Creators of ''Doom'' are hoping to get the game out by Christmas

Watching Starship Troopers from the back of a Dallas burbplex last month, a gang of sleep-deprived game developers from id Software rediscovered a truism: Life ain’t like the movies. While the mess of interstellar insects on screen would be squished by the time the credits rolled, the id techies were struggling, with less assurance of success, to exterminate a different race of bugs — the ones that bedeviled Quake II, the impending sequel to their groundbreaking splatterpunk CD-ROM. Their popcorn break over, the id’sters returned to their desktops for another sleepless night of last-minute tweaks on one of the most eagerly anticipated game launches of the year. And one of the riskiest: If they failed to complete and release Quake II in time for the holidays, the loss of sales would be real-world brutal.

Following the original won’t be easy. Since its September ’96 release, Quake has inspired an international subculture of online gamers and, according to PC Data, grossed nearly $19 million. Now the company that popularized the first-person-shooter genre with 1993’s Doom is out to revolutionize gaming one more time. That is, if it can stop perfecting the game. ”Eventually, you have to ship it out,” says id CEO Todd Hollenshead, ”or all the developing doesn’t do you any good.”

The pressure to deliver on time falls on John Carmack, id’s cofounder, and a team of nine artists and programmers, who have been working since last summer. Strung out on Pinwheels and soda pop, catnapping on an office sofa, the team got used to keeping round-the-clock hours.

The pain level jumped in October, after id released a ”compatibility test” of Quake II on the Internet. Within four hours, more than 2,000 Quakeheads responded with E-mailed bug reports and suggestions. One player wanted the monsters to leave behind bigger chunks of flesh after they die. He got his wish.

The test release also gave Quakers their first taste of id’s brave new hell. While the first Quake was set in a medieval underworld, Quake II warriors have to neutralize the defense system on a planet of alien cyborgs. Whatever. The real fun is the lavishly rendered shoot-’em-up thrills. Quake II triples the polygon count in the game’s 3-D environment, which means terrifying details, like weapons that leave trails of incandescent blue smoke. The monsters, stoked on heightened artificial intelligence, are harder to kill, and dangerously cunning. And now the growing legions of grrrl gamers have their own marauder, modeled after Alien‘s Ripley. Says Hollenshead: ”We wanted a character who looks like she can kick ass.”

Though id has pumped up the multiplayer capacity from 32 to 200, Quake II‘s major innovations seem aimed at wiggling the joysticks of single players. If the demo is any indication, however, Quake II is no Riven. Though die-hard Quake fans will be dazzled by the new tweaks, less discerning gamers might find it to be more of the same. Ultimately, id’s blood-lusting sequel must survive a death match with the most merciless audience of all: players who shelled out 50 bucks for the original.