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From 'Doom' to 'Rage,' first-person shooters grow up

id Software pioneered the first-person shooter genre withid Software

Back in 1994, when the game "Doom" first launched, people were shocked.

They were shocked by the guns, the blood and the violence. They were shocked by the satanic imagery. They were shocked by the perspective that players were given — it was as if those who played the game were looking at this dark digital world through the game character's very own eyes.

It was 1994 and the world at large had just been introduced to first-person shooter gaming.

"When you look at it now it's almost kind of silly," says Tim Willits, creative director for id Software — the company that created "Doom." "But at the time there was this kind of shock and awe. 'Doom' was so different. Back in the early '90s most video games were about princesses and mushrooms, but 'Doom' had demons and blood and gore. And it was such a fast-paced game. It was the first game to make people motion sick."

How times have changed.  These days, first-person shooters — the genre that id Software, with "Doom" and "Wolfenstein 3D" before it, brought screaming to the public's attention — are a gaming staple not to mention big gaming business. And these days, id Software finds itself trying to keep up with and to compete in the increasingly crowded game genre that it pioneered.

That is, this week id Software released a brand new first-person shooter called "Rage." It's their first new game in years and one that finds a whole lot of expectations placed squarely on the Texas-based development company's shoulders.

Can id Software live up to its past? Can it keep up with the future?

I had a chance to chat with Willits as "Rage" launched this week and he conceded, "It's very tricky. The first-person shooter genre has moved in so many different directions."

When

Nazis, demons and guns, oh my

Id practically invented the first-person shooter (that's FPS for short). Sure, there were games that had employed the first-person viewpoint before the company launched in 1991, but id's World War II game "Wolfenstein 3D" — launched in May 1991 — thrust you the player seemingly right into the head of its Nazi-fighting protagonist, then put a gun in your hands and put an onslaught of enemies in your path.

It was the birth of the first-person shooter as we recognize it today. But if the masses still hadn't heard of the genre at that point, they certainly did when the demon-filled sci-fi game "Doom" came roaring onto the scene three years later, terrifying some and thrilling many.

"Doom" not only popularizing the FPS genre, it introduced the masses to multiplayer gaming and modding. (In fact, id Software hired Willits in 1995 after they saw some of the "Doom" levels he had modified during his free time in college.) And id continued to break 3D and multiplayer gaming ground with the launch of "Quake" in 1996 and the "Doom," "Quake" and "Wolfenstein" sequels that would follow.

And now, as id Software celebrates 20 years of FPS development, they have delivered "Rage" — a brand new game that drops players into the boots of a mysterious survivor who finds himself on a post-apocalyptic Earth pitted against bandits, mutants and nefarious government forces.

Willits says they've tried with 'Rage' to marry iconic id Software gaming with modern first-person shooter advances  in ways that will appeal to their old-school hardcore fans yet also please newer gamers who have, perhaps, never played an id game before.  

"With 'Rage,' at its core, it still feels like an id Software game," he insists. "It's very fluid, very fast."

Players, he says, will recognize "the microcosms of fun — the moments where you've got mutants coming at you, you're switching weapons, trying to find the best ammo, and you pull that trigger and get that instant feedback. The blood goes flying and you defeat the enemies in front of you.

"That tight, hard, fast action shooter," he says, "that's the spirit of id."

But with "Rage," Willits says they have also moved away from the "corridor shooter" aspect of their past games and moved into a more open world. They have added an inventory system, they have added vehicular combat.

"We have all kinds of things we've never classically had in any of our titles," he says.

One thing they've focused on more than ever: story.

"In our past games, it was like, 'Hey, you have to drive the demons back to hell. If it moves, shoot it,'" he says. "But that's really not our mantra with 'Rage.' We really want people to feel connected to the experience."

And so they worked with professional writers to build a bigger back story, create missions that are more geared around story elements and expand the game's universe.

This focus on "Rage's" story is certainly an amusing turn of events for id Software considering company co-founder John Carmack famously said during "Doom's" development, "Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important."

How times have changed

But first-person shooter fans these days expect more, Willits says. Much more than they did back when id was making "Doom." 

"They want everything and the kitchen sink," he says with a laugh. "Games are so big, the production values are so huge that you really need to have physics and story and action and beautiful graphics. You need everything to be a triple-A, top-notch game and have a successful first-person shooter these days. It is very difficult. The competition is very steep."

Indeed, these days the first-person shooter field is a crowded one. You've got your "Battlefields" and "Call of Duties," your "Bioshocks," your "Borderlands," your "Deus Exes" and even your "Portals." All of these games have taken the genre that started with "Wolfenstein" and "Doom" in new and interesting directions, blending role-playing, multiplayer and puzzle solving with first-person shooting in ways no one could have expected two decades ago.

This holiday alone, "Rage" will go up against two of the pinnacles of modern first-person shooting — "Modern Warfare 3" and "Battlefield 3."

Launching a brand new intellectual property like "Rage" is certainly risky, but Willits believes that the game's fresh, new face (not to mention its creator's historic pedigree) will help it stand out.

"'Rage' does not follow that cookie cutter formula that you'll find in some other titles," he says. "And I do think that our gamers, our fans, want something new and different and exciting."

More importantly, Willits says the folks at id Software truly don't mind all the first-person shooter competition.

"Every title that is a blockbuster just helps gather more people to our genre and to our industry," he says. "And that, for us, is really exciting."

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Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+.And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.