American McGee on Quake

This is not the Ghostbusters fire station, this is the Spicy Horse headquarters. It is probably filled with lava. Or llamas.

American Mcgee joined id Software during the Doom days as tech support guy. He quickly advanced to level design and with Quake he not only created a significant amount of the levels, he also formed much of the game we all love so much. American was let go from id during the troublesome time after Quake's release but not before having contributed to Quake 2. He then went to design games himself, became (even more) famous with the third-person action-adventure American McGee's Alice to which he just returned with madness, erm, Alice: Madness Returns with his studio Spicy Horse ("Ma La Ma" in chinese which probably has something to do with his llama fetish)

In anticipation of Quake's 15th anniversary I drafted many many questions and bombarded him with them just before the new Alice's release. Nevertheless, I got a nice mail back and behold, more interesting answers than I dreamt of. It is my pleasure to present this to you.

A bunch of links to get you going:

Profiles: Mobygames, Wikipedia, Everything2, What do people use to get stuff done?

Stalk him on his website, Youtube, Vimeo, Flickr, Twitter

A couple of interviews:

Leveled Profile (1996?)
Quake 2 Workshop (1997?)
Fragmaster on Planetquake (1997?)
American McGee talks about Quake, Trent Reznor, and live virtual homicide. (NIN related website, 1997?)
Tale of Tales (Alice related website, 2007)
A Ask Me Anything (2011)

Let's go!

Hi American! We know you created a whole bunch of levels for Quake, what other elements of the game did you design?

A fair number of the sound effects came from me. There was also a significant portion of the scripting code (QC) for many basic things in the game (from enemies, weapons to doors and plats).

Shortly after Quake's release you said the nailgun was your favourite creation for the game. Looking back, what else do you feel as significant influences you had on the final product? Did some of your design decisions influence later FPS games? Be bold!

Level design was my main contribution to the id products, and within that portion of the work I think things like level "traps" and "lava" were some of my favorite ideas. "Lava" used in the way it was in Quake/Quake2 has become something heavily associated with my style of design - and it's certainly found in FPSs… but that's probably just because it's the best design material ever created, not because I had anything to do with it.

And is there something you do regret, something that really should not have ended up in the final product like that?

My regrets have little to do with the products and more to do with the people. I was young and immature, so I did some immature things. And I was impacted by some people's actions in ways that were painful. But regrets are pretty useless unless you can learn from them - and I've done my learning and moved on.

John Romero and you created many of the sounds. Was that mostly finding and cutting bits from the sound ideas library or did you also create sounds yourself? ("American was responsible for handling Quake's sound.")

Sound creation was done by a mix of finding existing snippets (sound libraries) and recording original source (foley). The sound of the grenade exploding underwater was a mix of watery sound (library) and a fire cracker exploding in a long pipe on the roof of the building id was in (foley).

The famous Wired article The Egos at id mentions you working on *certain* ogre sounds, wild fantasy of the author or did you really do something like that?

A lot of my time was spent on sound creation - something I really enjoyed. Lost track of which sounds I created, but I know my library and foley collection got to be pretty huge. Also recall being told to "focus on level design" more than a few times - though it was never clear who else was going to get sounds in the game if I wasn't handling a big part of it.

If you created it: What on earth is the final Ogre idle sound supposed to be? It sure sounds cool but what is it, his tummy rumbling? :)

Hard to say ;)

Trent Reznor always gets all the credit for the Quake OST, but according to an interview with Chris Vrenna it was the whole NIN who worked on it. Can you tell us something about that, after all you got Vrenna for the Alice score later on.

Music and sound were coming in from all the NiN guys - it was a group effort. Chris Vrenna and I got to know each other during that time, which is how he ended up working on "Alice".

Did they play the work-in-progress Quake for inspiration or how did they know what kind of atmosphere to create?

They did have access to early builds of the game and would comment on them. One function of my job with "sound" in general was to visit New Orleans (where the NiN studio was at that time), deliver a build of the game and spend time working with Trent and the guys on music and sound (they created, I commented).

How were the tracks matched to the maps?

They knew the maps from those early builds - they could see the style of the art and architecture as it was coming together. Don't recall any attempt to "match" music to levels while either were being built - I think tracks got linked to levels pretty late in the development process, after both were basically done.

What philosophy did you follow with the sound design?

I think I was too young to have a "philosophy" with sound, though the game certainly demanded "big" sounds. Trent and the NiN guys brought a lot of cool tech and amazing talent to bear on the creation of the raw sound files. Sometimes they'd deliver a final sound which we could just drop into the game - but often I'd need to take bits of sound they'd done and edit them to create a final sound we could use in the game.

How did you approach level design in Quake? What inspired you?

As soon as I was given a chance to build levels I started absorbing books on architecture and design - especially "classical" architecture (churches, castles, temples and such). Ancient Middle Eastern style buildings were of special interest to me and I'd apply the proportions and design ideas from those to a lot of the levels I built.

What kind of mapper are you, do you design around combat/gameplay ideas or do you place monsters into an interesting map layout?

For me it was either "build the map and then populate it" or a mix of building and populating at the same time. Only when it came to puzzle-related rooms or lava rooms did I think about design first, then build the thing.

How was it working in a fully three-dimensional environment for the first time?

I started working on DOOM levels, which were 2.5D. So the idea of the 3rd dimension was definitely a twist. At the time, John (Carmack) was building the level design tools from scratch and I was the only tester of those tools - so we'd talk quite a lot about how to make the tools as efficient and easy to use as possible. I was young, so my brain adapted to it all pretty quickly. These days I'm sure my brain would melt.

Apart from the spatial innovation (god, does that sound smart) the lighting in Quake was novel too. You could work with actual shadows and highlights instead of the previous "one surface, one light value".

Yep. But we were already somewhat used to that (light level selection) from DOOM.

When in the time of development were your levels created (or started)? Are they remnants of the medieval idea (as described in The Egos at id)?

I was building levels way before the rest of the team (again, working with Carmack on the editor) and I built levels all the way through production. That might be one of the reasons I managed to get so much stuff built.

What specifications did you get for level themes or their design?

There was no central design group giving "specifications". In those days we just sort of built whatever came to mind. We didn't even have a story until copy was needed for the back of the box! (I should not have numbered the questions, heh. Had the next two on a different paper and had to add them later on.)

How was the interaction between the "art guys" and the mappers? I heard you asked for the metal texture set and also the lava texture which you then used to create effect in your episode. Actually of the 15 maps that have lava, 10 are yours.

Art guys sat in their own private, dark room. We'd ask them for texture sets and they'd make them - usually mixing in a good amount of skull or satanic imagery. Since all the textures in the game were mapped onto level geometry, and textures were constrained to 64x64 or 128x128 (for example) sizes, there wasn't much interaction beyond asking for a set and then waiting for it to be made. Things were much more simple back then.

Tell me about the aztec textures.

They started as basic stone textures, then morphed into a more Aztec-styled set. I think some of the inspiration came out of the architecture books I was studying at the time (at least in terms of the geometry for the levels) - which then might have inspired the artists to make a matching set of textures.

I heard that some mapper could not work with those textures and they got scrapped. Was that you? How come, after all you were inspired by the books yourself.

They weren't my favorite textures. Mainly because they were so BROWN. And the style in which I was building my maps required smaller-grid textures than most of the stone textures. Mainly, I just didn't like the color combinations available with that texture set. I wanted something darker, higher contrast and that "popped" more.

How were the episodes put together? Were you tasked to make one whole episode?

There was no plan for episodes that I recall (though there might have been… it's been too long). I just remember each level designer adopted a favorite style and texture set, then went to town creating as much cool stuff as quickly as possible. There was a sense of competition between the level "sets" being created - to see who could push their textures and designs further. Not a lot of collaboration or planning for how things should eventually fit together though.

The texture themes are also quite consistent per mapper and thus per episode, was that a requirement or simply based on the taste of the individual?

Again, I think it had to do with the internal competition that was going on. "My" levels looked one way, while Romero's looked another. We developed distinct styles to set ourselves apart from each other.

How did Tim Willits' Wind Tunnels end up in your episode? In the beta version it was a secret level (which made sense) but in the final release my beloved e3m7: the Haunted Halls became that.

Tim was still in university (and dancing around in the Goldy Gopher suit) when I first noticed his map work online. After reaching out to him it was decided that he could go and help the guys at Rogue Entertainment with one of the games they were finishing at the time. Wind Tunnels didn't start being built until the rest of the Quake team was already well into development on their maps - and I think we just slotted it in where it felt natural. Again, it's been so long… not sure of all the exact details.

You made the most unusual level of Quake: Ziggurat Vertigo (e1m8). Being heavily influenced by ethnic architecture (Ziggurats; different part of the world but hey) is this map perhaps the last remnant of working with the aztec set? Or was it always metal textures?

It was always metal. When the metal sets were available to me I built almost exclusively with them. I really didn't like any of the other sets as much. I've never liked brown.

I heard that it originally had an all lava bottom?

It did go through a number of revisions - and I'd created several other maps like it (low grav) as tests for the concept. Some versions did have all lava on the bottom - in fact, that's how I still remember it… but I think we determined that it was just too difficult with all lava down there ;)

Did you have to convince the team to get it into the final game?

Maps had to pass internal play testing - if we were enjoying the maps and playing them a lot, then they made it into the game. It was a process of natural selection which was pretty easy and obvious while it was happening. Not a lot of discussion was involved in the "selection process" - though while a map was being developed and tested I would often go and speak with Romero after our play tests, then use his feedback to help guide changes.

Right below the spawnpoint there is a hole in the floor. If the player does not move right after spawning, he will land in it and be stuck until he jumps out of it. Introducing the player to the changed gravity?

I guess. Been too long :P

Were e1m6: The Door To Chthon and e1m7: The House of Chthon originally part of your episode but decided to become the "strong finisher" for the shareware episode instead?

Don't remember.

Playing through a June 1996 beta version of Quake I noticed some of your levels were in a very unfinished state compared to the rest, were you behind schedule?

Not that I recall. When we finished Quake and Quake II I'd made a significant number of the levels in the final product. Back in those days I was really fast at level creation - and I don't recall being "behind" in production… but then, maybe I was? Again, been too long.

How did you come up with the level titles?

Sandy Peterson and Romero split that task. Sandy had an awesome imagination for naming levels.

Apart from the many SP maps you also created DM2 and DM4, both of which remain very popular maps until today. DM4 is probably the most played duel map in Quake. DM2 is regularly played in exciting team deathmatch games. What can you tell us about the development of those maps.

DM4 is probably my favorite map as well - not only to play it, but when I built it. The layout was finished in less than 1 week and the map was "final" within another week. It was probably the fastest and tightest map I'd ever built - and it played fast and tight as well. It combined together so many of the things that I loved about DM - small, fast spaces, lava, hard to get power-ups in widely visible places, lots of teleports and chances for telefrags, etc. It's the kind of map that "sings" when people are in it - the sounds alone can tell you exactly what's going on in any location of the map. DM2 was also built quite quickly - and using a lot of the same design concepts as DM4, trying to achieve some of the same game play goals, but on a larger scale. It's sort of DM4's big brother. I remember there being a lot of frustration in the office around the traps - but I loved traps and fought to keep them in there.

Quake's development focused on the multiplayer aspect, do you think this impaired the singleplayer portion?

Probably safer to say development didn't focus on anything. We had no plan for single player or multiplayer. Single player just suffered because multiplayer was easier to make and the only thing we could really test or feel while we were in development. Single player was really just an afterthought… with monsters.

What is Quake's main characteristic to you?

Fast, fun, and funny. The "funny" aspect is something I think a lot of people miss in current day shooters - the humor is gone from it; games since Quake often take themselves too seriously. Humor is an important aspect of any "violent" game - or the violence just gets to be too much.

worst screenshot ever!

"Funny" is an adjective I would not have expected, could you elaborate what you consider funny in Quake?

Well, that's one of the things I remember most about making games at id while Romero was still around - a lot of laughter. We didn't tune things to be realistic or gory for the sake of gore - but for laughter and enjoyment. "Gibs" weren't disgusting chunks of charred human flesh - they were the battlefield equivalent of "Spam", and the sound associated with them always resulted in laughter. Later, things got too serious. Grumpy space aliens wearing battle armor invaded the comical world of exploding Spam and screwed up the fun.

Quake's design was changed drastically during its development, what would Quake have been like if you were the decision maker?

Not sure I had any idea what it should have been, so I'd hesitate so suggest what it would have been like… but I can say this: While I was at id I pushed hard for more by way of online features - like players being able to buy/sell the maps they created, mirroring of real-time events and social things in the game world. These days I look around at where games have evolved in terms of their social and online components - and think that if we'd pursued those ideas back then… who knows?

Are you happy with the final product?

Of course! It's a part of history and I feel exceptionally lucky to have been involved with it.

Would Quake have been better with a storyline or at least an obvious consistent progressing theme?

"Better" is a relative term. An increase in focus on story would have meant a decrease in the effort that went into the multiplayer aspects of the game. So we might have improved one part of the game while another area suffered. It is what it is, no point in second guessing or imagining what could have been.

Quake is a random potpourri of genres and styles, there is no story, you have extremely abstract and three-dimensional levels, yet it somehow fits together in atmosphere. Many people still love Quake for this unique regard and wish for a successor but I think a game like that would utterly fail nowadays. Do you think a "modern" Quake could be created? What would it be like?

That's a great question and one that I've wondered about not only games like Quake, but great music - like whether or not an ancient album by the Rolling Stones would survive if released for the first time today. Might depend more on the way in which it's released and monetized - more than the "random" content. In an online-only, micro-transaction driven environment, I think it might still work quite well. As a stand-alone box product, it would likely be crushed by the bigger, higher quality games being produced these days.

Your later game Alice picked up that crazyness. Reading between the lines in Masters of Doom (around page 208) I got the impression that you were more of a sci-fi shooter guy than attracted to fantasy worlds. Alice's setting could hardly be deeper fantasy. Explain!

After so many years of machine guns and space marines I wanted to see what else could be done with the tech. Even before I hit on the theme of "Alice" I knew that we could be pushing the boundaries of technology if the story and world stretched beyond the known horizon (space marines and nazis). Even today I think it's a shame that so much effort goes into leveraging all this fantastic technology to mostly recreate real-world locations and violence. Game tech could take us to many more surreal locations if we let it.

I have no idea how to phrase this as a question but I noticed: Your games (Alice, Grimm, Alice: Madness Returns, let me ignore Bad Day L.A. here as I do not know that one) are quite similar to Quake (or any Arcade style game really) at their core. No "smart" AI, no pretense of realism but pure fun gameplay with the background being told in between "rounds" of interaction with the map or fighting enemies.

Not sure what the question is, but I think you're right in the observation. Btw, good thing you didn't play BDLA, since it's quite terrible (in a funny way). And the new Alice: Madness Returns DOES feature pretty smart AI… but yeah, as a rule I've focused on the story telling and environments of games more than on AI and rule systems. Some call that a mistake - but the resulting games have been interesting explorations… some successful, some not.

What do you like about third-person games?

I think I got it in my head a while back that story telling games with strong lead characters should feature a 3rd person perspective so that the player can see and "interact" with the main character. Not sure this is a meaningful rule, but it's what I've applied to various games over the years.

What is it with you and morbid surrealism? :-)

My personal narrative tone was established at a pretty early age. My childhood was strange and sometimes difficult. I played with fire a lot. And I surrounded myself with odd toys, friends and books. Out of that grew a particular attraction to dark and surreal things. It's served me well, so I don't complain much about how I ended up this way.

What aspect of game design work do you enjoy the most?

All of it! :)

Do fiends have eyes? Do Shamblers have fur?

Yes. Yes.

If you remember specifics: Who designed what monsters and weapons, items, powerups etc. Both technical and the media but most importantly who "designed" them, as in deciding how they would work, what they would do?

Art drove design of characters (if I remember correctly). Enemies were drawn in 2D, then made into 3D and animated. Once an animated character existed someone (usually me?) would bring them into the engine, hook up their attacks, sounds, etc and then tune them. I want to say Romero and I split a lot of this work between us - with the programmers providing all the script hooks we needed to make everything go.

Is it really the nailgun you like(d) so much or maybe the super nailgun? Because the nailgun is widely considered the weakest and largely useless weapon of the bunch. Every other weapon serves a unique purpose but the nailgun is just … a weaker super nailgun. And I hate its ear piercing sound so much… >:)

I'm talking about the Super Nailgun, not the "regular" one.

Any scraps, notes, scribbles from the Quake days you can share? Maybe even archived .plan/finger files? #quake IRC chatlogs?

Nope. I live on the other side of the world now and have lost track of all that stuff.

Do you still sometimes launch Quake and play?

Last time I did it was 3 years ago? We had a quick play session in the office while we were in the early stages of development on the new Alice. I got my ass kicked by someone 15 years younger than me, threw my keyboard at the wall in anger, and vowed never to play again (ok, not really with the keyboard thing, but I did get my ass kicked).

One moment at id Software you like to think back at:

We had many happy times, lots of laughter and also many moments of intense pain. Probably the most meaningful day for me though… was the day I was fired. I felt a mixture of terror and freedom that was so significant and powerful - it combined together all the good and bad of the years I'd spent working with Carmack, Romero and the others… and kicked me out into the world to fend for myself. The opportunity to work at id during those early years was so unbelievable - and the path it set me on in letting me go has been even more fantastic. I'm sitting here in Shanghai, China still drawing on many of the lessons and experiences from all those years past… it's been an incredible journey which all started with id.

Thank you so much for taking the time and the interesting answers!

Comments are welcome on the newspost.
Spirit, May/June 2011