How Quake changed my life forever.
Recently I saw this article on Rock Paper Shotgun and realized, wow I am not the only person in the world who has had his life changed by one video game. Even more interesting, this person had a bit of a life altering experience thanks to the same game.
I realize how ridiculous it sounds to say "Quake changed my life," but it honestly did.
So let's go back to 1996, I am 24 years old and living with two really great friends, one is a software engineer just out of Case Western Reserve University, and the other is a successful entrepreneur/electronics buff/all around PC geek who rebuilds terminals, resells them, and makes a good living doing it.
What am I doing? Oh I am a guy who barely graduated high school, matter of fact I don't think I legitimately earned my high school diploma...I think someone at the school decided I should just be let out into the world. I am a glorified painter, who calls himself an artist, with no formal art education who gets to work on murals from time to time.
I can recall being in high school and sitting with my guidance counselor after a particularly lack luster semester's performance. I am sure she had good intentions, and was trying the best she could to motivate me. She told me, if I did not get better grades and buckle down I might wind up homeless on the streets. I of course found this to be a bit shocking, and being so close to graduation I pretty much assumed I was going to be relegated to a job no one would like and doing my drawings when I had the spare time.
I always loved to draw, listen to hard rock/metal, read too many violent Dark Horse/Lobo Comics, and had an insane/nerdy fascination with Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Lord of the Rings, and just about any dark Sci-Fi/Fantasy style movie or book you could imagine. The kind of stuff that most people think is really cool now, but would immediately relegate you to punching bag status, and honestly not very cool with the chicks back then.
Following graduation I was an obnoxious guy, loud and just trying to have a good time all the while working as a tradesman in residential painting. Most of my days included at least 8 hours with some of the most right wing conservative Christian people you could possibly imagine. Using the word shit could get a "you need to spend more time with Jesus." reaction. It was an odd experience sometimes, but a few of these guys were very generous and provided me, a kid who had very little direction, with patience, a steady paycheck, solid work ethic, an understanding of quality craftsmanship, and the ability to live on my own and help my then fiance, now wife of 13 years through her undergrad. I don't know that I helped her so much as I bought the beer and food, she is incredibly motivated and far more intelligent than I am, she really didn't need any helping.
So I am living with my two buddies Nick and Pete, they both have PCs and I am saving up my cash for a PC so I can play Doom and Dune II guilt free, but I never seem to be able to put the coins together in a timely enough manner to purchase one. I feel guilty because I am always logging hours on their machines, and feel like I am annoying...but the pull of video games is so strong.
Sometimes the painting work dries up and I have to sit home for a few days, or a week in some cases and eat into my savings to pay the bills. Another time the car dies and I manage to convince myself to take on a payment for a pickup truck I could barely afford...in other words, the PC is not getting bought and spare cash is not readily available.
On a Friday night Nick comes home and says to Pete, hey I have QTest and they immediately go down the basement and magically "install" QTest on Pete's 486DX2, the fastest of their 2 machines at that time. I was hooked, from the very first moment I was given the keyboard and played Quake I was completely hooked. I say "magically installed" because at this point Windows 95 is just out, and everything has to be run through Dos commands which baffles me because I understand nothing about file structure, paths, or how a PC even works. I learn enough to launch Quake and change my yawspeed (this is before I knew about +mlook.)
What I did know was that Quake was so atmospheric, moody, and scary that I quickly forgot about Doom. I would turn off the lights in the basement and play QTest for hours after my roommates had gone off to bed and my wife was upstairs diligently studying towards her Bachelors.
A few months went by and Quake finally arrived on store shelves. I still did not have my own PC, and to my shock and dismay a 486DX2 would not run Quake fullscreen MP very well. If I wanted to get the full Quake experience I was going to have to shell out more money than I could imagine to get a new Pentium class PC.
Thankfully my roommate was kind enough to allow me to play Quake on his new Pentium machine from time to time, and the 486DX2 was just fast enough to run Quake MP in a window about the size of a postage stamp...which is what I did.
I played Quake on that 486 with the window the size of a stamp for hours, I played SP and I played MP. It did not matter that the game world was tiny on that 15 inch monitor, I just needed that window into the world of Quake. My imagination filled in all the gaps, I was so engaged with the setting I came up with my own stories in my head of what might be going on in that world. id had left the story incredibly vague, so the world of Quake was this creepy place that I imagined my own stories around and layered ideas on top of.
After about a year or two the lease on our house was up, and one of my friends built himself a new house, while the other moved into an apartment. I decided to move back in with my parents to save some cash for my upcoming wedding, and eventually I was able to get myself a PC, but only by caving in and putting the cost on a credit card I should not have put the charge on. This of course only led me deeper down the rabbit hole of Quake and Ben Morris' Worldcraft level editor. (Some of you might know it as Hammer these days as Valve purchased the rights to it from Ben ages ago.)
I still recall the day I sat in my room with my younger brother and fired up a Quake level editor for the first time. I think it was either Qed, or Qoole... I sat there and stared at what looked like the most complicated user interface I had ever seen. Now you have to remember, this is the guy who barely made it through high school. I don't know that I ever took a math course more advanced than Algebra, and I forgot anything I learned the moment I left the room each day.
Suddenly I am sitting here staring at 4 windows, X, Y, Z, and something that looks like the player view in Quake. The only thing I could think at the time was, WTF is X, Y, Z?
Thank god my younger brother Josh, who shares my addiction to video games to this day, happened to be sitting there with me. Thank god Josh actually paid attention in school, took a geometry course, and thank god he had no fear of experimenting with the software at all. If he had not been there that day, I might have closed the editor and never opened it again, just figuring I wasn't smart enough for this computer games stuff, so I'll just go back to Deathmatch.
Instead the two of us sat there for hours, figuring out what a brush was, how to put a texture on it, how to place lights in the scene, how to get a monster in the game (a wireframe box in the editor) I still recall the first time we compiled a box room and saw a big error message that said "Leaked." We thought for sure our box wouldn't work, but it did...so we ignored that "Leaked Crap" for now. At the start of it all, we did it together.
At some point late into the night, I got tired and had to work the next day; I was forced to go to sleep. I woke up at 7am the next morning to see my younger brother still sitting at the PC looking weary, tired, and incredibly addicted. He never went to bed, and had built what looked like a crazy spiral stair case to hell...with jumping Shamblers in a lava pit at the bottom.
We were both hooked...I was pissed I had to go to work and he was probably going to sit at my computer all day and build maps. I was pissed of course at my situation, not him.
For the next year or two I spent every moment of my free time in Worldcraft making Quake maps. My younger brother went off to school and his interest in Quake Mappery died off with his responsibility to classes and lack of a PC to work on. Some members of my family seemed to get annoyed with me, with the exception of my wife, over my new addiction. My wife was incredibly supportive and allowed me the time other women would demand of their partner to edit Quake Maps.
I found myself sketching levels, drawing out floor plans, coming up with ways to create new traps and trying to figure out how to properly trigger events and get solid gameplay going. Around the same time I got married, moved into an apartment with my new wife, and was getting very tired of the kinds of silliness going on at my painting job.
It seemed the more time I spent on the PC, interacting with people online, soaking up all of the Quake/PC knowledge I could find, the more lame my regular job that consumed 8 hours of my day felt. Each day was a struggle to get out of bed and pull myself away from what I was loving, only to go into work to do something that began to feel less and less valuable. I was also working for some incredibly wealthy people and it quickly became apparent to me that there were socio-economic/class issues I did not like about being a decorative artist/painter.
It took about two years for me to get the nerve to post one of my levels online. By this point Quake 2 was out, dial-up was in, and I was knee deep in the Quake 2 engine and assets. All the while feeling like the heart and soul of Quake 2 was missing and lacked something visceral and intense. I released my first Quake 2 level titled Retaliatory Strike, and expected harsh criticism. I was scared to death people would not like it, and feared the negative feedback I would receive.
My fears proved to be unfounded and I was pretty happy with of all the kind words being said about my work. I found the positive reviews and emails people sent telling me how much they liked my maps to be incredibly rewarding. In fact it was far more rewarding than any paycheck after a week of filling nail holes and caulking cracks could be. This eventually led me to lose my fear entirely and polish up some of my Quake maps/ideas and put them out there for people to play. All the while slowly realizing that if I could, I would spend all day and all night working on my maps. I had to tear myself away in order to make sure to give my wife, friends and family the attention they deserved.
I still recall the day my wife came home and said, we have saved up a good chunk of money, maybe we should start looking at houses. I thought this could be cool, lots of our friends have houses and they seem happy with them. I of course had no idea how much a house actually costs. We decided to make an appointment with the bank and get an idea if we were even able to get a home loan. Up until this point the only loan I had was for my Pickup Truck, and I think I had some unrealistic expectations of how long it takes to pay for a house.
The day we went to the bank was an especially nasty afternoon at work. When the bank representative started talking about 30 year mortgage rates I had the realization then and there; I could not possibly spend the rest of my life doing something I woke up and dreaded going to do each and every day.
It still had not occurred to me I could actually do games for a living...I barely graduated high school. Even my guidance counselor had assured me, if I didn't get good grades I wouldn't be able to do anything with myself. I was destined to the trades, or a fast food restaurant. I just was not smart enough.
Thankfully my wife did not share my sentiments. She encouraged me to look into schools, people make video games for a living and why on earth couldn't I do the same thing? Thousands of people were downloading my Quake levels and a few of them were sending me emails to say how much they liked them. Looking back it's a good thing she did not see the limitations I saw for myself, my wife picked me up and pushed me to try something I did not think I was capable of. Months later I was enrolled part time in a local community college, and began a long 6 year journey to my eventual 5 year BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art, which eventually led me to a Cleveland area post production facility, EA Chicago, Raven, and finally Epic Games.
So Quake really did change my life. Quake was an approachable piece of technology, and the tools were simple enough for an artist with enough persistence to struggle through and learn the ropes. The fact that the engine and resources were open gave me the ability to see assets created by the original creators, as well as all of the additional content being churned out online. I could experiment and bring my own ideas to life and there was an entire sub-culture and community online line which supported and surrounded this pursuit.
Quake really did help change my life. It taught me if I wanted something bad enough I had to get out there and do it myself. It taught me how to type so I could communicate online, it taught me how to seek out information and familiarized me with the inner workings of a PC. Most of all I learned not to give up, to push myself to learn more and more each day, and that I was smart enough to do something other than paint or work at a hardware store.
Most important of all, my wife taught me that I was smart enough, and that the limits I saw for myself based on what I had been told when I was younger simply was not truthful. My time in the trades as a painter taught me that hard work, a strong work ethic, and persistence are sometimes worth more than any 101 course at an early age, when I may not have known exactly what it was I wanted to be doing after college.
My counselor had been mistaken, a few years later I would be paying for an apartment in Chicago, and a Mortgage in Cleveland. I was not homeless after all, at that time I had two homes and was flying back and forth between them on weekends.
My path to being an Effects Artist at Epic Games is by no means a straight one. I originally wanted to be a level designer or environment artist. There were plenty of challenges along the way, but I think it is obvious to me now. If I can make it from being a directionless, lost, obnoxious, nerdy artist in high school who barely graduated to working for Epic Games, anyone with enough talent, effort, and motivation can achieve their goals and dreams.
At the end of all this, it wasn't just Quake that really changed my life, my wife did. Quake gave me a direction to point in, and my wife picked me up and pushed me forward when I thought the road was closed to me.
In other words, to anyone wishing to work in the game industry, if I can do this, with enough effort and persistence so can you.