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The Shareware Scene, Part 5: Narratives of DOOM

19 Jun

Let me begin today by restating the obvious: DOOM was very, very popular, probably the most popular computer game to date.

That “probably” has to stand there because DOOM‘s unusual distribution model makes quantifying its popularity frustratingly difficult. It’s been estimated that id sold 2 to 3 million copies of the shareware episodes of the original DOOM. The boxed-retail-only DOOM II may have sold a similar quantity; it reportedly became the third best-selling boxed computer game of the 1990s. But these numbers, impressive as they are in their own right, leave out not only the ever-present reality of piracy but also the free episode of DOOM, which was packaged and distributed in such an unprecedented variety of ways all over the world. Players of it likely numbered well into the eight digits.

Yet if the precise numbers associated with the game’s success are slippery, the cultural impact of the game is easier to get a grip on. The release of DOOM marks the biggest single sea change in the history of computer gaming. It didn’t change gaming instantly, mind you — a contemporaneous observer could be forgiven for assuming it was still largely business as usual a year or even two years after DOOM‘s release — but it did change it forever.

I should admit here and now that I’m not entirely comfortable with the changes DOOM brought to gaming. In fact, for a long time, when I was asked when I thought I might bring this historical project to a conclusion, I pointed to the arrival of DOOM as perhaps the most logical place to hang it up. I trust that most of you will be pleased to hear that I no longer feel so inclined, but I do recognize that my feelings about DOOM are, at best, conflicted. I can’t help but see it as at least partially responsible for a certain coarsening in the culture of gaming that followed it. I can muster respect for the id boys’ accomplishment, but no love. Hopefully the former will be enough to give the game its due.

As the title of this article alludes, there are many possible narratives to spin about DOOM‘s impact. Sometimes the threads are contradictory — sometimes even self-contradictory. Nevertheless, let’s take this opportunity to follow a few of them to wherever they lead us as we wrap up this series on the shareware movement and the monster it spawned.


3D 4EVA!

The least controversial, most incontrovertible aspect of DOOM‘s impact is its influence on the technology of games. It was nothing less than the coming-out party for 3D graphics as a near-universal tool — this despite the fact that 3D graphics had been around in some genres, most notably vehicular simulations, almost as long as microcomputer games themselves had been around, and despite the fact that DOOM itself was far from a complete implementation of a 3D environment. (John Carmack wouldn’t get all the way to that goal until 1996’s Quake, the id boys’ anointed successor to DOOM.) As we’ve seen already, Blue Sky Productions’s Ultima Underworld actually offered the complete 3D implementation which DOOM lacked twenty months before the latter’s arrival.

But as I also noted earlier, Ultima Underworld was complex, a little esoteric, hard to come to terms with at first sight. DOOM, on the other hand, took what the id boys had started with Wolfenstein 3D, added just enough additional complexity to make it into a more satisfying game over the long haul, topped it off with superb level design that took full advantage of all the new affordances, and rammed it down the throat of the gaming mainstream with all the force of one of its coveted rocket launchers. The industry never looked back. By the end of the decade, it would be hard to find a big boxed game that didn’t use 3D graphics.

Many if not all of these applications of 3D were more than warranted: the simple fact is that 3D lets you do things in games that aren’t possible any other way. Other forms of graphics consist at bottom of fixed, discrete patterns of colored pixels. These patterns can be moved about the screen — think of the sprites in a classic 2D videogame, such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. or id’s Commander Keen — but their forms cannot be altered with any great degree of flexibility. And this in turn limits the degree to which the world of a game can become an embodied, living place of emergent interactions; it does no good to simulate something in the world model if you can’t represent it on the player’s screen.

3D graphics, on the other hand, are stored not as pixels but as a sort of architectural plan of an imaginary 3D space, expressed in the language of mathematics. The computer then extrapolates from said plan to render the individual pixels on the fly in response to the player’s actions. In other words, the world and the representation of the world are stored as one in the computer’s memory. This means that things can happen there which no artist ever anticipated. 3D allowed game makers to move beyond hand-crafted fictions and set-piece puzzles to begin building virtual realities in earnest. Not for nothing did many people refer to DOOM-like games in the time before the term “first-person shooter” was invented as “virtual-reality games.”

Ironically, others showed more interest than the id boys themselves in probing the frontiers of formal possibility thus opened. While id continued to focus purely on ballistics and virtual violence in their extended series of Quake games after making DOOM, Looking Glass Technologies — the studio which had previously been known as Blue Sky Productions — worked many of the innovations of Ultima Underworld and DOOM alike into more complex virtual worlds in games like System Shock and Thief. Nevertheless, DOOM was the proof of concept, the game which demonstrated indubitably to everyone that 3D graphics could provide amazing experiences which weren’t possible any other way.

From the standpoint of the people making the games, 3D graphics had another massive advantage: they were also cheaper than the alternative. When DOOM first appeared in December of 1993, the industry was facing a budgetary catch-22 with no obvious solution. Hiring armies of artists to hand-paint every screen in a game was expensive; renting or building a sound stage, then hiring directors and camera people and dozens of actors to provide hours of full-motion-video footage was even more so. Players expected ever bigger, richer, longer games, which was intensely problematic when every single element in their worlds had to be drawn or filmed by hand. Sales were increasing at a steady clip by 1993, but they weren’t increasing quickly enough to offset the spiraling costs of production. Even major publishers like Sierra were beginning to post ugly losses on their bottom lines despite their increasing gross revenues.

3D graphics had the potential to fix all that, practically at a stroke. A 3D world is, almost by definition, a collection of interchangeable parts. Consider a simple item of furniture, like, say, a desk. In a 2D world, every desk must be laboriously hand-drawn by an artist in the same way that a traditional carpenter planes and joins the wood for such a thing in a workshop. But in a 3D world, the data constituting the basic form of “desk” can be inserted in a matter of seconds; desks can now make their way into games with the same alacrity with which they roll off of an IKEA production line. But you say that you don’t want every desk in your world to look exactly the same? Very well; it takes just a few keystrokes to change the color or wood grain or even the size of your desk, or to add or take away a drawer. We can arrive at endless individual implementations of “desk” from our Platonic ideal with surprising speed. Small wonder that, when the established industry was done marveling at DOOM‘s achievements in terms of gameplay, the thing they kept coming back to over and over was its astronomical profit margins. 3D graphics provided a way to make games make money again.

So, 3D offered worlds with vastly more emergent potential, made at a greatly reduced cost. There had to be a catch, right?

Alas, there was indeed. In many contexts, 3D graphics were right on the edge of what a typical computer could do at all in the mid-1990s, much less do with any sort of aesthetic appeal. Gamers would have to accept jagged edges, tearing textures, and a generalized visual crudity in 3D games for quite some time to come. A freeze-frame visual comparison with the games the industry had been making immediately before the 3D revolution did the new ones no favors: the games coming out of studios like Sierra and LucasArts had become genuinely beautiful by the early 1990s, thanks to those companies’ rooms full of dedicated pixel artists. It would take a considerable amount of time before 3D games would look anywhere near this nice. One can certainly argue that 3D was in some fairly fundamental sense necessary for the continuing evolution of game design, that this period of ugliness was one that the industry simply needed to plow through in order to emerge on the other side with a whole new universe of visual and emergent possibility to hand. Still, people mired in the middle of it could be forgiven for asking whether, from the evidence of screenshots alone, gaming technology wasn’t regressing rather than progressing.

But be that as it may, the 3D revolution ushered in by DOOM was here to stay. People would just have to get used to the visual crudity for the time being, and trust that eventually things would start to look better again.


Playing to the Base

There’s an eternal question in political and commercial marketing alike: do you play to the base, or do you try to reach out to a broader spectrum of people? The former may be safer, but raises the question of how many more followers you can collect from the same narrow slice of the population; the latter tempts you with the prospect of countless virgin souls waiting to embrace you, but is far riskier, with immense potential to backfire spectacularly if you don’t get the message and tone just right. This was the dichotomy confronting the boxed-games industry in the early 1990s.

By 1993, the conventional wisdom inside the industry had settled on the belief that outreach was the way forward. This dream of reaching a broader swath of people, of becoming as commonplace in living rooms as prime-time dramas and sitcoms, was inextricably bound up with the technology of CD-ROM, what with its potential to put footage of real human actors into games alongside spoken dialog and orchestral soundtracks. “What we think of today as a computer or a videogame system,” wrote Ken Williams of Sierra that year, “will someday assume a much broader role in our homes. I foresee a day when there is one home-entertainment device which combines the functions of a CD-audio player, VCR, videogame system, and computer.”

And then along came DOOM with its stereotypically adolescent-male orientation, along with sales numbers that threatened to turn the conventional wisdom about how well the industry could continue to feed off the same old demographic on its head. About six months after DOOM‘s release, when the powers that were were just beginning to grapple with its success and what it meant to each and every one of them, Alexander Antoniades, a founding editor of the new Game Developer magazine, more fully articulated the dream of outreach, as well as some of the doubts that were already beginning to plague it.

The potential of CD-ROM is tremendous because it is viewed as a superset not [a] subset of the existing computer-games industry. Everyone’s hoping that non-technical people who would never buy an Ultima, flight simulator, or DOOM will be willing to buy a CD-ROM game designed to appeal to a wider audience — changing the computer into [an] interactive VCR. If these technical neophytes’ first experience is a bad one, for $60 a disc, they’re not going to continue making the same mistake.

It will be this next year, as these consumers make their first CD-ROM purchases, that will determine the shape of the industry. If CD-ROM games are able to vary more in subject matter than traditional computer games, retain their platform independence, and capture new demographics, they will attain the status of a new platform [in themselves]. If not, they will just be another means to get product to market and will be just another label on the side of a box.

The next couple of years did indeed become a de-facto contest between these two ideas of gaming’s future. At first, the outreach camp could point to some notable successes on a scale similar to that of DOOM: The 7th Guest sold over 2 million copies, Myst sold an extraordinary 6 million or more. Yet the reality slowly dawned that most of those outside the traditional gaming demographic who purchased those games regarded them as little more than curiosities; most evidence would seem to indicate that they were never seriously played to a degree commensurate with their sales. Meanwhile the many similar titles which the industry rushed out in the wake of these success stories almost invariably became commercial disappointments.

The problems inherent in these multimedia-heavy “interactive movies” weren’t hard to see even at the time. In the same piece from which I quoted above, Alexander Antoniades noted that too many CD-ROM productions were “the equivalent of Pong games with captured video images of professional tennis players and CD-quality sounds of bouncing balls.” For various reasons — the limitations inherent in mixing and matching canned video clips; the core limitations of the software and hardware technology; perhaps simply a failure of imagination — the makers of too many of these extravaganzas never devised new modes of gameplay to complement their new modes of presentation. Instead they seemed to believe that the latter alone ought to be enough. Too often, these games fell back on rote set-piece puzzle-solving — an inherently niche activity even if done more creatively than we often saw in these games — for lack of any better ideas for making the “interactive” in interactive movies a reality. The proverbial everyday person firing up the computer-cum-stereo-cum-VCR at the end of a long workday wasn’t going to do so in order to watch a badly acted movie gated with frustrating logic puzzles.

While the multimedia came first with these productions, games of the DOOM school flipped that script. As the years went on and they too started to ship on the now-ubiquitous medium of CD-ROM, they too picked up cut scenes and spoken dialog, but they never suffered the identity crisis of their rivals; they knew that they were games first and foremost, and knew exactly what forms their interactivity should take. And most importantly from the point of view of the industry, these games sold. Post-1996 or so, high-concept interactive movies were out, as was most serious talk of outreach to new demographics. Visceral 3D action games were in, along with a doubling-down on the base.

To blame the industry’s retrenchment — its return to the demographically tried-and-true — entirely on DOOM is a stretch. Yet DOOM was a hugely important factor, standing as it did as a living proof of just how well the traditional core values of gaming could pay. The popularity of DOOM, combined with the exercise in diminishing commercial returns that interactive movies became, did much to push the industry down the path of retrenchment.

The minor tragedy in all this was not so much the end of interactive movies, given what intensely problematic endeavors they so clearly were, but rather that the latest games’ vision proved to be so circumscribed in terms of fiction, theme, and mechanics alike. By late in the decade, they had brought the boxed industry to a place of dismaying homogeneity; the values of the id boys had become the values of computer gaming writ large. Game fictions almost universally drew from the same shallow well of sci-fi action flicks and Dungeons & Dragons, with perhaps an occasional detour into military simulation. A shocking proportion of the new games being released fell into one of just two narrow gameplay genres: the first-person shooter and the real-time-strategy game.

These fictional and ludic genres are not, I hasten to note, illegitimate in themselves; I’ve enjoyed plenty of games in all of them. But one craves a little diversity, a more vibrant set of possibilities to choose from when wandering into one’s local software store. It would take a new outsider movement coupled with the rise of convenient digital distribution in the new millennium to finally make good on that early-1990s dream of making games for everyone. (How fitting that shaking loose the stranglehold of DOOM‘s progeny would require the exploitation of another alternative form of distribution, just as the id boys exploited the shareware model…)


The Murder Simulator

DOOM was mentioned occasionally in a vaguely disapproving way by mainstream media outlets immediately after its release, but largely escaped the ire of the politicians who were going after games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat at the time; this was probably because its status as a computer rather than a console game led to its being played in bedrooms rather than living rooms, free from the prying eyes of concerned adults. It didn’t become the subject of a full-blown moral panic until weirdly late in its history.

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, a pair of students at Columbine High School in the Colorado town of the same name, walked into their school armed to the teeth with knives, explosives, and automatic weapons. They proceeded to kill 13 students and teachers and to injure 24 more before turning their guns on themselves. The day after the massacre, an Internet gaming news site called Blue’s News posted a message that “several readers have written in reporting having seen televised news reports showing the DOOM logo on something visible through clear bags containing materials said to be related to the suspected shooters. There is no word yet of what connection anyone is drawing between these materials and this case.” The word would come soon enough.

It turned out that Harris and Klebold had been great devotees of the game, not only as players but as creators of their own levels. “It’s going to be just like DOOM,” wrote Harris in his diary just before the massacre. “I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy. I will force myself to believe that everyone is just a monster from DOOM.” He chose his prize shotgun because it looked like one found in the game. On the surveillance tapes that recorded the horror in real time, the weapons-festooned boys pranced and preened as if they were consciously imitating the game they loved so much. Weapons experts noted that they seemed to have adopted their approach to shooting from what worked in DOOM. (In this case, of course, that was a wonderful thing, in that it kept them from killing anywhere close to the number of people they might otherwise have with the armaments at their disposal.)

There followed a storm of controversy over videogame content, with DOOM and the genre it had spawned squarely at its center. Journalists turned their attention to the FPS subculture for the first time, and discovered that more recent games like Duke Nukem 3D — the Columbine shooters’ other favorite game, a creation of Scott Miller’s old Apogee Software, now trading under the name of 3D Realms — made DOOM‘s blood and gore look downright tame. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a longstanding critic of videogames, beat the drum for legislation, and the name of DOOM even crossed the lips of President Bill Clinton. “My hope,” he said, “[is] to persuade the nation’s top cultural producers to call a cease-fire in the virtual arms race, to stop the release of ultra-violent videogames such as DOOM. Several of the school gunmen murderously mimicked [it] down to the choice of weapons and apparel.”

When one digs into the subject, one can’t help but note how the early life stories of John Carmack and John Romero bear some eerie similarities with those of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The two Johns as well were angry kids who found it hard to fit in with their peers, who engaged in petty crime and found solace in action movies, heavy-metal music, and computer games. Indeed, a big part of the appeal of DOOM for its most committed fans was the sense that it had been made by people just like them, people who were coming from the same place. What caused Harris and Klebold, alone among the millions like them, to exorcise their anger and aggression in such a horrifying way? It’s a question that we can’t begin to answer. We can only say that, unfair though it may be, perceptions of DOOM outside the insular subculture of FPS fandom must always bear the taint of its connection with a mass murder.

And yet the public controversy over DOOM and its progeny resulted in little concrete change in the end. Lieberman’s proposed legislation died on the vine after the industry fecklessly promised to do a better job with content warnings, and the newspaper pundits moved on to other outrages. Forget talk of free speech; there was too much money in these types of games for them to go away. Just ten months after Columbine, Activision released Soldier of Fortune, which made a selling point of dismembered bodies and screams of pain so realistic that one reviewer claimed they left his dog a nervous wreck cowering in a corner. After the requisite wave of condemnation, the mainstream media forgot about it too.

Violence in games didn’t begin with DOOM or even Wolfenstein 3D, but it was certainly amplified and glorified by those games and the subculture they wrought. While a player may very well run up a huge body count in, say, a classic arcade game or an old-school CRPG, the violence there is so abstract as to be little more than a game mechanic. But in DOOM — and even more so in the games that followed it — experiential violence is a core part of the appeal. One revels in killing not just because of the new high score or character experience level one gets out of it, but for the thrill of killing itself, as depicted in such a visceral, embodied way. This does strike me as a fundamental qualitative shift from most of the games that came before.

Yet it’s very difficult to have a reasonable discussion on said violence’s implications, simply because opinions have become so hardened on the subject. To express concern on any level is to invite association with the likes of Joe Lieberman, a politician with a knack for choosing the most reactionary, least informed position on every single issue, who apparently was never fortunate enough to have a social-science professor drill the fact that correlation isn’t causation into his head.

Make no mistake: the gamers who scoff at the politicians’ hand-wringing have a point. Harris and Klebold probably were drawn to games like DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D because they already had violent fantasies, rather than having said fantasies inculcated by the games they happened to play. In a best-case scenario, we can even imagine other potential mass murderers channeling their aggression into a game rather than taking it out on real people, in much the same way that easy access to pornography may be a cause of the dramatic decline in incidents of rape and sexual violence in most Western countries since the rise of the World Wide Web.

That said, I for one am also willing to entertain the notion that spending hours every day killing things in the most brutal, visceral manner imaginable inside an embodied virtual space may have some negative effects on some personalities. Something John Carmack said about the subject in a fairly recent interview strikes me as alarmingly fallacious:

In later games and later times, when games [came complete with] moral ambiguity or actual negativity about what you’re doing, I always felt good about the decision that in DOOM, you’re fighting demons. There’s no gray area here. It is black and white. You’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, and everything that you’re doing to them is fully deserved.

In reality, though, the danger which games like DOOM may present, especially in the polarized societies many of us live in in our current troubled times, is not that they ask us to revel in our moral ambiguity, much less our pure evil. It’s rather the way they’re able to convince us that the Others whom we’re killing “fully deserve” the violence we visit upon them because “they’re the bad guys.” (Recall those chilling words from Eric Harris’s diary, about convincing himself that his teachers and classmates are really just monsters…) This tendency is arguably less insidious when the bad guys in question are ridiculously over-the-top demons from Hell than when they’re soldiers who just happen to be wearing a different uniform, one which they may quite possibly have had no other choice but to don. Nevertheless, DOOM started something which games like the interminable Call of Duty franchise were only too happy to run with.

I personally would like to see less violence rather than more in games, all things being equal, and would like to see more games about building things up rather than tearing them down, fun though the latter can be on occasion. It strikes me that the disturbing association of some strands of gamer culture with some of the more hateful political movements of our times may not be entirely accidental, and that some of the root causes may stretch all the way back to DOOM — which is not to say that it’s wrong for any given individual to play DOOM or even Call of Duty. It’s only to say that the likes of GamerGate may be yet another weirdly attenuated part of DOOM‘s endlessly multi-faceted legacy.


Creative Destruction?

In other ways, though, the DOOM community actually was — and is — a community of creation rather than destruction. (I did say these narratives of DOOM wouldn’t be cut-and-dried, didn’t I?)

John Carmack, by his own account alone among the id boys, was inspired rather than dismayed by the modding scene that sprang up around Wolfenstein 3D — so much so that, rather than taking steps to make such things more difficult in DOOM, he did just the opposite: he separated the level data from the game engine much more completely than had been the case with Wolfenstein 3D, thus making it possible to distribute new DOOM levels completely legally, and released documentation of the WAD format in which the levels were stored on the same day that id released the game itself.

The origins of his generosity hearken back once again to this idea that the people who made DOOM weren’t so very different from the people who played it. One of Carmack’s formative experiences as a hacker was his exploration of Ultima II on his first Apple II. Carmack:

To go ahead and hack things to turn trees into chests or modify my gold or whatever… I loved that. The ability to go several steps further and release actual source code, make it easy to modify things, to let future generations get what I wished I had had a decade earlier—I think that’s been a really good thing. To this day I run into people all the time that say, whether it was Doom, or maybe even more so Quake later on, that that openness and that ability to get into the guts of things was what got them into the industry or into technology. A lot of people who are really significant people in significant places still have good things to say about that.

Carmack speaks of “a decade-long fight inside id about how open we should be with the technology and the modifiability.” The others questioned this commitment to what Carmack called “open gaming” more skeptically than ever when some companies started scooping up some of the thousands of fan-made levels, plopping them onto CDs, and selling them without paying a cent to id. But in the long run, the commitment to openness kept DOOM alive; rather than a mere computer game, it became a veritable cottage industry of its own. Plenty of people played literally nothing else for months or even years at a stretch.

The debate inside id raged more than ever in 1997, when Carmack insisted on releasing the complete original source code to DOOM. (He had done the same for the Wolfenstein 3D code two years before.) As he alludes above, the DOOM code became a touchstone for an up-and-coming generation of game programmers, even as many future game designers cut their teeth and made early names for themselves by creating custom levels to run within the engine. And, inevitably, the release of the source code led to a flurry of ports to every imaginable platform: “Everything that has a 32-bit [or better] processor has had DOOM run on it,” says Carmack with justifiable pride. Today you can play DOOM on digital cameras, printers, and even thermostats, and do so if you like in hobbyist-created levels that coax the engine into entirely new modes of play that the id boys never even began to conceive of.

This narrative of DOOM bears a distinct similarity to that of another community of creation with which I happen to be much better acquainted: the post-Infocom interactive-fiction community that arose at about the same time that the original DOOM was taking the world by storm. Like the DOOM people, the interactive-fiction people built upon a beloved company’s well-nigh timeless software engineering; like them, they eventually stretched that engine in all sorts of unanticipated directions, and are still doing it to this day. A comparison between the cerebral text adventures of Infocom and the frenetic shooters of id might seem incongruous at first blush, but there you are. Long may their separate communities of love and craft continue to thrive.



As you have doubtless gathered by now, the legacy of DOOM is a complicated one that’s almost uniquely resistant to simplification. Every statement has a qualifier; every yang has a yin. This can be frustrating for a writer; it’s in the nature of us as a breed to want straightforward causes and effects. The desire for them may lead one to make trends that were obscure at best to the people living through them seem more obvious than they really were. Therefore allow me to reiterate that the new gaming order which DOOM created wouldn’t become undeniable to everyone until fully three or four years after its release. A reader recently emailed me the argument that 1996 was actually the best year ever for adventure games, the genre which, according to some oversimplified histories, DOOM and games like it killed at a stroke — and darned if he didn’t make a pretty good case for it.

So, while I’m afraid I’ll never be much of a gibber and/or fragger, we should continue to have much to talk about. Onward, then, into the new order. I dare say that from the perspective of the boots on the ground it will continue to look much like the old one for quite some time to come. And after that? Well, we’ll take it as it comes. I won’t be mooting any more stopping dates.

(Sources: the books The Complete Wargames Handbook (2000 edition) by James F. Dunnigan, Masters of Doom by David Kushner, Game Engine Black Book: DOOM by Fabien Sanglard, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, and Columbine by Dave Cullen; Retro Gamer 75; Game Developer of June 1994; Chris Kohler’s interview with John Carmack for Wired. And a special thanks to Alex Sarosi, a.k.a. Lt. Nitpicker, for his valuable email correspondence on the legacy of DOOM, as well as to Josh Martin for pointing out in a timely comment to the last article the delightful fact that DOOM can now be run on a thermostat.)

 

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71 Responses to The Shareware Scene, Part 5: Narratives of DOOM

  1. Joshua Barrett

    June 19, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    Very nice work indeed! I was afraid that you might take a less nuanced than usual approach to Doom, given your own preferences in games. Although in retrospect that seems like a rather foolish concern to have…

    As someone who’s spent a lot of time in the Doom community, I cannot overstate how much creativity and incredible talent is on display there. They are among the very few who rival the IF community in that respect.

    One minor correction:

    > It’s only to say that the likes of GamersGate may be yet another weirdly attenuated part of DOOM‘s endlessly multi-faceted legacy.

    You seem to have confused GamerGate (a rather nasty mess) with *GamersGate*, an entirely innocent digital distribution platform in the vein of GOG or Steam.

    This is an easy mistake to make: GamersGate actually received a lot of undeserved hate mail from people who made the same mistake.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 19, 2020 at 3:21 pm

      Ouch! Good to fix that one quickly. Thanks!

       
    • Iffy Bonzoolie

      July 21, 2020 at 3:10 am

      That one seems more like GamersGate’s fault…

       
  2. Avian Overlord

    June 19, 2020 at 3:48 pm

    I think that the conception of the Doom camp vs the outreach camp is fundamentally flawed because to a large extent Doom beat the outreach camp at its own game. Big action games with lots of explosions and violence are honestly more, not less accessible to people outside the core hobbyist sphere. The audience for more experimental ideas and styles is people who are devote more time and mental effort to the medium and want something new. You can’t reach new heights of sales and cultural penetration if you’re limiting yourself to a niche at the same time.

     
    • Ido Yehieli

      June 19, 2020 at 3:54 pm

      And yet the most mass-market/mainstream games of them all are the likes of Candy Crush, Farmville, Homescapes and other mostly- or entirely non-violent “casual” games.

       
      • Ido Yehieli

        June 19, 2020 at 3:57 pm

        Oh, and an additional data point:

        6 of the top 10 best-selling games of all time according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_video_games are fairly- to entirely- non-violent!

         
        • Avian Overlord

          June 19, 2020 at 4:20 pm

          I don’t think a list of bestselling games with GTA and PUBG in the top five is evidence against the idea that shooters aren’t niche. And the number 1 entry, Minecraft, is certainly a very divergent descendant of Doom, it has a bit too much running around in dark caves fighting monsters with FPS controls to deny that is in the end a descendent of Doom.

           
          • Ido Yehieli

            June 20, 2020 at 6:17 am

            The point I was trying to make wasn’t that FPSs are a niche but that going against that grain doesn’t result in niche-ier games. The audience for so called casual games (in which I’d also include stuff like the Sims) is immense – much bigger than for traditional “gamer” games.

            I think this is what Jimmy was eluding at.

             
      • Jimmy Maher

        June 19, 2020 at 4:00 pm

        Yes. The demographic that loved DOOM was the same as the one which had always loved videogames. The industry’s problem in the early 1990s was that it didn’t know how to match other types of subject matter that could potentially be appealing to other demographics to compelling gameplay in a consistent way. That nut wouldn’t be cracked until the post-millennial casual revolution.

         
  3. JP

    June 19, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    Good analysis, I think it hits the mark. So many things grew out of Doom and not all of them were positive. I think what Doom proved to the powers of the game industry (even if it took them a while to realize it) was that 3D was a “force multiplier” for a team’s talent, and by the end of the 90s all the big publishers had begun to grapple with the new industrial processes it implied. What I find interesting is that for the original id crew, it was a way for their tiny team to punch way above its weight, whereas for big publishers it was a way to leverage their superior resources in a way that led directly to the truly mass market console boom of the mid to late 00s.

    I think it’s also these other business entities outside id that bear the majority of the blame for making videogames a more narrowly focused, more hostile space in the years following Doom. Masters of Doom makes it pretty clear that id circa 1993 were just a bunch of metalheads and misfits and nerds. The infamously odious “John Romero is about to make you his bitch” magazine ad only came about years later when Eidos marketing needed a tagline for Daikatana that really spoke to the audience they were, by 1998, very consciously engineering.

    This all makes me realize how lucky I was to have come into this medium when I did, in the late 80s and early 90s when it was exploding in so many different directions. Doom has an almost embarrassingly central role in my life and career, but it hit me simultaneously with SimCity, LucasArts adventures, strategy games, TIE Fighter, Prince of Persia, Out of This World, etc etc. All the frustratingly limited analysis around Doom fails to consider the full context of its time, and you’ve done a good job of bringing it all out. I’m especially grateful for your mention of Doom’s community, because I do think it has been a profound force for the expansion of the medium and it’s that spirit of progress and greater inclusion I try to represent in the things I make with Doom and in my weekly WAD Wednesday stream, which randomly samples from the decades of community output.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 19, 2020 at 6:45 pm

      No, the id boys had no idea what a monster they were creating. It amuses me to imagine how they would have reacted in 1993 if you had told them that the game they were working on would one day be mentioned in a speech by the president of the United States. (As for Romero… having not worked on an original critically lauded and/or commercially successful game since Quake in 1996, he’s long since become gaming’s version of Paris Hilton: famous for being famous. But he seems to enjoy being John Romero, so good for him, I suppose.)

       
      • Joshua Barrett

        June 19, 2020 at 8:42 pm

        I’d be more upset with John Romero if it weren’t for the fact that he’s become such a damned likeable guy. And SIGIL got a mixed reception but honestly I thought it was pretty solid. Not as good as Tech Gone Bad, but good.

        Of more interest is Empire of Sin, but that’s more Brenda Romero’s project. No doubt this blog will talk about her earlier works (namely her work on Wizardry 8, at the very least) sooner or later… probably later.

         
      • Bmp

        June 21, 2020 at 5:58 pm

        That’s a nonsensical comparison. John Romero is a master level designer who, together with Sandy Petersen, established a formula _and_ created a high watermark of 3D level design, both at the same time. In fact, are there any PC action games before Doom that can boast similarly skillful level design?

        If he didn’t have the opportunity to create more works of this level after Quake, that is very regrettable, but nothing unusual among artistic professions.

        And it’s not because his level design skills faded – in fact, his level “Tech Gone Bad” for Doom 1, made in 2016, is a masterpiece.

        I’ve played several of the community-made map sets for Doom 1 and 2 that received some of the annual “Cacoward” awards on the community site doomworld.com. I enjoyed them, but they go from the classical Doom level design style in different directions, such as more extreme action, much larger levels, more elaborate and detailed levels, new graphical themes, and so on. All enjoyable, but I missed maps that were an improvement on Doom while keeping the classic combination of exploration, surprises, tension and moderate (relative to modern fan-made maps) action. And map sets that intentionally tried to recreate that formula, such as the map set “Doom the Way id Did”, lacked inspiration, in my opinion.

        Until Tech Gone Bad, which actually brings this formula to a higher level, and which I enjoyed more than any other level for Doom. It’s even one of the best levels of 3D shooters in general for me, though I do prefer the level design of 3D shooters before Half-Life put the genre on a different course.

        The comparison to Miss Hilton, no disrespect intended, is inappropriate.

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          June 21, 2020 at 8:06 pm

          You’re right. I won’t edit the original comment so as to preserve the context for this response, but it was pointlessly mean-spirited, even for a tossed-off parenthetical, regardless of what Romero has or hasn’t done since 1996. Mea culpa.

           
        • sucinum

          June 22, 2020 at 5:00 pm

          Speaking of level design: Doom was brilliant without doubt, but I think Chaos Strikes Back will give a good fight for the top spot.

           
    • Heike

      June 23, 2020 at 7:31 pm

      “We can only say that, unfair though it may be, perceptions of DOOM outside the insular subculture of FPS fandom must always bear the taint of its connection with a mass murder.”

      Wow. An old-fashioned, Twisted Sister moral panic. Man, I haven’t seen one of these in ages. Tying DOOM to Columbine – it’s like something Al Gore’s wife would have taken the lead in doing.

      “It’s rather the way they’re able to convince us that the Others whom we’re killing “fully deserve” the violence we visit upon them because “they’re the bad guys.””

      Indeed. SlateStarCodex, a blog that just deleted itself today due to threats of doxxing from the New York Times, once wrote a piece on this exact topic and how it is causing political polarization today. I highly recommend everyone read it (thankfully it was archived). A bit long but worth reading every word because it answers SO many questions.

       
  4. Infinitron

    June 19, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    3D graphics had the potential to fix all that, practically at a stroke. A 3D world is, almost by definition, a collection of interchangeable parts. Consider a simple item of furniture, like, say, a desk. In a 2D world, every desk must be laboriously hand-drawn by an artist in the same way that a traditional carpenter planes and joins the wood for such a thing in a workshop. But in a 3D world, the data constituting the basic form of “desk” can be inserted in a matter of seconds; desks can now make their way into games with the same alacrity with which they roll off of an IKEA production line. But you say that you don’t want every desk in your world to look exactly the same? Very well; it takes just a few keystrokes to change the color or wood grain or even the size of your desk, or to add or take away a drawer. We can arrive at endless individual implementations of “desk” from our Platonic ideal with surprising speed. Small wonder that, when the established industry was done marveling at DOOM‘s achievements in terms of gameplay, the thing they kept coming back to over and over was its astronomical profit margins. 3D graphics provided a way to make games make money again.

    This is a bit simplistic. The ability to render 3D models into 2D images would have existed even without high performance real-time 3D technology, and provided many of the same benefits. Many of the 2D games of the late 1990s, Interplay’s beautiful isometric RPGs for example, used 3D models that were converted into images and stored as sprites. This also allowed them to be of a higher visual quality.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 19, 2020 at 7:49 pm

      I didn’t say “high-performance real-time 3D technology.” Just 3D graphics. ;) Some advantages are lost by going pre-rendered, but other advantages — most notably the economic ones — remain. Consider, for example, a game like Myst. A team that small could never have created an environment that sprawling if they had to draw every view by hand.

       
  5. Lee_Ars

    June 19, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    God, Jimmy, this article—and, indeed, the entire series—make me pine for the handful of years I spent slinging boxed software at the friendly neighborhood Babbage’s in the mid-90s. I worked at that store from about August 1994 to about March 1998, and as the years roll onward I feel increasingly blessed that I was afford a front-row seat in what is possibly the most exciting era of computer gaming that has ever occurred.

    I know intellectually that those few years in the 1990s were as difficult to live through as any other moment in modern history, and that there were ups and downs that I can no longer see through my rose-tinted personal history glasses…but, man, I would give *quite a bit* to work just one more mid-1994 afternoon shift behind that counter, standing next to those eggshell-white shelves, when the future seemed limitless and just around the corner.

    (A few years ago I wrote up a article on Ars about my time at Babbage’s, and it remains IMO one of the best things I’ve ever written.)

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 19, 2020 at 7:00 pm

      I have the same rose-tinged nostalgia for the time, from an only slightly different perspective. I spent the first half of the 1990s working at a record store, going to two or three concerts a week (we used to joke that our base salary was all the free concert tickets; the money was just a bonus), being absurdly broke pretty much all the time, and yet being blissfully happy. I’m happy now, of course, but it’s a different, adult kind of happy, full of qualifiers about the state of the world and all the rest. I know I’ll never know that simple youthful bliss again. Would be nice to take a holiday back there every once in a while.

      Everyone of a certain age talks about the “simpler times” of the past, but I think there’s a legitimate argument to be made that the 1990s in the United States really was a great time to be young. Prestige drama was the X-Files, for God’s sake; the most pressing political concern we had was whether the government was hiding evidence of little green men from us. But it turned out not to be the end of history, just a pause…

      But enough with the nostalgia that I usually don’t allow myself to indulge in here. Check out Harry Turtledove’s time-travel story “Forty, Counting Down” sometime. It really captures the feel of the 1990s, and how it might feel for a middle-aged guy to get to travel back to his youth in that time.

       
  6. Joachim

    June 19, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    ” These patterns can be moved about the screen — think of the sprites in a classic 2D videogame, such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. or id’s Commander Keen — but their forms cannot be altered with any great degree of flexibility. And this in turn limits the degree to which the world of a game can become an embodied, living place of emergent interactions; it does no good to simulate something in the world model if you can’t represent it on the player’s screen.”

    I do get your point, and I remember in particular how impressed I was with the interactivity in Duke Nukem 3D. But I don’t know if I agree fully with the way you’ve phrased it. If you consider the roguelike-genre, for instance, there’s a lot of simulation going on there that matters a lot to the experience even though it was (at that time) mostly represented as ASCII or small graphical tiles.

    Of course, you could argue that these weren’t commercial games and that the big budget titles of the day would have had entirely different requirements for how to represent things on screen, and that would be a good argument. But on the other hand, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first two GTAs were basically 2D.

    “A freeze-frame visual comparison with the games the industry had been making immediately before the 3D revolution did the new ones no favors: the games coming out of studios like Sierra and LucasArts had become genuinely beautiful by the early 1990s, thanks to those companies’ rooms full of dedicated pixel artists. It would take a considerable amount of time before 3D games would look anywhere near this nice.”

    Here I agree completely. I was never able to play Gabriel Knight III, even when it was new. I just could not get over how ugly it was. Same with Monkey Island 4, it just looked like a disaster compared to what came before, and I couldn’t stand it.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 19, 2020 at 7:26 pm

      There’s something to what you say. There was a somewhat dismaying trend in gaming prior to DOOM: as graphics got better, interactivity got worse. In the case of adventure games, for example, the text adventures of Infocom were a lot more flexible than point-and-click graphic adventures, which were in turn more flexible than full-motion-video interactive movies. As graphic fidelity increased and images onscreen became less abstract, in other words, it became more difficult to represent many *different* things onscreen without breaking the budget. 3D graphics fixed that problem, although it took them several years to crawl back up to the standard of visuals that preceded them.

       
      • Eric Nyman

        June 19, 2020 at 8:11 pm

        I was just thinking the other day about the correlation between graphical improvement and lessening of interactive freedom over time in games, but that the two didn’t necessarily need to go hand in hand, or at least don’t now. It seems like with the technological constraints of that era now behind us, it would be possible to make a game with say, high resolution 3d graphics and total freedom of movement, but with a text parser for interactions. It feels like if Google can understand anything I type into my search bar, and parse it into reasonable output, a modern parser could do the same, given enough of a budget for such a game (considering what the modern IF community has been able to do, without a financial incentive!). And modern 3d engines would likewise be able to display the character performing the action inputted from the nearly limitless possibilities without needing to prerender each action. Has anyone ever attempted such a thing? It would give the best of both worlds in a sense; an immersive graphical environment and complete freedom of motion that interactive fiction lacks, while having the interactive possibilities of a typical work of IF (or perhaps even well beyond, with enough investment) that graphic adventure games lack.

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          June 19, 2020 at 9:23 pm

          It’s long been acknowledged in interactive-fiction circles that responding to a much broader range of inputs — essentially allowing a full range of natural-language interactions — is a soluble problem, but the money it would cost to do so is impossible to justify.

          I don’t know whether the combination of textual input with 3D graphics would ever really feel right. There’s a natural elegance to the use of text (or speech) for both input and output. The closest thing I’ve seen to an experiment like what you describe is Vespers 3D, which Mike Rubins labored on for quite some years: http://orangeriverstudio.com/vespers/. Unfortunately, the project appears to be defunct now. There’s been no updates since 2014.

           
          • matt w

            June 20, 2020 at 1:04 am

            I feel like the big sticking point in interactive-fiction circles now is the world model… or perhaps we should say here the interaction model. It wouldn’t be too hard to crank the parser up so it can understand things like “climb carefully up the south wall just east of the window,” or at least I don’t think that this would be much harder than it was to write a parser that could understand “take the fruit from the wicker basket.”*

            But the problem is that once you’ve parsed this, your world model has to implement climbing carefully up the south wall just east of the window. In an ordinary text game that would just be too much to model–those games generally don’t implement a specific location in the room, and certainly don’t implement being on the wall just east of the window rather than well east of the window. That is something that could be implemented in a 3d environment, but translating a command into that (instead of having the player WASD to the desired spot and inch up slowly) would be nightmarish.

            For text input + 3D games, I was thinking about Event[0], which I haven’t played myself–but it seems as though that’s something with typical movement controls, and the free text input comes when you interact with an AI at terminals. It does seem like dialogue is the natural home for free-text input.

            *Actually, testing this a bit, parsing “take the fruit from the wicker basket” is trickier than I thought!

             
          • Jimmy Maher

            June 20, 2020 at 11:33 am

            I think you’re underestimating the difficulty of going from a rigid, limited subset of natural language — much like a programming language — to understanding pretty much whatever one types and/or says. Big companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon have finally solved the problem to some extent within their chosen domains, but it’s required years and years of work and huge financial investments — and the end results are still decidedly imperfect.

            That said, I agree that an embodied 3D engine seems a poor fit with a parser anyway. When we move through spaces in the real world, we don’t think, “Okay, now I should move a little east.” We just *do* it.

             
          • Eric Nyman

            June 20, 2020 at 2:02 pm

            I agree that the parser wouldn’t be the best choice for movement, and it would make sense to still use a mouse or cursor keys for that (though the parser could distinguish particular types of movement perhaps, such as in the cited example of “carefully”, but that might make for too difficult a puzzle if movement was otherwise not dependent on the parser) I was thinking that the advantage would lie in being able to type your interactions rather than having just a single cursor to click on items, thus giving you a far wider range of possible verbs at your disposal and increasing the immersiveness. Even if the game didn’t have a full natural language processor, a parser up to the standard of the most recent IF games would still work quite well.

             
          • matt w

            June 20, 2020 at 5:05 pm

            Jimmy–oh no, I didn’t mean to suggest that it would be easy to go to a parser that would understand anything you said! Just that it would be relatively easy to go to a more complicated restricted parser, one that could understand adverbs and relative placements and things like that. Once we have VERB-NOUN-PREPOSITION-ADJECTIVE-NOUN, it’s not that big a step to ADVERB-VERB-NOUN-PREPOSITION-ADJECTIVE-NOUN-PREPOSITION-NOUN. But doing so would involve complicating the world model in ways that go far beyond what we usually see in IF.

            I feel like this is a perennial discussion on the intfiction forums but of course I can’t find anything specific on it right now, but this comment from Chandler Groover about how he likes complex world models and simple parsers is something along those lines.

            Eric–I think this connects to the issue with using a text parser for your actions. If you implement RUB LAMP in the text parser, you pretty much have to implement RUB for everything else in the game. It seems like it only adds immersion insofar as you have put a ton of work into making the world responsive and immersive in this way.

            (Adam Cadre gave a talk with this summary in part:
            “Writing interactive fiction means you’re limited only by your imagination. That’s the pitch, anyway. Is it really true? Or are you limited by the amount of time and patience you have available to code responses to ‘scrape parrot’ and ‘blow on cows’?” I have played a game that got me to scrape a parrot as a crucial puzzle-solving element, but that was accomplished through very good hinting!)

             
          • matt w

            June 21, 2020 at 1:22 am

            For posterity’s sake, “take the yellow fruit from the wicker basket” wasn’t harder than I thought, I had just forgotten to specify that “basket” meant a basket.

             
          • Sniffnoy

            June 23, 2020 at 5:59 pm

            I mean, as I’ve talked about here before, I think parsing could be improved a lot without going all NLP; just able to say “TRADE X TO Y FOR Z” or “TIE X TO Y WITH ROPE” would be nice. Just need to allow verbs taking more than two arguments and multiple prepositional phrases…

             
        • Ross

          June 20, 2020 at 3:26 pm

          One thing I remember from grad school is being surprised, having come from my work in interactive fiction, that the work on natural language processing (at the time at least) did nothing at all – in fact was kind of actively hostile – to interactive fiction’s approach of actually trying to parse input and match it against structural rules to figure out what the subject, verb, and object were, instead relying entirely on baysean similarity of the input as a whole to a corpus. One consequence at the time (and this is probably still true based on my experience with Alexa) was that it was very good at getting the general gist of what you said, but it would be utterly impossible to make it stop making certain categories of mistakes that would be extremely easy to solve, especially along the lines of “There is nothing whatever you can say to make it understand that you meant the less popular of the two things often associated with those words on the internet”

           
          • matt w

            June 20, 2020 at 5:08 pm

            Ross, if you see this comment, I would love to hear more about the unavoidable mistakes!

             
          • Sniffnoy

            June 20, 2020 at 7:40 pm

            Huh? There’s been a bunch of work on automatically producing parse trees of sentences. Not a linguist so I’m not the expert here, but I’ve seen it talked about on Lanugage Log a bunch. Here’s an example of a post discussing some such parsers.

             
  7. Peter Dowdy

    June 19, 2020 at 6:22 pm

    I am glad you’re not stopping here! Do you think the indie revolution of the late 2000’s is sufficiently distant to be worth covering?

    I agree that DOOM coarsened the medium, but it also improved it substantially. I think Ken Williams could never see games as their own distinct art form; his appeal to the “interactive movie” showed that games (for him) lived in the shadow of “reputable” media. The Id boys needed to be crude to upend this establishment. They would not be the last.

    Doom also improved the medium by exalting aspects of the gaming experience that are entirely unique to the medium. No other medium can embody the player like games can. No other medium makes the same physical demands on a player’s skill and control. While this isn’t all that gaming can be, this is something gaming can be that no other medium can be.

    Sure, it led to homogeneity for a time, but every major development in . We know now that the indie movement won out in the end, and gaming has seen the flourishing of a plethora of styles, mechanics, and themes. This is a medium can encompass Gone Home and Doom Eternal, Crusader Kings and FIFA, Elite Dangerous and Six Ages.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 19, 2020 at 7:39 pm

      Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll just take it one year at a time. As long as we’re still having fun, right?

       
  8. Nic Allen

    June 19, 2020 at 7:56 pm

    Thank you for your blog and I’m glad you are continuing to log the history of computers and the games played on them. I’ve been reading for years thanks to being introduced to it by my manager at a previous job.

    I was only 11 when Doom came out. I don’t remember exactly when I first played it, though I’m sure it was much later. I do vividly remember a friend of my brother showing me the game and how to make levels for it and couldn’t wait to make my own.

    I already decided I had wanted to learn how to make games at that point. I filled notebooks with Mario and Mega Man like levels and even programmed simple games from as young as 9 based on books my dad would bring home from work and ones I found in the library. So while making levels in Doom wasn’t my first taste of game development it definitely had a big impact on my desire to keep making games.

    Working in the game industry wasn’t always what I had hoped it would be, but reading your blog often reminds me of why I love making games and their history. Thanks again

     
  9. Keith Palmer

    June 19, 2020 at 8:31 pm

    A lot of your reflections here on Doom’s impacts agree well with me, even if I’ve spent some time in the past few weeks playing the game again (via the “Chocolate Doom” engine), acknowledging its visceral impact but indeed uncertain about “long-term effects” (if nothing else, on my poor wrists). Of course, “everything” can’t be blamed on Doom, and counterfactuals can support just about anything.

    Bringing up “3D versus 2D” reminded me of a comment in your The Future Was Here about the Amiga’s graphic architecture had been designed for “sprite-based games” but made “first-person games” that much harder to implement on it, an unfortunate contrast with those mentions of recent Doom ports (although I also have to reflect on how my family’s undistinguished if accelerated Macintosh LC II had to step Marathon down to its absolute lowest graphics level to run at even minimal fluidity). The comment about “2D sprites,” though, did have me reflecting on a defiant comment in an issue of 80 Micro from a decade before that “all video games are really just about bringing certain phosphor blobs together while keeping certain other phosphor blobs from meeting; therefore, the ultra-low resolution of TRS-80 games makes us minimalists and purists.”

    While I remember your comments about Doom making a potential stopping point, I am interested in what might now lie ahead here, for at least the next several years of history.

     
  10. Kroc Camen

    June 19, 2020 at 9:05 pm

    I think you missed an additional point in this paragraph:–

    “Like the DOOM people, the interactive-fiction people built upon a beloved company’s well-nigh timeless software engineering; like them, they eventually stretched that engine in all sorts of unanticipated directions, and are still doing it to this day.”

    Not only did both communities stretch their respective engines, they also developed completely new standards and engines and moved beyond the original systems. The DOOM community came up with the Boom/MBF, DECORATE and ZScript extensions to the original engine’s interactive capabilities, and the GZDoom engine can do all manor of crazy tricks including a horror-survival game (Total Chaos) that you would be very hard-pressed to recognise as running on the same executable that can play the original DOOM.

     
  11. scruss

    June 19, 2020 at 9:09 pm

    I appreciate your honesty about having misgivings about Doom, Jimmy. From about 1986 to the early 1990s I was an avid gamer and wrote for a bunch of magazines. I adored every bullet-hell shmup I could load up. Then one of my editors sent me the free episode of DOOM, along with a note: “You’ll love this!”. I started playing it once, and I noped out — hard — for a very long time.

    Even with the “you’re killing the bad guys” backstory and the blocky graphics, I couldn’t stomach the pitching of the violence. I felt the game was hitting some lowest-common-denominator: it didn’t reveal anything new, it just just amplified some very basic instincts. I see my nephew playing essentially the same FPSs as DOOM, just in 4K. We could have done so much more.

    Just as an indication of how long I’d noped out after DOOM: the next contemporary game I bought after being away was Untitled Goose Game. And I loved it — it brought back all of the fun of gaming in the late 80s.

     
  12. Andrew McCarthy

    June 19, 2020 at 10:40 pm

    I’m glad you’re finally moving away from DOOM. I hope future articles will return to games you genuinely like, since it’s been very obvious from the first in this series that you didn’t enjoy writing about this game.

     
    • Andrew McCarthy

      June 19, 2020 at 10:44 pm

      To be clear: I’ve never played any DOOM games, aside from trying out the first couple of levels of the first game. But I’ve enjoyed most of what this blog has chronicled over the years, and I’ve been very disheartened by the disapproving, moralizing tone this series of posts has taken. Looking forward to reading future articles on other subjects with a more positive outlook on things.

       
      • Micharl

        June 19, 2020 at 11:44 pm

        Funny, Andrew. I have a very different reading of this series. For context: I have never played DOOM and only first heard of it from President Clinton. Although as a Civil Libertarian I’ve always opposed censoring video games, my impression was that this one was quite beyond the pale. Jimmy’s series has humanized it for me and caused me to reconsider its place as one with a much more mixed, indeed surprisingly positive, place in gaming history. I find his depiction of the id boys quite sympathetic, even affectionate at times.
        If you want to see what it’s like when Jimmy genuinely disapproves of something, by comparison, go back and read the article on Piers Anthony. The tone there is completely different, and it’s quite clear where he stands. (I still find it entertaining and enjoyable to read, nevertheless!)

         
        • Brent

          June 20, 2020 at 11:30 am

          Agreed. I loved Doom as a kid but now I kind of wish it hadn’t been made. I really thought there wasn’t much else to say on the subject but Jimmy’s articles in this series have done a fantastic job of reckoning with its conflicted legacy.

           
        • Bitmap

          June 21, 2020 at 6:03 pm

          I rather agree with Andrew. I perceive the tone of the last few posts as “affectionately condescending”, starting with calling the developers “id boys” throughout.

           
          • Sarah Walker

            June 25, 2020 at 11:12 am

            I agree, the constant description of the id guys as ‘boys’ in these articles leaves me somewhat uneasy. Jimmy’s managed to write about similar groups of somewhat immature young men before without feeling the need to infantilise them as he does here.

             
      • DZ

        July 18, 2020 at 11:52 am

        For what it’s worth, I agree with Andrew. It looks to me like Jimmy has forced himself to accept the huge impact DOOM has had on the gaming industry, almost as a very bitter pill.

        The praise for the technical accomplishments and positive influence on some aspects of the culture, seem a bit patronizing, and land at times as backhand compliments, I fused with moral judgements.

        But then … that’s been par for the course for many parts in his entire chronicle of gaming. I understand that sometimes it is hard, unwarranted, or even impossible to separate politics from history; but some of Jimmy’s articles seem to me like attempts at castigating opposing views on some matters.

        That, to me, taints his style and voice, and affects the reader.

        dZ.

         
  13. Patai Gergely

    June 20, 2020 at 7:13 am

    If you consider the broader context all these changes played out in, you could argue that mainstream games simply caught up with the normalisation (and often glorification) of violence in the general mainstream culture that surrounded them at the time. It’s hard to imagine a world where this wouldn’t have happened eventually.

     
  14. Kai

    June 20, 2020 at 9:59 am

    If 3D saved us from the mostly atrocious full motion video technology taking hold in video games I guess I gotta be thankful, even though I never fully understood the appeal of DOOM and games that followed in its stead, especially in their single player modes.

    Even today I’ll often find well-made 2D games more appealing than their 3D counterparts from a purely visual, artistic and aesthetic perspective. And while there is artistically creative use of 3D too, at lot of these games seem to be aiming at better and better mimicking the looks of our natural world, but always falling short in comparison to, say, a glance out the window.

    I really wish that the amount of energy devoted to achieving near photo-realistic graphics would instead be poured into more innovative gameplay and less linear narratives. But to me it seems a lot of (AAA) games that have a focus on narrative rather than violence want to pretend that they are interactive movies. So maybe the part of the industry that pushed FMV in the 90s is in fact still at it today.

     
  15. Andreas Davour

    June 20, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    A very good post this. I have, just like you had my misgivings about Doom and what followed. It’s heartening to read this and see my own feelings so well expressed. I have never managed to engage in either Doom or its followers.

    Also very good to hear you are not stopping writing. I look forward to more of these articles for years to come.

     
  16. Veronica Connor

    June 20, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    I think it’s true in a very narrow sense that 3D lowered production costs initially, but very quickly it caused art budgets to shoot to dizzying heights that the 2D days couldn’t have imagined. The amount of texturing, modeling, lighting, animation, environmental metadata, and other assets required by 3D games has shifted the artist:programmer ratio from 2:1 in the 2D days to 100:1 and rising today. I watched this exponential jump in production costs kill many a company in my 30 years in the industry.

     
  17. EG

    June 20, 2020 at 4:41 pm

    At this point, a history of PC gaming turns into a history of mainstream Western youth culture, or a large share of it. Maybe this explains the tone of unease. We don’t see many US Presidents and Senators appearing in the Infocom era. Nor is it herein possible even to maintain the pretence of being a comprehensive history. Finally, a lot more people care about PC gaming from this point on, and enough of them have written versions of the history, and read them, so all our opinions are shaded.

    “Doom” did surely grow the “base” of PC gaming, simply by sheer numbers. As we move from micros to IBM PCs to phones with OS, we get an ever-growing pool of opportunities to play games, starting with micro enthusiasts and their families during long periods of private free time, and nowadays being almost-everyone for periods as brief as a few minutes. In this light: “Doom” is not the converse of casual games but an intermediate step after the puzzle-RPG fare of the enthusiast era; and violence and non-violence is a false dichotomy because the demographics in each category are too diverse.

    Now of course this is a computer game blog, but we could write that history of youth culture from 1953-1993 and it could easily omit computers entirely. Puzzles and Ultima-style RPGs may have dominated the tiny market for PC games, but had less impact on the late-20th century mass culture than Gilbert & Sullivan or barbershop quartets. As for Romero, he lives relatively locally and is a good developer of enthusiasm; anyway, with “Doom” and “Quake” two hits are all you need.

     
  18. Linguica

    June 20, 2020 at 7:12 pm

    I have enjoyed your series of articles on the era surrounding Doom. I come at it from the opposite perspective where Doom was an indescribably massive influence on what I thought of computer games, games, and computers in general. I enjoy reading the perspective of someone who is perhaps not as thrilled with it as I am.

    Your piece identifies two competing schools of design in the 90s PC game scene. On one hand were the increasingly expensive and elaborate multimedia projects which required “armies of artists” and “hours of full-motion-video” to make what amounted to a “badly acted movie gated with frustrating logic puzzles”. On the other hand were Doom and games of its ilk, which offered “vastly more emergent potential, made at a greatly reduced cost” and where designers could “begin building virtual realities in earnest”. Furthermore, these new sort of games “never suffered the identity crisis of their rivals” and were “very, very popular”.

    I don’t think it’s hard to determine why players migrated in the direction they did. You seem to presuppose that it’s a shame what happened, but your piece doesn’t really address *why* it happened, beyond reiterating the history and then sort of shrugging. Maybe it seems too rote and obvious to point out that ultimately Doom was a lot more fun and cool and compelling than the interactive movies of the time. You quote the founding editor of Game Developer magazine who shared his wish that home computers would ultimately be turned into a “interactive VCR”. He ultimately got his wish, as we all have interactive VCRs in our pockets nowadays, but people still seek out and play computer games.

    I think Doom wasn’t so popular because of the blood and mayhem, but because it was, as you say, the first convincing “virtual reality” game. Earlier games were certainly fun and varied, but something like a text adventure does not inherently require a computer per se. A game like Doom, however, is implicitly simulating a whole world and placing you within it in a convincing manner. Only a few years earlier, Star Trek TNG had popularized the concept of the “holodeck”, which was conceptualized as a free play space where people could create anything they wanted and explore it at will. Doom, by its nature, was the first game to convincingly render such a thing in real time.

    I also think it’s worth noting that the transition to a 3D world leveled the playing field, at least temporarily. You seem to lament that the expensive, lush 2D graphics were replaced for a number of years by crude, cheap 3D graphics. However, you seem to fail to realize that this in itself made computer gaming as a medium far more accessible than it had ever been. Which is the more inclusive: a genre where you have to have millions of dollars and an army of artists to make your own game people will want to play, or a genre where a kid in his bedroom can throw together some programmer art and it’s still a good time? You mention Doom modding in passing near the end but underestimate what a sea change this was for people not already familiar with the industry. Doom acted as a My First 3D Game Construction Kit for a non-negligible number of industry figures and the impact of that cannot be discounted.

    There is a 1994 game, released a month after Doom 2, that I think is very illustrative. As Wikipedia says, Under a Killing Moon “was one of the largest video games of its era, with a budget of 2 million dollars and arriving on four CD-ROMs”. The game includes a large number of what would today be called first person segments which were unusually high fidelity for the time. The designers at the time said, “we want the 3D movement of Wolfenstein, but we want it to look closer to the quality of [pre-rendered graphics of] The 7th Guest.” I bring it up in part because I was a kid at the time and I saved up my allowance to buy Under a Killing Moon partially on the promise of its realistic 3D environments. And to be clear, the “graphics” of the first person 3D segments put Doom to shame. But the game shunted the experience into a small corner window with low resolution choppy graphics and terrible, inscrutable controls. It simply wasn’t fun to “explore” the rooms as if I was actually there, because the point and click adventure roots of the game placed several layers of GUI and control abstraction between myself and the world. However, if any part of the game could be said to be “innovative” it would be those segments, because the trajectory of the 3D virtual world was on its way up, up, up, and the trajectory of cheesy FMV adventure games was on its way down, down down.

    I also would take issue with your insinuation that there is a thread leading from Doom all the way to Gamergate. This may be true in the strict “but-for” sense, in that the world of video games would be unrecognizably different if Doom had never been made. Gamergate, despite the name, was predominantly a plain old reactionary culture war, weaponizing the interests of disaffected young men, and was unique mostly for being fought on a new battlefield.

    I think it’s an interesting hypothesis that what we saw in the early to mid 90s in computer gaming was a similar culture war, going the other direction. A group of disaffected young punks barged into the computer gaming scene and dropped a metaphorical neutron bomb on it, and the cohort of older, more “experienced” players and developers were mortified at the crass degradation of what they had considered a relatively cultured hobby. The flailing of the industry with interactive movies and expensive multimedia experiences ultimately led nowhere and the industry was ultimately forced to bend to the winds of change, but they seemed to do so resentfully, and flailed around with expensive, boring, poorly selling flops for several years, to the edification of seemingly no one but themselves.

    Perhaps most infamously, in 1995 a fly-by-night company bought the rights to port a certain computer game called Doom to the 3DO. The suits naively expected to wedge in a fully acted story with FMV cutscenes and foam-latex monster costumes, because that’s what Grown Ups in the Industry did at the time. When they finally got around to hiring a programmer, she was horrifed at the state of affairs and had to slap together a barely-functional port in ten weeks, which is still maligned as probably the single worst official Doom port of all time. The programmer has since related that she was baffled by what the executives, with their more traditional view of computer games, had expected to happen. It turns out much of the rest of the world felt the same way.

     
    • Martin

      June 20, 2020 at 11:55 pm

      I was looking forward to the Doom articles for literally months but when they came out they fell flat and didn’t connect with the “why” of game being the success it was. You my friend Linguica, is someone that gets it!

      From the beginning of computers, while it is great to play the game, many that were interested in this nerd based activity wanted to create as well. When the first micro computers came out, interpretive BASIC was provided as a means to create something on it. After the days of Infocom, adventure building products were created to allow people a chance to put into motion their interactive fiction ideas they had always been thinking of.

      Now with Doom, not only was there a way to make second tier offerings in the way that BASIC programs was never going to out do assembler programs (or an AdvSys homebrew could rival an Infocom classic), but you now had access to ALL the features of the game and with some effort, could actually create a better offering than the original.

      Sure most of the WADs created in the late 90’s are, well, crap but just read the excitement that the (likely) kids put in their text that described their levels. The people were able to step away from being mere consumers, to being creators again – and they liked it!

      For a while, for a game to be a success, it had to include world building tools with the game but then later on, that fell away and we have returned back to being dumb consumers of the cutting edge games and the engines that produce them. What is good is that communities of creators still exist for the games that had their source code freed. Much is still happening in the world of Doom and Quake thankfully.

      You would have to be there to understand it.

       
    • stepped pyramids

      June 22, 2020 at 6:52 pm

      I agree. Also, “playing to the base” doesn’t tell the full story. FPS games are similar to racing games, sports games, puzzle games, and rhythm games in that they have a substantial audience beyond “core gamers”. There are few people who exclusively play adventure games or RPGs, but there are many people out there whose gaming experiences start and end with dorm-room games of Halo, Call of Duty, GoldenEye 64, etc. It’s true that this audience is demographically similar to “core gamers” (i.e. young and male), but it still amounts to an expansion of the overall audience for games.

      Ultimately, the broad cultural acceptance of the value of games qua games, in the form of Doom, Tetris, Mario, GTA, Guitar Hero, etc., was necessary to create a substantial enough audience to support the games we see today which attempt compelling narratives, experimental gameplay, novel aesthetics, and so on. The “interactive movie” trend never would have gotten us there.

       
  19. Ignacio

    June 21, 2020 at 3:07 am

    Nice series Mr. Maher! Thanks!
    One minor detail:
    “and even more so in the game that followed it”
    Did you mean
    “and even more so in the gameS that followed it”?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 21, 2020 at 7:40 am

      Yes. Thanks!

       
  20. Lev Serebryakov

    June 21, 2020 at 11:12 am

    I’m almost sure, that in future you will discuss Dwarf Fortress. I’ve been stumbled on video (interview) where creator of game tells about narratives which are main product of this game in eyes of player community. He tells very interesting idea: that, maybe, main users of Dwarf Fortress are people who read these narratives on community forums, and players are only beta-testers and “helpers” to game to create these narratives. Maybe, it will be interesting for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAhHkJQ3KgY

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 21, 2020 at 11:49 am

      Interesting indeed! I discussed this idea of games as a tool to generate more conventional, linear narrative in the introduction to my article on Betrayal at Krondor…

       
  21. Captain Kal

    June 21, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    “A shocking proportion of the new games being released fell into one of just two narrow gameplay genres: the first-person shooter and the real-time-strategy game”.

    This happened in the late 90’s early 00’s, if I remember correctly. It was the time that when I was visiting my local store to buy new games, I couldn’t find a lot of new space combat/trading sims!! And those I found where badly translated Russian or German games!!

    “Check out Harry Turtledove’s time-travel story “Forty, Counting Down” sometime. It really captures the feel of the 1990s, and how it might feel for a middle-aged guy to get to travel back to his youth in that time.”

    I think it was first published in the Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and it was paired with “Twenty-One, Counting Up”, published the same month in Analog Science Fiction. (or the opposite)!!!

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 22, 2020 at 8:24 am

      Ah, okay. I came upon it in the anthology The Time Traveler’s Almanac. I found the book vaguely disappointing on the whole — my tastes just don’t seem to align very well with those of the editors — but this one story left a major impression on me. Will have to find “Twenty-One, Counting Up.”

       
  22. CdrJameson

    June 22, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    Another significant transition that could be seen as being triggered by Doom was the shift to multiplayer in games where before the single player experience was everything.

    You could also go for the emphasis in production on separating the technology (engine) from the content (game).

    It really was the elephant in the iceberg of computer games history.

     
    • Martin

      June 22, 2020 at 4:23 pm

      Those Wiley elephants do like iceberg lettuce, don’t they.

      Languages as old as COBOL had a hard data/code split, but as you say, it was a “throw it in anywhere where you want” kind of thing for most significant games back then. Does that fit in chronologically with the object oriented bandwagon that was happening around that time?

       
  23. Wei

    June 23, 2020 at 5:01 am

    Everyone I grew up who had access to computers had played Quake 2 or 3, but I’ve never heard of DOOM or played it ever. This is 90s to 2000s in China and I am pretty sure all those are pirated copies in the net cafes. Given the population in China, I always thought Quake was the most popular game across the world. Later on, the same guys played CounterStrike but those days more games were coming out in netcafes so it was fragmented.

     
    • DZ

      July 18, 2020 at 12:23 pm

      Doom was exceedingly popular at a time when video games were still much of a niche. It changed that and broke video games squarely into the mainstream.

      By the time Quake came out, the gaming market was a lot bigger, and so it may seem to many that it was a much bigger phenomenon.

      However, in terms of impact, the change from DOOM to Quake was mostly incremental; as opposed to the sea change that DOOM itself brought on.

      dZ.

       
  24. Matthew Parsons

    June 25, 2020 at 6:46 am

    >the world and the representation of the world are stored as one in the computer’s memory. This means that things can happen there which no artist ever anticipated.

    I find this statement puzzling. The internal model of the world, the rendering, animation of all but the most basic sort in most realtime 3d engines are very, very much not the same, and only loosely coupled. The only really “emergent” things that are 3d-dependent I can think of would be related to physics.

    The most striking counter-example of course would be dwarf fortress.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      June 25, 2020 at 11:10 am

      I was indeed thinking of physics, which encompasses a lot in most types of games. To continue with the example of the desk from the article: in most 3D engines, the physical properties of the desk — mass, etc. — will be defined alongside its appearance. The world model makes no fundamental distinction between the two. This is different from 2D worlds, where there tends to be a world model and then a set of pre-drawn graphics which are combined to represent that world as well as possible. At a certain basic level, any form of 3D graphics *is* a world simulation by its very nature. Even a pre-rendered ray-traced image is built by simulating rays of light striking the objects in the world before the lens of a “camera” that is also positioned in the world. This strikes me as a significant qualitative distinction.

      As I discussed elsewhere in these comments with Joachim, however, it’s also true that you can ironically represent more things more flexibly with lower-fidelity 2D graphics. As things start to look more and more like their own unique selves, you need to draw more and more of them by hand to maintain the visual aesthetic. Thus the graphic adventures and interactive movies which had come to dominate non-3D gaming by the time of DOOM were among the *least* emergent games ever made: literally everything the player could do in them had to be thought of and coded for by the designers in “if-then” fashion. Something like Dwarf Fortress is really at the other end of that spectrum: ASCII graphics are cheap and most of all abstract, which allows them to represent many things very easily.

       
  25. Wolfeye M.

    June 26, 2020 at 9:43 pm

    I happen to enjoy Doom quite a bit, but I can see that it’s not for everyone. Heck, it’s barely even for me these days, mainly because even on the easiest difficulty I die a lot, reflexes aren’t what they used to be.

    Did Doom lead to a “coarsening” of video games? Maybe. I’m sure it led to games like Postal, a game I’d never play.

    But, many of the games I enjoy wouldn’t have existed without Doom. No Halo, maybe even no RPG games like the Elder Scrolls.

    Like, I still remember stepping off the boat the first time in Morrowind, and feeling like I was there. Never got that feeling playing a game with 2D sprites. Other RPGs, like Final Fantasy, I watched my characters do things, in Morrowind I was doing them. And that was because of the first person POV and 3D graphics.

    I’m not sure I’d like video games as much if Doom never existed.

     
    • Jogy

      July 18, 2020 at 6:41 pm

      @Wolfeye Ultima Underworld was the first 3D RPG, even predating Doom/Wolfenstein 3D.

      I think that even if Doom did not exist, UW would still have spawned similar games with deeper gameplay.

       
  26. Lhexa

    July 2, 2020 at 4:42 am

    Your writing is no longer smug. :D

     
  27. Lhexa

    July 7, 2020 at 12:39 am

    Aagh, that was one hell of an underhanded comment. Okay, Lhexa, give some actual praise.

    Your writing is engaging and engrossing, and does a very good job at pulling the reader back into the contexts in which the games were first made. It is also very informative and well-researched. I think it qualifies as history, since as a professor of mine once said, “The difference between a historian and a history buff is that the historian engages with primary sources.” (Imperfectly remembered, as always.)

    There! That wasn’t so hard. *annoyed at self*

     

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