All Your History: id Software Part 5

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By the end of the 1990s, id Software was on top of the world.  From its humble origins as four guys who had just quit their job, to the creation of legends Wolfenstein and Doom, id had popularized both 3D graphics and first person shooters.  From there they want on to create deathmatch and online multiplayer, features taken to their peak with the Quake series.  The original game was quickly followed by a sequel, which in turn was followed by the multiplayer-only Quake III Arena in 1999.  Including the various games they made in the early days, that made for over a dozen titles in id’s first decade of life.  But for various reasons, the first ten years of the 21st Century would find the legends of id setting their sights a little smaller.

-The Silent Decade-

After the departure of id’s co-founder John Romero in 1996, the company effectively came under the control of programmer John Carmack.  Though other employees, like CEO Todd Hollenshead and Creative Director Tim Willits, still had a lot of sway and were even given co-ownership of the company, Carmack was now the captain of the id boat.

As the lead programmer, Carmack’s primary interest was in crafting ever better engines to power id’s games.  Meanwhile, as company leader he was interested in keeping the crew small and focused.  These two philosophies, when combined, created an unintended consequence: it made gamemaking a very slow process.  In the early 90s, a handful of guys had crafted Doom, a game both technically and creatively groundbreaking.  Ten years later, that simply wasn’t possible anymore.  If Carmack wanted id’s next game to utilize his next engine, which he did, and he wanted to keep the engine team small, which he did, then it was going to take quite a while for a new title to materialize.  And it did.

Id officially announced to an excited fan base that a new Doom would be coming.  It was the franchise that had defined first-person shooters, but there hadn’t been a new Doom since 1994.  And from the announcement in June 2000, it would turn out to be another four years before the game was done.

So in the meantime, id decided to leverage its powerful intellectual properties.  In November of 2001, Activision published Return to Castle Wolfenstein from developers Gray Matter Studios and Nerve Software.  Gray Matter’s single-player campaign was considered a fun if average romp through pulp Nazi fiction, but the real meat of the package was Nerve’s multiplayer.  Though there had never been a multiplayer Wolfenstein before, it was this feature that made it stand out from the crowd.

The title sold well enough for Activision to commission an expansion pack.  However, when they tested the result, they found that the single-player was even worse than before.  So bad, in fact, that they deemed it unsellable.  However, once again the multiplayer was pretty good.  So, Activision decided to release the multiplayer component as a free download called Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory in May 2003.  That’s right: free.  It didn’t even require the original game to work: anyone could download and play a great Wolfenstein multiplayer game for free.  Why on Earth Activision would do this, nobody knows.  But gamers weren’t complaining.

The Wolfenstein games were good, but they lacked that magic level of id polish.  What fans really wanted was Doom 3.  However, because Carmack insisted on keeping the company small, the crew couldn’t finish a polished AAA game with a great engine until  2004.  This was five years after the release of Quake III, the longest wait between id games in the studio’s history.

To no one’s surprise, when it finally did release on August 3, 2004, the game looked amazing.  While the newest id tech was great all the way round, it had a special emphasis on lighting.  This allowed the team to turn Doom, one of the greatest action games in history, into more of a survival horror feel.  Rooms would be dark and poorly-lit, and the player’s little flashlight never revealed enough for the player to feel safe.  Combined with the depressing but stunning art direction, not to mention a masterful use of sound, and the result was an experience that could chill hardened gamers to the bone.

However, the astounding presentation was not matched by the gameplay.  Doom 3 was a remake of the original game, and it showed through in its design.  Enemy types, AI, and encounters were all considered pretty basic, and most reviewers noted that it felt like a 1990s game.  The player would walk into a room and blast monsters that walked straight towards him.  Of course, since the room was so dark and the player could hear the monster breathing down his neck, the dread generally made up for the design.

The multiplayer was also pretty bare-bones, making for a game that truly felt like the original Doom repainted with the best engine around.  But it was more than enough to get fans excited, and was the first exposure of many younger gamers to id Software.  Doom 3 went on to become the most commercially successful game in id’s history, no small feat.  Interestingly, these revenues were split evenly between the PC and Xbox versions, proving to the company that mutliplatform development was the way of the future.  That being said, its huge sales were at least partially because the gaming market in 2004 was much larger than it was in 1993.  Even with the good numbers, Doom 3 did not change the industry the way its predecessor had.  Strangely enough, despite its clear strengths, the new engine did not license out very far, only going to projects associated with id.  By this point the Unreal engine had established itself as the go-to technology of choice.

After Doom, id once again began working on a new project.  But Carmack still wanted to keep the company small, and he wanted the new game to use yet another engine.  That tech would be years away from completion.  In other words, after the five year wait for Doom 3, it looked like the next title would take even longer.  And with development costs for AAA games rising across the industry, that was going to be a big problem.  But Carmack was nothing if not independent, and he wanted his company to be, too.

That didn’t stop rumors of an acquisition from surfacing.  Since the release of Quake II, id had had a publishing contract with Activision.  Now, word had it that the industry giant wanted to buy little id outright.  Right around this same time, artist and co-founder Adrian Carmack left the company.  He later sued id, claiming that he had been fired before the Activision merger in order to keep him from getting any of the money that would come from it.  The lawsuit was eventually dropped, probably because id never sold to Activision and thus rendered the suit moot.  Nevertheless, of the four voices whose chorus had created id, only one now remained.

As with the Doom 3 wait, id decided to license out its properties to other developers in order to keep the revenue stream flowing.  Quake 4 from Raven Sotware, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars from Splash Damage, and Wolfenstein from Raven again would all release in the following years.  These would all use Doom 3’s engine and look good, but as with that title, they all felt outdated.  It was as if id had been such a monster success in the 90s, neither they nor the companies who worked for them could bear to change that style.

One day while he was on vacation with his wife Anna Kang, Carmack messed around with some mobile games on her phone.  He determined that there were no good games for the small screen.  So he started doing some research into mobile graphics technology and the state of the mobile gaming industry, and put together a plan on what he and id could do to improve it… while STILL ON VACATION.

So once again, id began licensing out its properties.  Their first mobile title was Doom RPG from Fountainhead Entertainment, which just so happened to be his wife’s company.  The title sold well, and the following year Fountainhead created Orcs & Elves for id, their first new IP since Quake in 1996.  id continued to release new mobile games in the following years, and since the release of the iPhone, have begun working in that market as well with titles like Wolfenstein RPG and Doom Resurrection.

In February 2009, while still working on their new project with no end in sight, id decided to rerelease a classic in a different guise.  They put up a beta for Quake Live, a free download of Quake III Arena with a few changes.  It was an experiment in a new revenue model: the game would be paid for entirely by in-game advertising.  Sadly this didn’t pan out quite the way id hoped, so they later switched to a subscription model.  A player can still play for free if he wants, but he’ll get more maps, modes, and servers if he pays.  This new version was successful enough for Quake Live to come out of beta in August 2010 as a full product.

In mid-2009, id received something that they’d received many times over the years: an offer for acquisition.  Id had always turned these offers down.  Id prided itself on its indepenedent spirit and its ability to do whatever it wanted without interference.  Additionally, Carmack liked having a small, tight crew, as opposed to being one part of a much larger machine.  But with this offer, id actually began to discuss it.  As much as they loved being on their own, it just wasn’t sustainable anymore.  They hadn’t released a game of their own since 2004 and they were still years away from completing their next game.  In other words, after their prolific output of the 1990s, all they had for the 2000s was Doom 3.  They’d spent millions in development already and would spend millions more.  Worse, given the sheer amount of time the new game was taking, they realized that it would be better to grow the company to have two teams making games simultaneously.  To do that, they were going to need some more capital.

So on June 24, 2009, id shocked the world by announcing that they would become a subsidiary of ZeniMax Media.  ZeniMax had been famous for years as the parent company of RPG powerhouse Bethesda.  In the late 2000s they’d started up their own publishing label.  With 2008’s Fallout 3 they had proven that they could take a 10 year old franchise and make it a megahit.  With Bethesda, they had proven that they let talented crews do what they did best without getting in the way.  And since they were still a small publisher, they’d be sure to throw their weight behind every single game in their arsenal.  Plus, ZeniMax didn’t have anybody else making shooters, which meant that id wouldn’t be competing with anybody in the family.  Id had decided that they were the perfect fit to take their company into the next decade.

As a full member of the ZeniMax family, id now has two teams working on games full time.  One team is currently at work on Rage, a new IP that will blend elements of driving, RPG, and of course shooting.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where gangs are the only law, it looks to be a bloody good time in a very id future.  It will be the first game on consoles to use id Tech 5, the latest engine from Carmack and his team.  From the previews shown, the engine looks to be very good.  Whether or not it can redefine the possible like id’s early tech remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, id has already released the first game to use id Tech 5 at all: Rage for the iOS.  The title is one of the first truly hardcore games for mobile phones, and along with its gorgeous graphics, might push that format away from its casual roots.

The other team is hard at work on a brand new Doom game, though what exactly it will be is unknown.  It is known that it will also use id Tech 5, so that they don’t have to wait another 10 years for the next engine.

Going forward, id is likely to produce a number of id Tech 5 games across PCs, consoles, and phones, while Carmack and his team refine id Tech 5, and eventually get started on id Tech 6.  id Tech 5 will now only be used by ZeniMax or studios publishing through ZeniMax, ending id’s long history of open engine licensing.  With the new owner taking over the business side of things, Carmack can once again concentrate full-time on the code.  However, he has started another company, Armadillo Aerospace, where he is the lead engineer designing rockets to fly into outer space.  Whether or not he will start to concentrate more on rockets than rocket launchers, only time will tell.

Regardless of where id goes with its future, there is no denying the incredible legacy that the company has already made.  From 3D games to first-person shooters to online networking, id has defined the direction of modern gaming and many of its current conventions can trace their origins to Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake.  The success story of the 20-something dudes has inspired generations of new game makers, and by the same token, the splitting of the company’s founders stands as a cautionary tale to them as well.  With only one game released in the last decade, id does not tower over its competition today the way it did back in the 90s, when everything they did blew the world away.  Some would say it is impossible for them to ever reclaim that reputation.  But if id has proven anything, it’s that the impossible is what they’re best at.

  1. I don’t know how you can go from coding for gaming to rockets, but I guess doom 4 is in good hands. What I was surprised to see was that Carmack was able to make Doom 3 with the small team. Times change and id needs to change with it. It sounded like id had accomplished the “id” part of its company, but now its complete with the “ego” and “superego” required for a true establishment. Best of luck and can’t wait for doom 4! Or Rage :)

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