How a programming error led to brilliant mechanics in one of the greatest games of all time

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This article originally appeared on the multiplayer site MGG, our partner. We translated it into German.

Although some developers may disagree, some of the funniest or most witty things you can do in video games come from bugs.

Games like Skyrim showed us that bugs can create very interesting and weird situations, but there are titles that take this even further.

Over time, some of these bugs become hallmarks of games, and when I think about these types of bugs, it’s impossible for me not to think of Quake’s “punishment jumping”.

Starting from a programming error, this error not only changed the behavior of its players in online games, but also caused disagreements between the gaming community and its creators id Software.

But what is this random mechanic and why is it important? Today we’re going to take a closer look at the bug that shaped an entire generation of gamers and the most popular PC game genre, and whose impact decades later is even being felt in current and popular titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or even Apex Legends.

If you watch the video, you’ll see that high-level Quake players do something very strange:

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When it comes to moving around the map, they do so by jumping. While it may seem like there is more to it than that, there are explanations and a story behind the benefits of moving this way.

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It’s not just a jump. It’s a technique with its own evolution and background studies: penalty jumping.

This movement technique isn’t just about moving forward while jumping randomly. Strafe jumping is a way to exceed the characters’ maximum movement speed by using three factors:

  • Lack of friction when jumping
  • Diagonal locomotion
  • guiding the camera

It’s an intricate technique that people have figured out the maths that gives those who master it an impressive advantage over other players.

And you know what? id Software didn’t design it, it’s a programming error. A mistake that became a key advantage in competing with the competition and that other first-person shooters then adopted.

This random mechanic predates the release of Quake. However, as the name “stafe jumping” suggests, the technique requires jumps to be carried out. In the years before the 3D shooter Quake, there was nothing like that in first-person shooters. The mouse wasn’t even used to rotate the camera.

This is where the predecessor of “jumping” comes into play: “strafe running”. The technique was discovered in 1993 in games like Pathways into Darkness (by the way from developer Bungie) and the first Doom. Players realized that running diagonally made progress faster.

Developers responded slowly or not at all. In the case of Doom, legendary developer John Romero admitted that he only found out about the ‘Strafe-Running’ bug and its aftermath a year after release.

John Romero has worked on Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, among others.

Later the bug was accepted as a feature and the developers of new maps and mods took the mechanics into account. From this point on, players needed to know that penalty running was possible in order to complete in-game challenges.

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With the release of Quake in 1996, it wasn’t long before first-person shooter fans found a way to replicate this type of technique in the new game.

“If in Doom we could achieve extreme speeds beyond what was allowed by moving diagonally, then who’s to say we can’t do that here?” was a logical thought. And a popular game has large crowds of fans who delve into the mechanics to add more depth to the movement.

While penalty jumping was initially done by eye, a discussion began about why it worked the way it did, and how it could be tweaked.

On paper, perfect execution takes into account motion vectors, angles, and a multitude of factors—as precise as it is complicated to ensure optimal execution.

But perfect execution only exists in theory. It’s almost impossible and a bit impractical to apply the calculations to the game. So there is no way to get it 100% right. And yet, tech has become an important cornerstone in the multiplayer shooter community.

Those responsible at developer id Software even argued with the community about this bug and wanted to remove the bug.

As John Carmack, then chief programmer at id Software, said: “Penalty jumping is a mistake. The fact that people practiced a lot to take advantage of it doesn’t justify its existence […] when playing online, I find it more fun when I have to run and dodge instead of jumping. That’s my personal preference, and that counts for a lot.”

Even today, remnants of the mechanics can still be found in games:

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If you look at the Quake 3 source code, you can see that they actually tried to fix the bug for the third game in the series. But the result was far from satisfactory.

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Ironically, with the release of Quake Live, the originally free version of Quake 3, players saw a pretty big change.

In Quake Live, it still takes some knowledge of how penalty jumping works. But developer id Software has made sure that the running and jumping speeds don’t increase quite as much as in the previous version.

The North American studio is aware of its heritage and knows that penalty jumping is part of its history. They did not want to completely reintroduce the “error” and offer an alternative for those who do not master this technique.

In the end, despite Carmack’s complaints, id Software accepted that a small programming error was already part of the story of one of their most important games, rather than going against the grain and perfecting their game on a purely technical level.

Incidentally, this did not happen in the small studio bubble. Titles that used the same engine as Quake, like the first Call of Duty or Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, were also affected by penalty jumping, creating all sorts of unintended strategies in their online games.

On the other hand, games that use engines derived from Quake were also affected. Works like Half-Life, Team Fortress 2, or even Titanfall 2 and Apex Legends had to introduce measures to limit the maximum speed of their players in order to control the power of this technique.

Still, it’s something that was never properly corrected, and even today you can see remnants of what was once the star mechanic of competitive shooters.

This article originally appeared on the multiplayer site MGG, our partner. We translated it into German.

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