Wolfenstein 3D

This article was originally published in two parts across PC Gamer issue 309 and 310. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

Writers of videogame histories often think in terms of individuals and periods—great innovators and clear-cut ‘epochs’ in design, typically bookended by technological advances. Events or people who contradict those accounts have a tendency to get written out of the tale. According to one popular version of the medium’s evolution, the first-person shooter was formally established in 1992 with id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, a lean, thuggish exploration of a texture-mapped Nazi citadel, and popularised in 1993 by heavy metal odyssey Doom, which sold a then-ludicrous million copies worldwide at release. The company’s later shooter, Quake, meanwhile, is often held up as the first ‘true’ 3D polygonal shooter.

Founded in 1991 by former employees of software company Softdisk, id’s contributions to what we now call the FPS is undoubtedly immense. Between them, Wolfenstein 3D and Doom brought a distinct tempo, savagery and bloodlust to first-person gaming, and programmer John Carmack’s engine technology would power many a landmark FPS in the decade following Doom’s release. But we shouldn’t view that contribution too narrowly, as simply one step along the road to a game such as Call of Duty: World War II. And nor should we neglect the games—before, during and after id’s breakthrough—that took many of the same concepts and techniques in different and equally valuable directions.

The beginning: Maze War, Spasism, WayOut

To think about the shooter’s origins is to think about labyrinths. Among the earliest pioneers of first-person videogaming is 1973’s Maze, a game cobbled together by high school students Greg Thompson, Steve Colley and Howard Palmer during a NASA work-study program, using Imlac PDS-1 and PDS-4 minicomputers. The three had been carrying out research into computational fluid dynamics for future spacecraft designs, an early show of what would become a problematic relationship between the commercial games business and the US military-industrial complex. Initially a single-plane, 16x32 tile wireframe environment for one player in which you’d turn by 90-degree increments, Maze grew to include shooting, support for a second player via serial cable, a corner-peeking functionality and indicators for which way the other player is facing. 

After completing his spell at NASA, Thompson took the game with him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With access to a more powerful mainframe, and the aid of David Lebling—who would go on to create the legendary text adventure Zork and found Infocom—he added eight-player support over the US defence department-run ARPANET, a map editor, projectile graphics, scoreboards, a spectator mode and ‘bots with dynamic difficulty’, all features that would resurface in mass-market shooters many years later. Maze War was very popular on campus—it used up so much computing resources that the MIT authorities created a ‘daemon’ program to find and shut down sessions. In one of its later forms, the maze extended along the vertical axis and players could fly, shoot and take cover in any direction.

Maze War

If Maze War sounds like a fully-featured FPS in hindsight, it’s important to note that the category ‘first-person shooter’ is of much more recent inception—according to a 2014 study by the academic Carl Therrien, it only entered popular discussion around videogames in the late ’90s. Many studios, including id, preferred terms and slogans like ‘3-D adventure’, ‘virtual reality’ and ‘the feeling of being there’ when describing games that are played from a first-person viewpoint. Nor was the perspective exclusively, or even predominantly, associated with on-foot gunplay. There were racing games, such as Atari’s 8-bit arcade offering Night Rider, which treated the player to a dashboard view of a road made up of shifting white rectangles. There were cockpit simulators such as 1974’s Spasim (often granted dual honours with Maze War as the first-person shooter’s oldest ancestor), a 32-player space combat game in which unofficial approximations of Star Trek vessels wage war at a mighty one frame per second. 

There were dungeon-crawlers such as Richard Garriot’s Akalabeth in 1976, which combined a top-down world map with first-person dungeon segments featuring coloured wireframe graphics. Maze War spawned a number of sequels and imitators, attractively billed as ‘rat’s-eye view’ experiences by a 1981 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine. The first-person shooter genre as we understand it today arose from the artistic friction between these approaches, shaping and being shaped by them in turn. 

Naturally, methodologies shifted as new technology became available. Among Maze War’s more intriguing descendants is Paul Allen Edelstein’s WayOut, released for the Atari 8-bit in 1982. It made use of a rendering technique known as ray casting, whereby a 3D environment is generated from a 2D layout by sending out beams from the player avatar’s eyeball and drawing a pixel where they intersect with an object’s coordinates. Where light in reality bounces off many surfaces before entering the eye, ray casting simulates a ray’s collision with an object only once. While incapable of nuanced effects such as refraction, it was also much less resource intensive than other 3D projection techniques, which allowed for faster performance on the hardware of the day. If WayOut was a potent demonstration of ray casting’s utility, it is also worth remembering for its eccentric, non-combat premise. You play a clown trapped in a maze with a spinning, sinister ‘Cleptangle’ that will steal your map and compass on contact. A wind blows through the level, its direction indicated by floating fireflies. This interferes with movement, but also helps you get your bearings should you lose your map.


Cockpit simulations were especially popular during the ’80s, beginning with Atari and Ed Rotberg’s arcade game Battlezone, a tank sim featuring wireframe vector graphics that came with a novel ‘periscope’ viewfinder (the US Army would later try, and fail, to convert the game into a Bradley tank training simulation). In 1987, Incentive Software released Driller: Space Station Oblivion—the first game to run on its proprietary Freescape engine, which allowed for complex 3D environments dotted with simple geometric objects. The game assigned a sizeable chunk of the display to your offworld rover’s dashboard, a fat slab of buttons and indicators. In part, the prevalence of cockpit games reflected the influence of Star Wars, with its lavishly realised starfighter dashboard displays. But it also arose from attempts to make often-unwieldy simulation technology more convincing by representing players at the helm of a lumbering vehicle. Among id’s subsequent achievements was to narrow the gap between the player’s body and that of the avatar, thus helping to open a space in which ‘first-person’ denotes not merely a perspective but a narrative in which the player is protagonist.

Into the '90s: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D

id’s career as a first-person developer began with Hovertank 3D in 1991. A cockpit sim brought to life with ray casting and featuring animated 2D sprites, it featured players searching for civilians to rescue and tentacular UFOs to blow up. It was followed by Catacomb 3-D—id’s first crack at a first-person character-led action game, with a visible avatar hand and portrait. Catacomb also featured texture maps, flat images attached to surfaces to create the illusion of cracked stone walls and dripping moss. In this respect, id had been strongly influenced by Blue Sky Productions’ breathtaking Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, often cited as the first ‘immersive simulation’, which offered 3D, texture-mapped environments featuring sloped surfaces, rudimentary real-time physics and the ability to look up and down.

Wolfenstein 3D and Doom—both developed after John Carmack glimpsed Ultima in action at a 1990 expo—can be considered combative responses to Ultima’s representation of the possibilities of first-person 3D, eschewing the latter’s more complex geometry and gigantic array of variables in favour of pace and immediacy. Though busier with ornaments than Catacomb 3-D’s levels, Wolfenstein’s environments are designed to run at speed—designer John Romero once planned to let players carry and hide bodies, but dropped the idea to avoid bogging players down. Where Ultima set out to make players feel like part of its world via deep, consistent systems and a wealth of lore, Wolfenstein dealt in simpler, visceral effects—the sag of your avatar’s body when you take a step forward, the gore spraying from the pixelated torso of a slain Nazi. If the game pushed violence and politically charged imagery to the fore—somewhat to the distress of its publisher, Apogee—it also harkened back to the maze games of previous decades, with secret rooms to discover behind sliding partitions.


This emphasis on the avatar’s bodily presence would set the tone for many subsequent shooters—notably Call of Duty, with its blood spatter damage filter—as would id’s sense that player participation should take priority over narrative elements. When it came to Doom, there was disagreement between Carmack, Romero and id’s creative director Tom Hall over how much plot and backstory to weave into the game. Hall had planned something akin to Ultima, with large, naturalistic levels built around a hub area and a multitude of arcane props. “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie,” was John Carmack’s infamous rebuttal. “It’s expected to be there, but it’s not important.” Hall eventually resigned in 1993. In his absence, the team stripped out a number of more fanciful weapons, turned many plot items required for progression into generic keycards, and cleaned up certain environments to allow for speedier navigation. 

Loaded with taboo imagery, ultra-moddable thanks to id’s decision to store game data such as level assets separately from engine data as ‘WAD’ files, and equipped with four-player multiplayer to boot, Doom was a phenomenal success. Such was its impact that before ‘FPS’ became an accepted term, many in the development community used ‘Doom clone’ as shorthand for any first-person game involving gunplay. No game can claim to define a genre for long, however, and id’s work would attract plenty of imitators and rivals in the years to come. 

Four months before Doom’s arrival, a fledgling Chicago studio founded by Alex Seropian and Jason Jones released Pathways Into Darkness, a Wolfenstein homage with a pinch of Ultima-style item puzzling. It thrust players into the boots of a soldier fighting through a pyramid in order to nuke a sleeping god before it can bring about the apocalypse. One of the few Mac exclusives available at the time, Pathways was hailed for its colourful hand-drawn art and menacing atmosphere. It deserves mention today for the ability to commune with the ghosts of other explorers using special crystals and elusive keywords—an engaging, melancholy approach to textual backstory. The developer, Bungie, would build on this concept during work on two of the 21st century’s best-known FPS series, Halo and Destiny.


Before Halo and Destiny there was 1994’s Marathon, the series often billed as the Mac’s answer to Doom. A suspenseful sci-fi offering set aboard a hijacked colony ship, it was a more complex game than id’s offering—adding free look with the mouse and a range of terrain dynamics, such as low gravity and airless chambers. It was also a more convoluted work of fiction, which relied on players scouring its open-ended levels for narrative artefacts. In place of the souls of the slain, Marathon offered computer terminals through which you converse with various sentient AIs about the wider universe.

Its sheer brilliance aside, Doom s pre-eminence during the 90s owes much to id s embrace of the modding community, with players able to create their own maps using the developer s own editing tools.

The game’s reach was limited by its choice of platform, but it attracted a dedicated community thanks to its elusive narrative backdrop and infectious eight-player, ten-map multiplayer. 1995’s Marathon 2: Durandal added co-operative play while 1996’s Marathon Infinity introduced a ‘Forge’ level editor, two features that would become central to the studio’s projects. Just as significant, however, was Bungie’s work in the emerging real-time tactics genre. Conceived by Jason Jones in a bid to stand apart from id Software, the top-down Myth games equipped Bungie with a feel for how different unit types and variables might react together. This would yield fruit in the shape of Halo’s famous combat sandboxes. 

Its sheer brilliance aside, Doom’s pre-eminence during the ’90s owes much to id’s embrace of the modding community, with players able to create their own maps using the developer’s own editing tools (and thus, squeeze many hours of enjoyment out of the free shareware version). Fan concoctions ranged from Batman and Alien-themed conversions to trashy oddities like The Sky May Be, in which zombiemen moonwalk and the legendary BFG-9000 has a chance of conferring immortality on its target. Many up-and-coming designers cut their teeth on Doom mods, and other studios were eager to license it for commercial use. Among them was Raven Software, founded by Steve and Brian Raffel, which created the fantasy-themed shooters Shadowcaster, Hexen and Heretic using their own bespoke versions of John Carmack’s engine technology. The two companies were at one point based just down the road from each other, and formed an enduring bond—id would eventually hand Raven the keys to the Doom and Quake franchises. 

Raven’s games were eclipsed, however, by the noxious excess of 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D, a celebration of B-movie tropes that occasionally resembles a postmodern satire, and occasionally the aimless, chauvinist doodlings of a 13-year-old boy. Duke Nukem 3D is an intensely antisocial game, its levels grimy parodies of real-world locales, such as movie theatres and stripclubs, guarded by porcine coppers and strewn with the corpses of cinema idols like Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker. While technically accomplished and formally inventive—it introduced jet packs, shrink rays, animated props such as arcade cabinets, physically impossible layouts and a protagonist who provides audible commentary throughout—the game is remembered today mostly for its jiggling softcore imagery. In years to come, shooter developers would spend as much time dispelling the notoriety Duke Nukem generated as they would profiting from his example.

Duke Nukem

Doom’s success also won the regard of franchise owners in other media. Maryland-based Bethesda—flush from the success of its eye-catchingly vast roleplaying effort, The Elder Scrolls: Arena—released a Terminator adaptation in 1995, endowed with lavish polygonal models. In hindsight, the game’s vast, cluttered wasteland feels almost like groundwork for the studio’s later first-person Fallout titles. In the same year, the venerable adventure game studio LucasArts shipped Dark Forces, the first Star Wars-themed FPS, inspired (and perhaps, annoyed) by the appearance of Death Star mods for Doom. LucasArts had designed a number of historical cockpit-based simulations during the late ’80s and early ’90s, but Dark Forces was a straight riff on id Software’s work. The developer’s impressive Jedi engine allowed for vertical looking, environments busy with ambient details such as ships landing on flight decks, a range of effects such as atmospheric haze, and the ability to stack chambers on top of one another.

Going 3D: Metal Head, Descent, Quake

By the mid-’90s, developers had begun to shift from so-called ‘pseudo-3D’ techniques such as ray casting to fully-polygonal worlds, capitalising on the spread of 3D hardware acceleration and the arrival of the first mass-market graphics processing units. Released for the Mega Drive’s 32X add-on in 1994, Sega’s lumbering Metal Head is often touted as the first ‘true’ 3D shooter. Pitching large, plausibly animated mechs against one another in texture-mapped urban environments, it was a handsome creation let down by repetitive missions. There was also Parallax Software’s Descent, released in the same year—an unlikely but gripping hybrid of flight sim and dungeon crawler with 360-degree movement. But the game now regarded as a byword for polygonal 3D blasting wasn’t, to begin with, a shooter at all. 

John Romero had intended Quake to be a hybrid of Sega AM2’s arcade title Virtua Fighter and a Western roleplaying fantasy. Conceived back in 1991 and named for a Dungeons & Dragons character, the game would have alternated between first-person exploration and thirdperson side-on brawling. Romero envisioned circling dragons, a hammer massive enough to send shockwaves through the earth, and events that trigger when players look in their direction, such as glowing eyes appearing in a cave mouth. By the time John Carmack neared completion of an ambitious 3D engine in 1995, however, other id Software employees were exhausted and reluctant to depart too drastically from the Doom formula. There was also tension between the two founders over Romero’s supposedly inconsistent work ethic and Carmack’s view that the studio’s engine technology took precedence over its games. Romero ultimately resigned himself to a reimagining of Doom in polygonal 3D—and resigned from id Software itself after finishing the game.


As Big Robot’s Jim Rossignol has noted in a 2011 retrospective, something of this failure lingers in Quake as it stands. Though cut from the same coalface as Doom—it offered fast, brutal gunplay, levels made up of corridors and arenas, and a multitude of secret areas—the game’s aesthetic and fiction are curiously divided, at once crustily medieval and high tech. You can expect banks of computer monitors and teleporters, but also broadswords and monsters ripped from the pages of Lovecraft. In hindsight, it plays like a representation of the tipping point from avant-garde into profitable convention, the point at which the chimerical possibilities of 3D action solidified into the features expected of a modern first-person shooter. 

In at least one respect, though, Quake was transformative—it introduced a thrilling element of verticality, with players dashing through the air above opponents rather than simply strafing or corner-camping. This quality proved an asset in the emerging field of online multiplayer: by the late ’90s, Ethernet connections and modems had become ubiquitous and internet usage was rocketing. Quake’s multiplayer was initially designed for high bandwidth, low latency local area networks—it would check with a server before showing players the result of an action, which led to jerky performance online when there was a build-up of server requests. id swiftly released an update, titled QuakeWorld, which added client-side prediction. The result can be held up as the original esports shooter—software company Intergraph sponsored a US-wide tournament, Red Annihilation, in May 1997, which attracted around 2,000 participants. 

As with Doom, Quake’s modding tools made it an attractive platform for amateur developers—its community gave the world Team Fortress, which would later flower into a standalone shooter, along with early specimens of machinima, including an epic known as The Seal of Nehahra. Its greatest descendent, however, would prove to be a shooter from a developer founded by Microsoft alumni Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington. 

Created using a modified version of the Quake engine, Valve Software’s 1998 epic Half-Life remains extraordinary for how it reconciles the abstractions of game design with narrative tactics redolent of a novel (the game’s tale of secret government research and alien invasion was, in fact, written by a novelist, Mike Laidlaw). Its achievement versus earlier shooters can be summed up as the creation of temporal unity: almost everything is experienced in real time from the lead character’s perspective, with no arbitrary level breaks. In place of cutscenes, Valve weaves its tale through in-game dialogue and scripted events such as enemies smashing through doors—a tactic that both gives the player some control over the tempo and avoids jerking you out of the world. The game also sells the impression of a larger, unseen universe not via gobbets of textual backstory, but through the detail, responsiveness and consistency of its environment. The intro sees Gordon Freeman riding a monorail through Black Mesa, gleaning information about the location and your character from PA announcements and the sight of other employees at work. Following a disastrous experiment, you’re asked to backtrack through the same areas, now fallen into chaos.

Half-Life created a blueprint many FPS campaign developers would adopt in the new millennium. In particular, its seamless, naturalistic design would guide studios looking to explore realistic settings, such as the ‘World War’ periods. But it also introduced a note of unreality in the shape of Gordon Freeman’s murky reflection, the besuited G-Man—a personification of the game designer who sits a little outside Half-Life’s fiction. Together with the all-seeing, omnipresent AI manipulators of Marathon and the acclaimed cyberpunk RPG System Shock, the G-Man betrays a genre becoming increasingly aware of itself, and eager to turn its own structural constraints into a source of drama.

A new millennium: Unreal, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty

One of the greatest influences on first-person shooters at the turn of the millennium wasn’t a game, but a film: Steven Spielberg’s World War 2 epic, Saving Private Ryan. The movie’s thunderous portrayal of the D-Day landings would find echoes decades later in videogames like Killzone and Titanfall. Spielberg himself also has a robust association with game development: he co-founded DreamWorks Interactive with Microsoft in 1995 to work on adaptations of movies like Small Soldiers. Seeking a way to teach younger people about the war after wrapping up production on Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg asked DWI to develop a shooter, Medal of Honor, for Sony’s trendy new PlayStation platform. 

Launched in 1999 to strong sales, the game was a watershed moment in several respects. On the one hand, its more earnest, grounded approach opened the genre up to players put off by the lurid sci-fi or pulp comic settings of games like Doom and Wolfenstein. On the other, it facilitated tense discussions about the right of videogame developers to depict such events, and the possibility that violent games spark violent behaviour. Medal of Honor released a few months after the Columbine massacre in Colorado, an atrocity that gave rise to a moral panic over videogame violence. Fearful of a backlash, DreamWorks Interactive removed all blood from the game before launch. It also attracted a heated reaction from the US Congressional Medal of Honor Society, and its president voiced his concerns to Spielberg in person. The game’s release, in spite of all this, created a precedent for other studios to comment openly on history and society. 

The close of the ’90s also saw the release of the gorgeous Unreal, sparking a decade-long rivalry between creator Epic MegaGames and id Software. Conceived as a sort of ‘magic carpet’ experience where you fly through caverns dotted with robots, the game evolved into a bona fide Quake killer, running on a proprietary technology capable of 16-bit colour and ambient effects, such as volumetric fog. Like Quake, the game was designed to be modded easily and extensively. Also like Quake, its multiplayer left something to be desired at launch. Epic released a deathmatch-oriented standalone expansion, Unreal Tournament, in 1999, narrowly ahead of the arrival of id’s Quake III: Arena. A brace of colourful alternate fire options aside, it was notable for including both more competitive ‘hardcore’ and relatively playful ‘theme’ maps, such as levels floating in Earth’s orbit. The franchise found a dedicated following online, but the bedrock of Epic’s business would prove to be founder Tim Sweeney’s Unreal Engine, a highly modular entity designed for continual improvement. It would power games as diverse as Ion Storm’s legendary immersive sim Deus Ex and EA’s adaptations of the Harry Potter movies.

Where Quake and Unreal Tournament dealt in cartoon bazookas and evaporating torsos, another 1999 release, Counter-Strike, set its sights on military realism. A Half-Life mod created by attic developers Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, it saw teams of terrorists and counter-terrorists struggling to arm or defuse bombs and rescue or maintain custody of VIPs, customising their loadouts with currency earned at the end of each round. The mod wasn’t a landmark success to begin with, but Valve’s designers knew a killer formula when they smelled it and scooped up Le and Cliffe along with the intellectual property rights in 2000. Counter-Strike became an enduring phenomenon, buoyed up by thousands of user-created maps (including David Johnston’s legendary Middle Eastern levels Dust and Dust 2) and a community as resistant to fundamental rule changes as any diehard fan of football. Perhaps the definitive esport shooter, its objective-based modes and tactics-driven design are integral to the DNA of competitive multiplayer today. 

2000 was also the year that Microsoft acquired Bungie, thereby depriving Apple’s Mac of one of its more coveted games, a science fiction odyssey called Halo. The game had begun life as an open world exploration affair, running on Bungie’s Myth engine, and something of that luxuriant scale remains in the completed Halo: Combat Evolved, which was an enormous hit when it launched on Microsoft’s first Xbox console in 2001. Halo’s environments were bright, rangy and colourful, where other shooters were claustrophobic and dingy, and they were lent an intense overarching unity by the silhouette of the Halo ringworld itself, stretching up through each skybox. Its crowded encounters were far more open-ended than in most competitors, woven around delightful AI variables like Grunt footsoldiers kamikaze-rushing the player after you kill their leader. Its weapons retained something of Quake and Unreal’s excess—overcharging an energy pistol to strip an opponent’s shield in one go would become a standard multiplayer tactic—but its blend of finite player health and recharging overshields imposed a more studied, back-and-forth rhythm on firefights. Halo also showed off Bungie’s knack for world-building: the fascination of its wider universe would help cement its status as Microsoft’s flagship series. 

Halo would be eclipsed, however, by another World War 2 shooter, created using id Software’s Quake III engine by Infinity Ward—a studio founded by veterans of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault with startup money from Activision. Released in 2003, Call of Duty was among the first shooters to let players aim down a weapon’s sights—a gambit that created a sense of fearful claustrophobia, narrowing your attention to the gun roaring in your hands, even as the game’s sprawling levels and battalions of AI troopers courted comparison with Allied Assault. It was a little overshadowed by Medal of Honor on PC, but Call of Duty’s popularity caught the eye of Microsoft, who asked Activision to develop an Xbox 360 port of the sequel. With Halo 3 still a couple of years away, Call of Duty 2 was a bestseller at the console’s 2005 launch. Mindful of the risks of hanging an entire series on a single developer, Activision brought on Spider-Man studio Treyarch to design Call of Duty 3 using the second game’s engine, giving Infinity Ward an extra year at the coalface. It was the beginning of a yearly alternation that, together with the franchise’s all-year-round multiplayer appeal, would allow Call of Duty to bury competitors and exert an out-sized influence on the genre at large.

Battlefield 1942

Among Infinity Ward’s more ferocious competitors was a multiplayer-centric WW2 game created by Swedish developer DICE. Battlefield: 1942 saw up to 64 players tussling for capture points on enormous, open maps. Where Call of Duty’s own multiplayer came to prioritise pace and lone wolf virtuosity, Battlefield emphasised squad composition, the canny use of strategic resources such as vehicles, and above all, depth of simulation. The developer’s Refractor engine allowed for such crude feats of real-time physics as using TNT to launch a jeep across a bay onto an aircraft carrier’s deck. Though never quite a trendsetter in the increasingly lucrative console market, in large part die to its anaemic campaign options, Battlefield’s scale and freedom were a tonic for armchair generals weary of vanilla deathmatch. 

Crytek’s Far Cry had a similar appeal. It began life as a glorified tech demo, the catchily titled X-Isle: Dinosaur Island, but flowered with Ubisoft’s backing into the first open world FPS in the current sense of the term. Where other shooters taught players to keep pushing forward, Far Cry allowed you to run amok in a vast tropical environment, using the undergrowth for cover while tracking unsuspecting soldiers through your binoculars. The series would go onto enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Ubisoft’s third-person Assassin’s Creed games, each experimenting with new ways to structure and diversify an open world. 

Half-Life 2, CoD4: Modern Warfare, Bioshock, Crysis

If Far Cry was one of 2004’s highlights, it and every other game that year was utterly dwarfed by Valve’s Half-Life 2. While not as transformative in terms of storytelling craft as its predecessor, the new game’s post-alien invasion dystopia was a work of unprecedented delicacy. Where older shooters looked to B-movies for inspiration, Half-Life 2’s incompletely terraformed city compares to mid-20th century Communist eastern Europe (the game’s art director, Viktor Antonov, hails from Bulgaria)—at once grand and ground down, alternating steely megaliths with trash-strewn riverbeds and grubby prisons. Its principle opponents aren’t bug-eyed monsters but masked enforcers wielding batons and carbines, their presence given away by indecipherable radio chatter. It’s also, for all its linearity, a celebration of player agency, handing you a Gravity Gun that allows you to pluck and hurl sawblades at enemies, solve slightly goofy seesaw puzzles and pile up objects at whim. The game was widely imitated, within the first-person shooter genre and without, but arguably its greatest legacy is Steam, Valve’s now-globe-straddling desktop games store. It’s hard to imagine players embracing the clunky 2004 version of Steam quite so readily, were it not required to play Half-Life 2.

Call of Duty

If Valve’s offering set the standard for FPS design (in terms of its campaign, at least) it was Call of Duty that swallowed up most of the limelight during the ’00s, the critical year being 2007. Weary of World War 2 and conscious of the need to differentiate its offering from Treyarch’s, Infinity Ward decided to transport the series to the present day. The result, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, unlocked a brand-new vocabulary for the first-person shooter. It traded the mud and everyman heroics of WW2 experiences for a slick, cheerfully amoral celebration of western military hardware and urban combat tactics—arming the player with laser sights, ghillie suits, Stinger launchers and drones. It also courted topicality where games like Medal of Honor had tried to distance themselves from the headlines—one level sees you living out the final moments of a country’s deposed president, while another puts you at the controls of an AC-130 gunship, in scenes familiar from news footage of the Iraq War. But what it is mostly remembered for today is the multiplayer. Infinity Ward’s decision to introduce a levelling and unlocks system derived from roleplaying games is the most influential sea change in shooter design during the past decade. Its notion of an online career, whereby players kept plugging away for small rewards rather than just enjoyment, also helped popularise the emerging concept of the game as ‘service’.

Bioshock's combat, which married chunky period firearms with pseudo-magical powers or Plasmids , would prove its weakest element. More intriguing was the universe of cruelty and hubris it sketched.

Call of Duty 4 wasn’t the only game to do a little genre-splicing in 2007. Irrational’s BioShock began life as a spiritual follow-up to the System Shock series—its creative director, the soon-to-be-famous Ken Levine, was a designer on System Shock 2—but over time it became more of a shooter than an immersive simulation or RPG. It casts the player as an airplane crash survivor exploring a disintegrating undersea ‘utopia’ created by a renegade industrialist, in a thinly disguised meditation on the philosophy of Ayn Rand. The game’s combat, which married chunky period firearms with pseudo-magical powers or ‘Plasmids’, would prove its weakest element. More intriguing was the universe of cruelty and hubris it sketched, a labyrinth of leaking glass tunnels and domed Art Deco plazas.

Building on Half-Life 2’s example, Irrational left much of Rapture’s backstory for players to discover in the form of audio diaries, graffiti and random bric-a-brac. Its environmental storytelling would attract legions of imitators across several genres, from Raven Software’s unfairly overlooked 2010 shooter Singularity through body-horror masterpiece Dead Space to so-called ‘walking simulators’ like Gone Home. It also formed part of an ongoing conversation about games as a means of rousing empathy or exploring moral quandaries. BioShock’s signature characters are the Little Sisters, mutated little girls who collect genetic material from corpses under the eye of their powerful guardians, the Big Daddies. Having disposed of the latter, you can either spare Little Sisters or kill them to harvest their ‘ADAM’, a resource you can use to upgrade your own powers. 

The late ’00s saw the rise of the open world shooter, with Crytek’s fearsome Crysis swaddling the player in power armour in order to battle aliens on yet another overgrown island wilderness. The game was sold as an exercise in technological masochism, its detail, lighting and plethora of effects ‘melting’ all but the most expensive PC hardware. But its real trump card was the ability to enhance your Nanosuit’s agility, strength or endurance on the fly by drawing power from a finite reservoir, making it an engaging risk-reward system. It was soon eclipsed, however, by the Far Cry series, which Crytek had by now sold to Ubisoft. That’s both in spite of and thanks to Far Cry 2, an astonishing, bruising shooter stretched across 50 kilometres of African brush. Drawing on his experiences with the Splinter Cell games, designer Clint Hocking set out to create a brutal, Heart of Darkness-esque sandbox in which players fought malaria, self-propagating fire and bullets simultaneously. The results were arresting, but also frustrating, thanks to a patchy narrative, alternately dim or eagle-eyed AI and an unfair enemy respawning system.

Far Cry 2

2012’s widely acclaimed Far Cry 3 removed much of the frustration, and a little of the sophistication. It opened out the terrain, fine-tuned the AI to be more predictable, and put capturing enemy outposts—each a potted stealth-combat puzzle, inspired by the Borgia towers in Assassin’s Creed 2—at the heart of exploring the map. It also created a combo system, with players chaining melee executions into ranged takedowns, reflecting a growing interest across the industry in fluid first-person animations, epitomised by DICE’s 2008 parkour game Mirror’s Edge. Less positively, it traded the second game’s understated, callous portrayal of a perpetual civil war for a farcical story about whiny, kidnapped backpackers wrestling with the definition of insanity. 

Players unconvinced by Far Cry or Crysis had a number of rival open world shooters to choose from. One of them was the Stalker series, inaugurated by Ukrainian developer GSC Game World in 2007, in which scavengers pick their way through radioactive ruins while keeping a look out for monstrous creatures and invisible, fatal anomalies. Stalker’s supporting systems were remarkable—at one point, the AI was allegedly capable of completing the game by itself—but its punishing survival simulation ethic limited its audience. Gearbox’s roleplaying shooter Borderlands took a friendlier, trashier tack. Released in 2009, it saw you touring an anarchic, comic book-style planet as one of four classes, hoovering up procedurally generated (often borderline-unusable) weapons. Part of Borderlands’s success, the novelty of its arsenal aside, was its humour—a rare quality in an often po-faced genre. 

The turn of the decade saw a number of long-running FPS series beginning to lose momentum. Most obviously, the Medal of Honor series underwent an abortive attempt at reinvention in 2010, with publisher EA looking to fill gaps in the schedule between Battlefield instalments. In jumping forward from WW2 to present-day Afghanistan, the once-proud series merely left itself open to unflattering comparisons with 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. id Software’s properties were also at low ebb. Though an accomplished horror experience, 2007’s Doom 3 lost out to Half-Life 2, while Quake had all but evaporated following Quake 4’s muted reception in 2005. Raven Software’s 2009 Wolfenstein reboot doubleddown on the paranormal aspects of the series backstory, to mixed effect. Following a similarly lukewarm response to Singularity, parent company Activision retasked the studio to help out with the Call of Duty series. RAGE—id’s only new IP during these years save mobile game Orcs & Elves—proved a visual extravaganza and a gratifyingly hefty, Mad Max-ish shooter, but all too often felt like it was playing second fiddle to its own graphics technology. id’s old foe Epic, meanwhile, was increasingly dedicated to the third-person Gears of War series and its flourishing Unreal Engine business.

Battlefield 3

Call of Duty continued to reign supreme, though it attracted increasingly stiff competition from EA’s Battlefield—a franchise increasingly (and a little unfairly) pitched as a freeform ‘thinking man’s shooter’, more respectful of player agency than the linear, attrition-driven Call of Duty. After experimenting with a lighter, buddy-comedy vibe in the Bad Company spin-offs, DICE amped up the grandeur with Battlefield 3, a multiple perspective tale of abducted nuclear weapons set partly in Iran (the bestselling instalment until DICE’s journey into WW1 with Battlefield 1). The series had become famous for its Frostbite engine technology, which amongst other things allowed for real-time terrain destruction in multiplayer: participants could do everything from blasting out spyholes in walls to levelling buildings.

The modern era: Titanfall, Destiny, Overwatch

Call of Duty’s greatest existential threats, however, were a mixture of internal discord and external market pressures. In March 2010, Activision—now by far the industry’s largest publisher, following a mega-merger with Vivendi and its subsidiary Blizzard—fired Infinity Ward cofounders Jason West and Vince Zampella over alleged insubordination. A few weeks later, West and Zampella announced the foundation of new studio Respawn Entertainment. A wave of lawsuits and countersuits followed, alongside a mass exodus of staff from Infinity Ward to Respawn. Activision was forced to call upon the recently founded Sledgehammer Games to help the depleted Infinity Ward finish Modern Warfare 3. 

While the series weathered this crisis—thanks largely to Treyarch’s pop-savvy, hallucinogen-crazed Black Ops subfranchise—Activision and other publishers also had to manage a problem of budget versus expectation. Scripted corridor campaigns in the Half-Life vein were proving increasingly expensive, thanks largely to the cost of HD art assets, and telemetry showed that players spent the bulk of their time in multiplayer. However, attempts to remove singleplayer from the package led to an outcry. Among the teams that struggled with this problem was Respawn. The EA-published debut Titanfall pioneered the concept of campaign multiplayer, with narrative elements, such as picture-in-picture cinematics, dropped into rounds of team deathmatches. The game was enthusiastically received—a mixture of towering mech combat and nimble parkour duelling, it restored something of Quake and Unreal Tournament’s agility to a genre that had become bogged down in cover combat. Its audience tailed off swiftly, however—many first-person shooter enthusiasts found the mechs-and-pilots premise to be more of a novelty than a game-changing fixture, though the larger problem was perhaps that, on consoles, Titanfall was exclusive to the Xbox brand.


Other shooter developers ‘rediscovered’ mobility during this decade—Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Black Ops III dabbled at length with powered exosuits, while Halo 5: Guardians added boost slides, double-jumps and ground-pounds to Master Chief’s moveset. But the game that brought it all together was 2014’s Destiny, the work of erstwhile Halo developer Bungie, now free from producing games solely for Microsoft. It’s a mixture of MMO-style looting and Titanfall-esque acrobatics, all bundled up in an aesthetic that is reminiscent of the ’70s space race and classic sci-fi book cover illustrations. Destiny is in some ways quite a soulless game: it’s as grindy as Borderlands and far less self-deprecating, but its ruined, yet sumptuous, solar system environments have an irresistible mystique. It also feels tremendous in the hands, with some beautifully judged weapon designs and class abilities. 

With last year’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare tracking far behind Black Ops III, Destiny has become one of Activision’s two flagship shooters. The other is Blizzard’s joyful arena shooter Overwatch, released in 2016. Overwatch is a lovely game to end on because it is essentially an interactive genre history, a celebration of its triumphs, foibles and even failures. It doesn’t merely reach out to weapons, gadgets and abilities from other shooters, but also their quirks, exploits and the antics of their communities—Quake’s rocket jumping, aimbots from Counter-Strike and internet edgelords in general. Its heroes are love letters to 30-odd years of genre history. Pro-gaming celeb turned mech pilot D.Va is both a potted Titanfall and a parody of the noxious ‘gamer girl’ stereotype, for instance. Soldier 76, meanwhile, is Call of Duty man. Even as it pays tribute, however, Overwatch also points to the future—be it in the effortless way it folds in concepts from fighting games and MOBAs, or in how it extends the FPS cast-list well beyond the muscular, dudebro protagonists beloved of so many rivals. It speaks to the enormous range of concepts that make up the modern FPS, for all its myriad hang-ups—a genre that has always been about so much more than firing a gun.


It looks like Quake has just got its own version of Brutal Doom, the ultra-violent (and ultra popular) fan-made mod for id Software's 1993 FPS behemoth. Qore adds heaps of guts and gore to Quake, and it looks bloody brilliant.

You can dismember enemies, decapitate them, and generally smash their bodies into hundreds of red, squishy pieces. If you use the lightning gun you can actually electrify bits of innards, and if an enemy dies from an explosion there's a chance that their severed limbs will flame as they fly through the air. Flesh wounds will show up more than ever, too: basically, your screen will be plastered with red.

Qore adds a scary chainsaw that pins enemies in place if they have low health, cutting through them until they go splat. You can saw dead enemies to dig out extra bits of health and ammo as well. Nice.

You can grab Qore here, where you can also watch the mod in action. Creator DaisyFlower says they will continue to work on the mod, adding new enemy attacks among other things.

Technically, Qore is actually a mod for DarkPlaces, another fan project that improves the original Quake in pretty much every area. You'll need to download DarkPlaces here to run Qore.

Hat tip, DSOGaming.

Wolfenstein 3D

Last week, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds smashed the Steam peak player records. The previous record-holder, Dota 2, while admittedly made by one of the world’s biggest and most powerful games companies, began as a Warcraft mod. These days, we barely blink an eye at the idea that a game can come from nowhere and shake through word-of-mouth, clever concepts, a bit of cool technology like Portal’s… well, portals… or simply by hooking into some reservoir of good feeling, and accomplish more than any marketing budget can dream of. Minecraft is this generation’s Lego. Undertale is one of its most beloved RPGs.

Indeed, the world of indie development is now so important that it’s hard to remember that it’s only really a decade or so old. That’s not to say that there weren’t indie games before then, as we’ll see, but it was only really with the launch of Steam on PC and services like Xbox Live Arcade that the systems were in place to both get games in front of a mainstream audience, and provide the necessary ecosystem for them to quickly and confidently pay for new games.

In 1979 Richard Garriott set out on his path to buying a castle and going into space by selling copies of his first RPG, Akalabeth, in ziploc bags at his local computer store

The massive success of indie games on Steam has of course come with attendant pitfalls. The early access program gave small studios the ability to beta test their games with player numbers they would not otherwise never reach, and gave players the ability to take part in shaping games. However, a lack of guidelines left players and developers with very different expectations as was seen in the reaction to a paid expansion being released for Ark: Survival Evolved while it was still in early access. Steam Greenlight made it easier for indie games to get on Steam but became a popularity contest that was easily gamed, leading Valve to replace it with Steam Direct.

All this is largely taken for granted these days, with the big challenge for modern indie games being to stand out. Simply getting onto Steam back then could set a studio up for life. These days the market is full to bursting, with most new releases disappearing from sight almost at once.

In both cases though, it’s a world away from how the market began.

Back to the start

The exact definition of ‘indie’ has never exactly been cut-and-dry. To some, it’s an aesthetic, best summed up by the classic bedroom coder. To others, it’s a more commercial distinction, of working without a publisher. To others, it’s ultimately about the work, with an indie game standing out more for being not the kind of thing you get from a commercial company, rather than really focusing on who made it. 

There are many definitions to play with, and few hard lines to draw. The poster-children of ’90s shareware, id Software (who you may know courtesy of a little game called Doom), began working under contract for a company called Softdisk, cranking out games like Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, Hovertank 3D, and Catacomb 3D, before moving on to make games with/for shareware giant Apogee.

In the very early days of gaming, just about everybody was indie to some extent. In 1979 Richard Garriott set out on his path to buying a castle and going into space by selling copies of his first RPG, Akalabeth, in ziploc bags at his local computer store (one of those copies then ended up in the hands of California Pacific, who offered Garriott a publishing deal). Sierra On-Line began in 1980 as just husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams, making simple adventure games like Mystery House that nevertheless pushed the boundaries of what people expected from games at the time—like having graphics—before booming to become one of the biggest and most important companies in gaming history.

What do you do if you don t have the money for big boxes? Ziploc bags are your friends.

Companies could emerge from almost anything. Gremlin Interactive began as a computer store called Just Micro, while DMA Design, originally Acme Software, which would make its name with Lemmings and much later become Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar, began from its founders meeting up at a computer club in Dundee and ultimately signing with Psygnosis. Whole genres were created from a single game, such as Football Manager in 1982.

The speed of all this took many by surprise, with Balance of Power creator Chris Crawford saying in 1984, "We have pretty much passed the period where hobbyists could put together a game that would have commercial prospect. It’s much more difficult to break in, much less stay in. If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don’t try to do game designs to make any money. The odds are so much against the individual that I would hate to wish that heartbreak on anyone."

The shareware revolution

But of course, people continued. The PC was largely left out of much of it, however, due to the relatively high cost of disks and its general perception of not being a gaming machine. In the UK, the main indie scene in the ’80s was on cassette based 8-bit systems like the ZX Spectrum, with publishers happily accepting almost any old tat, recording it to a tape, sticking it in a box, and selling it for a few pounds at newsagents, game stores, and anywhere else that would take copies. They were cheap, sometimes cheerful, and allowed for endearing weirdness like 1985’s Don’t Buy This—a compilation of the five worst games sent to publisher Firebird.

It would be many years before most indie PC games could get that kind of placement. Instead, there was shareware. The concept dates back to the 1970s, though it was popularized by PC-Write creator Bob Wallace in 1982. Rather than having a central distributor like a regular published game, users were encouraged to copy software and pass it along. If they liked it, they’d then send the creator a check to unlock the full thing or get more of it. 

In the case of Apogee Software, and indeed what became known as the Apogee model, a game might have three parts. The first one would be free, and free to share, the other two commercial and only for registered purchasers to enjoy. (Not that anyone really listened, as the vast, vast numbers of pirated copies of Doom probably shows better than anything.)

The beauty of the system was that anyone could distribute these games, with the rule being that while you weren’t allowed to sell the shareware version, you could charge for materials. That meant games could appear on magazine cover disks and later CDs. They could be on any university server or dial-up BBS or services like Compuserve and AOL. If you wanted a relatively full choice however, you often needed to send off for them. Whole companies were set up to sell just the trial versions, sending out printed catalogues of their stock and charging by the disk. 

By the mid-90s of course the popularity of CD had rendered this relatively pointless, with ‘1000 Games!’ CDs available in supermarkets and bookstores and anywhere else there might be an audience, rarely mentioning the part about them being glorified demos. Much like on Steam today, at this point most smaller games got lost. Still, as a player, it was an almost inexhaustible feast.

Not every game could be Wolfenstein 3D and promise a fight with Robot Hitler if you paid

As crazy as sending off a check to get a game might seem, it worked. In a few cases, registered shareware games even made the jump to boxed products in stores, though that was relatively rare. Either way, shareware was hardly a license to print money for most, but it supported many a developer throughout the '90s and made others their fortunes. Epic MegaGames began with the text-based RPG ZZT before becoming the company that made Unreal. Duke Nukem began as a very simple 2D side-scroller, notable mostly for oddities like the main character wearing pink and just wanting to save the world so that he could get back to watching Oprah, but nevertheless blossomed into Duke Nukem 3D before publicly wilting into Duke Nukem Forever. 

And there were many more stars too, regularly appearing in new games or simply popular ones that kept showing up, like Skunny the squirrel and his awful platforming (and ultimately karting adventures), Last Half of Darkness, and Hugo’s House of Horrors, much beloved by magazine and compilation editors for its extremely pretty first screen, and never mind that it was all made of clip art and every other room in the game was barely MS Paint-level scribbles.

The alternative industry

Shareware's big draw for players was, inevitably, free games. The downside of the Apogee model and others that erred on the generous side was that a whole episode was often enough—especially as that’s where the developer’s best work tended to be. Compare for instance the deservedly beloved shareware episode of Commander Keen: Goodbye, Galaxy! where you run around a beautiful, varied planet, with the dull space adventure of its commercial sequel. Not every game could be Wolfenstein 3D and promise a fight with Robot Hitler if you paid.

Less cynically though, shareware gave many genres their home. The PC was typically seen as a business machine, with its commercial successes often adventures, RPGs and other slower and more cerebral offerings. There were platformers and beat-em-ups and similar, but they were usually poor conversions from other platforms at best, with few worth taking a risk on. 

If the PC ever had a mascot platformer , it was Commander Keen. The shareware version of Goodbye, Galaxy! was his finest hour.

Shareware removed that risk factor for customers, while letting developers show off. The original Commander Keen, while simplistic to modern eyes, was proof that the PC could do console-style scrolling, even if it wouldn’t be until 1994’s Jazz Jackrabbit that anyone could seriously claim to be doing convincing 16-bit console-style arcade action and visuals. (Even then it wasn’t a very strong claim, but luckily by this point the PC had Doom and so didn’t care.)

This led to a flurry of games you really couldn’t get elsewhere, or that were in very short supply on the shelves, from vertical shooters like Major Stryker, Raptor, and Tyrian, to fighting games like One Must Fall, to quirky top-down RPGs like God of Thunder, and racing games like Wacky Wheels. It offered a great split. When you wanted a deep, polished experience, you had the commercial game market. For action fun, there was shareware, not least because when we did get big games like Street Fighter II, they tended to stink. Shareware supported the industry through much of the '90s.

The high cost of indie

By the mid-90s though, there was a problem. Commercial games began rapidly outstripping what bedroom teams could do, both in terms of technology and complexity of content. While there were engines available, they were mostly poor quality, with nothing like Unity on the market and the likes of Quake and Unreal costing far too much for anyone but other companies to license.

If you wanted to play with that kind of technology, you were looking at making mods instead. This was the era that gave us the likes of Team Fortress (1996) and Defense of the Ancients (2003), but also where the indie scene became largely forgotten. This wasn't helped by the fact that indie had essentially no place on consoles at all, despite a few nods over the years like Sony’s Yaroze console, a development PlayStation aimed at hobbyists released in 1997. The PC saw its own push towards home development with tools like Blitz Basic/BlitzMAX (2000) and Dark Basic (also 2000), with the goal of inspiring a new generation of bedroom coders. However, despite selling reasonably well, none of them gained much traction or saw many releases.

Jeff Vogel s Spiderweb Software has been making RPGs since the '90s. They look simple, but fans keep coming back for their depth.

The indie scene as a whole ceased to be a big player in the market—which isn’t to say that it vanished. Introversion’s Uplink for instance was a big hit in 2001. Jeff Vogel’s Spiderweb Software started releasing old-school RPGs like Exile and Geneforge in 1995. PopCap began in 2000, becoming the giant of casual games like Bejeweled, Peggle, Bookworm Adventures, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Chuzzle—not bad for a company that was originally called ‘Sexy Action Cool’ and planned to make its debut with a strip poker game. 

And of course, there are other notable exceptions, such as Jeff Minter, who never stopped making his psychedelic shooters both for himself and others. However, it wasn’t until 2004 when Steam nailed digital distribution that the market had a chance to explode and offer a real chance of going it alone.

The turning point

Steam wasn’t the first digital distribution system, and at its launch it wasn’t even popular, with Valve forcing it on players for both Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike. However, it was the first major attempt that nailed the details, like being able to download your games on any computer you owned rather than having them locked to just one, and being able to do so perpetually, rather than simply for a year, as was the case with most of the competition. 

The results spoke for themselves. When Valve was a lot pickier, and being backed by a publisher was a distinct advantage to getting onto the system, any developer who managed to get onto Steam effectively received a license to print money. Farther afield, though games not on Steam were at a distinct disadvantage, the legitimisation of digital distribution as a concept certainly raised most boats.

And with all this came something just as important: the indie game ecosystem. With money to be made and developers flocking to indie for all sorts of reasons (being tired of the big companies, wanting to make a go of an independent project) it became viable to create tools and systems to help make the scene. Game Maker for instance, and Unity and Flash. Today, would-be indie developers have the tools to go head-to-head with even the biggest studios, albeit typically on a smaller scale, as well as explore more cost-effective options like pixel art and procedural 3D, while services like Kickstarter and Fig offer a way of seeking funding without immediately selling out. 

This also opened the definition of ‘indie’ even further, with companies seriously able to consider going it alone, without a publisher. Not everyone could be Double Fine, raising $3.5 million for Broken Age, but many have had huge successes—Pillars of Eternity pulling just under $4 million, the Bard’s Tale getting $1.5 million and in the height of Kickstarter fever, even Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe managing to raise $650,000 for a remake of the first game.

Cave Story was one of the first games to get people talking about indie releases, beyond Flash games and the like.

It’s at this point that the word 'indie' really catches on. Again, it’s not that it was never used, but until this point the scene wasn’t big and important enough to warrant a position as basically a shadow industry in its own right. The release of Cave Story in 2004 was where people really started talking in those terms, with Indie Game: The Movie in 2012 cementing this, highlighting three of the most successful titles of the time—Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy. 

Microsoft embracing the scene via Xbox Live Indie Games played its part, as did their XNA development system, and attempts to make a big deal out of indie launches during its "Indie Game Uprising" events between 2010 and 2012. 

Elsewhere, the IGF (Independent Games Festival) launched in 1999 was also going from strength to strength, drawing more attention to the likes of Darwinia, Monaco and Crayon Physics Deluxe. We also saw more overtly indie friendly portals like itch.io, and the Humble Indie Bundle, offering new marketplaces and ways of selling games—even if many later bundles proved a dead-end.

Perhaps most excitingly, it’s now that we start to see whole genres and styles largely associated with the indie market either flourish or come into existence, not least the ‘walking simulator’—games primarily about exploring a space and a story through environmental detail and voiceover. The first big name here was Dear Esther, a free mod released in 2008 and later remade in 2012, with later examples including Gone Home, Firewatch, and Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture.

Braid helped prove that indie games could be artistic works of love, equal to any commercial release.

There’s also the pixel-art aesthetic of games like VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy, and the original Spelunky, and for many old-school gamers, a return to brutal old-school difficulty. And somehow I doubt we need to say much about Minecraft. (It’s been quite popular, and influential.) Classic point-and-click adventures also saw a resurgence outside of Germany, largely spearheaded by the Adventure Game Studio creation engine and the success of Wadjet Eye Games’ The Blackwell Legacy, Gemini Rue, Technobabylon, and the upcoming Unavowed.

But it’s of course reductive to pick specific genres. The joy of indie games is that as long as the money can be raised somehow, a passionate team can take on more or less whatever they like, free of publisher interference or perceived wisdom, allowing for arty games like Limbo and Bastion (distributed by Warner Bros, but only as a publishing partner), throwbacks to lost genres like Legend of Grimrock, exploratory pieces like The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide, or completely new concepts like Superhot, where time only moves when you do, and the ferociously complex Kerbal Space Program, where difficulty really is a matter of rocket science.

The downside is that as ever, it’s not enough to simply make a game. An indie title buffeted with word of mouth can sell millions, but far more are doomed to languish largely unplayed and discussed in the depths of Steam’s increasing piles or other services’ far less traveled shelves. The initial gold rush is very much over. Still, plenty of gold remains. It’s impossible to predict what game will be the next Spelunky, the next Minecraft, the next Undertale, or the next Super Meat Boy, but absolutely no risk at all to bet that whatever it is, it’s already on its way.


You may recall that in Doom and Doom 2, multiplayer matches took place in standard campaign maps. In other words, deathmatch had no maps designed especially for PvP skirmishes. It seems unthinkable now, because nowadays multiplayer maps are a fine art of their own (though plenty of level creators ended up making special deathmatch maps for Doom anyway). 

With Quake, id Software started adding multiplayer maps of their own, and in a recent interview with PCGamesN, Tim Willits made the claim that it was his idea. Explaining how he wanted to use remaining map fragments from single-player levels to adapt for multiplayer, Willits claimed his idea was roundly mocked.

"They [John Romero and John Carmack] both said that was the stupidest idea they'd ever heard. Why would you make a map you only play multiplayer when you can play multiplayer in single-player maps? So I said 'No, no, no, let me see what I can do.' And that's how multiplayer maps were started. True story." 

But is it true? Apparently not, according to other id Software veterans including Romero, Tom Hall and American McGee. The former wrote a lengthy blogpost on the matter, specifically denying the exchange between Willits, himself and Carmack ever happened.

"This never happened (Carmack verified this to ShackNews)," Romero writes. "In fact, we had been playing multiplayer-only maps in DOOM for years already. There had been hundreds of maps that the DOOM mapping community had made only for deathmatch by that time. DWANGO was a multiplayer-only service that had many multiplayer-only maps that are legendary today. 

"American McGee even released a multiplayer-only map in November 1994 named IDMAP01. The incredible DOOM community invented the idea of designing maps only for multiplayer mode, and they deserve the credit. The game owes so much to them."

It's worth reading all of Romero's post for the nitty-gritty, where he also discredits Willits' claim that he had designed the first episode of Quake (it was a collaboration, with Willits designing less than half of the maps). He also points out that other FPS games, such as Rise of the Triad, had featured bundled multiplayer-only maps before Quake did.

Whatever the case, American McGee denied Willits claims on Twitter, and Carmack confirmed with ShackNews that he doesn't remember the conversation happening. We'll update this story when (or if) Willits responds.


There is a high school reunion backstage at QuakeCon. The silver pots of catered food delivered by the towering Gaylord Texan above keeps everyone buoyant, and occasionally a good samaritan wanders in with a short pyramid of Domino’s pizzas. The casters are hard at work on the corner of the stage, and the on-deck circle is filled with whirring computers hardwired to LAN cable for any enterprising team looking to get a few more reps in before showtime. For the most part, the Quakers are relaxed. There is laughter and shit-talk, and enveloping bear-hugs offered between friends who haven’t seen each other in far too long. 

In recent years, fans of the mercurial Quake franchise haven’t had much reason to play outside of id Software’s yearly love letter to the franchise, but the upper echelon of the scene remains sturdy. Tim “DaHanG” Fogarty and Andrew “id_” Trulli are both in their late-20s and play for Team Liquid’s Overwatch squad—but they’ve each taken a respite from that game to form a (slightly impromptu) team for this year’s Quake Champions tournament. The lithe Shane “Rapha” Hendrixson is here—since 2008 he’s traded titles in the 1v1 dueling bracket against Alexey “Cypher” Yanushevsky. He’s entering this year’s show defending championships from both 2015 and 2016. 

I spot Sander “Vo0” Kaasjager sequestered away from the rest of the crowd, playing endless deathmatches to keep himself frosty. In his jersey and trademark gamer grimace, he doesn’t look much different from the man who famously lost to Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel in the grand finals of the 2005 Cyberathlete World Tour in what was then the biggest prize pool in the history of competitive gaming. Together, they represent the first generation of esports—the first men who dared to make a living playing video games. The world has passed them by, but they’re not leaving without a fight.

“I started playing Quake in 2001, I’ve known some of these guys for 10 years,” says id_ backstage with a tub of lunch in his hands. “Quake has a longstanding community for over a decade, and those players will always come out of the woodwork to compete. Not just for money, but for the pride and the title, that’s something that Quakers live for.”

Quake reborn

The QuakeCon tournament, which previously focused on minor bounties in stale Quake Live brackets, now features a million-dollar Champions prizepool.

For the past seven years, the Quake game de jure was Quake Live, the still-active browser emulation of the legendary Quake III: Arena. It served as the franchise’s testament and tomb. There hadn’t been a new Quake game since 2005’s middling Quake 4, and as the esports industry hit its tipping point, id software instead chose to focus on their single-player ambitions with the ambitious Rage and the long-gestating Doom reboot. The cadre of Quake pros still showed up to QuakeCon every year to reignite old rivalries, but there wasn’t much to play for beyond that.

However, the mood is different this year. For the first time in forever, QuakeCon is headlined by its namesake game. The free-to-play Quake Champions is on the horizon, and the QuakeCon tournament, which previously focused on minor bounties in stale Quake Live brackets, now features a million-dollar Champions prizepool. You could consider it a commencement ceremony for an esports initiative that aims to make Quake a crucial fixture in the scene again. Already, Bethesda has announced two Dreamhack Quake Champions tournaments before the end of the year, and both are paying out decent prize money. The marketing here is transparent—at this point it’s harder to find a game company that’s not doubling-down into esports—but the circumstances are unique given the heritage that was already present. These Quake players would’ve gathered here anyway, but now, they get to be professionals again.

Rapha fits the bill of the long-suffering FPS pro perfectly. He’s an incredible duelist who can track down railgun headshots with his eyes closed, but he hasn’t been able to find a game that fits his skillset since the Quake scene dried up during his prime. He had a brief affair with Ubisoft’s dead-on-arrival ShootMania, and he tried and failed to find his groove on the Team Liquid Overwatch team. But that was it. He was doomed to a purgatory of yearly Quake Live matches against the same tired competition he faced as a college kid. The Quake Champions announcement changed everything. He can finally go back home.

"It s very painful to lose in 1v1 sometimes, because it wasn t the game you lost to, it s your opponent."

James 2GD Harding

“It’s amazing for me. I’m just excited for the opportunity to play in multiple tournaments again,” he says. “I really liked Overwatch but it feels like a lot of the skills there are confining. … I gave it my all, but Quake is just my game.”

Rapha isn’t the only one. Id_ tells me he’d consider making a full-time comeback if the Champions scene stays healthy. Anton “Cooller” Singov inked a deal with esports giant Na’Vi to return to his roots. Alexey “Cypher” Yanushevsky did the same after logging time with both Counter-Strike and Overwatch. Quake legends around the world are watching Bethesda put their money where their mouth is, and are graciously taking the opportunity to see if they've still got what it takes.

Art of the duel

It’s hard to articulate exactly what these pros find in Quake that they can’t in other FPSes, but one thing is certainly clear: there’s no true 1v1ing in Overwatch. If you’re familiar with those old CPL derbys you know what I’m talking about—two players coasting the circumference of an arena, stacking green armor, weapons, and health in hopes of winning a frantic, five-second engagement. The 1v1 format tested your twitchiness, but it also evaluated how well you could read and react to your opponent, a perfect marriage of mindgames and rocket launchers. It’s a unique, and rewarding style of play that’s been missing in our era of role-based skirmishes for quite some time. If you grew up on whip-around nailgun blasts, perhaps Soldier 76’s auto-aim might seem a little cheap. “It’s just you and the other guy. There’s no other factors. It’s just who can play more consistent, and who can outsmart the other guy,” says Rapha.

“It’s incredibly personal,” says James “2GD” Harding, another former Quake pro and someone who’s been around esports for a long time. “[In 1v1] all of your intelligence and all of your dexterity is being challenged by the best players in the world. It challenges you so much that you can never really master it, but you can try to be the best at certain things. Like, maybe you try to win a tournament by being the best at aiming, or win a tournament by being the smartest player, or being the most aggressive player. It’s very painful to lose in 1v1 sometimes, because it wasn’t the game you lost to, it’s your opponent.”

I think in some ways we re hoping to be replaced.

James 2GD Harding

Bethesda values the format enough to corner off $330,000 of the QuakeCon prizepool to the 1v1 bracket alone. Tim Willits has called Quake Champions’ dueling the “secret weapon” to the company’s esports plan, reckoning that it’s the one thing Champions has that other games don’t. It remains to be seen if Quake can crossover like it did in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but in the meantime it’s wonderful to watch the veterans get a run at something they used to obsess over. The QuakeCon tournament was full of great matches: in 2017 we had the pleasure of watching high-stakes sets between Cooller and Rapha, DaHanG and Noctis, Av3k and Vo0. These men have wives and kids, and they were still blasting off their feet in acrobatic rocket jumps. No matter what happens from here, we at least had the chance to watch the founding fathers of pro gaming live the dream one last time.

But maybe that’s also the one thing holding Quake Champions back. Esports, like any other competitive field, needs a trickle of new blood to survive. Running back the same posse of professionals under brighter lights and a felicitous bankroll doesn’t bode well for the future. “I think in some ways we’re hoping to be replaced,” says 2GD, noting that the average age of the players at Dota 2’s The International landed somewhere around 21.

That might sound like a strange thing to say, but then again, everyone at QuakeCon was there for the same reason. They love and fear for Quake, and while they’re happy to play a brand new game for a significant wad of cash, their primary concern is the continued prosperity of their favorite game. They won’t fall on their sword, but they’ll happily welcome the next generation if they earn it.

New blood

That wish was granted on the third day of the tournament. Team 2z were completely anonymous when they walked through the doors of the Gaylord Texan. Their Twitter account sports a scant 199 followers. They are unsponsored, unsanctioned, and reachable by a blasé gmail address answered directly by the players. Mostly, they’re in their early 20s and late teens, green as grass, and stacked up against a combined century of Quake experience in the other teams.

Quake is fast, brutal and ridiculously hard to become good at.

Nikita "Clawz" Marchinsky

And yet, they pulled off a clean sweep of every Quake Champions match at the show. 2z took home the team-based Sacrifice tournament with definitive wins over Team Liquid and the prodigious NOTTOFAST, and the 19-year old Nikita "Clawz" Marchinsky flat-out embarrassed Vo0 in the 1v1 championship with an icy 3-0 blow-out. They were, by far, the least famous players entering the weekend, and they exited as the undisputed best in the world.

“For me personally it was very special to compete against all the legends I grew up watching and idolizing. I think we were very underestimated LAN-wise before this event because all of them have so much more experience than us,” says Clawz, a few days after his victory. “It felt even more like that in the 1v1 tournament, where any predictions containing me among the top three were made fun of by the old legends. It felt amazing to prove them wrong and to show the world what I'm capable of.”

All four members of the 2z squad are excited about the upcoming Dreamhack tournaments: eager to defend their first-place status and clearly aware of the targets on their back painted by a legion of veterans. But they didn’t get to the top with any trickery or cheese, they’re simply outstanding FPS players who outworked their opponents in the film room and on the ladder. 

Frankly, I was surprised that they decided to choose Quake. You get the sense that 2z could easily excel at Overwatch, or Counter-Strike, or any other FPS with a healthier, less-nubile scene than Champions. One of the players, Kyle “Silentcap” Mooren has a history with Quake III and Quake Live, but the others are arriving without any ruddy nostalgia. It speaks to the game’s legacy that they still found their home here.

“I've played some Overwatch and a bit of CS:GO as well, and as much as I enjoyed them, none of them are quite like Quake,” says Clawz. “Quake is fast, brutal and ridiculously hard to become good at.”

“I like to keep this tradition, I mean to play the first and the very best, hardest shooter in the world,” says Alexander “Latrommi” Dolgov. 

QuakeCon is a high school reunion. They came across oceans to eat catered cheeseburgers, to reignite old rivalries, to remember how things were. There’s a brand new game, a lot of money, a lot of hope, and for the first time in a decade, they’re losing. For the first time in a decade, that’s the best news they could possibly get.


The retro-FPS Dusk, as we said in our preview earlier this week, is "not shy about its Quake-and-Doom inspiration." It's fast, bloody, loud (Brutal Doom composer Andrew Hulshult created the soundtrack), and looks (and plays) like it fell out a rupture in the space-time continuum that leads directly back to 1994. It is also, with very little fanfare, now available for pre-purchase on Steam

Dusk, like Doom, will ultimately offer 33 levels spread over three episodes, the first of which, "The Foothills," is playable now. One of three "Endless" survival mode arenas is also in there, if you just want to run around and shoot stuff until you die, without worrying about... well, anything else at all, really. Multiplayer doesn't appear to be live yet, but it's on the way as well. It goes for $20/£15/€20.   


When the game's good enough, the mod scene lives eternal, and there may be no better proof of that than Quake. The most ambitious Quake map ever completed was uploaded on Quake mod site Quaddicted in June, and it looks unbelievable for a game that's now more than 20 years old. Called The Forgotten Sepulcher, the map is a modern reinterpretation of the original Quake map E1M3: The Necropolis.

Built by two Quake level designers, Simon "Sock" O'Callaghan and Henrik "Giftmacher" Oresten, The Forgotten Sepulcher is a stunningly intricate and densely interconnected map that pushes Quake far beyond its natural limits. As the download page notes: "This release exceeds several limits and the only engines currently capable of running it are specially modified versions of Quakespasm and Quakespasm-spike."

Put it this way: while the original E1M3 is made up of around 1,000 brushes, which is the term for each individual shaped block that makes up a map, The Forgotten Sepulcher features 60,000. Thanks to id releasing Quake's source code online, modern updates to the engine have been able to push it further and further, doing things that would've been impossible in 1996.

But the Forgotten Sepulcher isn't just detailed—it's also huge compared to most Quake maps. There are 297 monsters to defeat and sub-bosses, if you can find the keys to their locked doors. Nearly 90 secrets are tucked away waiting to be uncovered. There's a multitude of destructive objects. Enemies burst from doorways. Also, there are fishing ogres.

Just an ogre, fishin'.

It was initially designed by Oresten, a teacher from Sweden, who'd been following Simon O'Callaghan's work on creating a campaign and mod for Quake called Arcane Dimensions, and decided to make a level for it himself.

"My intention with the map was to rehash the original E1M3, a swampy green-brick monster," Oresten says. But he wanted to build on it, taking advantage of Arcane Dimensions' additional monsters and weapons, tools and engine tweaks.

"I really liked the organic look and feel of the original map Henrik made and asked him to join the team," O'Callaghan, who has worked on level design for Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Crysis: Warhead, tells me. "We then worked together over last summer and developed the map further."

The main route winds around and through towering cathedrals, climbing to upper levels and crossing areas you've been through before, and then descends into broken chapels and flooded catacombs. Along the way, you'll open up shortcuts to previous areas, giving The Forgotten Sepulcher the feel of some kind of super-compressed Dark Souls. It's always a good idea to examine the environments for broken doors you can blow open and for places you can jump up broken masonry to reach walkways above.

In other words, it feels modern, even though it's written in Quake's super-blocky and monumental level architecture. 

O'Callaghan and Oresten subdivided the first draft of the map into primary and secondary routes. You can access many areas in several different ways, often by climbing, but the primary route is lit with torches to make it visually obvious.

There are also all the little touches that remind you of its source material. There's explicit stuff, like the room early in E1M3 where there's an ogre behind bars, shooting grenades at you, and stairs that go down to the right and a great doorway to the left. This level is emblazoned on my memory from when it played at 15fps on my 486-66, but I'd forgotten how interconnected it is, just as The Forgotten Sepulcher is, too. E1M3 only had 47 monsters, though.

"I think a lot of the Quake style in [The Forgotten Sepulcher] comes from the consistent architecture and artwork," says O'Callaghan. "I really tried to keep the palette consistent and try to show progression with architecture. Like the place has been built over time and they re-used and upgraded things." 

The classic E1M3.

Look across the stonework of the opening space and you can see layers of geometry that show how it's been crumbling away. The harsh angles and lighting that Quake imposes make for powerful silhouettes. "Quake is very brutal with shapes, so the architecture has to look strong and stable, like it's stood the test of time." 

The Forgotten Sepulcher is the newest addition to Arcane Dimensions, which is both a campaign of maps designed by various different Quake map designers and also a set of functional tweaks and features that are focused on making it easier to build complex maps.

A couple of months before release, though, The Forgotten Sepulcher hit even the limits of Arcane Dimensions and QuakeSpasm, the modern Quake engine on which it runs. Its 60,000 brushes are way in excess of even contemporary maps, which are usually 4,000-5,000. 

Enter a third member of the team, Eric Wasylishen, who massively optimised the compiling process by transforming hand-placed elements such as vines and corpses into special entities to reduce the load on the engine, as well as shortening compiling into minutes, rather than the days to weeks that it used to take.

"Ha, there were horror stories of maps in the late 2000s and early 2010s when they were taking a month to compile," Wasylishen says. O'Callaghan says that his work on the compiler, which has allowed designers to design and playtest a lot more fluidly, has given new life to Quake's mapping community.

And the detail and scale it's lent to The Forgotten Sepulcher makes it a real joy to explore, and a perfect place to be reminded of Quake's super-smooth feel. The gib noises are perfect, even 20 years later.

Installation is fairly straightforward if you own Quake:

Download a specially adapted version Quakespasm and drop its files into your main Quake directory.

Make an "AD" folder in your Quake folder and drop Arcane Dimension's files into it.

Download ad_sepulcher and drop its files into your AD folder.

Run it from the Quakespasm shortcut, go to MODS in the main menu and navigate to the AD folder, and you're in Arcane Dimension.

To go directly to The Forgotten Sepulcher, take the portal to the left of where you start into the second level hub, and then it's directly to your right.


One of the best things about the original Doom was how fast Doomguy could run: you weren't so much a "guy" as you were a "hurtling rocket of death". So it might have taken some adjustment when Quake released, considering how slow the player-movement was by comparison, though the then-novelty of true 3D no doubt compensated for it.

But now we know why Quakeguy ran so much slower: it was because the levels were smaller. That's according to John Romero, who posted a lengthy blogpost at the weekend explaining the adjustment. Basically, all Quake levels needed to be less than 1.4 megabytes in filesize, and to achieve that, the levels naturally had to be smaller than many of those found in Doom.

So how to make them feel less small? Reduce player speed, of course!

"John Carmack decided that we could get more gameplay out of the levels if he slowed down the player's running speed," Romero writes. "In DOOM the player went at crazy-fast speeds and it was incredible. In DOOM we could make huge maps and player speed was not a problem. 

"With Quake's maps, the hallways, rooms, and outdoor areas were all smaller because of the file size. So slowing down the player meant it took longer to finish a level, and longer to finish the game overall."

The post also goes into some detail regarding the rather clumsy (by today's standard) level editor used to create vanilla Quake's levels. Check out the whole post over here.


In addition to being the first truly 3D first-person shooter, the other completely off-the-chain feature in Quake was its soundtrack. Back in 1996, Nine Inch Nails was massive, having recently released the still-classic The Downward Spiral. Trent Reznor's next major release was the soundtrack for Quake, and what a  soundtrack it was.

Thankfully we'll be able to own it on a physical format soon (unless you kept your CD-ROM), because the soundtrack is being reissued on vinyl. Since it's only marked as "coming soon" on the Nine Inch Nails website, there's not really much else to learn, except that it'll be a single vinyl edition and its cover mirrors the packshot on the original Quake retail release.

I've embedded a YouTube rip of the soundtrack below, so you can be transported back to a time when nailguns were all the rage, and bunnyhopping was in its infancy. 

Left 4 Dead 2

Here's how big a deal Doom's shotgun was: in a game with another weapon called the Big Fucking Gun, the shotgun is the one we remember best. It's reliable at practically any distance. One clean shot to the chest will eviscerate most enemies. Somehow that pump action reload animation and its cha-chick are satisfying every single time with only five frames of animation. How many other games are confident enough to give you a gun this good 10 seconds into the first level?

Before Doom, shotguns were for shooting clay pigeons. After Doom, they were for annihilating demons. And for annihilating practically anything else: as Doom birthed a new genre, you could rely on the trusty shotgun to be there almost anytime, more steadfast and reliable than a squirrely pistol or a ammo-hungry rifle. It's our pellet pal. Our blunderbuss buddy. In the wry words of John Romero, when we spent half an hour reflecting on the design and history of Doom's shotgun: "No other game has a BFG 9000 in it, but lots of games have shotguns."

Today we're celebrating that lineage by talking about some of our favorite shotguns and why we love them. Step one: make it kick, and make 'em bleed.

How to make a great shotgun

"Number one, the damage it does is the most important part," said John Romero. He was talking about weapon design in general. There's so much that goes into a good game gun, but those pain points have the biggest impact in making a weapon feel powerful. "If it does more damage than any other gun, it doesn't matter if it has no sound effects, you're going to be using it," he laughed.

OK, but all that other stuff is important too. Animation, sound effects, the works. When they all come together, you can just feel it. It's an almost animal hell yeah. Fullbright's Steve Gaynor practically got poetic describing this sensation:

"Shooter games can be about a lot of things—the complexity of tactics as you use the environment to your advantage, the cat & mouse drama of chasing and being chased, sneaking up on your prey or falling into your enemy's trap—but it's also always about that aesthetic moment where the trigger's pulled and the audiovisual effects deliver that moment of utterly blowing a videogame creature away. And that's what the shotgun's all about. It's loud. It's sudden. And above all, it's effective."

So how do design all that stuff to feel just right? Bill Munk, animator and creative director at Tripwire, had this to say about developing Killing Floor 2: 

Shooters are always about that aesthetic moment where the trigger's pulled and the audiovisual effects deliver that moment of utterly blowing a video game creature away.

Steve Gaynor

"We start with the gore system, which is a very important ingredient that makes shotguns feel devastating. Second is the impulse force applied to the creatures when they get hit, this is really important to not only make the shotgun feel powerful but also adds to the enjoyment of taking down a target. Third is the damage each pellet does, it's a hard balancing act because depending on what you shot, if it doesn't die or react the way you picture it, everything falls apart and the weapon feels unsatisfying. To balance shotguns in KF2 we first start with the price for the ammo, the weight of the gun and the time it takes to reload. Shotguns generally have massive damage but become less effective at range due to the spread of the pellets which also is a nice tool to balance these high damage weapons.

"Last but not least are the shoot animations. This is an area we've put a lot of time and research in. We animate the shots at high framerate so that we can animate the violent force when you fire a shotgun. This is a detail you barely notice in realtime but can feel the difference."

And when Killing Floor 2 slows down into Zed time, you can really see that animation at work.

You can see even more detail in KF2's shotguns firing and reloading here. They're ahead of the curve in animations, but the fact that Doom's shotgun still feels good with only five frames of reload animation shows how much the damage, muzzle flare, sound effects, and other elements of a shotgun can make it feel satisfying without much real detail.

Take Resident Evil 4's starting shotgun, a standard pump action. It's much simpler than Killing Floor 2's weapons, but blasting zombies with it feels a bit like smiting them with the fist of God. Part of that comes from RE4's once-novel over-the-shoulder weapon aiming. It's incredibly physical. You hold a button down to aim and Leon plants his feet. The camera zooms up to his shoulder, and it feels like you're aiming the shotgun with the whole of his body. The muzzle jerks sharply upward when you fire, and a single blast can send a whole crowd flying backwards. Leon pumps out the spent shell before recentering his aim. It's not fancy, but it feels sublime.

Sound off

No game gun sounds more pleasing to the ear than a shotgun except for, maybe, a bolt-action rifle. And those two weapons have something in common: both are about a single moment of release, followed by a peerless sound saying fire again, baby.

Most game weapons are about a constant stream of sound. The blam, blam, blam of a pistol, the ratatatat of an SMG, the heavy thugthugthugthug of an LMG. With a shotgun, it's all about that one shot. It's a crack of thunder, not a boom. "You need a good, sharp, aggressive sound to drive the shotgun's presence home, not some underplayed thud but a good, bracing crack," said Gaynor.

But the reload can be even better. Only a heavy bolt can match the click of a double barrel popping open and closed or the cha-chick of the pump action. That sound effect really hasn't changed much since Doom 1, and it's easy to see why.

I'd say sound is 70% of the feel of a great shotgun mostly because I've played games while they are muted and they lost the feel.

Kynan Pearson

Sound is a big part of why we love shotguns, but it's also crucial to the "feel" of hower powerful they are. "I'd say sound is 70% of the feel of a great shotgun mostly because I've played games while they are muted and they lost the feel," said Kynan Pearson, who's worked on the Halo and Metroid Prime series. "The reload noise, the boom and the pain noises create a fantastic symphony of death."

Producer Matt Powers, who worked as a producer on the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series, wrote about this on Gamasutra:

"I kept getting feedback that our shotgun was underpowered…people really kind of hated the shotgun. When I looked at the balance numbers, the shotgun was actually a little overpowered if anything. So…after much consternation I decided to attack the balance issue from the side of perception rather than through the actual numbers themselves. I went to our audio director to talk about changing the sound. He added a bit more low end to the fire sound, pulled out some midrange and bumped up the high end to give it a sharper punch. I did not tell the team that the only thing I changed was the sound, I just asked them to give it another try to see if the changes I made addressed the balance issues they were seeing. The feedback came back unanimously positive."

Animation, sound, weight. Those are some of the ingredients of a great shotgun. So how did id make the first FPS shotgun, with no history to draw on, back in 1993? 

History lesson: the original boomstick

Our love affair with the shotgun started with Doom, but for Romero, it started with two other sources: Rednecks, and Evil Dead. In one of id's earliest games, a 2D sidescroller called Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, you blast ghouls with a shotgun (and can even shoot at diagonals!). In Dave's first game, you had a pistol, but changing that to a shotgun in the sequel was an obvious move. "You're a redneck in Louisiana, of course you'd have a shotgun," Romero laughed. "We mentioned it when we were talking about Doom, we're like 'Hell yeah man, we had a shotgun in Dave and it was awesome. Why not?'"

Doom's shotgun wasn't originally in the plans for the game at all. The small team at id had the pistol, and plans for a rocket launcher, but they needed something in between. So they designed a rifle with a bayonet. The only problem: it wasn't cool enough. "We didn't like the fact that when you jabbed, it just didn't look good. It looked lame," Romero said. "We'd already had lameness issues with Catacomb 3D earlier, when you're using your hand to throw fireballs and stuff. That didn't look or feel cool. With Doom, we did have the bayonet in there, and I believe we even had it working, and it was just like, you know what? No amount of frames will make this look good."

As they started brainstorming sci-fi weapons like the BFG, their thoughts turned to Evil Dead 2. And voila: a shotgun and a chainsaw appeared. "We basically went, 'a shotgun would totally blow away that stupid rifle.' We made the shotgun, we made the chainsaw. It totally felt right in the game. We put it in, and it was just perfect. The gun cocking animation, the sound, it was perfect. The shotgun blast was great and did a good amount of damage. So that's what happened."

The Doom faithful may know that the shotgun was a Tootsietoy Dakota cap gun model bought at Toys R Us and scanned into the game using a video camera, then edited and animated in a Carmack piece of software called Fuzzy Pumper Palette Shop. It was named after a Play Doh toy. What's surprising about Romero's story is how little tuning it took to get Doom's shotgun just right. They added a spread and randomness to the firing, but treated the shotgun pellets as if they were bullets, making the gun easy to implement. And because they "wanted every gun to be effective at super far distances," handicapping the shotgun's range wasn't an issue.

"It was important that whenever we added any gun to the game, it never nullified a previous weapon. There had to be a reason for keeping the pistol around and everything else," Romero said. "The shotgun, I believe used the pistol randomness, and also added some to the spread, but not too much. So you could kill stuff at a distance. It was not like a sawed-off shotgun that would have a massive spread."

It was important that whenever we added any gun to the game, it never nullified a previous weapon.

John Romero

That would come later, of course, with Doom 2's double barrel super shotgun. First person shooters have since skewed towards treating shotguns more like the sawed off: close combat killers with a very particular purpose, a more compartmentalized approach to "balance" that gives every weapon its role.

"I feel shotguns live and die by where they sit in the balance," said Pearson. "It's easy to make a shotgun too effective or nerf it so it's not dominant in the weapon selection. I feel like shotguns need drawbacks, but part of the satisfaction is the exaggerated quality of wrecking opponents at close range. I prefer tight spread with damage dampening at distance. Everyone has different preferences so it depends on the game."

We can still delight in a good kill with a well-balanced modern military tactical 12-gauge, but our favorite shotguns are the ones that defy those restrictions. Look at the shotgun in Halo: Combat Evolved, which was overshadowed by the pistol but still had tremendous range and a vast ammo reserve.

Other shotguns do something unique to stand out, either in how they affect enemies and the world, or in how they let lead fly. 

Blaster master

When I get a headshot with a pistol I expect, at best, a backflip or an exploding skull. But much of the joy of a shotgun comes from its physicality. I want my enemies blown backwards by raw force. This is where other elements of the game come into play to make the shotgun itself better. A perfect example, Gaynor explained, is Bioshock's shotty:

"It reinforces what makes a great shotgun on its own—an awesome muzzle flash, great pump action animation, amazing sound design, and high destructive power—but also how important its effect on enemies can be. Not just the blood effects or how much damage it does, but how they flip, spin, and pirouette through the environment when blasted. BioShock used tech that allowed the enemies to do a crafted death animation—ie spinning through the air in response to catching a handful of buckshot in the side—and transition that smoothly into a dynamic ragdoll that leaves them convincingly sprawled on the environment in the aftermath. Blasting Splicers with the shotgun was great because the shotgun was great, yes, but also because the Splicers were such wonderful fodder, their reaction to your blasting being an integral part of the whole exchange."

This is one area where Valve's typically soft weapons really shine: Left4Dead 2's shotguns can lift a group of zombies off their feet and send them flying. They also absolutely shred enemies. Valve's Alex Vlachos gave a great talk about Left 4 Dead 2's wounds at the 2010 Game Developer's Conference, and you can see how the system works in this presentation. This applies to all weapons, but shotguns are your best bet for blowing off limbs or big chunks of torso.

Gaynor similarly praised the F.E.A.R shotgun's "effect on a highly dynamic gameworld, where firing this thing off causes dust, concrete chunks, and broken glass to fly everywhere. But of course it would be nothing if not for F.E.A.R.'s slow-mo bullet time mechanic, allowing you to enjoy the shotgun's effects at half speed, every frame of its destructive power lovingly rendered for the player's satisfaction. Jumping over a barricade, going into slow-mo, and hearing an enemy soldier shout "OOoooohhhhhh shiiiiiiittttttt" as you pull the trigger, causing him to backflip over a railing with balletic grace, is maybe one of the most satisfying interactions in any FPS game. Oh, and if you play your cards right and get up into point-blank range, this thing can straight-up mist an enemy in one shot. That's how badass it is."

Romero and Bill Munk both called out Soldier of Fortune's shotgun for similar destructive power. "Soldier of Fortune, especially for the time, really showed the brutality of a shotgun and made the player feel extremely powerful based on the gore system," Munk said. "But for overall feel I'd have to give it to F.E.A.R. The first time you experience a shotgun in slow-mo seeing every pellet fly and the ragdoll react to it is a thing of beauty!"

Soldier of Fortune sure wins for nastiness, though.

Gettin' weird with it

God I love the flak cannon. In my imagination, the flak cannon is what would happen if the god of death metal looked at a normal shotgun and turned it into an industrial tool that could conveniently be used to shred men into paste. It's not simply firing a shell when you pull the trigger: a metal piston slams forward to propel a disc the size of a hockey puck out of the muzzle, where it separates into a spreading pattern of glowing superheated scrap. You can watch every piece make bloody contact with your enemy, but it also has a utility unlike any other shotgun: bouncing those metal meteors around corners to shred bad dudes from afar. Is there any wonder it's our favorite gun ever?

When Doom gave us a shotgun to blast demons, it was novel. Now that every shooter has its own take on the shotgun—and it's usually pretty straightforward—we love the flak cannon and other alternative shotguns for stepping out of that mold.

The flak cannon's secondary fire is a perfect example: it concentrates the heavy damage of the shotgun into a single arcing grenade that's harder to land, but offers concentrated damage you won't get at range with a spreading flak cloud. Romero himself designed a shotgun that was meant to diverge from the straightforward utility of Doom's shotgun: Daikatana's Shotcycler-6.

Daikatana had rocket jumping, but because its rocket launcher fired two shots, it would really hurt. "I thought, can I make a safer rocket jump type weapon?" Romero remembered. "With the Shotcycler-6 I can do six shots, and if you jump it'll take you up to another place. I thought that would be kinda cool for people who are good, and know the secret of the shotgun jump. So it's basically six shots, who doesn't love that, with kickback enough that you can actually get propelled up in the air, almost like a rocket launcher."

Gears of War 4's Overkill is a madman's fusion of double-barrel and auto shotty: it fires a shell from one of four barrels on mouse click and on mouse release, giving you the flexibility for tactical timing or a panicked barrage of eight shots in the span of a second.

Bulletstorm's ridiculous four barreled shotgun has a charge shot that simply vaporizes enemies, burning them away to nothing but bones. It's a fitting middle finger to the concept of balance. 

And though it was a short-lived glitch, not an intentional design, I have to sing the praises of the most overpowered shotgun of all time: Battlefield 3's briefly broken underslung M26 DART. A patch made every 12 gauge flechette pellet deal the full damage of the assault rifle's primary bullets, making the spread an ungodly cloud of death. And yet it's so politely soft-spoken.

In conclusion

 Videogame shotguns are rad. When you use a good one, appreciate it: marvel at its kick, its cocking action, its thundercrack, and the knockback like no other.

"There's something inherently satisfying about video game guns that are built to be 'one shot, one kill' like, say, a hefty magnum revolver, or a bolt-action sniper rifle," said Gaynor. "And that's also the shotgun's job... with the added benefit of not really having to aim. Who could ask for more?"

Long live the gib.


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