By Jim Rossignol on September 22nd, 2007 at 4:50 pm.
This feature on the origins of the Enemy Territory: Quake Wars team, Splash Damage, was originally published in February this year by the world’s cleverest games development website, Gamasutra. The piece is based around an interview with Splash Damage owner and founder, Paul Wedgwood. I’ve updated it slightly, to reflect the fact that we’re now rather close to the release of the game. That meeting with Wedgwood went on to provide material for my book about gaming, which I’ll pimp to death on here once it’s approaching publication. Anyway, read on for the story of the little mod team that ended up making one of the games of 2007. If you want to make it big in games, this is a pretty good way to go about it.
This interview was an odd kind of reunion. I had been acquainted with Paul Wedgwood for many years, long before we met in person. Back when I was an obsessed Quake player he was one of the people organising the communities, writing columns, administrating games, and commentating for an Internet TV show for which my Quake clan played numerous exhibition matches.
Now that his life has taken quite a different path – into the highest echelons of game development – you might expect him to have left his fan community roots behind, but quite the opposite it true. It is the first-person gaming community, and its focused, implacable gamers, that have made Wedgwood and his company what they are today. These guys are fans, and utterly in love with living a geek dream. You can tell this because of Wedgwood’s enormous collection of sci-fi miniatures in the boardroom… But there’s much more than that to this particular group’s development credentials.
Clearly enjoying life, a smiling Wedgwood greets me in the middle of his small, open-plan office. Most of the thirty employees share the same space, and the only members of the team that seem to get an office space to themselves are the huge banks of servers. Wedgwood explains that the machines are required to “compile mega-textures”, a vital ultra-high-tech process (developed by John Carmack) which will make his game a reality. The giant servers have their own disco-lit glass case, as if to illustrate their significance to the project. Also significant: the side-room filled with testers, gaming away all day long.
We walk down a corridor past a swathe of concept art: burning ruins, troubled-looking robots and alien soldiers. One of the Strogg marines is annotated and carrying a set of “trinoculars.” One better, you see… Early designs for the ETQW vehicles are all here – the materials from countless hours of brainstorming.
We sit down and begin to reminisce. Wedgwood tells me about his early life. He was obsessed with computing from an early age and was eventually expelled from school for spending too much time playing truant so that he could code games on a ZX Spectrum.
“We would go into school, register and then go straight home and start writing code out of Spectrum magazines,” he tells me. This is a man for whom boredom has clearly been a great motivator.
“It is one of those jobs that is incredibly stimulating while you’re learning everything there is to know about it, but once you get to the point where you know most of what there is to know about operating systems and hardware it’s only when new technologies come around that your interested is stimulated again. So by around ’96 or ’97 I was just really bored. I spent all night in soulless comms rooms getting networks up and running, and my respite was to go home and play games online.”
For Wedgwood, Quake was something of a revelation. He suddenly found something that focused his competitive urges and locked him into extended sessions of a new kind of experience.
“It was a much deeper level of concentration than I had ever experienced playing Chess, or Monopoly, or even more physical games like charging about the council estate where I grew up on rollerskates. You could lose yourself [in Quake] completely without any kind of plot driving the game.”
Wedgwood, like many gamers discovering online gaming during the same period, was bowled over by these fresh new videogame experiences. He was lost in them, and soon found himself playing the popular class-based combat game, Team Fortress.
“When I think back now to that blue ramp room in Team Fortress, I have physical memories of it. I have memories of the torches burning, and the water dripping. I got to know the room so well that it became a physical memory – it’s not like a memory of any other game.”
Wedgwood rapidly found a clan, one of the Team Fortress and Quake-playing teams, and began to play obsessively. His competitive nature shone through as the team began to win on a routine basis, with Wedgwood leading. As he played more and more he began to forge strong links with the people he played with. More importantly, he had time to sink into writing news and running games websites.
“I got a job as a contract IT guy in a bank in the city,” Wedgwood explained. “Because it had trading floors I wasn’t allowed to touch the network between nine and five. So my job was to sit at my desk and not touch anything. Instead of actually doing anything I spent most of ’98 updating the Team Fortress newsdesk.”
As Wedgwood got more and more involved in the community, he began to get involved with the now-defunct gaming community service, Barrysworld. At the same time, however, his work began to suffer. He soon lost his job at the bank, and then another working for a government IT department. After months of chatting and gaming with the folks who ran the Barrysworld service he discovered that its chairman lived just a few blocks away in the same part of London. They arranged to meet for a drink and soon Wedgwood was filling the role of infrastructure manager for the gaming service.
“It was a big pay cut,” Wedgwood explained. “But by then I knew I had to be in the games industry.”
After a month of the familiar routine of commissioning servers and dealing with the technical issues of internet gaming, Wedgwood found himself commentating on Quake matches that were to be televised on Now TV, a cable channel that was selling content into the Asian market. All the action took place during unsociable hours, weekends, evenings and so on.
“So during the week I got more and more involved in mod work. Team Fortress had been the main thing for us, but we were all looking forward to Quake III. I joined up with a mod team called Quake 3 Fortess [Q3F] , based on Fortress, and I soon became project leader for this Quake 3 mod.”
Wedgwood began to do huge amounts of promotion and marketing for the mod, emailing news sites and promoting their work to the gaming teams across Europe. Once the mod had been released and was running, he persuaded community administrators to run tournaments for the game, and had a small army of disciples working for him in the form of teams who had signed up to test Q3F in its earliest beta stages.
Even at this early time, Wedgwood had become quite serious about Q3F as a project, and began to try and structure the amateur team like a professional development house.
“I read everything I could find on Gamasutra, especially the postmortems. The difference between us and a commercial company was that we were distributed across the planet and that no one got paid. Everything about the way the mod was made, from having a PR plan, through have flow charts to show how the mod would come together, to having focused art and design plans, having leads and lead responsibilities; it was all exactly like a games company.”
“What we would do when we were trying to get a release finished was that we had a ‘devathon.’ People would all fly in to my house and we would sit and eat pizza and try and get as much into the release as possible. It was a like a weekend long or week long LAN party, but we would work on the mod.”
The group was keen to keep its fans interested and involved too, leaving a webcam hooked up during the devathons so that interested gamers could log in and see what had been ticked off on the team’s ‘to do’ whiteboard.
“Because we were fans we knew the things that Id did that we were excited about. If Carmack updated his dot-plan everyone read it, whether they understood it or not.”
Soon the boundless enthusiasm of the team (then dubbed ‘Mallard Software’) began to be noted by Id Software.
“In early 2000 I began to talk Robert Duffy at Id, I got in touch and asked if we could test the dev kit before release. We got hold of it and started using it. That gave us a head start over the other mod developers.” The team had produced the mod at a furious pace. Id provided the project with some technical help and then in late 2000 the Mallard team was invited to Quakecon by Id Software. They were to show off Q3F to the international gathering of Quake fans.
“We manned a table and networked like crazy. We talked to every mod developer, members of Id, every hardware vendor, and just did has much as we could to promote the mod,”said Wedgewood. It was the turning point for the team: the small team (then just five people) realised that they wanted to be full time developers, not just volunteering fans. During one of the Quakecon dinners they pitched an idea to Id’s Graeme Devine (7th Guest), who told them to get back to basics and stop aiming at the sky.
“He thought I was insane,” said Wedgwood. “Although we had a mod, it was a straight port. We knew that we had to demonstrate a better grasp of art and technology.” The team set about replacing all content derived from Quake 3 in their latest iteration of the Q3F mod. The new project would have a new UI, new maps, new logos, a new soundtrack, new audio and a complete overhaul of all incidental art materials.
“In truth the community hated us,” concedes Wedgwood. “We were taking this pure game that they loved, and I guess it seemed like we were just dressing it up as a portfolio piece – and there would be some truth to that idea. But we were still proud of it, we had new special effects, new models, new skyboxes. We thought we were doing something for the community.” The growth of the mod now, however, was a little slower than it had been before. It was only when the team returned to Quakecon the next year that they were able to get things running at a pace they were happy with.
“We had something really really polished to present,” Wedgwood recalls. “And at this point we were introduced to [Id Software co-owner] Kevin Cloud, and to Jonathan Moses of Activision, who was the producer on Return To Castle Wolfenstein.”
This meeting was to prove fruitful, and was a fortunate turn of events for the newly formed company, now called Splash Damage. They had been relying on the soon-to-be-bankrupt NOW TV Quake-match broadcasts for their income, and the money intended for new, serviced offices would rapidly dry up.
Splash Damage began their new direction by crafting some multiplayer maps for Return To Castle Wolfenstein, paid for by a UK telecoms company. These were soon to be the most popular third party maps for the game. It was clear to both Splash Damage and their friends at Id that the team was ready for a more ambitious commercial project.
Soon the young company was working with Id and Nerve Software to create the most popular first party map for RTCW, released in a bundle of official maps. This led directly into their work on the first major commercial game project: Return To Castle Wolfenstein – Enemy Territory.
The original Enemy Territory project had been intended as a quasi-sequel to the original game, with both single player and multiplayer elements. Accordingly, Splash Damage would handle the multiplayer game. As it turned out, however, they were lucky to see the project completed at all. Activision cancelled the release, and it was only because Id decided that the multiplayer project should be released for free that Splash Damage’s work ever saw the light of a gamer’s screen.
Funded for three months beyond the project’s cancellation, Enemy Territory was given away for free by Activision. Wedgwood says that he has Id’s history of community relations to thank for this: in a manner reminiscent of their early shareware releases, the company had created goodwill by giving away a high-end gaming product for nothing.
For Wedgwood meanwhile the process had been essential and galvanic. He had recognised the value of the original multiplayer game created by Nerve Software, and regarded the innovations in Return To Castle Wolfenstein as important to the entire first-person canon.
“We knew about class-based combat, but RTCW just had so many innovations. Having everybody spawn together in spawn waves, with a spawn timer, meant that everyone arrived together and you had a higher chance of co-ordinating the team. It also had charge bars that allowed them to balance various classes strengths and weaknesses. People rapidly accepted the idea that charge bars controlled how often you could fire something, rather than depending on some kind of reload. The combination of spawn waves and charge bars meant you could have asymmetrical maps that worked, something that you would never have thought from playing games like Team Fortress.”
For Wedgwood, multiplayer combat games represent the most intense and exciting of gameplay. These feelings have fed into all his work, and all his gaming. He described the excitement of playing Ultima Online as a PvP game, and his ultimate lack of interest in things like World Of Warcraft. His infectious enthusiasm reminded me that despite all the chatter going on about World Of Warcraft, Second Life or the consoles going online, there is still a strata of gamers for whom PCs, with their competition and combat, are the bread and butter of gaming. Wedgwood is one of these people, and his decisions in hiring staff directly from the FPS communities reflects that focus.
“The large majority of people here have come here as their first development company, sometimes their first real job,” says Wedgwood. He has worked hard to make that first experience a rewarding and stable one for his youthful staff. Splash Damage was Wedgwood’s first game development house too, but not his first business.
“I tried to get some businesses off the ground in my twenties, so I guess I’ve always had this entrepreneurial spirit, but Splash Damage was the first business I started that wasn’t started to make money. It was started because I was passionate about what we were going to do as a company, and it sounded like a better job than I might be doing as an IT guy. I knew when we started Splash Damage what had caused my companies or other companies I had worked for to fail, so we’ve always had a strict mission to do everything by the book.”
Wedgwood would not be shy about getting aid where he could. Taking full advantage of the UK’s government help for small businesses, he applied for and received help from a business advisor.
“He turned up and we had three desks and a load of computer hardware, and yet for some reason he stayed on as our business advisor for over a year. We did everything by the book and hey, it worked. The business advisor showed us how to get a human resources consultant, because of the complexity of contracts and confidentiality agreements.”
Without this kind of business aid Splash Damage would not have been as successful as it has been. Wedgwood knew that his passion and the passion of his team only went so far, and it was too big a gamble to shirk on any financial or organisational responsibilities.
“If it had gone wrong, I didn’t have anything to fall back on. I knew the alternative was sitting in a comms room and commissioning servers that wouldn’t exist in three years time. I would have had nothing to show for it.” And so they plowed on, seeing Enemy Territory downloaded and installed millions of times by gamers in all the major territories in the world.
“At the end of 2003, Enemy Territory won half a dozen game of the year awards and had been nominated for a BAFTA. We had always believed that you could go and make pure multiplayer combat games and have them sell – Battlefield 1942 proved that in the same year. Battlefield and Wolfenstein Enemy Territory vindicated this idea, it was clear that they could draw the kind of audiences that would make them commercially viable.
“By the end of 2003 we had a bunch of left over concepts from Enemy Territory and a load of big ideas. We wanted to make a spiritual successor [to Enemy Territory], and so we began to talk about how it might work. Kevin Cloud and I began to discuss the high concept for Quake Wars. It was like one of those conversations you have when you’re fifteen, saying ‘Would it be cool if X!’ and ‘wouldn’t it be so cool to see Y!’ And so all we had to do was to convince the programmers it was possible.”
The programmers, of course, were a little more reserved. The company started out with the Doom 3 code and were then faced with turning it into an outdoor, vehicular-based combat game with some “pretty advanced networking” and physics systems. Splash Damage were heading into deep water and their youthfulness began to show for the first time.
“We had never built a game without having another game as a solid foundation,” Wedgwood explained. “We always had a library of assets to play with from the start. We knew nothing whatsoever about high-poly modelling, about realistic dynamic lighting, or about building game engines. We worked for nine months trying to build a terrain-rendering engine. By the end of that we had some blurry snowy white hills. By the time the Doom 3 multiplayer was finished [Splash Damage's level designers and id Software worked together to build the Doom 3 multiplayer maps] we should have had the technology ready to make a game with. We had to go back to Id with our cap in our hands and say ‘sorry, we really didn’t get anywhere.’ We had spent nine months trying to solve this problem, and it was about nine seconds before John [Carmack] gave us some solutions.” Id, it seems, were more than ready to address the problems that their Splash Damage protégés now faced.
“Some of the most interesting and important things in life are counter-intuitive,” Wedgwood says of the solutions proposed by Carmack. What the Id founder had to come up with was the ‘mega-texture’ – a huge, unique texture that would cover the whole of a map’s terrain. The solution allowed Splash Damage to draw more, and to draw further, even when that had seemed like the opposite of what they should have been thinking. It was clear that Splash Damage were now able to benefit from more than just their own passion and enthusiasm for the Id Software games: they were also benefiting from Carmack’s savant-like technological insight. In fact, Wedgwood explained, they now benefited from the insight of whole range of developers who use Id tech to create Activision games.
“When you write a thanks list for the end of a game you can just include everyone, because they will all have helped in some way,” Wedgwood laughs. “We got a thanks at the end of Quake 4, but I’m not quite sure what for.”
There seems to be plenty of gratitude for Splash Damage. Wedgwood has created a rags to riches story for several dozen gamers, almost all of whom were working on mods before they got into full-time employment with his company.
“Everyone we have hired has had a stunning portfolio, certainly much better than anyone sent to us by a recruitment consultancy,” said Wedgwood. Having formed from the games community, and then having continued to hire directly from the same pool of obsessed gamers, meant that Wedgwood has kept a tight focus on having the right people (with the right kind of passion) for his studio.
“A mod team like Nuclear Dawn just keeps finding really good level designers, and we see them and ask if we can have them too! The really good mod teams will attract the really talented people. Initially we tried to recruit from the film industry, but the synergy really isn’t there. Film is all about rendering a single frame, the idea of player interaction or seeing things from all sides just isn’t there.” And because Wedgwood’s staff consists of first-person shooter gamers, the talent hired for Quake Wars has mostly been a friend of a friend, or discovered directly by the team who themselves are knitted into the FPS community.
It’s as if Splash Damage represents the maturation of the mod community: where the Quake modders end up if they’re any good. The net, Wedgwood muses, has changed everything. It created the games that he wanted to play, and the games he ended up building. It changed how it was possible to recruit people, and how the community would influence his games through those people. It allowed him to have a dialogue with Id Software before he became a professional developer, and it enabled him to realise a multi-player combat game that thirty people would devote a chunk of their lives to creating.
“The future of media isn’t TV,” he says. “It’s YouTube. The same sort of thing seems to be true of consoles and PCs. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo control what you see on their screens, like broadcast television, but the PC is unconstrained. That, I think, is a very important difference.”
A few months on and I’ve visited Splash Damage again. They’ve created an awesome game, and I can see that the team are proud of what they’ve achieved. They’re right to be proud. This is a development house that has melded something of what makes the independent community spirit in FPS games so potent, with commercial sensibility and design talent. Id Software should be feeling extremely lucky that they found Splash Damage, and that they were foresighted enough to realise that these rabid fans were going to be a powerful creative force in their own right. Splash Damage are beginning to think about what happens after ETQW now, and I hope that whatever it is, it carries the same joy-in-gaming and attention to detail that their previous projects have done.