Feature Article

Three Lessons Today's Shooters Can Learn From Doom

No rest for the living.

by

Though Wolfenstein 3D was the genesis of the first-person shooter, it was id Software's 1993 follow-up, Doom, that popularised it. As a lone space marine taking on the hordes of hell itself, you sprinted through abandoned moon bases scrounging for health and armour pickups, all while keeping demons at bay with shotguns, rocket launchers, and plasma rifles.

When replayed today, elements of Doom may seem archaic, or even quaint. The only time you were interrupted by the plot was when a text crawl appeared at the end of every nine-level episode. You progressed through levels by searching for coloured keys to open coloured doors. Heath didn't regenerate, and you could carry every weapon, all of which could fire without reloading until you ran out of ammo. With these mechanics, Doom was the game that defined what an old-school first-person shooter played like. But the game still offers insightful lessons for the creators of modern shooters.

Matthias Worch, design director at 2K Games on an unannounced project, and former lead designer of the cancelled Star Wars: 1313, got his start in the industry by making custom Doom maps. It's an experience that he has found to be invaluable throughout his career, and is something he elaborated on in a Game Developers Conference talk earlier this year. I spoke to Worch about three lessons shooters can still learn from the things Doom accomplished more than 20 years ago.

1. VARIED BUT READABLE ENEMIES

Taken individually, Doom's demons were simple. There was the shotgun zombie, who fired a hitscan weapon (one that doesn't have a visible projectile, such as an instant-hit bullet) from a distance. There was the imp, who threw slow-moving fireballs which could be dodged whilst the demon closed the distance to you. Every other demon featured some combination of these simple properties. This made them individually readable. In a mixed group, each demon's bright colour palette, along with the fact that they had at most two behaviours, helped you to identify them and choose which one to prioritise shooting first. For example, demons that threw slow, easily dodged projectiles could be shot later, as long as you kept moving and didn't find yourself backed into a corner.

Don't worry...I think we can work this out.

"Good game design combines individually predictable elements into a semi-predictable whole that doesn't exceed the bounds of readable complexity," says Worch. "Doom chose to distribute its readability across large numbers of enemies with simple behaviours."

In today's shooters, the enemies are often human and present far more complex behaviour than any of Doom's demons. They take cover, they throw grenades, they flank you, and they work in tandem with other enemies, calling for backup or laying down covering fire. Though such enemies could be seen to present a deeper combat experience to Doom, Worch believes that there is a limit to the amount of complexity you can process in any one encounter. "Other games [than Doom] might choose to embed additional behavioural complexity in fewer enemies, and that is fine as long as the overall bounds of gameplay complexity are not stretched too much." This complexity is fine, but readability is still paramount.

"One exception might be games that try to create an overall feeling of uncertainty and being overwhelmed," Worch adds. "In a game like The Last of Us or Tomb Raider, player and character are never supposed to feel fully in control of any situation, and enemy behaviours can contribute to that aesthetic."

Talk about readable enemies: Doom's bright pink demon, called Pinky, was unmistakable even in a crowd.

2. A HIGH SKILL CEILING

As an early pseudo-3D game, Doom did not require you to manually aim up or down to shoot enemies on different elevations; bullets would automatically find their mark as long as you lined the demon up horizontally. "The fact that height did not directly factor into aiming helped players get acquainted with the genre because they did not have to consider enemies who were on top of one another--effectively, all enemies were lined up in front of or behind each other," says Worch.

The mastery that players are able gain over Doom is significant: the delta between novice and expert players is huge.

Once you were acquainted with the genre, this fact, combined with the simple, readable behaviour of the demons, made Doom play more like a first-person Robotron than what we consider to be a shooter today. It put greater importance on constant movement and management of space between you and the enemy, rather than relying on manual dexterity to acquire and shoot a target. This allowed for the existence of a high skill ceiling--which made expert play look significantly different to novice play--because there was greater scope for creativity in movement than in pointing and shooting. "The mastery that players are able to gain over Doom is significant: the delta between novice and expert players is huge, and there are a whole bunch of tricks and tactics that don't reveal themselves at first," says Worch.

A player who has mastered movement and spacing could take down a massive, varied horde of demons without suffering so much as a scratch. For a novice player, the sense that they could reach that mastery was tangible because the behaviour of each demon in that horde was simple and readable.

In Doom's case, that skill ceiling was further raised by the fact that your health did not regenerate. Health and armour pickups had to be found throughout the level, and your current health state always needed to be in the back of your mind. "The additional resources to be tracked by the player add to the decision making," says Worch. "A game with regenerating health/armour regularly resets the player state and eliminates these kinds of midterm motivation loops."

The Barons of Hell had a lot of health and threw rapid projectiles, requiring you to dance between them and return fire.

3. LEVEL DESIGN IS KING

Doom's levels were almost entirely abstract spaces, offering vague approximations of abandoned moon bases and hellish environments. This worked to increase both the readability of enemies against the environment and the game's high skill ceiling. Without the need to create believable, realistic spaces, Doom's level designers were able to focus on creating levels that offered interesting and challenging combat encounters first and foremost. You only have to look at the difference in Doom 3's combat to see why abstraction can be handy--that game's own tight grey corridors saw mere handfuls of grey demons focus more on jump scares, thereby severely limiting the scope for a similarly high skill ceiling to flourish.

An exaggeration, perhaps--but still relevant.

Further serving Doom's abstraction was the now-archaic notion of collecting coloured keys to progress through a level. "With coloured keys, level designers could telegraph structure by dividing the level into a series of midterm goals, which allowed the player to track progress through a level easily," says Worch. "The coloured gates had the added benefit of being unlocked via high-value pickups--pickups around which entire room/trap progressions could be built. A key sitting alone in the middle of a room was always suspicious!"

In addition to presenting more realistic levels, modern games tend to contextualise such progression with more believable methods, like a scripted cutscene. "But if they do so in a completely arbitrary manner (usually via story beats), players are never able to tune into the rules gating that progression, and players are never able to track their progress reliably," Worch elaborates. "The lesson is that gating elements should be recurrent, systemic, and occur with sufficient density and regularity to establish a formula that players understand. Modern equivalents to those coloured keys are keypads that lock doors (where the key is a discoverable code), or fingerprint/eye scanners tied to a specific enemy in the environment to be captured. Both systems can be repeated throughout the game and create understandable level progressions without feeling out of place."

Doom's abstract maps, like the one seen here from the in-game map screen, facilitated interesting combat encounters.

CLASS DISMISSED

These lessons are not prescriptive. Rather, each type of shooter should pick and choose to learn from the lessons that best apply to it. A cinematic, plot-heavy shooter might opt for regenerating health to maintain your forward momentum and avoid interrupting the story too often. Worch does not see such decisions as being to the detriment of the core lessons Doom can still teach.

Halo smartly built on Doom's lessons--but even Master Chief is gradually losing his bright colours.

"I feel that we are simply witnessing a pendulum that is swinging back and forth between designers' desire to create believable/experiential games, versus (for lack of a better term) 'gamey'/systemic/expressive games," he says. "But there isn't one jump-off point in history where that pendulum clearly stayed on one side--we can track highly expressive games like Doom, Halo, and Dead Space 2 across the last two decades, as more experiential, roller-coaster shooters started appearing."

Still, with today's most popular shooters emphasising their fancy new engines, physics systems, complex scripted sequences, and progression through unlock trees, it's worth looking back at a shooter from a simpler time and understanding why it still offers such a unique experience even today.

Discussion

346 comments
MPK
MPK

Amazing how I can still come back to this game all of these years later and STILL enjoy it.  I've been playing the XBLA version of Doom 1 lately (I only really played the PC version in very small bursts...I played the Jag version first, then the PS1 port...also messed around with the 32X version once).


Anyway one of the big debates back in the day was "PC or PS1 version?", as the PS1 port of Doom was considered to be the best of the console versions.  To me, one is like a really really good cover of the other...still immediately recognizable, but with considerable changes; if Doom were a song on the radio, think "a really great 90s cover of an 80s hit"...and for some, it all comes down to which one you played first.

What becomes obvious in a hurry was how much was excised in the Jaguar mapset that unfortunately became the template for most of the console versions (I really wish the PS1 port had not used the Jag Doom 1 maps), especially from a texture standpoint.  And the PC version is so much smoother to boot.  PS1 Doom also saw all of its sound effects revamped (and later reused in Doom 64), and though some the PC sound effect sound almost silly, I actually like both sets of effects.    


What's kind of weird is when you try to find crude ways to mash up the PC and PS1 versions, it doesn't really work.  I prefer Aubrey Hodges' ambient, creepy tracks to Bobby Prince's MIDI tunes (though some of Prince's creepier tunes were pretty good, and the 3DO remixes were terrific).  So I turned off the XBLA version's music and had Hodges' tracks playing in the background, through a different source.  Sadly, XBLA Doom w/Hodges' tracks don't feel right together.  There's just something about PS1's moodier/darker lighting, updated sound effects, and overall feel that make Hodges' phenomenal work (and to this day I consider the PS1 Doom's tracks to be among THE best ever put into a video game) somehow work only with the PS1 version.

E1M2 is a perfect example of the above...Hodges' track for PS1 version of that level adds so much to the darkened maze-like portion of that map...the lighting and music work perfectly together to give that area much more of a horror-movie feel.  The lighting in the PC version is brighter by comparison (not really dark at all actually), and that area isn't nearly as nerve-wracking to get through as a result.  Hodges' E1M2 track feels completely out of place as a result.     


So basically, if I had a wish list of a "Perfect Original Doom 1/2 Combo Pack", it would be this:


PC resolution, frame rate and textures (with some of the "uglier" textures excised).  A tough call in a way, in that some PS1 levels do look better than their PC counterparts (some of which are just ugly).

PS1 lighting and general mood (less PC "brightness").  In the right hands, I think the PC's original levels with a PS1 mood-makeover could be truly awesome.

PS1 sound effects (though I do like most of the PC effects as well, save for some of the sillier-sounding monster noises)

A choice between the 3DO remixed and PS1 ambient tracks.  Would be cool to be able to choose level by level if so inclined.


delta5931
delta5931

For example, don't be Call of Duty!

cynicritic
cynicritic

Modern shooters need to have the viewpoint from the player's actual eye level and not from the chest with magic arms sticking out and being held up ALL THE TIME.

I want game developers to focus on what they see from their own eyes and work on incorporating that into modern FPS titles. Peripheral vision, being able to see your whole body etc. No one walks around holding a gun right out in front of them all the time, it's mostly lowered and raised only to shoot. 

This is where I think VR will shine. That will also allow you to turn your head independently from your body. 

slappy54
slappy54

Then Call of Doodie happened and the genre went to shit.

dustyskunk
dustyskunk

Thank you for this, Daniel. I especially feel that points two and three are important. Quite frankly, I feel that most modern FPS games either entirely eschew these principles in favor of realism or skip the problem entirely by giving a poor single player experience in favor of focusing on multiplayer. While FPSs can certainly be viable as a multiplayer only platform (Tribes, Warsow, Unreal Tournament for a few examples), I feel like many game designers use this as a cop out- essentially letting players make the game experience through emergent gameplay rather than designing a good game experience from the ground up (a ten hour single player campaign is a joke). Understand what I mean?

An ideal FPS in my mind has the following characteristics:
1: Easy to learn, hard to master gameplay.
2: Expansive level design that rewards "outside the box" thinking and exploration.
3: Player choice- I want to play the game how I want to, not be forced through a series of on-the-rails corridor shooting and artificial story driven mechanisms. In terms of multiplayer, I want to be able to set up dedicated servers and configure them however I wish. 

4: Consequences for my gameplay. For example, I HATE regenerating health. 

5: Unique game mechanics. Genres should be iterative, not clones of themselves generation after generation. Titanfall is a good example of an iteration. CoD Ghosts is not.


We see less and less of games focusing on these characteristics, and quite frankly that is why I keep returning to the classics. Any time a developer breaks the mold I try and support.


As much as I hate to say it, I feel like we have Half-Life and Halo:CE are to blame for the state of modern FPSs. Don't get me wrong, I *love* these two games. However, both of them introduced a significant amount of the mechanics we see in today's games and due to their popularity may have caused the epidemic of bland, run-of-the-mill FPS titles that have been churned out since. When they used these mechanics (story driven narrative in Half-Life and regenerating shield in Halo as two examples) the mechanics were new and novel. They did it right, and did it first (maybe not first, but were the first wildly successful games to do so). A decade or more later, it's old. Game designers, please try to innovate and remember the qualities that make FPS a great genre!



vadagar1
vadagar1

I will never forget when I opened that closet in blood and 10 severed hands jumped out and I was shooting like a mad man but eventually i missed one and it choked me to death :D


today's shooters make me wanna spill lava into my face

karan
karan

This game was amazing, thats all i have to say.

MPK
MPK

I play on a PSone with the OEM screen attachment.  Doesn't look too bad, in that the small screen de-accentuates the pixellization.  I take it with me on trips sometimes.  Some of the old PSX titles still hold up. 

Matchews
Matchews

Man I absolutely loved Doom when I was a kid. I'd spend hours on end playing this game at the most difficult settings. It kept you on the edge of your seat and there was no room for mistakes. The only recent game I can think of that had a challenging aspect to it was Metro Last Light. Being outside in Metro and having to hunt for an air filter with a ticking clock sort of reminded me of searching for a stim pack in Doom. No regen, you had to find it or you were gonna die. A straight up no bs challenge.

santinegrete
santinegrete

Great read, and found out about Zdoom, thanks for whoever talked about it.


Also to add a recommendation, if if helps: there's a game called Metal Arms, easiest way to get it is in Xbox Live 360 market place: it's like old school shooting mixed with SuperMeat boy if you play it on hard.

MPK
MPK

It's pretty amazing...the gameplay still holds up after all these years...yes, some aspects of Doom (like the graphics) are dated, and the enemies are very predictable, but it still has an atmosphere all its own, even now.  You even go with the all-guns-blazing PC version with its MIDI tunes, or the much creepier, more ambient PS1 version (my preference...I like the creepy lighting effects too.  The PC is clearly the superior version from a pure technical standpoint, there's no arguing that, but I think some of the textures and levels from the PC are actually uglier, even if there's more to look at). 

Doom 64 is still fun too.  Didn't like Doom 3 at all.  Just didn't feel like Doom to me. 

bigcr47
bigcr47

I completely agree on the level design. Remember what makes Zelda so fun? Seeing your goal and having to explore to achieve it. Games these days look amazing and have great scripted sequences, but I find myself never having fun with them. I've had many talks about why it seems that games are lacking despite their big budgets, and its the linear level design. I want to explore the world and find that key. I loved Dead Space for this reason alone. Also Dark Souls did a great job of this. Here's to hoping devs will relearn this ancient wisdom!!

bsim500
bsim500

Great article. Doom is an arcade shooter about fast paced adrenaline fuelled action & pure fun-ness with no "consoley" interruptions (cutscenes, quick-time-events, etc). That's what it got right and many modern shooters are getting wrong. Modern forced cover-play may be more "realistic", but it's also more boring. Likewise, stimpacks may not be more "realistic" than regenerating health, but they were more tactical - if you had 20/100 health and knew there were only +30 health left on the map but a "large room" (ie, with +50 monsters) between you and the exit, you had to alter your gameplay to match.

Health in Doom was a finite resource - and that was the beauty of it - your gameplay regularly changed from Rambo to cautious and back again. It wasn't *exactly the same* hide behind a wall shoot then run away to auto-heal every 20ft. Same goes with the sheer terror of being overwhelmed up to 500:1 on some maps which was and still is far more unnerving than a lot of empty "survival horror" games of today...

If anyone still has their original WAD files, you can play them (and Heretic & Hexen) at 1920x1080 these days in JDoom source port:-

http://dengine.net/


Most fun I've had in years. :-)

Johny_47
Johny_47

Very nice thing this, good stuff. I think the most modern games that I remember good AI and characters from is the Ratchet & Clank games and the first BioShock, all or at least most of the enemies are different, have different weaknesses and behaviour, it's really cool. And the boss battles in Ratchet & Clank were amazing, I remember learning the patterns of Nefarious and so on.


And in BioShock I used to laugh at the way all the splicers besides the Houdini's would always run off to use the health things on the walls if they got down to a certain low of health =P


Then you could either chase 'em or set up a trap haha. These 3 lessons are just like replaying a good game, it's a lost art that really needs to be brought back.

agamersparadise
agamersparadise

This was a really interesting article, thanks Gamespot.

redskinsdrool
redskinsdrool

I know this wasn't the focal point of the article, but could Master Chief's fading armor (caption below the last picture) actually be an intentional design, as a form of indication that his armor is getting older and has seen a limitless amount of combat?

steamsbl0wssax
steamsbl0wssax

LONG LIVE FPS WITHOUT ALL THIS  CUTSCENE SCRIPTED EVENT BS 

snake63
snake63

It's all about the single player experience. 

Joedgabe
Joedgabe

Only FPS single player that i don't look down on is Far Cry 3. But FC3 is more of an adventure game so idk... would be nice to have a mindless multi weapon using no cover system shooter. With no story.. FPS have the worst stories.

amdreallyfast
amdreallyfast

"A game with regenerating health/armour regularly resets the player state and eliminates these kinds of midterm motivation loops."

This was one of the things that I actually missed about Mass Effect 1 and Halo 1 when it didn't show up in the sequels. 

Great article.  Cinematic experiences make for a great first playthrough, but after that the single player environments become shallow fairly quickly.  Or maybe that's just me growing older and getting used to level designs faster.

D1zzyCriminal
D1zzyCriminal

You know what game(s) I think has captured the essence of Doom the best? Borderlands. Bright colours, varied enemies, satisfying guns with plenty of situational context, free reign to approach the situations and so on...


I hope to god (or maybe it's satan in this case) that Doom 4 is good.

youre_a_sheep
youre_a_sheep

"You only have to look at the difference in Doom 3's combat to see why abstraction can be handy--that game's own tight grey corridors saw mere handfuls of grey demons focus more on jump scares, thereby severely limiting the scope for a similarly high skill ceiling to flourish."

Why I hated Doom 3 summed up in one sentence.  That game never felt like Doom at all, and if they make another I hope they go back to the original concept.

wespunk
wespunk

I have doom 1,2,3,all on the one disc, limited collector,s edition plus the expansion  disc   only on  Xbox 1  and play them on my Australian  360  I will never get rid of them , because  you can play them all on every difficulty  they are classics in great condition . Nothing like the shooters of  today they are  a shadow of themselves  of those classic  fps , of the 90,s and so on

FighterforJC
FighterforJC

Here's a principle that could be applied to any game of any genre;  The "perfect" video game should be, in theory, be beatable without ever having to die once during the entire campaign.  This has nothing to do with difficulty, but with design.  A perfectly designed game will teach the players all the necessary skills and principles he needs early on in the game, which could be applied to and be reliable for every situation and encounter for the rest of the game.  

tinmann840
tinmann840

I really got into PC gaming when Doom came out. There was nothing like playing Doom on nightmare difficulty. The madness, the chaos and the adrenaline were off the charts. There was no stealthy approach, no sneaking around, no sissified regenerating health. Just a guns blazing, blood splattering descent into abandon.  Run out of ammo? Well you better hope you found the chainsaw some time earlier cause if not you are just about screwed with nothing but a pistol. That's what modern games are missing , that sense of dread.

makaveli_1872
makaveli_1872

Doom was the only reason i took the leap from the Amiga to PC way back in 93  :)

Freddo0l
Freddo0l

FPS should be be allowed to flow and permit the player to full access to movement and vision across the entire game. Half Life is a prime example of such design. Players should have an indication of health by some means, and health regeneration should be scraped. Progression through levels or areas should be made linear, with a path highlighted by visual stimulants or simple design choices to help guide the player through (excludes open world games like the Elder Scrolls series)

jim_peterson
jim_peterson

Complex, maze-like level design is something I personally would prefer not to see return. I never got much enjoyment wandering around dungeons in circles trying to find an exit.

Moegitto
Moegitto

Doom brought some of the best mods to reality...Brutal Doom. With just some minor tweeks they managed to make an old classic feel better than most current gen FPS games. Sometimes you don't want to play a movie, you want to sit down and destroy demons to a banging soundtrack.

Scarshi
Scarshi

Doom was and is a gaming masterpiece. And all it really did was give us nothing but the basics of a maze, enemies and weapons.

Too many games these days think too deep. This is why I'm still playing Borderlands and not Bioshock Infinite :)

TheExxorcist
TheExxorcist

Doom Innovated: Unreal Tournament broke boundries... All in all, FPS rule the gaming industry, and as the article states: Doom innovated the entire genre...

Blue_Tomato
Blue_Tomato

Another lesson to learn is to not pour development resources into making boring cutscenes that keeps interrupting the gameplay, and instead focus on fun, non-linear interactive gaming.

eternal_napalm
eternal_napalm

Who invented regenerative health for shooters? They heavily contributed to it being dumbed down.   

vadagar1
vadagar1

@dustyskunk yah reg HP is the most retarded thing since the invention of digital watches

nickpeck36
nickpeck36

@redskinsdrool I think that's what they are going for as when you look at it closely, it's dinged, dented, scrapped and the like vs. the older iterations. 

SambaLele
SambaLele

@FighterforJC  I'd add that the game you described would "teach" the player not by tutorials, but intuitively, like most old games used to be. The "taken-in-hand" approach lessens the learning curve but also affects immersion and fun directly, simply because figuring the game out on your own was not designed to be part of the fun. 


E.g. Descent, Syndicate, X-COM, etc (even Doom at some extent): all games where you just had to figure everything out alone, and that was part of the fun.

youre_a_sheep
youre_a_sheep

@jim_peterson   I'd love to see a game as you describe but with an out: somewhere in the level in a fairly obvious place is a switch, that if activated will release a horde of especially tough enemies, and the last one defeated drops a completed map that shows/unlocks the exit.  That way the player decides whether to solve the labyrinthine puzzle or blast their way out.  Trophies could be set accordingly.

Fenriswolf
Fenriswolf

@eternal_napalm That's difficult to say, since in "healthpack" shooters, a protagonist can usually last much longer in a firefight, and pretty much encourage you to go in guns blazing, whereas in "regen" shooters, guns deal much more damage on average, which encourages you to take cover and plan more. While I think COD drastically simplified the concept, it's ridiculous to blame one mechanic for the industry's habit of following the leader.

Healthpacks aren't without its faults though. Often the player can get screwed if they only have 1 health left, and spend the next 5 minutes searching for healing, or even worse, the game autosaves right before a rock blows you to gibs. 

jski
jski

@eternal_napalm I agree, but hunting down stimpacks that automatically patch wounds and burns is just as silly. There has to be a better way.

youre_a_sheep
youre_a_sheep

@FighterforJC @tinmann840 Regenerating health creates a shoot and hide dynamic that makes every such game feel alike.  Doom made you feel like Rambo because if you were good you never had to hide, just constantly strafe.

quakke
quakke

@jski @eternal_napalmNope. Having to search something because your're at brink of death, gives massive tension. Having regen, you are only required to look for weapons and their ammunition. So overall, no-regen is very varied compared to regen which Halo 2 introduced.

quakke
quakke

@youre_a_sheep @lashdl@Fenriswolf@eternal_napalmThough, you are now forgetting that DOOM's freedom of choice did offer you to save anywhere anytime, so you have yourself to blame if you did not save and thus started from the beginning instead of from your last save ;)

youre_a_sheep
youre_a_sheep

@lashdl @Fenriswolf@eternal_napalm One of the most nerve racking moments in my gaming life was that one Doom stage where you have to run across a platform to reach the exit, but its pieces fall into the lava below.  One tiny misstep and you had to start the whole level over.

quakke
quakke

@jim_peterson @quakke@jski@eternal_napalm I don't agree. What regen does, is it creates a very repeatitive gameplay. "Hide and regen" That's what regen does. No health regen gives a massive variety compared to regen. No regen allows me to go full Terminator on the enemies if i have full health and full armor, granted i need to know how to manage my resources. Regen does not allow you to go out there and taking fire since regen only takes a 3-5 shots and you're dead or atleast screaming for some cover. I rather it be so that I, manage the health manually via healthpacks/carryable syringes.


Cover is also not equal to FPS in general. This is what DOOM never did. DOOM never forced you to go hide behind some chesthigh walls, DOOM allowed me to do things the way i wanna do em'. Forced covergameplay is dumb and very repeatitive.

Doom (1993) More Info

First Release on Dec 10, 1993
  • Saturn
  • PC
  • + 9 more
  • PlayStation 3
  • Game Boy Advance
  • Xbox 360
  • 3DO
  • Sega 32X
  • Jaguar
  • Super Nintendo
  • PlayStation
  • Acorn Archimedes
id Software's classic first-person shooter is now on Xbox Live Arcade.