Q&A: Evolving the combat design of id Software's Doom Eternal

id Software game director Hugo Martin explains the design principles that have guided the evolution of Doom Eternal's design and combat.

When Doom was rebooted for modern audiences in 2016, its arrival was heralded as a high-water mark for single-player first-person shooter combat. Now id Software is looking to one-up its prior achievement with the upcoming Doom Eternal, whose creators insist needs to not just meet expectations set by the previous title, but exceed them, in order to be as satisfying an experience. 

At a press event in LA last week, Doom Eternal game director Hugo Martin sat down with Gamasutra to discuss the game's evolved design, and what changes were needed to make a satisfying sequel. According to him, much of Doom Eternal's design evolved out of the circumstances created by the game's new abilities like "dash" and a new flame belcher weapon.

For every tiny tweak to the player's speed and resource management, a spiraling set of design changes ensued to ensure the quality of the experience. As Doom Eternal barrels toward its March 20 launch date, Martin was able to share details about some of the changes that set Doom Eternal apart from its predecessor. 

What was it like, moving from creative director to director on this series? 

It's kind of the same thing, you know. My role hasn't changed too much. Marty [Stratton, id executive producer] and I still work really closely together and stuff so it's very similar. What's been most exciting for everyone has been the chance to make another game together, having worked out what our process is. From the very beginning, we were able to hit the ground running as a team and that felt fantastic. 

In other interviews, you mentioned that instead of having to onboard people and learn to work together, you all could start iterating fantasy because you could argue better with people you knew and trusted.

Yeah, and I think you see that in the first two to three levels of Doom Eternal--you are doing more, seeing more than you did in the entirety of Doom 2016. You go to more locations and see cooler stuff and do cooler things than you did throughout all of that game. We were able to do more work at a higher level at a faster pace because the teamwork and the synergy on the team is stellar. 

You've talked about how things that worked in the first Doom weren't working in [in Eternal] again, because players who experienced the first Doom were a souped-up racecar. Can you talk about the process of evolving things in Doom to make that racecar track bigger?

It was the player's [new] abilities that we gave them, like "meathook" and "dash," that made the racecar super fast. Immediately you notice that you were so quick that nothing could touch you. So you were never really under any kind of duress. 

...In the early part of development, because of the abilities we gave the player and the imbalance that it created, there was nothing to master. It was basically a very simple, child-like puzzle, that really wasn't engaging anybody at all and I don't think anyone would have wanted to play more than two hours of it.

Even though the gore was beautiful and the levels--it wasn't doing justice to the hard work that the art team was doing, because you just didn't care to play it. Immediately the analogy is accurate. The race car is better, the track has to get better. It has to keep up with the race car. So that meant making the chess pieces--the AI--much more responsive at the expense of maybe even some visual flair. The in-tos of certain animations kind of getting sped up so much that you can barely see them, so maybe visually they don't look as great, but they're more responsive so they feel better. 

We're not trying to make a cinematic, immersive game. It's important that things react when they should react, with the speed they need to react. Doom is such a fast game, that, for example, the Mancubus, his area-of-effect blast is almost instant.

I think the AI team did a fantastic job, Kurt Loudy and Jake Campbell and all those guys, the animations all just starting to get a little less expressive and more purposeful. Just take the windup of a fireball. Those needed to get about two times faster now. There was much less of a flourish, still a strong tell, because we need that, but it's pretty damn fast. 

The level design also had to get bigger, to make room for this faster racecar, otherwise, you're banging up against the walls. If you had dash, and the abilities you have now, but you were playing inside the Foundry level from the last game, that would not be a good experience. You'd be banging against the walls and just feel like a cheetah at the zoo. You're in this confined space, you need to be set free so you can run. 

Finding the right size racetrack for the player [is important]. Too big, you actually feel slow. Too small, you're frustrated. So [it was about] really nailing the feel of the spaces...all in response to what was going on with the player at the beginning of the project. 

Something that works well in the game is not just the level design, but what kinds of spaces the player is moving through. What was your vision for "where you are" being as interesting as "what you're fighting?"

A fair criticism of the last game was that it was just hallway-arena combat, and the most interesting part of the game was the arena combat. As a result, during the third act of the game, some people found it to be a bit repetitive. That's a fair criticism. Also the locations were limited in the last game. Mars, Hell, Mars, Hell. A huge objective at the start of the project was to make sure we opened up the scope of the game. Simply put, I wanted to go cool places, shoot interesting things with cool guns. 

And we're just better at creating strong setpieces and creating a spectacle for the player to walk through. Walking along the spear of a giant mech, into the belly of a huge titan he's just slain is far more interesting than walking down a hallway to the next arena. 

What's a guiding marker for your team to say 'this is an interesting setpiece,' instead of 'this is just a hallway' when making these spaces? 

We have level outlines that we establish early on of what the player's objectives would be. We take a lot of time working on those--myself and our mission design director Jerry Keehan, who's awesome. And then the level designer on the particular level, whichever it may be. We try to establish early on from the very beginning that we have that spectacle built in, that we really make sure we're taking in interesting locations. We saw that last time that hallways are not so great.

But they also are necessary because it can't all be mechs and spears. That will get repetitive as well. Outlining things, and then every step along the way, through development, people are enhancing things, new ideas are coming in, and if your team has bought in on the vision, then everything just gets better. You don't want the best version of an idea to be what was originally on the page, you really want the best version to be what ended up on screen.

And that means everybody has to be engaged and contributing and pushing toward the same goal. And that's where having this be our second project together really comes into play. We are working really, really well together. Everybody enjoys working together, And that's why I think you're seeing what you're seeing onscreen right now. 

There's a ton of work going on with accessibility design in the shooter space right now. What does designing accessibility mean in a game with a game like Doom Eternal that's fixated on learning and mastery?

It's just important to make it as accessible as it should be. We do everything we can to try to make Doom--we want it to be the martial arts analogy. You begin the game as a white belt, you can feel yourself getting stripes and leveling up. By the beginning of the third act you will be a black belt, and you will meet some other black belt-level AI. You'll become Obi-Wan and you'll meet your Darth Maul. But it's not just for skilled players. So long as you're on the right difficulty for your skill level, we're going to try to make sure everybody becomes a black belt. 

Just in the same way that you can make basketball accessible to everyone, but it's played at various levels. We take time to put in the accessibility features that we feel are appropriate for the game and we've got people spending a good amount of time doing that. We have colorblind people and [people with other disabilities] at the studio testing those things. I want as many people as possible to enjoy the fun of Doom. It's a power fantasy and I think it's an accessible one. Doesn't mean it has to be any less sophisticated. 

How does it feel to be making this kind of game, working in this kind of design, alongside developers like From Software, who have maybe a higher difficulty than you do, challenging other design conventions that have defined triple-A games for a bit?

The trend was, "you can't make a hard game." It never really changed. What happened was looter-shooters, and the Diablo-style games that created this [trend]...they were really successful, and they don't rely on player skill. You just have to understand what works for one game won't work for another. 

For example, no individual action that I do in Destiny is hard. It's a trade-off not in skill but in time. In order to do high-end strike missions or do a raid, I have to level up my character, that means I have to put X amount of time into the game to get my level there. 

And when you look at a game [like Doom Eternal] like that, you might say "you're asking me to master all these things, and in another game, what if I can't, I'm scared, this is just for skilled players, that means it's a niche game." That's not really accurate at all. The thing is if you're going to make that kind of game that leverages time over skill, that means that as the skill goes down required for the player to succeed, the content that you're giving them has to go way up. I will put in the time so long as you're giving me a new gun once every five minutes. 

That's huge, and the worst thing you could do. If you don't understand that, you're going make an easy game that doesn't have a lot of content and that's terrible. Destiny engages me with fantastic locations, I'm seeing things all the time, I'm also getting amazing guns every couple of minutes. That's not Doom, that's not how Doom is made. 

All the while there was that brief conversation about how games needed to be easy. There was what I just said, and there was "really? Because Call of Duty is not an easy game, and they're still cranking out massive sellers and have a huge audience." I challenge anyone to turn on Fortnite, a huge game that's played by children, and tell me if you think it's easy. It's not easy, you'll get smashed. 

Skill-based games have always had large audiences, and as long as you're educating players effectively, you have difficulty settings if you can have them, there'll be an audience for them. We're not making a hard game. We're just making a game that's going to give you something to master, and frustration is a part of mastery. All games have frustration. All engaging experiences have some form of frustration that comes with them. 

If I love basketball, there are certain rules. I have to hit a free-throw, rebound, I have to have a good jump shot. If someone blocks my jump shot, and then you ask me "are you frustrated?" I would say "yes," and then you say "okay maybe we should make it so you can't block people's shots." No, what I need to do is get a better jump shot. I thought I'd create space on my jump shot. That's where the engagement comes in. At that moment, after my shot gets blocked, and now I'm going to engage because I'm going to work on my jump shot.

So the bet is, yes, you're frustrated, but we're pushing you into a style of play that we promise will be more engaging, because the better I get at basketball, the more engaging it becomes. And if I suck at basketball, it's not that engaging, but I'm motivated to get better, because the better I get, the more fun it is. The better you get at Doom, the more fun it will be, and we have to do what we can as designers to make sure we corral the player and push them into that style of play because we bet you're going to find it really engaging. 

Last question, who's your basketball team?

You know I don't really watch a lot of basketball! [laughs] I know it from the '90s! I'm so lame, I'll say the Lakers. 

For more insight into the making of Doom Eternal, check out Kris Graft's discussion with Martin from E3 2019.

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