Blood, Sweat & Laughter: The Beauty Of The Build Engine

When I think of gaming in the mid 90s, I think of a unique kind of grunginess. It’s like my mind’s got its finger on the Shift key with its left hand, and the Up arrow with its right, gliding swiftly through the sordid corridors of crematoriums, porn cinemas, hillbilly backwaters and dojos. But despite their muted tones of muddy browns and tombstone greys, these spaces were anything but dreary, brimming with richly-animated sprites, the promise of gory violence around every corner, and a tongue-in-cheek energy that felt clandestine, fresh, and fiendishly fun.

When I think of gaming in the mid 90s, I think of Build Engine games.

In context of the bleeding-edge engines of today, which host tens of games across multiple genres, to declare yourself a fan of one seems like a useless generalisation. But only a handful of games – all first-person shooters, all 2.5D – ever came out for Build. Among this hallowed few were Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, Blood and Redneck Rampage, and between them they created a special gaming moment in the year or so leading up to John Carmack’s id Tech 1.5 engine for Quake, which brought an end to the golden age of 2.5D.

Aside from 3D Realms’ Duke 3D and Shadow Warrior, these games were made by different developers, yet were all bound by a dynamism and grindhouse attitude that completely enthralled a version of me that was definitely too young to play them at the time, but unable to resist their promise of comical ultra-violence. Going back to them today, their charms and presentation transcend the ages, making me proud of underaged me for exhibiting such good taste from such a young age. “Keep going at it, kid”, I’d have said, “keep playing the games your mum doesn’t want you to and you’ll grow up to be just like me”.

It’s easy to divvy first-person shooters into the broad categories of ‘2.5D’ and ‘3D’ – pre-Quake and post-Quake. Within the former category, it’s almost sacrilegious to not go on about Doom as the defining game of this era, but between Doom in 1993 and Blood in 1997, the 2.5D shooter went through an impressive evolution. With the launch of Duke 3D in 1996, made using Build, levels became more realistic and verticalised, characters delivered silly one-liners, and sprites became beautiful and lively – 3D computer-made models condensed into 2D sprite form, with shading, movement, and death animations far surpassing the murky polygonal Lego-baddies of Quake (running at a measly low frame-rate, because who had a PC capable of running it at 60fps?).

Pitchfork a zombie in the face in Blood, and its head will fly off, leaving the neck-stump spraying blood in all directions before staining the floor for tens of feet around the body. Find the head, and you can kick it around like a blood-spurting football. In Duke 3D, we all remember shotgunning a grunt alien while it was having some quiet time in the loo – instantly killing it, destroying the crapper to turn it into a perfect water fountain, and leaving a large blood splatter trickling down the wall. Even today, such dynamism is rarely seen in shooters, yet the Build games nailed it.

The environments in Build games were uniquely interactive and grounded in reality. Up to that point (and for a few years after it, with Unreal, Quake and their derivatives), shooters took place in netherrealms – metallic bases on distant planets, alien hives, or maybe vaguely fantasy-themed yet equally implacable mazes that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of you shooting stuff in them; you pick up coloured cards, you press big buttons on walls, you kill kill kill without uttering a word.

But Build games took the action to urban centres, morgues and small-town Americana. We were whisked away to more fantastical worlds by Shadow Warrior and the wonderful Outlaws (not a Build game, but also among the last 2.5D shooters, and one of my favourite FPSes of all time, so I’m mentioning it, OK?), which took place in Japan and the old west. What unified all these environments is that they felt like real spaces designed for humans to reside in, but which just happened to be beset by zombies, aliens, or foul-mouthed shotgun-wielding hillbilly clones (that’s Redneck Rampage, in case you were wondering).

Beneath their veneers, these environments may have been just as mazey and confusing as those of preceding shooters, but they were the first time I experienced 3D game spaces that made an effort not to feel gamey. Getting lost in them actually felt more fun than tiring thanks to their stabs at realism and panoplies of secret little interactions to be had. And by that, I don’t just mean pulling a switch to uncover a secret area behind some random wall containing a weapon and some health packs. I mean a layer of whimsical interactivity that can best be described as ‘Pointless Shit’.

Duke Nukem 3D set the precedent for Pointless Shit, letting players engage in activities that weren’t goal-based, or even terribly exciting when you think about them – take a piss, turn on a tap, look in the mirror, knock some snooker balls into each other, watch an adult movie. But such activities bolstered Build games’ curious sense of realism beyond that in anything else I played at the time. Running around at that 90s shooter breakneck pace, I’d shoot or hit Space at everything I encountered, just on the off-chance that the environment would react in some novel way. And often it would – shoot some whiskey bottles in Outlaws, flick light switches or play an organ in Blood, or chase some chickens around with a shotgun in Redneck Rampage… because why not?

These trivial interactions fed into the games’ carefree and edgy personalities. Each was fronted by a protagonist with things to say and insults to throw. Aside from the well-known Duke-isms, we got nuggets of rural American wit from Redneck Rampage’s Leonard (“Boy, you are slower than shit through a funnel”), Lo Wang uttering ‘You half the man you used to be” in Engrish as he slashes an enemy in two, and Blood’s Caleb raspily singing the lyrics to The Good Ship Lollipop, before admitting that he’s forgotten the words. Enemies were equally expressive, and if they weren’t shrieking insults at you they’d be giggling maniacally while peppering you with bullets, or even spasming in death throes once you’ve finished them off. Their energy was unmatched, and as far as I was concerned Quake could keep its damn polygons and sewer-like environs.

Behind all this was Ken Silverman’s Build Engine, working away in the furnaces beneath the surface of the non-stop party occurring on our screens. I managed to get hold of Silverman via email. He described himself as a ‘one-man engine team’ when working on the Build Engine under contract for 3D Realms, essentially learning as he was going along, with little guidance from those around him. In fact, his early guidance came from a seemingly unlikely source: “In the beginning, they had me talk with John Carmack by phone,” he said. “I learned about sectors that way. Besides that, 3D Realms wouldn’t have known how to help me, at least on the engine side”.

While the art design that went into Build games was fantastic, it wouldn’t have been possible without the Build Engine’s in-built 3D editing mode – the first one ever used in a first-person shooter, according to Silverman. “The WYSIWYG Build Editor featured editing in 3D mode, using the same rendering core as the game itself.” Essentially, this made working on 2.5D games much quicker than ever before, allowing designers to spent more time fine-tuning the textures, shading, ceiling and floor heights, and slopes in their games.

But even though it did such a great job of depicting 3D space, the Build Engine was in fact a wonderful case of smoke and literal bloody mirrors. Getting into an elevator or water actually teleported you to different parts of the level, mirrors were segments of wall with an inaccessible space behind them housing a secret cameras to create a reflection effect, and skies in ‘outdoor’ areas were just ceilings with a parallax effect applied to them. Even that putrescent, grungy colour palette I mentioned earlier – so well suited to the tone of the games – arose from an engine limitation.

“This [the colour palette] had to do with the shading system. As objects got farther away from the camera, they were rendered darker until eventually it reached black,” said Silverman. “In order to support this without sudden jumps in color, each hue needed a bunch of darker versions of itself. This highly limited the number of hues one could select for a game.”

The engine was filled with plenty of quirks like that, arising from the way it models space. In Duke Nukem 3D, you’ll never look at a building from the outside and see into two different rooms, one above the other, because you can’t have two rooms visible at the same x-y location due to the Engine’s technically 2D nature. If you had more than a single portal (or view) looking through to another sector (or room/area of the map), then the rendering method would cause a ‘Hall of Mirrors’ effect – an error caused the game to go into an infinite processing loop between the portals and the player.

This was later worked around using a plucky hack in Shadow Warrior, Blood and Redneck Rampage: “It worked similarly to mirrors in that once the mirror (or ceiling/floor portal) texture was identified, the game code would render the sectors on the opposite side of the portal first, in a separate pass”.

Of course, resorting to hacks and tricks to give the illusion of continuity in a 3D environment is indicative of technical shortcomings, and Silverman matter-of-factly admitted that Build “could not compete with Quake”. When I jumped to its defence, lauding it as the pinnacle of pixelated shooters, and wondering whether we missed out on a slew of wonderful Build games because of the industry’s blind rush towards fully 3D engines, he pulled no punches on his own creation. “We all knew Build was obsolete at the time”, he said. “It lacked true look up and down, fancy shading, polygonal sprites, and drop-in networking” – all features offered by Quake’s id Tech 2 engine.

Even though id’s engine had a clear edge on a technical level, I maintain that the explorable spaces and coarse yet rich pixel-art graphics of Build games outshone those of all other shooters until Half-life launched in 1998. How much of that is owed to the engine itself is incalculable, and when I declared that the 2.5D style of Build games was unmatched by anything else for years afterwards, Ken quipped, “I’m sure they could have used billboard sprites in Quake if they had wanted to”.

While Build zealots, myself included, like to foment the idea of a feud between the Build and id Tech engines, it seems that the reality was far more civil. In addition to Carmack’s words of wisdom for Silverman, there was plenty of dialogue between the two camps. “Id Software was a short drive away from the 3D Realms office”, Ken told me. “We often had groups of people visit so nothing was completely secret. Interestingly, E1L6 (episode 1’s secret level) of Duke Nukem 3D had a room with sloped ramps on the outer walls (in an L-shape) that was inspired by an early screenshot of Quake.”

Today, the Build engine is a worthy stop-off point on gaming’s endless road to progress; on this figurative road, it’d be demarcated in the UK by a (fittingly) brown road sign pointing to a great castle that was built just a year before cannons became the ‘in thing’ in war, rendering it obsolete. Its historical interest endures, as modders continue to flock to the Engine like intrepid archaeologists trying to decipher grinding-stone puzzles in ancient temples – exploring it, tweaking it, smoothing the jagged edges of the pixelated graphics or replacing them with 3D textures, and solving its legendary quirks.

Admirable though the modding community’s work is, I prefer to keep my nostalgia blinkers firmly on. There is something magical about the graininess of those pixelated characters, their withheld visual fidelity infusing them with a rich texture and air of mystery that, when refined and upscaled, ends up looking cartoony, even crass. Likewise, quadrupling the texture resolutions and replacing the sprites with 3D models is a testament to the community’s passion for these games, but lacking the quality that keeps me returning to these pixel playgrounds.

The Build era was a moment in PC gaming history that’s certainly not been forgotten, but came just before a technological revolution that cut its gloriously grimy tenure short. Only when Half-life came out did I finally get over the Build era. But until that point, and then six years ago when I, along with the rest of the gaming world, rediscovered my love for pixel graphics, I bemoaned that the era didn’t last just a little bit longer, delivering several more vivacious 2.5D shooters while Quake, Unreal and co. worked out how to imbue a 3D game with some of that great Build spirit.

Upon reflection, maybe part of the Build era’s magic came from its ephemerality, which meant that it only had a small, thematically inseparable games roster to be judged by. It was an explosive Last Stand of an era that began back with Doom in 1993, treating us to a beautiful illusion of 3D while we waited for the inevitable ‘real thing’. But the illusion was so great that for years the real thing struggled to match it.

These games point a confident, bloodied middle finger to 3D shooters that have come and gone across the generations. For while almost every shooter since Quake is doomed to date and be judged by the latest standards of the day, the Big Four Build games remain immortal.

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  1. vorador says:

    Sorry, but while Duke3D was really good, the others weren’t that great.

    • Jay Load says:

      Well, even Duke loses some lustre after a few levels. But I still think Shadow Warrior is underrated. Never tried Blood but I’ve heard good things.

      • Jalan says:

        Shadow Warrior is definitely overlooked (even now, as evidenced in the comment below where it’s written off as a “reskin of Duke”) and honestly, if I didn’t have undying appreciation toward Blood, it would probably be my favorite Build Engine game.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I thought Duke and especially Blood kicked ass. RR was almost ruined by extremely puzzly level design, unbalanced enemies (the alien babe, the sheriff and the alien trooper could all one-hit kill you) and generally dodgy design choices (the whiskey… it made you go sideways!). SW was a reskin of Duke, again with the bullshit instakill attacks from many enemies. Outlaws was good but unfortunately you were shooting the same three guys (the gunslinger, the double gunslinger and the shotgunner, the latter two capable of instakilling the player) from level one to the finale.
      Blood on the other hand is I think my favourite shooter of all time, no bullshit lock-key-lever puzzles, just the carnage and black humour in those lushly detailed and decorated environments. Only really questionable thing about it is the fact that all enemies in the fantastically designed bestiary were deaf for some reason, would only activate and attack if they had line of sight and went back into ambush mode after a few seconds with no LOS. That put a massive premium on the tactic of inching around corners with a dynamite bundle in hand…

      • Jalan says:

        A lot of developers using the Build Engine seemed to get real laughs out of giving enemies completely bullshit hitscan weapons/attacks.

    • C0llic says:

      I disagree with that. Blood was a fantastic game, and Redneck Ramapage had a lot of puerile charm to it. I played these games for a long time after Quake, and they were indeed more visually impressive where it counted for a long time. Quake was amazing, but it took a fair while longer for full 3d to match the detailed, flat sprites of those games.

    • int says:

      I forgive you. Blood was better.

      • theapeofnaples says:

        Replayed it recently and it still holds up very well.

        Def has the best level design of any Build game. Or maybe that’s just because I’m a despicable horror nerd.

    • Unsheep says:

      To me Shadow, Blood and Redneck were more unique and fun than Duke3D; freakier enemies, more gory combat and way cooler weapons.

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    Thulsa Hex says:

    Fantastic article, and one I emphatically agree with! This was one of the most exciting times in games, for me. It’s hard to communicate how much glee there was to be found in E1M1 of Duke 3D, where even being able to flick light switches was a revelation. I was eight or nine years old during this engine’s heyday, so most of my exposure to the Build engine comes from getting a hold of shareware versions on PC mag demo discs. The illicit nature of it all only added to the excitement.

    I’m completely down with the sentiment that the first full-3D FPSs were nowhere near as fun. I didn’t play Quake multiplayer, but I did play tons of the single-player campaign and I honestly found it incredibly drab. I remember feeling like I was supposed to be excited but I hated how brown it was. Half-Life was a revelation and a breath of fresh air all in one. There was no longer any need to hold on to that vain hope of Duke Nukem Forever.

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    Thulsa Hex says:

    A little off topic, but still in the 2.5D FPS wheelhouse: Was Hexen considered to be any good? I played the shareware when I was a kid but never seemed to be able to get on with it. I’m not sure if it was just bad or I was too young to appreciate it’s weirdness. I recall melee combat, which seems like it would have been difficult to pull off on the Doom-engine (chainsaws aside, of course).

    • DantronLesotho says:

      Hexen was pretty good. It had really good atmosphere and seemed like a decent followup to Heretic in terms of features, gameplay, and design. It wasn’t the greatest game by any stretch, but was inventive and fun to play.

    • RuySan says:

      I really preferred Heretic. It was more action packed and didn’t have the huge amounts of backtracking to find some hidden lever.

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      Dorga says:

      Don’t you play those games! Don’t you play’em if you like to sleep at night
      Scariest games ever.
      The bell tolling, the gargoyles comimg to life… It took so long to forget.

    • Kefren says:

      I’ve mentioend my Doom obsession in the past: link to
      Hexen was another game I applied that challenge to. I had to complete the whole game in one go; no saves; on the fourth difficulty level. This was back in the happy days when I had few games, so tended to play one to exhaustion before moving to another.
      It was also the days before “achievements” were given to gamers as arbitrary collect-em-all metagames; the days when you made up your own challenges. If you did so it was because you felt like it, not because they were pushed on you. I usually created them to add immersion; tied in to the story world, rather than “survive x minutes”, “kill x baddies”.
      It was also the days before video playthroughs and easy advice; bear in mind this is a game with traps that can kill you instantly, with no warning. There was lots of trial and error, because if I died I wasn’t allowed to continue, to find out how to avoid the trap: I just restarted the game. Which seems ridiculous in one way, but on the other hand it created emotions I rarely feel in games any more, one of them being genuine fear when I approached that area on my next playthrough (if I made it that far). I would reach the point where I’d died and skirt around it; try and observe it from a distance; spend time looking for any obvious triggers, or other ways round, or creatures that could trigger the trap for me; if that failed I’d try and remember how far it extended, and work out whether it was one I could sprint through, of if it was one you were meant to trigger then step back as the rock crushed down. Finally, put my new, cautious plan in action; if it worked I would always follow that pattern in future, but also always feel fear (later weakened to trepidation, but I still _something_ felt) whenever I reached that area. I didn’t need blood smears to warn me that it was a place of pain and regret.
      Nowadays you just reset at the previous checkpoint, or quickload, and carry on. More efficient use of time, but it loses in other areas, such as challenge, and emotion, and real-time continuity (if I felt tired it was an extension of my character’s weariness), and immersion.
      Eventually I got to the point where I could reach the final level most times. Usually I died quickly there. Each time I restarted I would use the next character, to keep variety. I became ultra-efficient at moving and killing and knowing when to use special items. It could have been so perfect.
      But the game occasionally crashed. Twice I got to the final level and was doing well, then the game crashed and I had to reboot and start again. Now that did make me angry. My computer wasn’t playing by “the rules”.
      I was determined not to be beaten.
      Then one day I got to the final level. Took deep breaths. Played it as cautiously as I could, whilst still getting caught up in health-sapping panic fights. But I kept going, and … won. Despite all the odds, I had achieved this ridiculous challenge.
      Then I uninstalled the game and never played it again.
      It was a perfect moment, a perfect gaming memory, a real epic challenge that stayed in my mind like the greatest stories of victory. It could never be sullied or taken from me, or weakened by later disastrous playthroughs. The demon was dead, forever.

      • chunkymonkey says:

        Hallowed be thy OCD :D How did you insulate yourself against intrusions?

    • thaquoth says:

      Hexen is alright. The big thing it brought to the Doom engine was a hub structure with you being able to theoretically enter and exit levels willy nilly, and things (like switch states) to carry over between maps.

      A side effect of that is that this unfortunately makes the classic switch hunt much more painful as it is no longer confined to the level you’re in. And boy, Hexen does love itself some switch hunting. Then again, there is always the possibility of just looking up a walkthrough.

      In terms of melee: Hexen has you pick between three classes, one of which is purely ranged. So if the melee stuff isn’t for you, you can sidestep it completely.

      I think you should try it. Load it up in a Doom source port (My recommendations: ZDoom if you want modern stuff like mouselook and high resolutions, Chocolate Doom for that classic DOS feel) and give it a whirl.

      • thaquoth says:

        Also worth mentioning: the first Hub in Hexen (Seven Portals) is by far the worst and kind of a trudge. It becomes much better after that.

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        Thulsa Hex says:

        Thanks, as I mentioned below I think I’ll try it out soon. Will keep these recommendations in mind!

    • C0llic says:

      Hexen was good, but very odd. There was a lot melee combat in it, and lots of huge, confusing levels. If anything, it was just a bit too ambitious for the technology of the time.

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      Thulsa Hex says:

      Cheers guys, now I’m even more curious as to how I’d find it nowadays. I think I’ll give it a whirl soon.

  4. DantronLesotho says:

    I also loved the Build era and lamented the lack of interactivity with worlds when Quake and especially Halo made their debuts. I didn’t play HL1 until years later, but I can see how someone might have been re-inspired by it. It’s mostly the fact that it seemed like we were moving towards a direction of more interactivity and then for technical reasons (rather than design) we took a big step back (from my perspective) just for the sake of making something 3d when I didn’t think it needed to be.

    At the time I was blissfully unaware of all the technical ramifications of proceeding with the Build engine which I appreciate much more now, but yeah. Those were some great times. I can only hope that the recent retro wave, progressing through time, will hit the mid-late 90s with this style so we can see it work again. Viva la interactivity!

    • Jay Load says:

      Absolutely! Interactivity does so much to aid immersion. You weren’t playing a level – it felt much more like a believable world.

      To this day I still run to toilets to see if they flush.

      …And in the game.

      We definitely lost something when we moved to 3D.

  5. daphne says:

    Good article — surprised there isn’t more on Silverman. The reason why the Build era was too short because he more or less gave up on gaming shortly afterward. The Build Engine was his finest moment and utter end, and a testament to the exceptionally rare kind of genius Silverman is — depressed, and seemingly not driven by much of a creative impulse. AFAIK Carmack, while working at id, regularly offered him a job every few years or so, if not more frequently.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    If we’re talking early memories of 3D level design, surely we shouldn’t forget Ultima Underworld. Exploring those levels was amazing, and beyond anything else I’d seen at the time.

    Also in the realm of 2.5D was Dark Forces, which I replayed recently. Not sure it really holds up today, but it does have that nice Star Wars feel to it. The second game (and move to proper 3D) didn’t feel quite so good, but you do get a lightsaber, which is always amusing.

    • Jay Load says:

      I believe Dark Forces still holds up. It creates a lovely atmosphere, which as you say is VERY Star Wars. I love it.

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    Dukey says:

    I loved Duke 3D and played it to bits but I still think the single greatest thing about the Build engine was the fact that you got the map editor on the disc with the game and it had all the tools to recreate literally everything the developers had pulled off.

    My fondest gaming memory of the 90s was all the hours spent with the editor. For its time it was ridiculously easy to use. I felt so proud the first time I made a working door or elevator or train or (for some reason much more difficult) a flickering light.

    And then I discovered the endless supply of maps online and THEN I discovered all the amazing total conversions. I remember one where somebody had build an entire episode where you end up in Ancient Greece, one which was set in the Men In Black universe, one in Vietnam…

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      Thulsa Hex says:

      Until this comment I’d totally forgotten that Quake was my first foray into level editing! I knew there was a reason why I had spend so much time with the game, despite not enjoying the single player. I never did try making stuff with the Build Engine, but put countless hours into Half-Life’s editor, Worldcraft (now, Hammer), which I think was also on-disc. Wish I kept it up through my teens.

    • pelle says:

      Yes! I preordered Duke 3D and immediately when I got the cd I started playing with build, and was on the 3D Realms forums with others trying to figure out how things worked. Build was only partially documented, so we had a lot of fun trying to reverse-engineers some of the effects and stuff. Last time I googled my name I could find myself credited with some info in the unofficial Build FAQ that was floating around. Yay! I had a lot of fun making my own levels, received a free CDROM with duke3D levels from some company as payment for including one of my levels, was asked by someone at MSN for permission to have my level as a download(!)… and seeing someone blatantly copy a room I spent hours on designing and put in his own crappy level (that was so flattering btw, I am still happy someone did that) etc. It was a lot of fun trying to put floors almost above each other so you barely noticed that the engine could not render sections above each other, and also doing tricks placing sprites to create extra floors, and sometimes manually tweaking light-levels in parts of a room so it almost looked a bit like there was real light-calculations going on. And the editor was awesome to work with once you learned the shortcuts, a lot like playing the game but with keys to modify the level instead of blowing things up. Good memories.

    • noom says:

      Also spent a lot of time in the Build editor, after having cut my teeth on Doom level making. Had so much fun with both of them, and later in Hammer making CS 1.6 maps as well. I really miss that kind of creativity.

  8. Great Cthulhu says:

    Oh man, the Build editor was such a joy to use! I had a huge amount of fun just making tons of custom maps for Duke3D and Witchaven. I suppose it was kind of the Gary’s Mod of that age.

    Looking back, 1996 was a really great year for PC games. Duke3D, Civ II, Quake, Daggerfall, Meridian 59, Master of Orion II, Red Alert, Tomb Raider, Diablo…

  9. Gwilym says:

    Whenever I think of gaming in the mid-90s, I smell Maureen.

  10. PancakeWizard says:

    Love the article and agree with the sentiment, but I don’t really feel comfortable with the term ‘realism’ as you use it. ‘A sense of place’ or ‘immersive’ might’ve been better.

  11. Buggery says:

    I think this may be my favourite RPS article in years…

    Definitely have fond memories of Duke Nukem, but to my mind, Shadow Warrior is a massive improvement. I’ve been playing both recently, and man–beautiful level design coupled with stupid jokes with decent gameplay. Highly underrated.

    It’s strange really, that FPS games seem to have gone in a completely different direction. The level design for most games is a bit cack and the grunge aesthetic has sort of just dropped by the wayside to be replaced with mass market military jingoism. I think the only games in recent memory that have struck me as being worth playing are the excellent Wolfenstein titles. Bulletstorm was fun too, but has mostly forgettable levels.

    Must try Blood next.

    • Jay Load says:

      I agree with Bugg…er, the poster above.

      This feels like one of the best articles in ages. A nice, meaty retrospective of a critical era time in PC gaming.

      Also: I’m looking to try Blood as well. A rare treasure awaiting me!

  12. hungrym says:

    The Cutting Room Floor has an internal text file that was present in the “NOTES” folder of a leaked (stolen) alpha build of Blood. It depicts Ken Silverman as a fairly aloof and desultory programmer, difficult to communicate with and prone to making codebase “improvements” that would set back production by weeks. Granted, he was barely out of his teens when 3DRealms bought Build, but I think his uncooperativeness–real and perceived–damaged his reputation in games.

    • kalzekdor says:

      That may have been one of the most terrifying things that I’ve ever read. I’m a developer / project manager for an IT consulting company, and I’ve just flashed back to every piece of internal software that a client called us in to fix because someone’s “clever” solution has become a maintenance nightmare.

      Some people just have no concept of Software Architecture; they just hack away, line after line after line of hopelessly interdependent code, with no direction, and no documentation.

      I’m going to go cry in a corner.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I believe Silverman was around 22 at the time and had no experience working in a team (he was a self-taught bedroom coder who self-published the early doom-clone Ken’s Labirynth), and the fact that he was apparently teleworking on Blood didn’t help with the cooperation.

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    Grizzly says:

    Formidable article!

  14. BooleanBob says:

    An exciting chapter of an exciting decade. From about 1993 to 2003 gaming seemed to reach a new milestone every sixth months or so, and while it was a heady time, you’re right to ask whether some of these avenues that got left unexplored weren’t the creative cul-de-sacs it’s tempting for us to assume they were today.

  15. G says:

    I used to have great fun making levels for Duke 3D in Build. I think I looked at the Quake level editor once and realised it was a nut I was never going to crack. And that was the end of my level editing career.

  16. feamatar says:

    We should stop this 60FPS bs like anyone cared about it back then. Hack, I haven’t heard about being an issue until this generation. Doom liked fast as hell and it was capped at 35fps…

    There were only one type of people complaining about high framerates, and those were the multiplayer fps guys who had advantage in Quake and Unreal with the 100+ high framerates so they made the games butt ugly to get every little performance gain.

    • Jekhar says:

      It wasn’t just about the fps boost, but to make enemies stand out as much as possible, by reducing unnecessary visual noise. At least that was my goal during my short career as a Q3 r_picmip-per.

  17. tonicer says:

    Aaaah yeah my childhood … back when gaming was awesome and consoles didn’t ruin every franchise.

  18. thaquoth says:

    The ZDoom engine by the way has all the bells and whistles of Build (and much more) with all the ease and amazing workflow of Doom editing. Such a pleasure to work with.

    Probably why many modern ZDoom wads can feel remarkably like Build engine games.

    • Jay Load says:

      So…like there’s Zdoom and all sorts for the id games, is there anything comparable for build games? I know Jonof’s site has a couple of attempts but they’ve not been updated in, well, about a deacde and I’m having issues with Shadow Warrior’s sound being all stuttery.

      • thaquoth says:

        Not really, as far as I know. For Duke3D there is EDuke32, but for other games (like Blood) the source code never was released, and there is basically nothing.

        Dunno if there are any efforts to reverse engineer that stuff (like it happened with Strife for example) but as far as I gather Build code is kind of a convoluted nightmarish mess to work with.

        • thaquoth says:

          Another factor is probably that the Doom source was out very soon, during a time everybody was still playing the game. The Boom source port finished development in 98 for instance. Cue 2 decades of iteration and open source development, and you get the rich landscape of Doom ports we have today.

          With Duke/Build, the codebases were released years later, not until 2003. Probably hard to drum up that amount of grassroots interest for that after all this time. Heck, that’s way after Counterstrike became the biggest thing on the block.

          I generally think that the Doom modding community is something completely unique that will probably never happen again. Perfect storm and such.

      • Jekhar says:

        There’s XL Enginge, although that isn’t Build specific and is still heavily in development. link to

        • thaquoth says:

          Whoa! Seems like development has been picked up again? I had kinda given up hope on this for a while. Looked like a classic version of too high ambitions colliding with the reality of this stuff being a metric shitton of work.

          The announcement to release the source with beta1 is also extremely encouraging.

  19. Unsheep says:

    Blood, Shadow Warrior and Redneck Rampage are three of the most FUN shooters ever made, in my opinion.

  20. Premium User Badge

    keefybabe says:

    You should never apologize for mentioning Outlaws. Outlaws was wonderful and still in my eyes the best cowboy style game we’ve had on the PC.

    Mainly because Rockstar have never bothered porting Red Dead to PC.

  21. Premium User Badge

    cpt_freakout says:

    Very cool article – the games produced for Build had very low, trashy B-movie aesthetics (kinda inherited from Doom and Wolf 3D as much as from platformers) that Quake would later move away from. To me, that’s what makes them interesting; I mean, Silverman is right when he says that Build is inferior to the id engine, because he’s looking at it from a purely technical perspective. Sure, they could’ve put up flashy billboards in Quake, but the important thing is they didn’t: the aesthetics they chose were born from a gothic, rugged kind of sci-fi that doesn’t lend itself too easily to the sort of low humor most of the Build games are now fondly remembered for.

    This leads me to think that the Quake route was also informed by aesthetics, and not only the technical move to 3D, inasmuch Half-Life, for example, flows along both low and high sorts of sci-fi. It’s still fully within the B-movie field, but it deals with its subject matter more seriously than humorously.

    I guess Serious Sam and the Shadow Warrior remake are the closest we have right now to the ‘Build experience’, at least when it comes to designers’ aesthetic choices for their themes.

    • Premium User Badge

      cpt_freakout says:

      Edit: meant to say the Quake route that most shooters would later follow. Oops!

    • Noumenon says:

      “Billboard sprites” doesn’t refer to only literal billboards, but to sprites that always face the player. They are drawn to look 3D, but only because you can only ever see them from one angle.

    • Xiyng says:

      Ah, so it actually accepts full HTML and I messed up my post. :) Sort of assumed it wouldn’t due to the way the XHTML help section describes the allowed code.

  22. sapien82 says:

    ahhhhh build , my first foray into level design, I’d spend the week nights after school perfecting my multiplayer maps to then test and play them with friends on LAN at the weekend , all weekend gaming parties!

    Doom2 and duke nukem were the games we’d play until the death

  23. DeadCanDance says:

    Superb article, perfect writing all around.

  24. lord_heman says:

    My brother and I had 4 PC’s when we were children and lived at out parent’s place.
    We played all 4 games in multiplayer with our friends constantly, and ALL 4 games delivered a fantastic feeling. SW with the nuke and dual uzis, RR with the AK-47 and whisky, Blood with the extreme violence and Duke… Yeah – good ol’ Duke. Brings back some darn good memories!

  25. Jay Load says:

    While I appreciate good 3D graphics, there was something magical about the painterly look of the old 2.5D games, even at their paltry, postage-stamp resolutions. Unable to rely on GFX cards creating it on the fly, artists had to sit and create each and every pixel seen in the game. I mean, look at the flesh tones on the hands up in the 2nd image down, and the drawing of them. That’s ART, right there. Human soul. Modern rendering so rarely has that feeling.

  26. Premium User Badge

    garfieldsam says:

    For the record those were not the only build games. Maybe be only AAA build games, but not the only ones at all. I distinctly remember a number of cheap low quality games in build including s Vietnam war themed one.

  27. Vorig says:

    If you still have an interest in playing Shadow Warrior, there’s a small team of people working on the 3rd unreleased expansion pack: Deadly Kiss. There’s no release date yet, but it will be a nice addition to the trifecta that includes the currently playable Twin Dragons and Wanton Destruction.

  28. RegisteredUser says:

    ITT: Reasons why the gaming industry for shooters has never really gotten better.
    Replacing stupid fun with overscripting, press “cover” to cover and aim assist did not achieve anything other than ruin what used to be one of the leading genres for PCs.

    Not that there aren’t any enjoyable scripted shooters, mind, but what ever felt like playing DOOM, Blood or Duke again in terms of silly, gory, crush through it all fun?
    I’ve been waiting for 20+ years for some kind of revival there, but unlike the million metroidvanias/platformers/jump and runs/adventures, this “fun” FPS genre seems to be staying sadly neglected.

  29. chunkymonkey says:

    Wonderful article. I took a hiatus from gaming after I joined the army in ’88. I went from bashing keyboards in Decathlon to preparing to do them in real life (shudder). The army I joined didn’t own a computer. I didn’t see computers again until about 4 years later when the NAAFI started punting Amigas. I didn’t even play Doom until some surveyor left his PC switched on after he’d dashed out and then, I was hooked…Is there a market I wonder for sprites still? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what these behemoths of gaming companies could do with sprites nowadays?

  30. Uberwolfe says:

    This is a fantastic article, thanks. I spent many many many hours in the Build editor as a teen creating all sorts of crazy levels. I even reached out myself to Ken Silverman a few years back to compliment him on his work to which he personally replied. Really fond memories of Duke3D, Shadow Warrior and especially Blood.