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'All Right, Screw It:' How id Software Made 'Doom' Great Again

Even 'Mad Max' played a role in the design direction of the new 'Doom'.

by Leif Johnson
Aug 8 2016, 9:00am

Image: id Software.

Nothing really defines the new Doom quite like the glory kills, the gruesome finishing attacks that see its silent space marine ripping off the heads of demons or punching in their skulls for a boost in health. Small surprise that, according to Hugo Martin, the game's creative director at id Software, everything else grew from that. At a panel at QuakeCon in Dallas this weekend, Martin recalled how the animation team pulled together a cinematic sequence a few years back showing the glory kills in action but without the ability to play them. Everyone watched, and for the most part, everything clicked. They knew they had the right direction.

Today, Doom is anything but doomed. Publisher Bethesda Softworks hasn't released the official sales figures so far, but current data from SteamSpy based on Steam sales show that almost a million players have bought it for PC alone. And now, Doom's success a given, its makers are opening up about the path that led them to such heights. I attended the panel on its creation on Saturday, but the day before that I had a chance to speak privately with Doom's game director Marty Stratton about the long, glorious road to hell.

Fortunately for us, that road was paved less with good intentions than the desire to rekindle a smothered flame. Stratton tells me that the actual decision to make a new Doom game was never really in doubt.

"When you work at id, it's like, we think about Doom. It's not like we have fifty brands up on the shelf and we're like, "Oh, my God, we forgot about Doom."

Image: id Software.

The question was what to do with it. The last Doom game was 2004's Doom 3, which caught the badassery of kicking demon ass well enough but leaned heavily toward gloomy shadows and survival horror. (I admit I couldn't play it with the lights off.) They'd toyed with a few ideas for a new Doom game that Stratton seems reluctant to talk about, though leaked footage from that project exists. According to Bethesda's vice president of public relations Pete Hines, it was canceled because it felt too much like Call of Duty.

"All right, we said, screw it. We're just going to own it," Stratton said. "He's not going to talk. He's going to speak through his fist."

Stratton readily recounts how he and the id team went to a whiteboard and started identifying what he called the "DNA" of Doom. Doom 3 had come out almost a decade ago at that point, so they weren't as concerned about making a proper sequel instead of the reboot we got. Of their ideas, very few had much to do with heavy story à la BioShock or careful crouch cover mechanics as in Gears of War.

"The narrative only exists to make the player feel like a badass," Martin said at the panel. Stratton, too, champions his animators in this regard, asserting that their ability to convey such a tale of badassery through actions and motions alone gave them the courage to return Doom to roots that would normally feel out of place in a modern game.

"All right, we said, screw it. We're just going to own it," Stratton said. "We're going to own the Doom Marine's attitude and we're going to do it first-person. He's not going to talk. He's going to speak through his fist."

At the panel, Stratton pulled up a video showing ideas they were toying around with in 2012 and 2013, where the Doomguy clobbers aliens under a sunny blue sky amid ruined concrete structures that could be in the dead neighborhoods of Detroit rather than Doom's usual setting of Mars. But that's not the only difference—it's slow, for one, as though the Doomguy is wading through mud rather than stomping on concrete. But through it all, that one constant, the meaty violence of the glory kill, remains supreme even then.

"I'm like, 'Shut the fuck up,'" Stratton said. "I don't want to be told what to do. I'm the Doom marine. This is my game, not your game.'"

The true key to making Doom successful, Stratton said, was "trimming away the fat." Doom helped make the first-person shooter genre a thing back in 1993, but the need for innovation over the years led its many descendants to bloat and struggle under the weight of complicated mechanics, a heavy story focus, and an arsenal of features that too often pulled players out of the action. The new Doom initially had some of that, too. Stratton tells me of the way a character named Spencer used to warn and advise the Doomguy about whatever was going to hell around him, like whether he had to find a way out of the room or "find the blue key" or watch out for a fire.

"I'm like, 'Shut the fuck up,'" Stratton said. "I don't want to be told what to do. I'm the Doom marine. This is my game, not your game.'"

It was time to move back to basics. Just because you can put hours of voice acting into your real-looking demon shooter, they discovered, doesn't mean you necessarily should. Dozens of ideas they had toyed with—letting the Doomguy talk, inserting more chatty characters—went out as production went on. Stratton insists he was uncompromising in this regard. And sure, all that stripping felt risky. But in the spring of 2015 Stratton partly found justification and motivation from an unlikely source—the critically acclaimed release of Mad Max: Fury Road. Like Doom, it was a revival of an aging property; like Doom, it worked best when it stuck to the basics.

"I was like, God dang, they really kept it simple," Stratton said. "Max doesn't talk much at all. It's basically a movie about a car chase from Point A to Point B and from Point B back to Point A. It's ridiculous fun. They just say, 'We're going to have a blast and you better be ready for the ride.'"

Image: id Software.

Some wonder if id trimmed a tad too much "fat" this time around, as the new Doom lacks the rich open-ended modding scene that defined Doom and Doom II. Even now, players are making wonderful creations with it, as we at Motherboard have covered multiple times within the last year alone.

Doom does allow a cool "SnapMap" feature that lets players create their own levels, but it's comparatively (ahem, severely) limited in scope, which almost certainly hurts its longevity. Yet Stratton said he made the decision to prohibit open-ended mods "very early, like right from the beginning," largely owing to the fact that the game already takes up 50GB on a disk. That's partly due, he said, to the heavy detail involved. Stratton said they needed "a whole fleet of computers" just to bake the lightmap.

"In some respects [with the old Doom games] you're dealing with very small data sizes, very simple level editing, all that kind of stuff, which is why I think it's still very popular—it's accessible within that realm," he said. "The size of things and the complexity of things, the complexity of our tools: it's not accessible. It really isn't."

There's a faint whiff of politics in Stratton's answers, and it'll be interesting to see if the Doom community manages to make a proper modding scene whether Bethesda and id want it to or not. As things stand, it doesn't allow for the kind of magic Doom fans experienced earlier this year when John Romero, co-creator of the original Doom, released a new Doom map for the first time in 21 years. Which brings up another question.

As Stratton prepared to leave his panel, I caught up with him and asked if he'd heard anything from Doom creators John Romero and John Carmack regarding what they think of his work.

"Nothing," he said. "Not a thing."