Five Years And Nothing To Show: How Doom 4 Got Off TrackS

Doom 4 is in trouble, and has been for quite some time now, according to multiple sources. Though publisher Bethesda tells Kotaku they still plan to release the highly-anticipated first-person shooter, Doom 4 has gone through at least one major reboot over the past few years, and sources say even today, five years after development started, the game is not even close to complete.

Rumors of Doom 4’s troubled development have been floating around for a while now, but over the past few months, we’ve learned a great deal more than what has circulated so far. I’ve talked to four people with connections to the Id Software-developed game, and they’ve described a studio plagued by mismanagement and lack of communication that has frustrated staff both at Id and Id’s parent company, ZeniMax (whose main branch Bethesda is the publisher of Doom 4 and a number of other games, including The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim).

We’ve also learned that in late 2011, after working on Doom 4 for three years, the studio behind the legendary series decided to reboot their newest game completely. Bethesda confirmed this to Kotaku yesterday.

“An earlier version of Doom 4 did not exhibit the quality and excitement that Id and Bethesda intend to deliver and that Doom fans worldwide expect,” Bethesda's vice president of marketing and public relations Pete Hines said in a statement to Kotaku. “As a result, Id refocused its efforts on a new version of Doom 4 that promises to meet the very high expectations everyone has for this game and this franchise. When we’re ready to talk about the Doom 4 Id is making, we will let folks know.”

We’ve heard a great deal more about what’s happened at Id over the past few years, and bits and pieces about what’s happening now. Today we can share it all.

Call of Doom

At QuakeCon of 2007, Id co-founder and legendary programmer John Carmack said Doom 4 was on the way. In 2008 they made it official, and over the coming years, Id dedicated one team to Doom 4 and another to their other shooter, Rage, which would be released in 2011. Both games were built on Carmack’s fancy new Id Tech 5 engine.

According to one source, Id originally imagined Doom 4 as a “rework” of Doom 2. This would establish a pattern started by 2004's Doom 3, which Id saw as a re-imagination of the original Doom. In Doom 4, you’d play as an average human being who was gradually cajoled into joining the Resistance—a ragtag group of civilians and military—to help fight legions of demons that were invading Earth. It was... cinematic.

“People referenced Call of Duty,” said the source. “There were jokes like, ‘Oh, it’s Call of Doom.’ They referenced it because of the amount it was scripted—there were a lot of scripted set pieces. There was kind of the recognition that in order to be a big shooter these days, you have to have some amount of the big, bombastic movie experience that people get pulled through.“

Another source criticized this approach, telling me that it all felt rather mediocre: “The coolest part... were the horror and shock elements, unfortunately bookended by somewhat pointless and contrived shooting galleries of hoards of uninteresting enemies.”

One sequence was described to me as “the obligatory vehicle scene” in which players would take the gunner’s seat of a car and shoot demons as the computer drove. If you think that sounds rather generic, you’re not alone. But a source assured me that there were some imaginative ideas in there too.

“The big thing [Id] tried to do was not seem like, ‘Here’s a bunch of demons,’” the source said. “There was lots of concept art and prototype missions set up showing different parts of the earth being taken over, being warped and twisted into a hellish reimagining... It’s not just the demons: everything around you is changing. Humans are starting to struggle to go through an environment that is partially familiar, partially unknown now.”

These ideas might seem more than partially familiar if you’ve seen the screenshots that leaked in late February of 2012. Don’t get too excited, though. Those were all out of date long before they hit the Internet.

Five Years And Nothing To Show: How Doom 4 Got Off TrackS

The Reboot

In late 2011, word came down that Doom 4 was getting a reboot. Id had just finished Rage, and according to three sources, leadership at the studio hadn't paid much attention to Doom 4 over the years. When Id's management finally did look at the game, they decided that it didn't live up to their expectations. It wasn’t good enough. And they needed to change direction.

“I kinda think maybe the studio heads were so distracted on shipping Rage that they were blind to the happenings of Doom, and the black hole of mediocrity [the team] was swirling around,” said a source.

“[Studio leadership was] coming over and looking at Doom 4,” said another source, “and it was like, ‘Now that I’m actually looking at this after ignoring it for three years, I see a ton of things I want to change.’”

All of my sources described Id as a company full of talent but lacking direction. Politics and mismanagement at the top of the studio had trickled down and negatively impacted all of their projects, so many people at Id were psyched about the reboot, even if it meant changing or discarding the work they’d done, one source told me.

“It was a very long overdue reboot that was accompanied by internal team management changes,” the source said. “Morale got a lot better during this short time as people were encouraged to participate and there were cool ideas floating around.”

At one point, a source told me, the Doom 4 team had a big meeting in which company leaders talked about what Doom meant to them. John Carmack got up in front of everyone and said something like, "Doom means two things: demons and shotguns."

Meanwhile, the Rage team had already started planning out Rage 2, a source said. But when the first game was released to tepid critical and commercial response, executives at ZeniMax decided to start getting more involved with Id’s development process. Over the next couple of months, ZeniMax met with Id’s leadership, cancelled Rage 2, and downsized plans for Rage’s DLC, the source said.

The new plan, as of January 2012: refocus the studio, postpone or cancel all other projects, and get everyone on the fourth Doom game.

Rage came out, and it wasn't the splash success that everyone hoped it would be,” one source said. “Eventually what kind of came down was, ZeniMax said, ‘Okay, look, we gave you guys a bunch of chances and you guys are having a lot of trouble managing multiple projects, so you guys are gonna have one project: Just do Doom 4.’”

“There was not only effectively another creative reboot, but a tech reboot,” said another source. Although this wasn't officially a reboot of the game, there was a new team and new code, so for some staff it felt like one.

“[Id] started from the Rage code base, and took some big leaps back in certain areas of tech. [Id] spent a lot of time merging Doom features to Rage.”

One source described a meeting in which ZeniMax executives told Id leads that “Doom 4 can and should be as big as Skyrim,” as far as both sales and cultural impact. (Skyrim, Bethesda’s massive role-playing game, shipped 7 million copies during its first week on shelves in November of 2011. And everyone had heard about it—not just hardcore gamers.)

Five Years And Nothing To Show: How Doom 4 Got Off TrackS

For at least a few Id staffers, the morale boost earned by the initial Doom 4 reboot didn’t last very long. One source described the scene as a “power struggle,” as managers from both Rage and Doom 4 tried to figure out how to merge their teams.

“You’ve got these different cultures and they’re all kind of jammed together,” said one source.

A different source described the direction of the game as a mess, even after the reboot.

“Larger creature ambitions turned into mediocre garden variety behaviors,” the source said. “[The story] again became lame and unfit for a late night sci-fi channel, and the team didn't feel a whole lot of ownership and contribution to the project. Cue the exodus of talent leaving ever since.”

“Most of [Id’s] top talent has left or been fired,” said another unrelated source.

“I know that people were leaving steadily through last year,” said a third.

Doom 4 is now planned for the next generation of consoles, sources told me, and the actual release date is up in the air. At QuakeCon in August of 2012, Carmack said Doom 4 will be “done when it’s done,” but sources say “done” might be a long time coming.

“[Id was] never even close to a shipped product,” said a source. “A half dozen mediocre levels was the most [Id] had to show.”

“It’s not going well,” said another source. “Poor management, poor organization... [Id] just couldn’t nail down design... It’s just a mess.”

Two sources told me that earlier this year, frustrated with the lack of progress on Doom 4, ZeniMax came to Id with an ultimatum: make something happen, or else. The specifics of the threat are unclear, but there are plenty of rumors floating around Dallas, Texas, where Id is based.

One rumor is that ZeniMax threatened to shut down Id if they don’t finish the game within the next year, but two people told me that seems unlikely.

What’s more likely, sources told me, is that if Id can’t get Doom 4 together, ZeniMax could clean house and refocus the company to work on tech like the Id Tech 5 engine, which is currently being used for multiple projects at studios owned by ZeniMax.

But Bethesda says that Doom 4 is still happening, and at least one of my sources remains optimistic that despite what’s happened so far, the game will be released... one day.

“They’ll keep Doom 4 going,” the source said. “They really believe that if they can get the internal strife and disorganization ironed out, Doom 4 has a lot of value... What eventually emerges could be anyone’s guess.”