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” him; a “llama” is a jerk) and etiquette (“camping,” or lying in wait to ambush other players, is considered déclassé, as is excessive gloating over kills). While technical limitations like the speed of Internet connections make truly transglobal gaming difficult, the fact is that many Quake players regularly play against people they’ve never met, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away. The comparison with Internet chat rooms is unavoidable: Not only do players use online aliases (Deacon Blue, PuRe_NiTrO, I’m$oMon3y), but those who seem well matched often retire to a separate game to frag each other in private.

Despite the universal appeal of getting together with a bunch of your friends and blowing one another up, cultural differences still arise. Patrick “DeathBunny” Riley, an American living in Japan, reports that Japanese players are assiduous about greeting their opponents when they enter a game and saying their good-byes when departing, while Americans, who tend to skip such niceties, are considered impolite by comparison. The Japanese also take their games rather more seriously. Riley once lost the top slot in an ongoing Doom game to a Japanese man, who called him shortly thereafter. When Riley tendered his congratulations, saying, “You’re number one now,” the new champion burst into tears.

If online availability has ensured Quake’s success, so has the id team’s approach to marketing it. As they had with Doom, they made the first few levels of Quake available on shareware, meaning that anyone could legally duplicate a copy and play it to his heart’s content. As gamers themselves, the id designers knew that once people played the first levels, they’d be hooked, and they’d come back for more, even if they had to pay. By letting new users have their first taste for free, they created a new generation of Quake junkies, all jonesing for new product. They also turned the computer literacy of the gaming population to their advantage. Whereas previous game designers had knocked themselves out trying to protect their games against the intrusions of hackers, id went in the opposite direction. By leaving “back doors” open in the computer code that runs the game, they encouraged amateur programmers to create their own levels of Doom and Quake using the same tools that id’s designers had. The result was a game that was tough to get tired of, since whenever you had exhausted the possibilities of the existing levels, you could design a new one.

That feature of the game rebounded on id this spring in a particularly nasty fashion following the Columbine High School killings. Early reports that gunman Eric Harris had been a Doom and Quake player were soon followed by the rumor that before he and a friend embarked on their death march through the school, he had designed a level of Doom based on Columbine’s floor plan. While the alleged floor plan has yet to surface, Time reported that Harris had created a version of Doom with some chillingly significant modifications: Instead of one shooter, there were two. The first shooter to run out of ammunition would die. And—the most notable deviation from the standard game—the shooters were invincible.

In the outpouring of grief and horror that followed the massacre, hardly anyone escaped accusations of culpability: movies, guns, parents, the school system, the police; all were held out as possible weak links in the chain that was supposed to prevent things like this from happening. But the video-game industry emerged as a particularly popular villain, perhaps because such games are not widely played by adults and therefore not widely understood—or perhaps, as some cynics suggested, because the industry lacks the lobbying clout of Hollywood and the National Rifle Association. Already id had been named as a defendant in the suits filed by families in Paducah, Kentucky, following a high schooler’s shooting of his fellow students; in the face of further possible legal action, the company’s spokespeople are maintaining a discreet silence.

Fans of id’s games, however, are free to speak their mind, and they do. James “Tetsuo” Katic points out that he’s attended 25 LAN parties where at least 50 percent of the people are drinking while playing, but he’s never seen one fight: “I’ve never even seen a threat of a fight…” Nick “Liska” Lucio, an avid gamer ever since his parents bought him Pong at the age of two, reports that it’s not uncommon for players to model maps on real-world locations. “I took two years of architecture and drafting, and I used to make maps based on places I worked,” he says. “I liked the challenge.” And Houston’s Eric “Lull” McPhail invokes his personal history for a refutation of a causal connection between games and violence: “I used to play Risk…for hours on end [yet] I have no desire to send troops into South Africa or slowly close off Russia.”

The ongoing discussion grew more heated after Bill Clinton blasted video games in a June 1 speech. Saying “I know this stuff sells, but that doesn’t make it right,” he called for new controls on their marketing. The online community was quick to respond. In a message posted on an online message board, a Denton player called Clone summed up the feelings of many when he slammed the president as a hypocrite: “how interesting…the man who sends American troops to God-knows-how-many places (though he avoided the draft), bombs civilian areas with no result, and is basically responsible for an untold number of American and foreign deaths has the audacity to complain about video-game violence, though I’d be willing to bet he has never played one, either…shooting monsters on a computer screen is horrible, but if you’re wearing the flag on your arm, taking REAL human life is honorable.”

Although the debate over video-game violence probably won’t be resolved anytime soon, developments in the gaming world may eventually render the question moot. At the San Antonio LAN party, a game called Starcraft vied with Quake for popularity, and although its plot involved a war with aliens, its appeal was more story than gory. And no less an authority than id’s Graeme Devine predicts that Quake’s popularity will be diluted as younger players also embrace so-called avatar games such as EverQuest, which can accommodate hundreds of players simultaneously in role-playing adventures that rely more on problem solving and narrative than on violence.

For the time being, however, Quake remains one of the big guns of the gaming world. Certainly its global popularity and easy online availability will make it difficult, if not impossible, to regulate—at least as long as it’s a hot commodity—but if its adherents are to be believed, regulation isn’t necessary. At the San Antonio LAN party, I talked about many of the Quake controversies with Art “Triiton[dh]” Cortez, a college student and Naval ROTC cadet. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked him if he had anything to add. “Yeah,” he said, smiling wryly. “Don’t get too obsessed. It’s only a game.”