Book Breakdown: Rocket Jump

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Posted by David on December 22, 2017


Welcome to another book breakdown, a blog in which I discuss the process of writing a particular draft of one of my books and give an overview of content. This book breakdown focuses on Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Age of First-Person Shooters, a book-sized article at 130,000 words that was published on Shacknews earlier this month.



After finishing Doom: To Hell and Back (retroactively titled Doom: Stairway to Badass) this spring, Shacknews CEO Asif Khan and I began talking about what long-form feature I should write next. A deep dive into Quake seemed an obvious choice. Not only did Quake end up becoming a spiritual successor to Doom for id Software, Shacknews started as a Quake fan site. 

In fact, one of my objectives in writing a Quake-focused retrospective was to land an interview with Shack founder and my first freelance employer, Steve Gibson. Unfortunately Steve had a full schedule during the summer months I spent writing the article-book, so the interview fell through. Perhaps another time.

Talking with the employer who gave me my start as a paid writer was only one of several objectives I set my sights on for this piece. Doom: STB went over very well with the Shacknews audience, as well as "lurkers," readers who visit the site but don't post in our Chatty community or comment on articles. The article-book garnered over 10,000 views in less than a week, an impressive statistic for an article the size of a book. Hence my use of the term article-book: It's an article, technically, albeit one the size of a book at 40,000 words—just 10k words shy of the minimum accepted length for a novel.

Given that data, Asif and I knew that there was a market for long-long-long-form articles of that type. My Quake article-book, then, should be as big or bigger. However, neither of us saw any appeal in hitting a high word count just for the sake of boasting that we'd published a massive piece of content.



The more I thought about Quake, the more I came to view it as the centerpiece of first-person shooters (FPS) in the 1990s, considered by many to be the most creative—if not the most prosperous—epoch of the genre.

That's an important distinction: FPSes are more lucrative now than ever due to factors such as development costs, the average $60 price tag of blockbuster shooters today, and additional purchases such as DLC (downloadable content) expansion packs and microtransactions such as new weapons.

That said, I think most consumers and developers could agree that shooters from the 1990s and early '00s were more creative. With the exception of games such as BioShock, Prey (the 2006 and 2017 versions), and Half-Life 2, most contemporary FPS titles are baked in the mold of Call of Duty and Battlefield. During the '90s, FPSes came in all shapes, sizes, and themes. Writing about Quake would provide me an opportunity to write about shooters influenced by id Software and Quake, such as mods built using its code and games developed by studios that licensed id's Quake engine, id Tech 2.

As this goal crystallized, I saw the story unfolding in two parts. The first was an overarching narrative about the development of the Quake franchise. Since id Software created Quake, I decided to write about Quake titles developed in-house at id. That meant setting aside Quake 4, made by long-time id collaborator and engine licensee Raven Software. No offense to Raven or Quake 4, which I played when it was released back in 2005 and enjoyed. It simply fell outside the purview I'd chosen in not one but two ways: it wasn't made by id, and thus wouldn't fit in my narrative; and it was published in 2005, five years after the cutoff of the decade on which I'd decided to focus.

The second part of the story would consist of what I titled Pause Screens, bonus chapters that focused on a different game, studio, or multiple games somehow influenced by Quake and/or id Software. I'll delve into the content of these Pause Screens in the next section of the breakdown. Here, I'd like to talk about the Pause Screens themselves.

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite writers. He's one of the most prolific fantasy authors going today: author of the ongoing Stormlight Archive series, the Mistborn series, and the author hand-picked by Harriet Rigney (widow of James Rigney, better known by his pen name Robert Jordan) to finish the Wheel of Time following the tragic early passing of Robert Jordan in 2007. 

Sanderson's Stormlight Archive are doorstop-sized fantasy novels that play with the form of a novel. Each book is split into five main parts, or acts. Between each act are Interlude chapters that tell short stories about characters, places, and events related to what's happening in the main acts, yet ancillary enough that they can be read outside the context of the main story. There are also beautiful colored endpapers alongside the expected world map that accompanies most fantasy novels, as well as sketches and illustrations drawn by contracted artists but credited in the novel to characters with artistic sensibilities.

Thus, each Stormlight book is a novel, and a collection of short stories, and an art book exhibiting many styles. The format arose out of Sanderson's desire to experiment with the definition and form of a novel, pushing the envelope to include many types of content in order to create a more diverse and dynamic reading experience. 

With Sanderson's example in mind, I titled my article book Rocket Jump: Quake and the Golden Era of First-Person Shooters. The title communicates the book's form: It tells the story of the Quake franchise, while also exploring other FPS titles, trends, technology platforms, and developers from the 1990s. Like Sanderson's Interludes and artwork, my Pause Screens take several forms: Q-and-A interviews, oral histories, and narrative-style accounts. 

Pause Screens also continue an experiment in form and style I began with 2013's Stay Awhile and Listen: Book I. In SAAL, I wrote Side Quest and Bonus Round chapters. Side Quests are supplementary sections that go into more detail on a chapter's topics, yet aren't crucial to understanding those topics, making them ideal for readers who want nitty-gritty details. Bonus Rounds are chapters at the end of the book that can stand alone. SQs and BRs share one thing in common: Reading them will enhance your understanding and enjoyment of a particular game or person, but they're not strictly necessary. You can save them for later, or skip them entirely.

Like SQs and BRs, Rocket Jump's Pause Screens are supplementary to the main story, that of the Quake's franchises development and the goings-on inside id Software. Read them, save them for later, or skip them. Your choice! (But they're always interesting—he said humbly—so you really should read them.)

Mercury subscribers formed the final and most important element of Rocket Jump. Mercury is Shacknews' subscription. For $5 a month, you get an ad-free browsing experience on the site. As the article-book grew in size, I had an idea. Asif had been talking about growing Mercury to offer premium content. What if we offered the first two or three chapters for free, but offered the full content exclusively to Mercury subscribers? It would be a way to thank them for supporting the site over the last several years, and a way to entice new visitors to subscribe.

Asif liked the idea and we moved in that direction. If you open Rocket Jump without a Mercury subscription, you'll notice that the introduction and first two chapters are free. You can see the titles and sub-heads for the remaining 22 (!) chapters, but not their content. We did this not to prevent anyone from reading the story. The final draft of Rocket Jump came to 130k words and approximately 480 pages. If you want, you can pay $5 to read the story, then un-subscribe from Mercury. Asif even mentioned that he wouldn't mind readers doing that, because $5 for a book-sized feature isn't a bad deal.

We published Doom: Stairway to Badass completely free. While I'm glad so many readers got to enjoy it, I believed in taking initiative to position Rocket Jump as premium content. If you look at the landscape of the Internet, outlets that take pride in quality writing have two ways to survive: a subscription, or advertisements. I know which model I prefer.



The writing and research process started in early August, I believe. That's when I began coordinating interviews. I began writing in August. At the end of the month, Asif generously arranged a trip to QuakeCon for the both of us so I could talk with Tim Willits and hang out in the BYOC to chat up attendees. After getting over a nasty cold I caught at the show, I continued writing, starting with Pause Screen interviews and moving into Quake chapters. The Quake 1 chapters were the last ones I wrote because they had the most moving parts.

Over three months, I traveled, interviewed, transcribed, outlined, wrote, did follow-up interviews, and revised Rocket Jump. Let's get into particulars, shall we?

As discussed, Rocket Jump consists of main chapters and Pause Screens. I had clear goals in mind as I wrote each chapter.


Quake chapters: 1-9, epilogue

Anyone who's read my books or journalistic articles is probably familiar with my writing style. If you're not, the gist is that I frame real stories as narrative accounts. That is to say, they read like novels so that you feel like you're walking alongside the "characters."

To write the Quake articles, I spoke with id Software developers past and present in order to get to know them and to understand id's culture during the franchise's development. Those developers included John Romero, John Carmack, Sandy Petersen, American McGee, Tim Willits, Jennell Jaquays, and Graeme Devine, among others. I interviewed everyone several times using a combination of Skype calls, written questionnaires sent over email, and, in August, an on-site visit to id Software and QuakeCon where Asif and I toured the studio and sat down with Tim Willits for an hour-long chat.

Rocket Jump is structured similarly to Sanderson's Stormlight Archive books. Quake chapters are grouped together to form acts, while Pause Screens separate one act from the next. For example, chapters 1-3 focus on the development of Quake 1 and id's culture and internal happenings at that time. Three Pause Screens follow. The next act, chapters 4-5, covers Quake 2's development and more behind-the-scenes stuff. A few Pause Screens follow. This flow continues through Quake 3 and Quake Live, the still-in-development Quake Champions, and finally the epilogue, where I share my final thoughts on what I learned and attempt to give it context.

Every Pause Screen stands alone, but the Quake chapters—the main acts—tell an overarching narrative that you should read in order. These chapters got… messy. Nothing in life is all bad or all good. Case in point: Id Software created some of the best games of all time during the 1990s, but its culture was a quagmire of politicking and backbiting. I won't go into more detail here because, well, I want you to read the article-book!

For reasons I'll share early next year, I hope to revisit Rocket Jump in order to get more perspectives on select topics. John Carmack gave generously of his time, but he did reach a point where he was too busy to talk further, and told me so in a polite but firm manner. Other developers declined to comment on sensitive subjects. That's their prerogative. What's important is that I did my journalistic duty by attempting to contact them several times. I'll try again soon.


Pause Screens: Ideas from the Deep, Ranger Gond Bad, Sandy Petersen

These three Pause Screens followed Quake's three chapters. The first, Ideas from the Deep, is an abridged oral history of id's early years spent making Commander Keen, Hovertank 3D, Catacomb 3D, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. You might be thinking, But David Kushner already covered those games in Masters of Doom! And you would be right! So I covered them in another way: by focusing more on Scott Miller's early years before founding Apogee; by zeroing in on specific aspects of the aforementioned games, such as how Catacomb 3D became the first FPS to show the player's disembodied hand; and by framing the story as an oral history. The format of the two oral histories I wrote for Rocket Jump (this one and another about Team Fortress) were heavily influenced by Chris Smith's The Daily Show (The Book), an oral history I read earlier this year.

Ranger Gone Bad is a reprint of an article I wrote for Shacknews last year. It goes into the advent of machinima: movies made inside game engines. Because machinima came about as a direct result of Quake, I felt this article deserved a place in Rocket Jump.

My interview with Sandy Petersen is appropriately placed. I tried to place the smattering of interview-based Pause Screens after chapters that introduced the person who's the subject of the interview. You just spent three chapters with Sandy as a major contributor to Quake 1's development; now you get some one-on-one time to learn more about him and his interests.


Pause Screens: American McGee, Apogee, and Jennell Jaquays

American McGee has been asked about Alice, inarguably the game for which he's most well-known, to death. I brought up Alice once or twice, but centered the interview on other topics that I thought hadn't been mined as deeply: his time partying with Nine Inch Nails, working with Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, and the development of Grimm, his episodic series of fairy tale-inspired adventure games.

The Height of Gaming Excitement is a Pause Screen titled after one of Apogee Software's many slogans. Duke Nukem 3D was a huge influence on shooters in the 1990s, but while I do cover it here, I also dig into the first Rise of the Triad, a game that too often gets overlooked because Doom trampled it in sales. The thesis of this chapter was that because Apogee gave id Software its start by publishing Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D, they knew they couldn't compete directly with id's biggest and best games—and so they didn't try to. Instead they made FPS games by looking at what id did and filling in blanks, such as going all-in on gore and wild weapons in Triad, and creating realistic levels and more experimental weapons in Duke 3D.

My interview with Jennell Jaquays, a developer on Quake 2 and 3, is rooted in her pre-id Software years writing and designing for tabletop RPGs, and her experience developing games for the Colecovision prior to and during the North American videogame market's crash in the early 1980s.


Pause Screens: Graeme Devine, Dark Forces, and Half-Life

Graeme Devine is one of the most multi-faceted game designers I've ever had the privilege of interviewing. He's made many types of games: Quake 3 at id, The 7th Guest at his own company—and a really good solitaire game that few people asked him about. So, I did.

In every Pause Screen centered on a game, I wanted to write about what it did specifically that other FPSes did not. The Dark Forces chapter is about how Dark Forces 1 and 2 succeeded not just as good shooters, but as shooters that carried the Star Wars license. Dark Forces told a good story and had puzzles that broke up all the shooting, for instance, while Dark Forces 2 pulled the camera out to a third-person perspective and let players become a Jedi. I wanted to know how that influenced its development as a first-person shooter, so that's what lead designer Justin Chin and I talked about.

Continuing the theme of concentrating on one or two particular aspects of a game, I write about Half-Life's exemplary level design and AI within the context of its engine: GoldSrc, which Valve engineered by licensing the Quake engine, gutting 70 percent of it, and implementing their own routines and algorithms. It's possibly the most technology-focused Pause Screen in the article-book, and I'm pleased with how it turned out.


Pause Screens: Chris Vrenna, GoldenEye 007, QuakeCon, and Team Fortress

Chris Vrenna played for Nine Inch Nails when they wrote Quake's soundtrack. He's one of the most accomplished videogame soundtrack composers working today. He's also got one heck of a resume: Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, U2, Metallica, Green Day, Rob Zombie… I talked with Chris about his days touring on the road, working on Quake Champions, and his long struggle with sobriety. It's one of the few interviews in Rocket Jump that touches on rather than centers on games, which makes it one of the most unique Pause Screens in the lineup.

Many FPSes were ported to consoles in the '90s, and the majority were garbage. GoldenEye was built from the ground up for consoles. I'm hardly the first person to write about it, and to tell stories such as how its multiplayer mode was written at the eleventh hour. Instead, I chose to focus on the game's controls were implemented. Halo came around in 2001 and set the standard for console-FPS controls, but GoldenEye got there four years earlier and had an excellent control scheme for the N64 controller, so I chose to write about that.


QuakeCon was one of the first videogame conventions started by fans. I thought about interviewing its founders, but so much of Rocket Jump is about the origins of this, that, or the other. Instead, during my trip to QuakeCon this past August, I walked the BYOC (Bring Your Own Computer) area and chatted with anyone willing to share their personal history with the convention. It's the only chapter in Rocket Jump that's not divided into sub-headings. I was going for a smooth, unbroken structure, flowing from one interview to the next—the same way I conducted chats in the BYOC.

Thread the Needle is an oral history of Team Fortress. It caps off Rocket Jump because it's the longest chapter in the article-book at more than 30 pages. I decided on an oral history structure because I managed to interview all three of TF's creators, and too much fascinating background and development info would have been left on the cutting-room floor had I taken a narrative approach. On top of that, the bulk of Rocket Jump is written as a narrative account. I was experimenting with oral history formats, and wanted to do one more to flex that muscle.



I am tremendously—and, I think, justifiably—happy with how Rocket Jump shook out. So are readers, as it so happens.

A few hours after the article-book went live on December 4, I tweeted about it. Over the next week, interest in Rocket Jump exploded thanks in large part to retweets from John Romero and John Carmack. Take a look:

There's more exciting news on the Rocket Jump front, but it'll have to wait until the new year. For now, I hope you enjoy the article-book.




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