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October 29, 2021

Profile: Retro Interview: Dave “Zoid” Kirsch

Dakota’s interview with Kirsch, “father of CTF” and QuakeWorld maintainer, covers a good variety of topics, but the excellently focused questions set this apart from other interviews.

Andrew “Kolinahr” Wu

By Darren “Dakota” Tabor / Captured.com
May 25, 1998

An Interview with David “Zoid” Kirsch

The person most closely associated with the success of Capture the Flag is David “Zoid” Kirsch. It was his careful development of Threewave CTF that brought the mod to everyone’s attention and earned is a place in the Mod Hall of Fame. I recently had an opportunity to site down with Zoid and talk about his many projects and passions.

Basic Background:

Name: David Kirsch
Nickname: Zoid
Age: 28
Occupation: Computer Programmer
Geographical location: Greater Vancouver Area, British Columbia, Canada

Dakota: I imagine that your life has been greatly altered by the release of Doom and Quake. What were your goals five years ago? How did these goals evolve into your current set of goals? Where do you see yourself five years from today?

Zoid: Five years ago I was in my second year working at a small Internet Service Provider in the Vancouver area. I was originally hired to write multiplayer games and other multiuser community services, but the business and Internet side of the ISP grew over the years and I ended up writing a lot of the accounting systems, BBS interface, Internet connectivity and various other aspects. My goal then was much the same as it was now: Be the best programmer I can be. Programming to me is an expression of my talents and logical mind. It has been what I’ve always wanted to do. Through the years, this talent has taken me to more and more exciting projects. It’s what makes me tick, and I can never get enough of it.

Dakota: It is safe to say that a large percentage of the Quake community knows your name. In the past year and a half, you have become quite a Quake celebrity. Does this have any impact on your personal life outside of the gaming community? Do your family and friends know and appreciate the work that you are doing, or do you think they secretly talk about “This phase that Dave is going through”?

Zoid: The fact that my nick name is so recognized is quite a shocking relevation sometimes. My family and friends are all very supportive of it, since they know that its a result of my work and the passion I have for it. It’s not a phase, nor do they consider it one. It’s what I want to do.

Dakota: How much of your life is now consumed by CTF? Are you doing any work that doesn’t involve games, or is this now your full-time profession?

Zoid: Full time. These last few months I’ve been focused on Quake2, not just the CTF portion but also in future enhancements and upgrades. I’m also looking forward to seeing how Quake3 will develop.

Dakota: You are a frequent visitor to IRC. I subscribe to the theory that the success of IRC is based upon the competing desires for human interaction and isolation. I think many people use modern conveniences, like ATM machines, answering machines, and drive-thru restaurants, because they just don’t want to have contact with other human beings. But, even the most introverted soul wants to have some contact with other people. IRC seems to be a way of filling both needs. Would you agree with this assessment? Do you see any disturbing trends in IRC?

Zoid: IRC for me is a place to be among peers and as well as contacts in the industry. It is real time and that’s a huge benefit since you can debate an issue easy and quickly. IRC also has its share of problems since to a lot of people it isn’t ‘real’ and they will do and say things on IRC that they wouldn’t say in real life. I’m guilty of this myself somewhat–but it depends if those things said are said vindictively or in fun. The majority of people love playing around with various insults and situations on IRC just because it isn’t “real.” Some of the jokes I participate in on IRC are extremely crude and vile in a real world situation–but the isolation and confines of IRC make it funny. It’s an interesting phenomenon and something that more and more people will participate in.

Dakota: Perhaps it is just me, but it seems like the community perception of you has changed in the past year and a half. When CTF was first being developed, everyone was excited about the mod and seemed to be very supportive of every change you made. Now, it appears that you have taken on enough of a celebrity status that everything you do will invariably upset some large group of players. It is similar to the way some people view id; id is a corporation and is profitable, so it must not have any concern for my wishes or desires. Do you think Zoid, Inc., is getting the same treatment? When did this happen? Do you have any explanation for the hostility that is directed you way?

Zoid: I don’t think the hostility is because of a ‘corporate attitude’ or any such particular. Honestly, id and myself are about as far away from corporate as you can get. id builds games they want to play. Corporate game companies do market studies and have producers that determine the feasibility of a game, etc etc. id just makes the game they want to play and so do I. I think the majority of the hostility is because of change. A lot of people are resistant to change. My ThreeWave CTF for Quake was something completely new–there wasn’t something before it for people to get use to or become jaded by. ThreeWave CTF for Quake2 was a reimplementation of the same basic game play with some changes. That should have been expected. What would be the point if I just copied the game directly from Quake to Quake2? It’s an evolutionary change as opposed to a revolutionary one.

I was also bound by the design of Quake2 itself. My CTF design fosters teamplay in the environment it was built in–it would work in any number of games. CTF is layered over the existing weapon and scoring system somewhat.

Threewave

Dakota: You have been called the “father of CTF”. Is this an accurate statement? Members of Quake Innovations, formerly QTeam, have stated on many occasions that they created a version of CTF before Threewave CTF. Is this true? Did Threewave and the QTeam independently create similar games?

Zoid: They were independent and play differently. I could be considered the father of CTF since I worked very hard on getting the word out and people playing it. Not a lot of people know about the effort I made in ‘marketing’ CTF and myself. I just didn’t build it and let people come (there was some of that tho). I built it, found I had a good product and made sure everyone knew it and the man behind it. It was my vehicle into the industry I have always wanted to be a part of. And I think it was very successful of accomplishing that.

Dakota: Regardless of which came first, it is clear that Threewave became synonymous with CTF. Why do you think your version of this game found a larger audience? How much is of its success is based upon the features of the game? Do you think the relative simplicity of your game was a part of this success?

Zoid: There were a lot of factors contributing to CTF’s success. Simplicity is certain one of the strongest. You can explain the game to someone in a couple minutes. It was also the right combination of features (grapple and runes) that helped as well. It was fun and exciting. That’s why it was successful.

Dakota: Joost Schuur wrote an interesting article that addressed the Ten Commandments of running a successful Quake site. One of the commandments stated that the prospective web designer should rely primarily upon himself or herself, leaving only incidental aspects of the site to others. Is this something that you applied to the development of CTF? Was Threewave primarily a one man show with various stagehands, or was Threewave an ensemble effort? In other words, how much control do you feel you exercised of your creations.

Zoid: I was the central role in ThreeWave CTF. I did the design, coding, and ‘ran’ the show. The contributed levels from various authors and the graphics assistance from Whaleboy were enormous inputs into it as well–but I coordinated all of that and put them all together into a great product. Many of the people who contributed to ThreeWave now have jobs in the industry or are still leaning toward it. It was a project of the creative skill of many people–I orchestrated into a product that people really enjoyed.

Dakota: Was the development of CTF an evolution that you envisioned from the beginning, or did you just move from each version without a clearly defined end product in mind. That is, did you anticipate the addition of custom levels, skins, and sounds, back in the early days of CTF?

Zoid: CTF has always been an evolution. I started with simple goals and moved to the new features. Once I established the basic gameplay with the “keys”, etc. I knew that it had reached a stage of acceptance of the game itself and it was time to bring it into its own, so to speak. That’s when development on CTF3 happened. Months of work coorindating code, art and levels into a cohesive product. It was one of the first level packs ever released for Quake (only three or four months after Quake itself came out) and still one of the “must have” addons.

Dakota: Do you ever get tired of CTF? You have been working on essentially the same concept for over a year. WhiteNoiz, the coder for Jailbreak, seems to be sick and tired of developing his mod after a few months. Do you have any desire to start from scratch with a new idea?

Zoid: Certainly not. CTF is the game I really enjoy playing and one of the major reasons I wrote it in the first place. New ideas are certainly on the horizon, though.

Dakota: The popularity of CTF has obviously put some limits on your ability to add or detract from the basic game. Players always seem to be upset that you either changed too much or too little in any new version. Is there anything that you regret adding? Do you wish that the grappling hook had originally been slower? What about the runes?

Zoid: The runes have always been a part of the game for me. They are all about control–control the runes and you can take control of the level. Good CTF teams take great care in protecting their rune bearers and placing them in strategic positions. As for the grapple, after seeing how it was being used so effectively in CTF, I felt it was too fast. A player could be gone before you had a chance to even blink and that made it too powerful. I think this problem stemmed from the fact the grapple was designed in the NetQuake era where lag was a way of life. The hook was not as good back then and you really needed it sometimes to fight the lag. But in QuakeWorld, movement wasn’t restricted by lag and suddenly the grapple became an amazing tool. But, it became part of the game and players worked to accommodate it. Quake2 itself was a slower game overall–run speed was a tad slower, weapon switching was slower, etc. I felt the grapple had to be slowed down to fit into the Quake2 style of game.

Dakota: Do your think the success of CTF, as well as other team-based mods like Team Fortress and Jailbreak, will have a lasting impact on the development of action games? Is it no longer enough for a game to merely be a first person shooter with great graphics; must it also support some true team game? How much of the credit for this paradigm shift lies with Threewave?

Zoid: I believe team games will certainly be a huge part of the future of multiplayer FPS games. Quake was the first game to really get enough players on a server to form decent teams. ThreeWave CTF demonstrated the ability for people to work together as a team fulfilling roles with a goal in mind. You could be the best deathmatcher in the world, but unless you play with your team as opposed for yourself, your team won’t win against a well matched team. CTF also allowed people to find roles in a team–being the first place on the scoreboard wasn’t as important. You were contributing to your teams goal–capturing the flag.

Dakota: Many people have begun to make money from their work on Quake-related programs. Worldcraft, QSpy, and Future v. Fantasy Quake spring to mind. Personally, I registered my version of QSpy on the first day of registration because I felt it was important to support such an outstanding program. Besides, I had spend $20 or more on some programs that were virtually useless. You have never asked for any financial support for your work on Quake-related programs, and I can’t imagine there are many people that have dedicated more time and effort into the Quake community then you have. Why haven’t you released a “registered” version of CTF? What about the “donateware” approach originally taken by Team Fortress? Was the decision ideological and altruistic or merely practical?

Zoid: It was somewhat ideological. I started CTF with the intention of learning QuakeC and filling a niche into Quake that I thought was missing–goal orientated teamplay. I released my source to CTF under the spirit of the GNU License (the concept of free software–free in the controlled sense, not the monetary sense) so that others could learn more about QuakeC themselves from my code. CTF to me was an experimental project that I used to get into the game industry and have fun programming it and playing it.

Threewave and id Software

Dakota: id Software has recruited a few people from the gaming community. Many other companies have hired people based upon their skills shown in the Quake community. Is there any reason why you are not working for one of the larger companies? Was the decision to act as an independent contract with id your decision, or was that id’s choice? Do you think you will have a more permanent relationship with id or another company in the near future?

Zoid: My contract with id software is full time. To me, I am working for one of the larger companies. The situation is a little different and unique, but it works and I’m very happy with the relationship I’ve developed with id. I imagine in the future as development continues, I will be joining a company and working much more closely with developing products. But, I’m very happy where I am now. We’ll see what the future holds.

Dakota: What is the nature of the relationship between Threewave and id Software? We know that you had some help with Q2 CTF from members of id, that you had access to the source code and new .dlls, and that Q2 CTF is available for download from ftp.idsoftware.com. How deep does this relationship go? Do you still have exclusive control over Threewave CTF for Quake 2, or are you now creating a product that must meet id’s approval. Will we see Q2 CTF included on new Quake II CDs, like the point release will be included? Will we be seeing Q2 CTF on commercial gaming sites, or is that a decision to be made by id?

Zoid: ThreeWave is simply the brand name I use for my products. My relationship with id is that of a contractor–I have a set of projects I’m working on for them. I had exclusive control over the design of Q2 CTF, but it certainly had to meet id’s standards of quality. It wasn’t so much a case of approval as one of the design fitting into the Quake2 motif. I’m not sure if Q2CTF will be included on forthcoming CD pressings. id owns Q2CTF, since I developed it under contract for them. id was very gracious in letting me build a the game during development of their own product. I think I put out a great addition to a great game and that I’m proud of the work I did.

Threewave CTF for Quake II

Dakota: You have made significant changes to the way you beta test new versions of CTF. If I remember correctly, CTF 2 was tested on your home server. CTF 3 was a public beta test. CTF 4 was a closed beta test, but one that involved quite a few clans. For Quake 2 CTF, it looks like you chose a handful of people for the beta testing. Why are you using smaller and smaller numbers of beta testers?

Zoid: Control. I’ve had problems with leaks before and had to narrow the testing down to prevent it. People will steal unreleased games without a moments hesitation simply because they are so eager to play it. The problem is when you steal my product before its done is you are playing an incomplete game. I release my stuff when it’s done, simply because that’s the point I feel it’s ready for people to play.

CTF3’s public beta test was an experiment since the idea of custom levels was so new. So I wanted to test it out on a wide scale. I was OVERWHELMED by the response and got just swamped. That’s another reason I do closed invite-only beta testing, so I don’t get flooded by people who just want to play, not to test. In my closed beta testing, I try to choose people who I can trust (won’t leak the product on me) and who will test the game and report any bugs or design errors back to me. Sometimes it’s hard to pick people that fulfill both roles.

Dakota: For most of the development of Q2 CTF, you provided no information to fans of CTF about the features that would be present in the finished product. Why was it important to you to keep the project secret?

Zoid: I felt that I wanted to surprise people. The publication ban, so to speak, was something I felt was necessary simply because I wasn’t the only one on the playing field this time around–certainly I was the major focus being officially working with id on the project, but the ideas and structure of the game was something I didn’t want other people stealing ideas from until it was ready.

I’ve always been the type that quiet works on stuff for a month or two and then springs it on the masses. CTF4 had very little info leaked out before it was released.

Dakota: You personally designed or redesigned every level in Q2 CTF, correct? Why didn’t you turn to the CTF community, as you did in CTF 3 and CTF 4? Isn’t this a lot of level design for a man who became a level designer almost by accident?

Zoid: Because Q2CTF was official and there were problems getting outside level builders into the mix. I had a schedule to keep and I knew that if I did all the work, I would be the only to blame if that schedule wasn’t kept. It was a major product and I knew I could handle the work myself so I kept it to myself (other than art and models, who Paul, Kevin and Adrian did a great job on). This time around it was all my show as well, so it was extremely rewarding when I released it to say, “I did all that.”

Dakota: Now that version 1.02 of Q2 CTF is under your belt, I am sure many people are already talking about the next release of Q2 CTF. What can you tell us about this project? Will you doing all of the levels, or will be getting any help from talented friends? Will we see and levels from designers at id? Has the switch from an id mission pack to Quake III had any impact on your project?

Zoid: Quake3’s plans have had an impact. The future of a Q2CTF level addon pack is uncertain right now. I’m looking at options at present. I do have a new version of the game coming out soon with some new features, but no new levels.

Dakota: Q2 CTF has been out for a while, but it doesn’t appear that the hardcore followers of CTF for Quake 1 are ready to make the move over to Quake 2. It has gotten to the point that most of the Q2 CTF servers seems to be populated entirely by new players, and the CTF and QW CTF servers are filled with the veteran players. Why do you think that some players are not making the move to Q2 CTF? As the creator of both products, how does this make you feel?

Zoid: It’s the resistance to change mostly. Quake2 is a different game with a different feel. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I know a lot of people are certainly enjoying Q2 CTF (I am!). No matter what you do, some people will prefer and older version and that’s their opinion. But a lot of new players are enjoying Q2CTF and it’ll be fun to see some new faces in the CTF community.

Other versions of CTF

Dakota: If imitation is truly the highest form of flattery, you must be the most flattered member of the Quake community. There are dozens of CTF modifications available and several other groups developing new paks of CTF levels. What are your feelings on the development of these unofficial mods of CTF? Have they had any impact upon the way that you have developed CTF? Concerns about game balance aside, are there any weapons, runes, or features that have arisen recently that have sparked your interest?

Zoid: I was pretty excited to see people taking my game in new directions. I was almost envious of the Thunderwalker guys since they were putting in fun stuff and making major changes just for fun. I didn’t really have that flexibility under my ‘keep it simple’ mandate. As for modification impact, honestly, not many of them have had much impact on the design of my game. A few have certainly (Expert CTF’s assist system), but overall my game has changed very little and it has to be that way. I want a simple game that’s a blast to play–not a strategic game full of huge varieties of weapons, powerups and rules that make it very complex.

Dakota: Everyone seems to have a different perspective on the proper “balance” for CTF. There are servers running currently that modify every aspect of your game. For example, there are servers, and mods, that have removed the grappling hook, added new weapons, added new runes, and even eliminated the flags, rendering the server a team-based deathmatch server with runes and the hook. Disregarding your concerns on balance, what would you say is the essential elements of CTF? Would you consider the runes and the grappling hook to be non-essential elements in the game? At what point do these modifications so significantly alter CTF that it is transformed into something else?

Zoid: Different people have different desires for the gameplay. Everyone certainly does have an opinion on it. The sheer size of my mailbox is testament to that. Obviously the essential element of CTF are the flags themselves. The goal orientation of the teamplay. Games like JailBreak and other mods fall into the same sort of category CTF does and that all fits under the umbrella of ‘goal orientated teamplay.’ One may consider the runes and grappling hook a non-essential game item, but it makes the game a hell of a lot more fun. The trick is maintaining a balance between fun and over complexity. If you keep adding various rules, powerups and weapons, the game becomes more about those items (getting the best weapons, or fighting for the best powerup) than about the flags themselves, especially if the new gameplay elements are particularly unbalancing.

Dakota: Everyone is adding some version of CTF to their software. Jedi Knight, Descent Freespace, and SIN are just a few examples. Are any of these versions of CTF related to Threewave?

Zoid: Not directly. ThreeWave CTF seems to be specific to Quake and possibly id’s future projects right now.

Dakota: As I just mentioned, CTF is appearing everywhere. To what do you attribute the cross-game appeal of CTF? How much of the popularity do you think is related to your work on Threewave CTF?

Zoid: CTF is a set of rules that works over many games. I think the reason it works so well is that players function as part of team and can find niches for roles they are good at. In deathmatch, you are either at the top of the scoreboard or your not–in CTF, it’s about being on the winning team or not. I think a lot of the new games with CTF support are a direct result of ThreeWave CTF’s popularity. It has shown the way to a successful multiplayer team action game.

Etceteras

Dakota: You were also a key figure in the further development of QuakeWorld in the last half of 1997. I couldn’t help but notice that some of the features that appeared first in QW are now part of Quake II, such as client prediction and the HUD. Was this a happy coincidence? Will there be any similar development that will serve as a test vehicle for Quake III technology?

Zoid: Probably not. QuakeWorld was an interesting enigma. It was a product put together simply to experiment with some ideas and to address some of the lag problems inherent in Internet gameplay. Of course, it worked so well that it became virtually the de facto way to play Quake over the Internet. Because QuakeWorld worked so well, much of its features migrated to Quake2. Quake3’s development is mostly in a new graphics engine–the basic functionality of the networking and other core structures will remain most unchanged. It’s a stepping stone to the next level of first person gaming.

Dakota: Here is a rather silly question: If you were to leave gaming forever and a site was created with your virtual tombstone, what would you like to be your epitaph? At this point, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment, and why?

Zoid: An interesting silly question. A virtual tombstone. “He died holding the flag.” would be something I think would work. My greatest accomplishment is certainly ThreeWave CTF. I changed the industry be demonstrating the popularity of goal orientated teamplay.

Dakota: The Quake 1 community is hanging on, but most of the developers have moved over to Quake II. In retrospect, what do you see as the greatest accomplishment of the Quake community? What was its greatest mistake or failure?

Zoid: I think QuakeWorld was the greatest accomplishment of the Quake community–even though it was built at the hands of John Carmack and myself. It’s entire creation and evolution was brought on by input from the community. It was also the greatest failure. The earlier versions had player tracking and other features that sounded great in theory, but didn’t work very well in practice. We learned a lot from that.

Microphone cover photo by Alex Cole on Unsplash

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