Design By Example: Secrets and Upgrades in DOOM.

On its face the concept of collectibles in DOOM is counter intuitive. This is a game about combat. Fast combat. Moving and shooting distilled to their essence, then exploding in geysers of demon blood. It’s not uncommon for collectibles to provide some consequential benefit when obtained, but the way in which this has been handled in DOOM feeds back into the core combat loop though multiple overlapping systems. The various collectibles don’t simply encourage exploration of the game’s physical spaces but its systemic ones too.

The collectibles you can locate in DOOM fall into three broad categories. First there are the pure collectibles, the tchotchkes: small portions of classic Doom levels, and UAC MarineGuy toys. Serving primarily as Easter Egg, once collected these allow you to play maps from the previous Doom games, and view in-engine models of the various enemies and weapons.

The second form of collectibles are the Argent Cells, Praetor Tokens, and Field Drones. These are objects that when collected either directly provide, or allow you to purchase, permanent upgrades. Argent Cells will boost your Health, Armour, or Ammunition capacity. Praetor Tokens are used to purchase upgrades for your suit, providing benefits such as reducing the amount of environmental damage you take. Finally, by locating Field Drones you can obtain a weapon modification which grants a secondary fire option that provides additional functionality; two modifications are available for each weapon (excluding the Pistol and Super Shotgun).

The third form of collectibles are the Rune Trials. Each trial leads to a separate challenge level where you are required to perform a set task under specific constraints. If successful you are rewarded with a rune, of which three can eventually be equipped at a time. These runes provide a bonus ability, such as increasing the range at which you can perform a glory kill. Each rune ability can be upgraded by performing a task associated with that ability a given number of times. Upgraded runes provide a more power version of their base ability.

Once first introduced all these collectibles – with a few exceptions – are located only within the secret areas of each level.

There are purely narrative collectibles which don’t feed back as neatly into the other game systems. Usually located along the critical path they are easily grabbed while passing through areas and rarely require you to actively go looking for them.

Throughout the course of DOOM you can unlock a series of Weapon Upgrade Points, these can be obtained either through combat performance, completing a set of level specific challenges, or locating secret areas. Weapon upgrade points are used to add additional abilities to your weapon modifications, increasing their power and utility. There are between two and three initial upgrades available for each weapon modification, they can be purchased in any order with the cost increasing for each subsequent upgrade. These weapon upgrade points are at the core of where the collectibles feed back into the combat system. Finding all the secrets in a level grants one weapon upgrade point, finding them all of will provide another.

In order to increase your potency and proficiency in combat it is beneficial to equip runes and suit upgrades, the act of locating these also goes toward gaining you a weapon upgrade point. Upgrade points that can’t be used except on weapons you have already modified, for which you will need to have located a Field Drone.

You might not care about collecting all the MarineGuy toys, but if that’s all that stands between you and finding the secrets within a level, and you are one weapon upgrade point short of upgrading your Plasma Rifle, taking a few minutes to find that last MarineGuy is likely time well spent.

Your weapon modifications aren’t just useful for the abilities they provide, like the runes they can also be upgraded through specific use. Once you have obtained all initial upgrades for a weapon modification you have the ability to upgrade it one last time. These final upgrades offer significant improvements, but you cannot even begin progress toward these final upgrades until you have first purchased all previous upgrade levels.

These overlapping systems not only encourage exploration but also experimentation, the abilities available when you have fully upgrade a rune or weapon modification are substantial, such as being able to fire some of the game’s most weapons effectively indefinitely. These can only be obtained from using the weapon modifications and runes in certain ways. Not always in line with your standard approach, the reward for performing the rune and weapon modification specific challenges are potentially worth changing up your play style for. This is also the case with the per-level challenges that provide additional weapon upgrade points. Not only does this type of “get better by doing” approach naturally reinforce the game’s combat systems, it also highlights some of the ways in which these systems can be used that you may not have been aware of, and encourages you to experiment with them.

As you can only equip three runes at once, it behoves you to think carefully about which you want to take. You only gain the abilities of those you have equipped. So, while sticking with three you have fully upgraded makes sense given the strength of their abilities, doing so means you will not be able to upgrade any of the others. Nor take advantage of their abilities. You can personalise and define your own play style based on the runes you equip but swapping them out can lead to interesting systemic interactions. You might want to equip the rune to allow you to engage in a glory kill from a longer range (Seek and Destroy), however if you are taking this it would make sense to also equip the rune that gives you armour from performing glory kills (Armored Offensive). If you are getting armour rapidly you will have an easier time upgrading the rune that requires you to be at full armour (Rich Get Richer). This rune when active means that once you are above 100 armour firing your standard weapon uses no ammunition, the benefits of which are obvious. This rune is especially useful if you are now getting armour from every enemy you glory kill, and potentially picking it up from much further away because of another rune (Vacuum).

Weapon Upgrade points can also be obtained through combat; however, you will only ever be able to obtain five (half of those available within a level) without completing the additional challenges or discovering secrets.

 

Exploring the levels for secrets and investing in upgrading your weapons and runes means that by the closing stages of DOOM you could be wielding a fully upgraded Mobile Turret which can do 660 damage-per-seconds, go through multiple targets, and never overheat (fully upgraded Mobile Turret modification). While also having two chances to come back after death (upgraded Saving Throw rune), be facing enemies that can drop ammunition for your BFG (upgraded Ammo Boost rune), and be able to fire your standard weapon for free if you have over 75 armour (upgraded Rich Get Richer rune). All while taking reduced environmental damage (Hazard Protection suit upgrade), and gaining a full health refill every time you activate a power-up (Healing Power suit upgrade).

The very heart of DOOM is movement and weapons, and though the hunt for secrets can feel slow and incidental doing so will directly improve your combat abilities in dramatic ways.

Two steps forward…

With each consecutive hardware generation it takes time to achieve what was possible at the end of the previous generation. New hardware requires new software techniques and often a return to first principles. The initial move from sprite based to polygon based games saw a marked increase in the spatial complexity of environments but was accompanied by a dramatic decrease in the size and number of objects that could exist within those environments. This clearest example of this can be seen when comparing Doom and Quake, two games separated by three years and an entire dimension. It wouldn’t be until five years later that the release of Serious Sam saw a return to the sprawling environments and hundreds of enemies that Doom boasted.

Twenty years ago I was playing a game that allowed me to explore thousands of square miles of virtual terrain. I was driving snowmobiles down mountains in order to meet one of over thirty non-player characters each with their own personality and skills which I would hopefully convince them to use in the fight against the invading forces of General Masters. This was Midwinter, prequel to the game I still  consider my favourite game of all time, Midwinter II: Flames Of Freedom.

Since then, with each hardware generation, the scale of the environments in which I’ve been able to play has decreased. Only recently has the  trend started to reverse and I have been able to have a similar experience to that I had twenty years ago. Far Cry 2 is the nearest I’ve come to recapturing that experience of first playing Midwinter, yet even though Far Cry 2 shows a significant increase in graphical fidelity over Midwinter the range of options available to me, the possibility space of the game, feels reduced.

It would be extremely narrow minded of me to ignore the impact the increase in technology has had on my reaction to the game, or to underestimate how the subtle changes in available mechanics have altered the dynamics. Despite these advancements in both technology and design it’s still difficult to ignore the feeling that somehow I’m playing a version of the same game I played twenty years ago and that the core experience has changed little in that time.

Twenty years of technological advancement, several hardware generations all so I can have essentially the same experience available on my Atari ST. I can’t help but wonder if that time has really been put to the best use.

This is not the only example I can think of where a recent titles has felt like it could have been created years previously. Last year saw the release of Left 4 Dead, a major factor in its appeal is the ability to face off against hordes of zombies alongside three companions.  Four players together fighting off dozens of mindless enemies, it’s a fantasy that holds a lot of appeal. Yet that sense of four players against overwhelming odds, is an experience I can distinctly remember having eight years ago. Alongside three friends I faced down hundreds of enemies in the twisted ancient Egyptian setting of Serious Sam. The sheer number of enemies that game is able to thrown at the player is absurd, the final level is subtitled “Infinite Bodycount” and I honestly wonder how much of that is hyperbole.

The mechanics of Left 4 Dead could have been implemented seven years earlier in Serious Sam or even fifteen years earlier in Doom. The graphical fidelity of such an implementation would be much lower, but would the experience itself be that much different?

Of course it’s not only technology that has changed in that time. Those seven years have allowed artists, sound designers and level designers to hone their craft to the extent that even if Left 4 Dead or something similar had appeared earlier it would not possess the same level of craft. It takes time to learn and apply the techniques of filmic art direction and indirect training that make Left 4 Dead the holistic experience that it is.

This still doesn’t completely lessen the sensation that twenty years of technological advancement have done little for the actual design of games, and that is  a wasted opportunity. Commercial video games are approaching their fortieth anniversary and with the first few years of each hardware generation spent trying to recreate the experiences that were possible before it’s little wonder that it can feel like video games have had trouble growing up in that period.

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (regardless of which, the fan reaction means it may well be changed) it’s impossible to play in fullscreen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and triggered a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there’s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing, and where it is in relation to you, can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for its ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing its bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier – when my wavering sanity permitted – caused me to form a horrific image of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked before about how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound of undeterminable source; tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (and regardless of which, the fan reaction means it’ll likely be changed) it’s impossible to play in full screen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact I found the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and cause a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there ‘s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing and where it is in relation to you can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It’s should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for it’s ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing it’s bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier, when my wavering sanity permitted, caused me to form a horriffic of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that almost tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked beforeabout how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound who’s source you can’t determine. Tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.