Appealing to a new audience is a challenge that faces every developer. But when you have to draw new players into a crowd that has been playing the same game for over 15 years, the tightrope gets increasingly wobbly.
But how do you refresh an established formula without aggravating one of the most dedicated communities in all of gaming, a community that believes Quake is the undisputed best multiplayer game ever made?
While I’ve got plenty of competitive experience across a variety of games under my belt, it’s nothing compared to people who have stuck by the Quake series for over a decade or more. So to get the other side of the coin, and to see how Bethesda, id and Saber Interactive are responding to community feedback, I went and had a chat to some veterans from the local Quake community.
The first port of call: Michael “mickzerofive” Jenkins. He’s a 29-year-old programmer/IT support staffer, but he’s better known locally for being the co-founder of behind 4Seasons Gaming (4SG), the defacto hub for Quake leagues in Australia and New Zealand. He began organising tournaments around nine years ago, and with the upcoming release of Quake Champions he, along with 4SG, has a key role in the game’s success locally.
Quake has come way in that time. After the early 2000’s where mods like Challenge ProMode Arena (CPMA), the CTF-focused Threewave, and OSP thrived, Quake Live emerged as a browser-based port of the game. The idea back then, according to Carmack, was to integrate elements of the web browsing experience that the PC did so well – like social networking, friends lists, communications – into Quake. They’re things you take for granted today in game launchers like Steam, Blizzard’s Battle.net and Origin, but back then the technology was still pretty new.
And being new, it meant the community was equally responsible for a lot of bug fixing and testing. “In the early stages when Quake Live was still in a browser they would help our community by providing users with admin rights to spawn and configure servers,” Jenkins explained. “Later, it was all about help with LAN competitions and getting the game to play ‘offline’ at our LAN events. There were plenty of times they had to wake up in the early hours of the morning to help us remotely activate the LAN server.”
Things are a little more automated in 2017, and Quake Champions will have the benefit of matchmaking and inbuilt rankings. They’re features that helped build Dota 2, League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive into the juggernauts of esports that they are today, things that Quake Live never fully implemented to the same degree.
That’s been the underlying vibe that I’ve gotten over the past fortnight, from my chats with community veterans and observations over the past fortnight: Quake missed out on some of the love and support that other games got, both from the wider gaming populace and the benefits of change, but (hopefully) Quake Champions will make up for that. To the devoted, Quake was as close to, if not already, the perfect multiplayer and spectator game. It’s tailor made for esports, and just needed a little more luck and love.
Put another way: the Quake formula is fine as-is.
“There are always ways a game could be improved, but Quake’s issues were with id Software not putting more into community development and not creating new Quake [games],” Zy Rykoa, a veteran of the game for nearly two decades and one of the prominent Quake content creators, explained. From his perspective, the recipe for a successful Quake Champions is activity and community: plenty of tournaments and will help sustain a solid player base, which presumably will act as an attraction to newer players.
But while everyone I spoke to was pretty adamant that new players was an obvious benefit, nobody had any suggestions as to how that might work. David “ZenAku” Addati, one of the top duellers in the Australian scene, noted that Quake Champions needed more players than the long-term purists and professional players. “Because of Quake‘s reputation its had the opportunity to put its roots in people who grew up with the game and now play other things,” he said over email. “So when a big tournament is being played, often there is good viewership, but not enough to keep it sustained.”
Sustainability has been an ongoing problem for Quake. It was a problem id faced when the Quake Live beta first kicked off. “For the business model to work out, we have to wind up getting many more people playing than ever played the original game,” Carmack told Gamasutra at the time.
And with Quake Champions also embracing the free-to-play model, the problem is the same.
One of Quake‘s stumbling blocks has always been the gap between what players need to know to start the game, and what they actually need to know to start playing. The original Quake, for instance, wouldn’t let you select Hard difficulty unless you had learned how to strafejump across the gap. There was no inbuilt tutorial, no prompt, no indication of what you had to do – you just had to discover that it was possible, or learn outside of the game.
Back in Quake 3, perhaps the most effective “tutorial” was DeFRaG, a mod designed to create an area where players could practice strafejumping, rocketjumping, and other advanced mechanics. Fans of Counter-Strike will be familiar with surf maps and various trickjumping levels, but the lineage for those can be drawn back to DeFRaG and the myriad of features built into it.
Moving around the map quickly and efficiently is a necessity to succeed, but the most recent Quake Champions didn’t have an exhaustive, or even rudimentary guide. There also wasn’t an explanation on the different types of movement: some champions are more attuned to the style of movement and jumping popularised by CPMA, while others utilise Quake 3‘s traditional style of movement.
As was the case over a decade ago, the best tutorials are outside the game. Rykoa, the creator behind the Rocket Jump Ninja channel, uploaded a video on the basics of strafe jumping, while Addati provided some champion-specific guides.
It’s the kind of guidance that can make the difference between new players holding their own and getting slaughtered repeatedly. Even if you don’t have the mechanics down pat, having the information available at least gives players an idea of what they can work on. “I think a mix of the two is beneficial,” Rykoa added,” [with] training areas within the game for new players to practice, and community videos to tell them what they can practice.”
Even the most hardworking of players needs a break from being slaughtered by veterans. But with the player pool not large enough to split the devoted fans from fresh blood, matches can often be one-sided – and it’s not satisfactory for anyone.
That’s a numbers problem, though. When the game is more broadly available, there should be enough assembled data to guarantee more balanced matches. A larger question mark in the community for now is what modes Quake Champions will promote going forward – and what future format a Quake Champions tournament will take.
For nearly the entirety of the franchise’s life, 1v1 duels have been the premier experience. It was a staple of the early days of the Cyberathlete Professional League; it remains a feature at QuakeCon every year. The purity makes it appealing to watch, and you don’t really need a prior background to get the gist of what’s going on. One player is trying to decimate another, scrounging an arsenal and armour along the way.
The community has always supported team deathmatch and capture the flag tournaments as well, but Quake Champions has added a different element entirely: Sacrifice, a 4v4 mode that blends CTF with elements of Team Deathmatch. Reception across beta forums, social media and various chat channels has been split, and confusion over the mode’s future hasn’t helped.
“I am most worried about the team modes and the direction which is still publicly unclear,” Jenkins said. “Overwatch did a really unique thing and forced people to play a combination of modes and I feel like this could work in Quake if done correctly.”
“It will be a really big mess, particularly in regions with lower player numbers, if they try to do TDM, Sacrifice and other mode(s) independently of each other.”
The most vocal backlash, so far, has been levelled at the new duelling mode. Before, duels were simply a matter of getting the most frags by the end of the timelimit. Now, players choose three champions. After each champion dies, you respawn as the next. Each champion only has a single life, which effectively turns the 1v1 duel into a best-of-three frags, played over three rounds.
It eliminates the problem new players used to have of losing 40-0 or more in their first few in Quake duels. But it also neuters the potential for comebacks and dulls some of the adrenaline. If you only need three kills to win the game, the individual power for each kill becomes much more worthwhile – which encourages players to play more passively, more slowly.
But as a friend put it to me: Quake needs a new facade. There’s plenty of vocal dissent if you look hard enough, but vociferous dissent from pockets of the community is par for the course where Quake is concerned.
And as Jenkins explained, retreading old ground isn’t exactly a recipe for success either. One example: Quake Live had 11 game modes, but only five of those were popular. Spreading the community across multiple modes also affects the quality of matchmaking too.
When asked what the community could do to ensure Quake Champions took off, Addati replied that the game “naturally will have people joining without influence from the community” once it gains momentum. Jenkins quipped that id and Sabre had already put in the features the community wanted, but “they just [don’t] always function how we expect”. For him, it was a matter of polishing the sides.
For Rykoa, Quake Champions “needs a totally new mode” to succeed in today’s market. “I am a bit bored by the idea of remaking all the old modes. Give us something new! Even though the community is crying out for Clan Arena and Capture The Flag, I think it’s a bad idea to bring them to Quake Champions.”
But no-one I spoke to complained about the core fundamentals, even though the beta was beset with several performance issues around the client itself, the amount of upload required, and the Bethesda launcher. Other points of contention are a matter of polish or just adjustments to things that are already in the game, like adding a quick play button that searches for any available game, rather than limiting matchmaking to specific modes.
Is that enough to grow the Quake community to its former glory, though? Nobody knows. And the bigger question that also doesn’t have an answer: will 2017 finally be the year that Quake returns to the upper echelon of esports, or has esports moved beyond arena shooters entirely? The Quake fans I spoke to couldn’t answer that. For now, they’re simply happy for a fresh take on a game they never stopped loving.