Doom Eternal Is A “Fantasy Combat Puzzle”, But What Does That Mean?
Doom Eternal is butter. Smooth, creamy, gory butter, where your every action seamlessly spreads from one to another. At an extended hands-on session with the game a few weeks before E3, I played roughly 30 minutes of the upcoming shooter, with the demo starting off at a UAC base on the moon Phobos, before hopping between giant pieces of rubble floating in space, and then all the way to the surface of Mars (battling hordes of demons along the way, of course). As with the rebooted Doom in 2016, transitioning from traversal to combat and back in Doom Eternal felt thrilling, entangling you in that classic Doom power fantasy of being a nigh-unstoppable killing machine.
Doom Eternal, then, is undoubtedly more Doom, albeit with an even more concerted attempt to marry movement with shooting to force players to be more mobile and aggressive. I spoke with id Software creative director Hugo Martin and executive producer Marty Stratton to find out exactly how they wanted to build on the success of the last game, the link between difficulty and “content” with a game, and why they wanted to have their game on Google’s new streaming Stadia platform.
You’ve used the term “fantasy combat puzzle” to describe what you’re trying to achieve with the gameplay in Doom Eternal. What does that mean?
Hugo Martin: Basically, the game is going to provide you with a problem that you’re going to need to solve (and you) solve it through aggression, through skill, through the mastery of the elements in the game. We’re going to give you the tools to solve the problem, and it’s going to be up to you to figure it out and master how to do it.
I think that we have to lean on providing a well-crafted experience over however many hours to make that engaging from beginning to end, and the way we do that is by challenging the player. Our game has to have a meta. If there is no meta to the experience, then there’s no subtext to what you’re doing. It’s just pretty flat and shallow at that point.
So when you say puzzle, you mean all the mechanics you put into this and how they’re used to solve a particular fight, right?
Martin: Say I’m out of ammo. I’m being hunted down by all these guys, what do I do? I can’t deal with this arachnatron’s gun, and it’s mauling me. What do I do? Oh, there’s a mod with a scope over there. Damn, my aim sucks. Okay, maybe I need to get better at aiming. We put these intentional design fail states in the game where the player fails. We want you to fail and die but then hopefully in death, you’re thinking and you’re thinking, and like, okay, I think I can overcome that if I do this. That’s basically what we mean by combat puzzle.
You should always understand why you died. Even in that death moment if you’re not the fastest thinker at the moment, you’re like, man. I learned this three levels ago, I saw this in a tutorial, or I learned this when I shot the arachnatron’s gun off. In that pause of death you think I’ve got to try this differently, I’ve got to use this tool that I’ve learned and to overcome this hurdle.
The key is that you’ve got to feel like it’s fair. If the game is screwing me that’s not cool. Enemies with hitscan weapons that are unavoidable and I can’t do anything about it, that’s not cool.
Were there any specific influences that guided you as you leaned into the “tough but fair” approach?
Martin: The original Doom. Everything in original Doom counted by making the resources mean a lot more. It immediately made the game more engaging. I think a perfect example when we say puzzles is the old rocket launcher from 1993, which was incredibly powerful. If you didn’t respect the weapon and you were irresponsible with it, it would get you killed. We’re just doing that stuff.
Traversal played a very big part in the 2016 game, it’s obviously playing a much bigger part now. Why did you decide to push traversal even more?
Marty Stratton: I think mainly to have a variety of gameplay. It makes combat more fun, it makes the variety of the gameplay more fun, and it gives us more opportunities to do amazing things with the world and with the places you go.
Martin: That’s only one level. Mars Core focuses a little bit more on epic platforming while other levels emphasize other things. There’s a lot of really cool, simple binary, what we call 16-bit style mechanics in Doom Eternal that will present the player with some really engaging experiences. Some nice obstacles for them to overcome.
I don’t want to make a hard game just to make a hard game. That’s not fun. It’s got to be engaging. Something that’s worth your time. You’re going to spend $60 on this game, you’re going to play it for however many hours. It’s got to be engaging, it’s got to be worth my time. If it’s a sleepwalk where I’m just running down a hallway shooting guys point blank with a shotgun, that’s not really worth anybody’s time.
What else was there from the 2016 game that you really wanted to improve on for this one?
Martin: The incidental combat areas for sure. We felt like we needed to do a lot more than just arenas. We’re so proud of that. I’ve got to be honest, I think some of the incidental combat areas to me are as engaging as the arenas, if not more so, to be honest. What else?
Stratton: [There’s also the] fact that we’ve doubled the number of demons in Doom Eternal relative to 2016, so that in those late game moments in the second half of the game or the last quarter of the game, you’re seeing things that you’ve never seen up to that point.
Martin: Yeah, you’re still seeing new, fresh challenges being thrown at you. New things to learn. You’re still growing as a player. You still feel like you’re progressing. You don’t feel like the game is flatlining.
We’ve talked a bit about difficulty tonight, and you guys don’t want to make it a difficult game just for the sake of making a difficult game. There was a lot of debate around the internet a couple of months ago about game difficulty. Do you want to weigh into that debate? What is difficulty versus accessibility to you guys?
Martin: I’m pretty passionate about this–as the difficulty of your game goes down, the content in your game has to go up. That’s a simple formula. Look at some of the other games being made. If I’m playing through your game I’m just shooting at mobs (which is fine, I love those games), I better be getting a steady stream of content delivered to me throughout. There are lots of games that do that. If you don’t have that type of game, a looter-shooter, then I think your game does have to be more challenging because it’s not about I’m just getting pelted with content constantly.
When you mean content, you mean volume of content?
Stratton: At a high level it’s engagement. He’s talking about difficulty creating engagement. If your difficulty is low the engagement comes more through when I get something new.
Martin: What I’m getting from a looter shooter might not be moment-to-moment challenging, but what it makes up for that is that I’m getting a ton of guns every couple of minutes. We obviously don’t make that type of game so we feel like in order to achieve a level of engagement that we want we have to make the game a little bit more of a challenging experience for the player.
Stratton: Even from a challenge perspective, when you’re talking about accessibility, there’s obviously just a broad range of accessibility. We have five difficulty options in our game. It’s not like we’re giving you one difficulty setting and say, you either play our game and get it or you’re done. You can drop it down two difficulty levels from what you played tonight or you can go up two difficulties from what you played tonight.
Martin: We have extra lives in the game which also helps with accessibility and rewards players for exploring. The key to difficulty for me is don’t just give me hard for the sake of hard. Give me something to master. If I master it, I actually make the game easy because I earned that. You’ll be able to do that in Doom Eternal. That’s what I love about games. When a game feels like it’s just being hard for the sake of being hard, that’s not cool.
Doom Eternal is one of the big games that Google will bring to Stadia. How did that partnership come about?
Stratton: I think the spark, so to speak, was that Stadia is built on the Vulcan API, and Doom was built on Vulcan as well. They saw a good match there as far as getting a game up on their platform relatively quickly, but also we have the best technical team in the entire industry and we’ve been making games a long time. I think the fact that they were entering the game space, they saw a unique opportunity to speak to a company that had been making games for 25 years that has enormously high technical standards and has worked with every single first party platform for years and years.
I think they saw that we could really show them the ropes in certain areas. They’re equally technically powerful and ambitious, and I think that was very appealing for us to see Google say, “We’re going to take on this thing that is monumental.” Streaming games is … we love that kind of stuff.