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Sacrifice: Doom's Marty Stratton on Long Hours and Sending His Son's Friends to Hell

I've been speaking extensively with id Software's Hugo Martin and Marty Stratton, for an in-depth making-of on Doom's reboot that you'll be seeing on Shacknews soon. In advance of that longer feature, I spoke with Martin on how his background in film influenced his approach to designing games, and with Stratton on the pressures he felt working on such a beloved brand.

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Doom has been out almost a year. Now that you've had time to reflect, what did you enjoy most about the project?

There are so many things. My favorite part is actually the end product. I know that sounds like a cop-out, so I'll give you some others, but I'm so proud of where we ended up with it. Not just because it's been well-received and people feel like, hey, Doom is back. Doom is where it needs to be in terms of modern gaming conversations. But we really set out to create something that would appeal to people who, like you said, you've been playing id games a long time—a game that would appeal to you, and all of us who played Doom and loved it, and it became part of who we are as gamers. It has fond memories [associated with it]. Our Doom was true to that. It didn't necessarily replace it, but it became part of it. It was an augmentation to your Doom history.

At the same time, there's a lot of new people who have come to Doom. My son is 16, and he's got a bunch of friends who played it and loved it. They were excited about it, and Doom was a new thing to them. A lot of them are hardcore gamers, but they'd never gone back and played the original. Maybe they'd heard of Doom 3, but they'd at least heard of Doom, and they're not Doom fans, and not just because they know me. They're looking forward to whatever comes next from Doom.

So, ultimately the fact that we delivered on that promise that we'd make when we announced the game at QuakeCon in 2014—that's probably my favorite part. But the process of making the game was immensely hard but immensely fun. A lot of that comes from the fact that we were so flexible as we went. We played the game constantly, and I think that made all the difference in the world. The day-to-day decisions. Doom is such a crazy, fun, absurd, wild brand. When you're going through creative meetings, or reviewing art or animations, or whatever, it's anything but mundane. It's such a fun world to play in.

When you have conversations in meetings about how you're going to kill a demon in the most creative, bombastic way you've ever imagined, it's just fun. It's so fun to be at work and work with the people here who are just so passionate about it. I would hate to work on a game that doesn't have quite the impact or meaning [that Doom has], or the opportunity to make an impact. The fact that as you're going through the process, you know you're working on something that matters to people. That when it comes out, if you succeed or you fail, it will be a big thing. That pressure, just that purpose, is awesome.

I've worked at id and worked on id games a long time, and id games have kind of always had that, so I don't know what it's like to work on something that doesn't mean something. To be able to have that opportunity on Doom, and have it with these people, and ultimately have it turn out the way it did, and to know that it would. Going into launch, we all had a lot of confidence that we had done a good job. We really liked it even after a few years of development and playing it for hundreds of hours. We were still having competitions on Ultra Nightmare [difficulty] literally up until it shipped, trying to see who could get furthest.

That's kind of a long-winded answer, but I'd say that combination of things was my favorite part of it.

Who won the competition?

There were a bunch of people from QA, and a bunch of devs. We have a multiplayer testing pit, and different guys were trying different tactics. It's funny because when the game comes out and you have Ultra Nightmare, we didn't know how long it would take people to beat [that difficulty]. I honestly thought it would take months, and I think it took two days. It was crazy. When you look at the skill of the players out there, it's just insane.

One of our younger designers, Adam Bideau, he was the closest. There were some other guys in QA that came close as well, but he was the closest throughout. We had said in an interview that nobody internally at id had beaten Ultra Nightmare yet. It was his mission to beat it before [the game] shipped, and I think the night before it shipped, he beat it. He would basically practice, and then go back to his game once he knew [strategies].

I'm not saying that was at all a cheat, because he beat it fair and square. But, again, when you look at some of the [consumers] who did it right after it launched, they were just basically like, "Yeah, I'm going to take on Ultra Nightmare," and it would take them a couple of tries and then they were through.

Did you take that as a testament to the quality of the game's design? Kind of like saying, "Yes, this may look impossible, but it is possible."

Yeah, I think so. I give the designers, the leads and our AI team just tons of credit for that. But it's tough. [laughs] It's really hard to do. I think some of the first players to beat it did so on PC. It's definitely a faster and snappier experience on PC, the way you can manipulate the mouse and keyboard. It was fun to watch.

It was the first time we'd released a game with Twitch as a big thing, and streaming [in general]. It was just awesome to be able to watch people. We spent most of the first week after launch just watching people play on Twitch. It was such a cool window into people's first reactions and experiences with the game. You can learn a lot, and it's just fun.

I liked to talk to developers about how they felt after a game released, especially one that went through as many development twists and turns as Doom. How did you feel last May when the game finally launched? That must have been surreal.

Yeah, it was a little surreal. At first, it was just a relief. That's the hardest I've ever worked in my career, the last year of Doom. The last six months alone, I didn't take a day off, even on weekends. We worked 16 to 18 hours a day, just trying to squeeze every ounce of juice from it. Just because, again, it's a combination of pressure, pride, respect, and love. It's all these things and you're just like, "This has to be great. If I have slept one second more than I needed to and this doesn't turn out great, then I'm going to look back and really be disappointed."

We had a lot of confidence. We really felt like it was going to be great, but you never know. You've always got a little pit in your stomach. When it first goes out and people are playing it like that, it's definitely a relief. It's a few years of really hard work, and you're so happy that people like it. It's hard to explain because you put everything possible into it. You sacrifice. And this isn't just me. The entire team sacrificed their weekends, dinners, time with family. All kinds of stuff. The fact that [Doom] came out and peopled liked it, and not just liked it: You have a lot of conversations with yourself when you're making something when you ask, "Are people going to get this? Are they going to understand that we're giving them a little wink?" Particularly when you try to do things that are subtle. "Are they going to understand what we're trying to say with this? That we're trying to call back to the original Doom in some way?"

That's where the Twitch experience was really awesome. People would walk into a space and recognize the fact that it was kind of based on a level from the original Doom, and they'd be like, "Oh, I see what you did here." And you're like, "Yes! Oh my god!" Or at the beginning, when Samuel's talking and you grab the monitor and throw it to the side, even that was like, "Man, this feels risky. This is the right thing to do, but are people going to be upset?" Because we basically took the one piece of information about what you're supposed to do and chucked it. Are they going to understand that that's a statement we're making? Or are they going to be pissed off that we took control away from them for a fraction of a moment and just chucked their main source of information to the side?

When people react to it [positively] in real time and you see that, it's like: Yes. Thank you. Oh my god. They got it.


Related Articles: 
- Why Doom won the Shacknews 2016 Game of the Year award.
- Shack's review of Doom

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