Secrets of Wolfenstein 3D Revealed by John Romero in Lengthy Post-Mortem Chat

    John Romero speaks at GDC 2022.
Enlarge / John Romero speaks at GDC 2022.

Sam Mashkovech

SAN FRANCISCO—While the series of games Loss and earthquake have been the subject of numerous columns in congress panels and books, the same cannot be said for the legendary forerunner of id Software Wolfenstein 3D. One of its key figures, coder and level designer John Romero, appeared at this year’s Game Developers Conference to talk about how this six-month, six-person project built the crucial bridge between Commander Keen– dominated past and future FPS-revolution.

And if six months for a historical game seems quick, you should pause for a history lesson.

Original concept art for <em>Wolfenstein 3D</em>.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/IMG_2400-980×680.jpg” width=”980″ height=”680″/><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Original concept art for Wolfenstein 3D.

Sam Mashkovech

“In the last six months of 1991, we launched and shipped five games,” Romero says as an introduction to the genesis of Wolfenstein 3Ddevelopment. This included several Commander Keen side-scrolling games, and id Software began 1992 by prototyping the game that would have been Lively 7, whose major technological advance would have been parallax scrolling backgrounds. After helping id Software complete the game’s first demo in a week, Romero announced that he was not interested in keeping the game. Enthusiastic ongoing series. id Software co-founder Adrian Carmack agreed, “I’m sick of Enthusiastic“- and John Carmack (no relation) ‘saw the carnage’ and felt that a change might very well be in order.

“We should make another 3D game with texture mapping,” Romero suggested, in a nod to the slow-but-new game. catacombs which they also shipped in 1991. After co-founder Tom Hall suggested a foot follow-up to the 1991 id curiosity Aerotank (seriously, what a busy year!), Romero says he replied “instantly” with his own pitch: a 3D remake of the 1981 classic Apple IIe Castle Wolfenstein. “This idea was immediately approved,” he says.

There was a catch, however: work on the id Software remake began before anyone involved, including publisher Apogee, had secured the rights to the classic Muse Software series. Could this happen, or should id Software rename the game? (Romero was stubborn: “We tried to come up with a new name, but nothing was cool enough.”) In April 1992, assistant artist Kevin Cloud was tasked with finding Castle Wolfensteinhis rights. A few weeks later, he discovered that a woman owned the entire production of Muse and was willing to sell the Wolfenstein brand outright to id Software for $5,000.

During the panel’s Q&A session, Romero confirms that id Software has not only satisfied Castle Wolfenstein creator Silas Warner but showed him Wolfenstein 3D‘s retail version shortly after its launch in 1992. To do this, people from id traveled to Kansas City with a $5,000 Toshiba color laptop to meet Warner at a convention where he was speaking. At the event, Warner signed one of id Software’s contracts Wolfenstein 3D printed manuals, which Romero says are still in the id Software offices.

Gatling on stealth; independence on the Sierra

By March 1992, id Software had gutted some of the gameplay elements that made the original Apple IIe game a desktop favorite. The company’s original development plan included the more devious aspects of the 1981 game and its 1984 sequel: treading carefully, searching corpses for loot, dragging incapacitated guards out of hallways to avoid being spotted, and pick locks for objects. While testing the first person actions, tuned by engine chief John Carmack, the team discovered something surprising.

“The most fun part was running and shooting,” Romero says. “Stopping to drag a guard or unlock a chest really slowed down the innovative, high-speed Nazis running and blasting through the heart of the game.” The thrilling nature of the new game was helped in particular by a directive from publisher Apogee, which insisted that the game support SoundBlaster sound cards and their robust playback of digital samples. “The sound of the Gatling gun, the screams of the enemy, the sounds of pain and the sounds of death: it was the heartbeat of the game,” Romero says.

id Software decided to “listen to the game” once its more exciting aspects became apparent, and Romero uses this as a teaching moment: “When you make a game, you try to find the fun as soon as you you can. And sometimes the fun isn’t in the features you thought were fun.” And so Wolfenstein 3DThe stealth elements of were entirely jettisoned in its first month of development.

A photo of Roberta Williams in her 1990s home taken by John Romero during his visit with Ken Williams.
Enlarge / A photo of Roberta Williams in her 1990s home taken by John Romero during his visit with Ken Williams.

Sam Mashkovech

At the beginning of February, Roberta Williams, mythical creator of the King’s Quest series, invited id Software staff to visit her home in Oakhurst, Calif., after receiving a copy of Commander Keen from Romero by mail and enjoy. The tour included a comprehensive tour of the offices of game maker Sierra, co-hosted by Sierra programmer and co-founder Ken Williams, and a chance meeting with legendary game coder Warren Schwader, who Romero says was responsible for all of his father’s favorite PC games.

This was followed by the folks at id Software eagerly showing the two Williams their latest version of Wolfenstein 3D. “[Ken] was visually unimpressed,” Romero says. The demo was interrupted after only 30 seconds, at which time Ken started a copy of Red Baron. “I was stunned,” Romero says. “Here is the future, the start of a new genre, the first-person shooter, and Ken paid no notice.” (It reminded him of the same cold response his team received when showing off dave dangerousthe precursor of Commander Keento the Softdisk release team 18 months ago.)

However, between the Wolfenstein 3D demo, the existing Enthusiastic and id’s ability to make $50,000 a month selling shareware, Ken was charmed enough to make id Software an offer: a full buyout of the company for $2.5 million worth of Sierra stock. Romero and his colleagues pondered the offer for a day, then retorted that they would accept the deal if it included an immediate payment of $100,000 and a letter of intent. “No thanks, but good luck with everything,” Ken replied.

In a 2022 GDC interview with Ars Technica, Ken Williams confirms Romero’s account is accurate, and he now admits some remorse: “I should have done the deal,” he says.

“The Sacredness of His Code”

Romero explains that the floor tiles of <em>W3D</em> were “Empty,” at least in terms of visual data.  This gave id Software the ability to assign some sort of tag to these tiles, and the designers opted for “sound areas.” If a shot or attack happened on a tile connected to others, it would make any other enemy connected “to listen” the sound and move towards it according to the AI ​​routine assigned to each enemy.  A closed door would leave a Monster Closet untouched until opened, as seen in the image above.  Still, Romero clarifies that a few levels include “sly” placement of the sound area that would cause an end-of-level enemy to hear you much farther away.  Players would hear the faint sounds of doors opening and closing as the distant, aware enemy closed in on your position.  This sonic terror was entirely intentional on Romero’s part.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/IMG_2402-980×783.jpg” width=”980″ height=” 783″/><figcaption class=
Enlarge / Romero explains that W3DThe floor tiles were “pristine”, at least in terms of visual data. This gave id Software the flexibility to assign some sort of tag to these tiles, and the designers settled on “sound zones”. If a gunshot or attack occurs on a tile connected to others, it will cause any other connected enemy to “hear” the sound and move towards it according to each enemy’s assigned AI routine. A closed door would leave a Monster Closet untouched until opened, as seen in the image above. Still, Romero points out that a few levels include “sneaky” sound area placement that would cause a level-ending enemy to hear you much farther away. Players would hear the faint sounds of doors opening and closing as the distant, aware enemy closed in on your position. This sonic terror was entirely intentional on Romero’s part.

Sam Mashkovech

As for the release of the game, Romero doesn’t offer horror stories about major workarounds in the art, coding, music, sound, or level design process. The biggest exception is a story about a major gameplay change that happened two months into development and how it required John Carmack’s buy-in.

The problem stemmed from the lack of secret areas in the early levels. How could Wolfenstein 3D reward players for digging and looking for hidden trinkets? Romero and Tom Hall suggested “push the walls”, which would use doorless textures to hide a mix of door animations and unique sounds that players would find if they tried to “open” the right part of the wall without door.

“John didn’t want to add push walls,” Romero explains. “It would violate the sanctity of his code. It would be a hack.”

But the level designers were at an impasse, having no other clever system available in Carmack’s otherwise stunning 3D texture engine to hide secrets. By the end of the following month, Carmack “heard the request enough times” and relented. This led to an explosion in secret areas, and Hall interrupts Romero from the GDC audience at one point in the conversation to possess one of his craziness: “Sorry about the maze you can’t complete!” Moments later, he unbuttons his shirt in the middle of the GDC crowd to reveal an original Wolfenstein 3D T-shirt.

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