IN THE SKY NORTH OF SAN ANTONIO, a storm is rolling in. An oil-black thunderhead roils above as lightning crackles in the wet wind, illuminating a small building surrounded by Hill Country scrub. The door opens, revealing a long room lit only by the blue flicker of computer monitors. Sitting in the darkness are seven young men intent on killing one another.
Though motionless except for their fingers, which skitter between mouse and keyboard, these die-hard computer gamers are locked in hyperkinetic combat on the screens before them—loud, fast, and out of control. Rockets whiz across green alien skies. Snipers sight their targets from atop neo-Gothic titanium spires. Shells explode in every direction, smudging the virtual air with thick smoke. The men fight and die, then hit restart and rejoin the fray, testing the agility and endurance of their alter ego. After a particularly punishing volley, one pays respectful tribute to his assassin: “Whoa. Nice shot, dude.”
Welcome to Quake. If your sole experience with computer games is the occasional furtive office rendezvous with solitaire or Minesweeper, this one may be no more than a blip on your screen during news reports about violence in entertainment. To gamers around the world, though, it’s the mother ship, the Godhead, and the bomb all rolled up in one. It’s also one of the most popular video games ever produced. Introduced in 1996 by id Software of Mesquite, Quake—a sort of on-screen laser tag, souped up with hallucinatory graphics and an arsenal that put The Matrix to shame—sharpened the cutting edges of its progenitor, Doom, and secured the company’s preeminent position in the volatile game industry. It also made somebody a satchelful of cash: Various versions of Quake and Doom have rung up more than $112 million in domestic PC-format sales (foreign sales and those in other formats, like Nintendo, ratchet up that figure even further). Played all over the planet, Quake has given rise to its own distinct global subculture, the denizens of which have been eagerly awaiting the game’s latest incarnation, Quake III Arena. This month id will celebrate the new addition to the family at the annual QuakeCon convention with a tournament that will draw more than one thousand devotees from across the country to Mesquite, where they’ll have the chance to face off against top players and rub shoulders with the pop stars of programming.
Ground zero for this phenomenon is a nondescript black cube of an office building set down along a sunbleached expanse of North Texas highway. It seems unlikely that Quake’s garish Technicolor splatter and flash could emanate from here, and in fact, for security reasons, id Software’s name doesn’t appear on the building’s business directory. (Likewise, its phone number is intentionally listed incorrectly in the phone book.) Only when I’m buzzed past the locked doors of suite 666—a tongue-in-cheek retort to the Christian fundamentalists who took the demonic bad guys in Doom a little too seriously—am I sure that I’ve got the right place.
“We’re not really paranoid, but if we made ourselves more available, we’d never get any work done,” insists id’s CEO, Todd Hollenshead, who with his ponytail and Teva sandals looks less like a CPA at Arthur Andersen (which he was) than someone standing in line for Blues Traveler tickets. “It’s not like we don’t get any feedback. We get plenty.” Indeed, the mixed blessing of tech-savvy consumers ensures a steady stream of critical commentary: When id designers do something that Quake players don’t like, they hear about it in up to a thousand e-mails a day. Of course, that closeness to the client base has its positive side. “Having someone say, ‘The level you designed is my all-time favorite’—that’s the best feeling,” says designer Graeme Devine, his Scottish accent lightly coloring his vowels. “That’s much more important than the money.” Bespectacled and droll, Devine has tousled hair and sleepy eyes that give him an owlish mad-scientist appearance perfectly in keeping with his role as Quake III Arena’s project manager. Although id’s fourteen employees tend to work seven days a week, twelve to sixteen hours a day, Devine insists that Quake remains a labor of love. Hollenshead agrees; though he admits to suffering from motion sickness when he plays for too long, he emphasizes the market-research advantage of being both a creator and a consumer of the game. “My friends at other companies ask me, ‘How can you put out a new game without running it through focus groups?’” he says, laughing. “I tell them we don’t need to: We’re the focus group.” To hear Devine tell it, designing Quake is its own reward. “There is a lot of pride here,” he says. “We want to put out the best game in the world.”
A lot of people seem to think that they have. While calculating the number of Quake players worldwide is practically impossible, in part because of software piracy (Hollenshead, grimacing, estimates that 50 percent of all Quake games are bootlegged—80 percent in countries where software copyright violations are not stringently enforced), there are at least thousands of players around the globe. One Web site’s June listing of LAN parties—gatherings of gamers who bring their computers to a central location, hook them up to a common network, and play for up to 48 hours at a time—included entries from Argentina, Australia, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland.
More than anything else, the Internet is responsible for Quake’s ubiquity. Though several years back Doom introduced the multiplayer format known as deathmatch (as opposed to the single-player version, in which one takes on software-generated automatons), it still was necessary for players to hook up their computers to a common network, as at a LAN party. Quake, by allowing players to play over the Internet as well, made it possible to join a game anytime, regardless of where it originated, merely by logging on. In the process it created a virtual community almost overnight, with its own slang (to “frag” someone is to “kill”