Have you ever played the sequel of a game and then thought “well, this looks like a glorified DLC”? It’s easy to focus so much on what is similar about two games that we completely lose the focus of what is actually different between them and, sometimes, these differences are their heart and soul.
To understand what really sets them apart, we have to look at their underlying mechanics and design. The first two games from the Doom franchise are a great example of how two different design philosophies can create two very different products even if their gameplay is quite similar.
Doom was one of the most mind-blowing games of the 90s and it’s basically the father of the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre as we understand it. You can call Wolfenstein 3D, its predecessor, the grandfather of the FPS if you want, though, but Doom is certainly more influential as it has spawned countless “Doom clones”.
What was Doom all about?
Ok, so let’s pretend you lived in a cave for the last 30 years or that you are 10 years old. Doom could be summarised as an FPS in which you blow demons up. It had quite a stunning 3D visual back then and could choose from a range of different weapons to blow up your enemies. While the carnage is its coolest selling point, Doom is all about movement and evasion.
The hitboxes are pretty generous and there is no distinction between aiming high or low so you will hit your targets even if you don’t aim well. The main difficulty comes from the movement, as you have to avoid taking too much damage. The secret for playing well is less about aiming well and more about dodging enemy attacks in a way that you can survive for enough time to kill them.
Because of this core gameplay mechanic, Doom 1 and 2 are, in fact, quite similar in how you can play them. Doom 2’s only obvious mechanical additions are a new Shotgun and about a dozen new enemies. Someone could easily look at these two products and see a small upgrade or an expansion but the truth is that their level design is completely distinct.
The Level Design Of Doom
The original Doom was all about atmosphere and realism. While it may sound silly to call something like Doom realistic today, all the areas in the game actually looked like real places, especially in the first chapter, which was set on space bases on Mars.
In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the three chapters of Doom 1 was how the world slowly turned into something horrific and unreal. The story was very thin. You were a marine on Mars and you were trying to escape during a demonic invasion that wiped out all the other humans on the planet.
Because of this, the elements of the design helped a lot to tell the story. The first chapter was set in bases that featured labs, stations and military installations. The second one was in a world that was starting to get corrupted by Hell, so it mixed these locations with hellish elements. The idea that Hell was slowly taking over was very gripping and it helped to create momentum and to tell the story. In the end, you enter the actual Hell and then all hell breaks loose. Areas are more open and you can see hellfire everywhere.
There is a strong sense of progression and story in creating levels like this. There was even a map that showed your progress between the levels, a featured abandoned in the sequel.
Doom 2, on the other hand, was very similar in gameplay and yet a lot more abstract in design. The game was full of mazes. While some levels actually looked a lot like real places, most of them simply look like random hellish caves and complexes. Everything was even more furious and fast, too, which gave more an even more frenetic rhythm to the action.
Why did this happen? We can look for a few causes that could help us to understand these differences. Everything was new in the first Doom, so it was easier to build a sense of momentum.
In a sequel, however, you simply could not de-escalate the action. Hell had already appeared, therefore, there is no point in actually making the world change into the chaos slowly. Repeating the strategy would be an ineffective idea. How to please the fans? By making the sequel even more brutal. Doom’s marketing was all about violence, after all.
The team followed the obvious path: to “upgrade” the game into something even more furious, but this also meant losing something along the way. Doom 2 lost some of its sense of marvel and progression while it added a rush fury of sprawling enemies and crazy mazes.
The second installment did use some interesting new elements like Earth’s cities, which are very different from any place that you could find in the first one, but they were only in a few levels. Soon you are in Hell again. In this context of chaos and pure fun, the addition of more enemies and a more powerful normal shotgun is obvious and it made sense.
The People Behind Doom
As you might have known if you played Doom back in the day, both games were created by id Software, which had already made First Person Shooters before. Doom’s predecessor was Wolfenstein 3D, which was inspired by Catacombs 3-D, another product of the company.
John Romero and John Carmack are certainly the two most recognizable names in the series, but there was one man that is possibly the reason why the two games are so different: Tom Hall.
Hall worked on Doom 1 and was fired because he was often arguing with Carmack. He was mainly focused on giving the project a more focused sense of story. Carmack disagreed and wanted non-stop action sequences.
While the developer left before the product was finished, you can certainly see his mark. Most of the story he wanted to create was scrapped and he declared his unhappiness after he left id Software by calling Doom a “raw shooter”, but not all of his work with level design and the foundation of the series was lost.
With the success of the brutality in the first Doom and with Tom Hall out of the way, however, the levels changed a lot in atmosphere and design. Romero designed many levels in both games and you can also see his distinct mark, but the second installment was mostly created by Sandy Petersen and American McGee along with Romero and the emphasis was a lot more on mazes and fast addictive brutality than story or ambiance.
These choices and the changes in the team created two very different experiences and show us a valuable lesson: every single part of a game is relevant. If you only take the most visible parts of it, everything will look the same, but sometimes the most important parts are the ones that are not so visible at first and they change the whole core experience.