Marty Stratton, co-director of the brutal 2016 Doom sequel, wasn’t wrong when he stepped onto the stage at the Bethesda press conference during the 2015 E3 Convention and said, “…Doom is a special part of each of our gaming histories, both personally and professionally.” Doom occupies a level of the gaming stratosphere reserved for royalty. Doomguy is the Mario of first-person shooters, the hallmark of a genre he helped to codify, a personality-free purveyor of first-person action, demon destruction, and chain saws. It is the steel pillar around which the entirety of the genre was built, and it still produces a glint of mischievous joy for those who remember the 90s.
But, like a formerly iconic rock star whose last few albums have been ruined by orgies of drugs and a growing irrelevance, it appeared for a while there that the series of the green-clad space marine had fallen on hard times. A slew of stories had been written over the previous, well, five or six years depicting a game that was looking more and more analogous to its parodic counterpart, Duke Nukem Forever by the day. One could only assume, due to the eight year development cycle and myriad stories of internal conflict that the game would likely be middling, at best.
That’s why it was so surprising for the re-launched Id property, published by behemoth Bethesda, to blow everyone’s eyelids back upon release last month. It’s the second consecutive home run for Bethesda-produced Id reboots — the last being Wolfenstein: The New Order — but something makes this one even more special.
Not only is Doom a much more valued property overall, but the public disaster of the Doom 2016 development left people wondering how it would look. That makes a postmortem on the game’s troubled development a little less sensational and unsettling, since the game turned out to be the darling that it is. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the history of the new Doom.
By 2007, when this particular iteration of Doom was in principal development, the world of shooters had changed. And although Doom 3 was both a commercial and critical success, having sold 3.5 million units between the game’s release and 2007, the world had begun to move on. Console shooters had become de rigeur, and atop the heap, even above Halo was a series called Call of Duty. Launched in 2003 and featuring a gritty, realistic approach to the first person genre, the series soon became the juggernaut of the gaming world. There were no aliens, demons, or zombies — yet — to speak of in the series, and the action focused on epic, historical experiences that had more in common with Saving Private Ryan than Rambo, even.
According to Statistic Brain, the 2007 iteration of Call of Duty, entitled Modern Warfare, has sold over 13 million copies worldwide, making it an envy-inducing property in the business. In the month of November 2007 alone, Modern Warfare sold a whopping 1.5 million copies, almost equaling the overall sales of the first game in the series. (Later sequels, including Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2, would sell in excess of 20 million copies each.)
Just like you’d expect, video games are no different than any other industry. If you make a wildly successful product, people will naturally want to cash in on that phenomenon. After the release of, say, Gears of War in 2006, the market was deluged with brown, sort of post-apocalyptic cover-based shooters, and for good reason. A new or unexploited video game mechanic can be refreshing for gamers, and even established series can benefit from a new take on an old subject. Any game that reaches a certain level of prestige — or, really, of sales — then the succeeding years will result in a glut of similarly-themed games. The phrase “World War II Shooter” was coined to denote this phenomenon in the mid-00s.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, then, that Doom, which was a fourteen-year-old franchise at this point, would make some changes to keep up with current trends. After all, Resident Evil had ditched its mechanics in favor of an over-the-shoulder third person view, and it had been revolutionary. (RE4 even partly inspired Gears of War.) I’m sure that if the team at Id saw what Resident Evil, itself an iconic and upper echelon series, could do with a little update, then why couldn’t Doom also do it?
Follow this logic, okay: John Carmack stated in 2000 that Doom 3 would be a reimagining of the original Doom “using next generation technology.” Not only that, when it was released, the third numbered sequel in the franchise possessed some noticeable narrative links to survival horror games — like Resident Evil. (Weird, huh?) Horror, yes, but a different kind of horror.
So, if Doom 3 was a kind of updated mixture of traditional first-person elements and survival elements, then why couldn’t a sequel to that game contain a similar formula? In retrospect, it was almost a fortuitous occurrence that Call of Duty became so popular. Doom II, unlike the original, was much more focused on an Earth-based experience — it was called Hell on Earth, after all — so an updated Doom II with some mechanics related to Call of Duty would at least be interesting.
Players, rather than take on the Hell’s Rogue’s Gallery with Doomguy, would fend off the forces of evil with a regular person, coerced into joining a human resistance with the fate of human survival at its core. It would have been a dramatically different take on the Doom story, mostly because the series, up to this point, had very little story to speak of. A resistance-style plot was also pretty fashionable in game narratives, so it was as though the stars were aligning for another hit Doom game.
At the same time, development was in full swing for a project called Rage, not to mention Quake Live, an updated version of Quake III Arena. While the new Quake was planned to be an experiment in online multiplayer, which had always been its strength, Rage would be something else altogether. The new game on the block, Rage was meant to push the boundaries of the first-person shooter, as well as the technical specs of PC / console shooters.
From the outset, problems arose with development. The team at Id originally had partnered with EA to publish Rage. However, when ZeniMax purchased Id in June of 2009 and all publishing rights contained therein, they announced they would be in charge of publishing the new Id intellectual property. It’s difficult to know just how much the deal actually affected the game’s production, but the fact is that it was pushed a few times and was eventually released in 2011, instead of its stated 2010 release date.
The effect on Doom was that its development lost some momentum, and the game languished in production hell. Id has never been a huge studio, and so it was always true that small teams focused on a single project at a time. So, then, Doom, being the established franchise, took a backseat to the upstart new intellectual property. There was a probably unstated belief that, no matter what, Doom would be fine. Rage was the property that needed the big push, because they had gigantic plans for it.
What ended up happening was that no one really paid that much attention to Doom for a few years, and it was allowed to develop into the Call of Duty also-ran that it eventually ended up becoming. When the higher-ups ended up taking a closer look at the game, they didn’t like what they saw and requested a litany of changes. This was also to underscore the fact that there was a lot of internal strife about the direction of the project, and so the game’s personality was not as well-developed as would have been necessary. (This will make a difference in later accounts of the game’s production.)
What began perhaps as a stylistic, conceptual link to Call of Duty turned into something a little more literal. It was such a copy of existing shooter styles that was and still is jeeringly called “Call of Doom” in most public forums. Internally, even, the game was given the derogatory moniker, so it should have been apparent then that something unsettling was up.
In addition to feeling like Call of Duty with a Doom skin on it”, also cribbed the more heavily story-based aspects of the aforementioned military shooter. In an interview with Time, Doom co-director Marty Stratton stated that
From a presentation perspective, from a story perspective, the characters and demons — it was a totally different take on those. The setting was different, the mechanics were different. And when we were making the decision to change course, we sat down to play the game and there was a lot there, honestly. It was good. Like, if that project had been finished, it would have been a good game. But when you’d sit down and play it, you’d say, ‘This is cool. But it just doesn’t resonate Doom. It just wouldn’t have been what I think most people wanted out of a Doom game.’
Here is footage for that now-canceled version:
The source of the nickname was derived most obviously from the scripted cutscenes being overlaid on the game, likely in an attempt to mimic the dynamic, more cinematic narrative situations contained with the CoD franchise. Doom 3, to be fair, was plenty heavier on narrative and story than previous Doom games, which contained little more than a situation to be solved: Guy plus guns gets out of a level teeming with monsters. There were also turret sequences and further attempts to “modernize” the game to keep up with the video game equivalent of the Joneses. It comes off as sounding a little desperate, especially in lieu of what was eventually released, but at the time it at least sounded like they were thinking about the nature of the franchise in terms of what “contemporary” meant. Far too many game franchises had come and gone without being able to maintain a hold on the gaming zeitgeist.
Beyond the whole framework of a narrative-focused, more “realistic” version of the game were the gameplay elements, which also didn’t fit in with the idea of a Doom sequel. Doom, ultimately, might be mostly about “demons and shotguns,” but it’s also about a certain kind of feeling. Oh, and speed. A good Doom game is lightning fast and brash and sure of itself, and it appears that the original version of Doom 4 did not have that.
In an article over at Polygon, Bethesda VP of marketing and public relations Pete Hines had the following to say about it:
It wasn’t fast enough, the way that the demons worked. The visceralness of the combat. A lot of the stuff you see with the finishing moves wasn’t part of it at all. The combat was more disconnected, you almost found yourself taking cover at times and using things from other FPSes, which might be fine for them, but for Doom it just doesn’t feel right.
From a 2011 article on Kotaku by Luke Plunkett, Doom, as it was then, was reportedly “indefinitely postponed” following an uninspired launch for Rage, which was plagued by driver performance issues on PC. In that article, even, the denial is a little bit of them protesting too much:
We don’t comment on unannounced games and DOOM 4 hasn’t been announced. Games are done when they are done and no title under development at id has been postponed – indefinitely or otherwise.
That’s Pete Hines again, not only denying the troubled development of Doom 4 but its entire existence altogether.
This is not conspiracy. This is not the media conjuring up theories to get clicks. The problems associated with the then-called Doom 4’s development were real, and they revealed cracks in the foundation of what should have been a slam dunk for Id and Bethesda. The cringe-inducing part is knowing for sure that the game had been announced very obviously in 2008 and did exist in some form, as everyone who followed the topic was well aware.
Some believed screenshots got leaked online by Xbox Magazine, which prompted a revised response from Hines: “Doom 4 isn’t cancelled. When we’re ready to talk about it and show it off, we’ll let everyone know.”
You could search online and find myriad examples of less-than-stellar reports about the current fate of the project that was still, at this point, Doom 4. The muddled and contradictory statements only seemed to give the public the impression that the game was, well, doomed.
Tim Willits of Id Software put a finer point on the central problem for the game: Every game has a soul. Every game has a spirit. When you played Rage, you got the spirit. And [Doom 4] did not have the spirit, it did not have the soul, it didn’t have a personality.”
Internally, the team was at odds over the game’s direction. With the middling success of Rage, the sequel was put on the back burner in favor of finishing up Doom 4. After much deliberation, the team rebooted the fledgling project, and the team was refocused in order to get it out to the public.
In a later statement to Kotaku, Hines stated that “An earlier version of Doom did not exhibit the quality and excitement that Id and Bethesda intend to deliver and that Doom fans worldwide expect…As a result, Id refocused its efforts on a new version of Doom 4 that promises to meet the very high expectations everyone has for this game and this franchise. When we’re ready to talk about the Doom 4 Id is making, we will let folks know.”
The Doom development team began the process of getting the game back on track at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, when the production was at its nadir and the public rumors were at their worst. The first step, it seemed, would be to classify what tenets made Doom so singular an intellectual property and what gave it the particular bang that made the first games so memorable.
An infamous quote from John Carmack has been circulating around the internet for years now, in which he purportedly said, “Doom means two things: demons and shotguns.”
Even with a clarity of mission, the infighting continued, and the game languished. It appears that there is very rarely an a-ha moment that leads to a montage of cleaning everything up and making problems magically disappear, and the long-suffering group associated with the Doom name did not so easily re-assimilate. The game had floundered for so long that people within the company had begun to vie for the game’s future, and that further delayed a focused continuation of development.
But as time went on, the game started to come together.
What they landed on regarding the approach to the reboot eventually stretched as far in the opposite direction of the more serious ”Call of Doom” as was possible for them. The basic design philosophy with the second iteration of Doom 4, according to an article in Time, was to “keep it fun.” Marty Stratton said, “It’s a crazy, outlandish, comic book, over-the-top brand. Even with the violence, we tend to say, ‘How do we make laugh-out-loud fun?’”
And then, in 2013, when the fate of the new Doom was beginning to look up — or at least be moving in an upward trajectory — John Carmack, one of the core architects of Doom and Wolfenstein 3-D, not to mention the man that almost singlehandedly created the first person shooter, left Id Software in order to focus his attention on helping to develop tech for the Oculus Rift, the now-ubiquitous virtual reality company owed by FaceBook.
Carmack, who had once been the driving technical force behind Doom, Wolfenstein 3-D, and Quake, ultimately claimed that he left because ZeniMax purportedly refused to allow Id to make their games compatible on the Oculus Rift. The claim is disputable, but the animosity between him and his former employers is not. In the wake of the Carmack exit, ZeniMax claimed Carmack “infringed upon misappropriated its intellectual property”, which only seemed to highlight the low point of not just the Doom franchise but Id Software as a whole.
We can only assume that a certain amount of enmity exists between Carmack and ZeniMax, and Carmack’s own allegiances appeared to be compromised when he became formally involved with Oculus VR in August of 2011. He claimed at the time that he would divide his time between Id and Oculus but eventually bowed out of the former in November of 2013.
Last year at E3, an extended gameplay trailer showed up in a presentation by the aforementioned Marty Stratton, who showed off what made the new Doom special. It was kind of like a New Coke situation. It was aesthetically pleasing in a novel way, but there was something just wrong with the mouthfeel, and everyone remained skeptical. Even with a robust first-person aspect to the game, the lingering feeling that something just wasn’t right persisted.
People’s fears were only justified when the multiplayer beta was released in March of 2016. The reviews and responses heavily compared the multiplayer to sci-fi shooters like Halo, which only hearkened back, sadly, to the “Call of Doom” days. People wondered if this would be just a different kind of compromised experience of what used to be their favorite shooter.
To compound matters, in the lead-up to the game’s release, Id / Bethesda did not send out any review copies to the major review sites, which ignited a firestorm online. Usually, that sort of practice only befalls games that developers and publishers know will be trainwrecks, and so it seemed to go with Doom 2016.
However, the game was released on May 13 to rave reviews, garnering an 85 on Metacritic and even more glowing anecdotal reports from games journalists. It appears that the long-suffering title will be remembered later in the year, when awards and best of lists are written, and all of the issues with development appear to be mellowing with age. Let’s hope that the story of the recently-announced Quake Champions doesn’t have the same problems with identity that its older brother experienced over the last eight years.