The boffins give the game away

At id Software, they've unleashed another horde of chainsaw-wielding killers on the world. It's a stroke of pure marketing genius. Joseph Gallivan reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When the final shareware version of Quake slipped on to the Internet on Saturday 22 June, there was not so much as a tremor in the surface world. The company putting out the product, id Software of Mesquite, Texas, spent nothing advertising it. Yet in the alternate universe of the Internet, there was a frantic scramble to download the free software and let the games begin.

For two years, gamers had been waiting for the follow-up to Doom and its sequel, Doom II, the most popular computer games of all time, with two million units sold and another estimated 20 million shareware versions installed around the world.

Largely thanks to Doom and Doom II, id took in $15.6m in revenue in 1995, and made millionaires out of the classic start-up company's three co-founders - John Carmack, the lead programmer; John Romero, programmer and game designer; and Adrian Carmack, computer artist - along with fellow owners Jay Wilbur, Kevin Cloud and Michael Abrash.

Doom's immense popularity had made it a part of America's cultural landscape - getting mentions on television shows - and expectations for its successor soon grew. id recruited key people from Bell Labs, America Online and Dreamworks to help them go one better than Doom. Abrash was lured from Microsoft, where his interest in 3D worlds (aka virtual reality) was not being encouraged. Then John Cash arrived for the job of making Quake robust for multiple players over a network. A lot of people want to blast monsters, and each other, over networks and, eventually, over the Internet.

Even as Quake was being developed, id was getting millions of dollars in advance orders from software retailers. And this because of, rather than in spite of, its unorthodox marketing method.

"Beta testing" is the software industry's way of doing R&D on the cheap, but in the case of Quake it had a bigger role. The "engine test" last February, with the game's monsters missing or unfinished, was designed to show off Quake's new fast engine - the elaborate computer code created by John Carmack which brings Quake's virtual world to life.

But it also gave the diehard gamers something to chew upon, something to rant or rave about in newsgroups such as news:rec.games.computer. quake.misc, rgcq.announce and rcgq.editing. The diehards even devised their own "patches" to fill in gaps in the test version of Quake, and sent them in to id. The joke in the Mesquite HQ, when progress on Quake had slowed almost to a standstill, was: "We can let the rest of the world finish it for us."

The June shareware release on the Net, which contained about a third of the full game's levels, allowed more gamers to get started. You could test the gory axe and the super nail gun, blow up the zombies and Rottweilers and hunt for Chthon,the lava-dwelling beast.

Following Saturday's full release of Quake, the shareware available on the Internet now contains an encrypted copy of the complete game. If you like the shareware, you can call id Software, pay $45 and receive a PIN number to unlock the full game. Shareware is also being distributed with computer magazines, although these do not contain the encrypted game.

"We feel this inspires brand loyalty," says Jay Wilbur, chief executive and self-styled "biz guy" at id. He believes that kids who can't afford the whole game can at least have a good time with the shareware.

"It is the most open, honest way to market a new title to our customers," he says. "If people try the shareware and don't like it, we didn't want them spending their money anyway."

There is an expected fourth wave to Quake that accounts for id's apparent generosity. Third-party companies licensed the Doom code from id and sold their own add-on levels, inspired by hard-core players who took the game apart themselves, customised it by adding new levels, then shared them on the Internet. The game snowballed into something bigger than any one company could have designed. And while Quake's levels are harder to design than Doom's, the company knows that the fans are always up for a challenge.

If your typical diehard gamer is a nocturnal, pizza-eating longhair who listens to Alice In Chains and Nine Inch Nails on a Sony Discman at his desk, then the boys at id have plenty in common with their customers. Harnessing the competitive and imaginative aspects of the gamer's behaviour is id's masterstroke. Quake is a mishmash of influences, because several designers worked on it over two years.

Aztec, medieval, industrial and futuristic levels open on to each other. Your weapons are an odd mixture of Rambo and Beowulf. And the monsters are inspired by horror films as well as Dungeons & Dragons fantasies. The aim is to please both the strategist who likes a game lasting several years, and the adrenaline junkie with the half-hour lunch break.

Quake itself isn't a great advance on Doom, but the way it has been optimised for the mass market certainly is.

Quake shareware is available from id Software's Website (http://www.idsoftware.com).

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