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How Quake Champions changes a classic formula — and how it doesn't

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The gameplay reveal of Quake Champions, id Software's class-based revival of its arena shooter franchise, had a fascinating reception during the opening ceremonies of QuakeCon 2016.

Creative director Tim Willits started the presentation off with a reassurance for the series' cautious diehards, showcasing the high-speed, technical movement demanded by Quake Champions — rocket jumps and all. There were several other such comforts, like the game's lack of load outs and catalogue of classic weaponry, from railguns to the buzzsaw-strapped Gauntlet. The audience ate it up; but was a bit less enthused when it came time to showcase the Champions themselves.

At first blush, the differences between the Champions seem to dismantle the even playing field classic shooters like Quake tried to maintain. Using their unique abilities, Champions can do things like teleport, turn invisible or see through walls. Each also has passive statistical differences as well, with variations on, say, movement speed.

But the mood during the presentation rallied by the event's end, which showed several minutes of fast-paced combat and special ability executions in tandem. In a vacuum, the differences between characters seem disruptive to the core Quake experience; in a holistic view of the game, though, they do seem more like the supplemental experience id Software is hoping they'll be.

quake inline

"It doesn't fundamentally change the way you play the game," Willits explained in an interview after the event. "That's what I wanted to stress in the presentation: Yes, we have these Champions, but they're additive. It's still skill-based, they all rocket jump, they all pick up all the weapons. It's still a skill-based game, with this addition."

id Software is in the unique position of having created genre-defining classics that, today, decades after their original release, are still celebrated and actively played by fans — that's the justification for QuakeCon itself, an event which draws thousands of PC gamers, many of which fall comfortably into that fanbase. Changing or modifying the mold that those classics were not only cast within, but also created, is a tricky proposition. But according to Willits, its a necessary one.

We called it ‘Street Fighter meets Quake'

"There's an empty spot in the industry for this high-speed, classic, arena-style game, but we know that we cannot just make Quake 3 with better graphics. I believe, like I said, that the Champions, and some other things that we're doing with the game do make it a little more modern, they give it a little more depth, and even when we play team games up in the office, there's much more strategy."

Champions have natural counters for one another, following a "kind of rock, paper, scissors-style approach," Willits said. The goal is to avoid having a universal ‘best' Champion, but rather, to have multiple options that will align with each playstyle a player might bring to the table.

Balancing those Champions, and making sure they don't disrupt the core Quake feeling, is going to be an enormous challenge.

"Which is why we're going to have a long beta period," Willits said. "A long beta period."

The concept of class-based shooters isn't exactly novel — Willits referred to it as "the natural evolution of the genre" — but Quake Champions' inspirations aren't what you'd expect. To help the team visualize how the relationship between Champions would break down, id Software didn't use other class-based shooters like Team Fortress as the game's model.

"When we first started talking about Champions internally, and were trying to get everybody excited about it, we called it ‘Street Fighter meets Quake,'" Willits explained. "In Street Fighter, everyone has low kicks and high kicks and punches and things — but then they each have this uniqueness to them that makes them different, but really, you're just playing Street Fighter. So that was kind of how we sold it internally."

The response-at-large since Quake Champions' gameplay was revealed to the world has been positive as well, though some holdouts are hopeful for the option to play without the different champions — an experience that might actually resemble "Quake 3 with better graphics."

"We've discussed it," Willits said. "We just have to see how all the beta testing goes. If there's a huge demand for it, you know, we'll see — but we haven't made that decision yet."