The history of Wolfenstein

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This feature was originally published in Retro Gamer issue 175 in late 2017.

Wolfenstein 3D was so good that, when id Software took an early version to Sierra in 1992, the publisher quickly tabled a $2.5 million offer to purchase the pre-Doom dev studio. It's difficult to understate how impactful a game Wolfenstein 3D was—how much it changed things, how it raised the bar, decided it still wasn't high enough and so tore it off and threw it over a mountain. There were first-person games before id's effort, there were better games with more longevity since—most from id itself—but Wolfenstein 3D was the game that kickstarted everything, and made established publishers have a ‘holy shit' moment that made them slap $2.5 million dollars down on the table.

It shouldn't surprise you to hear that, in the end, Sierra's offer wasn't followed through. id was willing to sell—even going so far as to create a cute little piece of artwork to celebrate the purchase—but wrangling over payments, with John Romero requesting $100,000 up front alongside a letter of intent, meant ultimately Sierra backed out of the deal. Wolfenstein 3D would still happen, though. Its release directly spawned Doom and Quake, and influenced an entire genre still enjoying ludicrous popularity to this day. It didn't need $2.5 million to be a global phenomenon. It just needed the team at id to sit down and make it.

"My least favourite part of Wolf3D was actually making the levels!" John Romero, co-founder of id and project specialist on Wolfenstein 3D, says. "They were so boring to make. Commander Keen levels were a ton of fun because there was so much to them. Doom levels were even more fun to create—but Wolf3D's levels were just so simple to design because there weren't that many elements to the game." This meant actually crafting levels for the game was a tough order, and towards the end of things John was having to bribe cohort Tom Hall into keeping on going with the promise that he'd be able to buy himself a Honda NSX—if only he'd finish those levels: "I would say, ‘C'mon—let's finish these levels! NSX, NSX, NSX!'"

But this all jumps forward many years in the evolution of Wolfenstein as a series—id Software did not create the series, nor has it been the sole gatekeeper of it over the years. Rewind back to 1981 and you'll find a relatively unknown, overlooked and forward-thinking 2D stealth-adventure game for the Apple II by the name of Castle Wolfenstein. Created by the late Silas Warner, the original was ported to Atari 8-bit machines, DOS and Commodore 64 before being followed by Beyond Castle Wolfenstein in 1984. "Wolfenstein is the original stealth shooter," John says, "I'm really proud of the legacy of Castle Wolfenstein—the series that Silas Warner created out of thin air. His inspiration came while watching the 1961 movie The Guns Of Navarone. That night, Silas was at a 7-Eleven and played Berzerk for the first time. He thought about taking the design of Berzerk and replacing the robots with Nazis, and voila, Castle Wolfenstein's idea was born.

"He combined his game with another of his creations, The Voice, which could play back digitized audio, which is how the talking Nazis came about. This was all very revolutionary in 1981, and unless you were playing on an Apple II back then you have no idea how awesome the game was at the time." These originals set the scene, with a castle, Nazis, violence against said Nazis, digitised sound and, honestly, not a huge amount other than that tying them to later releases. They were influential, of course, and John admits he and the id team had tried to incorporate elements from these games in the series' 3D debut: "We replicated a few of the features in the original game such as dragging dead bodies and opening crates. We even got it working so if a guard saw a dead body he tried finding the player."

That's where the similarities began to fade, though—Wolf3D was shaping up to be a quick run-and-gun that felt great to those playing it. "The problem is that the game came to a dead stop when you did these things," John says. "We didn't want to slow it down so we actually removed the features and left it fast." The intention—the initial idea, even—was always to make a 3D version of Castle Wolfenstein, but in creating the game it soon became something similar only in setting and name than anything else. What we ended up with was a game of mazes and exploration, secrets and hidden gold stashes, Nazi soldiers shouting, 'Halt!' and SS officers crying, 'Mein Leben!' when gunned down. It was nothing short of revolutionary for the time, but the worry was still there: would a reimagining of a little-known, decade-old title be able to succeed?

The first of BJ Blazkowicz's Nazi-bashing adventures blew away all expectations—and these were already high. Players in 1992 were pumped for the release. Even with the weight of expectation on its shoulders, the game outperformed even id's expectations—a hoped-for $60,000 first royalty cheque landed with $40,000 more than that on it. "The press for Wolfenstein 3D was incredible," John says. "People were mentally devastated when they played this hyper-fast 70fps Nazi-killing blastfest. They wrote all about it in the pre-internet magazines of 1992. We followed up with Spear Of Destiny and sent it out on 18 September, 1992. So for about a year and a half after the launch of Wolf3D we had pretty much the most popular FPS around… until Doom launched."

The inevitable array of ports followed, with new weapons, missions, graphics and more added to different versions—and these ports would continue well into the mid-Nineties even while id moved further away from the game-changing game it had come up with. First Doom, then Quake—id Software had other home made projects to concentrate on, so Wolfenstein remained fallow but not forgotten for a number of years. An aborted attempt to make a sequel at Apogee under the stewardship of id alumnus Tom Hall became Rise Of The Triad, but other than that, the game that had taken around four months to develop had no follow-up for almost a decade.

The return

Nine years after Wolfenstein 3D had written a new rulebook for games, a return was on the cards—and Gray Matter stepped up to develop Return To Castle Wolfenstein. While id had moved on from the series, there was still a lot of love for it internally. "Many of us wanted to see a new Wolf game made and were searching for a development team," Todd Hollenshead, then-CEO of id explains. "We knew Gray Matter well and had been impressed by their work on Redneck Rampage (as Xatrix) and on the Quake II mission pack they developed for us. Drew Markham, the studio head of Gray Matter, came to our offices one day and pitched us on the idea of him and his team developing a new Wolfenstein game.

"The demo Drew showed us that day was jaw-dropping. It was a perfect demo because it captured the imagination of what the potential could be for a modern Wolfenstein." This dark, atmospheric reimagining of Wolf3D brought a more robust storyline to the fore along with a much greater emphasis on the occult—along with bringing back BJ and his proclivity for shooting Nazis in the face. "When Drew left the office, we all knew that he was going to be the guy we handed the franchise over to take forward," Todd adds.

One of the people who worked on the pitch demo was Maxx Kaufmann, art director on Return To Castle Wolfenstein, who explains the process. "We did a snow level demo, there was a courtyard and a little interior of a castle," he says, "One of the funny things was we had an alarm—if you didn't kill the guys in the proper amount of time a guy would run off and set off the alarm, and the alarm was from Raiders Of The Lost Ark—the woman yelling, ‘Alarm!', so it was pretty funny. We just put in our take on what we thought Wolfenstein would be, and it was cool snowy outdoor castle little level, it couldn't have been more than like five rooms—but it was a combination of the five rooms, the interior and exterior and the AI having the ability to set off the alarm that I suspect was what made them go with us."

With the development team chosen, work began with Gray Matter reporting to id, which was working directly with Activision as a publisher. This was a relationship that ran relatively smoothly: "Really id just let us go. BJ Blazkowicz—what he looked like and how he was represented—was a big deal," Maxx explains. "The story they let us go with—they had a knowledge of it, but I don't remember us changing gears or anything with what we wanted to do there. My impression was that they liked what we did and they had trust in us and thought we were going to do a good job." It was elsewhere id did step up to the plate—specifically to manage the expectations of the publisher. "They told Activision, ‘The game's going to come out when it's going to come out, and it's going to be a good game.' They absolutely made sure that Activision didn't rush," Maxx remembers.

Instead of a master-servant relationship, RTCW was made with collaboration and a spirit of helpfulness in mind. While id's involvement was limited, people from the studio were involved in helping out with areas like animation, advising on art and helping to research in areas like World War 2 timelines for added authenticity. In a game featuring robotic, Tesla-coil-powered undead Nazis. "There was a ton of World War 2 research that went into the development," Todd explains. "Including uniform designs, weapons (both actual and fantasy), and even locations for parts of the games to take place. I think that helped us convey a more compelling singleplayer narrative and helped make the player feel like a war hero saving the world from Nazis."

But things were by no means po-faced—Maxx pointed out some of the best fun he had in making RTCW involved the outlandish themes featured in the game. "The idea this Nazi technology had gone beyond, so you had these Frankenstein creatures, the electrical currents going through them and stuff—it just added to the visual interest and excitement. Excitement is a term I would use on our end to do something that was different—it wasn't just straight World War 2." 

Fun doesn't immediately mean it was an easy process, of course, and Maxx recalled how being given a single day off during development was cause for celebration: "I was so excited to have a Sunday off in a month," he laughs. "I was excited about having one day off. That's how crazy we were working. It was every day of the month, and if you had a day off, you were excited. I don't know if I could do that now, I was young then—but I just remember, it seems so funny now, being excited to have a day off: ‘Thank you! Oh my god I have one day off! This is great!' Like, you couldn't do your laundry, you couldn't do anything... you weren't even in your house that much that you could get it dirty."

The dreaded crunch might be viewed differently through a modern lens, but Return To Castle Wolfenstein released to rapturous applause, greedily guzzled up by players eager to see what the homecoming king could bring to the genre it lit a fire under. Some of those players were even located inside id's office. "RTCW is my favourite of the franchise and one of my all time favourite games," Todd says. "I can't even remember how many times I played the entire singleplayer game start to finish. We would have contests at id to see how far you could get using only the knife or until the alarm was sounded and guards were called on you while the game was in development."

The game ended up with a much bigger impact on the wider sphere of things, though, thanks not to its ‘good versus evil—gone crazy' premise (copyright Maxx Kaufmann, 2017), but because of something Wolf3D didn't feature in the first place: multiplayer. With then-unique modes based around objectives rather than just killing anyone you saw, class-based systems and an early capture the flag all on offer, it delighted all but some Doom and Quake purists. And it was from the healthy multiplayer scene on Return To Castle Wolfenstein that an entire developer was spawned, Splash Damage.

"RTCW almost didn't have any multiplayer," Todd reveals to us. "Gray Matter was behind schedule and had no resources to put on multiplayer. From id, we enlisted Brandon James from Nerve to sit down with a few of us and come up with a whole new design and from that point singleplayer and multiplayer were developed almost completely independently with the exception of id being in the middle, guiding and assisting with both." Part of that process saw the enlistment of mod teams to help with things like building new maps and—in the case of Quake III map pack veterans Splash Damage, then a ragtag bunch of amateurs—help with development of patches. This relationship built up between the fledgling studio and the masters at id soon led to bigger plans, with the small team at Splash Damage putting together a single-player demo for a RTCW expansion it had been told about.

"We were asked to pitch for a Wolfenstein project—I think it was a mission pack for RTCW," explains Arnout Van Meer, co-founder of Splash Damage. "So what we did, as a multiplayer team which had only worked on multiplayer content, was pitch a single-player mission for the game. We managed to get a full level with full voice acting, NPCs, new weapons and more done in a week—we sent it to Activision on a Sunday and when they got back to us they gave us a multiplayer project. Which made a lot more sense."

This project shifted from a mission pack to a multiplayer-only add-on, rebadged and renamed as Enemy Territory: Wolfenstein, and suffered through a fair bit of uncertainty and confusion until its eventual release as a free, standalone multiplayer game. Rather than being ignored and forgotten, it—like Wolfenstein 3D before it—set the standard for the genre, blew the gaming public away and, ultimately, resulted in those at Splash Damage earning the team full-time careers in development. "I don't know what Splash Damage would even be if id and Activision hadn't decided to put Enemy Territory out as a free goodwill gesture," says Ed Stern, lead writer at the studio. "It was a really good game, but it was just the most colossal stroke of good luck. There wasn't anything like it at the time."

Under the stewardship of id and Activision, Splash Damage went through a huge learning experience in development of Enemy Territory, cutting content, dealing with bottlenecks, fiddling (then unfiddling) grenade physics and so much more. But all along it was supported by the established studio and publisher, partly because the game being made was so very new. "One thing we started doing was having RPG elements, introducing XP to a first-person shooter," Arnout says. "It made it so much more accessible to players—you could die while going for that objective, but you improve over time and your character gets better. We were one of the first games to do that."

The modern age

While the impact of Enemy Territory: Wolfenstein is still being felt in the world of online gaming as a whole—so much of what it introduced, or at least popularised, is the standard these days—it was the Wolfenstein series that briefly took the RPG element to heart, with the release of Wolfenstein RPG on iOS in 2008. This was a fine distraction in the series, but not really enough to keep the committed fans happy—they wanted something new, something big, a continuation of what began with Return To Castle Wolfenstein. They got… Wolfenstein.

"I think Raven always believed they had great ideas to bring to Wolf, but were thwarted by that awesome demo that Gray Matter gave us," Todd explains. "Nearly ten years later on, they finally got their chance to pitch us on all their ideas with a cool demo of their own." With Activision keen for Raven and id to work together and Gray Matter no longer existing, the decision to pass on the Wolfenstein mantle to another studio once again was taken. Jason Mojica, level designer at Raven on Wolfenstein 2009, was just a junior on the project but saw how eager even the veterans were to make something great. "Our veterans were on point when nothing was holding them back, they were a powerhouse of raw dev. As a junior at the time, it was such a nice place to be, soaking up experience. They were very good at keeping an open mind and listening to everyone's suggestions. We had a very strong team mentality."

But even with the talent at the helm and the enthusiasm of working on an already legendary series, the reputation of Wolfenstein 2009 ended up being, it's fair to say, not stellar. The game was serviceable and had some nice ideas—it looked good and played well enough—but there was a spark missing from it that people expected from such a trailblazing series. All the same, those who worked on it still had a fondness for it. "Back in 2008 I was very much a junior, just enjoying the process around me," Jason says. "I didn't have much thought on the holistic design of the game. The flaws or issues that occurred weren't as noticeable to my eye. Now, after being in the industry for so long, those types of things are pretty glaring. I would agree with some of the criticism, but It's hard for me to think negatively about the game, since I enjoyed working on it so much." And Todd agrees, "Wolfenstein 2009 gets overlooked. I think much of that has to do with it being released in the middle of a console transition and a development philosophy shift away from just totally selling out for the PC game."

So the series remained dormant once more, this time with players not quite as eager for the next entry to the series. Of course, with the ravenous hunger not quite being there from the buying public, there was the shortest gap yet between two mainstream Wolfenstein releases. We saw another gap though this time it was only five, until Bethesda (now owners of id Software) handed the licence to MachineGames. How did they turn out? Well, we asked John, the main proponent for making Wolfenstein what it is today, for his thoughts. "I think the most recent New Order/Old Blood games were so well done. I'm a big fan of them," he says. "Awesome graphics, super violence, great story. Really, it's just so well made. We brought the series back to life with our 1992 Wolfenstein 3D, followed by Spear Of Destiny. For a while it was looking like Wolfenstein would be coming back every ten or so years.

"It's nice that it's such an active series now with Bethesda at the helm. Silas [Warner] would be proud."