Retro Gamer

The En­gine Room: Build

The life and times of the other FPS en­gine of the Nineties – here’s how Build brought Duke, Caleb, Lo Wang and oth­ers to life in ways con­tem­po­raries just couldn’t man­age. And in­cluded the abil­ity to use toi­lets in games, of course

- Words by Ian Drans­field

In a brand-new fea­ture we take a look at one of the ear­li­est 3D game en­gines

In 1996, two games were vy­ing for at­ten­tion in the PC gam­ing world: Quake and Duke Nukem 3D. Quake, cre­ated by the al­ready leg­endary team of cod­ing ge­niuses be­hind Wolfen­stein 3D and Doom, was the pow­er­house of the duo. The in­dus­trial me­dieval FPS raised the bar for the genre as a whole, made fully three­d­i­men­sional shoot­ers the norm, and changed the face of on­line mul­ti­player for­ever. It was – and is – one of the most in­flu­en­tial games ever made, and rightly ap­pears on lists of the great­est of all time wher­ever you look. The other game said ‘3D’ in its ti­tle, even though it wasn’t truly 3D.

It should have been cut and dry – a clear cut case of one fran­chise wip­ing the floor with the other, such was Quake’s un­de­ni­able tech­no­log­i­cal weight, as well as the huge amount of hype be­hind its re­lease. And yet… we still talk about this com­pe­ti­tion, we de­bate about which is the bet­ter game, Quake or Duke Nukem 3D. Even though one game was backed by what be­came one of the most it­er­ated and built-upon en­gines of all time, we still fondly re­mem­ber the other one. Duke Nukem 3D, you see, goes hand in hand with the Build en­gine – and the Build en­gine changed first-per­son shoot­ers as much as Quake’s, even with­out that fancy ac­tual 3D lark.

For you see, Build was the pluck­i­est of un­der­dogs; an en­gine that might not have had the most grunt of the mid­nineties be­hind it, but one that of­fered a sim­plic­ity and straight­for­ward­ness

– as well as ef­fi­ciency – that hit an in­de­fin­able sweet spot for de­vel­op­ers. And as if this were a story be­ing writ­ten specif­i­cally to throw twists and turns at the feet of you, dear reader, the man be­hind Build was… well, a teenager.

Ken Sil­ver­man was a 17-year-old born in New York State (and re­lo­cated to Rhode Is­land when his fa­ther took on a pro­fes­sor­ship at Brown Univer­sity), who had been tin­ker­ing with pro­gram­ming from a young age. His ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and ded­i­ca­tion to the hobby of mak­ing stuff took a turn for the pro­fes­sional in 1993 with the re­lease of Ken’s Labyrinth – this Wolfen­stein 3D-in­spired first­per­son game caught the at­ten­tion of Epic Mega games (well be­fore the days of the Unreal En­gine), which even­tu­ally re­leased it un­der the then-typ­i­cal episodic share­ware model.

Ken’s Labyrinth was pretty sim­plis­tic – though it fea­tured the abil­ity to in­ter­act with vend­ing ma­chines, fore­shad­ow­ing things to come in Build games – but it did act as the cat­a­lyst for Ken’s career. A few months later in 1993, just be­fore he started at col­lege, the teen had signed a con­tract with Apogee Soft­ware to cre­ate what would be­come the Build en­gine. “Af­ter the re­lease of Ken’s Labyrinth, id [Soft­ware] put out a press re­lease and some screen­shots of Doom,” Ken re­mem­bers. “Nat­u­rally, I was curious to try to make my own, just as I had done with Wolfen­stein 3D and Co­manche Max­i­mum Overkill. I started play­ing around with an an­gled wall ren­derer in March of 1993.”

These ex­per­i­ments were en­cour­aged by Ken’s fa­ther, who con­vinced his son to pitch the nascent en­gine out to pub­lish­ers around the States. In one of

com­pared to doom, Build had a smoother fram­er­ate – be­cause doom lim­ited its fps to 35 Ken sil­ver­man

those cute quirks of fate, it was Scott Miller’s Apogee that showed the most in­ter­est, this be­ing the com­pany that both cre­ated the share­ware model, as used for Ken’s Labyrinth, and gave what be­came id Soft­ware, the stu­dio be­hind Doom, its first break. It is, af­ter all, a small in­dus­try. “Ken’s Labyrinth was less a game, and more of a demo, show­ing that it wasn’t just the ge­niuses at id who could pull off fast 3D gam­ing tech­nol­ogy,” Scott ex­plains.

“[Ken] con­tacted us and we dis­cussed work­ing on a project to­gether,” he con­tin­ues, “I men­tioned that I could put to­gether a team to use his en­gine. Ken showed us a demo of his Build en­gine, which would be sim­i­lar to the en­gine he knew that id was cre­at­ing for their com­ing game, Doom.” It was in such an early state that Ken hadn’t even thought of a name for his cre­ation – but with the pro­gram file it­self called build.exe, the de­ci­sion seemed a sim­ple one and so the Build en­gine was born.

With col­lege ap­proach­ing – Ken would at­tend Brown to ma­jor in Ap­plied Maths – ne­go­ti­a­tions about time and study were del­i­cate. With his fa­ther help­ing out in de­cid­ing em­ploy­ment ar­range­ments, Ken soon signed up with Apogee and be­gan work in a pro­fes­sional ca­pac­ity on the en­gine. Build as we ended up know­ing it was born, and soon enough the tech started to speak for it­self. u

nfor­tu­nately, while the tech im­pressed, the first two games us­ing Build – both from Cap­stone Soft­ware, and both re­leased in 1995 – were un­der­whelm­ing to say the least. Witchaven, a fan­tasy first-per­son RPG, had some good ideas but was ul­ti­mately in­cred­i­bly dull, while Wil­liam Shat­ner’s Tek­war was a wildly am­bi­tious, ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble cult non-clas­sic. Both ti­tles, though, showed the un­der­ly­ing prom­ise of what Ken had been work­ing on – now full-time af­ter tak­ing a tem­po­rary leave of ab­sence from his stud­ies – and it was ap­par­ent that Build had a lot of pos­i­tives over what the Doom en­gine had wowed every­one with just a year or two pre­vi­ously.

“Com­pared to Doom, Build had a smoother fram­er­ate – be­cause Doom lim­ited its fps to 35 to sup­port sim­ple net­work­ing,” Ken ex­plains. “With Build, I had to im­ple­ment in­ter­po­la­tion for the player, sprites, doors and so on, to sup­port ren­der­ing at an in­de­pen­dent fram­er­ate from the physics/net­work code.” Though play­ers prob­a­bly weren’t pick­ing up on such tech­ni­cal as­pects of what Build of­fered, there were some things shin­ing through im­me­di­ately – slop­ing floors and ceil­ings dif­fer­en­ti­ated it from Doom’s en­gine, and there was a much big­ger push to­wards in­ter­ac­tiv­ity in the games cre­ated with Build, likely brought to life thanks to a map ed­i­tor

it was stress­ful be­ing asked to im­ple­ment things that i had never done be­fore Ken sil­ver­man

that al­lowed de­sign­ers to quickly switch from edit­ing to play­ing on the fly.

“The Build en­gine was quite an im­prove­ment over id’s Doom gen­er­a­tion of en­gine tech,” Scott says. “Build had slopes, look­ing up and down, de­struc­tible walls, it could do room-over-rooms [with a bit of jig­gery-pok­ery be­hind the scenes – RG] and cat­walks, and sev­eral other nice im­prove­ments.” The praise wasn’t just com­ing from his em­ploy­ers ei­ther, with even id’s own John Car­mack a very pub­lic fan of Ken – even of­fer­ing ad­vice on im­prov­ing Build at an early stage. But there was still no killer app – noth­ing be­yond ca­pa­ble tech and a hard­work­ing, al­beit stressed, young coder.

“There were plenty of good and bad times,” Ken re­mem­bers. “It was stress­ful be­ing asked to im­ple­ment things that I had never done be­fore. Be­fore Build, I had never writ­ten code that was to be used by oth­ers. And fig­ur­ing out the net­work­ing code was quite a chal­lenge.” But it wasn’t all bad, as Ken con­tin­ues: “My favourite part of work­ing in a team was watch­ing oth­ers use the en­gine or tools in cool ways that I never thought of. When you’re the only one mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions, noth­ing is a sur­prise – and that gets bor­ing quickly.”

With a re­newed en­ergy as part of a team – and all

the help that comes with work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tively – Ken and the Apogee team (soon to be re­branded as 3D Realms) would un­leash what it had been work­ing on for some time. For you see, Build wasn’t be­ing built apropos of noth­ing – there was a cer­tain 1996 FPS be­ing crafted in and around the en­gine, in­form­ing as much of Build’s devel­op­ment as the un­der­ly­ing code in­formed the game. Jan­uary 1996 hit, and with it came Duke Nukem 3D – Build’s killer app, and the game that showed you didn’t ac­tu­ally need all the fancy tricks in the world id was show­ing off to make a game a true great.

Duke was dif­fer­ent – not the typ­i­cal run-and-gun we were used to by that point, the game (as well as jog­ging and blast­ing) en­cour­aged ex­plo­ration and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, re­warded in­ter­ac­tion (ten health for us­ing the toi­let, natch), and pre­sented play­ers with lev­els that

would and could dy­nam­i­cally al­ter on the fly. Who could have pre­dicted those earthquake­s that hit in the very first level, warp­ing and de­stroy­ing part of the build­ing you’re in? It was a rev­e­la­tion, even if on pa­per it looked like the other 2.5D en­gines of the time.

“Build is just so well suited for ma­nip­u­lat­ing lev­els in real time,”

Scott says, “such as fall­ing build­ings, ex­plod­ing walls that lead to new ar­eas, in­ter­ac­tiv­ity, and the vast size of lev­els and high speed of mov­ing around.” This coun­tered id’s de­sign phi­los­o­phy at the time, which veered much more to­wards sim­plic­ity and fo­cus: “That was very valid and suc­cess­ful,” Scott says, “But with Build we de­cided to go overboard with fea­tures that, in the end, we thought would set us apart and al­low our games to do all sorts of things that other games weren’t do­ing.”

The line had been drawn in the sand – Build, an other­wise lim­ited en­gine, would pro­vide de­vel­op­ers with the abil­ity to make some­thing tech­no­log­i­cally bet­ter than Doom, and for far cheaper than what that li­cense was be­ing sold for.

Duke Nukem brought tight ac­tion and a thor­oughly com­pelling game with more than enough silli­ness in­fect­ing it to have set out the stall. Build was to be for the am­bi­tious few, on a low bud­get, who liked to muck about.

“We started on Blood in early 1994, long be­fore Quake was re­leased” Peter Freese, lead pro­gram­mer on Mono­lith’s ex­cel­lent 1997 shooter ex­plains, “At the time, there weren’t many choices for li­cens­able en­gines avail­able. There was the choice be­tween the Doom en­gine, which was out­side our bud­get, and build­ing our own tech­nol­ogy from scratch. Work­ing with Apogee – we orig­i­nally started out as an Apogee stu­dio – gave us ac­cess to the Build en­gine via our pub­lish­ing agree­ment through Apogee.”

Peter goes on to say he and the Blood dev team found Build to be a ‘com­pet­i­tive’ en­gine, but one with lim­its that were read­ily ap­par­ent: “There were a lot of lim­its in the types of en­vi­ron­ments we could cre­ate,” he says. “But in a way, be­ing more lim­ited al­lowed us to be more creative in other ways… Be­cause we were con­stantly strug­gling against things we couldn’t do with the en­gine, ver­sus a full-3d en­gine, we had to come up with crazy ideas to dis­tin­guish our­selves. The room-over-room trick that we cre­ated was one ex­am­ple of this.”

En­forced bound­aries fre­quently make for creative so­lu­tions to prob­lems, and the lack of coast­ing was ap­par­ent on Blood’s re­lease. To­day con­sid­ered one of the best of Build’s releases, along with Duke 3D, Shadow War­rior and – to a lesser ex­tent – Red­neck Ram­page, it of­fered a macabre tale filled with gore, backed up by creative sce­nar­ios, puz­zle­solv­ing, ex­plo­ration and weapons. No­body who played Blood can for­get the aerosol/lighter combo.

Releases us­ing Build had quickly shed the moniker of ‘Doom clone’ and be­come their own, cap­ti­vat­ing thing – even in a post-quake world where many eyes were on the big boy of the genre, Build was back­ing some of the greats of the mid-nineties. In fact, in some ways Build had even man­aged to scoop Quake, ac­cord­ing to Ken: “Peo­ple may point out that Quake’s net­work­ing code was bet­ter due to its drop-in net­work­ing sup­port, [but] it did not sup­port client side pre­dic­tion in the be­gin­ning,” he ex­plains. “That’s some­thing I had come up with first and first im­ple­mented in the Jan­uary 1996 re­lease of Duke 3D share­ware. It kind of pisses me off that the Wikipedia ar­ti­cle on ‘client side pre­dic­tion’ gives credit to Quake­world due to a lack of cred­i­ble ci­ta­tions about Duke 3D.”

It wasn’t all grit-and-spit, of course – Build al­ways had some fine pos­i­tives that kept de­vel­op­ers us­ing it and helped them bring out the likes of the 1997 dou­ble-whammy of Shadow War­rior and Red­neck Ram­page. Each it­er­ated on what had come be­fore, mod­i­fy­ing and spec­c­ing up the un­der­ly­ing tech while ladling on a fair amount of snark, cheek, silli­ness and ques­tion­able con­tent. “I think Build and Duke go hand-in-hand, with each rais­ing the stock value of the other,” Scott muses. “I think that Duke Nukem 3D set the tone for Build en­gine games, es­pe­cially with hu­mour, talk­ing char­ac­ters, pop­cul­ture ref­er­ences, and other crazi­ness. Again, id Soft­ware made very se­ri­ous, stream­lined games, so we took our games (Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow War­rior) in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, and the other teams who li­censed Build fol­lowed our lead, I guess.”

On a tech­ni­cal level there were ben­e­fits too, with the afore­men­tioned stream­lined ed­i­tor prov­ing a hit with any­one mak­ing lev­els: “Prob­a­bly the best, most in­no­va­tive, fea­ture of Build was its 3D Ed­i­tor,”

Ken ex­plains. “As it al­lowed you to edit in­side the game it­self in the full 3D mode, I be­lieve it was the first game en­gine to sup­port this.”

Peter, mean­while, is a fan of Build’s op­ti­mi­sa­tion: “Build had re­ally ex­cel­lent ren­der­ing per­for­mance,” he says, “Which was dif­fi­cult to achieve on desk­top hard­ware at the time. There was some crazy op­ti­mised as­sem­bly tex­ture map­ping code that en­abled us to achieve great fram­er­ates while still spend­ing pro­ces­sor time do­ing game­play stuff.”

Ease of use, smart op­ti­mi­sa­tion, clearly de­fined lim­its push­ing de­vel­op­ers

to work within bound­aries, and an an­ar­chic, devil may care, very Nineties at­ti­tude be­hind its games. Build from 1996 to 1998 mat­tered, and its many pos­i­tives kept an ob­jec­tively in­fe­rior en­gine fresh in the minds of many. But it wasn’t 3D, and it wasn’t ever go­ing to be, and the world had gone for that ex­tra di­men­sion. De­vel­op­ers moved on, the en­gine was left tread­ing wa­ter, and his­tory had all but stopped record­ing the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of Build, the plucky en­gine that could.

As brightly as it burned for a few years, by 1999 – aside from an­other Duke Nukem ex­pan­sion pack – there was lit­tle to cel­e­brate us­ing Build.

NAM and Ex­treme Paint­brawl of­fered ab­so­lutely noth­ing mem­o­rable, and

1999 saw the fi­nal com­mer­cial re­lease us­ing the Build en­gine: World War II

GI. It was, as you may have gath­ered from the fact you likely don’t know what it is, ig­nor­able at best. With releases

prob­a­bly the best, most in­no­va­tive, fea­ture of Build was its 3d ed­i­tor Ken sil­ver­man

(the first il­le­gally) from 1994-1999 and see­ing three gen­uine clas­sics, and one ar­guable, red­neck, clas­sic, Build had a good run. But it was over.

Ken Sil­ver­man had al­ready moved on by this point, re­turn­ing to his stud­ies and grad­u­at­ing, work­ing on some other en­gine projects – in­clud­ing an early ver­sion of Build2, avail­able on his web­site – be­fore end­ing up at Voxon Photonics, work­ing on a 3D vol­u­met­ric dis­play known as the Vox­iebox. While it was the end of Ken’s story with the en­gine he cre­ated, though, it turned out not to be the end for Build it­self – 3D Realms an­nounced in 2018 it would be pub­lish­ing Ion Maiden, a brand-new, com­mer­cial re­lease us­ing Eduke32, a mod­ernised source port of Build. Who needs Unreal, right?

Strangely enough, we’re liv­ing in a world where a 20-plus-year-old game en­gine is be­ing used to cre­ate a new com­mer­cially re­leased game, and where the gate­keep­ers of said en­gine are look­ing to bring more proper, full ti­tles to re­lease us­ing the mod­ernised ver­sion of Build. On one hand, it could be a wave of nos­tal­gia – cloy­ingly de­voted to a tech­nol­ogy that has been bet­tered many times over, mon­etis­ing our rose-tinted na­tures and charg­ing us to re­mem­ber the Nineties. But then, on the other hand, this could all be tes­ta­ment to the fact Build is, and was, an en­gine sup­port­ive of and sup­ported by very creative de­vel­op­ers and de­sign­ers. Sure, it’s a move backed by nos­tal­gia, but that nos­tal­gia it­self is backed by re­lease af­ter re­lease in the mid-nineties of all no­table in their own way – games of true unique­ness, games of gen­uine qual­ity and in­ven­tive­ness, games that had great ideas re­alised through Build’s ro­bust­ness, games fea­tur­ing Wil­liam Shat­ner. Build had it all, and it might just be that mod­ern de­vel­op­ers still want to tap into that re­source and give us a few rose-tinted me­mories to look back on in 20 years’ time.

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 ??  ?? » Ken Sil­ver­man is the brains be­hind Build, hav­ing cre­ated the orig­i­nal demo of the en­gine.» [PC] The Witchaven’s se­quel made some amends for the orig­i­nal’s poor show­ing, but was still ul­ti­mately lack­ing.
» Ken Sil­ver­man is the brains be­hind Build, hav­ing cre­ated the orig­i­nal demo of the en­gine.» [PC] The Witchaven’s se­quel made some amends for the orig­i­nal’s poor show­ing, but was still ul­ti­mately lack­ing.
 ??  ?? » [PC] It looks good in screen­shots, but 1995’s Witchaven is an empty, aim­less and ut­terly bor­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.
» [PC] It looks good in screen­shots, but 1995’s Witchaven is an empty, aim­less and ut­terly bor­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.
 ??  ?? » [PC] (Top) Duke Nukem 3D be­come such an im­por­tant Buildgame, many later games used a mod­i­fied ver­sion of it.
» [PC] (Top) Duke Nukem 3D be­come such an im­por­tant Buildgame, many later games used a mod­i­fied ver­sion of it.
 ??  ?? » [PC] How many times has Hol­ly­wood Holo­caust been re­played? It is ab­so­lute peak Build.
» [PC] How many times has Hol­ly­wood Holo­caust been re­played? It is ab­so­lute peak Build.
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 ??  ?? » [PC] World War II GI is the last com­mer­cial Build re­lease to date, and it’s best to leave it alone to gather rust.
» [PC] World War II GI is the last com­mer­cial Build re­lease to date, and it’s best to leave it alone to gather rust.
 ??  ?? » Apogee/3d Realm’s Scott Miller was a sup­porter of Build right from the be­gin­ning.
» Apogee/3d Realm’s Scott Miller was a sup­porter of Build right from the be­gin­ning.
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 ??  ?? » [PC] The am­bi­tion of Tek­war was never in doubt, with early open worlds shown off via the power of Build.
» [PC] The am­bi­tion of Tek­war was never in doubt, with early open worlds shown off via the power of Build.
 ??  ?? » Build con­tin­ues through Eduke32, with Map­ster32 be­ing the tool pro­vided to cre­ate lev­els and even en­tire games.
» Build con­tin­ues through Eduke32, with Map­ster32 be­ing the tool pro­vided to cre­ate lev­els and even en­tire games.
 ??  ?? » [PC] An­cient Egypt ar­guably looked bet­ter on con­sole, but it was on the PC where Ex­humed was the most fun.
» [PC] An­cient Egypt ar­guably looked bet­ter on con­sole, but it was on the PC where Ex­humed was the most fun.
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 ??  ?? » [PC] Build games typ­i­cally had a com­i­cal flair. Aerosol plus lighter equals… well, this.
» [PC] Build games typ­i­cally had a com­i­cal flair. Aerosol plus lighter equals… well, this.
 ??  ?? » [PC] As open­ings go, Shadow War­rior ’s was up there with the most in­tense of the time – straight into the ac­tion, and gore aplenty.» Peter Freese was lead pro­gram­mer of Blood, one of Builds most iconic, and, well, bloody games.
» [PC] As open­ings go, Shadow War­rior ’s was up there with the most in­tense of the time – straight into the ac­tion, and gore aplenty.» Peter Freese was lead pro­gram­mer of Blood, one of Builds most iconic, and, well, bloody games.

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