Doom: To Hell and Back
Doom has devoured productivity and personal relationships since id Software opened the floodgates to hell in 1993. Gatekeepers of the franchise's past, present, and future celebrate the weapons and level design that defined the classics, the pitfalls and triumphs involved in revitalizing the brand, and the community that keeps old-school fans knee-deep in new ideas.
Marty Stratton knew a good sound when he heard it. He had studied commercial music composition at University of Denver and, with bachelor degree in hand, had headed out west in 1995 determined to land a job in the entertainment industry. Writing jingles had seemed a good place to start. Stratton understood musical theory and knew his way around plenty of professional recording hardware and software.
For all his education and ability to generate dulcet sounds, none quite moved Stratton like the rush of quarters racing down the metal chute of a change machine and flooding into its tray. "I loved the arcade. Getting those quarters was the greatest thing ever," he remembered.
Stratton had set aside gaming to devote himself to his studies in college. After he picked up stakes and moved out to Los Angeles, serendipity guided him back to his childhood hobby.
"You're young, you're looking for any opportunity you can get," he explained. "I was friends with a guy who knew somebody at Activision, and introduced me. I think when I started, there were 120 people or something like that. They were smaller than id is now. I started in QA there, just trying to get my foot in the door."
Stratton wedged open Activision's door and entered a land of opportunity. Although most resources were diverted toward internal production, management had recently minted a smaller division focused on publishing games in development at external studios. Stratton cut his teeth on quality assurance for a year, then transferred to the group scouting outside teams. Three of their most promising were Raven Software, Ritual Entertainment, and id Software.
All three studios produced first-person shooters and were helmed by some of the still-nascent genre's biggest names: Mark Dochtermann, Jim Dosé, Richard 'Levelord' Gray, had worked together at Apogee and 3D Realms before co-founding Ritual. None were more prominent than id Software, pioneers following the back-to-back-to-back global successes of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.
"I was the producer assigned to their stuff, so the Quake Mission Packs was my first experience with id, coming down to Mesquite when they were still in the famous black building," Stratton said, recalling early work on the original Quake's expansion packs. "So right around '96 I started working on id games, working with them from Activision on Quake 2, the mission packs, console versions, then Quake 3."
It didn't take long for Stratton to form an attachment to the id team. They were a fun, creative bunch, and he immediately took a liking to their penchant for moving game technology forward in leaps instead of baby steps. In 2000, id Software made him an offer to leave Activision and join their ranks full-time.
"I was just loving working with them, and jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the team," he said.
Stratton stepped into the role of id's director of business development. His job entailed managing relationships with publishers—a responsibility for which he was well-suited—and evangelizing the studio's games at trade shows. Following 1999's Quake 3: Arena, id's next big project was Doom 3, a retelling of the first two games rather than a direct sequel.
"I'm proud to say that I think we always do gun combat well, and I think Doom 3 was another example of that," Stratton said. "The gunplay was very good; the guns felt great. But stylistically, it was just a different take on [Doom]."
Published under Activision's label, Doom 3 released in 2004 to high praise from venerable critical outlets such as PC Gamer. Long-time fans were more divided. In Doom and Doom 2: Hell on Earth, players moved at ridiculously high velocities through sprawling maps and mowed down demons using chainguns and rocket launchers and space-age lasers. While select maps featured corridors draped in shadows and eerie soundtracks designed to unnerve players, the majority had been crafted as high-octane shooting galleries.
Meanwhile, Doom 3 blanketed every cave and corridor in darkness. Zombies moaned and shambled with hands outstretched. Drawing near candles and streaks of blood arranged in glowing pentagrams triggered bouts of maniacal, echoing laughter from the game's mad scientist-type villain. Monsters leaped out of dark pockets to lunge at players, attacking in packs of three or four instead of swarms of dozens.
Players inched through shadowy corridors rather than raced forward, dependent on the narrow beam of their flashlight to scan ahead of them. Weapons had to be held separately from the flashlight, forcing players to use their torch while exploring and then swap over to their weapon of choice when a monster came hissing or shambling or lunging out of its hiding place. PDAs scattered around maps functioned like key cards, able to be scanned to access gated areas, but the devices also contained emails and voice memos that players occasionally had to sift through to find passwords, bringing the pace to a halt.
In many ways, Doom 3 was ahead of its time. Its blend of action and survival horror predated Resident Evil 4 by nearly six months, and provided a template for Dead Space years later in 2008. Still, although many players took a liking to Doom 3's creative deviations, even developers at id acknowledged the dissonance between the title's slower pace and the legacy of the name on its box.
"If we would have made Doom 2016 as a direct sequel to Doom 3, I think it would have been a little confusing to people," Stratton explained, "or even felt more like it was trying to move things in a different direction because we didn't like [Doom 3]. That just wasn't the case. There are few of us left who actually worked on Doom 3, but we were all really proud of it and still are."
Shipping Doom 3 off to stores marked the perfect occasion for id's team to reflect on what they had made, and ponder their next steps. When Stratton had joined in 2000, the studio had employed just over a dozen developers. By the time Doom 3 launched in the summer of 2004, the team had grown to around 19. While the bulk of the staff laid the foundation for a brand-new id property called Rage, in mid-2006, Stratton and other managers at id shopped around for external teams to write new chapters in the Wolfenstein, Quake, and Doom sagas.
"We had started working on Rage at that point and were very excited about that," said Stratton, "so we felt like, 'We have these great brands. Is it worth looking outside [of id Software]?' We'd done that successfully with Wolfenstein. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was a fantastic game, and we'd worked on Quake 4 with Raven. We'd developed a good relationship with Raven, so it was like, let's kind of test the waters and see what else is out there."
Of id's holy trinity of brands, only Doom lacked a home. Stratton, along with artist-turned-executive-producer Kevin Cloud and then-president Todd Hollenshead, traveled to several studios to gauge their candidature for sending players back to hell. Over months of flights and road trips, Stratton and the others agreed that only their team seemed equipped to do justice to Doom.
"It came down to we thought we would do a better job growing our team and doing another Doom than another team would do with it," Stratton explained. "Or, if they were in a position to have to grow their team, we thought we'd be more successful hiring top-notch people than some other developer would be, just based on who we are and the people we had working here. If we were going to do it, we'd do it internally and grow a team around building it here."
The time had come to divide and conquer. While the bulk of id developed on Rage, management slowly filled out a second team to make Doom.
"It was two teams, and it was challenging," Stratton remembered. "It's challenging for any business to grow like that. I actually don't remember how many people were on each team, but we had definitely grown as a studio into multiple teams.
Call of Battle-Doom
In 2008, following nearly two years of in-house work, id Software announced that a fourth Doom game was in production. Details came in drips and drabs. At first, they seemed promising. Todd Hollenshead and John Carmack, the latter still being the driving force behind id's engine and technology development, promised that Doom 4 would follow in the footsteps of Doom and Doom 2.
By April 2013, fans were skeptical. Speaking to anonymous sources close to Doom 4, Kotaku published an expose revealing that development had been mired in restarts and mismanagement. Sources confided that Doom 4 had slowly strayed from its origin as a pedal-to-the-metal shooter to a Call of Duty clone: scripted set pieces, linear progression, and a cinematic feel weighted down by dialogue and character interaction that went far beyond Doom 2's "if it moves, shoot it" manifesto. Leaked footage from an alpha prototype lent credence to Kotaku's report.
More details came to light when Noclip founder Danny O'Dwyer produced a documentary confirming that the Call of Duty-style version had been primed to tell a more realistic story about the effects of Hell's invasion of earth—a similar premise to Doom 2: Hell on Earth, albeit steeped in storytelling.
"Game development is a really big bet, especially in the triple-A space," Stratton explained of the Call of Duty-style project. "You look at the market, you look at what games are selling. You've got a great brand like Doom, and I don't think it's that far of a stretch to think, That could work. And the thing is, it did work in a way."
By the time Rage released to mixed reviews in 2011, not even id Software, a legendary team celebrated for paving its own path, was immune to the realities of market trends. Stratton admitted the commercial success of Infinity Ward's and Activision's Call of Duty games had an impact on Doom 4's direction: The games were simply too lucrative for id to dismiss out of hand.
"I think that for somebody who likes a Call of Duty game, they probably would have liked it," he said of Doom 4. "For hardcore Doom-ists, Doom-is-part-of-my-being fans, which ultimately are our most important fans, I think they would have had a problem with it."
Management shakeups sent more tremors through Doom 4. In 2009, ZeniMax Media, parent company of Fallout 3 and Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda Softworks, acquired id Software and added the company's venerable properties to its portfolio. Four years later, Carmack abruptly departed id, the company he had co-founded, to assume a leadership position at Oculus VR. (Carmack cited ZeniMax's unwillingness to support the Oculus Rift headset as the primary cause for his exit. Allegations that Carmack absconded with proprietary VR technology that he had developed while still at id led to a bitter legal battle between ZeniMax, Oculus, and Facebook, which acquired Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. The battle is ongoing as of April 2017.)
All the while, id Software struggled to find its footing on Doom. The decision to scrap "Call of Doom" and go back to the drawing board was difficult but necessary. "There's a million little things that go into every decision like that," explained Stratton, "but ultimately it didn't end up feeling like what we thought the next Doom should be. I think that was the fundamental thing that happened."
It would have been easy for Bethesda, ZeniMax's proxy, to can the beleaguered project, or infest id Software with producers vested with the power to force them down a creative path. Stratton said that the publisher deserves credit for giving id the freedom to go back to the drawing board.
"A lot of other publishers, I don't know that they really would have been as supportive as they were in making those changes, because they're hard. That's money spent. You're moving away from a lot of work that was done, it impacts the morale of the team," he said. "I don't think we make bad stuff. It would have come together, but ultimately I think we made the right decision."
In their search for direction, id Software viewed Doom and Doom 2 as its northern star. "We did go through a process of asking, 'What is everything that we think are the best moments and the best elements of Doom as a whole?'" Stratton recalled. "Whether it's Doom 1, Doom 2, Doom 3, or the Doom  that we were working on previously, and then try to distill down: what does this mean? What do we keep saying? What keeps coming up? That's really what drove that decision. If we're going to come back, we're going to set a tone for the future of Doom. It really just felt right to use the original as our inspiration."
Almost unanimously, those best moments reflected memories of dozens of monsters flooding onto the screen, a player-character moving at impossible speeds, and an arsenal designed to rip and tear hell's minions to shreds. Not everyone was excited by the prospect of looking back in order to look forward.
"Once you make those changes, there are definitely people who don't like the new direction, or don't feel it's the right way to go about things," Stratton admitted.
Taking Doom back to its roots was only one source of unease within id. Parting ways with studio veterans such as John Carmack and Todd Hollenshead, who had left a few months before Carmack, caused a cultural shift within the studio—a transition that's bound to occur every time veterans leave and new owners step in. Still, most of the development team was excited by Doom's personality shift.
"When you say, 'Hey, our inspiration is Doom and Doom 2,' that's why a lot of people came to work for the company or got into the industry," Stratton said. "That was their first touchstone with making games: making mods, or WADs, for Doom. If you weren't caught up in a lot of the other stuff, it was a pretty easy change to buy into, at least conceptually—that we wanted to use that original inspiration from those games and build on that, and really make Doom something that we thought fans were looking for and wanted to play."
With Rage fading in the rearview and dust still settling from upheavals in management, id pared down its teams from one to two. Despite myriad other changes to its culture, id had seen its best days operating as a small studio—mobile and adaptable, like its shooter characters. Juggling two teams at a company that had historically operated as a single, well-oiled machine was too much to handle.
"When you go through something like that," Stratton explained, referring to rebooting Doom, "the last thing you want to do is divide your focus. We really needed to refocus as a team, and get all hands on deck making Doom the best game it should be and needs to be."
Rip and Tear
Past and Present
A new Doom engineered under new management opened up new opportunities at id Software. Marty Stratton took on the role of Doom's game director in addition to helping manage id's business relationships. A newer hire, Hugo Martin, brought his background in game development and Hollywood blockbusters to bear.
"I started out at Naughty Dog, and then I kind of went back and forth between games and animation," Martin said. "I had a chance to work at MTV Animation and Blur, and a lot of different experiences doing commercial work and cinematic trailers and stuff."
Leaving full-time work, Martin bounced between jobs as a consultant. Right around the time John Carmack and Todd Hollenshead left id Software, he was working alongside Guillermo del Toro as a conceptual artist on Pacific Rim, a Hollywood blockbuster about humans who pilot giant mechs to battle otherworldly creatures that emerge from earth's oceans to wreak havoc. Specifically, Martin helped design Jaegars, skyscraper-sized robots operated by humans as the first and last line of defense.
"Among my experiences, and I was very lucky to get to do some of the stuff I got to do, the thing I enjoyed the most was working full-time at a games studio," said Martin. "I love games, I love making games. I really enjoyed that experience, so I was actively seeking an opportunity to get back into that full-time again, rather than just being a contractor."
Martin began and ended his search at id Software. He already had an in: In between films, he had been hired as a contractor to do odds-and-ends jobs for id. Martin became increasingly excited about Doom and inquired after full-time positions. Pleased with Martin's work so far, Stratton brought him into the fold as creative director.
"I was champing at the bit to work on Doom," Martin said. "It's amazing. As a creative person, it's the best. It's irreverent, and it's comic book, and it's crazy because it's all cartoonish violence. Pretty much anything in Doom—the style and tone—is stuff that I really enjoy. I feel super fortunate, and I'm so glad to have met these people."
Working in tandem as directors, Martin and Stratton guided the team in choosing which classic Doom tropes to resurrect.
"There was a pretty clear period early in the reboot where we identified a lot of that stuff," Stratton remembered. "We determined, 'We want this to be on Mars. We want the super shotgun.' When we throw ideas up on the white board and say, 'What are the things you say out loud when Doom comes to mind?', you get a pretty quick list: demons, guns, movement, and all that kind of stuff. Then it just becomes iteration. You put things in the game."
Deciding to dust off iconic monsters like Imps, Barons of Hell, and the rotund Mancubus was easier said than done. Doom 3 had alienated some fans who refused to accept any interpretation of their favorite monsters, weapons, and tropes other than their original forms. Once again, id's artists faced the unenviable task of modernizing classic monsters while still appealing to fans who viewed their favorite classic games as sacrosanct.
Stratton and Martin encouraged the art team to forget about Doom dogma and concentrate on silhouettes. A silhouette must be unique and well-defined enough for audiences to instantly associate it with a character. A silhouette's dark contours reveal personality. The Imp is solid yet svelte, indicating agility and power dished out in darting attacks. It rakes with its claws when up close and throws fireballs from afar, giving it a fighting chance against the considerably stronger player-character at any distance. Its original form consisted of brown, leathery skin studded with spikes, so the artists incorporated those features, right down to glowing eyes and a mouth filled with jagged teeth.
As before, Barons of Hell hang out near the top of hell's food chain. The originals were powerfully built, with flesh the color of a blistering sunburn and strode forward on two-jointed legs. Their slow gait complemented their power, and they flung green fireballs from afar and shredded players up close. The new Baron of Hell exhibits seared flesh and towers over players. Still capable of flinging green fire at a distance, Barons close the gap by lowering their horned heads and charging across the screen.
Other classic monsters such as the bullish Pinky demon, the corpulent Mancubus, and the skeletal Revenant paid homage to older interpretations while bringing fresh gameplay quirks to the table.
"I'm a big believer in the three keywords," said Martin, "and this is true for story, gameplay, design, systems, visuals, anything. You write down three keywords, and you use them as guideposts throughout the process. That way when you are deep in details and very close up to things, you always have a reminder of what it is you're trying to accomplish. That was the trick. To basically make them look really sharp, modernize them while making sure they still felt like regular characters."
Symphony of Violence
Every Doom game cultivates certain instincts in players. Doom and Doom 2 bequeath upon them the agility and firepower they need to flit in and out of attacks, circling enemies and pumping them full of rockets. Doom 3 advocates caution. Enemies can come from anywhere at any time, especially from behind, and when they emerge, players fall back on their heels.
"When all the AI attacked you, your first instinct was to run backwards and shoot into the pack," Stratton said. "Guide them around the arena. We were like, 'This is not it.'"
With the new Doom, sometimes referred to as "Doom 2016" by fans to distinguish it from the original, Stratton and Martin endeavored to create the fastest and wildest Doom gameplay loop yet.
"It took us all three years. Every last minute. Every last second," said Stratton. "Our game was all about combat; that's how we introduced it, that's how we talked about it. It's what we told people we were delivering. It was the most important thing, so we spent every last second making it better."
"If we had 10 bucks to make the game, eight of it was devoted to combat," Martin added.
Doom 3 had faded far enough into the past for id's developers to examine it with a critical eye. Horror was an essential part of the franchise, and Doom 3 had steered harder into it than its predecessors. Very early on, the team wrestled with Doom 2016's division between horror and action. "'They gave us 60 bucks, so let them play how they want,'" Stratton said, referring to a golden rule of game development that id hesitated to break.
After several failed experiments, they faced facts. Doom, as a franchise, was equivocal. There was nothing objectively wrong with Doom 3's tenser, more defensive slant on gameplay and atmosphere. However, they had no desire for their Doom to treat shadows as places to hide and monsters as boogiemen. "It fundamentally ruined that power fantasy, the idea that you are a badass and you're taking the fight to them," Stratton continued.
"You kite enemies into doors when you're weak," Martin said. "That's the solution when the odds are overwhelming. The Terminator isn't kiting bad guys in doorways; the Terminator is running around slaughtering people."
Doom's developers likened their game to chess. Each level is a game board, the player and monsters the pieces. They knew the basic rules they wanted to promote: be aggressive, be fast, shoot first and ask questions later. The next step was figuring out how to implement them.
"We hadn't determined the rules for how the pieces move," Stratton added. "Everybody was all over the board, and it didn't work. It wasn't fun. We needed to develop rules for individual pieces and play into the whole. That took the whole project. We never stopped working on that and making it better."
Glory Kills gave the team its big break. Early in development, several artists collaborated on a short animation that showed players executing a flurry of melee attacks on wounded monsters—like Fatalities in Mortal Kombat, but quick and brutal, intended more for expediency than showmanship.
"That really proved that push-forward combat, Glory Kills—that tight gameplay loop was super fun," Stratton recalled of the proof of concept. "We knew it was going to be good. It was good to get one foot up the ladder very early on."
Glory Kills were not an original concept. "This started in the older version of Doom, the one they called Call of Doom," Martin explained. "They had this sick melee thing where you went up to a guy and did a bunch of stuff to fuck him up. And it was really cool, but it was slow. It was more drawn out."
Monsters must be wounded before players can perform a Glory Kill. Brought to the brink of death, a monster begins flashing and lurching. Players need only approach them and press a single key or button. A burst of violence—ripping off an Imp's lower jaw and punching it in the face, tearing of a Baron of Hell's horn and jamming it into its eye, driving a zombie's skull into the ground—and the enemy crumples and players set off again, speeding toward their next target.
"There are several components that make it work," said Martin. "It makes you feel powerful. It pulls you into the action, so as a general concept it takes the fight to the bad guys. Add the fact that health drops out of them and it's an integral part of the dance. It's an important part of the whole game [loop]."
Fear is a vital component of the Glory Kill system, but not in a fashion typical of Doom. Many players confessed to playing Doom 3 in fits and starts. Its enemies were too frightening, its atmosphere too thick with blackness and brimstone, for longer play sessions. Even older Doom games turned players into prey, such as when beaten and bloodied with no health or armor refills in sight, leaving players no choice but to run away and snipe at enemies from behind walls. Doom 2016's Glory Kills turned the tables by casting players in the role of the hunter.
"At your moments where you're closest to the demons and have put them in their most vulnerable position," Stratton explained, "you've absolutely created fear in them. They're in full-on, screaming, oh-my-God-I'm-going-to-die terror. I don't know that most players would call that out as a moment, but it was, and it really did guide everything."
"I don't know how many times we sat in meetings where it went up and down," Martin reiterated of the process of nailing down Doom's combat. "It would be right, and then all of a sudden you'd play one day, and all of a sudden [monsters] start chasing you and you're running backward and shooting. You felt like you were being chased by a pack of dogs, so we'd tune it."
Glory Kills add percussion to Doom 2016's symphony of violence. Martin, a film buff long before he broke into Hollywood, pointed out how action star Jackie Chan describes fight scenes. The casual observer sees only a flurry of punches and kicks. Chan hears music: when attacks come, and from where; the rhythm of each blow, their sounds painstakingly selected in post-production.
"If you watch any good martial arts film, you'll notice that," Martin said. "We can all picture it in our minds: Bruce Lee movies and kung fu movies, the wind from their punches and the sound they make when they block versus when they connect. It's very rhythmic. We wanted the glory kills to kind of feel that way."
Glory Kills happen in two beats. BOP-BOP. Monster dead. In Doom 2016, quicker is always better. In point of fact, monsters remain prone to Glory Kills only for a few seconds, spurring players to pour on speed. Dally, and monsters shake off their stupor and return to the fray.
Then there are Runes, passive items that affect gameplay in numerous ways. The Blood Fueled rune ratchets up the player's speed after executing a Glory Kill, and Savagery gives them an even bigger boost.
"Some people were like, 'These are going to slow down the fight!'" Martin remembered. "I'm like, first of all they're fast to begin with, but if you equip that rune that makes them faster, and you master that rune, they're lightning fast. They're almost too fast."
Executed demons break open like shattered piñatas, spilling bits of health over the ground—perhaps the most significant layer of Glory Kills. In most games, classic Doom included, weakened players flee from combat. Glory Kills reward aggression by healing players who take a risk and wade into the thick of battle.
Earning health for Glory Kills prompted more iteration. "It gave them a lot of meaning," Martin continued. "Then it was a balance of how much health. Then it was about, okay, so if I can get health for doing this, how much health should I get from shooting guys? What's the balance there? Should we penalize players for shooting guys? Does everything have to end in Glory Kills?"
The team arrived at a comfortable balance of health distribution. Med packs, another classic trope, are sprinkled around each level for players who need them in a pinch, while Glory Kills convert demons into healing source.
More than finding the beating heart of Doom's gameplay loop, Glory Kills signified a turning point in the project's long and troubled development cycle. Veterans leaving, uncertainty over how involved ZeniMax may or may not be, worry that ignoring market trends might lead to financial missteps—all of that was in the past. Like their player-character, Doom's team was racing forward, full stop.
"It was very, very important for the team," said Martin, "and for Marty and me to push the three components of the team together: art, design, and tech. You didn't want people making things in isolation, which always happens. The animators get really into doing these really cool Glory-Kill animations, but then maybe the systems guys are going off in another direction where they're not really pushing a lot of the progression items into glory kills. They're not complementing or accounting for glory kills as much as we would have liked them to."
It was important, the directors agreed, for Doom to foster a relentless momentum that drives players forward by giving them tools such as Glory Kills to kill demons fluidly. Like a roller coaster that goes shrieking through every curve and loop and tearing up every hill, perpetually gaining speed.
"Some people criticized Doom 2016 as not having enough horror," said Martin. "In order to have horror, I have to feel vulnerable. There is no horror without me feeling vulnerable and on my heels. The Doom marine is never on his heels. He's on his toes, and he puts other people on their heels."
"And you need to be slow, too," Stratton added. "Our pillars are guns, demons, and fast movement. Moving at however fast, 100 miles per hour through this game, you're not vulnerable. You're not going to get a jump scare when you're just [speeding] through the world. Once we made some of those decisions, we were all in."
Achieving breakneck speeds hinged on level design. Once again looking back in order to see what lay ahead, the developers took cues from classic Doom maps. "Our levels have to be abstract," said Martin. "That was our main takeaway from classic Doom [levels]: they're very abstract and don't necessarily have to make sense."
Martin held up Doom 2 as an example. Many maps were set on earth, but the game's urban environments did not conform to any realistic blueprint. That was due in part to limitations of its engine. Floors, for instance, could not be placed one above the other. More importantly, realistic architecture tends to be dull. Long, straight corridors, open office bullpens, staid lobbies—environments not conducive to fun.
"We need our levels to be very abstract because of where we place key cards, secrets, and the line-of-sight breaks," said Martin. "We had this issue of, oh, you know, every room doesn't make complete sense. When you play certain games, you can say, 'I'm in the atrium now, and there are bathrooms. Look how realistic this is.' That's not really going to work in Doom because, again, the player's so fast. If you put them in that type of space, they're going to be smashing into the walls."
"We have scenes where there are 10 demons or so, and it's always 360-degree combat," explained Stratton. "How much pressure units are pushing you, how much ranged units are trying to run at you—those are things that we iterated on through constant play. We'd go fairly long periods of time where it was like, 'This isn't working. We've got the right demons and the right guns. We're starting to build spaces that feel right. But the combat doesn't feel good.'"
The solution lay in constructing spaces that stimulated players to go fast and hit hard. Doom 2016's levels are rambling arenas that unspool into hallways and alcoves. Players weave in and out of indoor environments, and outdoor milieus stretch out in all directions, giving players ample room to sprint, leap, and shoot. Buildings assembled from tiers of platforms emphasize verticality. The player-character moves like a parkour artist, automatically reaching out to grab ledges and hoist himself up so that players need not bother to slow down.
With few exceptions, players are not punished for attempting feats such as jumping from the summit of a building and plummeting to the ground. Realistic damage has a place in some games, but not in Doom.
"That's why I think Lazarus really caught on with people," Martin said. "It's one of the fastest levels in the game. You can just rip through that level and feel like such a badass because there's nothing standing in your way."
Like the maps they inhabit, enemies are organized in strata. Running into a Baron of Hell in Doom is on par with encountering a mini-boss in most other games. Then there are zombies, unarmed and braindead and shambling aimlessly, only taking a swing at players if they happen to cross their paths and stand still.
Kurt Loudy, Doom's AI gameplay designer, likened zombies to white belts in a Bruce Lee movie. Martin loved the analogy; it fit perfectly into Doom's push-forward combat scheme. "Our zombies can give you a good whack, but it wasn't about them being cool or formidable. It was about you feeling cool killing them," said Martin. "You've got to have that dojo full of white belts, that white-belt class that the hero just beats the shit out of. They just make you feel cool because you're just mowing through those guys—and then the Mancubus shows up. He's the black belt."
Zombies shuffle at one end of Doom's monster spectrum. The Mancubus waddles around closer to the far end. Gore Nests occupy the middle. Resembling shrines pieced together from blood and viscera, Gore Nests hold bright-red portals from which demons emerge.
In any other game, they would be objects to avoid. Botching an objective or tripping an alarm would punish the player by unleashing a tide of demons. In Doom, players march right up to them and rip them apart. Nests explode in a spray of blood, the portal detonates, and a wave of monsters converges on the player's location.
"It's like if, in a zombie game, you touch a car and the alarm goes off, that's sweet," Martin continued. "That's exactly what you want. The more direct way is saying, 'Hey, you're badass.' You can do that, too, but the little design choice of the gore nest being something I activate as opposed to being triggered when I get near it, subconsciously says, 'You are one bad dude looking for a fight.' The Doom marine is a full battalion. He's everything you need. We don't need vehicles in Doom; he's a tank. I think that type of commitment was great."
Rip and Tear and Cut and Carve
Late one night, Hugo Martin closed the design documents open on his screen and booted the latest build of Doom. Playing Doom was his favorite late-night ritual. He played because it was fun, but also to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest changes. Within minutes he was navigating the twists and turns of a work-in-progress level and came across one of his favorite weapons, another strand of Doom DNA dating back to 1993.
"I remember this specifically because it was probably a moment in development that stands out most in my mind," he said. "I'm in this fight, I'm using the chainsaw. We've already got the [fuel system] set up. I chainsaw a guy, and health spills out, but at the time, somebody had made an adjustment."
At first, the chainsaw seemed to be working according to their latest design. Unlike its classic counterpart, Doom 2016's chainsaw kills any enemy instantly in a flashy, Glory Kill-like execution. The trade-off is that the chainsaw runs on fuel from canisters scattered around levels, and tougher monsters consume more fuel. For players who save their fuel, the chainsaw becomes an ace up their sleeve for occasions when heavyweights like a Baron of Hell or Mancubus pop up more frequently in later levels.
Martin grinned as his Doom marine carved up a Mancubus into fat, fleshy chunks—and then stared as bullets fountained up from its ruined corpse. "My head exploded," he remembered. "I was like, 'Oh my God, that felt so good.' The idea that in order to replenish my resources—it felt very intuitive. We were already doing that with the glory kills and health. In order to continue using the weapons I want, to replenish my ammo resources, I would once again have to take the fight to them: get up close and personal and saw one of these guys in half. That little moment was a huge spark."
The next day, Martin rushed up to one of the gameplay programmers and described what had transpired. Stratton and several others heard the story and thought it was hilarious. "You're always looking for the spark," Martin said. "We hunt for the spark, and when you find the spark, you dig into it. It's kind of like seeing a little oil leaking out of the ground, and man, you just drill into that as hard as you can to see if you can hit pay dirt."
At Martin's behest, the programmers steered into the chainsaw-refills-ammo mechanic. That, too, was a lengthy and iterative process. In order to spur players to refill their ammo using the chainsaw, the developers removed or reduced other methods of stocking up. Ammo packs stayed, but over time, chainsaw massacres became the optimal method of topping off supplies.
"You got a little bit of ammo when you killed guys [with guns] if you needed it," Martin said, "but we lowered that value as low as it would go, literally right up until the last week of developing the game. I remember I requested one last, final tweak to actually suppress every other way to get ammo in the game in order to allow the chainsaw to shine. I felt like the chainsaw was one of the coolest features in the dance. It wonderfully complemented the dance, and I wanted to steer into it as hard as we could."
As Doom hurtled toward its projected May 2016 release date, some of the developers got cold feet. The team had spent years balancing weapons against enemies and upgrades that expanded their functionality. Filtering the majority of ammo replenishments through the chainsaw, a weapon that ran on fuel that players might not have when they needed it, could cripple their gameplay loop.
Martin understood their concerns. More than that, he agreed with them. Their implementation was a gamble, and a big one. That made it all the more critical to go all-in.
"It's one of my proudest moments: we stood our ground as a team," he said, beaming. "A lot of developers would—and I totally understand this—they would give you multiple ways to refill your ammo, because you paid 60 bucks for the game. You could collect this certain type of wood and that will resupply my ammo, or I could go to a vendor and he would do it. There's usually five different ways to do something. In Doom, there's pretty much one way, and that's using the chainsaw."
When Doom released in mid-May, the developers crowed over glowing reviews. Magazine extracts and websites were passed around the office so everyone could look over scores and read commentary. Martin joined them, watching for one point in particular.
"It's funny because I thought especially hardcore first-person shooter fans, especially fans of Doom, would pick up on how fucking great this is and how wonderfully it complements the dance, and they are going to fucking love it," he said. "And sure enough, they did. I can't tell you how many articles were written where people were like, 'I would just like to write a little editorial about how fucking awesome this chainsaw is.' That made us so happy because that's what we were banking on."
Players and critics appreciated the additional layers of strategy the chainsaw offered. Carving up smaller enemies drains less fuel, enabling players to kill more enemies between fill-ups. But larger demons bequeath larger quantities of ammo, doubly incentivizing fuel. Spotting a Baron of Hell at the head of a swarm of lesser demons is tacit permission for players to pull out all the stops—unload their shells, bullets, rockets, and plasma cells in a glorious explosion of violence. As long as at least one big bad remains alive, and as long as they have enough fuel, they can hunt down the biggest, baddest monster on the battlefield and restock.
"My favorite thing about the chainsaw," Martin said, "and again, we suppressed a bunch of other really cool features to make this one feature even cooler, is that it makes you think. You have to make split-second decisions during the dance to resupply your ammo. To me, that's fascinating."
A Secret to Everybody
Marty Stratton strolled into Bethesda's 2015 holiday gathering feeling confident. Besides giving developers the chance to ring in the holidays, the annual meeting was a sort of show-and-tell. Representatives from studios under the ZeniMax umbrella brought along builds of their ongoing projects and outlined their progress and plans to an audience of peers and higher-ups.
Stratton had good reason to exude confidence. Just a few weeks beforehand, Jason O'Connell, one of the team's level designers, planted an Easter egg in the game's Foundry level. Crossing a bridge, players may notice a lever jutting out from a piece of machinery. Most players, O'Connell surmised, would probably overlook it. Those who pull the level will hear a chime, a cue that something, somewhere, has changed.
Across the bridge, a wall panel slides up. At the threshold, Doom's textures shift. The game's intricately detailed walls and floor turn grainy and pixelated, as if the passage is a portal into another world. Indeed, it is—an older world constructed in 1993.
O'Connell had figured out a way to merge chunks of maps from Doom and Doom 2 with Doom 2016's architecture, creating a fusion of old and new. "He put that in," Stratton recounted, "and I went in there and was like, 'Oh my God. This is unbelievable.' "
Two things stood out to Stratton. The first was how seamless and fun it was to step out of modern Doom and into a slice of the franchise's past, armed to the teeth with new weapons and facing off against modern incarnations of beloved monsters that were stationed exactly where they had stood in the original level.
"Jumping into the past, but doing it with new guns, new enemies, and new moves," said Stratton. "It still felt right: you were surrounded by old Doom, but doing new-Doom things. It was one of those moments."
The second was how surreal it felt to cross that threshold. Although Stratton had not been at id for the development of Doom or Doom 2, id Software had been a fixture in his life for 16 years, starting just a few years following the original Doom's publication. Traveling back in time to revisit pieces and parts from the studio's history was as emotional as it was awe-inspiring, like paging through albums of photos taken just before he had been born.
"It was unbelievable how far we'd come in 23 years or so since the original Doom," he continued. "In a snap you go from the old into the new. We were showing where we were at near the end of 2015, and I showed that moment, and I got so many [positive reactions]. Crossing that threshold was this stark reminder of our progress."
Stairway to Badass
Doom's protagonist is known by many names. Space Marine. Doomguy. One Doomed Space Marine. Flynn Taggart. John Grimm, aka the Reaper. Stan Blazkowicz. Doom.
Call him whatever you like. His name doesn't matter. Never has. "Doom was never really about story first," Marty Stratton said, an admission that should surprise no one. "The story really kind of came together as we went."
Doom 2016 once again casts players in the pseudonym and green armor of Doomguy, only the id Software developers don't think of him as a marine, or even Doomguy. To them, he's a sports car. "We use a lot of analogies," Martin said. "I think analogies are important because they get everybody on the same page. We try to describe things in ways that people can quickly grasp. That's not a revolutionary concept; most managers and director types do that. We describe the player as a Ferrari. They don't want to slow down for anything."
If playing Doom is analogous to devouring roadway in a Ferrari, story-driven franchises like Mass Effect and The Witcher put them behind the wheel of a sedan. There's nothing wrong with a sedan; it's simply built for a different function than a Ferrari.
"When you're in a sedan and doing about 40 miles per hour, the road signs don't need to be that big," Martin continued. "The story beats don't need to be pronounced. You can pick up on subtle things a lot easier because you're able to take in everything that's happening at a comfortable speed. When you're in a Ferrari doing 200 miles per hour, man, everything has to be super loud and obnoxious."
"We had a mission statement early on: that you're hell's worst nightmare," Stratton explained. "That guides a lot of decisions. When you're basically saying that there's this entire world of demons, the most ferocious, persistent beings ever, and you are their nightmare. You become their nightmare. We ratchet that stuff up and turn you into a god."
"There's one path," Martin added, "and it's a stairway to being a badass. It's not like, 'Well, I'll go this way or choose this branch and be a different character.' No. You're going to be a badass."
Fountains of Hawaiian Punch
Doom 2016's emphasis on speed and abstract levels arose from the original game's template. To establish their tone, and by extension a narrative, Stratton and Martin removed their rose-tinted glasses and studied Doom '93 to determine how and why its visuals and atmosphere had stood the test of time.
"We felt like there was a cartoonish, comic-book quality to them," Martin said of Doom and Doom 2. "I don't think people thought that then, but in hindsight it's obviously got a very juvenile quality to it: the violence, the gore, the horror aspect to it is all what we call popcorn horror. It's all very fun. We really wanted to tap into that, but do it for ultra-high-end graphics and fidelity and all that stuff."
Few enemies meet with tame, comparatively ordinary deaths in Doom and Doom 2. Riddle a zombie or an Imp with bullets or shells, and they moan and fall to the ground. Every other death is outrageous to the point of absurdity, and intentionally so. Cacodemons pop like zits, their bloated bodies deflating as blue fluids leak out and their singular eyeball droops from a slimy string of muscle. Cyberdemons growl just before they explode in a red mist, leaving behind two bloody stumps: one organic, one cybernetic. Fire a rocket into a mob of zombies and they explode into mushy red lumps.
"You can't have a game where I rip a dude's arm off and beat him to death with it, and have a serious story that goes along with it," Martin said. "We wanted the tone of the game, the story, the lore, to complement the action, which was the star of the show. The best way to complement that was to be more satirical."
Although Doom 2016 benefits from cutting-edge graphics, its death animations gleefully cross the fine line separating disturbing and absurd. Kill an Imp with the chainsaw, and it drops to its knees and raises its arms in a feeble attempt to slow the inevitable downward arc of your steel teeth. One Glory Kill involves grabbing a monster's arm, ripping it free in one quick yank, and then backhanding the monster with it.
Doom's elaborate deaths pay tribute to films such as Kill Bill: Volume 1, which builds to a climax that pits Uma Thurman's "Bride" character against the Crazy 88—over seven dozen Yazuza-gangsters-turned-expendable-grunts. Wielding a samurai sword, she hacks off limbs and slashes throats. Cronies collapse or spin through the air, shaking and thrashing and ululating.
"The violence didn't take itself too seriously," said Martin. "We landed on a spot with the action where it had to be over the top, very much inspired by Kill Bill levels of violence, Evil Dead 2 violence: fountains of Hawaiian Punch-type blood everywhere."
Likewise, Evil Dead 2 and Robocop made appropriate yardsticks for Doom's tone. Both films break up tension and violence using one-liners. A wisecrack inserted at just the right beat can changes a scene's context from appalling to darkly comedic.
Doom 2016 is self-aware, and isn't afraid to prove it. Earth's military and scientific forces are not only aware of demons, they harvest them as an energy source. That knowledge—coupled with gallons of "Hawaiian-Punch type blood"—frames scenes, such as when all hell literally breaks loose in a laboratory, in a humorous light.
"I think the UAC spokesperson, Echo, that pops up and says things like, '221 accident-free days,' or 'If you have problems with the weaponization of demons, please see HR, and don't forget to save your work before you leave'—there's all kinds of funny messaging going on in the game," said Martin. "It's not unlike how the commercials in Robocop functioned: they really set the tone for the world, and are these little breaks that remind you that we're supposed to be having fun with all this."
After starting a new game, players rouse strapped down to a stone slab. Zombies mill about a dark, cave-like chamber. Players sit up, dispense with the white belts, and make their way to a futuristic green suit enshrined by candles. Nearby, they observe an echo, a hologram depicting a past event—in this case, a group of scientists and military personnel speaking in hushed and fearful tones of some unstoppable force that has fallen into their hands and must be contained.
Players digest the words, and realization strikes like a bolt of lightning. "At the beginning of the game," said Martin, "even the little things people say such as, 'We have to contain this. He could ruin everything'—that's someone saying that about you, the player. It's like, wow, I'm a big deal."
Early on, Stratton and Martin threw together an outline that listed ways they wanted to see their story develop. To assist with storytelling efforts, they brought on Adam Gascoine, a writer whose experience spans live theater and video games.
Speaking to Gascoine's collaborations, Stratton said, "He wrote a lot of the Slayer testaments. He's got this great writing style that makes things sound biblical in a way that is just fantastic. The Slayer testaments are some of my favorite pieces of narrative."
Gascoine got on the same page with Martin and Stratton right away. As part of their tentative outline, Martin had written a treatment for a character dubbed the Doom Slayer, a hero so powerful and brutal that he had single-handedly brought hell to its knees untold centuries ago. That hero is, of course, Doomguy circa the original games—and Doom 3, since id positioned the 2004 game as a retelling of earlier titles as opposed to a direct sequel.
"The story was even born out of the idea of the player is coming in with the expectation that 'I'm here to kill demons.' That's my motivation,'" said Stratton. "It says Doom on your screen; you're buying that because you want to kill demons. That really was the genesis of the Doom Slayer. He wakes up on the [slab], and has one thought, like our consumer: to kill demons."
"It would be an insult to their intelligence to dole out some very sophisticated story about the discovery of a demonic invasion on Mars, and what it means to mankind, and the mystery of the occult," said Martin. "Doom's been around for a while, so the best way to not insult their intelligence was to go super silly and direct with it. I think if you know you're dumb and you play with it, then you're actually smart dumb. So the best way to not insult your intelligence was to be really stupid."
Part of the brilliance of Doom 2016's storytelling is that players are allowed to digest as much as they want. Players interested in lore can ease off the gas—slowing to, say, the average speed of a sedan—and soak up Codec files and Slayer testaments that recite the history of hell's war and subsequent loss to the Doom Slayer. Meanwhile, players who prefer to keep their Ferrari going at top speeds can ignore them without missing a beat.
"We'd get them in the game as quickly as we could, and then we'd just iterate on it," Stratton explained. "Whether it was stuff around the UAC, or the Slayer testaments and codecs, that kind of stuff, it was a lot of iteration."
Gascoine popped in and out of id's office for rap sessions. Other team members contributed as well. Chad Mossholder, promoted to audio lead for Doom, had experience writing comic books and asked if he could try his hand at some of the flavor text that satirizes corporate speak, such as counting accident-free days on the job. Stratton and Martin told him to feel free.
"He wrote a good number of the UAC echoes and really brought a cool personality to those," Stratton recalled.
Graphic novels such as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns were another pillar. "Comic books have very similar limitations in that they only have so many pages to tell a story," Martin explained. "It can't sit there for 10 pages on one scene between characters. It has to do that inside of one or two pages."
Doom's directors encouraged cross-pollination between departments. Giving developers opportunities to contribute in numerous ways helped ensure that all of Doom's storytelling devices, not just text, coalesced.
"It's not like the story team is working on the story," said Martin, "and the combat guys are working on that, and systems are over there. We're all very close. Everything complements each other. It would be one thing if [Doom Slayer] was tearing apart demons but the story I was telling you felt like some Robert Zemeckis 'Contact' [story] where he's really concerned about his relationship with his wife. That would be inconsistent."
Over the decades since Doom's release, Doomguy had become the butt of jokes by those who dismissed him as a stereotypical meathead. He never spoke, only grunted and hissed in pain. That was purposeful. Doom co-designer and id Software co-founder John Romero explained that id Software neglected to name the player-character because they wanted him to be a blank slate. No dialogue. No name. Nothing that could break the illusion that Doomguy was anything more complex than a vessel through which players could revel in the game's sense of speed and blast demons into bloody bits
Doom Slayer should be the same, the id team concurred, right down to their predecessors' decision to keep their character's mouth shut. Nonverbal cues flesh out the character better than words could achieve. The way he cracks his knuckles when characters talk to him, or the casual and uninterested manner in which he destroys priceless artifacts and technology even after being cautioned regarding their delicacy and importance.
It's not that the Doom Slayer is incapable of wrapping his head around how objects work or why they the survival of mankind may depend on their continued functioning. He just doesn't care.
"We built up the fiction of the Doom Slayer, that he's like this biblical force," Martin said. "It's his only reason for existence. We took a character whose only function was to kill demons and actually gave him a reason for it, albeit an absolutely ridiculous, over-the-top, stupid reason."
On the Nose
Not even Field Drones, box-shaped bots that dispense weapon upgrades, are safe from the Doom Slayer's unquenchable aggression.
"The truth is that as the team went on, every idea was immediately put through that filter," Martin described. "We would think in terms of: how would the Doom Slayer do it? Well, he'd punch the robot in the face and take them."
Filtering actions through the Slayer gave rise to snappy gameplay systems. In RPGs, for instance, players pore over pages and pages of text describing upgrades to their character's skills, weapons, armor, and companions. Such ponderous advancement was anathema in Doom. If players were an extension of the Doom Slayer, they too would be more interested in diving back into the fray than in reading about weapon parts or wasting time deliberating over how best to use the Argent Cell upgrade artifact they discovered in a secret compartment.
Moreover, upgrades had to be impactful, rather than doled out in spurts. "Everything you do," explained Stratton, "from crushing an Argent cell or going up to a mod bot to get a mod, or upgrading your suit, getting a rune—everything you do makes a significant difference. All of our upgrades [increase] what you have by 25 percent."
"A mod on a weapon is basically a new weapon," Martin added.
Upgrades, punching Field Drones, shattering priceless artifacts—each is a step on Doom's stairway to badass. "All of those things come together for consistency. You're not going up a little ramp. You're taking big steps," Stratton continued. "When you're watching somebody play on Twitch, and they start laughing when that happens, it's like, 'Oh, awesome. They got it.' There's an obviousness to it, even the subtleties like the way the Doom marine looks at [breakable objects]."
Argent Cells and Field Drones, along with classic maps and collectible Doomguy dolls, are just a few of the many secrets that Doom squirrels away within its intricate levels. Giving players numerous opportunities to search for collectibles might seem antithetical to Doom's push-forward design, but Stratton and Martin disagree. Exploration and secret areas are part and parcel of the Doom experience, as important as super shotguns and Imps and a final showdown with a Spider Mastermind.
Poking around levels provides occasion for the player-character, the racecar, to navigate racetracks at their leisure. "What I like about the secrets," Martin explained, "and moments like the Slayer Testaments and when you hear the story of the Doom Slayer, collectibles and things—those are pace breakers. That's the racecar slowing down, but the racecar is making that choice. We're not saying, 'You have to do this.' It's up to the player. If they want to find secrets, they can. In that case, I think it will be more satisfying for a Doom player to [explore] because they made a choice."
Players have total control over when and where their Doom Slayer pauses to hunt for secrets. Every other moment, his baser instincts run unchecked, killing and bludgeoning and maiming—except for one instance near the end of the game, where the character chooses to preserve rather than demolish an artificial intelligence.
That moment stood out to players like a spot of ink on a white tablecloth precisely because it was flagrantly out of character. Stratton and Martin hoped players might notice. After 10-plus hours of ruining everything in sight, the Doom Slayer curbed his impulse to destroy, lending importance to the moment and the object he chose to conserve.
"I think one of the things we're most proud of is we created a pretty interesting character," Stratton added. "People talk about the Doom marine and the Doom Slayer. He has a personality, and he has depth. They're getting into his head, and he didn't say a word the entire time."
"Some of the best pieces of entertainment," Martin explained, "the story [of how they're made] usually starts with, 'We had no money.' You have to be resourceful and clever and come up with some really interesting stuff. We had full support and had plenty of resources to work with; id is a tremendous team. But in terms of the brand, what is it? It's a dude who just wants to kill demons. It was a fun challenge."
In a perfect world, every facet of Doom 2016 would have been under id's control. A combination of their small team and management shakeups necessitated that they hand off Doom's multiplayer to Certain Affinity, another Texas-based studio known for developing multiplayer modes and content for games such as Halo 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops, so that they could channel all their resources toward crafting a memorable campaign.
Unfortunately, Doom's multiplayer component ended up being the weak link in its bloody chain. Held up against the blistering pace and laugh-out-loud wit of its campaign, the online modes fell flat—not terrible by any stretch; just dull and insipid. Free-for-all deathmatch, the type of play that had put the original Doom on the map, was absent at launch, baffling and frustrating fans.
Equally concerning was the clean break between the campaign and multiplayer. Doom loaded a single-player menu by default; selecting multiplayer or SnapMap, its map-editing tool, caused the game to relaunch.
"Having to restart the game, that's just a product of some technical things that were happening behind the scenes, that I actually wish we would have addressed before we launched," Stratton admitted.
Rigging the game's modes into separate modules was a side effect of working with an external team. Doom's most memorable features and moments sprung from the flexibility of a single internal team made up of developers that were a stone's throw away from one another. When they had an idea, or if something wasn't working quite right, they could make decisions on the spot.
"When you work with an external team like that, a lot of times you have a lot less flexibility in pivoting and making changes along the way," Stratton said of Certain Affinity. "When you look at how the [modes] feel disparate, personally I think the biggest reason is, even though we constantly played the multiplayer and were in charge of it, it didn't benefit from the same kind of massive shifts in direction that we made as we steered the campaign."
Less than a month after Doom's launch in May 2016, with critics praising its single-player but taking online modes to task, id Software brought multiplayer in-house and set about retooling and expanding it. A stream of free maps and modes followed, including a proper free-for-all option. Still, none of the free releases satisfied players' demand for more story content.
"We haven't talked about much beyond the DLC, so I can't really go into a lot of detail, unfortunately," Stratton said. "I would love to talk about things that we're working on and banging around and all that kind of stuff. There are a couple of things with multiplayer that we're still working on; we'll probably talk about that at a later time. There are no current plans for any campaign DLC. I don't want to get people's hopes up."
Martin and Stratton are aware of what players want. For now, they're content to leave them hanging. "We really feel like we're in one of the best times ever for Doom and for id," Stratton said. "Whether it's VR, multiplayer, or single-player—we left people wanting more on the campaign. There's worse things than having people want more of your combat."
"We worked hard to leave it that way," Martin added. "It was an objective: to start to build a Doom universe. It's a giant canvas."
"So without saying anything," Stratton rejoined, "we wanted to leave ourselves in a great spot, and we feel like we have."
Doom and Doom 2 offered five difficulty levels. They may as well have offered four. The fifth, Nightmare, aptly describes its gameplay. Enemies fire twice as fast and move at lightning speeds, and worse yet, they respawn after dying. Unloading a full clip of chaingun ammo or a crate of rockets into a swarm of monsters is tantamount to throwing ammo away. Not even God Himself stands a chance: cheat codes are blocked.
The best resource is Doom's unlimited supply of lives. In Nightmare, inexhaustible second chances are worth more than a box of inexhaustible shotgun shells.
Doom 2016 offers a Nightmare difficulty, but it's just a warmup. Ultra Nightmare robs players of their infinite lives and gives them one. Die, and players are booted back to the beginning, leaving behind a marker where they fell that serves as both a goal to surpass the next time around and a bleak reminder that they came close, but not close enough. Executive Producer Marty Stratton confirmed that no one at id Software managed to finish Ultra Nightmare before the game shipped. They assumed it would take consumers months.
Zero Master, a veteran speedrunner of the franchise's classic games, beat it in two days.
You've posted speedruns from virtually every Doom game on your YouTube channel. How did you discover the series, and what appealed to you about it?
I have a few older brothers and they managed to get it for the computer that we shared in our family. I remember playing around with it a bit, maps like Dead Simple and Tricks and Traps are the most memorable from Doom and Doom 2, but I was quite young and don't remember much. I played it again in secondary school and high school. Funny thing is that in Norway we each have our own personal laptop during class, and what does the school do to prevent students from playing games during class? Well, the answer is nothing, so obviously with a lot of time on my hands to play games and without the best of computer specs I looked for older DOS games or flash based games.
At some point I played through Doom 1 and Doom 2, not sure if this was when I tried nightmare difficulty for the first time, but I figured it was too difficult so I never played on that difficulty. About five to six years ago I was tired of new FPS games because they were all too easy. I think it was a game called Bulletstorm that made me decide I would play a FPS game purely for the difficulty, as it was released six years ago and I remember I found the game terrible because it was so trivial. I knew how difficult Doom was on nightmare difficulty, and so I loaded up Doom 2 on Nightmare and it didn't take long before I quit, but I had to know if anyone had ever done it.
Turns out there was a someone called Henning, who was also from Norway, had managed to not only get through Doom 2 on Nightmare, he did it without saves and he did it in under 30 minutes. From there I watched some speedrun marathons (AGDQ, SGDQ) and I saw Dime speedrunning Final Doom in early 2014, which I decided to try as well, so it's been about three years now since I started actively playing Doom.
Doom is just a great game, even today, and combined with [a range of] difficulty it was really the perfect game for someone looking for a challenge in single-player FPS.
What appealed to you about tackling Doom's Ultra Nightmare difficulty?
From before release I heard of UNM and how none of the developers had beaten it. It wasn't the first time I've heard something like this, Jay Wilson at Blizzard said similar things about Diablo 3, and even then they decided to double the difficulty to compensate for other players being better. Then the game was cleared in three to four days after release, if I remember correctly, with the Wizard class while I cleared the game after eight days with a Barbarian.
So a combination of game developers never making games difficult enough and probably not being the best at computer games, I figured it was a challenge that wouldn't take long for someone to finish. I didn't expect that I would do it first, but the game was a lot of fun which made it easy putting so many hours into it over those two days.
What are some differences between Nightmare and Ultra Nightmare to keep in mind?
The obvious difference is that you cannot die, everything else being equal except it skips the start. I loved that decision to skip the very start when you play UNM, as it is a bit slow. Getting through the game without saves is however an enormous difference, as a small mistake will send you back to the start instead of a checkpoint two minutes earlier.
On top of that you might get a bit nervous when you know you have to start over if you've gotten far into the game, it might slightly change how you play and that could make you do small mistakes which could add up quickly to dying.
How soon after release did you begin practicing for your Ultra Nightmare run?
I played through the game normally on Nightmare difficulty at first; that took about six to seven hours. Right after that I figured I'd start practicing for UNM by just doing a second playthrough on nightmare. I got about halfway through the game when I thought I would try to just do it straight away, even though I didn't practice the boss fights which I wanted to do first.
I spent about 20 to 22 hours on the game over two days. If you count my initial playthrough as practice I'd say about 11 hours of practice and 10 hours of attempts.
How many times did you die while practicing Ultra Nightmare, and how close did you come before some of those deaths occurred?
Hard to say how many times I died while practicing, I do remember I was dying constantly on my first playthrough. I was thinking that UNM would be very difficult after having died so many times, but once I understood how to dodge most of the monsters it wasn't nearly as bad as I had thought. I felt like I had good control over avoiding monster attacks during my second playthrough on nightmare, which convinced me to skip practice and just go ahead with UNM.
As for how close I got before completing it, I actually died to the second-to-last enemy of the game! The final enemy being the boss, the enemy that killed me was a final remaining Baron just as I was about to kill him with a BFG. In the first UNM video you can actually see my helmet—dying in UNM leaves a helmet behind—at the very last arena. In hindsight I'm glad he did, because I was not recording it and thus nobody would know if I completed it, and I didn't expect to get over a million views on the successful run. I wasn't recording because I didn't think I could really do it, but getting so close convinced me to record the next attempts.
I also did not practice the Spider Mastermind fight; I think I died six to seven times there on my first nightmare playthrough before I killed him when he only did a single attack—which was easy to dodge—several times in a row. Essentially I got lucky with what I assume was a glitch that caused him to just do one attack. Even if the Baron didn't kill me, the Spider Mastermind probably would have. So before my next attempts I managed to get some practice in using the save from my first nightmare playthrough to figure out how to dodge most of his attacks.
I noticed during your speedrun that you often chose to finish off enemies with bullets rather than glory kills. Any particular reason?
It's a very nice thing that the glory kills are so quick to perform, it also provides you with an invulnerability during the animation. Unfortunately, if a monster sends a projectile my way from a certain distance then it will hit me just after that invulnerability period wares off, but before I am able to move anywhere. So I tried to avoid it unless I knew where the enemies were.
What are some of the most difficult levels, or encounters in levels, when running Ultra Nightmare?
The Imps were really well made; they were quite agile, somewhat unpredictable, and they hit really hard. There are also a lot of them at the start where you don't have a rocket launcher to deal with them, so the early levels were quite difficult. Several of the late monsters aren't as dangerous when you know how they attack. For example Revenants and Mancubi are slow and inaccurate while Barons are easily dealt with by using a BFG because you know when they are coming.
However some of the levels in the middle were quite difficult because of the most feared enemy, the Pinky demon. They are quite brutal, difficult to kill, fast, and hit even harder than the Imps. I don't think anyone who has played through UNM isn't scared of them. So besides the early levels I'd say Lazarus Labs is definitely the hardest because of the high Imp and Pinky demon count, while the later levels are not too difficult because of the BFG.
The bosses felt quite balanced, all three of them having some dangerous attacks that certainly made them challenging. The Cyberdemon sometimes covers the ground with rockets while throwing another attack, which means you have to pay attention to two things, and if you fail to dodge them both then you take a lot of damage. Hell guard has some dangerous attacks, but I managed to bring him down fairly quickly so I didn't have too much trouble. I would say the Spider Mastermind is the most dangerous, mostly because his attacks were a bit difficult to see coming and not too easy to dodge at first. Of course it doesn't help that he's the last thing standing in the way of actually completing it.
The longer you hang around in a level on Ultra Nightmare difficulty, the higher your odds of getting killed. Given that, do you go for most weapons and upgrades? Or do you prioritize some and leave others?
After having gone through UNM without upgrades I can safely say the upgrades I missed the most were the self-damage reduction from the rocket launcher for armor upgrades, plasma stun, and Siege Gauss for the weapon upgrades. While I didn't use them in my first UNM playthrough I would want Equipment Rune to allow Siphon Grenades to give armor.
The rocket launcher does so much damage to yourself if you hit something close with it which makes the damage reduction important. Plasma stun was always really good in case you got yourself in a really bad situation and needed to get out, and Siege Gauss is just very strong at killing everything. Of course one way to avoid getting hit by your own rockets would be to not use the rocket launcher, but it's a very strong weapon in dealing with the dangerous Imps as it will kill them in one hit most of the time.
Another important thing would be knowing when to use the BFG and where the BFG cells are. Some of the fights which I had huge trouble with in my first playthrough were made trivial by knowing when to fire [the BFG], like the very end of Lazarus Labs, or right before the Cyberdemon fight.
I imagine that knowing tricks to avoid fights helps. What are some of your techniques?
Knowing where the monsters spawn helps a great deal. As I've mentioned earlier the BFG is really good if you know when to use it, which saves a lot of time since you don't have to deal with some of the higher tier enemies with weaker weapons.
What was it like to complete Ultra Nightmare for the first time?
It was amazing considering I had just died right before the final boss earlier. It was quite demotivating to try again after that death, and if someone had completed it already I probably would have left it at least for a few days. But since there was a decent chance I can do it before anyone else, I figured I'd keep going, and then going all the way made me forget all about that previous death.
There was a lot of worry among the Doom community prior to the reboot's release that it wouldn't live up to the legacy of the original games. Where do you rank Doom 2016 in the series?
It's certainly one of the best games I've played in a long time. Classic Doom will always be my favorite game, so it was never going to be better, but I'd say it got as close as it could possibly get. I have to admit I am not a big fan of Doom 3. I played through the game when it was new and I'll mostly remember it as a horror game considering the frequent ambushes. I've tried a few times in the last years to play through it, but it's just not a fun game today.
I wasn't expecting much from the difficulty, but I was pleasantly surprised. I can completely understand that game developers don't want to make a difficulty where nobody could beat the game even after months. Doom 2 was completed on Nightmare some five years after it was released. Final Doom's two episodes were beaten on nightmare by me 19 and 20 years after they were released, respectively. I spent about 300 hours on just practicing for The Plutonia Experiment even after having played it for many hours already on Ultra-Violence difficulty.
I think the biggest disappointment during [Doom 2016] for me was when I played the Dead Simple area and realized there wouldn't be any Arachnotrons, which is my favorite monster from the original. Also the Summoner didn't quite replace the Arch-Vile, but I can understand resurrecting the Arch-Vile in the new Doom might not be the best choice.
I will admit I haven't looked too much into SnapMap, while I am sure there has been some quality levels made there I feel that one important aspect for me, challenge, just isn't there, or at least it's hard to find. Other than that it was really the perfect game for me, the biggest positive surprise was definitely the music.
You've beaten Doom games virtually every way they can be beaten. What keeps the series exciting and fun?
It's always possible to bring the time lower, and in order to do so I need to take bigger risks or make fewer mistakes. There's also plenty of undone challenges in classic Doom; for example I would never be able to do something like Final Doom on Nightmare while grabbing all the secrets, though there are things that are difficult but not impossible. A fast-paced game with constant challenge is all I need.
On the first day of 1993, id Software published a press release announcing Doom. A first-person shooter designed to capitalize on the popularity of the studio's previous game, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom promised "revolutionary programming and advanced design" for players who stepped into the boots of soldiers pitted against hell's demons. More than that, id's enthusiastic young team boasted of 256-color VGA graphics, an engine able to render three-dimensional graphics in real-time, a panoply of textures to diversify surfaces, and cooperative and competitive play for up to four players over local area networks.
"This is the first game to really exploit the power of LANs and modems to their full potential," the press release gushed. "In 1993, we fully expect to be the number one cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world."
Id's team had the enthusiasm, the technical savvy, and the creative drive. All that stood in their way of total world domination was one minor detail. They had to write the game.
"The engine for Doom was running even in January , the very first month we were working on it," said John Romero, co-founder of id Software and co-creator of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.
Doom's canonized engine lived up to its prospects. The tech was an evolutionary leap beyond Wolfenstein 3D's orthogonal halls, single-floor levels, and corridors more brightly lit than the fluorescent bulbs that illuminate office cube farms. Floors could be chopped up into multiple segments, stairs extended between platforms of differing heights, elevators shuttled players between floors, walls curved to create sinuous pathways, and lighting ranged from blinding to pitch-black and every setting in between.
All those advancements amounted to nothing without DoomEd, the level editor Romero and fellow id co-founder and coding prodigy John Carmack authored together. Working on NeXTSTEP, a graphical operating system light years ahead of command-line systems like DOS, Carmack programmed the data structures that demarcated a level's parameters—namely sectors and lines—while Romero implemented support for points of view, textures, ceilings, and floors.
With DoomEd complete, Romero cracked his knuckles and dug in.
"By the end of January the engine was running," Romero continued. "The editor probably took, I'd say four months to make, and it was not modified after that. I basically made it and then started working on levels."
First in, Last Out
Every level has two titles. "Hangar" is the Christian name for Doom's inaugural level. Doom's most devoted fans tend to disregard those descriptors in favor of the game's easy-to-follow syntax: E#M#, shorthand for episode and map number. To them, "Hangar" is and always will be E1M1.
Several factors elevate E1M1 as one of Doom's most popular maps, if not the most popular. Rooms vary in height and width. Items form a breadcrumb trail, guiding new players along the path to the exit. Two of its three secrets are easy to find, while the third requires some thought.
E1M1 is the apotheosis of Doom's level design, and there's a good reason for that. "You should make your first level last because you've created your design language," Romero explained. "You've been using it and refining it. If you're going to get people excited about your game immediately, the first level is where you do it. You're going to be using the latest, up-to-date design skills and language to create that beginning part of the game and introduce players, in any way you can, to all the cool stuff that's to come."
By the time Romero got around to crafting E1M1, he spoke DoomEd as fluently as he spoke English. The level players explored on release was his first draft. Romero made only one change. From the starting point, move forward and follow the curvature of the hall to an industrial door. In Doom's depiction of the future, doors don't swing open; they slide up and emit high-pitched squeals. Throw it open and enter the computer room, wall-to-wall terminals occupied by Sergeants (zombies toting shotguns) and the aptly named Zombieman, undead soldiers packing pistols.
Prior to version 1.9 of the game, patched in February 1995, the computer room did not exist. "That room was kind of a hallway that had a couple of pillars in the center that were a dark-green color," Romero said, "and the ground was just brown, and it led into the next area with the zig-zag [bridge]. That was the only room where I basically said, 'This looks like crap. I need to make it look better.'"
Romero nailed E1M1's first room much earlier, although it went through its fair share of iteration. Tom Hall, then id Software's principal designer, had players starting in a small room facing a table littered with playing cards. No table object existed; instead, Romero or another designer would paste a texture depicting playing cards onto a crate. Hall, who envisioned wanted Doom to tell a proper story beyond Wolfenstein 3D's "shoot everything that moves" objective, the table had been abandoned mid-game because an alarm had sent soldiers running for their weapons.
"We didn't do that," Romero explained, "because that would have forced the player to do something instead of letting the player learn how to play that kind of a game. It wouldn't have given the player time to explore the environment and look around; it would have thrown them into an action scene like a lot of movies do, except you sit there and watch a movie. This was the first time people had seen an engine like this and they just wanted to look around."
Romero's slant on E1M1's first room exudes a calm-before-the-storm ambience. Players find themselves in a wide room bordered by grimy walls and computer terminals. Ahead, four pillars surround a recessed floor covered in blue carpeting. A mangled corpse rests near the center of the recessed area, its bloody entrails contrasting sharply with the floor's blue texture. The player's eye locks on to the body, exactly as Romero planned.
"He's dead in front of you; that means there's something bad happening, versus it just being a clean area."
Every room and hallway of E1M1 follows that old writer's axiom: "show, don't tell." To the left of the starting room, a side chamber contains stairs that trail up to a podium where a green suit of armor sits. Fighting their way through the computer room, players enter a chamber flooded with slime. A bridge zigzags across, but the way forward is impeded by zombies on the ground and, high up on a ledge, a leathery-skinned Imp, who brings a friend if players selected a higher difficulty level.
Usually, that lone Imp spots players before they spot it. It greets them by hurling a fireball. Most new players step to the side and stare in wonder as the projectile sails through the air and explodes against the wall in a burst of cinders.
"It was kind of crazy, putting the Imp in there, but it was kind of cool because it was the first time you could see his fireball flying through the air toward you," Romero said. "People had not seen that, either. We loved it, too. We had been making all the levels in the game for months and we wanted to make sure the player could see that this is a thing that will happen a lot more later on."
E1M1 doesn't pull out all the stops, but it comes close. Rooms with ceilings of variable height, long staircases, an Imp sniping from atop a ledge, and three secrets—just enough material to whet the player's appetite without playing every card in DoomEd's hand. "That's basic ramping: how do you get the player, at the very beginning, to learn things and then see something cool and see something cool? But don't blow it all at once; a few levels into the game and they'll have seen it all," said Romero.
Players who survive the slimy chamber pass through another door and enter a dimly lit room. Enemies are barely visible, vague forms shambling toward them. Just ahead is a door marked with an exit sign—and inside, on higher difficulty levels, waits an Imp, perfectly positioned to slash at the player's face as soon as they rush in.
Designers of contemporary games would call the Imp's placement a jump scare. Romero thought of it that way. He was keen to play to Doom's blend of action of horror. "After fighting, you'd get to do some exploration," he said of the game's pacing. "Otherwise the levels would be a blur. You need time to learn them, look around to see what you can see, and hopefully see a monster, shoot him, and not be able to attack you back—stuff like that to [reward] the player for exploration."
Doom's staccato rhythm of fighting and exploring was calculated. Romero drove players from areas such as an open-air elevated courtyard in E1M3 into a murkier chamber where a blue card rests on a pedestal. Naturally, players make haste for the card. Touching it triggers a scene straight out of a horror movie: the lights go out, a door behind the player grates open, and a mob of Imps silhouetted by sickly yellow light come slithering out of a secret chamber.
Players who keep their wits about them should notice a well-placed lamp through the darkness, marking the passage where they came in.
"The first time you get it," Romero said of the blue key, "if you turn when you hear the [door] hissing, you see a dimly lit room behind the silhouettes coming toward you, which is really cool. That's why I put the bright lights in the corner: you know where the exit is and can get out of there."
E1M1 flows perfectly as a single-player level, but it shines in multiplayer, too. It's spacious enough to accommodate four players in deathmatch, yet intimate enough that two players won't have to wait long to find action in a one-on-one contest. Despite prominent mention in the press release, multiplayer was a famously late addition.
"We designed everything to be single-player until the last couple of months, when we actually put multiplayer in the game," Romero recalled. "Then we had to go through and add multiplayer starting points, weapons, and balance all the levels."
Balancing levels for cooperative and deathmatch play was as simple as firing up DoomEd and sprinkling in weapons and enemies—such as the rocket launcher found in E1M1's courtyard, near the pond of toxic ooze that holds blue power armor—set to appear only in multiplayer.
"We're talking a couple of days," Romero said of rigging the game's 27 single-player maps for deathmatch and co-op play. "It was pretty quick. We just knew that that was going to be a world killer."
Work in Progress
E1M1 represented peak Doom level design. E1M2, also known as "Nuclear Plant," was the opposite, at least at first.
"Doom E1M2 is the level that had the most work done on it, since I started it pretty early," Romero said. "In fact I decided to think about how we were going to make levels for this game. We had no idea. We were making Wolfenstein-type stuff for months because it was hard to get out of that mindset. That was all we had seen. We had these cool abilities in this engine, and we needed to really think about how we were going to use them."
Romero broke ground on E1M2 in April of '93. He started by building pieces. A wide set of stairs curves up and around 90 degrees, leading to a hallway that opens into a cavernous room. Romero played with his room's lighting until the room's contours were barely distinguishable—a counterpoint to Wolfenstein 3D's blinding spaces.
"I made the room dark. I made tall areas," Romero said. "There weren't any monsters in the map at this time, during development of the game. It was too early for monsters, but I pictured there would be monsters up there, so I made those areas brighter. I went in and got the scale right, all that stuff, and thought it looked really cool."
Romero called in Tom Hall and a few other designers to show off his creation. They were floored. The room's walls were angled so that there were no corners, only angles near where corners would be.
"When you're making levels, you create this checklist, detailed rules for your game," said Romero. "The number-one rule was: if you could make this room in Wolfenstein, you have failed. Whenever we were making any room, it shouldn't exist in Wolfenstein. If it could, you need to alter it and make it cooler because nobody wants to see the last game in [your current] game. That was the rule even later on. When we were making Quake, the rule was that if you could make this room in Doom, you've failed."
Over time, Romero's shadowy space in E1M2 became one of Doom's most infamous areas. Expanding on it, Romero stretched out the preceding hallway, filled it with toxic waste, cranked up the lights, and planted blue vials of health along a bridge over the ooze that ended at a box of shotgun shells sat on the elevator.
Bright lights, safe passage over toxic waste, and a box of shells out in the open? Astute players grew nervous.
"This all leads up to something," Romero said. "You're in a room at the top of these stairs with just a little path over the slim. There's some health, and then some shotgun shells. So it's like, 'They always give me this stuff when bad things are going to happen.'"
The siren's call of the box of shells proves too tempting. Players race forward to grab it. Touching the elevator sends it plummeting down into the pitch-black room that Romero had created, only enemies swarm its depths, captained by Imp sentries raining down fireballs from alcoves set high up on walls.
"That was another instance of me thinking, I bet they won't expect this to happen," Romero described, "going down into and seeing a huge room, and getting attacked while you're coming down, versus just taking a big elevator down, and then it opens into a room. I thought it was more interesting to show the whole room as you're going down, and to be vulnerable that way."
Happy with his proof of concept, Romero added other pieces. Just before the winding staircase that leads to his death trap, an opening to the right reveals another slime-covered space notable for a single pillar in the center. The side of the pillar that players see upon entering the room is plain, but behind it is a switch. Flipping it causes a faint squeal—a door, or perhaps a secret panel, yawning open.
It's the latter, evidenced by a huge gap in a previously solid wall across from the slime room. Step through the gap, and players pass out of dazzling corridors and into a warren of corridors, most of which are blanketed in darkness. All summed up, the secret area is roughly the same size as the passages players are meant to explore.
"That level had a lot more work done on it than any other level," Romero said. "It wasn't bigger than E1M7, but it did have a really huge secret area, which is that big maze. What I wanted to do there was to show people that when you find a secret, it's not necessarily a little room or something necessarily inconsequential. It could be a huge chunk of the map that could be even more fun to play than the [main] part."
Far back in the maze is a short corridor where a light fades on and off. Players turn a corner into the hallway and are accosted by a pair of Imps. Panicked, players fire blindly—and then, above shrieks and grunts, another telltale creak of a panel sliding away.
"You're going to be shooting," Romero said, "and I was hoping a stray bullet would hit a wall and that would cause it to open, and you'd be like, 'How did that happen? It must have been me shooting the wall.' That was another, 'Wow, you can do that too? This is a secret inside of a secret.' E1M2 shows, here's a secret that's bigger and cooler that's bigger and cooler than any secret I've seen before, and here's a secret within a secret to get a really cool weapon."
Past the false wall and up a set of stairs, players emerge in a (mercifully) lit room with a pillar. Atop the pillar, lowered by a switch, rests a chainsaw, marking the first appearance of the iconic weapon. Set in the wall beside the pillar, a window looks into a closet-sized room inhabited by an Imp. Players grab the chainsaw, find their way out of the maze, and head up the curving stairs. Less than halfway up, they may notice an alcove on the left. Stepping into it causes a lift to drop them into that closet-sized space, where the Imp greets them warmly.
That closet serves a dual purpose. If players didn't know about the chainsaw before, they can drop into the closet and look out into the chainsaw room. "Secrets are just so cool," Romero said, laughing. "We carried them into Commander Keen and into Wolfenstein, but they were barely in Wolfenstein. We decided that in Doom, it would be secrets everywhere. Then it became a checklist item: do you have four secrets in your level?"
Is four secrets too many? Romero doesn't think so. In fact, depending on the size of the level and where designers plant them, four might not be enough. "I think you have to think about, Is that really a secret? If there are so many secrets, does this one really count, or is it expected?"
E1M2's nest of secrets gave Romero plenty of opportunities to finetune his approach to deciding when, where, and how to hide them. "They mostly [were signaled by] a texture that seemed out of place or different," he explained. "There were still secrets that you couldn't tell, just to make them super secrets. The secrets we wanted people to find, we made sure there was a visual difference. In Wolfenstein, we had that sometimes, but it wasn't consistent. With Doom, we were trying to be more consistent with how we placed secrets."
Signs hanging askew or textures that don't quite match provide tacit instruction to players. However, teaching players to look for secrets and venture into side areas was equally important. Each and every off-the-beaten-path region in Doom's maps contains items of value: health packs, ammo boxes, armor shards, or—the prize among prizes—a new weapon.
Sprinkling power-ups was an assignment Romero and other designers approached by making sure that players came out of optional paths better than before they went in. E1M2 drives this lesson home in spades, from the dark and claustrophobic maze that rewards inquisitive players with a chainsaw, to another secret-inside-a-secret, a spacious courtyard where Sergeants protect a chaingun and a Soul Sphere that adds 100 to the player's health.
"One of the things we did when we were balancing and designing games was every level was designed with a pistol-start in mind," Romero said. You should be able to play and finish every single level in the game if you start with the pistol, because if you die, you're going to start back with a pistol anyway. So what we did a lot of times is put some powerful stuff sometimes near the beginning of the level. If you find it, then you're going up to the proper guns for the area you're in."
Back for More
id Software followed Doom with Doom 2: Hell on Earth in 1994. By 1995, Romero and the others felt compelled to go back to the original and add fourth episode, Thy Flesh Consumed, to exhibit the design skills they had refined while working on Doom 2.
Late one night, Romero sat down at his NeXTSTEP and booted DoomEd. He was in charge of building E4M2, and had the perfect level flow in mind. "First of all, Episode 4 was supposed to be expert level, the hardest episode," he remembered. "American [McGee] opened with a really great map that was so cool and difficult, and I thought, This has to follow that and get everybody used to: 'this is some hard shit.' I decided to say, 'I have six hours to do this.' I started at midnight because I do my best work at night. I got done at 6:00 a.m., and the whole map was [imagined] in the editor as I was playing it."
E4M2 begins by dumping players into the proverbial frying pain and all but throwing them into literal fire. Two Sergeants march in place, facing away from players. Opening fire is ill-advised: Across the level, Imps fling fireballs and Cacodemons spit wads of lightning. Players have a few ways to proceed. They can race forward, but the Sergeants are sure to notice. Another option: sit back and wait. Doom's enemies are notoriously quarrelsome. Cacodemons and Imps will throw their projectiles even if players are standing right behind a Sergeant. The zombie will get hit, rightfully and royally pissed, and respond in kind.
Whatever they decide, players must act fast or get roasted in the line of fire.
"I was scoping it while I was making it," Romero reflected, "and thought, This is as big as it's going to get; I can't get bigger than this. It's a relatively small map, but it's hard to get through. American started his level quiet. It didn't start out with explosions, so I wanted to start my level with action happening right now."
E4M2 breaks down into four parts. Beyond the starting platform, players breach a chamber on the left where they have to raise a floor to create a winding staircase leading up to the top, where a Baron of Hell guards a teleporter. Far to the right are white walls mottled by pulsing cracks of lava. All the way across the level, a final platform hosts a Cyberdemon, lying in wait for players who run blindly toward the exit nearby.
Progression necessitates risk. E4M2 is like a house on stilts, all of its architecture perched on pillars and platforms high above a burning floor that saps their health.
"You can see the end from the beginning, but you can't get there yet," Romero said. "You've got to go through these side areas before you can get to the end. It's hard to run and jump and not fall into lava. There are little, tight turns, and immediately a Baron of Hell in the next room, and a Cyberdemon up on top, and there are Cacodemons all around in this small space, and you're trying to solve a puzzle and just not die."
By the time they completed it, most players likely agreed that E4M2 had earned its proper title, "Perfect Hatred," a hundred times over.
"For the original Doom, some of the names came from Tom [Hall] coming up with initial names: the Hangar, Command Station. Those are Tom's names," he remembered. "Episodes 2 and 3 was Sandy Petersen naming those: Mt. Erebus, Phobos Anomaly, and all that. For Episode 4, [artist] Kevin Cloud came up with a big list of things we could name from. He thought it would be cool if we had these biblical [phrases] we could pull from. 'Oh, Against Thee Wickedly? Hell yeah!' I thought that was cool. I loved 'perfect hatred,' so those were my two levels."
It took John Romero six hours to build E4M2. Twenty-two years later, feeling the urge to brush up on his level-design skills, he sat down to build an alternative to Doom's E1M8. "I chose that level because I didn't make the original E1M8; I asked [designer] Sandy Petersen to make it. We were getting near the very end of the project, and I didn't have that much time, so he did it in a day or something."
Dozens of more advanced games and editors had come and gone since Doom's heyday. Romero would have used one had he felt so inclined, but for him, Doom's toolset was the path of least resistance. He still knew it—he would always know it—and it would let him bypass the slow process of learning new tools and cut straight to building maps.
Romero designed his alternate E1M8, "Tech Gone Bad," as the inverse of Sandy Petersen's. Petersen's level was dark, moody, and punctuated by a battle against two Barons of Hell—a sort of final-boss encounter that put a bow on Episode 1, which id gave away for free as shareware. Romero's map is more open and crowded with enemies.
"At the end of the game, for me, I wouldn't want the game to end, but it's cool that the end level is so huge and fun to get through," said Romero. "When you're done with it, you'll feel like you really went through something—although the original E1M8 might have helped sell the game more; it ended so quickly and you were left wanting more."
Romero's E1M8 was even more frenetic than E4M2. Unless players append it to their Doom version of choice and build up their arsenal by playing through Episode 1's preceding levels, they'll set foot in Romero's E1M8 carrying only a pistol and the Doom marine's hairy fist. The trick, Romero explained, is to get to a safe place, pick off a Sergeant, steal his gun, and then weave in and out of cover, sniping monsters and looting them for ammo.
It's doable, but barely, pushing id's pistol-start mission statement to its limits. "I figured that by this time, people are really good. If you start out and go to the right, then go left around the candelabra in a room, you're basically not getting hit by any fireballs. You just pick off the guys, then you run over and pick up a shotgun and blow everyone away. You can do it without getting hurt much, but you have to stand behind that candelabra. Otherwise it's open season."
Defeating John Romero
Doom 2 shook up its predecessor's formula by adding nearly a dozen new monsters, the fan-favorite super shotgun, and 30 maps divided into episode-sized chunks. Though it contained its share of space stations and dens of hell, its earth-themed levels channeled the original game's abstraction. Doom 2's cities consisted of futuristic buildings arranged in urban sprawls that bear only a passing resemblance to realistic environments.
Setting aside hidden mazes and chainsaw rooms, the original Doom's progression broke down to a simple formula. Find colored key cards, unlock doors, rinse and repeat until the level ends. Romero and other designers at id baked Doom 2 with that same recipe, but from new angles.
"You don't want to do the same thing over and over again," Romero said of Doom 2. "It always comes down to keys and locks, so how do we do that but represented in a different way so the game is not just more of the same thing. It needed to feel like there was some extra element in there."
Map 11, "Circle of Death," is one of Romero's contributions. Players begin on the outskirts of a circular platform, and solving the level calls for players to explore smaller rooms adjacent to the ring.
"Off of that ring, going out and exploring," said Romero. "That's the progression: going out from the center in different ways, coming back, and going out again. I think people understand: you get to the end of a little era, and there's nothing else to explore so you've got to come back to the middle. Then you see, 'Oh, I've got that [key] card.' You kind of know the next step is somewhere from the center. I thought it had a pretty good progression."
At a certain juncture through Map 11, players will enter a courtyard identifiable by two gnarled trees to either side. Stairs hug the walls, and heading up either set deposits players near a cage that springs up to reveal the Arch-vile, one of the game's new monsters and arguably its deadliest thanks to its ability to resurrect slain enemies.
"We didn't actually plan which level the Arch-vile would be in," Romero said, "other than that he's probably going to come in somewhere around halfway through the game because he's a pretty powerful guy like the Revenant is. I put him up there because it made sense to keep him constrained to a room and not just running around resurrecting the whole level as you ran away from him. I thought that was a good way to keep him in a cage."
The approach leading to the Arch-vile is one occasion where Doom 2 plays to its roots in action-horror design. By Romero's admission, Doom 2 leans into action and exhibits far fewer horror set pieces and levels than the original. That was a product of id listening to its fan base. Most Doom players favored nonstop action, so the developers gave it to them.
Still, Romero enjoyed punctuating Map 11's otherwise frantic combat by springing the Arch-vile on unsuspecting players. Trigger-happy players could make the encounter more difficult by accidentally shooting at the demon from below, waking him up and causing him to emit his throaty growl.
"You think, What is going on? Then you get up there, it's a dark room and there are other monsters, and there's fire everywhere. It's really scary. I thought it was really good because you're that hallway and room are hard to move around in."
Map 20, another Romero special, is Doom 2 twist on a gladiatorial arena. Through the first door, players set foot in a vast hall. Go in a little further, and two wide platforms descend from the ceiling. A Cyberdemon stands on one; on the other, a Spider Mastermind shrieks upon setting eyes on players. Both bosses unload. Players can fight back, but in this instance, movement proves more effective than shooting. Sprint behind one to put it in the other's line of fire, and within seconds the bosses redirect their fury and firepower on each other, leaving players free to flip a switch and escape to the next room.
"The idea is to learn that room as fast as possible, and even better, getting around them while they're fighting each other to flip that switch, which is crazy," said Romero. "The trick is to make them start fighting each other because I don't want the player to get attacked by both of them. It was a big deal to make sure they're fighting each other, and you get to witness some crazy stuff, and you can't get out of there unless you go to where they're at, so it's even scarier. There are all sorts of ways you can handle it, so I thought, Let's see what the player decides to do."
Map 30, the final stage, was not created by John Romero, but his presence is felt nonetheless. Kevin Cloud got it in his head to play a prank. He whipped up a likeness of Romero's severed head—flowing black mane and all—and stuck it on a bloody spike, then stashed it behind the towering Icon of Sin, Doom 2's final boss that spans an entire wall.
Cloud figured most players would never notice. Clipping through walls was only possible if players typed in a cheat code, and even then the Icon's onslaught of attacks would distract players from even thinking to ghost through its vulpine face to see what, if anything, lurked behind it.
Romero was not most players. "I found that out accidentally, when I was hooking up audio. I saw my head was there. There's no reason to have a graphic there because no one would ever see it, so when I saw my head there I immediately knew they were trying to sneak in an Easter egg... but in a non-obvious way."
Romero loved Cloud's Easter egg, and thought of a way to one-up him. If his head was in the final boss, players were, in essence, attacking him; the Icon of Sin was a mask to disguise the player's true adversary. "So to win the game, you have to kill me, not the Icon of Sin," he reasoned. "Maybe I am the Icon of Sin."
He went to Bobby Prince, the game's composer, and ran an idea by him. Romero would speak the line To win the game, you must kill me, John Romero, and then Prince would work his magic. "I told him, 'Okay, we're going to record this, then pitch-shift it down and reverse it. It's got to sound evil.' He did all of that really quickly and it sounded amazing, so I stuck that in for when my head sees you. It makes that sound on first sighting, and it sounds like this big evil thing on the wall is talking to you, and it just sounds [terrifying]."
Now it was Romero's turn to stifle laughter. He had turned the tables on Cloud by staying mum on the fact that he knew about his buddy's prank. All he had to do was wait for the game to be released, and some player would hear the boss speak and deduce that it had been played in reverse. Word would get out, and Cloud would realize Romero had known about his bloody head all along.
"But the very next day after putting the sound in there, American McGee comes into the office, heard it, and went, 'Oh, backwards scary thing? Let me reverse it.' Then we told everybody and it was over, but we left it in because it was funny."
John Romero's excitement over breakthroughs that occurred during the original Doom's development are the stuff of gaming legend. The most famous anecdote was the day John Carmack tested his network code by running Doom on two computers and entering a deathmatch. Pressing a key on one keyboard, he turned to look at the second monitor and saw his first character moving around. Romero nearly exploded with excitement and sat down to challenge his programming cohort right then and there.
Then there was the time Hall and Carmack surprised Romero by remaking the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 for PC. The demo, which substituted Romero's Dangerous Dave character for Nintendo's plumber, incorporated code that Carmack had written to scroll the screen smoothly to the right—a technical feat Nintendo had popularized on NES, but that had to date been thought impossible to do on computers.
At the time, Romero and the others worked at Softdisk magazine writing games for the publication's monthly demo disk. Romero took one look at Hall's and Carmack's demo—appropriately titled "Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement"—and declared that the demo was too good to share with the magazine; it was time to start their own company. A short time later, id Software was born, and their first game, a 2D sidescroller called Commander Keen sold according to the shareware strategy pioneered by Apogee founder Scott Miller, put the fledgling company on the map.
Romero looks back fondly on those and other anecdotes. But there's another standout moment, one he was fortunate enough to repeat dozens of time while designing Doom.
"There was a point when I was playing—I believe this was after Sandy [Petersen] got on board; maybe late August or early September—and there were these levels that he's been making, and I haven't seen them before. I got to play them. I'm playing the game and I don't know what's going to happen because these are levels I haven't made."
It's a rare treat for a programmer to be surprised by his or her own game. Even if they did not design a certain weapon, monster, puzzle, or level, they know the code. What goes on behind the curtain holds no mystery to them; they are the wizards, and the game casts the spells they commanded it to perform.
"You hear these sounds echoing in the background because you activated monsters and they're wandering around in the dark," Romero continued. "Then I could tell how scary the game was going to be because it was a level I hadn't made. I knew the code, but those monsters were doing unpredictable things as far as I was concerned. That was really cool: to feel a little bit of what people were going to feel even though I was used to playing the game. But if I could feel that at that point, when we were almost done with it, I knew it was going to be pretty great."
Heavy Weapons Guys
Claws and Saws
Likening Doom's player-character to a racecar and its maps to tracks is a solid analogy, in the right context. Doomguy is no Formula One car, and E1M1 is no Australian Grand Prix. The game's abstract maps have more in common like the war-torn settings of Carmageddon, its protagonist a tricked-out war machine armed to the teeth.
The developers at id had made a special point of touting Doom's arsenal in the press release they threw together in early 1993, promising to scratch itchy trigger fingers with a veritable armory of machine guns, missile launchers and—especially tantalizing—"mysterious supernatural weapons."
To Doom players who had followed the game's development from that first press release to its network-crippling arrival in December 1993, the only thing mysterious about supernatural weapons was their absence in the final product. John Romero was glad to dispel confusion. "We had this demonic hand that was called the Dark Claw. That was going to do some kind of evil attack. We decided not to do that."
The Dark Claw worked more or less how its name indicated. Doom's artists painted a demonic hand that could be severed from monsters and wielded by players. That component is alive and well in "Sergeant Mark IV's" Brutal Doom mod, which lets players employ the Revenant's homing missiles and the Mancubus brute's flamethrowers among other otherworldly armaments. For organizational reasons, id left the Dark Claw on Doom's bloody cutting-room floor.
"We decided to keep it to seven keys," Romero explained. "The BFG is the really cool, ultimate weapon, and that was enough for us."
Confining Doom's weapons to the first seven numerical keys on the player's keyboard was crucial to balancing the game. Players should never have to strain to reach a key, or look down at their desk in the middle of a firefight. In the same vein, id's team endeavored to arrange weapons by purpose rather than in a hierarchy. "With Doom 1, the weapon design was really important," Romero explained. "It was important that new weapons never nullify previous weapons in any way. There should be no reason why you wouldn't want to use a previous weapon."
Consider the pistol and the chaingun. Both consume the same bullets, squeezing either trigger prompts the game's code to play the same sound effect, DSPISTOL, and both guns inflict between five and 15 damage. The only difference is in how they dish out pain.
Fire once, and the pistol expends a single shot. The same action looses two bullets from the chaingun. Hold down the fire button and the chaingun shreds even the toughest demon until players let off the trigger. Why, then, should players ever bother pressing the 2 key to draw their pistol if they have a chaingun at their disposal?
"Even the chaingun, which uses pistol shots, doesn't nullify the pistol because it shoots fast, and you might be down to your last shots and you need to shoot just a couple of times. That keeps the pistol useful," Romero said.
In Doom, even the weakest weapons serve a purpose. Some write off the fist as a last resort. Pick up a Berserk Pack, however, and the fist packs a literal punch of between 20 and 200 damage—10 times its normal value. Up close, the gnashing teeth of the Pinky prove ineffective against the chainsaw's steel links. It's less practical against most other demons, especially those with ranged attacks such as the Imp, who has ample opportunity to throw fireballs as players rush up to them, or the Baron of Hell, who slashes at players while the chainsaw chews away. Doomguy's life bar was built to outlast Imps, but a race between their chainsaw and the Baron's claws rarely ends in the player's favor.
The chainsaw may seem like a one-trick pony, but one of the game's toughest monsters falls prey to its close-range capabilities. Cacodemons face players at all times once engaged—except when players bury a chainsaw in their scaly flesh, causing them to expose their backs as if attempting to fly away.
Romero confirmed that the behavior is emergent, the result of a glitch as opposed to purposeful design. All players have to do in response is to keep walking forward with their finger clamped down on the attack button, making that "1" key useful all through Doom and Doom 2.
Getting up close and personal with a Cacodemon is a risky endeavor that should only be attempted when no other monsters are around to harass players. Still, it's a risk worth taking. Carving up a Cacodemon conserves rockets and energy cells, which are in shorter supply than bullets and shotgun shells.
"Both the chainsaw and the shotgun were added at the same time because of Evil Dead," Romero said. "We loved the movies. Evil Dead 2 is a remake of Evil Dead, basically, and those were awesome weapons. The thing about Evil Dead that really matched out game was that our game was really dark humor. That movie is all dark humor and horror, and we felt like our game was a little like Evil Dead, so those weapons made perfect sense."
If any weapon could be said to define the original Doom, it would be the shotgun. Every Doom player's most trusted sidearm, the shotgun is flexible enough to be effective in most scenarios. Powerful enough to take down an Imp in one shot at close range and a Pinky in three, accurate enough to snipe monsters and explosive barrels from afar, and while its rate of fire is on the slow side, it's not so slow that brandishing it against a dozen enemies is a death sentence.
Fans have extolled the shotgun's versatility for decades, but they would be remiss if they neglected to admit how it appeals on a purely aesthetic level. The echoing boom of its report, the bloom of fire as pellets explode outward, and sheen of polished steel and wood as the shell ejects, the player's gloved hands cock the hammer, and a new shell slides into place.
Doom's shotgun is more than a weapon. It's an institution, the template from which virtually every other FPS shotgun is derived. Romero confirmed that id's developers knew as much long before consumers adopted it. "It was just the right balance between something like a rocket launcher, which is too much, and a pistol, which is not enough," he said. "In doing a sequel, the idea for Doom 2 was, what's the best part of that first game? When you make a sequel, make those first parts better."
With Doom 2, id Software revamped the original game's level design and added nearly a dozen monsters to its bestiary. The team approached weapons more conservatively, adding a single new weapon: the combat shotgun, known affectionately as the super shotgun.
Nearly three times more powerful than its single-barreled brother, the super shotgun fires twin barrels for between 100 and 300 damage depending on proximity. Yet it complements rather than supplements the shotgun. Firing twin barrels means twice as much ammo expended per shot and an even wider spread of pellets, rendering the regular shotgun more efficient for sniping.
"We felt the shotgun was the best weapon in the game," Romero explained. "We have these seven keyboard keys we don't want to mess with. Seven is a good number; it's like a phone number. We'd already double-used the 1 key for the chainsaw and fist, so we decided to double-use the 3 key for the shotgun and super shotgun. We're keeping it simple: we're not doing a whole bunch of new weapons, just doing the one we think everybody will love."
Supernatural weapons fell by the wayside in favor of the development team's desire to invent the ultimate weapon. The BFG 9000 reigns supreme in terms of raw firepower, but id didn't want players to jump right from real-world fare like shotguns and chainguns straight to the pinnacle of futuristic tech.
"The thing about Doom was that we were going to mix some weapons we had already, with near-future-type weapons," said Romero. "So the player is shooting something they understand, and then they can look forward to some even cooler stuff. "
The rocket launcher accounts for one leg of that bridge. It's based on bazookas used during World War II, and that alone makes firing it a thrill. To most players who experienced Doom for the first time in 1993, shooting missiles was something they read about in a textbook. A computer game sold on floppy disks made it possible.
The plasma rifle is the next and final step in the progression toward id's big freaking gun. It operates similarly to a chaingun, spraying a stream of laser energy that puts players on even footing with heavyweights like Barons of Hell, and the Cyberdemon and Spider Mastermind bosses.
Hefting the BFG 9000 for the first time, most players can't help gawking in wonder. It is, indeed, like a chunk of metal ripped from the hull of a spaceship. The weapon's maiden implementation, a spread of green-and-red energy balls, ended up a tad too futuristic.
"We thought it looked like Christmas when it came out, and it also slowed the game way down because we're talking about hundreds of these sprites that would fly out. That would hurt the frame rate," explained Romero.
As a workaround, id rolled the Christmas ornament-like orbs into a huge green orb that obliterates all but the toughest enemies in a single blast. Enemies outside the player's direct line of fire do not escape unscathed. Upon making contact with a monster or any surface, the giant orb generates lots of smaller orbs that automatically appear and inflict massive damage on using a technique known as ray tracing.
Ray tracing traces light's path in a virtual space and simulates its collision with objects. Instead of manifesting all the individual energy blasts, firing the BFG causes 40 invisible projectiles to fly out in a cone-shaped area in front of the player and connect with monsters. As soon as the single, visible blast makes contact with any object, the 40 projectiles strike their targets.
"The second version of it is the one that you see, and it's doing what the original would have done if those little balls had hit everything: basically we just throw out a bunch of tracers in the room and do massive damage to everything," Romero said.
The Real Deal
In writing Doom, id Software had one goal: to make the best game in the world. That ambition guided them during every step of the development process, right down to their determination to craft a panoply of weapons that served players well from the first second of Doom through the last.
Romero believes that id achieved its goal. He gleaned pride and satisfaction when the shareware version of the best game in the world graced the covers of magazines and the demo disks packaged in their plastic wrapping. He still views it as the best game ever, but not just because of its weapons, or its levels, or any one thing.
"You go to the store, you see a box, you read the back, and you're like, 'Oh my god, this looks so great,'" said Romero. "Then a lot of times you install it, play it, and you feel let down, and they marketed it so well on the back of the box. For us, it was about: do you remember what you thought about when you were looking at the back of the box? Make sure that you make that. Fulfill that dream. Our box wasn't as cool of a marketing box as EA's or LucasArts' boxes, but we let the game speak for itself."
You'd be forgiven for playing Brutal Doom for the first time and coming away with the impression that you just played the most gratuitous, over-the-top violent video game ever made. Trailers announcing new versions of the mod, first published in 2010, drive this impression home. Firing a BFG blast into a horde of Imps triggers an explosion of blood that makes Johnny Depp's death scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street look tame.
Wipe away all the mutilated limbs and buckets of blood, and Brutal Doom has a lot more to offer. Its feature set is so thorough, its changes so sweeping and evolutionary, that John Romero said back in 2013 that id "would've destroyed the game industry" had id Software released it instead of the original Doom back in the early 1990s.
As a Brutal Doom buff, I was excited to catch up with the mod's creator, Marcos "Sergeant Mark IV" Abenante. The Sarge was kind enough to dissect some of the game's changes both huge and nuanced, explain how Brutal Doom caters to equally players who prefer a moodier, slower pace, as well as those who revel in sending demons back to hell in doggy bags, and share his thoughts on his mod's excessive violence stealing the spotlight from its more impressive features.
What led to your interest in designing Doom mods?
Making mods for Doom was a childhood dream. I wanted to make "my own Doom" since I played it the first time on my Sega Saturn back in the late '90s. Around 2009 when I played Doom mods for the first time I got instantly hooked by the great customization capabilities of the engine and how easy was to mod it.
Brutal Doom is one of the most expansive mods ever created. Among other features, you overhauled the game's arsenal, gave enemies new attacks, changed or replaced power-ups, and painted levels in blood. How did the mod start? Did you think of one feature that snowballed, or did you have an all-or-nothing mindset from the beginning?
A year before, I made a mod called ArmageDoom (yeah, silly name) which contained new maps, monsters, a new plot, and a lot of stuff, but it proved to be way too ambitious for a first time mod. It was a mess of unfinished features. There were others gameplay mods at that time that tried to overhaul Doom such as Beautiful Doom and Polished Skull, but none of them satisfied me, so I decided to make a new simpler and smaller mod to improve my intimacy with the engine. I wanted to make a mod that would make the regular game look, sound, and play the way [that left me] completely satisfied, then transfer these systems to a bigger mod.
The initial concept of Brutal Doom was just a mod to test a headshot system, and a unified blood and gibs system with some basic physics. People loved it right when the first version came out, there were several people hosting servers on day one. So I kept adding more and more stuff.
Turns out that the visual effects of Brutal Doom are way too detailed to fit my initial vision of ArmageDoom. I didn't design Brutal Doom expecting people to use it on maps that puts more than 30 or 40 enemies on the screen at the same time, so I could go overboard with the gibs and particles. On ArmageDoom you would often fight 200 or 300 enemies, with like 30 friendly marines at your back in battles that would look like something out of Starship Troopers or Warhammer 40k. So if I had to restart working on that mod, I would need to go back and start a whole new gore system from scratch.
Was there a particular reason you targeted the classic Doom games as opposed to 2004's Doom 3?
I got a bit disappointed with Doom 3. It was a cool game, but definitely not a cool Doom game. So I started to add to Classic Doom all the stuff I wanted to see in Doom 3.
Classic Doom provides arguably the most well-rounded arsenal in FPS games. How did you approach tweaking weapons that had been balanced for over two decades?
The original game had a progressive weapon policy. You get the chaingun, which is basically a pistol that fires faster and can snipe things with two shots at once. You get the super shotgun, which fires more pellets per shell than the regular shotty, and makes the regular shotty only useful if you are out of chaingun ammo.
For BD, I have a policy that no guns should be deemed deprecated when you get a bigger gun. Every gun has an unique characteristic with its advantages and disadvantages.
The assault rifle, which replaces the pistol, exemplifies that point. John Romero explained how, speaking to your example, the pistol is still useful after you get the chaingun because it's good for chipping away at monsters. Drawing from my own experience, though, I rarely used weapons below the shotgun. That wasn't the case with the assault rifle; I use it frequently, even on later levels.
Yes, the rifle still remains the most useful weapon for dealing with zombies even after you find the rest of the arsenal. Some custom maps pits you against strong opponents with just your starting loadout and a shotgun, so the rifle is designed in a way that a competent player can use it to quickly kill a Mancubus or even a Baron of Hell. The weapon is balanced with its need to reload and reduced accuracy when firing on full-auto.
Doom's pistol and chaingun did the same amount of damage. The only difference was their rates of fire. How did you want to differentiate the AR and chaingun?
On BD. each bullet fired from the rifle deals 20 percent more damage than the bullets fired by the chaingun. The rifle has a longer barrel, and a gun with a longer barrel makes the projectile spin faster before coming out, reaching a higher muzzle velocity even if it's firing the same type of ammunition. This added to a great accuracy: two degrees spread when firing from the hip, one degree when firing while aiming down the sights, no spread when firing on semi-auto in both ways, against 4 degrees of spread on the chaingun. And it makes it extremely effective against zombies on close quarters, and imps and lost souls on long distances.
A rifle becomes pretty useless against a group of Pinky demons because it lacks the fire rate to slow them down; they will easily corner you with their speed boost and bite you while you are reloading. The chaingun lost its sniping capabilities of the original game—but still fires more accurately when on full auto—and performs better against large groups of enemies due its higher fire rate and its lack of need to reload, and is the only weapon that can stunlock flying enemies. This is important in BD, as flying enemies have the ability to quickly circle-strafe the player when they get out of their pain states.
Due its wind-up time, the chaingun becomes a bad weapon of choice for clearing out corridors with confrontations far from each other. A zombie will mostly fire at you, or an imp will leap at you before your gun even starts firing and walking around with the barrels rotating will make noise and ruin any potential ambush chances you could get.
Doom's shotgun is almost perfect. It strikes a comfortable ratio of power to speed, and is useful at short, medium, and long ranges. Given all that, did you see any room for refinement, or perhaps modernization?
Doom 2 introduced the super shotgun, which made the original shotgun completely obsolete. The original shotgun fires seven pellets while the super shotgun fires 20 pellets—it magically fires three more pellets per shell—with the double horizontal spread, and an added 7.1 degrees vertical spread while the original shotgun has zero vertical spread.
The Super Shotgun not only deals more damage per shell, but also fires them faster. The original shotgun fire has a 37-frame cooldown before each shot—the game logic runs at 35 fps, so it's roughly one second—while the Super Shotgun's fire animation takes 57 frames. That makes 28.5 frames for each shell. So the super shotgun doesn't just fire three pellets more per shell, but also fires them faster, and the double spread is not enough to compensate that.
My solution to rebalance them was to enforce the shotgun's original purpose over the addition of the super shotgun. It's a common mistake in video games to make shotguns inaccurate over long distances, when in real life, a buckshot can effectively put down a deer 50 meters away, and probably take down a human at much longer distances. There was a limitation in the original game's engine that made all guns have the same spread pattern—5.6 degrees to the sides, no vertical spread—so id Software accidentally made one of the most realistic shotguns in history of videogames.
Some mods attempt to balance the shotguns by nerfing the super shotgun and making it fire 14 pellets. Instead, I buffed the shotgun to fire 10 pellets. The shotgun is made even more accurate by reducing its spread pattern from 5.2 degrees to 2.7 degrees. now both horizontally and vertically. Now the shotgun is powerful enough to kill lost souls with a single shot, which is very satisfying, and most of times kill Pinky demons with two shots; it takes 3 shots on the original game.
Out of all the bullet-based weapons, it can deliver the highest amount of stopping power at the longest range possible, and it can take down a room full of imps much safer than with a super shotgun: It is guaranteed to kill them with one shot before they can leap at you and you don't have to deal with the inconvenience of having to reload after each shot, leaving you vulnerable to the other enemies in the room.
What weapon was the most difficult to modify?
The BFG-9000. The part of the code that fires its tracers is hardcoded into the engine. The tracers recognize anything that can be shot as valid targets, so shoot-able gibs on the floor acts like a shield that protects enemies from the tracers, which are the weapon's signature mechanic. Current versions of GZDoom allow you to have more control over these tracers and what they can target, but Zandronum 2.1—which is built on GZDoom's code from literally five years ago—doesn't, and I refuse to abandon the Zandronum engine due its superior multiplayer.
Currently the BFG basically acts like a huge rocket launcher with a large splash damage that only hits enemies. The tracers still work, but they will just hit the gibs on the floor most of the time. Hopefully when things switch to Zandronum 3.0, I will be able to fix this.
I didn't realize all of the under-the-hood changes you made to weapons such as the shotgun. I only paid attention to surface details like alternate modes of fire like the chaingun's windup and the plasma rifle's charged shot. Did adding alternative modes of fire constitute creating new weapons as far as game balanced was concerned?
All alternate fires in Brutal Doom works like a commercial transaction: You have to give up something to get something else. The rifle for example, is already is the most accurate weapon of the game even when firing from the hip, but when you aim down the sights you trade two-thirds of your field of view. That makes it easier for flanking enemies to attack you without you noticing, but you practically get a full auto sniper rifle.
The plasma gun's "plasma shotgun" mode deals the same amount of damage as it would if you were to fire all these plasma balls with the regular automatic fire, but instead of firing them constantly, you can get into cover and wait for the volley to charge up, pop up and fire, then get back to safety to charge another volley without exposing yourself, and your payment for that is that these plasma balls are not as accurate in the regular mode.
The alt fires are basically made to make the weapons become more versatile and adapt to the player's playing style.
Doom has bounced between action and horror since the original game in 1993. It's an action series where some iterations lean more heavily into horror than others. I always thought Doom 2 fell on the side of pure action, and Brutal Doom felt like an extension of that, at least to me. Did you see your mod as more of an extension of one classic Doom than another?
I think it's quite the opposite. The original Doom is much more action-packed than Doom 2: levels are smaller, songs have a faster tempo, you feel like a mad marine fighting for survival in a base infested by demons until you get sucked into hell and you mess things so bad that hell gets fed up with you, opens a portal back to Earth and wants you to get the fuck out. You know, this is actually the [sequel's] canon plot.
Doom 2 feels more like you are exploring the ruins of Earth. Many levels such as Downtown, Suburbs, and Industrial Zone are very wide, desolate, and non-linear, with more moody songs with a slower tempo. I had very different experiences with the classic Doom games growing up. My childhood memories of playing it on the Saturn, with PSX Doom's music and slow framerate, Doom was completely a horror game, then I rediscovered it on 2009 on the PC as an action game. I know that Doom exists in two completely different forms, but my priority with Brutal Doom is to allow players to choose the way they want to play the game.
You can play it fast on a skill such as Ultra-Violence, or one of the mod's custom skills such as Black Metal: You move faster, deal 50 percent more damage, and take double damage from enemy attacks. You can play as the Purist class to disable reloading, and load the "Doom Metal" collection which turns all midi songs into metal covers with actual instruments and adds into the action. Or you can play things slower, try the Realism mode which allows you to be instantly killed by two or three shots from a zombie's rifle or a single imp's fireball if you are without armor, requiring you to play extremely cautiously, and even load PSX Doom's soundtrack into it to make things more tense. It's up to you to choose the best experience that fits your taste.
Gore is usually the first thing players notice about Brutal Doom. Do you feel the gore gets undue attention at the expense of other features like the overhauled arsenal?
Yes. I see a lot of people refusing to play Brutal Doom because they think the added gore is too over the top and juvenile—and yet they refuse to acknowledge how absurdly over the top was the original game's gore, even for today's standards.
Brutal Doom has a lot of features that makes gameplay generally speaking smoother and faster, especially in co-op. For example, in Brutal Doom the players can't telefrag each other when walking over teleports at the same time, and plasma balls and rockets will fly through each other; firing a rocket and getting killed by it because your teammate runs in front of you at the exact time it fired is #1 cause of death on crowded co-op servers.
There is a feature that allows you to take a wounded zombie or imp and temporally use it as a shield so you can become a safe spot for your teammates to advance through a zone with lots of chaingunners. Version 21 will also add the ability to drop packs of ammo and a class that can carry medikits as inventory items and drop them for other players and act like some kind of medic.
Brutal Doom lets players dismember enemies, such as shooting off limbs and performing headshots. That wasn't possible in the original game. How does dismemberment work? Is it as simple as some modern feature, or more than one, in a source port?
The ZDoom engine and its forks are capable of spawning objects as "projectiles" at any time, by any other object. It can also have properties that allows them to bounce on walls and floors before landing. Basically the gibs in Brutal Doom—and pretty much any other Doom mod—are actually projectiles; they are not much different from a rocket or an imp's fireball, they have their "spawn" state—when it's flying in the air—and their "death" state, when it hits something.
When a flying gib "dies"—hits the floor, stops bouncing—it spawns another gib that can be interacted with: shot into smaller meat chunks, kicked around, be tossed around by explosions.
But even with all the improvements of the ZDoom engine, the monsters can only have one rectangular hitbox. The solution for making localized damage was to spawn several actors with their own hitboxes around the monster on every frame they move.
Think of these hitboxes as meta-monsters: They have all the shoot-able properties of a Doom monster, but they are invisible, and are programmed to disappear a fraction of second after being spawned, so it can be replaced by a new hitbox at a new position as the monster moves around. When you shoot one of these hitboxes, they calculate the damage you caused to them, and transfer that damage to the monster who they belong with a multiplier. Hitting the head hitboxes transfers double damage, hitting the legs transfers half damage.
If the monster is killed by this damage transferred by the fake hitbox, it plays a different death state depending of the amount damage transferred. You can notice that firing at a zombie's head with a shotgun makes a much bigger mess than firing at it with a rifle. The damage is transferred by the same system used by explosive barrels to damage things near it: the hitbox actually "explodes" when you shoot it. There are other less complex ways of doing this such as checking the height that a blood puff was spawned relative to the floor, but these methods makes an exact transference of damage amounts difficulty, especially with shotguns.
Weapons with area damage such as the rocket launcher ignores this system and plays random death animations instead. The small enemies have around three or four animations of them being tossed into the air and having their limbs ripped off by the explosion. Every death animation in a Doom mod needs to be drawn separately and coded into the game accordingly to the events that would cause such death animation to be triggered.
One of my favorite changes was replacing the blur artifact with a marine ally. What prompted you to swap out an artifact, rather than add another? Did you just consider blur to be less useful than other powerups?
I needed a way to include captured marines in the game. Brutal Doom is a mod that doesn't have a dedicated campaign, and is designed to run on the original levels and almost every user-made level, so I couldn't include them manually into the levels. Blur is often considered the most useless powerup in the game; it doesn't make you invisible to the monsters and instead, makes them shoot in random zig-zag patterns, which actually makes their projectiles harder to dodge. It was a rare powerup that you could be assured was found on most maps at least once, and it was a powerup that nobody would miss, so it was the best choice to make these captured marines spawn.
Recently on v20 the improved enemy AI is able to lose track of the player when going a long time without being able to see it, and wander around the map looking for the player. This script allows the enemies to actually become unable to see the player when cloaked. If the player makes noise or walks too close to the monsters they will be alerted for a moment, try to fire one or two times in the zig-zag pattern, then lose track of it and start wandering around again.
So the blur sphere is actually more useful now and I am thinking of ways to re-introduce it. Recently I added them as a rare powerup that can be randomly dropped by Spectres.
Brutal Doom is going strong, and so is the modding community for Doom and Doom 2. What do you think accounts for such longevity?
First, the game itself. Even with its sharp edges here and there, unmodded Doom still is an unique game with unmatched combat dynamics and level design. My first Doom experience was on fifth-gen consoles and I didn't experience the true fast gameplay of it properly until 2009, way after I had had enough of Call of Duty, so the "you are looking at it through nostalgia glasses" argument is not valid here. Not even other classic first person shooters of the 90s that came after it (Blood, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D) could reach the same level of perfection.
Second, the modding capacities of it. The source ports are really well made; you can learn how to make a weapons mod for GZDoom or Zandronum in a few weeks, learn how to make a map in just a few days, and there are very well organized documentation of the engines at the ZDoom wiki and it's really easy to get into it.
When you get a game with unique mechanics that nobody ever succeeded at copying, a simple yet rich backstory full of spin-off possibilities, and the easiest to mod ever engine ever made, you get yourself a game that people will play for decades.
During the latest nights and longest weekends of 1993, id Software's developers shrugged off fatigue. Junk food energized the id team's bodies, but their shared passion for how Doom was shaping up invigorated their minds and spirits.
John Romero was especially excited. Doom would be the greatest game ever, and the 27 levels he and the team would be storing on floppy disks and sealing inside the game's lurid-red box were just the beginning. "What we did was, probably two weeks after the game, we released the level specs—sector def and line def information—so people knew what it meant and how the map files were created," Romero said.
The only thing Romero loved more than playing Doom was playing levels someone else on the team had made. Thanks to id's foresight, he would soon be swimming in an endless supply of space stations, spawning vats, and hellholes. There was just one thing missing: a level editor. Romero had co-authored DoomEd for id's level designers, but the program conformed to routines and processes specific to NeXTSTEP computers.
Along with level specs, id released a free node builder that players could use to design modifications, or mods. Doom's engine organizes levels in a tree made up of nodes and sub nodes, and every node corresponds to data for individual areas in a level. All summed up, nodes define a level's structure; the node builder would be able to render the nodes in a specific order to turn out a playable map, like a game of connect-the-dots that only turns out correctly if all the dots are in the right places and filled out in sequence.
"I knew that people would be wanting to make levels, which is why we put all that info out there. I knew they would have to write their own [editor]," Romero continued.
Id Software's gift of free data, tools, and source code comprises the gift that keeps on giving to the Doom community. Innumerable level designers have harnessed that information to make Romero's dream of dreams come true: Twenty-three years and counting since Doom's release in December 1993, new maps sprout up daily. Some creators bend or even break id's rules to create something wholly original and far outside what the developers ever expected to see from their tech. Some color inside the lines—to be creative, to flex their level-making muscles, or to show that there's still plenty of gas left in Doom's tank.
Still other designers earned money and launched careers thanks to id's forward-thinking generosity. While browsing newsgroups late one night, Romero learned that a team of modders had been collaborating on a 32-level campaign for Doom 2—known as a total conversion, or TC—called TNT Evilution. The news post he had found was an announcement: Team TNT, as they were known, would publish their TC the very next day as a free download.
"One thing I thought should be happening was people making money from the amount of work they had put into making mods and levels and stuff," Romero said. "When everyone's putting free levels out there on the 'net, no one's going to pay for [content] from some unknown team. Who knows if [publishers] would want to publish that stuff. We found out later that people would do that, but at the time I just saw it and was like, 'These guys need to make some money from this.'"
Romero emailed Ty Halderman, Team TNT's lead designer, and asked if there was any way he could put the brakes on the TC's release. In exchange, Romero gave his word that he could help Halderman and his team see their work on store shelves. "He was like, oh my god! He contacted everybody; it was around 30 level designers. There were all sorts of political things going on because they'd wanted to release it for free, but [the creators] were like, 'But id would publish it. We'd get our name on an id title.' They all decided that, yes, they do want to see their game in stores and be part of the id series of released titles. They did stop the release of it, and we got everybody else signed up."
Around the same time, Romero discovered another team of modders, Dario and Milo Casali. The brothers were working on a TC called The Plutonia Experiment, another 32-level campaign. Romero saw an even bigger opportunity. He packaged TNT Evilution and Plutonia together, and id's publisher at the time branded the total package Final Doom and sold it as a standalone game.
"I thought that there were a lot of new ideas that we never would have made on our own," Romero explained. "It was ideas that people were doing out in the level-design scene anyway, and some new stuff. These people had released other mods out there before. There was a lot of stuff out there, and these guys paid attention to it and were very good.
Team TNT and the Casali brothers achieved fame throughout the Doom community, but they are only some out of a worldwide community of Doom modders whose work has been venerated by peers. Viggles, Scwiba, and Skillsaw—who preferred to be called by their online handles—are three of those who, like Romero, Halderman, and countless others who take pleasure in bringing their wildest ideas to life in the form of nodes, sectors, and line definitions.
Download link: Doomworld
When Viggles was 13 years old, a friend from school got hold of an alpha version of Doom and invited him over to play. The feeling he experienced was new to him within the context of video games. His hobby had made him excited, jubilant, curious. Doom was different. Doom terrified him.
"I was a huge Wolfenstein 3D fan, but that alpha scared the shit out of me," he said. "It was dark and suffocating and the physical rules of the world felt so different compared to the comforting Nazified grid of Wolf3D. I found it deeply unnerving, even though—or perhaps because—none of the levels were finished and the monsters didn't even move; some piece of that disquiet lodged in my young skull and never left."
Viggles embraced his fear when id Software released Doom in 1993. For three solid years, it was all he played. His Doomguy marine did not venture forth into hell alone. "My dad strung a null modem cable from one bedroom to another for two-player deathmatches, which made me briefly the most popular guy in school."
Deathmatch was fun, but Viggles favored the game's three single-player campaigns. There was something unsettling—first deeply, then pleasantly—about moving through futuristic moon bases and demon-filled lairs. The abstraction with which id's designers had constructed the game's maps cast its charm over his mind like a web.
"Nothing in Doom is quite recognizable as a functional place," Viggles explained, "and that's vital to its aesthetic in some way. Attempting to make Doom look like real places collapses some tension in it and makes those environments much less interesting. As an adult I can perceive the practical gameplay considerations and the sometimes slapdash aesthetic impulses that went into Doom's level design; but when I was a kid it felt like those spaces had designed themselves, and that reading of the game I find unsettling as hell."
By the time he was 14, Viggles had tinkered with early editors like DEU (Doom Editing Utility). At that stage he had no ambition toward architecting master classes in level design. He was just inquisitive, driven to understand the black magic that so deftly delighted and unnerved him.
"The very first thing I made was a beach, with terraced layers of pebbles and sand leading down to water, and I was dismayed by how crappy it looked compared to the vision I had seen in my head."
As his aptitude grew, he plumbed deeper, experimenting with volume and perspective, lighting, and positive and negative space. No longer content to merely dabble, he became the archetypal sorcerer's apprentice. "The act of bringing my own spaces into being was almost intoxicating. When I was 16, I released a set of deathmatch levels themed around classical Greek architecture. They were dreadful to play because they weren't about gameplay at all; they were about me figuring out how to express ideas spatially."
Viggles set Doom editors aside as new games arrived. He moved on to Thief: The Dark Project, and Quake, id's spiritual follow-up to Doom that sported real-time 3D graphics at blistering speeds. As games grew more sophisticated, his interest waned. More advanced games demanded that he learn more complicated tools. Designing levels was a hobby, a creative outlet that let him execute on a space he'd conjured in his head. Complex tools turned his hobby into a time sink, and he walked away.
Years later, Viggles found himself presented with an opportunity to rekindle his first passion. "In 2014 a friend of mine started making a Doom level on a lark, and I realized that I had been thinking about the Doom engine all that time: thinking about the ways it could be pushed, what it was possible to express in it, what kinds of (mis)treatment the textures lent themselves to. I still had visual ideas that had been sitting in me for 20 years waiting to come out, so I picked it back up again."
Returning to level design prompted Viggles to compare and contrast his styles from then and now. "Nowadays my design style is probably a response to contemporary games and how they feel," he said. "I guess I'm trying to make something that's unmistakably modern, yet that captures what I loved about how Doom looked and felt as a kid, which is why I restrict myself to the original textures and scripting features. Then as now, I find I'm still preoccupied with how a space feels, rather than how a space plays. I'm not very good at designing with gameplay in mind."
His first mod in years was Breach, a rambling tech base-style map. Once it was finished, Viggles conceived of Brigandine, his most recent map as of this writing, as a palette cleanser. He'd had his fill of space stations and wanted to build an environment that channeled the spirit of Doom 2's cityscapes—particularly that found in Map 14: Inmost Dens, built by former id designer American McGee.
"To get even more specific," he explained, "I wanted to give my due to a window texture that had a special place in my heart: BRWINDOW, which had been the only texture asset in Doom 2 to suggest to the teenage me that a Doom level could actually be a real place on Earth. It was also a way to explore some spatial ideas that Skyrim had planted in me; the starting chamber of Brigandine was originally a sketch of the temple of Kynareth in Whiterun."
Labyrinthine and daunting at first glance, Brigandine is tightly made—a compact space that loops in on itself multiple times, forcing players to pay attention to lest they become turned around.
"I'd originally meant it to work as both a single-player map and a deathmatch level," said Viggles, "so I studied a bunch of deathmatch maps to figure out their design principles. I made areas feed back into each other, so that players would come to new vantage points on places they'd been through before. The player ends up fighting several distinct battles in each area of the map as they come back upon those areas again."
Once he had Brigandine's deathmatch flow nailed down, Viggles sketched out a route for solo players. Like breadcrumbs, players would encounter enemies, key cards, ambushes, and items in a progression that took advantage of the map's interconnectedness. Ultimately, he said, the level flowed better as a single-player venture. "In the end the level grew too large to be suitable as a deathmatch map, but I think you can still see traces of it in the final layout."
Orchestrating Brigandine's progression induced its fair share of headaches, most of which stemmed from plotting out skirmishes. "Despite planning the flow of the level early on, and designing a bunch of the encounters in my head, I had sunk my teeth into the architecture way too early and fully detailed the areas before I properly playtested them with monsters," he explained. "This made for a painful process of figuring out what kinds of encounters each area could still accommodate."
Early in its construction, Brigandine's tight proves both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, its flow stands as one of the level's most intricate and compelling features. On the other, Viggles had little wiggle room to make even the smallest adjustments. Moving one piece would disrupt another, causing a domino-like effect.
"However, I had made those same mistakes already in Breach and learned some hard lessons from them. By Brigandine I had learned to leave enough room for my bad habits. As a result, most of the encounters I'd originally had in mind still made it into the level."
Viggles takes it as a point of pride that Brigandine conforms to Doom 2's original level specs... sort of. The game, known by the community as "vanilla Doom 2," sets hard limits that prevent players from flooding a map with more details than a level editor can handle. For instance, Doom 2 dictates that players can see a maximum of 256 wall segments. Though they might not be able to make them out, editing tools are aware of them, and planting even one more would cause glitches in the vanilla game.
"When id open-sourced the Doom engine," Viggles said, "the first thing that modders did was lift those limits into the stratosphere. Designers were still bound by the hard constraints of the original engine—walls can't move, floors and ceilings are flat, rooms over other rooms aren't possible—so it's still a challenge to fit your spatial ideas into, but you no longer have to limit the amount of detail you can have in view, which is very liberating."
Engines like Eternity and ZDoom are known as source ports, engines that embellish the capabilities of vanilla Doom and Doom 2. Contemporary engines allow for contemporary features such as sloped ceilings and floors, rotating walls, and platforms stacked directly overtop one another.
Viggles built Brigandine as limit-removing map—a modern level derived from vanilla features, but chockfull of significantly more of them. In other words, though Brigandine looks as though it could run in the original engine, players will still need a source port to play it. "I like the challenge of working within the feature set—and texture palette—of the original game," he explained. "I just don't care to carefully watch my sightlines, or to sacrifice cool architecture on the altar of not crashing a DOS executable that nobody ever plays Doom in anymore."
As an example, Brigandine's staggering amount of detail and sightlines—line of sight for monsters—poke holes in Doom 2's parameters. "There are more lines in Brigandine than there were in the entirety of the original Doom 2, and any view from practically any spot in the map would crash the original game," he said. "That's not a laudable accomplishment though; most limit-removing maps could claim the same. Breaking the original game wasn't something I aimed for, it was just a consequence of the spatial ideas I wanted to express."
For Viggles, part of expressing Brigandine's space to its fullest involved performing tricks that exploit the original engine, such as a walkway that players can walk over and under. Viggles pulled that off by creating an invisible platform near the walkway that moves up or down depending on the entrance players come in from.
"Designers were using those same exploits 27 years ago, and though modern ports like ZDoom will let you do level-over-level stuff for real, I like sticking with the original tricks," he said.
Staying the course gave rise to a map Viggles is proud of. He's particularly taken with certain parts of Brigandine where players can look out and see more of the city in the distance—a level-design strategy employed in modern games that lean into interconnected design, such as FromSoftware's Dark Souls, as well as classic games, namely Doom and Doom 2.
"I love the visual suggestion that the player is in a much larger space that's just as detailed but that they can't quite get to," Viggles said of Brigandine. "This is one of the strengths of modern environmental design: older games simply couldn't afford to have it. These vistas took by far the longest to complete. I was still tinkering with them for several months after the playable space of the level was done."
Download link: Doomworld
Were they to meet and swap stories of their Doom fandom, Scwiba could probably relate to Viggles' initial fright. He was only six when his older brothers installed Doom's shareware episode and proceeded to thrust him into a world of zombies and Imps and altars holding skulls and beating hearts.
Scwiba never forgot that fear. He hopes he never will. "I was too terrified to get past the first demons in the third map. I kind of feel like that deep-rooted childhood fear is part of the reason the game never completely left my consciousness. I came back in 2002 to conquer that fear, and never left. Why would you, when content for the game is endless?"
Scwiba has been looking for ways to tell stories all his life. He colored pictures as a tyke, wrote a small book in first grade, and, as he grew older, migrated to level creation. "I'm a storyteller and worldbuilder by nature," he said. "Modding and game development have always just seemed like another avenue for telling stories and building worlds. If a picture tells a thousand words, a video game level tells a million."
Growing up, only games that included level editors slaked Scwiba's thirst for telling stories. He played as many as he could get his hands on, from WarCraft II and Age of Empires to The Incredible Machine and, his greatest pre-Doom obsession, Lode Runner: The Legend Returns. "I designed a whole lengthy campaign complete with a backstory and even a point where your buddy the blue runner heroically sacrifices himself and you have to go on to the final battle alone."
Scwiba dabbled in games on any platform, even putting out a ROM hack for a Final Fantasy game in 2000. He fashioned levels mostly for his own enjoyment until, in 2004, he cobbled together a Doom map called The Baron's Citadel. Writing off the effort as amateurish but instructive, he threw in with a group working on a map pack titled 1Monster in 2007.
"It was a community project where each map could only use one type of monster," recalled Scwiba, "so I suppose I was drawn to gimmicks and concept maps from the beginning. The biggest change in my maps over the years has been more confidence, if that makes sense. It doesn't have anything to do with style, but I like to think you can see it in the maps nonetheless."
Building up confidence impressed upon Scwiba the satisfaction he gleaned from extemporaneous design. His notions are like muses: one appears, and he allows it to lead him. Nearing the end of a project, he doubles back and varnishes spotty sections until they shine.
As his confidence developed, so did his appetite for pushing the envelope of traditional map design. "That," he admitted, "and just having fun after what was a very draining and not fun development process on my last mod, Tower of Lies. Absolutely Killed was always pretty lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek—the name itself came from a line in a really nasty review of Tower—so my goal was just to dive in and treat the Doom engine like a playground."
Each of Ultimate Doom's episodes contain at least one through line. Episode 1: Knee-Deep in the Dead is set on military and industrial facilities on Phobos, and maps reflect that in their architecture. Absolutely Killed is analogous to a necklace of beads, each of a different shape, color, and material. "The unifying element is that they are all different," Scwiba said. "It's like a compilation of levels that would have been relegated to secret map slots in other projects."
Despite dissonance in one map's architecture and color palette to those of another, there is rhyme and reason to the order in which players tackle Absolutely Killed's levels. "'Barons of Fun' had to be first in order to ensure the player wouldn't have the weapons or ammo to actually fight the barons," Scwiba explained. "'Boxed In' is second so that it's early enough that getting a plasma gun feels like a big goal; it couldn't have been third because 'Call Apogee' needs to occupy that spot, the map slot with a secret exit."
The map order grows looser as players push deeper into the campaign. Scwiba's criteria for organization was to space out maps with similar gimmicks. "Hold the Hots" and "Pain" both incorporate damaging floors, and he didn't want to risk players growing bored or frustrated doing the same thing too often. "Breaking up heavier and lighter concept maps was a happy accident, but something I'll definitely pay more attention to in future projects," he added.
Like Viggles, Scwiba endeavored not to twist Doom's rule set, but to see what was possible within it. He took motivation from various official maps. "I suppose my process is to begin with a behavior I know of in the engine and then wonder—often off and on for months—how that could be used in new ways."
One type of behavior found in Doom E1M8, the final (non-secret) map of the campaign, caught his eye. Players battle two Barons of Hell, and after killing the last one, the walls of the arena fall away to reveal an outdoor area. Scwiba played with tying environmental changes to the player's actions in UnAligned, the mod he designed after Absolutely Killed. "In the original map, that meant killing them opened the path to the exit," he said. "But could you make it into a bad thing? I know barrels block players from moving over them at any height, so they can be placed lower than the player and act as an invisible barrier. What does that accomplish that a regular wall wouldn't?"
Of all the novel concepts he toyed with, Scwiba feels that his design philosophies coalesced best in "Hold the Hots," the campaign's fourth level. "The concept ties into the visuals which tie into the action. There's a ton of Doom's traditional run-and-gun action, but the way it plays out is twisted and shaped by the gimmick of the lethal hellfire, and that gimmick wouldn't work without the distinct look of the red light spilling out into a gloomy dungeon."
Scwiba normally avoids slaving over one particular spot on a map, preferring to paint in broader strokes so that every step through a level provides a unique or challenging experience. However, "Hold the Hots" contains a few instances where he broke from his convention and lovingly constructed holes through which red light shines through like rays of sunlight, albeit with a hellish tint.
"That effect was much harder to achieve than you might think, so I'm pretty proud of it," he said. "I'm the most proud of making something outside of the community's norms and not stopping to worry about whether anyone would like it. I made Absolutely Killed completely for myself and had a blast doing it; the fact that it made waves at all is just a bonus."
Download link: Doomworld
Skillsaw's introduction to Doom was far from terrifying. As a matter of fact, it was downright prosaic: He played the shareware, liked it, and bought and played through Doom and Doom 2. More than its frenetic gameplay, the game's community is what's kept him coming back.
"There are new releases on a daily basis," he said, "and the quality you can expect from each release seemingly gets higher every year. There's always something new to play and frequently by new faces that bring new ideas and perspectives. Doom manages to stay very fresh for a game that just celebrated its 23rd birthday."
Like many kids who grew up during the 1980s and '90s, Skillsaw played games often enough to feel inspired to make his own. Various editors for Doom gave him the chance to try his hand, although he admitted that his first efforts were far from memorable. "They were disorganized, very flat, and full of doors, mazes, and switches with no clearly discernible purpose."
One failing stood out more than others. Combat, one of the highlights of Doom, seemed incidental at best. "Which is fine, but nowadays, I like to mix in a lot of orchestrated scenarios in maps, and even include entire maps that are designed around a central planned gimmick that drives the gameplay," he explained. "I focus on flow and keeping the player on the right path, with some support for exploration and optional side areas here and there."
As much as he enjoys making levels, Skillsaw only brings an idea to fruition if it brings something unique to the table—a keystone that sets it apart from his past projects. "In Valiant I made heavy use of the gameplay modding features of my target engines to tweak the gameplay to support a projectile-spam style of play that I really enjoy. In Ancient Aliens I used a neon-themed palette and experimented in tongue-in-cheek storytelling. If I worked on a map set and it didn't have some kind of 'hook' like those, I don't think I would be satisfied with it."
Ancient Aliens has not just one hook, but several: dust-ups with extraterrestrials, a vibrant color scheme, and a custom soundtrack for starts. As is his custom, Skillsaw sketched out rough plans for themes, pondering textures to try out, and come up with a central hook—preferably something he hadn't done before—before breaking ground. "I usually have no idea what any of the maps are when I start them. As the map set fleshes itself out a bit, I begin to see what kind of maps I need to make to tie everything together and make those, but it's an organic process."
The campaign includes maps from over a dozen members of Doom's community, with Skillsaw wearing multiple hats to create palettes, build maps, and take point on level curation. "The initial hooks were I wanted to learn to edit the games palette," according to Skillsaw.
Combat, previously one of his weak spots, would play a more prominent role, although not a central one. "I wanted to make maps based around ammo starvation. There are some ammo starvation maps at the beginning, but I didn't stick with that theme long term so the palette ended up being the main driver. At some point I decided to explore storytelling in Doom a bit and worked in the tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek conspiracy story and theme."
The first thing players will notice about Ancient Aliens is its beautiful color palette. A starry expanse enfolds maps. Transparent bridges edged with rainbow-colored borders connect roads lined with edifices painted in light purples, blues, greens, and reds. Cities composed of buildings crowned with arcane symbols spill out over expanses of clouds like a scene from a Star Wars film.
A meandering river surrounds a ziggurat in Map 18: Illuminati Revealed, built by Skillsaw himself. The ziggurat looks impressive from afar, but the detail is astounding when viewed up close—obsidian blocks laced with cerulean veins to resemble space-age circuit boards.
"I just wanted to make the wad look unique, and there aren't many wads that use the same color palette as synthwave album covers," Skillsaw said.
Skillsaw had no strict guidelines for who could contribute what for Ancient Aliens. There was but one central theme. "Movement is what makes Doom fun, so make sure movement feels good," he explained. "This leads to some soft rules about how open areas are better than tight areas, doors and corridors should be kept to a minimum, etc. But these are soft rules and sometimes going against them can make an area more interesting."
Rather than put out a call for designers on every Doom forum in extant, he stuck to places he frequented. Between 10 and 15 mappers volunteered, and seven committed to full maps. "Seeing what everyone came up with was awesome, especially because everyone brought their own perspective and their own ideas that I wouldn't ever have come up with, and the guest maps all stand out as highlights precisely because they serve as a break from my stuff."
Looking back on Ancient Aliens, Skillsaw found a lot to love in his own work, as well as that of his team. "The guest maps and the soundtrack composed by stewboy are fantastic," he said. "I'm extremely happy with the aesthetic and the style of gameplay in my maps; I think my personality and creativity are realized better in Ancient Aliens than in anything I've done previously. I'm not sure if the Doom community would agree or if they will remember it more fondly than anything else I've made, but that doesn't matter. I made it for me. The fact that other people were willing to contribute so much still blows my mind."
Still Fragging Strong
Designing maps for themselves has served Viggles, Scwiba, and Skillsaw well, but it doesn't hurt to know that other Doom fanatics appreciate and anticipate their work. Ancient Aliens and Absolutely Killed earned Cacowards from Doomworld in 2016, and Viggles published Brigandine in February 2017 to enthusiastic reception.
That transaction, creating levels for others to play and playing levels made by others, has resulted in an economy of maps that shows no signs of drying up. A big part of that has to do with the delicate balance between power and ease of use that Doom editors and other tools offer.
"Doom, when it first came out, was super huge," said Viggles. "Millions played it and tens of thousands made levels for it. It established itself as one of the first successful modding communities, and it was punk as fuck."
"It's a primitive enough game that one person's efforts in their free time can realistically result in the creation of something compelling," explained Skillsaw, "but it's complex and has just enough fidelity that the things you create can really be your own if you want to make the extra effort. Modern games are way too much effort to mod for in the way you can for Doom. There aren't a lot of custom campaigns coming out for new games because it's an impossible amount of work."
"You can draw a whole Doom map on a piece of graph paper since you don't have to worry about truly 3D space—unless you want to, in which case there are more advanced source ports," added Scwiba. "You don't have to know a thing about coding—unless you want to, in which case, source ports. That's the beauty of Doom: it's as simple as you need when you start, and as complicated as you want it to be once you start getting comfortable."
As for John Romero, he's glad to know he'll never run out of new levels to play.
"To me, Doom was almost like the analog to the Apple II, which lived far longer than it should have, being a computer from the '70s and living until the early '90s," he said. "Doom felt like analog to that computer, where it just lasted for so long and was just the perfect combination of simplicity and accessibility. It was easy to have fun with it in whichever way you have fun: it's easy to make levels, it's easy to deathmatch, it's easy just to pick up and play it, it's been supported for years. Source ports like ZDoom, Zandronum, and Skulltag, they're all really great. Releasing the source code was the best thing we ever did."
World Wide Doom
Doom's portal to hell opened in University of Wisconsin-Madison on December 10, 1993, when id Software uploaded the shareware version to an FTP server. Eager players crowded the portal—so many, in fact, that the admin asked everyone to log out so the id guys could give them what they wanted. More portals opened from there, across university campuses and office parks and homes around the globe. Doomworld was one of the earliest, and continues to widen by the day.
Fans from around the world converge on Doomworld to discuss and share custom-made levels (known as WAD files), share tips and tricks for building maps, and debate its annual Cacowards ceremony honoring some of the best levels and total conversions from the past 12 months.
Andrew "Linguica" Stine is one of the gatekeepers of Doomworld, and has been since the beginning, though he didn't plan it that way. I spoke to him about how Doomworld started, the differences between hosting a website then and now, and the ongoing experiments into "vanilla" Doom's code that keeps him excited about id's hellish classic.
What was your introduction to Doom? Why has the series stuck with you?
I first played Doom as an impressionable teenager in the summer of 1994 and it was, of course, the most amazing thing in the world. There's an old Onion article that goes along the lines of: "Experts Agree: Pop Culture Reached Its Peak When You, The Person Reading This, Were 13 Years Old." I think that's probably basically the sort of impression it made on my psyche.
However, there was the added wrinkle of that it actually was one of the greatest games ever made and continues to be celebrated as such to this day. Most of the time you look at whatever you were obsessed with as a teenager with a more jaded eye later on and think, Wow, I can't believe I was so into Digimon or whatever and basically move on with your life, but I've been cursed by the fact that the object of my teenaged obsession has turned into an evergreen cultural touchstone and ongoing franchise. So that's fun.
How did Doomworld come about?
Doomworld arose as an offshoot of Telefragged.com, which was one of the players in the big groundswell of Quake-oriented websites following the game's release—others including Blue's News, Voodoo Extreme, Stomped.com, and a little site called the Shuga Shack.
After John Carmack at id Software released the Doom source code in late 1997, the admin of Telefragged decided it would be a good idea to create a Doom-centered website in the same vein as the Quake-centered websites. At the time, I happened to be working on a really dumb Doom mod project which never went anywhere, but which had a website hosted on the Telefragged servers. I had gotten bored with the mod and was spending more time updating the site with the latest Doom-related news I found from my web browsing, so I was the first person he thought of to head up the effort.
The domain name doomworld.com was available and seemed decent enough, so I started cobbling together the site in early 1998 before opening its doors that March.
Do you create mods, or is your interest in Doom and modding stem more from curation, which Doomworld provides?
I've dabbled in mod making from time to time, but nowhere to the extent, both in time or in craftsmanship, as scores of other modders out there. I've made a few minor things I won't bother mentioning, but the one thing I made that saw some wider impact was Selfie Doom, which I put together as a joke back in 2015, and which received a frankly baffling amount of media attention.
I don't know how much interest in curation I personally have, really, since I honestly don't play enough of the Doom mods out there to feel like I have a good grasp on everything. But Doomworld as a whole has sort of gravitated towards becoming a curator for Doom mod content in a few ways.
There's the forums, of course, where the majority of the action happens: people discuss the game, come up with idea for projects, etc. There's the /idgames Database, which is our frontend for the network of FTP servers that have hosted Doom files since 1994. It used to be that if you wanted to play a new Doom level, you had to log in to a FTP mirror and browse around until you came across a text file for a file that looked interesting. We put together a database to sort of overlay atop the FTP directories and let people more efficiently browse and search the files, as well as rate them and give feedback.
And then there's the Cacowards, which are Doomworld's yearly awards ceremony on the anniversary of Doom's release. This is the most obvious sort of curation the site does, where we have a team of dedicated Doomers who sit down every November and hash out what they feel are the most exemplary new project releases from the last year and compile it into a bunch of writeups and fake statuettes—and on rare occasions, even real ones, too.
What were your responsibilities on Doomworld early on?
I was the original webmaster of Doomworld, so I did pretty much everything on the site: I oversaw the original design work, compiling information for databases of utilities, editors, and Doom source ports writing news updates, etc. Back in the very early days everything was basically done in straight HTML in a text editor. For the first year or two of the site's existence, I—and several others who were editors for the site—did all the updates entirely by hand, editing the raw HTML with no scripting language on the backend or any content management system whatsoever.
Mordeth was one of the other original founders. He also had been working on his own Doom mod, which was more successful than my early efforts in that he actually released his, but he had also gravitated towards turning his page into more of a general Doom news site by late 1997 and the Doom source release. I asked him to join as another admin and he assisted in getting everything up and running, including doing much of the grunt work for the databases of Doom editors and utilities.
[Author's note: Mordeth could not be reached for comment.]
What was it like running a website in those early years when the Internet was still uncharted territory for most people? How would you contrast Doomworld then and now?
For anyone under the age of... uh... for anyone who can still reasonably consider themselves "young adults," it's hard to describe just how different the internet was in those days. Comparisons to the wild west are often thrown around, but it really was like a new frontier with no particular rules of what you could do or indeed what you should do.
The web today is a far more organized and useful place, but in being tamed, a certain ineffable quality has been lost. I don't want to wax nostalgic too much about the early web in general, but Doomworld in particular has certainly changed a huge amount since the early days. Back in the beginning it was primarily a one-way medium: Except for feedback via email or IRC or newsgroups, it was mostly just putting things out there because you got some sense of satisfaction from it, and then you moved on to the next thing you wanted to do.
Nowadays with social media having basically consumed the web, *everything* you consider doing is primarily viewed through the lens of not just if you like it, but if readers will like it and engage with it and comment and like and subscribe and so on. Right now I'm in the middle of wrestling with Doomworld's first major overhaul in 15 years, and I actually threw up my hands and bought a whole web community-oriented software suite to base it around, since there's not much use in trying to do anything else.
Your profile says that you left the site in 2003. What prompted this departure?
In 2003 I was in college and couldn't afford to keep spending a lot of time on a hobby, so I tried to make a clean and "official" break from the site. This was doomed (heh) almost from the start. It's difficult to give up any long-lasting hobby cold turkey, especially when your hobby is hopefully continuing on without you.
I didn't "leave" in 2003 so much as just give up my official title as webmaster, and continued puttering around and occasionally working on the site for years. I "left" more permanently circa 2008 when real-life job and education responsibilities made it difficult to spend any time at all paying attention to Doomworld.
I should mention of course that the site wasn't left rudderless. Another staffer, Bill, who goes by "Bloodshedder," had taken on a lot of responsibilities by that point and was elevated to become the de facto webmaster, and the site continued on more or less smoothly in my absence. I "came back" in 2014, with sort of a gradual re-immersion in the website and the responsibilities therein.
What are those responsibilities?
Nowadays I'm the webmaster for Doomworld once again. After returning I had started doing things for the site like fixing bugs with the forum software, and by the time mid-2015 came around, Telefragged finally—finally!—decided to wind down operations and stop providing us with the free hosting we had enjoyed all the way up to that point. Faced with the prospect of the site going defunct, I decided to officially (re)take up the mantle of webmaster by reacquainting myself with all the vagaries of website hosting and management and moving the site onto its own independent server.
Since then I've tinkered around the edges to provide some new features and upgrades, but hopefully fairly soon I'll be able to roll out the first major revamp the site has seen since 2003.
Aside from areas within your purview, what do you enjoy doing on Doomworld in your spare time?
A lot of my more recent Doom-related activity has been centered around studying some of the most seemingly pointless and minute aspects of the Doom engine, and more specifically, the original, "vanilla" Doom engine. With modern source ports like GZDoom, which expose huge numbers of features to a modder and encompass entire Turing-complete scripting languages, making weird Doom mods has sort of migrated from being "cool hacks" to being basically like any other amateur game development effort, just with a game engine that happens to be centered around Doom.
I'm typically more interested in figuring out what the Doom engine could have done back in 1994 in its original state. My Selfie Doom mod actually arose from some research on how to display certain kinds of HUD graphics onscreen, and I've recently done other silly stuff like creating vanilla Doom levels with non-Euclidean portal-type effects, experimented with an ersatz "megatexturing" technique, and writing a big "movement bible" that attempted to explain every strange movement and physics quirk including documenting one that had never before been isolated or explained.
I'm currently off-and-on working a new vanilla Doom "map" that will show off another little-used avenue of exploiting the Doom engine, and I have various other ideas in store for the future. I think I enjoy deconstructing Doom more than actually playing it, to be honest—which might have once seemed super strange, but nowadays with the big speedrunning and TAS [tool-assisted speedruns] communities, and people figuring out stuff like total control hacks to program Tetris inside of Pokemon or whatever, I feel like it's not such an unusual interest.
What do you believe has kept Doom and Doom 2's modding community—and Doomworld—active decades after their respective releases?
That's really the million-dollar question, I suppose. The Doom modding community originally arose due to several twists of fate. It was a viscerally exciting and technologically groundbreaking PC game which just happened to be released right at the moment when the internet was starting to take off, and caught the attention of a lot of university students who were looking for a cool game to play on their PC and who also knew how to program.
It benefited from a real sort of "first-mover" advantage where it got lots of early attention and lots of smart people tearing through its guts and reverse engineering tools for it, and then more people got interested in using those tools to create new things, which interested even more people.
Why it still has a measure of popularity today, though, is more baffling. I think that it boils down to the fact that Doom modding is, relatively speaking, quite easy, and you get a lot of "bang for your buck." Obviously things like Mario Maker are easier and more straightforward, but they're also pretty limited in their scope of what you can create with them. Something like Unity lets you make anything your imagination can dream up, but that comes at the cost of massive complexity and having to wrangle lots and lots of art assets.
With Doom, it's not hard to bang out what is essentially a 2D blueprint for a level in an afternoon, and it can be any sort of level you want—within the available Doomy constraints, of course.
Silhouettes and Sacrifices
"Doom 2016's story was fantastic." If you never expected to say those words, you weren't alone.
Creative director Hugo Martin got his start working on Uncharted at Naughty Dog, went to Hollywood and created character designs for 2013's Pacific Rim, then returned to video games when he landed his job at id Software. His resume made him uniquely suited to recalibrate expectations for stories in big-budget games, to say nothing of id Software's long history of simple but effective "A portal to a bad place opened, kill everything that comes out of it" narratives.
In our talks, Martin touched on storytelling lessons he picked up from working in Hollywood, how comic books informed Doom's visuals and narrative, and why less is more in games and film.
A lot of producers talk about crafting a "cinematic experience" in a game. You've actually crafted cinematic experiences in cinema. Do you find that "cinematic experiences" so often boil down to watching two characters stand around and talk? I like when games make use of storytelling devices unique to the medium—that is, actually playing the game. I wondered what your take was as someone who's told stories in both formats.
Hugo Martin: Throughout my career I was bouncing back and forth, and I started in games, plus I'm a huge gamer. I definitely understand the medium... I mean, I like to think I do. [laughs] I find my film background and my passion for films to be very useful. We're going for feelings. That's basically it. In the film medium, you've got different limitations and different things you can do. And obviously in games you have a whole different set of limitations.
It's funny. I agree with you: I like games like Bloodborne so much because it doesn't really stop me. I don't necessarily want to be stopped if I don't have to be. It's got to be a pretty good story in a video game for me to want to sit there and watch people talk. And what's really funny about that is that's not really a good thing. How many times are you going to sit there and watch two people have a conversation? The main character of the film is going to watch people have a conversation? That's pretty rare.
In games, it's just because of the way the medium works. You tend to end up doing that a lot. I think what you see in film, and what we can learn from film, is you take a film like Michael Clayton—that movie uses the same type of efficiency that we tried to use in Doom. It's giving you so much information but does it in such an efficient way. I think the best kind of storytelling is when you don't even really realize you're being told a story. I think we all get pissed off in games and movies when you can feel it: "It's story time! I'm six years old again, and the teacher's got the book out and she's explaining everything to me. Oh my god. I'm so bored."
My favorite kind of storytelling is when I don't even notice it's happening. I think for the most part, that's what we tried to do with Doom. Whether or not we did that successfully, I'll leave that up to the fans. There is a tremendous amount of storytelling going on in Doom, and very little of it has to do with people telling you stuff. The story of Doom is: we want the player to feel like a badass. That's it. That's the story of Doom. It's a combination of progression in the game, the weapons, the few things people say to you, their reaction to you. There's even more stuff in the codecs if you choose to read or listen to it.
All of it has one goal in mind: Doom 2016 is doing its damnedest to make you feel strong. If we had 10 dollars, we'd spend eight of it on combat, a dollar on something else, and one dollar left for the story. All of that money would be spent on making you feel like a badass.
With my film background, you look at films that do well, and you pull out of it what you can and try to apply it to your game. One thing about my film background that I think helps me, and it's kind of an attitude that we have here, is: there's never enough time, there's never enough money, to do the thing you really want to do. There's this "Let's figure out a way to get it done" attitude in film that I love.
Think about all the making-of stories. Like Empire Strikes Back: it's a bunch of kids in a garage, and they're pulling off the best effects the world had ever seen. The matte paintings for the Hoth scenes are made by some kid who never even worked on a film before. They were some of the best Hoth paintings the world had ever seen. That's the kind of attitude that I really wanted the team to have: this roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done. We love to make two dollars look like 20. Just being really smart about it.
Take James Cameron on Aliens. He wants 20 aliens in suits; the studio says, "You have a budget for seven or eight." The way he figures out to make seven or eight aliens look like 20 is, what they actually look like is total shit, but to the audience, they look amazing on film. He gets really clever: "Okay, that doesn't look as good as we want. Let's put some smoke here. Let's turn down the lights. Let's keep action going."
That's really what working on a game or movie is like when it's at its best. That's the fun. The box is always too small. I think the attitude in film is, learn how to pack as much shit as you can into that box. I think some of the best work that Ridley Scott ever did was, he didn't have enough money to make the sets in Alien look the way he wanted to, so he started turning off lights and filling the room with smoke. He created a visual style that to this day is... I mean, come on. What looks better than Blade Runner or Aliens? And that was born out of him not having enough resources to do what he wanted to do.
The box was too small. Those restrictions that are put on creative people, that's where innovation comes through. Honestly, innovation is why we do this. It's so exciting to work with a team, and there's this camaraderie that comes out of it when you're figuring out a way to put something that's way too big into the box you have—and then you actually figure out a way to do it, and the audience is like, "Holy..." Their perception of the box is way bigger than it is. That's what gets me up in the morning.
That's a film attitude, but certainly they've been doing that in games for [decades]. The truth is, nobody has enough money. Everybody's box is too small. Even Apple's box is too small. I think we look at Apple products and think, Oh my god, they have unlimited resources. Everybody's got a schedule, everybody's got a deadline to meet, and that makes the box smaller than you want, but I think the best teams embrace the box.
I'm not as much of a film buff as you are, but I am interested in learning about how movies are made. I've found that I gravitate toward films that were made with practical effects. Take, as an example, the original Star Wars trilogy and the prequels. Whether someone loves the prequels or hates them, there are stark differences between the creative processes.
Hugo Martin: I think that James Cameron in Avatar pretty much showed you what he can do when his box is bigger, and it was pretty fucking spectacular. Some of my favorite things in art—art being film, games, fine art, illustrations, whatever—I think the best decisions you make, as a creative person, is the stuff that you leave out of the image.
Those are usually what make the parts that you left in even more powerful, because you're giving the audience an opportunity to participate in the image, or the game, or the story. I'll use Doom as an example. The game itself did not allow for us to expand on the story of the Doom Slayer and some of the lore as much as we... I wouldn't say "wanted to," but "could have." Not only did we have resource limitations, we had time limitations. We also had the fact that the race car [analogy] wasn't built for that. I don't think that's what people wanted from Doom.
So what we did was, we edited, edited, edited. We gave you Part A of the story, and Part C of the story, and we asked you to figure out Part B. In my opinion, that's the best way to go about it. You're basically making me, as an audience member, sit up in my chair and participate and figure it out. That's what I find to be the most engaging approach.
What happens when your box gets really big and you have CG... let's take visuals for example. My biggest problem with the [Star Wars] prequels is I can see everything. It's almost like I want to go in there and say, "Okay, I know we modeled all this shit. I know it was all designed and we spent a lot of money on the Jedi Temple, but for Christ's sake, can somebody turn off some lights and give this room some style?"
And I know why they did that. "That carpet? We paid a lot of money for that carpet. That stuff on the wall? That was really expensive. I want to see this creature fully lit from every angle because we spent two months making this thing in CG." And I'm like, dude, I don't want to see this whole thing. The analogy that I use—it's a concept I taught to my students—is when someone is telling you a story, and they're telling you every single detail. Hey, how was that movie? "Okay, so the credits started. Then it said, 'Directed by...' Jesus Christ, dude. You're killing me.
A really good storyteller edits and only hits the high points, and then you paint a picture in your mind to fill in the rest of the story. That's how you entertain people. That's true, in my opinion, for games, for painting, for film. And a lot of times, as in our case, that was a result of our box being too small to fit stuff in, so we let the audience fill in the blanks. Ultimately, that creates a higher level of audience participation. It's more engaging that way.
When we look back on Alien, for example, a lot of times [Ridley Scott] shut the lights off because stuff didn't look that good. But, my god, tell me you don't fill in the blanks on Blade Runner so much. It's just smoke and silhouettes with hints of detail, but that is the greatest depiction of a futuristic city to this day. Honestly. Maybe Fifth Element, but I'd like somebody to show me a better depiction of a futuristic city than Blade Runner.
I've taken screen shots of every inch of that film to do film study, lighting—to really understand it. When you take a screen shot [of Blade Runner], it's amazing how little information is really on-screen. It's all implied. It's all silhouettes, and your mind is filling in the blanks. The story that you create in your head is always going to be better than the one I write down for you. No one's a better director than you, that's for sure.
If you allow your audience to participate in your game's story and your game's visual, it's going to be more compelling because what they fill in the blanks with is always going to be the coolest thing for them. Honestly, that was a bit of a debate for us on Doom 2016. The difference is in games, you have to see your objective. The reason why I came to games is because I love games, and I find making games to be extremely compelling. You just heard me rant about movies and art for 10 minutes, but I'm never going to put that stuff above gameplay. Gameplay rules the roost around here.
I might run the kitchen, and Marty runs the restaurant, but fun is the boss. Fun runs the show around here. [Doom] is a video game, so gameplay first. But when it came to visuals, I very much wanted to use that Ridley Scott approach of smoke and silhouettes when possible. Now, that became a challenge. On a film set—I worked at Blur for many years—some environment artist is going to model every detail of an environment, and it's very difficult to turn around and say to him, "Yeah, we're going to shut lights off and put a bunch of smoke in there, and they won't really see it." He's going to be like, "Then why am I here?"
That tends to be a bit of a struggle, so whenever possible we try to use that Ridley Scott approach to make [Doom] more suggestive. It's a bit of a balance in video games. I want to see my objectives. Gameplay first, art second. We're always going back and forth on that, but it's all about audience participation for me.
My favorite moment in video game storytelling over the last three years—and I won't talk about our game because that would be obnoxious—in Bloodborne, there's a woman in a white dress in one of the levels. I think it's in the last level before the last boss. She's standing there staring up at the boss arena you're going to enter, and she doesn't say anything, and she's bloody. The story I have in my head of who that girl is—I have a whole thing built up in my head that that's the wife of the boss you fight at the end, and the boss is all disfigured, and... It's a great story! I want to write it down. [laughs] But I love the fact that it's my story. Bloodborne, very similarly to Doom, is kind of like, don't tell me the whole story; let me figure it out.
Bloodborne is a good example. I love all of the SoulsBorne games, and what I like about their approach to lore is when you find a sword on a corpse, that sword wasn't placed arbitrarily. That corpse wasn't there by chance. But you don't have to care about that. You can read the weapon's description, or you can just equip it and go back to killing bad guys. Doom was like that. I read all the monuments about the Doom Slayer, but a friend didn't, and he never missed a beat.
Hugo Martin: And they felt like a badass. I think that's a story that you both got, but you have a little more context as to exactly what kind of badass you are. That's what I like. We said, "Let's give them the option." Personally, as a fanboy, I very much enjoy digging into that stuff. I want to read about every aspect of the stuff I'm into. We leave that open for the player. If you want more context, you can find it.
I gave a talk at a game lab conference in Barcelona about this. When it comes to audience participation, if you look at some of the great pieces of art in history and you think about those images, they're doing the same thing. Comic books are the obvious ones. How many comic books use heavy blacks? A lot of stuff falls into shadow, and you're just catching a little bit of information and [a glimpse] of characters standing there. Pretty much every cool Batman poster ever is like that.
I was actually thinking of Batman.
Hugo Martin: Completely, right? Some of the best Frank Miller images are like that, and some of the best Batman images are like that. My mind fills in the rest. I think that's why those images are so cool. I think it's a really powerful concept. I like experiencing art in that way, and I like making art like that.
My favorite depiction of Batman is from The Animated Series where he's just a shadow with glowing white eyes.
Hugo Martin: Totally! Or the Ninja Turtles when they do that. It's the coolest thing. I actually like the [Star Wars] prequels. I realize I'm in the minority, and I totally agree with people's issues with them. What I like about the prequels compared to the originals—obviously I like both—but I think George [Lucas] swung for the fences. There's a lot of really cool stuff. In a half-hour's worth of any of the prequels, there are new ships, new characters, new ideas that I really like.
With Force Awakens, and I think that's a great film, but there aren't as many new ideas being introduced. But one thing is that when I close my eyes and think about the pros and cons of the prequels, it's too fucking bright. There's just too much information. I can see too much stuff. They don't leave enough to the imagination.
Doom's Ultra Nightmare mode is tough, but in game development, working long days and coming in on weekends is even tougher. A fun project and healthy camaraderie can make the experience more bearable.
Marty Stratton, Doom's executive producer and director, talked to me about the pressure he felt working on such a beloved brand, who among the development team succeeded in finishing Ultra Nightmare first, what his son's friends thought of their first Doom game, and his reaction to Doom's overwhelmingly positive reception.
Doom has been out almost a year. Now that you've had time to reflect, what did you enjoy most about the project?
Marty Stratton: 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?
Marty Stratton: 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."
Marty Stratton: 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.
Marty Stratton: 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.
A huge thank-you to all the individuals who helped make this feature possible: Erin Losi, assistant director of public relations at Bethesda Softworks, and Liz Roland, senior account executive at Fortyseven Communications, for coordinating interviews with the folks at id Software; Hugo Martin and Marty Stratton, creative director and game director/executive producer on Doom 2016, respectively, for taking time out of their busy GDC schedules and even more time afterwards to ansnwer my questions; John Romero, who has graciously allowed me to pick his brain about Doom and assorted other projects on multiple occasions; Marcos 'Sergeant Mark IV' Abenante, 'viggles,' 'skillsaw,' 'scwiba,' and Andrew 'Linguica' Stine, for opening up about their passion for Doom and its community; Shacknews video producer Greg Burke for lending his deft touch to the video interviews that accompany this piece; and last but not least, Shacknews CEO Asif Khan and editor-in-chief Steve Watts for giving me a ridiculous but much-appreciated span of time to get this project just right.