By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Five years ago, id dared to create Wolfenstein 3D; it put the player up against hordes of Nazi soldiers in a castle. Since then, id has proven that violence isn't a detriment--it's an asset. The only thing lethal to this business is repetition and a deficit of new innovations and ideas. So far, the company's success has been focused around a one-trick idea: A "hero" navigates long passages, gunning down evil opponents as they appear. Doom was followed by a sequel, Doom II, and Heretic and Hexen. Next up is the highly anticipated Quake, which is in final development.
All of these games look and play similarly; the principal difference is in the graphics, which advance in sophistication with every new title. Is this enough to guarantee id a future in the rapidly evolving interactive-gaming industry?
Maybe so. 3-D-graphics computer games with lots of heavy action and violence comprise a large share of the market. They tend to be more popular than titles with greater emphasis on intellectual challenge and multimedia (for example, live-action video footage) among the main audience to which the industry caters: teen-age boys on up to young adult males. Demand for more product also remains--so long as the newer titles look better than the old stuff and present more play options. Id's Quake and Apogee's Duke Nukem 3D are only a few examples of the computer candy being crafted to satisfy this blood lust.
"It's not that we're always going to do a 3-D, first-person shoot-'em-up," Wilson explains. "It's just that right now that's what works really well."
All the great stories have already been written--and new tales are just riffs on a theme; this is especially true in computer games. This partly explains why recent significant achievements in the digital-entertainment medium have been more technical than creative. Gamers are playing the same old games but things continue to look and sound so much better that they don't notice--or care. Games like Doom have strong appeal not just for their violence but because they're more "realistic" than their predecessors. The future of digital gaming lies in the programming wizards of the industry, like John Carmack, who aim to recreate reality as close as possible on your computer.
Having no interest in issues like violence and morality in its games, id grapples only with the software industry's toughest question: When will your latest product ship? Computer gamers with a Doom-fed jones are anxiously waiting for Quake. They've been marking time since last summer when it was originally slated for release.
Software-production companies, of course, are notorious for missing deadlines. Delays running anywhere from a few months to even years are so common that they're expected by retailers and customers.
Wilson makes hesitant sounds. The best he can offer is that Quake might be ready for public consumption before the summer--of this year.
Currently, id's creative team is grinding away through the night, every night, to get Quake out. John Carmack, the "workhorse," has been checking in at midnight and working until 5 or 6 in the afternoon.
Code, the bone and sinew of a software program, is a highly demanding creature. That's because it's so delicate, constantly susceptible to collapse ("bug" crashes) if command routines, subroutines, and other complex listings aren't put together properly. A software designer must possess innate logical smarts--and an appropriate imagination to match--to code elegantly.
Not having a life also helps. Maybe this is why "programmers are smelly," as Wilson jokes, and the social activities of most programmers are usually confined to chatting on the Internet.
Considering the complexity of three-dimensional graphics code, Broussard tells me he and his associates never set due dates. Having to meet a deadline requires cutting corners in the programming, he elaborates, resulting in code that isn't entirely stable and bug-free. "You can't guarantee the quality of a game if you have to make deadlines," Broussard says. Programming is an intricate, time-consuming process, where every problem solved sprouts another 12.
Quake will be finished, as they say, when it's finished.
While id, Apogee, and other computer-game developers are reluctant to even guess when products will ship, things work differently over at 7th Level. Headquartered in Richardson, this company prides itself on meeting deadlines. Recently, it finished a children's game for Disney, Timon and Pumbaa's Jungle Games, from concept to final shipping, in four months--very atypical in the industry.
Also unusual for Dallas game producers, most of 7th Level's titles, like the Disney product, have been family-oriented fare.
Now even this company is branching into action-heavy 3-D-graphics games geared toward the young male nerd, thanks to Todd Porter, vice president of 7th Level's 3-D-games division. Having years of experience working for other software firms such as Austin's Origin Systems, Porter formed his own games company two years ago; but before his new startup even began work on its first product, 7th Level, wanting to get in on the 3-D-games action, offered to buy him out. It was a proposal he gladly accepted, and he and his staff were moved over to Richardson.
In the dimly lit offices of the 3-D-graphics-production department, computer monitors display impressive demonstrations of walking robots from 7th Level's upcoming 3-D game, G-Nome. Pumbaa and Timon it isn't, but 7th Level hasn't gone completely over to the dark side yet; robots don't bleed when you shoot them (hemorrhage some oil maybe). G-Nome won't be giving players a bloodbath. You can't kill in this game, only lay waste, which, obviously, has less of a perverse visceral appeal. But 7th Level is betting that emphasizing blazing action and dazzling graphics will be enough to draw in an even broader demographic audience.