Fragfest of champions.
Before there were classes, before there was XP, before there were revives, there was Quake, a PC shooter defined by its hyperfast movement, over-the-top weaponry, and pure, no-frills competition. What it lacked in sophistication, it more than made up for with blistering intensity. Many have tried to explain that magical time in gaming history, but for most, Quake has become little more than a fast-dwindling memory.
Enter Quake Champions, a new PC-exclusive arena shooter that hopes to build on the original's rocket-jumping insanity by adding unique character abilities and implementing a decidedly esports structure. We recently sat down with creative director Tim Willits to discuss his ambitions for Quake's long-overdue return--which, of course, led to talk of MOBAs, hero shooters, and Ferraris.
GameSpot: I want to start with something you said during your speech at QuakeCon's opening ceremony. You referred to QuakeCon as "the first esports event"...
Willits: If you look at Quake and you look at StarCraft, those are really the two games that created what we have. We had [the first] QuakeCon in 1996, but it really wasn't until the Red Annihilation tournament [at E3 in 1997] for the original Quake, where John [Carmack] gave away his Ferrari, that brought the whole idea of people watching other people play video games into the mainstream. Before that, there were tournaments for years, but no one outside of hardcore gamers really cared until [Dennis "Thresh" Fong] won a Ferrari. That made real news.
When the guy--the second inductee into the Esports Hall of Fame--became famous by winning a Ferrari in a Quake tournament, you can legitimately say it's the original esports event. And Bethesda, as an organization, we are more committed to support and grow more competitive gaming. We haven't quite figured out how we're going to do it, but we're working on it. I think the future's definitely bright for Bethesda in the competitive gaming scene.
Is that what Quake Champions is intended to be, at least in part? An entry into the esports space?
Yes, yes, you are absolutely correct. Are you talking to Pete Hines today? You should say, "Tim Willits says Bethesda wants to support and push esports forward. Can you comment on that?" [Laughs] I don't want to speak out of line, but yes, we are, as an organization, embracing and pushing forward.
Can you speak specifically to how Quake Champions will fit into that vision?
What we want to do with Champions--and again, we'll figure this out more next year--is follow a very traditional rhythm of what competitive games do, where you have your seasons and you have your leagues. Then we'll have ranked play with the teams. I mean, you know how it works. The teams play, and then you get your top 128, and then you invite 64 of them to the events. For us, we'll make sure that we don't release or tweak any Champions during a season. We want to use events--like, of course, QuakeCon. We also want to make sure we work with any of the tournament-hosting groups that many people follow to allow curated tournaments, automated tournaments, and then, of course, the bigger league play as well.
Is the game being designed with regular old gamers in mind as well? I mean, I wouldn't say that esports is polarizing, but it certainly occupies its own niche.
It's really hard to do. If we don't have the pro gamers that support the game, it's really hard to get everyone else in. We want to make sure that we have the game modes that the esports guys can embrace and that they feel it's a fair playing field. But we also want to have enough variety in the gameplay and depth that your average guy can come into [it]. If you're new to Quake, I believe you can find a Champion or two that fit your play style.
For instance, Sorlag, she's a great Champion. She's the lizard-looking Champion. She's a little bigger, she's slower, she has more health, and she has an area denial attack, a spit attack. We found that people who are new to the game kind of gravitate toward her or [red robot] Clutch because they can be successful. It's not ridiculously fast, there's not a lot of air control, [so] you can still play at your pace, figure out what you want to do, and then you can be successful. If we let players have opportunities to be successful, that will encourage people to come back and keep playing.
Historically, with a lot of the classic Quake, we led with deathmatch, pure deathmatch--and we will have deathmatch in this game. But you have 20 people that play in a match, and you have 19 losers and one winner. That's why team games are so popular, especially with esports groups. We definitely want to steer people into team games. We'll have, of course, duel and free-for-all stuff, but giving people the opportunity to be successful and giving them the tools to be successful, I believe, will help drive people that don't consider themselves pro gamers into the game. Make sense?
Yes, although when you use the word "champions" in this context, naturally it recalls...
It makes people freak out?
If you noticed in my QuakeCon presentation, the first thing I talked about was the "pure" aspect of the game, where I showed how fast it is--rocket-jumping, making sure you have all the weapons, there's no loadouts, et cetera. I wanted everyone there to be like, "OK, all right, got it. It's Quake." Then they can accept the new things.
The name Champions actually came about in 2013 when we were looking at what we could do with Quake Live, because Quake Live ran for years. We thought, "We have a team here at id that can work on this huge update for Quake Live." Then, as we started to play around with some prototyping with the Quake Live engine and the game, we started looking at how Doom was shaping up, and then we found Saber Interactive to work with, and we turned this into its own game.
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Yes, people associate "champions" immediately with [MOBAs], which I understand. That's why, especially at QuakeCon, I really tried to focus on [the idea that] it's the pure arena multiplayer game, with Champions as an additive thing. I really do believe it adds to the experience, because you don't fundamentally change the way you play based on the Champion you have. You still run and shoot and pick up all the weapons. But the subtle variations add that level of strategy and depth that I think is the next step that we need to take.
Would you shy away from being associated with so-called "hero shooters?"
No, because I actually think the hero shooter is a natural evolution of this genre. Gamers have evolved; they've become much more advanced. We've found that gamers like to associate themselves with a particular character or group or class, and then they can grow that character and they can play with that character. I don't think it's necessarily a right turn away from the pure FPS genre. I think it's an evolution of the overall genre.
Have you guys learned any lessons from other modern shooters? Have you looked to games like Overwatch?
Oh, yeah, of course--especially for balancing. Changing anything in Quake and having people be able to play different Champions brings this whole level of balancing into play. We're definitely looking at how other games balance. Our balancing isn't going to be drastically more difficult because, fundamentally, you're still playing Quake.
How do you recreate the old magic of something like Quake? Like, rocket-jumping, for example, was discovered organically. It wasn't built into the game...
Yep, total accident.
Now that it's being deliberately designed into the experience, now that it's sort of expected, how do you ensure Quake Champions achieves that particular appeal?
We create the building blocks and we create the systems, and we know and players know when it feels like a Quake game. We've made sure we pulled a lot of things from the past, just like [Doom creative director Marty Stratton] did with the Doom guys, to hit on those core aspects of what makes a true Quake game and then enhance it. If you build the right components and you put them together correctly, you can create that magic, I think. That's what we want to do. Again, for this game, it's PC-only. We're not making [retail] boxes, so we can do the launch when it's best for the game.
Given that the game is PC-only, can you reveal anything about the scope of the game?
Well, we're keeping the focus tight. There's no single-player campaign. We're not going to be adding crazy stuff to it. We have the right game modes. It's the best competitive, arena-based multiplayer PC game--that's it. Sometimes, companies fall into this feature creep, and they say, "Oh, now we need single-player. Now we need this." Just keep your eye on the ball.
You mentioned the game modes--can you tell us more about what those might be?
We'll make sure we have all the classic Quake [modes]. We'll have free-for-all and team deathmatch and things that people expect.
What's interesting is, Doom didn't have free-for-all at launch, and I think a lot of people saw that as an oversight. I don't know how deeply involved you were in Doom's development, but can you comment on the decision to exclude that mode initially?
The multiplayer in Doom is awesome. It's a very signature part of that game, and the guys felt that it fit. It's good to have games with unique identities, especially coming out of one studio. It's good to have a clearly defined: "This is what this franchise does, and this is what this franchise does." I love the Doom multiplayer. I love it because I can play it, and it's refreshing and unique and fast-paced and tense. Then I can go all crazy over here with Quake Champions.
Do you see Doom and Quake as almost complementary experiences, then?
Oh, definitely. Yeah, it's great for each game to have its unique identity and unique feel, because if we made the same multiplayer in both games, that would be silly. People know Doom--they're like, "Got it, this is awesome." People know what we're doing with Quake, and they're like, "Yep, got it." Then we're working with MachineGames on Wolfenstein, and people are like, "Yeah, we got it." It's good days.
Quake Champions enters its beta phase in 2017. Do you expect the final product to release next year as well?
Yeah, yeah, I hope. It all depends on how things go in beta. We're not going to commit, and I've been very clear on this: We are not going to commit to its release date, but we are going to continue to grow the closed beta until we're good. Then we'll rip off the "closed" and call it "open," and then at some point, we'll rip off the "open" and say, "It's out."