id Software’s Founders Talk 30 Years of Gaming History
On February 1, 1991, John Romero, John Carmack, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack officially founded id Software. The group went on to revolutionize the gaming industry with franchises such as Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake. Here’s a look back at id Software over the last 30 years, with a little help from those legendary developers.
id Software: The House That Keen Built
The story of id Software began in the late 1980s, when John Carmack, John Romero, Adrian Carmack (no relation to John), and Tom Hall developed games for a mail-order disk magazine company called Softdisk, located in Shreveport, Louisiana.
After John Carmack devised a breakthrough scrolling technique for PC games in mid-1990, Hall, Romero, and Carmack created a new platform game—Commander Keen—based on the technology while secretly moonlighting at Softdisk.
Soon the talented group began communicating with Scott Miller of Apogee Software, a pioneering shareware publisher. After some negotiations, Apogee published Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons as shareware in late 1990. The wild success of Commander Keen put money in the bank, and inspired the group of developers to resign from Softdisk, though not before making an agreement to develop more games for Softdisk over the next year so that the firm wouldn’t lose all of its star talent at once.
After operating under the id Software banner part-time for several months, the four men formally founded id Software on February 1, 1991 in Shreveport. The firm relocated to Mesquite, Texas in 1992. Jay Wilbur and Kevin Cloud joined id Software in April of that year, rounding out the early team. Todd Hollenshead, who served as president of id Software through some of its greatest successes, joined id in 1996.
“It was a magical time,” says John Romero, recalling the early years of id in the 1990s. “We were doing amazing work defining a new game genre, and having a great time doing it at breakneck speed. It’s definitely a special moment in time that I’ll never forget.”
The id Legacy: Highlights and Hits
Over the past 30 years, id Software has developed roughly 30 games (depending on how you count) and published many more developed by others, most notably Raven Software (creators of Heretic, Hexen, and much more). Additionally, id Software has licensed its “id Tech” game engines to many developers over the decades. It all adds up to a vast influence on the video game industry—and a very successful one at that. “I think we really bottled some lightning back then,” says Tom Hall of the early days at id.
Here’s a quick history of id Software’s most influential years, as told by examining some of the hottest and most interesting games, with preference given to titles developed in-house.
The Early Softdisk Games
Around the time that Hall, Romero, and Carmack began working on Commander Keen, they were also developing several games for Softdisk’s “Gamer’s Edge” label, where they still held full-time positions. Catacomb, a 2D-overhead Gauntlet-style crawler, and Slordax: The Unknown Enemy, came out of this time period in 1990.
After the emergence of id Software, the trio (with Adrian Carmack) continued to pump out games for Softdisk throughout 1991 and 1992, including Shadow Knights, Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, Rescue Rover, Rescue Rover 2, and Keen Dreams. In particular, Hovertank One and Catacomb-3D both served as proof-of-concept games for techniques later used in the breakthrough hit Wolfenstein 3D.
“It was amazing getting to work on games with friends, we made some amazing games, and we lived the dream of an indie who made it. Those were heady, wonderful times,” Tom Hall told How-To Geek. “On the other hand, we worked 7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day, about 355 days a year. I would rush to work. I’d feel guilty eating breakfast. So it would kill me now, heh. But we were young and among the few people actually making games! How cool was that?”
(If you’re interested in learning more about the early period of id history, this 2008 article by Travis Fahs for IGN includes a nice rundown of these early id Software games with screenshots.)
Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons (1990)
Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons, published by Apogee in 1990, was a groundbreaking episodic platformer that used John Carmack’s EGA scrolling technique to bring console-like action to PC games in a big way. As previously mentioned, its success spawned id Software itself. Keen‘s success also inspired several sequels over the years, all of which were commercially successful.
When we asked Tom Hall what his favorite id project was, he replied, “If pressed, I’d say Commander Keen 1-3, because that was made with crazy work in a crazy short time, was our ticket to making games for a living, and was the birth of a character based on me as a kid, but smarter and in space!”
You can still play the original Commander Keen today. It’s part of the Commander Keen Complete Pack on Steam.
Wolfenstein 3D (1992)
Wolfenstein 3D, published by Apogee Software in 1992, popularized first-person shooters by refining the stunning ray-casting technique invented by John Carmack (seen in earlier games like Hovertank and Catacomb-3D for Softdisk). Wolfenstein was also id’s first VGA game, and its use of haunting, realistic Sound Blaster effects was groundbreaking at the time. It inspired successful sequels such as Spear of Destiny—and many others in later decades.
You can get Wolfenstein 3D and Spear of Destiny together as part of the Wolf Pack on Steam.
Doom (1993) and Doom II (1994)
By now, we probably all know about Doom, which was id’s first self-published game. Its violent action (and pioneering deathmatch mode) attracted both legions of fans and political controversy over the years, but it became a key franchise for id that continues to this day. Its immediate sequel, Doom II, was a big hit as well.
“My favorite project was Doom,” recalls John Romero. “I had more of a hand in Doom than any of our other games, and really defined so much of it. Tom Hall did the initial game design, then I revised and simplified it. I defined the level design style and made the first episode. I wrote the level design tool, DoomEd in NeXTSTEP OS.”
Quake (1996) and Quake II (1997)
Quake’s 3D polygonal graphics engine marked a huge leap in technology for id’s games, leapfrogging over competitors that still used pseudo-3D graphical techniques. First released as a shareware demo in 1996, Quake became a huge breakthrough retail release on CD-ROM as well. Its sequel, Quake II, expanded on the Quake formula with improved graphics, new enemies, and new online gameplay modes that were very popular on the late-1990s internet.
You can get Quake and Quake II as part of the reasonably priced Quake Collection on Steam.
Quake III: Arena (1999)
For Quake III: Arena in 1999, id Software played off the rapidly growing popularity of online shooters, such as derivatives of Quake II’s internet deathmatch modes. As such, there’s no single-player story mission in Quake III (although you can face off against bots). Instead, the entire game represents a futuristic winner-take-all blood sport.
“Every project had its moments and value, but Quake 3 was my personal favorite,” John Carmack told How-To Geek. “It had bold decisions with the multiplayer focus and 3D accelerator requirement, the technical design was good, and I had more fun personally playing it than any of the games before or since.”
You can get Quake III as part of the Quake Collection on Steam.
Doom 3 (2004)
Depending on whom you ask, 2004’s Doom 3 was either a disappointing flop or a cult masterpiece of suspenseful horror. But as usual, everyone agrees that the graphics of id’s then-latest marquee title were stunning at the time. As a slower-moving partial reboot of the 1993 original, Doom 3 didn’t appeal strongly to some classic Doom fans at first. However, since its release, Doom 3‘s reputation as a dark but effective piece of violent environmental storytelling has only grown. As such, id Software re-released Doom 3 on the Nintendo Switch in 2019 to mostly positive reviews.
Doom RPG (2005)
In 2005, Doom RPG came out of left field for many as an unexpected but highly regarded mobile offshoot of the Doom franchise. A collaboration between John Carmack and wife Katherine Anna Kang, who worked for Fountainhead Entertainment at the time, this cell phone-only game represented a change of pace for Carmack, who had been chasing ever-increasing amounts of graphical fidelity in his games for at least a decade. As a bonus, Carmack got to experiment with an emerging platform, but in the pre-iPhone era, very few people actually had a chance to play it.
Carmack and Kang followed up DoomRPG with Orcs and Elves (which received a Nintendo DS port), WolfensteinRPG, Doom II RPG, and Doom Resurrection, all for mobile devices. Sadly, all of Carmack and Kang’s iOS releases have since become obsolete after the 64-bit iOS switchover, and have not been updated for play on modern devices.
As John Carmack’s non-mobile swan song for id Software, Rage was intended to carry id forward into a new generation (targeting consoles from day one in development for the first time) and to serve as a new tent-pole franchise along with Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake. Despite pushing the cutting edge in graphics once again, it received mixed critical reviews at launch. But like Doom 3, its reputation has grown over time as some gamers look back at it with a nostalgic eye. Still, Rage has never excited the imagination like some of id’s previous franchises. id published a poorly received sequel, Rage 2, in 2019.
id Software Today
In 2009, American media conglomerate ZeniMax Media bought id Software, ending id’s long tenure as an independent game publisher. After falling in love with emerging VR technology, John Carmack departed id Software for Oculus in late 2013, making him the last of the original founders to leave the company.
Does Carmack ever miss the classic days of the early 1990s? “No, I don’t miss the old days,” he says. “When I do look back, I have lots of fond memories, but I am at least as excited about my current work in AI and VR.”
After mixed reviews of Rage in 2011, id returned to strong form with Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal (2020), both of which sold well and received excellent critical reviews. In the meantime, other developers have produced excellent games with id’s classic IP, such as Wolfenstein: The New Order and its sequels.
John Romero, who left id in 1996, is very proud of id’s continuing story. “It really is amazing that id is still around after three decades! I love it,” he told How-To Geek. “The inertia we built up over those early years helped us define the powerhouse IPs that continue to propel the company.”
For his part, despite weathering a difficult legal battle between ZeniMax and Oculus in 2017, John Carmack also appreciates that the id Software story continues. “With experience and hindsight, I can see how many decisions could have been made better over the years,” he says, “But I’m proud of the mark that id Software made, and I am happy that the current teams are carrying on the legacy.”
Recently, Microsoft announced it would acquire ZeniMax Media, which includes id Software, so a new chapter of id history is about to emerge. For now, we can all look back and enjoy all the good times id Software has given us—from Commander Keen to Doom Eternal. Happy birthday, id!