A year later, Doom is still the best FPS on PS4, Xbox One, and now Switch. Here's how it happened

Doom. Marty Stratton had thought he’d known the meaning of the word. But only now, looking back at three years of hard development work and realising it would all have to be thrown out, did he truly understand. Binning dozens of your designers’ levels and concepts, telling the publisher you were abandoning a project and would need the money to start from scratch – this was doom. Stratton and Id had made Hell for themselves. It just wasn’t the kind they’d intended.

Production on what was originally called Doom 4 had started back in 2008. Stratton had overseen creative direction; John Carmack, the last of Id’s four original founders to remain at the studio, had designed and iterated Id Tech, the game’s engine. Doom was not only Id’s flagship series but one of the most famous names in all of video games, so Stratton and his team had wanted to make the new iteration the best it could be. Which was why, come the beginning of 2012, all of their work had to be scrapped.

“It’s not that it was bad,” Stratton explains. “I’ve worked at Id for almost 20 years and it doesn’t do anything bad. But we changed direction because, when we got to the point when the game was tangible and we were focusing on it properly, we started to question whether this was really the future of Doom. Doom 4 had a real-world setting. You were playing along with multiple characters, it took place in a US city and there were big set-pieces. It was very cinematic, very grand. In two words, it was a ‘more serious’ version of Doom.”

Stratton knew the game had to go, but after three years in development – and with many more now needed – he was doubtful about Doom ’s future. ZeniMax Media had acquired Id in 2009; its subsidiary, Bethesda, was now the studio’s financier. If the publisher wasn’t sold on Doom ’s total change of direction, it would likely pull the plug. But Bethesda signed off on production of a new, reimagined Doom.

“I give Bethesda a lot of credit for sticking with us through that period,” Stratton says. “A lot of publishers wouldn’t have supported such a big change, especially at that level of investment. It was tough. It’s one of those things, as a game developer, you never want to do.”

With years of abandoned concepts behind them, Stratton and team had a good idea of what the game was not . It wasn’t set in the real world. It wasn’t linear or scripted, and it wasn’t filled with different characters. The accepted model for contemporary shooters didn’t apply to Doom – it wasn’t Call of Duty or Battlefield . So what was it? When modern video game players thought the word ‘Doom’, what was in their minds? Hugo Martin had the answer. A freelance character artist who’d previously worked at Naughty Dog and on the movie Pacific Rim, he arrived at Id in 2013 and quickly gave Doom its unique identity.

“I spent a lot of time in intellectual property development in LA,” Martin tells us. “Everyone there has something they’re trying to develop. They want it to be a brand that has legs, so they can have an animated series and a comic book and so on. Working there, I’d picked up a lot. So the first night I arrived at Id, Marty and I started talking about the Doom brand. We wanted Doom to be a significant moment in pop culture, for people to look back at 2016 and think about Doom . We had hours of conversations trying to figure out what made Doom cool. We did lots of little exercises. For example, we’d go to Google, type in ‘Doom’ and see what came up. That was a great litmus test to see what consumers thought of the brand.

“The original Doom had a punk rock spirit. It was something you played in your basement and it felt a bit wrong. You didn’t get a trickle of blood – you got a fountain. But it wasn’t meanspirited. When you watched people playing the early Doom games, they were smiling. That’s something games today have stopped trying to do – make you smile. So we tapped into that reaction as early as we could.”

By now, it wasn’t just the new Doom that was changing; Id Software itself was, too. In April 2013, 22 years after co-founding it, John Carmack left the studio to join Oculus VR. Martin was elevated from concept artist to art director and finally creative director of what was now simply called Doom , while Stratton was hiring in dozens of new designers and programmers to help the game take shape. What was once a top-down production – fronted by Carmack, the last remaining, original face of Id – became flatter and more collaborative. The initial panic following Doom 4 ’s cancellation was turning to cooperation and productivity.

One era ends, a new one begins 

“Taken on the surface, John’s departure felt like it was going to be a challenge,” Stratton says. “You can’t work with someone like John for as long as most of us had by that point and not have a tinge of worry. But soon after he left, I said to myself, ‘There are a lot of games out there made without John Carmack’. John, like anyone of his ilk, wanted to do things his way. His leaving let us try other ideas. People who had worked under John were able to come forward and suggest different things.

“Plus, we were already talking to a lot of talented developers and hiring across the board. Shortly after John left, we hired Tiago Sousa from Crytek, a super-talented engineer. And we had engineers here already who were amazing, people who had been working on Id Tech for ten or 15 years. When I started working here, I had blinkers on and thought John and people like him were magicians. But his leaving Id created a new culture, a rallying-around, team mentality. We had a whole new vision about how we could approach technology.”

One thing, however, remained a constant. Like its 1993 namesake, when Doom launched, it had to stand at the cutting edge of graphics performance. Consequently, Id Tech 6, the latest version of John Carmack’s benchmark-setting game engine, was constantly being iterated upon and improved. Over the course of Doom ’s development, Id’s technology team created dozens of new tools for the level and gameplay designers. Textures became more detailed, animations faster and smoother. Where typically a game developer builds or licenses an engine, then sticks to it throughout production, Id was unlocking the power of its tech as it went.

“There were a lot of times – and this speaks to the passion of the whole team – where a technology change would mean going back over old levels and updating them,” Stratton says. “We arrived at physically based texture rendering part way through development, and that required the artists to go back and redo a lot of textures. Again, it was one of the things, as a game developer, that you didn’t want to do. But when people saw what the technology would let them do, they put in the extra hours and tried to push it as hard as they could.”

This type of collaboration was a cornerstone of the new Id Software. Stratton, Martin and the other directors asked for – and received – a lot of hard work. In kind, everyone on the Doom team, regardless of role or seniority, was given a voice at creative meetings. “If you had good ideas and could make good contributions, we were going to have you in the meetings,” Martin says. “We’d go around the office, find all the people doing good work and make sure their work got elevated. I pulled in so many people to the stakeholder meetings, it was crazy.”

“I don’t know that Doom would have felt as unified if we’d had a formula and a massive pre-production schedule,” Stratton adds. “The way Doom came about, basically, was a lot of people being suddenly pushed together. And as long as the studio culture stayed like this – ideas can come from anywhere; best idea wins – these things kept coming. It wouldn’t have worked if we’d all been making assets individually and just throwing them over the wall.” 

But even with the technology humming and the team working in unison, there was something about Doom that still wasn’t coming together. Looking at the original game, Martin and Stratton knew the reboot needed colour, momentum and brio. Analysing the current shooter scene, it was clear that scale, customisation options and at least a modicum of story were also important. Tying it all together, however, was far from simple. Described by Martin as “like spending three years giving birth”, perfecting the pacing and combat in Doom – essentially the game’s heart and brain –required a long time, exhaustive amounts of iteration, and several unconventional solutions.

Fighting the good fight 

“We got to a point, about a year and a half into development, where none of the combat was feeling right,” Stratton recalls. “We were constructing levels that were very open, very flat, and you’d just have enemies who were charging at you – the maps didn’t open up lots of strategy. However, early in development, one of our designers created a prototype, just a grey box level, which we’d called the ‘movement map’. 

Originally it was to try out the double jump and the mantling systems. But we’d continued to use it throughout development. If we brought a new enemy online, he’d get dumped in there. If we had a new gun, it’d go in there. It ended up as this kind of zoo, full of ideas. So we went back into that movement map, where enemies would spawn constantly and all around, and honestly, you couldn’t stop playing. The distance of the encounters, the multiple paths you always had and the way you could improvise and break line of sight with enemies, it was so fun.”

“There was a lot of attack and evade,” Martin tells us. “You could use the geography to get into space for a brief moment, or move around to flank enemies. The movement map captured that sense of an arena. You felt like a skater in a skate park, except you had a shotgun.” The movement map was a revelation. Now, the ideas, the designs and the levels for Doom were coming thick and fast.

“We’d found the fun,” Stratton says. “Pretty soon we were creating spaces. The concept work got into the hands of designers pretty fast and we had the guns and a lot of the enemies already in mind. There were some formulas, relating to designing arenas and breaking line of sight. And every level would have an owner, who would work on it from start to finish and give it their own stamp. But really, we just started to build it.”

“We developed a couple of mottos,” Martin adds. “‘Don’t take ourselves too seriously’ and ‘Let the game tell you what it wants’. We played the game constantly. Felt the nuances. Let it tell us what it did and didn’t need. The minute the story got serious, it wasn’t fun, so we changed it. The minute the player got slowed down by a mechanic that felt like it had to be there because other shooters had it, it wasn’t fun and we took it out. It became a contest between designers to see who could make the craziest things.”

By the time it launched, Doom was bloody, action-packed and on the bleeding edge of game-making technology – everything for which Id had hoped. Thanks to the streaming service Twitch, Martin and Stratton were able to watch, live, as players around the world tried Doom for the first time. All of them were smiling.

“They say in game development if you’re going to fail, you should fail fast,” Martin says. “Well, we failed fast and hard, and many times. We made a lot of difficult decisions on this game and committed to it all the way. But watching people play Doom , especially on that first night, and seeing them getting it, knowing we’d killed ourselves to make it work, that was amazing.”

This article originally appeared in Edge magazine. For more great coverage, you can subscribe here.