Wolfenstein 3D Part 1

By the time Wolfenstein 3D was released (1992), much had changed in the computer world. The Apple ][ was on the way out which the new batch of 16 bit machines (Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and IBM PC) were in. Also, in terms of pure gaming, the Sega and Nintendo game systems were leading the market.

Masters_of_doomTo describe the story of the creation of Wolfenstein 3D is to describe the beginnings of id Software and it was an important enough subject to get its own book named Masters of Doom. While the book covers the story into 2000, the part that interests us now is the first seven chapters.

Like many of these rags to riches stories, id’s story revolves around two people that are polar opposites. In this case, it’s the two Johns, Carmack and Romero. Carmack was the nerdy assembler programmer while Romero was the big ideas guy. The first two chapters of the book are devoted to each of their childhoods and neither appears to have been very good. While they were very different people, they had some interests in common: they both liked heavy metal; they both liked Dungeons & Dragons and probably most importantly for our story, they both were introduced to the Apple ][ early in their lives.

They met by chance when they both started working at Softdisk, a creator of a “disk of the month club” that produced monthly disks of games and utilities that were sent to subscribers each month. While they were originally employed to create games for the Apple ][, they realized that it’s star was fading and they saw the potential of the new IBM PC that had a large user base but not too many games as it was designed as a business machine.

They were able to get set up in a back office of their own and received new 386 processor computers which were the best that were made at the time. They also recruited two other people, Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack (no relation to John Carmack) and they set to work creating games at the break-neck speed of one game per two months. After their first efforts, John Carmack became interested in the concept of the side-scroller game which was quite difficult to do on the non-graphics hardware of the IBM PC. When he showed this to the others, they immediately saw its potential and quickly created a copy of the first level of Super Mario.

keenThey realized that that they had something that was worth a lot of money and they converted the skeleton of this game into a series of games with a main character named Commander Keen and released as shareware samples. Apogee Software (now 3D Realms) was the company that would handle the distribution of the paid for additional levels. The games were really successful and that resulted in Softdisk finding out about their moonlighting programmers. The bottom line was that id Software formed on February 1st 1991 (id is a shortening of Ideas from the Deep).

The guys at id Software were still under obligation to create games for Softdisk and they continued to push sideways scrolling with parallax effects but Carmack was also looking into 3D game technology and produced a games called Hovertank and Catacomb 3D. While they were discussing what the next game would be, Romero said it would be cool if they could use this developing 3D technology to create a Wolfenstein game.

Hovertank

Hovertank

Catacomb 3D

Catacomb 3D

All is not Good in id

If we can believe the text of Masters of Doom it would seem that id appeared to be something of a programming frat house. While we can take that as true, there were certain tensions between the staff. It appeared that Carmack was oblivious to the other personalities and Romero was the essential glue that held them all together. The friction came from the differing aspirations of Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack. Hall was the oldest of the four and probably the most mature. He appeared to prefer games that were PG and something that no one would take offense. He was the brains behind Commander Keen and his cartoon violence. Adrian Carmack was really the opposite. He had taken a job as an aide in a hospital and spent his time photocopying graphic pictures of disease and injury. This changed his view on his art and he desired to create edgy games that had animated death and violence. He did the graphics for Keen and kept quiet but he was finding more of an outlet in games such as Catacomb 3D and Wolfenstein 3D. id was moving away from Keen’s cartoons to Adrian Carmack’s graphic violence and Tom Hall was finding less of a place for him in the company. Of the four, Tom Hall was the first to leave.

Creating the Game

Wolfenstein Box

Wolfenstein Box

By we are getting ahead of ourselves. While Tom Hall was disappointed in not creating a new Commander Keen game, he went along for the ride. They had assumed that they couldn’t use the Wolfenstein name and Tom came up with some suitably lame alternative names but when they found out that Muse Software had gone bankrupt and the Wolfenstein trademark hadn’t been exercised in several years, they quickly decided that the name Wolfenstein 3D would be the perfect name.

As a homage to the original Silas Warner game, they initially envisioned the game in a similar light with stealth and bodies to be search for weapons but once that was coded, they felt that the game didn’t flow and anything beyond fighting the Nazis was a distraction. So, those parts were removed to keep the pace as fast as possible. It’s a shame that no copies of these early versions survived so we could see for ourselves how well it worked, or didn’t work. Certainly games such as the Thief series of games used many of these rejected ideas.

On May 5th 1992 the shareware first episode was uploaded and the first person shooter genre was established.

Coming next

I tried to get a simplified history of the game here so that next time I can concentrate on the themes of the game and how they relate to RtCW. I also want to cover any other aspect of Wolfenstein 3D that doesn’t fit in anywhere else they might be worth recording. I hope I haven’t condensed the id Software story too much – there was lots that I missed out. If you want more details, check out the book. I hear there is a PDF file of it out there … hint, hint.

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