Quakes 3-D Engine: 
The Big Picture
by Michael Abrash
If you want to be a game programmer,
or for that matter any sort of programmer at all, heres the secret to success
in just two words:  Ship it.  Finish the product and get it out the door, and
youll be a hero.  It sounds simple, but its a surprisingly rare skill, and
one thats highly prized by software companies.  Heres why.
My friend David Stafford, co-founder
of the game company Cinematronics, says that shipping software is an unnatural
act, and hes right.  Most of the fun stuff in a software project happens early
on, when anythings possible and theres a ton of new code to write.  By the
end of a project, the design is carved in stone, and most of the work involves
fixing bugs, or trying to figure out how to shoehorn in yet another feature
that was never planned for in the original design.  All that is a lot less fun
than starting a project, and often very hard work–but it has to be done before
the project can ship.  As a former manager of mine liked to say, After you
finish the first 90% of a project, you have to finish the other 90%.  Its
that second 90% thats the key to success.
This is true for even the most interesting
projects.  I spent the last year and a half as one of three programmers writing
the game Quake
at id Software, doing our best to push the state of the
art of multiplayer and 3-D game technology ahead of anything else on the market,
working on what was probably the most-anticipated game of all time.  Exciting
as it was, we hit the same rough patches toward the end as any other software
project.  I am quite serious when I say that a month before shipping, we were
sick to death of working on Quake
A lot of programmers get to that
second 90%, get tired and bored and frustrated, and change jobs, or lose focus,
or find excuses to procrastinate.  There are a million ways not to finish a
project, but theres only one way to finish:  Put your head down and grind it
out until its done.  Do that, and I promise you the programming world will
be yours.
It worked for Dave; Cinematronics
became a successful company and was acquired by Maxis.  It worked for us at
id, as well.  DOOM
was one of the most successful games in history, and
we wanted to top it.  For the programmers, the goal was to set new standards
for 3-D and multiplayer–especially Internet–technology for the DOOM
genre, and Quake
did just that.  Lets take a look at how it works.
had a synchronous peer-to-peer
networking architecture, where each players machine runs a parallel game engine,
and the machines proceed in lockstep.  This works reasonably well for two-player
modem games, but makes it hard to support lots of players coming and going at
will, and is less well suited to the Internet, so we went with a different approach
for Quake
is a client-server
application, as shown in Figure One.  All gameplay and simulation are performed
on the server, and all input and output take place on the client, which is basically
nothing more than a specialized terminal.  Each client gathers up keyboard,
mouse, and joystick input for each frame and sends it off to the server; the
server receives the input from all clients, runs the game for a fixed timeslice,
and sends the results off to the clients; and the clients display the results
during the next frame after theyre received.  This is true even in single-player
mode, but here the client and the server cant actually be separate processes,
because Quake
has to run on non-multitasking DOS; instead, during each
frame the input portion of the client is run, then the server executes, and
finally the output portion of the client displays the current frame, with all
communications between the client and the server flowing through the communications
layer using memory buffers as the transport.  In multiplayer games, the client
and server are separate processes, running on different machines (except for
the special case of listen servers, where both the multiplayer server and one
of the clients run in the same process on one machine).
Client-server has obvious benefits
for multiplayer games, because it vastly simplifies issues of synchronization
between various players.  Perhaps less obvious is that client-server is useful
even in single-player mode, because it enforces a modular design, and has a
single communications channel between client and server that simplifies debugging. 
Its also a big help to have identical code for single-player and multiplayer
An interesting issue with client-server
architecture is Internet play.  Quake
was designed from the start for
multiplayer gaming, but Internet play, which hadnt been a major issue for earlier
games, raised some interesting and unique issues, because communications latencies
are longer over the Internet than they are on a LAN, and often even longer than
directly-connected modems, and because packet delivery is less reliable.
In the early stages of development,
used reliable packet delivery for everything.  With this approach,
packets are sent out and acknowledgement is sent back, and if acknowledgement
isnt received, everything is brought to a halt until a resend succeeds.  This
was necessary because the clients were sent only changes to the current state,
rather than the current state, in order to reduce the total amount of data that
needed to be sent, and when sending nothing but changes, its essential that
every change be received, or else the cumulative state will be incorrect.
The problem with reliable packet
delivery is that if a packet gets dropped, it takes a long time to find that
out (at least one roundtrip from server to client), and then it takes a long
time to resend it (at least another roundtrip).  If the ping time to the client
is 200 ms (about the best possible with a PPP connection), then a dropped packet
will result in a glitch of several hundred milliseconds–long enough to be very
noticeable and annoying.
Instead, Quake
now uses reliable
packet delivery only for information such as scores and level changes.  Current
game state, such as the locations of players and objects, is sent each timeslice
not as changes, but in its entirety, compressed so it doesnt take up too much
bandwidth.  However, this information is not sent with reliable delivery; there
is no acknowledgement, and neither the server nor client knows nor cares whether
those packets arrive or not.  Each update contains all state relevant to each
client for that frame, so all a dropped packet means is a freezing of the world
for one server timeslice; server timeslices come in a constant stream at a rate
of 10 or 20 a second, so a dropped packet results in a glitch of no more than
100 ms, which is quite acceptable.
Client-server imposes a potentially
large latency between a players action, such as pressing the jump key, and
the player seeing the resulting action, such as his viewpoint jumping into the
air.  The action has to make a roundtrip to the server and back, so the latency
can vary from close to no time at all, on a LAN, up to hundreds of milliseconds
on the Internet.  Longer latencies can make the game difficult to play; by the
time the player actually jumps, he might have moved many feet forward and fallen
into a pit.  This problem raises the possibility of running some or all of the
game logic on the client in parallel with the server, or in parallel with other
clients in a peer-to-peer architecture, so the client can have faster response.
Faster response is all to the good,
but there are some serious problems with simulating on the client.  For one
thing, it makes communications and game logic much more difficult, because instead
of one central master simulation on the server, there are now potentially a
dozen or more simulations that need to be synchronized.  Only one outcome from
any event can be allowed, so with client simulation there must be a mechanism
for determining whose decision wins in case of conflict, and undoing actions
that are overruled by another simulation.  Worse, there are inevitably paradoxes,
as, for example, a player firing a rocket and seeing it hit an opponent–but
then seeing the opponent magically resurrect as the local client gets overruled. 
While Quake
has lag, it doesnt have paradox, and that helps a lot in
making the experience feel real.
does use one shortcut
to help with lag; if a player turns to look in another direction, that happens
immediately, without waiting for the server to process the input and return
the new state.  There are no paradoxes or synchronization issues associated
with turning in Quake
, and instant turning makes the game feel much more
responsive.  (In QuakeWorld
, a multiplayer-only follow-up currently in
development, weve gone a step further and simulated the movement of the player,
but nothing else, on the client, and weve found that this does improve the
feel of Internet play quite a bit, albeit at the cost of an occasional minor
The server
The Quake
server maintains
the games timebase and state, performs object movement and physics, and runs
monster AI.  The most interesting aspect of the server is the extent to which
its data-driven.  Each level (the current world) is completely described
by object locations and types, wall locations, and so on stored in a database
loaded from disk.  The behavior of objects and monsters is likewise externally
programmable, controlled by functions written in a built-in interpreted language,
Quake-C.  Quake
is controlled by its external database to the extent
that not only have people been able to make new levels, but theyve also been
able to add new game elements, such as smart rockets that track people, planes
that can be climbed into and flown, and alerters that stick to players and screech
Here I am!–all without writing a single line of C or assembly code.  This
flexibility not only makes Quake
a great platform for creativity, but
also helped a great deal as we developed the game, because it allowed us to
try out changes without having to recompile the program.  Indeed, levels and
Quake-C programs can be reloaded and tried out without even exiting Quake
If youre curious, theres lots
of Quake-C code available on the Internet.  One excellent site is Quake Developers
Pages (http://www.gamers.org/dEngine/quake/).  You can find information about
making custom monsters and levels there, as well.
The client
The server and communications layer
are crucial elements of Quake
, but its the client with which the player
actually interacts, and its the client that has the glamour component–the
3-D engine.  The client also handles keyboard, mouse, and joystick input, sound
mixing, and 2-D drawing such as menus, the status bar, and text messages, but
those are straightforward; 3-D is where the action is.  The challenges with
s 3-D engine were twofold:  allow true 3-D viewing in all directions
(unlike DOOM
s 2.5-D), and improve visual quality with lighting, more
precise pixel placement, or whatever else it took–all with good performance,
of course.
As with the server, the 3-D engine
is data-driven, with the drawing data falling into two categories, the world
and entities.  Each level contains information about the geometry of walls,
floors, and so on, and also about the textures (bitmaps) painted onto those
faces.  The Quake
database also contains triangle meshes and textures
describing players, monsters, and other moving objects, called entities.  Originally,
we planned to draw everything in Quake
through a single rendering pipeline,
but it turned out that there was no way to get good performance for both huge
walls and monsters made of hundreds of tiny polygons out of a single pipeline,
so the world and entities are drawn by completely different code paths.
The world is stored as a data structure
known as a Binary Space Partitioning (BSP) tree.  BSP trees are quite complicated
to explain, so I wont go into detail here, but if youre interested, Ive written
about BSP trees in Dr. Dobbs Sourcebook
; see the May, July, and November,
1995, issues.  For Quake
s purposes, BSP trees do two very useful things: 
they make it easy to traverse a set of polygons in front-to-back or back-to-front
order, and they partition space into convex volumes.
Back-to-front order is handy if
youre drawing complete polygons, because you can draw all your polygons back-to-front
and get correct occlusion, a process known as the painters algorithm.  In Quake
however, we draw polygons front-to-back.  To be precise, we take all our polygons
and put their edges into a global list; then we rasterize this list and draw
only the visible (frontmost) portions.  The big advantage of this approach is
that we draw each pixel in the world once and only once, saving precious drawing
time in complex scenes because we dont overdraw polygons one atop another. 
(See the May and July, 1996, issues of DDS
for further discussion of
s edge list.)
However, the edge list isnt fast
enough to handle the thousands of polygons that can be in the view pyramid;
if you put that many edges into an edge list, what you get is a very slow frame
rate, because theres just too much data to process and sort.  So we limited
the number of polygons that have to be considered by taking advantage of the
convex-partitioning property of BSP trees to calculate a potentially visible
set (PVS).  When a level is processed into the Quake
format (a separate
preprocessing step done once when a map is built, by a utility program), a BSP
tree is built from the level, and then, for each convex subspace (called a leaf)
of the BSP tree, a visibility calculation is performed.  For a given leaf ,
the utility calculates which other subspaces are visible from anywhere in that
leaf, and that information is stored with the leaf in the BSP tree.  In other
words, if no matter where youre standing in the kitchen downstairs, you cant
possibly see up the stairs into the bedroom, the bedroom polygons are omitted
from the kitchen leafs PVS; if you can see into the living room from the corner
of the kitchen, the kitchen leafs PVS remembers that living room polgyons are
potentially visible.  We can be sure that the PVS for a leaf contains all the
polygons we ever need to consider if the player is standing anywhere in that
leaf, so at rendering time, rather than processing the thousands of polygons
in a level, we only have to handle–clip, transform, project, and insert in
the edge list–the few hundred polygons in the current leafs PVS.  This reduces
the polygon load to a level that the edge list can handle, and the PVS and the
edge list together make for fast, consistent performance in a wide variety of
scenes.  The January, 1996, DDS
covers the PVS in more detail.
One point about the PVS:  it can
be quite expensive to calculate.  PVS determination can take 15 or 20 minutes
to finish–on a four-processor Alpha system!  Fortunately, Pentium Pro systems
are getting fast enough to handle the job well, and no doubt the code can be
made faster, but be aware that the power of the PVS comes at a price.
Once the edge list has finished
processing all the edges, were left with a set of spans that cover the screen
exactly once.  We pass this list to a rasterizer, which texture maps the appropriate
bitmap onto those spans, accounting for perspective (which requires an expensive
divide to get exactly right) by doing a divide every 16 pixels, and interpolating
linearly between those points.  (This is the key step in allowing true 3-D viewing
in any direction.)
Lighting involves true light sources
and shadowing, unlike DOOM
s crude sector lighting.  This is performed
by having a separate lighting map (basically a texture map, but with light values
instead of colors) for each polygon, with light samples on a 16-pixel grid,
and prelighting the texture for each polygon according to the grid as the texture
is drawn into a memory buffer; the actual texture mapping works from these pre-lit
textures, with no lighting occurring during the texture mapping itself.  I dont
have space to explain how this differs from normal lighting, or why its so
desirable, except to say that it results in detailed, high-quality lighting
and good performance, but you can find a thorough explanation in the November,
1996, DDS
used flat posters–sprites–for
monsters and other moving objects, and one of the big advances in Quake
was switching to polygonal entities, which are true 3-D objects.  However, this
raised a new concern; entities can contain hundreds of polygons, and there can
be a dozen of them visible at once, so drawing them fast was one of our major
challenges.  Each entity consists of a set of vertices, and a mesh of triangles
across those vertices.  All the vertices in an entity are transformed and projected
as a set, and then all the triangles are drawn, using affine (linear) rather
than perspective-correct texture mapping; affine is faster, and entity polygons
are typically so small and far away that the imperfections of affine arent
noticeable.  Also, the entity drawer is optimized for small triangles, rather
than the long span drawing that the world drawer is optimized for; in fact,
theres a special ultra-fast drawer for distant entities, which you can read
about in the January, 1997, DDS
The big difference, however, is
that entities are drawn with z-buffering; that is, the distance of each pixel
to be drawn is compared to the distance of the pixel being drawn over (stored
in a memory area called a z-buffer), and the new pixel is drawn only if its
closer.  This lets entities sort seamlessly with the world and each other, no
matter where they move or what angle theyre viewed at.  Theres a cost, to
be sure; z-buffering is slower than non-z-buffered drawing, and the z-buffer
has to be initialized to match the visible world pixels, at a cost of about
10% of Quake
s performance.  That cost is, however, more than repaid
by the simplicity and accuracy of z-buffering, which saves us from having to
perform complex clipping and sorting operations in order to draw entities properly,
and gives us flawless drawing under all circumstances.
The PVS helps improve entity performance,
because we only need to draw entities that are in the PVS for the current leaf. 
Other entities dont exist, so far as the client is concerned; the server doesnt
even bother sending information about anything outside the PVS, which not only
helps reduce the drawing load, but also minimizes the amount of information
that has to be sent over modems or the Internet.
As a final effect, we wanted to
have effects like smoke trails and huge explosions in Quake
, but couldnt
figure out how to do them fast and well with standard sprites (although the
cores of explosions are sprites) or with polygon models.  The solution was to
use clouds of hundreds of square, colored, z-buffered rectangles that scale
with distance, called particles.  A few hundred particles strewn behind a rocket
looks amazingly like a trail of flame and smoke, especially if they start out
yellow and fade to red and then to gray, and as a group they do an excellent
job of convincing the eye that they represent a true 3-D object.
Particles and unreliable packet
delivery, along with dynamic lighting, which allows explosions and muzzle flashes
to light up the world, were among the last additions to the Quake
these features made a well-rendered but somewhat sterile world come alive. 
These, together with details such as menus, a ton of optimization, and a healthy
dose of bug fixing, were the second 90% that propelled Quake
from being
a functional 3-D and multiplayer engine to a technological leap ahead.
Ah, if only wed had time for a
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