A Brief History of id Software

by Taliesin Coward

For anyone fascinated in the history of computer games, one name that would be near impossible to avoid hearing about would be id Software. Since id’s founding in 1991 by just four former Softdisk employees (John Carmack, John Romero, Tom Hall and Adrian Carmack), it has been one of the driving forces in computer game graphics technology, and responsible for one of the most popular genres of all time, the First Person Shooter (FPS). With the resurgence of many of their original series, now is as good a time as any to have a wander through some of their major games and innovations.

In the Beginning

Technically produced before id officially existed (back when id’s founders were calling themselves Ideas from the Deep), the original Commander Keen trilogy (id would do seven Keen games in total) was completed in three months as a side-project by the Ideas from the Deep gang for shareware publisher Apogee.

These 2D side-scrolling games, not a genre normally associated with graphical breakthroughs, hinted at the innovations to come. Commander Keen was the first released game to feature a technology called Adaptive Tile Refresh. Invented by John Carmack, this allowed for smooth horizontal scrolling, something which was regarded as an amazing achievement, especially considering the limitations of the computers at the time. Wildly successful (a month after launch the group received a check for $10,500 in royalties), the group decided that working for a salary was a dead-end, quit their jobs, and launched id Software.

Enter the FPS

Wolfenstein 3D, considered the grandfather of the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, was released in 1993. While Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D are technically seen as the first FPS games (both created by id), it was Wolfenstein 3D that started to make the mark. The technology underpinning the game was a major breakthrough in 3D rendering, and people were amazed by how quickly and smoothly the game ran. However, due to limitations in the power of the computers at the time, some corners had to be cut. Sprites were used for the characters, the engine could only draw a one story level, walls had to be at right-angles, and the ceilings and floors weren’t drawn at all to increase the speed of the engine (the ceilings and floors appeared as dull grey). In fact, much of the emphasis on technical and graphical prowess in FPS games (traditionally the home of the latest and greatest in graphics), is traceable to Wolfenstein 3D.

If Wolfenstein 3D is the grandfather of the FPS, it was id’s next game, DOOM, which made the genre famous. Released in 1992, DOOM cast players in the role of a marine stationed on Mars, caught up in the middle of a demonic invasion (in fact, that’s pretty well the entire explanation – minimal story and cutting straight to the action has been something of a hallmark of id’s games). So popular that any similar game was called a ‘DOOM-clone’, today it is regarded as a masterclass in game design, despite its age it is still played, with thousands of mods (free modifications made by players), keeping it well and truly alive today.

The engine powering DOOM represented an enormous leap over the technology behind Wolfenstein 3D, featuring ceilings of any height, walls at any angle, and windows. Other breakthroughs included dynamic lighting (such as flickering lights), BSP (a technology which had never before been used in a game – it told the computer to draw only what the player could see, thus speeding up the DOOM’s engine), and a system which darkened the areas farthest from the player. It still used 2D sprites for its characters, but apart from that, its only drawback was that you couldn’t have one room directly above another.

Along with popularising the exploding barrel (a much used and abused feature of computer game design), it also pioneered what has come to be known as deathmatch: where players on separate computers, could fight each other inside the levels of DOOM.

Full 3D

In 1996 id released Quake. Originally intended to be a fighting game, Quake instead developed into another FPS. Once again players were cast in the role of a marine, this time called in to stop a mysterious figure called Quake, who was using ‘slipgates’ to transport deathsquads into the world. While the story is hardly notable, Quake was the first game to be made completely out of polygons. There wasn’t one sprite to be seen. Lighting effects were also improved. However, the size of the battles weren’t as big as DOOM, and animation hadn’t improved, giving an overall clunky feel to the way things moved, and the limited power of the computers at the time meant all character models had to be drawn using a low polygon count, giving everything a box shaped look. In fact, in order to maintain a high frame-rate, the visible world polygon count had to be kept under 350. During development, id put up a red flickering screen whenever that count was exceeded – alerting designers to find the offending view and figure out a way to hide it. (To put that in perspective for today, most characters models for 2004’s DOOM 3 had around 1,800 polygons).

Another, noticeable difference between Quake and DOOM was the speed at which the player moved through the world. According to Romero, this was the result of the sheer amount of time it took to make the levels for Quake (the map building tools were primitive to say the least), as well as the imposed 1.4MB size limit for map files to allow people to quickly download the game during the early days of the internet. This resulted in smaller maps. So how to make the game play longer? Simple: slow down player movement speed.

Quake 2 was id’s next game, placing the player in the boots of a marine (big surprise) stranded on the planet Stroggos, after Earth’s last ditch attempt at destroying their almost unstoppable foe, the Cyborg race of Stroggs, got wiped out. The game featured improved animation and higher resolution textures than its predecessor. It was also the first game to implement moving, coloured lighting.

In 1999 Quake 3: Arena was released. A deathmatch only game, was powered by the id tech 3 engine, which featured improved animations, the ability to cast full volumetric shadows, and was the first game to show-off curved textures. While not the most successful game made by id, the engine powering it certainly was, with more than 30 games (including the original Call of Duty) being powered by it.

Faltering and then rising again

What followed can perhaps be summed up as id’s dark period. 2004’s DOOM 3 – effectively a relaunch of DOOM, but this time with more emphasis on story and horror than action, it received a mixed reception (though it was undoubtedly one of the best looking games of the time) as did their next game, Rage. In fact, Rage was one of the first games to noticeably suffer visual missteps, with textures visibly ‘popping’ onto the screen when players quickly changed where they were looking. These missteps coupled with Zenimax’s acquisition of id in 2009, had people wondering about id’s future, and questioning if they’d ever manage to replicate the success of DOOM. Then, in 2016, id released the reboot of their most famous game. Simply titled DOOM, it became a runaway success. Doing away with all things that had crept into the FPS genre over the years – weapon reloading, cover systems, and health which regenerated when not under fire – it featured cutting edge visuals, fast-paced visceral combat, and a heavy emphasis on action over story. In short, it perfectly captured the look and feel of the original. Now, with 2020’s DOOM: ETERNAL building upon everything that made 2016’s DOOM so popular, id Software looks set to continue blazing trails for years to come. ■


Demaria, R., and Wilson, J., Highscore! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games (New York: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002).

‘Games made with the Id Tech 3 Engine’, https://www.ranker.com/list/games-made-with-the-id-tech-3-engine/reference, accessed 27 Aug 2019.

Kent, S. L., and id Software, The Making of Doom 3 (Emeryville: McGraw-Hill, 2004).

Kushner, D., Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (London: Piatkus, 2003).

Lowood, H. E., ‘Doom’, Encyclopedia Britannica accessed 27 Aug 2019.

Romero, J., ‘Quake’s Player Speed’, accessed 27 Aug 2019. 

Demaria, R., and Wilson, J., Highscore! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games (New York: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002).

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