“Man, Quake III is insane,” he said. “People are so damned good at that game. They’re shooting at you while they’re jumping and running backwards and shit…”
I was feeling out my new coworkers at a dot com startup – one that doesn’t appear on my resume. I didn’t last long. Neither did the startup.
Other than gigs with my Dad and at a newspaper, I had not really had a serious job working outside ad agencies. Were the web developers who were working on our site at all like the people I was used to encountering at agencies? One of the subjects we covered was gaming, and as it turns out, these folks at the startup were pretty much exactly like many of the developers I knew from advertising.
Anyone who did a dot com startup in the ‘90s knew that people were expected to wear many hats. You had to approach one of these companies with the attitude that nothing was beneath you, because dot coms were like go karts you built as they were rolling downhill. You believed in the mission, and if there was some sort of issue that required you to stop working on the steering mechanism to help bolt the engine in, you just did it, and you didn’t complain about not knowing anything about engines.
Somehow at this startup, I had responsibility not only for marketing, but also for business development and the web team. It had not managed a team of developers before, but had worked closely with people who had almost identical skillsets in prior gigs.
One of the things I knew having watched developers deliver websites in impossible timeframes was that while up-all-night coding sessions did happen, managers certainly couldn’t expect them regularly. What developers tended to appreciate was a temporary distraction that would allow them to step away from a challenge and reset their brains every so often. Enter Quake III Arena. I went out one weekend and got a handful of copies of the game from the Best Buy on 86th Street, on my own dime.
Q3 was indeed, insane. The game hadn’t been out long, but somehow, certain gamers seemed to be superhuman at it. After the web team and I hit a milestone, we’d get a network game going and have some fun internally playing against ourselves and a handful of bots. But hilarity ensued once we joined games on the Internet at large, where other gamers were unbelievably good, and we’d get our asses handed to us.
On the Macs we used at work, Q3 was played with the mouse and keyboard. It was a control scheme I was familiar with, having played other shooters like Doom and Hexen. What made Q3 great, though, was its emphasis on multiplayer. Unlike other first-person shooters in the genre, a single-player, narrative-based game was essentially skipped in favor of a beautiful and balanced multiplayer experience. Players could compete in different game types, from an everyone-for-himself deathmatch to team-based elimination to my personal favorite, Capture the Flag.
Oh, and the weapons… Killing your fellow gamer was so brutal and so fun that Q3 gave rise to the verb “to frag,” as in “killing your enemy by reducing him to eensy fragments with a rocket launcher.” Q3 had no shortage of weapons that could brutalize an enemy – plasma guns, shotguns, railguns, and something called the BFG, even a grazing hit from which would likely mean instant death.
The maps in the game were beautiful, and often as over-the-top as the weapons. One of my favorite maps, The Longest Yard, came complete with bounce pads that would send players flying off onto distant platforms inexplicably hanging in the vacuum of open space. Most times you would reach the platform. However, it didn’t take opponents very long to discover that the slightest nudge from a weapon hit along the way would send you flying off into space and kill you.
It was a frustration the web team would feel when we played Q3 games on remote servers. People were just so good at it, that they could pick you off with a railgun from a distance, while simultaneously sailing through the air – backwards. After a Q3 break, we’d often find ourselves asking each other the same question. How did people get so good at this game?
Some of them were so good that not only could they pick you off from across the map, but they could use a rocket launcher, aim it at the ground, and simultaneously jump and fire, reaching sections of the map that were difficult if not impossible for less-experienced players to reach. Known as a “rocket jump,” it struck me as an organically-evolved maneuver that players had come up with and that the game’s designers never really anticipated. And when we first started playing the game, we wondered whether we could get as good as some of the people we were playing, who were rocket-jumping all over the maps.
I didn’t stay in that job very long. I got utterly shitcanned from it one day. It was ugly. Lawyers got involved. I’d rather not get into it because discussing it leaves me with the same sleazy feeling I had the day I got fired. But I will tell you that I was pretty good at Q3 the day I was let go, and I had enough of my signing bonus left that I could spend a bit of time playing Q3 at home. I played quite a lot, while I pondered launching a consulting business, lined up my first few clients, and grew a beard.
As good as I got with all this newfound time on my hands, some people were just impossibly good at the game. Not only did Quake III represent the first time I had to play catch-up, skill-wise, but it also introduced me to the notion of cheating at online games. Some players had downloaded external programs that would help them aim, or see enemies through walls.
Eventually, Q3’s manufacturers took steps to ensure everybody was playing with the same deck, so to speak, but for me, the game’s demise came when it became impossible to distinguish between people who were cheating and people who were really good at playing it. Land a great hit on an enemy? An accusation of using “aimbot” would quickly follow in the game’s chat console.
To me, that’s Quake III Arena’s legacy. It’s a sad one for what was truly a breakthrough game. Whenever I consider buying a first-person shooter that has online play, I think about the gamers who got a head start on me. Will I ever catch up to their skill level? And how many of them are good at playing the game, as opposed to running undetectable cheats?
Those possibilities occurred to me while considering every FPS that came after, from Unreal Tournament to Fortnite.