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The Devil’s in the Details: analyzing Doom’s design elements and nuances

It is certainly no secret that a fourth entry in the Doom franchise has been a long time coming. Ever since the survival horror-centric Doom 3 first hit the gaming scene back in 2004, FPS aficionados have been clamoring for a title in the highly revered FPS series that stuck to its fast-paced and old-school roots while boasting the latest gaming technology that powered the demonic carnage and made it look devilishly bloody and gratifying. That is exactly what id Software delivered recently when the new Doom finally hit store shelves to critical and commercial success.

Doom 2016 (to avoid confusion with the original title) is a true return to form for one of the founding fathers of the first-person shooter genre. It takes all the elements that made the first two games ridiculously enjoyable and indelible while tweaking them and giving them a fresh coat of id Tech 6 paint to provide an experience that offers a seamless synergy between past and present, making it stand out from most other shooters crowding the current gaming market and serving as a testament to id Software’s resilient development philosophy and adaptability.

Doom's design elements

But most importantly, Doom 2016 is not merely an unmitigated and  glorious celebration of pure, unadulterated and gory running ‘n gunning. It is an exemplary showcase of careful FPS design that transcends its simultaneously nostalgic and refreshing experience goal and structure. Throughout a lengthy development cycle and brainstorming process, id Software managed to bake into Doom 2016’s DNA a slew of clever and intricate design decisions that bring the entire game together and turn it into something that is much more than the sum of its individual parts.

These well-thought out design choices provide Doom with the very essence that imbues it with presentational and gameplay character, an incredible feat that was made possible by id Software’s commitment to sticking closely to the experience goal they envisioned and wanted to fully realize. Such a delicate attention to detail helped shape Doom’s core gameplay and turn already enjoyable scenarios into essential and carefully crafted pieces that form the larger picture.

In this analysis article, I’m going to be taking a look at three major components that constitute Doom’s immaculate design: combat, exploration and mobility. For each one of them, I’ll describe the various sub-elements that help enhance that particular field and positively contribute to the peerless gameplay flow of the overall experience.

1 – Combat

Doom 2016’s first essential component is also the meat-and-potatoes that has come to define the series’ timeless formula as a whole: the intense and frantic combat that is enhanced by the wide assortment of larger-than-life weapons and the sizable roster of terrifying demons that seek to turn Doomguy into chunky carrion. Interspersed in the wildly chaotic encounters with the hordes of Hell are myriad design touches that turn the already stellar gunplay into a tactically demanding bullet ballet that necessitates the player’s full attention and careful use of combat strategies for them to survive and overcome the overwhelming and relentless odds that are incessantly thrown at them as if there was no tomorrow.

Doom's design elements

1a) Weak/strong foes and different Glory Kill animations compel the player to assess the situation while firing at demons before finishing them off

Right off the bat, the player will notice that the demonic entities come in different shapes and sizes. Not only that, but each one of them possesses a unique set of moves and certain amount of damage resistance that determine their respective danger and priority levels in the heat of battle. As a result, the player must carefully plan out their strategies for each and every foe. Imps, for instance, are fairly frail and can be taken out easily at point blank range, while more imposing enemies like Barons of Hell and Mancubi require Doomguy to exercise more caution to avoid devastating projectiles and ground pounds with wide splash damage. These varying tactics can turn into a hectic ragbag when facing off various monsters, which requires the player to pay attention to their surroundings and determine the best course of action with regards to shooting demons before delivering the final blow.

Speaking of final blows, Doom 2016 took a page out of Brutal Doom with the addition of Glory Kills, context-sensitive animations that can be triggered close to a staggered enemy to accrue health and ammo pickups. While the executions themselves are delightfully gory in their own right, the wide array of different Glory Kills the player can pull off depending on the enemy, their targeted body part, and Doomguy’s position further entice the player to get up-close and personal with the hellish opposition and put them out of their misery in the most stylishly gruesome way possible. This satisfying method of rewarding the gamer for their efforts in combat compels the player to experiment even more when facing various enemies that come in different distributions with each fight the player finds themselves in.

1b) Situational/environmental changes in combat ingrain muscle memory in the player which is fostered by the length of the campaign

But it’s not just the attack patterns of enemies that the player will have to memorize while in combat. How the environment is laid out and where the power-ups and pickups are located in the virtual space are factors that the gamer will have to strongly consider while mapping out potential routes they’ll have to take in order to survive. This constant shift in level design and enemy/object placement forces Doomguy to think on-the-fly without so much as stopping for a second while demonic hordes are hot on his tail. This emphasis on perpetual thinking results in the player memorizing actions to the point where it becomes second nature to them, such as switching to specific weapons for particular situations and collecting health/armor/ammo pickups at a certain time to maximize their replenishing effectiveness and avoid wasting precious supplies.

Doom's design elements

This old-school approach to tactical adaptability works not just because of the well-thought out scenarios the player will find themselves in, but also because id Software ensured that the gamer would have plenty of time to get into the groove. Thanks to the single-player campaign’s sizable length, the player is able to foster and tweak their muscle memory to their heart’s content and liberally as they progress through the game, allowing them to make more room for experimentation while traversing levels that become increasingly complex and fighting enemies whose numbers and strength increase at a steady rate. Being able to leverage the tools at the player’s disposal AND giving them enough breathing room to switch between different strategies is one of Doom 2016’s many design accomplishments.

1c) Combat performance, weapon/armor upgrades and power-ups turn encounters into a chase that fuels the combat loop

With all of these sub-elements combined, the most important takeaway from Doom 2016’s combat begins to materialize before the gamer, and it’s one that forms the basis of every encounter in the game: conflict is all about chasing one’s target. There are many gameplay aspects that point to this conclusion. The weapon and armor upgrades the player acquires throughout the game enables them to take on the opposition more directly and aggressively, rewards for combat performance are proportional to the percentage of enemies killed in a level, and power-ups such as Berserker and Quad Damage stimulate the player’s lust for copious bloodshed. It all adds up to a message that is lucidly conveyed at the start of the game: “They [demons] are rage, brutal, without mercy. But you. You will be worse. Rip and tear, until it is done.”

This “hunter” style of gameplay is delightfully nostalgic and gratifying in its own right, but it also serves an indispensable purpose in the grand scheme of things. Not only is it responsible for providing Doom 2016’s cathartic moments, but it also perpetually drives the incredibly dynamic combat loop that accompanies each and every encounter Doomguy finds himself in. This loop acts as a mental guide for the player when it comes to planning out tactics, and feeds confidence, mettle and glee into their mind whenever the gamer enters a combat environment and anticipates the chaos that shall ensue. It’s a tangible feeling that psychologically rewards the player for all their past efforts, and begets a sense of spiritedness that maximizes gameplay immersion, resulting in an experience akin to shooter nirvana.

Doom's design elements

2 – Exploration

Another facet of Doom 2016’s design that is just as crucial as the combat is the strong emphasis on uncovering every nook and cranny in the various levels the player is going to traverse. Ever since the days of health packs and armor pickups, exploration has served as one of Doom’s vital gameplay cornerstones as well as the yang to Doom’s yin (combat), providing the player with a brief moment for recuperation before jumping into the fray once more. But more than that, exploration acts as a potent stimulant for the player’s penchant for discovery, a fact that id Software took into account and fully leveraged by tweaking the various components that go into making the act of unearthing secrets a breezy and pleasant endeavor.

2a) Splitting different upgrades ensures varied and interesting exploration 

As the first game in the series to feature upgrades for Doomguy, Doom 2016 adds another layer of depth to the Doom gameplay formula, including the age-old practice of uncovering every nook and cranny in each level. id Software accomplished that feat by splitting the sundry upgrades the player could get their hands on into different collectibles such as Praetor tokens (armor) and field drones (weapons), as well as Rune Trials that Doomguy can partake in to hone his combat skills and earn runes for enhanced gameplay. Not only does this result in more dynamic and entertaining exploration, but it also fully satiates the player’s thirst for secrets by providing them with a plethora of varied items that stimulate their determination to investigate each and every corner on the map.

What makes this design decision even more interesting and carefully thought-out is that id Software could have easily settled for experience points when it came to character customization and upgrades, and called it a day. Instead, id decided to adopt the collectibles approach because they knew that the inclusion of new objects for the player to uncover in their travels would coalesce nicely with the health and ammo pickups that served as the primary secrets in past Doom titles. The amalgamation of hidden items in Doom 2016 engenders a potent exploratory symbiosis that serves as the fuel that powers the flow of discovery throughout the whole game. This, along with the engaging combat and multilayered environments, ensures that the player will always keep themselves busy in the most immersive fashion possible.

2b) Multiple routes and sprawling vertical levels work together to enhance the satisfying Metroidvania-style exploration and amplify the worth of collectibles

Doom's design elements

Speaking of multilayered environments, another aspect of Doom 2016 that id Software paid close attention to while designing the exploration bits was to ensure that the game bore the same sprawling and interconnected level design as its predecessors. While that fact is fairly obvious to the player while traversing the virtual space, Doom 2016 takes that old-school facet up a notch by incorporating a pronounced amount of verticality into the mix. This, combined with the many routes the player can take (or must take to unlock remote areas) in each level, gives the game a Metroidvania-esque structure that begets the positive side effect of turning exploration into its own little escapade, which in turn taps into the player’s adventurous self and triggers within them the impulsive desire to unearth every golden nugget strewn about the levels.

By combining the intricate environmental layout of classic Doom games with a prominent multileveled approach to level design, Doom 2016 manages to not only build upon the formula set by its forebearers where maps are concerned, but it also increases the value of the secrets meticulously scattered in each level, further baking into the player’s mind the idea that each collectible is worth obtaining. It is a subtle but nonetheless pleasing mental trick that id Software cleverly leveraged by increasing the amount of effort the player would have to put into their trek through uncharted territory so that it matches the reward (i.e. the varied upgrades and miscellaneous secrets). By achieving that fine balance, id never coddles or swindles the player with regards to finding secrets, which guarantees the long-term sustainability of exploratory appeal and gratification.

2c) Figurines, secret levels and interactive objects fuel the nostalgic drive within the player, which feeds back into the exploration loop

As a game that conspicuously honors its roots through its design and style, Doom 2016 makes no secret of its tendency to pay homage to its forebearers in more ways than one. Case in point: classic-themed secrets. Strewn about each level are delightful nods and winks to past Doom games the player can come across in their travels. Doomguy figurines that play E1M1 every time they’re picked up, smartly hidden entrances to 90s Doom levels with enemy and object placement identical to their classic counterparts, and interactive objects that evoke memories of previous Doom games (e.g. Super Turbo Turkey Puncher from Doom 3) combine to create a certain amount of nostalgic drive within the player depending on their past experience with the Doom series, a drive that reinforces the title’s overall character and charm.

But these palpably nostalgic secrets serve a much greater purpose than simply putting a smile on the player’s face: they also further solidify the appeal and importance of exploration in Doom 2016 and feed right back into the aforementioned flow of discovery while the player is not battling the hordes of Hell. The latter is particularly important since, like combat, exploration needs to be kept consistently entertaining throughout the length of the experience for the player to continuously derive steady amounts of pleasure from their various endeavors. By injecting more flair into the secrets, id Software ensured that their quantity AND quality were on par with the rest of the title, avoiding the issue of in-game content feeling like patchwork, and thus preserving the feeling of exploratory satisfaction the player gets when finding new secrets.

3 – Mobility

Doom's design elements

Doom 2016’s final design component is also the one that received the biggest upgrade, turning an already essential survival tool into an incontrovertibly exhilarating gameplay mechanic: mobility. While the first two games demonstrated a fondness for brisk movement in their fast-paced scenarios and sprawling levels, Doom 2016 ups the ante to nigh-on unparalleled heights by endowing Doomguy with context-sensitive environmental prompts and extra vertical agility for enhanced traversal. With these much-welcome inclusions also comes a series of touches that id Software implemented into the game to further amplify the effectiveness of the player’s motional tools and encourage them to make full use of them.

3a) Wide open levels and speedy movement compel the player to cover a lot of ground

Like the original Doom titles, Doom 2016 aims to simultaneously impress and daunt the player by dropping them into expansive maps whose size invites curiosity and uncertainty. More than just a measure to keep Doom 2016’s design in line with that of the originals, the open-ended nature of the environment serves two vital purposes: it enables Doomguy to keep his options open and execute them without constraints in combat by taking full advantage of his spacious surroundings, and it heightens the sense of adventure that the player gets while they are out exploring the various interiors and exteriors for hidden secrets and pickups that permeate each and every map. Such wide open levels invite the player to think about all the possible combat outcomes and exploration routes, giving each map a unique identity that pertains to both presentation and gameplay.

Although the sheer breadth and depth of the levels are incredibly impressive in their own right, what really compels the player to explore them without any fear of overly laborious backtracking or wasted time is the blazing speed at which Doomguy moves around. More than just a design choice that aims to emulate the feel and flow of classic Doom games, Doom 2016’s default movement speed has also been carefully chosen and tightly tweaked in order to compensate for the amount of space the player would have to traverse to see everything that the game had to offer. Not only does this make maneuvering a pleasantly breezy endeavor that compliments both combat and exploration, but it also greatly benefits the similarly swift pacing of the game in the long term, providing the player with a constant stream of adrenaline that keeps them motivated throughout the game.

Doom's design elements

3b) Relative lack of fall damage and thrust boots remove fear of liberal mobility and provide a smooth counterpoint to Doomguy’s meatiness 

With large, open-ended environments and a strong emphasis on verticality governing the spatial structure of Doom 2016, id Software made its intentions very clear through the design of the levels and how they communicate the degree of motional freedom the player possesses, a fact that is further cemented by one of Doomguy’s most convenient suit functions: Impact Compensation, which substantially nullifies the chances of sustaining fall damage when dropping from great heights. By relaxing and/or eliminating penalties for moving with little to no restraints around the virtual space, id lets the player do the thinking where traversal is concerned and highly encourages them to carve out their own path across each level. This grants Doomguy a tangible degree of control that wonderfully complements the free-form design of the gameplay.

The general lack of navigational sanctions in Doom 2016 is made even more lucid by one of the tools Doomguy gets his chunky hands on early in the game: thrust boots. Essentially acting as the player’s double-jump function, these handy and practical garments accentuate the swiftness and snappiness of the title’s movement model on both a vertical and horizontal level, but their utility isn’t limited to enabling the player to bridge the literal gap while exploring later campaign levels. The thrust boots, in all their agile glory, provide an interestingly harmonious counterpoint to Doomguy’s meaty build, and accentuate his ferocious and sturdy demeanor by increasing the range and effectiveness of his marksmanship and CQC chops. As a result, the player’s footwear serves multiple purposes that enhances both the combat and exploration bits of Doom 2016.

3c) Mantle maneuver and in-flight mobility bake flexibility into Doomguy’s movement model

Of course, with a reinvented approach to level layouts also comes a few design considerations aimed at making mobility compatible with Doom 2016’s multilayered levels and minimizing the player’s potential irritation whenever they err in their spatial calculations. id Software’s solution to that challenge is twofold. The first half consists of the player’s ability to mantle over ledges when they move towards them. This simple but highly useful maneuver provides just the right amount of leeway to the player when they’re executing their traversal plans without feeling too generous or restrictive, allowing the game’s level of navigational complexity to remain uniform, i.e. matching the mantle mechanic’s zippiness and snappiness with other brisk maneuvers such as running and jumping around the environment.

Doom's design elements

The second half corresponds to a Rune Trial that is tied to the thrust boots and grants the player a considerable amount of nimbleness when equipped: in-flight mobility. This bonus enhancement essentially gives the player an additional amount of control over their jumps that’s comparable to what they have when moving on the ground, making their mid-air lethality and maneuverability akin to their onfoot counterparts which in turn enhances the flow of gameplay. When combined, both the mantle mechanic and in-flight mobility upgrade serve to make Doomguy’s motional capabilities flexible enough for the player to better interact with their surroundings while still having their navigational skills constantly put to the test, especially in combat where quick thinking and planning can spell the difference between life and death.

Doom 2016 is the gaming equivalent of Neapolitan ice cream: its three individual parts may be scrumptious on their own, but become downright irresistible when blended into a single scoop. From the minutia of combat that forge the player’s strategic and situational adaptability to the multilayered level design that invites mobility and exploration, Doom 2016 does a great job of compelling the player to take advantage of the title’s systems to create their own play style. Not only does Doom 2016 succeed in revitalizing the series that popularized the FPS, but it also manages to make a convincing case for attention to detail in design by demonstrating its finer qualities through the moment-to-moment action and exploration to create a consummate experience. The devil is, indeed, in the details.

Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.


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