A few weeks ago, on Friday the 13th saw the release of the newest installment of the DOOM franchise. Playing on its superstitious and hellish connotations, such an auspicious date was not chosen accidentally. In current times it might not be the force that it once was, having given way to the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises, but we may never have seen such series if it weren't for DOOM.
Editor's Note: Today we're introducing Game Changers, a new article series that travels through time to look at milestones in the industry. Game Changers aims to highlight the video games that have influenced countless others for years — sometimes even generations — to come. They've left their fingerprints on their own genres, or sometimes even the whole of the gaming world, and helped get us to where we are today. For our first piece, Andrew has chosen id Software's DOOM
. We have a list of future subjects in the series, as well. If you'd like to suggest a title be featured in Game Changers, send a message to Mark Delaney
Some say that it was a game that defined a whole genre. Others go further and state that it was the game that defined the whole industry. In truth, even in a world of marketing hype, superlatives, and hyperbole, it remains difficult to overstate the impact that DOOM has had on the gaming industry. It’s even quite possible that the industry would not be where it is today if it had not been for this one game changing title.
Limitations of computing power meant that most games in the early nineties were 2D vertical or horizontal scrolling platformers or top-down (overhead) shooters. This was already seen as a big step forward from single screen titles such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. However, even as far back as 1974 there had been experiments with 3D games. The first recognisable title was Maze Wars on the Imlac system. The screen showed a 3D maze from the first-person perspective with a map at the bottom. Interestingly the game even allowed two people to play against each other over a wired connection. If you’re looking for the first FPS, then technically this may well be it. Movement however, was tile-based and quite rigid moving one ‘step’ at a time.
It was in this period of home and hobby computing that John Romero formed up with visionary programmer John Carmack and started the company, id Software. Whilst both were programmers, Romero had more creative ideas whilst Carmack could work magic with the technology of the day. The team expanded to bring in artist Adrian Carmack and designer Tom Hall. All were relatively young and full of new and unconventional ideas and concepts.
The initial games followed the trend of 2D platforms, and it wasn’t until 1981 when Hovertank 3D arrived that id first experimented with 3D. It was relatively simple, featuring plain colours for walls, floor, and ceiling. They followed this with Catacomb 3-D, which, for the first time, contained the elements that would become recognisable for FPS games, such as the character’s hand casting spells in the centre of the screen and a HUD showing other stats and game information. This was further refined in the next title which really put id in the spotlight, Wolfenstein 3D and allowed Carmack to develop the techniques that he needed, and allowed the team to show off their unconventional and irreverent ideas — who else would come up with Mecha-Hitler as a final boss? All of the jigsaw pieces were now in place.
When Doom finally arrived it was the culmination of artistry, ambition, expertise and a certain level of that same irreverence; there had been nothing like it before. Staying with the Shareware model, the first episode was given away free on floppy disks and in magazines. It was downloadable from Bulletin Boards using 56k modems, and famously crashed the BB servers — in modern parlance, it broke the internet. It was a phenomenon.
All of the gameplay elements that had been slowly evolving through earlier titles came together in a perfect storm; the music, imagery, gameplay and technology were all interwoven to give a unique experience. Such was the impact that many gamers still remember those first moments, those initial steps into the hellish new world, and those first moments of pure fright after triggering a monster closet. PC gaming had not seen anything like it.
The world was brought to grim life using improved texture mapping. Rooms and corridors were no longer simple boxes as walls could be angled due to new techniques. For the first time, verticality was introduced allowing walls and platforms to rise and fall. There were stairways leading up and down, and players never quite knew what was at the end of each, and curved and sweeping corridors with the same foreboding effect. This all made the world seem larger and more complex than it really was – each level would still be represented as a flat map, it was not possible to overlap map elements – but the levels were cleverly designed to fool and mislead the players.
Traps and monster closets were introduced for the first time. Players soon learned that reaching for a power-up or pressing a switch could trigger either a nasty surprise or a potentially useful secret. Clever use of audio cues would indicate that a door had opened or a platform moved nearby encouraging the player to explore further. There was a finely tuned balance between risk and reward throughout the title.
Dynamic lighting was used for the first time to illuminate the corridors and rooms, and could also be used to leave the player unexpectedly in total darkness. Looking down a darkened corridor hearing the growling of nearby enemies, players would have that now familiar 'hell no!' moment, too scared to move forward. There was good reason to be scared too. The iconography and hellish images were disturbing enough, but the enemies twisted the nightmare further. Whilst players might have encountered zombies, witches, ghosts and ghouls in their D&D worlds, the creations from Adrian Carmack looked like true denizens of hell. The Cacodemon, Hellknight and Imps have become icons in their own right, and whilst zombies had been around for a while, nobody else had armed them with shotguns.
The audio was equally important. Growls from Pinky demons could be heard before they were seen. Each enemy had its own distinctive hellish utterance. You knew the demons were close, but you couldn’t always see them. The team knew the effect that would have on the tension on players. Carmack, Hall, and Romero understood how powerful a well-defined audio cue could be. Music too enhanced the game. Most players would remember the rock guitar score that would drive them forward or the quieter but tense background music that seemed to accompany the darker levels of the title.
The game also introduced what would become the standard arsenal for the genre: melee, pistol, machine gun, but out of defiance of the conventional, the team added the shotgun, the rocket launcher, and for that extra visceral deathblow, a chainsaw, that left enemies in an eviscerated pool of blood and pixelated gore. There was an additional weapon which would become synonymous with the title, the BFG 9000; again with a level of irreverence, the B and the G stood for 'big' and 'gun' respectively. The F word was left to the players' imaginations.
Weaponry was introduced over the course of the game and provided a minimal level of strategy in the game where the master plan was run, gun, and shoot everything that moves, a stratagem that was encouraged by the frantic metal soundtrack. Larger weapons were needed for the larger enemies but sometimes that was not always enough. Something new was needed.
Players were then encouraged to use a different strategy for the first time. Explosive barrels were conveniently placed around the levels and could be used to kill nearby enemies. The barrels were even arranged so that a chain reaction could be triggered at the right moment, leaving players with a strange sense of pleasure of luring demons to, ironically, fiery deaths. The environmental kill had be born.
Whilst all of the new gameplay elements would have been enough to have the game stand out amongst its peers, the underlying technology was also revolutionary and ahead of its time. Carmack had created the engine to be separate to the data it ran on. This meant that new maps could be created by the community; this was actively encouraged by the inclusion of a map-building tool from Romero. All of the data for sounds and visuals was kept separate in a .WAD file which led to mods being produced for the first time, and in one case with assets based on the Alien franchise, the first total conversion.
Due to this simple fact, extra levels were produced in tens of thousands extending the life of the game far beyond anything that had been imagined. New maps and levels were exchanged in school playgrounds or distributed on floppy disks included with magazines. This also meant that the engine could be separately licensed and went on to power a whole number of games. It was so successful, that it defined a whole eponymous genre simply named Doom-clones which lasted for the next four years.
However, there was one underlying piece of technology that would change gaming forever, a legacy that the most popular franchises of today still make reference to. It was the Deathmatch. Doom was the first to bring the technology of remote online play to the mainstream, and the word Deathmatch is even attributed to Romero (whilst Gib has been attributed to another member of the team, Adrian Carmack). Doom enabled players for the first time to face off against each other using modems instead of serial cables that needed machines to be in close proximity. It was now possible to play deathmatches across far-flung locations, an essential part of video games today.
Whilst a lot of the gameplay elements can still be seen in even the biggest AAA titles today, Doom has left a far greater legacy. The success of Doom turned the team at id into overnight rockstars of the industry. Despite the first episode being given away for nothing, the subsequent two episodes had to be bought, and at $9 a copy, the team were estimated to be making over $100K a day. They went from ordering pizzas one day, to buying Ferraris the next.
The success also provided some vindication and validation to the fledgling industry. It showed how profitable it could be. It also provided some validation to the jobs such as game designer and level designer. It inspired many other garage programmers to take their companies further including Cliffy B and Tim Sweeney of Epic, who went on to create Unreal and later the Unreal Engine (developed in the same way as Carmack, decoupling the engine from assets).
The Doom engine went on to power some of the other clones of the time, which led to games such as Heretic and Hexen. Eventually Carmack would produce the Quake engine which would then be used in the first title in the Call of Duty franchise, and the rest is history.
In some respects too, Doom showed off what was possible in PC gaming, and in some ways it could be argued that the title also gave added impetus to the hardware industry. Although soundcards had been around for a few years, there was now a need for better products like the SoundBlaster, and similarly improved video cards.
The title soon became part of mainstream culture; Windows 95 even had a special edition packaged with it. It was now a public phenomenon, reaching beyond just the "geeks and nerds", and with such recognition came controversy. Inevitably, the subject matter became a talking point, and its level of violence had parents concerned for the safety and well-being of their children. DOOM II: Hell on Earth would have the dubious distinction of being the first ever mature rated title from the new ratings board.
Did the gaming industry change overnight? Not quite, but the impact was felt in numerous areas of game development. Doom not only launched a genre, but quite possibly launched an industry, so much of which now can trace its roots back to that one title. Doom could almost be ground zero for the explosion that became the gaming industry. Listing the achievements — multiplayer, deathmatch, licenced decoupled engines, mods and expansions, dynamic lighting, texture mapping, ray tracing, free to play model, shotguns and rocket launchers — it all shows just what happened in that one single seminal title.
Twenty-three years later, we still owe a massive debt to one game changing moment in history. Is it possible to overstate the importance of DOOM? In all honesty, probably not.