But before the days of Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake, id Software got its start with Commander Keen. Commander Keen was a platformer game not at all unlike the extremely popular Super Mario Bros. that came before it; in fact, it has been suggested that Commander Keen was effectively a way for the PC gaming industry to leverage the success of platformers as spawned by Nintendo's popular franchise. Still, the similarities are very apparent, and in fact Commander Keen got its start (at least conceptually) as a developed direct PC port of Super Mario Bros. 3, a product Nintendo declined the opportunity to purchase when approached.
Commander Keen wasn't merely a take-off on the Mario games, however; it provided its own significant improvements as well, most importantly the smooth-scrolling capability that visually set the game far apart from both other PC platformers and their console-based counterparts. The young company partnered with a developer, Apogee, to release the game to a large audience, laying the groundwork for the partnership that would make id Software's later releases so successful. This publishing partnership also led to one of the unique elements of the game, its episodic shareware model: players could typically play the first episode for free, while the next two episodes required payment. Based on its success (and, arguably, on the success of the company over the next several years), the game earned several sequels and, eventually, a Game Boy Color release, titled simply Commander Keen.
#9: Rage (PC)
From the earliest days of id Software's history, we fast-forward to the latest days, the company's 2011 release simply titled Rage. Primarily a first-person shooter, the game also shows influences from racing games and open-world games. As the first original (non-sequel) first-person shooter released by the most famous first-person shooter developer in over a decade, Rage was met with a significant level of anticipation prior to its release, if only for the reputation of the developer. The final product, however, fell a bit short of expectations. It was no doubt still a high-quality release, garnering several awards especially for the E3 demonstrations, but it did not define its genre and change its industry the way many of id's prior releases had.
Rage is also important for being the first game developed on the id Tech 5 engine. As we'll discuss at length later, one of id Software's greatest strengths, both as a company and as a developer, is that it develops very full, modular, and accessible engines to support the majority of its games. This development paradigm allows the company to outsource its engine to other developers, enhancing the quality of their game while also increasing their own power as a developer (and their bottom line as well). With id Tech 5, however, the company departed from its predecessors in that it has not been made available to licensees outside of id's parent company, ZeniMax. As a result, the only games to be developed on the id Tech 4 engine thus far are Rage and the forthcoming Doom 4.
Despite the subtitle, Quake III Arena is the third game in id Software's hyper-successful Quake franchise. The subtitle 'Arena' comes from the game's ultimate eschewing of any single player mode at all; the only single-player mode available in Quake III Arena is a typical multiplayer mode played against CPU-controlled bots rather than a story campaign or series of custom single-player missions. That change came from the fact that the vast majority of the popularity of the previous Quake games had been in their multiplayer function; Quake and Quake II, as we'll discuss later, became most famous for their head-to-head modes.
For whatever reason, however, Quake III Arena has never reached the level of cultural penetration and popularity that its two predecessors reached. That's not because of the quality of the game: the game was still among the most advanced first-person shooters ever at the time of its release, arguably surpassed only by the original Half-Life. It could be, though, that the lack of a single-player mode alienated part of its audience. Nonetheless, the game became a popular event in professional competitive gaming leagues because of its balance and cutting-edge power. The game was also important as the first game to use the new id Tech 3 game engine. That engine has gone on to be used in several other very popular games, including American McGee's Alice, the Star Wars Jedi Knight series, the original Call of Duty, and one of the early Medal of Honor games.
With those three games aside, the remainder of this list will read something like a history lesson of id Software. That's not to say that these rankings were solely driven by recapping the history of the company; in my opinion, these rankings still hold true for describing the quality, impact, and significance of id Software's major releases. It just so happens that they occur in chronological order following the developer's increased aptitude in developing first-person shooters.
The very first first-person shooter that id Software developed was its 1991 release for DOS titled Hovertank 3D. Although the game was not the first 3D DOS game, it was among the first to gain notable popularity, as well as among the first in the shooter genre to make the jump to 3D. Like the rest of id Software's early shooter releases, the 3D element of the game was actually "faked"; whereas modern 3D games create an actual world and position a virtual camera within that world, Hovertank 3D operated instead by scaling the sprites directly based on the distance between the player and the enemy. Were it not for the title 'Hovertank', though, the player might never even realize they are technically controlling a moving tank; it is very easy to imagine the game more as a traditional first-person shooter. Unlike the later id Software games, Hovertank 3D was not built on an independent library, limiting the extent to which the mechanics behind Hovertank 3D might be generalized to other franchises.
id Software is typically recognized as having one particular "holy trinity" of 3D first-person shooters, but before those shooters came two predecessors: the aforementioned Hovertank 3D and the first true id Software first-person shooter, Catacomb 3-D. Unlike Hovertank 3D, Catacomb 3-D wasn't an all-new franchise; John Carmack, independent from id Software, released Catacomb and Catacomb II, but both were 2D games. Catacomb 3-D, in a shift, was (as the title gives away) rendered in 3D. Like Hovertank 3D, the 3D element of the game was in some ways more mimicked than real: rather than relying on the virtual camera, Catacomb 3-D still scaled enemies according to the distance to the player.
Other than that, though, Catacombs 3-D was the necessary iterative expansion and improvement on the Hovertank 3D engine and design. The most major development in the game was the texture mapping that occurred in the game's backgrounds. Texture mapping, for those unaware, is when the game engine takes a rendered shape, like a wall, hill, or road, and places the repeated texture over it. In Hovertank 3D, for example, the walls were shown in bright single colors because no texture mapping was present; in Catacomb 3-D, the walls are texture-mapped with images of bricks, decorations, and other objects. This might sound like a trivial problem, but it actually represented one of the most major early challenges for the video game industry and its transition to 3D gaming; texture mapping was a non-issue in 2D, but in 3D, where the player's position must be taken into consideration, it represented a significant obstacle.
With the origins of id Software's strength in developing 3D games established, we now move on to the aforementioned "holy trinity" of shooters that the company developed; these are the three series that put id Software on the map and made it the most successful and recognized PC game developer of the 1990s. The first of these three games is Wolfenstein 3D, originally released in 1992 for the PC and subsequently re-released a dozen times for nearly every console, from the PC to the SNES to the modern PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and iOS.
In my opinion, every genre goes through four stages distinct stages in the drive toward popularity: experimentation, popularization, actualization, and normalization. The experimentation stage occurs in the genre's infancy, when it experiments with new ideas and finds what works; the genre doesn't reach popularity, but it advances itself, as seen in Hovertank 3D and Catacombs 3-D. Wolfenstein 3D, then, pushed the first-person shooter genre to the second phase, popularization. This game took the concepts from the earlier releases and deployed them in such a polished, engaging package that mainstream audiences started taking note. Like the previous releases, Wolfenstein 3D is rendered more in 2.5D than in actual 3D; in fact, Wolfenstein 3D represented a relatively modest technological step forward from Catacomb 3-D, running on even underpowered PCs at the time. The game instead succeeded based on solid gameplay design, going on to win several awards and established id Software as the preeminent developer of first-person shooters.
#4: Doom (PC)
While Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D developed the first-person shooter genre and Wolfenstein 3D popularized it, it was Doom that actualized it. By 'actualized', I mean that it was Doom that picked up the genre and really demonstrated what it was capable of; Wolfenstein 3D showed that first-person shooters could be fun, but Doom showed that they could be fantastic in every possible way. Released a couple years after Wolfenstein 3D in 1993, Doom is likely id Software's most famous release; in fact, many people would have chosen it for the #1 slot on this list.
One could write an entire dissertation on what made Doom a high-quality and popular game, but in this limited space, two features stick out the most. The first of these is the technological achievement that Doom represented; whereas Hovertank 3D, Catacomb 3-D, and Wolfenstein 3D all were rendered (ironically) in 2.5D (where the 3D elements are, in some way, 'faked'), Doom was the first full-3D game that id Software released (although some would argue it is still 2.5D given that the player cannot look up or down, in my opinion it falls closer to the 3D end of that spectrum – if you're feeling pedantic, call it 2.75D). That improvement relayed quite nicely into the second major strength: Doom was built on the first modular engine that id Software created, the Doom engine (retroactively retitled id Tech 1). Among the other popular games that used this engine are Strife, Heretic, and Hexen. In that way, Doom set the stage for what would become id Software's hallmark, and what would go on to define a generation of first-person shooters.
#3: Doom II (PC)
The second game in the series, Doom II: Hell on Earth (typically referred to simply as Doom II), mirrored Wolfenstein 3D in many ways. Like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom II did not represent a major technological leap forward for the series and company the way that Doom did; it was built on the same Doom engine, rendered in the same nearly-full 3D, and provided the same overall aesthetic. What set Doom II apart, though, is the actual game design. Whereas Doom was a monumental leap forward for the industry from a technological standpoint, Doom II took that technology and presented it in a polished, accessible package.
The first way in which Doom II was launched more accessibly was in the release mechanism; whereas the original Doom was performed with Apogee's usual shareware/mail-order dynamic, Doom II was the first game by id Software to receive a traditional commercial release, opening up its audience to the broader public. The game also moved toward improved systems for inventory maintenance and management, a broader, less episodic level design (more suited for a single full release than the previous shareware releases), and significantly emboldened level design; the last of these features also lent itself to the release of several level packs for the game, most notably Master Levels and Final Doom, demonstrating the game's customizability. Overall, while the improvements and enhancements made to Doom II over Doom were largely incremental rather than revolutionary, the close proximity of the release dates and the more accessible release paradigm are enough to bump Doom II ever so slightly above the original in my opinion.
#2: Quake (PC)
The top two games on this list derive the majority of their significance not only from their quality as a standalone game, but also from the importance and significance of the libraries that underlie them. For Quake, the game was a significant departure from id's previous Doom series; or, at least, it was as significant a departure as one can expect while staying within the same genre. The development team was something of an all-star cast, including all the usual id Software honchos along with American McGee (later of Alice fame) and Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails. The storyline of the game, previously concrete and rather well-formed in the Doom series, was rather loose and served only to facilitate the sequence of levels – but in the end, that didn't matter. Critics praised nearly every element of the game, most notably (for this paragraph, anyway) the level design, atmosphere, soundtrack, and balanced gameplay mechanics.
What truly set Quake apart, though, was that it was the first true 3D first-person shooter in id Software's library. Doom and Doom II, for all their realism, did still execute a sort of "2.75D" mechanic that restricted some elements of the player's interaction with the world (such as the inability to look up). In Quake, the rendering was in full 3D, allowing seamless, smooth interaction with the environment. The engine that underlies the game (Quake engine, sometimes also referred to as id Tech 1) went on to be used in Hexen II, Laser Arena, and, most notably, Half-Life.
#1: Quake II (PC)
I'm not sure what defines one game as a sequel to another. Quake II is presented as a sequel to Quake, although there is no plot similarity (granted, neither game really cares about its plot at all). Regardless of whether or not Quake II is a true "sequel" to Quake, it remains to this day, in my opinion, the most significant release in id Software's illustrious history. As a game on its own, the game was more than an incremental improvement over the previous Quake; instead, it played the part of normalizing the first-person shooter genre. Out-of-the-box, it provided all the necessary hardware infrastructure to run what was then the most graphically advanced game ever released, and the style and structure of the game presented a much more generalizable and accessible view of the genre.
The most significant element of Quake II, though, as with the previous Quake and Doom, is its engine. Quake II runs on the id Tech 2 engine, arguably the most significant first-person shooter engine yet conceived. Other major releases, including Heretic II, UFO: Alien Invasion, Blade, Daikatana, and Anachronox, were built on top of this engine, making it one of the most influential pieces of software in the first-person shooter genre at exactly the time when the genre was becoming the driving force behind the industry (although it is important to note that the engine was not solely used for first-person shooters). It was the Quake II engine, through its easy access to OpenGL and other advanced libraries, that opened up development of first-person games to the mass of companies, helping popularize the paradigm.
Honorable Mentions: Final Doom, Rescue Rover, Doom 3.
After several years of independent development, id Software was finally acquired by ZeniMax Media in 2009. Given the company's track record, this move did not represent a major change to id's operating procedures, but instead gave them a more sound financial backing for their projects. In many ways, the goals and objectives of the company have not changed much over the years; they still focus on first-person shooters and still make an active effort to separate out the engines from the games themselves, allowing them to both leverage their work for multiple releases and to license out that work to other developers. With the acquisition by ZeniMax Media, though, the latter element of that is a bit more restricted; for the time being, only other ZeniMax Media-owned companies can develop on the engine, theoretically giving the company quite a leg-up over the competition. In reality, however, the gaming industry has come along so far that good engines are no longer as hard to come by; although id Software's id Tech 5 might be the best presently in existence, others are more than serviceable and largely more accessible. Time will tell whether this move will come back to hurt the company, although Carmack has repeatedly stated that one day, id Tech 5, like all its predecessors, will be released in an open-source format: likely after the parent company has milked its profitability for all it's worth.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJ (12/04/2012)
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