The Dawn of the FPS: inside the making of Wolfenstein 3D


In 1981 Castle Wolfenstein was the game to be seen with. Developed by Muse Software, led by the man-mountain Silas Warner, the World War II title was the first ever stealth-based game. Players would sneak through the castle, disguise themselves as guards, and used some of the earliest digital voice samples. It was a spectacularly popular and innovative game.

What, you thought Carmack, Romero and id software made Wolfenstein? Think again.

The story of Wolfenstein 3D starts with Muse Software. Silas Warner was the lead designer and programmer of Castle Wolfenstein. Muse founder’s Ed Zaron description of meeting him is straight out of Damon Runyon: “Silas is a big guy, maybe 6’8″ and say 320lbs. Here’s the picture: he was walking down Mainstreet in downtown Baltimore wearing a huge, sagging sports coat. He had a car battery (yes, car battery!) in one pocket, a CB radio in the other pocket and a whip antenna stuck down the back of his jacket. He was occasionally talking on the CB as he held two magazines open in one hand. One of Silas’s favorite things was to read two mags simultaneously, kinda one inside the other, flipping back and forth.”

Silas was a big man in a small company – though Muse’s games were hugely popular, the company never really took off. When their sales guy was taken ill, the company just couldn’t afford to keep going. In 1986 they shut down and, soon after, their trademarks on the Wolfenstein name lapsed. Silas, sadly, never made another big hit and passed away in 2004 after a long struggle with kidney disease.

Skip to 1990. Over in Shreveport, Louisiana, id Software was thriving. The four man team – John D Carmack II, John Romero, Adrian Carmack (no relation) and Tom Hall – had made a working copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 on the PC, whilst moonlighting at game publisher Softdisk. They thought they might to get a chance to work with Nintendo: but whilst Nintendo weren’t interested in expanding away from consoles, Apogee Software’s Scott Miller (later to work on Duke Nukem Forever for ten years) was definitely interested.

Miller had seen John Romero’s Dangeous Dave games and wanted to hire the team. US business law at the time meant that he couldn’t approach Romero directly, so he sent fan letters through (all from the same address) until Romero contacted him. They came to an agreement. Again moonlighting, the id team developed Commander Keen for Apogee. That was until Softdisk found out about the arrangement forced them form a new company – id Software. It was named after Sigmund Freud’s word for the uncoordinated instinctual trends underlying a human’s psychic apparatus.

Commander Keen established the business model for Wolfenstein 3D – a shareware first episode followed by two mail order-only sequels. The engine for the game was taken from two earlier titles – Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3D – which had been inspired by the then cutting-edge Ultima Underworld, which already had a true 3D world. And the idea for the game was taken from the long-defunct, but fondly-remembered Castle Wolfenstein. (An American called Jack L. Vogt claims he still owns the rights).

To build the game, Carmack persuaded Miller that he needed the most cutting edge hardware. He bought a NeXT workstation, a cutting edge machine in a die-cast magnesium cube that cost $6,500 ($11,500 in today’s money), from a new company set up Steve Jobs after being forced out of Apple. Sidenote: a NeXT cube was also used by Tim Berners Lee at CERN to create the first web server and hence the World Wide Web – today’s Internet.

This more powerful machine allowed the team to step up to a VGA palette, if not up the resolution and include digital sound. The music was composed Robert “Bobby” C. Prince III, a lawyer and a Vietnam vet, who went on to compose Doom, Duke Nukem 3D and is currently working on Doom tribute Wrack. The enemy shouts were taken straight from Castle Wolfenstein.

The game was originally intended to follow Castle Wolfenstein’s plans more closely – players could drag dead bodies around, swap uniforms with guards, stealth attack enemies, and so on – but the abilities were dropped in favour of pure run and gun. Stealth just slowed the game down and over-complicated the controls.

Development was rapid – with the engine, concept and team in place, and most of the game written by Carmack in assembly code, they iterated. Adrian Carmack drew each sprite frame on the computers by hand. Each swastika-saturated level took Romero just one day to make – so fast that Scott Miller insisted the team produce a prequel trilogy (“The Nocturnal Trilogy”) to cash in.

When the game released in 1992, it rapidly sold over 100,000 copies – huge for a game distributed as Shareware. The game also appeared on Game Boy Advance, XBLA, PSN, iOS, Android, SNES, Atari Jaguar, Mac OS, Acorn, Apple II… except in Germany where, two years after release, it was banned for including Nazi insignia and harming dogs.

The core team went on to further define the first-person shooter genre, releasing Doom just eighteen months after Wolfenstein 3D. However, they didn’t stay together for long; both Hall and Romero quit to form Ion Storm, releasing Anachronox and Deus Ex, before Daikatana killed off the company. They’re now working at social game developer Loot Drop. Adrian Carmack was squeezed out of id software after Doom 3: he later sued his former co-owners. In 2010, he suffered a stroke.

Bethesda bought id for an undisclosed sum in 2009 with John Carmack, the programmer, as the only original Wolfenstein team member remaining.