Hard Project: DOOM
Calling the original DOOM anything short of a game-changer would be underselling its importance. It was a polished, unique experience, more or less creating the first-person shooter experience in the eyes of many players. It was a shareware title, which made it easy to learn about. It was violent for its time, another feather in the cap of a game that was already laser-guided to reach the hearts of a very definite audience. It was beautiful. It was stunning. It let you blow demons up with a shotgun or carve them up with a chainsaw.
Best of all? It was modifiable by users with minimal effort. Which was pretty important.
In the early days of the Internet, DOOM and its functionally almost-identical sequel, Doom II, were a big deal. Doom 3 – the first actual sequel the game had in a decade – met with positive reviews and it was a success, but it sure as heck wasn’t a success like its predecessors. Heck, it didn’t even match those games in tone, being far more concerned with the idea of sneaking through darkened regions and navigating linear stages. But that’s kind of to be expected. Making Doom 3 was always going to be a difficult proposition, and there’s a reason why the next installment is languishing in development hell. This is a hard project.
The genre has changed
DOOM, like a lot of works that helped define a genre, featured a lot of different elements. For a modern shooter fan, there are a lot of things that seem alien. Instead of tightly balanced stages, you’re moving through winding and labyrinthine maps with long stretches of nothing happening. You’re far more worried about attacks sapping your health and slowly wearing down your defenses, because your health isn’t regenerating between firefights. It seems almost crazy that what the game brought that got copied were short, brutally violent moments of shooting.
Heck, even those are different, because you’re not ducking behind cover in DOOM. Literally. You can’t duck. Or jump. Or do anything but stand, shoot, and run out of line-of-sight as necessary.
Progress in more modern FPS games is not stymied by spending a good chunk of time searching for the missing blue keycard to unlock the next part of the winding stage map, and pretty much no one would put up with that unless you were designing a deliberate homage to the older game. The problem is that releasing a DOOM game without these elements is removing part of what makes the game so iconic. A sequel needs to hold on to the elements that made the original unique, but the original games were designed in a way that feels slow and tedious to modern sensibilities. The mechanical core of the genre has changed, but the modern genre is incompatible with several parts of what makes the game distinct.
The thrill is gone
When my stepfather spent hours downloading the shareware version of the game for the first time, he was doing so because, well, it was a technical wonderland. Hell, the idea of having enemies that looked like things instead of malformed blobs on the screen was pretty amazing. It was pretty crazy that you could round a corner, see a human-looking soldier, open up with a gun, and have him fall down in a pile of red pixels and injury. Absolutely dazzling.
A lot has happened since then. For example, I can load up Half-Life 2 in about half a minute and shoot a red-hot crossbow bolt right through a guard’s skull. I can play Saints Row IV and gun down rows of aliens, cops, and mascots with whatever weapons strike my fancy. Dragon Age: Inquisition is coming out this year, and that will by necessity allow me to carve a path of bloody murder through anyone and everyone that opposes the Inquisition. We are no longer in an era where DOOM‘s not-even-actually-3D engine is enough to make people flip out and scream in enthusiasm.
This is a franchise that was catapulted to success on the backs of technical marvel and polished gameplay. The gameplay is dated now, and the technical surprise, well, isn’t. It’s part of why Quake didn’t produce the same visceral reaction as DOOM when it first launched – sure, the engine was an upgrade, but from a user’s standpoint it wasn’t dramatically notable. So all it has left to sell on is the simple reality of its actual story and other franchise elements.
There’s not much franchise
If you say the line about story elements and mouthed a “what?”, you can be forgiven. Because here’s the plot for DOOM: Demons attack space facility, shoot them.
All right, that’s kind of a thin premise, but you can expand it into more. But to do so, you kind of have to rip something out of the core. Part of what makes DOOM work is the existence of its plot as nothing more than an excuse; it’s a thin vehicle to give you some motivation for killing demons, as if you really needed one. Also a reason why you’re using a bunch of weird weapons instead of real-world weaponry. That’s the long and short of it. It’s like Whose Line is it Anyway in video game form – the plot is made up and the storytelling doesn’t matter.
Perfectly fine when you’ve got something else to sell the game on. In fact, it’s still fine for you to sell me a Sonic the Hedgehog game completely divorced from story other than “blue animal-man goes very fast yes.” But when the storytelling is the only thing you have left to hang the connection on, suddenly the game becomes a lot weaker. You could fall back on the elements of play that the original DOOM featured that have since been moved out of mainstream shooters, yes… but then I’m just going to find myself wondering why a game I remember focusing on shooting demons is more about creeping about and searching for keys.
Hell, I wondered that in 1994.
It’s not impossible to make another game in the franchise, obviously; it’s been done. But it’s a hard project for several reasons, and it’s not something people are eager to try again. A game that made history for technical elements and what would now be seen as primitive gameplay can’t really redefine the genre any longer.