A Doomed DOOM

Jake Theriault
Mar 23, 2020 · 6 min read
Screenshot from iD’s cancelled DOOM 4 1.0

The story was published concurrently in video form by Subpixel.

Doom is arguably one of the most, if not the most, well known first person shooters on the planet. First published in 1993, the immediate success of Doom spawned a number of sequels, first in 1994 with Doom 2: Hell on Earth, and then in 2005 with the confusingly stylized Doom3(read as “Doom cubed”). Doom 3 was not as well received as its kin — veering away from the gameplay style of the first two Doom titles to be more of a survival horror shooter — but it was still no surprise that in 2007 id Software co-founder John Carmack discussed in an interview with Game Informer the potential development of a fourth Doom game — though in Carmack’s own words id “didn’t have anything scheduled” or even have a team assigned to the title, but there “will be a Doom 4”.

But the version of Doom 4 the team at id would eventually begin developing was nothing like the version that finally landed in stores in 2016 — an incredible 11 years after Doom 3 and 8 years after Doom 4 would officially be announced. And those 8 years would not be easy for the team at id. The Mars based demonicide players would come to love in DOOM 2016 would not manifest itself until several years into Doom 4’s storied development cycle, after nothing less than a complete reboot of the project.

So what was Doom 4, and how come it never saw the light of day?

Well, in May of 2008, a handful of months after John Carmack first spoke of a fourth Doom title, id finally felt comfortable formally announcing Doom 4, but left the announcement with just that, even going so far as telling curious IGN reporters to “leave it at the press announcement for now”. A few weeks later John Carmack revealed that Doom 4 would be much more like the original two Doom titles than the more recent Doom 3, and would be built on the id Tech 5 engine, which was then being used to concurrently develop id’s newest property, Rage.

By spring of 2009 more details began to trickle out about this new Doom game. In an interview with Gamespot, id’s then-CEO Todd Hollenshead revealed that the game was no longer in pre-production, but still early enough in development that id was still hiring devs to fill out the Doom team. He did however call the work he had seen so far “classic Doom”.

But a shakeup came in June of 2009 when Bethesda parent company Zenimax Media acquired id and all of its properties, which included Quake, Rage, and the then still in development Doom 4. There was no indication that this new ownership would affect the development of Doom, apart from shifting to a new publisher — but it would again be another year for any substantial Doom news to hit the presses.

Since it’s arrival on the games scene in the early 90s, id had become somewhat infamous for taking their time to develop their games, so no one was surprised that two years out from Doom 4’s announcement at E3, there was still no indication of a release date. But in August of 2010, id’s then-Creative Director Tom Willits said in an interview with IGN that since Doom 4 was being developed on the same engine as id’s upcoming Rage, the Doom team would be able to complete Doom much faster than Rage, using the id Tech 5 engine and Rage’s own development to “learn from their mistakes” and “start to test” Doom’s mechanics with assets already available in the engine.

However, in late 2010 rumors began to circulate that id’s new overlords at Bethesda were putting Doom 4 on indefinite hiatus, a rumor that was quickly quashed by Bethesda PR. But this wouldn’t be the last time rumors of Doom 4’s head having wound up on Bethesda’s chopping block would arise — each time eliciting a similar response from Bethesda: “when we have something to show you, we will; but we’re still working on Doom”.

But for whatever positivity the Doom team showed to the public, behind closed doors there was definitely turmoil. In 2011, four years after John Carmack first spoke of a new Doom title, it was decided to reboot the game completely — a decision that wouldn’t be made public for another two years. In 2012 several screenshots of this first draft of Doom 4 were inadvertently leaked onto the web via the web portfolio of one of the team’s environment artists — landing in conjunction with yet another rumor of the game’s demise.

In 2013 this inner turmoil was made public through an expose by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. In the expose Bethesda’s Pete Hines confirmed to Kotaku that this previous version of Doom 4 “did not exhibit the quality and excitement that id and Bethesda intend to deliver and that Doom fans worldwide expect” — an arguably very PR friendly response to the situation. Hines also spoke about the new direction of Doom 4, repeating the party line that “When we’re ready to talk about the Doom 4 id is making, we will let folks know”. Some months later at Quakecon 2013 Tom Willits admitted that Doom 4 had “an identity crisis” — which in conjunction with a variety of other issues led the team to decide to reboot the title four years into development.

And then in late 2013, only a few months after Kotaku had revealed the tumultuous state of Doom 4’s development, Doom was dealt another blow in the departure of John Carmack from id Software. Committing his time more fully to the development of Oculus VR, Carmack’s departure was promised to not have any effect on the development of Doom and any other id titles still being worked on — though it did lead, inadvertently or not, to a lawsuit between Oculus and id’s parent company Zenimax Media. But that’s for another video.

Work continued on Doom for another three years, and eventually id’s new Doom game was released onto an unsuspecting world — and the world collectively decided that those 11 years were worth the wait. DOOM was back, and in the best way possible.

So now that the dust has settled from all this, we do have some idea of what id’s abandoned Doom game would have been. Labelled both internally and externally as “Call of Doom”, Doom 4 originally leaned into a more cinematic style, theoretically blending the frenetic action Doom was known for with the scripted story and cinematics of contemporary Call of Duty titles. The game would take place on Earth, not Mars — as it would after the reboot. In the 2013 Kotaku expose, a source within id claimed — in no uncertain terms — that this version of the game was a “black hole of mediocrity”.

In addition to the screenshots leaked in 2012, a handful of other images found their way onto the internet over the years; and early footage from the game was included in the 2016 Noclip documentary on Doom’s reboot — including gameplay, cinematics, and a prototype of DOOM’s glory kill system with Doom 4 assets.

In this prototype footage we can see the groundwork for some of DOOM’s gameplay systems. The imps in the prototype footage share some aesthetic and behavioral similarities with the imps from DOOM 2016, but more closely resemble this LEGO Hero Factory Waspix set — first released in 2011. (I’m contractually obligated to mention LEGO at least once in every video I make)

We also have some idea of the cinematic nature of the project, with a handful of character scenes also appearing in the 2016 Noclip documentary. In these moments you can definitely feel the Call of Duty comparisons.

What’s most interesting though in looking at the leaked screenshots, is that this doesn’t look too dissimilar from iD’s followup to DOOM (2016), Doom Eternal. From the public’s first glimpses into Doom Eternal at Quakecon and through other pre-release materials, it was clear that Doom Eternal would once again revisit the “Hell on Earth” motif made famous by Doom II and originally attempted by Doom 4, but with an incredibly thick coat of the same violent lacquer that shone across 2016’s DOOM. So for all its ups and downs, we can thank this long destroyed DOOM title for paving the way for two of the best shooters of the last twenty years.


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