STORE COMMUNITY ABOUT SUPPORT
Login Store Community Support
View desktop website
© Valve Corporation. All rights reserved. All trademarks are property of their respective owners in the US and other countries.
Believe it or not, Wolfenstein 3D released for the Super Nintendo, but it did so with some pretty significant changes. First of all it was censored: there's no blood, all visual references to Nazism were removed, and Adolf Hitler is known as the Staatmeister. Enemies have fewer sprites, which means that the enemy always faces the player. Oh, and there's additions too: there's a flamethrower and rocket launcher.
Now, thanks to modder AstroCreep, this version of Wolfenstein 3D is available to play on PC. It's not a perfect double: the HUD and a few sound effects are inaccurate, but the experience is otherwise the same (it'll run much better than the SNES version, though). "All sprites and textures have been replaced with SNES counterparts, censorship and all," AstroCreep writes.
To run the mod you'll need the ECWolf source port and a copy of Wolfenstein 3D. Check out the mod here.
...and for the curious, here's footage of the original SNES port (ie, not the mod).
Porting old id Software shooters onto ridiculous devices is hardly a new phenomenon, but it's never not amusing. This time, someone has ported Wolfenstein 3D onto the Pico-8 fantasy console, and while it's just the first level, it's a pretty neat achievement when you consider the Pico-8's specs.
The console supports 128x128 pixels with up to 16 colours, and enforces a 32k memory limit. There are also limitations on sprites, sound and control schemes. Pico-8 was where the critically acclaimed platformer Celeste first debuted, and there's a nice selection of games to sample on the console's official site. Most of these games tend to be 2D sidescrollers, so it's quite impressive to see a smoothly scrolling first-person shooter. For reference: the original Wolfenstein 3D for DOS required a minimum of 528kb RAM.
The work of 'hungrybutterfly', they admit that there's "loads missing", in particular textures. But what do you expect? It works, and surprisingly well at that. You can play it here, or if you'd prefer to watch someone else do it, here's a video:
Last week, I tossed a comment about my pinky into the PC Gamer Slack channel, and it was like I'd just walked into a room and mispronounced the word bagel. I'd said something so immediately, obviously wrong to everyone but me that the five dudes and one woman up in orbit right now probably felt the shockwave of wrong reverberate through the International Space Station. Somehow there were no casualties, except my innocence.
Until 5:34 pm, I'd assumed I play PC games like a Totally Normal Person.
I do not.
Okay, so, look. Here's the thing. Like most kids who grew up in the '90s, I mainly learned to type on PCs and Macs in keyboarding class, and to this day I'm a home row typist. Around the same time I was learning to type, most games still defaulted to the arrow keys for movement. I definitely played Wolfenstein 3D with the arrow keys, and rarely played other PC shooters until years later. I was too busy with Command & Conquer and Warcraft.
So whenever I got back around to games with WASD controls—it might've been Halo: Combat Evolved around 2004—I did what my brain considered natural. I kept my fingers on the home row, and moved my ring finger from S up to W to walk forward and backward. This seemed perfectly normal. But, um.
Here's how I play PC games, which was quickly coined The Wes Maneuver:
I hope this revelation hasn't caused you physical or mental pain. Honestly, I'm still reeling. Not at the thought of doing it wrong, because the great thing about PC gaming is we can customize our games however we want. If you prefer to move with ESDF, that's perfectly fine! But it did not even occur to me, until last Wednesday at 5:34 pm, that anyone else would press the WASD keys differently. Then everyone started typing at once.
If you'd asked me to guess how most people positioned their fingers on WASD, I'd have be totally stumped. What else would even feel natural? My way is so obvious. As the rest of the team reacted to my heretical fingering, I had to Google around for what I was missing and found tons of photos like this. The pinky lives on Shift???
I tried to contort my hand into this position. At first it felt freakish. I was tenting my fingers to stand on A, W, and D, but my brain still insisted the pinky belonged on A, too. I had to shove it to the side like a dead limb. After a few tries, I realized the natural orientation was simply shifting over to the left, and resting on A/S/D. The middle finger moves up to press W when needed. That still feels like madness to my 15 years of muscle memory, but I'll admit resting my pinky on Shift does feel pretty great. It's like a vacation: my pinky gets to sprawl out on a spacious, less-used key, and isn't responsible for strafing at pivotal moments. It's a lot of pressure, moving left.
No one on staff could remember how they learned to position their fingers for WASD, but the general consensus seemed to be that the pinky is weak and unfit for the responsibility of an important movement key. Better to trust it with lower-frequency actions like sprinting and crouching, they said. Also, I finally understand why most people find Ctrl to crouch much more convenient than I do.
But this is the part that just boggles my mind: how did this position make its way into the collective unconscious of PC gaming?
Evan conjured up the best theory: the typical WASD positioning actually carries over from using the arrow keys from back in the Wolf 3D days. If you used your right hand on the arrow keys, you almost certainly had your index finger on Left, middle on Down, and ring on Right. No pinky. And if you used your left hand, the pinky could reach out and press right Ctrl. This makes a whole lot of sense. And in original Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, Ctrl was the default Fire key.
I'm going to say "I didn't play enough Doom" is as good an explanation as I'm ever going to get. It's true: I didn't play Doom back when it came out. Then again, plenty of people who did play Doom went on to play tons of Quake and other first-person games like System Shock, which often had radically varying control schemes, and they mostly still migrated to the "proper" WASD. To make myself feel better about my apparently weird way of WASDing, I turned to someone I knew would have my back: former PC Gamer managing editor Chris Comiskey.
If I'm a mere heretic, Chris is the Archangel of Chaotic PC Control Schemes. Here's what he had to say:
"WASD? Vanilla, boring, and conformist. Behold my ultimate control scheme, picked up in Duke Nukem 3D, the best game ever made with the word Nukem in it: right mouse button to go forward (naturally), pinky on Left Ctrl, thumb on Left Alt and Spacebar, ring finger on Shift, middle finger on A and W, index finger working W, Z, S, X, and occasionally, the almighty C. And you better believe that my mouse is inverted. This is how I rock my PC games, and I always have. Your way is wrong and stupid. Mine is the best."
Honestly? Ctrl/Shift/A/S is pretty comfortable. I don't think I could ever get used to walking forward with a mouse button, but I dig the rest of it. As Chris says, PC gaming is all about bending the platform to your preferences. "Choice in graphics, choice in mods, choice in hardware. It’s no different with controls. If I have the sudden urge to use Scroll Lock as jump and F8 as strafe left, well, that’s my business, dammit."
Embrace your strange control schemes, PC gamers. If you're young, try not to totally mangle your hand using the default keybindings for Fortnite. It's okay to rebind. And if you see someone out there using their pinky on A, ease them into the wider world of WASDing gently.
For a series built around the deconstruction of Aryan bodies, it s taken a long time for players to take the hint that Wolfenstein s ubermensch William Blazkowicz is Jewish.
That hesitation betrays our definitions of Jewish identity as old-fashioned, and also reflects that the few prominent Jewish characters in games play into and reinforce stereotypes. While Blazkowicz is the most high profile character to break the mold, what does it say about games that the most diverse representation of a Jew we ve seen is simply whiter than most? (more…)
This feature was originally published in Retro Gamer issue 175 in late 2017.
Wolfenstein 3D was so good that, when id Software took an early version to Sierra in 1992, the publisher quickly tabled a $2.5 million offer to purchase the pre-Doom dev studio. It's difficult to understate how impactful a game Wolfenstein 3D was—how much it changed things, how it raised the bar, decided it still wasn't high enough and so tore it off and threw it over a mountain. There were first-person games before id's effort, there were better games with more longevity since—most from id itself—but Wolfenstein 3D was the game that kickstarted everything, and made established publishers have a ‘holy shit' moment that made them slap $2.5 million dollars down on the table.
It shouldn't surprise you to hear that, in the end, Sierra's offer wasn't followed through. id was willing to sell—even going so far as to create a cute little piece of artwork to celebrate the purchase—but wrangling over payments, with John Romero requesting $100,000 up front alongside a letter of intent, meant ultimately Sierra backed out of the deal. Wolfenstein 3D would still happen, though. Its release directly spawned Doom and Quake, and influenced an entire genre still enjoying ludicrous popularity to this day. It didn't need $2.5 million to be a global phenomenon. It just needed the team at id to sit down and make it.
"My least favourite part of Wolf3D was actually making the levels!" John Romero, co-founder of id and project specialist on Wolfenstein 3D, says. "They were so boring to make. Commander Keen levels were a ton of fun because there was so much to them. Doom levels were even more fun to create—but Wolf3D's levels were just so simple to design because there weren't that many elements to the game." This meant actually crafting levels for the game was a tough order, and towards the end of things John was having to bribe cohort Tom Hall into keeping on going with the promise that he'd be able to buy himself a Honda NSX—if only he'd finish those levels: "I would say, ‘C'mon—let's finish these levels! NSX, NSX, NSX!'"
But this all jumps forward many years in the evolution of Wolfenstein as a series—id Software did not create the series, nor has it been the sole gatekeeper of it over the years. Rewind back to 1981 and you'll find a relatively unknown, overlooked and forward-thinking 2D stealth-adventure game for the Apple II by the name of Castle Wolfenstein. Created by the late Silas Warner, the original was ported to Atari 8-bit machines, DOS and Commodore 64 before being followed by Beyond Castle Wolfenstein in 1984. "Wolfenstein is the original stealth shooter," John says, "I'm really proud of the legacy of Castle Wolfenstein—the series that Silas Warner created out of thin air. His inspiration came while watching the 1961 movie The Guns Of Navarone. That night, Silas was at a 7-Eleven and played Berzerk for the first time. He thought about taking the design of Berzerk and replacing the robots with Nazis, and voila, Castle Wolfenstein's idea was born.
"He combined his game with another of his creations, The Voice, which could play back digitized audio, which is how the talking Nazis came about. This was all very revolutionary in 1981, and unless you were playing on an Apple II back then you have no idea how awesome the game was at the time." These originals set the scene, with a castle, Nazis, violence against said Nazis, digitised sound and, honestly, not a huge amount other than that tying them to later releases. They were influential, of course, and John admits he and the id team had tried to incorporate elements from these games in the series' 3D debut: "We replicated a few of the features in the original game such as dragging dead bodies and opening crates. We even got it working so if a guard saw a dead body he tried finding the player."That's where the similarities began to fade, though—Wolf3D was shaping up to be a quick run-and-gun that felt great to those playing it. "The problem is that the game came to a dead stop when you did these things," John says. "We didn't want to slow it down so we actually removed the features and left it fast." The intention—the initial idea, even—was always to make a 3D version of Castle Wolfenstein, but in creating the game it soon became something similar only in setting and name than anything else. What we ended up with was a game of mazes and exploration, secrets and hidden gold stashes, Nazi soldiers shouting, 'Halt!' and SS officers crying, 'Mein Leben!' when gunned down. It was nothing short of revolutionary for the time, but the worry was still there: would a reimagining of a little-known, decade-old title be able to succeed?
The first of BJ Blazkowicz's Nazi-bashing adventures blew away all expectations—and these were already high. Players in 1992 were pumped for the release. Even with the weight of expectation on its shoulders, the game outperformed even id's expectations—a hoped-for $60,000 first royalty cheque landed with $40,000 more than that on it. "The press for Wolfenstein 3D was incredible," John says. "People were mentally devastated when they played this hyper-fast 70fps Nazi-killing blastfest. They wrote all about it in the pre-internet magazines of 1992. We followed up with Spear Of Destiny and sent it out on 18 September, 1992. So for about a year and a half after the launch of Wolf3D we had pretty much the most popular FPS around… until Doom launched."
The inevitable array of ports followed, with new weapons, missions, graphics and more added to different versions—and these ports would continue well into the mid-Nineties even while id moved further away from the game-changing game it had come up with. First Doom, then Quake—id Software had other home made projects to concentrate on, so Wolfenstein remained fallow but not forgotten for a number of years. An aborted attempt to make a sequel at Apogee under the stewardship of id alumnus Tom Hall became Rise Of The Triad, but other than that, the game that had taken around four months to develop had no follow-up for almost a decade.
Nine years after Wolfenstein 3D had written a new rulebook for games, a return was on the cards—and Gray Matter stepped up to develop Return To Castle Wolfenstein. While id had moved on from the series, there was still a lot of love for it internally. "Many of us wanted to see a new Wolf game made and were searching for a development team," Todd Hollenshead, then-CEO of id explains. "We knew Gray Matter well and had been impressed by their work on Redneck Rampage (as Xatrix) and on the Quake II mission pack they developed for us. Drew Markham, the studio head of Gray Matter, came to our offices one day and pitched us on the idea of him and his team developing a new Wolfenstein game."The demo Drew showed us that day was jaw-dropping. It was a perfect demo because it captured the imagination of what the potential could be for a modern Wolfenstein." This dark, atmospheric reimagining of Wolf3D brought a more robust storyline to the fore along with a much greater emphasis on the occult—along with bringing back BJ and his proclivity for shooting Nazis in the face. "When Drew left the office, we all knew that he was going to be the guy we handed the franchise over to take forward," Todd adds.
One of the people who worked on the pitch demo was Maxx Kaufmann, art director on Return To Castle Wolfenstein, who explains the process. "We did a snow level demo, there was a courtyard and a little interior of a castle," he says, "One of the funny things was we had an alarm—if you didn't kill the guys in the proper amount of time a guy would run off and set off the alarm, and the alarm was from Raiders Of The Lost Ark—the woman yelling, ‘Alarm!', so it was pretty funny. We just put in our take on what we thought Wolfenstein would be, and it was cool snowy outdoor castle little level, it couldn't have been more than like five rooms—but it was a combination of the five rooms, the interior and exterior and the AI having the ability to set off the alarm that I suspect was what made them go with us."
With the development team chosen, work began with Gray Matter reporting to id, which was working directly with Activision as a publisher. This was a relationship that ran relatively smoothly: "Really id just let us go. BJ Blazkowicz—what he looked like and how he was represented—was a big deal," Maxx explains. "The story they let us go with—they had a knowledge of it, but I don't remember us changing gears or anything with what we wanted to do there. My impression was that they liked what we did and they had trust in us and thought we were going to do a good job." It was elsewhere id did step up to the plate—specifically to manage the expectations of the publisher. "They told Activision, ‘The game's going to come out when it's going to come out, and it's going to be a good game.' They absolutely made sure that Activision didn't rush," Maxx remembers.
Instead of a master-servant relationship, RTCW was made with collaboration and a spirit of helpfulness in mind. While id's involvement was limited, people from the studio were involved in helping out with areas like animation, advising on art and helping to research in areas like World War 2 timelines for added authenticity. In a game featuring robotic, Tesla-coil-powered undead Nazis. "There was a ton of World War 2 research that went into the development," Todd explains. "Including uniform designs, weapons (both actual and fantasy), and even locations for parts of the games to take place. I think that helped us convey a more compelling singleplayer narrative and helped make the player feel like a war hero saving the world from Nazis."
But things were by no means po-faced—Maxx pointed out some of the best fun he had in making RTCW involved the outlandish themes featured in the game. "The idea this Nazi technology had gone beyond, so you had these Frankenstein creatures, the electrical currents going through them and stuff—it just added to the visual interest and excitement. Excitement is a term I would use on our end to do something that was different—it wasn't just straight World War 2."
Fun doesn't immediately mean it was an easy process, of course, and Maxx recalled how being given a single day off during development was cause for celebration: "I was so excited to have a Sunday off in a month," he laughs. "I was excited about having one day off. That's how crazy we were working. It was every day of the month, and if you had a day off, you were excited. I don't know if I could do that now, I was young then—but I just remember, it seems so funny now, being excited to have a day off: ‘Thank you! Oh my god I have one day off! This is great!' Like, you couldn't do your laundry, you couldn't do anything... you weren't even in your house that much that you could get it dirty."
The dreaded crunch might be viewed differently through a modern lens, but Return To Castle Wolfenstein released to rapturous applause, greedily guzzled up by players eager to see what the homecoming king could bring to the genre it lit a fire under. Some of those players were even located inside id's office. "RTCW is my favourite of the franchise and one of my all time favourite games," Todd says. "I can't even remember how many times I played the entire singleplayer game start to finish. We would have contests at id to see how far you could get using only the knife or until the alarm was sounded and guards were called on you while the game was in development."
The game ended up with a much bigger impact on the wider sphere of things, though, thanks not to its ‘good versus evil—gone crazy' premise (copyright Maxx Kaufmann, 2017), but because of something Wolf3D didn't feature in the first place: multiplayer. With then-unique modes based around objectives rather than just killing anyone you saw, class-based systems and an early capture the flag all on offer, it delighted all but some Doom and Quake purists. And it was from the healthy multiplayer scene on Return To Castle Wolfenstein that an entire developer was spawned, Splash Damage.
"RTCW almost didn't have any multiplayer," Todd reveals to us. "Gray Matter was behind schedule and had no resources to put on multiplayer. From id, we enlisted Brandon James from Nerve to sit down with a few of us and come up with a whole new design and from that point singleplayer and multiplayer were developed almost completely independently with the exception of id being in the middle, guiding and assisting with both." Part of that process saw the enlistment of mod teams to help with things like building new maps and—in the case of Quake III map pack veterans Splash Damage, then a ragtag bunch of amateurs—help with development of patches. This relationship built up between the fledgling studio and the masters at id soon led to bigger plans, with the small team at Splash Damage putting together a single-player demo for a RTCW expansion it had been told about.
"We were asked to pitch for a Wolfenstein project—I think it was a mission pack for RTCW," explains Arnout Van Meer, co-founder of Splash Damage. "So what we did, as a multiplayer team which had only worked on multiplayer content, was pitch a single-player mission for the game. We managed to get a full level with full voice acting, NPCs, new weapons and more done in a week—we sent it to Activision on a Sunday and when they got back to us they gave us a multiplayer project. Which made a lot more sense."This project shifted from a mission pack to a multiplayer-only add-on, rebadged and renamed as Enemy Territory: Wolfenstein, and suffered through a fair bit of uncertainty and confusion until its eventual release as a free, standalone multiplayer game. Rather than being ignored and forgotten, it—like Wolfenstein 3D before it—set the standard for the genre, blew the gaming public away and, ultimately, resulted in those at Splash Damage earning the team full-time careers in development. "I don't know what Splash Damage would even be if id and Activision hadn't decided to put Enemy Territory out as a free goodwill gesture," says Ed Stern, lead writer at the studio. "It was a really good game, but it was just the most colossal stroke of good luck. There wasn't anything like it at the time."
Under the stewardship of id and Activision, Splash Damage went through a huge learning experience in development of Enemy Territory, cutting content, dealing with bottlenecks, fiddling (then unfiddling) grenade physics and so much more. But all along it was supported by the established studio and publisher, partly because the game being made was so very new. "One thing we started doing was having RPG elements, introducing XP to a first-person shooter," Arnout says. "It made it so much more accessible to players—you could die while going for that objective, but you improve over time and your character gets better. We were one of the first games to do that."
While the impact of Enemy Territory: Wolfenstein is still being felt in the world of online gaming as a whole—so much of what it introduced, or at least popularised, is the standard these days—it was the Wolfenstein series that briefly took the RPG element to heart, with the release of Wolfenstein RPG on iOS in 2008. This was a fine distraction in the series, but not really enough to keep the committed fans happy—they wanted something new, something big, a continuation of what began with Return To Castle Wolfenstein. They got… Wolfenstein.
"I think Raven always believed they had great ideas to bring to Wolf, but were thwarted by that awesome demo that Gray Matter gave us," Todd explains. "Nearly ten years later on, they finally got their chance to pitch us on all their ideas with a cool demo of their own." With Activision keen for Raven and id to work together and Gray Matter no longer existing, the decision to pass on the Wolfenstein mantle to another studio once again was taken. Jason Mojica, level designer at Raven on Wolfenstein 2009, was just a junior on the project but saw how eager even the veterans were to make something great. "Our veterans were on point when nothing was holding them back, they were a powerhouse of raw dev. As a junior at the time, it was such a nice place to be, soaking up experience. They were very good at keeping an open mind and listening to everyone's suggestions. We had a very strong team mentality."
But even with the talent at the helm and the enthusiasm of working on an already legendary series, the reputation of Wolfenstein 2009 ended up being, it's fair to say, not stellar. The game was serviceable and had some nice ideas—it looked good and played well enough—but there was a spark missing from it that people expected from such a trailblazing series. All the same, those who worked on it still had a fondness for it. "Back in 2008 I was very much a junior, just enjoying the process around me," Jason says. "I didn't have much thought on the holistic design of the game. The flaws or issues that occurred weren't as noticeable to my eye. Now, after being in the industry for so long, those types of things are pretty glaring. I would agree with some of the criticism, but It's hard for me to think negatively about the game, since I enjoyed working on it so much." And Todd agrees, "Wolfenstein 2009 gets overlooked. I think much of that has to do with it being released in the middle of a console transition and a development philosophy shift away from just totally selling out for the PC game."
So the series remained dormant once more, this time with players not quite as eager for the next entry to the series. Of course, with the ravenous hunger not quite being there from the buying public, there was the shortest gap yet between two mainstream Wolfenstein releases. We saw another gap though this time it was only five, until Bethesda (now owners of id Software) handed the licence to MachineGames. How did they turn out? Well, we asked John, the main proponent for making Wolfenstein what it is today, for his thoughts. "I think the most recent New Order/Old Blood games were so well done. I'm a big fan of them," he says. "Awesome graphics, super violence, great story. Really, it's just so well made. We brought the series back to life with our 1992 Wolfenstein 3D, followed by Spear Of Destiny. For a while it was looking like Wolfenstein would be coming back every ten or so years.
"It's nice that it's such an active series now with Bethesda at the helm. Silas [Warner] would be proud."
When Wolfenstein 3D released in 1992, the game was missing one crucial feature: the ability to pat dogs. Instead, the dogs in Wolfenstein 3D were prone to biting you, and the only way to retaliate was to brutally murder them. Sure, they were dogs belonging to Nazis, but that didn't mean the dogs themselves were Nazis. When you think about it, the dog violence is unacceptable.
Anyway, there's a mod for this particular predicament now. Dubbed Return to Castle Woofenstein, or Woof3D, not only does it let you pat the dogs until they have a snooze, but it totally removes nazis from the game.
"There's a big ol' castle full of dogs wanting pats and you're the one to pet them," reads creator's description. "Sorry, they jump up on you, I hope you don't mind dog paw prints on your jeans. Just pat them and they'll fall asleep pretty quick."
No, I don't mind dog paw prints on my jeans. What the creator failed to mention, however, is that the dogs can kill you in their enthusiastic leaping for affection. It's a video game, so something has to die, right?
While a mod, the install doesn't require a copy of Wolf3D. You will need DOSBox though, but if you don't have it, the .zip file on the itch.io page has it bundled in.
Check it out here.
Historically, the main purpose of armor was to protect your guts from incoming weapons or look shiny and impressive for ceremonial purposes. In games, it’s often tough to tell what the blacksmith was thinking. Whether it’s over-engineered spiky nonsense or skimpy BDSM gear, its most common job seems to be making our heroes look ridiculous. But which are the craziest? We tried to pick the best of the worst from across PC gaming history, assembling an eclectic mix of armor that's hideous, hilarious, and nonsensical.
To put a cherry on top, we shared these designs with armour maker Craig Johnson, who's been studying and crafting his own period-accurate armour and weapons with Arms & Armor for more than 25 years. He also helps run a non-profit called The Oakeshott Institute dedicated to the history of armor. Its current project is using photogrammetry to create 3D models of real historical armor and weaponry. Craig had a few things to say about the worst of the worst.
Evil fashion disasters don’t get much worse than this. Where do we even start? Not only does it suffer from the standard sexy-armour problem of drawing attention to some of the worst places to be shot with an arrow, it’s clearly a size too small. And what’s with that Knightmare helmet? Not only can’t she see, those horns are going to get caught in literally everything. Just… no.
Craig's take: "Other than the fact that you can't see... when you have a helmet you're looking for protection, obviously. Having the lower face open isn't a big deal. You have sallets from the Medieval period with that feature as well. But protrusions like the side horns, those are giant levers on the side of your head that you're providing to your opponent to grab or hit with their weapon and basically give you whiplash, if not breaking your neck.
It's a tried-and-truism with fantasy stuff, put giant horns on there, but the best thing that could happen to you in a sword fight is seeing a guy coming at you with giant horns on his helmet."
Why fight when you can intimidate people into surrendering with a scary set of armour and a deep booming voice? Of course, it generally helps to decorate it with something a little tougher than this buck-toothed stomach-buddy who looks like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reject and seems to need to steady himself against the nearest table. Points for effort, none for style.
Craig's take: "Some of the modern fantasy stuff doesn't really do justice to the period craftsmen who created things that were fantastic. Some 'fantasy' armor from the middle ages is a lot more fantastic than a lot of the armor that's depicted in these games. Negroli is a famous armorer in Italy who created just incredible stuff. He did this breastplate that's all kind of a batwing motif with eyes on it, and they literally used a copy of it in one of the Riddick movies. The lead necromancer guy has that breastplate on. It's a steal from the Renaissance. Right there you've got incredible fantasy armor, but it's the real stuff."
Okay, visually Sir Arthur here has little to complain about. His armour is sensible, if not as pretty as on other platforms, doesn’t get in the way of him hopping and jumping around the undead, and it does do something to protect him from them. But maybe tissue paper wasn’t the ideal choice? When a full set of plate armour—what every RPG tells us is the toughest—only takes a single hit before leaving you in your underpants, you’d better hope you kept the receipt.
Craig's take: "It would be pretty dang durable. Definitely not pop off after your first hit. That kind of defeats the purpose of your armor, in a sense. It's there for when you miss a strike or block with your weapon, make a mistake and get hit. In a practical sense it misses, there.
"But as an entertainment, they had forms of the joust in central Europe where they had components of the armor that were rigged so that when you got hit by a lance in a jousting pass, parts would fly away. Pop off, shoot up into the air. They had shields they'd wear on their left shoulder designed to explode into different pieces. So you see that component even in the period, designed to enhance the viewership of the joust. When you think about it, two guys riding at each other on horses trying to hit each other with a pole, kinda entertaining the first 12 times you see it, but when you get to the 30th pair that day, it gets a little dry."
You’d think that being one of the most powerful figures in Warcraft lore would give you a certain self-confidence. Apparently not. Arthas here is a guy who just doesn’t know when to give up. Skulls! Skulls everywhere! Skulls and spikes and frosty decorations on every square inch of his armour, as if anyone’s going to see him coming and be all “I’m thinking… Illidan?" It’s particularly unfortunate that as tough as he was back in 2008, 10 years later all that armour can barely soak up a /slap emote. Can’t be comfortable sitting on the Frozen Throne in it either.
Craig's take: "You'd kill yourself wearing it, probably. You'd end up sticking yourself somehow."
So bad taste isn’t just restricted to evil. The Avatar has been forced into several awkward costumes over the course of Ultima, from the goofy snake aesthetic of the Hierophant of Balance to his almost priestly look at the end of Ultima VIII. None stand out as badly as his Pagan outfit though, which makes him look less like a hero than a cosplayer whose mom tried their best.
Craig's take: "Kind of your Monty Python knight kind of look."
Of course, this one’s actually a joke. With all the kids of South Park playing superhero, one would have to get his Iron Man on. Cue Token Black as the mighty Tupperware, described as “A one-in-a-million pantry accident turned Token Black into Tupperware, Cyborg superhero with the power to construct deadly Tupper Turrets and keep food fresh.” His gun turrets may not have the offensive power of Cartman’s mouth, but are arguably more useful in any playground battle.
Craig's take: "Completely accurate."
Hang on, you’re probably thinking. That’s not armour. That’s just a Malkavian hitting the town in style. Well, true! Except that this is officially Body Armour as far the game’s concerned, and not just because the Malks are crazy enough to think so. Presumably the hat is lined with kevlar and that fur coat… well, it does look very thick. On the plus side, it’s definitely going to get the kine to avert their eyes on the street, and warm the non-beating heart of even the coldest Kindred.
Craig's take: "Very appropriate for Mardi Gras. You could have kydex plates in there or something, it's a light hard plastic. In the dueling age of the Renaissance they talk about things to watch out for when you're fighting another guy with a sword. If you're out dueling, make sure he opens his shirt and shows you his chest to make sure he doesn't have a flesh-colored breastplate on under the shirt. Human beings, vampire or otherwise, will cheat if they have the chance."
MMOs have something of a deserved reputation for "interesting" (and by interesting we mean terrible) takes on armour for women, and Lineage 2 is no exception. Honestly, we could fill this entire feature with examples, or just link to the Tera homepage and call it a day. In this case though, it’s not so much this floss bikini armour that stands out, but the fact that the Dark Elf ladies who wear it run around in the third person view doubled over to the point that fan-service practically becomes proctology.
Craig's take: "I'm guessing there weren't too many women designs in that group. If I am creating a realistic representation of someone who does combat—and I'm saying realistic in the context of creating the universe for your story or your game—then you have to stay true to it. So if the guys have lots of armor and swords and everything, you've got to go both ways with that. Whereas if everybody's in leather straps and rings, then you can go that way. But why would one group be one way and the other group be the other way? Are the guys such poor fighters that they need all this armor because the girls are kicking their asses? That's what it basically leads to."
Bad bosses don’t get much worse than Caesar, self-proclaimed son of Mars and leader of Caesar’s Legion—the misogynistic, slaving, crucifying baddies of the Mojave Wasteland. He’s a man who likes everything he does to send a Message… which is great, when you’re not running around cosplaying as Ancient Romans in a scenario where nuclear weapons can be found just sitting around for anyone to pick up. As a grunt on the ground, you probably don’t want to hear that your primary advantage is ‘numbers’, especially when your boss jealously guards all the medical supplies for himself. Nobody looks scary with a plasma burn through the guts.
Craig's take: "In the conditions they'd be fighting in, if they're down in the Southwest, having lighter materials that don't heat up in the sun would be good. Metal armor gets very hot in the sun. The Romans took over most of their known world with skirts on, so it's not anything to sneeze at. Having elements on their chest, metal plates, is also, many cultures did that. It looks like he's using hubcaps to get that Disney look. You see something really similar in some of the ancient early attempts at armor, whether it was bronze or iron, where you have these circular plates on your chest. It survived in the Persian areas of the middle east much later, even."
This is Annah. Annah is a rogue. Rogues work best when not drawing attention to themselves. Wearing this kind of outfit in public is perhaps not the best way to accomplish that. Of course, she is wearing it in Sigil, home to some of the most stripperific outfits in all the Planes, but still. The justification is that as part demon, her blood runs hot and so she needs a little more… ahem… ventilation. That’s not quite as eye-rolling as Metal Gear Solid 5's Quiet rolling around in a bikini because she breathes through her skin and would literally suffocate if she dressed properly, but, well, it’s pretty close.
Sometimes dumb can still be awesome, and nothing in the Wolfenstein series has ever quite beaten BJ stumbling into the last level for a one-on-one with the Fuhrer himself, only to find him rocking this multi-Gatling gun spouting battlesuit that would have been able to win half the war on its own. Fortunately the real Hitler was too busy shouting about Pokemon in his bunker to think of such a thing, or so YouTube has taught us over the last few years.
Craig's take: "Who knows."
Look, it’s not easy being a gang of crazy homeless street people who have to make armour from whatever they can find lying around the streets. But still, the Lost don’t quite pull off the sense of terror they’re going for. Just for starters, one good headshot in their broken TV screen and they won’t be aiming a critical strike any time soon. Ten out of ten for effort, but since most of this junk will just slow them down, it’s no wonder that they don’t make many ripples against the likes of the Circle of Thorns, Fifth Column, or whatever Nemesis was up to when the game ended.
Craig's take: "Are those tires on his back? Tires would be relatively shock absorbing. Doesn't look like his TV screen's going to hold up, though."
No, a cardboard box won’t cut it either. You’re not protecting yourself against zombies, just slightly inconveniencing them. You may as well have yourself canned so that your brains will last a bit longer in the apocalypse. And yes, this is a paid-for cosmetic set. Really.
Craig's take: "Anything is going to be better than nothing, in a sense, when it comes in contact with some kind of weapon coming at you. Something like this looks like it's made from warning plates or something. A cardboard box probably isn't going to achieve much. But if you rolled a couple layers of cardboard around your arm and duct taped it in place, that could probably take a hit or two before it falls apart. And it has that compressive quality against your arm so that if you are cut it's going to limit the damage in a sense, until it's pulled off and the blood starts flowing freely.
"You look at some of the very first armor attempts are animal parts put onto human beings. About two years ago they found some reindeer ribs in Siberia that had been etched, and had holes drilled in them so they could be laced together as a chestplate. That's probably very early, pre-metal age armor."
Dark Souls is frequently a game about banging your head against things until you get through. Make it literal with the Xanthous armour set. The first game offers the most guaranteed neck-breaking way of protecting yourself from magic, with II and III thankfully toning things down just a little to the point that you may look ridiculous, but at least don’t break your neck if you nod. You’ll find it in the Painted World of Ariamis, and your dignity very much in another castle.
Craig's take: "When armor becomes less battle-oriented and more for show to demonstrate their taste and wealth, you start getting helmets designed with faces on them, big mustaches, some are what they call 'grotesques' with a monster face, things like that. Kinda 3D steel sculptures. I can't really think of anything like this. It's a like a turban on steroids. Can you whip your head around and use it to club people? It looks like a turkey leg covered in duct tape."
Oh, Reinhardt. We all know you’re a literal human tank. What the World’s Strongest Man would consider an impressive feat to lift into the air, you wear as a shoulder-pad. But still, with armour like this, you’re just showing off. If it was anyone else, we’d query whether it was actually armour carved out of stone. With you, we’d be disappointed if it was anything else. But come on. A giant lion’s head that’ll poke your eyes out if you nod too quickly? That’s just showing off.
Craig's take: "When they create these designs, one of the elements you don't think about when you're creating it... when you move your arm across your chest, that's one of the main places you're going to put your arm, but now you're going to be hitting this lion head all the time. If you raise your left arm, does that lion mane stick up and poke you in the side of the head? Those kinds of components, when armor is made, you have to think a bout where does everything go when it's moved this way or that way. I've seen some pretty fantastical pieces of real armor and go 'how did they move that?' but I've also seen people with poorly designed armor hurt themselves."
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a beautiful, heart-touching fairytale of a game. Its sequel, Warrior Within… it started with a zoom-in of villain Shahdee’s thong-split bottom and then broke out the kind of rock and darkness only usually seen in a teenager’s bedroom after they finish painting over the Garfield wallpaper. Any attempt at gothic sexiness was immediately undercut by thoughts of just how damn uncomfortable a metal thong would be.
There’s a couple of technical-armours that probably deserve a slot here, including Miranda’s attempt to turn linoleum into a particularly ass-flattering custom uniform, and EDI rocking a synthetic body that looks like a sexbot version of the Aibo. But it’s poor Ashley in the first game who most seems victim to a universal practical joke with this hideous bubblegum pink outfit that yes, technically other characters can wear, but rarely choose to. For very obvious reasons. No wonder that she quickly traded it in for something in a more intimidating in a fetching cobalt blue in later games.
Craig's take: "It's got a lot of elements that would be right there with a Gothic armor. Armored shoulders, chest and arms and legs covered. Gothic armored legs have that high outside hip look to them. Here they've accentuated that pretty highly. I think wit the way they've got this drawn, it might be a little difficult to move in, because you're not going to get a lot of side-to-side action with your torso with those high leg components. Those probably have to come down to be actually functional. And you'd probably bring down the sides of the torso covering, because you don't really need that area for movement. The human body doesn't necessarily move the way we think it does when we're drawing it.
"The story goes that the guys who did the first space suits for NASA went to England and studied the fully enclosed tournament armor for Henry V, where it's enclosed in metal plates. They went and studied how it moved to help their design. There were certain aspects those guys had figured out over 400 years of making armor."
Something of a cheat, this one, because as players of this mostly forgotten spin-off of the classic gamebook will tell you, this wasn’t actually the lady hero’s armour in the end. She was upgraded to something a bit more like a leather swimsuit. Still ridiculous, but not quite as egregious as whatever the hell this was supposed to be. But design this bad transcends mere ‘not being released’ and deserves to live on in infamy in the ‘things that should never have left the artist’s head’ pile of rejected fantasy concept art. Plus, brrr. It’s cold in those dungeons.
Craig's take: "The biggest thing to learn from this is that guys designed this game. Anytime you are reducing the amount of protective surface in armor, you're making that choice because you need the mobility. This kind of thing, there's nothing like it in any historical realm other than berserker vikings who are running around naked to fight because they're hopped up on hallucinogenic berries."
Does this even count as armour? A couple of oddly coy pasties and a belt. Not only that, it looks like she managed to put her own eyes out at some point. This was the original Sacred box, and to give some idea of how well it went down, it was quickly replaced by a hastily Photoshopped sigil. Sacred Gold gave it another shot with an archer whose bikini wasn’t much thicker than her bow-string, but its heart clearly just wasn’t into the cheesecake any more.
Well done, everyone. Between the festival of catharsis that was Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus and Call Of Duty’s return to World War 2, we’ve officially put shooting virtual fascists back on the menu. Jolly good show.
Still hungry to grind some more into kibble? Here’s a couple of free treats to keep you going until Wolfenstein 3. Granted, the goose-stepping villains in Doom mod Shadow of The Wool Ball and its sequel Rise Of The Wool Ball are cats>, but they’re pretty villainous, and unless you’re happy with the Planet Of The Adorable Hedgehogs being ground up into kitty litter, you’re going to have to shoot a few.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds . 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.