Do you see the difference between these two games? It’s not just the quality of the graphics. Look at the ways you can look around. Side to side. Side to side and up and down.
The advent of 3D games that utilize all the dimensions didn’t just require better graphics cards. It required a way to control movement and vision quickly and easily. When you look at the manual for Quake, one of the first games to really utilize what’s called “freelook,” you see that the developers didn’t really know how to do it either. Some people still used the keyboard to look up and down. And to move forward and backward? Arrow keys.
But on computers today, a game as popular as Fortnite— a game so mainstream that journalists trying to seem hip add Fortnite to their videos— even Fortnite defaults movement controls to the same four keys. Not the arrow keys, but WASD. Why? The answer involves gaming’s first superstar – and it shows how a legend can actually change the mechanics of play.
On Monday August 26th, 1996, the Wall Street Journal featured an article about a presidential campaign and the first professional gamer, Dennis “Thresh” Fong. “They ended up doing that little stencil drawing of me. I think it was me and I think it was Bill Clinton. What got me into gaming initially were called MUDS — Multi-user dungeons — think of it like World of Warcraft, but text-based World of Warcraft. So like, if you wanted to walk in this game you would have to literally write like “Walk north. And you surely would want to walk to this website: https://casinoslots.sg/casino-games
Walk south.” But Thresh didn’t build his reputation on text-based games. It was playing the 3D game Quake — released in 1996. He never lost a tournament. But the game did present some new control challenges for all players. “When most people started playing games back in those days, you just used a keyboard. And then over time, people realized the keyboard had a fixed rate of turn.
So if you wanted to turn left, it would kinda go like that – so you wouldn’t be able to flick. I eventually switched to a mouse.” A keyboard and mouse combo were necessary by the late 90s, so it was crucial to find a way to use the mouse to look and the keyboard to move the player. But the programmers didn’t figure out the best way to do it. The players did.
“Some people used arrow keys, which were on the right hand side of the keyboard, and the mouse, some people would only use a keyboard, some people would use a horizontal row, like ASDF. There were literally probably hundreds of different combinations that people used. I found WASD on my left hand, and then using the mouse on my right hand to be the most comfortable. By default, the weapons, you have to hit the numbers to switch weapons.” The arrow keys were far from weapons switching numbers and other important keys like control and shift. To strafe- or step sideways – you often needed to hit a side directional key and shift at the same time.
That was easier with WASD than arrows. But ESDF, or RDFG might have accomplished the same thing. It was Thresh’s influence that made WASD a standard. “People started copying and using WASD and the mouse as their standard key configuration.
I think enough people started using it, it became really popular, where the games just started making that the default key combination and configuration for a lot of games like Quake.” Programmer John Carmack built Thresh’s configuration into a special command in the sequel, Quake II. Anybody could use the same controls as Thresh. That included sensitivity and speed, but also W, A, S, and D. That layout spread from the leading game and player in just a couple of years.
It quickly showed up in the manuals as defaults for an early multiplayer shooter, Starsiege Tribes, and the once-in-a-generation hit, Half-Life, which assumed players would use a keyboard, mouse, and WASD. “I can’t say that I, like, invented it — it was just what was comfortable for me, and as the top player in my generation, people just wanted to use what I used. It’s kinda cool that it’s the standard today.