‘DOOM: Scarkydarkfast’ — The Rise of the FPS

Good morning, Mr. Burnham and class. The subject of my book report is “DOOM: SCARYDARKFAST,” by Dan Pinchbeck.

Ahem.

Sorry, it’s been a while.

Called “a love letter to DOOM and its various creators” by Katherine Whitlock of California State University-Chico, “DOOM: Scarydarkfast” is a treatise on the evolution of the FPS and one of the most influential games ever made. Written by a man who serves as creative director for Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs developer The Chinese Room, and who has a Ph.D. in First Person Shooters — no, seriously — the book examines the birth of the genre and the rise of id, the technology that influenced the game’s design decisions, and the legacy and impact of DOOM on the industry.

While segments of the book can get technical or academic, the author’s passion for gaming comes through in his writing. This is not a class lecture delivered by some dusty professor — it’s a presentation delivered by a gamer. A highly-educated, well-researched gamer.

The book opens with a history of the FPS genre. DOOM may not have been the very first FPS — that accolade goes to 1973′s Maze War — but it is perhaps the most influential of all time. While most of the credit for creating DOOM tends to go to John Carmack and John Romero on technology and game design, respectively, former President of id Todd Hollenshead highlights a third key member of the dev team: Adrian Carmack, whose art brought the vision to life.

DOOM’s soundtrack, composed by Bobby Prince, is remembered mainly for its metal tunes — the id team was full of huge metal fans. Pinchbeck writes, however, that Prince believed it was the darker, moodier pieces that fit the game better. Those scores began to pave the road toward more ambient, environmentally-driven music in video games.

The author goes on to discuss DOOM’s launch and reception. While the game was critically acclaimed and racked up awards from the industry, just how great of a success DOOM was cannot be quantifiably measured. Even id doesn’t know exactly how many units were ultimately sold, due to the nature of DOOM’s shareware distribution model. Pinchbeck states that claims exist of more than 10 million installations and cites VGChartz’s estimates of 2.85 million units sold for PC, a figure that may include the 1995 retail release of Ultimate Doom.

Pinchbeck attributes DOOM’s success to four factors. First, because it “is the result of a profound and deep integration between technology, art, and design,” he writes. “Even DOOM’s mediocre levels work because the fundamentals of its gameplay are so well balanced and operate so fluidly.”

Second, DOOM’s gameplay is short and punchy; third, it makes use of a “bag of neat tricks” without repeating any of them; and fourth, gameplay doesn’t revolve around a gimmick, such as physics puzzles.

While DOOM 2 saw success as well, Pinchbeck discusses why he believes that DOOM 3, which was meant as a modern reimagining of DOOM, doesn’t quite recreate the DOOM experience. Although the overarching concept remains the same, the “moment-by-moment action of DOOM 3 is quite different.” He attributes this to tighter level design, fewer monsters, and changes in the way monsters are placed and spawned into the game.

To clarify the last point, Pinchbeck quotes Sandy Petersen:

“In DOOM, you always had fair warning before monsters popped in to kill you. In later shooters, designers would often just teleport in a monster behind you without warning. Sure such a monster can kill you, but how can you prepare for it? Where is the tension?”

If you’re not killing monsters in DOOM, then you’re killing other players. DOOM was the first game to bring Deathmatch to the FPS genre — although the term Deathmatch was first used in 1982 to describe battle in Triple Action Biplanes, Pinchbeck writes. Ironically, however, given how Deathmatch has since taken off, multiplayer was added into DOOM during a very late stage of development, and only because the dev team had a personal interest in it. Sandy Petersen, who designed 19 levels for DOOM, said:

“We firmly believed that 99 percent of all players would only ever do single-player. We only put multiplayer into the game because we, personally, liked it.”

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