The Doom designer on why good game design will be more important to his success than next-gen technology
It's been 14 years since the man credited with defining the first-person shooter released one of the genre’s biggest disappointments of all time. Now John Romero, designer of both the pioneering Doom and the poorly-received Daikatana, is stepping back into the shooter arena once more.
The veteran developer revealed during Gamescom last month that he is currently working on a brand new FPS. He has yet to reveal any more details, other than that he is collaborating with a concept artist and has some designs in the works for the main character of the unannounced project.
Even with these tidbits of information, expectations are already rising. After all, this is the man who brought us Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake – some of the most influential titles in the history of our medium. And with the lessons learned from Daikatana, plus the advances in technology in the decade-and-a-half that has followed, Romero returns to the genre with the skills that defined it, focused and without the marketing hype.
THE FUTURE OF THE FPS
Cynics would argue that there is little ground left to break in the shooter genre. Call of Duty and Battlefield are in danger of stagnating, and new shooter IPs have yet to match the success of these two franchises. Bungie hopes to breathe new life into the genre with this month’s Destiny, but are developers are running out of ways to reinvent the shooter?
Romero doesn’t think so.
“There are unbelievable amounts of new stuff to do in that genre,” he told Develop. “The idea of a shooter is running around with weapons, in first-person, blowing things away. But what are you really doing? What is the world like? Who are you, and what do you care about? What are you doing in the world that’s different?
“Take something like World of Warcraft – what if that was a shooter? You have a giant world full of quests, and tons of people with PvP already in the game. If World of Warcraft was a shooter, that would be brand new – nobody would have seen something that big and that cool.
“And it wouldn’t be anything like WoW because of the nature of being a shooter – it would probably concentrate on a lot of areas that were similar to Team Fortress 2. Perhaps villages would become like TF2 levels, where you would try to score as much as you could before deciding to move on. Or that area would have specific goals, like taking out five snipers and two demo guys to retrieve some key items. Perhaps once you’ve exhausted that village, you could go to another one down the road. And maybe the planet’s full of them – nobody’s played a game like that.
“Shooters have so many places to go, but people just copy the same thing over and over because they’re afraid to try something new. We’ve barely scratched the surface.”
While it’s impossible not to get caught up in the potential of Romero’s brainstorming, there is still an elephant in the room: his reputation and past success. Despite the vast number of titles he has worked on, both his hits and misses, Romero is continually tagged as ‘the Doom designer’.
But Romero tells us he has no problem with this, or the pressure seemingly associated with it: “I’ve made hundreds of games, but it’s the shooters that people really like so those are the ones they’ll talk about mostly – and that’s fine. I’ve no problem with that.
“After making Quake, when I was making Daikatana, there was pressure to make something great, but after that it was over, there was no pressure. And there’s no pressure for me to make something better than Doom or Quake.”
THE POWER OF CREATION
There’s another first-person title that Romero draws inspiration from, but it’s not one of his previous shooters. And as big as this game has become, the designer believes we’re only seeing the initial impact that it will have on games development.
“Look at Minecraft – it’s unbelievable that it was made by one person, right?” he says. “And it shows there’s plenty of room for something that will innovate and change the whole industry.
“If some brilliant designers take the lessons of Minecraft, take the idea of creation and playing with an environment, and try to work out what the next version of that is, and then if other people start refining that, it’ll take Minecraft to an area where it will become a real genre, the creation game genre.
“I think we’re seeing the start of that genre – Minecraft is the Wolfenstein of creation games – but we need people to push that idea forwards, not just make clones for a quick buck. We need people to take those design elements that make Minecraft great and add to them, push them to the next level.”
We’ve barely scratched the surface with shooters, but people are afraid to try something new.
Romero adds that it’s not just Minecraft’s premise that is game-changing but also the success and influence it has had. In just a few years, the title has generated revenues and gathered enough registered users to rival the latest edition of Call of Duty – despite the fact that the latter had a colossal marketing budget to back it up.
“It shows that a title doesn’t need to be from a giant publisher like Activision to be called a ‘real game’,” says Romero. “It has to be something that has a huge community around it.
“There’s no Call of Duty-Con, but there is a MineCon, a QuakeCon and a BlizzCon. If a game makes a bunch of money really quickly, that’s a testament to the marketing power of the company and not really the quality of the game.
“Call of Duty is enough of a deathmatch game to keep people coming back to it year after year, but the design isn’t breaking people’s brains – it’s expected, in the same way Madden is. You see it, you know what it is, and you know the next iteration is going to be like the previous one but in a different location, maybe a different time period. It’ll have guns and a lot of the same features.”
This leads Romero onto the main message he wants to share with us: the key to success and advancing the industry is not 1080p graphics, jetpacks and other incremental new features, but the design at a game’s core.
Developers today are arguably luckier than those like Romero that started in the 1980s. Tools are easier to use and more accessible – particularly in the engine space with products like Unity and Unreal Engine – enabling any bedroom coder and one-man studio to create games of a comparable quality to those produced by teams of hundreds.
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are the most advanced home consoles to ever grace the living room, PCs are becoming increasingly powerful, and even smartphones and tablets can rival traditional gaming platforms in how well they present the latest titles.
But there is a crucial truth that some developers have yet to grasp.
DISTRACTED BY TECHNOLOGY
“It comes down to design, not technology,” says Romero. “New consoles let people create more polygons on the screens. They let you do more with AI because they’re faster. But they don’t make good design.
“Minecraft doesn’t care about how many shaders or triangles or stuff, because it doesn’t matter. Tetris did not care about how many polygons were on the screen. It’s nice to have the good technology, but people that develop know the tech race is over.
“Now we have really fast computers, really fast phones. Nobody wants to rush out and buy the next console so that they have something no one’s ever seen before, because everybody’s seen it plenty of times – it’s just faster now.
“Every developer has the ability now, with the platforms that are out there, to make something that looks really good. They can design things that were not possible in the ‘80s because you’ve now got high-speed internet, hard drive space, lots of memory and so on.”
Romero adds that the premise of good games design is not something you can simply read up on, or inherit by building on the foundations of other titles. Instead, it’s something developers earn after a lot of time and hard work.
“It requires a lot of playing, understanding and making games,” he explains. “Usually you make a lot of games before you actually make something amazing. Minecraft was probably ‘Game Number 30-something’ for Markus [‘Notch’ Persson], and everybody’s like that.
“If people challenge themselves to do something really great, to make the greatest X-style game ever, then maybe they’ll achieve that. You can’t just make a game and suddenly it’ll be the greatest thing ever – that never happens. If you try really hard to create something great, you have a better chance of making something industry-changing rather than accidentally doing it.”
So given his extensive experience of games development – and the lessons learned not only from his ‘90s masterpieces but the dozens of games he has made since – how does the man who made Doom define good games design?
“Something that gives people a fun experience,” he says. “Players should be doing an action, a core loop, that is really interesting and fun to them. They should be interfacing with the environment in a way that makes sense to them and is fun. Interactions with the game should generate good feedback and, hopefully, tiered rewards that give people more of a goal to reach higher-level stuff.”
Design will obviously depend on the nature of the game, he adds. Titles like World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto, with their large open worlds, will have incredible amounts of goals and things to do, but gamers should also have the freedom to just have fun and play without completing tasks preset by the designer.
“Games provide an environment for people to do things that please them, and so the essence of game design is to find out what are you trying to make, and is that a fun thing to do?” Romero continues.
“And hopefully you’ll be doing something new that people haven’t done before. That’s what’s driving the industry forward: doing something that gamers haven’t seen that might lead to something bigger.
“When we made Hover Tank and Catacomb 3D, that was leading up to Wolfenstein, which led up to Doom. You have to refine things. So for people to make sequels to something that they thought was a brand new way of playing games, that’s cool because they’re trying to refine the fun, the feedback and what you can do with that.
“The question is what is fun, and how do you make something fun out of nothing? That’s what games design is all about.”
And as spectacular as today’s high-end best-selling blockbusters can be, Romero is most impressed by the innovative design ideas coming out of the growing number of indie studios.
What some of these developers lack in experience, they make up for in fresh ideas and ambition, and these are the companies that are going to achieve what he and his fellow id Software developers did with titles like the original Doom.
“Indies are the ones that are taking chances,” he says. “They’re the ones who are making new games and play styles that will eventually turn into triple-A.
“Games like Minecraft are the things that keep the industry alive, that keep people positive and excited about games. It just shows that there are unbelievable amounts of untapped creativity out there that we’re still working towards.”