It’s now ten years since Doom stunned the gaming community and appalled the moral minority. And with the release of Doom 3, the creators at id Software have pushed the boundaries of PC gaming.
Since the first installment of the Doom series of video games blasted into the gaming arena ten years ago, id Software has had a monster on its hands.
The company behind one of the most successful games franchises in history has unleashed Doom 3, the next chapter in the blood-soaked series. And it’s a far more complex beast than 1994’s gore-fest.
“We approached it as if we were making an interactive horror movie,” says Todd Hollenshead, id Software’s co-owner and CEO. “It’s like Hell invading a Pixar movie.”
Hollenshead started at id in 1996, coming from a background in public accounting. “I went from the dodgy world of public accounting to the stable bastion of video games,” he jokes. It was a roll of the dice career-wise, but when the call from id came, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to work in such a dynamic industry.
“There’s probably the frustrated rock star in all of us,” he says, “but within the world of realistic possibility, I can’t think of a job I’d rather have.”
id Software started in 1991 in Mesquite, Texas. After its successful Commander Keen series, it was responsible for some of the most popular and groundbreaking games of all time, such as Wolfenstein 3D, and the Quake series. Wolfenstein 3D is considered the first first-person shooter, but it was Doom that really hit the mainstream.
Notoriously gory and universally lauded, Doom developed a massive fan-base. This community was further cemented when id released the game’s source code, allowing gamers to create their own levels.
Back in 1994, Tim Willets was a computer science and business student at the University of Minnesota. Working on his own Doom levels shaped his career – now, he’s id’s lead designer and joint owner of the company.
“When I saw I could make my own Doom maps – actually create different areas that I could play in – I thought that was just fascinating,” he says. Doom inspired him, and got him a job. Willets posted some ‘mods’ on a site id used, and in 1995, the company hired him.
“Most of the people working at id got their passion and love for the industry through playing Doom.”
Doom’s fan community is highly valued, but the company won’t let fans decide what happens in the games. “Community input is very valuable, but we don’t have the community decide our games for us,” says Hollenshead.
“I think that’s a mistake that a lot of publishers make – when they don’t have a clear idea of what they want to do, they let their fans make decisions through straw polls or whatever. To me, that’s a lack of good ideas, imagination, and creativity. The best games are the ones that come from creative, intuitive, and very talented games designers.”
Nonetheless, working on Doom mods was a great route into the industry for Willets. If you’ve got talent, a mod can act as an ultra-impressive CV. “Because John Carmack allowed people to modify his code, he created the greatest résumé-maker ever within the games industry,” says Willets.
Many of id’s staff have Doom to thank for getting them into games, so the chance to work on Doom 3 was exciting. “It was like going to the Mecca of PC gaming for a lot of the guys at id,” says Hollenshead.
But it was not a project that was taken lightly. Doom is widely regarded as the game that popularized the PC gaming market. Since its release, id has been under pressure to deliver. “Anything less than a monster hit is a perceived failure,” says the CEO, “which is an egregiously high standard. There’s always a lot of pressure on the company to make something great, but when you’re talking about Doom, that pressure is intensified.”
id’s creative team set about recreating the experience of the original Doom, without neglecting the demands of the modern gamer. Much has changed since 1994 – id’s development team has more than doubled in size, and the time and money needed to create a top title has rocketed. Wolfenstein 3D was made in six months. Before that, id churned out Commander Keen titles one-a-month. Doom
3 took four years to develop.
Games design has evolved, and the creative process is increasingly mirroring the film industry. “Games designers have basically stepped into the role of set designers,” says Hollenshead. id started work on Doom 3 by hiring two professional science-fiction novelists to draft the story. They set this draft to storyboards, mapping the game out from start to finish. The designers could then get to work, building the game based on the storyboards.
“Each scene is set out as an independent set,” says Hollenshead. “How are we going to light this set? What do we want the mood to be? Is this a scary moment or one where we let them relax? All this has already been developed in the storyboards, and this is a direct cue from the film business.”
John Carmack, id’s technical director and co-owner, completely revamped Doom’s game engine for Doom 3. id’s staff speak of him in revered tones. He is the programming brain behind Doom and Quake, and his code is responsible for getting many of id’s staff their jobs. His new engine allows all the lighting and shadowing in the game to be done in real-time, and has vastly improved texture detail.
The id team had to learn to work with the new engine on the fly, and the process had its teething problems. In Quake 3’s engine, a character would consist of up to 3,000 polygons. Carmack’s new engine allows id’s designers to use 300,000 polygons per character. “Artists feel like they’ve been restrained for all these years,” says Hollenshead.
“Especially the modellers, because they’ve had all these rigorous polygon budgets beaten into their heads. And then they get the opportunity to create something out of hundreds of thousands of polygons, and they’re like ‘I’m free! I’m free!’ But then it doesn’t work out like that.”
Nonetheless, technological leaps have changed the way id works. “The biggest change is how the art and the programming and the design have become more integrated – especially the design and the art,” says Willets.
“You really can build anything, so you need to have a plan before you start. Organization and co-ordination is key.” On Carmack’s new game engine, designers could run riot. But gameplay is always at the core of the creative process.
“You have to be able to temper your zest for creating crazy stuff with making sure it’s also going to be fun,” says Hollenshead.
He describes today’s games industry as a more competitive place than it was ten years ago. “We not only compete with other video games but with other media too, in terms of getting people’s entertainment dollars. I think that to the credit of the industry as a whole, video games are getting more compelling from a content standpoint.”
The thrill of the industry, though, comes from the interactivity of the medium. “The one thing that video games have that all the other mediums don’t have is, in a video game, you don’t just get to follow the hero. In our games, you are the hero. You’re the Doom guy.”