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Few development projects have stretched out as long as Doom. But after many years in the making — and one very serious reboot — Doom debuted on May 13.
Marty Stratton was involved in the project throughout its history, and he helped define the modern remake of the 1993 classic as executive producer. Few games have had as big an impact as Doom, which solidified the first-person shooter genre as one of the mainstays of what is now a $100 billion industry. Doom’s original creators have moved on and gone on to many other projects. But Stratton has dealt with the ups and downs of the property — as the company changed ownership and id Software was purchased by Bethesda owner ZeniMax Media — as well as the big reboot in 2013. His goal was to make the new game live up to the expectations of fans and all that they liked about the original game.
I played through the new Doom and interviewed Stratton about the history of the project, the design decisions that the team made, and all of the parts that gamers are likely to be curious about. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I was curious as to how many interviews you’ve done on this already. It took me awhile to finish the game and get to the point where I could talk about it.
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Marty Stratton: A few. It’s been nice. You work on something like this for a few years and you can’t talk about it all, or only in very limited situations. It’s fun to be able to talk about it now.
GamesBeat: What was your time involvement like? Were you on both projects – the Doom 4 project and then the Doom project?
Stratton: I was on both, but in a different way. I had a multiplayer team here at the studio. Back in that time period we had multiple teams working on multiple games. We had a team working on Rage and a team working on what you referred to as Doom 4. Then I had a smaller team that was working on multiplayer. I had started the Quake Live project and gotten that through the first few years. Then I continued to build up that multiplayer team. We did the car combat and co-op versions of Rage. At the same time, we were working on multiplayer within Doom 4. When we decided to reboot at the end of 2012, beginning of 2013, I moved into the position I’m in now.
GamesBeat: How far back did the thinking go, then, for the beginning of the next-generation Doom project? Was that around 2007, 2008?
Stratton: I can’t remember the QuakeCon where we threw a logo up on the screen and mentioned that we were working on it. At that time it was a very small team. It’s an interesting question, because I don’t know that the thinking at id ever really stopped about what we could be doing with Doom, what we should be doing with it, who should be doing what. Going all the way back to Doom 3—it’s always one of those things. What’s next for Doom? It never really stops.
GamesBeat: How would you describe some of that development history — starting on it once, going in one direction, and then restarting?
Stratton: We had a team that was well into development on that version of the game. It was a different style than what we ended up doing. Thus the reasoning for the change of direction.
It was still good. There were some pretty good elements to it. Very high production value. Just different, different mechanics, a different style and tone to it, different setting. Much more of a re-visioning of it than the way we took it, which was being kind of inspired by and sticking to a lot of the principles and visuals and tone of the original Doom and Doom 2. We just got to a point with that where, as a studio and along with Bethesda, we just didn’t feel like, if we were going to be launching the next Doom, it was exactly what we felt it should be and needed to be, what fans were going to expect from a Doom game.
We went through a process of saying, “Well, what is that?” If we’re going to make the investment to restart development and take a different creative approach, what do we want to make and what do we think fans want to play? We got some groups of people together and did a lot of looking back at the original Doom and Doom 2, as well as Doom 3. We took a holistic approach to the question of what, fundamentally, is the DNA of Doom. Then we started to build around that.
We put together a vision statement, some rules and filters that we would use to evaluate ideas. Our animation team at the time had put together a pretty cool demo of—it was basically an animatic. It was all animation-based, using creatures and guns from the previous version. It was really the genesis of the glory kill system, as well as the inspiration for some of the push-forward combat. We had a pretty good sense of that early on. Within just a couple of months we had a foundation for what we wanted the game to feel like. We built an early first playable within a few months of that as well.
By mid-2013 we had something playable that we felt was really fun. It had combat as solid as anything we’d done prior to that. It was one of those moments, early on, where you say, “We found the fun early in development.” Then we just continued to build on that and around that. Then we were off to the races with every other part of the game.
GamesBeat: The easy comparison for me is that Doom 3 was darker, slower, and more horror. This Doom has a lot more light and plays very fast. What kind of change in thinking did that represent?
Stratton: We were really focused on the action, yeah. It was the inspiration of Doom and Doom 2. As much as those games have some elements of the flickery shadows and a few jump scares, Doom 3 was much more of a horror take on things. It used darkness and isolated moments of—you’re creeping through, you hear an enemy, you trigger something, and it appears or breaks through or something like that. Those encounters were much more one-on-one or one-on-two. Doom 3 combat never got as chaotic and fast-paced.
When we broke down what we felt was the DNA of Doom and Doom 2, it really came down to movement being a massively critical part of the gameplay. Speed is probably the thing that people come to first. The game plays very fast. But some components that are tied to that are equally important. You generally move faster, or as fast, as the enemies. Weaving your way through them, using your movement as a means of defense, is a big part.
Also, the enemies primarily use melee attacks and some form of a projectile, whether it’s a rocket or a fireball or some gunky plasma slime. It’s always stuff that, in the course of combat, whether they’re charging you or launching something at you—in almost all cases it’s stuff that you can see and react to. That creates this dynamic of, “I have to move constantly in order to stay alive.”
We added an element of verticality to the spaces, almost taking a cue from multiplayer arena design, to create areas where you can mantle or double-jump. You can move and explore in a way that makes you feel very fast and powerful. Almost like a superhero. The enemies are very distinctive. They have distinct combat capabilities and behaviors that make them almost like chess pieces. Your capabilities with your guns—that whole thing creates this combat dynamic where, when you get the pieces clicking, it always felt like Doom to us.
Even though there were modern advancements throughout it, like the glory skill system and what we were doing with weapon and movement upgrades, at its core it felt like that classic fast-paced run-and-gun Doom. The combat felt like something we could build an entire game around.
GamesBeat: A lot of these changes — do you see them as driven by fan interest, or more from within the team?
Stratton: Initially they were very self-driven. Like I said, we got to playable stuff pretty early on where we thought it was really fun. But at the same time—I almost feel like we were—it’s not a perfect storm, but it’s almost like that, of first-person shooter players—you could hear, online, this fatigue, I guess, about what is broadly considered the modern shooter. Lots of taking cover. Regenerating health. Reloading your gun.
These things are fun. I play lots of games that have these mechanics. But when we looked at Doom – and this is where it was self-driven – we thought, “We can’t do these things. That’s not what Doom is, at its core. Let’s not be half-hearted or reserved in our approach to Doom combat. Let’s be true to what it is and do it in triple-A style with all the talent of the team and the most cutting-edge engine. What does that all come together as?”
I would say that as we began to reveal the game and talk about these things with fans, it became very inspiring when people reacted so well. They saw that this game isn’t your typical first-person shooter. It really is staying true to the heritage, to what Doom is all about, but doing it in a modern way. That gave us more and more fuel. We continued to make decisions throughout that we thought fans would appreciate and like.
We tried to create these moments throughout the game that we felt would be fun for someone who had never played Doom before, but if you had played Doom, if you’ve lived with Doom as part of gaming throughout your life, you’d look at what we’d done and recognize the homage or the tribute or the familiarity. Those were all things that were important to us throughout.
GamesBeat: On that point, you mentioned the glory kills a few times. The level and the tone of the violence — it’s so over the top that I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s almost comical. It’s not horror violence, even though it’s very gory. How would you describe it? What kind of balance did you have to walk on that point?
Stratton: It was very much as you describe it. We had these phrases that we would use – over the top, comic book. Hugo Martin, our creative director, used the term “popcorn horror.” We use a lot of references – Evil Dead 2, Robocop, Blade. A lot of this over the top violent action.
The way I tend to describe it on a day to day decision-making level—really, once we started down the path and everybody got it, this didn’t come up very often. But the violence was always—if, while something is happening, somebody is blowing up or a body part is getting ripped off and used as a weapon—every player has their own sensibilities. But with players around the office or when we would bring focus groups in, if they were laughing at these scenes – like, “Oh my god!” – if they were laughing instead of cringing, we’re doing the right thing. If they closed one eye or looked away or winced a bit, then the tone was wrong. We frequently used that to gauge ourselves.
But again, once our design team and animation team—for the most part, they got it, and in a lot of ways defined it themselves. That part of the game is part of the character, part of the DNA of Doom, to have that over the top violence. Their execution on it was great.
GamesBeat: Having played the campaign, I was wondering what the game designers were thinking relative to the player. The thing I tend to feel is that you’re torturing us, right? Game designers think of every possible way to torture the player and make this more difficult. The prime example is — I killed the cyberdemon on Mars, and then I have to kill him again in Hell right after that.
Stratton: [Laughs] There’s definitely an aspect of challenge to the game. We wanted players to be challenged. It’s a lot of combat. One of the interesting things we experienced as we tried to balance the game—this is also one of the reasons we have a pretty broad range of difficulty settings that players can bounce in between as they play. The only one you can’t swap is going into Nightmare. That’s a commitment. But we really do want players to challenge themselves. It’s an acrobatic, skill-based combat experience.
As we were balancing the game we did find that when it got too hard for players, it was a frustrating thing. They did feel like they were being punished. It didn’t feel like as much like a power fantasy. But when it got too easy, it wasn’t a challenge. We’d use the analogy of, what’s it like to go out and play basketball against a bunch of third-graders? The feel of the combat and the fun of the combat swings quite a bit depending on whether you can find a solid difficulty setting and face a good challenge. You push through a challenge, die a couple of times, and the reward is the success and the chance to move on.
I’d say the designers, for the most part—their task, what they felt like they were trying to do, was walk a balance. This is a very Doom philosophical design thing. You’re always in a process of escalation, this arms race with the demons. You’re the Doom marine. You have your guns. Then you get to this point where the demons are pressing you. You feel like you can’t get over the hump. Then you do, through skill or through finding new guns, and then you start to take the upper hand. After that you run into a new demon or new area that puts the next challenge in front of you, and you progress past that.
The trick is to find that razor’s edge of—we always call it the fantasy of being the Doom marine. By the end of the game we want you to feel like a badass. It’s built into the story. It’s part of our vision statement. You’re hell’s worst nightmare. You can destroy demons and they know it. That’s who you are and what you’re all about. From a design and balance perspective for the team, it was tuning that escalating power ramp to keep the game fun and engaging and challenging along the way, but by the time you get to the end of it, you really do feel like that superhero demon slayer.
GamesBeat: This game feels pretty long. Maybe it’s because I had to refight a lot of these missions over and over. But there’s more story in it, too. That’s very different from the older games. I notice you had several ways to tell the story, too, with the holograms and the collectibles you find, as well as the actual cinematics. Did you feel like you got to tell a more involving story here?
Stratton: We wanted to create a lot more lore for Doom than story, necessarily. Doom isn’t known for storytelling. One of the things we said throughout development was that players don’t come to Doom for a story. They come to kill demons and blow stuff up. We had to stay true to that, and kind of even use that as one of the core elements of the story we told. The Doom marine wakes up and he’s not there to do anything but kill demons. That’s what we feel is the player’s expectation.
As we began to dive into what we hoped players’ questions would be – Who am I? Who is the marine? Why did I wake up on this table? – we realized that if we tried to give the player an objective, the first thing that would happen is they’d say, “I don’t want an objective! I want to kill demons!” We used that sensibility – players want to kill demons – to feed the way our story unfolded. That first thing, where Samuel tries to talk to you and you throw the monitor away, that was very much, “I don’t want to be ordered around. I ‘m here to kill demons.”
We tried to keep the story out of the way of players who just wanted to kill demons. But if you wanted to invest and you had those questions, we wanted to give players a lot of information to chew on. We wanted to answer some questions, but also pose a lot more questions that we could continue to fill in, or let the players fill in. It’s a story that takes a lot of player participation. That was deliberate.
You mentioned the echoes. You don’t have to watch the echoes. You can run right past them. There are only a few moments where we contain you around a story moment that we feel is important to understand what you’re doing next and why. Those moments are pretty limited. In most cases we just tried to add a level of depth and interest, whether that was the UAC or the player or the demons, and do it in a fun comic-book sort of way.
We never tried to take ourselves too seriously with the story. You get that right off the bat. It’s fun that players have realized it. Just a moment in you’re hearing a voice say, “Demonic presence at unsafe levels.” That’s ridiculous. What are safe levels of demonic presence? We tried, very early on, to make that statement to the players. This is going to be a little absurd. You’re there to kill demons, but if you want to find out more about this place we’ll give it to you.
GamesBeat: It seems like there are opportunities to have the player make some kind of choices, but you make those choices for the player at those points, like whether to blow up the tower. Is that a deliberate kind of design thinking?
Stratton: We didn’t give the player a lot of choices to fundamentally alter the outcome, no. We did want to tell a pretty specific tale of who you are and what you do and why you do it. We debated some of those moments. I mentioned the scene at the beginning where Samuel’s talking on the monitor and you don’t have the choice to grab it and throw it away. You just do it. It’s a choice that we make for the player.
Those are moments where you wonder if the player will be okay with us making that choice. Did they want to hear more of what Samuel had to say? Particularly when you think about more conventional games by comparison. It’s fairly common to lock a player into a cinematic and kind of beat them over the head with information. But once we made the choice to steer into the idea that, like I said before, the Doom marine is there to kill demons, we didn’t worry as much about giving the player a lot of choices.
The choices are combat choices, for the most part. The player is constantly making, in the course of a combat encounter, a thousand little choices about how they want to fight, what weapon to use, what upgrade to use, how to attack. That was the focus of the game, Doom’s combat. It felt natural to keep the story pretty light. When you get into making story choices like that, you’re diverting attention from what was really important to us, which was making the combat really tight.
GamesBeat: Was I supposed to learn to rocket jump at all?
Stratton: No. You can actually use the gauss cannon to gauss jump, which is interesting to watch. You can launch yourself in many directions, particularly when you combine it with double jump and in-flight mobility, a couple of the ugrades there. But no, not specifically rocket jumping.
GamesBeat: I was curious whether that’s a contrast between multiplayer and single-player. Some of those jumps were really long.
Stratton: Yeah, no, it’s all just double jumping.
GamesBeat: I was also surprised that this Doom didn’t make me 3D sick. The original Doom actually did, and I never understand why that happens or doesn’t happen.
Stratton: I know what you mean. Original Wolfenstein 3D made me sick, and Doom didn’t. It was strange even between those two games. Probably it’s just a combination of tech and framerate. I don’t know what platform you played on. We stay at a pretty high framerate even on the consoles. That has a good bit to do with it.
GamesBeat: The three-shot BFG, was that something you tuned specifically for this game? I always wanted more ammo.
Stratton: See, that’s good. It was heavily tuned. We spent a long time working on the BFG. Over the course of development it had many different paths that we went down. Ultimately we came back to its fundamental use. It’s kind of like pulling out the nuke, as a last hope. That’s why we gave it its own face button on the controller. It’s very accessible. Same with the chainsaw. It had a different purpose in the game, that one-shot strike. We wanted those to be very accessible.
As far as the ammo, we just wanted you looking for BFG ammo. We wanted a piece out there that you would be really interested in, that we could use to make secrets very valuable. If you have too much of it you’re not testing your skill as much.
GamesBeat: I did think the slow-motion weapon wheel was pretty cool. I don’t know if that was a particularly inspired moment, when you came up with that.
Stratton: I’d say it was, yeah. The weapon wheel came together pretty quickly. It’s not all that uncommon anymore, to have weapons accessible like that. But the combination of the speed and the slow-mo, that came together particularly early in development. We got a lot of chances to refine it. That was a very good moment for us, when we knew that we were going to be dealing with carrying all your weapons and dealing with the console controllers. It’s a lot easier on PC, where most people don’t even use the weapon wheel. But on a controller it’s pretty valuable.
A big thing is that you can quick-flip. Once you get familiar with where the guns are placed, you kind of don’t even need to use the slow-mo. All you have to do is be quick enough with the shoulder button and the flick. You can switch to any weapon without even seeing the wheel. You almost get PC-like response with all your weapons. All that was tuning from us, for sure.
GamesBeat: The helmet of the Dragonborn, was there any meaning behind that Easter egg?
Stratton: Just an homage, a nod to our friends at Bethesda. We’re all fans of the work that they do. We have a couple of little Easter eggs in there, little tributes to them.
GamesBeat: Do you have any personal tips for multiplayer?
Stratton: It’s just like single-player in the sense that there’s a lot of skill involved. My big tip would be to just keep playing. In multiplayer you use a two-weapon loadout, not counting power weapons and that kind of thing. Most people who are successful find a nice combination of two guns that cover a good range of situations. You also have a mod capability on each weapon, so it’s almost like carrying four guns while you’re playing. If you find combinations that work well across a broad range of distances, you’ll be more successful. Always be swapping weapons to hit the differences between those. You should also find a piece of equipment that complements the range you’ve built into your weapons. That’s probably my biggest tip.
A lot of players are into other multiplayer games where they find their favorite gun and they just use that. With two weapons, each having mod capabilities, you can get a lot more options here, plus your equipment. You can cover a pretty broad range.
GamesBeat: I wonder why you stuck with Doom for so long. A lot of things happened in this process. The project rebooted. The company was sold. John Carmack left. What made you decide to stick it out?
Stratton: Mainly because it’s Doom. As a company and for me personally, even amid the changes and turmoil at times, it’s still one of the greatest video game properties in the world. To be able to work on it, to be able to bring new life to it, to have such a cool legacy to build on, to have such great fans—it’s still one of the best opportunities when you do what we do.
It’s always felt like we were really close, particularly once we felt like we got on a good track with the game and the team here. It felt like we had to get this out. There were times at events where I would say, “We can’t wait to get this into your hands.” Again, we felt pretty confident about the way the game played early on. We just had a lot of work to do to get everything else around it together. Very early on it felt modern, but it felt like Doom. There was a lot of confidence internally that fans would like it.
That’s why we always put it in fans’ hands first. Even as we got down to the end and were making decisions about things like review copies, we were so confident in how we thought players would react to it that we wanted their voice to be loud. We had no intention of taking anything away from reviewers. If someone wants to wait for their favorite reviewer to play the game, they can and should. But there were a lot of players who we thought would really like the game, so we wanted to get it in their hands first.
Maybe you lose somebody important, or you have a time of struggle or whatever. It’s still a great game and a great franchise. We had the best support from Bethesda you could imagine. They stuck with us through every bit of work we did. Tremendous partnership there. They obviously own us, but it’s the best relationship I’ve ever seen between a developer and a publisher. I can’t imagine a better senior management team from a support perspective, all the way down to the marketing team. Just a top-notch group. We wouldn’t have gotten to this point without everything that they provided.
GamesBeat: I was curious about Wolfenstein and the reboot there. That was also a very difficult game. Did you think the same way they did, or maybe learn some things from that earlier game?
Stratton: Definitely. That was Machine Games, and we watched them go through that the whole time. We’re probably as close to sister studios as any two studios in the Zenimax family. We share tech. They do a lot of development on the tech that we pull back into what we do. As far away as they are, we’re pretty close to their team. Seeing them develop Wolfenstein was tremendous.
They definitely follow a different take than we do. Jens, their creative director, is an awesome storyteller. Very cinematic. They push the story a lot. But from a gameplay perspective I think they did a good job of modernizing something that still had to have a familiar, classic feel. There’s a skill to that. It’s not just leading the gamer by the nose through a bunch of cinematic combat. You’re playing a game. That was one of the things they did well and that we also tried to do well — focusing on the fact that it’s a game, and part of that game is challenge.
GamesBeat: Is there anything from Rage or Doom 3 that’s still in this game, something that resembles what happened in those games?
Stratton: Even when you look at the stuff we did on Doom 4—I always say we’re a collection of all the work we’ve done up to this point. Whether it’s technology in our engine or the way we do animations—Rage was very well-thought-of for its AI animations and hit reactions. The whole traversal system built for Rage, where you’d see guys running up on rails and swinging from pipes, we based a lot of the ways the AI moves through the world here – an imp climbing up a column and monkeying around the world, a mancubus that’ll decide to jump up or down – a lot of handling the verticality in the way the enemies move through the space, that’s all still that fundamental traversal system.
You’re always building a bit on what you’ve done in the past. I also think Rage was well-thought-of for the way the guns felt. Our games, id games, with the combination of tech and animation and physics and sound and visual design—id guns have always had a nice solid feel. Rage was certainly an example of that, and you have the same groups of people continuing along. You definitely get that level of experience that knowledge that feeds into everything you do moving forward.
GamesBeat: Does Olivia die, or does she become that spider?
Stratton: She becomes the spider. When she sinks down into the hell goo, yeah, she turns into the spider mastermind.
GamesBeat: Also on the spider demon, can you talk about that and why it was so hard?
Stratton: [laughs] It’s the final boss! It has to be a challenge. It’s funny. It’s truly one of those things that—when you’re dealing with a game that has that challenging aspect to it, that skill aspect, it’s a balancing act, always. You get players who come in and you think, “Man, they’re never going to survive this.” And they get it in two tries. Or you think, “Well, we’ve got this pretty well balanced,” and nobody can get past it. We do so many tests – on the dev team, in focus tests, with QA at Bethesda playing it exhaustively. We must have iterated on the difficulty of the spider mastermind—I don’t even know how many times. An exhaustive amount of times. And you still have people who fall on either end of the spectrum.
This is the first game I’ve worked on where you have Twitch as such a major thing out there. It’s such a bizarre window into how people play your game. It’s completely awesome. The first few days after the game launched, we spent those days literally just watching people play the game for the first time, watching their reactions. We saw how difficult some things were, or how difficult it was to find certain secrets. You watch someone play the spider mastermind and they’ll get through it in one or two tries, or they’ll struggle and die 15 times. I guess it just comes down to how quickly you put it together and how nimble your thumbs are.
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