With John Carmack gone and with few familiar faces at id Software, "Doom 4" appears to be getting back to its roots

Legendary game programmer and ex-id Software chief John Carmack is perhaps best known for his monstrous frentic opus Doom.  Now two decades and two years after that seminal release, the franchise's new owner is teasing the gaming masses with the promise that it has dragged the fourth chapter in that storied franchise back from near-decade long development arc that can only fairly be described as "torturous."

The man at the helm of the project is no master programmer.  In fact he's the architect of one of id Software's biggest disappointments.  And yet incredibly, he seems to be channeling his inner Carmack-like pragmatic streak and rallying the snakebitten project around perhaps the one thing that can save it -- a return to its roots.

I. Carmack and the Birth of Doom

The story begins with Carmack.

For two decades id Software was built heavily on the genius of one man -- master game programmer and architect John Carmack.  Carmack was arguably the best at inventing clever algorithms to reduce the computation and improve graphics of first person shooter (FPS) games.

He was the first to "invent" or popularize working implementations of a plethora of crucial 3D gaming methods including "adaptive tile refresh" (Commander Keen; 1990), "raycasting" (Hovertank 3D; 1991/Wolfenstein 3D; 1992), "binary space partitioning" (Doom; 1993), "surface caching" (Quake; 1996), "Carmack's reverse (shadow algorithm)" (Doom 3; 2004), "MegaTexture" (Enemy Territory: Quake Wars; 2011).

John Carmack and John Romero
John Carmack (left) and John Romero (center, front) are seen here back in the Doom era.  The pair coprogrammed the iconic hit. [Image Source: 3DRealms]

But while Carmack could out-algorithm even the best minds of the game industry and could code in days what others claimed would take months, part of his value at id Software was his pragmatic streak.

Doom graphic
[Image Source: id Software via Kotaku]

This was famously demonstrated when he clashed with Doom coprogrammer John Romero during the development cycle of Quake.  Romero wanted a more drawn out development process to implement every single desired feature and performance metric.  Carmack argued the game was more than good enough to release.  Fair or not, history seems to tell who was right.  Romero quit id Software and would spend the next four years struggling to finish Daikatana (released in 2000) -- a trainwreck of an FPS that is often listed as one of the ten worst games of all time.  Carmack, had his way and released Quake in 1996 to widespread acclaim and financial success.

Looking back on the algorithms pioneered by Carmack, it's fair to say that virtually every major 3D video game of the current era -- FPS or otherwise -- likely uses at least one or two of the techniques he pioneered.  But it's also clear that the pace of progress was slowing for Carmack after the breakneck 90s.

ID Software

Still Carmack found a way to occasionally remind us of who the boss at id Software was.  His one week port of Wolfenstein 3D to the Apple, Inc. (AAPL) iPhone in 2009, remains the stuff of legends.  In under a week he did what a full team of id Software mobile developers had claimed would take 2 months.

Doom 2010

Months later, he cashed his check, selling id Software to ZeniMax Media Inc., the expansion-minded parent shell company of Bethesda Softworks.  Financial terms were not disclosed, but the deal clearly was structured to make an already wealthy Carmack, an even richer man.

II. Zenimax and id Software -- Great Expectations

Zenimax was well aware of the value of property it was purchasing.  Founded in 1999 by Bethesda's Christopher Weaver and DC lawyer Robert A. Altman, Zenimax quickly gained a name for itself as renovator of classic PC gaming real estate. Most notably it purchased the Fallout franchise from the bankrupt Interplay Entertainment and defied fan cynicism by releasing the surprisingly decent Fallout 3 (2008).

Carmack on gray
Carmack originally met the Zenimax purchase with enthusiasm.

After purchasing id Software for a substantial fee in 2009, Zenimax vowed that the veteran gamemaker would "continue to operate as a studio under the direction of its founder, John Carmack."  Carmack, who signed on to a multi-year contract, appeared optimistic as well, stating:

We will now be able to grow and extend all of our franchises under one roof, leveraging our capabilities across multiple teams while enabling forward looking research to be done in the service of all of them. We will be bigger and stronger, as we recruit the best talent to help us build the landmark games of the future. As trite as it may be for me to say that I am extremely pleased and excited about this deal, I am.

Early on things indeed seemed to go well.  Zenimax gave id Software the resources it needed to finish the somewhat-delayed epic shooter Rage, which released in 2011.  But it wasn't long before cracks in the Carmack-Zenimax union began to show.  Carmack wanted Zenimax to back his plans to achieve an unrealized dream of the 90s -- virtual reality (VR) gaming.  According to his account, Zenimax refused to allow him to make VR his main project (Zenimax in an intellectual property lawsuit says otherwise).

Carmack VR
The allure of creating playable VR in part lured Carmack away from id Software in late 2013, but the story runs deeper.  And Doom 4 is thought to have played a key role. [Image Source:]

Ultimately things came to a boil in late 2013 and Carmack did the unthinkable -- he resigned from id Software to focus on his role as chief technology officer at VR startup Oculus VR.  Zenimax was quick to apply legal pressure, but its efforts to punish the defector met a serious roadblock when Facebook, Inc. (FB) -- the deep pocketed social network -- purchased Oculus VR for $2B USD in March 2014.

When he left in id Software in 2013 he did leave them with one key parting momento -- the id Tech 5 engine, which in theory would form the basis of Doom 4.

Doom 4 had at that point been in the works for five years, as id Software had first teased that it was working on it at Quakecon 2007.  The project was officially announced in 2008, but it was largely overshadowed by Rage, which at the time was closer to completion.  But there was a slow stream of Doom 4 tidbits.  British author Graham Joyce was revealed in 2009 to be penning a potential script/narrative for the game.  Screenshots leaked in 2012.

Doom 4 leak

Doom 4 leak
Leaked Doom 4 screenshots and video, circa 2012.

And then came nearly a year of silence.  Clearly things were not going well.

III. Development Hell

To get to the root of what was going on behind the scenes  -- the true story of Carmack's departure in 2013, a fair starting point is the in-depth report by Kotaku entitled "Five Years And Nothing To Show: How Doom 4 Got Off Track."  

A swirling maelstrom of insider tales of development purgatory and mass employee exodus, the piece paints a scathing, well-sourced picture of just how much of a trainwreck the Doom 4 project had become by 2013.

Demons and shotguns
Demons and shotguns -- that was the heart of Doom a frustrated Carmack proclaimed during the messy remake of Doom II. [Image Source: YouTube]

The article revealed that the early candidate -- intended as a remake of Doom II initially -- was ruled unworthy of the Doom name and id Software had effectively been forced to reboot the effort in 2011.  Pete Hines, Bethesda's VP of marketing and PR confirmed this, stating:

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.  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.

One source recalls a frustrated Carmack exclaiming in a meeting:

Doom means two things: demons and shotguns.

Rage, by the sound of it was Carmack's test to see if the id Software vehicle could drive itself with a little help.  After providing pivotal bits of engine technology (e.g. the MegaTexture algorithm) he adopted a hands off approach leaving the team to produce a result.  They eventually finished Rage -- but in a pivotal turn the megaproduction that was Rage proved a relative commercial flop.

IV. Reboot Loop

Thus a concerned Zenimax decided to get more "hands on" with the struggling Doom 4 reboot.  It rounded up Carmack and the various id Software teams and told them to forget plans for Rage 2 and to refocus on a single objective -- Doom 4.

Rage explosion
The sales implosion of 2011's Rage sent Zenimax scrambling.

Recalls one source to Kotaku:

Rage came out, and it wasn't the splash success that everyone hoped it would be.  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.'

But a downside of that approach was that after Carmack and his elite engine team set to work laying the groundwork of id Tech 5, the game effectively suffered a second reboot.  Quotes another source:

There was not only effectively another creative reboot, but a tech reboot.  [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.

Doom signage
By 2013 dysfunction at Zenimax and id Software had transformed id's most coveted franchise into what insiders claim was a veritable trainwreck. [Image Source: ModDB]

Internally the project was reportedly quickly mired in conflict as managers of the Rage and Doom 4 teams clashed over the best path forward.  The result was fast becoming an exercise in mediocrity.  Recalls a source:

Larger creature ambitions turned into mediocre garden variety behaviors.  [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.

Another source surmised:

[id Software was] never even close to a shipped product.  A half dozen mediocre levels was the most [id] had to show.

And adding yet another layer of cynicism, a third source remarked:

It's not going well.  Poor management, poor organization... [id Software] just couldn't nail down design... It's just a mess.

Two other sources chimed in "most of [id's] top talent has left or been fired" and "I know that people were leaving steadily through last year."

Todd Hollenshead
id Software veteran Todd Hollenshead who once served as the studio's CEO jumped ship -- or was booted from it, perhaps -- in June 2013, just months before Carmack's exit. [Image Source: Moby Games]

In other words Carmack was far from the first to jump off the id Software ship, if the accounts are to be believed.  Perhaps most notably former id Software President and former CEO Todd Hollenshead left in June 2013, ending a 17 year run at the gamemaker.

V. Carmack Moves On

Allegedly -- according to Kotaku -- Zenimax delivered some sort of ultimatum to id Software to get its act together and finish Doom 4 "or else".  Whatever "or else" was, Doom 4 failed to get closer to the finish line.  It's unclear whether the staff departures were Zenimax following through with its threat or if was merely reflective of the mess, but by late 2013 when Carmack at last decided to bid the studio goodbye, the id Software team was already -- by all accounts -- decimated.

By the end of 2013 Carmack was chasing the dream of VR, leaving the mess at id Software behind.
[Image Source: Gamefront]

Even still it appeared that Zenimax was planning on rebuilding with Carmack as the centerpiece, until Carmack -- likely frustrated at the Doom 4 failures, as well as Zenimax's refusal to focus on VR -- called it quits and resigned.  id Software studio chief Tim Willits commented upon his departure:

John Carmack, who has become interested in focusing on things other than game development at id, has resigned from the studio.  John's work on id Tech 5 and the technology for the current development work at id is complete, and his departure will not affect any current projects. We are fortunate to have a brilliant group of programmers at id who worked with John and will carry on id's tradition of making great games with cutting-edge technology. As colleagues of John for many years, we wish him well.

Carmack added an interesting note on Twitter, commenting: Thus 2013 closed with Zenimax eyeing legal action against its hero programmer-turned-defector Carmack, and with Doom 4 no closer to completion than it was roughly three years prior when the first prototype build was scrapped.

VI. The Dream That Hell Couldn't Kill

But if there was one thing that Kotaku's piece made clear it was that in spite of the massive mess that Doom 4 had become, Zenimax viewed the effort as too big to fail (in Wall Street terms).  Indeed, Zenimax reportedly was aiming for the finished product to deliver sales on par with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -- a 2011 Bethesda megahit which moved 20+ million units.

Zenimax was hoping Doom 4 would be its next Skyrim, sales-wise. [Image Source: Gaming Bolt]

Clearly that is the kind of vision that does not go quietly into the night.

Thus in spite of Carmack's exit, the path forward seemed somewhat clear.  Use id Tech 5 to craft a cleaned up and complete Doom 4, released to critical acclaim, then figure out what comes next.  But 2014 came and went with no Doom 4 launch.

There were teasers to be sure.

In February of last year Zenimax announced that Wolfenstein: The New Order would ship with keys good to unlock an upcoming beta of Doom 4.  And Zenimax also revealed that it would be renaming "Doom 4" to simply "Doom" (although fans still refer to it as Doom 4 as it'll be the fourth Doom release -- hence the title of this piece).  In April 2014 Zenimax proclaimed that Doom would target Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Xbox One console, Sony Corp.'s (TYO:6758) PlayStation 4 (PS4), and (of course) the PC.  

But it forgot to do one crucial thing -- release the promised beta. As this Reddit thread illustrates, the beta remains missing in action a full year later with Bethesda promising to email a redemption link to those with keys at some point in the future.

Since April 2014 there have been only a handful of teasers.  In June 2014 at QuakeCon, Zenimax unveiled a brief teaser trailer:

And in July 2014 it showed off demos of the upcoming Doom, as seen in this low quality leak:

And much like the reaction to the long overdue seemingly doomed Duke Nukem Forever release, fans reacted with a mixture of relief that the wait might soon be over and happiness at the fact that the title appeared to be at least somewhat true to its roots.

The demo showed that Doom -- perhaps the third or fourth reboot of Doom 4 (but who's counting) -- marked a departure from Doom 3's at times slow, atmospheric gameplay and a return to the franchise's frentic roots.  And even Carmack must have cracked a bit of a smile somewhere as -- true to his edict -- there were demons and there were shotguns.

VII. Light at the End of the Tunnel or Just More Flames?

Since that demo, things have once more fallen quiet -- until this weak when the radio crackled once more to life through the static.  Bethesda has unveiled a fresh E3 2015 teaser trailer for Doom:

The brief trailer shows a pretty wicked looking skeleton bad guy with some sort of flashy rocket launcher / energy cannon strapped atop each of its shoulders.  And it's firing.

Doom Teaser

The video closes with a promise of a "worldwide gameplay unveil" next month (June 2015).

Most intriguingly Zenimax/Bethesda say that the game will be based on id Tech 6 -- a sixth generation engine.  Carmack reportedly left the engine unfinished midway through its development cycle when he exited in 2013.  The vision was clearly laid forth -- the engine would use virtualized textures and would store geometry via an octree of voxels rendered via raycasting.  But even Carmack was struggling to make that challenging dream a reality back in 2013.

To complete id Tech 6 Zenimax/Bethesda brought in a BFG of the game engine development world, so to speak -- Tiago Sousa.  A senior graphics engineer with Crytek since 2003, Sousa had risen to the rank of chief graphics engineer and had played a pivotal role in three generations of CryEngine development along the way.  Rumor has it that since joining id Software and the Doom team last July he's finished or close to finishing id Tech 6, after picking up where his legendary predecessor left off.

Cryengine 3
The lead graphics programmer at Crytek jumped ship to id Software last year to finish Carmack's id Tech 6 engine.

So is Doom (aka Doom 4) reaching its Duke Nukem Forever-esque climax at long last.  And unlike Duke Nukem Forever, which while true to the series toned underwhelmed some former fans, will Doom strike a more resounding chord and live up to Zenimax's lofty sales hopes?


To that end I turn to Doom 4's new chief, whom was referenced in the opening paragraph -- businesshead-turned-game director Marty Stratton.  Stratton has no shortage of experience at id Software having been with the firm since 1997.  And yet Zenimax's decision to choose him to executive produce the crucial release appears a bit perplexing given that he last executive produced the very release that put his studio on the brink -- Rage.

Marty Stratton
Rage executive producer Marty Stratton is looking for redemption with the upcoming Doom.
[Image Source: RancorNews]

But perhaps, Stratton has seized the opportunity for redemption that has fallen in his lap.  If so, it means he will have learned the most guiding principle Carmack proved to Romero all those years ago -- and one that Carmack himself at times forgot in his later years: aim for perfection and your good intentions will take you to hell; aim for a pragmatic result and you'll wind up with product.

Source: id Software on YouTube

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