Before They Were Famous: Id Software

Time for another “before they were famous” here on Total Recall. Last time we looked at Bungie, creators of the Halo franchise. This time? We’re looking at id Software, the team behind Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake.

I’m going to preface this entire thing by saying that if you’re at all interested in the history of video games, and in particular the PC and id Software, you owe it to yourself to read the amazing Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, which goes into a lot more detail than I’m about to.

That’s for later, though. For now, we’re going to run through the early years of one of the most important studios in the industry, and look at the games they made before they made the ones which got them famous.

id was founded in 1991, after a number of its earliest members (John Carmack, John Romero, Adrian Carmack and Tom Hall) met while employed at Softdisk, a weird hybrid of a magazine, games developer and demo disk distributor. Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about the studio’s early years predates the formation of the actual studio.

A year earlier, John Carmack and John Romero had built, from the ground-up, a PC port of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 3, at the time a remarkable feat given PCs weren’t supposed to be able to handle side-scrolling like a console could. Initially a crude demo using characters from a Romero game built for Softdisk called Dangerous Dave, (and which they christened Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement) the guys eventually had Mario looking so good, and so faithful to the original, they contacted Nintendo about licensing the game from the Japanese company for release on the PC.

While Nintendo of course turned the offer down instantly, another party had become secretly interested in the team’s work. With games like Dangerous Dave attracting a cult following, a representative from publisher Apogee began writing to Romero under the guise of a fan, so as not to alert Softdisk, as he had every intention of luring the guys away to make their own games for a living using the concept of shareware, which would see part of a game given away for free to tempt people to pay for the whole thing.

Tempted by this offer, and capitalising upon the platforming technology they’d built for the Mario demo, the team whipped up a side-scroller called Commander Keen, released in December 1990, which quickly became a hit. Keen was a small boy transported into a science-fiction saga, armed with a trusty laser pistol and defended by an oversized…Green Bay Packers helmet.

This only brought about the attention of the team’s employers at Softdisk, however, who rather than crack down on them (the guys had been using Softdisk computers after office hours to compile the code for their games) offered to go into business together. That deal fell through when the existing Softdisk management baulked at the idea, though, so in February 1991 id Software stopped being “a bunch of Softdisk guys working in their spare time” and began operations as an independent video game developer.

While it continued developing Commander Keen games for a number of years, id’s first new titles were both games that would be critical to the studio’s future success. In April 1991, id released Hovertank 3D, one of the first games to ever be played from a first-person, 3D perspective on the PC. It followed this up in November 1991 with Catacomb 3D, an adaptation of an old John Carmack fantasy title dropped into the same revolutionary 3D engine.

These games, while important in their own right for their technological prowess for the time (3D and first-person being normally reserved for poorly-detailed flight simulators), are best remembered now for being essentially testbeds for the engine used in Wolfenstein 3D, released in 1992.

From Wolfenstein, one of the earliest blockbusters in PC gaming, things went from strength to strength for the team, who despite some high profile personnel changes (like Romero’s departure to make the disastrous Daikatana in 1996) would go on to release classics like 1993’s Doom, 1996’s Quake and a number of well-received sequels for both, not to mention also being responsible for engine technology that has powered many other developer’s games like Half-Life.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.

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