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Why DOOM Is a Masterpiece of Game Design

First, we get the scrolling text out of the way. Apparently, the Spiderdemon was the mastermind behind the whole invasion thing but has “had its ass kicked for all time.” Escaping through a hidden doorway, we are magically transported back to Earth, “too tough for Hell to contain,” and are left to wonder just what's been going down back home. Ooh, we wonder. Over the dysfunctional chords of “Sweet Little Dead Bunny,” we scroll past a cute rabbit on green fields under a sunset, toward a distant city—which is on fire. Then we see the same rabbit's severed head impaled on what's either a stick or an arm (fig. 19), as the words “The End” are peppered with chaingun bullets. OK, granted it's not the most subtle ending in the world, but in keeping with DOOM's overall take on it's story, it's simple, effective, does what it needs to set up a sequel, and, importantly, doesn't take itself seriously (just seriously enough to continue to annoy anyone who's already got a problem with all that guns-and-guts stuff and might have made it through to the end just for research purposes and all that).

So that's it. We're there. We're not finished here, of course. We've still got a bunch of things to talk about. But we've beaten back the forces of Hell and come up bloody and smiling. Now, how on earth (or in Hell) do you summarize a game like DOOM in terms of its core design and gameplay principles? What are the overall, underlying lessons we can take from this tour?

First, DOOM triumphs because it is the result of a profound and deep integration between technology, art, and design. Gameplay is driven by an immensely well-balanced system of integer manipulation, making it intrinsically rewarding and flexible. Even DOOM's mediocre levels work because the fundamentals of its gameplay are so well balanced and operate so fluidly. The frame rate holds; the game is responsive and clean. The artificial intelligence does what it needs to and doesn't fail by trying to overstep its capabilities. There's a natural, instinctive relationship between available weapons and agents and environmental design. As Romero said, the engine's capabilities drive you toward a certain design. The economy of the tools create a focused, lean, and powerful design space, which is then expertly manipulated to create the final product.


Second, DOOM doesn't outstay its welcome. In keeping with the refinement and leanness of the engine, the gameplay is short and punchy. Pretty much all the levels—including the wilder Petersen sprawls—come in at under fifteen minutes, even if you are a slow learner. The whole game is over in a few hours. This means that it's exceptionally tight; there's very little padding or flab. Each level earns its place, and the levels themselves are packed full of set pieces and flowing action that give the impression of being refined and distilled and refined and distilled and, well, sharpened to a razor's edge.

Third (and related to the second point), DOOM has a bag full of great ideas and is confident (and short) enough to not have to repeat them endlessly. The sheer number of one-offs in the game (bearing in mind that many of these were entirely novel) is very impressive. This comes back to the relationship between technology and design and to the creation of levels alongside new features being added to the engine.

Fourth (and related to all of the preceding points—you may be able to spot a pattern emerging here), DOOM is not built around a “pop star” mechanism. There isn't a centralized, high-profile and singular “neat trick” around which everything revolves. Rather, the game rests on the effectiveness of a handful of simple gameplay tools. You can move, shoot, and trigger switches. There's no physics puzzles, no magic (or technological equivalent), no inventory or resource management. That's obviously not to denigrate games that have a brilliant central mechanic (Valve, in particular, has demonstrated a consistently brilliant ability to anchor games to innovative new mechanics), but the really important thing in those cases is how critical the underlying game flow is.1 Cloud puts this point succinctly:

Fundamentally, if in a shooter, running and shooting isn't fun, then you're screwed. You can add anything you want to it, but if that's not fun, you won't have a popular shooter. Every genre has its real strengths, but in a shooter,…if running and shooting is not fun, doesn't feel natural, doesn't feel visceral and powerful, then I think you are going to lose out. (KC)

Like Half-Life, which also doesn't actually really bring anything groundbreaking to the party in terms of gameplay features or mechanics, DOOM works not because of innovative new stuff but because it understands how to wring the absolute max out of the tools available. It's important to remember, after all, that DOOM's many innovations were built around the core gameplay defined by Wolfenstein 3D and even Catacomb 3D, to an extent. It certainly wasn't built in a vacuum, without precedent. DOOM works because it flows superbly, and when it isn't flowing, its staccato bursts create maximum tension-release-tension-release loops that define the template for FPS play from that point onward.

Finally, DOOM takes a great concept and then doesn't ruin it by trying to do too much with it. Sure, there's no real story, but there's a great diegesis: a really strong world supports the gameplay and enables a very diverse but robustly linked set of environments to be populated, with an equally diverse set of monsters whose actions make sense to the player. It sets up a clear reason for action but doesn't require the player to get involved or invest in anything deeper, freeing up attention to focus intently on the here and now of play. That's obviously not the only way of handling an FPS, and as I'll talk about in chapter 15, some impressive FPS games since DOOM have deviated from this reduced, distilled concept and have succeeded precisely because they have done so. But what DOOM absolutely nails, in a way from which many contemporary games can still learn, is that unless you are going to invest heavily in all the trimmings of character and plot and ask players to focus part of their attention on these things as well as what's charging down the corridor toward them, spewing molten hell-death from multiple orifices at once, then as far as games go, offering half a story is rarely better than DOOM's minimalist approach.

There are other things going on as well, of course. I've already talked a fair amount about the three major new design features id Tech 1 enabled: sound flooding and sector cut-throughs, variable and dynamic environments (created by designing on the vertical axis and including objects with properties, like nukage and lifts), and dynamic lighting. These are critically important reasons why DOOM was so influential and groundbreaking at the time, but for me, the reasons previously outlined go a long way toward explaining why it is still such an exceptional piece of design. We also should factor in the diversity of skills, singularity of vision, and tensions between Romero, Hall, and Petersen, which added to the mix of heady combat, high-concept horror, and visual and gameplay diversity. Particular credit goes to Romero, who selected level orders and stitched the whole thing together. Of course, while I've inevitably focused on the design, none of this is possible without the underlying code or the assets generated to support play, so if there's any sense here that DOOM could have been what it was without John Carmack, Adrian Carmack, Cloud, and Prince, that's certainly not the case I'm making.

More than anything else, DOOM remains one of those rare things, an exceptionally lean, tight, focused work by an equally lean, tight, focused team of people who all came together at the right place in the right time and threw an inordinate amount of talent at a largely self-generated and gratuitously difficult task. So while we can reason and deconstruct a shopping list of factors that go together to make this unique and extraordinary piece of design, the developer in me can't let the academic in me win that easily, and we do need to recognize that sometimes the magic is in the mix. Above everything else, however, I keep returning over and over again to how tightly woven DOOM is, the sheer lack of padding and repetition, the squeezing out of every last possibility from the technology available. At the end of the day, the major reason DOOM's design is exceptional is that it's a profoundly economical game. It understands the constraints it is operating within, and it uses every available means of maximizing what it can within them.

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
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