John Romero: Blackroom enables me to do anything at anytime

John Romero: Blackroom enables me to do anything at anytime
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

April 25th 2016 at 4:00PM

The Doom co-creator tells us how FPS fans will help design his new game, and why he's ignoring all other shooters

John Romero is back.

The man who co-created Doom and helped to define the FPS genre is working on a brand new shooter Blackroom, with the help of his Night Work Games team and fellow Id Software co-founder Adrian Carmack.

The title, which was announce today, aims to recreate the classic, fast-paced action Romero's past games have been known for, all set in Holodeck-style settings that – in his own words – allow the designer to "do anything at anytime".

With this vast, blank canvas ahead of him, we caught up with Romero to find out why Blackroom will redefine the first-person shooter.

Blackroom has a seemingly wide variety of settings. How do you plan to hold a game with variety together? What's the fiction you've used to justify the diverse environments?
So, first, everything that is happening is happening inside Blackroom. This is a company, Hoxar, that happens to deal in mixed realities. They have military sims and entertainment sims and many more. This gives us a huge range of options to play with.

However, what they also have is a pretty serious problem, and that problem is the unifying conflict that ties all this together. In order to address what’s happening in Blackroom, they have to explore where its happening at the source across these various HoloSims. Ultimately, all these things come together in the seriously abstract level design that is my for thing. Obviously, we have designed the game to play to our strengths.

In the game, the holodeck became a reality. Hoxar, keen to hold its edge, investigated and explored where they could go next — and that question led them to their latest innovation, Predictive Memory Technology. PMT was designed to make HoloSims as real as they could be by scanning the participants' memories and using those memories to craft personalized and more realistic experiences within individual HoloSims. A soldier who regularly feared a certain type of combat incident would be faced with issues to test it.

On the kinder side, PMT could recreate personalities from people’s memories of their loved ones so that they could have a conversation with them in Blackroom, a conversation that felt real. It was revolutionary. Unfortunately, it was also not without its flaws. PMT had not only the ability to 'read', it seems, but also the ability to permanently 'write'. Thus one person's nightmares became others, and all of these nightmares magnified over time, both inside and outside the simulation. 

You’ve told us before that you plan to redefine the shooter with this title. What’s new about Blackroom?
The fiction in Blackroom enables anything to happen. Because you are inside a life-like holographic simulation, I can do anything at anytime. The fiction supports it. And taking advantage of this power will allow me to do things that no other FPS has done.

Some games, like Fear, are about the supernatural and have license to make anything appear at any time to scare the hell out of you. Blackroom's fiction has even more ability to surprise and astound the player as your entire location can change in an instant. There could be a point where the simulation is glitching and what you hear is not what you see. You could be trying to open a safe, let’s say, and as soon as you hear the safe click you are now inside a dark, damp room with a crushing ceiling coming down on you.

So, crazy things can happen. Luckily, you have the Boxel device on your wrist. This handy instrument will let you stop time, make the crushing ceiling disappear, dissolve it, and other abilities – the Boxel controls the Blackroom simulation. There will be very handy functions that you can hotkey for instant access. Firing weapons will be very important, of course, but using your Boxel could completely change the outcome of your situation.

With the game design that I just described, the mod community is going to have more power and variety than they’ve ever had in a game. The ability to create incredible levels that take players on a rollercoaster ride of an adventure, with almost every aspect moddable, is going to be great.

I know the kind of gameplay that I like, and my FPS audience likes, and that’s how I’m going to design Blackroom. Other shooters aren’t part of the equation.

You're working with Adrian Carmack. How did this reunion come about? Who approached who?
Well, Adrian and I have been friends since he started working at Softdisk in 1990. After meeting up at QuakeCon 2014, Adrian and I decided to talk again a couple months later in Ireland. During that meeting, we talked more and more of working on another shooter together, and decided to do it. The time was right.

 Over the next year we talked some more about it and made it official about half a year ago.

What are the key aspects of classic first-person shooters you’re trying to recreate with Blackroom? How do you plan to accomplish this? 
The key aspects are, of course, fast and skillful movement combined with well-balanced weapons that have a variety of attributes. Combine that with an array of enemy encounter scenarios from one-on-one to twenty incoming attacks and you have a fun, hectic style of gameplay. Place all of this inside abstract level design that focuses on intriguing architecture with good flow, thoughtful item placement, and plenty of secrets. 

Shooters have changed a lot over the years. How do you plan to bring classic play to modern shooters?

I know it’s an obvious answer, but it’s by focusing on classic play. That is the core of the game and the single most important thing to us. The graphics will be modern, of course, and they have to look great, but there’s a point where it’s too much and starts to hurt the core of the game. I can focus more on audio as well now that I can stream as much as I like. Other than that, the gameplay of my past FPS games will work great today.

What have you seen in other shooters that you want to avoid? What do you want to improve on?
Actually, I’m not focusing on any other shooters and what to avoid. I know the kind of gameplay that I like, and my FPS audience likes, and that’s how I’m going to design Blackroom. Other shooters aren’t part of the equation.

How will you be working with the community? What role will they have in the game’s development (beyond the Kickstarter)?
There are several tiers that allow backers to contribute ideas for designs of weapons, monsters, props and more. There are also a lot of fun backer achievements that unlock new rewards, such as taking selfie pics with various games or in special locations. We’re really engaging with the fans during the campaign to make it a fun experience.

Ultimately, I think this whole thing really exists because of the community and their incredible devotion to FPSs over the years. If you check out the comments on The Return YouTube video or the comments on Twitter, you can see how excited the community is. FPS has always been about the community.

What tech will you be building this on? An established engine, or proprietary tech?
Unreal 4. I’m going to be focusing on blistering speed at a high framerate and a C-based engine is the right choice.

Why is it important to make the game fully moddable?
My FPS games have always been about allowing the community to have fun with the game in a wide variety of ways – extending it, adding to it, creating entire replacements for it. I look at the game, in a sense, as an engine of creativity. And nowadays with the complexity of modern engines, the difficulty of modding them is something I’m going to focus on making far easier without taking away the full power of moddability.

Because you are inside a life-like holographic simulation, I can do anything at anytime. The fiction supports it. And taking advantage of this power will allow me to do things that no other FPS has done.

Any hints in Tech Gone Bad about what we can expect to see (dev/design techniques) in Blackroom?
If you like that style of gameplay, then you know what to expect in Blackroom. I’ve always liked interesting architecture, the feeling of exploring a mysterious, dangerous place, being surprised, and the feeling of dominating a battle. Having all of this take place at once is the kind of experience that I really like in an FPS.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from your respective careers and how are you applying this to Blackroom?
The kind of team you need to build a great game is the most important component of making a game. From there, it’s focus and discipline, and keeping the game fun. Coming into work and thinking, “How can I make something even cooler in the game today?” and how to keep pushing onward and upward. And, of course, having fun every day making a game. We have a great core team for Blackroom. Adrian and I have worked together, successfully, for years. The people joining us are likewise veterans.