A tribute to Quake on its 20th birthday


Anyone who’s a fan of PC gaming has a memory about id Software’s Quake. Mine is playing multiplayer matches in it with my mates in the school’s media department computer labs before the school decided to shit the bed and replace all the PCs with game-less iMacs. And Mum, if you’re reading this, relax, I only played while my film projects were rendering. Yeah, that sounds believable, let’s go with that.

Well, today (US time) Quake turns 20, having originally launched June 22, 1996. And while that is a momentous occasion in its own right, Quake being a classic game and all, it’s significant for another reason. With Quake, today is really the 20th birthday of the modern first person shooter.

quake 10


Now I really must stress the word “modern”. The first instances of 3D first person shooter games was a game called Maze made by MIT students in the 1970s, and id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D is often seen as the commercial beginning of the genre. But the release of Quake in 1996 was the beginning of the billion dollar industry we see today, the start of the first-person-shooter revolution that now sees the likes of Call of DutyBattlefieldRainbow SixCounter Strike, Destiny and Overwatch dominating the gaming space.

Quake may not have invented the wheel, but it certainly made the world start paying attention to it.

Welcome to the third dimension

Quake’s engine ushered in a new era of shooters, bringing a lot of functions we now take for granted into the mainstream. Yes, other 3D games already existed, but what Quake did that was considered so revolutionary at the time was create a 3D game that players could fully explore. Not to get too bogged down in the nitty gritty technical aspects, but in layman’s terms the Quake engine, developed by John Carmack, Michael Abrash and John Cash, came up with solutions to the many problems with making a 3D game of this size. It reduced CPU load by only rendering what the player could see, it pre-calculated the lighting textures and was one of the first engines to support 3D hardware acceleration (90s speak for graphics cards), among other things.

Of course I am overly simplifying the revolutionary work these men did, but explaining it all would mean we’d be here all day. If you want an in-depth breakdown of all the nuts and bolts, Abrash himself goes into explicit details in his 1996 column “Ramblings in Real Time”.

The column is incredibly jargon heavy, so I’m going to break every rule in the journalism book and also include a link to the Quake engine’s Wikipedia page, because it’s actually pretty comprehensive and I’ve already disappointed my mother with that anecdote at the beginning of the article so I may as well go for broke.


I’m also pretty ignorant when it comes to computer programming so I appreciated the handy pictures, like this one explaining how maps were processed. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Quake engine also has a long literal legacy. It was directly licensed out to Valve Software, who modified it to make the original Half Life and it later became the basis of the Source Engine. Future iterations of it, made for the Quake sequels, were used to make games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor.

A control scheme for the ages

Quake also allowed players to use a mouse to fully control their aiming, which was very much an improvement over DOOM‘s limited mouse compatibility and is a method of control that has yet to be surpassed in the world of first-person games. Sure, consoles offer the perfectly serviceable option of analogue stick controls, but nothing has yet beaten the precision of a mouse when it comes to first-person aiming some 20 years on.

This also had an affect on how players could control their character. Rather than resorting to a toggle for side-strafing, the arrow keys could be set to strafe and the mouse acts as a means to change direction, yet another control setup used to this very day. The 3D engine also allowed for jumping, crouching and swimming; hardly new ideas but they were not often seen in shooters at the time.

I booted up Quake again recently for the purposes of this article, and I was blown away by how much it played pretty much exactly like shooters do today. I recorded my thoughts while playing the first level of the first chapter:

A whole new world of competition

But Quake‘s legacy isn’t all just a two-trick-pony of control schemes and 3D graphics. It’s more like an at-least-four-trick-pony, as Quake gave rise to two more prominent conventions seen throughout both the first person-shooter genre as well as many others. One of those things is arguably responsible for the many years we’ve all spent hearing pre-pubescent boys spout racial slurs and about what our mother’s said to them the previous night.

I am, of course, talking about online multiplayer. Multiplayer deathmatch over computers linked together by a Local Area Network (LAN) had existed since the likes of DOOM, and even earlier in that Maze game, but Quake brought it to the worldwide web with the support of dedicated multiplayer servers.

The original release was not optimised for online play, as players could not see their actions play out in front of them until their computer received a response from the server, and on a high latency dial-up internet connection that could be a long time. But an update titled QuakeWorld was released in December 1996 that supported client-side protection. Essentially, the client (a players computer) would present a player’s actions in real time without the server’s confirmation, giving nearly the same smooth gameplay experience as the single player mode. The catch was if the server sent back a late reply due to latency issues, objects or players would not necessarily be where they appeared to be on the player’s screen and sometimes they would instantly snap back to a prior position.

And thus: lag was born.

Quake 1

A demon was born that day…

Knowing where to look

With online servers came the need for another creation: the server browser. Initially, you had to know the IP address of the server you wanted to connect to, and these were shared by word of mouth or posted on the internet. But when QuakeWorld launched it was bundled with “QuakeSpy”, the latest version of a Quake server browser made by a trio of programmers under the company name Spy Software. It allowed for users to find Quake servers all over the world.

As the online community grew, and more games that supported dedicated servers came out, QuakeSpy added them to its listings and changed its name to GameSpy3D. The GameSpy3D software would later change hands and become the basis of GameSpy Industries, the now defunct platform that hosted servers for many classic games up until its closer in 2013.

But QuakeSpy/GameSpy didn’t just host multiplayer servers, it also hosted mods. Mods for Quake began as minor gameplay tweaks and glitch fixes but eventually went on to spawn whole new games, the most prominent one being Team Fortress.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d say that is one heck of a legacy for a single game. Looking back at Quake now, you can see how far the genre has come but also how much of it has stayed true to the foundations it set.

Sure, it may not have been the first game to do a lot of the revolutionary things it did, but it was the game that brought them into the mainstream and effectively created the modern first-person-shooter. Heck, some of them it almost directly created if you see how many games were built upon Quake engine code.

Anyway, happy birthday Quake; may you help teenagers procrastinate in school for another 20 years.

Procrastinate with Tom on Twitter: @tomdheath. Be sure to follow LoadScreen on Twitter, @load_screen and Facebook.


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