THERE WERE DAYS WHEN MARTY Stratton wondered if the storm clouds gathered over id Software would ever part.
As an executive producer at the Dallas, Texas-based studio, he had held on through id's most turbulent years: being acquired by Bethesda Softworks parent company ZeniMax Entertainment in 2009; the departure of studio co-founder and programming genius John Carmack, who was later sued by ZeniMax for allegedly walking away with proprietary code used in Oculus's Rift VR headset; and the interminable struggle to reboot Doom, perhaps the studio's most beloved franchise.
"We went into building Doom 2016 with a little bit of turmoil around what was termed 'Doom 4 1.0,' and the reboot of that reboot," Stratton explained. "A lot happened in the studio at that time. We grew, then shrunk back down around one project."
Doom 4 had shared more in common with Call of Duty than id's classic first-person shooters. When it became clear that direction wasn't working, Stratton and creative director Hugo Martin scrapped it, and led a team of weary developers back to the starting line.
What they came up with felt familiar, yet fresh.
The Doom they envisioned, referred to as Doom 2016 for its release date, paired the franchise's patented frenetic and bloody gameplay with contemporary systems. Weapons could be outfitted with modifications such as heat-seeking rockets and turrets. Players' avatar, the Doom Slayer, could be upgraded to give players more ammo, more health, and abilities such as a double jump. Scouring every nook and cranny of the game's capacious levels rewarded players with perks such as upgrade points, collectibles, runes that augmented their weapons and abilities, and secret passages that led to pixel-for-pixel recreations of classic maps from Doom and Doom 2.
Doom 2016's defining feature, the nucleus at its blood-soaked core, was a style of gameplay that the team dubbed push-forward combat. Doom 3, a previous reboot of the franchise released in 2004, had been a slow-paced horror game. Players crept down shadowy passageways, a flashlight raised to light their path. When a monster appeared--often materializing behind them for an effective but cheap jump scare--they had to manually lower their flashlight and equip their weapon of choice. The arrival of two or three monsters was cause for concern. Better to find somewhere to hole up and shoot from safety than engage hell's denizens head-on.
Doom 2016's tagline, Rip and Tear, was more than a marketing slogan. It was the antithesis to Doom 3's creepy, slower-paced haunted house. Movement was fast and fluid. Enemies attacked in packs, and ran at players who dared to put space between them. Players still found health and armor kits sprinkled across each level, but the game awarded aggression and forward momentum. Glory Kills, an execution-style move that could be performed on enemies at the brink of death, showered players in health. The chainsaw killed enemies instantly, and showered players in ammo.
On later levels, when players had acquired every weapon, upgraded most or all their stats and arsenal, and faced swarms of monsters, push-forward combat became a graceful but deadly dance. Doom 2016 felt like Doom, and something else at the same time. Something fresh.
Doom 2016's developers loved it, but one week ahead of its launch, the deck seemed stacked against it. Weeks prior, publisher Bethesda Softworks and id had invited players to participate in a beta test for the game's multiplayer modes. After getting hands-on time, players recoiled. The gameplay was slow and floaty, more like Halo or Call of Duty than Doom or Quake. Players could only carry two weapons at a time, a design contrary to Doom and Quake tradition of exploring arenas and looting dead opponents to acquire armaments.
Most perplexingly, the beta lacked deathmatch and team deathmatch, a style of play that Doom had introduced in 1993.
Players flooded Steam with negative reviews as the beta ran its course. By mid-April, Doom 2016 was ranked Bethesda's second-most hated game on the digital gaming service, behind Fallout 4's Wasteland Workshop expansion.
With each negative review, the cloud hanging over id darkened. Then, days before Doom's release, the worst news story yet broke: Bethesda would not distribute early copies of Doom to influencers and journalists until midnight on May 13, the game's release date.
It's standard practice in the industry for publishers to send members of the press early copies of a game so they have time to play it to completion and write an informed review before launch. Critics would have to sprint through Doom 2016 to publish reviews as soon as possible, before interest in reading or watching reviews waned. (Bethesda formalized that policy later that year.)
To consumers, a publisher's decision to hold review copies creates an ominous subtext: The forthcoming game must be so buggy, so glitchy, so boring, so utterly terrible that publishers want to prevent consumers from reading bad reviews, which would impact sales. According to that logic, fans reasoned that Doom 2016 must be as bad as its beta led everyone to believe.
Rather than intimidate Doom 2016's developers, the negativity incited them. "There was a lot of skepticism going into it," Stratton recalled. "Not internally, but externally, there was a lot of, 'Why are you making this? What are you doing to this sacred cow?' We went into launch with a chip on our shoulder."
Once critics had a few days to finish the campaign and test the game's multiplayer and map-making tools, reviews for Doom 2016 told another story. Critical outlets praised the fusion of level design and momentum-fueled action. Fans won over by the campaign counteracted the glut of negative reviews on Steam; in less than a week, Doom 2016 rose from a "Mostly Negative" consensus to "Very Positive." The cherry on top came months later in December, when Shacknews and Polygon crowned it the best game of the year.
Doom 2016's developers feasted on positive reviews and sweet vindication. They had performed alchemy, transmuting the granddaddy of first-person shooters into a modern-day classic. With the game's success came the opportunity to course-correct its multiplayer. Id's team had been too small to juggle multiplayer modes in addition to a campaign, so the company had handed it to Certain Affinity, a studio with years of experience constructing shooters. While Certain Affinity had done a commendable job, reviews cited multiplayer as the only major chink in Doom 2016's armor. Id decided to bring multiplayer back in-house and kitted it with more power-ups and modes, including Free For All, another name for deathmatch.
"Making games is complicated, Stratton continued. "You're creating and inventing on all fronts. At least the way we make games, we're pushing new technology, design ideas, and environments. You're always trying to find the fun."
AFTER A BRIEF RESPITE, MARTY Stratton and Hugo Martin gathered their team to find the fun once again. They knew they wanted to make another Doom game. The only question was, what kind?
They had two options. Online, fans clamored for DLC for Doom 2016's stellar campaign, the shining star of the game. Capitalizing on that momentum seemed obvious.
Option two would also build on that momentum, and the team considered it a much more attractive option. "We knew we wanted to do a sequel," Stratton said. "Even through development, we saw an arc to it from a story perspective, from a gameplay perspective, that felt right. We knew we wanted to leverage all the lessons learned and everything we'd done."
Those lessons applied to more than designing gameplay loops and optimizing graphics. Id experienced little turnover during Doom 2016's development. Moreover, all the hits the studio took during those tempestuous years solidified the bonds between those who remained. Not only had they survived, they had gleaned the experience of building and launching a successful title. Their best option was to channel that experience into creating an even bigger and better product.
"You feel like asking a little bit more of the player, and trying to balance the game more so one gun doesn't solve all your problems," Hugo Martin said of his desire to move on to a sequel. "You should have to use all the weapons, or at least have there be a greater balance of risk-reward to the weapons, like there was in the original Doom."
Part of Martin's job was to stay on top of chatter around Doom. The more he trawled forums, reviews, and Twitch streams, the more he realized players and critics seemed to agree with weak points he had identified himself. While levels were fun to explore, progression boiled down to walking from one combat arena to the next.
Push-forward combat itself needed retooling. "By the time you were halfway through Doom 2016, you had pretty much seen every environment the game was going to throw at you. I think you'd probably seen most of the enemies, other than bosses," said Stratton. "When you got toward the end of the second half, there was a bit of a plateau. The tension and difficulty in combat continued to increase, but visually speaking, you'd leveled up in terms of spectacle."
It didn't take long for the development team to reach a consensus. Expansion packs were out. They would move forward on a sequel, one that magnified Doom 2016's strong points and discarded the chaff.
"From a team perspective, we're maybe 35 to 45 percent larger than we were [for Doom 2016]," Stratton continued. "All of our leads worked on Doom 2016 either as a lead or as a senior. There's confidence. The team feels more confident, with a bit more of a swagger. That makes decisions better: confidence in each other, confidence in themselves. It allows us to stretch and push further than we were able to before. The efficiency from all that gives us opportunity to do more."
One year in, their confidence flagged.
DESIGN CONVERSATIONS CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE at id. The bullpens are spacious, with room to roll around in chairs, and whiteboards on walls so developers can scratch out ideas on the fly. Hugo Martin and Marty Stratton could often be found leaning against a low wall near one of those boards, talking amongst themselves or with other developers about ideas for their sequel, named Doom Eternal.
One afternoon, Martin caught up with Stratton before they headed out for the day. "No one's playing the game," he said. One of the hallmarks of a great game, Martin knew, was developers staying late and coming in on weekends just to play, even if they'd already logged 80-plus hours at work. They'd been working for a year, and no one, not even Martin, was playing Doom Eternal for fun.
At first, Stratton smiled. "What are you talking about? I love Doom."
Martin waved him off. He loved Doom. So did everybody on the team. But if Doom Eternal was fun, he argued, he should be looking for any reason to hang around the office and play. That's what he'd done during Doom 2016.
When the team reconvened, Martin and Stratton polled developers on their thoughts. They came away with a troubling consensus. In its current state, Doom Eternal still rewarded players for indulging in the high-speed violence that had made classic Doom games so iconic. But something was missing. Push-forward combat and Glory Kills were still awesome. They were also old hat.
Martin's feelings concretized as QuakeCon 2018 approached. The annual keynote would end with the worldwide premiere of Doom Eternal. Martin spent weeks capturing footage of himself playing to put together a kickass trailer. He played the way it was meant to be played: maximum aggression, swapping weapons like a performer juggling a dozen balls, zooming in on wounds his weapons had inflicted on monsters, and swinging between enemies using the meat hook, a new item that players could use to pull themselves toward enemies.
In essence, he followed the script he wanted other performers, the game's intended audience, to follow.
"You couldn't put your finger on it, but the game got really boring because nothing could touch you," Martin explained. "You could dash away from projectiles and enemies so easily that you could blast through the whole game like it was nothing. That wasn't good."
Doom Eternal was real. Monsters, environments, movement--everything in id Software's carefully curated premiere video existed in a playable form. The problem, Martin reflected, was the way he had played was optional. It needed to be mandatory. The right way.
"Doom 2016 was a one-trick pony," Martin admitted. "It didn't have much to offer besides skate parks and arena fights. And that's true. Our combat was world-class, but everything else about the game wasn't necessarily up to the level of the combat. What we wanted to do was make sure the moments you have traversing through the level and solving the level-design puzzles we provide you are just as engaging as the arena fights. Every aspect of the game had to get better. The way we did that was by owning the contrivances of being a video game."