, machinima (a style of animation using video-game character models and environments), and "matchmade" online multiplayer. He's partnered with Unbound, a London-based publisher that relies on crowdfunding, to produce a limited-edition hardcover of the book containing exclusive material not available elsewhere. Craddock spoke with dozens of developers involved in the making of the great FPS games of the era, including id founders John Carmack and John Romero, so the book promises to be a unique glimpse into some of the most important games ever made.
SYFY WIRE rang the author up to talk about id, GoldenEye 007, Star Wars: Dark Forces, and what the triple-A developers of today can learn from gaming's past.
What was the big hook, or question, that got you started on this project?
David L. Craddock: It extended from a feature I wrote last spring. I loved Doom 2016 — it was my favorite game of that year. Shacknews had shifted me from a general news position to writing longform features, and one of the first of those was a history of Tomb Raider. Then I moved on to Doom, and that went over really well. I was playing around a lot with the format — I wrote about the making of Doom 2016, but I also interviewed John Romero and a few other guys, and some modders, to talk about the legacy games and what made them so great.
So, as we headed into last summer, I thought, you know, Shacknews was founded as a Quake site; it was founded as Quakeholio, and then it broadened its coverage to more gaming news and features. And so I thought it'd be cool to go back to our roots and write about Quake, and if I was going to write about Quake — given Shacknews' history — I wanted to write the biggest, most in-depth feature in Shack's history, but also in the history of the Quake franchise. John Carmack actually said he used to look to Shacknews, as well as Blue's News, for feedback on the Quake engine and the game, so that's kind of how deep our roots go with that series.
As you worked on the book, what surprised you about the overarching narrative that you saw emerging?
Well, as far as FPSes in general go — this is a terrible pun, but I'll go there — Quake's set at the epicenter of shooters in the '90s. It was id's shooter after Doom, so they were really at the top of their game. Even though Quake didn't start as a Doom-style shooter, it really became that. And, in a lot of ways, it was even better. It was this really advanced 3-D engine; it had the speed of Doom. I would say that, really, every shooter that came after emulated Doom or Quake. Quake gave rise to clans, it was one of the earliest games to be played professionally as an esport, it had online TCP/IP internet connection built in. Every FPS that followed was kind of baked in the mold of Quake. Or, if it wasn't like Quake, it was because developers said: "What can we do differently than Doom and Quake?" Apogee founder Scott Miller told me, "When we made Rise of the Triad, when we made Duke Nukem 3D, we very consciously looked at what id was doing and tried to fill gaps, because we didn't want to compete with them head to head. We knew that we couldn't."
Quake I was kind of a mess, because a lot of features that were planned didn't get integrated — they got cut. That game was sort of a reflection of id's internal state at that time. John Romero was on his way out, a lot of people were unhappy with him, and people had conflicting opinions over his work ethic and his abilities as a lead designer. And Quake I kind of reflected that. He had a lot of grand plans for that game, and he worked really hard on it, but a lot of people at the studio were just exhausted from crunching on Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D and Doom and Doom II. And they just said, "You know what? Instead of more story and more ambitious design, we're just gonna make another Doom game." And there were a lot of politics going on.
Quake II was kind of the flip side of that. Quake II is maybe the most cohesive game id has ever made. There was an overarching story, you had more ambitious directives than just "kill the thing," you were doing more than just hunting down keycards to open certain doors. But on the inside, id was maybe at its worst, politically. There was all sorts of backstabbing and politicking going on, and I just found that, over the course of the story, that stuff just got worse and worse. I was joking with my boss, "I have to take a bath after talking to some of these people." Because some of the things they described would've just broken the heart of 14-year-old me, who thought that id Software must be the greatest place on earth to work. In fact, most people told me it was the worst. On a day-to-day basis, they were miserable — but they also got to make some of the best projects of all time.
There seems to be this full-circle effect happening right now, with things like Doom 2016 and Titanfall 2 really harkening back to the old-school emphasis on speed, platforming, and innovation. How does that make you feel?
I feel hopeful. I have nothing against games like Call of Duty or Battlefield, but they're so different from the games I grew up playing. And I promise this is not a cut-your-hair-and-get-off-my-lawn moment, but Doom and Quake and Duke Nukem and Unreal and Half-Life were defined by these huge, sprawling levels that almost felt sandbox-esque. They weren't "open worlds," but Doom — you could shoot and blast a path straight to the exit if you wanted, but there was so much to explore, there was so much to do. Whereas Call of Duty and Battlefield campaigns — and I'm picking on those two because they're the forerunners of the genre today — they're linear, they're scripted, you're even punished if you go off the beaten path by the game loading a fail state and dropping you back where you're supposed to be. There's no reason to explore.
So I feel really hopeful when I see games like Doom 2016, because that was an interesting blend of Doom's old-school speed — and they even poked fun at the classic story. Doom 2016, ironically, tells a really fun story, which you wouldn't expect from Doom. But it's still very fast-paced, very bloody, very visceral, very hands-on. And it also incorporates a lot of new systems — weapons upgrades, stuff that you'd think would slow it down, but it really makes it work. Doom 2016 and Quake Champions, the newest Quake, are kind of two sides of the same coin. Doom had a very strong single-player campaign but kind of tepid multiplayer, whereas Quake Champions is all about multiplayer — old-school, high-octane deathmatch. They complement each other very well.
How does Dark Forces fit into the history of the shooter? Where'd the idea of a Star Wars FPS come along?
The reason why such an obvious idea didn't happen sooner was that LucasArts, by the early '90s, had cemented its reputation — along with Sierra — as one of the foremost providers of great point-and-click adventures. And so there was actually a lot of resistance to doing anything else. But as the teams got bigger, people were able to kind of take a ball and run with it, and that's how Dark Forces came about.
The reason I wanted to write about that game, even though it came out a year before Quake, was that it was built with older technology. And it was a really good example of a first-person shooter that made an effort to tell a story, and to put in more guns than just the standard pistol-shotgun-rocket-launcher trio. It made an excellent use of the Star Wars license, it had puzzles, and that's one of the examples of what I mentioned earlier — of studios consciously going, "Okay, id does this type of game really well, so let's take a lateral step and do something to distinguish us from them, because we don't want to go head to head with them on store shelves."
It's also a broader example of what I miss about the golden age of first-person shooters. During the '90s, Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem, and Unreal were kind of the holy quadrilogy, if you will, of first-person shooters. They were the biggest kids on the playground. But you had so many different kinds of shooters — games like Dark Forces, Rise of the Triad, Redneck Rampage. These games with just these wild and imaginative themes. Because the standards back then were so different — I don't wanna say "lower"; that's not the right word. But selling a million games used to be cause for celebration. Selling a million games now is probably a sign of financial failure. But back then, you could make a Doom- or arena-style shooter, and if you cracked three or four hundred thousand, that was pretty damn good.
Is GoldenEye a game you're fairly connected to?
Oh, man, I loved that game. It's funny, because I know a kid — I was at a family reunion a few years ago, and he's about 15 years younger than me, and he said: "So Halo was the very first first-person shooter, right?" And I said, "Son, let me tell you —" And nothing against Halo, but GoldenEye is to Halo kind of like Wolfenstein 3D is to Doom. Everyone remembers Doom more fondly because it was more innovative, and Halo certainly was, but GoldenEye really paved that path. What makes GoldenEye special is it was one of the first FPS games for consoles that wasn't a port of a PC game. Doom was on every system under the sun, Quake hit N64, Duke Nukem 3D made the jump to several consoles. But GoldenEye was designed, from the ground up, for the "Ultra 64" — Project Reality, I think Nintendo was calling it.
In fact, the folks from Rare I talked to said, "We didn't so much as play Quake. We weren't trying to transplant a PC first-person shooter to console. We wanted our game to be completely unique." And I have so many fond memories of GoldenEye. Before there was broadband internet, where you could play games online pretty flawlessly, you'd have four people crowded into bedrooms or dorm rooms playing. It was just a blast — I did a ton of that at my place on the weekends.
In a sense, Dark Forces and GoldenEye are pretty mainstream, whereas I tend to think of id's old games as being part of a counterculture. What's the legacy of the more mainstream imitators? Are they to blame for the direction more modern FPSes have taken?
I wouldn't say so. Halo, as good and popular as it is, has kind of lost a step in sales compared to Call of Duty and Battlefield. But I would say, if anything, GoldenEye deserves major credit for encouraging developers not just to take a PC game and dump it onto consoles — to build something from the ground up. Rare did an incredible job with the N64 controller. In fact, there was an option in GoldenEye where you could play with dual analog sticks. The catch was that the Nintendo 64 only had one [thumbstick], so if you hooked up two controllers, you could actually hold both controllers and play.
It's weird. I think Call of Duty was just such a blockbuster — it was like a Michael Bay film. It had huge production values, it was loud, it was bombastic, and it's also very immersive. I have nothing but praise for its production values, and the multiplayer, especially, caught on in such a big way. It was creative for its time, but it's since gotten into a rut. I think Star Wars: Dark Forces and GoldenEye are examples of games that were creative but unfortunately have been kind of trodden over by big games with bigger budgets.
What might the golden age have to teach the current games industry?
First of all, if we're going to see that sort of creativity and imagination in first-person shooters again, it's not gonna come from triple-A studios. I think the golden age could return from smaller teams willing to say, "You know what? We may not sell six million copies, but if we build our own engine or use something like Unity to emulate popular engines from the past — Doom's or Quake's or Duke Nukem 3D's — we might be able to create something that'll sell. We don't have to incorporate every trend of the triple-A space. We can also be imaginative; we don't have to do just pistols, shotguns, or rocket launchers; we don't have to do big sequence-heavy campaigns. We can do big levels and let people explore again."