This article first appeared in PC Gamer Magazine Issue 352 in January 2021, as part of the “DNA Tracing” series, where every month we delve into the strains of popular games and studios.
In the early days, ID Software was all about the ego. It was not unique in this respect: like almost all of its contemporaries, id was founded by children of the late 1970s and early 1980s, for whom game development began as a hobby in the bedroom. Without college courses or internships, their instruction was self-directed – driven by the excitement of getting light to navigate the screen.
Knowledge was shared through computer clubs and magazines, but games at the time were not made through teamwork – rather, it was a divine act by an individual typing the most efficient, creative, and accurate code into the Apple II keyboard.
Thanks to the technology’s ease of access and simplicity, John Romero developed dozens of games published before working on Wolfenstein 3D. His story was no exception – other founding members of id, John Carmack, Adrian Carmack (no relation) and Tom Hall, spent his most formative contract in self-imposed solitary confinement, programming game after game.
Not surprisingly, then, this date has permeated studio culture. Although id Software worked together to create Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake, their process wasn’t completely collaborative by today’s standards. Initially, John Carmack will work solo to develop the next innovation in 3D graphics and artificial intelligence. Then Romero and his fellow stylists built stages on their own, placing each door, monster light and hand.
This independence defines the flavor of early identity games: each level has an author, and mirrors their personalities. While Romero preferred firepower and flow, you can tell Sandy Petersen’s creativity his meager resources and Lovekraftian horror. All the while, Doom level tricks and secrets ensure you feel in the presence of its designer.
But that individuality had its downsides. Communications disrupted at Identity as the team exhausted Quake’s protracted development process. Romero left to form Ion Storm, and it appears that the remaining founders never rebuilt their relationship. By operating in separate offices, they made Quake 3 only a multiplayer game – allowing them to work effectively together, but separately.
Romero quits over his frustration with John Carmack’s belief that technology should come first, not play. In the absence of the Doom designer, this approach to company formation came about, for good and bad. With no one left to challenge and redirect Carmack’s focus, the ID versions of this middle period were displays of genius – more than they were fun shooters.
Doom 3 doubled the potential for Petersen’s spotting horror, and it boasted some bold design touches – the controversial flashlight that required you to dispose of your weapon in order to clear the corners of the Mars research facility. But its slower speed and narrow lanes prioritized the distinctive Carmack stencil over the fun. For a year or two, Doom 3 footage was inevitable in the pages of this magazine, promising an impossible moody future for PC gaming that was undoubtedly exciting. But inevitably, the graphics faded, and the shadow of the game isn’t much in the way these days.
Every eye sees
The problem became deeper by the time Rage launched in 2011. In order to honor the ambitious Mad Max, Carmack invented a texture streaming system that would enable every surface in the game to appear unique – but players without high-end hardware complained understandably when Textures fail to load on time, jeopardizing the complete first-person immersion that once made Doom so alluring.
When Carmack eventually left to head the technology at Oculus – in pursuit of the same Dutch dream that cemented his obsession with 3D engines in the 1990s – it turned out to be mercy. With the last big ego emerging from the building, id is finally free to reconfigure itself as a collaborative studio for the modern era – creating teams of hundreds, not individuals.
Doom 2016 was the result of that soul-searching: rebirth that reclaimed the speed and ferocity of the Romero era identity, but freed from the coercion to push technology forward. The new Doom looked good, of course, but it didn’t have any major innovation that might sell new graphics cards. Instead, the genius was all the design: the way the ID reimagined the battlefield as a vortex, with you right in the middle, fighting to keep your head above the water. Eternal went even further, always transforming into a constant battle for resources, where the enemies represented as much food as they were the enemies. Where ID was once accused of creating stupid fun, it has now demanded intense focus.
A game that embodies the contemporary identity program is not entirely a game of its own. For Rage 2, the company abandoned its day-to-day development duties to Avalanche Studios, developer of Just Cause who simply had the best technology for creating open worlds – an acceptance you’d never imagine in the identity industry on Carmack’s Day. Studio creative director Tim Willets has been sitting regularly with Avalanche designers, in sessions the team has dubbed “The University of Willits”, to impart the wisdom of identity on building level and pace. He knew the rifle should not look like a rifle – it should explode like a cannon.
You can feel the effect of the program in the quiet female tannery that tells you when all enemies in an area are eliminated, so doors can be opened. You can hear it in your car subwoofer guitar when it’s close by. But it is more pronounced in combat, which pushes you to bridge the gap between enemies for additional health; Of all the innovations of Doom 2016, the least appreciated is that it made melee irresistible in first person.
The main resource in the Rage 2 universe is called “feltrite,” and this pun is an eloquent summary of id Software’s guiding philosophy. Although the studio didn’t touch the Rage 2 icon directly, the game’s battles are imbued with Doom-feel. It is proof that the magic of identity can be taught – that its strength now lies in the collective knowledge and best practices of the company, not in the hands of a few precious individuals.