By PistonHyundai 3 Comments
When you think of high-profile breakups in the entertainment world, your mind usually goes to music. It's happened to the best of them: the Beatles had Yoko Ono, Van Halen eventually became Van Hagar, and no shortage of N.W.A. members would go on to celebrate Fuck wit Dre Day. It's not like these kind of things don't happen in other forms of entertainment, but music sticks out because it's where turbulent relationships come through most clearly in the actual final product. You don't exactly see a lot of movies dedicating parts of their runtime to getting all "EAZY-E CAN EAT A BIG FAT DIIIICK" on you quite like some songs do, after all.
While music's at the forefront, video games are no slouch here, either. It's rarely brought up by the games themselves, but more of them are informed by developer and publisher breakups than you may expect (hell, some are damn near defined by them), and this blog series is going to highlight games that illustrate that point. First up is a pair of games that might be the best example of how staff departures can wreak havoc on a studio's output.
Design is Law: From Quake to John Romero's Daikatana & Quake II
With the larger-than-life egos, the Ferraris, and the questionable hairdos, the id Software story's not unlike a rock band's. It's missing the cocaine, sure, but there's no denying that the early 90s incarnation of the Texas studio is the closest thing we have to the prototypical rock stars of video game development, so it's fitting that they're no stranger to messy breakups. While the studio's still around to this day, the development of one game was so grueling that it caused a rift that would take id nearly two decades to recover from and spawned one of the most infamous studios in gaming.
Personally, I think Quake is probably the best and most important first-person shooter ever made. From a design standpoint, it's astounding (long story short: "we made everything about Doom better"), and the groundbreaking network and graphics technology that supports it has snowballed so much that its DNA can be found in Half-Life, Call of Duty, and god knows where else. This digital yin-yang of design and technology is what id is built on, personified by Satan-loving mullet-man John Romero and programming genius turned literal rocket scientist John Carmack, respectively. Romero was the de-facto "bad boy" of the studio, responsible for a lot of the, well, stuff you would expect a guy with that title would bring to the table, while also creating some of the best and most memorable maps to grace a shooter (if you like that shareware episode of Doom, a lot of that has to do with him). Carmack, on the other hand, was the architect behind many of the cutting-edge id Tech engines that power their games and plenty others. The Two Johns got along during the development of Doom and its sequel, but the missed deadlines and reboots of Quake's strenuous development cycle would prove to be too much, eventually resembling the Hell that they had created for their prior games.
The story of their dissolution is a long one (and covered in-depth in Masters of Doom for those interested), but it boils down to two things. Work ethic would become a point of contention for Carmack, who became enveloped in his programming of Quake, growing distant from the rest of the team and taking a cold, authoritarian approach to running the office while Romero was focusing his attention elsewhere (something that Carmack would eventually resent) and serving as the brash and outspoken figurehead of the studio. Romero's beef, on the other hand, was with the core design of the game: he had originally wanted Quake to be a melee-oriented first-person game with heavy RPG elements, but the slow development of the game eventually led to the team deciding—against Romero's wishes—to stick closer to Doom. When Quake finally shipped in mid-1996, Romero was out the door, and the union of design and technology was no more. Both parties would quickly begin work on their next games, but without each other, their works would fall apart in separate ways.
By November, Romero had formed a new company with id ex-pat Tom Hall. This new venture, Ion Storm, wouldn't be shackled by Carmack's focus on technology, and was guided by the mantra "Design is Law." Ion Storm is most known for releasing the classic Deus Ex, but its flagship title was intended to be an ambitious FPS/RPG mash-up headed up by an all-star team of modders and ex-id staff: Daikatana.
Normally, I try to think of video game auteurs as just one part of a bigger team (Hideo Kojima didn't do Metal Gear Solid entirely by himself, even if people talk about him like he did), but Daikatana—I'm sorry, John Romero's Daikatana—is an exception. Even ignoring his icon status, Romero drafted the game's design document himself, so the team that would put the game together takes more of a backseat than normal, something that's reflected in a way by Ion Storm's history of staff exodus (the first wave of developers would go on to form Third Law Interactive and develop KISS: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child, a rivaling shooter that's actually better than its source material leads on). Not to say nothing of the rest of Ion Storm, but this is very much John Romero's baby.
If there was ever a game spearheaded by an "ideas guy," it's Daikatana. Imagine it's 1997, and you're playing the FPS answer to Chrono Trigger, a mixture of genres that feels years ahead of everything else. You're traveling through time, encountering different lands in different times that each feature their own set of creative weaponry and vicious enemies. To keep up with the increasingly deadly forces, you're leveling up and earning skill points to invest in your abilities, letting you jump higher, run faster, and do more damage. You're even joined by a party of sorts: two squad-mates whom you command during combat. To cap it off, this incredible journey is crafted by the glorious mane of id Software's free thinker. A game like this has the potential to shift the course of the entire industry, but there's a problem with this vision: the game came out in May of 2000, about two and a half years after its first intended release date. It was originally built on the Quake engine, but Romero had licensed the Quake II engine from id after their sequel stole the show at E3 1997, a decision which would prove ruinous. Romero expected the engine to be similar to the Quake engine he was familiar with, but it ended up being so different from its predecessor that porting the game over would take an entire year to accomplish. Daikatana's visuals were dated upon release because of this, but that would be the least of its issues. Once you get past the subpar graphics, you quickly find that the real problem with the game is that it just isn't good.
Daikatana is one of the most high-profile failures in the games industry, but to leave it at that does it a bit of a disservice. It's honestly promising on paper, it's just that, in addition to being multiple years too late, the execution screws it up almost anywhere it can. The lengthy introduction gives you a glimpse of the project's ambition from the outset, as there's much more story and world-building than in any of Romero's previous work at id. Unfortunately, most of it is cheesy or outright embarrassing. You play as Japanese swordsman Hiro Miyamoto (Miyamoto as in Shigeru, and Hiro as in "protagonist" as in "Hiro Protagonist") as he travels through time to stop corporate magnate Kage Mishima, who has used the time-bending abilities of the titular Daikatana sword to rule the world. Like Quake before it, the game's story is ever-so-loosely inspired by a Dungeons and Dragons campaign Romero and Carmack played (the Daikatana being a fabled weapon appearing in it), and it definitely feels like something a kid playing D&D would create at times. There's a lot of self-serious mysticism and unintentionally-campy dialogue, and it doesn't help that every Japanese man besides Hiro is voiced by John Galt, who provides questionable portrayals of Asian characters to say the least. I've always thought that John Romero, for better and for worse, designs games like a 13 year old that never grew up, and while Doom and Quake reaped the rewards of that, in Daikatana it leads to stuff like samurai ghosts and black dudes named Superfly Johnson. If it wasn't obvious, someone needed to rein him in a bit.
If you take the John Carmack approach and treat the game's story like a porno film's, you'll still be let down by the gameplay. Daikatana makes the worst first impression I may have ever seen from a game. It's a far cry from Doom's famous E1M1 (which was one of the last levels designed for the game by Romero, in an effort to use all of the experience gained throughout development to begin the game with its best foot forward): the first two levels of the game—a swamp and a sewer system—are a nightmare of hideous green color schemes and shooting projectile weapons at small hopping frogs and swarming mosquitoes. It simply feels awful to play, and by the time the game's bestiary becomes more tolerable to engage, you're introduced to your AI partners, who are, quite simply, total dipshits. The biggest albatross around the entire game's neck is the duo of Mikiko Ebihara and Superfly Johnson, whose AI bring an already troubled game to a grinding halt. Any time your buddies are involved, the game becomes a babysitting session as you futilely command them around and try to keep them from getting killed. The fan-made 1.3 patch fixes the issue by buffing the teammates considerably, but Superfly and Mikiko still get stuck on ledges, corners, ladders, and even themselves. There's a laundry list of other issues (there's a misguided attempt at a Tomb Raider-style limited save mechanic, most weapons are just as good at hurting you as they do enemies, the level-up system is in need of fleshing out...), but the AI is the one the game just can't overcome.
It's fascinating looking at Daikatana in 2019, because for as bug-riddled and frustrating as it is, the ideas at its core have ended up central to modern shooters. While squad-based tactics aren't an everyday feature, there's plenty of games out there that see you lugging around AI partners (Binary Domain in particular has you literally saying orders to AI teammates, with a similar degree of success as Daikatana). The leveling system, on the other hand, is pretty much everywhere, with practically every AAA game these days having RPG elements in it whether they're shooters or not. Daikatana ended up being a case study in how not to make a game, but maybe there's some vindication to be found in how the future ended up somewhat resembling its vision, entirely despite itself. Of course, things had already started moving in that direction before the game was even out (1997's Hexen II has a more involved experience mechanic and even Ion Storm's own Deus Ex delivered an exponentially better melding of FPS and RPG the month following Daikatana's release), but even back during the development of Quake, Romero's ideas were still prescient. It's just a shame that those ideas seem to have taken far greater precedence over whether implementing them properly was actually possible.
By the time Daikatana was supposed to be released, Quake II not only had stolen the game's thunder at E3 1997, it was out, and everybody ate it up. 3Dfx support! Colored lighting! Just take a look at how the GameSpot review starts:
Whatever else may be said about Quake II, one thing is certain: It is the only first-person shooter to render the original Quake entirely obsolete. Within moments of starting the game, it is safe to say that all but the most irrationally loyal players will acknowledge that Quake II is better than the original in every respect, and that no one who can afford to upgrade will have any reason to ever load Quake again.
This is, of course, fucking crazy talk. Hindsight's 20/20, but even for 1997 those are some seriously bold claims. So what exactly is it that could whip up an audience into such a fervor? Well, to sum it up, Quake II is a pretty face and a damn good deathmatch. It was the Crysis of its day, the benchmark for hundreds of dollars worth of brand new 3D acceleration hardware, and the multiplayer held up the standard that Quake set while also canonizing the fan-made Capture the Flag mode as official. Needless to say, the game made quite a splash, all without John Romero.
It's nice that you can put your Voodoo2 to the test, but what about the rest of the game? id's prior games had outstanding campaigns, after all. Unfortunately, the single-player component is just kind of... dull. It doesn't take long to discover that the alien compound you're fighting your way through is occupied by an exceedingly generic race of cyborgs and has a muted color palette of brown, grey, and the occasional red. The game was originally conceived as a sci-fi shooter without the Quake name attached, and it shows. Quake wasn't exactly a colorful game, but that felt like a conscious decision made to help establish that game's haunting atmosphere. Here, it feels like a decision they defaulted to, as if to say "well, this is what a sci-fi shooter is supposed to look like," something that extends to the game's form-over-function level design.
I've tried to make it through the game's campaign about four or five times, and all but the final attempt ended before I could make it to the third of its ten units. It's not that the game is too challenging, it's simply that I've lost interest each and every time. The culprit is Unit 2, which is referred to as both the Bunker Unit and (more appropriately) the Warehouse Unit. It's an oppressively boring series of levels spanning 3 maps, all of which are so homogeneous that they could have shared the same name (how much variety can there possibly be between an Ammo Depot, a Supply Station, and a Warehouse?). The game introduces a touch of non-linearity, which only exacerbates this problem. You'll have to go back and forth between each unit's maps to progress, but the lack of memorable setpieces or even recognizable landmarks leads to everything just bleeding together, which makes backtracking more of a hassle than it already is. It's disappointing, because the idea of progressing through inter-connected levels wasn't something that was being done at the time. Games like Hexen had "hubs" with levels you moved between like in Q2, but the hubs themselves still felt disconnected from each other. Even if it doesn't work out, Quake II's level design at least feels like you're actually working your way through parts of a larger whole, a concept that would realize its potential a year later in the masterful Half-Life—a game that many at id had figured was doomed to failure.
Even the combat, for as exhilarating as it could be in the multiplayer, is a letdown. Now, don't get me wrong, it's still Quake, so the basic running and gunning feels great and new weapons like the railgun are game changers, but none of that translates to an engaging single-player experience. Levels are more constricted and populated with many more hitscan enemies compared to the first Quake, so the focus shifts from staying mobile to popping in and out of cover as you wait for enemies to finish their firing animations. There's some admittedly kickass weaponry (including a great Super Shotgun that's pretty damn satisfying to gib people with), but the gameplay's heights are usually a result of the inventory mechanic. The game adapts the inventory system seen in games like Duke Nukem 3D and the aforementioned Hexen, turning power trips like Quad Damage and Invincibility into consumables that you can pop off whenever you like instead of immediately when you pick them up. It's one of the campaign's rare decisions that actually pans out, introducing a slight strategic element that can lead to some great rampages if you use the right item at the right time.
Speaking of the game's arsenal, you can find the epitome of the problem at Quake II's core in its starting weapon: the Blaster. Instead of a hitscan weapon, you begin the game with futuristic handgun that fires an energy projectile that lights up the environment as it travels. This was a stunning effect at the time, but as a weapon, it's just pitiful. The projectile barely does any damage, moves too slow to reliably handle moving targets, and is rendered useless the moment you pick up a shotgun. Compare this to the original Quake, which upped the ante from Doom by making the starter weapon a shotgun that fired even faster than its 1993 counterpart. This is Quake II's philosophy personified in one weapon: more of a tech demo than something you're meant to have fun with. An overwhelming amount of the game's new features seem more concerned with showing off new tech than the goal of giving the player a good time. Enemies have elaborate death animations and even dodge projectiles, but this ends up as little more than a hollow novelty after you've seen all of them. The machine gun has recoil as it fires—nearly unheard of in games at the time—but this only serves to make the gun more cumbersome since the effect isn't realistic enough to be convincing. Hell, the inventory system even falls victim to this: one of the available items is a silencer that seems to only exist because id Software could program it in, even if it's useless and borderline antithetical to the entire id brand of action. It's easy to see how people could get swept up by it in 1997, but in 2019, Quake II is a game that is less than the sum of its box art bullet points. At least the multiplayer is fun.
After Quake II, id Software wouldn't even try to right the campaign's wrongs. Quake III Arena is a seminal multiplayer game with some of the greatest action and deathmatch maps in the series, but it excised the campaign entirely, opting for matches with bots instead of bespoke single-player offerings. Arena is an excellent iteration on Quake multiplayer, but no matter how much I love the Longest Yard, I can't deny that cutting out the campaign nearly makes it feel more creatively bankrupt than Quake II was. Unfortunately, this trend would continue for years to come, with id titles like Doom 3 and RAGE showing little spark for how cutting-edge their technology was. During this time, the most interesting games using id properties would come from other studios, such as Raven Software's Wolfenstein and Fountainhead Entertainment's Doom RPG games (which, to be fair, featured John Carmack as a programmer).
It would be almost twenty years after Quake II that we'd see an id Software game that would truly deliver both the technology and design that id had made their name on. 2016's Doom is practically the anti-Quake II, featuring a phenomenal campaign that modernizes the original game's action without losing its spirit, and even manages to make an endearing character out of its protagonist without him ever saying a word. The multiplayer is a bit of a disappointment, but you can always play Quake. Go figure.
Nobody really expected the new Doom to be as successful as it was, and part of that is because id really isn't what it used to be. As more and more of the people that had made Doom and Quake what they were had scattered across the world and left id Software behind, the further Doom sunk into development hell. It wouldn't be until 2013 that development of the game would get on track, bolstered by some choice hirings. The Two Johns are long gone (with Carmack having left in November 2013 to focus on VR at Oculus), but thankfully, in their places are some incredibly talented people. Heading up the tech side of things is Tiago Sousa, who cut his teeth at Crytek as one of the people responsible for the bleeding-edge visuals in games like Crysis and Ryse: Son of Rome. Playing the role of John Romero is Hugo Martin, who has a pretty good idea of what the series is all about. They may not work on rockets in their spare time, and Martin's hair isn't even that long, but they (along with id business guy turned game director Marty Stratton) represent a new generation of id Software that can preserve the balance that has proven so crucial to their games.
But what of John Romero? Well, after Ion Storm, John would go on to briefly work at Midway before getting into mobile and social game development. It wouldn't be until 2016 that he would return to FPS genre, and after the disastrous production of Daikatana, I understand the hesitation. The crazy thing, though, is that despite all of the time away from making shooters and all of the ridicule and bitch-making that happened leading up to 2000, Romero's new work has been welcomed with open arms and critical acclaim, and like for id Software that very same year, all it took was recapturing the magic of Doom. Romero's brand new maps "Tech Gone Bad" and "Phobos Mission Control" for the original Doom were originally designed as a warm-up exercise for work on a new game to be crowdfunded on Kickstarter, but they were so well-received that he began work at his Ireland-based studio on an entire fifth episode, named SIGIL, due out next month. Like id themselves, Romero seems to have found redemption in returning to the franchise he built with them, and hopefully SIGIL will see things come full circle.
Thanks for reading this first installment. Next time, we'll be taking a look at an example of when a studio exodus leads to the finest hours of both those who left and those left behind.