There’s no denying the influence of older titles on the ones that come after them. Though they never admit it, Developers play other games.
They take ideas and absorb concepts, and use those in games they develop. It’s not surprising, it’s commonplace, and expected. We see something, we like it, so we use it to improve things that we create. This is the basis of ideation.
However, there are some titles that are more influential than others. There’s always a game that does something first. Some titles influence a lot of people, or force major changes upon the industry. Some create new genres, or introduce wild new technologies. They might lead to controversies, or simply introduce new concepts of gameplay, or even bring people together in completely new ways. Some titles have incredible teams working on them, and through the development process those team members are discovered and they become influencers in their own right.
Of course, there’s one game that did all of this. In fact, did some of it multiple times. It’s the most influential game of all time. And if you haven’t guessed by now, it’s Doom.
To understand why Doom is the most influential game, you have to look at the history of Doom. Now, I could certainly post a bunch of powerpoint slides on the screen, each titled with something that Doom has done or influenced. I could read them off in a list in a nice monotone voice, but understanding why Doom was so influential is more than just the things it did, or just the people it influenced. It’s where it came from, the time it was born in, and the era of gaming that existed at that time. This was one of the biggest games of the decade, creating hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, and it didn’t involve hundreds of developers chained to their desks in a sweatshop. There was no massive marketing team, or focus groups. There weren’t influencers making videos about it, or massive sales pushes, coupons, and priority placement on Steam.
Doom came from id software in 1993, but this wasn’t id’s first rodeo. Founded by John Romero and John Carmack, along with Adrian Carmack, confusingly not related, and Tom Hall, id started as a group of rogue developers working for SoftDisk. This company churned out new games created by individual programmers, stuffed them on a floppy, and mailed them out to paying subscribers. Typically, they would just rip a popular game or add new levels or textures to an existing game, and there you go. See, the flood of bad games didn’t start with Steam.
One night, John Carmack, a very genius programmer, wanted to port Super Mario to the PC. This was something that was impossible because of the smooth movement of the character screen from left to right. See, on a PC, if you moved the screen, it would jolt over and then draw a new line of pixels. It wasn’t smooth, because PCs weren’t anywhere near as powerful as the dedicated gaming devices called consoles.
Carmack decided he could do it, and as an exercise, a test of his mental ability, he stayed all night with Tom Hall and remade Super Mario 3’s first level in a game called Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement. Dave was a character that Romero had used in games before working at SoftDisk, and Carmack had done it. In a few nights, when all the other programmers in the world had failed, he had cracked the scrolling screen problem. Romero came into work the next morning, saw this literal game changing technology, and they decided that they would pitch it to Nintendo.
So, stealing computers from work, since they were so expensive, and using them on weekends and then rushing them back to work before anyone would find out, they remade Super Mario 3 for the PC, in a pixel perfect reproduction, by hand. They sent this to Nintendo, a completed game, and said “You can sell this. It’s already done. It works. Just pay us for our work.”
Nintendo, of course, wanted to sell NES consoles, not necessarily sell Mario. NES owned the cartridges, they made money off every single game on the NES. And people bought the NES for Mario, then bought more games meaning more cartridges sold. So, they told the Two Johns “No.”
During this period of time, Romero had received a lot of fan mail. He made good games, quality games. Several of those fan letters came from the same address, with different names, all asking for a phone call. After seeing this address in a magazine attached to the name Scott Miller, definitely not one of the fan names on the letters, he decided to call and yell at this guy for lying about being a fan. But Scott was a fan, and the owner of a company called Apogee. See, SoftDisk opened fan mail, and would hide headhunting offers in order to keep their talent. And Scott had an offer for Romero.
Remembering this conversation, Romero called Scott and asked if he wanted to publish a game like Mario. A side scroller. On the PC. And Scott definitely did. They produced a title called Commander Keen, and they sold it through shareware. This means you could download, on this newfangled thing called the internet, a portion of the game, usually a few levels, and once you reached the end of the free portion you could choose to pay for more, usually on the phone or by mailing a check. Then a few weeks later, you’d get a disk, and you could continue to play the game. Apogee made about $7000 a month off this new method of selling games. The first 10 days that Commander Keen was available, they made $30,000. And just like that, John Romero, John Carmack, Adrian Carmack, and Tom Hall were self employed game developers.
Their company, Ideas From the Deep, was just a terrible name. And they needed a name. The first two letters of “Ideas”, and the first letter of Ideas and Deep, are ID. Which also, coincidentally, is the acronym used for In Demand. Plus, the word ‘id’, is the psychological embodiment of the part of the mind that focuses on pleasure. And it’s shorter.
Id software produced more Commander Keen. But both Carmacks were restless. John was developing new technical marvels, and Adrian just plain hated how cute Commander Keen was. John wanted to make things that were technologically perfect, and Adrian wanted to make things that were gory and bloody and definitely not cute. Since they didn’t have computers when they made Commander Keen, former employer SoftDisk didn’t have to think too hard about how id made the game. They forced id to agree to make a game for their subscribers once every two months to avoid a lawsuit.
Now, at this time, Wing Commander was popular. And, it was super pretty. Wing Commander made id think about doing games from a first person point of view. So, they made a couple of test games for SoftDisk. One, Hovertank, was essential Wing Commander without the third axis. Since it only went to SoftDisk subscribers, nobody really played it, but the technology was sound. And it was fast. It was clean. Carmack’s technology was better. They refined this with another game, and accidentally started a revolution, when they made Catacombs 3D. This game included a hand on the screen. You could see “your” hand. Not hidden in a tank or gripping the joystick of a spaceship, but in the open, with the enemies. Apogee saw this, and Apogee wanted it.
One of the funny things about copyright is how easy it is to lose it, and that’s just what happened to Castle Wolfenstein. The company that owned Castle Wolfenstein went out of business and lost their copyright. Thankfully, that meant that Wolfenstein 3D could exist. And it exploded. Since it wasn’t tied to SoftDisk, it could be sold through shareware. This means millions of players could play it. And it sold well. Instead of $30,000, Wolfenstein brought in $200,000. Every month. For a year.
Not ones to sit and relax, id wanted to make another game. They decided not to make a sequel to Wolfenstein, finished their copy of Wolfenstein 3D for the Super Nintendo, and started thinking of a new game. At first, they thought they might make a game in the Aliens franchise, but they didn’t want to give up the creative control to a movie studio. They all played Dungeons & Dragons, and Romero thought they could maybe make a game about demons. That’d be cool. And they could throw in some of the sci-fi tech from Aliens to make it unique. And John Carmack knew just what to call it. He’d seen the scene in The Color Of Money where Tom Cruise, a pool shark, brings out his secret weapon. A special pool cue.
"What you got in there?"
Doom was first seen as a leaked tech demo, and the audiences loved it. They wanted more, and if the tech demo was this good, the game would be perfect. Players created a monstrous hype for the game, and when it finally released as a shareware download at midnight on December 10, 1993, it crashed the university that hosted the shareware campaign’s server instantaneously. The level of internet activity that Doom’s release created had never been conceived of before.
Carmack had created an impossible game. While it wasn’t true 3D, his engine allowed for non-orthogonal level design, meaning rooms didn’t have to be squares connected by hallways. You could have simulated curves and round-ish rooms. It introduced differences in elevation, so you could walk up stairs and look down on lower areas beneath you or fight enemies above you. It created dynamic lighting, with flickering lights, dark and bright areas, light switches and transitions from pitch black to well lit. The Doom engine allowed for indoor and outdoor areas, with far away mountains as a backdrop and a sky, and combined with the rest you could walk around a donut shaped area, shooting from the darkness at enemies down on the ground outside, where it was bright.
This was a scenario that had never happened in a game before. And now you could do it. Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney said “When Doom came out, I gave up on programming for a year, because this was some unimaginable witchcraft.”
Doom’s engine was not true 3D, it represented everything on a single flat plane. The height differences were stored separately in a technique called displacements. A similar technique is still used today in modern games to create huge outdoor environments.
Even more impressive, this engine was fully separate from the game. That’s not something that was done at the time. Games were built in their engines, not on top of them. ‘The game engine’ and ‘the game’ were the same thing. But not with Doom. The assets and the engine were different. This allowed id to License their engine to other games, and they did that a lot. Hexen, Half-Life, and Medal of Honor are just some of the games that used that engine over time, though often heavily altered, to make their own games.
One of the other benefits of a separated engine was the ability to edit the game, and create “machine cinema,” or small in-game-engine films with stories or often just showing perfect speedruns. You might know this term better as Machinima. Editing assets also allowed for aspiring developers to modify the game, adding in new assets. New skins, weapons, levels, or changing everything if they really wanted to in a process they liked to call Modding.
And there was blood. And gore. There was explosions and violence. Gaming had never seen such insanely realistic, visceral combat on the screen before. Adrian Carmack took all the dark twisted imaginings he had while making cute little cartoon characters in Keen, and created the most incredibly detailed, horrific monsters ever seen. They sculpted every monster in clay, then scanned them into the computer to produce the most awe inspiring enemies players had ever seen. So much so that the gaming industry decided to capitulate to concerned citizens and formed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. In fact, the first console game to ever receive a Mature rating was Doom.
Besides setting new standards for graphics quality and graphic violence in gaming, this engine also had a second feature that become remarkably popular over time. Doom was not the first game that allowed you to play with other players, but it was the first game that allowed you to play against 3 other players in a 4 person brawl, or head-to-head against another player on the internet. This allowed players to engage in matches to the death, something John Romero engaged in daily, and he was noisy. He yelled, and would often curse at his opponents, telling them to “Suck it down” when firing off a rocket launcher. Gaming had always been a quiet endeavor, but Romero’s force of personality led to outrageous trash talking, which became a staple of the game. Of course, this new type of gamemode needed a name, and Romero liked to just call it Deathmatch.
Of course, introducing the world to deathmatch multiplayer wouldn’t have been so exciting if not for the fact that Doom had three other things in it that no other game could match. Doom had a huge arsenal of weapons. Unlike other games, you didn’t have 1 or 2 weapons, you had 8, and this become prototypical amongst later competitors for a decade. Doom also introduced speed. Speed is the most important aspect of Doom. Carmack and Romero both threw out anything that slowed down the pace of the game. Doom is fast. You run and you gun, and you kill everything as quickly as possible. And when you kill those things, they explode into little giblets of flesh, something id liked to “Gibs.” Gibbing a friend into tiny pieces was something a lot of people liked to do.
So many people, in fact, that Doom was the number one cause of decreased productivity in the world at time of release. It became such a problem for employers, taking up the time of the employees and the bandwidth of the networks, that companies such as Intel, Lotus, and Carnegie Mellon introduced policies specifically to stop people from playing Doom at work.
In fact, while Wolfenstein had sold around 200,000 copies, Doom was reported to be installed on over 10 Million computers. In 1994. It was installed on more computers than Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system. Bill Gates had spent millions of dollars trying to convince people to buy Windows, and hadn’t been as successful as a couple guys in a small office in Mesquite, Texas, selling their game online for $45.
This led Bill Gates to think about buying id. He even shot a commercial for Doom, in order to suggest that Windows would be the right place for gaming. To produce this Windows version of Doom, he put together a team of in-house programmers to port it over natively into Windows. Gates put a very talented programmer in charge of this project, a man named Gabe Newell.
Newell saw the influence of Doom, the incredible wealth of id, and the amazing passion in the gaming industry. While working on Doom, he also saw what Microsoft was missing in their gaming division. This made Newell start thinking about making his own game, and his own company for games, and he credits Doom with making him realize that gaming was the future of entertainment. He later would make his own game company, called Valve, and use his ideas for improving Windows to create Steam.
Players scrambled to get Doom. The multiplayer component alone led to electronics stores being unable to cope with the demand for networking dongles, selling out immediately and staying sold out for months.
Doom was truly revolutionary in that way, and introduced gamers to more than just pretty technology. It was also the first game to feature a space marine as the main character, and it introduced the concept of horror in video games to many players. And while it also introduced secrets and exploration, its demand for speed threw some things out the window. Carmack had created the idea of a secret room for Wolfenstein, and those were kept in Doom, but story was unimportant. Since id had self-published Doom, abandoning Apogee in favor of keeping all the profit, they were raking in the cash, and when Carmack publicly said that story in a video game was like story in a porn--expected but unimportant--that carried weight. Many games that followed id in the new Doom-Clone genre would forego story in favor of gameplay as well.
These Doom Clones, shooters from the first person perspective, kept all of Doom’s important changes. They all showed you your characters hands. They started having online multiplayer where you could engage in Deathmatch. They were fast, with large amounts of guns that you could gib your friends with, and put cool easter eggs in secret rooms. They had blood and gore. They were also rated M. And eventually, there were enough Doom Clones that these titles were just called First Person Shooters, or FPS, instead.
Doom wasn’t just a technological marvel. It wasn’t just a collection of the best designed levels ever seen, or the most visceral art never before imagined. It wasn’t even just a collection of experiences at LANs with people shouting curses at each other in Deathmatch. Doom was a force that made gaming viable as a career. When aspiring developers saw the Two Johns buying Ferraris, or saw another new platform added to the already most ported game of all time, they saw a career path. And you didn’t have to work for Sierra or Nintendo to do it.
The people influenced by Doom were far and wide, and their responses widely different. Jenova Chan, co-founder of Thatgamecompany, said “Doom is my very first memory of a horror FPS. Since I really don't like horror as an emotion, I learned to stay away from the dark when we make games.” and later went on to make non-violent games like Journey and Flower. On the opposite side of the coin, Harry Teasley said that when designing Half-Life, the team wanted to “scare you like Doom did.” And even non-professionals like Robin Walker were influenced deeply when he took a Doom map called Fortress, a team versus team multiplayer arena with two opposite bases, and used that to create his own mod, and later game, named after the map: Team Fortress.
Of course, the employees of id took the way Doom influenced them into their future projects. One of Adrian Carmack’s assistant artists, American McGee would go on to make his psychological thriller American McGee’s Alice. Tom Hall, one of the original founders, would go on to make Duke Nukem 3D and Prey (1996), and later co-found Ion Storm. Mike Wilson, id’s marketing guy, would go on to found the Gathering of Developers, publishing titles like Jazz Jackrabbit, Railroad Tycoon, Oni, Serious Sam, Age of Wonders, Tropico, and Max Payne, before additionally founding Devolver Digital, publishing Hotline Miami, Shadow Warrior, Always Sometimes Monsters, Hatoful Boyfriend, Not A Hero, and many many many more. Assistant Level Designer Sandy Petersen would go on to help create Age of Empires, Rise of Rome, Age of Kings, and The Conquerors. John Carmack, now finally over 21 years old, well he would go on to create Quake 1 2 3 and 4, Doom 2 & 3, Doom RPG, Orcs & Elves, Enemy Territory, Rage, and of course Doom 2016. He would also later help work on the Oculus Rift.
But the superstar, the rockstar of id, John Romero, he went on to create a whole new games company. Romero wanted to create an incubator for new ideas in gaming, and with Tom Hall he went and founded Ion Storm. He recruited a developer named Warren Spector, and they started producing games. Games like Deus Ex and Invisible War, and Thief: Deadly Shadows. It’s hard to imagine a gaming world without Deus Ex or Thief, two incredibly influential titles in their own right--and it’s impossible to imagine a world where they exist without Doom. Ion Storm’s designers would go on to create Dishonored, Prey (2017), Bioshock 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Tomb Raider Legends, and so much more. While the publisher would eventually fall under the hubris of Romero’s stardom, there’s little denying that the games it created with Doom’s funding, and the people who learned and got their start from the Master of Doom, would not have been the same without it.
While lots of games are influential, and everyone is influenced by many things, some titles are more influential than others. There’s always a game that did something first. And that game is Doom.