John Romero Reflects on Making Wolfenstein 3D, Crunch, and Finds Time for Creative Exploration

John Romero Reflects on Making Wolfenstein 3D, Crunch, and Finds Time for Creative Exploration

In an age of multi-year development cycles, it seems miraculous that Wolfenstein 3D, a game that spawned the modern FPS as we know it, was developed by six people in just six months. The development story of Wolfenstein 3D serves as a fascinating time capsule of those early days of game development – a milestone in gaming history that underscores how far the industry has grown in the decades since. .

But that is a bit ahead of us. The origins of Wolfenstein 3D, a gloriously violent game that paved the way for the even more gloriously violent Doom, can be found in a slightly cuter series of titles: the Commander Keen series. id Software created four of these side-scrolling platforms for MS-DOS in very quick succession between 1990 and 1991, and studio co-founder John Romero tells us the team was definitely ready for a change.

“At the start of 1992 we had just come out of a year where we had played 13 games,” Romero explained. “Of those 13 games, four of them were Commander Keen games. The idea of ​​immediately creating another Keen…it felt like it was too much.”

A particular sticking point for Romero was wanting to do more in first-person 3D space – an Area ID had previous experience with Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D.

“What bothered me the most was that we had just created the first 3D first-person perspective action game – like a shooter, except without a gun. For me, we were already at cutting edge of this technology so I was ready for us to do something better with it and go even further Because we didn’t succeed with Hovertank, and Catacomb 3-D was better but not there yet, this was not an FPS. I knew we could do better than that.”

This desire to do something new, somewhat ironically, led the team to reboot a dormant but beloved title: Castle Wolfenstein, developed and published by Muse Software. in 1981. While it didn’t quite match the team’s urge to move to new IPs, Romero nonetheless saw the opportunity to make his own impact on the franchise in the early days of 3D games. .

The original box art for Wolfenstein 3D was certainly something.

“We loved the original Castle Wolfenstein – we played it to the hilt. And 11 years later the market had grown significantly from 1981,” says Romero. “The number of people who saw Castle Wolfenstein was much smaller – 30,000 people probably played Castle Wolfenstein, as those were the sales figures at the time. So the number of people who saw Wolfenstein didn’t wasn’t huge, but nobody would have seen it in 3D like that. To do it in 3D with high-speed gameplay was to do something different.”

“It was obvious to us that we weren’t going to call him Wolfenstein. It was obvious that we would come up with another name, as we always have.”

However, Wolfenstein 3D was not intended as a remake as we understand it today. In fact, it almost wasn’t “Wolfenstein” at all, id originally planning to create a spiritual successor instead of a direct reboot.

“It was originally a spiritual successor. Because we didn’t have a license for games back then – we were just doing new things all the time. It was obvious to us that we weren’t going to call him Wolfenstein. d find another name, as we always have.”

Needless to say, they didn’t come up with another name – despite tossing around (and rejecting) several title ideas as development progressed. Eventually, unable to come up with a cooler name than Wolfenstein, id finally bought the brands in April 1992 for $5,000 – a far cry from today’s multi-million dollar deals.

Acquisition transaction sizes aren’t the only thing that’s changed since the 90s. Hearing that Wolfenstein 3D was fully developed in just six months (or just four months for the first shareware version of the game) can be somewhat misleading by today’s standards. From a modern perspective, a six-month development cycle is incredibly fast. But by the standards of the time, it was positively forgiving.

“It’s funny, because six months these days is so fast. Nobody can do anything in six months!”

“Before Wolfenstein, we were limited in our timelines – we had two months max to do anything at that time,” Romero says. “So once we were done with all of our previous stuff, we knew we didn’t have to rush with our next game. We don’t have to do it in two months, we can take it as long as possible, do a really good job and it will be done when it’s done. Wolfenstein was when we came up with this motto, because we didn’t have these limits on our time.

“And so that’s what happened – we were going to take our time and get it right, with a team that doesn’t care about how to make money, but just focuses on how to make money. create the best possible game release the shareware version It was a crazy time for us. It’s funny, because six months today is so fast. No one can do anything in six months!

This is an important distinction to make. There’s an idea that permeates certain corners of game development, that game development is supposed to be hard. The crunch culture that has been allowed to fester within the industry is, in part, the result of developers themselves falling in love with the stories of legendary game developers of the past, creating titles that define era, driven by little more than passion and boxes of pizza. . And id Software has certainly seen some late nights on Wolfenstein 3D – downloading the shareware version of the game at 4am on May 5, 1992. It’s easy to take the wrong lesson from that. It’s not that long hours and in the office are crucial for game development. In fact, as Romero points out, it’s the exact opposite.

“The time it took to make games back then was very different,” says Romero. “I read Jordan Mechner’s Making of Karateka – he made a masterpiece with that game, because he worked on it whenever he felt like it. He was never forced to do what whatever. I wish I had done this back then. I wish I had made fewer games, but better games. If I had been older and knew more about programming and design, I would have taken longer and done a better job. day, maybe it was the last night, or they were rolling became the heart of their game was working very well and they were on fire.

“When someone makes you work late, it’s absolutely critical. We absolutely do not condone that. [at Romero Games]. We’re all for work in normal times, because people have lives. If you want to work more, you can, but we never plan it – and if things go on too long, we’ll reframe the work. People don’t eat here anymore. Today you can deliver a game and add more features later – so why would you want to cram them all in at launch, if they’re not essential to your game’s identity?”

Romero is keen to point out that the lesson from the early days of id Software is that games need After the time to fully unleash their potential. Crucially, time for creative exploration, without burnout or exhaustion.

“When you’re in crunch mode, you’re not innovating, you’re just executing,” Romero says. “Your focus is different, you focus on completion, not exploration. Not having that time frame was really important for the innovation of [Wolfenstein]. It’s like making a song, having a cool guitar riff and working around that to make the song. Indies came up with these cool initial ideas like Return of the Obra Dinn or Her Story. These games have some really good ideas, and building around that core takes time. This really should be the lesson for any game developer: take your time, do something new and cool, and do it well.

“No one will remember the games we made in 1991. We made them very quickly and made a ton of them. Nobody cares about those games, they care about the ones we spent our time on.”

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