The ‘GDC 25’ Chronicles: A Quake Aftershock

[Continuing his ‘GDC 25’ archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this February/March, official GDC historian Jason Scott goes back to CGDC 1996 for a classic keynote speech on id’s Quake from Mike Abrash.]
The videos of Game Developers Conference and CGDC speeches in the boxes mailed to me from headquarters go back to 1996, with a few in 1997, more in 1998, and then a lot more after the turn of the century.
The later ones are on BetaSP and other high-end format tapes, while the pre-2000 recordings tend to be on VHS (or the previously revealed audio tapes).
There’s something about those VHS tapes that give them a sense of authority, that we’re looking in on a window of a time lost, even though it’s barely a decade ago.
The videos are especially interesting considering the huge leaps in computing power since then, where the people in the video talk about boundaries and pushing limits that barely register on our modern radar.
But if you want someone talking about pushing boundaries in the most intense fashion, then you can’t do much better than a CGDC 1996 keynote talk from Michael Abrash, formerly of id Software.
Here’s some screengrabs from the VHS that we retrieved from the GDC archives:


abrash1.jpgabrash3.jpg
abrash4.jpgabrash2.jpg

In a sign of id Software and John Carmack’s open policy, Abrash presents this speech about internal coding methods of seminal first-person shooter Quake just after he left the company (and very soon after Quake was released).


He profusely thanks his old employers for this opportunity; not many companies would allow this to happen. Here we are gifted with a speech from a developer at the top of his game, unhindered by NDAs or having to make general statements like “we did some stuff here” instead of revealing the exact ideas behind their choices.
Frankly, this is a beautiful presentation, filled with facts and memories and real-world examples of both the kinds of problems that needed to be solved to make Quake, and the intense, occasionally haphazard ways in which they were solved.
Not surprisingly, Abrash’s comments on John Carmack, lead developer of Quake, make him come off as pretty darned smart, in some cases adding newly discussed features in just over an hour, or settling questions by just throwing the feature in. The difference is that Abrash – a renowned programmer who is somewhat of an industry legend – is smart enough to concretely describe what is going on and his own contributions to the tech, without coming off as a starry-eyed follower.
In this GDC Vault-hosted excerpt from the full keynote video, Abrash explains how the calculations worked for figuring out how much of the level was viewable from any other part of the level, so that the rendering was optimized.
You can hear the audience’s reaction to this crazy calculation and stratospheric brainpower demonstration when he finishes. (Incidentally, the full Quake postmortem video will be available on GDC Vault in its entirety for free in the near future, as we continue our larger-scale archiving.)
Another moment, which we’ve also put up on GDC Vault in video form, is when Abrash shows how to speed up rendering of sprites by reducing calculations to only the necessary amount.
This involves rendering out polygons as blobs, because the users won’t notice the difference and a lot of needless processing is avoided. It must have been quite shocking or exciting to the audience to watch him walk around this world like it was just some sort of building, looking for the right example of what he was talking about.
The whole talk is amazing to listen to, and I’ve created an audio version of the full presentation on GDC Vault, with its twists and turns in describing the ups and downs of this genre-changing game’s developments.
At the end of the presentation, someone asks Abrash if he’ll return to games, and his answer is negative – he was mostly interested in the programming aspects of games, not the act of gaming himself; he is a pure developer who goes onto greater and greater projects.
He also laments, in a very real way, how little of all the knowledge he has gained in his years of research and assembly-level programming has any relevance even at that time; he even predicts the eventual victory of pure processing power over subtlety and craft in code.
Quake was in many ways a real game changer for the entire first-person genre and video games in general, that we have a recording of such an influential person within the creation of this game is what makes it so special.
As mentioned above, we’ll be putting the full video of this historically important keynote talk up in the next few weeks for posterity. You can also see all of the ‘GDC 25 Chronicles’ archival audio, video and scans on a special GDC website page now.