It's hard to overstate the influence of Minecraft. The entire survival genre that is all over games today owes a great debt to Minecraft. A generation of gamers has an affinity for chunky pixel graphics that they wouldn't have had without it. Sandbox games got big in a way that they never had before. YouTube empires were built by streaming the game. It normalized games not holding your hand, even requiring you to find out how to play outside the game — the polar opposite direction of the last 30 years of gaming that is scared to death you'll miss something or be bored for half a second. It normalized selling games before they were finished, which is now commonplace and a feature on nearly every gaming marketplace.
You could make a case for plenty of other games being the most influential too. Super Mario Brothers showed games could be more than just score chases. Pitfall opened the door for developers not employed by the console maker to make games. Mario 64 was the template for 3D platforming. Rogue has a whole modern genre named after it! But in spite of everything these games and Minecraft brought to the table, none of them is the most influential game ever. Instead, that title belongs to another game with Minecraft's pixelly graphics and a first-person perspective. It's a game that, like Minecraft, was PC-first and created incredible longevity by fostering an enthusiastic modding community. It's a game that planted the seeds for some of the innovations Minecraft brought forward.
Quake was the Minecraft of its day, and its day was about 15 years before the release of Minecraft. Let's take a look at the staggering number of innovations Quake brought gamers in the mid 90s.
Modding was around before Quake, but it came of age with Quake. Many community map and mod makers were ultimately hired as level designers and game developers. Valve recruited early employees out of the community and brought the team behind Quake mod Team Fortress in-house to build its sequel on Half-Life… which was itself built on the Quake 2 engine.
Quake made it possible to watch others play nine years before YouTube, in a time when most people were still connected to the internet via dialup. It’s less that online video was impossible because no YouTube and more that YouTube was impossible because no broadband.
Quake got around this by allowing players to record gameplay into so-called demo files that were not video but could be played back in the game engine. They took the data they were sending across the wire when you played online and instead wrote it to disk. That made the files small enough to download relatively quickly, even over dialup. You could play them back in the game client to watch recorded play.
We used these to watch matches to get better, but we also used it for other things like the next three items in my list.
More than a decade before we asked "Can it run Crysis?" we were asking "Can it run Quake?"
Not really. Quake was pretty easy to run. It was only when you jacked up the resolution and started caring about framerate — which you almost certainly did because you needed every edge you could get in a deathmatch — that benchmarking became important.
I posted a Mastodon thread about the influence of Quake, and user Locksmith reminded me that Quake was also used to figure out how good — or how bad — our hardware was. These were the early days of 3D gaming and hardware 3D acceleration, so it's one of the earliest games where this sort of thing would be relevant. The ability to measure your framerate against a recorded demo was included out of the box.
Since the game included a few demos, you could run your benchmark against one of them to give yourself a common baseline of comparison to other players. It was a simple innovation that wasn't applauded much at the time but that helped create the culture of tweaking and maximizing performance that we still enjoy today.
Quake’s demo file format was great for watching others compete in deathmatch or capture the flag matches, but it was also used to records speedruns through the game’s levels.
If you wanted to watch Quake speedrun demos, the best place to find them was on the Speed Demos Archive. You might have downloaded a series called “Quake Done Quick.” Does that name sound familiar?
That site evolved into the more general speedrunning community Games Done Quick and went on to host the worldwide speedrunning events “Awesome Games Done Quick” and “Summer Games Done Quick” that today raise millions of dollars each year for charity.
Just because you’re recording in a game engine doesn’t mean you have to record gameplay. Players soon started adding stories to their speedrun recording. In some of these demos, the speedrunning went away altogether in favor of the stories, popularizing what we now call "machinima."
The medium spread to other games and ultimately gained mainstream appeal with hits like Red Vs. Blue (a Halo machinima). Fun fact: the original music video for Old Town Road was made using footage from Red Dead Redemption 2. I guess that's not really machinima, but it’s pretty dang close.
WASD + Mouse
Quake’s predecessor Doom only asked the player to worry about two axes. Enemies could be above you, but if you aimed and fired in their direction, the game would handle aiming on the vertical axis for you.
Quake changed all that by asking the player to aim on the vertical axis as well. By default, keys were mapped to vertical aiming. Players would move around with the arrow keys and aim up and down with two other keys — page up and page down by default, if I recall. Players quickly figured out this wasn’t the best way to play.
This was the dawn of the WASD + mouse control scheme that is standard among first person games on the PC to this day. In its time, though, it was controversial. I recall a fan site — I believe it was called The House of Mouse — devoted to persuading Quake players to switch from keyboard only to keyboard and mouse. (Sadly, I can't find a single shred of evidence that it existed.)
The Multiplayer Server Browser
Before Quake, multiplayer gameplay on PC required either a game client that could dial up directly to another user’s modem or entering another player’s IP address in the game client. Enter QSpy, a Quake server browser that made it easier to find and connect to multiplayer games.
Side note: QSpy later became QuakeSpy and then GameSpy, which eventually became an editorial site that operated until 2013.
Client-Side Prediction for Online Multiplayer
This method of compensating for network problems — still a key feature of online games today — was pioneered by John Carmack with his QuakeWorld port of the Quake engine optimized specifically for multiplayer.
There's probably something I missed here. I almost included "Development in Public" and mentioned "plan files" which were a sort of proto-blog where the designers and developers at id shared what they were working on. Maybe that does deserve to be on this list. Maybe not.
One of the wildest things about Quake is that it still holds up. It’s on a very short list of early 3D games that are still fun to play today. If these innovations get you fired up, fire Quake up and run through a couple of maps. You’ll have a blast!