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At this year’s Game Developer Conference, id Software co-founder John Romero looked back at the creation of influential first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D.

The impact and influence of Wolfenstein 3D is almost impossible to measure. It’s a foundational game for the genre and is widely regarded as the “grandfather of 3D shooters”. Many of the innovations it introduced remain essential elements of modern-day FPS games. A true sign of its quality is that 30 years on, the game is just as playable and engaging as the day it was released.

To mark Wolfenstein 3D‘s anniversary, id Software co-founder John Romero reflected on its development at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

Wolfenstein 3D sketches

Keen for something new

Romero explains that the initial idea for Wolfenstein 3D came during prototyping for a new Commander Keen adventure. However, after five successful entries in the franchise, Romero was fatigued with Keen’s exploits. Rather than continue, he suggested creating another game that used 3D texture mapping, like Catacomb 3-D.

“Tom, our creative director, instantly understood that we were burned out on Keen,” recalls Romero. “He immediately started coming up with ideas. He came up with an idea for a more advanced version of Hover Tank 1‘s premise, but with you walking around in first person.”

The concept didn’t appeal to Romero, but it triggered the thought of making a new version of 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein. The idea was immediately embraced by his id colleagues.

“Me, John (Carmack), and Tom were Apple II gamers. We played so much Castle Wolfenstein ten years earlier that it was an obvious win to us,” says Romero.

Development started – using the Catacomb 3-D engine – in January 1992. At first, the game used 16-colour EGA graphics before moving to 256-colour VGA. Each of its palette slots could be set to one of 16 million colours. This immediately opened up a canvas for the game’s vibrant aesthetic, which would be a significant part of its appeal.

Wolfenstein 3D screenshot

Finding the fun

Although Wolfenstein 3D began life as an adaptation of its 1981 inspiration, a new identity emerged as development progressed.

“When we started creating gameplay, we were replicating all of the original game’s stealth features,” explains Romero. “Searching dead bodies, dragging guards around so enemy soldiers wouldn’t become suspicious, and breaking into storage lockers for food and ammo.”

“But,” he adds, “while we were adding these features and playing constantly, we started to notice that the more fun part of the game was running and gunning. Stopping to drag a guard or unlock a chest really slowed down the innovative high-speed running and blasting Nazis that was the real fun core of the game.”

The team followed their instincts and ripped out any gameplay elements that slowed down the experience. The change was a simplification of the original design, but the benefits were clear.

“The entire time you’re trying to make a game, you’re trying to find the fun as soon as you can,” Romero says. “Sometimes the fun isn’t in the features that you thought were going to be fun. So you have to really listen to the game.”

When Sierra met id Software

During the early stages of Wolfenstein 3D‘s development, a build of the game was demoed to Ken Williams, co-founder of Sierra Entertainment. Williams was not particularly impressed by what he saw and was more interested in showing off Red Baron Online.

“I was dumbfounded,” says Romero. “Here’s the future, the start of a new genre, the first-person shooter. And Ken did not pay it any notice!”

Williams was impressed, however, by the revenues id Software was making from its shareware distribution model. The meeting ended with an offer from Sierra to buy the studio for $2.5 million, plus stock.

Romero tried to negotiate $100,000 in cash upfront to complete the deal. But in one of video game history’s great “what if?” moments, Williams chose not to proceed with the acquisition.

Sound blasters

Wolfenstein 3D‘s distinctive audio design played a large part in its success, from the sound of the Gatling gun to the iconic enemy sighting effect. The game pushed the boundaries of audio by offering midi effects and music plus PC speaker effects for backward compatibility.

“We wanted Wolfenstein 3D‘s audio to really stand out,” says Romero. “The Sound Blaster audio card was doing really well and had digital audio playback. We could recreate the original Castle Wolfenstein‘s enemy speech and have realistic gunshot sounds.”

Wolfenstein 3D sound zones

Romero explains that the development of a technique called Sound Zones created the game’s unique sense of suspense and immersion.

“We had a lot of rooms in these levels,” he says. “All these rooms have doors that open and close. When the player shoots a gun, we want to make sure that enemies can hear it, but we don’t want all the enemies in the level to be activated and just empty all the rooms looking for the player.”

“So what we did was add sound zones in every room. The floors in a room are always the same colour on the screen for the entire level. It was a part of level data, so the background layer in a map file was used for wall placement and putting doors in. So we decided, why don’t we use the floor space for sound zone designation?”

36 specially coloured tiles (pictured above on the last two rows) were used to specify areas where enemies could hear player weapon sounds.

“If you’re out in a hallway and you shoot a guard, no one inside of a room can hear you unless you open the door,” Romero explains. “When you open a door, the sound zone of the new room flood fills the area that you’re in. And so when you shoot your gun, the sound will be heard by every enemy in a matching sound zone, even if it’s in a faraway room.”

Wolfenstein 3D doors

A secret hack

Late in production, the team realised Wolfenstein 3D was missing an element used successfully in previous games: secret areas. The only problem was that development was so far advanced, there was no easy way to add them.

“We decided the best solution was to create what we would call a push wall,” explains Romero. “The player would press the space bar on a wall, and if it was pushable, you’d see and hear the stone sliding back.”

However, John Carmack was hesitant to add secret areas. “It would violate the sanctity of his code base,” says Romero. “It would be a hack.”

The rest of the team pressed the case, arguing that it was essential for the player to have something else to do. Carmack relented and added secret rooms to the game in under a month.

Wolfenstein 3D animation

Release and distribution

The original plan for Wolfenstein 3D‘s distribution was a free shareware episode of ten levels with an additional two episodes available to purchase after release. However, designer Scott Miller wanted to try something new.

“He thought that if he could sell an additional three episodes of levels, that would be enough to justify writing a hint book. And all three parts of Wolfenstein 3D could be very smartly priced,” Romero recalls.

The final pricing structure was:

  • $35 for the initial trilogy of 30 levels
  • $15 for an additional 30 levels (The Nocturnal Missions)
  • $10 for a hint book that detailed all 60 levels

“It was an inspired bit of marketing. If you spend $35 for three episodes, why wouldn’t you double the amount of fun for a mere $15 more? And what if you got lost? There was no internet back then, so that hint book would be invaluable!”

Wolfenstein 3D launched on May 5, 1992. And the rest, as they say, is history. By the end of the month, there were 4,000 orders for the complete package of 60 levels. The game had generated around a quarter of a million dollars in revenue.

“When we were finally done, the shareware episode took us four months from start to ship, and the other five episodes of Wolfenstein 3D were done in two months,” says Romero.

The game’s success cemented id Software’s reputation as a groundbreaking studio, paving the way for the team to break even more boundaries with the following year’s demonic shooter, Doom. The Wolfenstein franchise, meanwhile, has continued to be relevant and now forms part of Bethesda and Microsoft’s sprawling IP portfolio.

Today, Romero runs indie studio Romero Games with his wife of ten years, Brenda Romero. id Software and its games might be in the legendary developer’s past, but he’s not forgotten the spirit of Wolfenstein and the importance of standing up to tyranny. The studio released a brand new Doom 2 level earlier this month, with all proceeds going to “support the people of Ukraine and the humanitarian efforts of the Red Cross and the UN Central Emergency Response Fund”.

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