Mar 16, 2024 - In the Shadow of Doom



In the closing days of 1993, id Software released Doom, and the gaming world was changed forever. A landmark title that arguably established the first person shooter (FPS) genre, it was technically and artistically foundational, became one of the top selling and critically acclaimed games of all time, and even sparked a moral panic over its violence. And recently, as Doom turned 30, its cultural impact can still be felt. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal Doom was.

Yet Doom was not the first big deal by id Software, nor was it the first FPS. Little more than a year prior, id released Wolfenstein 3D, an action-packed and immersive 3D shooter that many consider the “grandfather of FPS”, and topped many game-of-the-year lists. Compared to Doom, it was clearly inferior, but through its frenetic pace and ultra violence, it was easy to see where Doom came from. Even as id slaved away at breakneck pace making Doom, competitors saw Wolfenstein 3D and the possibilities of immersive 3D gaming and rushed to make clones and their unique spins on the emerging paradigm. Some knew that id was coming up with something big but few anticipated how utterly massive Doom would become.

And thus we are left with the gaming and cultural behemoth that was Doom, and in its wake, lie numerous could-have-beens, hopelessly overshadowed and forgotten. Some were quality games that could have enjoyed great success, some were decent and could have sustained the budding studios behind them, and some were, well, forgettable me-toos that nevertheless could have built modest followings. In this post, as we look back on 30 years of Doom, let’s also look back on the the losers of history, the games that deserved more love than they did, in the shadow of Doom.

Rise of the Triad

Rise of the Triad

Rise of the Triad is a fun and frenetic game released in late 1994. With a mix of 1940’s machine guns and occult fantasy weapons, a paper-thin plot about shooting cultists on an island, and pretty crazy weapons (like the “Drunk Missile”), ROTT is quite the mad romp and built a modest following… mostly among people who happened to miss out on games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. Because it was hopelessly obsoleted by Doom, coming out a full year later.

ROTT was based on old tech. Originally conceived as a sequel to Wolfenstein 3D, its tech and design followed lead designer Tom Hall when he left id to Apogee due to creative differences, as the former wanted to focus on making Doom. To add to the troubles, id later withdrew the license to the Wolfenstein franchise, which meant ROTT’s developers had to repurpose the game’s concept. With an aging Wolf 3D engine, recycled assets and an inexperienced team, they were no match for id at their peak. ROTT’s belated release received a mild reception and it was quickly overshadowed by games around the same time such as Doom II and Duke Nukem 3D.

Which is a great shame when you consider ROTT’s history, and what it achieved had it been built by an experienced team according to its original vision. Originally a sequel to the hit game Wolfenstein 3D, it had a respectable number of innovations, such as dynamic lighting, different player characters, smart enemies, zany traps like moving fire walls, jump pads, rocket jumping, and capture the flag. And yet its age also showed, in its entirely flat levels, tile-based, 90-degree walls, and overall bland game design.

Unlike many games in this list, this one has a mostly happy epilogue. ROTT’s modest sales was enough to sustain development for Duke Nukem 3D, the big hit that cemented 3D Realms’ (nee Apogee) place in FPS history. Hall stayed at 3D Realms, later moving to Ion Storm with fellow id alum John Romero and produced a few hits too. ROTT itself enjoyed not just a remake in 2013, but also a remaster in 2023, which means there’s no better time to check this game out. For my money, any game with a gore level setting is worth getting.


Wolfenstein 3D

Wolfenstein 3D

It is only natural that Doom would overshadow its predecessor, Wolfenstein 3D. Released in mid-1992, little more than one year before Doom, it racked up game-of-the-year accolades, blew past sales projections, and gave id the confidence and funds to undertake Doom, their most ambitious project yet. It seems that everyone couldn’t get enough of the fast action, spectacular (for the time) 3D environment, and the sadistic joy of mowing down hordes with a chaingun.

When Doom arrived on the scene, it stole the spotlight and everything changed. This is not surprising, because it seems Doom is everything Wolfenstein 3D was, but so much better, and so much more. Doom had projectile weapons, splash damage, shotguns, all with different kinds of ammo, Wolf 3D had a handful of hitscan weapons and one kind of ammo. Doom had a freakin’ chainsaw and a berserk powerup that let you punch demons to death, Wolf 3D had a pathetically weak stabby knife. Doom had angled walls, variable elevations, big courtyards and sky boxes, Wolf 3D was trapped indoors with grid-based 90-degree levels with a single flat colour for ceilings and floors. Doom had monster boxes, traps that turned off all the lights to scare the crap out of you, Wolf 3D had… push walls that slowly revealed a few secret items. Doom had you shooting demons, Wolf 3D let you kill Nazis and Hitler… oh wait, that’s pretty awesome actually.

These days, especially for people who did not live through that era of gaming, Doom is so much more prominent than Wolf 3D. Most people have not even heard of Wolf 3D. And given how much better Doom is, this might seem well-deserved, except… have you given Wolf 3D a try lately? Doom holds up today, and Wolf 3D may not have aged well, but give it a go and you may be pleasantly surprised. Running around mowing down Nazi guards and hearing their broken German yelps is an experience few games give. These days you can play the game in your browser for free, in high-res with modern mouse controls and minimaps thanks to the ECWolf source port, or even as an easter egg in the MachineGames sequels. The franchise is alive and well, but if you haven’t before, you owe it to yourself to check this classic out. Spear of Destiny is cool too - but give the mission packs a miss.

Oh and shameless plug for C-Dogs SDL, which can play Wolf 3D but top-down!

Wolf 3D in C-Dogs SDL

Blake Stone

Blake Stone

In the closing days of 1993, a plucky new games studio released an innovative FPS named Blake Stone. Using the proven tech of Wolf 3D with some nifty enhancements, and a cool premise of a Bond-esque secret agent, it was a promising game, but fate would be immensely cruel - Doom released only a week later, and sales dropped off a cliff. Contemporary reviews were unkind too, given the inevitable comparisons with Doom. Doom made so many games yesterday’s news, and no other game exemplified this as much as Blake Stone.

Yet if you examine Blake Stone’s feature list, it’s clear this is no cynical cash-grab game. It featured dialogue with neutral scientists, texture-mapped ceilings and floors, distance fog, food dispensers, and a minimap for the many players who complained about getting lost in Wolf 3D. It even came with a short comic. This was a labour of love, an honest attempt at making a great game. Given the numerous enhancements, I consider this to be the best representation of what a Wolf 3D sequel would have been like. I mean, RoTT is cool but it’s a bit too crazy.

Had the game come out a few months before Doom and given some time to make an impact, I’m sure many would fondly remember the game today. And since we’re talking hypotheticals, imagine if the game had been a 007 game, it might have been very popular indeed. Sadly this game has been a permanent mainstay in bargain bins ever since the late 90’s. Today you can enjoy the game on the cheap and with some modern niceties with the BStone source port. But keep your eyes out, because the modern Wolf 3D engine ECWolf may one day promise Blake Stone support, and maybe some others too? This game is sorely awaiting a new generation of fans to rediscover it!




Marathon is an obscure but competent FPS, which would have been even more obscure if not for the phenomenal success of its studio’s later flagship IP: Halo. Released in late 1994, although Doom was very well established by this point, Bungie being a Mac-only studio at this point allowed them to avoid the bloodbath that was PC FPS games post-Doom, and enjoy relative success on an under-served platform. Many considered Marathon “Doom for Mac”, and deservedly so: it was technically advanced and had great gameplay.

However it was a very different kind of FPS than Doom. Slow paced, dark, creepy, and filled with lore, it played more like a survival horror, and is more akin to later games like Half-Life, in its atmosphere and storytelling via terminals. This all makes it hard to compare to Doom directly. We did get a sneak peek at what that might have been though: when the sequel Marathon 2: Durandal was released for Windows 2 years later, with slight improvements but into a super-heated FPS market (by this time games like Quake and Duke Nukem 3D were already out), sales were understandably modest.

So it’s no surprise that, despite its developer’s calibre, Marathon was heavily overshadowed, perhaps by Doom and by its Mac-only release in equal parts. As of writing, Bungie is working on a game called Marathon, which will be set in the same universe but will be a PvP-only extraction shooter, so there’s little hope of any resemblance to the original. Fortunately the original trilogy is freely available via the Aleph One project - open source, modernised, and with free assets, you can play them easily anywhere. For classic FPS aficionados that can tolerate a game that is a bit rough around the edges, and don’t expect a gameplay anything like Doom, it could be well worth checking out.

Ken’s Labyrinth

Ken's Labyrinth

Ken’s Labyrinth is a bit of a historical oddity, in that its creator and legacy are much better known than the game itself. The game is a very quirky Wolf 3D clone, where the main character is abducted by aliens and trapped in the eponymous labyrinth, battling weird bats, spiders and robots with jellies and bouncy balls, avoiding hazards like fans and holes, while collecting magic items like potions, invisibility cloaks, or money to use in vending machines and slot machines. Escape the labyrinth, or fail to do so and doom the human race into being zapped into coal - this is quite a weird game.

The game itself is a mediocre experience, with amateurish design and artwork, although the music is charming. After a gentle first level, the game quickly reveals its labyrinthian nature, being more of a maze crawler than a fast-paced shoot-em-up like Wolf 3D. This kind of gameplay may have had its time but it has not aged well, with confusing map layouts, which even the many colourful and distinctive wall textures could not alleviate. Instead what’s most interesting is the technical prowess of the engine: without a clear design, creator Ken Silverman added feature after feature, and the engine became perhaps the most interactive FPS engine of its time: destructible walls, interactive map objects like slot machines, bouncing projectiles, homing projectiles… it’s a very hobbyist kind of approach, making things just because you can.

The game’s history is just as interesting. Written by Silverman as a mostly solo project, because he was bothered by his brother spending too much time playing Wolfenstein 3D (of all reasons), this 17-year-old coding whiz built a raycaster from scratch, and gradually added features, and with the good fortune of releasing the game in early 1993 - avoiding Doom - it sold quite well: around 100k copies. The ridiculous amount of interactivity in the engine added little to gameplay but seems to have paid off, as Silverman impressed and was later picked up by Apogee who wanted him to build the next generation of his engine - the Build engine - which went on to power Duke Nukem 3D, Blood and Shadow Warrior. Contemporary reviews raved about the amazing level of interactivity that the engine allowed, with working light switches, destructible dynamic lights, working pool tables and more. This was quite the success story, and many compared Silverman with id’s John Carmack. But Silverman soon left the commercial games industry and mostly out of the public’s eye, leaving many wondering what things could have been.

Today you can play Ken’s Labyrinth free, with modern high-res ports available, although the game is still a rough experience, as the gameplay has not aged well. Unlike Wolf 3D which still has the raw fun of machine gunning baddies, Ken’s Labyrinth is a slower, maze-crawling affair. Unfortunately this game does not get as much love compared to Wolf 3D so the quality of its modern ports is not nearly as good, as it sorely needs features like an automap. As interesting as this game is, perhaps it shall remain as an interesting chapter in the pre-history of FPS games.


Operation Body Count + Corridor 7

Operation Body Count

Having never played these games before, I went in with low expectations since they were preceded by their abysmal reputations - some say these were among the worst FPSs of all time! Instead I was very much surprised.

Made by Capstone Software using the aging Wolf 3D engine, being released in 1994 set these games up for failure. Capstone were not known for quality games, and these two being released in quick succession certainly did not help dispel suspicions that these were cynical attempts at cashing in on the FPS bandwagon, albeit poorly timed using outdated tech when Doom was already out. However a closer look shows these games are quite a bit better than their reputations would imply.

Corridor 7

Being this late to the game, Capstone got to use an enhanced version of the Wolf 3D engine, which allowed newer effects like distance fog, animated textures, even transparent doors which allowed things like windows and portholes, as well as a cool arsenal of guns like rocket launchers and flame throwers. The games certainly look colourful and moody, and you can best see this in Corridor 7, where animated textures and sprites are used almost to a fault, with blinkenlights adorning certain weapons and walls that look like electronic screens. And using the proven Wolf 3D engine means these games still play the same, with the same fast and satisfying FPS gameplay. They certainly don’t play like the worst FPSs of all time.

This is not to say that these games were good, however. Once the initial impression wears off, it’s quickly apparent that Capstone are simply not at the same level as top-tier game studios like id. The level designs are bland and confusing, the wall textures are varied but not distinctive nor used well, such that it’s very easy to get lost and would be near unplayable if not for the automap in the enhanced Wolf 3D engine. And Operation Body Count’s truly dumb idea of starting the game in a butt-ugly and bland sewer with rats as enemies - boy did Capstone not know how to make a good first impression.

So should you bother with this game? Sadly not, since the games are not modernised at all. There is hope however, since support is on the roadmap for ECWolf, although that project moves very slowly. Until then, this game was mediocre at best for its time, and virtually unplayable today. Perhaps watch a Let’s Play if you’re really curious. Or in the words of some other reviewers, just try Blake Stone instead.



CyClones is a very obscure FPS game by venerable studio Raven Software. At the time, Raven had just made the successful first person RPG ShadowCaster, using a pre-Doom engine from id. In anticipation of the upcoming Doom release, Raven split into two teams: one to make Heretic with the Doom engine, and the other to make CyClones using older tech. Initially CyClones was planned to use the ShadowCaster engine, but it was already very outdated, so Raven made the decision to make their own in house engine.

The result is a very mixed bag. CyClones has some impressive technical innovations compared to earlier games like ShadowCaster and Wolfenstein 3D, such as sloping floors, moving platforms, and was notably the first FPS to use a mouse-aiming reticle, separate to the moving direction. The game also has nice production values, with FMV, pre-rendered cutscenes, CD soundtrack and interesting lore. However the game’s old tech base still showed, in its grid-based 90-degree levels, and its sluggish speed. Bland and confusing level design did not help. The result is a slog of a game that looks interesting, but had no chance of comparing against Doom.

Of course Raven itself did quite well despite CyClones; its sister effort in Heretic was wildly successful, and Raven will continue its long and fruitful collaboration with id in making a bunch of best-selling games. As for CyClones, I would say give it a skip; despite its few notable technical achievements, it is simply not fun to play, and is desperately in need of a modern engine refresh, to bump up its shortcomings like severely limited viewing distance and frame rates, and awkward control scheme.

The Terminator: Rampage

The Terminator: Rampage

The Terminator: Rampage looks great in screenshots. Released in December 1993, it too shared the misfortune of coming out right around Doom and was instantly overshadowed, but imagine a pre-Doom world, if you compare it to Wolf 3D, it looks pretty good - texture-mapped floors and ceilings, more than half a dozen different weapons and different ammo types, a cool IP, and even some neat video sequences. Developer Bethesda already had 2 Terminator-based games under their belt, so this third outing - using the Elder Scrolls: Arena engine - should be pretty good, right?

Unfortunately the game just doesn’t feel that great to play. At the time it had very high hardware requirements, lagging very badly on typical hardware. Although today you can easily emulate it using much more powerful hardware, the engine just isn’t that smooth, compared to Wolf 3D let alone Doom. The enemies are also quite bland, with very samey corridors and rooms forming the majority of levels. It seems that the studio was just not as good as id at making smooth and tight gameplay that is required for FPS games.

Of course these days Bethesda are far better known for their open world RPGs, so it seems there is no interest in revisiting this historical artifact, which is just as well - it’s simply not that good, so give it a miss.

Super 3D Noah’s Ark

Super 3D Noah's Ark (SNES)

Here’s one from left field: a Christian-themed Wolfenstein 3D! Ok, so this game is really easy to dunk on, being made by a Christian games studio known for making other cheap knockoff-like games sold mostly in Christian bookstores to kids who weren’t allowed to play the normal, violent games. And sure, it’s not unfair to say this is just a re-skinned Wolfenstein 3D. But you’re doing this game a disservice by dismissing it so readily.

You see, Super 3D Noah’s Ark has a really interesting history. It was not conceived as a non-violent Christian game at all; the studio Wisdom Tree’s founder was a huge fan of Hellraiser (yeah, that super creepy horror movie), and spent big bucks to acquire licenses to both this and the Wolfenstein 3D engine to make a game. Having experience with unlicensed NES games, the studio aimed to release for this platform, which was incredibly ballsy given the severe technical challenges, and unfortunately could not overcome. Eventually id released Doom which pretty much killed this project, as it would have been hopelessly outdated. In an attempt to salvage some money from this project and avoid competition with Doom, Wisdom Tree decided to target the Super Nintendo with a bible-themed game that plays largely like Wolfenstein 3D. The result is quite unique - the only unlicensed SNES game, which used a pass-through cart to get around copy protection - you need to plug in a licensed cart on top of this cart, Sonic & Knuckles style.

Super 3D Noah's Arc pass-through cart

So how does the game play? Honestly, the game is mediocre at best, and naysayers are mostly right that this is like a cheap and bizarre Christian version of Wolfenstein 3D. But the game has a few surprisingly good points (and bad points). Being similar to Wolfenstein 3D, the game plays well and is generally fun. There are a few enhancements compared to vanilla Wolf 3D - a few big slingshot-like projectile weapons in addition to the hitscan slingshots (how does that work anyway), which kind of have an area of effect. The level design is generally good, roughly on par with Wolf 3D’s, which is a cut above other Wolf 3D clones. And the game has a new quiz-type powerup, where if you answer a Noah-related question correctly, you get a large bonus. But the game eschews machine guns and Nazis in favour of slingshots with piddly sound effects, and a slew of annoying animals that spit at you. The result is that the game is much less viscerally satisfying. It may be all the same gameplay, but machine gunning Nazis and hearing their dying yelps provides a raw joy that “feeding” animals until they fall asleep has no hope of matching.

So should you check this game out? I’m of two minds. The game is simply not that fun; in addition to the above issues, it is bloody hard - towards the later episodes, the game is super stingy with ammo/health and loves siccing you with hidden ambushes, yet the bosses are mostly laughably easy. However, the game has a close association with the open source Wolf 3D engine ECWolf - buying Super 3D Noah’s Arc directly supports ECWolf development - and that alone is a worthy cause.


Final Words

After reviewing these early FPS games, it struck me how large the shadow of Doom loomed, and it had such a destructive effect on many FPS games. Some were innovative in their own right, honest attempts at making a good game, while some were low-effort cash-ins on the FPS bandwagon, but none seemed to deserve having their sales crushed by Doom.

A lot of gamers hold on to the notion of “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad” - misattributed to Shigeru Miyamoto, although similar sentiments have been expressed in various forms in many places. There’s definitely truth to this statement, but the games overshadowed by Doom show the harsh reality of totally ignoring timing too, and it somewhat vindicates all the rushes to release games before key shopping seasons. If there’s a single takeaway, it’s this: making games is hard.

Nov 14, 2023 - Big Without Scale


Having big and interesting game worlds has been a holy grail of games since the beginning. In the early years, technical constraints meant that big worlds were simply infeasible, without heavy use of procedural generation - Elite in 1984 for example boasted thousands of planets - but nowadays, the main constraint is dev effort. Put simply, to create lots of interesting content, you need to put in lots of work.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use clever techniques to get the most bang for buck.


Bigger is not Better

When we look at lists of biggest game worlds, space games like Elite Dangerous and Starfield dominate, but that’s not particularly insightful when you consider they are mostly empty space. A bit lower in the rankings you’ll find Daggerfall, which dwarfs other Elder Scrolls game worlds while being much older than them - notably having “the size of Great Britain” - but again, isn’t interesting as most of the game is empty wilderness, sparsely filled with randomly generated towns.

Another mistake that some games make is by increasing the scale of their game worlds without maintaining the density of content, which makes things feel sparse. During the release of GTA San Andreas, there was some hype about being able to enter lots of buildings, and while the game did make many improvements in density over its predecessors, most buildings were still off bounds or limited in interactivity, making the game feel less like a huge living city and still like a playground for driving cars around.

So when it comes to feeling big, the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. Bigger is not better if it is just sparse, more is not better if it is small variations of the same stuff. To truly feel big, we need things like variety, complexity, and content.

PCG is not a Panacea

Over the years various people have touted procedural content generation as the killer technology that will enable big and interesting game worlds on the cheap. In recent years, No Man’s Sky suffered bad reviews due to not being able to live up to its hype; boasting quintillions of playable worlds, a press largely unfamiliar with PCG helped blow things out of proportion. The reality is that, although PCG is great for some things, it is no replacement for hand-crafted content in the same quantity; quintillions of worlds created by competent human artists (if such a thing were possible) would be so much more compelling than any algorithm could, and equating the two was ridiculous.

More recently, generative AI has caused much disruption and threatened to replace human artists in many domains. It is still early days, but indications so far suggest that they cannot fully replace all human artists, but may be useful in some mundane tasks, provided we can sort out the legal issues.

I view PCG and generative AI similarly - they are useful in limited areas, and work best when complementing hand-crafted art, as additional tools in an artist’s toolset. PCG for example works well in roguelikes or game randomisers to improve replayability, but still requires a great deal of effort and care in creating those worlds in the first place, and tuning the generators for the task. Generative AI has already proven useful in areas like prototyping and as filler content, but requires a lot of resources to train and tune, and cannot be the whole content pipeline alone.

So although technology will make work easier, you still need to put in the work. But where do we focus our work on?

A World that Feels Alive

Stepping back a bit, we want big worlds they are immersive. When we reach the end of a small world, the illusion is shattered and we are rudely reminded of the artifice of the game, but if the world was big enough, we could continue to pretend that this was a virtual reality we could inhabit indefinitely.

But we can do better than focusing solely on scale. By taking cities as an example, what makes a city feel “big” isn’t its geographic size; instead it’s:

  • complexity
  • density
  • specialisation

By focusing on these, we can achieve worlds that feel big without excess effort, and avoid common pitfalls that make some worlds feel wrong.


Real life big cities are incredibly complex places. They are where people live, work, play; where industry and commerce and many different sectors coexist in symbiotic ways. Lots of infrastructure and services are needed to keep it all working - transportation, sanitation, health, construction, emergency services, education, on and on. This amount of complexity really resists procedural generation, and a simulation approach would also be very difficult. Any given part of a city will contain amenities of different types, like religious temples mixed in between residential buildings. Cities resist uniformity, and this makes them endlessly interesting.

Sendai Station Mitsumine Shrine Shingen-ji

Cities are sometimes designed, but often organic entities, and this makes it resistant to clean delineations. Buildings are not simply just an “office building”, blocks are not simply a “commercial block”. Buildings can be owned by a single business, or multiple businesses. Successful businesses can expand to encompass multiple, adjacent buildings, connecting them so that when you enter them, you can seamlessly travel from one building to another as if it were a single building. Dominant businesses can buy up buildings in the same area - the Japanese electronics retailer Yodobashi Camera owns a whopping 13 “pavilions” (buildings) in the West Shinjuku district of Tokyo alone.

A city’s appearance reflects its history and culture. As a city grows, newer areas and buildings will have a different style than older areas. The distribution of businesses can also follow opposing dynamics. Recall what I wrote about cities not being uniform? Sometimes businesses cluster and you’ll find single buildings filled with the same type of business, shopping streets, or department stores designed to capture a specific type of clientele. Just as businesses and amenities may need to spread out to capture geographically dispersed users, they can also cluster to capture users who are shopping around.


Cities are much more than just villages or towns but extended out. Because of how desirable they are to be in, space becomes a premium and this drives up density. This can do some weird things - streets become narrower, buildings get higher. A newbie trap is to make everything bigger in cities, including streets, but density will lead to them becoming smaller, unless there are other forces at play.

An example of where things aren’t quite right is EarthBound’s Twoson Department Store. Although it does contain different shops on each level, which is realistic, it does two things wrong: 1. the slow escalators between each floor make it less convenient, and 2. the shops don’t actually have better selections than other towns. In reality, big city department stores should be more convenient and have better item selections.

Twoson Department Store

Compare this with Pokemon’s Celadon Department Store. It has great item selection and its stairs and elevators are quite convenient.

One consequence of extreme density and verticality is that it turns the space from 2D into 3D, which humans have trouble navigating. Underground spaces lack weenies, and claustrophobic spaces limit sight lines. This all makes dense spaces incredibly hard to navigate, so there’s an over-reliance on signage, providing sensory overload.

Sendai Station Panda Bridge Namba Walk Dotonbori Multilevel business building


When population density is high enough, more and more niches become viable, and here’s where we see lots of specialisation. Specialty stores in big cities sell all sorts of weird items for tiny interest groups, that are often baffling for lay people. Unique buildings, people of all sorts of subcultures comingle like colourful animals in a thick urban jungle. Cities are anything but boring and uniform.

Recall Pokemon’s Celadon Department Store? It sells a lot of unique items, including strange ones like Fresh Water, a healing item can only be bought at a vending machine one at a time, it does exactly the same thing as the Super Potion, yet it is much cheaper. In gameplay terms this makes little sense, but I love how items like this give the game extra life. You get the sense that this item was not made for the player, that the game’s world was inhabited by all sorts of different people who use this item for different purposes, and it just so happens to be useful to the player too.

Toshima Incineration Plant Saita Building Saita Building

Making Big Worlds is Hard

This is basically what I wanted to say with this post: making big worlds is hard, and you can’t cheat your way by copy-pasting content or using procedural generation. However by focusing on three elements: complexity, density and specialisation, you can make the most of your efforts - some games do this well by making some locations feel bigger without actually being geographically bigger.

This post does not cover exactly how to go about building big worlds - this is a far too broad subject - but here’s a random list of items to consider:

  • Historical layering, old/new regions: tell the history of the world via the environment
  • Show construction: real cities/worlds are organic and always a work-in-progress
  • Unique landmarks: gives a place character, as well as aiding navigation
  • Multiple transportation modes
  • Specialty stores selling unique items
  • Content that is only tangentially useful for gameplay, but which make sense for the world
  • Verticality: undergrounds, overpasses
  • Mixed use buildings and districts: don’t use only single-use architecture!
  • Infrastructure: real cities can’t exist without it. Don’t completely forget the aqueducts, waste management plants, power lines!
  • Confusing navigation: in moderation, but dense cities are confusing places, so don’t be afraid to lean into it

As well as a few excellent reading materials:

Sep 17, 2023 - A review of Golden Age RTS Music


I love games and music, and one of my favourite game genres is RTS. I don’t know which led to the other, but one thing’s for sure: RTS music slaps. I would argue that it is one of the best genres for awesome, listenable music that you can put in your playlist. For example, RPGs have great music too but their soundtracks are too eclectic, as they are strongly themed to specific levels or characters. Action games can also have great music but they are very situational, with a mix of stealth, action and boss tracks. RTS games have a perfect blend of strong yet consistent themes, and the gameplay gives the music plenty of space to develop itself, not being dictated by the action onscreen.

In this post we’ll review great RTS music from its golden age, from the mid-90’s to early-mid-00’s. We’ll see how diverse studios and composers take different approaches to what style of music to use, and how they serve the game.

A brief history of golden age RTS music

The start of the RTS golden age (variously reckoned to be somewhere between Dune II and Command and Conquer) coincided with the wide availability of CD technology, and RTS music rode this technological wave and showcased high-fidelity soundtracks. The genre is perfect for music, its 10-30 minute gameplay sessions allowing uninterrupted, extended play. While Dune II had to use limited chiptune, by the time games like Command and Conquer came around, everyone jumped onto the CD audio bandwagon, since music is so key to RTS games.

The golden age is often characterized by the fierce rivalry between Westwood (Command and Conquer) and Blizzard (Warcraft, Starcraft), but was by no means a two-horse race, with quality releases from many other studios such as Ensemble (Age of Empires), Relic (Homeworld, later Dawn of War and Company of Heroes), Cavedog (Total Annihilation), and not to mention the numerous clones and contenders. The best of these entries also had fantastic music.

Great RTS games continued being released into the 2000’s but the genre tapered off in prominence. The 2010’s saw a brief resurgence with Starcraft II and various Age of Empires remasters, but new titles became rare. Nevertheless, the genre is healthier than it seems, with dedicated followings and titles like Age of Empires 2 and Total War occasionally appearing in top-50 most played charts. And throughout the years, great music remained a hallmark of the genre.

Let’s look at a few prominent composers/studios and how their music evolved.

Frank Klepacki / Westwood

Frank Klepacki, Westwood’s main composer for most of their RTS titles, started early with the studio, at 17 years of age. His early work included that of Dune II, which adapted music from the Dune movie. The music recreates the orchestral, synth-heavy and bleak soundscapes, but is very much constrained by the chiptune technology of its time. The advent of CD audio definitely expanded the capabilities of the music, and its remake, Dune 2000, showcases the musical lineage much more clearly.

The two Dune game tracks are not direct remakes but contain a lot of common elements. You can clearly identify the influence of the film score in the Dune 2000 version.

Klepacki’s most notable work came with Command and Conquer and its spinoff Red Alert. These games established his signature style, mixing electronic sounds and samples with rock and metal riffs, styles that are difficult to achieve if not for high-fidelity CD audio. Hell March is the breakout hit, wonderfully blending sounds of soldiers marching into a heavy metal beat, but Act on Instinct is a better example of this signature style. Its mix of newscaster-style voice clips and industrial metal perfectly evokes the game’s modern, techno-thriller setting.

Compared to its contemporary strategy games, which were slow-paced and had staid or somewhat dorky fantasy settings, Command and Conquer was fast, fresh and hip, thanks in no small part to its soundtrack.

Hell March

Red Alert was the spinoff that overshadowed the original, including in its music. Its title track Hell March not only helped win several soundtrack-of-the-year awards, it also became the signature track for the game's sequels too, with remixed versions in each game. While each version is great in its own way, the contrast between the first and second is especially interesting. Despite being slower than the first, Hell March 2 manages to sound higher energy thanks to its richer layers and electronic styling. Showcasing Klepacki's maturing style and techniques, which closely resemble his self-described signature "rocktronic" style, the Red Alert 2 soundtrack was a welcome return to form for many fans who had mixed feelings about Tiberian Sun's slower, moodier turn.

Tiberian Sun shifted the series to a darker, apocalyptic, and slower-paced setting, and this is reflected in its soundtrack. Gone are the pumping beats and voice samples, replaced by moody synths and lots of ambient sounds.

What Lurks

In this soundtrack Klepacki collaborated with Jarrid Mendelson, who really came into his own in Emperor: Battle for Dune. An underrated game overshadowed by its contemporaries, Emperor represented many firsts for Westwood’s RTS games: a truly 3D engine, 3 radically different factions, and the use of different musical themes for each faction. Klepacki returns to the series for House Atreides, giving them a Dune-conventional theme, and prolific studio veteran David Arkenstone contributes an excellent heavy metal soundtrack for House Harkonnen. Mendelson’s dark synth House Ordos soundtrack was a standout, perfectly capturing the faction’s cold, ever-scheming personality.

Not An Option

This per-faction soundtrack approach culminated with Generals, which - owing to being made by a studio that had just a small part of Westwood lineage - was created by a different, yet very capable team: industry veteran Bill Brown and occasional collaborator Mikael Sandgren. Brown’s experience with past award-winning soundtracks like Rainbow Six is on full display in the USA faction’s orchestral-electronic tracks, evoking the techno-thriller themes of the USA being the good guys fighting international terrorists using high tech. The bigger surprise is in the excellent tracks for the China and Global Liberation Army factions, which feature tastefully-used ethnic samples and styles. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a game whose factions have big, bombastic personalities.

Contenders and Pretenders

It's hard to understate how dominant RTS games were in the late 90's. Westwood in particular once accounted for 5% of the video games market - all platforms. It's therefore no surprise that clones were aplenty. Some were more successful than others, but even the less successful clones had surprisingly good music. Melbourne House released Krush Kill 'n' Destroy and sequels during this time, enjoying relative success in a few markets like its home market Australia and some unexpected ones like South Korea. Although mostly dismissed as inferior clones of Command and Conquer, it did feature great music from local artists.

Post-golden-age, Westwood’s franchises enjoyed further quality releases in Command & Conquer 3 and Red Alert 3. For genre and music fans, Command & Conquer Remastered Collection is particularly worth getting, with original and remixed versions of classic tracks. Meanwhile the fanbase continues to hope for a continuation of Generals.

Cavedog, Relic

In the late 90’s, during the peak of the RTS golden age, two studios emerged with stunning RTS releases and a dramatic approach to its music: Cavedog and Relic. Both debuted with award-winning titles, and were lauded for their atmospheric music, which set new bars for video game music.

Cavedog’s Total Annihilation, a 3D game featuring vast robot battles, had an unusual musical direction. Composer Jeremy Soule took the unprecedented approach of using a real orchestra to perform the epic, sweeping themes, evoking imagery such as crashing waves, verdant forests and sombre wastelands. This helped the soundtrack stand out from its rivals, and paid off well, winning best music awards, and some reviews even singled out the music as a highlight of the game.

Relic’s Homeworld set new benchmarks for atmospheric gameplay. With a space opera story that deals with heavy themes like genocide and cosmic horror, and remarkable visuals made with the assistance of astronomist consultants, it is indeed high praise when many reviewers said that Paul Ruskay’s music was on par with the rest of the game’s quality. In addition to ambient space drones and a prominent use of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Ruskay effectively uses the desert metaphor to describe space nomads, using Arabic and South Asian musical elements to evoke the utter isolation and desolation of space.

Although Cavedog met an untimely demise, Soule’s critically acclaimed works made him one of the most highly sought-after composers in the industry. His signature style of moving orchestral pieces brings some much needed colour to Relic’s next RTS franchise, Dawn of War. The game takes place on an otherwise conventional ground-based battlefield with small unit numbers, and it’s the haunting choirs in the soundtrack that remind the player that this was 40k, the grand, grimdark universe spanning millions of worlds. The Space Marine themes in particular give the faction its unique dignitas.

Post-golden-age, Relic reached newer heights with the Company of Heroes franchise, leaving the Dawn of War and Homeworld franchises in relative neglect with sporadic new releases. The creators of Total Annihilation resurfaced to create the Supreme Commander series, which had its moment in the sun. Looking back, these were two studios who proved that RTS - and video games in general - can evoke dark, powerful emotions, through the power of music.


The early golden age of RTS was dominated by Westwood and Blizzard’s rivalry. For a time the two studios released frequently, with each outdoing the other in rapid succession. The two studios also had very different philosophies, which engendered fierce loyalty among fans, and endless debates on which was superior. At least in terms of music, Blizzard started out behind - while Warcraft II had a well-crafted, medieval-orchestral soundtrack, it was notably shorter and less varied than Westwood’s similar offerings. The belated release of StarCraft saw a marked improvement. Here the composing team turned out a fantastic soundtrack, with distinct styles per faction. The Terran space cowboy themes were a standout, but the Zerg themes also deserve praise for the way dark synths and screaming guitars give a sinister, insect-like feel. One shortcoming is that the soundtrack is still rather short, at only 3 tracks per faction.

Blizzard took a big step up with Warcraft III’s soundtrack, taking the winning formula from StarCraft and notching it up to 4 unique faction themes. This time round the faction themes were done by different composers - like Westwood did earlier with Emperor: Battle for Dune - with each composer putting their personal touch on the outstanding themes. The Undead themes were my favourite, with catchy beats yet creepy atonal riffs, reminiscent to music from Diablo.

Blizzard were known for quality yet infrequent releases, which is both a blessing and a curse. The only notable RTS contribution post Warcraft III was StarCraft II, which featured an overall greatly enhanced soundtrack, especially the Terran faction’s more faithful rendition of the space cowboy theme. With Wings of Liberty being free to play, it is well worth checking out for RTS music fans.

Ensemble Studios

Ensemble’s Age of Empires series took a unique approach to RTS games. By leaning heavily into historical accuracy, they carved out a strong niche, starting with the great yet somewhat janky Age of Empires, and perfected with Age of Empires II, a game so compelling that its remakes continue strong to this day. This was followed by the interesting spinoff Age of Mythology towards the end of the golden age.

The games span thousands of years of human history, and this vast scope represented a big challenge for its music. How do you represent music from a time so distant and alien, and across dozens of different cultures around the globe, while still functioning well as game music for modern players? The music team headed by Stephen Rippy seems to have chosen a middle path, combining the sounds and styles of ancient instruments with a modern sensibility to create unique soundtracks.

Without being familiar with historical music, I cannot fairly judge the success of this approach, but the quality of the music definitely advanced by leaps and bounds with every iteration; AoE’s music was passable yet interesting, AoE2 had some bangers mixed in with average ones, but AoM’s soundtrack was exceptional, with some reviewers stating it was one of the best of the year. It had diverse period instruments like the ney flute and tabla drums mixed with modern electric basses, guitars and keyboards, with high production values that feature some live orchestral pieces.

Ensemble would go on to release Age of Empires III before fizzling out, but the franchise lived on stubbornly, enjoying remakes and expansions to this day. The Definitive Editions of the classic games are well worth checking out especially if you missed the originals, and look out for the same treatment for Age of Mythology.

Tech Race

The golden age of RTS saw rapid innovation as virtually every studio brought new features to the table. This was the case for music too; studios got better and better at creating good music, with new techniques and higher fidelity.

Audio Tech

Early RTS games like Dune II and Warcraft used MIDI or AdLib-style chiptune music, but by Warcraft II, released just two years later, Blizzard went with a SoundFont-rendered orchestral soundtrack, with much more realistic instrument sounds. Westwood leap-frogged Blizzard in this regard, releasing Command and Conquer earlier in the same year, but with high fidelity CD music with a mix of recorded and electronic instruments and samples, albeit in a totally different style. Total Annihilation released the following year blew everything out of the water with a real orchestral score, and this represented a tech pinnacle: soon almost every studio followed suit, using real instruments and high quality digital alternatives and high fidelity audio.

Dune II (1992)

Warcraft (1994)

Warcraft II (1996)

Command and Conquer (1996)

Total Annihilation (1997)

If you consider that OPL was first released in the mid-80’s and gaming consoles did not get universal CD-quality audio until the 6th generation around 2000, RTS games managed to do in 3 years (Warcraft to Total Annihilation) what it took 15 years for the rest of the industry to do, for audio tech, which is simply astounding.

Production Values

The RTS golden age coincided with tremendous growth in the gaming industry. At the dawn of this time, studios were small and plucky, but by the early 00’s and the end of the golden age, staff and budgets ballooned to rival that of large Hollywood blockbuster productions. Music production value tracked this, going from a single in-house composer to multi-person teams producing high quality, multi-theme soundtracks, sometimes enlisting veteran composers that also worked in TV and film.

The earliest RTS games like Dune II, Warcraft and Command and Conquer featured a single in-house composer, producing music in a way that’s more or less the same as any other game project - a single, multi-track soundtrack, reflecting the theme of the whole game. Warcraft II pioneered, and StarCraft exemplified a new approach: per-faction soundtrack, that reflected the unique factions and their character. RTS games have always had different factions, but before StarCraft, their differences tended to be minor, with a few unique units, abilities, or stat differences. StarCraft showed how factions could be mechanically distinct, changing the entire play-style, and this was complemented perfectly by the soundtrack. Of course multiple soundtracks also multiplies the music budget, and StarCraft had two more composers assisting, yet had to make do with a smaller soundtrack per-faction. Other games with unique faction soundtracks followed, like Westwood’s Emperor: Battle for Dune and Generals, as well as Blizzard’s Warcraft III, to great effect. Each required multiple composers to manage the load. You might think that Ensemble’s Age of Empires series could also benefit with per-faction soundtracks, given the unique flavours of the civilisations, but the sheer number of factions made this unfeasible, and those games remained with the single-soundtrack approach.

Ensemble experimented with other music techniques in Age of Mythology. The excellent soundtrack also includes mellow versions of most of its in-game tracks, which are used in certain cutscenes and custom scenarios. This technique works quite well, to add variety to the game’s pacing, given the narrative-heavy nature of its campaign. The game also has another dynamic music technique: when a town centre is under attack, the music switches to a dramatic one, and fades away to the usual, chill soundtrack once the attack is over. This technique is somewhat less successful, given the jarring transition and how difficult it is to properly follow the tension of an RTS game - sometimes the most crucial moments are small skirmishes during key moments rather than large battles. Nevertheless it is interesting to see attempts at dynamic music in RTS.

Further Listening

Music, like many other aspects of RTS games, have matured after its golden age, as the genre stagnated. But by examining its history, its key titles and soundtracks, we can learn a lot about how to make and enjoy great music for games. Many of the best soundtracks are highly listenable and can easily go into your playlist. For those who want to (re)visit some great soundtracks, here are my top recommendations:

  • Command and Conquer: this series is all about Frank Klepacki’s signature “rocktronic” style, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, definitely find a copy of the Command & Conquer Remastered Collection. Many tracks in this and the Red Alert series were good from even the earliest games, but if for some reason you want more, check out some of Klepacki’s non-game work too.
  • StarCraft: the Terran faction’s space cowboy soundtrack is so iconic, and Glenn Stafford’s prog-rock background keeps it fresh with the tracks constantly evolving. StarCraft II is generally the better version, although StarCraft is still very enjoyable. Same goes with the factions, although Terran music is the most well regarded, the Zerg faction is pretty cool too, but in a dark-synth kind of way.
  • Dune: for dark sci-fi this franchise’s unique setting offers the perfect thematic backdrop for some unique tunes. Empire: Battle for Dune’s Ordos and Harkonnen soundtracks are top-notch, but Dune 2000 remains my favourite rendition of the kind of epic desert sci-fi war that exemplifies this setting. If only there was a new Dune RTS…
  • And last but not least, here are some of my single-title favourites: Age of Mythology (looking forward to the remake), KKND2, Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, Total Annihilation, Command & Conquer: Generals (sorely needs a sequel or remake)…