The 10 dumbest clichés about id Software
Posted at 19:43 on 13th June 2011 - permalink

As some of you may have guessed, I’m a huge id Software fan, as a result of spending countless hours playing (and sometimes modding) their games over the last twenty years, and appreciating the vast amount of technical innovation they’ve achieved to the benefit of the industry as a whole. They’ve not always been the only guys innovating in particular areas, but, like Sega in the arcades, they’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting.

As id’s releases have slowed in recent years, ceding the limelight to the likes of Valve, Epic and Blizzard, there has been a worrying trend to downplay their historical significance. The cynic in me (i.e., me) thinks that even if their forthcoming game Rage turns out to be an amazing return to form it still won’t reverse the trend, as the narrative has already been set: id/Carmack have the gall to treat games as cold, emotionless engineering challenges, so it’s not possible that the end result can succeed as entertainment as well. (“You may think you’re having fun, but, SIGH, you’re just shooting things…”)

With the launch of Rage fast approaching, we can expect gaming’s many dimwits to dutifully drag out the usual hoary old cliches about id and their games. If you feel the urge to join in, remember you don’t have to have seen or played any of the games in question – in fact, if you were too young or simply exclusively focused on console games when Doom and Quake came out, you have all the more reason to be irrationally dismissive about one of the most important and influential development studios ever.

Here we go:

1. “Nice engine, I can’t wait for someone to make a game for it!”

Urrrrnngth. This is usually a roundabout way of saying “I like Half-Life, why isn’t everyone making games exactly like Half-Life?” Most PC gamers don’t want skill-based combat or visceral thrills any more – they want fairground rides with mild challenges, simple puzzles and frequent non-interactive scripted sequences. Acceptance of anything that doesn’t follow the Valve template (or predates it) has been steadily eroded.

Even in the nerdiest early days of PC game reviewing, nobody was awarding id games 90%+ scores for the quality of their engines alone. The Doom and Quake series are technical showcases, but they’re also examples of then state-of-the-art game and level design. Doom was a revelation when previously there had been virtually no PC action games of any note. Quake deathmatch may seem like the most bog-standard implementation of online multiplayer today, but in 1996 it was generations ahead of anything else. Quake 2′s ‘monster janitor’ single player gameplay may have aged badly, but it was a necessary evolutionary step on the road from Quake to Half-Life and beyond.

id’s engines were built for their games. It would be a brave and foolhardy developer that built game engines in a vacuum, without a real game being implemented (not a simplified or idealised ‘test’ game) concurrently to provide feedback of how what the engine lacks and how useful the implemented features are in a real world situation.

OK, so Doom 3 could be argued to be an example of technical decisions ultimately having a detrimental effect on gameplay. But Doom 3 is merely a disappointing game rather than the unmitigated disaster it’s portrayed as by people who didn’t play it (or at least, as is statistically highly likely, didn’t pay for it, and/or only played the ropey Xbox port), and its issues stemmed from making assumptions about hardware and game conventions (e.g. consumers expect 20+ long levels, etc.) several years in advance that didn’t pan out.

2. “John Carmack should hire some game designers!”

A variant of the above, stemming from the widely known fact that like popular skiffle combo “The Nine-Inch Nails”, id Software is a one man band. John Carmack makes every creative decision about all of their projects, possibly while stroking a white cat. The roll call of notable designers who have supposedly passed through id’s doors, including Jon Romero, Tom Hall, Sandy Petersen, American McGee and Tim Willetts? All pseudonyms of Carmack, represented by hired actors in photos and videos.

3. “Doom was about mowing down hundreds of enemies!”

(Usually brought up with reference to Doom 3′s comparatively low enemy count.) It seems that most people who played Doom the first time around spent a fraction of 1% of their time playing through the single player maps that shipped with the game without cheating, and the rest of the time playing user-made maps consisting of featureless boxes were filled with dozens of pinkies, in God Mode.

I still have memories of playing through the first (shareware) episode of Doom, and the terror of facing off with the two Barons of Hell at the end of the last map. They were the only Barons in the entire episode, which had until then consisted of skirmishes with perhaps half a dozen grunts at a time at most. Doom portioned out its surprises frugally.

In Doom 2 and the later add-ons and expansions, the monster count started to creep up to KILLSTUF.WAD and 9999IMPZ.WAD levels, and much later the Serious Sam and Painkiller games would cement the misconception that first person shooters pre-Half Life had been AI-less mass culls in featureless arenas.

But the idea that Doom as a franchise has a defining characteristic of ‘hordes’ of enemies simply isn’t borne out by the evidence. A typical Call of Duty level will involve several times as many enemies as a Doom map. Apart from anything else, the Doom engine could only display 64 entities on screen at once.

4. “Quake is brown!”

Eurogamer’s unofficial slogan, which seems to be brought up in every id-related article on their site. The silliness of this statement was already being noted in reviews of the game in 1996. Before Quake, first person games had used cartoonishly bright palettes – Wolfenstein, Doom, System Shock and even Duke Nukem 3D stuck to this convention. Quake was trying to create a dark, brooding, Lovecraftian environment, with a palette of 256 colours.

Some of those environments were brown. Some were grey, some were green, some were blue, some were beige and orange. But the limitations of an 8-bit colour display attempting to display dithered dynamic lighting did indeed tend to fade these colours toward brown and black. Saying Quake is brown is a bit like saying Star Wars is yellow and Return of the Jedi is green. It’s not a particularly damning criticism even in the specific context where it’s accurate.

And anyway, it was the mid-1990s, everything was brown. David Fincher was making brown movies, MTV was full of grungy brown music videos. Have you seen Star Trek Deep Space Nine recently? It looks like it was set in an unusually far-flung organic food store.

5. “Pfft, you can’t hold a flashlight and a gun at the same time!”

A witty observation levelled at Doom 3 about a completely intentional design decision, which made entering new areas a tense trade-off between seeing what was lurking in the dark or being able to adequately attack. Complaining about the player character’s limited dexterity being ‘unrealistic’ in a game about fighting demons with chainsaws on Mars seems redundant.

Interestingly, since true dynamic lighting made ‘pitch black’ environments possible in games, most games have still made their ‘night-time’ environments almost fully lit, or given the player night vision goggles, from which we can infer that as the average PC gamer has skewed steadily younger and less skilled, they’ve become afraid of the dark as well. (Yes, ok, excessively limiting the player’s information about their environment could be argued to be bad design.)

6. “Monster closets!”

So, one minute you’re complaining about Doom 3 not being enough like Doom (see point 3.), the next that it’s too much like Doom. Make your minds up.

7. “id games aren’t innovative!”

Well, Commander Keen introduced full screen scrolling in EGA, Doom invented deathmatch and laid down most of the FPS conventions that everyone followed for the next decade, Quake set out the blueprint for modern PC games with networked multiplayer, 3D acceleration and fully reusable engines, RTCW through ETQW perfected objective-based multiplayer, Doom 3 introduced unified lighting and shadowing and Rage fully implements megatexturing. That’s aside from the innovation that id have indirectly enabled through their engine licensing over the years.

You should probably just go and read Masters of Doom if you haven’t already.

8. “Rage doesn’t look anything special.”

Rage has unique textures on every surface and runs at 60fps on consoles from six years ago. (Hopefully, when people get their hands on Rage it’ll start to sink in exactly what a big deal megatexturing is.) It’s no slouch compared to graphical showcases like Crysis 2, even though it’s being asked to throw around big, detailed environments at twice the frame rate.

It makes most grid-based, cut-and-paste heavy Unreal 3.0 and Source games look a bit ‘last gen’, and Gamebryo games like Fallout 3 look like they’re running on an Amstrad GX4000. On top of the tech, the art style combines id’s trademark insanely detailed character and mechanical design with a bizarre mix of Wild West, ’80s post-apocalyptic and fantasy motifs.

But yeah, nothing special.

9. “…tech demo…”

Ah, “tech demo”, one of those great bits of jargon like “fan service” and “bullet hell” that people will happily use without knowing what they mean. I can’t point to any specific id game that could literally be described as a tech demo. QTEST was a tech demo. Sony’s PS3 Alfred Molina Head was a tech demo. The whizzy videos Crytek show to the press before spending two years bolting on a hodgepodge of quality German FPS design and ideas borrowed from Predator are tech demos.

Wikipedia defines what a tech demo actual is here:

Please note the line: “Complete numpties are also fond of calling certain complete games technology demos, due to the emphasis of the designers solely on the game’s technology, severely lacking content in the process. id Software in particular has garnered its share of such criticism from the sort of human turnips who print out Ctrl-Alt-Del comic strips.

Although by now it might’ve been softened up by Wikipedia’s editors. But you know what they really mean.

10. “iD”

Finally, sending the pedant-o-meter off the scale, there’s the spelling of the company’s name itself. “id Software” haven’t been “iD” since before the release of Doom in 1993. (Or, according to wikipedia, ever – suggesting that the “iD” thing came from people misreading their Wolfenstein 3-D era logo.) As people have been spelling it wrong for 18 years now I don’t suppose pointing this out is going to make a blind bit of difference.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. (Also: I’m sorry.) You are now equipped to play “id Software forum/blog comment bingo”, and hopefully to say interesting and novel things about Rage when it comes out, instead of cycling through the points above.

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