Free-To-Frag: QuakeWorld’s Once-Planned Business Model

By Alice O'Connor on July 4th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Ironically, I took these screenshots running around maps on my own.

When John Carmack started tinkering with Quake’s multiplayer code in 1996, his plans for the QuakeWorld client went deeper than TCP and UDP. Its new netcode made playing an FPS online over dialup not total garbage, sparking the multiplayer FPS explosion, but Carmack had also once intended for QW to be what we’d now consider free-to-play. Though the plans changed and this never happened, I can be endlessly fascinated by scraps of video game history like the time John Carmack thought about selling the right to have a name.

Quake had started building a multiplayer community even before release, with Qtest, and QuakeWorld was to encourage that competition and bragging something fierce. “All frags on the entire Internet will be logged,” Carmack schemed in a .plan file update (an awkward precursor to weblogs, using the hilariously-named ‘Finger protocol’) in 1996:

“You should be able to say, ‘I am one of the ten best QuakeWorld players in existence’, and have the record to back it up. There are all sorts of other cool stats that we could mine out of the data: greatest frags/minute, longest uninterrupted Quake game, cruellest to newbies, etc, etc.”

Quake became a game with big personalities (“Who names their child KillCreek?” I wondered, reading PC Gamer) and plenty of trash-talking. It also connected people to form communities and friendships and all those soft things. That’s why Carmack’s monetisation idea fascinates me:

“My halfway thought out proposal for a biz plan is that we let anyone play the game as an anonymous newbie to see if they like it, but to get their name registered and get on the ranking list, they need to pay $10 or so. Newbies would be automatically kicked from servers if a paying customer wants to get on. Sound reasonable?”

id did shareware. They made large chunks of their games free to prove the full thing was worth buying. Carmack’s idea would give away the pure game side but limit access to what made multiplayer any fun at all: people. Connecting and competing with people across the world, exploring that weird frontier, and expressing ourselves as whoever we wanted to be was so exciting then, and vital to multiplayer. It’d be a mite more difficult without a name.

Gotta control that red armour!

I’ve been idly imagining an alternate timeline where free-to-play grew out of weird ideas like this. Popular F2P models focus on the game side, selling boosters, items, and so on. Carmack’s idea would have monetised human interaction. Which sounds a bit monstrous when I say it like that. (And stats, sure, all those stats, and the not-getting-kicked-from-servers, but I’m not particularly interested in those.)

In a way, Dota 2‘s take on free-to-play feels close to this. Valve let everyone play then charge for instant unlocks of cosmetic items. These don’t affect the core game, so buying (or not buying) never feels unfair or cheaty, but they do let us express ourselves through our wizard’s outfits. As hero looks can range from blind mystic to Cyndi Lauper, it feels unusually personal.

Video games are very different now. Pre-Steam, pre-Counter-Strike, pre-PayPal, Carmack wrote:

“If it looks feasible, I would like to see internet focused gaming become a justifiable biz direction for us. Its definitely cool, but it is uncertain if people can actually make money at it.”

At the time, id didn’t believe they could. These plans were dropped. QuakeWorld didn’t turn out like this. In the end, it was simply (hah!) an updated Quake client for people who’d bought it. QW did launch with basic player rankings, but stopped them after a few months. The first multiplayer-focused id game was Quake 3, three years later in 1999. In 2010, Q3 became the free-to-play Quake Live. Its business model isn’t nearly as interesting to coo and poke at.

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15 Comments »

  1. wgwgsadfg says:

    20 man DM4 + Quad = win.

  2. Hunchback says:

    History is full with people who had great ideas but didn’t follow them… And then someone else picked them up and made great things with.

    When TF2 went F2P i first thought it was Valve being good-guy-greg of the internet. Then i realized that they did that because allowing EVERYONE to play their game, that at the time used to cost 10 bucks, would mean they’d make even MORE money by letting people sell things they make, through their game. And somehow, for once, it would seem that everyone involved is happy – Players pay for free, designers sell their hats and make money, Valve makes money. Is communism possible, on the internet?

    • TechnicalBen says:

      Is it communism? It’s a pretend one. :P
      It’s commercialism for certain. Valve act as bank, manufacture (outsourcing at times), employer, trader, government etc etc over their market and product and community.
      All that power, and all that money… can that stay sane with it?

    • Hypnotron says:

      “History is full with people who had great ideas but didn’t follow them…”

      Yes and we should remember that. Idolizing the people who made the money off an idea doesn’t necessarily speak to the creativity of those people but to their affinity for business. The world is full of inventors who died broke. Still the world is richer for them.

  3. BaRRaKID says:

    Tried clicking on a link on the .plan site, and it still works.
    http://floodyberry.com/carmack/johnc_plan_1996.html#d19960913 , click on the second link, and welcome back to 1996.

    • Reefpirate says:

      Whoa that’s really cool!

      For some reason I felt like I was reading a diary from System Shock 2. I was waiting for the next entry to start talking about a horrible office catastrophe.

  4. Tei says:

    Yea, I remember that .plan

    But maybe is better the way it resulted?

    User-driven servers and mods where huge with quake. With a central system, nothing of that would have been prominent. Similar to how modern gaming is killing modding for large FPS games like BF4.

  5. Baines says:

    Interesting, but it probably wouldn’t work. It might work in a perfect world, but the real world is a world with ***es.

    The concept hinges on people valuing persistent online identities and record keeping. Anonymous players throw a wrench into that value.

    If anonymous players affect the stats of paying players, then you open the game to both easy griefing and easy stat padding. Is someone really one of the best ten in the world, or did he just play a lot of matches against throwaway accounts to run up his records?

    You could try to make it so that anonymous players didn’t affect the stats of paying players, but that introduces its own issues and problems.

  6. loloquaker says:

    I’m taking the opportunity of that post to remember to you all that quakeworld is still played. Not by a lot of people, but there are still players on servers, and its usually not that hard to find a dueling partner on IRC.

    http://www.nquake.com/ is the client to go if you want to get a foot in it. Quakeworld is still the fastest fps out there right now.

    If you guys wanna try but need a partner, i’d be happy to play with you. I’m still pretty new to the game, and there’s a high risk to get crushed by an old dinosaur of the game if you go on IRC. You can find me on the RPS evolve chat group, or search for Ag!to on steam.

  7. SomeDuder says:

    “The really cool ISPs will run QuakeWorld servers right at their pops, which should give 28.8 modem players 200 ms or less pings, providing a nearly flawless game.”

    And this was just 15 years ago! It’s amazing how things have changed (Whether for the better or worse is up for each generation to decide)

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