Looking for a line of fire at QuakeCon

With the computer game industry at a crossroads, all eyes turn toward influential "Quake" developer Id Software and its annual gaming tournament.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
7 min read
MESQUITE, Texas--Last weekend, 17-year-old Sean Price was the toast of the computer gaming world.

Against all odds, Price beat the world's professional computer games champion here twice, in one of gaming's most closely watched competitions. Dubbed QuakeCon, the four-day party and technology tournament serves as an annual measure of the health and influence of dominant developer in the field, Id Software.

With record attendance, $100,000 in prize money from corporate sponsors and dramatic action, this year's event would seem to be an optimist's delight. But even with his face wreathed in smiles, Price served as an emblem for uncertain futures: his own, and the industry's.

"I don't think my parents knew how good I was. Even I was surprised," Price said. "I'm not really sure if professional gaming is for me or not, though."

The computer game industry is at its own crossroads. Game machines such as Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2 are slowly eating away at the PC's technological advantages. And while sales for console games have jumped over the past few years, PC game revenue has stagnated despite dramatic leaps in computers' multimedia capacities. The market for interactive computer entertainment software is built around a relatively small number of core titles bringing in much of its $1.9 billion in annual sales, according to research firm IDC.

Id Software, based in this suburb of Dallas, remains one of the bright spots in the picture. The company's "Doom," "Quake" and "Castle Wolfenstein" franchises dominate the popular "first-person shooter" genre, and other companies routinely use Id's technology to develop popular games. Much of the viability of the computer game industry may well depend on the programming and design decisions made by Id and on its ability to retain the loyalty of fans like those at QuakeCon.

Indeed, Id's influence reaches far beyond the community of game players. The company's resident technical wizard, John Carmack, pushes the limits of computing graphics and processing hardware with each new release, and the wider world listens carefully to what he has to say. His criticism of Apple Computer's operating system and graphics technology led to changes in that company's work. His longtime opposition to elements of Microsoft's technology has helped keep the software powerhouse from dominating the games world.

"Certainly, they have played a very significant role in the computer games industry," said IDC analyst Schelley Olhava. "They have consistently pushed the limits of technology on the PC."

The privately held company doesn't release sales figures for its games. Each successive release of "Doom," "Quake" and "Castle Wolfenstein" titles is a bestseller, however.

To a large extent, other computer games follow the trails blazed by Carmack and Id, and that makes the company and QuakeCon worth watching closely as the industry evolves. Tournament victor Price and QuakeCon's legions of caffeine-amped game players have a pull on Silicon Valley that far exceeds their own limited buying power, on game companies and beyond.

"News travels downhill," said Mark de Frere, a brand manager for chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices, one of QuakeCon's sponsors. "What is a basic standard in games today becomes a basic standard in Adobe Photoshop tomorrow, and in PowerPoint the next day."

Playing games with history
There is considerable irony in QuakeCon's Mesquite location. A quarter-century ago, Mesquite was one of the first communities in the United States to try to regulate video game arcades, passing a law in 1976 that would have prevented kids under 17 years of age from playing in them.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982, and was closely watched by other communities then nervously trying to limit the spread of video arcades. The court declined to rule on the constitutional questions, however, and the issue ultimately faded.

These days, the town's memory of its onetime feud with video games has faded. A four-story banner, draped over the convention center's hotel on the opening of QuakeCon, advertised "Doom III: The Legacy of Evil Lives On." Mesquite's mayor even visited QuakeCon on its opening day.

The first QuakeCon itself, held in 1996, was almost an accident. Quake hadn't even been released to stores yet, but had been downloaded thousands of times as a shareware application. Several dozen fans met up to hook their computers together at the La Quinta Inn in nearby Garland, hoping they could persuade Carmack and other Id people to join them.

It worked, more or less. By the end of the weekend, Carmack made the trip and wound up holding court, sitting on his car in the parking lot. According to Id CEO Todd Hollenshead, Carmack also wound up paying several hundred dollars in hotel bills for the fans, who had turned out to be better players than planners. There were no hard feelings, though, and the convention gathered steam over the next several years, becoming the showcase event for Id's games and technological know-how.

Battlegrounds and business
This year, the crowds were looking for a new game. The company recently released "Return To Castle Wolfenstein," a combination Nazi- and monster-killing game that's set up for team play. But the last "Quake"--one of the titles that really gets gamers' blood flowing--was released four years ago.

Carmack and Id are building "Doom III," a from-the-ground-up rewrite of the game that first put the company on the map in 1993. It will be the first version of the game with a story, and it will still revolve largely around killing demons, this time on Mars. But it's being touted as a big step forward in gaming technology, for reasons from its re-creation of the way light works in the real world to its taking advantage of hardware advancements in new graphics cards.

As AMD's de Frere noted, this will matter to more people than just those who are stunned by realistic shadows, by physics modeling that lets a body bump down a staircase and by exquisite rendering of monsters' pelts and movements. A Carmack game like "Doom" can have trickle-down effects throughout the industry: People will buy new hardware to play it, and other companies will license the technology to write new games, which will in turn drive more hardware purchases, and so on.

Carmack is deeply involved with most of the big hardware vendors. In his rambling, two-hour QuakeCon keynote speech, he complained that serious game software takes so long to develop that it can't take advantage of the latest and greatest in hardware advances. But many of the big hardware companies let him test technology that isn't out yet, and he's not shy about pressing forcefully and publicly for elements he thinks should be included.

"I have a fairly precise idea about what's coming out next year," he told the QuakeCon audience. "I'm generally respected enough, and what we do is important enough, that if I find something that's really important," the hardware companies will give his concerns serious consideration, he said.

Certainly the hardware vendors take the game-playing community seriously. ATI Technologies, a leading graphics card company, donated the $100,000 purse that would be distributed to QuakeCon tournament winners. AMD used the event to launch a "Truth is Power" advertising campaign blasting rival Intel for producing graphics technology that doesn't automatically support some of the top games on the market.

For all their geeky ways, the gamers are "influencers," de Frere says. When less technically savvy people are looking to buy computers, they ask those in the know. This might be their office's technical support desk, or the kid down the street. Either way, the "influencer" is likely to be a Quake player.

Community of quiet killers
That game-playing community was out in force at QuakeCon, which organizers said attracted close to 4,000 people this year. The Hamptons Hotel resembled a college dorm; the halls were filled with teens and twenty-somethings, mostly boys, wearing T-shirts with messages like "Chicks dig scrawny pale guys." Attendees who couldn't afford a room slept in the hotel's stuffed chairs or under computer tables at all hours.

Only a select few gamers made it into the tournament, one of the biggest LAN parties in the country. Most don't even try. The real draw is a massive "Bring Your Own Computer" room, where people can link their own machine to the nearly 1,300 other computers lining the closely packed tables. All the computers are networked together, allowing players to join multiplayer pickup games on the fly, around the clock.

It's clear that this social aspect of gaming is what draws many of the people. It's a remarkably cordial scene: People do shout at each other here while they're playing, but the aggressive posturing that fills many online games is almost completely absent.

This community has created a few superstars. Johnathan Wendel, known better by his "Fata1ity" alias, is widely viewed as the best computer game player in the world. The 21-year-old has won more than $100,000 in the last year, rarely losing a tournament, and is writing a book about the subject.

Wendel and others dismiss concerns that the games they're playing are too violent. Critics don't understand the sporting element and the social aspect of the games, the players say.

It's not a dead topic, although criticism has diminished somewhat since the late 1990s. A California congressman is still seeking legislation that would tightly regulate the sales of violent video games to children, and individual states periodically pursue related legislation.

That concern seems to have had little impact on sales. Id's success, and the success of the industry it spearheads, rest more on convincing mainstream console game players to play games on their computers than on putting to rest a sometimes controversial image.

But given Price's wide-eyed reaction to his wins, it's hard to imagine him as anything but a regular teenager, surprised and ecstatic at a success he didn't expect. Certainly his parents, who drove from Austin, Texas, to watch the tournament, aren't worried that his score is measured in "frags" instead of points.

"I don't believe games make anybody violent," says Sean's mother, Myra Price. "I have four boys (who play computer games), and none of them has a drop of violence in them."