After going through the Early Access process, Quake Champions brought a very different Quake experience to PC earlier this year. Its small changes were somewhat divisive, and for id Software, prying fans away from Quake Live and onto the newer, supported platform was a large part of the battle. We sat down with studio head Tim Willits to talk about the process and what’s down the road for the game.
Few people know about that classic Quake design better than Tim Willits, who joined in the early days of id Software as it was creating the first-person shooter genre as we know it. He started in level design, and now he leads the studio. He even finds time to jump on Quake Champions regularly, as “Twillits.”
“People don’t think it’s actually me!” he says. “I talk to the guys at work and I say ‘You know, every time I play online, everyone is so nice! Good shot, good game, that was fun…’ And they say, ‘That’s because it’s you! If you weren’t on there, they’d be swearing at each other.'”
Quake Champions was a modern twist on the franchise, though. There are now characters you can select with unique abilities. Combining those with weapon usage is a tactical decision to make.
Balancing an Asymmetrical Shooter
Even small abilities, introduced into a system that was previously symmetrical, represents a huge balance challenge. But Willits says an even bigger obstacle was the player perception.
“First you get over the shock of adding something like that. Having people get over the “Oh my God, you’ve ruined Quake!” Getting people over the total shock was more difficult than actually designing it.
“But I think we did a good job with balancing it. We still make adjustments to the champions when we find that it’s out of whack. But watch the pro players play they do use a variety of champions and there isn’t just this one champion that everyone uses over anyone else.
“Plus if you get the Champions Pack, you can create custom games, and play with all the abilities. And so people wanted an option to play without the abilities, and so we gave them that. And if you look at the numbers, they aren’t doing that.”
The Pacing Was Always Missing
There were hidden benefits to changing up the Quake formula too. Different styles of FPS gameplay have emerged that can serve different player types, and be presented in different ways.
“So we have Capture The Flag coming out next. We just released Slipgate which is funny becaues the hardcore Quake players are still kind of iffy about it, but the new players really like it. Because you have to think differently.”
Slipgate is a team-based mode in which dying makes you wait until the end of the round, a la Counter-Strike.
“It gives people – especially streamers – which, we’ve learned a lot in the last two years how important streamers are – streamers need a time to have a break when they can talk. And classic Quake has no time to breathe, so games like Slipgate help because streamers can have a chat when you’re dead, or setting up the next round, you can talk about strategy, you can watch other people and learn, so it’s been much more streamer friendly.”
Those natural lulls in the action also offer commentators a chance to discuss the overall strategic picture during a tournament. Traditional Quake was far too fast and chaotic to take a breath and look at the bigger picture.
When Esports Gets Too Big
But as esports teams become larger, that introduces unique logistical challenges. Going from 1v1 to Slipgate’s native 4v4 means prize money is split between more people, flights and accommodation at events become more expensive, and a host of other things.
“Every person that you add becomes a logistical nightmare. We’ve been running QuakeCon for 20 years. And even lighting the stage… Esports developers I talk who want to do 6v6 and they’re like, ‘we’re going to do esports!’ And I’m like, ‘No you’re not, because that’s lighting 12 people on stage. And that’s not going to happen.’
“I’ve got stories from QuakeCon where it’s 4v4 and one of the guys is gone because he can’t find his girlfriend, and he’s not backstage and we can’t find him. So the 1v1 is the best. But that’s like a title bout, like the championship, like boxing or something.”
id software and Bethesda are supporting all modes at QuakeCon, but are happy for regional tournaments to organically run their own favourite modes.
“2v2 has really taken off,” says Willits. “That’s just kind of what gamers like, and what the companies that run the events like.”
Player Attention is in High Demand
It’s a tough year to release a game, and much of the discussion we heard from indies at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference revolved around the crowded Steam marketplace. It’s not enough to make a great game anymore — even without coming out in this, the year of our Red Dead Redemption 2.
“Making a good game is only half the battle,” says Willits. “80+ million people have Steam on their computers, but there’s 80+ million games on Steam. And you can’t just rely on the Steam carousel to promote games. You really do need to have some time of grassroots marketing, or influencers, or some Youtube video that you make. And we are very fortunate with Bethesda where there are millions of people around the world that know Bethesda games and we can reach out to them and we can talk.
“But if you are an independent developer and you’re releasing a game on Steam, you need to do more. Otherwise no one will ever notice your game.”