7 min read

Doom and game design in 2016: The influence of hellbound user-gen content

A recent Doom SnapMap MOBA got us thinking about the past, present, and future of user-generated content and mods based on Id Software's seminal first-person shooter franchise.

Patrick Roeder created an ambitious new multiplayer online battle arena game that's generating a lot of buzz.

Roeder is a developer and lead instructor of the Simulations and Game Development program at Blue Ridge Community College near Hendersonville, NC. His MOBA Armies of Hell has an intuitive HUD, five distinct character classes with unique leveling and laning opportunities, a base shop and a secret shop, and treacherous bosses.

Much of the buzz surrounding Armies of Hell is based on the platform Roeder built it on--the game is built with the (supposedly creatively-limiting) SnapMap level editing tools that came with the new Doom game when it was released in May, & is only playable if you own a copy of Doom.

Roeder's creativity got us thinking about the Doom franchise's rich history of user-created content and modding, which has not only been a endless source of creative and inspiring content, but has also offered many a path into the video game industry.

A quick look back

When it comes to modding, no game is more important and influential than the original 1993 first-person shooter Doom. Even now, more than 20 years later, Doom and its 1995 sequel boast a robust modding community, building everything from ambitious level packs to implementing a selfie stick

It wasn't the first game of its kind—Wolfenstein 3D is most often given that honor—and games such as System Shock and Marathon soon followed. But Doom was one of the first games with widely-accessible level design tools that were perfectly balanced between ease of use and robustness sufficient to build something worthwhile. Id Software's demonic shooter was also a mega-hit---it gobbled up the lion's share of both the FPS and overall video game market.

In short, Doom was ubiquitous, easy to mod, and powerful enough to use as a foundation for cool things. 

But Doom modding wasn't just for kids at home with lots of free time and a need for more hellscapes to explore. For many of the budding games industry's budding developers, modding served as the perfect onramp to a professional career in game design. 

"In the late 90s and early 2000s, mod work was actually ideal portfolio stuff for triple-A development jobs," said JP LeBreton, a veteran designer who's worked at Double Fine on games such as Spacebase DF-9 and The Cave, and built the much-lauded Arcadia level in BioShock. LeBreton got his first taste of game development thanks to a Doom level editor and 3D modeling program he scavenged from discarded floppy disks. Later, he recalls getting his first job in the industry based upon some Half-Life mod work.

"The amount of effort that it takes to make something has a direct relationship to the number of amateurs you'll get doing it," LeBreton said. "With Doom you could download a level editor, learn the basics, and--after you got good with it, which only took a few weeks of practice--rough out a level in an afternoon or a weekend. With Quake and certainly Half-Life and onwards, it would take a week or more to rough something out and months to build it into something really strong." 

As the capabilities of game technologies increased, so too have the expectations of players, and by extension, mod users. As such, modding has moved to more of a team process. It's still possible to build an awesome mod for a modern game by yourself, but it's a lot of work for one person. 

This is part of the reason why even veteran developers like LeBreton keep coming back to Doom. "I'm a team of one," he said. "If I'm considering how to spend six months working on something, I could maybe make one small-ish multiplayer level, doing all the modeling and texturing and everything. Or I could make a much larger experience in Doom with a much bigger scope, just at a lower fidelity level. I intentionally got into this lo-fi space because it lets me do interesting, distinctive things that stand out."

Making the most SnapMap

While the 2016 doesn't support full-blown mods--a point of contention among fans looking forward to the reboot--the game's SnapMap level editing tool was designed to deliver a combination of simplicity and power.

The SnapMap tool was developed in collaboration between Doom-developer id Software, Certain Affinity, and Escalation Studios. SnapMap uses pre-made chunks of code—triggers, signals, and such—that the user can string together to build custom levels and scenarios.   

"When I got into SnapMap I realized it was basically visual node-based scripting," said Roeder, creator of the ambitous Doom-based MOBA Armies of Hell. "Do they have conditional statements? Yeah. Trigger events? Yeah. The tool is pretty powerful."

Yeah, someone made Harvest Doom with SnapMap

Roeder's game pushes the capabilities of SnapMap to its limit. "I've been a big fan of MOBAs since 2010, with League of Legends," Roeder said. "In fact, I remember playing mods of Warcraft III, where before there was DoTA there was something called Gladiator Arena, which was basically the beginnings of the MOBA. It was just a free-for-all in a gladiator's pit. I love the idea of just picking a class and levelling up within a match."

When Roeder began to realize the capabilities of the new Doom's SnapMap tool, he decided to see if he could get two armies spawning and fighting their way into each other's base. Once he got that working, he started adding more features like character classes, boss encounters, all the ideas he'd never seen in a MOBA before. Before long, he was going through a regular development cycle: prototype, test, refine, implement. 

"It kept snowballing until I realized it could be something pretty special," Roeder said. 

A first taste of game design

But Roeder has a background in programming and game design. Could SnapMap fill the same role as the original Doom, serving as a springboard for budding developers (with little-to-no experience) to get their first taste of game design?

"I think it's a great tool for programmers," Roeder said, "but I think it needs to be approached with the right frame of mind. It's not just linking these rectangles together. You're actually going through and flowcharting a whole game loop of functions and features. I think to get the most out of it, a budding game designer has to go into it knowing they're getting into some programming."

Roeder says there's two areas that, if improved, would greatly increase SnapMap's appeal as a tool for budding developers. First, SnapMap currently doesn't support any sort of custom textures or art assets. In other words, users can only tell the models id and Escalation have provided them with what to do—not build their own. Second, the tool didn't have much documentation beyond the sparse in-game tooltips when Roeder began, and he spent as much or more time poking around SnapMap, learning its pseudo-language and figuring out how to do the things he wanted to, as he he did actually building Armies of Hell. [There's now a resource called SnapWiki, which is linked from SnapMap's main menu, a welcome addition that will make it easier for those new to SnapMap to get acclimated.]

There are other recent games out there that have taken a stab at a similar sort of "mod-lite" formula. The Forge mode that launched with Halo 3 offers a similar take on manipulating prefab chunks of game, as does last year's Mario Maker, but neither offer the power of scripting. "There are events and things that you can trigger in Forge or Mario Maker, but they're more hard coded," Roeder said. "They don't allow for as much freedom as something like variables and conditional statements allow for in a scripting program."

In that sense, SnapMap is a standout set of "mod-lite" tools--and could very well be used as an introduction to game development. In fact, Roeder says he's been toying with the idea of purchasing the new Doom for his intro game design class. 

"SnapMap not only touches on the beginning of programming," Roeder said, "but it's also great for level design, game flow, and just the whole process of thinking an idea in your head and seeing if it can translate into an actual feature."

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