2016’s Doom remains one of the most satisfying first-person shooters in recent years. Designed with “push forward combat” in mind, players were rewarded for proactive, aggressive demon-slaying.
The upcoming Doom Eternal will unsurprisingly also forego passivity in favor of aggression. This time around id Software is turning up the aggression in surprising – and fun – ways.
“The solution to all the problems is to be aggressive,” said creative director Hugo Martin in a recent interview. “I think that’s at the core of all our design ethos – you just take what you need when you need it. So, aggressively managing your resources is kind of a new feature in the game, and working hard to make sure that everything in the game really counts, really means something to the player.”
This is how it works in Doom Eternal: if you find you need ammo, chainsaw a demon; if you need health, glory-kill (this is a special melee move); if you need armor, set a demon on fire with your “flame belch”; if you want the more powerful “blood punch” melee, glory kill more demons.
This “aggressive resource management” is a significant change from Doom, and judging from a short play session, it works. It keeps you on your toes and makes regular enemy encounters more interesting.
Martin said every gun, upgrade, and demon is meant to have a purpose. “They push the game forward, [they] keep you thinking, and the main thing is that you’re constantly engaged,” he said.
Learning through death
One recurring theme brought up by both Martin and executive producer Marty Stratton was the idea of teaching players through death. Players will learn fast, thanks to the fast pace of Doom Eternal.
“You’ll probably die. Death is an ok thing, it’s how you learn,” said Stratton. “But you’ll realize ‘I’m low on ammo, I’m low on health, I’m low on armor,’ and you’ll know there’s a demon right there from which I can absolutely get what I need…As long as there are demons on the battlefield, you’ve got the resources you need.”
There are other notable new designs in Doom Eternal. A climbing mechanic gives levels more verticality, and weak spots on bigger enemies lets players pick apart demons by the chunk, which offers up satisfying, frequent feedback when playing.
But combat is still at the heart of the game. Along with new weapons and new resource management, Martin and Stratton said the Doom Eternal team worked on tighter, more balanced AI and combat encounters.
“As [Stratton] said, ‘the guns are the tool and the AI is the problem’, and you gotta bring the right tools to the right situation,” said Martin. “Each AI will push you in different ways.”
He explained how one character called the “carcass” can spawn shields in front of the player, blocking them from “glory-killing” other enemies, or just in general blocking players’ paths. This essentially is the AI’s attempt to cut players off from resources, as other demons provide health, ammo, etc.
This AI behavior is also meant to force the player to choose the right tool for the job. Carcass enemies are in-your-face and their shields are close to players. That proximity limits the use of a powerful rocket launcher, because the blast would highly damage or kill the player. So, in this example, a player may instead choose to use a shotgun to kill the carcass first, as that enemy protects other AI and prevents players from using a more powerful weapon – the rocket launcher. With the carcass out of the way, players can finish the area with the rocket launcher.
“I wouldn’t say this is ‘combat chess’ so much as ‘speed chess,’ because this is all happening super fast,” said Martin. “It’s those types of metas, those types of split-second decisions, that keep the player engaged. It’s an over-used word for us, but that’s what we’re obsessed with; keeping the player engaged.”
He said this is important for a game like Doom Eternal, which has a long campaign. “When you’re bored, you’re not thinking,” he said. “When you’re thinking, you’re engaged.”
Playtesting has been an important part of iterating that engagement. Measuring such nebulous concepts as “engagement” and “fun” is difficult, but Martin said as a game developer, you can just tell if someone’s not having a great time with a game.
“You want to make sure people are really into it,” he said. “When they’re dying, and you can tell if they’re learning from their deaths – that every time they die, it’s not the game that screwed them over, it’s something they did wrong – you can just tell that they want to get back into it. You can just tell as a developer when people are having fun, or when they’re bored, or when they’re frustrated.”
Martin and Stratton agreed that teaching, learning, and reward are at the core of the Doom Eternal power fantasy. You can see this through playing games like Doom: teaching happens through enemy behavior, learning typically comes through death, reward is the satisfaction in taking what you learned and overcoming previously insurmountable obstacles.
Stratton said he played the E3 demo (which lasts about an hour) 30 times and was still having fun with it. “You’ve practiced, you learned, now you can go out and dominate,” he said. “That’s so rewarding, because I took the journey to get there. The game didn’t give it to me.”
“That second half or third act of the game should just be an expression of your mastery of the game,” said Martin.
Designed to be played a certain way
Martin doubled down on a concept he embraced for Doom 2016 – that game wasn’t about giving players multiple ways to accomplish their in-game goals. Like the previous entry in the franchise, Doom Eternal is designed to be played in a specific way.
“[A game with many combat options] is not the type of game we’re making,” said Martin. “There are many different tools at your disposal, many different ways to kill demons. Within our narrow path to success, there are opportunities for players to make choices. But the key thing is that the solution to every problem is to be aggressive, and there’s no way around that.”
For example, if players are playing “peek-a-boo” with an arachnotron instead of engaging combat, the AI will eventually move in and try to finish you off, because you’re refusing to be aggressive.
“[That happens] because you’re not playing the game the right way,” said Martin. “Each time [something like] that happens, you learn a lesson, learn a lesson, and you find that if you hang with the game, it’s like, ‘yeah, I have to be more aggressive than the demons, and that’s how I win.’”