The Egos at id

Pale and slender, the modern quintessence of boy genius, John Carmack pulls his bright red Testarossa into midday traffic on the LBJ Expressway. He looks barely old enough to drive, but there’s no reason to be nervous. Traffic is crawling.

Carmack nudges his car into the fast lane as a quarter-mile gap opens ahead of us. The thrum of the engine deepens; my whole body vibrates in tune with the car. Carmack grins. Suddenly we’re going 130 miles an hour, our cherry-red reflection swelling up in the rear fender of the car ahead.

It’s not the first time John Carmack has taken me for a ride that sent my adrenaline rushing. But every other time, I was playing a computer game. It may seem a minor distinction, but if I happen to die this time in Carmack’s world of precision-engineered speed, there’s no restoring my life from some menu of saved games.

He shifts lanes and hits the brakes, and it feels like retro-rockets kicking in. Even Carmack’s games aren’t quite this realistic. Yet. I unlatch the corners of my mouth from my ears. “Don’t the cops just sit outside your parking lot and wait for you to leave?” I ask.

“I don’t have trouble with the police,” says Carmack. “Everyone thought I would – young guy in a car like this, must be a drug dealer. But I haven’t had any problems.”

John Carmack didn’t make his money dealing drugs – he made it by addicting millions to some of the wildest rides in the computer game industry. He and his cohorts at id Software first struck pay dirt with Wolfenstein 3D, which set new standards for computer games in 1992. Their 1993 hit, Doom, is a helter-skelter lunge through a nightmare zone that makes Wolfenstein look like Pac-Man.

The most popular computer game of all time, Doom has sold more than 2 million copies. But that only hints at its popularity. As many as 20 million shareware versions are installed worldwide – unregistered but perfectly legal copies, distributed free with id’s blessing. Myriad Doom players are creating worlds of their own. By releasing chunks of their games as shareware, id’s marketing strategy turns every player into a potential distributor and puts the skeleton keys to cyberspace into millions of hands.

Carmack builds the graphics “engines” that make id’s games go. The ideal engine of a 3-D game is an intricate and elegant construct of code that allows players to speed through solidly built virtual worlds. The engine allows every picture on a monitor to be drawn there quickly enough to convince hand and eye that it is instantaneous.

Back in the parking lot, Carmack takes a moment to lift the hood of his Testarossa. He’s proud of the car, but he’s outgrown it. His mechanic is working on a new Ferrari with an even more powerful engine.

Likewise, Carmack has put Doom behind him. Long before the game was finished, frustrated by its engine’s limitations, he started building another from scratch. Not Doom, but something entirely new, whose engine lets id raise the stakes for 3-D world-building one more time.This game is called Quake.

Dark, violent fantasy has deep roots twisted in the Texas hardpan. Robert E. Howard, author of the gory, poetic pulp exploits of Conan the Barbarian, made a better living than the local banker during the Great Depression. Dull surroundings give rise to the wildest sort of escapism, and audiences seeking respite from grim realities may go for the stuff in a big way.

So it is that the surreal interiors of Quake, id’s next great hope, have come to life on the outskirts of Dallas – in a black glass tower by the LBJ Expressway, flanked by furniture outlets, condos, restaurants, and movie multiplexes. Nothing so scenic as a tumbleweed breaks the flat monotony of the flood plain; in the distance you can just make out Dallas’s downtown towers.

If Doom is the most popular computer game of all time, Quake must be the most anticipated – though the official line on Quake’s release date is id’s standard “As soon as it is finished.” No executive-level decrees pressure developers down the corporate ladder to release a bug-riddled game according to a schedule imposed by the guys in suits. At id, there are no guys in suits.

It helps, of course, that Doom has provided id Software with enough cash flow to take its time getting everything perfect. In 1994, revenues hit US$7.7 million; in 1995 that figure more than doubled, to $15.6 million.

No pressure?

Yeah, right. Only the pressure to continue making the best games in the business.

In August 1995, when I first stepped behind the scenes at id, Quake was well underway, with hopes of shipping by Christmas. John Carmack’s engine was basically complete. The artists had created a gallery of monsters. The game’s environments, although limited, were more than presentable. Quake, in that stifling summer, resembled a spooky medieval theme park still under construction. Stone corridors ended in blank screens, still unfinished by game designers. Gaping pits awaited the fulfillment of lava or water. Nine Inch Nails had recorded some medieval sound effects specifically for the game (clanging swords, anvils, and chains), but most of the noise was temporary, borrowed from other sources. Ponderous wooden doors swung open with an incongruous pneumatic hiss instantly recognizable from Doom. The gorgeous interiors were uninhabited save for an occasional forlorn fire imp – a refugee from Doom, looking very far from home.

Despite so much finished work, id was in a slump. The Quake development process had been protracted and exhausting, marked by delays and false starts. In the game industry, rumors had begun to circulate of id’s imminent demise. While every competing 3-D action game was being touted as the “Doom-killer,” id itself was struggling to lay claim to the honor.

“Doom’s success gave us some trouble,” Carmack says. “We knew we could do better with Quake, but we would have to work even harder.”

Yet what should have been a tightly coordinated effort had slowly gotten out of synch. Mornings were quiet. Half the development team (admittedly, only a handful of guys) straggled in around lunchtime, settling into private offices crammed with books, games, geckos, weapons, and CDs galore. Founded on teamwork, id’s group spirit still prevailed, with plenty of shuttling and shouting across the halls. But it was always possible to withdraw for an hour (or an afternoon) by going into a darkened office and shutting out the rest of the team.

Then the walls came down.

In a move that defied industry doomsayers, id more than doubled its floor space. The old suite was transformed into a maze of drywall and plastic sheeting, with plaster dust everywhere, loose acoustic tiles and cables dangling from the ceiling.

Expelled from their cushy, distraction-filled offices, the whole team – level designers, artists, programmers – went to work in one large war room. Low tables lined the walls; every inch of counter space was occupied by computers and notepads, reference books, soda cans, and personal CD players. Almost every item not directly related to the completion of Quake was gone. The only privacy to be found was between the padded earpieces of headphones. And things would stay this way until Quake was finished.

The move to a war room pushed Quake’s production into high gear, encouraging efficiency and closely coordinated teamwork. The spartan quarters also heightened tension. When the stress of developing Quake got to be too much, the room erupted into obscenities, screaming, and violent explosions. Programmers ran to their keyboards, ready to let off steam in vicious, companywide rounds of their own game. It wasn’t just fun. It was essential to rigorous product testing.

To put it mildly, Doom is not for everyone. Nor will Quake be. These are designer drugs for the gaming addict, that typically teenage, typically male soul who appears to outsiders to be caught in a sort of spastic fugue as he leans close to his computer, oblivious to other stimuli, twitching and gasping and attempting to see around the edges of the monitor. Occasionally he jumps out of his seat as if someone invisible had come up from behind and jabbed him.

Though Doom can be “realistic,” nothing about the game bears much relation to consensus reality. The scenes are a mass of lumpy pixels, difficult to differentiate until you start careering through them with a finger on the arrow key. Still-shots of Doom screens are unimpressive, much as single frames of film lack the impact of action sequences. Resolution is somewhat poor, because every image is drawn on the fly, as the player runs, turns, and reacts to the environment.

No, id’s games are about motion. A game like Myst may be a gorgeous slide show that preserves its beauty at the expense of speed. A game like Doom sacrifices almost everything for action. But the eye soon adjusts: the degree of detail more than adequately conveys infinite claustrophobic labyrinths populated by howling monsters. For the sake of a good scare, the brain becomes a willing partner in the illusion. The trade-off between speed and image quality is a key constraint of first-person action games, and the job of developing a workable engine involves constantly optimizing both elements. Gamers dream of the day they’ll be able to haul their arsenals through three-dimensional environments of photographic clarity, playing Myst with a meat ax. It’s all a question of greater processing power and better, cleverer programming.

For Carmack, the Quake engine represents a new standard, giving rise to a myriad of 3-D games and worlds. For the gamer, Quake represents the next step in utterly immersive gameplay. For the rest of us, those who get motion sickness from Doom, the brilliant code of the Quake engine may be the next step toward a practical realization of cyberspace.

Eventually we may all be living in id’s world – doing our wordprocessing and telecommuting in environments that owe as much to John Carmack as to Bill Gates. “Quake is just one step toward the future, but I think it has a good shot at spawning a pretty complicated online, networked universe,” says Michael Abrash, a well-known programmer Carmack lured away from Microsoft. “Keep in mind, though, that the focus is to do a great game.”

The dream of a “working cyberspace” has seduced major players from Bell Labs and Microsoft and America Online and DreamWorks. Huge teams with millions of dollars at their disposal are attacking the problem of how large groups of users can interact simultaneously in three-dimensional graphic environments. At id, a handful of programmers are channeling this dream into an action game whose easily hackable software will ensure that the cyberspace revolution won’t be shaped by a few competing corporate giants. It will be shaped by game players. Kids. Lots of them.

While a relative upstart in the race for 3-D online shared-world dominance, id has an advantage in its its lack of entanglements in the web of dependencies binding large, long-established conglomerates. The company has had to remain flexible to keep up with Carmack’s learning curve, to keep him free to develop what amounts to disposable technology, to discard old engines without a second thought as he builds better ones – with alarming frequency.

“I used to think the gap between those already doing this kind of work and those just getting into it would start to narrow,” says Abrash. “Instead I think it’s widening. People aren’t catching up; they’re falling further behind. A large knowledge base is required to do anything state-of-the art, and it takes longer and longer to acquire that knowledge.”

This is what id’s competitors are up against. The engine in Quake is something like Carmack’s 20th. He looks forward to leaving it in the dust when his 21st gets up and running.

As a friend of mine says of Doom, “I know that place from nightmares.” This proficiency at actualizing nightmares is, as much as anything, a key to id’s popularity. No matter how elegant the engine, its beauty remains purely abstract until id’s design team fleshes it out into a game.

id’s lead designer and co-founder is John Romero, whose dark, devilish glee drives his central task: giving the horrors a place to run wild. To do this, Romero uses a specialized editing utility called QuakeEd, a custom CAD program for the construction of game levels. If a full game is considered a kind of interactive epic novel, then each level is the equivalent of a separate chapter. Levels in Quake (as in Doom and its countless clones) are discrete virtual locations containing tasks that must be accomplished before players can advance: kill some monsters, snatch up stashes of health and ammunition, find the hidden switches that open secret doors. Certain levels may take minutes to play, others may take hours. Each level has a distinctive architectural style that ultimately reflects the personality of its designer. Longtime id designer Sandy Petersen, creator of the Lovecraftian role-playing game The Call of Cthulhu, builds mazes made for deliberate, uneasy exploration; his approach to level design is almost literary. John Romero’s levels are pure adrenaline.

Having long since shed the computer-nerd image of early id photos, Romero now comports himself more like a long-haired rocker. In many ways he is Carmack’s opposite – outgoing, wisecracking, darkly sarcastic, driving a Hummer as well as two Ferraris (and enjoying the attention the cars bring him). He lives up to his nickname as “the ego of id.”

The first time I met Romero, he had just moused his way into a Quake chamber lined with tormented stone Christs. “Take that, you bastard!” he yelled, gleefully hurling fireballs at a Savior. “Yeah, some people are going to hate this.”

It seemed moot to ask if he was raised Catholic.

For life in the war room, Romero streamlined his personal possessions to little more than the all-important CD-tower. Hunched under his headphones, he began to crank out Quake levels at a rate of about one a week, racing to keep ahead of Tim Willits, an enthusiastic young designer who sat literally at his elbow. Romero is a fiercely competitive guy.

Like Carmack, Romero has designed dozens of games. In the beginning, he published his code in computer magazines; devoted gamers had to do their own programming. An issue of Nibble from 1987 features the code for Major Mayhem, one of Romero’s early games. Described as “Packed with Hi-Res graphics action,” the screenshot shows tiny multicolor blips on a black screen, representing menacing spiders, sleek rocket ships, and bold spacemen. The “levels” are nothing more than stacks of horizontal line.

Romero may no longer rely on magazines to distribute his code, but success has hardly made him stingy with his knowledge. On the contrary, id’s philosophy of sharing code is a fundamental part of the Doom phenomenon, manifesting itself not only in the shareware distribution scheme but in id’s tacit encouragement of customer collaboration. When Doom was released, hackers got to work dismantling the engine and level code until they worked out a glossary of commands allowing them to tinker with the game’s design elements. Eventually, id released the specifications, giving rise to a thriving industry of independent companies that create and sell additional levels as add-ons to the original games.

Doom aficionados expand their adventures as far as their imaginations and artistic abilities allow. Once players have exhausted the “authorized” levels of Doom, they can go on to explore thousands of additional unauthorized levels available in kits and on the Internet. Better yet, using one of numerous custom editing utilities, they can create their own levels. The company does not profit financially from these unrelated enterprises, but stimulating its customers’ creativity gives id a fan base that can keep a fantasy world alive forever, while propagating a host of new worlds.

Quake will give hackers even more powerful tools to work with. “I have no doubt,” says Carmack, “that a great many university supercomputers will be occupied compiling Quake levels.”

The game may also offer fruitful leads for students and researchers – “several dissertations in Quake’s graphics alone,” Abrash says, “and more in the networking.”

But for most fans, there’s nothing academic about id’s games. Several Doom diehards who came to id one afternoon to perform beta testing demanded that Tim Willits customize their mouse and keypad configurations in accordance with highly specific instructions. Willits complied, commenting, “You know, none of us use these weird configurations.”

“Are you a Doom fan?” one beta-tester asked.

Tim stared at him. “Uh Š I work here, remember?”

“No, man, you don’t understand. Doom is my life!”

Given the inverse ratio of speed to graphic quality, one might assume that artists and programmers continually tangle. It’s true that as gameplay accelerates, resolution tends to suffer; on the other hand, if a game isn’t visually appealing, no amount of speed is going to make up for it. But pairing the swiftest possible engine with the finest possible graphics is id’s hallmark.

If art and technology are the yin and yang of the game design process, the yin at id is represented by co-founder – and artist – Adrian Carmack. The two (unrelated) Carmacks and John Romero met in the early 1990s, while earning about $8 an hour designing games for Softdisk, a small software company in Shreveport, Louisiana. (The fourth co-founder is now a driving force behind one of id’s competitors, 3D Realms, in Garland, Texas.)

Adrian is tall, with long brown hair, a goatee, and a soft Southern accent. Sitting next to his partner Kevin Cloud, he clicks his lightpen all day long, making minuscule adjustments, one pixel at a time, to countless texture tiles: lichened stone, pitted wood, corroded metal, viny corpuscular stuff. This monotonous detail work is the foundation of Quake’s environments, giving level architects an extensive index of patterns and textures to draw from as they construct interiors. Adrian’s pencil drawings of Quake’s monsters are beautifully detailed. The game’s relatively low resolution barely conveys his sinister sketches. Of course, there’s little time to appreciate the aesthetics of creatures whose only aim is to destroy you.

Aesthetics and assault don’t always form an easy balance. Early in the development of Quake, while John Carmack was building the prototype engine, Adrian and Kevin kept themselves busy creating quasi-Aztec designs. When Aztec temples were dropped in favor of medieval European castles, the artists had to abandon months of labor. Much later, when far more work had gone into the medieval game plan, John Carmack came to believe that id had erred in straying from the nightmarish techno style of Doom. He sensed that legions of Doom devotees, addicted to chain guns and rocket launchers, were not going to be pleased about the downgrade to hammered steel weapons. Level designer American McGee announced he had “designer’s block” and was finding it impossible to come up with fresh uses of the medieval theme. In late 1995, in the course of a rare firmwide brainstorming session, the game was overhauled yet again.

Quake now begins in a futuristic military base hollowed out of a mountain, allowing human architecture to blend weirdly with natural details. Players work their way through the base, gathering high-tech weapons, and eventually stray through time portals into a medieval world populated by dragons, wizards, and chainsaw-toting ogres.

John Carmack confesses that if he’d had the wherewithal – namely, more time and more artists – he would have abandoned all the levels created at that point, scouring Quake clean of medieval details. But Quake was already far behind schedule, and the artists weren’t about to sacrifice months of precious work a second time.

The final form of Quake looks like no other game, perfectly displaying id’s trademark fusion of nightmarish art with advanced technology. The futuristic levels are full of unexpected details, with lustrous wood paneling set in polished steel corridors, and surreal lighting that puts one in mind of David Lynch. The visual effects are artistic, but they also derive from the programmer’s constant imperative to find ways of drawing scenes as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“Instead of lighting polygons as they’re drawn,” Michael Abrash explains, “we light and cache the whole surface for a polygonal area ahead of time. Then when we draw the polygon, we don’t have to light it. By decoupling lighting and drawing, we’re not locked into the lighting that can be done while drawing a polygon. This enables more complex lighting at high speed. The surface-caching technique is unique so far as I know – an original invention on John Carmack’s part.”

The look of Quake was not the only design element to take a hit when the changes came down. Nine Inch Nails’s medieval sound effects had to be overhauled to encompass the new techno-flavor. Trent Reznor’s influence is pervasive at id – the “NIN” logo appears on Quake ammo boxes, and at any given moment Nine Inch Nails’s music seems to be pouring from somebody’s headphones. This says something about the id philosophy of electronic pop savagery. No Grateful Dead infiltrates the many CDs; there is little lip service to peace and love. And despite the frequently sophomoric atmosphere, there is no sign of typical, gratuitous drug culture – not so much as a beer in the fridge.

Could it be that brain cells are just too valuable here?

Dark-haired, clean-cut American McGee glances at shaggy John Romero. “Do you need a man-beating?”

Hoots of derision fill the dark war room. The gauntlet has been thrown down.

Furious feuding surrounds the title of in-house Quake champion. Romero’s reputation as an unmatched Doom champ, a rabid opponent, is an essential part of the id legend. It is also a constant irritation to designer McGee, who wants the world to know that he can slaughter Romero.

McGee and Romero trade ridiculous insults as they fire up terminals on either end of a long work table, but there’s a serious reason for watching a duel between expert players. As designers of Quake, they exploit the full liberating power of the engine, hurling themselves from balconies, leaping onto ledges, moving platforms while strafing the chambers below.

“Suck on that, big boy!” Romero cries, pumping his cannon at a fleeting, angular figure that rushes across his screen, tosses a grenade, and disappears. The grenade ricochets realistically into Romero’s cranny, and his icon dies screaming in the blast. The duelists stalk each other through mazelike corridors, racing for ammo and armor, for better weapons. McGee hits a trigger and the floor retracts, dropping Romero into a pool of lava. Romero curses and McGee croons: “Come on, little man, you know you want it.”

Nausea can make it difficult to watch a deathmatch over someone’s shoulder. (Doom-induced motion sickness, or DIMS, is an accepted medical term.) So I’m relieved when the system crashes. And I’m not the only one: McGee retains his title as in-house Quake champion; Romero retains his dignity; I retain my lunch.

Once John Carmack’s guru, Michael Abrash is currently his right-hand man. They work side by side, Carmack writing engine code and passing it to Abrash, who optimizes it for elegance and efficiency.

One of the world’s best-known programmers, and author of seven books (including Zen of Graphics Programming), Abrash wrote a column in the late 1980s that had a formative influence on the young Carmack and Romero. Shortly after Doom’s release, Carmack offered his mentor a job. Comfortable at Microsoft, with an interesting pet project on the horizon, Abrash declined.

“I had read Snow Crash,” says Abrash, referring to Neal Stephenson’s fictional take on how cyberspace might be actualized, “and realized I could make 90 percent of it work.”

He spent months trying to get Microsoft to let him create the infrastructure of cyberspace, proposing a game research project that would feature shared worlds. Eventually Microsoft approved his project, but gave another group responsibility for infrastructure design – the part Abrash most wanted to do.

“It would be an understatement to say I was depressed. I had been slogging through bug-fix and ship-cycle hell in Windows NT for two years, and the thought of this project was what kept me going. With it gone, I had nothing to look forward to but more managing, more meetings, more stress – with little programming, little personal development, and no fun. I thought I had resigned myself to that, but when Carmack visited again, he talked for hours about what he wanted to do with Quake. By the time he asked me about coming to id, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to say no.”

The thing that sets Quake apart, says Abrash, is that it has been designed from the start to thrive in a networked environment, and all the design decisions were made with this end in mind. A network-programming specialist, John Cash, joined the team in mid-1995, ensuring that id had exactly the brainpower it needed to optimize network gameplay over modems and the Internet.

“A server is not just a game,” Abrash explains. “It’s a world that people can enter and leave. You can walk from one level to another, and from one server to another. Even on a single machine, the processing of the game and physics and such all happen on the server, and the input and drawing happen on the client; the client and server just happen to be on the same machine. With multiple machines, the server does the processing, and the clients do the I/O, which actually means that it’ll be faster to run as a networked client, because your machine doesn’t have to do the game simulation work.”

Abrash likens Quake to a virus, with the game’s engine code playing the part of genetic material. Given id’s previous successes, and the shareware vector, Quake is almost certain to be an effective carrier.

“People can make new games just by defining new databases: maps, textures, sounds, figures, and programs in Quake’s interpreted language. No new code. So we do Quake, other companies do other games, people start building worlds with our format and engine and tools, and those worlds can be glommed together via doorways from one to another. To me this sounds like a recipe for the first real cyberspace, which I believe will happen the way a real space station or habitat probably would – by accretion.”

With Abrash on board, business manager Jay Wilbur believes that two of the three best graphics programmers in the world are now working for id. While many game companies are involved in what Wilbur calls “ratchet-work,” plugging new features into borrowed technology, id is primarily an R&D operation.

“People ask me who I fear,” says Wilbur. “Which of our competition – LucasArts, Microsoft, any of the big companies. They don’t frighten me. What I’m afraid of is two guys in a garage, working in total obscurity. That’s where the heart and soul of this business is at. Those are the guys who are going to come up with the stuff that blows us out of the water.”

Can we rush these to Bosnia?” Jay Wilbur drops a stack of Doom and its sequels on the desk of his assistant, “id-momma” Donna Jackson, the only woman at id. The US Marines now use networked Doom as a training device, to teach teamwork and tactics, but this is another matter. An American soldier stationed in Bosnia has requested games for his laptop. Doom can take your mind off some serious problems.

Wilbur was a manager at Softdisk, where the core id team came together, but he didn’t sign on as business manager until some time after id’s founding. As casually dressed and hardworking as the programmers, Wilbur describes the power structure at id as follows: “Word comes from God, to Carmack, to us. It’s management’s job to support the geniuses, not to tell them what to do. They do their stuff, and we count the beans.”

The other member of id’s so-called administration is Michael Wilson, director of marketing – a heavy title for a guy who might be called a surfer dude if he lived anywhere near an ocean. Before joining id, Wilson worked at Dwango Franchise Sales Inc., setting up centers for network gaming around the US.

Dwango (“dial-up wide-area network gaming operation”) allows addicts to phone in and join or start games at any hour of the day. A company separate from id, it may become one of those central hubs around which Abrash’s accretion scenario begins to crystallize.

In February 1996, id released three levels over the Internet to allow gamers to check for bugs in networked play. Two days later, hackers had not only discovered bugs but provided patches to fix them; hundreds of patches and hacks have streamed in since that date. Users have even figured out how to activate features the Quake team had thought were not yet functional.

“The joke around here now is,” Mike Wilson says, “we can let the rest of the world finish Quake for us.”

What’s next after Quake?” I ask John Carmack. Not even mention of Testarossas brings such a gleam into his eyes. Already bored with Quake’s limitations, he clearly wants to sing the possibilities of his next engine without giving away too much. He drops hints about self-generating fractal surfaces that continue to show detail as you get closer to them, instead of breaking up into solid pixels.

The only thing certain about the next game is that it’ll be more of what made id popular in the first place. John Carmack has no intention of making radical stylistic experiments after Quake. “We’ve pretty well decided that our niche is in first-person futuristic action games. We stumble when we get away from the techno stuff.”

Is a vacation in the offing once Quake ships? Abrash, who is listening, laughs. “For John, recreational programming is a vacation.”

This is more than dedication. More than greed. This is obsession. While most of the id gang live a good distance from the office, either in the suburbs or out in the country, Carmack lives right up the road. Most nights he works almost to the point of collapse, so a longer commute could be dangerous – it would also be inefficient. Sure, he’s got a couple Ferraris in his garage, but John Carmack hardly has occasion to drive. He’s too busy working on his savage engines.

At the end of the day, the war room is busy but subdued. Adrian Carmack is touching up a green skull, Kevin Cloud is scowling at a poorly animated blue dog, and American McGee is trying to figure out how to capture the sound of an ogre urinating while his chainsaw idles.

As the LBJ Expressway clogs with rush-hour traffic, members of the Quake team begin to push away from their screens and discuss how Quake has surpassed their expectations. Still, much work remains to be done. The challenge of providing smooth gameplay over global networks, among computers of widely disparate processing power, is going to test id’s technical skills to the utmost. But some of Quake’s limitations cannot be transcended by brilliant programming. No game will ever be fast enough to suit these guys. Nature itself holds them back.

“There’s nothing you can do about latency,” says John Romero, referring to physical restraints that slow down network play. “It’s inherent in the system.”

“Yeah,” says John Carmack wistfully, “the speed of light sucks.”

First appeared in Wired 4.08 (August 1996)