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Wolfenstein 3D's winding journey from pitch to release

In this write-up of John Romero's in-depth Wolfenstein 3D postmortem, learn about the incredible story of Wolfenstein 3D, from casual idea to completed game.

There are legitimately few games and studios as groundbreaking as Wolfenstein 3D by id Software, the early 1990s PC hit from which many now-staples of the industry, from first-person games, episodic content packages, and the concept of speedrunning, were born. This year, at GDC 2022, studio founder and design icon John Romero gave attendees a complex breakdown of the game's path to development, revealing key insights into the process of this historical title's journey from casual idea to completion. 

The first part of Romero's talk detailed the humble origins of Wolfenstein 3D, from their start as a small studio in Madison, Wisconsin, to the game's near-purchase by Sierra Entertainment to its later release after the team's move to Dallas, Texas. The play-by-play of how the game's pieces came together is a fascinating case study on what was essentially the start of the first-person shooter genre.

The Birth of First-Person Shooting

Id Software was a busy company in the early 1990s; as Romero tells the audience, in the last half of 1991, the studio started and shipped five games. It was after several months of work on Commander Keen 4, 5, and 6, having just finished a prototype with parallax backgrounds, that Romero declared to his team, "I don't want to make another set of games." Adrian Carmack agreed. Sensing mutiny, creative director Tom Hall pitched a "more advanced version of Hover Tank 1's premise, but with you walking around in first-person", which Romero says immediately inspired a new idea: to do a new version of the classic Castle Wolfenstein from 1981. "And that idea won instant approval."

Development began in mid-January of 1992, using a Catacomb 3D engine, which was in 16-color EGA mode. Adrian Carmack, the studio artist, set about making 16-color sprites, quickly realizing the project's scope; the characters, as sprites in a 3D space, would need to be portrayed as complete, rotating animations which meant showing them from all sides in multiple forms of motion. To get some help, they reached out to Jim Norwood, an Apogee Software developer who did all the art and programming for his games. Six months before the start of Wolfenstein 3D, he had licensed id Software's Commander Keen engine for his own game, Bio Menace.

He began making 16 color sprite rotations based on Adrian's work. However, the company would soon go in a new direction after a call from their publisher, Apogee Software founder Scott Miller. Miller was excited about Wolfenstein 3D, a title that, upon its release, would be Apogee's first 3D game. Near the end of the call, says Romero, Miller suggested they use a 256 VGA palette over the 16 EGA, a "huge change" that did not seem to phase programmer John Carmack, who said he could program it "cleaner" and "faster.” Artist Adrian Carmack then decided to handle the transition to VGA on his own, selecting the "perfect palette." "Since it wasn't like a fixed palette--EGA was like only 16 colors--each of VGA's 256 pallet slots could be set to basically one of 16 million columns."

The team decided that each episode was going to have ten levels. The plan was to make a shareware episode and two additional episodes for purchase. John was able to get a renderer established within about a week, a slow but serviceable way to test out the game's early stages. Levels were represented by a 2D matrix, the same kind, Romero says, that the Ted5 level editor he built for Commander Keen was made for. Game resolution at the time was generally 320 by 200, and Romero set out to modify the Ted5 to make levels for Wolfenstein 3D.

"We use the level loading code from Commander Keen and set up the levels to have walls in the background layers in the editor. And we had actors, items, and paths in the foreground layer." Hall, meanwhile, was working on the enemy design, coming up with four different types: killer dogs, guards, SS, and the Boss, setting about to make the icons for these in Ted5, including enemies, items, wall types, and doors. He also made concept art for Adrian that would act as a model for the sprites, which Adrian set about making quickly, creating textures for all the items and walls, as well as full-body rotations of the enemies to give the appearance of rotation. "Each rotation needed walking animation cycles of being hit, shooting, and dying; it was a ton of work."

Episode 1, Level 1


But getting to that point would mean Hall could begin making levels in the Ted5, starting with Episode 1 Level 1. "We wanted the audio of Wolfenstein to stand out really well," says Romero. "The SoundBlaster audio card was doing really well, as opposed to, like, the [Adlib FM synth]. SoundBlaster had digital audio playback. So we could recreate the original cast of Wolfenstein's enemies' speech and have realistic gunshot sounds." The music would still be in MIDI, and all sound effects had to have a MIDI version and a PC speakers version for backward compatibility in case players did not have a SoundBlaster.

As the team started building their gameplay, they initially sought to recreate all the stealth features of the original title: "searching dead bodies, dragging those guards around so enemy soldiers [see] them and become suspicious, attempting to break into stores [or] lockers, or food and ammo."

But while they were adding these features to the game and playing the game constantly, they noticed that the more fun part of the game was "running and gunning. Stopping to drag a guard or unlock a chest really slowed down the innovative high-speed running and blasting Nazis. [And that] was really [the] fun core of the game."

"The entire time that you're making [a] game, you're trying to find the fun as soon as you can. And sometimes the fun isn't in the features that you thought were going to be fun. So you have to really listen to the game. And the fun in Wolfenstein was in the high-speed running and the incredibly violent gunning. The sound of the Gatling gun and the enemy sighting sounds and pain sounds and death sounds, like, they were the heartbeat of the game." The drive for speed, Romero says, actually simplified their game design. Anything that slowed the game down got ripped out. Stealth features from earlier in development--the dragging guards, etc.-- were taken out in the interest of pacing.

Heading South for Winter

By February 1992, the team was working on "all parts" of the game, with the enemy design well on its way and the knife, pistol, and machine gun functioning. Visual definition was also coming along, in the form of wall textures Adrian built to make the first level look like a castle prison. By the end of the month, the engine was "solid. We had several Nazis in the game, with the addition of the SS and the German Shepherd. We added control paths so they could be moving around and make the game feel more realistic."

(At this point in the talk, Romero detoured for several minutes to tell the story of how, as all this was going on, id Software sent a copy of Commander Keen to Sierra Entertainment founders Ken and Roberta Williams, who then invited the team to their home to discuss business. The meeting was legendary but ultimately unsuccessful; Ken was not particularly impressed with Wolfenstein 3D and only made a financial offer once he heard the extraordinary amounts of monthly income id Software was already making. When Romero and the team asked for an additional cash signing bonus in addition to the offered stock, Ken withdrew entirely, and id Software went on to release Wolfenstein 3D without them.)

A Wolfenstein 3D screenshot.

One innovation they added to improve the game’s suspense was the use of sound zones, which allowed them to isolate the noise made by the player in specific rooms so as not to alert enemies in other areas. When the player shot a gun, they wanted certain enemies to hear it, but they didn't want every enemy to be activated and empty all the rooms in search of the player. So instead, they added functionality to the background map layer, designating special "zones" that would be assigned by the type of map tile used while (as the function was not rooted in level data) maintaining a uniform look in-game. These zones were planned out with 36 specially-colored tiles; if you made a noise, any guards standing on the same type of tile would be able to hear you, even those several rooms away on the map. Opening a door would also open that "sound zone,” allowing noise to flood into the next room, essentially turning the player into a sonic-based self-saboteur.

At this point, the team decided they needed more help on the game, so they turned to Kevin Cloud, hiring him on as an assistant artist to Adrian Carmack. After his successful interview, (and a 1 AM conversation about how much they all hated the Wisconsin winters), Romero, Adrian, and John decided that Dallas would be a better location to finish out the project. They soon made the migration south, with Romero heading down first, pairing up with Apogee Software publishers Scott Miller and George Broussard to find a complex with five units for the team, with one apartment to be used as an office.

During this move, they also added another hire from Softdisk, Jay Wilbur, whom Romero had known since 1986. He and Cloud would begin work on April 1, while the team steadily chipped away at the game through March, crafting levels and enemies, getting the menu system working, and incorporating music from composer Bobby Prince. At this point, they noticed "something" was "missing" from the game, a staple from their other games: secret areas. "[Since] we had no way of hiding a secret room, we decided the best solution would be to create what we call a 'push ball.’ The player would press the spacebar on a wall, and if it was pushable, you'd hear the stone sliding back, you proceeded, and it would reveal a new area." John Carmack did not want to add them, as such a "hack" would violate the "sanctity" of his codebase. But they insisted, saying they needed push walls to give the players something else to hunt for. "We needed something extra, something hidden, mysterious." By April, John Carmack had "heard the request enough times that he did add push walls to the engine." Hall "very excited,” adding secret passages "everywhere" in the first episode.

With Kevin Cloud and Jay Wilbur's start at the beginning of April, the team was nearing the finishing line. One of Wilbur's tasks was to find out who currently owned the Wolfenstein trademark and how to acquire the rights. Castle Wolfenstein had been published in 1981 by Muse Software, which was based in Maryland. Because this was long before the Internet could simplify the research process, Wilbur had to hunt around the greater Baltimore area to find the rights-holder, a woman who used to buy companies’ assets as they were going out of business, as Muse had. They offered $5,000 for the rights, and that was that. After brainstorming a new name, they came up with Wolfenstein 3D.

A Stroke of Marketing Brilliance

By mid-April, they decided it was time to add audio to the game. They already had several remotely composed songs from Bobby Prince, but they needed effects, and they felt Prince also needed to experience the game he was working on to get the correct feel. So they flew Prince down to the office, bringing a "ton" of gear with him, which included a sampling keyboard and a high-quality microphone, which was used to record all the voices in the game, with the voice work done by Hall and Romero. Adrian did all the shooting sound effects for the SS guards, and they "had a lot of fun coming up with all the crazy Nazi death sounds." But while they were working on the first episode, the shareware episode, they were suddenly in a time crunch: it was halfway through the month, and the team still had to record all the audio for all three chapters, as Bobby Prince was due to leave before they shipped the game in June. Apogee's Scott Miller was also asking when they would have the shareware episode done; his new idea was to release it the second it was finished and start taking orders for the completed game. Work had not even begun on the second and third chapters. But with the formula of the game's design well established, they could make the next batch of levels quickly.

A Wolfenstein 3D screenshot.

"The idea was that he would upload the shareware. He would start selling it. And we would go faster finishing the last two episodes, the levels 20 levels had to be made...so the entire game can be sent to customers." And it was at this time, as he was considering the pricing model of the shareware structure they'd established, Miller had an additional idea. He felt that if he could sell three more episodes of Wolfenstein 3D, he could also justify creating a handbook, which could be included as part of the game's pricing plan. For $35, the player would receive the trilogy of Wolfenstein 3D chapters of 30 levels, for another $15, an extra 30 levels (the "Nocturnal Emissions"), and for an additional $10, a handbook that detailed all 60 levels--a particular boon in the pre-Internet guide era. This inspired bit of marketing would inspire years of post-release content plans to come.

With the demand for three additional chapters, the team was in crunch mode as the homestretch of April came to a close. To highlight Wolfenstein 3D's then-shocking amount of violence (material that, as other sources detail, was added in deliberate response to the publisher's concerns), Hall and Romero came up with a fake-rating title screen, a tongue-in-cheek PC-13 that made Wolfenstein 3D the first voluntarily-rated game, albeit primarily for parodic purposes. As they entered May, with mere days before release, Romero had to begin the shipping process, which included putting the game file on a floppy disk for distribution. Prior to this, their games had always fit on a single 1.44-megabyte disk, but Wolfenstein 3D was much too big, prompting Romero to develop a new method.

"I needed two more tools, a tool that would take a game's entire zip file and chop it into pieces that I could fit onto multiple disks or distribution, and then an install program that could take all the game data that was spread over all those disks, and combine it all back again on a player's hard disk and uncompress the game there. And," he adds, "I had to go really fast. I wrote the tool to split the zip file in six hours. And I called it ICE, which was short for Installation Creation Editor. Next, I needed to create the de-ICE program that took all the data on the multiple discs and combine it all and unzip it and everything. I also wanted to make sure that players could not [so] accidentally mess up the installation that they tried to pull the disc out dry balls installing. So it actually handled that." The installer took two days of work and, Romero says, was used for years; Romero gave the tools to Apogee so they could use them for the distribution of bigger games in the future.


"We left very tired but very sure that everything had changed."

On May 4, with the team again working late into the night, the clock rolled over onto May 5, Adrian's birthday, as they all continued to test the game. Jay Wilbur ensured all the correct files, like for readme and server distribution, were in order. Scott Miller and George Broussard, the Apogee founders, were there. By 4 AM, Romero says, they were logged into the Software Creations BBS, the bulletin board system used by id Software where they distributed all their games. Dan Linton, the board's owner, displayed Wolfenstein 3D in ASCII text art for players to see when they logged into the BBS to download the latest game. Romero describes a scene of an exhausted but triumphant group that "high-fived" as they finished up. "We left very tired but very sure that everything had changed."

As Miller and Broussard prepared the disks for mass production, id Software set about developing the latter three episodes. Despite the tempting call of Fatal Fury and Street Fighter II, welcome distractions from the grind, the next 20 levels were completed before the end of May. Submitting the master disks to Miller, Romero found out that the trilogy itself wasn't selling well--but the $60 package, which included the written guide, comprised 99 percent of the orders.

A Wolfenstein 3D Screenshot

By the end of the month, there were 4,000 orders, generating a quarter of a million dollars in a month, a quintuple increase over their previous profits. "Well, that was quite the motivator," quips Romero. He and Hall set out to "burn the midnight oil" to get those completed as quickly as possible. Kevin Cloud, meanwhile, set about creating the hint guide, cobbling it together from the hints written by Hall and Romero and printouts of the in-game maps. Romero describes making the hint manual as a "blast" and a "real highlight" in the overall development of Wolfenstein 3D, as there was a challenge in trying to find fresh and funny ways to tell the player "kill the guard, get the key.”

In creating the manual, Romero and the team also accidentally inspired the phenomena of speed runs. Because the game was such a speed-focused game, Romero had made a list of all his personal fastest level run times, and those scores were written at the beginning of every level's section in the guide. Their next game, Doom, would make the kickoff more official by adding the ability to record and playback the gameplay, a function that Romero incredibly says had existed for at least two years prior but had never been made accessible to players.

Once testing was completed, on June 15, Romero made the master discs using ICE and drove them to Scott Miller at Apogee. This occasion would be the first time he'd ever handed over a game in person, as previously, game copies were simply sent through the mail. All things told, from start to ship, the development of Wolfenstein 3D took four months, with the other taking two, for a total of six episodes. Six months to make a six-episode game by a company of six people--the significance of that is not lost on Romero. He said, concluding the talk, "You already know that story."

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