John Romero about Doom: 25 Years of Rip & Tear
Fast. Brutal. Hardcore. Merciless. That is Doom.
Doom – ‘nuff said!« That‘s how a Post Mortem on one of the most influencial games of all times could actually look like. Doom wrote games history, Doom is pop culture, Doom is a name that stands for high-speed, hardcore and merciless shooter-action. Everybody knows it, almost everybody played it in at least one of its many different forms – be it the classics, extraordinary mods, Doom 3, fan-projects or id Software‘s Reboot from 2016, published by Bethesda.
On 10th December 2018, Doom celebrated its 25th anniversary. Seriously, is there any better reason to take the time and sit and chat with John Romero, one of id Software‘s founders and Doom‘s creators? We don‘t think so!
One does not simply create a game and thereby a completely new genre, which not only lasts until this day but has ever since evolved tremendously. Looking back at how it came to life, how does it feel being its creator?
Hmm… I don’t really think of it this way, which is funny. Even though we made first-person shooters, we originally thought of it as making a better maze game. One that was faster and more fluid – that’s what it felt like at the very, very beginning. Action games or even RPGs before »Wolfenstein 3D« or even »Catacomb 3D«, which was a very fluid moving maze game with demons and stuff, were all built like these 90°-turn wall passages, where each tile only had enough room for one object like a person or enemy; take for example »Might & Magic«, »Ultima« or »Eye of the Beholder«. However, all that these games did was making better wall graphics, but they didn’t make it smoother and faster. And I think, that’s kind of what we did: we took out that block movement, which started with »Maze War« in 1974 – and even that already had deathmatch in it!
There was a game called »Wayout«. It took place in a similar maze, but there were some spaces in the game that were a little bit more open and in which you could fluidly move around. It wasn’t super-fast – it still was an Apple II, with 1 MHz – but fluid. You could turn around in 360° and I was super impressed when I saw that and so I knew that it was possible.
In 1991, »Hovertank One« was the first time we actually had 3D on screen and moved around in the same kind of mazes (laughs). After Catacomb 3D, we eventually got to Wolfenstein 3D, which was really fast – as fast as we could go in VGA. But Doom really changed it all and it did so, because the environment changed. We got out of these block mazes and went into places that were way cooler and that aspect was very important for the genre to start.
Whenever someone creates something outstanding, people on the outside – in this case gamers – develop high expectations for whatever comes next, and with it there often goes a certain amount of pressure: the pressure of fulfilling these expectations. How has creating Doom influenced your career and how did you deal with the pressure?
Well. At id Software, the only pressure we had was our own. We wanted to make really good games. That was the whole point and it didn’t matter what anyone else thought or what other people said; for example, things like »It’s too satanic!« or whatever – we didn’t care at all. It was never going to stop us from doing what we wanted and we never let it pressure us. Nobody makes the best game every time they make a game! By the time Doom came out, I had been making games for 14 years, and during that time every game was getting better and better, but you can’t expect your next game to be the best that’s ever been made, that’s just not realistic. We knew that, because at that point each of us had been making games for at least 10 years. And if you make a lot of games, they’re not going to all be hits – that’s just simple facts. Yeah, we had pressure, but it was our own drive to make really cool stuff! Actually, Doom was the only game where we said at the very beginning that we need to make the best game that we could imagine playing – that was the only time we ever did that (chuckles).
»Demons on the Prey«
Going back even further: what actually sparked the idea for Doom, besides the urge to make a more fluid and advanced maze game, but also in regard to story, setting and everything there is? Did you get any inspiration from books or movies for example?
(laughs) It was actually inspired from our D&D campaign. We played »Dungeons & Dragons« for a long time. John Carmack was our dungeon master and he had a world that he had been developing for years when we got together. It had tons of characters in it and it was super political – it was really great! And the D&D campaign ended when I, well… did something that destroyed the world. I opened up a portal to a plane where all the demons are, and they all just poured out over the course of months and destroyed everything in the whole world. Carmack obeyed his own rules and the world was over… and it was due to demons flooding in and ruining everything there was.
So, that was the end of our playing D&D for a while (laughs).
When we were thinking about making Doom, we thought about using this idea, the story about demons pouring in through some kind of portal, and the player actually has the ability to stop it. With that idea, we were thinking about a setting, and we wanted to do something ›sci-fi-futurish‹, because we had already done the ›World War‹ II thing, and we thought that with the new technology we can actually make it look pretty cool. So, with this futuristic setting in mind, Tom Hall came up with the idea of bringing it all to Phobos, where the UAC (Union Aerospace Corporation) was experimenting with teleportation. Doing that, they accidentally opened up portal to hell, but instead of aliens, it’s actually hell coming through (chuckles) and that was something new. No player expected to find hell in space, and that made the game surprising and very interesting. Adding in some of our favourite stuff sci-fi-wise, we thought about what sci-fi-action movies were big at that time and »Aliens« instantly came to mind. We wanted something like that, something terrifying. Also, the dark humour – that’s just part of who we are, and back then »Evil Dead 2« was one of our favourite movies of all time, so we wanted to have this sensibility, and of course the chainsaw and the shotgun (grins)!
In hindsight, is there something you were never 100% happy with?
Well, yeah… I wish that I had made a lot more levels… You know, I just made the first episode and not even the boss level, Sandy Petersen had made that because we were just down to the wire. It was a really busy year. We started the game with Tom, until he left us in August. In September, Sandy came on board and first plowed through all of Tom’s stuff and started retexturing and fixing things, and just trying to get a lot of levels done. That was what Sandy was doing, while my work in the beginning was creating the level editor – can’t make any levels without an editor, right? I had to program the tool, and it was really hard coming up with levels that didn’t look like Wolfenstein or rather everything we’ve ever seen in our whole life. So, creating the abstract level design style and developing all that took some time to bring it as far away from Wolfenstein as we could. Then I had to do all the level programming: everything that happens in a Doom level – meaning stairs, doors, lights flickering, you name it – I wrote all of that code, plus the ›save & load‹ code, as well as the tools outside of Doom like the install program, setup, and DM. All of that took me a lot of time and I just wish I would’ve had more time to make more levels.
That’s the only regret I have. Other than that, I still think it turned out great – but it could’ve even been better!
If you had the chance to make Doom with today’s tech, how would it look? Or rather: were there any features you weren’t able to realize due to technical limitations?
Hmm, if I had the same tech as back then, pretty much the same, only with me making more levels.
With today’s tech? Completely different, obviously (laughs). Regarding features: no… (pauses). No, we actually put everything in that we wanted to have in the game – at that time! After a game comes out and you see what people do with it, then of course you get all kinds of ideas of what would be really cool to have. But those things didn’t exist while we were making the game. There simply wasn’t any game like it, so there’s really no way to say »Oh yeah, we messed up« or »We didn’t do a lot of things, because we didn’t have enough time«, simply because those ideas didn’t exist as the game wasn’t out, yet. Everything in the whole world was pre-Doom.
In Germany, Doom I & II were indexed, but re-rated after roughly 19 years. In October 2012, Bethesda released the »Doom 3: BFG Edition«, which included the (not indexed) »Doom3« as well as both the originals. And the amazing thing after having played both games again after almost two decades: they still hold up to this very day and that is quite impressive.
Yeah, right? It’s like with »Super Mario« or »Donkey Kong«. It still feels excellent. It’s just that no one really knows how to nail a classic. You have to have a lot of experience making stuff before that’s going to happen. Nowadays, source ports of Doom feel smoother than it did at the very beginning. Now it’s super smooth and really, really fast!
Looking at so many other games that exist, no matter the genre, a lot of them aged really badly. What are, in your opinion, the key elements for Doom not being one of them?
Number 1: I think that one of the most important things when you start programming a game, is that it’s tied to a timer, you need to have timer chip control. That means that you’ll never go too fast on any future computer. When we wrote our games, even before id Software, John and I were individually writing games with timer chip control. So as soon as our game starts we immediately set the timer chip for the refresh rate we want the game to go at, and to make sure it doesn’t go faster than that. If it went slower than that, then we would have code that would fix the speed of the character to match where they should be, for example if your CPU was a little too slow. So you actually have to have code to handle moving too slow on a slow computer, but also ensures that moving is never too fast on future computers as well. That’s unbelievably important.
When you go and look back at any games from that time period, they just zoom all over the screen, as they’re just too fast, because CPUs are insane now. The ones that are still super playable are the ones that have real hardware control. None of the Origin games had timer control because they were maxing-out the fastest computers when they released (laughs).
Is it safe to say, that first-person shooters are your favourite genre?
I think so, yeah. I mean, it’s super immersive, it looks amazing, there’s lots of great puzzle-solving in that space. I love »Half Life 2«’s physics puzzles – being in a space like that is just so much more immersive than any 2D puzzle game. But that’s a totally different kind of thinking. Before making shooters, I did a ton of different games. For me, Wolfenstein was game number 87! Before that, I had already made 86 games – and that’s only the ones that were being published. So, yeah, I had some practice before Doom (laughs). Up to today I‘ve now made a total of around 150 games.
As an example: Less than a year ago, I did a 10-hour gamejam. The title turned out to be a really cool little game called »July 4th 1976«. I worked on it with a coder friend of mine, and it was super creepy and different. I put it in the App Store, and boom – a new game (laughs). There’s another gamejam next weekend I want to attend. Maybe I can put out another game.
Actually, the last time I’ve been to a gamejam, my son joined me. He flew over from the US to Ireland for father’s day. So, we did a gamejam in the city with a whole bunch of other people and we made something really cool, but the idea was way too big for the time we had. I want to finish it though, because the idea was really cool. You see, I’m always making stuff. I’m currently working on three different games at once.
Are there any other genres or genre-typical mechanics you would like to mix with an FPS?
Well, when creating an FPS, I don’t really think about genre-merging, because to me that would feel kind of artificial. When I want to make a new shooter, I rather think about what I want to do in this gameplay style that hasn’t been done and what I haven’t seen before. Take the original »Prey« for example, where you could walk on walls, which totally changed the whole game. They didn’t mash up any genres, they simply put in a very cool feature.
Actually, I do have some cool ideas, but I can’t really talk about them, because… well, you know…(laughs)! But seriously though, there’s still so much that hasn’t been done in FPSs, yet. And it’s amazing how the genre evolved. Just take the first-person perspective. The fact alone that with »Quake« we have created a fluid high-speed first-person perspective, all in 3D. Even games like »World of Warcraft« had to come from that. In fact, the lead programmer of WoW worked on Quake. So when you talk about influences, Doom sure was the beginning, but Quake’s impact was also big. The Production Director for »Overwatch« is the same guy who coded the 3D engine for »Star Wars: Dark Forces« back in 1995. And it’s funny how eventually it all goes back down to Doom, when it comes to a full 3D world.
We actually helped Valve when they started working on »Half-Life«. They came over to our office, and we set them up with a Quake Engine license, and I talked to them about what kind of team they’d need to make an FPS, then they started their company. But it’s not only FPSs – Markus Persson who created »Minecraft« once told me that Doom was the reason he became a programmer. So, you could say that without Doom, there wouldn’t be a Minecraft today (laughs).
From all the first-person shooters that came out in recent years, which is your favourite?
Ummm… (long pause). You know, I really like the new »Doom«! It’s got the attitude, it’s got the speed. And for today, it was about making things move fast, but you just can’t have 50 super-fast demons on you, you just couldn’t live. It’s got just the right amount. In the original Doom, we often had a lot of enemies on the screen, but they would move slower. But yeah, it just feels like a really good hardcore shooter and it inherits the essence of how hardcore shooters should be and how we wanted to make them.
… the starting scene where the Doom Marine just takes the screen on which he’s told what’s going on and he just throws it away. All in all though, it feels like they treated the material with the right attitude and necessary respect.
(Starts cheering) Yeah! It‘s like »I don’t care. There is no story. Rip & Tear!«
And you’re right, they really got what Doom was and made it right. This is absolutely what we would have done if we had the tech. They went into the same direction we would have gone anyway. They worked on it for seven years – that’s such a long time, but they took the time and they made it right. It’s hardcore, it’s really great!
What’s your opinion on »Doom Eternal«?
Unbelievable! It was such a great idea just going for that grappling hook – just do it! (laughs) But seriously, everybody is excited about it, because with the Doom they already made they proved that they know what Doom is and how to make something awesome. And what they did with the next one, was basically what we did with »Doom 2: Hell on Earth«. We didn’t mess up anything, but we took what everyone liked and made it better, and that’s exactly what they did with Eternal: they took what everybody liked and made it better, and they did not mess up anything that was already in the game. That’s how you make a sequel!
And you know what? I’m actually more excited for what comes after Doom Eternal (laughs), I mean, I really want to know where Doom goes, because we’ve seen nothing after Doom 2. This is the fifth Doom, and I’m waiting for the next Doom 3 – the real one, not the remake! Looking back at »Half-Life 2«, it was a great game. It was more expansive in scope and more scientific, such a great adventure to go on with all the changing environments and everything. But Doom… Doom is visceral, that’s the major difference.
What did you think about all the easter eggs? Like the little Doom Marine figurine you fist-bump when you find it, the Icon of Sin or Commander Keen’s helmet and skull on a stick?
(Laughs) The figurine was so great, and it wasn’t that hard to find. At some point you just turn and backtrack, and then you find him sitting there and I was like »Ah, so little collectibles are a thing now.« And it’s actually funny that they put the word ›Doom‹ on Keen’s helmet, because the only validation for that can be found in Doom 2. There’s a secret level at the very end, where Commander Keen is hanging, and you can shoot him, that’s about it.
Speaking of secret levels: »To win the game you must get 100% on level 15 by John Romero.« – A guy called Zero Master obviously managed to be the first to get 100% of all secrets in said level. Really? After more than 20 years? And what’s the story behind that?
Yup, that’s real, nobody had done that before (laughs). Basically it was a special sector that I made while making this level. I put a secret teleporter behind a wall and that teleporter would take you somewhere. But instead of the destination where the teleporter took you being marked as a secret, I marked the teleporter itself as a secret. Normally, when you go into a teleporter, you never actually touch the sector inside the teleporter – you hit the line and you’re teleported. There’s also some weird movement stuff going in that little space. To mark a secret, you also need to be at the same vertical height as the sector, and this sector is above where the player is at. In this case, the players touch the line before they reach the same height as the sector and so they’re gone.
This player who discovered it actually used a Pain Elemental to push them into the teleporter to mark that secret. No one’s ever done that (laughs) and you could tell that guy did it on purpose because he pushed the Pain Elemental all the way down this really long hallway to get there. Sometimes it’s really fascinating what players actually come up with, they do all kinds of crazy stuff (laughs)!
If you could choose one game, you would’ve always loved or still would love to be a part of – your own games excluded –, which one would it be and why?
Minecraft! It’s just the best game ever made, and unlike any other game. It’s absolutely incredible! World of Warcraft would be another choice; WoW is derived from »Everquest«, which again is derived from »Ultima Online« – there’s already a lineage there. But it gets to be grindy and repetitive, while Minecraft is just unlimited creativity – simply an amazing game, and its effects on the game industry are yet to be felt even more. Take »Fortnite« or, rather, its building aspect, which is obviously influenced by Minecraft.
In which regards do you think – positive as well as negative – has the games industry changed the most over the last 25 years?
Huh… there’s been so many things. The rise of Facebook and Facebook gaming was very interesting and completely unforeseen, just like Minecraft. These huge things, they just appear. »POOF« and there they are, changing the internet.
If you’re a kid who loves Minecraft, however, have fun trying to download mods for it, because everybody’s mod pages and download sites are garbage! It’s horrible, they’re just trying to lure kids into installing all kinds of other stuff. Which download button do you click? If there’s ten buttons, nine of them are installing malware and one actually takes you to the mod you want – that’s insane! Especially as the appetite from kids is there.
And just look at Facebook games. Millions of people make and play these games. I made a Facebook game myself, and I had 25 million people playing it every month. That’s absolutely crazy! It was really interesting to see these things rise up and have this kind of exposure. And it influences everybody else. A lot of people are creatively influenced, others are influenced monetarily, and they just want to make money off that idea, so there’s a ton of ›gold-rushing‹ towards those things.
Is that rather positive or negative now?
Oh no, I think it’s great. The kind of gameplay that evolved on Facebook using your friend network was unlike anything anyone had ever seen in a game before. Nobody had a network like that to connect to, and it was really interesting to see how designers would exploit or use the network that they have or even extend the network to people they don’t know, because these are people that also play the same game. That way they even meet new people through the game. It was really interesting to see this development and it showed how a platform like Facebook could really influence game design in a big way.
… and something really negative?
On the whole there’s been a ton of positivity. But… well, #Gamergate, that should never have happened. And lootboxes (laughs). Lootboxes are still in flux. But it depends: if it’s only about stuff for peacocking, it’s one thing. If it’s ‘pay to win’, then it’s so not cool!
What’s your advice for young developers who try to get into the industry today and hopefully survive there?
Find something that you’d like to do and mod a game using that skill. Mod multiple games, get experience in doing that and if you like it a lot, then create a portfolio page and get in touch with the companies you’d like to work for. And if you want to make games – well, start making them, however you can. The internet is packed-full with all the information you could possibly ever want. There’s no excuse for not making stuff!
Over the years you’ve probably been asked the same questions over and over again, and once more today. Now is your chance: if you could pick one question you’d like to answer that no one’s asked you before, which would it be?
(Laughs) Hahaha, oh geez! Well… (pauses), what was it like making games on the Apple II?
And now you’ve got to answer it.
It was tremendous amounts of fun. The Apple II was a finite computer that has nothing to do with today’s computers, which are endless, and you never stop learning. This computer was finite and limited in what it could do and what it had in it. But even with those limits, there was still an unbelievable amount to learn in order to master it and going from BASIC to assembly language and then all the techniques that you could use in assembly that are very different than 8-bit computers of that time period that had hardware systems for sprites and stuff like that – the Apple II had none. A lot of programming techniques had to be developed to put stuff on the screen manually. The interesting ‘problem’ that programming in assembly language brings is that there’s a lot you have to have in your head to write a game in it. And when one person is doing that, it’s hard to really focus on a big and cool new game design, because you already have incredible amounts of stuff in your head in order to just make even a simple game.
Making big games didn’t really happen back then. And if there were any, like the Ultima games, and “Wizardry”, it was because that programmer was just better than most people. They had more practice before making their cool big game, so they could focus more on the design than on the implementation of it. They had already spent years getting good at coding, so they could now focus more on design. And in the early days it was hard to find the time because the industry had just begun in 1977, so it was a race. But it was an amazing time and fun sharing information with other people, and back then everyone was discovering stuff for the first time. There were hardly any books, so it was even cooler when you could actually get a piece of information from somebody, or find a cool trick somewhere in a magazine. It was simply the most fun time ever, because it was also during the arcade explosion and all of the creativity that was coming out in the arcades, all the games that no one had ever seen before, coupled with the fact that you have that going into your head and you could make that stuff happen on a computer.
There’s no end to what you can do, there’s no end to what you want to do.
Looking back at your time at id Software: in hindsight and despite how it all went down between you and John Carmack, is there – still today – a specific moment you wouldn’t want to miss for the world?
Basically, everything up until halfway through 1995.
is a legend! Besides that he was the Co-Founder of id Software and creator of classics like »Commander Keen«, »Wolfenstein 3D«, »Doom I & 2« and »Quake«.
John Romero about Doom: 25 Years of Rip & Tear