Wednesday, August 25, 2021

"Quake Renaissance" for Rock Paper Shotgun

For Rock Paper Shotgun, I recently wrote a three-part series "Quake Renaissance".

Part 1 is an industry history of Quake's cursed development at id Software, Part 2 is a primer to 25 years of Quake community modding, and lastly Part 3 is a how-to guide for getting into Quake and enjoying its mods.

This series had some goals:

  • Address a complex disparate audience. I had to somehow appease hardcore Quake nerds AND interest a general gamer readership who thinks Quake is boring. Ideally, try to convince the latter that Quake is worth thinking about.
  • Push against typical game industry histories ("the great men of id Software") by showing how deeply flawed all these famous developers were + highlight a community history approach. Hell has no gods.
  • Write the type of history that the average academic, fan, or developer wouldn't be able to write alone, by combining all their approaches. I tried to respect the deep engagement of a fan, use the technical knowledge of a dev, and maintain the critical distance of an academic.
  • Revise my earlier writing about mod communities. The retro modders of the 2010s are very different from the teen modders of the 1990s, with contrasting motivations and resources. People (and the world) change a lot in 20 years.
  • Show how Quake community is surprisingly anarchist / radical -- they have complete control over themselves, from their social hubs to their source code to their dev tools. They basically own their own game -- a warning for today's modern game communities that have very little ownership or control, and thus will watch their culture die off quickly, assuming they ever even thought of themselves as a community in the first place.
  • Interview current community members and synthesize their perspectives to try to capture the current zeitgeist. While I appreciate "oral history" approaches at Polygon like with their Morrowind roundtable, this type of format is, less charitably, just a lazy loosely organized transcript with minimal analysis.
  • Write the Quake guide I needed myself a few years ago. There are plenty of "how to install Quake" guides, but I think the real barrier is actually the culture. What are people playing and talking about? How do you read and understand each mod? Newbies need more help with curation and interpretation, rather than technical know-how.
I think I was successful enough on most of those points, but I didn't quite hit the mark on that first bullet. 

Writing part 2 was difficult. Fans want to see proper credits and name dropping and arcane references, they want to be acknowledged and to be seen. But dumping a bunch of names and links on a newcomer / regular person doesn't actually help them understand anything about the culture either. 

In the end, I couldn't quite synthesize these two disparate audiences together, and so each section sits awkwardly with a "link dump" half and then an "actual analysis" half. If I had another month of energy, I could've tried to throw it all away and rewrite everything with a new structure, but writing the current draft was already so exhausting. This is the curse of being a mediocre writer -- knowing enough to communicate ideas and see the problems, but not having the time and/or skill to solve them elegantly or beautifully.

(I think my previous retro FPS culture writing for RPS about a single Counter-Strike map fy_iceworld was a lot more elegant and focused with a stronger hook. It felt a lot better to write and to read. The audience felt more coherent to me too. Maybe the problem was more that I was trying to do too much with this series here? Oh well, I'll live with it.)

The publishing schedule was timed to coincide with QuakeCon 2021. Thus it also coincides with the 2021 Quake remaster rerelease, which makes for an interesting contrast. Should the community embrace this remaster and cooperate actively with Bethesda, or should it stay suspicious and protect itself when Bethesda inevitably loses interest? In another 5-10 years, we may look back on this moment as the beginning of an even higher renaissance -- or perhaps the end of it.

Thanks to RPS editor Alice Bell for help with word wrangling, and thanks to all the Quake community members consulted for the series. And extra special thanks to Ben "Makkon" Hale, who made the amazing Quake logo renders you see in the articles.

EDIT: for anyone's curiosity, I've pasted below my raw working "Quake community timeline" from my writing notes. Sadly I had to simplify a lot and cut a lot for the final article:
Early Period, 1996-2001: pan-Quake unification, shared community and assets
Zerstorer: Testament of the Destroyer
IKSPQ, "ikblue" style
Beyond Belief
Team Fortress, Threewave CTF
Fantasy Quake
The Shadow Over Innsmouth
The Nehahra Project
PlanetQuake begins (1997)
Quake 2 (1997)
QBoard (1998-2001?)
Quake 3 Arena (1999)
QMap (2000-2002)
Speedmaps begin (2001)

Transitional Period, 2002-2004: relating Quake to larger game industry context, source port graphics enhancements
The Castle of Koohoo
Soul of Evil
The Marcher Fortress
Contract Revoked / Knave
GeoComp2 (2002) -- Quake 3 Arena / bsp level design at high modernist apex
Func_msgboard founded (2002)
Fitzquake (2002-2009)
DarkPlaces (2002-2014)
Doom 3 (2004)

Pre-Modern, 2005-2009: Quake 1 soul-searching, facing end of history, re-commit to retro
Quake 4 (2005) disappoints everyone
Quoth: the first major framework mod, "platform mod"?
Quaddicted founded (2005)
Warpspasm (2007)
Travail (2007)
PlanetQuake closes (2009), commercial community hubs can't be trusted to preserve?

Early Renaissance, 2010-2016: new faith and preservation, formal end of DarkPlaces
Tronyn's history (2010)... the community is old enough to look back on itself
Quakespasm (2010)
Rubicon 2 (2011)
Honey (2012)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (2012)
bsp2 file format (2012+)
J.A.C.K editor released, becomes main editor of choice (2013)
func_mapjams begin (2014)
Retrojams begin (2014-2017)
DarkPlaces last update (2014); irrelevant vs Unity / UDK / UE4
Sock's maps (2013+) "The Horde of Zendar", Arcane Dimensions (2015-2021); contemporary echo of Nehahra? Quake 2 / Quake 3 people returning to Quake 1?

Renaissance, 2017+: flood of new blood, tools, interest
AD: "The Forgotten Sepulcher" (2017)
AD: "Tears of the False God" (2020)
Trenchbroom v2 released, becomes main editor of choice (2017)
Quake Mapping Discord (2018) as strongly-moderated place for newcomers
big revival of Speedmapping (2018)
Copper (2019) as direct critique of vanilla Quake
Makkon texture set (2020), AAA workflow that's still "faithful"
Dwell (2020), Alkaline (2021)

End of the Renaissance: when? it'll happen, don't panic, might already be here