9 min read

Doomed to Invent Our Mistakes

A brief retrospective on the FPS that started it all, and how their successors ignored the stuff that made Doom such an accessible and fun experience.


As a game designer I think it's always good to go back and replay games that we remember fondly or that influenced us in some powerful way.  Sometimes you find that it's aged poorly but still has some potency.  Sometimes you find that you really had bad taste when you were younger.  And every once in a while you find that it is far more compelling than you remember, and have this wonderful experience that you never expected, like a few weeks ago when I played Doom for the first time in a decade.

There are a few different reasons I wanted to go back and play Doom.  First, this game had a pretty big influence on me.  Not in that I got into satanism or marksmanship, but that Doom and its grandpappy Wolfenstein were my introduction to level design and game modifications.  Many a geeky hour was spent sketching and building out entire campaigns with kickin' custom MIDI soundtracks (which, during any given week, would include tracks from the Peter Gunn TV show and the Spice Girls).  I figured out ways to to lay out levels so that they felt like they were overlapping, even though they weren't.

Second, I played this game a lot.  I was too young to be in on the college LAN scene when Doom dropped, so it was all single-player play.  But the lighting, level design, art, and especially sound effects are all still pretty deeply ingrained in my psyche.  I was really curious to see how the game stood up against the likes of Killzone 2, or Halo 3, or even Half-Life 2.  I wanted to see if it just felt clumsy and stupid next to its shiny new great-great-grandkids.

Not exactly next-gen, is it!

Playing through the entire first episode of Doom in one sitting that morning was the most fun I've had playing any game in months, if not years. It didn't feel clumsy at all; Doom is a very fast game, unrealistically reactive to your input, and it is still a joy to sprint through the martian facilities.  But the thing that I noticed almost immediately is how completely fun the experience was within the first few seconds of play.  Most of what made Doom really enjoyable and compelling was systematically gutted from the FPS formula within a few years.  I promise this is not an outrageous claim!  First I will go over the primary mechanics of a modern generic FPS, then contrast the salient features and mechanics in Doom.  Finally, I will talk a little bit about a beloved console FPS that bridges the two philosophies to great effect (and no, it's not Halo).


The Mechanics of Modern FPS Games

haha its jin roh, who are you kidding

Aiming: The vast majority of playtime in a modern first person shooter is consumed by the task of aiming at things.  Despite inhabiting the role, lifestyle and adventures of a seasoned combat veteran, most FPS games require the player to use a mouse (or, god forbid, twin analogs) to move a reticle over a specific group of pixels.  That is, the badass combat vet requires some fat frat boy to help make sure he shoots the right things, and doesn't miss by a few millimeters. Kind of like playing Missile Command only your shots don't chain and they disappear instantly.

Hiding: Any time not spent aiming is generally spent hiding.  This system has been implemented in a wide variety of ways, from Time Crisis to Gears of War to Doom even (standing behind a wall is technically hiding).  Hiding usually consists of staring at nothing waiting for something to happen.  Sort of like a cutscene or inventory screen, only nothing happens.  Killzone 2 even employs a "peek" mechanic to help make hiding suck less.  Yes, the mechanic is so flawed that designers have invented NEW game mechanics to modulate its badness.

Strafing: When actually engaged in combat in these hyper-realistic combat simulators, the most efficient thing to do when not hiding is to run back and forth while pinpoint aiming at various human or AI opponents.  Jiggling madly back and forth while fiddling with the mouse or thumbsticks, hoping to fake out the AI and maybe happen to get your reticle to cover the right pixels.  It's a pretty realistic simulation of real combat!

Reloading: Apparently we've become so obsessed with this crucial combat mechanic that it is now a mini-game.  Again, as a seasoned combat veteran reloading is apparently something that requires the aid of an unwashed twenty-something in order to accomplish successfully.  Like halfway through their career this lord of the battlefield suddenly forgot how to do everything they learned decades ago in boot camp?

Waiting For AI Enemies To Pop Up From Behind Their Hardcoded Cover: Whack-a-mole wasn't fun even when it was colorful and silly.  It's definitely not fun now that it is all serious, bloody, and gray/brown.


The Mechanics of Doom

god i love the covers they used to do for these things

Shooting: Rather than aiming, Doom tends to focus on shooting.  As long as you're basically pointed in the right general direction on a single axis, your shot is gonna land.  More like Space Invaders with instant attacks, rather than the insane crippled version of Missile Command presented by the modern FPS.

Exploration: Absolutely secondary to mowing down hordes of hellspawn is exploring the labyrinthine dungeons of the martian installations.  Item and Secret percentages are powerful incentives (despite the complete lack of Achievements) to explore every last nook and cranny, frequently uncovering pockets of unkilled enemies that you absolutely would not have uncovered otherwise.  That is, your reward for exploration is frequently even more fun combat.

Strategic Engagement: A natural side effect of removing aiming as a central time-consuming mechanic is a vast increase in macro-level strategic management of powerups, ammunition, and enemy hordes.  What's the best way to deal with a room full of 20 enemies with 4 or 5 primary attack mechanisms?  This is further augmented by your relatively fast movement speed, allowing you to actually carry out relatively complicated maneuvers in a reasonable amount of time.  It's an oddly cerebral experience.

Economy of Input: This isn't exactly a mechanic, more of a defining feature.  Doom uses what is referred to nowadays as "Tank" style controls, with few enough trigger buttons to be playable on an Super Nintendo controller.  "Tank" style, for the uninitiated, means the primary directional control is used to change your angle rather than strafe.  The implication (thanks in part to Resident Evil) is that it is nonsensical and clumsy for a biped to be limited to this restrictive, mechanical motion.  However, in reality neither athletes nor combatants ever actually strafe with any regularity (maybe 5% of the time).  So if the goal of strafe-oriented controls is to forsake reality and provide additional agility to the player, how come FPS protagonists are growing slower and slower?  Doesn't make any sense.


The Mechanics of Goldeneye 007

haha this game was so ugly

Released four years after Doom, Goldeneye was a huge hit for the game-deprived N64, and in many ways a spiritual successor to Doom and predecessor of Halo as a way for high school and college age kids to virtually shoot each other.  Goldeneye fascinates me as a design because it is very much a bridge between the way Doom did things, and the way future FPS games would do things (including Goldeneye's contemporary, a little game called Half Life).

Run & Gun: Much like Doom, a large amount of time in Goldeneye is spent barreling at high speed down hallways mowing down helpless mooks with a variety of high-powered automatic weapons.  The default control scheme mimics Doom's basic inputs pretty closely.

Stop & Pop: There's a good chance that Goldeneye didn't really invent this, but they were doing it long before the current generation of shooters, though in a different way.  Goldeneye essentially made a mini-game out of aiming by divorcing it from the run & gun mechanics by way of a distinct "aim mode", where the analog controls changed to focus on the act of actually aiming, rather than compromising everything into a shared mode where both movement and aiming are handicapped.

Hilarious AI: Much of the strategic play in Doom stems from the manipulation of positively idiotic hordes of hellspawn.  In keeping with the aim mode minigame, Goldeneye's enemy AI were programmed to leap momentarily into precisely the spot where you were currently aiming.  They wouldn't stay there for long, and it was hard to notice at first, but it was a really effective way of continuing to work on making aiming into a genuine enjoyable game, rather than the chore it became.


Grumpy, Subjective & Controversial Conclusions

i live in a fuckin garbage can!!

Aiming Sucks: An un-fun impediment and time-waster employed mainly to hide flaws of design and shallow level design.

Strafing Sucks: It is a ridiculous, unnatural way to navigate an environment, and an inappropriate response to a genuine need for an avoidance mechanic.

Modern AI Sucks: Sorry!  It might be fun to program, but it's not fun to play against.



mumble mumble mumble

So as not to come off like a completely useless grouchy old bastard of a curmudgeon I wanted to point out some interesting stuff (that does not relate to the obvious solution of "auto-aim") that Valve in particular is doing to lessen the frustration of aiming!

Left 4 Dead: Whether you are firing indiscriminately into a mob of 20 zombies, locking onto someone as the hunter, or puking all over as the boomer, there are a lot of ways to not place reticles on exact pixels in this game!

Half Life 2:The gravity gun and lion ant bait are both wonderful non-aiming interactions that wreak absolute havoc.

Team Fortress 2: The Pyro's flamethrower reminds me very much of Margaret's recent article about game verbs (often a sensitive or vague topic but here addressed with a sense of joy and optimism).

"And watering, I think, might be one of the finest experiences in the world. There's an intensely sensual kick to be had from watching the water pool stubbornly on the top of parched earth, listening out for that first wet crackle that starts the moisture sinking slowly, then quickly, into the crevices of the darkened, gleaming soil."

The TF2 Pyro's flamethrower is a lot like watering a garden.  A flammable garden.  With fire.  The Medic class also features a lock-on weapon that requires very little in the way of real aiming.

Finally, id's own Quake featured the lightning gun (removed from all sequels, once mouse aiming became standard) as another classic example of "Garden Hose" type weaponry.  I believe it was even described that way in the instruction manual, but I haven't found an image to back that up.

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