How 'Doom' Became Relevant Again in 2016
"This is special," ID Software executive producer Marty Stratton says from their office HQ in Richardson, TX. "This is a dream project."
Of course it's special, Marty. Of course it's a damn dream project, Marty. It's Doom, man -- arguably the most important video game of the past 23 years.
Marty is taking a break during one of the final days before Doom is released to the world on -- CUE THUNDER CLAP -- Friday the 13th of May. Can I hear the exhaustion in his voice? I can. Making games is very hard. Marty and his team have done everything they possibly can to ensure that the latest version of Doom -- somehow only the fourth game in the 23-year-old franchise -- is as good, if not better, than the originals.
But isn't Doom kind of married, for better or for worse, to 1993? Isn't it tied to a time and place in history? Not according to Stratton.
How do you make Doom relevant in the savvier, more cynical, internet-wracked world of 2016?
"That's the million-dollar question right there," he says. "With every decision, we try to think, 'Hey, how does this relate to the [Doom] brand? How does this relate to what's already been created?' Believe me, we're aware of these things. We know what's at stake. We've tried to do the brand proud. I think we have. I hope like hell we have."
Doom, not unlike a certain 1977 movie that solved this same riddle over Christmas last year, needs to placate existing fans and satisfy new fans (with new appetites) at the same time. "We asked ourselves, 'What are the memories for our fan base?'" Marty says. "What was the original personality of the experience? Because everybody out there loves Doom for different reasons, from person to person. And that makes this is a trickier problem to solve, for sure."
Games were still fun, cartoonish places where plumbers collected coins in 1993. Doom shifted things into an entirely new gear that we didn't know existed. "It's a fact that Doom was a game that created a place for itself," Marty says. "But now? The challenge is doing something new, something that's relevant today. How do you make Doom feel different for today's audiences?"
The key: to whittle it down to its essence
"There was always a bare-bones simplicity to how [Doom] plays," Stratton says. "So much of the game was self-evident. And we tried really hard to preserve that simplicity as much as we could. Sure, we added verticality and the melee system. But the overall goal was to maintain the essence of what was great about the original."
In addition to the simplicity -- it's true, there's nothing ambiguous about Doom (counterpoint: Myst, also released in 1993) -- the other draw is the tuned combat. "You could always kind of play Doom's combat endlessly," Marty says. "You never really get tired of it."
The key to tuning the combat: knowing how to use the demons like tools in a toolbox. "What we've learned is how to use specific enemies to create specific moments," he says. "The demons are like chess pieces for us. Moving them around creates a variety of effects. If you know what you're doing as a game designer, you can use them in certain ways to checkmate the player very quickly."
Has the gameplay changed much?
"It has and it hasn't," Marty says. "The iconic demons are all still in there. That gameplay package, at its core, is what made Doom special."
Surely Marty must have a magical and violent object around the office to motivate his team on the duller development days. "Do we have a chainsaw? Well, no," he says. "However, we have had some fairly heated exchanges on a semi-regular basis. But that's about as violent as things ever get… But you know? Now that I think about it, we did have a chainsaw in the office when we were making Doom 3, to record the sound. Maybe it's still around here somewhere."
Some ID Software team members, do, however, shoot guns on occasion. "Some of the guys on the team are into guns," he says. "This is Texas. They go out to the shooting range to let off a few rounds. Or maybe we'll go to the range as a team for a launch party, or whatever. Just to let off some steam."
As far as the violent aesthetic goes, Marty says that the team used Evil Dead 2 as a kind of benchmark -- yes, just as Carmack and Romero did for the original. "Things are gross and violent in the game, but it's always so over the top that it's comical," Marty says. "That's what we're going for. We want you to start gagging, but we also want people to laugh."
For the gameplay, the team turned to, of all things, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. "I've given talks about the improvisational quality of the gameplay [in Doom]," he says. "How, for us, the levels, the combat arenas are kind of like skate parks. Even when we play the game, we talk about what we're doing as if we're crafting a [skateboarding] line through the world: I'm going here, then I'm grabbing this, then I'm going up there, then I'm getting that, etc. I sat down the other day with Hugo [their creative director] to do a Twitch stream [of gameplay]. I sat there watching Hugo play, and he's carving his way through the game, and my thumbs started itching, man, because I wanted to play the stupid game myself."
How to be successful at the latest incarnation of Doom?
You're going to have to get a feel for doing the right things at the right moments. "There's so much to be aware of when you're playing Doom," he says. "You're surrounded by demons, moving at a ridiculous rate of speed, and then a Summoner comes out, and he's got all these other demons with him, you think, What's the smartest thing that I can do here? That's how you play the game. You make a plan for yourself, you learn the combinations, you try them out, and you develop a feel for what works and discard what doesn't work."
When Marty feels stretched thin between the studio and his home life, he sometimes recalls a lesson an old soccer coach taught him. "I didn't like the guy much, honestly," Marty says. "But this man told me a wise thing... He said, 'You're at practice now. Sure, you've got homework you could be thinking about. A girlfriend? Your family? You could think about those things, too. But what you can do right here, right now, is you can get better at soccer. In this moment, that's all that matters.’ I never forgot that," he says.
Doom, published by Bethesda Software, is available May 13 for the PS4, Xbox One, & PC for $59.99.
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