It's been so long since a Quake game took the world by storm that some people today don't even realize QuakeCon, the large video game convention that just wrapped up in Dallas, is named after a game at all. But Quake could truly be called the original eSport, and even 20 years after its 1996 release, the blazing-fast first-person shooter is still considered to be one of the most influential action games around.
Now Id Software, based in Richardson, wants to breathe new life into it.
QuakeCon attendees got two exclusive looks at Quake Champions, the newly-announced title in the series, over the weekend. First, a brief overview at the welcoming ceremony on Thursday night. Then, the first ever live competition of the game at the end of the yearly QuakeCon tournament finals party, played by professional Quake players that have each spent hundreds if not thousands of hours with the series.
Both times, the crowd loved it. The game may look modern, with great graphics and a high-steady framerate, but it's got blazing fast speed, impressive mobility and a full suite of classic weapons.
In other words: It's Quake. And that's exactly what the crowd wanted to see.
"Back in 2013, the Quake Live team was looking at doing this big, huge update to that game," says game director Tim Willits, referring to a competitive-focused version of Quake played for thousands of dollars at a QuakeCon tournament every year. "It's been running since 2008. So we were trying to figure out what we could do to bring new life to Quake Live." They started experimenting and prototyping ideas that would essentially go into a big update for that existing game.
Then they took a look at what other people at Id Software were doing with another one of the company's major franchises: Doom. That game, which came out earlier this year to critical acclaim and commercial success, reinvented the series while staying remarkably true to the gaming classic. Seeing what that team was doing, they started to think bigger with what could be done with Quake.
"I actually personally registered www.quakechampions.
Enter Saber Interactive
Id Software isn't making this new Quake alone, because as Willits says, "We have more IPs [intellectual properties] than we have people." They're working with Saber Interactive, who among other things worked on Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
But they're not just handing the Quake name over and having someone else do all of the work, either.
"We have a team at Id [devoted to Quake Champions], so this is not a case of, 'Hey, other developer, make something cool,'" Willits says. "But we're growing that internal Quake team, and it is much more of a co-development. It is part Id technology and part Saber technology. It is not Id Tech 6 [the engine that powered the new Doom].
One thing that means: They can't implement Snapmap, the easy-to-use level creation tools seen in Doom. In fact, when the game launches, it initially won't have modding tools at all. But those will come.
"At launch, we are not going to have modding tools," Willits says. "But part of the Id Software DNA is to have mods. But it also plays into whatever our business model is, which is another piece we have to figure out. So that could throw another wrinkle into it as well."
Champions... and commanders
The biggest fear that old-school fans had when Quake Champions was announced was the "champions" part. The single biggest change from old Quake is that now, players will choose characters that each have their own unique abilities.
"I believe that champions in first-person shooters is more of an evolution to the genre, because you see it more and more now," Willits says. "And I think it's because games have gotten so much more advanced, and features have gotten so much more rich, that the next logical step is to steer into more of a character-based thing so that people can get attached to characters. They can feel like they have this history and progression. So I think that champions or heroes or classes in games is not a right turn for first-person shooters, it's more of an evolution of the genre."
He stresses that character abilities are, in a way, just like another weapon to play with. During the Quake Champions multiplayer match on Saturday night, QuakeCon attendees saw a glimpse of some of these powers, which operate on a cooldown. One was a visor that briefly allowed a player to see enemy silhouettes through walls, allowing them to see where their opponents were on the map. Another ability worked as a quick self-heal, equivalent to picking up a health pack. Another seemingly more advanced skill was a teleport orb that allowed its player to warp around the map quickly.
These skills, in the hands of professional Quake players, seemed additive to the overall Quake experience. To the crowd at QuakeCon, they didn't seem to make the game any less of what it was trying to be.
Id Software is still building out the roster of champions that will be in the game, and more could be added after the game launches. The ones we've seen so far come from the Quake series itself, but there could be room for extensions into the rest of the developer's catalog.
When I lightheartedly asked about getting a new Commander Keen game (a colorful side-scrolling game from the early 90's), Willits laughed.
"You're the second person that has asked me [about Commander Keen]," he said. "Maybe we'll have a Commander Keen champion. Wouldn't that be awesome? Maybe his laser gun is his active ability. Maybe I can do that to appease all of our Keen fans."
How will it make money?
Curious how you'll be spending money on Quake Champions? So is Id Software.
Do they go the route of the new Unreal Tournament and make the game free to download, but charge people for maps and mods? Do they go the route of Blizzard's successful shooter Overwatch and sell a $60 product that has everything you need to play, with an option to pay more money for cosmetic items? Do they do something else entirely?
"This is the challenge," Willits says. "We want to get a whole bunch of people in, but we also don't want to make anyone upset about anything. So we need to kind of merge those two things together. So I've told all the journalists [that have asked about how the game will be sold] that if they come up with a great business plan, I will give them credit. I will say 'business plan designed by blank.'"
"And I'm not trying to be dodgy," he stresses. "We literally don't know. Our plan was, first, make it feel like Quake. OK, check, that's good. Then get champion abilities in there that don't break the gameplay. Again, check. Now our focus is on progression and gameplay loops, making people feel good, giving them success, and what kind of hooks we have. And once we have all those pieces, then we can look at, 'What's the business model of this?' We have to get those things so we know the tools we have to play with, and then we can figure out what we can sell and what we can give away for free."
But that's not an easy task.
"It's hard," Willits says. "That's why no one has figured out the solution yet, and there's a lot of smart people that have been thinking about this."
He mentions Evolve, a competitive first-person shooter released in 2015 that more or less fell flat after it launched, but has recently seen a resurgence of players after going free-to-play this year. Those sorts of situations are on his mind as the consider how they want to get people playing their game while also making sure it's supported financially.
In the footsteps of Doom
Immediately after the new Doom was released and it quickly became a fan-favorite, old-school-minded gamers started asking, "What if Id Software rebooted Quake next?"
One month later, Willits was on stage at the Electronic Entertainment Expo announcing Quake Champions. "Yeah, people flipped," he said.
Unlike Doom, though, this new Quake won't have any sort of single-player component. It's purely a competitive game. When asked if Id Software will ever revisit a single-player Quake experience, Willits says, "That would be great, wouldn't it? That would be awesome." But there are no immediate plans for that, despite Doom's mainstream success.
"I can tell you, the success of Doom and the positive reaction to the game has made making Quake Champions so much easier."
Following Doom's success and based on the reactions he's already seen from Quake Champions, Willits makes a big claim: "I can tell you -- and I've been here for almost 21 years -- that things have never been better [at Id Software]."