The Weird and Wonderful History of Doom

AndrewCKing
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The appeal of Doom is eternal.

From id Software’s original sprint through hell, to the studio’s later efforts to bring demon-slaying into the modern era with the methodical Doom 3; from Universal’s critically panned box office bomb movie adaptation, to Universal’s critically ignored direct-to-video re-imagining; from id Software’s universally acclaimed 2016 reboot to id Software’s universally acclaimed 2020 sequel — Doom’s appeal has never waned. While filmmakers have struggled to capture the magic of id’s rip-and-tear formula, Doom’s interactive outings have been consistently successful.

But, have you ever wanted to read the story behind John Romero and John Carmack’s quest to bring hell to earth, Mars and beyond? You’re in luck! Below, in all its gory glory, is the tale of how a few pizza-loving programmers sunk their meathooks into the American zeitgeist and never let go.

Doom Sword
Doom Eternal gives the Doom Slayer a Doom Sword.

This history could not exist without David Kushner’s extensive reporting on the history of id Software, as presented in his 2003 nonfiction book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture.

Softdisk Skunkworks

id Software’s work began when all of the key players were still employed by another company, Softdisk— a software developer in Shreveport, LA. After surgically skilled programmer John Carmack managed to get the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 up and running on a PC, he and his coworkers dreamed of selling a PC port of the popular NES game to Nintendo.

So, they “borrowed” their work computers and holed up in Carmack’s lake house for a few days, eating barbecue and crunching out a full demo of the game in the span of a weekend.

Despite the quality of their efforts, Nintendo politely rejected them. They weren’t interested in entering the PC market at that time (though, in a few years, the Big N would change its tune about getting into business with id).

Funnily enough, the team behind DOOM first cut their teeth on the surprisingly cutesy platformer, 'Commander Keen'.

Instead of discarding their hard work, the id guys created a new platforming hero to show off Carmack’s engine: the Spaceman Spiff-like Commander Keen. Keen was a regular kid who happened to fight aliens and travel the galaxy. And he was id’s ticket to success in shareware  — a market whose model depended on giving out a portion of a game for free to lure potential buyers into purchasing the whole thing.

Keen was the brainchild of Tom Hall, who served as the game’s creative director, building out the fiction of Keen’s world as designer John Romero crafted levels, Carmack refined the engine and artist Adrian Carmack (no relation to John) drew the pizza slices and one-eyed alien Yorps that populated each episode.

Doom

That same dynamic was still at play two years later when id released Doom. The 1993 first-person shooter built on the lessons the team had learned while developing Wolfenstein 3D in 1992. Doom’s Nazi-killing predecessor prioritized speed at all costs, with straightforward mazes of corridors and equally straightforward enemies.

Doom, too, was speedy, but filled its newly non-orthogonal levels with distinctly weird demons and interesting weapons for a rock-paper-scissors approach to combat. Wolfenstein 3D drew on Silas Warner’s Castle Wolfenstein, and paired it with id’s gory sensibilities. Doom borrowed Wolfenstein 3D’s fast and violent foundation but took its aesthetic inspiration from Aliens and Evil Dead 2.

Doom Punch
id Software artist Kevin Cloud had his arm digitized to punch demons in Doom.

Early on in the process, Hall created a lengthy design document with a deeper story than what appears in the game. His version established the Marines as characters and opened with them playing cards when the portal to hell disrupted their game. Narrative elements were almost entirely stripped out by the time the game shipped in 1993 — as was Hall himself; id fired him during Doom’s development.

Instead of story, Doom focused on technological advancements. Wolfenstein’s levels were flat and barren, but Doom introduced texture mapped walls, sloping floors and dynamic lighting. Carmack devised a way to create windows between rooms so players could see into chambers they could not yet access.

Maybe most importantly, Doom was the first multiplayer FPS. Late in the game’s development, Carmack figured out how to network computers together, allowing communication between multiple PCs running copies of the game. The result? The creation of the Deathmatch, a staple of multiplayer gaming that has been with us since.

Doom
The shotgun reload animation in Doom set the standard for all future shotgun reload animations.

Additionally, id encouraged a nascent mod scene by cordoning the game’s graphics, music and level data off into WAD (Where’s All the Data) files, separate from Doom’s underlying engine. This meant that eager modders could alter many aspects of the game — as modders had previously done to Wolfenstein 3D, in one instance replacing Hitler with Barney the purple dinosaur — without erasing id’s authored content.

As a result, the Doom mod scene lives on to this day. Co-creator John Romero even released his own megawad, SIGIL, in 2019. Id’s approach was later adopted by companies like Valve and Blizzard, resulting in highly successful fan made creations like Counter-Strike and Defense of the Ancients.

Doom II: Hell on Earth

Given Doom’s massive success in the shareware market, id began work on a retail sequel right away. The plan for Doom II: Hell on Earth was simple: Romero and newly hired level designers Sandy Petersen (who before coming to work at id created the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG), American McGee and Shawn Green would create a new batch of levels that could run in id’s existing engine, while Carmack got to work on the company’s next generation of technology.

Doom II: Hell on Earth
In Doom II: Hell on Earth, the Doom Guy once again points a big gun at an even bigger demon.

Doom II was relatively unambitious compared with id’s earlier evolutionary leaps; today, it would probably be sold as DLC. But, it had one undeniable, unimpeachable accomplishment in the introduction of honest-to-goodness online multiplayer via DWANGO (Dial Up Wide Area Network Games Operation), an early multiplayer server pioneered by Doom superfans Bob Huntley and Kee Kimbrell.

At Huntley’s behest, Kimbrell developed the functionality on his own time — much like id crunching out a Mario demo in the early days. The pair couldn’t reach id by phone, email or fax so they flew to New York City in an attempt to present a floppy disc containing the application to id at a Doom II launch party. Romero didn’t take them seriously at first, but popped the disc in his harddrive when he returned home to Texas and was instantly blown away by what he found.

Doom 64

After finishing Quake, Romero exited id in 1996. The first Doom game following his departure wasn’t actually developed by id. Instead, Doom 64 was farmed out to Midway Games and continues the story, such that there is one, told in Doom II. Its monster designs provide a fascinating alternate take on the 1993 originals. Rather than the expressive, pixelated sprites of 1993, Doom 64 boasts more tactile beasts, which look like claymation and move like stop-motion.

Doom 64
Demons in Doom 64 look like they belong in an R-rated Chicken Run movie.

At the point of Doom 64’s release, Doom had been ported to everything that could run it (a trend which continues to this day), including Nintendo’s Super NES. But, Doom 64 was a new game that ramped up the difficulty significantly. This curious historical footnote has long been playable on PC thanks to a fan-maintained port, but it will get an official, cross-platform release on Friday.

Doom 3

Fascinatingly, the initial pitch for Doom 3 — the single game in the Doom series which differs most starkly from the rest — was to remake Doom with id’s more advanced technology.

“John, when he was doing research on what the next generation of technology from id was going to be came to the conclusion that he was going to be able to realize sort of the vision that he had in his mind’s eye when he came up with the original idea for Doom,” then id CEO Todd Hollenshead told G4 in 2004, “and that we could use and leverage that technology to really create this intense action-horror game and make a really scary version of Doom.”

Doom 3’s story was a retelling of the narrative meagerly presented in Doom and Doom II: Hell on Earth. The building blocks are all there: on Mars, the Union Aerospace Corporation opens a portal to Hell, unleashing a vicious horde of demons that must be beat back by the Doom Guy. It’s the same approach that the films, Doom and Doom: Annihilation, would later adopt with mixed results. While Doom and Doom II focused on non-stop action, Doom 3 was more methodically paced, and served up genuine scares as a result.

Doom 3
The monsters of Doom 3 were hailed as photorealistic in 2004, but now are jaggedly polygonal.

Doom 3 was hotly anticipated in the years leading up to its 2004 release (a double-edged sword for id, it turned out, when a pre-alpha build of the game leaked online almost two years before the game’s eventual launch). Critics praised the game upon release, and fans rewarded id’s efforts, making it the company’s top-selling game to date.

Doom (The Movie)

In 2005, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was in the early stages of his transition from late 90s/early 00s pro wrestler to genuine movie star. At that point, we still just called him The Rock. And, while one of The Rock’s previous movie vehicles was titled Walking Tall, Doom was an unsteady step for his fledgling film career.

Like the canceled Doom game that followed, the Doom movie went through fits and starts before something pretty different was eventually released. In the early 90s, Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman optioned the rights. Toward the end of the decade, Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached to a Doom movie that ultimately got shelved over controversy regarding the Columbine shooters’ affection for the games.

In the aughts, Vin Diesel entered talks to star in a Doom film but ditched demons for diapers in the 2005 Navy Seal-turned-babysitter film The Pacifier.

Eventually, Doom became a vehicle for Diesel’s future Fast and Furious costar, Johnson, who lobbied to play the villainous Sarge instead of the heroic Reaper, a role that went to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ Karl Urban. The resulting movie is bad by most standards and pretty homophobic by today’s. It was critically panned — receiving a one-star rating from Roger Ebert— and failed to recoup its $60 million budget at the global box office.

Its single saving grace is a pretty cool no-cut (well, no visible cut) first-person sequence directed by the film’s visual effects supervisor, John Farhat. In a behind-the-scenes featurette included with the DVD, Farhat said that the sequence took months to plan and 14 days to shoot. Farhat said that the differences in aspect ratio between a computer monitor and a widescreen theater screen made managing the gun’s position in the shot difficult. As a result, the filmmakers played with the weapon’s position in the frame, moving it substantially more than the shotgun in a Doom game would, and zooming in to aim down sights.

The movie isn’t good. But, you should at least watch that scene if you haven’t seen it before.

Development Hell

Id announced Doom 4 at QuakeCon in 2007. The final product, rebooted and renamed, simply, Doom, wouldn’t launch until 2016. In the nine intervening years, Doom 4 was in “development hell,” beset by unclear vision and poor management.

Early looks at the game weren’t promising for series fans. Doom 3 had been influenced by the cinematic storytelling of Half-Life and the survival horror of Resident Evil, the original Doom 4 moved the series even further from its shoot-and-strafe roots. Nicknamed “Call of Doom” by fans, the cancelled project would have set players on a linear path through a city beset by hordes from hell.

Doom (2016)
Doom 4 eventually became Doom (2016), one of the best entries in the series.

In November of 2013, after 22 years, John Carmack left the company he co-founded. Carmack had one foot out the door for a few months before that, having announced in August that he was joining Oculus VR as their CTO, with plans to split his time between Oculus and id. He later told USA Today that he would have been happy to stay on at id if parent company Zenimax Media (who purchased id in 2009) has been willing to support the Oculus Rift.

“I would have been content probably staying there working with the people and technology that I know and the work we were doing,” Carmack said of id.

“But [Zenimax and Oculus] couldn’t come together on that which made me really sad. It was just unfortunate,” Carmack says. “When it became clear that I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to do any work on VR while at id software, I decided to not renew my contract.”

In 2012, id rebooted the game that would eventually become Doom (2016). While Doom 3 radically reinvented the series as survival horror, and the scrapped Doom 4 had been a Call of Duty-style cinematic shooter, Doom (2016) was a fantastic, triumphant return to the fast-paced, open-ended action of Doom and Doom 2. It was a huge, welcome surprise for many id fans.

Though Doom (2016) didn’t nail its multiplayer component — id farmed much of this content out to Certain Affinity and Bethesda Game Studios Austin — it received top marks from critics for its fast and brutal single-player campaign and was the second best-selling game in North America in the month of its release. Though, at this point, few of the series’ 90s veterans remained at id, the team managed to spin the lead of development hell into the gold of a GOTY contender.

Doom: Annihilation

After 2005’s Doom movie failed to recoup its $60 million budget, Universal was hesitant to spend any more money on the languishing cinematic brand. But, after the success of Doom (2016) the company gave Death Race 2 scribe Tony Giglio a shot at a small budget reboot. The result is Doom: Annihilation, a direct-to-video retelling of the Doom story for Universal 1440 Entertainment — the home video distribution division of the film company.

Giglio’s constraints were more than financial. He was also limited by existing agreements between id and Universal.

“It’s a little different than the game, but we were confined to using just the games that Universal owns,” Giglio told Forbes last year. “So we couldn’t really borrow anything from the new Bethesda-owned Doom—just the original three games. And we were comparing our demons to pretty pixelated demons, so we figured the audience would give us a break.”

The result is a weird footnote in the franchise’s history. Doom: Annihilation isn’t good — for my money, it’s significantly worse than the Rock’s 2005 bomb, which at least had offered that genuinely interesting FPS sequence — and few of the monsters are recognizably Doom-y. But hey, it sure didn’t lose Universal as much money.

Doom Eternal

Doom Eternal is out this week. Reviews are out now and they seem to agree that it’s pretty good. That’s not surprising; every Doom game has been pretty good. The challenge now, though, is to finally make a good Doom movie. We’re not holding our breath on that one…