The first QuakeCon was organized in 1996 by a handful of id Software fans, who wired their computers together between rooms and hallways in a hotel near id Software's Mesquite, Texas office.
The few dozen attendees at the beginning of the event came together to play Quake over a LAN connection on a large scale; an opportunity that brought attracted over 100 gamers to the event by the end of the weekend.
When id Software caught wind of the convention, they stopped by to commune with their most diehard fans. John Carmack led an informal group chat with the attendees, where he discussed the technical ins-and-outs of the company's games, and got feedback from fans that would help shape future titles.
This year's QuakeCon is an important one for the history of the event. It's the first year that Carmack, who left id Software last November to pursue his passion for virtual reality at Oculus, would not give his lengthy keynote speech on the state of gaming technology. Though Carmack offered to speak at the event after his departure, nothing came of the gesture. Carmack declined to comment to Polygon earlier this week about whether any formal talks about his keynote had taken place before Zenimax, the owner of id Software, filed a lawsuit against Oculus in May of this year.
To understand the impact that Carmack's absence, and the changing identity of a post-acquisition id Software, have had on QuakeCon in general, you have to understand exactly what QuakeCon is. It isn't like any other "major" gaming convention in the U.S., lacking the announcement-heavy or developer-centric tone of an E3 or GDC. It also doesn't possess the scale or variety of PAX's various incarnations.
QuakeCon is a LAN party that dabbles in being a gaming convention. That's not a slight against QuakeCon — far from it, in fact, as the event's very nature is what makes it unlike any other gaming gathering in the country.
In previous years, even mentioning Doom was uncomfortable
QuakeCon's identity has changed a few times since its inception, largely due to id Software's adoption and nurturing of the event as it grew through the late 90s and early 2000s. As attendance expanded beyond the original organizers' capacity to handle, id Software stepped in to aid organization efforts, bring in sponsors and build a template for the show as we now know it. The event became id Software's de facto method of making announcements — QuakeCon 2007 in particular was a banner year, with news on Rage, id Tech 5, Quake Live, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and even the first tease of Doom 4.
id Software's role in QuakeCon began to take a back seat after that, largely because of its 2009 acquisition by Zenimax, which began promoting titles from Bethesda and its other subsidiaries at the event. It wasn't exactly a hostile takeover; id Software was stuck in the troubled development of Doom 4, and simply didn't have much to announce. In previous years, even mentioning Doom was uncomfortable, as id Software's representatives were prohibited from talking about the project.
"I actually asked about whether I could say anything related to the development [of Doom 4], and the answer was, no, I couldn't," Carmack explained during his keynote speech at QuakeCon 2013.
Regardless of how the convention changed around it, the Bring Your Own Computer (BYOC) area lived on, giving the show's 3,000-odd attendees a way to play their games over a LAN connection around the clock, the entire weekend. Hundreds of volunteers come together every year, contributing thousands of hours of work to lay cables throughout the Hilton Anatole hotel, providing the necessary connections for every seat in the house. They give their time during the weekend of QuakeCon, providing services to other attendees, communicating important updates to folks on the floor, providing security for a room with millions of dollars of computer equipment within it.
Many volunteers return year after year. They do it because there are few opportunities to play games like this in the middle of Texas — or anywhere in the country, for that fact.
Whatever pall could have been cast over the opening ceremonies was largely overshadowed by demons being torn in half, longways
The absence of Carmack's keynote last night was sad, and not just because of the delightful, idiosyncratic tone it's always set for a weekend largely characterized by big, bloody deathmatches. It's sad because it represents how much of id Software's identity has been lost in the past decade. Last night, id Software's Marty Stratton helped reclaim a piece of that identity with a demonstration of the new Doom which, by every conceivable metric, was a smash hit with the event's attendees. Whatever pall could have been cast over the opening ceremonies was largely overshadowed by demons being torn in half, longways.
But last night's opening ceremony was just that; an opening, a prelude. After it ended, just as it's been with every QuakeCon, the real event started in the BYOC room.
Last night, I watched a man play Baldur's Gate on a computer monitor larger than my current refrigerator. I watched a table of steely operators rush through a SWAT 4 co-op mission without exchanging a word. Across the hall, a massive, classic Counter-Strike tournament ran through the night. On the opposite end of that table, a man played through the latest episode of The Wolf Among Us in one sitting.
I saw two people playing a multiplayer match of Wargasm, and learned from them that the mode was titled "Multiple Wargasms," which is pretty great. I saw a section indulging in a heated game of Savage, a game I once loved before I forgot it existed. Someone brought their PlayStation 4, and attracted a crowd as they played through the Destiny beta. Beside them, someone was checking their mail and doing some daily crafting in World of Warcraft, and beside them, someone was playing the original SSX.
Year after year, QuakeCon's main chamber possesses an atmosphere unlike any I've ever witnessed. It's so cold — a necessary evil, as the thousands of high-end PCs running in the room would otherwise turn the BYOC into a superheated oven. The monitors, LEDs and glowing cooling installations give the room an Into the Void vibe. The chamber is loud, but not as loud as it could be. And everyone is excited.
QuakeCon is all-night Counter-Strike tournaments, Multiple Wargasms and Baldur's Gate speed runs, and that's not changing any time soon
There's something sturdy at the core of QuakeCon — something that finds its roots in that very first iteration in 1996. It's part slumber party, part celebration of local gaming at a scale that is nearly unreproducible. For most of the attendees, this once-a-year event is the only way they can play LAN games at this level. For a lot of the games, which have seen their online servers deactivated years ago, this is the only way to play multiplayer, full stop.
There's an immutability inside QuakeCon's core tenet, something that gets lost on most of the people who have never stepped into the BYOC ballroom. The corporate climate surrounding QuakeCon has changed drastically, and the convention-esque trappings surrounding the show have changed in tow. But id Software isn't QuakeCon. Neither is Bethesda, or Zenimax, John Carmack, Todd Hollenshead or Tim Willits. It's not the labored development of Doom, and it's not Doom's potentially triumphant return.
QuakeCon is all-night Counter-Strike tournaments, Multiple Wargasms and Baldur's Gate speed runs, and that's not changing any time soon.